MORE THAN ANY previous war, this one depended on huge quantities of industrial products and the raw materials needed to make them. The Germans soon coined a word for it, Materialschlact, the battle of materiel. Among the more important goods was precision optical equipment—aerial reconnaissance camera lenses, periscopes, rangefinders, telescopic sights for sniper rifles, and binoculars. All were essential, particularly the last: when the lives of his men on the battlefield could depend on locating an enemy sniper or machine-gunner, every officer or NCO needed a reliable pair of binoculars hanging from his neck. The British military, however, was running disastrously short of binoculars. An appeal to the public brought in some 2,000 pairs (including four each from the King and Queen), but not the tens of thousands needed. Manufacturing high-quality lenses requires special glass that is difficult to make: it must transmit light without flaws, dimming, or distortion, yet be strong enough not to crack or shatter when ground and polished. Optical factories in England were capable of increasing their output only slowly.
And so, in mid-1915, just as preparations were getting under way for the big attack at Loos, British authorities turned to the world's leading manufacturer of precision optics: Germany.
Before the war, German companies, like the famous firm of Carl Zeiss in Jena, had been major exporters of top-of-the-line optical goods. From London, an agent of the Ministry of Munitions was quietly dispatched to neutral Switzerland to propose a deal. The answer from Germany was prompt and positive, and the outlines of an agreement were sketched out. The German War Office would immediately supply 8,000 to 10,000 each of two types of binoculars, one for infantry officers and one for artillery officers. "For the future," reads the dry official record of the History of the Ministry of Munitions, "they were prepared to deliver, six weeks after the signing of the contract, 10,000 to 15,000 [of each type] and they were even prepared to demobilise special workmen from the Army to enable these orders to go through quickly." Of lower-grade binoculars for NCOs, Germany could supply 10,000 to 12,000 immediately and 5,000 a month thereafter. It would also be happy to supply 5,000 to 10,000 telescopic sights per month "and to provide as many rangefinders as the British Government required. In order to obtain samples of the instruments, it was suggested that the British Forces might inspect the equipment of captured German officers and artillery."
And what did Germany want in return for this astonishing bounty of tools that would better aim British rifles and howitzers at German troops? One treasured commodity, vital for everything from telephone wires to factory machinery to the tires and fan belts of motor vehicles, a commodity unavailable to Germany because of a tight blockade imposed by the Royal Navy, but abundant in the Allies' African and Asian colonies: rubber. Without rubber the Germans, among many other problems, faced the prospect of using steel tires on their army trucks, which rapidly chewed roads to bits. The rubber, it was agreed, would be delivered to Germany at the Swiss border.
During August 1915, the first month of this top-secret devil's bargain, the Germans delivered to the British even more than first agreed to: some 32,000 pairs of binoculars, 20,000 of them the higher-quality types for officers. Records that would show how long the trade continued, or how much rubber the Germans received in return, have disappeared. More frustrating, there seems to be no written trace of what was in the minds of the men who negotiated this extraordinary agreement. Did each side think it was getting the better deal? Were both British and German business executives so eager for profit that nothing else mattered? Or did the war have such all-encompassing momentum that, to better fight it, anything at all seemed justified, even trading with the enemy?
Looking through exactly these kinds of high-grade binoculars late on the morning of September 26, 1915, German officers at the front near Loos could not believe what they saw. On the second day of a major battle, roughly 10,000 British troops were walking toward them across more than half a mile of no man's land. This was not a case—as had happened before and would happen again—in which a preliminary bombardment had failed to destroy German machine-gun nests. Before this day's British attack, there had been no bombardment. The German machine guns were in protected bunkers, behind long, intact rolls of barbed wire, in belts sometimes up to 30 feet thick.
