Oh, the rain, the mud, and the cold
The cold the mud and the rain.
With weather at zero it’s hard for a hero
From language that’s rude to refrain.
With porridgy muck to the knees
With the sky that’s still pouring a flood,
Sure the worst of our foes
Are the pains and the woes
Of the rain, the cold and the mud.
Across the chill wasteland that was Flanders in winter the armies had gone to ground. During the short hours of murky daylight, rifles occasionally crackled along some stretch of the line. From time to time a flurry of rooks, startled by a shot that ricocheted through a wood, rose cawing from the trees to wheel in the grey sky. Here and there, when some half-frozen soldier drew hard on his pipe, as if hoping its minuscule glow might keep out the cold, a stray puff of smoke would rise to mingle with the ground-mist that lay most days above the bogs and ditches. In Flanders, where the merest rise counted as a ridge and the smallest hill was regarded as a mountain, vantage points high enough to give a bird’s-eye view were rare, but on a quiet day even a vigilant observer standing almost anywhere above the undulating length of the front line would have been hard pressed to detect any sign of life and, apart from the odd burst of desultory fire, any evidence that the trenches were manned at all.
On the British side the fire was desultory because bullets were too precious to waste, and also because the soldiers were disinclined to shoot. Nineteen fifteen had swept in on the back of a gale, and high winds and violent rainstorms continued to torment the men in the trench line for day after dreary day. Peering across the parapet, enveloped in a clammy groundsheet that mainly served to channel the rain into rivers that trickled into his puttees and seeped downwards to chill his feet, contemplating the ever-worsening state of the rifle that rested on the oozing mud-filled sandbags, the last thing a soldier wished to do was foul the barrel by firing it if he could help it. Cleaning the outside was bad enough, and no sensible soldier was belligerent enough to wish to spend hours cleaning the bore for the sake of a few pot-shots in the general direction of the enemy.
Such belligerence as there was at present was largely directed by officers towards their own troops. Authority on both sides of the line had strongly disapproved of the Christmas spirit of goodwill that had brought the front-line soldiers of both sides out of their trenches to swap greetings and gifts, and the rebukes that had passed down the chain of command through discomfited Brigadiers, Colonels and Majors to the rank and file, had left them in no doubt that such a thing must not occur again. But it was good while it lasted.
Parcels had arrived by the trainload from Germany and by the boatload from England, from places as far apart as Falmouth and Flensburg, Ullapool and Ulm. So many trains were required to bring the flood of Christmas mail to France from the Fatherland that German transport and supply depots were seriously disrupted, and even officers at the front complained that crowded billets and narrow trenches were becoming dangerously congested, for goods and parcels were showered on the troops by legions of anonymous donors as well as by friends and families. In most Germans towns and villages committees had been formed to raise funds and send Christmas parcels, Weinachtspaketen, to the troops. The more sentimental called them ‘love parcels’ – Liebespaketen– and at least one recipient, fighting for the Kaiser in the comfortless trenches of the Argonne was struck by the irony of the name. He expressed his thoughts in a plaintive verse that appeared in one of the many columns of thank-you letters in a German newspaper whose readers had been particularly generous. ‘So much love,’ he sighed, ‘and no girls to deliver it!’* Even the Kaiser sent cigars – ten per man – in tasteful individual boxes inscribed ‘Weinachten im Feld, 1914’.
The British soldiers had also received a royal gift (a useful metal box from Princess Mary, containing cigarettes, or pipe tobacco, or chocolate for non-smokers); they had plum puddings sent by the Daily Mail, chocolate from Cadbury, butterscotch from Callard & Bowser, gifts from the wives of officers of a dozen different regiments, and a mountain of private parcels bulging with homemade cake, sweetmeats, and comforts galore. There was more than enough to spare, and plenty to share with temporary friends over the way. The men drew the line at presenting an enemy soldier with socks or mufflers knitted by the home fireside, but kind donors in Britain, as in Germany, would have been astonished had they known how much plum pudding and Christmas cake would end up in Fritz’s stomach, swapped for a lump of German sausage or a drop of beer or Rheinwein shared matily in No Man’s Land.
