Whistleblower

EGOISM MAY BE last to die. In a world in which there were not ruffled feathers to be smoothed, Commanders in the Dardanelles might have welcomed a patriotic journalist with the social and professional skills which gave him access to the top brass in London. Tell those stuffed shirts, one might imagine them saying, tell them what it’s like out here. The heat; the stench; the flies. You’ve seen it all. Tell them everything.

But it was not so. Back in April, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’s article in The Daily Telegraph had skirted deftly round the strict censorship of the times in order to suggest Turkish forces were much stronger than had been previously acknowledged. These words had not passed unnoticed nor unresented. Now he returned briefly to London. Candidly, this was part shopping expedition: most of his belongings had been sunk and he himself had just escaped with his life when the Majestic had been blown up. Most of all, however, he wanted to speak candidly and directly to those in the highest authority. Sir Edward Carson, the Attorney-General, was instrumental in opening doors which might otherwise have stayed resolutely shut. In his short time in the capital, he was able to see Asquith, Kitchener, Bonar Law, Churchill, Balfour, and to have his pungent views on the management of the campaign read out in Cabinet.

When Ashmead-Bartlett returned to the Dardanelles on 16 June his reception at Hamilton’s headquarters was glacial. ‘They fear any sort of criticism…’ he recorded. ‘…[They] know I have seen all the ministers and that is what they resent more than anything else.’ The hyper-sensitivity of commanders cannot commend itself to posterity — not because Ashmead-Bartlett was necessarily correct in any criticisms to which he had given voice, nor because their military management was necessarily wrong. But their anger smacks of petulance, and it came at a time when the suffering of the troops was unendurable. The thought that he might have done something to ameliorate their lot was his sole consolation, as he now faced ejection from the comfortable privilege of living in HQ. He was sent instead to muck in with other correspondents under canvas. ‘A sandy wilderness’ he described it, ‘….burnt up by the sun, blown about by the siroccos, tormented by millions of flies’. The food was ‘execrable’.

Plans for any fresh engagements with the Turks had collapsed utterly. Allied troops had been killed and injured in great numbers, and many of those who remained were desperately ill. Dysentery was rampant and the recollections of those who survived testify eloquently to psychological, as well physical, devastation. Ordinary Seaman Joe Murray, a young miner from Durham now with the Hood Battalion, was graphic: “Dysentery was a truly awful disease that could rob a man of the last vestiges of human dignity before it killed him. A couple of weeks before getting it my old pal was as smart and upright as a guardsman. Yet after about ten days it was dreadful to see him crawling about, his trousers round his feet, his backside hanging out, his shirt soiled — everything was soiled. He couldn’t even walk.

“So I took him by one arm and another pal got hold of him by the other, and we dragged him to the latrine. It was degrading, when you remember how good he was just a little while ago…..Anyway, we lowered him down next to the latrine. We tried to keep the flies off him and to turn him round — put his backside towards the trench. But he simply rolled into this foot-wide trench, half-sideways, head first in the slime. We couldn’t pull him out, we didn’t have enough strength, and he couldn’t help himself at all. We did eventually get him out but he was dead, he’d drowned in his own excrement.” According to Fusilier Harold Pilling of the Lancashire Fusiliers: “If you’d looked into the latrines you’d have been sickened. You’d think people had parted with their stomachs or their insides. It was awful. You had to cover it and dig another. It hadn’t to be so high or else you could fall down. There were no supports or anything, it was just an open trench, but it was fairly deep.”

And everywhere, of course, there were flies. Private Harold Boughton of the London Regiment commented on this additional torture: “One of the biggest curse… Millions and millions of flies. The whole of the side of the trench used to be one black swarming mass. Anything you opened, like a tin of bully, would be swarming with flies. If you were lucky enough to have a tin of jam and opened that, swarms of flies went straight into it. They were all around your mouth and on any cuts or sores that you’d got, which then turned septic. Immediately you bared any part of your body you were smothered. It was a curse, it really was.”

These horrors persisted in addition to, and not instead of, the regulars horrors of war — albeit a war fought, from a British perspective, in a most untraditional fashion. Marine Joe Clement of the Royal Marine Light Infantry described a macabre incident: “I had my machine gun trained on Krithia which was probably just over a thousand yards away where there was a road used by mule trains. We would fire and make the mules jump about a bit. At night we were sometimes told not to fire in certain directions because we had patrols out. One night the Gurkhas were out there, so we were keeping a close watch. Out of the dark came this voice to warn us not to shoot, ‘All right, Tommy, all right.’ Then I saw this smiling face coming in and it wasn’t till he’d got in the trench that I realised he was carrying the head of a Turk! He’d used his kukri.”

Examples of extraordinary courage abounded and some of the greatest of these were recognised by the award of Britain’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross. At Givenchy in northern France, on his forty-eighth birthday, Lieutenant Frederick Campbell of the 1st Battalion (Western Ontario) was in command of two machine-gun crews in an attack on a German trench. All members of one crew were killed and Campbell kept the other gun in action until only he and Private Vincent were left standing. Failing to find a firm base for the gun, he mounted the tripod on Vincent’s back and continued firing holding the enemy at bay. Eventually a bullet shattered his hip bone; he died on 19 June as a result of his wounds.

19 June was also the day the French bombarded Munster in Alsace. They had already sent aircraft to Karlsruhe four days earlier on a similar mission. These sorties seemed mainly to have buttressed the morale of the French rather than caused much alarm to the Germans. On the ground, poilus succeeded in gaining some ground near Souchez and flushing out the Germans leading counter-attacks north of Arras. On 15 June, the British captured the German front line trench east of Festubert — something which promised to be a significant moment in the long-running battle there — but which they unfortunately failed to hold.

A letter from this period sent by Lieutenant Talbot Kelly of the Royal Field Artillery provides fresh reasons for historians to be grateful that the British military authorities did not censor the letters of officers. Kelly’s ruminations on fear are a reminder that it was a constant companion for combatants, albeit one rarely discussed: “I think you are chiefly afraid, you know, of how you will behave when you really meet the worst things that war can produce, and I became afraid of seeing my first dead man. I’d never seen a dead man before, and was very afraid of seeing anybody killed in front of my eyes.” He described a lull in the fighting when he had the chance to visit “an old stretch of German trench where there were a lot of German and Canadian corpses…. suddenly round a bend in the trench I came to a great bay which was full of dead Germans, but they weren’t a bit horrible. They had been dead for about six weeks and weather and rats and maggots and everything else had done their stuff. Now they were just shiny skeletons in their uniforms held together by the dry sinews that wound round their bones. They were still wearing their uniforms and still in the attitude in which they had died, possibly from a great shell burst. It was a most weird and extraordinary picture and I was absolutely fascinated. A skull, you know, grins at you in a silly way, it laughs at you and more or less says: ‘Fancy coming here all terrified of dead men, look how silly we look.’ “

Good news was hard to find anywhere. The British drew some satisfaction when the veteran guerrilla Christiaan De Wet was found guilty of high treason in South Africa on 21 June. He had first come to fame as a doughty opponent of the British in the Boer War and had sickened to find his countrymen fighting on the side of the British and against the Germans in August 1914. His response to the declaration of martial law and the call-up of volunteers had been to join the rebellion led by Manie Maritz. Widely acknowledged in earlier years as ‘the greatest guerrilla fighter in the world’, De Wet’s hardiness and ingenuity had been nonetheless insufficient. The rebels had been repeatedly defeated, famously by General Botha in a battle at Mushroom Valley in November 1914 and De Wet had been captured by Afrikaners in December 1914 and imprisoned in Johannesburg Fort. Now he was sentenced to six years in prison and fined £2000. Such was his fame, however, that voluntary contributions swiftly paid his fine.

De Wet ended up serving less than a year. Many representations had been made on his behalf, and his release was conditional upon his taking no further part in politics. It was a reminder to the British that not even this bloodiest of wars could dull the memories of the many enemies they had made in their years of imperial pomp.

