There were new graves in the burgeoning cemeteries behind the lines where they had buried the missing of the autumn battles whose bodies had been recovered during the Christmas truce. During January, as the sad parcels of belongings reached home and the last sparks of hope were extinguished, a series of poignant letters appeared in The Times, under the heading ‘Swords of Fallen Officers’. Officers who had gone with the Regular Army to France had gone equipped and accoutred almost as elaborately as their military ancestors had gone to Waterloo, and there was much heart-burning when their effects reached home and their swords were found to be missing. It was hard for mourning relatives to accept the most likely explanation that these prized possessions had been pilfered en route and the tone of the letters from bereaved fathers left little doubt of their firm belief that their sons had died charging the enemy trenches, sword in hand:
My late son’s sword may have been picked up and forwarded to someone else. It is a Claymore, No. 106,954, made by S. J. Pillin, and has embossed on it the battles of the regiment and ‘DCM from DFM’.
I am a fellow-sufferer, having received the effects of my late son, admirably packed but minus the sword, to my great sorrow and disappointment.
I would like to endorse the letter from ‘The Father of an Officer Killed in Action’. The pain caused to relatives by non-receipt of a lost one’s sword is great.
To any private soldier, English or Indian, who may have found the sword and returns it to me through his officer, I will send a present of £5.
We are all giving of our best and dearest for our country, and the least we ask for is that those precious relics should be restored to us.
The colonel of my son’s regiment kindly wrote and told me it had been sent to the depot some days before, but I can hear nothing of it, so I suppose it has gone with the others, but where? There does not seem much demand for swords at the Front; if there was, I would not grudge it.
It is suggested to me that when my son was struck down he may have been carrying the sword in his hand, and it fell into the wet trench and sank – not improbable.
But it was spades not swords that were wanted in the trenches. And manpower. And muscle-power. And hard grinding labour. The brunt of the work fell on the Royal Engineers.
The 5th Field Company, Royal Engineers, had been out since the beginning. They had dug the Army out of Mons, they had dug trenches for the infantry throughout the long retreat, blown bridges over rivers in full view of the Germans when the last of the infantry had safely crossed, and, when the tide had turned, they built pontoon bridges across the same rivers to take the infantry back, first to the Marne, then to the Aisne, and finally along the long road north as they raced the Germans back to Flanders. The engineers had toiled again at Ypres, digging trenches for reserves and supports and, always under shellfire, throwing up entanglements of barbed wire to protect them. And when the Germans attacked and the troops were pushed back, as the front line gave way, and battalions were decimated, the engineers had gone into the trenches and helped the thinning ranks of infantrymen to beat the Germans off. The 5th Field Company had been in at the kill when the last wavering line faltered and briefly gave way, when the Prussian Guard streamed through and every man was needed to try to stop them. In retrospect it had been their moment of glory, for the sappers had flung down their spades, picked up their rifles, formed up with the ragged remnants of the infantry, fixed bayonets and charged into Nonnebosschen Wood to drive the Germans back. It had not seemed very glorious at the time – but it had saved the day.
Now the infantry were returning the favour by turning out working parties night after night to labour alongside the sappers constructing defences. Working in the flooded marshland to the south of Armentieres where the River Lys, swollen by incessant rain, wound across the waterlogged plain and overflowed to mingle with a thousand streams and ditches, even the battle-hardened veterans who had been out since the start of the war agreed that this was the worst yet. It was a waterscape rather than a landscape. Trenches filled up with water as fast as they were dug and the culverts and dams they made to divert it merely channelled the flood to another trench in another part of the line. They built bridges across watery trenches that collapsed into the stream with the next rainstorm in a cascade of mud as the sodden banks that supported them gave way. They took levels, drew up plans, set up pumps, but still the water rose. The trenches were knee deep in it. The men who manned them, soaking, shivering, plastered from head to foot with mud, reflected bitterly that it was not so much the Germans as the weather that was the adversary.
Lt. C. Tennant, 1/4 Bn., Seaforth Highlanders (TF), Dehra Dun Brig., Meerut Div.
Water is the great and pressing problem at present, the weather has been almost unprecedently wet and the whole countryside is soaked in mud and like a sponge. Owing to its flatness it is generally impossible to drain the trenches and in many cases those now being held were only taken in the first instance as a temporary stopping place in the attack. A battalion would dig itself in at night – perhaps improve an ordinary water ditch with firing recesses – in the expectation of getting on a bit further the next day. The change and chance of war has caused these positions to become more or less permanent and every day of rain has made them more and more unpleasant until now the chief question is how to keep the men more or less out of the water. In a summer campaign it would not matter, but when a hard frost sets in at night, and we have had several (luckily short) spells, frostbite sets in at once and the man is done for so far as his feet and legs are concerned. Our own British troops have stood it wonderfully well but some of the Indian regiments have suffered pretty severely in this respect. As you may well imagine some of these trenches that have been held for a long time are in a pretty grizzly state.
