Go to war not for the sake of goods and gold, not for your homeland or for honour, nor to seek the death of your enemies, but to strengthen your character, to strengthen it in power and will, in habits, custom and earnestness. That is why I want to go to war.
Murder of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo.
Austria-Hungary delivers an ultimatum to Serbia.
Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia.
Russia mobilises against Austria-Hungary in support of Serbia.
Germany demands that Russia cease mobilisation but Russia continues.
Germany mobilises, as does Russia’s ally, France.
German troops enter France and Luxembourg; Russians enter East Prussia.
Germany demands passage for German troops through Belgium. The demand is refused.
Germany invades Belgium. Great Britain declares war on Germany.
French troops enter the German colony of Togoland.
Russia invades German East Prussia.
Austria-Hungary invades Serbia. The campaign is ultimately unsuccessful.
French troops enter German Lothringen (Lorraine) but are pushed back.
Russia invades the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia.
Brussels falls. German armies sweep south towards Paris.
The Allied invasion of the German colony of the Cameroons begins.
The Battle of Tannenberg begins. The Russian invasion of East Prussia is pushed back.
The Battle of Lemberg begins. It turns into a major defeat for Austria-Hungary.
Start of the Franco-British counter-offensive on the Marne. The German march on Paris is checked.
The second Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia begins.
Start of the so-called Race to the Sea in the west.
Japan declares war on Germany.
The first of a series of battles in Flanders begins.
The Ottoman Empire enters the war on the German side.
Russia invades the Ottoman province of Armenia.
The German colony of Tsingtao in China is conquered by Japanese and British troops.
The third Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia begins.
The start of an Ottoman offensive in the Caucasus.
British troops occupy Basra in Mesopotamia.
The second battle for Warsaw begins.
SUNDAY, 2 AUGUST 1914
Laura de Turczynowicz is woken early one morning in Augustów
What is the worst thing she can imagine? That her husband is ill, injured or even dead? That he has been unfaithful?
It has been a perfect summer. Not only has the weather been perfect—hot, sunny, wonderful sunsets—but they have also moved into a newly built summer villa, tucked away by the lakes in the beautiful Augustów Forest. The children have played for days on end. She and her husband have often rowed out on the lake during the short, white nights of June to greet the rising sun. “All was peace and beauty … a quiet life full of simple pleasure.”
It has to be said that the simplicity of her life is relative. The large villa is superbly furnished. She is surrounded the whole time by servants and domestics, who live in a special annexe. (Each of the five-year-old boys has a nanny and the six-year-old girl has her own governess. The children are taken round in a special pony-trap.) They move in the society of the best noble families in the region. They have spent the winter on the French Riviera. (The journey home was fast and simple: European borders are easy to cross and there is still no need for passports.) They have a number of residences: as well as the summer villa and the big house in Suwalki, they have an apartment in Warsaw. Laura de Turczynowicz, née Blackwell, has a sheltered, comfortable existence. She screams at the sight of a mouse. She is frightened of thunder. She is modest and rather shy. She scarcely knows how to cook.
In a photograph taken a summer or so earlier we can see a happy, proud and contented woman, dark blonde, wearing a wide skirt, a white blouse and a large summer hat. We see someone used to a privileged and tranquil life, and a life that gets steadily better. She is by no means alone in that. Though there have been rumours of unrest and distant misdeeds, she has chosen to ignore them. And she is not alone in that, either.
So it really has been a perfect summer and it is still far from over. This evening they are supposed to be holding a lavish dinner party. But where is her husband? He has been working in Suwalki for several days and should have been back yesterday, in time for the party. They held back dinner for him but he did not arrive. This is not like him at all and she is growing more and more concerned. Where can he be? She waits, watches. Still no sign. She has not been this worried for a long time. What can have happened? She does not fall asleep until it is almost morning.
Laura is woken by a violent banging on the window.
It is four o’clock in the morning.
She leaps up to quieten the noise as quickly as possible, before it wakes the children. She can see a figure down below the window. Her first, confused thought is that it is one of the servants on the way to the market and in need of something—money or instructions, perhaps. To her amazement she is greeted by the pale and earnest face of Jan, her husband’s manservant. He passes her a card. The handwriting is her husband’s.
She reads: “War is declared. Come immediately with the children. Let the servants pack up what you wish to bring and come on later in the day.”
TUESDAY, 4 AUGUST 1914
Elfriede Kuhr watches the 149th Infantry regiment leaving Schneidemühl
A summer evening. Warm air. Faint music in the distance. Elfriede and her brother are indoors, at home at Alte Bahnhofstrasse 17, but they can hear the sound. It slowly grows louder and they realise what is happening. They rush out into the street and away towards the yellow fortresslike railway station. The square in front of the station is swarming with people and the electric lighting is on—Elfriede thinks that the drab white light makes the leaves on the chestnut trees look as if they are made of paper.
She climbs up on the iron railings that separate the station building from the crowded square. The music is coming nearer. She sees a goods train standing waiting at Platform 3. She sees that the engine is steamed up. She sees that the wagon doors are open and through them she catches a glimpse of reservists, still in civilian clothes, going off to be mobilised. The men lean out and wave and laugh. Meanwhile the sounds of the music are growing louder and louder, ringing out clearly through the air of the summer evening. Her brother shouts: “They’re coming! Here comes the 149th!”
This is what everyone has been waiting for: the 149th Infantry Regiment, the town’s own unit. They are on their way to the Western Front. “The Western Front”—a very new term indeed, and Elfriede has never heard of such a thing until today. The war is about the Russians, isn’t it? Everyone knows that. The German army is mobilising in response to the Russian mobilisation and everyone knows that the Russians are going to attack soon.* It is the threat from the east that is occupying the minds of people living here in Pomerania, and Schneidemühl is no exception to that. The Russian border lies less than a hundred miles away and the main railway line from Berlin to Königsberg runs through the town, which will presumably make it a self-evident target for the powerful enemy in the east.
The same thing is true, more or less, of the people of Schneidemühl as of the politicians and generals who, fumbling, groping and stumbling, have led Europe into war: information exists but it is almost always incomplete or out of date, and for lack of facts has been padded out with guesses, suppositions, hopes, fears, idées fixes, conspiracy theories, dreams, nightmares and rumours. Just as in tens of thousands of other towns and villages all over the continent, the picture of the world in Schneidemühl these days has been formed out of hazy and deceptive material of that kind—rumour, in particular. Elfriede Kuhr is twelve years old, a restless and intelligent girl with sandy-coloured hair and green eyes. She has heard people say that French planes have bombed Nuremberg, that a railway bridge near Eichenried has been attacked, that Russian troops are moving towards Johannisburg, that Russian agents tried to murder the Crown Prince in Berlin, that a Russian spy attempted to blow up the aeroplane factory on the edge of town, that a Russian agent tried to infect the communal water supply with cholera and that a French agent has tried to blow up the bridges over the River Küddow.
None of this is true, but that emerges only later. Just now people seem prepared to believe anything, the more unbelievable the better.
For the people of Schneidemühl, as for the majority of Germans, this is ultimately seen as a defensive war, a war that has been forced on them and which they have no choice but to see through to its conclusion. They and their counterparts in similar towns and villages in Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Belgium and Great Britain are filled with both fear and hope and, not least, with a warm and powerful feeling of self-righteousness because they are now facing a momentous struggle against the forces of darkness. A wave of emotions surges over Schneidemühl, Germany and Europe, sweeping everything and everyone before it. But what we perceive as darkness is to them light.
Elfriede hears her brother shouting and then she sees it for herself. Here they come, row upon row of soldiers in grey uniforms, short boots of pale, untanned leather, huge knapsacks and pickelhaubes with grey cloth covers. A military band is marching in front and as they approach the great crowd of people at the station they strike up the tune that everyone knows so well. The soldiers sing it and, when they come to the chorus, the spectators immediately join in. The song roars out like thunder in the August night:
Lieb’ Vaterland, magst ruhig sein
Lieb’ Vaterland, magst ruhig sein
Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein!
Fest steht und treu die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein!*
The air reverberates to the sound of drums, the tramp of boots, the singing and the cheering. Elfriede notes in her diary:
Then the 149th marched up shoulder to shoulder and streamed onto the platform like a grey tidal wave. All the soldiers had long garlands of flowers around their necks or pinned on their breasts. Asters, stocks and roses stuck out of the rifle barrels as if they were intending to shoot flowers at the enemy. The soldiers’ faces were serious. I had expected them to be laughing and exultant.
Elfriede does, however, see one laughing soldier—a lieutenant whom she recognises. His name is Schön and she watches him bidding farewell to his relations and then pushing his way through the crowd. She sees the bystanders patting him on the back, embracing him and kissing him. She wants to shout to him, “Hello, Lieutenant Schön,” but she doesn’t dare.
The music plays, a sea of hats and handkerchiefs waves above the crowd, the train with the civilian-clad reservists whistles and pulls away, and everyone in the crowd cheers, shouts and waves. The 149th will soon be leaving too. Elfriede jumps down from the railings. She is swallowed up by the throng and feels as if she is being smothered. She sees an old woman, eyes red with weeping, who is screaming in heartrending tones: “Little Paul! Where is my little Paul? Let me at least see my son!” Elfriede, standing there crushed in this jostling and jolting mass of backs and arms and bellies and legs, does not know who Paul is. Shaken, or possibly simply thankful to have something to focus on in this overwhelming confusion of images and sounds and emotions, Elfriede says a quick prayer: “Please God, protect this Paul and bring him back to the woman! Please God, please, please, please!”
She watches the soldiers march past and a little boy alongside her sticks his hand pleadingly through the cold bars of the iron railings: “Soldier, soldier, goodbye!” One of the grey-uniformed men reaches out and shakes the hand: “Farewell, little brother!” Everyone laughs, the band plays “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles” and some of the crowd sing along with it. A long train, decorated with flowers, puffs into Platform 1. At a call on the bugle the soldiers immediately begin to climb aboard to the sounds of oaths, jokes and commands. A soldier hurrying to catch up with the rest passes Elfriede as she stands there behind the railings. She plucks up courage and stretches out her hand to him, shyly mumbling, “Good luck!” He looks at her, smiles and takes her hand as he passes: “Until we meet again, little girl!”
