Chapter 4

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Three miles away at his headquarters at St Omer, the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, in consultation with his staff officers, was giving the future very serious thought indeed. There was a great deal to think about and the Commander-in-Chief was a frustrated man. He wanted to get on with the war and it seemed to him that people and events were conspiring against him. He was under pressure from two directions – by General Joffre, in command of the French armies, who required his help in mounting an offensive of his own, and by the War Council in London who appeared to Sir John French to be thwarting his every move and had, moreover, failed to keep the promises of supplying the men and munitions on which his plans depended. Part of the trouble lay in the fact that the War Council was not convinced that French’s plans were sound or even if the war on the western front should be carried on in more than token terms. They were staggered by the casualties, disillusioned by the lack of any significant gains, and dismayed above all by the total failure of attacks undertaken in conjunction with the French in mid-December. They had seriously considered withdrawing the British Expeditionary Force completely, leaving a strong reserve near the French coast in case of emergency, and sending the bulk of the troops with the new armies, as they became-available, to strike at the enemy in some other place where their efforts might possibly bring the war to a speedier end. Opinion was divided as to where that place should be, but the politicians were united in the view that the deadlock on the western front was absolute and that the chances of either French or British breaking through the German lines were small.

The Germans had been digging in and, even in winter conditions, with the advantage of higher, drier, ground they had managed to construct a formidable network of defences protected by burgeoning thickets of barbed wire that seemed to British observers to be expanding to forests as the winter days passed. Since the lines were continuous and there were no flanks to be turned there was nothing for it but to sit it out or even, in the last resort, to get out.

The French who were defending their own soil, and were in no position to get out, would not have taken kindly to this idea, even if anyone had had the courage to suggest it. But neither would Sir John French. Far from London and the deliberations of the War Council the British and French Commanders had been hatching plans of their own. General Joffre wished to launch an offensive that would strike at the Germans’ Achilles heel – those long and straggling lines of supply that led from the heart of France across the conquered territories to the heart of Germany.

The line held by the Germans ran from the Alps across the Vosges mountains in Alsace, into Lorraine, across Champagne, swinging north through Picardy and Flanders to meet the North Sea on the coast of Belgium. It was a long, long line to keep supplied with troops and materials and behind it in places the roads and rail lines essential to German transport and communications were few and far between. Joffre’s plan was to breach them in a series of piecemeal attacks on either side of the huge salient where the German line bulged deep into France. He would strike north from Reims, north from Verdun, and east from Arras, and he would keep up the pressure, gradually squeezing, always tightening his grip. It might take months, but the prize would be worth it, for if the French could slice across the salient cutting German communications as they went, the enemy would be deprived of his lifeline to the Fatherland and might well be obliged to retire and eventually give up the line.

This plan attracted Sir John French, for it fitted in well with a plan of his own. It was an idea which had met with only half-hearted approval from the War Council, which had already turned down his plan to attack with the Belgian Army up the Belgian coast along the minuscule strip of unflooded land that lay behind the sand dunes and the sea. That project had been mooted and encouraged by Winston Churchill who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had promised naval support – but now Churchill had other fish to fry and the War Council, as a whole, had a shoal of them. Since the end of October when Turkey had entered the war on the side of the Germans, the options had increased, and it seemed that every minister had his own pet theory as to how the war should be waged. Fisher, the First Sea Lord, favoured an attack on Germany from the Baltic; Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, favoured striking at Austria by attacking from the Adriatic coast; Lord Kitchener proposed launching an attack on the Turks from the coast of Palestine. But it was Winston Churchill who came up with the one irresistible idea. To seize the Dardanelles, to capture Constantinople and thus, at one blow, open up the Black Sea highway to the Russians, relieve the pressure on Russia’s army on the eastern front,and – best of all – force open Germany’s back door by way of the Danube. Not least of the attractions was that all this would be achieved by the Royal Navy who would merely be required to enter the straits and bombard the forts that protected them. Casualties would be few, and only a small force of men need be landed in the wake of the navy to secure the forts and raise the British flag. The plan had been drawn up by Admiral Carden, Commander of the Mediterranean fleet, at Winston Churchill’s request, and it was more than irresistible. All things being equal, it was fool-proof.

It was put forward at a meeting of the War Council on 13 January – the very meeting at which Sir John French’s plan to attempt an advance up the Belgian coast had been turned down. French had travelled to London to attend it and even he had reacted with lukewarm (and temporary) enthusiasm to Winston Churchill’s plan, presented with all the force of Churchillian passion and eloquence. But he was not prepared to regard an expedition to the Dardanelles as a substitute for action on the western front, and so far as that was concerned he had ideas of his own.

