BY THE BEGINNING of 1916, in response to recruiting drives, posters ("Don't Lag! Follow Your Flag!"), and music hall songs ("Oh, we don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go"), an impressive two and a half million men had enlisted. One historian has called Britain's volunteer army "the greatest expression of enthusiasm for war in all history." That enthusiasm, however, was not evenly shared. Although members of the working class never opposed the war on anything like the scale Keir Hardie dreamed of, they showed less zeal than the better-off, volunteering for the army at a noticeably lower rate than professionals and white-collar workers.
War-minded Britons who worried about lingering pockets of working-class internationalism were heartened, however, in March 1916, by the birth of a new organization, which became known as the British Workers' League. The group, made up mostly of trade union officials, issued statements that sounded vaguely socialist, calling for better wages and pensions as well as for "national control of vital industries." But it was also vigorously prowar. "All-British from the core," it proclaimed itself, vowing victory over "Germans and Austrians who are now doing their best to destroy us." Unusual then, this combination—support for social welfare measures and strident nationalism—would become far more familiar as fascism rose in the 1920s and '30s. As in the fascist labor movements to come, several of the League's leaders were distinctly thuggish. Followers of one of them, Joseph Havelock Wilson of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, set fire to the office of an antiwar rival, with the man still inside. When he fled the fire, they tried to throw him back in.
It was clearly a great boon to the government to have an organization of "workers" attacking the Independent Labour Party and other antiwar groups, which officials of the new League quickly did, at public meetings and in its vociferously chauvinist weekly, theBritish Citizen and Empire Worker. For every demand the League made for better pay or public ownership of key industries, there were louder attacks on "shirkers" from the war effort and on traitors to the empire. The prowar press was delighted; theTimesdescribed one League demonstration as "beyond all question ... the authentic voice of the working classes." Less than a year after its founding, this surprisingly well-financed organization would claim 74 branches around the country, staging 100 patriotic mass meetings a week.
There were, of course, millions of working-class Britons who were genuinely prowar. The League, however, was the brainchild of someone who was anything but proletarian: Alfred, Lord Milner. "I am trying, very hard, but quietly," he wrote to a friend just before the League went public, "to further a purely working-class movement which I hope will knock out the ILP ... among Trade Unionists [and] which will make Imperial Unity and Citizens' Service [i.e., conscription] planks in its programme." The enthusiasm of the Times for this "authentic voice of the working classes" was also Milner's doing, for the paper's editor was a close friend and disciple, a former member of the South African Kindergarten.
"It would be difficult to imagine," a biographer comments, "anyone less suitable than Milner to inspire a working class movement." But the League was his creation and his alone: he had found the perfect person to run it, Victor Fisher, an experienced socialist journalist, and then quietly lined up the necessary funders: Waldorf Astor, MP, a young member of a famously non-working-class family, and later the shipping magnate Sir James Knott. The cash was put into a special account at the London Joint Stock Bank, from which Milner personally doled it out to Fisher, checking his expense reports. "Shall we call the a/c the 'Imperial Fund'?" Astor asked. Milner replied: "It would not be necessary or perhaps desirable, to give it any name.... I am a Director of that Bank, so no questions would be asked, and nobody need know anything about it except ourselves."
Fisher himself received a full-time salary plus £1,000 a year for expenses, with a remarkable guarantee that his salary would be paid for three years even if the League ceased operations. Milner met with most of the speakers before the League's first big public meeting, but after that he kept a low profile, although he saw Fisher in private almost every week. He did not mind working with trade unionists, for he had always been open to what some Britons called "gas and water socialism." Public health? Better schools? Public ownership of electric power? No problem: such things were entirely tolerable if they made the economy more efficient and the working class more enthusiastic for the empire—and the war.
The month the new League was founded, conscription finally began. The mass-production slaughter on the fields of France and Flanders required it, to feed the army's relentless appetite for human bodies. A military draft was a radical change for Britain, and because even some prowar MPs were uncomfortable with it and needed persuading, the new law provided a surprisingly broad exemption for conscientious objectors, or COs, as they came to be called. Special tribunals were set up around the country, and if one of these boards agreed that a man had a principled objection to bearing arms, whether religious or secular, he could do alternative service—either in a Non-Combatant Corps within the army or in supervised work gangs doing farm labor, forestry, and other manual jobs that kept the wartime economy going at home. Those exempt from the draft included some skilled workers doing "work of national importance" in strategic industries—and all Irishmen. The last thing the government wanted was anything that might provoke a new nationalist uprising on that highly combustible island.
New conscripts filled training camps in Britain, most of them eventually destined for Haig's forces in France and Belgium. His subordinates at headquarters "all seem to expect success as the result of my arrival," the general wrote to his wife, "and somehow give me the idea that they think I am 'meant to win' by some Superior Power." Strait-laced, humorless, intolerant of off-color jokes, gambling, and ribald songs, Haig was convinced that he had been led to the Western Front by God's hand. He urged a visiting party of clergymen to "preach ... about the objects of Great Britain in carrying on this war. We have no selfish motive but are fighting for the good of humanity."
"We lament too much over death," Haig approvingly quoted his own chosen army pastor, Reverend George Duncan of the Church of Scotland, whose services he attended. "We should regard it as a change to another room." Duncan's views fitted, chillingly, with the general's own thinking. "The nation must be taught to bear losses," Haig wrote, "...[and] to see heavy casualty lists for what may appear to the uninitiated to be insufficient object[s].... Three years of war and the loss of one-tenth of the manhood of the nation is not too great a price to pay in so great a cause."