The Germans had quantities of candied fruits, gingerbread, lavish supplies of beer and schnapps and, as if that weren’t enough, cognac lozenges (guaranteed by the German manufacturers to contain enough real alcohol to banish winter chill) and tablets that would dissolve in water to make genuine rum-grog. And if they did not quite fulfil their promise, and the ‘real alcohol’ had lost something of its potency in the manufacturing process, at least the flavour was a pleasant reminder of Christmas festivities at home.
The truce had begun on those parts of the front where the easygoing Saxons and Bavarians held the German line but, even there, by no means all British and German officers had allowed their men to fraternise or even to relax and let the war take care of itself over the Christmas season. In other places the truce had continued for days. Both sides had taken advantage of it to mend and straighten their barbed wire, to improve their trenches, to shore up the slithering walls of mud, to lay duckboards and bale out the water that lay boot-high along the bottom and rose higher with every rainstorm. Now commanding officers, who had cast a benevolent eye on the friendly gatherings in No Man’s Land and been glad of the chance to bury the dead in places where there had been an attack, spent the days after Christmas miserably composing the written explanations for these lapses of discipline which had enraged higher authority and for which higher authority was holding them personally responsible. The job of a Battalion Commander, they were acerbically reminded, was not to allow their men to strike up friendships with the enemy – it was to encourage the offensive spirit and to win the war in 1915.
An hour before midnight on 31 December the fusillade of fire that blazed from the German trenches was all that the most ardent advocate of the offensive spirit could desire. These did not include the Tommies, enjoying a quiet life in the trenches opposite. They regarded this sudden resumption of the war with some annoyance until it struck them that, by Berlin time, the Germans were celebrating the New Year and that they were taking pains to fire well above the Tommies’ heads so that there should be no misunderstanding. This courtesy was not greatly appreciated by the Adjutant of the London Rifle Brigade. Strolling serenely to his billet a safe quarter-mile behind the trenches in Ploegsteert Wood, he received a smart blow from a spent bullet landing abruptly on his head.
An hour later, at midnight London time, the Tommies marked the arrival of 1915 by treating the Germans to a fraternal volley from the British trenches. Despite specific orders to shoot to kill they were not in the mood to cause damage. In the present circumstances there was no special reason to celebrate the coming of a new year, but no one was sorry to see the back of the old one.
The five months since the outbreak of war were littered with a mish-mash of plans that had gone awry. There had been triumphs on all sides, but they were triumphs only in the sense that stalemate had been snatched out of defeat. The Russians’ bold march into East Prussia had foundered at Tannenberg. Austria, raising an imperious jackboot to stamp Serbia into submission, had been tripped up by fierce resistance. The French, dashing impetuously eastward towards the Rhine to thwart the German invasion and seize back their lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine, were appalled to find that the main German force had struck in the west, marching through Belgium and into France by the back door. But the Germans too had been cheated of outright victory, and the great strategic encirclement by which they had meant to conquer France had been baulked on the very doorstep of Paris. The see-sawing fortunes of the tiny British Expeditionary Force had encompassed a masterly withdrawal that had kept the Germans guessing from Mons to the Marne, a fighting pursuit that had driven them back to the Aisne, a race to the north that denied the northern seaports to the enemy and kept open the vital lifeline to England, and a great battle to hold the last unoccupied fragment of Belgium. Now the Germans were dug in within whistling distance of Ypres but the allies still kept a toehold in Flanders and held the city itself.
As the old year died and warring nations from the Balkans to the English Channel took stock and braced themselves for the new, it was only natural that all the adversaries should dwell on their victories and gloss over the defeats. In a thousand ringing phrases in New Year’s messages from emperors, kings, and commanders, soldiers were lauded for feats of valour and, with confident assurances of Almighty aid, exhorted to make the further effort that would lead to sure and certain victory in the New Year. Even given the infinite resources of celestial impartiality, the Almighty was going to have his hands full.