In the fight against the elements there was little energy to spare for fighting the enemy and, in any event, in such conditions attack was all but impossible. It was obvious that the Germans were in the same plight and on frosty nights, when the clouds cleared and the light from a hazy moon rippled on lagoons of ice and water spread across the morass, when the machine-guns fell silent and only the occasional smack of a bullet cracked in the frosty air, the Tommies could hear the splosh and thud of boots and spades in front and see the Germans silhouetted fifty yards away engaged on the same dreary task, bailing and digging, and doubtless cursing, just as they were themselves.
Day after day throughout the cheerless month of January, Corporal Alex Letyford recorded a terse catalogue of miseries in the pocket diary he kept wrapped in oilcloth to protect it from the wet.
Cpl. A. Letyford, 5th Field Coy., Royal Engineers.
1.1.15 At 6 p.m. (in dark) go to the trenches making culvert and dams. Trenches knee-deep in water. We work until 3 a.m.
2.1.15 6 p.m. off to the trenches. I take some men and make dam to prevent water coming from German trench and return at 5 a.m.
3.1.15 Parade at 6 a.m. March to trenches. We dig communication trenches and are fired at the whole time. Work until 6 p.m.
4.1.15 During the day we build stables near billet for our horses. At 6 p.m. we go to the lines and trace out redoubts. Rather risky work as we are only eighty yards from the Germans who are doing a lot of sniping from their lines. We also make a bridge across our front line. Four feet of water in this part of the trench line. Return to billets about midnight.
5.1.15 Spend the morning trying to dry out our clothes. We are all covered in mud from head to foot. At 6 p.m. I go with Captain Reed to the trenches and fix six pumps. Wading about in water to our waists until 2 a.m.
6.1.15 We go up at 8.45 a.m. and improve trenches for reserves.
7.1.15 Go out at 3 a.m. and make a bridge in the line of trenches about a hundred and fifty yards from Fritz. Return at daylight and rest remainder of day.
8.1.15 Again at work on the reserve trenches. At nightfall I remain with eight men and make the bridge again, it having been knocked into the stream. It rains nearly all the time and the enemy torment us with their Very lights and sniping. Return at 9 p.m.
9.1.15 Parade at 8 a.m. I take four men to dig communication trench. Work until 5 p.m. and reach billet at 6.30 p.m. The trenches are now waist-deep in water, part of section returned early, being soaked through, breast-high. My party had to run the gauntlet on returning across the open in preference to coming through the trenches!
The journey was slow and hazardous, because it was impossible to accomplish it silently. The sound of splashing and sliding, the clink of tools, an inadvertent cry as a bridge collapsed or someone plunged into a water hole, were a sure sign that men were on the move, and the enemy flares would hiss into the sky, bathing the lines in incandescent light that showed up every tree, every twig, every man who was caught in its glare. Then machine-guns would spit from their hidden posts and snipers take aim at such targets as they could see before the rocket burned out and plopped, sizzling, back to the sodden earth. It lasted seconds but, to the men standing motionless for fear of being spotted, it seemed an eternity.
Even quite far behind the front line it could be as dangerous by day, for the ‘line’ was hardly a line at all, but a succession of outpost trenches cut off by the water-filled dykes that crisscrossed the flooded land. Under the cover of mist and darkness it was easy enough for snipers to slip through and find hideouts convenient for taking pot-shots at unsuspecting or unwary soldiers. In the lines themselves, marooned all day in barrels begged from breweries to provide reasonably dry standing, sentries kept a sharp look-out, but snipers were devious and some, more courageous and ingenious, were skilled in the arts of disguise and deceit. Stories of spies and snipers abounded – and some of them were true.
Lt. R. Macleod, V Bty., RHA, 2 Indian Cavalry Div.
We had a little spy hunt the other day. We shifted our billet to a new place. On going into the loft we discovered a little observation place very neatly made in the roof. There was a place where two tiles could be easily slid up, giving a very good view over part of the country. (The rest of the tiles being cemented down.) There was also a supply of provisions concealed up there. At the back of the house there is a large barn, apparently filled with straw. On examining the place it was found that the straw was hollow, and contained a small room with a passage leading to it through which a man could crawl. There was also another passage leading out to a trap-door very cunningly concealed under a heap of straw above a cow stall. No spy has been near the place since. We only discovered the presence of the room and passage by walking on top of the straw, and finding it giving way under our feet.
Major Elliot-Hill had an even more thrilling encounter.
I was riding along a quiet country road when I heard a report from a rifle. I dismounted, tied my horse to a tree, and had a good look round. Presently I saw what at home we would call a farm labourer working at a turnip clamp in a field. Keeping out of his sight I rode back to the farm house where we are billeted and borrowed some not-very-savoury farm labourer’s clothes. I went back on foot and started walking up the ploughed field towards him as if I was very interested in the straightness of the furrow, but I was actually more interested in my automatic revolver. When I got within reach of the fellow I tackled him. It was a fairly good struggle but I overpowered him and managed to march him back and hand him over to the authorities. They were not much inclined to take me seriously at first, but they locked him up anyway. They soon changed their tune when we went back to the turnip clamp and found a rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition hidden in it.
