Military history

III. 1915


SIR JOHN FRENCH still believed that some of his most "valuable" officers in France and Flanders were "county men of position and influence, accustomed to hunting, polo and field sports." But for others, the metaphor of war as sport was no longer convincing. At the beginning of 1915, if you were a British officerp eering into no man's land, what met your gaze resembled the cratered surface of the moon more than any fox-hunting meadow or polo field. The only horses in sight were dead ones. Even to safely look out of your trench you had to use a special set of binoculars whose lenses could be raised above the sandbag parapet like twin periscopes. Between you and the German front-line trench, which might be anywhere from 50 to several hundred yards away, was a desolate landscape filled with rusted tangles of barbed wire, mercilessly pitted and gouged by hundreds of shell bursts. Now, in winter, it would usually be covered with snow, and the rainwater that collected in shell craters would be frozen. On warmer days, your trench would thaw into a muddy morass. Better-off soldiers begged their families to send them rubber waders. Otherwise, you stood in the cold slime day after day until your feet swelled, went numb, and began to burn painfully as if touched by fire. This was the dreaded "trench foot," which sent men crawling or being carried to the rear by the thousands.

If you turned to face the back of your trench, you would see a protective wall almost as high as the parapet, because exploding shells were as likely to drop behind you as in front. At intervals along the back of the trench, you could see the beginning of a communication trench that snaked its way to the rear, so that troops moving to or from the front line would have some protection from bullets and shrapnel. If you looked to either side, you would not see far, for soldiers were already learning to build narrow trenches with right-angle turns every ten yards or so. These zigzags better contained the blast of a direct hit from an artillery or mortar round, while also preventing any German raiding party from taking control of a long stretch of trench with one well-placed machine gun. If you looked down, you might see the entrance to one of many dugouts carved into the side of the trench and reinforced with planks and beams. These underground spaces for crude sleeping quarters, command posts, or emergency first aid would be the size of a small room at best, filled with clammy air smelling of mud, sweat, and stale food. Worse, you might be sharing your trench not just with your fellow soldiers but with the dead. When the poet Edmund Blunden first arrived at his front-line post in Flanders it was night; only in the morning did he notice that "at some points in the trench, bones pierced through ... and skulls appeared like mushrooms." Later, Blunden came across "a pit, the result of much sandbag filling; among its broken spades and empty tins I found a pair of boots, still containing someone's feet."

By now it was clear to both sides that to defend yourself against attack you needed to dig ever deeper—or, when you couldn't dig more without hitting the water table, pile up sandbags. Each shell that hit a trench meant rebuilding with yet more of those sandbags, which were filled not with sand but with earth that oozed out in muddy rivulets when it rained. When the temperature dropped, waterlogged sandbags froze and burst. As 1915 began, Britain was shipping a quarter-million empty sandbags a month across the Channel; by May, the monthly total would rise to six million.

Because both ground water and freezing rain collected in your trench, a crude floor of boards might cover the deepest puddles and a pump would be going constantly. There were seldom enough pumps, and in the dreaded lower-lying areas, it felt as if you were living in a swamp. "Spent the morning trying to dry out our clothes," Corporal Alex Letyford of the Royal Engineers wrote in his diary on January 5, 1915. "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."

The sound of splashing, or the suck of a boot being pulled out of mud, or an inadvertent cry of rage when someone fell into a water hole often alerted the other side's snipers to troop movements. To the accompaniment of harmonicas, soldiers sang:

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.

In addition to the stink of decomposing bodies, which grew worse with the spring thaw, another smell came to be indelibly associated with the trenches: that of human waste. Many soldiers simply relieved themselves in the nearest shell hole. There were also pit latrines in small, specially built dead-end trenches, but if a shell struck one, it blasted the contents in all directions, leaving men covered with feces.

The barbed-wire moonscape of no man's land was no place for cavalry charges, which the German high command reluctantly recognized several months into the war, withdrawing cavalry units from the Western Front. But French optimistically kept masses of British horsemen on hand. The cavalry busied themselves with training and by staging competitions: the 12th Royal Lancers won several prizes at their Divisional Horse Show in early 1915, for example. Behind the lines, some officers pursued foxes and hares with hunting dogs they had brought to France. "This afternoon we went off to the hunt," one officer wrote to the Times. "Half a dozen couples of beagles and a good field went off after bunny at a fine pace, but, fortunately for bunny, there were plenty of wide ditches in this flat country, and she and all the rest got away scot free." After objections from infuriated local farmers the practice was banned, but some horse-loving officers continued to slip off for furtive hunts.

