The Power To Hate
March 21st to March 27th 1916
THE FORTUNES OF WAR could change exceedingly quickly. Take Verdun: on 20 March at Avocourt a whole French brigade had surrendered after an onslaught by the battle-hardened 11th Bavarian Division. It was a humiliating episode, fed rumours of widespread desertion; national morale was on the edge of collapse. That day the Germans captured 2,825 troops, twenty-five machine guns and twelve cannon plus a boxful of brand new Croix-de-Guerres — the latter the object of great delight of German war correspondents. Fifty-eight French officers were taken, including the Brigadier and two Regimental Commanders — no wonder President Poincare noted in his diary, Encore une defaillance!
But the comeback was stylish. The French artillery found it in themselves to respond with renewed vigour and when, on 22 March, the Germans tried to capitalise on their advance by attacking the Left Bank, the poilu machine guns — firing from three sides — slaughtered whole battalions.
Heavy rain had rendered the ground too muddy for German heavy mortars to be brought up in support, and that spelled large casualties — of whom the Germans alone counted for 2,400. The Reichs Archives would describe the day’s fighting as being ‘one of the most heroic’ in the whole battle for Verdun.
Take also the diplomatic firmament: as the monstrous dimensions of the latest battle seeped into international consciousness, it seemed there was a significant chance that the USA might soon intervene in the war — if not as a participant then as a peace-maker. Isolationist sentiment continued to mitigate heavily against the former.
But President Wilson, campaigning for re-election, considered that an American peace initiative might find favour with his electors. He had sent his representative, Colonel House, to Europe on a fact-finding tour, exploring Allied attitudes to America. The resulting discussions had been summarised thus: “The purport of it was that, if the Allies would state their peace terms to President Wilson, the latter would invite Germany to a conference to discuss them. If Germany stuck out for impossible terms the U.S. would probably join the Allies.”
So wrote Sir Maurice Hankey, Cabinet Secretary. His enthusiasm lay more in getting America to fight than in brokering a peace, a preference shared by that tiny handful of Britons aware of the recent overtures. He noted in his diary for Monday 21 March: “Meeting of the War Cabinet. At outset discussed House’s proposals, everyone being excluded except members of the cabinet, Jackson, Robertson and myself. Decided not to adopt them at present.” The truth was clear: for all the horrors of war, none of the main protagonists yet had much stomach for peace.
The Prime Minister was never a warmonger, but he was always a realist. The strains upon him were now augmented by a debilitating bronchitis with which he had been wrestling for some days. His wife, Margot, railed in her diary against the injustice of press coverage which had accused him of pleading illness to avoid giving a statement on conscription:
The Times would be pathetic if it were not contemptible: when he is ill he is shamming, when he is Kodaked smiling he is taking things lightly, when he is serious he is overstrained, when he is silent he is asleep, when he speaks he is oratorical — “We do not want oratory we want deeds”
Her dim view of the press partly stemmed from vicious personal attacks published against her for alleged pro-German sympathies and activities. Now she successfully sued The Globe newspaper, appearing in the witness box and winning £1,000 in damages, having refused to accept an apology.
The gravity of affairs was seldom able to eclipse for long amour-propre. While Mrs Asquith made war upon the press, tragedies at sea proliferated.
On the afternoon of Friday 24 March when the ferry SS Sussex, en route to Dieppe with 380 passengers and mail for the British forces in France, was torpedoed in the Channel, by U-29, commanded by Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Pustkuchen. The torpedo blew away the entire forepart of the ferry, instantly killing dozens of passengers while others abandoned ship. Some took to the lifeboats, but rescue came only late at night.
An accurate list of the dead proved difficult to establish but between fifty and eighty people died, including the famous Spanish composer Enrique Granados and his wife. He was making his way home after the New York premiere of his opera Goyescas and, ironically, had changed his original travel plans in order to accept President Wilson’s invitation to perform at the White House.
Germany’s apparent indifference to lateral damage — measured in the number of dead and injured from neutral countries who had fallen victim to its deadly brand of U-boat warfare — threatened to destroy the uneasy diplomatic equilibrium between the two nations. Not only had four of its citizens been seriously injured in the incident; a further four had died on the same day when the passenger ship SS Englishman had been sunk on its way from Avonmouth to Portland, Maine.
The Germans protested that the Sussex had hit a British mine, an extravagant and silly claim which was swiftly rejected by the American press which described “lawless undersea operations” and “submarine atrocities”. Wilson wrote to Berlin about “the deliberate method and spirit with which merchantmen of every kind, nationality and designation are indiscriminately destroyed” and declared that, “If the Imperial German Government should not now, without delay, proclaim and make effective renunciation of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and cargo ships, the United States Government can have no other choice than to break off completely diplomatic relations with the German Government.”