For manhood of prime military age, the price would prove far higher.
As the year began, Haig was as relentlessly optimistic as his predecessor, supremely confident that his tenacity and skill could succeed—and swiftly—where French had failed. "The Germans might bargain for peace before the coming winter," he told the King. Shortly after taking command, Haig urged renewed cavalry recruiting and ordered a fresh round of inspections of his five cavalry divisions, to put spine into "some officers who think that Cavalry are no longer required!!!" In a letter to the chief of the Imperial General Staff, he spoke of being prepared for a version of Murat's famous cavalry pursuit of the retreating Prussians at the Battle of Jena—in 1806. Haig's obsession was shared by British painters and illustrators, who filled canvases and magazine pages with heroic cavalry charges that bore little resemblance to reality. "Straight at the Guns the Lancers Rode," read a typical caption in the Illustrated London News.
At the front, most soldiers were focused on less glorious matters, such as the slimy mass of frogs and slugs that infested the trenches as the weather grew warmer and wetter with the spring thaw. One 36-year-old infantry officer wrote to a friend that "lately a certain number of cats have taken to nesting in the corpses, but I think the rats will get them in the end; though like all wars it will doubtless be a war of attrition." This observation came from Raymond Asquith, son of the prime minister and a widely admired lawyer and wit. Of trench life in winter, he wrote to his wife, he was trying to "take the same sort of interest ... as an ill-tempered tourist may take in an uncomfortable hotel."
An unending stream of VIP visitors enjoyed far better lodgings when they called on Haig at his headquarters, which were spread among a military academy, a hotel, and other buildings in the medieval French town of Montreuil; the commander himself lived in a small château nearby. "Montreuil was a place to bring tears to the eyes of an artist.... The tiny walled town on a hill had that poignant fulness of loveliness, making the sense ache at it, like still summer evenings in England," wrote the author C. E. Montague, whose army job was to take journalists on tours of the front. "It was a storied antique, unscathed ... weathered mellow with centuries of sunshine and tranquillity.... Walking among its walled gardens, where roses hung over the walls ... you were not merely out of the war; you were out of all war."
For Haig's entourage, their uniforms marked by staff officers' distinctive red lapel tabs and hatbands as well as armbands in the red and blue of General Headquarters colors, there was a tennis court to play on and narrow cobblestone streets to stroll down. At the officers' club, a band played ragtime while customers were served by attractive young waitresses from the new Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in khaki stockings and skirts (no more than 12 inches off the ground, regulations required). The bows in their hair were in headquarters red and blue.
A man of strict routines, Haig stepped out of his bedroom at exactly 8:25 every morning, checked the barometer, went for the briefest of walks in the château's garden, and sat down for breakfast at 8:30. After a morning in his office, unless he was visiting one of his subordinate commanders, he would take a two-hour afternoon ride on horseback, accompanied by several aides-de-camp and an escort of lancers with fluttering pennons. Having returned to his desk, he stopped for dinner promptly at 8:00 P.M. and then worked again or talked with visitors until 10:45. When he inspected troops, he was particularly attentive to their appearance and discipline, noting disapprovingly in his diary one battalion's "slackness ... in the matter of saluting."*
Haig and his staff ate well, enjoying the steady supply of foie gras, fresh fish, and joints of lamb that his friend Leopold de Rothschild sent to Montreuil. "All the troops here are very fit and cheery," the general wrote to Rothschild. "Indeed ... it is the troops in the field who write home to cheer their friends and not the other way!" The censors who read the soldiers' outbound mail collected only the most upbeat excerpts to show Haig. There can be no question, though, that in this honeymoon period soldiers did indeed project onto Haig their hopes for an early victory and a return home.
Haig's very uncommunicativeness allowed civilians and soldiers alike to read into the man the qualities they wanted to see. "Haig was a silent man.... You had to learn a sort of verbal shorthand made up of a series of grunts and gestures," wrote his aide-de-camp Desmond Morton. Of one such instance Morton recalled, "The briefing lasted about twenty minutes and consisted of Haig with a pointer in front of a large-scale map of the battle pointing at various spots and making grunting noises with a few words interspersed. 'Never believed ... petrol ... bridge gone ... where cavalry?' and so on. Fortunately I knew the cipher by this time. I am sure Haig felt he had given me a long and lucid lecture on the whole affair."
In the subordinates Haig chose, loyalty and length of service were what counted, not initiative. "If by any chance failures are sent home," an officer at the Montreuil headquarters wrote to his wife, "they are put in charge of new divisions and re-appear in a few months to do further damage." As he had all his life, Haig vigorously defended the seniority principle, demanding that if someone was recommended for promotion, a list of any officers senior to the man had to be forwarded with the recommendation. Haig had risen through the military bureaucracy by attracting not those with talent or new ideas but rather those who would not outshine him. There was no shortage of mediocrity in the British army of this era, but he was unusual in openly endorsing the quality. Years before, when his sister wrote to him doubting that a certain officer joining his staff was "clever enough for the job," Haig replied: "The so called sharp people very often disappoint us or cheat or have some other drawback such as being disagreeable, bad-tempered, etc. All I require is people of average intelligence who are keen to do their work properly."