Elfriede’s eyes follow him and watch him climb into one of the goods wagons. She sees him turn round and look at her. Then the train jerks into motion, slowly at first and then faster.
The cheering rose to a roar, the soldiers’ faces crowded in the open doors, flowers flew through the air and all at once many of the people in the square began to weep.
“Until we meet again! We’ll be home with you soon!”
“Don’t be afraid! We’ll soon be back!”
“We’ll be back to celebrate Christmas with Mum!”
“Yes, yes, yes—come back in one piece!”
And from the moving train comes the sound of a powerful song. She can catch only part of the refrain: “… in der Heimat, in der Heimat, da gibt’s ein Wiedersehen!”* Then the wagons disappear into the night and are gone. Into the darkness and warm air of summer.
Elfriede is deeply moved. She walks home, choking back tears. As she walks she holds the hand the soldier touched out in front of her as if it contains something very valuable and very fragile. As she climbs the badly lit steps to the porch of Alte Bahnhofstrasse 17 she kisses her hand, quickly.
Sarah Macnaughtan returns to London today, 4 August, after a long and enjoyable stay in the country. The summer this year has been unusually hot and sunny and there has been nothing to disturb the profound peace that she and her friends have enjoyed. (The news of the double murder in the Balkans, which reached them at haymaking time, was quickly forgotten, or repressed, or simply filed away as yet another of those regrettable but distant events that unfortunately occur from time to time.) She writes:
Hardly anyone believed in the possibility of war until they came back from their August Bank Holiday visits and found soldiers saying good-bye to their families at the stations. And even then there was an air of unreality about everything, which rendered realisation difficult. We saw women waving handkerchiefs to the men who went away, and holding up their babies to railway carriage windows to be kissed […] We were breathless, not with fear, but with astonishment.
THURSDAY, 20 AUGUST 1914
Richard Stumpf is copying a poem aboard SMS Helgoland
Richard Stumpf is deeply upset. Yet another declaration of war, yet another country allying itself with Germany’s enemies. This time, Japan. The rulers in Tokyo are among the first of a growing band of war opportunists who, in this uncertain and fluid situation, have seized the chance to grab something for themselves, usually territory. Japan has delivered an ultimatum to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin demanding the withdrawal of all German warships from Asia and the handing over to Japan of the German colony of Tsingtao.*
Stumpf’s anger overflows and out pours the racist invective: “Only these yellow, slant-eyed Asiatics would think of making such a shameless demand.” He is, however, convinced that the German troops in Asia will give these “thieving yellow apes” a thorough thrashing.
Richard Stumpf is a twenty-two-year-old seaman in the German High Seas Fleet. His background is working class—he worked as an iron plateworker for two years before enlisting—but he is also a practising Catholic, member of a Christian trades union and an avowed nationalist. Like so many others he is overjoyed when war breaks out, not least because it means that Germany can finally settle accounts with the perfidious English: he thinks that the “real reason” Britain has taken sides in the conflict is “envy of our economic progress.” “May God punish England” is a standard greeting by some members of the forces on entering a room; the obligatory answer is, “He will punish them.”
Stumpf is intelligent, chauvinistic, inquisitive and prejudiced. He is musical and reads a great deal. His photograph shows us a dark, serious young man with an oval face, eyes close together and a small but determined mouth. On this particular day Stumpf is at sea, at the mouth of the River Elbe, on board the great battleship SMS* Helgoland, the vessel he has served on ever since enlisting.a That is where he was on the day war broke out.
Richard remembers that the atmosphere was subdued when their ship came into harbour because no exciting news had reached them while they had been at sea—people could be heard complaining about “all this fuss over nothing.” But no one had been allowed ashore and instead they had spent their time loading ammunition and unloading “inessentials.” At half past five in the evening the signal “All men on deck” had been given and they had all formed up. Then one of the ship’s officers, holding a sheet of paper in his hand, had grimly announced that both the army and the navy were to mobilise that night: “You know what that means—war.” The ship’s band had struck up a patriotic tune and everyone had sung along with it “enthusiastically.” “Our joy and excitement was boundless and lasted well into the night.”
In the midst of all the cheering it is already possible to detect a notably asymmetrical aspect. Colossal energies have been released and seem to be dragging everyone with them. Stumpf, for instance, notes with some satisfaction that many radical authors who have made a name for themselves as sharp and persistent critics of the Wilhelmine age have now produced works of extreme and inflated patriotism. What has been swept away in this flood tide of high emotion is the question why they are at war. Like Stumpf, many people think that they know what it is “really” about, believe they have discovered the “true cause,” but this “really” and “true cause” have already disappeared behind the fact that they are at war. The war already shows signs of becoming an end in itself and few people are still talking about Sarajevo.
Stumpf himself thinks that some of the propaganda against the growing band of Germany’s opponents goes too far. Such as a vulgar postcard he has just seen in a shop: it depicts a German soldier putting an enemy soldier over his knee in order to smack his bottom, and he is saying to his waiting comrades, “Don’t push! You’ll all get your turn.” And then there is the very popular jingle made up by street boys and scribbled in chalk on railway carriages carrying mobilised soldiers: “Jeder Schuss ein Russ, Jeder Stoss ein Franzos, Jeder Tritt ein Britt.”b But other things move him deeply, like the poem by the popular writer Otto Ernst, published in the nationalistic paper Der Tag, which comments on the fact that Germany is now at war with seven countries. Stumpf is so taken by the poem that he copies it word for word in his diary. Two of the verses are as follows:
O mein Deutschland, wie musst du stark sein,
Wie gesund bis ins innerste Mark sein,
Dass sich’s keiner allein getraut
Und nach Sechsen um Hilfe schaut.
Deutschland, wie musst du vom Herzen echt sein,
O wie strahlend hell muss dein Recht sein,
Dass der mächtigste Heuchler dich hasst
Dass der Brite von Wut erblasst.c
And the conclusion:
Morde den Teufel und hol dir vom Himmel
Sieben Kränze des Menschentums,
Sieben Sonnen unsterblichen Ruhms.d
The inflammatory rhetoric and excessively strident tone of the propaganda do not really signify a great deal. Quite the opposite. While there are undoubtedly conflicting interests involved, none of the problems is so insoluble as to make war necessary, and they are certainly not sufficiently acute as to make war unavoidable. This war became unavoidable at the point only when people considered it unavoidable. When causes are vague and goals uncertain, however, it becomes necessary to fall back on the bloated and honeyed words of propaganda.
Richard Stumpf laps them up and staggers around, intoxicated by the words, while SMS Helgoland, bulky and enormous in her grey warpaint, sways on the water and bides her time. The enemy has not even been seen yet and one can sense some impatience on board.
TUESDAY, 25 AUGUST 1914
Pál Kelemen reaches the front at Halicz
In the beginning he had difficulty shaking off the feeling that this was just another exercise. It had all started in Budapest. Pál remembers how people looked as he loaded his luggage into a cab and how, dressed in his hussar’s uniform of red trousers, blue tunic, pale-blue embroidered attila and high leather boots, he had to force his way through the dense crowds at the east station and elbow his way up onto the train to find standing room in the corridor. He remembers the weeping women, one of whom would have collapsed if a stranger had not caught her. Among the last things he saw as the train slowly moved off was an older man running after it, trying to get a last glimpse of his son.
After a hot but not too uncomfortable journey he had reported to his hussar regiment in Szeben—as usual. The man who received him there had not even looked at him, merely told him where he should go. Later the same afternoon, in bright August sunshine, he had gone to the mobilisation centre in Erfalu and then been billeted with a farmer—as usual.
After that there had been a series of routine activities: drawing his kit, including horse and saddle, payment of wages and a long—unbearably long—run-through of practical issues in a room that was so hot that people fainted as the stream of words just went on and on.
Then the picture began to change.
First there was a night march to the train that was waiting for them. Then a slow journey during which they were greeted at every station by crowds of enthusiastic people, “music, torches, wine, deputations, flags, cheering—Hurrah for the Army! Hurrah! Hurrah!” Then unloading and their first march. But there was still no real hint of war, no distant growl of guns and the like; it could still have been an exercise. Warm, blue skies, the smell of horse dung, sweat and hay.
Pál Kelemen is twenty years old, born in Budapest, where he went to the Latin School and played the violin under the conductor Fritz Reiner, who was later to become famous. In many ways Kelemen is a typical product of urban central Europe in the early twentieth century: well travelled, well read, aristocratic, ironic, refined, distant, with a weakness for women. He has studied at the universities of Budapest, Munich and Paris, and has even managed to fit in a short period at Oxford. When they rode into Stanislau, the main town in Austrian Galicia—he as a young, elegant lieutenant in the hussars (is there anything more elegant than a Hungarian lieutenant of hussars?)—women rather than war were foremost in his mind. He thinks that you can tell from looking at the women that this is a provincial town: “White-skinned, very pale they are and their eyes have brilliant fire.” (This, he thinks he can tell, is in contrast to city women, whose gaze is more weary, more veiled.)
It is only when the division reaches Halicz that the illusion that this might merely be a manoeuvre is finally smashed.
On the way there they meet fleeing peasants and Jews. The mood in the town is apprehensive and confused and the Russians are said to be not far away. Kelemen notes in his journal:
We sleep in tents. At half-past twelve at night: Alarm! The Russian is before the town. I think everyone is a little frightened. I fling on my clothes and run out to join my platoon. On the road the infantry is standing in ranks. Cannon growls. Rifles are rattling some five hundred yards ahead. Motor cars dash down the middle of the highway. The lights of their carbide lamps stream in long rows toward Halicz on the road from Stanislau.
Between the posted guards I climbed over the hedge gate and across the ditches of the embankment. My platoon awaited me, saddled up, and we stood ready for further orders.
When morning dawned, the population was pouring out of the city in long files. On carts, on foot, on horseback. Everyone making shift to save himself. All of them carrying away what they can. And exhaustion, dust, sweat, panic on every face, terrible dejection, pain, and suffering. Their eyes are frightened, their movements craven: ghastly terror oppresses them. As if the dust cloud they stirred up had fastened itself to them and could not float away.
I lie sleepless at the side of the road and watch the infernal kaleidoscope. There are even military wagons muddled into it, and on the fields retreating military, routed infantry, lost cavalry. Not a man of them still has his full equipment. The exhausted throng pours through the valley. They are running back to Stanislau.