This seems finally to have rattled Berlin. Belatedly she acknowledged responsibility for the attack, claiming the guilty captain had been ‘punished’, no details were offered, and offering to pay compensation to the injured Americans. She also made a critical pledge that, in future, passenger ships would not be targeted, merchant ships would not be sunk until the presence of weapons had been established, (by a search of the ship if necessary), and provision would be made for the safety of passengers and crew. This became known as the Sussex Pledge and for the moment helped to keep the USA out of the war.
On the other hand, it did nothing to undermine the efficacy of the British naval blockade, the cumulative effects of which were making life intensely difficult and unhappy for many in Austria-Hungary and Germany. A schoolgirl, Piete Kuhr, from Schneidemuhl in East Prussia, recorded:
What a to-do in town today! There was a whole crowd of women in front of the baker’s shop chattering excitedly and waving their bread cards. They were abusing the baker and blaming the bakeries for all the shortages. Then along came a policeman who tried to calm the crowd. The policeman…grabbed a fat woman who was carrying a milk can. She fell down and there was pandemonium. The fat woman got back on her feet, raised her milk can and smashed it into the policeman’s face. Then all the women jumped on the policeman. The baker saved the day by opening his shop. The mob stormed inside. I heard them shouting for a long time. Bread! Give us bread! Our children need something to eat!
To date, the Central Powers had no overwhelming retort. The radical option, favoured by Admiral von Tirpitz, would be to sink neutral as well as enemy shipping on sight — a policy which seemed bound to bring America on to the side of the Entente. Even the Kaiser baulked at the prospect, and Tirpitz now resigned.
For now, an element of circumspection prevailed, though the war at sea remained lethal. The Minneapolis, requisitioned and used as a troop ship, was sunk in the Mediterranean on 23 March, two days after being torpedoed by U-35. On 25 March, HMS Cleopatra did manage to sink a German destroyer, G-194, but, on the same day, the destroyer HMS Medusa sank in the North Sea with the loss of twenty-one crew following a collision with HMS Laverock, which led to an Admiralty Court of Inquiry.
The bitterness of German civilians was mirrored fully in the hearts and minds of the enemy. The Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes now arrived in Britain, partly to discuss Japan’s intentions in the Pacific, but also to urge greater economic pressure on Germany and greater Australian involvement in determining the conduct of the war.
Lorna Neill, a young British volunteer at the Cantine Anglaise in Revigny remembered that, during the intense shelling of Verdun, “‘I never felt sorry for the Germans at all. We identified so completely with the French soldiers … that it never occurred to us to think that they were suffering too.”
She mentioned a corporal from the occupied town of Lille where it was rumoured that the women were being deported to Germany:
I’ve never seen such hatred on any face, and he started to rant and rave about the Germans and all their works. He had been an engineer, but transferred to an infantry regiment, really just to get his own back on the Germans. He was on his way up to the front, to Verdun, and he talked in a very bloodthirsty way about what he would do when he got there. That was all he wanted to do — kill some Germans with his own hands.
That last idea was one with which the poet and infantry officer, Siegfried Sassoon,wholly identified. He still worked as a transport officer, commuting daily to the trenches with supplies and spending time there with fellow officers, especially his friend and fellow poet, the twenty-year-old David Thomas, before riding back to the rest camp. News now reached him that Thomas had been shot in the neck and killed and on 20 March he had attended the burial:
Tonight I saw his shrouded form laid in the earth … Robert Graves beside me with his white whimsical face twisted and grieving. Once we could not hear the solemn words for the noise of a machine-gun along the line; and when all was finished a canister fell a hundred yards away and burst with a crash. So Tommy left us, a gentle soldier, perfect and without stain. And so he will remain in my heart, fresh and happy and brave.
A week later Sassoon went into the trenches for the first time, consumed with a wish for vengeance. He volunteered immediately for a series of perilous missions to No-Man’s-Land. He won additional fame for his adeptness in lobbing grenades, attributing his facility to the many years he had devoted to playing serious cricket.
The British fondness for nicknames quickly earned him one of his own — Mad Jack — perfect for someone who described himself as “angry with the war. I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone in this war; but since they killed Tommy I would gladly stick my bayonet into a German by daylight.”
This lurid image had been enacted all too many times in recent days and months, and not only in France. Father Grigoris Balakian, still on his forced march from Constantinople to a remote town in the Syrian desert, had noticed that the accompanying guards from the Jandarma constabulary never appeared to sleep.
Summoning (one imagines) some courage, he queried one of the guards as to how it was they remained awake and on horseback during the night. The reply was disconcerting: “I killed so many people in this past year that my victims won’t let me sleep peacefully. I can’t even close my eyes because those I dismembered appear before me. In particular, the souls of the more than twenty virgin girls whom I violated and then killed won’t let go of me.”