Deeply as the British hated the Germans, they sometimes cast their net more widely in the search for enemies. Ireland sometimes ticked that particular box, at least in the eyes of unionists. More often, it was the trench-dodger — the young man who, in pursuit of a gentle life and out of fear for his own skin, refused to enlist. Asquith and his Ministers noisily deplored anything which suggested a lack of patriotism, but they also knew that that there were awkward truths to be faced before conscription could be enacted. One of these was that skilled workers in munitions factories were at a premium and that those who were removed to the trenches would do nothing to solve the ongoing crisis in munitions. On 16 June Lloyd George took his oath as the new Minister of Munitions. The intense interest this elicited in the public testified to the scale of public anxiety.

The following day, a letter in The Times from an anonymous munitions-maker sought to answer exactly that point:

‘Sir:

Will you allow me to point out one of the chief difficulties at the moment and its remedy? We have to deal not so much with shirkers, but with the very real temptation to enlist which constantly assails munition-makers to save them from the silly sneers of their ignorant neighbours or the well-meant persuasions of the Recruiting Sergeants. Many valuable men are leaving my own works to join the Colours from what is actually moral cowardice, though they were serving England infinitely better in the shop than they can ever hope to do in the field. Put them in khaki and let them be amenable to a very simple code of military discipline. This would give them a status and a feeling of conscious pride and self-reliance. Human nature is just as strong in war as in peace, and who will deny that the young man in mufti does feel uncomfortable while the khaki-clad ones have a happy sense of amour-propre, even though in some cases they are no wit more patriotic than their neighbour, who is being sneered at? And remember that sneers are painful to hear even when undeserved.’

Many of the versions of life on the Home Front emanate from the well-born and our perspectives are easily skewed. The diaries of Vera Brittain, as clear-eyed and as brave as anyone, still speak with the voice of someone born into a world of privilege. The entry for 15 June recorded a visit to Somerville, her college in Oxford now transformed into a war hospital: The Hall and the J.C.R. make fine wards, and it is all so sweet & clean & fresh that it must be quite a joy to be convalescent here. Nearly everyone was in the garden. One poor man lay in a tent some little distance apart from the others; the Matron said they were afraid he would not recover. Most of those in bed were asleep. Others were lying about in chairs or on their beds, & all looked very pathetic. The ones suffering from shock go into the little rooms, where there are only two people & sometimes only one. Brittain had by now resolved to contribute to the war effort by becoming a nurse — a milieu in which the provincial comforts of her upbringing would be of no relevance whatsoever. She was unsure if she would return to Oxford for the start of the new academic year in October — a date by which, many believed, the war would surely be over.

Radically more sentimental than Brittain, and many times more self-involved, was the freshly demoted Winston Churchill. Still in the Cabinet, but extraneous to all decision-making, he easily found time on 19 June to write to his younger brother Jack, serving in Gallipoli. “We live very simply” he reassured his brother, from the comforts of Hoe Farm in Sussex, “but with all the essentials of life well understood & well provided for — hot baths, cold champagne, new peas, & old brandy.”

The two brothers were to live in close harmony all their lives, so one may assume Jack was not as revolted by his brother’s complacency as he might have been. The letter is deceptive because in reality Churchill’s days at this time were dominated by the struggle to accept a life without power and rich only in public odium. He later described this period as the unhappiest of his life. His wife, Clemmie, was described by Eddie Marsh as ‘crying all the time’ and Churchill himself gasping ‘like a sea-beast fished up from the depths or a diver suddenly hoisted’.

The nearest to relief he knew during these months came through painting. He had been introduced to it by his sister-in-law, Lady Gwendoline Bertie, upon whom he had stumbled painting water-colours in the garden of Hoe Farm, the Tudoresque home the two families were renting for the summer. He later claimed it had rescued his life, or more exactly his sanity. Goonie, as she was known, directed her brother-in-law to study the use of oil paints under the expert guidance of Hazel Lavery. Violet Bonham-Carter recalled that ‘He painted silently, rapt in intense appraisal’. Painting appears to have been one of the few occasions when he finally stopped talking.

Once he moved away from the canvas and easel, his sorrow sought expiation in more traditional politics. He spoke frequently at the meetings of the Dardanelles Committee and, in mid-June, moved into a new office near the House of Lords. However deep the consolations he now drew from the splendid views it offered and from the hours he spent on his art, he admitted to Wilfred Scawen Blunt “There is more blood than paint upon these hands”. Many of those still incarcerated at Gallipoli might have agreed.