HOW SERIOUS WAS Britain’s commitment to the Great War? The question teeters between the fatuous and insulting, but it was undeniably brought to the forefront of many French minds by the outbreak of the Verdun offensive.
Code-named Operation Gericht, the assault on Verdun was launched by the German 5th Army on 21 February. One million shells descended during an opening bombardment lasting nine hours, in which time an eight-mile strip of wooded and arable landscape of the Meuse was transformed into a moonscape. Such devastation may have raised German morale on the instant, but it created problems for them too, since the craters and upturned earth impeded swift passage.
The attack was a terrifying shock for the commanders – which, arguably, it should not have been. For the first day or two Joffre and his colleagues at the French headquarters, clung to the belief that it was all a diversionary attack – the prelude to a major offensive elsewhere. Thanks to the concerns expressed by Castelnau following his visit to the area, there had been some reinforcements rushed to Verdun in recent days but many more were soon needed. As the full extent of the danger became clear, fresh forces were poured into the area, along the road from Bar-Le-Duc which became known as La Voie Sacrée.
The German advantage was initially great: 1,400 guns in the main attack area to the 270 guns of the French, and seventy-two strong divisions faced a mere thirty-four French ones; but the French Prime Minister Aristide Briand starkly told Joffre that Verdun must be defended at all costs. There was an element of self-interest perhaps: the fate of his government depended upon the ability of his soldiers to stand firm, but so too, it might be said, was that true of the whole nation.
On 24 February, General Pétain was summoned to take command of the French 2nd Army, which was currently in training and ordered to take it to Verdun. Shades of the libidinous Sir John French, Pétain was only tracked down by his ADC in an hotel near the Gare du Nord in Paris where he was spending time with his mistress.
Verdun was to prove a desperate experience for the French nation. In that first week, whole battalions disappeared, and civilians were rushed into a headlong evacuation. French resistance – stout-hearted, most certainly – could not prevent the loss of thousands, either killed or maimed or taken prisoner. Emile Driant, the parliamentary deputy who had tried hard to warn French leaders of the German build-up in the area, was himself killed in the Bois des Caures on 22 February, and his company of 1,200 reduced to a mere 118 men within 48 hours.
The French writer, Jules Romain, described thus the first day of the battle:
Over the whole of the front to a depth of several kilometres, the same dance of dust, smoke, and debris went on, to a thunderous accompaniment of noise. Thousands of men, in groups of two, three or ten, sometimes of twenty, bent their backs to the storm, clinging together at the bottom of holes, most of which were not better than scratches in the ground, while many scarcely deserved the name of shelter at all. To their ears came the sound of solid earth rent and disembowelled by bursting shells.
To speed the advance, the Germans resorted to using flame throwers after a couple of days. The surrounding forest was sacrificed accordingly, and many defenders lost their nerve completely in the face of this diabolical inferno. On 24 February, the 37th African Division, made up of men from Morocco and Algeria – legendarily brave soldiers – fled the scene of battle.
The French also faced humiliation. On 25 February the Germans captured the obsolete Fort Douaumont, a huge, polygonal fortress scheduled for demolition. It had barely a gun on site and only a handful of defenders, and was taken without a shot being fired. The following day the Germans threw back no fewer than five French counter-attacks. With his inimitably bad taste, the Kaiser now planned to visit the scene and his government, aping his incautious lead, proposed a public day of celebration.
Stefan Westman, a German Army doctor touring the fort, showed greater restraint. He wrote later:
I could feel how the whole fort shook when a particularly heavy shell, most probably with a delayed action fuse, landed and exploded. Afterwards I strolled through the fort, with its many dug-outs and casements. The entrance to one of them was bricked up and someone had fixed a plaque, with the inscription, Here rest 1052 German soldiers — a whole battalion, who were sleeping in the casement. Apparently one of them had smoked, and barrels of fuel for the flame-throwers, which were stored there, had exploded, and not a single soul had survived.
It was a time for all men to come to the aid of the party. Joffre, reeling under the catastrophe, received a call from the British Commander, Sir Douglas Haig. In his usual laconic way, Haig recorded in his diary on 27 February that he “telephoned to General Joffre that I had arranged to relieve all his 10th Army, and that I would come to Chantilly tomorrow to shake him by the hand, and to place myself and troops at his disposition”.
Haig was an intensely honest man, but it is difficult to read in these words a serious statement of intent. Britain’s army was pitifully small by the side of France’s, and she was already committed to preparing her own offensive later in the year. The drama of Verdun exposed the huge gulf between the scale of the punishment that was, just then, being absorbed by the two Allies.