That sense of limitless anger, of every moral boundary overturned, was one of the darkest legacies of war. Disinclined as the British were to confront the problem, signs were emerging this week that the historic resentments which had been sown in Ireland were about to erupt in civil strife.
For a long time, Republicans had been under surveillance, with reports on so-named “extremists” such as Thomas J Clarke regularly filed by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The Irish Volunteers were monitored, even when they mounted drilling parades without any rifles. The secret police were watching the output of republican newspapers, (Nationality, Republic, Hibernian and others) and there were frequent raids on premises and private houses in search of anti-British material.
On 24 March, the offices of the Gaelic Press were raided in Upper Liffey Street in Dublin, leading to a scathing reproach from the editor of The Spark, Ed Dalton, who described the raid as an atrocity. The printing presses were destroyed.
Earlier in the week, in Tullamore, local people had tried to disrupt a meeting being held by fifteen or so Irish Volunteers. Many local lads had been amongst the casualties in France and, as others were that day going back to the front, anger grew against those who did not want to fight for Britain. Scuffles turned nasty, police were called and one policeman was seriously wounded.
The sense of outrage towards Germany felt by large numbers of Irishmen and women was matched very often by their resentment towards England, and the betrayal they felt at its failure to honour Home Rule.
In January, Laurence Ginnell of the Irish Parliamentary Party had reminded the House of Commons that the Home Rule Bill had received the King’s assent in September 1914 and should have been implemented eighteen months later.
Lloyd George insisted it could only come into operation if the war had ended. He provoked laughter by also saying, “If the Honourable Member will tell me when the war will end, it will be easier for me to answer” — the kind of laughter which, then and later, made Westminster seem arcane and detestable to many whose interests it was supposed to serve.
A nation united against its foreign foes — that was the boast made by all rulers. In truth, each feared and suspected an enemy within. In Britain, these did not necessarily lie across the Irish Sea.
On 22 March, a Central Tribunal for Britain was set up, and the letter of a Sussex schoolmaster, Robert Saunders, expressed trenchant views concerning those of his countrymen who expressed reluctance to do their bit:
The appeals for exemption to the different Tribunals have disclosed the existence of a class of men having no trace of patriotism, courage or self-respect, though the conscientious objector claims both the latter, and quotes his moral courage in refusing to fight as proof. I think myself the Government should bring in a bill for general conscription and organize the whole population for whatever service is necessary for the country’s good.
While national catastrophe seemed imminent, the claims of individual conscience seemed frivolous. Even liberal commentators felt queasy about pressing them too far when each week unleashed new horrors. Anyway, the true worth of each individual seems to have mattered less to some of the most august liberals than their social distinction or personal charms.
Cynthia Asquith’s diary on 24 March concerning a dinner party in Downing Street is instructive in this respect:
I took my temperature before dinner, feeling very shivery. It was only 100 so I didn’t feel justified in shirking dinner, and what a dinner in wartime incomprehensible enough as it would have been in peace! Over twenty people — with few exceptions their only status was as bridge players. If you must have bridge, why not have one or even two tables? Why shock London by feeding twenty bores in order that you may have your bridge? It does seem a great pity.
Perhaps she was just having a bad day. One of the lessons of these grave days is to sidestep glib judgement. The Duke of Westminster, such a stinker at other points in his life, continued to distinguish himself this week by both spectacular success and great personal bravery.
In the course of a routine interrogation of Turkish prisoners captured on 14 March, a letter had emerged written by Captain Gwatkin Williams, detailing the appalling conditions in which he and his men were currently being held by a mixture of Senussi, Turks and Arabs.
Williams had been the commander of the auxiliary cruiser HMS Tara, torpedoed on 5 November 1915. When another prisoner claimed to know where the men were held, at El Hakim, the Duke of Westminster obtained permission from General Peyton to undertake a rescue attempt.
Fighting their way through desert sands, the armoured car division he commanded reached the camp and, upon arrival, its passengers proceeded to kill various guards and rescue an incredulous but overjoyed population of British prisoners.
According to one officer in the rescue party, most ‘were so weak from dysentery and starvation that they could only just stand and most were half-naked and ravenous. We brought large supplies of hospital suits and luxuries for them and they were soon eating for all they were worth.’
As Captain Williams later described it: “We went mad. We yelled ourselves hoarse. We could see now that some were armoured cars and some others ambulances. The latter drew up at our tattered tents, and in a moment we were tearing bully beef, bread and tinned chicken, and drinking condensed milk out of tins. We tore our food like famished wolves with tears in our eyes and wonder in our hearts.”
The return journey had covered two hundred and thirty miles in twenty-four hours and brought all the participants, rescued prisoners and vehicles safely back. Westminster himself was recommended for the Victoria Cross.
So, a happy ending — or an ending of sorts. There were very few of those.