While Haig planned for a great breakthrough, it became painfully clear that the Germans were doing exactly the same thing, and they struck first. Their target was the French army, whose sector of the front line was anchored by the fortress city of Verdun and its surrounding double ring of smaller forts. The assault on Verdun began in late February 1916 with the largest and longest artillery bombardment yet seen. No one knew the extent of German casualties, but 90,000 French soldiers were killed or wounded in the first six weeks. The ferocious combat raged on, murderously but indecisively, into the spring, the German troops deploying their flamethrowers when they could get close enough to French positions. Not for the last time in this war, gaining a tiny piece of ground became an obsession for the attacking commander.
Anxious to see the Germans diverted from Verdun, the French high command urged its British allies to accelerate plans for a massive joint assault where the British and French sectors of the front met, near the River Somme, which meandered its slow and weed-filled way through a countryside of wheat and sugar beet fields. As ever more French troops were drawn into the bloody maw of Verdun, it became clear that the major work of the assault on the Somme would fall to the British army. July 1, 1916, was fixed as its date, and months of intensive preparations began.
In London, a measure of elite status was whether you had access to the latest uncensored news from the battlefields of the Western Front. Coded telegrams flowed from Montreuil to the War Office, and longer dispatches were carried by couriers known as King's Messengers. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, urgent telegrams about a surprise attack streamed in—but not from Haig's headquarters. Many of them landed on the desk of the shocked commander of the Home Forces, the new Viscount French, still angry over being kicked upstairs from his post at the front. At this worst of possible moments, the largest insurrection in a century had broken out in Ireland.
Some 1,750 nationalists had taken up arms, determined, after long centuries of English rule, to take Ireland out of the United Kingdom once and for all. Men carrying rifles on their shoulders, but sometimes wearing suits and ties, marched up Dublin's O'Connell Street. As they approached the majestic General Post Office, the column's leader, James Connolly—a self-educated socialist, friend of Keir Hardie, and military veteran—gave the order, "Left turn ... charge!" Within a few minutes the rebels had occupied the building and decked it with a green flag sporting a gold harp and the words IRISH REPUBLIC. They soon came out on the front steps and announced, to a small scattering of surprised pedestrians, the establishment of a provisional government. "Irishmen and Irishwomen," their proclamation began. "In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom."
The rebels quickly cut telephone lines and occupied railway stations and other key buildings. Preparing for the British army counterattack that was sure to come, they began building barricades, organizing blockades of cars across major streets, and digging trenches in St. Stephen's Green. At the domed Four Courts building they used heavy law books as the equivalent of sandbag fortifications.
French immediately ordered two infantry brigades to Ireland and put other units on alert. After conferring with the prime minister, the King, and Kitchener, he dispatched yet more troops and a hard-line general to command them. The British soldiers surrounded rebel-held central Dublin, and the authorities declared martial law.
The Easter Rising, as it was termed, proved a dramatic blow at England's imperial amour-propre, but fell far short of the rebels' dreams. The nationwide revolt they hoped to ignite never materialized: popular support for such an extreme move proved weak, dissension broke out among the leaders, and weapons promised by the Germans were intercepted by the British. The Rising was largely limited to Dublin, where British forces soon outnumbered the insurgents 20 to 1. As the badly armed rebels in their fedoras and cloth caps fought on, however, their doomed revolt gained an aura of sacrificial tragedy that would make it a landmark in Irish nationalist mythology—looming far larger, paradoxically, than if the Rising had been better planned and executed.
As the British army closed in, a Royal Navy gunboat on the River Liffey shelled the rebels' temporary headquarters, which bore a big sign: WE SERVE NEITHER KING NOR KAISER, BUT IRELAND. Insurgents barricaded in shops and factories fought on stubbornly, evacuating their wounded, when they could, through back doors and holes smashed in walls. Hit by an incendiary artillery round, the General Post Office began to burn and soon became a blackened shell whose outer walls still bear the scars of bullets today. Flames soared into the sky day and night. Women accused of carrying ammunition to the rebels were seized and carted off screaming. The last headquarters of the Irish Republic's short-lived army was Hanlon's fish shop on Moore Street.
According to the official count, the week of bitter street fighting left more than 400 dead and 2,500 wounded—among rebels, bystanders, and British troops—although some estimates put the figures higher. British military authorities court-martialed the leaders of the revolt, sentencing 15 to be shot. Some feared this would provoke a new round of uprisings, but French, in London, refused to overrule the general he had dispatched to Dublin. In dealing with the suffragettes, the British government had been careful not to create martyrs; French's failure to do the same would prove a pivotal mistake. The last of the condemned to be brought before the firing squad was James Connolly, so badly wounded that he had to be carried on a stretcher and then tied to a chair to be shot. People throughout Ireland were enraged, as were English supporters of Irish freedom like Sylvia Pankhurst.
Her Woman's Dreadnought became a rare source of news about the Rising, for its correspondent, 18-year-old Patricia Lynch, scored a coup when she evaded a government news blackout and managed to slip into Dublin: on the way there she met a politically sympathetic army officer who got her through roadblocks by identifying her as his sister. The issue of the Dreadnought that carried her report, "Scenes from the Irish Rebellion," promptly sold out and had to be reprinted several times. "The hopeless bravery of it," Pankhurst wrote later of the Rising, "the coercion and the executions which followed, to me were a grief cutting deep as a personal sorrow."
