Chapter 18

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Lieutenant-General Sir Herbert Plumer was now master of the Ypres salient and so that there should be no room for ambiguity GHQ announced that the conglomerate force that had passed into his command would henceforth be known as ‘Plumer’s force’. Plumer was no intriguer and his appointment had come as a complete surprise, but the fruits of Smith-Dorrien’s efforts fell promptly into his hands and did a good deal to lighten his onerous task for, although Sir John French had dismissed Smith-Dorrien almost out of hand, he had not dismissed his assessment or his suggestions. That evening the removal of ‘superfluous men and materials’ from the salient began, just as Smith-Dorrien had proposed, and the instructions that reached Plumer later the same evening, while they ordered him to consolidate his present line, also directed him to prepare to withdraw to a line closer to Ypres.

The failure of the latest French venture had put things in a new light and early next morning a note from Sir William Robertson warned Plumer that ‘in all probability’ it would be necessary to begin to take measures for withdrawal that night. Sir John French had made up his mind and he drove to Cassel to inform General Foch. Foch was far from pleased. In the course of a long discussion he urged the Commander-in-Chief to change his mind, or at least to agree once more to postpone his retirement and give the French troops one more chance to retrieve their lost ground. Foch was very persuasive. In the face of his arguments – and they were many – Sir John French pointed out in vain that his troops were tired, that his casualties were large and that resources were being used up which could not be spared in the light of ‘the scheme further south’. Foch out-argued and out-manoeuvred him at every turn. He pointed out the tactical disadvantage of holding a line on lower ground overlooked by the enemy and insisted that retirement would be an admission of weakness that would simply invite the enemy to attack to push the allies even further back and possibly capture Ypres itself. He made much of the ‘moral ascendancy’ that would inevitably pass to the Germans. He admitted previous failures – admitted even that the attack planned for that same day might ‘not be important’ – but a large force of heavy artillery was expected hourly. Tomorrow they would succeed! There was no doubt of it – but they would succeed only if the British supported them unstintingly. Sir John French gave in, though not without misgivings. As soon as he had driven off, as if sensing his ambivalence, Foch drafted a letter to GHQ to summarise their discussion and to drive home the point that, rather than ordering retirement, a retirement should be positively forbidden. In conclusion he begged the British Commander-in-Chief to ‘be good enough to keep to his present intention and to support the French offensive to retake the Langemarck region at all costs’. The last nine words of this typewritten letter had been heavily underlined by General Foch himself.

In Sir John French’s absence another communication had arrived at GHQ, this time from General Plumer, and, although it formally confirmed acceptance of his new responsibilities, it pulled no punches with regard to the situation in the field. He gave his opinions more concisely than General Smith-Dorrien, but they were nevertheless identical to his. The present line could not be permanently held. Further attacks could only result in more loss of life and the longer the retirement was delayed the more difficult and costly it would be. Plumer accepted that ‘the French should be given a certain time to regain their trenches’ before the retirement began but, like Smith-Dorrien, he was prepared to give only artillery support unless French troops were seen to be making ‘appreciable progress’.

It was difficult to argue with this line of thought, but Sir John French had been swayed by Foch more than he might have admitted and Foch had painted a lurid picture of the consequences of retirement, emphasising the possibility that it might set in motion a train of events that would lose them Ypres itself. And that would be unthinkable.

Sir John French had not been infected or influenced by the belief, passionately held throughout the French Army, that every centimetre of stricken France should ‘at all costs’ be wrested from the grip of the hated invader and defended to the last man. His long military experience rebelled at the very thought and he knew full well that the cost and effort of clinging on to an awkward salient in defence of a ruined city was worthless in military terms. But nevertheless there were cogent reasons why the loss of Ypres would be disastrous.

If the British Army was not to risk diminishing its stature in world opinion it badly needed a decisive victory which, in the view of the Commander-in-Chief, his part in Joffre’s offensive would supply. It could certainly not afford a defeat, and the loss of Ypres – even the minor retirement that commonsense dictated – would be looked on as defeat by the rest of the world. The Germans would see to that.

Every German communiqué since the start of the war had trumpeted even the paltriest gain as a great victory and presented the slightest loss by the British as a resounding defeat. In the last fateful week the names of inconsequential Flemish villages and even of hamlets that were little more than crossroads – Langemarck, Pilckem, St Julien, Gravenstafel – had appeared in German communiqués as victories comparable to Austerlitz and Waterloo. If Ypres had to be abandoned it was excruciating to envisage how the enemy would crow!

The Germans were greatly given to crowing and, just as the British delighted in caricatures of sauerkraut-guzzling Germans, the effete Englishman was a figure of fun in Germany and this character was the leitmotiv of a smash-hit comedy that had been playing for months in a score of theatres in cities as far apart as Hamburg and Breslau, Munich and Stettin. In Frankfurt, where no theatre was large enough to contain the audiences clamouring to see it, it had transferred to the amphitheatre of the Circus Schumann which could seat four thousand people. It was packed out almost every night. With heavy irony the play was entitled Wir Barbaren (We Barbarians) and the comedy leaned heavily on ridiculing tales of atrocities committed by the German Army which had been widely published abroad and reprinted in the German press. No one in Germany believed them. This was, after all, the land of Schiller, Schumann, Goethe, home of all those Gemütlich homely virtues, so foreign to the natures of the cold English and dissolute French but dear to the hearts of the honest burghers of the Fatherland.

The piece opened on a typically domestic scene with mother, father, their daughter and her sweetheart, manservant and cook, all united in simple domestic bliss. Then a lusty postman arrives with the shocking news that the Fatherland’s foes have simultaneously and treacherously declared war on their beloved homeland. Cue for the strains of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles’ to come drifting through the window and the tramp of marching feet from the street. Mother, starting up in horror and, for some remarkable reason, speaking in English, exclaims: ‘Ze English gentlemens – can it be?’ The men on stage proceed to stamp and snarl, repeating her words many times in tones of scorn, ‘Ze gentlemens! Ze gentlemens!’ English, of necessity, then gives way to German for a series of impassioned speeches extolling the justice of the German cause, followed by a rousing rendition of The Watch on the Rhine’. The audience delightedly joins in, and the curtain falls to resounding cheers. But this is nothing by comparison to the scenes that follow. They drip with lofty sentiments and blatant sentimentality that reduces susceptible members of the audience to tears – not least in a trench scene depicting the sufferings of the noble and tender-hearted troops. For now a shivering prisoner is brought in, cowering in abject terror of the ‘barbarians’, grovelling and pleading for his life. He naturally receives a kindly, reassuring welcome – he is given food (he has not eaten for days!). He is showered with smiles and sympathy and wrapped in the overcoat of a noble German soldier who is only too happy to give it up and shiver in the prisoner’s stead in the freezing cold. Even this is tame stuff. Presently a postman arrives in the trench with a bundle of newspapers, eagerly handed round. It must contain a good few back numbers because the headlines bawled out in turn by the excited troops encapsulate the triumphs of many months. ‘Russians defeated by von Hindenburg!’ (Audience explodes, shrieking, ‘Hoch, Hindenburg! Napoleon Hindenburg! Hurrah!’) ‘Belgrade fallen!’ (More vociferous cheers, this time for Austria.) ‘Belgium crushed!’ (The cheering almost raises the roof.) ‘Line broken at Ypres. French and English in disarray. Our troops advance.’ (The house explodes in a frenzy of patriotic fervour.) When the play ends with many encores of patriotic songs the audience has reached such a pitch of euphoria that almost every night the house lights have to be dimmed before they can be induced to go home.

Although British audiences took their pleasures less vociferously, patriotism was not absent from the London stage. The play Alsace which, before the war, had been banned by the Lord Chamberlain for fear of giving offence to Germany, was now enjoying a successful run at the Court Theatre. This, naturally, showed the other side of the coin, but its special interest lay in the script, translated from the French and hardly altered from the pre-war version. It highlighted the hatred that had been simmering in France since it had lost Alsace and Lorraine to Germany forty years before. It also revealed that the French had long foreseen the war that would restore the lost territories to France.

This was no comedy but, like the German play, it portrayed a family circle of father, mother, son and fiancée, but with one difference – the fiancée is German and, although the son has been forced into service as a reservist in the German Army, the family remains fiercely loyal to France. War erupts. The German Army marches into Mulhouse en route to destroy France and this throws the parents into panic. Will their son go and fight for the Kaiser? Where do his loyalties lie? With the German girl he loves or with his true homeland?

The question is not resolved until the last act. Scene: a street in Mulhouse. Sound effects off-stage: heavy marching feet and raucous German voices. The boy and his sweetheart look on as a dozen spike-helmeted soldiers, the vanguard of a regiment, march into the street. The sound of marching reaches a crescendo as if trampling on the very soul of France, and the boy, unable to resist the temptation, shouts out fervently, ‘Vive La France!’ The furious Germans raise their rifles and shoot him on the spot and he staggers home bleeding and dying to his sad but proud parents. ‘Truly,’ declaims the mother, ‘the love of country is stronger than the love of woman.’ The curtain falls on a touching tableau as the parents bend sorrowfully over the corpse wrapped in the flag of France. The orchestra strikes up the ‘Marseillaise’. Loud applause and a tear or two from the audience which leaves the theatre in a buzz of righteous indignation.

Such theatricals in Britain, as in Germany, were commercially successful in their appeal to the popular mind but they were meaningless in terms of the real propaganda war and its efforts to influence international opinion and impress the neutral nations. There were more subtle ways of achieving such results and everything that came out of Germany, in the form of reports by neutral journalists and diplomats as well as from official sources, was weighed up, considered, and frequently given credence. In Sir John French’s opinions this was too often the case at the War Office whose frequent requests for ‘clarification’ thinly concealed a suspicion that his reports took too rosy a view and showed an irritating tendency to prefer the German version of events to his own. This did nothing to improve the stormy relations between the Commander-in-Chief and the General Staff in London, and it was yet another reason for his reluctance to be seen as the man who abandoned Ypres. But although such a cataclysmic failure would not be easily forgiven, much more than personal honour was at stake. There were overwhelming strategic and political considerations why such an event would be a disaster.

Ypres was the focal point of the last small corner of Belgium which had not been overrun by the German Army. To the south, the French border was a mere ten miles from its gates. Westwards the French port of Dunkirk was barely twenty miles distant, a half hour’s drive from Calais down the coast, and Calais, on a clear day, was within sight of Dover twenty miles across the English Channel. If Ypres went it was not impossible that the German Army would be able to occupy these vital ports in a matter of weeks. And, moreover, if Ypres went Belgium would have gone too – ‘gallant little Belgium’, and it was to save gallant little Belgium that Great Britain and her Empire had gone to war. Apart from its military significance, which could hardly be over-estimated, defeat in Belgium would have a catastrophic effect on opinion in neutral nations – Italy, Bulgaria, Rumania, Greece – still teetering on the verge of entering the war and just as likely to throw in their lot with one side as the other.

Belgium must be held. Therefore Ypres must be held. And that was that.

Miraculously the German bombardment had tailed off. As quiet days succeeded peaceful nights people in Ypres emerged bleary-eyed from cellars and began to creep warily about the streets between crumbling walls and smouldering embers, fetching water, foraging for food. A few shops opened up. They had little to sell, but a few dry-goods and provisions remained and one baker had managed to produce a batch of bread. They queued up to buy it with one ear cocked for the sound of approaching shells, and queued up again with basins and jugs to fetch water from the safe official supply at the Menin Gate. At night when the full moon rose and the ruined towers and gables cast crooked shadows across the pitted streets the citizens of Ypres prudently returned to their cellars for the night. But the nights were strangely quiet.

The weather continued fine and warm. Green shoots began to thrust through the rubble, even blighted trees burst into full luxuriant leaf and there was blossom everywhere in the ravaged gardens. From time to time a stray shell did explode in the town raising a haze of dust that hung for a long time in the sunshine. To the distress of Aimé van Nieuwenhove one of them fell in the Rue de Lille.

Aimé van Nieuwenhove.

Friday 30 April Not many shells during the night, but in the morning small-calibre shells arrive in great quantities. About half past one, while I was dining in the cellars of the post office, Paul Baekelandt came to tell me that a shell must have fallen on my house and that thick smoke was coming out of the windows. I rushed home immediately, but I could not go into the house because the smoke was absolutely suffocating. After a quarter of an hour I was able to ascertain that the shell had fallen on the second floor. The damage was confined to the room where I keep my papers, the roof was seriously damaged and fragments of shell had pierced the floor of the dining room where I usually spend my time. The whole house was filled with a thick layer of dust. I took my courage in both hands and immediately started the work of clearing up.

The Army had taken a hand in clearing debris from some streets to give a clear passage to the wagons that rumbled past all through the night with rations and ammunition and with the tools and sandbags, the wooden stakes, the bales of wire that were needed to construct and consolidate the new line. Every man who could be spared was digging in the moonlight, strengthening the GHQ line, carving out another ahead of it and constructing a switch line that would reach out to loop round Hooge, tracing communication trenches, making new gun positions. On the northern flank of the salient where the line would more or less follow the existing front they were working within sight of the Germans, but the Germans themselves were busy wiring and consolidating and allowed them to work undisturbed.

The Germans had been ominously quiet and, at least for the moment, seemed to have given up the initiative, using their efforts to defend their positions and their guns to repulse the attacks in which the French persisted. But they were feeble attacks and, although British artillery lent supporting fire and the heavy guns promised by Foch had belatedly arrived, they were no match for the German artillery and each new assault was as easily thwarted as those that had gone before.

Over three days of confusion, delay or failure, Sir John French postponed the retirement for a second time, and then for a third, in accordance with Foch’s wishes. But he was not a happy man and on 30 April he paid a visit to First Army headquarters to discuss various matters with Sir Douglas Haig, who recorded their conversation in his diary.

Friday, April 30 At 11.30 a.m. Sir John French came to see me to tell me of the situation generally, and to ask my opinion regarding the withdrawal from the Ypres salient. Lee, MP, arrived while we were talking, with a letter from CGS (Robertson) and enclosing one for Sir J.’s signature to Foch. Sir J. read me the letter. It was of the nature of an ultimatum, and stated that the withdrawal of the British troops from the salient would commence tonight, unless the French had succeeded in advancing their line… As to the policy of retiring, I said that I had no doubts in my mind as to the wisdom of such a step if the French did not regain the old front but continued in their present position. Our troops are now in a very sharp salient. This will be untenable under hostile artillery alone, while they will find it most difficult to withdraw, when forced to do so. They will also suffer most terribly from hostile artillery, which almost envelops them at the present moment. I considered that it was the Commander-in-Chief’s duty to remove his men from what was really a ‘death trap’.

Sir John also told me Smith-Dorrien had caused him more trouble. He was quite unfit (he said) to hold the Command of an Army and so Sir J. had withdrawn all the troops from his control except the 2nd Corps. Yet Smith-Dorrien stayed on! He would not resign! French is to ask Lord K. to find him something to do at home…

He added he could not express what he felt for the staunch support and help I had been to him throughout the war. He had never had any anxiety about my Command. He also alluded to Smith-Dorrien’s conduct on the retreat, and said he ought to have tried him by Court Martial, because, on the day of le Cateau, he ‘had ordered him to retire at 8 a.m. and he did not attempt to do so, but insisted on fighting in spite of his orders to retire’.

If Sir John French had finally made up his mind to send Foch something that was ‘in the nature of an ultimatum’, it was never sent, for Marshal Joffre had also had enough. He ordered Foch to abandon his plans for an all-out offensive and to confine himself to small-scale local attacks. The following morning Foch himself brought this news to British Headquarters to the great relief of Sir John French. A new ‘all-out’ attack was even then under way. Like the others it was a costly failure, but even before the outcome was known, the decision had been taken. Sir John French thankfully sent General Plumer instructions to begin the retirement that night.

The cost of the counter-attacks had been enormous. It had cost the French four thousand casualties to recapture the village of Lizerne and that number was multiplied many times along the French and British lines. Shell-fire alone had accounted for thousands killed and wounded. Everyone was tired, but the first priority was to relieve the most exhausted and, where possible, the units that had been hardest hit. Jack Dorgan’s battalion was one of the first to be withdrawn and it was a sorry sight.

Llcpl. J. Dorgan.

It was exactly a week after we’d landed in France – just one week to the day – and the next afternoon when we were assembled as a Battalion after all that hectic week in Flanders, we found ourselves with four hundred and odd men out of nearly twelve hundred men who had landed in France. It was terrible, terrible. Most of my pals were gone, either killed or wounded, and I don’t remember whether it was the Adjutant or Colonel who sent for me and he says, ‘You are now a corporal.’ By then practically all the officers and NCOs were wiped out. And it was just one week since we’d come off the boat. All gone!

The retirement had to be carried out methodically step by step, with caution and with stealth, for if the enemy got wind of it, if they were to attack en masse while the troops were actually on the move, the retirement could quite conceivably turn into a débâcle.The very last to go would be the men who had furthest to travel from the firing line at the very apex of the salient, at Inverness Copse, Brood-seinde, Polygon Wood. During the crisis some companies, and even whole Battalions of the 27th Division, had been rushed to sectors where the fighting was fiercest, but all of them were exhausted because the battalions which had remained to hold the vital front while the salient was shrinking behind them had been in the line now for up to twelve days. Some men were drunk with fatigue.

Pte. W. Hay.

I was sent in front, maybe about fifty yards. It was a covering party, meaning that so many men went out in front to lie there and watch for the Jerries in case they made a sudden counterattack. If you heard them coming you were supposed to fire a few shots and warn the blokes behind. We were all dead beat. A young man falls asleep quickly when he’s tired, and I fell asleep when I was supposed to be wide awake, and Sergeant McGill, he was my platoon sergeant, he came rushing over and woke me up. He said, ‘You could be shot for falling asleep over your post! Get back in, back where you were. Send another chap out.’

He was a great chap, Dave, he was a great friend of mine really. So of course he wouldn’t put me on a charge, but if he had I would have been court martialled for sleeping at my post and endangering the whole company which I was doing really. But I was exhausted, like everybody else. We’d had no sleep, no hot drinks, for four days and we had practically nothing to eat.

Despite their exhaustion and the privations of a week’s grim fighting the men of the 27th Division could not be pulled out completely, for the line at the tip of the salient had to be held until the last. The best that could be done, while the retirement continued behind them, was to rest them in relays a little distance behind the support lines. It was not a relief, but it was at least a respite. There was no chance of a wash or a clean-up, but there was food to eat and time to have a sleep, and time at last to write home to families waiting apprehensively for news. Jock Macleod had spent eight sleepless days and nights in the line.

2nd Lt. J. Macleod,

We are having a so-called rest in rear of the firing line, but we are still heavily shelled all day. It will be grand when the Huns run out of ammunition. In the last thirty days we have only had our clothes off three times, have never been out of shell-fire and have lost very heavily in casualties, officers and men.

My valise unfortunately had to be abandoned along with heaps of other stuff in the much bombarded town of Ypres. When things get quieter it may be possible to recover it but for the time being please send me a toothbrush and tooth powder, some soap and a towel, and some socks.

You would be rather astonished if you could see me now. Buttons have been shed galore. My hands are dirty. So is my face! I am unshaved and my bonnet has lost one of its ribbons. We are lying in a dug-out which contains some British officers and native telephone orderlies! The dug-out is in the remains of a charming country house estate, with statues and busts, and ornamental water. The natives all wear their shirts outside their trousers, a somewhat astonishing habit, and a good few have starched white cuffs, which look absolutely incongruous in these surroundings!

The many postponements had at least given General Plumer a breathing space and an opportunity to work out detailed plans for the retirement but it was no easy task to disentangle the scattered troops. Parts of the 4th Division alone were attached to six different divisions under five different commands in five different sectors. It would be days before they were reunited.

Mercifully the night was peaceful, the moon sailed high, the weather stayed fine and the first stage of the withdrawal went like clockwork, unharassed by the enemy. It was a luminous dawn and behind the German line on the ridge above Polygon Wood the sun rose early into a sky of pale, cloudless blue. The silence continued well into the morning, but it was an unnatural silence and it was too good to be true. The Germans had been biding their time and preparing another attack. It exploded just after noon on the front of the 4th Division and on the French on their left where the line ran towards the canal.

The German casualties had been lighter than those of the British and French, but they had been heavy enough and, while some reserves had been able to fill some of the gaps, there were no reinforcements to swell the ranks to a point that would guarantee success. But they had guns, and they had gas, and they were depending on the formidable strength of these weapons to sweep them through the allied line. Bombard the ground, pulverise the defenders, release gas to finish off the few who were left and, last of all, send the infantry forward to walk in and to mop up and consolidate almost without a fight. The quantity and even the calibre of their infantry would be secondary in terms of success. In the German view it was a war of materials now and their tactics had changed accordingly.

Lacking nine-tenths of the materials and resources at the disposal of the enemy, the Allies were depending on the men, first, last and always, and the British had changed their system of defence. The line had been reorganised and there were reserves close behind the trenches, ready to move swiftly to take the place of the supports when they dashed forward to assist the front-line troops. The bombardment that day was devastating and lasted for more than four hours. It was 4.30 p.m. when the gas came over but, happily, the clouds came low, they were thin in many places and, although the only respirators were improvised affairs, the men knew how to use them. They also knew what to expect and this time they did more than stand fast. But it took courage to take the initiative, to move forward through the waist-high deadly fumes to meet the German infantry preparing to come on, and they met them with rifle fire, so pitiless and so accurate that the attack faded away. In places it had been touch and go and there were many casualties, but they had held their ground.

It was a disconcerting setback to the German commander who later reported (erroneously) that the enemy position was very strongly fortified and protected by deep entanglements. Another gas attack was therefore planned. They assumed that the concentration of gas had not been strong enough and resolved to make sure that next time they would make no mistake.

The news of the assault was equally disconcerting to General Plumer but by eight o’clock in the evening all was quiet. He waited a little longer to make quite sure before giving the go-ahead for the second stage of the withdrawal. Spasmodic shelling during the night did little to interrupt it and by morning the men were safely installed in their new positions. It was not easy to move several thousand men over rough bombarded country in the dark, but at least they could move on their own feet. Trench stores had to be manhandled – tools, rations, boxes of ammunition, and the manifold equipment that sustained a battalion in the line had to be removed and humped for weary miles. But it had finally been accomplished by stealth and in silence. Two thirds of the withdrawal was now complete and the Germans still had no inkling that it was under way. In the evening of 3 May the last stage of the retirement would begin and, in the most dangerous move yet, the front line itself would be evacuated.

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