Now that the plan for a coastal attack had been finally scotched Sir John French began to consider alternative plans of attack – for attack he must, if only to raise the morale of the troops ‘after their trying and enervating experiences of winter in the trenches’. On 8 February he put his view cogently in a memorandum to the War Council. Nowhere had the experience of the troops been more ‘trying and enervating’ than in the flat lands at the end of the British line where the flooded River Lys and its tributaries seeped across the marsh. It was here the Commander-in-Chief proposed to mount an offensive. He did not accept the view that it was impossible to break through the German line, and he said so forcibly. An attack at Neuve Chapelle held out several tantalising possibilities. Not least was the chance – and French and his staff believed it to be a certainty – of capturing the Aubers Ridge that ran along the eastern edge of the valley. It was not much of a ridge, a mere four miles long, with a maximum elevation of fourteen metres at most, but it was high enough to give the Germans who held it a considerable advantage. If the offensive were launched as soon as conditions improved and the foul weather began to abate, the troops could be on top of the ridge in two days at most, and out of the slough forever.

Sir John French was encouraged in this idea by General Joffre, who informed him that, as part of his own ambitious project to breach the German salient, he proposed to launch his 10th Army to force the German front and capture the high ground to the east between Arras a few miles to the south and la Bassée where the French sector joined the British. If the British could attack simultaneously on the French left, the possibilities were boundless. Since this was exactly what Sir John French had in mind, he was delighted. But Joffre made one condition. If his offensive was to succeed, if he were to be in a position to press home his advantage, he must have more men. He had two whole Army Corps north of the British line at Ypres and he was insistent that Sir John French should now replace them with British troops and extend his own line to the north.

The Commander-in-Chief was not averse to this idea – indeed he had first proposed it himself when he had mooted his Belgian coast offensive in order to place the British Army adjacent to the Belgians. The fact was that, with a conglomeration of units and nationalities still holding the line in positions where the early battles had left them, the allied line in the north was something of a hotch-potch creating unnecessary difficulties of liaison and command. The teeming roads behind it were a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of uniforms and nationalities, for there were always troops on the move. French Cuirassiers on horseback, their once-gleaming breastplates dulled and rusting in the all-pervading damp; turbanned Indian troops hunched against the cold; foot-slogging poilus, mud-spattered in their horizon blue; Tommies, muffled up in khaki, leather jerkins and a variety of woollen caps, mufflers and mittens that would have reduced a peacetime sergeant-major to apoplexy. And in the extreme north, Belgian troops on their way to the marshes where the allied line trickled into flooded land, and where the line itself was little more than a straggle of duckboard causeways and island outposts in the morass.*

For the British to sidestep and join up with the Belgians, for the piecemeal French corps, at present between them, to go south and join up with the main French Army would obviously make sense. But, since the proposal had been put forward, things had changed. General Joffre had already reduced the force that stood between the British and the coast by more than a hundred thousand men in order to create an armee de manoeuvre – a flying column that could be held in reserve and thrust in to support any part of his three-hundred-mile front that might be seriously threatened. Without the support of a strong French force standing between them and the sea the British front was more vulnerable than ever and the men who held it were already strained to the limit. It would be a tall order to supply troops to replace the two corps of the French Army that stood between the British and Belgians on a front that ran eight miles north from Ypres, for a corps of the French Army at full strength comprised thirty-six thousand men. But it was a quiet front for the moment, and Sir John French had been confident that he could replace them and hold the line with half as many. All he required was two divisions – but they would have to be good ones, and professional to a man.

Two first-class divisions* made up from Regular battalions returned from overseas had already arrived and taken over part of the front from the French. A third (the 29th Division) now assembling in England had been promised and the 1st Canadian Division was expected to embark shortly for France. But the War Council was having second thoughts, and it was a severe blow to Sir John French when he was informed on 19 February that the 29th Division was no longer available.

Three days earlier there had been a drastic change of plan. Even as the fleet was steaming towards the Dardanelles carrying with it the hopes and aspirations of the War Council a bombshell had exploded in their midst and it had been dropped by the Admiralty Staff. They now declared that, whatever its initial success, the strength of the Royal Navy alone would not be enough to force the Dardanelles, to capture Constantinople and to force a Turkish garrison on the Gallipoli Peninsula to evacuate it without a fight. The fact was that the professional sailor and First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, had been pressured and out-argued by the politician Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. But Fisher had all along been deeply suspicious of the plan. Now the Admiralty Staff had dug in its heels and made its views known in a memorandum that amounted to an ultimatum. Admiral Sir Henry Jackson had set out the situation clearly and concisely and in his last sentence he punched the message home: ‘The naval bombardment is not recommended as a sound military operation, unless a strong military force is ready to assist in the operation, or at least to follow it up immediately the forts are silenced.’

This was a disconcerting departure from the original plan, so tempting in its promise of easy victory, so seductive in its power to demonstrate to skittish Bulgaria, still teetering indecisively on the fence, that the allies were on the side of the angels and it had best join them forthwith. Reluctantly, and after much discussion, the War Council gave way. It was true that there were not many troops to spare – but there was still the 29th Division. Two battalions of Royal Marines, detailed to provide landing parties to finish off the forts after bombardment, were already on the Greek island of Lemnos (borrowed to provide a forward base) and it was likely that the French could be persuaded to help, for the French Government had already sent a flotilla to assist the Royal Navy in attacking the straits. Why should they not send a division also?* It was agreed to ask them, and to send such troops as could be raised to Lemnos to be on the spot to assist the navy if need be. If a real emergency arose, troops could be brought from Egypt to reinforce them. No one seemed to remember that the beauty of the naval plan was that, if it did not succeed, it could be speedily broken off and, without loss of face, be regarded as a raid – a mere growl, a baring of the British bulldog’s teeth, which might be equally effective in reminding Bulgaria that, if it chose, it could snarl and bite.

The fleet was even now steaming towards the Dardanelles and would attack in three days’ time. It would be at least a month before the troops could possibly get there. If it struck any member of the War Council that it would be wise to postpone the naval operations until the troops were at hand, his misgiving was overruled. They were first and foremost politicians, and they were on the brink of a demonstration that would bring vacillating Bulgaria, and perhaps Greece and Rumania as well, into the fold. There was no time to be lost. Throughout their consultations with the Admiralty it did not occur to the War Council to seek the advice of the soldiers on the General Staff. No one even thought to inform the General Staff that a military operation was contemplated.

Lord Kitchener had by no means decided to agree to the proposal that the 29th Division should be sent to the Dardanelles – but he was equally reluctant to throw his last remaining force of expert, seasoned soldiers into the maw of the western front which had already chewed up the cream of the British Army and with little to show for it. Sir John French was informed that the 46th Division would be sent in its place. Since this division from the South Midlands was a Territorial Division which, in the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, would require more training and tutelage in practical trench warfare before it would be fit for front-line service, this well and truly threw a spanner into the works, and French was considerably annoyed. Without first-class troops it was now impossible for him to accede to Joffre’s request to stretch his line and sidestep to release the French troops Joffre required to strengthen his attack. If he did so, he would have too few troops for his own offensive. As it was, the untried and inexperienced Canadians were already earmarked to take over part of the front adjacent to the line of his proposed attack in order to release troops of his own to stiffen it. This then was his dilemma: to relieve the French and abandon his offensive, or to refuse to relieve the French and go ahead with it. Alternatively he could try to persuade Joffre to change his mind or, at the very least, to agree to delay the takeover until after their joint attack had been crowned, as it surely would be, with success. Approach after approach, meeting after meeting, throughout the last days of February produced no result. Joffre was adamant. No troops, no joint attack, and that was that.

Based on what Joffre saw as the abysmal performance of the British troops in the joint December offensive when they failed to achieve the smallest result and had incurred heavy casualties Joffre held a poor opinion of their chances of succeeding. At best he looked on the British contribution to the ‘joint offensive’ as providing a useful diversion on his left. The breakthrough, if it came at all, would be made by his own troops – and only if there were enough of them to carry it through. Lacking French elan, in Joffre’s secret opinion, the British Army could be most usefully employed in holding a static line and keeping the enemy pinned down while the French got on with the real job.

Already Joffre had modified his plans and halved his demands. He now required the British Commander-in-Chief to relieve a single corps, not two. But, without the 29th Division, even that was beyond Sir John French, and without the release of the troops that would provide him with a cast-iron guarantee of success, Joffre had no intention of committing his Tenth Army to another forlorn ‘joint offensive’ only to be dragged down by British failure. He would wait until the time was ripe. As for Sir John French, if he was still determined to fight, then he must fight alone.

Not far away from GHQ where their future, had they known it, was being decided in the scores of telegrams and memoranda flying between St Omer, Downing Street and Whitehall, the 3rd Londons had spent the weeks of indecision shaking down, learning to use their new equipment, and carrying out intensive training in open country. The weather was foul, and although the hours of wintry daylight were blessedly short, ploughing around the sodden, often snow-covered, fields, fighting an invisible foe in imaginary battles, was not a pastime that appealed to them. The whole of the London Infantry Brigade was there (apart from the 1st Battalion which had been left behind to assist the relief garrison in Malta) and the one bright spot in the dark February days was occasional meetings on the march with their sister battalion, the 2nd Londons. This event was eagerly looked forward to and no matter how tired and dispirited they were, it never failed to cheer them up. This was due to the doctor’s horse.