What Kelemen is witnessing as he lies at the roadside is the result of one of the first bloody and confused clashes with the invading Russians. Like everyone else involved, he has only a very hazy picture of what has actually happened and it will be years before anyone pulls together all the various impressions into a narrative called the Battle of Lemberg. But it does not require a fully worked-out account from the general staff for anyone to understand that this has turned out to be a defeat for the Austro-Hungarian army on a scale that is as colossal as it is unexpected.
FRIDAY, 28 AUGUST 1914
Laura de Turczynowicz meets a German prisoner of war in Suwalki
Laura has never understood this war, let alone welcomed it. She is one of the many people for whom what has happened is like a natural catastrophe, a dark and ultimately incomprehensible tragedy that has suddenly swept down on them from nowhere.
But she has also noticed how the initial terror has quickly changed into a strange euphoria, which has affected even her. The ancient quarrels between Poles and Russians seem to have vanished completely. It says a great deal about the current mood that when a rumour went round one evening at the beginning of August suggesting that the war was perhaps not going to happen, it was the cause of some disappointment. (Great Britain was apparently hesitating about going to war, and that was setting off alarm bells among the rulers in St. Petersburg.)
Today is Laura de Turczynowicz’s thirty-sixth birthday and until now her life has had all the elements of a fin de siècle dream. Born in Canada, she grew up in New York and was a gifted opera singer who had performed at the Metropolitan and elsewhere. She moved to Europe to “study and sing … and play,” achieved success at Bayreuth and Munich—her German is good—and found a husband in the shape of a charming Polish aristocrat with an upturned moustache, a professorial title and a considerable fortune. His name is Stanislaw de Turczynowicz, Count of Gozdawa, and they married in Krakow in Austria-Hungary, where she also gave birth to their three children. By birth, then, the little ones are subjects of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, her husband is a subject of the tsar, and she is a subject of the British king. Few people thought of such categories before August; there are many people who can hardly think of anything else now.
The war has become rather more noticeable.
A week after its outbreak they were wakened in the grey light of dawn by a muffled roar, like the sound of a waterfall. It was the sound of thousand upon thousand of Russian infantrymen on the march, part of the II Corps of Rennenkampf’s army on their way to invade neighbouring East Prussia. In spite of the early hour the whole of the little town turned out to welcome the weary troops with food, drink and other gifts. Many of the upper-class Russian families that Laura and her husband mix with have left and gone home. The first wounded men from the front have been seen. Suwalki has been bombed—a solitary German aircraft flew over a few days ago and dropped a couple of small bombs at random, while the excited men of the town shot at it unsuccessfully with their hunting rifles. The loot plundered from German homes can sometimes be seen on the wagons returning from the front.
In spite of all this, the war has remained something of an abstraction, something happening far away. At least for Laura. The family is back in Suwalki, in the big manor house near the high road, and she herself is still living the pleasant life of a landed lady, surrounded by beautiful family treasures, well-filled larders and a staff of obedient servants. She has been helping to organise a small private hospital and her husband has not yet been called up.
A nurse from a mobile field hospital comes to call on her today. They have just arrived from the front, their stores exhausted and their staff weary. Their normal capacity is 150 beds, which is more than enough for three doctors and four nurses to cope with, but the recent hard fighting in East Prussia has meant that they are overwhelmed by the numbers of wounded men—the nurse estimates there to be 700. Can Laura help? Yes, of course she can.
Laura goes to the barracks where the field hospital is located. As she enters she can hear the anxious murmur of hundreds of voices. She walks round, goes into room after room packed with wounded men, men who have not received any treatment. Everything has run out, from bandages to disinfectant.
Since she can speak German she is asked to take a look at a group of wounded German prisoners of war who have all been gathered in one corner. One of them is rocking violently backwards and forwards the whole time, simultaneously praying and asking for water. Laura talks to him and he asks her to write to his wife:
He told me that he had been a bookkeeper, that he was twenty-six years old, and had a wife and children, a little house of his own, had never harmed anyone in his life, took no interest in anything outside his work and family, until with three hours’ notice he was ordered to join his regiment, and leave it all. “The great lords have quarrelled, and we must pay for it with our blood, our wives and children.”
Laura returns later with large quantities of medical supplies she has brought from their own small private hospital. The joy shown by the nurses at the military hospital when they receive these gifts seems to her almost “pitiful.”
Laura walks around the military hospital. She sees something she does not recognise at first. It is an “object” in a bed and all that can be seen where the head should be is “a ball of cotton and bandages with three black holes, just as if a child had drawn mouth and nose and eyes.” A voice suddenly emerges from this “thing,” a voice that, far from being unearthly, speaks in educated Polish. That alone comes as a shock. It is as if Laura in her naivety has not been expecting anything like this to afflict people of her own sort. The voice pleads with whoever it is not to go away but to give him some water, water. Laura goes up to the bed. Then she gets her next shock. Swarms of flies rise from the bundle on the bed. The man’s hands have been completely burnt away and a heavy stench of pus and gangrene comes from the bandages.
Laura recoils, sickened and horrified. She comes close to fainting. She has to get away from it.
Later she plucks up courage and returns to the thing on the bed. She helps to erect an insect net around his bed and assists a nurse who is changing his bandages. The man tells her he was wounded by a shell that exploded close to him and that he lay out on the battlefield for four days. He asks if his eyes are gone. The answer is “Yes, quite gone.” He then asks if he is going to live or die. The answer is “Die.” He asks for water.
Laura learns later that the German prisoner she had talked to, the twenty-six-year-old bookkeeper, was due to be transported onwards but died on the way to the railway station.
WEDNESDAY, 2 SEPTEMBER 1914
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky sees the sun go dark in Mokotov
Now it is their turn to be sent in. The reports are contradictory. Something seems to have gone seriously wrong with the Russian invasion up in East Prussia: Rennenkampf’s army seems to be in retreat and Samsonov’s in flight. That surely cannot be true? The Russian invaders seem to be having more success down in Galicia, and Lemberg is likely to fall any day now. Although there is a much greater need of reinforcements against the Germans in the north rather than against the Austrians in Galicia, Lobanov-Rostovsky’s rifle brigade is destined for the southern front where it is to join in the hammering of the already yielding Austro-Hungarian divisions on the Polish frontier.e
At the moment they are being held in reserve in Warsaw, camped on a large field in Mokotov. Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky is a sapper in the Russian army and a lieutenant in the Guards—the latter being a rank more dependent on birth than on aptitude. He is actually a sensitive and bookish twenty-two-year-old who reads ceaselessly, preferably French novels but also history. Lobanov-Rostovsky is well educated (he has just read law in Petrograd but has also studied in Nice and Paris), a little anxious by disposition and physically not particularly robust. His father is a diplomat.
The outbreak of war has been a remarkable experience. He has spent every spare moment rushing round the city along with all the other excited people who crowd round the newspaper offices to read the placards and telegrams. The excitement reached its height when news came that Belgrade was under fire: spontaneous demonstrations in support of the war took place on the same streets that witnessed spontaneous marches by strikers just a few days earlier. He watched as the crowds held up trams in order to take out any officers in them and hoist them up on their shoulders to the sound of cheering. He remembers in particular how, to the amusement of the onlookers, a drunken worker embraced and kissed a passing officer. August has been a month of dust and unusual heat and although, as a lieutenant, he has been on horseback throughout the long marches, he has come close to collapsing with sunstroke.
He has not yet seen action. The worst thing he has witnessed was when they were quartered in a small Polish town some time ago and a serious fire broke out: the newly mobilised soldiers, whipped up by excitement and fear of spies, killed eight Jews who, they claimed, were trying to prevent the fire being put out.f The atmosphere in general has been nervous.
At two o’clock the whole brigade forms up in front of the host of small tents in the field. It is time for Mass. Something strange occurs halfway through the service—the bright hazy sun begins to grow dark. A partial eclipse is taking place. Most of the soldiers find this a bit uncanny and the phenomenon makes “a tremendous impression” on the more superstitious among them.
Immediately after the service they break camp and all the units in the brigade begin to board waiting trains. As usual the whole business takes longer than reckoned and it is already night by the time it is the turn of Lobanov-Rostovsky’s unit. And things do not go much faster once they are under way. The train trundles south through the darkness with an extraordinary lack of urgency. Slowness is the default speed of trains in 1914: these wagonloads of soldiers sometimes move no faster than a man on a bicycle.g The fact is that the lines are jammed with trains, trains which during this period of the war are all headed in the same direction with the same purpose: Forward! To the front!h
A DAY IN SEPTEMBER 1914
Florence Farmborough in Moscow sees death for the first time
“I wanted to see him; I wanted to see Death,” is how she tells it herself. She had never seen a dead person before and, indeed, until very recently she had not even seen someone sick in bed, which is perhaps a little strange since she was, after all, twenty-seven years old. The explanation, of course, is that up until August 1914 she had led a fairly sheltered life. Florence Farmborough was born and brought up in rural Buckinghamshire, but she has lived in Russia since 1908. She has been working as governess to the daughters of a well-known Russian heart surgeon in Moscow.
The international crisis that developed during the hot and beautiful late summer of 1914 largely passed her by since she spent it with her employers at the family dacha outside Moscow. Once back in the capital she had been gripped by the same “youthful enthusiasm” as so many others. Her old and her new homelands were united in a struggle against the common enemy Germany and this energetic and enterprising young woman immediately began considering how she could contribute to the war effort. The answer came more or less immediately—by becoming a nurse. Her employer, the well-known heart surgeon, succeeded in convincing those in charge of one of the private military hospitals then being set up in Moscow to take on Florence and his two daughters as volunteers. “We are elated beyond words. We, too, in our small way are to help the country’s cause.”
They have been wonderful days. After a while the wounded began to arrive, two or three at a time. Much of the work was unpleasant in the beginning and she sometimes recoiled when faced with an unusually nasty and gaping wound. With time, however, she got used to it, and then the atmosphere was so good. There was a new sense of solidarity and unity, not least among the soldiers:
There is always a remarkable camaraderie among them: White Russian mingles in a most friendly fashion with Ukrainian; Caucasians with soldiers from the Urals; Tatars with Cossacks. They are mostly patient, long-suffering men, grateful for what careand attention they receive; seldom, if ever, does a grumble pass their lips.
