Was it so hard, Achilles, to die?

COLLECTIVE NOUNS CANNOT suffice. Sometimes it is the pity of war which overwhelms, and sometimes the stoicism or the loneliness. This week, it is its randomness and folly.

In the Dardanelles, the gross disparity between the impatience of those overseeing the campaign, and the capacity of armies to yield up any kind of meaningful victory, was a clear and present truth. Yet politicians and commanders would not confront it. Sir Ian Hamilton’s diary offers a keen insight into one reason why this may have been: the professional obligations of the man in charge of the Dardanelles operations sat uncomfortably on someone of such emotionalism. Having chatted to Rupert Brooke in April a few days before the poet’s death, he then wrote: Death grins at my elbow. I cannot get him out of my thoughts. He is fed up with the old and sick — only the flower of the flock will serve him now, for God has started a celestial spring cleaning, and our star is to be scrubbed bright with the blood of our bravest and our best.

Even by neo-Edwardian standards, this was a little unhinged. Now on 11 July he prepared to send more such young soldiers into a probably hopeless attack on Achi Baba. He knew that the long-requested reinforcements were on their way from Britain, which suggested that he should wait. Indeed, the latest message from London, delivered by his new staff member Freddy Stopford, had stated quite categorically: It is not the wish of the Cabinet that Sir Ian Hamilton should make partial attacks. They consider it preferable that he should await the arrival of his reinforcements to make one great effort which, if successful, will give them the ridge commanding the Narrows.

But then, in the manner of senior management the world over which seeks to distance itself from blame, the message continued: It is not intended, however, that Sir Ian should do nothing in the meantime and if he gets a really good opportunity he is to seize it.

Thus it was that on the morning of 12 July the 155th Division, which had never been in an assault before, was sent over the top, east of the Krithia road. The French were to attack to their right. Despite the slaughter that followed as the division crossed the Turkish frontline trenches (filled with casualties from the British bombardment) and attempted to take further trenches, the commander on the spot, Hunter-Weston, still sent in his other division, the 157th, late in the afternoon. It was chaos. Communications were so poor that no one knew which trenches had been taken or where the various battalions were. By nightfall, dead and dying littered the blood-splashed ground. According to one eyewitness even the soil beneath the surface smelt poisonous.

Putrefaction: a clear and present danger, and a horribly apt metaphor for all that had happened. On the night of 12–13 July Private Horace Bruckshaw of the Royal Marine Light Infantry had another gruesome experience as his diary recorded: We spent the remainder of the night in our old spot on the gully after aimlessly wandering about half the night as usual. At dawn we moved from here, which were now the supports and went into the new fire position which was taken from the Turks yesterday. We just had to go into a Turkish communication trench which now formed part of our supports. This was in a terrible state, simply full of dead bodies and filth of all kinds. Up to dinner time all our time was taken in burying the dead and cleaning up. Where some of the dead had already been half buried was a sight awful to witness and the stench was terrific. Heads, arms and legs were sticking up from the ground and out of the parapets. It was terrible and a sight I can never forget. In addition to cleaning all this mess up we had to make this trench possible for a fire trench should it be necessary.

If strategy had become befuddled in the west, there was still a superb infrastructure of command, of supply, and of distribution. It served to trim the edges of madness. Writing today, hindsight allows us to see only that, for now, nobody was going anywhere much, and certainly not for long. To that we can add the hard data to support what soldiers on all sides knew anyway — that this hopelessly inconclusive fighting shattered bodies and minds.

In Ypres, HS Clapham described a typical day: going over the top at 4.15, annexing a German trench, re-setting the barbed wire, digging a new communications trench whilst ‘hauling out dead Huns’, then suddenly facing ‘a regular hail of machine-gun bullets’. As a result, ‘We all started work at a feverish pace, digging out the trench and building up some sort of shelter in front. One chap, a very nice kid, was bowled over almost at once with a bullet in the groin, and lay on the trench, kicking and shrieking, while we worked.’

On 6 July, the Austrians suffered a notable defeat when the forces of Archduke Josef Ferdinand were beaten near Krasnik, and the Russians succeeded in taking 15,000 prisoners between Krasnik and Lyublin. Four days later, the Habsburgs counter-attacked with enough momentum to persuade the Russians to withdraw to the right bank of Urzedowka. Were these mystifying coming and goings any more or less of a folly than what was going on in the West at Souchez or Argonne? The distances travelled were greater, and the lot of the common soldier more reliably miserable. It is hard to know.

