The tears of things
NOTHING OUT OF the ordinary, according to the archives. No great offensives and certainly no breakthroughs, east or west. But war made a mockery of any notion of ordinariness. Everything was abnormal and everywhere the exceptional and the unnatural held sway. Yet none of it could be subsumed calmly into the lives of those who had known something better.
In the west, the French held all Neuville St. Vaast and by 11 June had advanced an estimated five furlongs on a front of 1.25 miles, thereby throwing back a strong German counter-attack south of Hebuterne, south of Arras. During the ongoing Artois offensive, as fierce fighting continued at Givenchy, yet another example of sublime heroism was recognised by the awarding of a VC to Lance Corporal William Angus of the 8th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. On 12 June he volunteered to bring in Lieutenant Martin who lay wounded a few yards from the German lines. When warned he was going to certain death, he replied, “It does not matter much, sir, whether sooner or later.” He crawled to the lieutenant, gave him brandy and brought him back under bomb and rifle fire. During the action Angus received forty separate wounds — but he recovered and survived the war.
That same day Captain Norman Down wrote home about conditions in the trenches and the chronic shortage of sleep endured by officers: “Still here, and no word of being relieved. That’s only nineteen days that we’ve been in the front line without a relief, and we haven’t lost more than two hundred men during that time so we’re not doing so badly. All the same, life’s hardly worth living. From dewy dawn till the stars begin to peep the Hun shells us, shell after shell the whole day long, and we just have to sit and look pleasant. Our own artillery do their best, but all they can do is polish their guns and think how nice it would be to have something to fire out of them. If only we could have the man here who said there was no shortage of shells.”
Perhaps it was an effort to remove any doubts on that subject that the British High Command in France had arranged for Asquith’s second son Herbert, known as Beb, to be temporarily seconded from his work with the Royal Marine Artillery Brigade to accompany the Prime Minister on his visit to the western front the previous week. Beb recalled his father’s ‘great sympathy for soldiers in these difficult days; he liked meeting them and talking over their difficulties in an atmosphere removed from Whitehall’. He also thought his father was very impressed with General Sir Douglas Haig, then commander of the First Army. Not long after this visit, Beb was injured by shrapnel and came home on leave to have his facial injuries treated in London.
The other issue much exercising the thoughts of soldiers in Flanders just then was gas. Primitive gas masks had been devised as soldiers now lived under the constant threat of a gas attack. As Fergus Bowes Lyon wrote: “We always have to have respirators — all ready to put on — as the gas comes very quickly and without warning.” On 14 June, Roland Leighton sent an unusual request to Vera Brittain: “Would you like to send me a rattle? Don’t laugh; although it sounds so suddenly infantile. I want a loud wooden one (not too large) like an old watchman’s rattle, to call the attention of respirator-swathed men to the fact that I should like to give an order if only I could speak intelligibly through a smoke helmet. Then I proceed to required gesticulations. It’s for gas attacks of course…”
Back in London, the preoccupations of the Prime Minister’s wife Margot were both patriotic and characteristically self-involved. ‘A Foul paper called London Mail’, she recorded in her diary, had accused her of playing tennis with German officer prisoners-of-war, calling them ‘former acquaintances of Mrs Asquith’. Against the advice of those who considered it too risky, or unseemly, the Prime Minister’s wife sued the offending journal, and insisted on an apology and £100 for the Red Cross. All this she secured, and in addition won a grovelling apology from the paper ‘regretting any pain and annoyance’.
Magnanimity was never prominent in Mrs Asquith, and these were not, anyway, magnanimous times. She noted: I would not have minded had this paper not been read by our Tommies: but at the front where our poor devils are being poisoned by gas and killed like rats in the lowest most treacherous abominable way, for me to be believed to be playing tennis with brother officers of the very men who are shooting and torturing our poor devils, is more than I can stand. I notice in war time nothing is too silly or concocted for people to believe….
After ten months of war, the British media were well versed in different approaches which might resonate with their readers — both those at home and on the Front. The pages of Country Life on 12 June 1915 could easily be dismissed as sentimental, but they showed an acute awareness of the homesickness and trauma of so many troops, and the consolations afforded by nature.
Our Summer Number is this year presented under circumstances that have no parallel. After grave consideration it was decided not to make it in any way a transcript of war, but to let the pages reflect the beauties of summer as shown in the bird life of the fields and the flower life of the garden. The reason for doing so is simple. It came from a thought of the men at the front. Our correspondence has afforded testimony that in their intervals of rest soldiers require what will divert their minds from the strenuous task on which they are engaged. They have told in many a letter how refreshing they find it to be wafted back in imagination to the fields and lanes of home. Here they are offered memories and descriptions of the country life so familiar to most of them.
To those exposed to daily horrors, the remote splendour of monarchs must have made them seem remote beings indeed. Yet in Britain, ongoing concerns about the fitness and competence of leaders, political and military, was a grave preoccupation to George V and his closest advisors. The King had already expressed concerns about the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, writing on 23 May, “Of course, French may be a good soldier, but I don’t think he is particularly clever & he has an awful temper. Whether he is now suffering from the strain of the campaign or from a swollen head I don’t know, but he is behaving in a very odd way, which adds to my many anxieties….he is also trying to intrigue against Kitchener with the politicians and the Press.”
Such sentiments were of course kept rigorously confidential, but the ripples of royal discomfiture could not remain indefinitely a secret. Lacking much in the way of intellectual sophistication, the King’s shortcomings were a matter of discreet hilarity to the bien-pensants of the day, but his wholehearted and unpretentious sense of duty made him more than ever important to his people. Usually accompanied by Queen Mary, he went on a tireless round of troop inspections, visits to naval bases, hospitals and munitions factories. In an effort not to expose him to needless risk, such activities often went unreported, but still had a considerable impact. There was every reason to believe that his bluff and cheerful manner, and his brisk common sense, fostered a sense of unity among his people far more sure footedly than that achieved by many of his ministers. George V also offered comfort to those nearer home. Members of his household lost sons fighting abroad; the latest was his Private Secretary Lord Stamfordham who had been devastated by the death of his only son, Lieutenant John Neville Bigge, killed on 26 May during the battle of Festubert.
All the time, details trickled back home of the names of those who had been killed. This week, the public learned that Anthony Wilding, an outstanding tennis player, with six Wimbledon titles, (four successive singles, two doubles), an Olympic Bronze medal and four Davis Cups for Australasia, amongst other achievements, had been killed on 9 May during the battle of Aubers Ridge. Tall, blonde, charismatic, with matinee idol looks, Wilding had been incontestably a celebrity of his time. New Zealand-born with English parents, he had read law at Cambridge and enlisted as soon as the war broke out. In France he had been placed with Intelligence, mainly due to his comprehensive knowledge of continental roads gleaned during his travels playing tennis. He then worked with the Duke of Westminster’s armoured car division, devising a trailer to carry a three-pounder gun to run behind an armoured car. A newspaper report suggested that a ‘Jack Johnson’ (heavy howitzer shell) had exploded near Wilding’s dug-out in which he and fellow officers had been forced to shelter due to intolerable shellfire, burying them alive. The paper continued: ‘His Irish terrier, which was with him in the trenches, is disconsolate, wandering in search of his master.’ A fellow officer wrote to his mother saying, ‘I always felt that he was an example to his fellow-men in everything. God rest his great soul.’
The Russian were on the offensive in the east in the early part of the week, with the Austrians losing 16,000 prisoners at Zurawno on 11 June, and German attacks in the Shavli district quickly losing momentum in the face of the enemy’s firepower. The next day, the balance of the fighting turned, as it so often would: the Austro-Germans crossed the Dniester at Kolomea, and there were more resolute German attacks at Shavli, north of Przasnysz, and at Mosciska in Galicia. By 14 June, the Russians had fallen back towards the Grodek line in Lemberg.
This kind of neutral account makes it too easy to glide over what it meant actually to be there. One German account of life along the border with Russian Poland comes from the diaries of a German officer, Ernst Nopper. Having recovered from an earlier wound, Nopper was now back in charge of a company of his old regiment which had been transferred to the Eastern Front. For four months he waited in vain for orders to advance and concluded that “the war goes on, no end in sight.” For Nopper, this was to be the week when his long wait ended. Stationed near the Polish town of Janowienta where the dug-outs consisted of primitive shelters half underground, plagued by lice in winter and ants in summer, he was finally ordered to bombard the opposing Russian lines:
11 June Detonation of mines, then at six heavy artillery attack on the enemy begins, which has now reached a crescendo. Twenty shots at once from guns of every calibre. The Russians answer as best they can, but their artillery is much weaker than ours. The enemy is hidden by clouds of dust. And all this time the weather is so beautiful that all this shooting seems absurd. The Russians allowed themselves to have a bit of a joke with us — they put a stuffed soldier between our positions. But a few spirited chaps from our side went and set up a hand grenade to go off if the figure was moved. A group went out, in the middle of the attack, to see what had happened. A dead Russian, torn to pieces by gunfire, had paid for his curiosity with his life. An attack is planned for tomorrow morning. We don’t sleep at all, but read aloud to one another to keep ourselves alert.
12 June Our artillery has begun such a bombardment of the Russian positions on Hill 137 that it feels as if we are in hell. After a short time the Russians respond with fire so heavy that fragments are as big as a child’s head. Every moment is filled with an extraordinary amount of dust and noise. Suddenly our infantry breaks out of their positions and storms the hill with incredible speed, taking one position at the time. I see it all in shades of grey, not because it is dusk but because of the sand and dust. Above many of the trenches bayonets appear with white handkerchiefs waving to and fro. The infantry jump straight in and bring the Russians out. Now there’s a long train of Russians coming back with their hands held high and their weapons discarded. They are taken into our old trenches.
In the Dardanelles, the attack sustained by British and ANZAC troops the previous week had profoundly traumatised those who had somehow survived it. Accounts of its horrors began now sketchily to emerge: According to Ordinary Seaman Joe Murray of the Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division they had awaited orders from their officer Lieutenant Commander Parsons who then led them into the attack: “As I was getting out of the trench I could see the Collingwood Battalion leave their trench in perfect formation — it was like they were on a parade ground, three lines of them. Well, this heartened me, because they were to go through us and capture the enemy’s third line.
“But as we lay there we saw them being cut down in a matter of a few minutes, by enfilade fire from a ridge on the right, just in front of the French. Only in ones and twos did the survivors reach the line, and none reached us in the second. I asked God to help me as I scrambled over the top into that withering fire. Many, many men were killed as soon as they showed their heads, and fell back into the trench. Poor old Lieutenant Commander Parsons only got a few yards. Very few of us reached the Turkish frontline and even fewer got through to the second.” The Collingwood Battalion, which had already suffered greatly in the abortive Antwerp campaign of October 1914, lost sixteen officers and 500 men in the space of thirty minutes.
Another version of the fallout came from Violet Asquith, another of the Prime Minister’s children. In a telling illustration of the textures of high privilege, she was able to travel to Alexandria to meet her brother Oc, who was in the process of recovering from a leg wound sustained in Gallipoli. Yet there was cold comfort waiting for her there: Oc’s friend, the New Zealander Bernard Freyberg, had just learned of his brother Oscar’s death while he himself was in the process of recovering from a stomach wound. Oc himself, due to return to action imminently, seemed resigned to his fate, as she recorded. ‘Oc said to me quite seriously: it is simply a choice between being killed and being disabled for life, which ices my blood rather.’
For soldiers less buttressed by privilege, considerations of life and death were not the only horrors. Moving now into mid-June, temperatures rose and burying the dead became more than ever a dreaded task. As Leonard Thompson wrote later: “We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trench but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst: they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging — even waving! There was one which we all shook as we passed, saying “Good morning” in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath. At night, when the stench was worse, we tied crepe round our mouths and noses. This crepe had been given to us because it was supposed to prevent us being gassed. The flies entered the trenches at night and lined them completely with a density which was like moving cloth. We killed millions by slapping our spades along the trench walls but the next night it would be just as bad. We were all lousy and we couldn’t stop shitting because we had caught dysentery. We wept, not because we were frightened but because we were so dirty.”
Long gone indeed were those heady days when the sight of Lord Kitchener’s luxuriant moustachios had inspired young men in their tens of thousands to rush to enlist. A year later, a newspaper cartoon illustrated with brutal simplicity the frustration felt by many, both soldiers and civilians, that Britain had still not yet introduced conscription. Captioned ‘A Holiday Idyll’, it showed two informally dressed young men sunbathing on a beach with these words underneath:
FIRST STRENUOUS YOUTH: “It’s difficult to wealise the fightin’ is less than sixty miles away.”
SECOND DITTO, DITTO: “Difficult? It’s absolutely impossible.” (They turn over and go to sleep.)
On 9 June Canada had announced its intention to raise a further 35,000 men and in Britain the topic of conscription was being earnestly debated, some arguing it would ruin the reputation of the British army, others maintaining that the war could not be waged without a significant increase in British numbers. No one denied the urgent need to replace the ever-increasing losses caused by death and injury.
Having just read yet another long casualty list, Vera Brittain’s diary entry for 14 June encapsulated the feelings of many: I begin to feel I shall soon have no male acquaintances left…The Dardanelles is a regular death-trap, & most of the Lancashire & Manchester Regiments, in which I have so many acquaintances, seem to be there. The time has passed for commenting on these swiftly-accumulating tragedies. One can only feel a dull, agonising ache, worse than a sharp & startling pain. It cannot find expression, & gives one no rest — ah! if it is really to go on for years, what shall we do? I wonder if courage & endurance will bear the strain. The entry ends: There are vague rumours that we are near victory in the Dardanelles. It is probably untrue — but even if true we have had to pay a terribly high price.