With some blocks in Dublin as reduced to rubble as war-ravaged towns in France and Belgium, the Easter Rising was a sharp blow to all who hoped that the shared ordeal of war would strengthen the bonds holding together the British Empire. No one valued that dream more than Milner. Despite his prodigious administrative talents, he was not close to Asquith, and so the prime minister had given him only minor assignments. Milner chafed impatiently as admirers inside the government and the military told him how wartime bureaucrats were making a mess of things that he could have set right. ("I shall never be quite happy until I see you War Minister," wrote one general.) His one solace was his love for Violet Cecil.
She, however, was still consumed by grief. Like many bereaved women then, she tried to console herself by compiling a collection of letters from her son's final weeks, copying them by hand into an album, along with a list of the villages where he had spent each night during his short time in France and a hand-drawn map of the forest where he died. One by one she watched other families she knew receive the same terrible news about sons, husbands, or brothers.
An advisory committee Milner served on recommended that all possible land be farmed—to make Britain less dependent on imported food that had to cross an ocean patrolled by German U-boats. And so, adding to her own sense of a world turned upside down, Violet dutifully ordered her flower gardens at Great Wigsell converted to grow fruit and vegetables, and sheep were set to graze on the lawns. With farmhands called away to the front, the only laborers available were German POWs. "This place is polluted by German prisoners who are ploughing," she wrote to her husband. "I hate to see them in the field ... George used to ride in." Servants, too, were hard to find, for young women flocked to jobs now open to them in munitions factories, just as Emmeline Pankhurst had wanted. Violet lost her maid, and for a time had to cook and sew for herself.
Meanwhile, at venerable Hatfield House, the seat of Edward Cecil's family, fields and the private golf course were filled with trenches and a man-made swamp to create a maneuvering ground for an experimental weapon under development, the tank. The King himself came one day to watch the enormous machines grind their way across ancestral Cecil land. Most of the great house itself, with its library of 10,000 leather-bound books, marble floors, gold leaf ceilings, and flags captured at Waterloo, had, like many similar homes, been transformed into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers, with remaining family members confined to one corner.
The same month as the Easter Rising, Sylvia Pankhurst and her supporters organized an antiwar rally in Trafalgar Square, to which she marched with a working-class group from the East End. Never strong on modesty, she wrote later, "I knew the dear London crowd loved me.... In their jolly kindness some shouted: 'Good old Sylvia!'" At the square itself, though, far less love was in sight. The demonstrators were set upon by right-wing thugs and soldiers wearing the broad-brimmed hats of the notoriously rowdy Australian and New Zealand troops. They tore the marchers' banners to pieces and jeered so loudly that the speakers could not be heard. Other hecklers hurled red and yellow dye. Sylvia tried to speak over the uproar, but her voice was drowned out. Finally two policemen made her leave the platform before the violence got out of hand. From across the Atlantic, where she was in the midst of a North American speaking tour, her mother cabled Christabel: "Strongly repudiate and condemn Sylvia's foolish and unpatriotic conduct.... Make this public."
Sylvia's voice was not alone. A socialist named William Holliday had been sentenced the previous year to three months of hard labor for publicly insisting, "Freedom's battle has not to be fought on the blood-drenched soil of France but nearer home—our enemy is within the gates." Acquitted on appeal, he was arrested again on a pretext and died in prison. Others dared to speak out: the first men refusing the draft, a few trade unionists, a handful of MPs, and some intellectuals, of whom the most prominent—each would later spend months in prison for his opinions—were Bertrand Russell and the distinguished journalist Edmund Dene Morel.
A burly man of imposing dynamism, Morel, for more than a decade before 1914, had been the moving spirit of the century's first great international human rights campaign, against the forced labor system King Leopold II of Belgium had used to draw profits from the Congo, a system Morel had done more than anyone else to expose. He was Britain's most skilled practitioner of what today we would call investigative journalism. After the war began, Morel became a founder of the Union of Democratic Control, a coalition that drew together a number of liberal, socialist, and labor figures and groups who felt that Britain's participation in the war was a huge mistake, possible only because foreign policy was made outside of open, parliamentary control. By the war's end, organizations affiliated with the UDC, most of them local or regional labor union groups, would have a combined membership of more than 650,000. The UDC called for ending the war through a negotiated peace, based on several principles, one of which was that no territory should change hands in a peace settlement without a plebiscite of those who lived there.
Morel poured out an unceasing stream of books, articles, and pamphlets arguing that the war was not due to German aggression alone, but also to various secret treaties and agreements—including the understanding Britain had had with France—and to an uncontrolled arms race. For years before the war, he wrote, the leaders of every major country in Europe had been telling their people "that while they themselves were extremely anxious to keep the peace, the fellows next door were a quarrelsome lot, and that the only way to keep them quiet was to arm to the teeth." Writing in 1916, three years before the postwar Treaty of Versailles would virtually guarantee the rise of Nazism, he already grasped that the most dangerous outcome of the conflict would be the total victory of either side—"a war which enables one side to impose its unfettered will upon the other ... a war closing amid universal exhaustion, followed by a sullen peace." Although Morel had won wide respect for his Congo muckraking, newspapers now fiercely attacked him as a German agent, and before long he would find his writings censored, his mailbox filled with hate letters, and the police raiding his home to carry away private papers from his study.