Quite a few of the wounded are impatient to get back to the front as soon as possible. Optimism is high, among both the soldiers and the hospital staff. The wounds will soon heal, the soldiers will soon be back in service, the war will soon be won. The hospital usually receives only milder cases, which might explain why, after working for three weeks, she is yet to see a dead body.
As she arrives at the hospital one morning she passes one of the night nurses. Florence thinks that she looks “tired and tense” and the woman says in passing that “Vasiliy died early this morning.” Vasiliy is one of the men Florence has helped nurse. He was a soldier but really only an officer’s groom and, ironically enough, his wound was not a “real” war wound. Vasiliy had been kicked in the head by an agitated and frightened horse and when the surgeon operated on him a further irony emerged: he was suffering from an incurable brain tumour. He has lain silent in his bed for the last three weeks, a pale, frail little man whose difficulty in eating has caused him to grow thinner and thinner, though he constantly wants water to drink. And now he has died, without any drama, just as quiet and alone as he lived.
Florence decides to look at the body. She slips into the room that serves as a mortuary and carefully closes the door behind her. Silence. There lies Vasiliy, or what was Vasiliy, on a bier. He was:
So small and thin and wizened that he looked more like a child than a grown man. His set face was grey-white, never had I seen that strange colour on a face before, and his cheeks had sunken into two hollows.
There are sugar lumps on his eyelids to hold them closed. She is troubled, not so much by the lifeless body as by the stillness and silence. “Death is so terribly still, so silent, so remote,” she thinks. She says a short prayer for the dead man and then quickly leaves the room.
FRIDAY, 11 SEPTEMBER 1914
Laura de Turczynowicz flees from Suwalki
Dawn. The streets that run between the low, square houses in Suwalki are deserted. Could it be a false alarm? Well, almost all of them are clinging to the wild hope—dangerously close to self-delusion—that says “not here” or “it will pass us by” or “we probably won’t be affected.” And it is possible that the endless rumours are just a kind of wishful thinking that has taken on the form of true stories. So, in recent weeks, people have been quite capable of suggesting that Königsberg has been captured, that the Russian army is approaching Berlin, and any number of other things.
As usual, however, no one really knows what is happening at the front.
Long columns of horse-drawn wagons come and go. Reinforcements march through the town. Now and again an aeroplane flies over the town, dropping bombs or propaganda. Sometimes lines of grey-clad German prisoners of war tramp past. The volume of traffic has increased noticeably in the last few days, however, and yesterday came the first signs that things were not going as well as they should. Firstly, there was the arrival of hordes of peasants from the small places near the border with East Prussia: “men, women, children, dogs, cows, pigs, horses, and carts all mixed up in one grand mélange.” Secondly, a new and unpleasant sound could be heard—the sound of gunfire in the distance. Someone suggested it was just Cossacks hunting down a disloyal officer. Well, one can always hope.
The night has been quiet, however, and the refugees from the villages have moved on.
From the windows at the back of the big house there is a good view of the flat plain that surrounds the town and of the main highway leading to East Prussia. At six in the morning Laura sees a great throng of wagons approaching. They are filled with wounded men, and the wounded tell them that the front has been shattered and the Russian army is on the retreat. What should they do? Leave Suwalki or stay there?
It is eleven o’clock. Laura is hesitant and confused, feeling alone and deserted. Her husband, Stanislaw, is in Warsaw on official business. She consults a number of senior officials. She tries to telegraph out, only to learn that the line is cut. Reluctantly she decides that they should leave the town before evening.
Lunchtime. She sits down to eat with the children and looks round the dining room:
How pretty it looked, the curious old room with steps leading down to its great windows, the soft colours of the rugs, the table with its fine napery and pretty silver and glass.
Then everything happens very quickly. First of all they hear the crack of rifle fire, loud and clear, “as if in the very room.” Next comes the rolling thunder of artillery fire, followed a moment later by the clatter of smashed china. The servant about to serve their soup has dropped the tray and the tureen in terror. For a moment they are all silent, then the little girl begins to cry.
Chaos. Laura issues orders to right and to left—they must all be out of the house within fifteen minutes. The governess takes charge of the children. Laura herself packs the valuables—gold coins, rouble notes, her jewellery box. The sounds of battle outside are growing. Everyone is rushing about more or less aimlessly, grabbing, tearing, screaming. Laura finds herself running around waving a bunch of coloured silk stockings as if they were a flag.
They load everything into two farm carts. There is chaos on the streets. She sees military transport wagons. She sees Russian soldiers, weapons at the ready. She sees people screaming, jostling, arguing. She sees an old woman balancing a small bed on her head and dragging a samovar behind her so that it bounces on the cobbles. “One solid mass of disorder—primeval man and woman put to flight by inexorable force—all conventions dropped as if they never existed.”
So they set off, out into “that vortex of humanity—people running—laden like horses—getting tired of the weight—dropping it—but going on.” Laura and the children and most of the servants ride in the first wagon, most of the luggage in the second. She casts a glance back at the house. A priest she knows urges them to get moving and blesses them with the sign of the cross.
They head for the railway station. Halfway there Laura sees a man—an old acquaintance of the family—climb up onto the second wagon and start beating the driver. Then the man turns the wagon round and makes off with it and all their luggage. The children’s dog, Dash, a white spets, is standing on top of the load barking. Wagon and dog disappear into the stream of panic-stricken people.
It is a beautiful autumn day.
SUNDAY, 20 SEPTEMBER 1914
Sarah Macnaughtan is travelling to Antwerp
So much has changed already. The traffic, for a start. Ever since the outbreak of war the streets have been strangely empty, in the way she usually associates with Sundays. And then there is language. Military terms like “rashions,” “revellies,”i “fall in” and “mobilisation” have crept into everyday language. (There are many people who pronounce the phrase “at the front” as if it was a single word, “atthefront.”) Or the business of fashion: suddenly women are to be seen dressed in military or half-military or quarter-military dress, imaginative imitations of uniforms, perhaps a big, ill-fitting greatcoat, “thrown open, with a large belt at the back.” Or if not that, at least some sort of badge or armband to show that One Is Doing One’s Duty, or One Is Behind You, or One Is Doing Something—even if it is only knitting socks for soldiers.j
Sarah Macnaughtan is one of these women, but for her a symbolic or half-hearted contribution is not enough. She really wants to be involved, including being THERE. So Macnaughtan has done what other women of her class and in her position have done and found herself a place in one of the innumerable private medical units that have sprung up since the start of August—in Macnaughtan’s case it is Mrs. St. Clair Stobart’s ambulance unit. They have been practising in one of the London parks, on small boys with neatly simulated injuries, which they have then bandaged up equally neatly. Macnaughtan is happy and relieved to be getting out of London, to be taking the step from words to actions. Which is not the easiest thing to do, since the British army has so far rigidly refused to allow women anywhere near the front.k In spite of the fact that a host of women, like Sarah Macnaughtan, have enthusiastically volunteered, the very army they are trying to support has received them with reluctance or indifference.l Recent months have been characterised by these women’s increasing sense of frustration with all the confusion and bureaucracy, real or imaginary, and with all the people whose resistance shows that they simply do not appreciate the gravity of the situation.
For she is a serious woman. In terms of her age, Sarah Broom Macnaughtan is actually rather too old for this war—she will be fifty in just a month’s time—and she does not really have the physical attributes that are needed: she is small, thin and frail, with a head that seems altogether too big for her doll-like body. But she is in every sense a product of the Victorian age and there are few concepts that weigh heavier with her, that have a finer ring to them, than Duty. And Principles. Earnestness is integral to her lifestyle, her countenance and her attitudes. She is intelligent, religious, humourless, loyal, gruff, demanding, generous, moral and fearless. She lives alone, unmarried and childless, a woman who is economically and emotionally independent.m She has travelled a great deal, frequently in trying conditions, and she writes books. Hardly surprisingly, she is a committed suffragette, and nor is it surprising that she is prepared to throw herself wholeheartedly into this war, even though her initial reaction to its outbreak is one of surprise verging on shock. But now it is a matter of Duty. And Principles.
She is in such an agitated state when she arrives at the station to catch the train that is to take them to the coast that she has forgotten her passport. Fortunately the train is delayed and she has time to send her maid home in a taxi to fetch it. She is ashamed of her little mistake and manages to hide it from the others, “for they are all rather serious.” Their destination is Antwerp, where they intend to set up a field hospital.
The train takes them to Tilbury, where there are further delays. Their ship does not set sail until the grey of dawn is visible, and the seas are running rough out in the English Channel. Everyone is seasick. “I think I was the worst and alarmed everybody within hearing distance. One more voyage I hope—home—then dry land for me.” She spends the whole crossing being sick.
SATURDAY, 26 SEPTEMBER 1914
Richard Stumpf helps prepare SMS Helgoland for action
Reveille is blown as early as four o’clock this autumn morning. The ship and its crew wake to a morning of frantic activity. The main task is to unload 300 tons of coal as quickly as possible. As usual, the officers do not tell the men anything but rumour says that the British fleet has put to sea and someone says it is on its way to the Baltic. Someone says it has already reached the Great Belt. Stumpf sees that the first and third squadrons have also come into the harbour. “Something big is happening.”
Stumpf concludes that the coal is being unloaded to lighten the ship to allow them to pass through the Kiel Canal as quickly as possible. He writes in his diary:
The whole crew worked hard all morning. At lunchtime, when we had unloaded 120 tons of coal, the squadron flagship signalled: “Cease the preparations.” Yet another dreadful disappointment. The bloody English! We do, however, seem to be very well informed about the movements of their fleet.
After this he adds, “Nothing worth mentioning happened during the following days and weeks.”
MONDAY, 28 SEPTEMBER 1914
Kresten Andresen learns to dress bullet wounds in Flensburg
It will soon be time. It might be just one day, perhaps two, or possibly three, but it will not be long before they too are on the way. This is more than just the usual barrack-room gossip, though, of course, the air is full of rumours, of guesses that are elevated to probabilities, hopes that change to facts, fears that are disguised as assertions. The nature of war is uncertainty, the unknowable is its medium.
But there are also clear signs, clear evidence. All leave has been stopped, and they have to stay in the barracks. And today there has been less drill and instruction in minor dietary matters and instead they have been instructed in the real necessities of life—how to dress bullet wounds, rules regarding iron rations, how to behave during rail transportation and what will happen if they desert (the death sentence). The four cornerstones of a conscript’s life in summary: battle, rations, transportation and compulsion.