In Britain conscription had become the burning issue. The third reading of National Registration Bill took place on 8 July, and that same day an Order in Council was passed to increase the Canadian Expeditionary Force to 150,000 men. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Reginald McKenna, was in the very last stages of raising a new national loan. The desperate contrivances to reach for resources, man and material, cannot be dismissed as follies, but rather pragmatic responses to the costliness of war.

But was it worth it? This was the question almost nobody could any longer begin to articulate, let alone upon which to venture any answer other than a roaring affirmative. Lord Kitchener, in a recruiting speech on 9 July at the Guildhall in London, addressed such thoughts with a maximum of rhetoric and bombast. His rallying-cry was ‘Does the call of duty find no response in you until reinforced — let us rather say superseded — by the call of compulsion? Isn’t it morally up to you? Are you going to do your duty only when the law says you must? It’s a matter for your conscience. Make up your minds and do so quickly.’

Kitchener reminded his audience that he had taken up office as a soldier and not as a politician, that he had warned the country the war would be arduous and prolonged and, as that was proving to be the case, there was a vital need ‘for men and still more men until the enemy is crushed.’ He warned that ‘Never before has any nation been as elaborately organized for imposing her will upon the nations of the world (as Germany) and her vast resources of military strength are wielded by an autocracy which is peculiarly adapted to the conduct of the war.’ He also addressed the so-called ‘shirkers’ or ‘do-nothings’ saying, ‘One feels that our gallant soldiers in the fighting line are beckoning with an urgency, at once imperious and pathetic, to those who remain at home to come out and play their part.’ He also asked employers to be more willing to release men for military service replacing them ‘with ineligibles and women’, reminding his listeners that ‘The casualty lists sufficiently indicated the needs at the front’ though he hastened to add that many of the injured had ‘comparatively slight wounds, and would soon return to the firing line’.

He had been accompanied on to the platform at the Guildhall by many members of the Cabinet but it was Kitchener who received a rapturous ovation from vast crowds. His popularity maddened his colleagues, but they swallowed their contempt because they needed the goodwill he alone could command. The war was far from uniformly popular. Three days after the big rally at the Guildhall, the South Wales Miners’ Conference rejected the Government’s latest proposals on work and pay for those working in the pits. It was the prelude to an ugly strike which would embitter relations in the coal industry in particular, and between capital and labour at large, for at least two further generations. The single consolation to be drawn in the short term was that the German government faced similar problems: that same day, 12 July, state control of the coal industry was announced in Germany.

In imperial terms, the Allies enjoyed one unequivocal success during the week when on 9 July, the Germans surrendered unconditionally in South West Africa to the fiercely anglophile General Botha. Vera Brittain’s diary recorded The news of the surrender of German S. West Africa was confirmed this morning [10 July]. It was our first complete victory. Tremendous operations seem to be impending in the West.

Tremendous? Probably not. It was nice to bring off a victory, of course — nobody could doubt that — but its strategic usefulness was open to doubt. The war in East Africa had a great deal longer to run. Victory released no great cadre of troops to fight in mainland Europe, and did nothing to deflect the Germans from their weltpolitik. It certainly underwrote Britain’s confidence in its imperial mission. That, some might argue, was another folly. Folie de grandeur.

If so, Britain was not alone. Austria was steeped in it, and Italy — the Habsburg empire’s newest enemy — was throwing rather more punches than she was landing. She succeeded in taking Monticello and Magna Sarta early in the week, but in 11 July, the Austrians bombed Venice, for the fourth time since hostilities had begun. The next day, slightly anticlimactically, the Italians retorted by bombing Pola.

The fighting on the Isonzo front high in the Julian Alps was recorded in diaries by an unidentified Austrian officer and by a young volunteer Italian infantryman, Virgilio Bonamore. They make for curious reading: pathos and raw terror, alternating with brittle nationalism and ardour for their respective girlfriends. Both the latter, in fact, were Italians, so this was a rather subversive international enthusiasm in the case of the Austrian.

Bonamore wrote on 8 July: The enemy pours lively rifle-fire from his positions on the rocks to our right. Shells rain down, but narrowly miss me. When I turn round, all my companions have disappeared. I run down the slope, but in the darkness I’ve gone the wrong way and can’t find the trench entrance. I’m terrified — I am caught in a crossfire. I throw myself to the ground and crawl.