Conscription spurred the country's antiwar movement into new life. In 1916, for example, some 200,000 Britons signed a petition calling for a negotiated peace. Except for Russia when it erupted in revolution the following year, none of the other major powers would develop an antiwar movement as large and vocal. Nor, of course, did any of them have the deeply embedded tradition of civil liberties that allowed one to flourish in Britain. Before the end of the war, more than 20,000 men of military age would refuse to enter the British armed forces. Some accepted alternative labor as conscientious objectors, but—usually because they refused that option on principle or because they were denied CO status—more than 6,000 resisters spent time in prison. Today it is easy enough to look back and see the manifold tragic consequences of the First World War, but when the guns were firing and the pressure from friends and family to support the war effort was overwhelming, it required rare courage to resist.
As antiwar organizations carried on their uphill struggle, their offices were raided and searched, their mail was opened, and they were infiltrated by informers and agents provocateurs. Before long the authorities began raiding sports matches, cinemas, theaters, and railway stations to round up men who were not in uniform. Hysteria against pacifists rose everywhere. A pamphlet by "A Little Mother" typically declared that "we women ... will tolerate no such cry as 'Peace! Peace!'...There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat.... We women pass on the human ammunition of 'only sons' to fill up the gaps." It sold 75,000 copies in a few days. "The conscientious objector is a fungus growth—a human toadstool—which should be uprooted without further delay," screamed the tabloid John Bull. The Daily Express declared that COs were financed by German money. Those against the war were so accustomed to being ostracized that they were sometimes startled when it didn't happen. When an old friend, now in uniform, warmly greeted E. D. Morel in the street, Morel was so moved that he burst into tears, exclaiming, "I did not think anyone would speak to me now."
In April 1916 the largest group backing resisters, the No-Conscription Fellowship, or NCF, drew some 2,000 supporters to a convention in a London Quaker meeting hall while an angry crowd milled about in the street outside. The organization's chairman, wrote the young editor Fenner Brockway, "did not wish to incite further attack by the noise of our cheering. He therefore asked that enthusiasm should be expressed silently, and with absolute discipline the crowded audience responded." When Bertrand Russell addressed the gathering, he was "received with thousands of fluttering handkerchiefs, making the low sound of rising and falling wind, but with no other sound whatsoever."
Russell continued to write articles, books, and letters to newspapers, in prose that rang with moral clarity. He hated German militarism, he always said, loved the tradition of English liberty, and would prefer an Allied victory to a German one. But the longer the war went on, the more it was militarizing Britain in Germany's image, while killing and maiming men by the millions and making certain an embittered and dangerous postwar world. He not only lent his enormous prestige to the No-Conscription Fellowship; for much of the war his thick shock of graying hair was a familiar sight at the NCF headquarters each day, for he became the group's acting chairman when its head went to prison for refusing the call-up. He attended the courts-martial of COs, visited them in prison, and devoted hours to the most mundane office tasks, writing numerous "Dear Comrade" letters to branches around the country, signed "Fraternally Yours, Bertrand Russell." And he made clear to all that he was as willing to sacrifice his freedom for what he believed as were the younger men and women around him. When the government began prosecuting people for distributing an NCF leaflet, he immediately wrote to the Times: "Six men have been condemned to varying terms of imprisonment with hard labour for distributing this leaflet. I wish to make it known that I am the author of this leaflet, and that if anyone is to be prosecuted, I am the person primarily responsible." For this he was fined £100 (which he refused to pay, forcing the authorities to seize some of his property), dismissed from his post at Cambridge, and denied a passport for a trip to lecture at Harvard. The government was still uneasy about the bad publicity in the United States that would come from throwing such a prominent intellectual in jail. Incidentally, like thousands of people in Britain at this time, Russell came from a divided family: his first cousin was a War Office official who at one point ordered a raid on the NCF headquarters.
Believing—correctly—that sooner or later most of its leaders would be arrested, the NCF set up a "shadow" structure modeled on that used before the war by the Pankhursts' WSPU. If any officer was jailed, someone else, designated in advance, would automatically take his or her job. Similarly, wrote one member, "in various secret places, buried in an orchard in Surrey, or locked in an unsuspecting city merchant's safe, or at the back of the bookshelf in the house of a remote sympathiser ... were duplicates of every document likely to be seized." These included a daily bulletin on the numbers of men arrested, court-martialed, and imprisoned, and file cards showing the whereabouts of every CO. Any instance of their mistreatment was recorded and turned over to one of the small band of sympathetic MPs willing to ask questions in the House of Commons. Communications were often in code: if a telegram said that a meeting was to be at Manchester, it in fact meant Newcastle. Basil Thomson's Scotland Yard agents frequently raided the NCF office, so its staff took care to leave enough unimportant documents on the desks and shelves so that the police would think they were seizing something valuable.
The draft resisters in prison served their sentences at hard labor. For the first two weeks, a prisoner was given no mattress to sleep on in his seven-by-twelve-foot cell. Prison labor usually consisted of sewing a daily quota of thick canvas mailbags with a big, skewer-like needle. NCF members who were free organized relief for families of those behind bars, and groups gathered every week and on special occasions like Christmas Eve to sing hymns and labor songs outside prison walls. "The singers can have little idea how eagerly we looked forward to the evening when we imagined them due," a CO at Wormwood Scrubs Prison wrote to the NCF's lively weekly newspaper, which at its peak had a circulation of 100,000. "I can never thank these unknown friends sufficiently."