News of such morale-boosting exploits was made much of in letters home, and although the stories were mostly based on hearsay, much embellished, and usually owed more to the writer’s imagination than to hard facts, they were frequently passed on to the local newspapers in which ‘Letters from the Front’ were a popular feature. A favourite story, current in the early days of January, told of a heroic Tommy who went into a barn to fetch straw and bumped into two fully armed Germans. Keeping a cool head he pointed the only weapon he had – a pair of wire-cutters – and shouted ‘Hands up!’ The Germans obligingly dropped their rifles, raised their hands, and meekly allowed themselves to be taken prisoner. The public loved such stories. If British brawn was not yet sufficient to defeat the Germans the assurance that British brain could be depended on to dupe them was the next best thing.
The best of all stories of duping the Germans had just reached Britain from Australia and caused much gloating and excitement. It concerned the tramp steamer Southport, out of Cardiff – but a long time out, because the Southport belonged to the raggle-taggle fleet of tramp steamers that sailed the oceans of the world, picking up contracts and cargoes where they could. It was sometimes years before such a ship returned to its home port and, unless there were children to keep her at home, the captain’s wife, as often as not, accompanied her husband on the voyage. Some, like Captain Clopet’s wife, had circled the globe several times. Early in 1914 Mrs Clopet had crossed the Atlantic and had passed two pleasurable weeks in New York while the Southport unloaded and took on a cargo of American machinery. She had endured the gales of the south Atlantic, rounded the Cape of Good Hope to Durban, supervised the loading of provisions and shopped personally for the fresh fruit and other dainties that would ensure Captain Clopet’s domestic comfort on the long onward haul to Australia. It was May before they got there, and early June before the Southport sailed on to New Zealand with a cargo of coal. Having plied her leisurely way from Auckland to Wellington and on to Dunedin she turned north for Ocean Island in the Pacific to load phosphates bound for Rotterdam. At Ocean Island orders were changed and the South-port was to sail on to Nauru to take on a cargo of phosphates for Stettin, but bad weather, and congestion in the harbour, made the task impossible and Captain Clopet was forced to return to Ocean Island and then sail on an inter-island hop to the Gilberts, picking up small workaday cargoes as he went to fill the time.
The Southport was not the most ramshackle of freighters – she was only fourteen years old, she was more than three thousand tons, had a crew of twenty-three and her single deck was lit by electricity, which was a welcome improvement on the lanterns and candles of Captain Clopet’s youth, but she had no modern refinement so sophisticated as radio. For all she knew of the outside world as she hopped between the atolls of the Pacific Ocean, she might as well have been sailing on the moon. The only thing for it, decided Captain Clopet, was to make for Kusaie in the Caroline Islands where the fast mail-ship Germania called every two months. She would be arriving any day now. She might well be bringing him new orders as she had done in the past, and at least she would be able to replenish their scanty supplies to tide them over until orders arrived. The Southport anchored in the bay at Kusaie on 4 August. That day, twelve thousand miles away, Britain declared war on Germany.
Fresh water was obtainable and that was a relief, but there was no food on the island, for a cyclone early in the year had destroyed the crops, killed cattle and pigs, and the natives were subsisting on roots and coconuts. There was nothing to be done but to cut the ship’s rations and wait, day after day, for the arrival of the overdue Germania. The Germania never came. But, on 4 September, the Geier did. She was a German warship, and she had every right to be there because the Caroline Islands were German, and although German rule was limited to collecting from King Sigrah an annual tax of six marks per head of his subjects, the German flag flew in the tiny township outside the mission church. This circumstance was of no concern to the crew of the Southport who had not heard a hint of the international tensions that had bubbled to the surface in Europe during their absence, nor did they have the faintest idea that Britain was at war with Germany. The crew crowded on deck, cheering the Geier as she sailed into the anchorage. The captain and his wife were ashore and it was Chief Officer Dodd who ordered the ship’s ensign to be dipped and who waited on deck, beaming in welcome, as a cutter from the battleship approached. He attached no significance to the fact that theGeier’s guns were trained on his vessel, and he was only slightly surprised to see that the boarding party was armed to the teeth and looking far from affable. The German officer saluted correctly then, speaking English, but without so much as wishing him a good day, dropped the bombshell.
Chief Officer C. Dodd, SS Southport.
He said, ‘Of course you know that war has broken out between Britain and Germany?’ I said, ‘No.’ The German said, ‘Oh yes. We have been fighting about a month.’ I said, in as casual a manner as I could muster, ‘I suppose we are prisoners of war then.’ The officer made no reply. He said he preferred to wait until the captain arrived on board. But he was perfectly polite. There was nothing domineering about him, but he posted the armed guard around the ship, and they looked none too friendly. Then he wanted to know what provisions we had but when I told them of what straits we were in for tucker ourselves, they didn’t bother. Still, they went over the ship with a fine toothcomb and spent a long time in the engine room, fiddling about with things, which the chief engineer didn’t like at all. We were all dumbfounded. Then the captain came back and had a long talk with the officer.
Capt. A. Clopet, SS Southport.
The upshot was that our flag was hauled down and the German flag hoisted for half an hour while the Germans read me the proclamation that my ship had been seized in the name of the Kaiser. They left the guard on board and stayed in the bay for two days. Next day another ship sailed in. It was the German merchant steamer Tsintau of Bremen and they sent the steamer alongside the Southport and took a great deal of our coal. Soon afterwards an officer in command of marines on the Geier came on board with another party whose job was to put the engines out of commission to prevent us putting to sea. They removed nearly all the eccentrics and other parts of the machinery and took away the main stop valve.
The officer of the Geier told me that he would not sink us but that we would have to remain at Kusaie until after the war was over. I pointed out to him that we were short of provisions and that the natives, on account of the cyclone, were also short of food. The officer replied that there were coconuts on the island and he said, very sneeringly, ‘The people of Paris once lived on rats.’ This infuriated me. I was born of French parents, although I am a naturalised British subject, and my parents were in Paris during the siege by the Germans in 1870 and they told me enough of that terrible time to make me fully appreciate the reference to rats! I told him in no uncertain terms that my men would be starved out, and I could not be responsible for what starving men might do on the island. That gave him second thoughts, he wrote out there and then an order to King Sigrah to secure supplies of meat and so on. It said that whatever he gave me would be paid for after the war.
Not content with taking our coal the Germans on the steamer Tsintau took some of our kerosene oil and everything else they thought would be of use to them, although the officer on the Geier had obviously told them not to touch our provisions, because we had none to spare. The Geier also took off our boatswain and two of our firemen, who were all German and they went willingly enough, and one of our Norwegian sailors – a man with a good appetite! – left the ship voluntarily to go on the German steamerTsintau. This, of course, left us short-handed but, as the German officer pointed out, since we were not going anywhere, it hardly mattered. The fate of your ship will be decided by a prize court,’ he said, and then they sailed off in a great hurry it seemed. But his last words to me were that they would be back in a fortnight and expected to find us there when they returned.
Mrs Clopet, who had been confined to her cabin on her husband’s orders for most of the last two days, was now released and accompanied Captain Clopet when he went ashore to visit King Sigrah to negotiate food supplies. He took the German order with him – for all the good it was likely to do! While the Captain was gone and the deck crew passed the time by fishing over the side in the hope of a tasty catch to augment the meagre rations, the engine-room crew got down to more serious business. Chief Engineer Harold Cox was no novice when it came to engines. He had served on ships far older than the Southport, and had repaired and nursed and cosseted engines that were on their last legs. Given a hammer, a hacksaw, a soldering iron, a length of tow, even a ball of string, he could repair anything and make a faltering engine sing sweetly enough to bring a ship to port. He was determined not to be defeated now and Harris and Griffiths, the 2nd and 3rd engineers, were of the same mind. While the Captain was ashore they investigated the damage.
The Captain was not in a happy frame of mind. The negotiations had been long and wearisome and the outcome only partly satisfactory. Faced with the German order, King Sigrah had been obliged, with great reluctance, to hand over supplies, but he could give no more than he had got, and all he had (and could ill spare at that) was coconuts and the roots of trees which, ground up and mixed with coconut milk, were all that his own people had to eat. Equally reluctantly the captain agreed. It was Hobson’s choice. He arranged to send a party of men ashore the following day to supervise the loading of the native long-boats that would ferry this miserable provender to his ship, and returned gloomily on board. But his gloom was quickly dispelled by his chief engineer who met him with the happy news that the damage to the engines was not so great as they had feared. He believed it might just be possible to manufacture some of the missing parts and to contrive makeshift parts to replace some others, and thought that, with a little time and patience, they could get the Southport on the move.
It took more than time and patience. It took working round the clock, monumental effort, plus liberal applications of ingenuity and elbow grease. And it took ten days, with the thud and clanging of hammers echoing across the bay, the rasp of saws on metal, while lookouts fearfully scanned the horizon for signs of the Geier’s return. On the afternoon of the tenth day they managed to get up steam – the fact that it was a poor head of steam was a good deal less important than the fact that the engines would take the ship ahead, but not astern. The Captain thought he could manage. It would have been worse after all, he remarked, if it had been the other way round.
It was a feat even to get her to face outwards from the anchorage but that night in the darkness, with all her own lights extinguished, the Southport limped out to sea. It took them twelve days to reach Brisbane, sailing via the Solomon Islands – partly in German hands, but they had to take the risk – and they sailed at quarter power, with the crew on quarter rations. It was better than subsisting on roots.
The welcome they received in Australia almost made up for the hazards and privations of the voyage. The people of Brisbane showered them with gifts. Food was brought aboard – sacks of rice, dozens of loaves, butter, sugar and flour by the stone, ducks and chickens, whole sides of beef. In their elation the crew were, with difficulty, restrained from dumping the loathsome roots and coco-nuts into the harbour and persuaded to unload them in the conventional way. They were fêted and petted and treated in waterside bars, and they recounted their adventure again and again and again. It took a long time to repair the engines, and a long time for the story to filter through to Great Britain. By the time it did get there in early January the Southport was on her way again, taking up the voyage that had been so rudely interrupted four months earlier, sailing towards the Pacific to Ocean Island to pick up her cargo of phosphates and head for Rotterdam. Mrs Clopet, who had refused the offer of a fast passage home from Australia, was still on board.*
The saga of the Southport enlivened many a breakfast table and similar, though less spectacular, stories of scoring off the Germans, contained in letters home were passed round, and gloated over at work parties the length and breadth of Britain, where news from the front was exchanged and gossiped over as the ladies of Britain did their bit for the war effort, rolling bandages, knitting socks, hemming khaki handkerchiefs and sewing nightshirts and flannel bedjackets for the wounded in hospital. Many such ladies made use of the pin-cushions that had enjoyed a large sale at Christmas. They were soft dolls, rather than conventional pin-cushions, shaped, unflatteringly, to represent the Kaiser, and there was certain satisfaction to be gained in giving the arch-enemy a sharp jab from time to time in the course of their work.
But anti-German feeling, innocent enough when it was confined to sticking the occasional pin or needle into the Kaiser’s effigy, had a more sinister side, and one tragedy, hastily hushed up, had caused the authorities some discomfiture. It happened at Henham in Suffolk. People had been edgy ever since Scarborough had been shelled by German warships in December, and stories of spies signalling from beaches were rife on the east coast. An over-officious Chief Constable, whose suspicions were based entirely on malicious gossip, ordered an innocent schoolmaster and his wife to move, not merely out of his area, but out of Suffolk entirely. The Smiths had one son, a brilliant boy who had studied languages in France, and, more ominously, in Germany long before the war. ‘Where was this son now?’ the local busy-bodies asked themselves, and the answer came pat. ‘Why, in Germany of course!’ The rumour was embroidered as it spread. Young Smith was known for a fact to have taken German nationality and enlisted in the German Navy. Young Smith was Captain of a warship, a U-boat Commander, the officer in charge of a fleet of fast armoured motor boats – it hardly mattered which. The Smiths lived not far from the coast, lights had been seen flashing on the beach and the only likely explanation was that this elderly couple had been signalling to their German son lurking in an enemy vessel off the coast and doubtless preparing to blow them all to smithereens. The Smiths were ostracised. Wherever they went there were wagging tongues and knowing nods, and finally the Chief Constable, acting far beyond his powers under the Defence of the Realm Act, issued his ultimatum. The following day Mrs Smith was found hanging from a beam in her kitchen. Her son, who had been teaching languages in Guatemala, was even now on his way home to join up.
When the story came out, there were some who felt ashamed, but it was easier for a bad conscience to take refuge in disbelief and righteous indignation. The slightest hint or taint of Germanism was enough to ruin the most illustrious reputation. Names were being anglicised wholesale, and an innocent misprint brought wrath down on the head of the social editor of The Times who was forced to grovel to the furious father of one bride-to-be and to make amends by inserting a notice free of charge among the announcements of ‘Forthcoming Marriages’:
Mr O. C. Hawkins and Miss Holman
An engagement is announced between Osmond Crutchley, eldest son of Mr and Mrs Thomas A. Hawkins, Glenthorne, Chealyn Hay, and Marie, eldest daughter of Mr and Mrs Ernest Holman (NOT Hofman, as stated through a clerical error in a previous announcement).
22 Gloucester Square, Hyde Park, W.
Real indignation was reserved for the judge who had the temerity to find in favour of a plaintiff accused of trading with the enemy. This unfortunate man was an American who must have regretted, in the present circumstances, that he had ever taken out British citizenship. He was manager of the London branch of an American firm which also had a branch in Frankfurt, managed by his brother. There was a large sum of money owing and, at his brother’s request, the London manager had found a means of sending it to Germany via Holland. He was caught in the act and had spent six uncomfortable weeks in prison before the case came up. The judge took into account some extenuating circumstances and set him free. The extenuating circumstances, ironic to say the least, were that the Frankfurt manager had also been jailed for pro-British activities. But the irony was lost on an indignant British public who clung to the axiom that there was no smoke without fire.
The Trading with the Enemy Act was a godsend to some British firms who held large stocks of German goods – as yet unpaid for – which, in the present climate of anti-German feeling, they had little prospect of selling. The matter of mouth organs was a case in point, and it was a tricky one. Mouth organs were in demand. There was a dearth of mouth organs at the front and the relatives of soldiers were scouring the shops to obtain them. They were cheap, they were small enough to be easily packed in parcels, and nothing was more likely to cheer the troops in the monotony of life in the trenches. But, mouth organs were almost exclusively of German manufacture and it would never do to boost enemy trade – even retrospectively! – by buying pre-war stocks of goods made in Germany, let alone be so crassly unpatriotic as to send them to the boys who were being shot at by the mouth organ makers themselves. Wholesalers scoured every possible neutral source of supply and eventually found enough mouth organs in Holland to fill the gap until a Birmingham firm was persuaded to take up the cause and meet the demand. This boycott of German goods, like the taboo against buying toys of German manufacture at Christmas, was not based entirely on blind prejudice, for it was widely known that the bombs which the Germans were hurling at British trenches had been made in many cases in toy factories, and that the fuses were manufactured in Bavaria by makers of clocks and watches. Cuckoo clocks were removed from walls on which they had sometimes hung for decades and anxiously scrutinised to make sure that they had originated in neutral Switzerland and not in hateful Germany, and the once-proud owners of expensive Bechstein or Steinway pianos were torn between reluctantly closing the lids for the duration of the war or trumping the enemy by abandoning Mozart and Handel in favour of British patriotic songs thumped out endlessly on their German keys.