Kresten Andresen is troubled, worried and afraid. The thought of the front does not awaken any desire in him at all. He belongs to one of those national minorities which suddenly and through no fault of their own are finding themselves dragged into a great war in which they have no real interest. Faced with the dark energies released by war they can only look on, dumbfounded and questioning; they stand apart from the nationalistic rhetoric that has created the war and the wild hopes the war has created. These are times when many people are preparing to kill or be killed for countries with which they feel only a superficial connection: Alsatians and Poles, Ruthenians and Kashubians, Slovenes and Finns, South Tyroleans and Siebenbürger, Balts and Bosnians, Czechs and Irish.nAndresen belongs to one such group: he comes from southern Jutland, ancient Danish territory that has now been inside the borders of the German Empire for more than half a century, and so he is a German citizen even though his language is Danish.o
In all of the countries with large national minorities there is an acute awareness of the problems minorities can create in wartime. Dealing with them is primarily seen as a matter for the police, which is the case in the Danish-speaking areas of Germany. The order for mobilisation had hardly been nailed up on the wall before hundreds of Danes considered to be leaders or potential leaders were arrested. One of those arrested—at night, in a closed car—was Andresen’s own father.p The mood in the first weeks of the war was like that: jubilation mixed with hysteria, expectancy mixed with terror, fear becoming aggression. And then, of course, there were rumours, rumours and more rumours.
The outbreak of war had also been a notable experience for Kresten. He had just put the finishing touches to a manuscript: “A Book about Spring and Youth.” It was a sort of long prose poem about folk-life, nature and young love (or rather, a longing for young love). The manuscript in itself was a kind of act of love, with its pale blue cover, its elegantly coloured vignettes and illuminated capitals—all of which he had done himself. The lines with which he ended his work were these: “A bell falls silent, and then another, and another. The bells are falling silent more and more, their sounds becoming fainter and fainter, dying away until they are completely silent. Death, where are thy spoils? Hell, where is thy victory?” At the very moment he was writing these last words his father entered the room and told him that mobilisation had started. So, at the bottom of the very last clean page of the manuscript, Kresten added a few lines: “O God, have mercy on those of us going, and who knows when we shall return!”
It is now Andresen’s seventh week in German uniform. When he arrived at the overcrowded barracks in Flensburg he heard that they would do four weeks’ training and then be sent to France. That same night he heard a battalion march off in battle kit singing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” That was followed by seemingly endless days of drill out in the blazing sun—the weather really was stunning. Andresen has settled better than he dared hope. Although there are only a few Danish speakers in his company he does not feel excluded. And even though there are bullying NCOs, the officers usually keep them on a short leash. What he finds most difficult to take is that even during their free time no one talks about anything but “war and more war,” and even he has now started getting used to the idea that that is what is in front of him, even though he would profoundly like to escape it. He shoots rather well—his first scores were two tens and a seven.
By this point several contingents have already set off, singing as they march to an uncertain fate. The reason Andresen is still at the barracks is partly because of something as banal as a shortage of equipment and partly because they are taking the volunteers first. And since he would prefer to avoid the whole business, he has never joined the ranks of the volunteers. When the company forms up today at the end of training, the question is put to them: a new contingent is to be sent to the front and who is going to volunteer?
They all put up their hands—all but three. Andresen is one of the three. He is asked why but is then left alone. Later, together with another Dane, he visits a friend and, “with solemn devotion,” they eat a chicken Andresen’s mother has sent him. In the evening he writes in his diary:
We are so benumbed that we march off to war without tears and without terror and yet we all know we are on our way into the jaws of Hell. But clad in a stiff uniform, a heart does not beat as it wants to. We aren’t ourselves, we’re hardly human any longer, at most we are well-functioning automatons who do everything without any great reflection. O, Lord God, if only we could become human again.
The beautiful Indian summer that has lasted since the outbreak of war has given way to autumn winds. A strong, cold, north-westerly sweeps over Flensburg, making the leaves rustle and the chestnuts fall from the trees in showers.
• • •
Today Sarah Macnaughtan is in Antwerp, which has been under siege by the Germans for the last two days. The sound of artillery fire is no longer merely a distant one, and Zeppelins have flown over and dropped bombs. The field hospital at which Sarah is working is situated in the city’s main concert hall and has rapidly filled with wounded Belgian soldiers. She writes in her diary:
A hundred beds all filled with men in pain give one plenty to think about, and it is during sleep that their attitudes of suffering strike one most. Some of them bury their heads in their pillows as shot partridges seek to bury theirs amongst autumn leaves. Others lie very stiff and straight, and all look very thin and haggard. I was struck by the contrast between the pillared concert-hall where they lie, with its platform of white paint and decorations, and the tragedy of suffering which now fills it.
At 2 a.m. more soldiers were brought in from the battlefield, all caked with dirt, and we began to work again. These last blinked oddly at the concert hall and nurses and doctors, but I think they do not question anything much. They only want to go to sleep.
SUNDAY, 4 OCTOBER 1914
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky takes part in the Battle of Opatov
The artillery opens fire again in the grey light of dawn. Its rolling and quaking roar wakes Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky, who is still drowsy as he has had only a few hours’ sleep. He staggers up. From the high ground on which they have camped for the night he can see lines of white clouds flowering from the shell-bursts in the distance. He watches them spread out over the low hills to the south and west. He can see the flashing, swaying masses of smoke rolling and flowing inexorably on like a lava flow. He sees the dance of fire approaching the town and meeting it. Panic-stricken civilians are rushing around in the streets down there. Finally, Opatov is almost completely swallowed up by the smoke of exploding shells and burning houses until just one church tower can be seen sticking out above the rolling clouds.
The artillery fire intensifies. Massive waves of sound assault them from both sides: shells explode, rifles crack and machine guns rattle. They cannot see much and they themselves are untouched, but to judge from the noise there is a battle raging “in a semicircle around us.” The company stays put up on the hill, as they have been ordered to do: “You are to stay where you are and wait for instructions.” New orders arrive at eleven o’clock. They are to withdraw a short distance.
Half an hour later Lobanov-Rostovsky looks back. He sees an enormous plume of smoke in the October sky—Opatov is being consumed by fire. And not only Opatov: all the villages on both sides of their position have begun to burn. It is becoming more and more difficult for them to move along the road since it is filled with panic-stricken men, women and children rushing in aimless waves backwards and forwards as the noise of battle grows around them. Somewhere around there Lobanov-Rostovsky’s company comes to a halt.
What has happened? Well, the Russian army’s pursuit of the Austrians south of Krakow has been called off. The reasons are the autumn mud, problems of support (which is nearly always the cause when excellent and rapid advances suddenly grind to a halt), along with the unexpected appearance of German troops.q
At around twelve o’clock Lobanov-Rostovsky’s company is surrounded by a “complete circle of fire.” There is still no one who knows what is actually happening. To judge by the noise there is even fighting going on behind them, on the road to Sandomierz. They have not yet come under fire themselves but the shell-bursts are gradually creeping closer and closer. A mounted machine-gun unit passes them. After a short conference with an unknown staff officer, Lobanov-Rostovsky receives orders to take over command of the company’s twenty one-horse wagons, which are loaded with explosives and other equipment, and to follow the machine-gun unit back and thus break out of the encirclement. He is given twenty soldiers to help him—the rest of the company stays where it is.
So he sets off. He is mounted, he has twenty men on twenty one-horse wagons and, rather unexpectedly, there is a cow, which was actually supposed to be slaughtered for dinner but has been given a reprieve by the unexpected turn of events. Lobanov-Rostovsky is very worried because the mounted machine-gun unit is moving so fast that it soon leaves them behind. His later account stated: “I had no maps and not the vaguest idea either of the country around me or of the spot where I actually was.” At a bridge where three roads meet they become stuck in a huge traffic jam of refugees, cattle, horses and horse-drawn ambulances filled with the wounded. The bridge has been blocked by a cart-load of refugees which has ended up with two wheels hanging out over the water. While the soldiers struggle to lift it back up, shrapnel shells again begin to explode above their heads:r
The confusion among the peasants was indescribable. Women and children were yelling with fright, men were trying to hold back their panic-stricken horses, one hysterical woman clung to my horse and cried “Mr. Officer, which is the safe way out?” to which, naturally, I could only point out the general direction. A man pushing three cows that would not go got them onto a side road just as shells began falling on it. He turned to another one to find it being shelled in its turn and finally, losing his head, rushed back towards his burning village.
Once across the bridge at last Lobanov-Rostovsky finds the road so full of fleeing civilians and their carts that he leads his little group out across the fields. The mounted machine-gunners disappear in the distance and once again he has no idea where he is. He tries to orient himself with the help of the noise of the battle. Now and then shells fall around them and now and then there are bursts from distant machine guns. He is guessing his way forward.
As they are on their way down to yet another bridge some shells explode just above the little column. The terrified man in the lead begins to drive his horse and wagon flat out down the dangerous slope leading to the bridge. To prevent panic spreading, Lobanov-Rostovsky gallops after him, catches up and does something he has never done or even dreamt of doing before—he beats the terrified soldier with his riding whip. Order is restored and they succeed in crossing the watercourse and continuing on along the bottom of a steep ravine.
Chaos rules in the ravine. Some artillerymen are struggling to rescue three guns that have become bogged down. Increasing numbers of wounded men are pouring down the slopes, down to safety. Lobanov-Rostovsky asks what is happening and which unit they belong to but the bleeding men are far too disoriented and confused to be able to give sensible answers. An officer with a rescued regimental flag lying across his saddle gallops past at top speed—a glimpse of some of the atavisms of 1914: not only fighting under a flying banner but also the almost sacred matter of honour, of not letting the flag fall into the hands of the enemy. The officer with the flag is greeted with shouts of encouragement: “Take care!” Shells are exploding on both sides of the ravine. The air is full of dust and it smells of fire and cordite.
After proceeding along the ravine for a while, compass in hand and followed not only by his own section but by three or four hundred wounded men, Lobanov-Rostovsky is shocked to realise that they are trapped. The course they are following will eventually lead them up out of the ravine and onto the main highway towards Sandomierz—which is a problem, since there is a German artillery battery nearby and it opens fire on the Russians as soon as they emerge from the ravine. Lobanov-Rostovsky and the others have to hurry back down. Further off, to the right of the main road, they catch sight of more German batteries. Lobanov-Rostovsky is crestfallen and at a loss.
