Chapter 22

image

Despite the disappointing results of 9 May, Sir Douglas Haig was determined to ‘press on vigorously’ on the 10th, but an early morning meeting with his Divisional Generals, at which he intended to finalise details of the next assault, forced him to the reluctant conclusion that it would be futile for the moment to attempt to renew the attack on Aubers Ridge. One day’s fighting had resulted in the staggering loss of four hundred and fifty-eight officers and more than eleven thousand men, and the surviving troops were in such a state of confusion and disarray that it would take days to reassemble them as an orderly fighting force. But it was not so much the toll of casualties that influenced him, nor even the vehement opposition of some of his field officers. The deciding factor was the want of sufficient ammunition to guarantee a decisive result.

It was a hard pill to swallow – and all the harder in the light of the glowing reports that had reached his Headquarters trumpeting the success of the French Army on his right. The French had prepared the way with long heavy bombardments and in the first hours of the battle their success had been phenomenal. They swept across the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette, captured the defences round the chapel on its summit, thrust down into the Souchez Valley and across it towards the lower slopes of the Vimy Ridge looming ahead like a bastion to guard the Douai Plain. And there they had stopped. The French reserves were held too far back and in the time it took them to reach the front to replace the casualties and pursue the battle, the advance had slowed, the Germans had recovered from the first blow and the impetus was lost. But Marshal Joffre was far from despondent. Encouraged by the first heady success it was natural to suppose that the set-back was only a hiccup on the road to certain victory. With one more effort Vimy Ridge would be sure to fall and the Germans would be just as surely on the run. It was self-evident that the British must continue to give support by keeping the enemy busy, by pinning down his reserves and carrying out their commitment to the letter. National pride, even nationalhonour was at stake. If the attack on Aubers Ridge had to be called off, how were they to be vindicated?

One crumb of encouragement lightened the weight of Haig’s dilemma. On the extreme right of the attack where the British sector met the French, the 1st Division had succeeded in advancing the line in front of Festubert. It was a small comfort to Sir Douglas Haig that here, where it would be of greatest use to the French, a concentrated effort stood the greatest chance of success. A decision was swiftly reached. The 7th Division which had played only a minor part in the battle of Aubers Ridge would march south to Festubert. In a matter of days, when the troops had been reshuffled, when resources had been concentrated and the plans and preparations had been made, the assault would be renewed.

In the midst of this reappraisal and recasting of his tactics Sir Douglas Haig was in no mood to spare time for any journalist, not even for Colonel Tim Repington who, as military correspondent of The Times, was the only representative of the press who waspersona grata with the Army. He referred him brusquely to GHQ and there Repington met with better success. From the point of view of Sir John French, Repington arrived at an opportune moment. The Commander-in-Chief had watched the attack on Aubers Ridge from a church tower in the village of Laventie and although his view was necessarily limited and the full facts had not yet come to light, he was convinced in his own mind that, despite his careful husbanding of shells, lack of ammunition for the guns had been a major cause of the disappointing result. The War Office telegram that awaited him on his return to GHQ could not have come at a worse moment. It ordered him peremptorily to release twenty thousand rounds of ammunition from his meagre reserve for immediate dispatch to Gallipoli. It was the last straw, and although the telegram had added that the shells would be replaced ‘in a few days’ French was seething with indignation and only too willing to seize the chance to publicise his grievances by unburdening them to Repington. Six days later the explosion erupted in The Times and the shock waves travelled the length and breadth of the country. The story pulled no punches and, as Sir John French intended, the message came through stark and clear: ‘British soldiers died last week on Aubers Ridge because the British Army is short of shells.’

Lord Kitchener was furious. Mr Asquith was equally put out by the unconventional means chosen by the Commander-in-Chief to appeal direct to the public above the head of the Government. And it was not the first time. Towards the end of March, in the disappointing aftermath of Neuve Chapelle, French had complained of shortage of ammunition in two interviews to journalists which had caused considerable anxiety in the Cabinet and in the country as a whole. Lord Kitchener had categorically denied that it was true. Of course there were difficulties, but they would be resolved in time, and meanwhile, he reassured Asquith, the supply of shells was quite adequate for present requirements. The Prime Minister could hardly doubt the word of this distinguished soldier who was his own Secretary of State for War and he was easily convinced. Only three weeks earlier in a public speech at Newcastle he had set out to quash the rumours and convince the country that the stories were untrue and that all was well. Now he had been made to look a fool, and it was difficult not to lay the blame squarely at Kitchener’s door.