Anyone claiming exemption from the draft for whatever reason, whether as a conscientious objector or because he was engaged in labor "of national importance," had to go before one of many special tribunals around the country. The military representative on one tribunal asked a socialist militant, "Are you doing work of national importance?" "No," came the reply, "but I'm engaged on work of international importance."
The NCF scored another rhetorical point when, in the course of one legal case, a lawyer on the government side, Sir Archibald Bodkin (best known to history as the man who later would get James Joyce's novel Ulysses banned from publication in postwar England), thundered accusingly that "war will become impossible if all men were to have the view that war is wrong." Delighted, the NCF proceeded to issue a poster with exactly those words on it, credited to Bodkin. The government then arrested an NCF member for putting up this subversive poster. In response, the NCF's lawyer demanded the arrest of Bodkin, as the author of the offending words. The organization's newspaper—named, with deliberate irony, the Tribunal—called for Bodkin to prosecute himself, and declared that the NCF would provide relief payments to his wife and children if he sent himself to jail.
In the spring of 1916, a succession of desperate telephone calls to the NCF office revealed a crisis that was no occasion for humor. When conscription first began, if a tribunal refused a man's application for CO status, he was considered to have been drafted into the army—where, once at the front, the wartime punishment for disobeying an order could be death by firing squad. One such group of COs found themselves forcibly inducted into the military and, when they refused to follow orders, were put in irons, fed bread and water, and locked up in the darkened rooms of a granite-walled fortress at Harwich, built by prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars. One day an officer told them that they were being sent to the front in France. "Once you are across the Channel," he said, "your friends in Parliament and elsewhere won't be able to do anything for you."
The 17 men were put on a train headed for the port of Southampton. As the train trundled through the outskirts of London, one of them tossed a note out the window. Luckily, it was found by a sympathetic member of the militant National Union of Railwaymen, who telephoned the NCF office, which promptly went into action. When questioned in Parliament two days later, Prime Minister Asquith swore he knew nothing of the case. Lord Derby, director of recruiting, gave the impression—rightly or wrongly—that he did, claiming that the army was fully justified in its actions, and that, as for the 17 hapless COs, "if they disobey orders, of course they will be shot, and quite right too!"
More protests came from liberal voices in the press, which the War Office countered with a propaganda barrage of its own. Bertrand Russell joined a delegation that visited Asquith to plead for the men's lives. "As we were leaving," Russell wrote later, "I made him a speech of denunciation in an almost Biblical style, telling him his name would go down in history with infamy. I had not the pleasure of meeting him thereafter." Meanwhile, horrified family members and fellow pacifists could get no news of the men's fate. The mothers of nine of them, desperate for help, visited Sylvia Pankhurst, who went to lobby on their behalf at the War Office. In late May, the army sent several additional groups of COs from different parts of the country across the Channel, some in handcuffs. It now appeared that almost 50 COs were in France, and could face firing squads if they refused to fight. As one cluster was taken out through the gates of an army camp in Wales, a band played a funeral march.
"In France a court-martial can be held and an execution carried out without the knowledge of the public at home," Russell wrote to a newspaper. "The name of the victim can be simply published in casualty lists, and the truth need not leak out until the war is over."
The families and supporters of the prisoners had no news of where they were. Then one day in early June 1916 the NCF received a clue: a Field Service Post Card, designed to save army censors the time it took to read mail. Tens of millions of these cards were issued to troops overseas, with half a dozen printed messages that a soldier could either underline or cross out. This postcard was signed by a 27-year-old schoolteacher named Bert Brocklesby, one of the missing men. All the messages were crossed out, except two. One was "I am being sent down to the base." The other was "I have received no letter from you for a long time." But Brocklesby had cleverly and lightly crossed out many individual letters, so that the message read, "I am being sent ... to ... b ... ou ... long."
The NCF immediately dispatched two clergymen to Boulogne.
But would they be in time? While the ministers were crossing the Channel, another message was smuggled out from France, reaching the mother of a Quaker CO named Stuart Beavis. "We have been warned today that we are now within the war zone," he wrote to her stoically, "and the military authorities have absolute power, and disobedience may be followed by very severe penalties, and very possibly the death penalty.... Do not be downhearted if the worst comes to the worst; many have died cheerfully for a worse cause." To the NCF's Tribunal he sent a brief message on behalf of himself and his comrades, ending, "We regret nothing."
While the COs imprisoned in Boulogne awaited their fate, the explorer Ernest Shackleton, long out of touch with Europe, unexpectedly appeared on one of the earth's southernmost islands, South Georgia. His ship had been trapped in Antarctic pack ice, then crushed and sunk. After months of drifting on the ice floes, he and his men had finally escaped to the Antarctic mainland. In search of a vessel to rescue them, he led a handpicked crew of half a dozen in an epic 800-mile journey by small boat across one of the world's stormiest patches of ocean to South Georgia, where there was a Norwegian whaling station. Shackleton had been cut off from the rest of the world for a year and a half. The first question he asked the startled station manager was "Tell me, when was the war over?"
"The war is not over," the Norwegian answered. "Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad."