The British, according to a German account, moved forward in ten columns, "each about a thousand men, all advancing as if carrying out a parade-ground drill.... Never had machine guns had such straightforward work to do ... with barrels becoming hot ... they traversed to and fro along the enemy's ranks; one machine gun alone fired 12,500 rounds that afternoon. The result was devastating. The enemy could be seen falling literally in hundreds, but they continued to march." Some British officers were mounted on horseback, and so made even more conspicuous targets. German riflemen stood on the parapets of their trenches to fire at the fast-diminishing ranks that kept moving until they reached the first row of unbroken barbed wire. "Confronted by this impenetrable obstacle the survivors turned and began to retire."
These British troops, most of them volunteers who had joined the army after the war broke out, had arrived in France only weeks earlier. As the survivors retreated, the Germans, in a moment of mercy rare for either side, held their fire. "My machine gunners were so filled with pity, remorse and nausea," a German commander later said, "...that they refused to fire another shot."
The battle at Loos had begun the previous day, after Kitchener himself had reviewed the soldiers and congratulated them on the honor that had fallen to them. For Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the troops involved, it was a promising opportunity: if the attack succeeded, he would win great glory; if it failed, the person blamed would likely be the already precarious Sir John French. The two feuding generals did not even have a telephone line connecting their temporary command posts. Meanwhile, the Germans, knowing some sort of an attack was coming, had strengthened their defenses. In photographs from before the attack, the chalky soil around Loos gives the parapets of German trenches the ghostly look of long rows of snowdrifts stretching across the summer fields.
This was the first assault in which British troops used poison gas. For in scientific, industrialized warfare—as would be true four decades later with the atomic bomb—no nation would have a new weapon to itself for long. Haig ordered 5,000 six-foot-long cylinders of chlorine, weighing 150 pounds each, to be transported to the British front line by night, to maintain secrecy. For the last part of the way each of these had to be carried through communication trenches slung from a pole resting on the shoulders of two men. More pairs of soldiers carried lengths of pipe, to be attached to each cylinder, in order to spray the gas over the parapet of the trench and into no man's land. One pipe carrier's memories are a reminder of how much of the war's torment lay in merely getting supplies to the front: "The communication trench is zig-zag from beginning to end. The result was that we had to carry the pipes right above our heads in order to get them along the trench, otherwise at every corner they would get stuck. The communication trench is 3½ miles long and the journey took us between 7 and 8 hours. Rain was falling during the whole of the journey. In many places the trench was over a foot deep in water."
When September 25, the day for the attack, dawned, Haig ordered the gas released. The wind, however, was very slight. In some places the gas made it to the German lines, where soldiers had already donned their masks. In others, it drifted into no man's land and stayed there—which meant that British troops had to attack through it as they tried to pierce what, in some places, were seven to ten rows of German barbed wire. In a few spots, the breeze blew the gas back into the British trenches. All told, the British suffered more casualties from their own gas than the Germans. The surprise gas release was supposed to substitute for a massive artillery bombardment, which would have signaled an attack was imminent, and in any case, shells were still in short supply. But neither Haig nor French seems to have given much thought to one crucial fact: gas does not cut barbed wire.
The British forces far outnumbered the Germans, and, almost miraculously, in one spot a division did break open a three-quarter-mile gap in the German first and second trench lines. How to exploit this opportunity? Although French had plenty of infantry in reserve, he had erred badly in stationing them too far from the front, having forgotten that what appeared on a map as a quick few hours' march could take several times that long when troops had to funnel single file along narrow country roads clogged with ambulance wagons of wounded men heading in the other direction, and then through narrower, winding communication trenches and a ragged morass of shell holes, all under a torrential rain.
By the time his two reserve divisions arrived at their attacking positions after an exhausting all-night march, the gap had closed and the Germans had moved up their own reserves. British and German corpses and body parts from the first day's fighting littered the ground and the air was rank with the smell of death. It was then, on the second day of the battle, that Haig ordered the fateful advance by the two weary, inexperienced reserve divisions directly against hilltop German machine guns and uncut barbed wire. This was the sight, and the slaughter, that German officers observed with such amazement.