With thousands of impatient cavalrymen waiting in the wings, the generals were eager for the long-awaited breakthrough that would loose their horsemen into open country. The first British attempt of 1915 came at the French village of Neuve Chapelle, in the sector of the front under Haig's command. After the infantry smashed the German front line, British and Indian cavalry were to charge through. So went the plan, and French, who wore his spurs at headquarters, personally briefed the British officer commanding the Indian horsemen, a fellow Boer War veteran who, French wrote, "thinks he may be able to do some dashing cavalry work." On the damp, foggy morning of March 10, after a surprise artillery bombardment, the British unleashed an assault by some 40,000 British and Indian soldiers. Far outnumbering the Germans they faced, the infantry gained a mile or so of ground, at which point Haig ordered the cavalry forward to be ready to attack.

But the Germans rushed in reinforcements, and repeated, costly British attempts to advance farther came to a halt under snow flurries. Haig's subordinates, afraid of his well-known temper, never dared give him a crucial piece of information: on one key stretch of the German trench under attack, the British bombardment had failed to blast apart the barbed wire or knock out machine-gun emplacements. And so while British troops frantically tried to cut through the tangle of wire, a mere two German machine guns killed roughly 1,000 of them. "The Germans were shooting like mad while our lads were crouching down in the mud trying to breach it [the wire] with wire-cutters, and those that didn't have wire-cutters hacking at it with bayonets...," recalled a stretcher bearer in the Scottish Rifles. "All the officers went, killed or wounded. By the end of three days we had just one subaltern left." On the third day, French called off the attack. His troops had lost 12,847 dead and wounded.

In winning their blood-soaked mile of earth, the British experienced yet another way in which trench warfare put the attacker at a painful disadvantage. If you had the rare luck to capture some ground, your supplies and reinforcements then had to advance through ground strewn with craters, barbed wire, and dead bodies, the air filled with bursting shrapnel, without communication trenches for protection. It was hard enough for a man on foot to make his way unscathed, much less a cavalry division.

In addition, the matter of sending messages—about, for instance, what terrain you held and where your artillery should fire—was staggeringly difficult. Telephone wires were invariably cut by enemy shells; primitive radios and their heavy batteries were too bulky to hand-carry onto the battlefield; and signal flags proved impossible to see through the smoke. This left runners, who, as they scrambled across the shell-blasted wasteland, were ideal targets for German snipers. The farther you advanced, the more out-of-date the runner's message—if he even survived the journey. On the first day at Neuve Chapelle, it took nine hours for front-line officers to send a message back to their corps commander and get a reply. (German commanders would complain of the same problem.) Generals had no way of knowing whether their troops a mile away, invisible in the dust and smoke, had captured an enemy trench or all been wounded or killed.

Trying to put a good face on this battle, French reported "the defeat of the enemy and the capture of his position" to London. Adjusting his predictions, he now was convinced that the war would end by June. His faith—and Haig's—in the cavalry remained as strong as ever. A month after Neuve Chapelle, Haig scoffed at two officers who were cavalry skeptics: "If these two had their way, Cavalry would cease to exist as such. In their opinion, the war will continue and end in trenches."

On one front, however, French had won an unusual victory: his exalted position had—for the moment—curbed his sister's long-standing pacifism. Charlotte Despard continued her relief work in Battersea, where many women were suffering from the economic dislocations of the war and the absence of husbands at the front. She helped them fight off debt collectors, distributed milk to nursing mothers, and set up a shelter for women recovering from childbirth. At a cafeteria that provided healthy meals at cost, she often ladled out soup herself (although some diners complained of her ardent vegetarianism). With Sylvia Pankhurst and others, she founded the League for the Rights of Soldiers' and Sailors' Wives and Relations. Military authorities had worked themselves into a misogynist dudgeon about army wives who might be tempted by romance while their husbands were off at war, and were using emergency powers to impose curfews on them, or, in some areas, on all women. A new regulation also made it a crime for a woman with venereal disease to have intercourse with a member of the armed forces. Despard and Pankhurst led protest delegations to the War Office and 10 Downing Street.

Out of loyalty to her brother, Despard visited military units in France and England, formally presenting, for example, a set of fifes and drums to the band of the 5th North Staffordshire Regiment. In March 1915, she set up the Despard Arms, a teetotal pub, on Hampstead Road, near several of the big London railway stations through which troops passed on their way to France. Men heading for the front could find food, baths, a dormitory, a clubroom, artistic performances, and a soccer team—the Despard Uniteds. On a trip back to London, her brother visited the pub and exhibited his usual common touch in chatting with the soldiers.

But Despard could not be tamed for long. In April, along with Sylvia Pankhurst and some 180 other British women, she tried to attend the Women's International Peace Congress at The Hague in Holland. In the letters columns of newspapers, Britons thundered against this "pow-wow with the fraus." Among those most outraged at what she called "the peace-at-any-price crowd" was Emmeline Pankhurst: "It is unthinkable," she stormed in a magazine interview, "that English-women should meet German women to discuss terms of peace while the husbands, sons and brothers of those women ... are murdering our men."

Cleverly attempting to sow jealousy in the pacifist ranks, the British government granted passports only to some 20 "women of discretion" among the would-be delegates. But even this select group, arriving at the dock, found that their ship and all others had been suddenly banned from sailing to Holland. Only three British women, already out of the country, managed to join the 1,500 others—mostly from neutral nations—at the conference. Beneath the fronds of potted palms in an ornate hall in The Hague's Zoological and Botanical Gardens, the women passed resolutions calling for an end to the fighti ng and for peace by negotiation. The German delegates were given no less of a hard time by their government: 28 German women who managed to attend were arrested on their return.

Only 100 miles from the peace conference, a terrifying new weapon had made its appearance. On April 22, 1915, near the battered city of Ypres, French soldiers and troops from French colonies in North Africa noticed a strange, greenish yellow mist billowing out of the German positions and blowing toward them in the wind. An unfamiliar smell filled the air. When the acrid cloud reached them, it was so thick that they couldn't see more than a few feet. Soldiers quickly found themselves gagging and choking, yellow mucus frothing out of their mouths. Hundreds fell to the ground in convulsions. Those who could still breathe fled, staggering into first-aid posts blue from suffocation and coughing blood, speechless but pointing desperately to their throats. In the next few days, Canadian troops fell victim as well. Whatever this mysterious cloud might be, it was heavier than air and sank into the trenches, hugging the earth and forcing soldiers to stick their heads out into a hail of bullets. "The chaps were all gasping and couldn't breathe," a sergeant remembered later. "And it was ghastly, especially for chaps that were wounded—terrible for a wounded man to lie there! The gasping, the gasping!"

The spring leaves just coming out on the trees shriveled; grass turned yellow and metal green. Birds fell from the air, and chickens, pigs, cows, and horses writhed in agony and died, their bodies rotting and bloating. The ever-fatter rats that normally swarmed through the trenches, keeping men awake by running over them in the dark on the way to feast on soldiers' corpses, themselves died by the thousands.

This was the first widespread use of poison gas—chlorine—on the Western Front. Deadly and painful as it could be, later forms of gas would be still worse. Like so much else about the war, chlorine was the product of an industrial economy, in this case made by a complex of eight large chemical firms in Germany's Ruhr region known as the IG cartel. Chlorine and its compounds had a long history in manufacturing, but its new use in warfare was an ominous landmark, seeming to open up a range of horrifying possibilities that had previously existed only in the realm of early science fiction.

Allied generals and cabinet members railed against the Germans, accusing them of unprecedented savagery. Groping for the ultimate insult, Kitchener used the word by which the British had referred (incorrectly) to their Arab opponents at Omdurman: "Germany has stooped to acts which vie with those of the Dervishes." But, gruesome as choking on gas undoubtedly was, was it really any worse than having your body riddled with steel shrapnel? Or than having your lungs bruised to pulp by an artillery shell's blast even if the shrapnel missed you? What made gas warfare provoke such rage, the historian Trevor Wilson suggests, was something else. For all of recorded history, soldiers had believed that victory went to the manly, the fearless, and the daring. Now, with deadly gas brought to you not from the hand of an enemy you could see and slay, but by the very wind, all bravery seemed useless.

Not only had British and French generals been unprepared for gas, they had refused to even imagine it. Allied commanders around Ypres had had ample warning that a gas attack was coming: from an intercepted German message requisitioning 20,000 gas masks, from a deserter who, more than a week before the assault, brought one of the masks with him, and from captured German soldiers who told of masses of gas canisters lined up near their trenches. But they made not the slightest preparations, reluctant yet again to acknowledge that warfare could take a radically new direction.

The British generals' bewilderment at the war in which they found themselves was reflected in the very language they used. "An abnormal state of affairs," the director of military intelligence called trench warfare, while a major general termed it downright "peculiar." The chief of the Imperial General Staff thought conditions at the front "were not at present normal," although he hoped "they may become normal some day." "I don't know what is to be done," a despairing Kitchener said to the foreign secretary more than once. "This isn't war"

Gas added a new dimension to the fighting but did not break the deadlock. In a pattern that was to repeat itself with each new weapon introduced to the battlefield, the innovators seemed almost as surprised by their success as the other side. The Germans failed to take advantage of the fear, confusion, and temporary breach in the Allied lines their first gas attack caused.

As a defense against gas, the Allies began hastily improvising masks of tape and wet lint (chlorine dissolves in water). Not long after, all soldiers on both sides would be equipped with gas masks—as would tens of thousands of horses. This pattern, too, would become familiar as the years dragged on: for every weapon there would be countermeasures, and usually effective ones. Against the machine-gun bullet and the artillery shell there were ever deeper trenches; against airplanes, antiaircraft guns; against the periscope binoculars for seeing out of a trench, the well-aimed sniper's bullet, which could fill the viewer's face with ricocheting shards of glass.

In May 1915, the Allies staged another round of attacks from Haig's sector. Sir John French watched from a church tower as guns pounded the German positions with nearly 1,000 shells a minute, yet failed to break open paths through the enemy barbed wire, cleverly concealed in long, deep ditches up to 20 feet wide, or to destroy most of the German concrete-and-steel machine-gun bunkers. Germans sheltering in reinforced underground dugouts climbed back to the surface as soon as the British shelling ended, shouting across 150 yards of no man's land to the Scottish division about to attack them, "Come on, Jocks, we are waiting for you!" Before Haig called off the attack the next day, 458 officers and 11,161 men would be killed and wounded.

When disaster follows disaster, someone or something has to be blamed. Since he was the commander in chief and could not blame himself, French blamed a shortage of artillery ammunition. Haig, on the other hand, using his skills as a master of backroom maneuvering, blamed French. Both streams of recrimination flowed back to London, and gradually it dawned on French that Haig was gunning for him. His subordinate was well entrenched on some strategic high ground: both Kitchener and the King had asked Haig privately to keep them informed. Lady Haig supplemented his letters by typing up extracts from his diary and sharing them with the royal family. "Precious documents," one Buckingham Palace official called them.

As for artillery shells, French was not wrong: there was indeed a shortage, and some were defective. Haig blamed this on the British worker, who, he was convinced, had too many holidays and too much to drink—a notable argument for someone whose family fortune was based on whiskey. "Take and shoot two or three of them," he wrote to his wife, "and the 'Drink habit' would cease." In reality, no country had been prepared for a war of this length, least of all Britain, with its small professional army used to fighting ill-armed colonials. In the three-day Battle of Neuve Chapelle—a mere skirmish compared to the giant clashes to come—British artillery had shot off almost as many shells as in the course of the entire Boer War.

During this frustrating spring, French received an alarming telegram from the War Office ordering him to immediately ship much of his meager stock of ammunition to the British Empire forces on the Gallipoli Peninsula in western Turkey. There, a new campaign had been launched, aimed at skirting the impasse on the Western Front: an amphibious assault on the Ottoman army, which was thought to be far weaker and more vulnerable than Germany's. The attack, it was hoped, would seize Constantinople (today's Istanbul) and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. French was dismayed: not only would his supply of scarce shells be diminished further, but some other British general might get credit for turning the tide.

No more skillful at office politics than the new style of combat, French fought his campaign of blame too much in the open. His friend Repington, the Times correspondent and a veteran intriguer, weighed in with an article blazingly headlined: "Need for Shells: British Attacks Checked: Limited Supply the Cause: A Lesson from France." French then pressed his American millionaire housemate, George Moore, into service to urge newspapers to attack Kitchener for the shell shortage. Believing—quite incorrectly—that he had the confidence of Prime Minister Asquith, he claimed that everything was the fault of the secretary for war. In his erratic way, he evidently forgot that earlier in the spring he had sent Kitchener two separate messages declaring his stock of shells adequate.

Had he plenty of high-explosive shells, Sir John wrote to his latest mistress, he would be able at last to "break thro' this tremendous crust of defence ... once we have done it I think we may get the Devils on the run. How I should love to have a real good 'go' at them in the open with lots of cavalry and horse artillery and run them to earth. Well! It may come." French's correspondent, like almost every woman he was drawn to, was married to someone else. The tall, elegant Winifred "Wendy" Bennett was the wife of Percy Bennett, a diplomat whom she referred to as "Pompous Percy." Most unusually for French, this affair, begun in early 1915, would last more than half a decade. The two of them were, he told her, "shipwrecked souls who have found one another." The best she and French could do was to snatch an afternoon or evening at his lodgings on his short trips to London to consult with the War Office, but they wrote almost daily—sometimes using a younger sister of hers as a go-between—and nearly a hundred of his letters survive, in a hasty, forward-slanting, almost unreadable scrawl. With startling indiscretion, he describes military operations and troop movements, as well as his contempt for the French generals ("you can't trust them"), for his superior ("I devoutly wish we could get rid of Kitchener.... It is so hard to have enemies both in front and behind"), and for War Office bureaucrats ("While they are fiddling Rome is burning").

In one letter he mentions a curious episode that reflected his assumption, and that of his era, that marriage was permanent and love sacred, but that the two would never coincide. Of a couple he knew, he wrote:

They've been married some 17 or 18 years. A few years ago they found out the same old story that they weren't meant to be in love with one another—so each went his and her way but they remained together and are the best of friends. The wife found what she thought was her "alter ego" in a Guardsman who is serving out here. About a year or two ago he gave her up and married. The husband then wrote to him and told him he had behaved like a cad to his wife and that he should always cut him in future and he has always done so.

Now I call that husband a real good fellow. Don't you? He saw no reason why his wife shouldn't be made happy simply because she happened to be his wife.

No doubt French hoped for the same generosity of spirit from his long-suffering Eleanora, and from "Pompous Percy." But that may have been no less wishful thinking than his expectation of a quick end to the war.

Haig had long since ceased to have any use for French as a commander. "He is so hot tempered and excitable," he wrote to his friend Leopold de Rothschild, "—like a bottle of soda water in suddenness of explosion." And again: "French seems to have that scoundrel Repington staying with him as his guest!" It was "most unsoldierlike," Haig fumed, " keep one's own advertising agent." After a private visit with George V in July to receive a medal, Haig happily noted in his diary that the King "had lost confidence in French."

The field marshal's position only weakened. Cabinet ministers were disturbed by his mood swings and his promises of victories that looked ever more improbable as, month after month, millions of men faced each other across a front line that barely moved. Worse yet, in technology, if not miles gained, the Germans seemed to be making breakthroughs, for on July 30 they made the first major use of another frightening new weapon, devised by a reserve army captain who in civilian life had been the fire chief of Leipzig: the flamethrower, which shot a jet of burning gasoline like a fire hose spraying water. Although its range was only about 75 feet, it thoroughly panicked British soldiers.

All French and Haig now shared was a relentless optimism that, somehow, the war would end quickly. "The enemy ... can't go on after January," Haig wrote to his wife on August 10, 1915, "and I would not be surprised to see him give in by November." Which, of course, made the goal of supplanting French as commander all the more urgent. Otherwise, who would be honored for the victory? Meanwhile, French, sensing his stock falling, began planning a decisive blow at the Germans to prove his critics wrong.

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