9 July The Austrians are now pounding our trenches from the other side of the mountain. As luck would have it, they seem to be short of munitions, or else we wouldn’t be able to hold on to our positions. They aren’t firing many shells and they wounded some Bersaglieri (elite infantrymen) from the 2nd Company. One explodes right in my trench and wounds Goi, who’s right next to me. He gets a piece of shrapnel in the eye and is taken away. We are given stinking soup and meat again, completely inedible. I stick to the bread, but I won’t be able to keep going like this!

10 July Towards 8pm there’s a terrible hailstorm. We flee into our trenches, but the water soon begins to run into them. The hailstones are as big as walnuts. We’re all soaking wet, and an hour later it starts raining. We are in a tragic state, drenched to the bone and completely numb. As if all that wasn’t enough, a false alarm wakes up at 1am. which make us waste a thousand rounds. I’m overcome with terrible pains in my gut. In the morning we’re all shaking from cold. We’ve nothing to dry ourselves with. Finally, with God’s will, the sun appears and our clothes dry out. At midday, I received eight registered parcels from Itala, a letter and two postcards. Itala has sent me woollen socks, writing paper, cigarettes, chocolate, soap and other useful things. I don’t know how to thank her.

Meanwhile, at the same period, the Austrian was under attack from heavy Italian artillery on the Doberdo plateau. He writes:

6 July At two in the morning the Italians resume their attack. A grenade falls inside our trench. I am buried under the rubble. Someone pulls me out. Around me four are lying dead and nine are injured. The wounded groan and cry for their mothers. You have to shut your ears to it. Italy will pay for this, for the Lord sits in judgement is up on high and he is wrathful. The Italians attack us again from four to six. We lose another 89 men and have to retreat a little.

7 July A bullet hits Corporal Haari right between the eyes and he drops down without making a sound. He was the company’s best shot. Lord, have mercy on his soul. I cross his arms over his chest and let them carry him away. Towards eight o’clock we must retreat again. The silhouettes of our soldiers stand out sharply against the scattered gold of the evening sky. It reminds me of the row of saints on the walls of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, and of Maria, who inspired artistic feelings in me. God bless her, wherever she may be.

8 July My men are dropping like flies. Death is on the rampage. He who gives his life or the Fatherland and the honour of the Habsburgs shall be honoured and remembered for eternity.

9 July Cases of cholera. This is all we need. Is God no longer on our side?

Disease became rampant in both sets of trenches largely due to water being contaminated by the thousands of decomposing corpses scattered in unreachable ravines. Fighting continued unabated despite the weakening condition of the participants. Rather as in the Dardanelles, an intensity of danger seemed to have been visited upon the young soldiers with a casualness which bordered on cynicism. In such circumstances, their lofty patriotism and faith in the Almighty leaves the reader uncomfortable.

A rather more rarefied articulation of the same conundrum — of man set against impossible dangers — came this week from Patrick Shaw-Stewart. He had been one of the famous ‘Latin table’ on board the Grantully Castle and a member of Rupert Brooke’s funeral party, and was presently enjoying three days’ leave on Imbros.

A classical scholar of distinction and a Fellow of All Souls, Shaw-Stuart, like many others of the Gallipoli campaign, was imbued with a sense of history following in the footsteps of Homer’s heroes as they approached the vicinity of Troy. This self-conscious classicism sounds precious to modern ears, but Shaw-Stuart’s evocation of Achilles’ grief on the death of Patroclus (cf The Iliad Book 18) was unambiguous: he was fully aware of what the death-trap of the Dardanelles might mean for him,

This was his only poem, and it was only discovered after his death in France in 1917 when his personal effects were returned to his parents; he had written it inside his copy of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.

I saw a man this morning

Who did not wish to die:

I ask, and cannot answer,

If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning

Against the Dardanelles;

The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks

Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting

Across the Aegean sea.

Shrapnel and high explosive,

Shells and hells for me.

O hell of ships and cities,

Hell of men like me,

Fatal second Helen,

Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland

And I to Chersonese:

He turned from wrath to battle,

And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles?

So very hard to die?

Thou knewest and I know not —

So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning

From Imbros over the sea;

Stand in the trench, Achilles,

Flame-capped, and shout for me.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.