To Captain Graham Pole of the Northumberland Fusiliers, one of the advancing units, his commander dispatched this message: "The C.O. wishes the attack to be carried out with bayonets in the true Northumbrian fashion." How did it feel to be one of the men in this doomed attack? Private Harry Fellows, who had been ordered to carry the message to Captain Pole, remembered:
The whole slope in front of me and as far away to the left as one could see was crowded with cheering men moving forward as fast as they could. And still the enemy had not fired a shot....
The leading men would have been about 100 yards from the German wire ... when all hell was let loose. As if from some predetermined signal the enemy machine guns opened up with a murderous fire, both from the front and enfilading fire [i.e., from the sides] from some buildings which had been out of sight behind some trees. Men began to stumble and fall, then to go down like standing corn before a scythe. The cap from the head of the lad in front of me flew from his head and he fell—I stumbled over him—and even to this day I feel no shame when I say that I stayed where I was: my face buried in the grass, and never had the good earth smelled so sweet.... The firing seemed to go on for hours. I afterwards learned that it was not even ten minutes. Bullets were cracking overhead and then it ceased...
After a few more minutes I rose to my knees and should I live to be a hundred I shall never forget the sight that met my eyes. The whole slope was one mass of prone figures; some even lying on top of one another.... Many, like the lad I had stumbled over, would never move again. Many men, even though wounded themselves, were helping their wounded comrades back. Still the Germans held their fire.... Assisting a lad who had a bullet wound in his foot, I arrived back at the trench near where the Scots had their machine gun.... One of the team offered me his water bottle: water was extremely scarce. I still remember the emotion in his voice as he said, "Ye nae had a chance."
...It was nerve racking to hear the cries of the men lying wounded on the slope. Even if the Germans had allowed us to help them—which I believe they would—we had no stretchers....
Looking around I was pleased to see that Captain Pole was safe and remembering the message I still had for him I handed it to him with an apology for the delay. After reading it he said, with a tremor in his voice, "It doesn't matter now. But isn't that just what we tried to do?"
In this brief spasm of carnage, out of 10,000 British officers and men, more than 8,000 were killed, wounded, or missing.
As with many episodes from this war, it is hard for us to see the attack on September 26, 1915, as anything other than a blatant, needless massacre initiated by generals with a near-criminal disregard for the conditions their men faced. Strikingly, however—and this is especially typical of the war's early battles, when all soldiers were professionals or volunteers—few survivors talked of it in this way. For them to question the generals' judgment would have meant, of course, asking if their fellow soldiers had died in vain. From the need to avoid such questions are so many myths about wars born.
One of the units ravaged that day, for instance, was the 8th Battalion of the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. Of its 25 officers, 24 were casualties in little more than an hour, along with 556—a majority—of its enlisted men. The battalion commander, Colonel Eden Vansittart, who had spent most of his long army career in India, witnessed much of the killing before being himself severely wounded. But in a long report on the battle he wrote two years later, he revealed not the slightest anger at the suicidal position he and his men were put in, only praise for their good form. "They advanced as if on parade, and under perfect discipline, till they reached the enemy's undamaged barbed wire entanglements, beyond which they were unable to go, and here our losses were very great." A decade later, when he was retired, he still did not question the decision to attack; his main concern remained that the authors of the multivolume official history of the war, for whom he prepared another report, "bring out more sharply the gallant conduct" of the battalion.
The fighting at Loos continued sporadically for several weeks more. Among the British soldiers killed whose bodies were never found was Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon of the 8th Black Watch, whose sister, when she was married a few years later in Westminster Abbey, placed her wedding bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in his memory. She would survive into the next century as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Riding a white horse, Sir John French visited the troops several times, at one point spending two hours talking to injured men at a first-aid station near the front. "Dead, dying and badly wounded all mixed up together," he wrote to Winifred Bennett. "Poor dear fellows they bear their pain gloriously and many of them gave me a smile of recognition."