The madness was growing, and not just where rival armies did battle. In the Caucasus, for example, where Russia and Ottoman Turkey were fighting, the Turks had just carried out a forced deportation and genocide against one of their subject peoples, the Armenians, claiming they were in league with Russia. No one knows exactly how many Armenians perished, but most scholars estimate the number at one to one and a half million.
That mass murder stemmed from only one of many ancient ethnic rivalries inflamed by the war. The Ottoman Empire was also unleashing a reign of pillage, terror, and village-burning on its Greek population, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands conscripted as forced laborers. And in the perennial tinderbox of the Balkans, old enmities among Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Bulgarians, and others helped Austria-Hungary carry out a ruthless occupation of Serbia. When the war ended, that tiny country would have proportionately the highest death toll, military and civilian, of any combatant, nearly one out of five of its people. Everywhere, it seemed, the war had undammed reservoirs of hatred long kept in check.
While fighting raged on many fronts on land, in the North Sea the British and German fleets met in the late spring of 1916 for the largest naval encounter of the war, the Battle of Jutland, involving some 250 ships and 100,000 men. "Had we used the Navy's bare fist instead of its gloved hand from the beginning," fumed Kipling, "we could in all likelihood have shortened the war." Yet despite Jutland's being the greatest maritime battle in more than 100 years, this long-awaited encounter between bare fists at sea was as bloodily inconclusive as those in the trenches of France.
Britain's navy suffered from the same peculiar mismatch as the army between firepower and communications. Its massive battleships and battle cruisers could fire salvos of staggering destructive power, each shell weighing nearly a ton. But when it came to sending orders and messages, the admirals remained in the previous century, inexplicably reluctant to use the new wireless sets their ships were equipped with. They preferred blinking lights at night, and, by day, the tradition-hallowed system of colored signal flags dating from the days of sail—both of which were difficult or impossible to see through rain squalls and the dense smoke from both funnels and guns. In foggy weather just before the battle, two British battle cruisers collided, a battleship ran into a merchant vessel, and three destroyers managed to collide. More confusion reigned as the main action began: the rival armadas of tall, lumbering ships shelled and sank one another; vessels exploded when their ammunition magazines were hit; thousands of men from both sides were blown to bits or carried to the bottom of the sea as their vessels became giant steel coffins. The Germans sank more ships and killed more enemy sailors than the British, but failed to cripple the Royal Navy enough to break its blockade of Germany. The scarred surviving ships steamed home in different directions as both sides claimed victory.
On more distant fronts in Africa, small contingents of British, South African, French, and Belgian troops—with far larger numbers of African conscripts—had fought German soldiers (with their own conscripts) everywhere from Cameroon on the west coast of the continent to German Southwest Africa near the southern tip to Tanganyika in the east. While exhausted troops succumbed to tropical diseases, the top commanders treated each other with an old-world courtesy: at one point, South African General Jan Smuts, commanding the British Empire forces in East Africa, sent a messenger under a white flag to congratulate his German counterpart, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, cut off from communications from home. The Kaiser had awarded him one of Germany's highest medals.
Just as Germany openly coveted the central African colonies of France and Belgium, which would give Berlin an unbroken belt of territory stretching across the continent—Mittelafrika, Berlin's strategists called it—so the Allies were maneuvering to seize Germany's African possessions. The British cabinet set up a group, the Territorial Desiderata Committee, to keep an eye out for precisely such acquisitions—and not just in Africa. The oil-rich land around the Persian Gulf, much of it under Ottoman control, looked attractive to an empire whose military was increasingly oil-powered. All this was glossed with high purpose by John Buchan. Germany ran its African colonies with "the lash and the chain," he wrote, while Britain generously allowed "ancient modes of life to continue side by side with the new."
Driven by similar ambitions, more countries were joining the war: Bulgaria, promised chunks of Serbia, had joined the Central Powers; Greece, promised pieces of Turkey; and Romania, its eye on Austro-Hungarian territory, would join the Allied side later in 1916. In the Pacific, Japan had jumped into the fray, helping itself to some of Germany's island colonies and, aided by British troops, to the German-controlled port of Tsingtao in China. Australia and New Zealand, which had sent troops to Europe and the Mediterranean to fight under British command, had taken over German Samoa, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. From desert and rain forest to remote atolls, the war was engulfing the globe.
Through the docks of French ports flowed a torrent of supplies for Haig's divisions as they prepared to smash through the German lines near the Somme. Half a million British troops, three times as many as had tried to break through at Loos, were concentrated along an 18-mile sector of the front; 120,000 of them would attack on the first day alone. This was to be the "Big Push," a concentration of manpower and artillery so massive and in such a small space that the German defenses would burst open as if hit by floodwaters. Once that happened, the generals believed, a key weapon in the hands of the soldiers pouring through would be the bayonet. The military's leading bayonet expert, the bushy-browed Major Ronald "Bloody" Campbell, an apostle of physical fitness whose broken nose and battered ears were proud evidence of his record as army middleweight boxing champion, traveled among British bases in France demonstrating the weapon and lecturing troops. "When a German holds up his hands and says: 'Kamerad—I have a wife and seven children,' what do you do?—Why ... you stick him in the gut and tell him he won't have any more!" After the Germans had been bayoneted in their trenches, it would be a matter of what Haig called "fighting the Enemy in the open," and so battalions were trained intensively in maneuvering across trenchless fields and meadows. Finally, of course, charging through the gap in the lines would come horsemen from three cavalry divisions.