In Britain, as in Germany, such sentiments were approved by the civilian population whose enthusiasm for the war had not abated, despite the irritating setbacks of the last few months. In some circles, and particularly in London, the war was positively fashionable. The Lord Mayor’s Juvenile Fancy Dress Party had gone ahead as usual, but this year the frivolous columbines and harlequins, the troops of elves and fairies, so popular in peacetime, had been ousted by fleets of juvenile sailors, contingents of small red-caped nurses, battalions of miniature soldiers shouldering toy rifles – even a six-year-old admiral, wearing a small cocked hat and sporting a little sword.
A field service uniform, complete in every detail but scaled down to fit children from six to twelve, could be bought at Gamages store for as little as five shillings and eleven pence. Hundreds were sold, over the counter and by mail order, and the sight of khaki-clad tots trailing at the heels of self-satisfied adults became as common in the streets and parks as the sight of youngsters in sailor suits.
Having been brought up in the belief that the security of the British Empire could safely be left in the hands of its army – trained, drilled and disciplined to the highest standards of competence – confident that the shores of their islands were protected by a navy that ruled the oceans of the world, the British public was inclined to take a complacent view of the war. A whole century had gone by since a European power had seriously threatened Britain’s shores, and it had been a century of unprecedented prosperity and expansion. It had also been a century of progress, and it was popularly believed by every Briton, from the monarch to the man in the street, that the British system of democratic government, wise administration and spreading enlightenment was an example to the world. It was a century in which full-scale wars had been far-off affairs, and warring tribes and upstart nations had been easily swatted down. It was hard to break the habit of believing that this state of affairs was based on a natural law of superiority and would continue forever. True, there had been some unfortunate setbacks in the progress of the war so far, but even Waterloo had been described by the victorious Duke of Wellington as ‘a damned close run thing’. The centenary of the Battle of Waterloo would fall in June 1915; by a happy chance, Wellington’s own pistol had come up for sale and a group of well-wishers had bought it as a New Year’s gift for his successor, Sir John French, now in command of Britain’s army in the field. Few people doubted that 1915 would be another annus mirabilis, that Sir John French and his allies would soon have the Kaiser on the run and would defeat him as decisively as the great duke and his allies had defeated Napoleon a hundred years before.
But to those who took a long, hard and realistic look at matters as they stood it was clear that on the western front there was deadlock. The great autumn battles had brought the Germans to a standstill and the armies now faced each other in a long line of trenches that began among the sand dunes of the Belgian coast, snaked across the
face of France and ended within sight of the mountains of Switzerland. And there, it seemed, the German invaders intended to stay. They were assiduously digging in – not just a single line of entrenchments, but a second behind the first, and behind that another. With well-sited machine-guns and well-disciplined rifle fire their positions were virtually impregnable and in the No Man’s Land beyond their line, the bodies of the men who had tried to breach it had been lying since November. They were the proof, if proof were needed, that the war that had been anticipated and prepared for had been fought and was over. Nobody had won. Slowly the realisation began to dawn that the armies must now prepare for a war that no one had anticipated and for which they were ill equipped. All that anyone could be sure of was that this war would be different from any that had ever been fought before. The machine-guns would see to that. The Germans were outnumbered in places by as many as three to one but, thanks to machine-guns liberally sited along their trenches, they could repel attack after attack. Not for nothing was the machine-gun called Queen of the Battlefield. Soon, they would be calling it the Grim Reaper.
The machine-gun was hardly a new-fangled ‘wonder-weapon’. It was not even a new invention. The first hand-cranked versions had been used more than half a century earlier during the American Civil War and the pioneers of the expanding British Empire were quick to realise its usefulness. It could inflict such carnage on an army of native warriors armed with shield and spear that their chiefs could be speedily persuaded to part with land and mineral concessions. A single Gatling could bring a whole troop of horsemen to book. Against primitive weapons, a couple of them could win a small-scale war. One anti-imperialist spokesman summed it up in an ironical verse:
Onward Christian Soldiers, on to heathen lands,
Prayerbooks in your pockets, rifles in your hands,
Take the glorious tidings where trade can be done,
Spread the peaceful gospel – with a Maxim gun.
But, as a weapon of conventional warfare, the machine-gun had not found favour with the hierarchy of the British Army. Some people in Germany had been quicker to appreciate its possibilities – and almost the first had been the Kaiser himself.