In the end, the Allies gained a mile or two of ground, but once again, the losses were overwhelmingly on the attackers' side, with more than 61,000 British casualties. "It was impossible to bury them all.... You'd go along the trenches and you'd see a boot and puttee sticking out, or an arm or a hand, sometimes faces," remembered one soldier. "Not only would you see, but you'd be walking on them, slipping and sliding.... But if you ever had to write home about a particular mate you'd always say that he got it cleanly and quickly with a bullet and he didn't know what had happened." Bloated to the size of cats, rats feasted on the bodies left in no man's land, beginning with the eyes, the softer flesh of the face, and the liver, then working their way onward as the days passed, leaving only skeletons draped in scraps of khaki. At night, soldiers in their trenches could hear a constant rattling, as rats nosed their way among the tin cans and canteens around the skeletons, looking for bits of food.
Still, British generals denied the awesome power of the chief weapon involved. "The introduction of the Machine Gun," declared a memo from French's headquarters to the Ministry of Munitions two months after the battle, "has not, in the opinion of the General Staff, altered the universally accepted principle that superior numbers of bayonets closing with the enemy is what finally turns the scale." Even some two and a half years later, in May 1918, the British forces would have only one machine gun for every 61 men. The Canadians would have one for every 13, the French one for every 12.
Day after day the size of the British death tolls sank in, and "Roll of Honour" listings spread across the columns of the Times, with officers' names in slightly larger type. A volley of recriminations quickly began over who was to blame: French, who had stationed the reserves too far away, or Haig, who had launched the troops directly against undamaged German wire and machine guns. With the Times correspondent Repington on French's side, some of this argument again spilled into the press. French got theTimes to publish a dispatch of his that misleadingly implied that the reserves were closer to the front than they really had been. But the battle that counted was within the government, and there the winner was foreordained. Haig simply wrote to Kitchener laying all the blame on French: "My attack, as has been reported, was a complete success," he said nonsensically, "...and reserves should have been at hand then."
Kitchener demanded an explanation of the Loos debacle from French, and in Parliament several speakers attacked the beleaguered field marshal, one mentioning the presence of women at his headquarters. Milner, frustrated and on the sidelines, spoke acidly in the House of Lords of the official "furtive admissions" and "laboured explanations" for the terrible casualty toll. The King himself crossed the Channel to sample military opinion firsthand. "Douglas Haig came to dinner and I had a long talk with him afterwards," he wrote in his diary. "He ... said the C-in-C was a source of great weakness to the Army, and no one had any confidence in him anymore." In a railway dining car in England, an officer overheard Asquith, Lloyd George, and the foreign secretary debating French's removal.
Compared to previous wars, at Loos, as in earlier battles, a strikingly high proportion of casualties were simply listed as "missing." Men might be mowed down by German fire in patches of ground not held long enough to recover the bodies, or there might not be any body to recover after a high-explosive shell blew someone into unrecognizable bits—and also killed any comrades who witnessed his end. Many of the British casualties counted as missing at Loos came on the day after the catastrophic slaughter of the reserve divisions. New troops were then thrown into the battle, among them the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards, John Kipling's unit, whose men had not slept or had much to eat during the preceding 48 hours. But despite their exhaustion, Lieutenant Kipling led his platoon through rubble at the pit head of a mine, shouting "Come on boys," and managed to capture at least one building occupied by German defenders. Late that afternoon, he vanished from sight. According to one account, he was wounded at a place the soldiers called Chalk Pit Wood and crawled into a building later seized by the Germans, but there was no additional news. A War Office telegram to his parents reported him missing in action.