Yet, as a pretty typical entry from the diary of Edith Appleton in Etretat on 23 February testifies, the British forces in France were hardly enjoying an idle furlough:
The view from my window this morning is beautiful. Boats, rocks, boathouses, beach—all thick with snow. My poor old amputation man told me about his wounding yesterday. He is a gunner and he and his mate had had a busy day dragging their guns over a ploughed field to a fresh pit. They had finished firing and were waiting to be relieved when the enemy started shelling. It was too violent a bombardment for the reliefs to come up, so he and his mate stayed by their gun. A shell came right in to them, blowing his mate to bits and wounding his own knee, but never touched the gun. The shock of seeing his mate in bits made him a little light-headed and the only thing he could think of to do was to get someone to help his mate. He cut off all his equipment and dragged himself to some stretcher-bearers in a trench 50 yards off, and implored them to go and save his mate. Of course when they knew he was dead they didn’t go. They put our man on a stretcher and trotted him off to the nearby dressing-station. If he had stayed in his gun pit, he would probably have bled to death.
This was a global conflict, and Britain’s commitment to a war on this scale explains partly how it was that her forces were stretched to the limit. This same week, 11,500 officers and men of the 6th Anglo-Indian Division, Indian Army, constituting the besieged garrison at Kut-al-Amara on the River Tigris in Mesopotamia, were getting truly desperate. 3,000 British and the remainder Indian troops, were daily losing casualties to hunger and disease and there seemed no end in sight.
Lieutenant L.S Bell Syer noted: “We started eating horse flesh, it’s not bad but I prefer beef. That damned relief force is only twenty miles away.”
Captain Reynolds Lecky of the 120th Rajputana Infantry wrote:
Things seem to be getting towards the limit. No chance of Aylmer [in charge of the relief force] doing anything until the weather improves. Bad luck seems to have followed us since 22 November, though I suppose we have asked for it, having 500 miles of Lines of Communication unguarded. Nixon [widely considered to have been responsible for the predicament of the army] has been recalled, hope they strangle the blighter. This makes the fifteenth General recalled from Mespot under a cloud.
Plans had been considered to effect a break-out but then abandoned as too risky. Officer Edward Mousley recorded in his diary the numbers ill with dysentery and other ailments, the increasing hunger as people tried to survive on half-rations and the constant threats from aerial attack. He also knew that the relief force was not coming any time soon:
We are to remain in a state of diminishing expectancy and increasing disappointment. We acknowledge the colossal difficulties that beset our friends downstream, nor do we forget that one division there has been previously decimated in France, and has many recruits. The fighting is against the pick of Turkish troops entrenched behind seas of mud. The Mussulman soldiers here will not eat horseflesh…
Despite this ghastliness, in recent weeks the British had been, after a fashion, rather successful in their global endeavours – certainly in whacking down enemy forces in large parts of Africa. Or, rather, enemy-sponsored forces: the Western Frontier Force in Egypt was in the midst of a campaign against the Senussi, a religious sect of mainly Libyan nomads who had been bribed by the provision of German and Ottoman resources into attacking the British in Egypt. There had been two recent apparently successful encounters with British forces in December and January. Frustratingly, on both occasions, the tribesmen had instantly retreated to the desert to regroup.
Under the circumstances, the strategic usefulness of this kind of campaigning was sometimes questioned, although not by Major-General William Peyton, the new British commander.
On 25 February, Jaafar Pasha led a Senussi attack which was rapidly repelled, in part thanks to the British having been forewarned of an enemy encampment at Agagia by their reconnaissance planes. The next morning, the British followed up with a successful assault on Senussi positions and, as the tribesmen fled, they were pursued by the Dorset Yeomanry in a famous cavalry charge, swords drawn. Half of their horses were lost, and a third of their riders, but they captured the baggage train and camels, and dispersed the retreating column. The Dorsets lost 32 men with another 26 wounded. British casualties amounted to 47 dead and a 137 wounded. Senussi casualties included 537 captured, including their leader Jaafar Pasha and two Turkish officers.
This was a good moment for the British, and it came at a bad time. Part of the credit for it belongs to Bend’Or Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster. His Grace had pioneered the use of armoured cars on the Western Front, supplying his own fleet of Rolls-Royces. These cars, mounted with machine-guns, were now proving their worth in the desert, and Westminster himself was now Commander of No. 2 Squadron. He was destined to lead a long life – one marked out by some pretty unattractive behaviour – but on this occasion he distinguished himself.