While such plans may have been rooted in centuries past, the scale of the preparations, at least, belonged to the age of mass production. Troops unrolled 70,000 miles of telephone cable. Thousands of soldiers unloaded and piled ammunition in huge dumps; others, stripped to the waist and sweating in the summer heat, dug endlessly to construct special roads and railways to speed supplies to the front. Fifty-five miles of new standard-gauge railway line were built for the Somme offensive, with track beds of scarce crushed stone imported from England. With as many British soldiers crammed into the launching area as the population of a good-sized city, wells had to be dug and dozens of miles of water pipe laid. Horses, tractors, and more sweating soldiers maneuvered heavy artillery pieces into position—no easy job when a single eight-inch howitzer weighed 13 tons.
British troops, the plan went, were to move forward across no man's land in successive waves. Everything was precise: each wave would advance in a continuous line 100 yards in front of the next, at a steady pace of 100 yards a minute. How were they to be safe from the machine-gun fire that had taken such a deadly toll at Loos? Simple: the preattack bombardment would destroy not just the Germans' barbed wire but the trenches and firing positions that sheltered their riflemen and machine-gunners. How could this not be when there was one artillery piece for every 17 yards of front line, which would rain a total of a million and a half shells down on the German trenches over five solid days? "Nothing," General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of most of the attacking troops, emphatically assured his subordinates, "could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment." And if that weren't enough, once British troops climbed out of their trenches, a final "creeping barrage" of artillery shells would precede them, a moving curtain of fire riddling with shrapnel any surviving Germans who emerged from underground shelters to try to resist the attackers.
The plan for the first day's assault was 31 pages long, and its map included the British names with which the German trenches scheduled to be captured had already been rechristened. Preparations this thorough were hard to conceal, and there were occasional unnerving signs that the German troops knew almost as much about them as the British. When one unit slated to take part in the attack moved into position, it found a sign held up from the German trenches: WELCOME TO THE 29TH DIVISION.
The Germans had staged no major attacks in the Somme sector for a year and a half, and had instead used that time to build up their defenses. Scattered clues suggested that these were disturbingly sturdy. From both sides, miners were now busily tunneling under the other side's trenches to plant explosive charges; some surprised British miners digging at a level they thought far below the German trench system found themselves unintentionally hacking through the wall of a German dugout. But this and other signs of how deep the Germans had built their shelters were brushed aside.
Several weeks before the attack, General Rawlinson joined 167 other officers for an Old Etonian dinner at the Hotel Godbert in Amiens, a nearby French city whose bars and brothels were doing a booming business with British troops awaiting the offensive. In Latin, Rawlinson and his fellow Eton graduates raised their voices in the school song, "Carmen Etonense," with its chorus:
Donec oras Angliae
Alma lux fovebit,
(So long as kindly light cherishes the shores of England
May Eton flourish! She will flourish!)
Enlisted men waiting for the big day entertained themselves in other ways. A haunting piece of documentary film footage from these months, taken from a Red Cross barge moving down a canal behind the lines, shows hundreds of Allied soldiers stripped completely bare, wading, bathing, or sunning themselves on the canal bank in the warm summer weather, smiling and waving at the camera. Without helmets and uniforms, it is impossible to tell their nationality; their naked bodies mark them only as human beings.
Riding a black horse with his usual escort of lancers, Haig inspected his divisions as they rehearsed for the attack, on practice fields where white tapes on the ground marked the German trenches. On June 20 the commander in chief wrote to his wife, "The situation is becoming more favourable to us." On June 22 he added, "I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with the Divine help." For additional Divine help, he invited his favorite preacher, Reverend Duncan, to his forward headquarters. On June 30, the day before the attack began, as the great artillery barrage had been thundering for four days, Haig wrote in his diary, "The men are in splendid spirits.... The wire has never been so well cut, nor the Artillery preparation so thorough." For good measure, the British released clouds of deadly chlorine gas toward the German lines. Haig recorded only one note of caution, a complaint that two divisions at the northern end of the attack front had not carried out a single successful reconnaissance raid, something that should have been easy under cover of darkness if the British shelling actually had destroyed the German barbed wire.
As it grew close to zero hour, 7:30 A.M. on July 1, 1916, ten enormous mines were detonated deep underneath the German trenches. Near the village of La Boisselle, the crater from one that contained 30 tons of high explosives remains, a stark, gaping indentation in the surrounding French farmland; even partly filled in by a century of erosion, it is still 55 feet deep and 220 feet across.
Alfred Milner could hear the low thunder of the bombardment at his country house near the Kent coast, and when the barrage reached its crescendo, 224,221 shells in the last 65 minutes, the rumble could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath in London. More shells were fired by the British this week than they had used in the first 12 months of the war; some gunners bled from the ears after five days of nonstop firing. At a forest near Gommecourt, entire trees were uprooted and tossed in the air by the shelling and the forest itself was set on fire. Soldiers of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry sat on the parapet of their trench cheering at the tremendous explosions. Officers issued a strong ration of rum to the men about to head into no man's land. Captain W. P. Nevill of the 8th East Surrey Battalion gave each of his four platoons a soccer ball and promised a prize to whichever one first managed to kick the ball to the German trench. One platoon painted on its ball:
THE GREAT EUROPEAN CUP
EAST SURREYS V. BAVARIANS