The day the reserve divisions were mowed down at Loos thousands of people assembled in London's Trafalgar Square, long a favorite spot for protest rallies. They had come to raise their voices against conscription—which, it was clear, was soon going to be imposed to meet the army's insatiable demand for men. Charlotte Despard, no longer able to hold her antiwar feelings in check, was one of those who addressed the crowd—as was Sylvia Pankhurst. After she spoke, Pankhurst noticed boys hawking newspapers and carrying large placards. She could not make out what they were shouting, but finally one came close enough for her to read his placard: DEATH OF KEIR HARDIE.
She collapsed and had to be helped offstage. "I was not faint but stunned and stricken.... I felt as they who had lost their dearest in the War," she later wrote, "for the War had killed him, as surely as it had killed the men who went to the trenches." Hardie died in a Glasgow hospital, his failing health worsened by pneumonia. Supporters gathered for his funeral in that city a few days later, as the bullets continued to fly at Loos. Along the path of the procession, workmen, and sometimes soldiers, stood solemnly, their heads bared. With Hardie's family in attendance, Sylvia did not come, but she sent a wreath of laurel, with ribbons in the suffragette colors of purple, green, and white, as well as revolutionary red. The muffling chill of the times extended even to the funeral service, for the vicar said nothing of Hardie's long battle against war, speaking only of his youth in the Evangelical Union church.
In London, Sylvia put out a special issue of her Woman's Dreadnought filled with tributes to him, including her own passionate good-bye: "He was built for great strength, his head more grandly carved than any other; his deep-set eyes like sunshine distilled, as we see it through the waters of a pool in the brown earth." She called him the "greatest human being of our time." As in all the tens of thousands of words she wrote about Hardie over her lifetime, she did not mention his wife.
He remained a beacon for her, and in maintaining her own unremitting opposition to the war, she saw herself as carrying on his legacy. But making others feel the same way while men in their families were at the front proved as difficult for her as it had been for the man she loved. At one point the playwright George Bernard Shaw asked her, "How can you expect to convert the public when you cannot even convert your mother and Christabel?" Indeed, there was no hope of that. In October, Christabel renamed theSuffragette, the WSPU newspaper, Britannia, with the motto "For King, for Country, for Freedom." Its pages would from now on be filled with patriotic prose and poetry accompanied by images of Joan of Arc and other women warriors. The paper's nationalism became so extreme that one article attacked the Foreign Office for being "corrupted ... by Germanism, German blood, German and pro-enemy ties and sympathies. [It] must be CLEARED OUT and its whole staff replaced."
Seeking an ally, Christabel wrote to Alfred Milner, sharing with him her suspicions of secret Germanophiles hidden in high posts. "I absolutely agree with your criticism of the conduct of the war," he replied. But, he added, "where I differ from you is imputing evil motives to our rulers.... I think them incompetent—extremely so—...but I do not think that any of them is otherwise than anxious to do the best for his country." And he gently chided her for suspecting "everybody who has any foreign blood in his veins," pointing out that Queen Victoria was half German and that he himself had a German grandmother.
Christabel was not alone in her paranoia about German spies and sympathizers. As 1915 drew to a close there was an ever-greater hunger to find traitors or scapegoats whose actions would explain the lack of battlefield victories. During the war years, more than 90 plays about spies were performed in British theaters, abounding in sinister German servants in unsuspecting British homes, poisoned reservoirs, and secret radios sending messages to lurking U-boats. Scotland Yard was overwhelmed with an average of 300 tips a day about possible spies. Soldiers were dispatched on hundreds of missions to isolated homes and fields to check out reports of mysterious flashes at night thought to be signals to German airships. Woe to any homing pigeon fancier seen with his birds, which might be about to carry vital state secrets straight to Berlin. Actual German spies in Britain proved remarkably few. Most of them, in fact, were rounded up in the first days of the war, but the publicity-hungry Basil Thomson of Scotland Yard made sure that any such arrest or trial, no matter how minor, was trumpeted in the press.