When horses were issued to the officers at Etaples the medical officer of the 2nd Battalion had acquired a charger whose pure white coat would have been admired anywhere else but in France where, as his brother officers gleefully pointed out, it would present a prime target to an enemy marksman if he rode within a mile of the battle-line. Captain McHoul had taken this to heart and, with the assistance of his servant, had attempted to dye his horse with permanganate of potash. This was standard practice, but something had gone wrong and McHoul’s mount had emerged from the treatment a bright canary yellow. It could be seen for miles in the open country and the 3rd Londons took a lively delight in spotting it and subjecting their sister battalion to jeers, catcalls and a barrage of chirrups and bird-whistles.

Although the 2nd Londons loyally riposted to these insults – and in good measure – every member of his own Battalion (with the understandable exception of the doctor himself) was equally tickled, and the MO was the butt of merciless leg-pulling. He took it in good enough part until Lieutenant Teddy Cooper was inspired to compose a ditty for the delectation of the officers’ mess. It had many verses, leaden with ponderous humour, but it was the last two stanzas that hit home:

Henceforward when he rode abroad

A ribald whisper flew,

Whilst Tommies tittered, Captains roared

And urged a dry shampoo.

The rumour was he murmured ‘Cheep’

Instead of saying ‘Whoa’

And gave it groundsel in a heap

To make the beggar grow.

This was the last straw, and the MO resorted to desperate measures. Repeated application of a mild solution of bleach only made matters worse, for it dried out in unsightly piebald streaks, but a sympathetic farrier sergeant made up a new concoction which he assured the doctor would transform his charger from a canary to a respectable chestnut. Unfortunately, reacting to the bleach which had been generously applied, his horse emerged an interesting shade of deep violet. There was nothing McHoul could do but put up with the hilarity with as much dignity as he could muster and console himself with the thought that at least he would no longer attract the attention of an enemy sniper.

In any event there was serious business ahead. The London Brigade was about to be split up. Soon the 2nd Londons would be setting off to join the 6th Division in the trenches near Armentieres, complete with purple horse and its embarrassed rider. The 3rd had already gone. Their ultimate destination was the trenches behind Neuve Chapelle where Sir John French was gathering his forces for the battle.

Capt. A. J. Agius, MC.

9th February It was a very threatening morning, cloudy and windy, with a fierce yellow sky forewarning more wind. Our expectations were fully justified, for soon after we had started it came on to rain and hail, and the wind, which blew across from our right front, grew stronger. We made a march of ten or twelve miles. It was a beastly march, but everyone stuck it very cheerily, though wet through. Being mounted I had started with my British Warm and as the rain grew worse I slipped my Burberry on top. Yet so penetrating were the wind and rain that the wet came through.

If conditions were bad for the officers on horseback, they were a good deal worse for the men on foot, for half the battalion had just been issued with new boots and, unlike their more fortunate comrades who had received theirs a fortnight earlier, had to take to the road with no opportunity of breaking them in. In mid-afternoon when they finally stopped in the rain-lashed village of Wittes the chorus of groans and curses that came from a dozen barnyard billets was indescribable. Five hundred men were struggling to pull the soaking boots from their swollen feet. Packing the boots with straw, attempting with more optimism than success to dry them out by the flame of a single candle, merely made matters worse. By morning the new leather had hardened and shrunk and the men were in a sorry state as they set off to hobble to Ham. It was a march of fifteen kilometres. Mercifully, the gale had blown out and it was a clear sunny day; mercifully, it was to be five days before the Battalion took to the road again. It was just about long enough for the sore feet to recover.

And it was long enough for some of the officers to have a beano. It was the birthday of Captain E. V. Noël, whose initials had caused him to be nicknamed ‘Evie’. Harry Pulman and Arthur Agius had struck lucky in the matter of billets. The old lady in the farm where they lodged was unusually welcoming, fussing over them like a mother and feeding them like princes, and they had been so loud in her praises that it was unanimously decided to hold Evie’s birthday party there. Their hostess was charmed with the idea and determined to do them proud.

Capt. A. J. Agius, MC.

We had quite a feast! We got a table rigged up on a couple of trestles, and the old lady supplied us with linen and crockery galore. There was a linen tablecloth and a napkin each – eleven of us sat down – a large glass and a small one each, knife, fork, spoon etc. We ate hors d’oeuvres of sardines and local pate, soup (a thick, warming, village soup), then a priceless omelette and two fowls with fried potatoes and gravy. (And what a job she’d had to kill them that morning, chasing round the farmyard with a cleaver!) We ended up with birthday cake, and that was about as much as anyone could manage. We had wine, red and white, to drink and liqueurs and coffee to finish up with. There were speeches from Harry and Bertie Mathieson, to which Evie replied. After that we sang choruses. And finally, very late, we got to bed.

They had passed many jolly evenings in peacetime, and quite a few since the war, but it was generally voted that this was the best yet. It was also the last that this coterie of old companions would spend together. Ahead lay the battle, and not all of them would survive it.

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