Lord Kitchener was not a dishonourable man but he was not above misleading, and perhaps not above hinting that the Commander-in-Chief might be making much of the lack of ammunition in order to distract attention from his own tactical failures. With every appearance of righteous indignation he denied that Sir John French had ever informed the War Office that he was unable to undertake offensive operations for lack of munitions. Even if this was true in a literal sense, it took no account of French’s many pleas and complaints. Nor did it take account of the fact that his plans and expectations for offensive operations were based on estimates of supplies which had been promised by the War Office and that the promises had not been kept. But Kitchener stood his ground. In his opinion supplies were adequate and the expenditure of shells was extravagant. Asquith was in no position to challenge him: he had no other first-hand information to enable him to form an independent judgement. While all diplomatic papers and communications received by the Foreign Office were copied, as a matter of course, for the Prime Minister, on the pretext of secrecy no communications of any kind were passed on by the Admiralty or the War Office, or even exchanged between themselves as interested parties.

Three weeks after his Newcastle speech, in which he had denied in all good faith that there was a shell shortage, and two days before the story broke in The Times, information had come into Asquith’s hands. Even before the bombshell exploded – and he had purposely asked Repington to delay publication for a day or so – the Commander-in-Chief sent two trusted members of his senior staff to London. They carried three copies of a secret memorandum in which Sir John French clearly and concisely set out the situation and stressed its gravity. They also carried copies of all correspondence and communications which had passed between GHQ and the War Office over the previous months, and were instructed to show this evidence to Lloyd George, and also to two leading members of the Opposition, Bonar Law and Arthur Balfour.

The difficulties had many strands, but the major problem boiled down to the fact that management of the war was in the hands of one man and the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was disinclined to relinquish it.

Kitchener had seen long and distinguished service but he was a soldier of the old school. His active soldiering had been far from home and his custom, traditional since time immemorial, had been to get on with a mission and to dispatch news of the outcome when it was over. The news had taken days, and occasionally weeks to reach London but since it was invariably satisfactory in the long run, and since transport and communications were so slow that consultation would have been out of the question, successive Governments had been content to leave military matters to the professional military men. Lord Kitchener had devoted his whole life to the army. He was unmarried, he was a successful commander, he enjoyed the confidence of the nation which had covered him with honours, and he saw no reason to alter the status quo.

But the times and the circumstances had changed from the days when small-scale wars and the national interest could safely be left to the professional army. Now that the whole nation was engaged in a far wider, far greater conflict on the nation’s very doorstep, now that the ‘national interest’ was also the personal interest of millions of individual citizens who were being individually urged to do their bit to help to win it, the old system simply would not do. The ‘Shell Scandal’ when it broke made this abundantly clear to everyone but Lord Kitchener himself. He was displeased, to say the least, that in defiance of cast-iron military etiquette and his own authority Sir John French had seen fit to go direct to the politicians and, worse, to use the ungentlemanly medium of the press to air his complaints and stir up trouble. It breached every canon of military etiquette, it flouted the authority of the War Office, and moreover Kitchener clung to the view that the whole tale was a gross exaggeration – and so he assured the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister was not easily reassured.

Lord Kitchener’s duties were weighty and manifold and far beyond the capacity of a single man to carry out. The vital matter of recruitment and expanding and equipping the Army, a mammoth task on its own, had fallen entirely on his shoulders. It was his responsibility to coordinate the command, to oversee the conduct of the war and to consider its political as well as strategic aspects. A million and one unforeseen details demanded his attention and, since the most able officers of the General Staff on whose experience he might have drawn had decamped to GHQ in France, the onus fell almost entirely on Lord Kitchener himself. The officers of the General Staff had been replaced by ‘dug-outs’ – elderly officers brought out of retirement – and, to a man, they were so much in awe of Lord Kitchener that the boldest among them would have hesitated to proffer advice, still less to cast doubt on the judgement of his illustrious chief. Even apart from the supply of munitions Asquith fully realised the difficulties that taxed his Secretary of State for War, but it was clear that the situation was critical.