In breaks from writing his multivolume history of the war and from sending optimistic dispatches to the Times from the Western Front, John Buchan lent a helping hand to the spy mania. In October 1915, just after Loos, he published what became his best-known book (later brought to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock), The Thirty-Nine Steps. In this novel and its sequels, Buchan essentially invented the most popular form of the modern spy story: a daring, athletic hero, chase scenes, friends who turn out to be enemies, enemies who turn out to be friends, coded messages, and grand conspiracies that will destroy everything if the hero cannot escape from a castle dungeon in time. With Britain's soldiers dug in below ground on a front that barely moved month after bloody month, the public was relieved and delighted to read stories like these, in which individual feats of boldness carried the day.
In The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, foils the machinations of a whole network of German spies. Hannay is a colonial who has returned from various adventures in southern Africa just in time to help the "Old Country" in its hour of need. Significantly, the Old Country is not an industrialized nation of drab, crowded urban tenements and factories belching coal smoke, but a serene, pastoral landscape of moors and hills. Pursued by the evil Germans, Hannay races "through little old thatched villages and over peaceful lowland streams, and past gardens blazing with hawthorn and yellow laburnum. The land was so deep in peace that I could scarcely believe that somewhere behind me were those who sought my life; ay, and that in a month's time, unless I had the almightiest of luck ... men would be lying dead in English fields." In the novel's happy ending, Hannay, of course, nabs the spies just before they can spirit away stolen military plans on their yacht. The book, which sold more than a million copies in Buchan's lifetime, contributed to an upsurge of volunteers to become special police constables—a job in which many a middle-aged Briton too old for the trenches could still imagine himself catching a German spy.
No spies or conspiracies could explain the British failure at Loos, however, so the commander in chief was doomed. As French had predicted, they changed the bowler. To save face, he was given command of the Home Forces—all troops in Britain and Ireland, who were mainly in training—which was a bitter comedown. When the prime minister's emissary tried to soften the blow by telling him he would be ennobled as well, French wryly suggested he could become "Lord Sent-Homer." In recognition of his role in withstanding the German attacks at Ypres and of his Irish ancestry, he was made Viscount of Ypres and of High Lake, County Roscommon. But because Ypres became associated with so much lost British blood, the name never fully stuck, and contemporaries as well as later writers generally continued to refer to him as Sir John French. He remained popular with British troops, thousands of whom lined the road, cheering wildly, when he left his headquarters for the last time in December. At the dockside in Boulogne, there were more cheers from his old regiment, the 19th Hussars. For French, it was farewell to this front, but, as it would happen, the play was not over; one major act was yet to come.
His successor, of course, was Haig, who was fully confident that he could succeed where the capricious French had failed. "DH never shines at dinner," recorded an officer on his staff at this time, "but he was obviously in very good spirits, and kept silence merrily."
In the trenches, the Christmas season was anything but merry. "A high wind hurtled over the Flemish fields," remembered the war correspondent Philip Gibbs, "but it was moist, and swept gusts of rain into the faces of men marching through the mud to the fighting-lines and of other men doing sentry on the fire-steps of trenches into which water came trickling down the slimy parapets.... They slept in soaking clothes, with boots full of water.... Whole sections of trench collapsed into a chaos of slime and ooze."
At a point where British and German lines were so close that each side could hear the squelching of the other's boots, Gibbs reported a conversation in shouts over the parapets:
"How deep is it with you?" shouted a German soldier....
"Up to our blooming knees," said an English corporal, who was trying to keep his bombs dry under a tarpaulin.
"So?...You are lucky fellows. We are up to our belts in it."