Patriotic songs were all the rage at home and some starry-eyed idealists were a little disappointed that they were not equally popular with the troops. Some newspapers took up the cause. Teach them the songs of Agincourt,’ suggested one enthusiastic patriot without, however, specifying what particular songs these were or where they were to be found. ‘English folk songs,’ suggested another, ‘would be more appropriate, to be sung with gusto!’ The strains of ‘Greensleeves’ were seldom heard on the lips of the Tommies, and if the kind of songs they sang as they endlessly route-marched round the country bore little resemblance to those such innocent civilians would have preferred to hear, it only reinforced their missionary zeal. It seldom struck them that the bawdy dirges that cheered the troops on the long training marches in all probability faithfully echoed the sentiments of the songs that had cheered foot-soldiers on the road to Agincourt centuries before.
Music was in the air. Sheet music poured from the printing presses, ‘Tipperary’, the hit of the previous summer which had found favour with the troops, had gone into umpteen editions, and ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers’, the felicitous show-stopper of a Christmas pantomime, was threatening to overtake it in popularity. And music was all the rage in ten thousand towns and villages where several hundred thousand soldiers were in training camps from Inverness to Salisbury Plain. The fact that they were not quite soldiers yet was neither here nor there. They must be entertained, and entertained they were. Local talent was rounded up by entertainment committees as forceful as any press-gang, and in many places there were concerts once a week. Sometimes the programmes were a little above the heads of the troops. Cellists droned, violinists scraped, sopranos warbled, elocutionists spouted, basses boomed, but there was often a good feed to accompany the entertainment, kind ladies distributed cigarettes, and the troops took the bad with the good. The highlight of one concert in Jedburgh was a rendering by the local doctor’s wife of ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’. It had a recognisable tune, it came as a welcome change after a programme of cultural music and heroic poems, and the troops encored it three times. They were the l/7th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and most of them had recently left some little grey home in the west of Scotland at Lord Kitchener’s behest.
The tune, if not precisely catchy, was easy to play on a mouth organ and it was equally popular with soldiers holding the miserable outposts of the British line in Flanders. But the words were not appropriate, and in Flanders they had adopted their own version:
I’ve a little wet home in a trench,
Where the rainstorms continually drench,
There’s a dead cow close by
With her feet towards the sky
And she gives off a horrible stench.
Underneath, in the place of a floor,
There’s a mass of wet mud and some straw,
But with shells dropping there,
There’s no place to compare
With my little wet home in the trench.
The dead cow was a realistic touch. In the one-time farmyards close up to the lines there were dead cows all over the place and not all of them had been victims of enemy action. Private Crossingham of the Grenadier Guards was still trying to live down the episode when he had accidentally shot one while on sentry duty. His protestations that the cow had failed to reply to his challenge did him no good at all. His fame had spread throughout the Battalion and, wherever he went, even complete strangers were apt to taunt him as he passed with a verse of doggerel composed by a wag he would have dearly liked to get his hands on.
Last night at the setting of the sun,
I shot a farmer’s cow.
I thought she was a German Hun –
I beg her pardon now!
Despite the miseries of wet and cold and the dangers of their day-to-day existence, the troops in Flanders had not lost their sense of humour. The biggest laugh was raised in the leaking ruined cottage that served as the officers’ mess of the 1st Worcestershires behind the line at Festubert. Buckling on his equipment, staring out into the pelting rain as he prepared to take another hapless working-party up the line, Lieutenant Roberts remarked thoughtfully, ‘I went to see my Great Aunt Agnes while I was on leave. She said to me, “Tell me, are there any picture palaces where you and your friends can go when you get back from the trenches in the evening?”’ And, for a time, ‘off to the picture palace’ became a popular synonym for ‘going out with a working-party’ until the joke wore thin.
But if the majority of civilians were isolated from the full realities of war they were not entirely unaware of conditions at the front and of the physical hardships the men were undergoing. Knitting became a patriotic duty and mountains of parcels and bales of ‘comforts’ arrived in France by the boatload.
CQMS, R.A., S. McFie, 1/10th (Scottish) Bn. (TF), King’s (Liverpool Regt.).
Yesterday I drew a lot of cigarettes presented by somebody, and a pipe per man sent by the Glasgow tramway-men, as well as some peppermint sweets from the manufacturers. Today again there was a supply of cigarettes, tobacco and matches as well as a lot of tinned salmon given by the Government of British Columbia. We have also had socks from Princess Mary, gloves from the Archduke Michael, razors from a man in Sheffield, etc. Also socks, body belts, cap-comforters, combs – surely no army has ever before been so well looked after.
Pullovers, socks and mufflers were welcome enough, but what the Army needed most, and needed urgently, was sandbags. They had given up trying to dig trenches across the worst of the morass; now they were building breastworks instead, filling sandbags with earth – more often mud! – and building high protective walls with crude shanties behind for shelter and redoubts in front for protection. They needed sandbags by the thousand, by the million, and appeals went out to churches and work-groups to supply them.
Sewing sandbags was hard labour, and working with rough canvas not unlike sewing mailbags, but the women of Britain set to and turned them out by the million. Before Easter the Surrey village of Newdigate alone had sent off 1,665. But while such industry was laudable and the country was enthusiastically doing its bit, it was doing little to speed the progress of the war and it seemed to some who were in a position to take an informed, objective view that the war was proceeding in a way that was too dilatory by half and that there was an unforgivable complacency in high places.
One was Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, the other was David Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer. By coincidence, and without consultation, the two men had spent the days between Christmas and New Year putting their misgivings on paper. On New Year’s Day both memoranda were distributed to members of the Cabinet. In their assessment of the situation they were surprisingly similar. Lloyd George, who had recently visited France, dwelt on the apparently leisurely approach to the war and begged that the War Cabinet might meet regularly every few days rather than at intervals of two weeks or longer. He deplored the lack of policy, and criticised the generals who seemed to him to be so flummoxed by the Germans’ decision to dig in that they could think of no apparent means to break the deadlock.
In Sir Maurice Hankey’s memorandum he turned his mind to practical means by which the deadlock could be broken. Victories were needed to encourage the people at home. How were they to be achieved?
He incorporated a list of ideas. Numbers of large, heavy rollers propelled by motor engines to roll down the barbed wire by sheer weight; bullet-proof shields or armour; smoke balls to be thrown by the troops towards the enemy’s trenches to screen their advance; rockets throwing a rope with a grapnel attached to grip the barbed wire ‘which can then be hauled in by the troops in the trench from which the rocket is thrown’; spring catapults, or special pumping apparatus to throw oil or petrol into the enemy’s trenches. He had privately gone so far as to have some prototypes made and tested.
But the results of Hankey’s experiments had not found favour
with either the military commanders in the field or the military hierarchy at the War Office, and so far as the War Office was concerned they already had their hands full with the mammoth task of organising three hundred thousand volunteers and supervising the million and one details that would lick them into shape and turn an amorphous mass of civilians into something that approximated to an army. They were already being inundated with bright ideas from would-be inventors, but there was simply no time to give them serious consideration and, as Hankey sadly remarked, The bright ideas are not new, and the new ideas are not bright.’ The commanders in the field had other things on their minds than the invention of unconventional new weapons. They would have been more than happy to have a sufficient supply of the old ones, and Sir John French was already confiding his disquietude to his diary:
23.1.15 There is more delay in sending these new 9.2 guns. It is said to be caused by the Christmas holidays which the men in the factories insisted on having! It appears they get very high wages and are accordingly independent! I am also somewhat disappointed in the promised supply of ammunition.
The troops themselves displayed some ingenuity in supplying the deficiency. Dumps were scoured for empty jam tins and the engineers, who had passed most of the night improving the defences in the line, spent hours during the day filling them with old nails, tamped down with gun cotton to make primitive bombs. The bright sparks of the 15th Field Company Royal Engineers of the 24th Brigade even manufactured a trench mortar. It was only a length of drainpipe soldered up at one end with a touch-hole bored above it and was ignited with a match and gunpowder. But it fired the jam-tin bombs a good distance towards the Germans and, despite a few unfortunate accidents in the course of its erratic performance, it cheered the troops wonderfully.
A battalion of the Cambridgeshires in Plugstreet Wood* acquired an even more primitive weapon – a replica of an ancient catapult, designed by a professor of history at Cambridge University. He was an acquaintance of their Commanding Officer to whom he eagerly canvassed the merits of the catapult in screeds of sketches and instructions. It could throw bombs or even boulders at a push, and it could throw them a long distance. The Romans, he added, had used an identical weapon with satisfactory results to batter down the wooden gates of rebellious cities, and he was convinced that it could be used with equal success against the German trenches. It seemed worth a try. Working parties were organised, first to scrounge suitable timber, then to construct the catapult itself. It took several days and two more nights of strenuous work to build an emplacement and dig the monster in. It was more than seven feet long, and being constructed of hefty beams filched from shell-torn buildings, it weighed several hundredweight. But the Tommies were less practised than the Romans in the art of catapulting, and any missiles they managed to fire as often as not fell harmlessly to the ground or, worse, back on their own heads. The experiment was abandoned, the Colonel tore up the design in disgust and the Tommies chopped up the Roman weapon for firewood.
But although it was impractical, the idea of the catapult as a weapon of siege warfare was not entirely inappropriate, but many months would pass and many men would die before people would understand that siege warfare was exactly what the Army was engaged in. Their faith was still vested in the cavalry, now dismounted and valiantly, if not uncomplainingly, suffering the indignities of working-parties as they waited for the breakthrough that would send them charging through the German lines, scattering all before them as they rode non-stop to Berlin.
But not everyone shared such sanguine expectations. Lloyd George had been disquieted by his recent visit to France where he had observed the effects of the impasse at first hand in both British and French sectors, and a meeting with General Joffre had given him food for thought. Joffre had been adamant that the Germans would never succeed in breaking his lines, not even if they outnumbered the French by two or even three to one, and he reminded Lloyd George that even the thinly held line round Ypres had not given way in the face of the German onslaught of recent weeks. Lloyd George took the point but, although he kept his opinion to himself, he reflected soberly that the opposite was equally true and that the allies had just as little chance of breaching the line held by the Germans.