The Kaiser’s passion for his Army was equalled only by his obsession with his Navy, and his dearest desire was that both should match the Army and Navy of Great Britain, and even surpass them in strength and magnificence. Military matters occupied a large part of the Kaiser’s attention. Soon after he came to the throne in 1888 he had decreed that court dress would henceforth be military uniform, and heaven help the officer, even the long-retired officer approaching his dotage, who appeared in the Imperial Presence wearing mufti. Unless he was hunting, the Kaiser himself seldom wore civilian clothes, and he had once gone so far as to order that the officers of a Guards regiment should be confined to barracks for two weeks on hearing that they had dared to attend a private party in civilian evening dress.
The Kaiser himself had uniforms for every occasion, many designed by himself, and it was even whispered that he had a special uniform, based on that of an Admiral of the Fleet, for attending performances of The Flying Dutchman. The joke had a ring of truth. In the first seventeen years of his reign he had introduced no fewer than thirty-seven alterations to the uniform of the army until it was brought discreetly to his notice that, although military tailors were prospering, some officers were having serious difficulty keeping up with the expense.
The Kaiser was interested in everything, had opinions on everything, particularly on military subjects, and he never tired of expounding his views. His mouth seemed as large as the waxed moustaches that bristled across his face, and it seemed to some of his long-suffering ministers that the Kaiser’s mouth often appeared to be functioning independently of his brain. They had thought so at the time of the Boxer Rebellion when Germany proposed the dispatch of an international force to China after the seizure of foreign embassies in Peking. The Kaiser travelled to Wilhelmshaven to give his personal farewell to the German contingent and the manner in which he harangued the troops on the quayside had caused even the most loyal of his ministers to quail. The Kaiser wanted revenge. He wanted blood. He wanted Peking razed to the ground. He commanded his troops to show no mercy and to take no prisoners. He reminded them (inaccurately) of their forebears who had fought under Attila the Hun and urged them to follow their example. They must stamp the name ‘German’ so indelibly on the face of China that no Chinese would ever again dare to look a German in the face.
This bravura performance was unrehearsed and even though Germany had suffered a gross insult at the hands of the nationalists (the German ambassador had been murdered) the Kaiser’s language and demeanour caused his military entourage deep disquiet.*
The episode was disturbing, even allowing for the fact that this first whiff of military adventure in his twelve years’ peaceful reign had gone slightly to the Kaiser’s head. Now he was set on a mammoth programme of costly shipbuilding to quadruple the navy, was planning a huge expansion of the army, and had recently assumed the rank of Field Marshal, asserting that he had been begged by senior officers to do so. Now that he held this high-ranking position, he airily announced, he might easily dispense with the services of a General Staff. No one was quite sure if the All-Highest was jesting. But his opinion of his General Staff officers was expressed in terms that left no room for doubt. They were a bunch of old donkeys, the Kaiser raged, who thought they knew better than he did just because they happened to be older than himself – and at forty-one he was hardly a child!
The fact was that despite the military upbringing, obligatory for Hohenzollern princes, despite his pretension to military knowledge, the outwardly respectful members of the General Staff were deeply wary of their Kaiser and his meddlesome ways. Let him design dress uniforms for his regiments, let him order parades and reviews, let him play at manoeuvres – let him do anything at all with the Army that would keep him harmlessly amused, but prevent him at all costs from doing anything that would upset the long-established status quo.
But there was a grain of justification for the Kaiser’s impatience with his senior Generals, for among the torrent of half-baked notions that poured with inexhaustible energy from his restless brain there was an occasional flash of insight or an idea worth considering. The machine-gun was one of them and, like so many things the Kaiser admired and envied, it had come from England. He had first seen one years before when he had attended the Golden Jubilee celebrations of his grandmother, Queen Victoria.
It was the glorious summer of 1887 and for the whole of June it was ‘Queen’s Weather’ – day after day of cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine. There was a large gathering of European royalties, most of them related to each other and to the Queen. There were maharajahs from India, gorgeous in silk brocades and bedizened with jewels; there was the Queen of Hawaii, and the heirs to the exotic thrones of Japan, Persia, Siam, and when the Queen rode to Westminster Abbey in an open carriage drawn by six white horses, no fewer than five crowned heads and thirty-two princes rode in her procession. Silks shone, plumes nodded, jewels flashed, orders and medals glistened in the sun, harnesses burnished to blinding radiance gleamed and glinted on horses groomed to look hardly less magnificent than their riders. Even the Queen, though simply dressed, wore diamonds in her bonnet. London had never seen such a display and the crowds went wild.
Queen Victoria’s children and grandchildren had married into every royal house, every dukedom and principality of united Germany, from the mighty ruling house of Prussia downwards, and a host of Hohenzollerns and Hesses, Hohenlohes, Coburgs and Battenbergs, with her British blood mingling with Albert’s German blood in their veins, were living proof of the ties of friendship and brotherhood that bound the two nations. On this most glorious day of Queen Victoria’s glorious reign it was unthinkable that those ties could ever be severed.
The Queen’s eldest daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, drove with the Queen in her carriage. In front rode her husband the Crown Prince and some distance behind, in strict order of precedence, rode the future Kaiser, their twenty-eight-year-old son, Prince William of Prussia. Prince William was vexed. He was not pleased with his position and while he was a little too much in awe of his grandmother the Queen-Empress to complain to her directly, he let it be known that in his opinion a Prince of Prussia, although at present only the son of a Crown Prince, deserved to rank before princes and even kings of duskier complexions who ruled over less eminent domains.
William was always an awkward presence in the royal circle and the Queen, when confiding her dread of entertaining ‘the royal mob’ to her daughter, had made no bones about the fact that she would prefer him not to come: ‘I did not intend asking Willie for the Jubilee, first because Fritz and you come, and secondly because… we shall be awfully squeezed at Buckingham Palace… and I fear he may show his dislikes and be disagreeable.… I think Germany would understand his remaining in the country when you are away on account of the Emperor at his age.’
The Prince of Wales, on the other hand, was quick to appreciate that the age of the German Emperor was very much to the point. He was over ninety and he was frail. Inevitably he must die soon. His heir, Prince William’s father, was dying too. This fifty-six-year-old Crown Prince (who was, in the words of his mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, ‘noble and liberal-minded’) had been waiting thirty years for the throne and with it the opportunity of bringing much-needed reform to autocratic government in Germany. Now he was mortally ill with cancer of the throat and, like it or not, the chances were that Prince William would soon be Kaiser. Ever the diplomat, the Prince of Wales talked his mother round to the view that for the sake of future relations with the German Empire it would be unwise to offend its Emperor-to-be. The Queen relented, but held the Prince of Wales responsible for ‘keeping William sweet’.*
‘Keeping William sweet’ was a matter of keeping him occupied and, if possible, flattered. The Jubilee programme fortunately included almost enough parades, reviews and tattoos to satisfy even Prince William’s passion for military pageantry, and they would keep him busy for some of the time; for the rest of it, his uncle shrewdly guessed that nothing would keep his nephew sweeter than arranging for him to inspect a few regiments. From the future Kaiser’s point of view the highlight of this agreeable programme was the day he spent with the Prince of Wales’ own regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars, at their barracks in Hounslow. The visit was a huge success and the future Kaiser came back full of it. In particular, he was impressed by a delightful novelty the like of which he had never seen before. It was the regimental machine-gun and it was the private property of the Commanding Officer, Colonel Liddell. The previous year he had purchased it out of his own pocket from the Nordenfeld Company and had it mounted on a light two-wheeled carriage that a horse could gallop into action. Prince William had been charmed. He inspected the regiment, rode with it in the morning, lunched in the officers’ mess, rode out again in the afternoon and, as a grand finale to the day, even joined the Hussars in a wild cavalry charge. The Prince made a flattering speech before his departure and soon after he returned to Berlin sent his signed photograph, in the uniform of his own Hussars of the Guard, in appreciation of the splendid day he had spent at Hounslow. That was not all. Four invitations were dispatched by his grandfather, the German Emperor. They were addressed to the Colonels of the four regiments the Prince had inspected during his visit and invited them to spend three weeks as the Emperor’s guests in Berlin.