As Christmas Day approached, all British units were given strict orders that there be no repeat of the spontaneous fraternization of the previous year. But even without a truce, something else had already started to happen, without reference to any holiday. At a number of places on the front where Allied and German trenches had been fixed in place for so long, there evolved a tacit system of "live and let live." If, for example, you fired trench mortars at the Germans while they were having lunch or dinner, they would do the same to you, so sometimes firing stopped at mealtimes. At a safe moment like this, a soldier might even signal the other side—perhaps by climbing briefly above the parapet and pointing to his shoulder, where an officer's insignia would be—when a commander was about to visit. Then troops on both sides would begin a barrage of rifle and machine-gun fire, and British and French infantrymen quickly learned that if they aimed too high, the Germans would do the same. A similar informal understanding sometimes also covered no man's land, where soldiers were ordered to go on dreaded night patrols to repair barbed-wire barricades and reconnoiter enemy defenses. One young British officer typically described leading several men on such a mission when "we suddenly confronted, round some mound or excavation, a German patrol ... we were perhaps twenty yards from each other, fully visible. I waved a weary hand, as if to say: what is the use of killing each other? The German officer seemed to understand, and both parties turned and made their way back to their own trenches. Reprehensible conduct, no doubt."
In some places, the front-line trenches were far apart and the cratered expanse of no man's land might be several hundred yards wide. This allowed the rise of a curious and persistent legend. No man's land was not empty, some soldiers claimed, but populated by deserters who found shelter in shell holes and caves as well as abandoned trenches and dugouts. After every skirmish, when darkness fell, they would come out to rob the dead and dying of their food and water. As time passed these spectral survivors grew long beards and their uniforms turned to rags—until they took new ones from the dead. They were the source, it was said, of mysterious noises heard at night. And this roving community in no man's land was international, men were convinced, with deserters from both sides. The generals had forbidden fraternization, but they couldn't prevent it from happening in myth.
No war in history had seen so many troops locked in stalemate for so long. The year 1915 had begun with the Germans occupying some 19,500 square miles of French and Belgian territory. At its end, Allied troops had recaptured exactly eight of those square miles, the British alone suffering more than a quarter-million casualties in the process. Still an endless stream of wounded flowed home, and still the newspapers were filled with lists of those killed or missing.
For Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, messages of sympathy arrived from all over the world, from Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and other friends at home and abroad. "They tell me John is reported missing," said a letter from a fellow Irish Guards officer wounded in the same battle, "but I feel sure that it will all come right as ... I myself was officially reported missing." Others also tried to be optimistic: "We can but trust he is a prisoner," wrote the Prince of Wales.
The distraught Kipling doggedly questioned a succession of Irish Guardsmen, but in vain. The War Office had listed John as "wounded and missing"; Kipling was enraged when a newspaper referred to him as "missing, believed killed." He and Carrie clung to the hope that John might be alive, in a hospital or prison camp in Germany. With survivors of the battle eager to comfort the stricken parents with any possible scrap of news or rumor, conflicting information began to pile up: that John had a leg wound, that he had been shot in the neck, that he had been seen alive after the time he was reported missing. Even though he despised governments that had remained neutral in what he saw as a titanic struggle between good and evil, Kipling turned to the American ambassador, asking that a description of his son be sent to the U.S. embassy in Berlin: "He is dark with strongly marked eyebrows, small moustache, thick brown hair (straight), dark brown eyes with long lashes. Height about 5.7½.... He is short-sighted and is most probably wearing gold spectacles."
Now it was Violet Cecil's turn to offer sympathy and compassion to her friends, as they had to her. Milner, ever the realist, wrote in his diary, "We fear he is killed." Carrie Kipling had rushed to see Violet the day after John was reported missing, and sometimes wrote to her twice a day. Violet herself interviewed one wounded Irish Guards officer in the hospital to see if she could find out anything, and, in hopes that another neutral power could help, sent a letter to the Crown Princess of Sweden. "No news," Carrie wrote to her, "—a great darkness seems to be settling down on it all. But who should know better than you."
Kipling wrote on, but on occasion now his martial voice was muted, and it almost seemed a different person speaking:
"Have you news of my boy Jack?"
Not this tide.
"When d'you think that he'll come back?"
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
"Has any one else had word of him?"
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide...