Toujours la meme chose

The tremendous exertion of will and firepower which had been launched by the British the previous week at Neuve Chapelle seemed to have foundered. This was no ignominious defeat, but there was no breakout either — no great advances which sent the Germans scurrying into retreat across open country. Vera Brittain recorded in her diary of 20 March: “There was another terrible long list — 40 officer casualties added to the already large number which have resulted from the awful battle, the dearly-bought victory, of Neuve Chapelle last Thursday and Friday week. The fettered Press kept the world in the dark about it, and it is only through the long casualty lists that we are beginning to realise what it must have been. There are rumours that our losses there amount to 12,000 — and the Germans’ to about 20,000.” Later research suggests that 40,000 Allied troops took part during the battle and suffered 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian casualties. German casualties from 9–20 March were c. 10,000 men.

As the offensive now ground to a close, there was much about its conduct which was both illustrative of the underlying conundrums of trench warfare — much too also which was prophetic of battles over the next three years.The French part of the offensive had been cancelled when the British were unable to relieve the French IX Corps north of Ypres and the Tenth Army contribution was reduced to heavy artillery support. The Royal Flying Corps had carried out aerial photography despite poor weather, which had enabled the attack front to be mapped to a depth of 1,500 yards for the first time and for 1,500 copies of 1:5,000 scale maps to be distributed to each corps. The battle was the first deliberately planned British offensive and showed the form which position warfare would take for the rest of the war on the Western Front. Tactical surprise and a break-through had been achieved after the First Army prepared the attack with great attention to detail. After the first set-piece attack, unexpected delays had slowed the tempo of operations, command had been undermined by communication failures and infantry-artillery co-operation broke down when the telephone system stopped working. An acute shortage of artillery ammunition had made a new attack impossible, apart from a local effort by the 7th Division, which had also failed with many casualties. The Germans responded to the offensive by strengthening the defences opposite the British and increasing the number of troops in the area; the French became cautiously optimistic that British forces might be reliable in offensive operations.

This intensity of combat was very often the backdrop to obscenities which shocked contemporaries quite as much as they may horrify later generations. One gruesome vignette of Neuve Chapelle was remembered by Captain A.V. Agius of the Royal Fusiliers who recalled his experience of fighting alongside the Gurkhas who “were extremely cheerful…They carried a kukri. One of my first recollections is a raid at Neuve Chapelle. I was supporting the attack with my machine-guns and I’ll never forget seeing a Gurkha coming across in front from the German lines, holding something in his hands — and when I looked it was the face of a German! It wasn’t his neck or his head, just his face cut vertically down. He was bringing it back as a trophy, and very pleased he was too!”

Enemy action at Pervyse had impelled Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm out of their post, but months of backbreaking hard work and constant exposure to grave danger had done nothing to dull their sense of mission, and they were both now embarked on a fundraising tour in Britain, “seeing all kinds of impossible people”. The generosity of some donors was almost overwhelming: Lord Norreys gave them three cars, one of which was a sixteen-power Wolseley ambulance presented to the St John Ambulance Brigade by the people of Sutton Coldfield.

Cash donations also flowed in, especially at those public presentations which aimed at female audiences, in which they tended to concentrate upon the details of their work with the wounded, including their radical way of dealing with shock. As Elsie said “The effects of shock are worse in many cases than the wounds.” On one occasion, she described one case of a soldier, wounded in the lung, cold, unconscious and “apparently lifeless.” She and Mairi had wrapped him in hot blankets, put hot-water bottles around him and placed him beside the stove while they “rubbed his extremities to get him warm.” After two hours he was “roused up” and asked for a drink. When they told his story the soldier was safe and convalescing in England. There was evidently a vast appetite for such stories, and the whirlwind visit raised £15,000 (in today’s money) with pledges of more to follow.

In relative terms, the French endured a less dramatic week — but it one which nonetheless saw bloody and determined fighting. Early in the week they gained an important crest and threw back strong counter-attacks north of Mesnil. While their fighting between Four-de-Paris and Bolante was notable for its violence, it was also indecisive. On 19 March, the Germans attacked heavily in the Vosges, regaining temporarily some trench elements near Notre Dame de Lorette, and severe fighting erupted in the Argonne again on 22 March at Bagatelle.

In the east, one story did come to an end this week, with the capitulation of Przemsyl to the Russians on 22 March. After five months of siege (it had begun, with grim irony, on 11 November) 126,000 prisoners were taken and 700 big guns handed over. These were merely the baldest of statistics in an epic human drama which had spawned many victims, and consumed many innocents. Among those most vulnerable were the Jews for whom it was widely and often correctly believed, the Tsarist armies reserved a special venom. Jewish inhabitants of the besieged town now fled amidst widespread rumours — not just which concerned the looting of Jewish property but also tales of mass executions carried out elsewhere.

It is part of the pity of this story that even in extremis, there was initially scant sympathy for them. Helena Jablonska recorded on 18 March that “The Jews are taking their shop signs down in a hurry, so that no one can tell who owns what. They are making formal pilgrimages to the Rabbis’ graves at Okopisko. When they get there they prostrate themselves on the ground and wail desperately. They’ve all got so rich off the backs of those poor soldiers, and now of course they all want to run away!”

Jablonska’s preoccupations seem to have been centred more upon herself. This was not really so unreasonable: with the surrender of the fortress planned for 23 March, horror stories abounded. The garrison’s own soldiers ransacked the town trying to loot as much as they could before the Russians entered. Jablonska herself despaired: “The soldiers are tearing up the stakes in our garden, they have smashed up the apple cellar, they have stolen everything and hacked it all to pieces….They come storming into my kitchen and take anything they like. I close the door but they hammer at it, they bang and kick it in and I have to give them my last mouthful of food. Of the lunch we cooked today all we were spared was tea and bread. They say in town the killings have begun.”

Within the besieged fortress, the Austrians now began their own version of a scorched earth policy. General Kusmanek ordered the destruction of everything that could be of use to the enemy and Jablonska vividly described the critical day 22 March: “The handover of the fortress is to take place tomorrow. All remaining ammunition and artillery guns are to be destroyed, along with all fortifications, explosives, arms factories and machinery. After that the bridges are to be blown up; rifles, carts, harnesses, saddles are all to be destroyed — everything.

“At around 2 a.m. they began blowing up the works. Along with the throbbing and screaming of artillery this was so horrible that we were all rigid with fear. The police were sent all over town to warn people that both ammunition dumps, three bridges and the locomotive works were to be blown up at 5 a.m. We went outside. There were crowds of panic-stricken people with trunks, bundles and children hurrying down the street, their eyes wide with fear, while we stood waiting, shivering with cold.

“The first ammunition dump exploded with a terrifying boom, the ground shook and the glass fell out of all the windows….As the day dawned the town looked like a glowing, smoking crater with pink flames glowing from below and morning mist floated above — an amazing, menacing sight…..Countless people died of nervous convulsions last night, without any physical injuries or illnesses. By the time the sun climbed into the sky everything was still…

“There is a corpse in our house, on the floor above the Litwinskis’. The man seems to have died of fear….I persuaded one of the workmen to go down to the army hospital to ask what to do, but they sent him packing and redirected him to divisional headquarters. Over there he was told they would deal with it tomorrow, they’ve got too many corpses today as it is, littering the streets awaiting collection. The Russian patrols marched into the city today from all directions, followed by mounted Cossacks. I don’t know whether there was anyone out there to welcome them, but I can’t leave the house because the marauders are still here, looting, hacking everything to pieces and burning it.”

This distressing denouement came at the end of a week of Russian advances along a broad front. On 18 March, they succeeded in occupying Memel in East Prussia — although that was destined to last only three days before the Germans regained it. More conclusively, they threw back the attempts of the Austrians to get a toehold in the Carpathians and Bukovina. Two days later, they attacked near Smolesnk, netting some 2,400 prisoners.

What, one may ask, had happened to Churchill’s grand strategy to bring an end to the spectre of men chewing barbed wire? To date, the confident assumption that British naval artillery would knock out the Turkish batteries and discomfit their occupants sufficiently to drive them into headlong retreat had proved completely unfounded. Following the earlier and largely unsuccessful attempts to silence the guns on the numerous Turkish forts protecting the Dardanelles Straits, a new strategy had been fashioned, designed to combine a naval bombardment with an amphibious landing. This had first been trialled on 26 February when both mine-sweeping clearance and a raid by Marines knocked out the guns on two forts.

Thus emboldened, commanders now planned a major assault for 18 March. Before that took place, however, a complication had arisen in the form of a sudden illness on the part of Admiral Carden, the current commander. Carden, in truth, had been overwhelmed by the weight of the responsibility of the whole operation and appeared to have suffered a total collapse of confidence. He was swiftly put on the sick list and replaced by John de Robeck, now promoted to Acting Vice-Admiral. Around 10 a.m. on 18 March destroyers fitted with mine-sweeps entered the Dardanelles followed by the battleships HMS Elizabeth, HMS Agamemnon, HMS Lord Nelson and HMS Inflexible, with other ships protecting their flanks. According to an eyewitness, “It looked as if no human forces could withstand such [an] array of might and power.”

Looks, however, mattered less than the actualite. After an hour’s bombardment started by HMS Elizabeth’s 15-inch guns opening fire on the western forts and supported by the other British ships, the French ships were ordered forward. The operation was described by Raymond Swing of the Chicago Daily News:

“Viewed as a picture, the battle was a sight of overpowering grandeur. The skies were cloudless, the sun shone down from near the zenith on the warships, the waters were a deep clear blue, the Hellespont hills were a dark green. The picture was in many hues, the gray-white smoke of the explosions, the orange smoke of firing cannon, and the black of flying earth in eruption, all set off by the white geysers of waters as they rose after the immersion of the shells. The accompaniment of sound was both oppressively insistent and varied. There was a roar when guns fired, the deafening detonations of the shells when they hit, the whistle of the shells in flight, the shriek of the flying splinters.”

However the Turks had one vital ally…nature had provided a very strong current which flowed through the Dardanelles to the Aegean. This ran at 2 to 2.5 knots and assisted the effectiveness of the lethal Turkish mines. Midshipman Denham on board HMS Agamemnon saw their deployment: “The water must have been thick with mines for we could see a Turkish torpedo boat, a merchantman and two tugs a long way past the Narrows and they must have been heaving mines overboard for all they were worth.”

Swing’s analysis has not been especially favoured by historians who have tended to stress more the fissile nature of mines rather than the caprices of currents. Certainly, the waters through which Robeck’s unhappy men were attempting to navigate were chocked with them. At 15.45 a mine struck HMS Inflexible, killing thirty-nine men and forcing the ship’s withdrawal. Soon afterwards, the French battleship Bouvet hit another mine and sank immediately with the loss of almost all her crew. The Turkish shells then repeatedly hit HMS Irresistible which began to sink. The final disaster was the sinking of HMS Ocean which was also destroyed having struck another mine.

Appalled by the irreversible and cataclysmic losses, the attack was now called off by de Robeck: an unqualified disaster. The following day, further engagements were prevented by bad weather which had the advantage, for now, of sparing the Allies from further loss and humiliation.

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