Lt. C. Tennant.
The war in the western area has reached a pretty disgusting phase. The opposing trenches are very close to each other – in some cases not more than twenty yards apart and there we sit facing each other and killing each other by every possible means. Attacks on each other’s trenches are as often as not absolutely useless. If we rush a German trench we lose an enormous lot of men in doing it and those who do get there are promptly blown up by mines left there while the enemy retires to another line of trenches a few yards to the rear from which he makes the hard-won trench untenable. Moreover, the advance, unless successful over a very long section of the line, is no use as it merely creates a dangerous salient liable to enfilade by artillery and machine-guns from the flanks. Such a position has been created just in front of us where we were from the 19th to the 24th December and our own 1st Battalion had a terrible time. The trench they were holding was a very bad one (the water up to the men’s waists in places) and owing to the retiral of some Indian troops on their flank, they were left practically ‘in air’. But they held on for nine days until they were relieved by another Battalion who – I’m sorry to have to say it – after two hours evacuated the trench as utterly untenable!
The hostile trenches are now in many places so close together that the war is almost reverting to continuous hand-to-hand fighting. I was told of an incident the other day when a double company (nominally two hundred men) of the HLI – after a long burst of fire repelling an attack – had only nineteen rifles working at the end of it.
But for the majority of the troops, dodging bullets and exploding shells as they shivered in the mud flats, there was nothing for it but to dig and bail, to bail and dig, slogging through the mud in the dark as they laboured to build defences.
Cpl. A. Letyford.
1.2.15 to 5.2.15 Go up to the trenches each night making continuous breastworks. Have a hundred infantry working with us each night. We lose a few of the working-party killed by snipers. Came unexpectedly on a German listening post last night whilst searching in front of breastworks.
6.2.15 I go with second relief at 9.30 p.m. Continue breastworks and meet no. 4 section, so that now the work is completed from Festubert to Givenchy. We have thus advanced about six hundred yards without fighting.
This achievement was duly noticed and reported triumphantly in the war news columns of the press. It doubtless cheered up the people at home but, to the troops, one muddy position was very much like another and, as the casualties mounted and men sank wounded and dying into the swamp, as the hospitals filled up with men sick with fever and crippled with rotting feet, a six-hundred-yard advance was nothing to write home about or even anything like sufficient compensation for their efforts.
The population of Great Britain, with a century of Empire building behind them, was accustomed to regarding even large-scale wars as distant affairs that could safely be left in the hands of professional soldiers. But now their own boys were in khaki, milling around in camps and training grounds as they prepared to go to the front, and Sir Maurice Hankey was not alone in realising that when the new armies took the field people at home would take a keener and more personal interest in the conduct of the war as they followed the fortunes of their nearest and dearest. This new army, the battering ram that was to smash the German defences, must be properly used. The new recruits were of high calibre, volunteers motivated by a desire to do something positive for their country, unlike most peacetime recruits. Few of the men who joined the ranks of the Regular Army prior to the war were drawn to enlist for love of a uniform or the seductive call of fife and drum, but they were professionals to a man, so highly trained and skilled in the arts of soldiering that they were second to none. They could fire fifteen rounds a minute, and fifteen aimed rounds at that, and six months earlier they had fired their rifles to such effect at Mons that the Germans still genuinely believed that they had been met by machine-guns. But there were precious few Regulars left, and the thinned-out ranks of the old army could never have held out since November had it not been for the Territorials who, strictly speaking, had no business to be there at all.
The Territorial Army was a mere six years old, formed in 1908 from a nucleus of the old County Volunteers and augmented by young civilians who enjoyed a bit of drill and military training of an evening or a weekend, and who looked forward all year to a free holiday under canvas at the annual camp. They called them the Saturday afternoon soldiers, they were intended for ‘home service only’ and, in the event of an emergency, their role was to guard the country in the absence of the standing army which might be fighting abroad. That idea had been abandoned many months ago. The Territorial Force, as its name implied, could not be sent to serve overseas, but it could be asked to volunteer – and it had volunteered almost to a man. Now the Territorial battalions of a dozen different regiments were serving in France with the remnants of the Regulars and their reserves, and although some of the early arrivals had seen action before the end of the autumn battles, most of the Territorials were champing at the bit as they waited to get on with the war.
Lt. C. Tennant.
The poor old Territorials have little to do except keep themselves in training and a good deal of trench digging and fatigue work. And so though we have now been within sound of the guns for nearly two months we have seen nothing of the actual fighting except digging a trench before Christmas. It is a little maddening as, however inefficient we may be as compared with our own Regulars of the original expeditionary force, we are every bit as good as the second and third line troops that Germany is now bringing up: at least we should like an opportunity of seeing how we compare! However Kitchener and French know their own job best and I am very certain that all in good time we shall get our chance. In fact our Divisional General when inspecting us two days ago as good as promised that we should get a move on after this rest.
Getting a move on was what everyone wanted to do. But the most urgent need, before they could even think of it, was for more men.