When the four Colonels travelled to Berlin, they took with them a wonderful present by command of the Prince of Wales. It was a machine-gun, just like the one William had admired at Hounslow, complete with an identical ‘galloping carriage’. It capped William’s pleasure in what were to be three blissful weeks. With his parents wintering in Italy in the vain hope of improving his father’s health there was no one in Berlin to cramp his style. Under the rheumily indulgent eye of his aged grandfather, who found this young turkey-cock more to his taste than his gentler, liberal-minded heir, William could strut and show off to his heart’s content.
Like his uncle, the Prince of Wales, Colonel-in-Chief of the 10th Royal Hussars, Prince William had a cavalry regiment of his own. They were the Hussars of the Guard, the crack Garde Husarien Regiment, and he instantly whisked the two Cavalry Colonels off to Potsdam to enjoy the hospitality of his regiment for the duration of their visit. It gave him huge pleasure to show off his troops, to ride with the British officers as his horsemen drilled, to escort them on inspections of the stables and the barracks, to ride out with them on manoeuvres, to fight mock battles, to entertain his visitors at formal dinners in the mess and at the Palace, to present them to his grandfather the Emperor. At all these events the new machine-gun had pride of place, trundling through manoeuvres on its carriage driven by Corporal Hustler of the British Hussars, or standing on the parade ground with a cluster of Prussian Hussars listening respectfully as Hustler, or occasionally Prince William himself, explained its finer points. Hustler was to stay on for several weeks to instruct a nucleus of Prussian troopers in its use. But, by the time of the last grand review on the eve of the British Colonels’ departure, when the machine-gun bowled past the Emperor and his guests at the head of the regiment, quite a number of the men had already mastered the art of firing it, and Prince William was well pleased.
But already in 1887 the clumsy hand-cranked Nordenfeld was obsolescent. Before long it was replaced by the quick-firing fully automatic Maxim and the new Kaiser brought even the ‘old donkeys’ of his General Staff round to the view that a few more machine-guns in other regiments would not come amiss. By the turn of the century the German Army possessed more of them than any other in Europe – and once they had taken up the idea they made the most of it. Machine-gunners were highly trained, there were inter-regimental competitions to keep them on their toes and, as a further incentive, prizes for the winners, who each received a watch inscribed with the Kaiser’s name and presented as his personal gift. The standard of firing was high and every German machine-gunner was a marksman.
In the British military establishment there were men who grasped the significance of this new weapon – the great Sir Garnet Wolseley as early as 1885, General Allenby as late as 1910, and in the years between there were others who urged and lobbied, pleading the case for machine-guns. A few were grudgingly purchased, but the High Command remained unconvinced.
To these professional minds – trained long ago to study ancient battles, schooled in the belief that the classic practices of war were inviolable – the idea of the machine-gun as a short-range weapon for the use of infantry did not come easily, for the infantry were still expected to charge cheering with the bayonet, clearing the way for the cavalry to dash gloriously past and take up the real battle. The General Staff were cavalrymen almost to a man, and if they bothered to think of machine-guns at all they thought of them as highly over-rated weapons. Even when they blazed into action in the Russo-Japanese war, even when Sir Ian Hamilton as British Military Observer reported on their devastating effect, the British General Staff remained unmoved.
The assessment of supplies of equipment and ammunition likely to be required in any foreseeable circumstances had been fixed in 1901 at the end of the Boer War. In 1904 it was reviewed and confirmed. That year Vickers supplied the British Government with ten machine-guns for the use of the British Army. By 1914 when Great Britain went to war with Germany, this standard annual order had not been increased. By now the Infantry Training Manual devoted just a dozen pages to machine-guns, and the Cavalry Manual still enjoined that ‘it must be accepted as a principle that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel’.
This principle was still held sacred by the army commanders when the British Army went to war with Germany in 1914. By the turn of the year when the bogged-down armies were standing face to face across a dreary stretch of Flanders mud, they had seen no particular reason to change their view. Winter was always a time of breathing space. Soon the spring would come, the armies would be on the move and the cavalry would come into its own.