On the question of munitions output the Government had done its best to be helpful. As far back as the previous October, largely at the instigation of Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Asquith had set up a Cabinet committee on munitions with Lloyd George himself as chairman, but any moves that it made to widen the scope of the manufacture of munitions, by mobilising as much as possible of the engineering capacity of the country and inviting engineering firms to apply for Government contracts, were frequently thwarted by the War Office. Sir Stanley von Donop, Master-General of Ordnance, backed by Kitchener himself, had no confidence in any but the Government contractors who had furnished the lesser requirements of peacetime, and was unwilling to place orders elsewhere. He was only reluctantly persuaded to allow a certain amount of sub-contracting of minor components to private firms and to acquiesce in the placement of a few orders with armament firms in the United States of America. With the cooperation of the Board of Trade, the War Office preferred to concentrate on obtaining manpower, and where possible clawing back skilled workers now serving in the Army and sending them back to the work-bench so that the capacity of the existing armaments manufacturers could expand.

Lord Kitchener, always impatient with what he saw as the interference of civilians, had finally killed off the Munitions Committee by refusing to attend its meetings on the grounds that he had no time. It had not met since early January, but Lloyd George, never afraid to speak out, had continued to voice his misgivings. It was to this ally that Sir John French had turned, and now that the matter was in the public domain the fat was well and truly in the fire. It was the catalyst that caused the underlying friction in the Government to blow up into a full-scale political crisis. It had become glaringly obvious that a modern war could not be run, as in the past, by separate departments with no supreme authority with sufficient knowledge to coordinate the strands.

The Opposition, which until now had been patriotically cooperative, was beginning to voice its unease, and shocked public opinion showed signs of becoming hostile. Both had to be mollified.

The situation of the Liberal government, now ten years in power, was a peculiar one. Its present majority in the House of Commons depended on a pact with the smaller National and Labour parties, while the Conservatives (the official opposition) made up the largest single party in the House. The Conservatives, therefore, had to be treated with consideration and Asquith had sought to circumvent party politics and gain their goodwill by co-opting into the War Council two of their leading members, Balfour and Bonar Law, and occasionally inviting others to attend its meetings on an ad hoc basis. This was as far as he could go. There was no question of making the Opposition privy to the detailed deliberations of the Cabinet, even in so far as they affected the war. Party politics ruled that out of court, for with such a narrow margin in the House, Liberal Cabinet Ministers would never have countenanced relinquishing or even sharing their power with Parliament.

The War Council was another matter. Since it was merely an extension of the long-established Committee of Imperial Defence the appointment of members was traditionally left to the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day. The War Council was not concerned in the day-to-day running of the war. It met infrequently and, like its parent committee, its function was confined to discussing and determining matters of long-term policy. It had last met eight weeks previously on 19 March, the day after ships of the Royal Navy launched the attempt to force the Dardanelles, but it had not been summoned to discuss the details and implications of a military attack on Gallipoli and, by the time Asquith next called them together on 14 May, a great deal of water had flowed under the bridge. It was a gloomy meeting. A review of the situation showed impasse on the western front and signs that things were going badly with the Russians in the east. Worst of all was the situation in the Dardanelles. The naval attempt to force the straits had failed, there was little chance of renewing it, and the gamble of a military attack (which, had it been launched simultaneously, might easily have succeeded) seemed already to have been lost. The far-reaching strategy to relieve the pressure on Russia, open the road to the Danube and encourage the vacillating neutrals to come in on the side of the allies was in ruins. What was to be done?

The War Council considered four options, but, now that the troops had been committed, the possibility of withdrawing them was unanimously dismissed and there were only three real alternatives: to push on rapidly to victory, which they recognised was impossible without substantial reinforcements; to settle down to a siege, which would strain available resources to breaking point; to send out reinforcements for a new all-out assault, to which the same objections applied. After many hours’ deliberation the War Council came to no decision other than to ask Sir Ian Hamilton what size of force he would require in order to guarantee the capture of the Gallipoli peninsula, and Sir Maurice Hankey sourly noted that this was ‘a question that ought to have been put to him before ever a man was landed’.

It was the last important meeting of the War Council for the political crisis was boiling up. Asquith now realised that there was no alternative but to form a Coalition Government, to disband the War Council, set up a Ministry of Munitions with full powers, to dissolve the bickering Cabinet and re-form it on non-party lines even if it meant that some of his closest colleagues would have to go. The Shell Scandal was one factor in the fall of the Liberal government, but it was the Dardanelles fiasco and the resignation of the First Sea Lord, Lord Fisher, that had finally brought matters to a head and forced the Prime Minister’s hand.

It was not the first time that Fisher had threatened resignation. For months now there had been growing hostility between the First Sea Lord, the naval man, and his chief, Winston Churchill, who occupied the political post of First Lord of the Admiralty. The idea of subduing the forts that protected the Dardanelles and forcing the straits by sea-power alone had been Winston Churchill’s baby.* Fisher’s baby was the Navy. As First Sea Lord in the pre-war years before his first retirement he had nurtured its growth, had scrapped obsolete battleships, introduced the mighty Dreadnoughts and fast modern battle-cruisers, and modernised its structure. Now, at the age of seventy-four, he was not prepared to risk his ships under pressure from a landsman thirty years his junior, in what he increasingly viewed as a hare-brained scheme.

Fisher had been lukewarm about the scheme from the start and his attitude changed to tight-lipped hostility. It had been one thing when the plan involved a swift blow, a short commitment and a high probability of success. Now that the naval attempt had failed with the loss of two of his battleships and the disabling of another, now that the ‘disengagement’ in the event of failure, which had been the attraction of the original naval plan, was no longer on the cards, now that the Dardanelles enterprise had drifted into what showed every likelihood of being a long drawn out campaign requiring the Navy’s continued presence, he was no longer prepared to support it by risking any part of his fleet. In Fisher’s view the Royal Navy should bide its time, blockade German ports, tempt the German Navy out to fight and ultimately decide the war in the Baltic. He might have been persuaded, as he had been earlier in the year, but despite the genuine efforts of Churchill to mollify the old Admiral his simmering resentment had grown over the months to something approaching hatred. He hated what he saw as Churchill’s highhanded attitude in pressing ahead with his own plans, in taking his own soundings, in communicating with Naval Commanders over the head of his First Sea Lord and above all he hated his unbridled enthusiasm. The First Sea Lord saw no alternative but to resign. It was the cue for a shake-up all round and, together with the munitions crisis, an unmistakable signal that it was time for the politicians to get a grip on the war.

Lord Kitchener had become increasingly awkward to deal with and it was tempting to take advantage of the re-shaping of the Cabinet to replace him as Secretary of State for War, but although Kitchener’s star was waning in political quarters, he was extremely popular with the rest of the country. To most people Kitchener was the war. It was his face that stared from every bill-board and gazed up from the pages of every magazine. Kitchener’s imperious finger had beckoned the nation to war and it was the first of Kitchener’s Armies that was on the point of leaving for the front to win it. To the public at large Kitchener himself seemed to personify stern British determination, and the desirable virtues of honour and duty had been the hall-mark of his distinguished career. Plans were already afoot to celebrate his birthday on 24 June with a mammoth recruiting campaign, and arm-bands stamped ‘Kitchener’s Birthday Recruit’ were being turned out in thousands ready for the occasion. Lord Kitchener was a national hero and a large segment of the female population of the United Kingdom was partial to heroes and would not be content until every eligible young man in the country was wearing heroic khaki.

Much of the recruiting propaganda was aimed at stimulating women to encourage their men to enlist. There were posters depicting noble matrons – ‘Women Of Britain Say Go!’; white-haired old ladies at cottage doors drawing the attention of a reluctant son to troops marching on the road outside – ‘It’s Your Duty, Lad!’; young girls arm-in-arm with a soldier – ‘Is Your Best Boy In Khaki?’; and many women regarded it as a personal mission to accost every young man in civvies to shame him into joining up.

Jeremy Bentham and his friend Bob Southin had been favoured by the attentions of one such lady on a train journey from Harwich to London, and somewhat to their astonishment for they had been in the war from the very beginning. It was true that they could be loosely described as wearing civilian clothes, but ‘loosely’ was an appropriate word for their suits fitted where they touched and, on that particular day, five days after their escape from the internment camp at Groningen in Holland, they were already coming apart at the seams. Bentham and Southin were two of the fifteen hundred men of the 1st Brigade of the Royal Naval division who had entered neutral Holland when they were cut off by the advancing German Army after the Battle of Antwerp the previous September, and they had been languishing in internment ever since.*

Able Seaman J. S. Bentham, Benbow Bn., 1st Brig., Royal Naval Div.

It was an elderly lady who got into our compartment and tackled us and did she feel small when Southin told her we were escaped prisoners of war! Of course we were very pleased with ourselves, but we must have looked like a couple of scarecrows. At the camp the Dutch officials opened and inspected all our large parcels but they didn’t bother about small ones, so I wrote to a friend of mine to send out a couple of suits folded up small, a bit at a time. I think his sister cut out the pieces and he sent them one at a time, a sleeve, a trouser leg or the front of a jacket, and thread and some buttons. It took us some months to collect all the pieces and then we had to sew them together, not very expertly.

Groningen wasn’t like being in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. We weren’t short of food, though the diet was pretty dull, but tradesmen came to the camp with barrows selling cake and fruit and chocolate and cigarettes and we had plenty of money to buy things, because we were paid a certain amount by the Dutch authorities and I also got a monthly pay-cheque from the Dutch agents of Cocks-Biddulph, the bank I’d worked for in London. We also used to make photograph frames out of Dutch cigar boxes which we sent to Selfridges in London and in return they sent us out cigarettes and anything we needed, so we were quite well off, and the local people were very good to us. In fact the camp was open to civilian visitors every Sunday, and whole crowds of them used to come to see us just as though they were visiting the zoo and we really felt like caged animals. But I got quite attached to a Dutch girl who used to come and talk to me through the barbed wire and we got so friendly that she persuaded her father to write to the Commandant to ask if I could visit their house for a meal now and then. We got so friendly that one evening, just before I was due to go back to the camp, her elder brother asked me when I was going to give his sister a ring! Well that really scared me and it certainly speeded up our plans to get away.

Of course, we’d been planning it for months, and the first thing we did was to change our religion. That meant that instead of attending church parade in the camp we were marched down every Sunday to the Walsche Kerk in the town, accompanied by a guard who waited outside during the service. There were about ten of us in the party and either the others had the same idea of getting away or perhaps they just wanted a change of scene and a breath of air. I’d also done my best to learn a bit of Dutch but there were a lot of words I didn’t know. However, the following Sunday we put on our civilian suits under our naval uniforms, and we were jolly glad of the baggy trousers for we could stuff our caps into our socks. Half-way along the road to the church I stopped to do up my bootlaces and then Southin and I dashed into a wood alongside the road, tore off our blouses and bell-bottoms, hid our seamens’ uniforms under some thick bushes and got back on the road further up as a couple of very disreputable civilians. We avoided the town and found the road for Assen which was about twenty miles away, and of course we were terrified we would be picked up on the road, but we got there late in the afternoon and went into a café and I ordered two beef steaks with potatoes. We were starving by then! But the man was suspicious and right away he asked us if we’d escaped from Groningen and he also told us that the police would give him fifty guilders’ reward if he reported us. So I said, ‘Well I’ll give you a hundred if you don’t,’ and I showed him the money. His manner immediately changed and he said we should be safer upstairs and showed us to a bedroom and said he would cook us a meal if we paid extra. We were a bit worried when he went out and locked the door from the outside, but he played fair and came up with two plates with gorgeous steaks and vegetables and two glasses of lager and he said that in the morning he would take us to the railway station and told me what tickets to ask for and made me repeat it in Dutch. He would walk in front of us next, he said, but we were on no account to try to speak to him. I told him that if he did this I would give him an extra fifty guilders.

Next morning after we’d had a good night’s sleep and some coffee, he was as good as his word. When we got to the station I asked for ‘Twee kartyes naar Rotterdam,’ which I had practised saying. I bought a paper and pretended to read it when we got on the train and Southin closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. We should have changed at Utrecht but we stayed in the train because we saw some Dutch police on the platform and eventually we arrived, not in Rotterdam, but Amsterdam! Well, of course, our idea in going to Rotterdam was to try to get on a ship, so we hadn’t the faintest idea what to do next. We started walking round the town and after a while I spotted a shop with an English name. It was called ‘Bell’s Asbestos Company’ so in we went and I put on as casual an air as I could. When the man came forward to serve us I said, ‘Is Mr Bell in?’ He laughed and said the place was part of a chain of shops in Europe and there was no Mr Bell. So I then spilled the beans and explained who we were. He was very nice, and an Englishman, because Holland being a neutral country there were any number of English people living and working there, but he told us that if he were caught helping escapees he would be expelled from Holland. However, after he phoned the British Consul and the Consul said that on no account were we to go near his office and that he didn’t wish to know or hear anything about us, he decided to help us himself. Needless to say this was a huge relief.

He didn’t like the look of our scruffy caps so he went out and bought us two straw hats and then took us to a café in a side street and bought us a meal. Then, the same way as we’d done in the morning, we followed him to the station where I bought tickets for Rotterdam and then followed him on to the platform where he stopped and watched from a discreet distance as we got on the train. We reached Rotterdam without any other mishap but the next problem was to get into the docks because there were police at the entrance. So we hung about and then we saw a man with a huge load on a barrow pushing it towards the docks, so we whipped off our straw hats and bent down and helped him to push the barrow through the entrance. He was quite pleased about that andwewere delighted. Nobody challenged us, and the police took no notice.

Our friend in Amsterdam had found out that the SS Cromer was leaving that night and told us to make for it. We waited until no one was about, then ran up the gang-plank on to the ship and were met by the cook who was lounging about the deck. I greased his palm quite considerably, but I think he’d have helped us anyway. The cook was the only man on board and he hid us below until the Captain and the crew came back. Then our troubles were over! The Captain had us dressed in greasy overalls and told us to look busy when the police came round to inspect the boat before she sailed. When they came into the engine room the Captain came with them and he kept telling them to hurry up, because he didn’t want to miss the tide. What a night that was, for the cook had used the money I gave him and sent ashore for a lot of beer, and next morning we were up on deck feasting our eyes on dear old England as we approached Harwich.

HMS Maidstone was the guard ship at the entrance to Harwich Harbour and our Captain signalled across and in no time a ship’s cutter came to fetch us over to the Maidstone and the Captain himself was waiting to meet us on the deck – two such scruffy individuals that it must have given the matelots quite a turn to see him shaking hands with us, because the Captain of a ship is nearly God to them. He took us to his cabin for a drink and gave us a fright by reminding us that, as from the time we had escaped, we were officially deserters. But he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just contact your headquarters and report as soon as you can,’ and he gave us travel warrants for the train journey to London. It was the happiest journey of my life! We were in such high spirits that we simply couldn’t stop laughing – it was so marvellous to feel free and back in our own country again. Best of all was arriving at Liverpool Street. We could hardly believe that we were really back in dear old London!

‘Dear old London’ had changed considerably since Bentham had left it in August the previous year and the war had laid its mark on the streets. There were fewer young men about and most of those there were seemed to be in khaki. There were newspaper-sellers on every corner – far more, it seemed to Bentham, than ever before – for Londoners were avid for news, and recruiting posters met the eye wherever they turned. Flag-sellers were out in force collecting for war charities and the bill-boards advertising West End plays showed that theatreland too was working for the war. Basil Hallam (soon to enlist himself) was appearing in The Man Who Stayed at Home and Alsace was still enjoying a successful run. Along the Strand and Shaftesbury Avenue diligent ladies, bent on personal recruitment, haunted stage doors to accost young actors and any likely passers-by, and any civilian-clad young man who managed to escape their clutches still had to run the gauntlet of recruiting offices liberally sprinkled across the West End. There were half a dozen between the Strand and Hay market alone, each with an eagle-eyed recruiting sergeant pacing the pavement outside on the look-out for potential recruits. All of them were conspicuously decorated with flags and posters, but it was the recruiting office of the Royal Naval Division that drew the biggest crowds for they had thoughtfully filled a window with a display of shells and rifles and various interesting items salvaged from the battle-field plus a life-size wax figure in the uniform of the Royal Naval Division.

Since Jeremy Bentham’s uniform was still lying hidden beneath bushes far away in Holland he was anxious to obtain a replacement.He presented himself at the depot at Blackfriars in the role of returned hero and not only persuaded the storekeeper to fit him out with new clothes but, feeling that he richly deserved promotion, also induced him to hand over a Leading Seaman’s badge; This at least would prevent him from doing sentry duty when he reported to the Royal Naval Division at its base in the Crystal Palace. Suitably arrayed he made his way to Sydenham to report for duty, was welcomed with open arms and awarded fourteen days’ leave. It was some compensation for the anticlimax of his home-coming.

Able Seaman J. S. Bentham.

I went home expecting a hero’s welcome, but when I arrived at the house I couldn’t make anyone hear, so I went next door and the neighbours told me that my father and stepmother were away on holiday in Newquay. So I had to set off to my married sister’s in Wembley and she was suitably pleased to see me so unexpectedly. My father cut short his holiday and came home but he was far from glad to see me and instead of a welcome I was told I was an exceedingly silly boy. There I was, he said, safe in Holland for the duration and now due to my stupidity I would have to go back into the war. I told him that was the whole point of escaping. However he soon came round and I rather think he was quite proud of my exploits because that night he took me down to the local pub and spent the evening telling his friends all about my adventures. That was another good night, because everyone wanted to treat me.

But my real moment of glory came at the first pay parade after I’d returned to the Crystal Palace. On pay parade your name was called, you took a step forward smartly and advanced to the table with your cap extended to receive your pay. Of course the average sailor had only a week or two’s pay to draw, but when it came to me there was quite a bit as I had only been paid one guilder every ten days and I had eight months’ pay owing. Well! My cap was covered with golden sovereigns and you could hear the gasp from all the rookies as I marched back, for they didn’t know me from Adam, or where I had come from. I had more than twenty golden sovereigns in my cap. Did I feel rich! Of course I didn’t say anything about my self-appointed promotion, but no one questioned it, and I was never ordered to take the Leading Seaman’s badge off. Best of all, I was told that my application for a commission had been granted and I started training right away. I was cock of the walk and no mistake!

I knew I was a lucky man because I soon found out about the terrible casualties my Division had suffered in Gallipoli, and I knew full well that if our Brigade hadn’t been interned after Antwerp, I might easily have been one of them.

The five weeks that began on 22 April with the German attack at Ypres accounted for the highest casualties since the start of the war and the full cost of the landings at Gallipoli was only beginning to be known. Every day fresh casualty lists told the tale of the push at Aubers Ridge and Festubert. Nothing had been gained and all there was to show were the long, long lists of soldiers killed, missing or wounded that filled so many columns of the daily newspapers, and the shower of official telegrams that were dreaded by every family with a boy at the front. Even the sight of a telegraph boy cycling down a street could strike terror into a nervous heart.

When a telegram arrived for Jock Macleod’s family his mother was at the local VAD hospital where she worked three afternoons a week.

Miss Betty Macleod.

Friday May 21st. Both parents were out when the wire came, Mother at the hospital and Daddy playing bowls in the Trinity Fellows’ Garden, so Mollie and I set off on our bicycles to find them. Of course they both had fits. They saw us coming waving a telegram – poor Mother turned as white as a sheet and couldn’t stop shaking for ages, and Daddy got a shock too, though after the nasty turn she’d had herself Mother warned us to call out as soon as he saw us to say it was good news. The telegram was from Jock to say that he had leave and was arriving in Cambridge by the 6.15. The whole family tootled up to the station to meet Jock. He looked tired and pale but quite fat, and he was very cheerful. Went out with him and Daddy after supper to see the war telegrams at the library in a sort of triumphal progress down the middle of the street – so many people stopped us and wanted to speak to Jock.

When we got home we settled down to make swabs for the hospital while we all chatted to Jock. What we gleaned was this. On May 19th Sir John French inspected three Battalions of his Brigade and congratulated them. He said they had been subjected to the most intense shell-fire ever known in the history of war. He would not have blamed them, nor been at all surprised, if he had found them on the other side of Ypres and if it had not been for them saving Ypres Italy would not have come into the war. Ypres was to be added to the names on their regimental colours. Jock says there are only seven officers left in his Battalion and he is second in seniority now. He told a tale about one of the men who said, when he was bayoneting a German, This is for the Lusitania’ – prod – ‘And there’s another for me’ – prod. Laughed and talked until very late.

Saturday May 22nd. Jock slept on till eleven o’clock and then had breakfast in his dressing-gown. Meanwhile we went out to buy him sweets and fruit. He ate nearly the whole lot before dinner! In the afternoon we took him up to tennis and tea at the club and Mother came to watch, but Jock got weary soon so we all went home. A few more tales came out. One sergeant sang ‘Here we are. Here we are, Here we are again’ all through a bayonet charge and he has been recommended for the VC. Glorious day. Supper in the garden.

The warm May evening, the gentle pleasures of a quiet Cambridge garden, were in sharp contrast to the miseries of battle in the Ypres salient and, in the bosom of his admiring family, with teenage sisters hanging on his lips avid for ‘tales’, a soldier who had endured its privations could be forgiven for feeling that mild exaggeration was preferable to the truth.

Jock Macleod had a glorious leave. He dined with his father at Caius College, picnicked with his mother and sisters on the river, showed off to admiring friends and acquaintances, consumed gargantuan home-cooked meals and still found room to eat fruit and sweets galore. On the last full day of his leave the whole family went up to stay with his grandmother in London.

Miss Betty Macleod.

Tuesday May 25th. We travelled in state – First Class! – and went straight to 22 Harley Street, then went out a little walk with Jock who bought an electric torch. A great family dinner, all of our lot and Grannie and aunts and uncles. About 9.30 Mother, Uncle Arnold, Jock, Mollie and me went in a taxi to the West End Cinema and spent an interesting three-quarters of an hour. Saw pictures of the Italian Army, cavalry and artillery, coming down mountains etcetera. Everybody cheered!

The news that Italy had declared war on Austria, if not yet on Germany, was almost the only cause for satisfaction in the whole dreary month. In German-occupied Brussels, where for obvious reasons the population was not able to celebrate openly, grocery stores packed their windows with mountainous displays of macaroni and their customers demonstrated their patriotism by purchasing large quantities. In London, where there was a sizeable Italian community, crowds of flag-waving expatriates paraded through the streets, scooping up so many Londoners as they went that the police had to be brought in to control the march to the Italian embassy where the ambassador obligingly appeared on the portico waving an outsize Italian flag. The following morning Victoria Station was mobbed by hordes of excited straw-boatered Italians bound for Italy to join the Army, each with a large excited family to see him off. The shrieking, the cheering, the unrestrained weeping, the shouted farewells, almost raised the roof. There were women with babies in arms and a brood of dark-eyed children at their heels, there were stout mothers and moustachioed fathers, aged grandmothers in voluminous black, and troupes of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews. Small girls wore hair-ribbons in the national colours, small boys waved flags, and adults of both sexes were decked out in sashes of red, white and green. Some carried baskets, also beribboned in Italy’s colours, and filled with flowers for the women to throw, Italian style, as the men went off to war.

Even after the noisy emotional farewells, when the travellers had passed through the barrier to board the train and were craning out of doors and windows for a last wave and a last look, hundreds of their relatives, impelled by a single impulse, charged the barrier and poured on to the platform, running the length of the train in search of some particular Luigi or Marco or Antonio, to bombard him with flowers, to claim one more embrace, to call one more arrivederci, to hold up a child for a last fraternal or fatherly kiss.

It was beyond the power of the single bewildered guard to control them and it required the assistance of several policemen before the crowd was induced to stand back and the train doors could be banged shut. When order had been restored, and the flustered guard managed to summon up sufficient breath to blow the final whistle, the train steamed out a full ten minutes late.

The Government would dearly have liked a similar demonstration of enthusiasm that would inspire more Britishers to enlist. The casualty figures alone, at Ypres, at Aubers Ridge, at Festubert, and also at Gallipoli, spoke for themselves of the continuing need for men. Lord Kitchener had let it be known that he would need a million and a half new recruits before the year was out and, setting aside the difficulty of equipping such an army in the immediate future, no serious politician believed that anything like the required number could be found without introducing conscription. But, fired by the success of his recruiting campaigns in the first months of the war, Kitchener remained stubbornly wedded to the principle of voluntary service and the army had now lowered the obligatoryheight for would-be soldiers by two inches in order to encourage smaller men who had been rejected once to try again. They also raised the age limit to forty.

Some imaginative newspaper readers came up with bizarre ideas to swell the ranks and one letter outlining a proposal that verged on the sadistic appeared in the Daily Mirror. It was boldly headed ‘A Chance for the Unfit’:

There are some thousands of men in this country in the early stages of consumption who are willing to fight, but cannot pass the medical test. Why not form a battalion of them, train them to shoot (no long marches or strenuous exercises) and let them go to the front? We should then have a body of men to draw on for those hazardous enterprises which sometimes have to be undertaken, and which practically mean certain destruction. These men would vastly prefer such a glorious end to the prospect of a lingering and miserable death at home.

It was signed with the pseudonym ‘ΤΒ’. No one, least of all unfortunate victims of tuberculosis, was much taken with the idea.

Before the end of May the battle at Ypres had fizzled out. Even the Germans were temporarily short of shells. The attempt to capture Festubert had been given up. Thousands of soldiers had died and the hospital ships plying back and forth from France to England and from the Dardanelles to Malta, were carrying ever-increasing loads of wounded.

Towards the end of that momentous month of May the Coalition Government formally took office. One of the first decisions of the new Cabinet was to set up a Cabinet Committee solely concerned with sorting out affairs in the Dardanelles.

Something had to be done.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!