There was no such sweet victory in German East Africa, however. Lettow-Vorbeck and his tiny force of German officers and mainly Askari soldiers continued to outwit the thousands pursuing him, by evading major battles and disappearing into the bush after random raids. The South African Defence Minister, General Christian Smuts, had been despatched to take charge of the British forces in the hope that his experience of guerrilla warfare in the Boer War would provide the solution.
British officer Meinhertzhagen’s diary for 23 February offered a characteristically unsentimental military prognosis: “Smuts arrived in Nairobi today. He is as keen as mustard, but underrates the fighting qualities of the German native soldier.” The diary then deviated into family gossip: “We had a lot in common, for he [Smuts] knew that disreputable relative of mine, Emily Hobhouse, a perverted dangerous female.” [This was a reference to a Quaker sister-in-law of Meinhertzhagen’s aunt who, agitated against British concentration camps set up in South Africa during the Boer War.]
African adventures, and even those in Mesopotamia, could not obviously affect decisively the fate of the war which, as events proved again and again, was going to be fought and won in the west. Since conscription was only weeks old, the British could hardly be blamed for failing to field an army the size of that of the French.
But sometimes Albion was perfidious – or, at least, extraordinarily incoherent and incomprehensibly casual in its efforts. The creation of a Ministry of Blockade on 23 February is revealing in this context. Although by the end of 1915 Germany’s imports had fallen by 55% from pre-war levels, no general blockade in the strictest sense had yet been declared, and economic warfare had been only casually coordinated. This was now to be set right. The new Minister, Lord Robert Cecil, an Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was given a seat in the Cabinet. His responsibilities were focused on anything and everything with an eye to choking off supplies reaching the enemy.
Although his own capacities had been the focus of savage criticism only months earlier, no one could ever accuse Churchill of being less than completely committed and wholehearted in the prosecution of war. This week saw him again restless in the trenches and plotting for ways to return – head held high – to political eminence.
Shortly to return home on leave, he now asked his wife to organise meetings and dinners with the great and the good. He was particularly upset about plans to abolish the Royal Naval Division which he had sent to Antwerp in October 1914 and which had served with distinction in Gallipoli. Clemmie sagely advised him not to lapse into recrimination but, rather, to write friendly letters to the Prime Minister (“With him it is so much out of sight out of mind”). She was doing her best, hosting a dinner on 25 February of which she wrote: “You will be interested to hear that the old sybarite [Asquith] thoroughly enjoyed himself. The food was good & afterwards there were two tables at bridge. The P.M. won a little money & went home in high good humour.”
Dinner parties? Bridge? A little light gambling? Tell that, one might say, to those at sea. Those at sea found themselves this week absolutely at the sharp end of suffering. On 27 February, two British ships were struck by mines in the Dover Straits. P&O liner Maloja left Tilbury for Bombay with 122 passengers, government and military personnel and civilians including women and children. Fearing an enemy attack, it was steaming with lifeboats already in position, but that could not save it. Once it struck the mine, its engine room rapidly flooded and so the ship could not slow down. This, and its listing, meant only three or four lifeboats were launched. Maloja sank in twenty-four minutes and 155 lives were lost.
Most terribly of all, the French troopship Provence II, used in the Gallipoli and Macedonia campaigns, had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean the previous day. It had been spotted, en route for Salonika, by U-35 under the command of the brilliant Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere, an aristocratic German of French descent. At least 1,700 troops were on board. The rapid listing made the launching of lifeboats impossible. Only 742 survivors, clinging to rafts, were picked up.
This was a scarcely imaginable catastrophe inflicted upon a nation already traumatised by Verdun. The Sydney Herald later reported:
M. Bokanowski, a French Deputy, who is one of the survivors of the French auxiliary cruiser Provence, narrates that a battalion of the 3rd Colonial Infantry was aboard. There was no lamentation, and there was no panic, though the ship was sinking rapidly and the boilers exploding. Captain Vesco, he states, remained on the bridge, calmly giving orders, and finally cried, ‘Adieu, mes enfants’. The men clustered on the foredeck, and replied, ‘Vive la France’. Then the Provence made a sudden plunge, and the foredeck rose perpendicularly above the water. A British patrol and a French torpedo boat picked up the survivors after they had been eighteen hours on the water. Many died or went mad before the rescue ships arrived.