Then something happens which, though surprising, is not that unusual.
The German guns closest to them are mistaken for Russian guns and their own countrymen on the other side of the main road begin to bombard them. The German batteries proceed to fight a ferocious artillery duel between themselves during which Lobanov-Rostovsky and the Russians with him are able to slip past. The German gun crews soon discover their mistake but by then the Russians are already up on the highway to Sandomierz and in relative safety. Retreating units join them from all the small side roads and they become part of “one long black ribbon of carts overflowing with wounded, remains of artillery batteries, and various bits and pieces of different arms.” Now it is time for the next atavism: a cavalry regiment is riding towards the highway in perfect battle order—a beautiful painting from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Germans? No, Russian hussars. The cavalry officers ride up. Their calm smiles are in glaring contrast to the confusion and terror prevailing among the retreating men. It turns out that the cavalry belongs to a completely different corps and consequently has no idea what has happened or is happening.
As Lobanov-Rostovsky and his little column approach Sandomierz towards dusk it seems that the worst is over. A newly arrived and rested infantry division is in the process of digging in on either side of the main highway. When the column tries to wend its way into the town, Lobanov-Rostovsky finds that the streets are too narrow and the crowds too big, so he orders his twenty wagons to wait at the side of the road. He notes that the cow is still with them and that she seems to have coped with the hardships remarkably well. The sky is overcast.
He recognises one particular unit among the ragged stream of men flowing past him. It is the infantry regiment he came across last night, when they were lying resting in the open on the streets of Opatov, a motionless, sleeping collection of heads and legs and arms and bodies, pale in the bright moonlight. Yesterday they had been 4,000 strong, now there are 300 left, along with six officers. The regiment has been virtually wiped out, but not beaten: they are still carrying their flags and they are in good order.
At dusk it starts to rain. Only now does it occur to Lobanov-Rostovsky that he has not eaten anything all day. With all the excitement and apprehension he has not felt hungry. Around eleven o’clock the rest of his company arrives, badly knocked about but holding up for all that, and as luck would have it the kitchen wagons are with them. At last they can all eat. The sound of the guns in the distance eases up and finally they fall silent. What will later be called the Battle of Opatov is over.
The rain continues to pour down. The time is around midnight.
Lobanov-Rostovsky and some of the others creep in under the stationary wagons for shelter while they sleep. This works well at first but soon the trickling rainwater finds its way in under the wagons.
He and the rest of the company spend the remainder of the night sitting by the roadside, silent and awake, waiting for dawn and daylight with almost animal-like patience.
TUESDAY, 6 OCTOBER 1914
Sarah Macnaughtan witnesses the fall of Antwerp
A blue sky. The leaves are turning. Pleasant autumn weather. The sound of artillery is coming closer and they can feel the ground shaking now, as well as hearing the noise of the explosions. She goes to the door occasionally and asks someone in the never-ending stream of fleeing soldiers and civilians how the battle is going. The answer never varies: “Very badly.” Motor cars drive past slowly, hooting their way through the slow-moving throng of people, animals and wagons. Rumour has it that the city will soon be subjected to direct bombardment. Macnaughtan and her colleagues have carried food and water down to the cellars in case they are forced to take the wounded to shelter there.
Many of Sarah’s duties are of a mundane order: making beds, washing floors, cutting bread, pouring beer, portioning out the food. Other duties are anything but: tending the wounded and comforting the dying. Sarah Macnaughtan does not really know what to feel, or to think:
With each batch of the wounded, disabled creatures who are carried in, one feels inclined to repeat in wonder, “Can one man be responsible for all this? Is it for one man’s lunatic vanity that men are putting lumps of lead into each other’s hearts and lungs, and boys are lying with their heads blown off, or with their insides beside them on the ground?” Yet there is a splendid freedom about being in the midst of death—a certain glory in it, which one can’t explain.
British soldiers, men from the Marines, have begun to arrive too, both among the wounded and among those retreating. They give the same answer when asked how the battle is going: “Very badly.” One of the field hospital women returns with some wounded British soldiers—she had driven her own car right up to the battle line and found the men in a trench. She says: “No one knew why they were in the trenches or where they were to fire—they just lay there and were shot and left.”
No one seems to know anything.
At five in the afternoon they start serving dinner, which is earlier than usual. The darkness of autumn is beginning to make itself felt and the high-ceilinged concert hall quickly becomes dark. Soon she can hear the clatter of pans being dropped and chairs being knocked over as people stumble round in the darkness. There are wounded men lying everywhere, even on the floor. The atmosphere is tense. “Any sudden noise is rather trying at present because of the booming of the guns.” At about seven o’clock they hear a new noise—a kind of double crack. Someone says it is the sound of the British long-range guns.
It would be wrong to say that Macnaughtan has begun to have doubts, but things are not really as she expected. She herself is not really as she expected. She writes:
When I go into the little chapel to pray it is all too tender, the divine Mother and the Child and the holy atmosphere. I begin to feel rather sorry for myself, I don’t know why; then I go and move beds and feel better; but I have found that just to behave like a well-bred woman is what keeps me up best. I had thought that the Flag or Religion would have been stronger incentives to me.
Later in the evening she tries to go out to get some air but a nurse stops her and asks whether she could look after one of the wounded men. Of course she can, and so she sits and watches a twenty-one-year-old man die. She thinks he gives a suspicion of a smile. More wounded men arrive but they are turned away at the door. There is no more room. The constant thunder of the cannon continues all night without a break.
SATURDAY, 10 OCTOBER 1914s
Elfriede Kuhr listens to war stories at a coffee party in Schneidemühl
Autumn colours. An October sky. A chill in the air. The teacher has brought along a news telegram and reads it out to the class: Antwerp fell two days ago and the last fort has now capitulated, which means that the long drawn-out siege is over and the German thrust down along the coast towards Flanders can continue. Elfriede can hardly hear the last words of the report because all the children are shouting with joy.
This loud roar whenever another German triumph is announced has become a ritual in her school. Elfriede believes that many of them scream simply because they are hoping that victory will be celebrated with a holiday. Or that the headmaster, a tall, strict gentleman with pince-nez and a pointed white beard, will be so affected by their youthful patriotism that he will at least let them off the last lessons. (When the outbreak of war was announced to the school the headmaster was so moved that he wept and found it difficult to speak at times. He is the man behind the ban on using foreign words in school and sinners have to pay a five-pfennig fine: the word is “Mutter” not “Mama,” “Auf Wiedersehen” not “Adieu,” “Kladde” not “Diarium,” “fesselnd” not “interessant” and so on.) Elfriede, too, joins in the shouting about the fall of Fort Breendonck, not so much because she thinks that they will be excused from classes but just because she thinks it is fun: “I think it’s wonderful to be allowed to shout and scream for all we’re worth in a place we normally have to keep quiet all the time.” In the classroom they have a map on which all the victories of the German army are recorded by pinning up small black, white and red flags. The mood in the school and in Germany as a whole is aggressive, arrogant, chauvinistic and exultant.
After school Elfriede goes to a small coffee party. Her parents are separated and she has no contact with her father. Her mother is a professional woman running a small music school in Berlin, which is why Elfriede and her brother live with their maternal grandmother in Schneidemühl.
As usual, the war is the topic of conversation. Someone has seen yet another transport full of Russian prisoners at the station. They used to attract attention “with their long, brown coats and ragged trousers” but hardly anyone bothers about them anymore. As the German armies continue to advance, the newspapers churn out new figures for the numbers of prisoners taken, a sort of stock market of war in which today’s quotations show Suwalki standing at 27,000 and west of Ivangorod standing at 5,800. (Not to mention other tangible symbols of victory: the newspapers this month have reported that 1,630 railway trucks were needed to transport the booty taken after the great victory at Tannenberg.) But what are they to do with all the prisoners? Fräulein Ella Gumprecht, a middle-aged, unmarried schoolmarm with firm views, plump cheeks and carefully waved hair, knows the answer: “Why not shoot the lot of them?” The others think that is a dreadful idea.t
The adults swap war stories. Fräulein Gumprecht tells of a man who was tossed into a burning house by Cossacks but who managed to escape on a bicycle by dressing in women’s clothes. The children respond by passing on a story their mother has sent them from Berlin:
A German lance corporal in the reserves, a professor of Romance Languages at Göttingen in civilian life, has the job of escorting French prisoners from Maubeuge to Germany. The guns are thundering in the distance. Suddenly the lieutenant in command notices that his lance corporal has become involved in a violent quarrel with one of the Frenchmen. The Frenchman is gesticulating excitedly with his hands and the lance corporal’s eyes are flashing angrily behind his glasses. Fearing violence, the lieutenant rides over to them and, with an oath, separates them. Then the agitated lance corporal explains the issue: the French prisoner of war, who is wearing tattered boots held together with string, used to be a professor at the Sorbonne. The two gentlemen are quarrelling because they cannot agree about the use of the subjunctive in older Provençal poetry.
They all laugh, including Fräulein Gumprecht, who laughs so much that she gets a piece of nut chocolate stuck in her throat. Grandmother, however, turns to Elfriede and her brother: “Children, don’t you think it’s such a shame that two professors end up having to shoot at each other? The soldiers should throw down their rifles and say ‘We don’t want to be part of this any longer.’ Then they should just go home.” This upsets Fräulein Gumprecht and she shrills: “What about our Kaiser, then? And the honour of Germany? And the good name of our German soldiers?” Grandmother raises her voice and answers: “Every mother ought to go to the Kaiser and say ‘Peace now!’ ”
Elfriede is astounded. She knows her grandmother heard the news of mobilisation with sorrow. This is actually the third war in Grandmother’s lifetime: first there was the war with the Danes in 1864, then the war with the French in 1870. And even though Grandmother, just like everyone else, is firmly convinced that Germany will be victorious yet again and that the victory will again be a quick one, she still cannot see that there is anything good in what has happened. But to talk like this! Elfriede has never heard anything like it.
TUESDAY, 13 OCTOBER 1914
Pál Kelemen spends the night in a mountain pass near Łużna
Forwards, then backwards, then forwards again. First of all the frenetic advances in Galicia in the opening months of the war to counter the invading Russians, with all the bloody fighting that resulted from that (the “battle for Lemberg,” or possibly the “Battle of Lemberg”); then the retreat—a confused race from river to river until they were suddenly in the Carpathians and on the Hungarian border. Dreadful! After that a pause, silence, nothing. Then orders to advance again, out of the mountain passes of the Carpathians, down to the plains to the north-east and on to Przemyśl, which is under siege. The losses have been enormous.u
Winter is coming unusually early. It started with a heavy snowfall, which quickly made all the roads impassable, and also made it impossible for Austro-Hungarian units to move forward—or back, for that matter. Pál Kelemen’s division is trapped in one of these snowed-up passes in the mountains. The biting, wind-driven snow is forming deep drifts around the horses. Freezing soldiers are crouching around small, weak fires or stamping their feet and beating their arms. “Nobody talks.”
Pál Kelemen writes in his journal:
There is only one house left intact in the mountain pass, the modest hut of the border innkeeper.v They have installed the field telegraph station in the first room; in the second, the staff officers of the Cavalry Corps are quartered; I arrived here at eleven at night and sent a dispatch to the Command, reporting that it was impossible to proceed at present. So I lie down in a corner on a pallet, covered with my blanket.
Howling, the wind pierces the tiles of the rickety roof and clatters the windowpanes. It is pitch dark outside. Here inside there is only one wavering candle flame. The telegraph works incessantly, forwarding orders in preparation for tomorrow’s attack. Scores of those who fell behind in the advance lie in the hall and in the garret—the weak, the sick, and the slightly wounded who start to the rear tomorrow.
I lie half asleep, exhausted, some other officers around me on small heaps of straw. The shivering men around the lodge have made a fire out of the planks of the adjacent stable, and the flames leaping into the dark attract still more stray soldiers.
A sergeant enters and asks permission for one of his comrades to come in here; he is scarcely conscious and would certainly perish of the cold outside. They lay him on a bundle of hay on the ground near the door, hunched up, his eyeballs half turned out, his neck drawn in between his shoulders. In several places his coat was pierced by bullets and the edge of it singed by the fire of some night encampment. His hands are stiff with cold, his gaunt, tormented face covered with a dishevelled beard.
Sleep overcomes me. The titi-tata code signals of the telegraph become a buzzing in the distance.
At daybreak I am wakened by the noise of the men preparing to march on, and with dull dizzy head I look around the miserable night quarters. Through the low window flowered with frost the day is breaking sallow grey, filling every nook and corner of the room with sober light. Only the soldier who was brought in last night is lying still, on his face, turned toward the wall.
The door of the inner room opens and one of the aides-decamp, Prince Schönau-Gratzfeld, steps in, smoothly shaven, in pyjamas, blowing clouds of smoke from a long-stemmed Turkish chibouk into the foul bitter air.
He perceives the soldier lying motionless in the corner, goes up to him, but recoils with fastidious horror. Indignantly he commands the instant removal of the corpse, obviously dead from cholera, and, with appalled expression, returns to the inner room. After him two privates drag in a portable rubber bathtub adorned with an escutcheon and filled with warm water.
SATURDAY, 24 OCTOBER 1914
Laura de Turczynowicz returns to Suwalki
The journey has been as slow as it has been uncomfortable. At least on the final stage from Olita Laura has not had to travel in a cattle truck, though the train has still been unheated. And for the last twenty-four hours it has just been crawling along, stopping time after time out on the track for no apparent reason. Sections of the track have been repaired, but only just passably, and on those sections the carriages have swayed and rocked “like a ship in high sea.”
At half past five in the morning they finally pull into the station at Suwalki.
She sets off on foot in the raw, cold autumn darkness, accompanied by an acquaintance from the town, a doctor’s wife. The road is churned up and difficult to follow. It slowly gets light. She sees Russian soldiers on the march, some of them drunk. She sees damaged buildings and flattened fences.
The children and the household staff are still in Vitebsk, where they have taken temporary accommodation. Stanislaw has been called up by the Russian army and gone off to serve as head of the sanitation engineers in the newly taken city of Lemberg. But before he disappeared he managed to travel to Suwalki, which had just been recaptured, and bring back two trunks of clothes and the news that the house was still standing. He had not wanted to say anything about the damage, merely saying it would be best for her to go and see for herself.
Which is why she is here now. She would really like to bring the children back as soon as possible, now that the Germans have been pushed back towards East Prussia.
When they reach the doctor’s house Laura goes in to get her breath back and to gather her strength. She is more than a little afraid of what she is going to find—as a woman who grew up in New York she has no experience of this kind of situation. She is offered coffee and at about half past seven she sets off again.
At last she reaches her house, which is waiting there for her in the morning light.
She goes in. She can hardly believe her eyes.
Everything has been torn, smashed, ripped out, spilled, hurled around, knocked over and fouled. Every drawer has been pulled out, every wardrobe emptied. She wades around in the confused wreckage of the things that had once made up her home. The smell is indescribably awful. Laura goes from window to window, opening them, breathing deeply and holding her breath before going on to the next window and opening it. The library has been completely vandalised. The contents of all the shelves have been emptied and the floor is invisible beneath a layer of torn books and papers, scattered documents and engravings.
The remains of the dropped soup tureen are still lying on the floor in the dining room, along with a thick, crunching carpet of broken glass, dirty china, filthy cloths—all of it trampled by rough boots. The German soldiers and officers who lived here until a couple of weeks ago simply hurled the dishes and glasses on the floor after using them, then used new ones and done the same with them.
Laura goes into one of the pantries. Glass jars are lined up in neat rows. They used to contain jam, marmalade, honey and bottled vegetables. All the jars have been emptied of their original contents and filled with human excrement instead.
She gives orders for Jacob, the workman, and his wife and daughter to start clearing up. Meanwhile, she is going to draw up a list of everything missing and take it to the police.
SUNDAY, 25 OCTOBER 1914w
Michel Corday takes the train back to Bordeaux
There are times when he moves among people as though he were on a different planet, surrounded by absurd incomprehensibilities. Is this really his world? In one sense, no. Michel Corday is a forty-five-year-old civil servant at the Ministry of Commerce and Post but he is also a socialist, a litterateur and a friend of peace. He writes literary criticism and political articles for the newspapers and has even published a number of novels, some of which have been reasonably successful. (He was in the army at one time and several of his works—Intérieurs d’officiers  and Coeurs de soldats , for instance—reflect that background, whereas others deal with the sufferings of society or of the heart.)
Michel Corday was originally a nom de plume,x and this retiring man with a moustache is in some ways a fairly typical turn-of-the-century intellectual with a double life: he cannot live by his pen alone and thus also needs his job at the ministry. The distance between his two lives is not, however, really that great: he has changed his name so that even his civil-service self is now called Corday. Everyone knows he is a writer and he is a close friend of Anatole France.
During the first days of September, when it really looked as if it was impossible to stop the Germans, the government had left Paris and the staff of the ministries had gone with them. They had left the city by car in a state of panic—“the refugees at the station had been trampling one another as if they were in a burning theatre”—and found a safe haven in Bordeaux. Corday’s ministry was accommodated in an institution for the deaf and dumb in Rue Saint-Sernin. Now, however, since the Germans have been held on the Marne for over a month, more and more people are saying it is time for the government and the ministries to move back. Corday’s own family was evacuated to Saint-Amand Longpré and this evening he is returning to Bordeaux after visiting them.
To Corday the outbreak of war was a disgrace and a defeat and he has still not reconciled himself to it. He had been ill at a seaside resort and consequently all the news reached him through newspapers and telephone calls. The picture had been slow to take shape. He had tried for a while to distract himself by reading but it did not work.
Every thought and event caused by the outbreak of war came as a bitter and mortal blow struck against the great conviction that was in my heart: the concept of permanent progress, of movement towards ever greater happiness. I had never believed that something like this could happen. It meant that my faith simply crumbled. The outbreak of war marked my awakening from a dream I had nourished ever since I started thinking.
The children on the beach were playing war games: the girls were being nurses and the boys wounded soldiers. From his window he watched an artillery troop marching away singing and it made him burst into tears.
Out of the jubilation and chaos of those hot August days a new and alien world really has emerged.
It is partly a matter of externals: all these women who have stopped using cosmetics for “patriotic reasons”; all these uniforms everywhere—uniforms have become high fashion; all these growing queues at Mass and at confession; all the floods of refugees, laden with bundles; all the blacked-out streets; all the roadblocks manned by overzealous, domineering militiamen; all these troop transports carrying healthy men to the front and bringing the wounded back from it.
But also of internals: the permanent barrage of patriotic verbal formulae, as highly strung as they are obligatory; the new and uncompromising attitude—“kindness, humanity—all that has been swept away”; the hysterical tone that is manifested both in propaganda and in people’s conversations about the war (one woman told him that we should not weep for those who are marching off to the front—it is the men who cannot take part in the struggle who are to be pitied); the confusing mixture of generosity and selfishness; the sudden inability to perceive nuances of any kind—“One dare not say anything bad about the war. The war has become a God.” But Corday is doing his duty as a good civil servant.
On the way to Saint-Amand the train had been stormed by women pressing fruit, milk, coffee, sandwiches, chocolate and cigarettes on everyone in uniform. In one town he had seen boys wearing police helmets and acting as stretcher-bearers. It is impossible now to find a waiting room at any of the stations: all of them have been turned into temporary hospitals for the wounded or stores for military equipment. On his return journey, somewhere between Saint-Pierre and Tours, he eavesdrops on a conversation between two families: “Both of them talked of the men they had lost in terrifying tones of resignation, as if they were simply talking about the victims of a natural catastrophe.”
In Angoulême a man on a stretcher is carried on board and placed in a neighbouring compartment. The man has been wounded in the back by a shell splinter and is now lame. He has a nurse travelling with him to tend his wound. There is also a blonde woman whom Corday takes to be either the injured man’s wife or his mistress. He hears the woman say to the nurse, “He refuses to believe that I still love him.” When the nurse goes to wash her hands after examining the wound, the blonde woman and the injured man begin to kiss passionately. When the nurse returns she pretends not to notice and just looks out into the night.
A small non-commissioned officer is sitting in the same compartment as Corday. He has just returned from the front. The two men chat. At four o’clock in the morning the train stops at a station and the soldier gets off. A girl throws herself at the little man and clings tightly to him. “Just to think that so much love, the love of all the mothers, sisters, wives and girl-friends, has so far proved powerless against all this hatred,” he thinks.
The kiosks at the stations they pass display rows of cheerfully colourful illustrated papers, all of them with a publication date in the first days of August. No more have been printed since then. It is as if a new era has begun.
Laura de Turczynowicz and an acquaintance spend today in the Augustów Forest near Suwalki, searching for deserted or orphaned children. (They have already found several, including a four-year-old carrying a baby of six months, who were so desperately hungry they had been eating earth.) She meets a man who tells her that their summer villa has been destroyed by the Germans, but he has found Dash, the children’s white dog, alive. She writes:
Every hut was burnt down; gruesome work it was. Many times we saw dead men. I wondered why we struggled so to save our lives when so many had gone down. Going through the forest at dusk, we heard a child’s cry, but could not locate the sound. In our search a wounded horse plunging through the underbrush came upon us. He passed so near I could have touched him. Frightened, I clung to a tree for dear life.
WEDNESDAY, 4 NOVEMBER 1914
Pál Kelemen is wounded north of Turka
It is a beautiful night—starry, cold and with a bright moon. Pál Kelemen’s horse is reluctant to leave its warm stable and venture out in the chill, biting wind. The army is once again in retreat: forwards and back, forwards and back again. Since a new line of defence is being established, their orders are to see that the retreating units do not get stuck and come to a halt. By about two o’clock in the morning the new line should be ready and, hopefully, occupied by the fresh infantry that are already on their way up to the pass. The task Kelemen and his hussars have been given is close to impossible since it is difficult to gain any kind of overall picture of the situation in the darkness. The road is already in chaos. They ride slowly up against the flow, through a sluggish, grey stream of men, horses, wagons, guns, ammunition carts and pack-mules.
In the moonlight he sees what look like long, black streaks in the white snow: they are the freshly dug trenches. He can hear the sound of rifle fire—the Russians have begun to push forward there. He notes that the stream of retreating men has thinned out but that there are still scattered groups of fleeing troops. Kelemen and his men point them in the right direction. The road is icy and slippery as glass. They have to dismount and lead their horses. Kelemen writes in his journal:
Meantime the Russian artillery has commenced firing along the whole length of the front sector. I get into the saddle again and push ahead that way. The moon is setting, and in the stiffening cold the sky is becoming overcast. Smoke balls of the grenades and shrapnel drift heavy beneath the clouds.
Some abandoned army wagons stand on the road without men or horses. We have just passed them when I feel a sharp blow near the left knee and at the same time my horse grows restive. I imagine I have struck my leg against something in the dark. I touch the place and instinctively bring my gloved hand to my face. It is warm and moist, and now I feel a sharp throbbing pain.
I say to Mogor beside me that I think I have been hit. He rides up close and discovers a small wound on the rump of my horse also. But horse and rider are still able to keep up. Here one could not possibly dismount. There is no dressing station anywhere in the neighborhood. And to try to get to the infantry first-aid on the front is far more dangerous, since they are now under barrage fire, than to ride on as far as we can.
In numberless simple yet kindly ways, Mogor valiantly tries to divert my attention from the wound. He soothes me by assuring me that we will surely meet some marching troop soon where a doctor will be on hand.
It grows steadily brighter. In the east, the sun comes up with gaudy rays. The sky is radiant, the snow-wrapped mountains sharply distinct from the dark green pine forest. My leg seems to be growing, lengthening. My face burns and I grip the bridle with rigid hand. My horse, fine intelligent animal, picks her way among the snowy clods of the road with feet still sure.
At last we reach the southern slope of the pass. Here, protected from the wind, the road is not so hard, and by the time the full splendor of the sun flows over the valley before us, the outlying houses of a village are in sight.
In the market place we meet Vas, who, agitated, asks the cause of our delay and grows panicky on hearing the story from Mogor. The village school has been hastily transformed into a first-aid station overnight, and, with Vas on one side and Mogor on the other, I ride to the schoolyard gate.
The scene is beginning to blur before my eyes. I cannot dismount any more; my left leg is numb. Two aid men lift me out of the saddle while Mogor leads the horse from under me. They set me down cautiously. As my left foot touches the ground the accumulated blood squashes in my boot. I cannot stand. With the thoughtlessness of the very young, Vas holds his pocket mirror before me, and I see a strange, yellow old face instead of my own.
FRIDAY, 6 NOVEMBER 1914
Sarah Macnaughtan looks for company in Veurne
They get up at seven o’clock and join the queue for the washbasin in the bathroom. It is a small house and it is in a state of increasing dirt and disorder. When they took it over, all eighteen of them, they found some toys left behind on a mat, a saucepan on the stove, and only three beds—unmade since the owners had fled in haste. (There is also Jane, a happy dog with a red coat that one of them found when out on a job.) Most of them sleep on the floor in the unheated rooms and it is very overcrowded. All this is less of a torment than Sarah Macnaughtan expected. She is a very private person, used to living alone and quietly, and up to now she has found it trying to eat and sleep and work in a group: “I find the communal spirit is not in me.” Recently, however, she has surprised herself by starting to look for company, even literally following people around, staying close to them in a way that definitely feels a little embarrassing, but she cannot stop herself doing it. Then it is her turn to use the bathroom. She has to pump for a long time to get any water. She washes. The water is very cold and she notices that the drain seems to be blocked.
Later they all gather in a large room in the butcher’s shop next door and have breakfast before walking to the deserted seminary in which the new field hospital is located. Since the fall of Antwerp Macnaughtan has been accompanying the retreat south-westwards along the coast. Her original unit—Mrs. St. Clair Stobart’s Ambulance Unit—has returned to England, but she has hung on stubbornly and joined a different group of volunteers, Dr. Hector Munro’s Flying Ambulance Corps. She celebrated her fiftieth birthday a week ago.
Antwerp came as a shock to her. Partly because of the defeat itself, partly because of the appalling things she saw—they seemed to be endless and she was not really prepared for them—and partly because of the fact that many, many, oh so many men (and many of them British) did not behave at all in the way she had expected. People lied, bolted, hid away, showed themselves to be cowardly, and some even deserted. The fact that the British press managed to portray the retreat of the British Naval Brigade from the city as some sort of inverted triumph has upset and annoyed her: “I find the conceit of it most trying. Belgium is in the hands of the enemy, and we flee before him singing our own praises loudly as we do.”
She has begun to toy with the idea of not just writing about her experiences but also going out on some kind of lecture tour at home. Her main audiences would be the workers in the munitions industry and her aim would be to make them recognise the seriousness of the situation. She has heard numerous scandalous stories of slackness and carelessness and self-interest and greed. This war can actually be lost.
At eight o’clock the first brown-painted ambulances rumble away but most of the people hang around for a while longer in “a courtyard filled with motors and brancardiers [male helpers] and men in uniform, and women in knickerbockers and puttees, all lighting cigarettes and talking about repairs and gears and a box of bandages.” It is ten o’clock before the last of the ten vehicles leaves to gather the latest harvest of wounded men. As usual, the noise of the artillery hangs in the background. The day before yesterday the Germans abandoned some of their positions on the Yser, beaten not so much by the Belgian army (which has its headquarters in the town here) as by flooding. Unusually heavy gunfire was heard from the south-east and the town of Ypres yesterday.
The work she has to do is still of a fairly everyday sort: cleaning, serving food, distributing clothes. Macnaughtan hopes to be allowed to go out with the ambulances but she almost certainly recognises that she is physically far too weak for that job.
The weather is fine. In the afternoon she decides to go back to the house. She is intending to work on her diary and to rest a little. But it does not happen. She cannot be at peace. She feels anxious and nervous. She pulls herself together and writes, but something is not right with her. “I feel as if all the time I was living in some blood-curdling ghost story or a horrid dream. Every day I try to overcome the feeling, but I can’t succeed.” Yesterday it was one of the wounded men shouting at her that he wanted her to kill him. Today the cheerful French lad with the lovely teeth (the one who makes their coffee at lunchtime) was put against a tree and shot as a punishment for threatening a French officer with a revolver during the night—the boy was apparently drunk at the time. Finally her anxiety gets too much for her and she rises, puts her diary under her arm and walks back to the seminary. She needs company: “I find that unless I am with somebody the ghosts get the better of me.”
By dinnertime the brown-painted ambulances are beginning to return, one by one, at irregular intervals. Weary and dirty, the drivers and stretcher-bearers get out of their vehicles. Greetings are exchanged, and questions asked. “Did you get many?”
Dusk is falling. It is dark by six o’clock.
SUNDAY, 8 NOVEMBER 1914y
Alfred Pollard digs a trench outside La Bassée
They are not really needed here and sending them forward to dig is mainly a way of keeping them occupied until they receive new marching orders.z No one tells them to take care.
There is, after all, so much that is new and unfamiliar. The front line in the west has now become genuinely static and it is only up in Flanders that real fighting is still going on: the First Battle of Ypres. Instead, both sides are mostly occupied digging themselves in, which is not always as simple as it sounds. Since no one foresaw this strange war of position there was very little training for it and there was even less experience. Later on Pollard remarks that “the trenches in 1914 were terrible”: drainage and refuse collection do not function and there are no shelters or bunkers, only small sections of roof that at best keep out the rain but hardly do more than that. The whole landscape of a war of position is new—not least this deceptive emptiness. Where, in fact, is the enemy? There is no sign of him here. And where is the war itself in all this silence?
So they just trudged off to this position about half a mile from the front line, checked that there was no sign of the enemy and that they were not likely to be under threat, and they started to dig. On the first day the Germans let them get on with their picking and shovelling, without any cover (there was none, in any case), within sight, and in bright sunshine. On the second day, however, the Germans obviously thought that enough was enough.
This is Pollard’s third month in the army. At five o’clock in the afternoon of 8 August he left the insurance company in St. James Street where he worked as a clerk, never to return. It was an easy decision for him. A day or so earlier he had been standing in a great crowd of people outside one of London’s big army barracks and he had watched a unit of the Guards march past on their way to war. Everyone was cheering and shouting, him too, though there was a lump in his throat as the soldiers marched past in perfect step, their arms swinging rhythmically. He was not weeping with pride as many of the others were, nor was it that he was moved by the sudden gravity of the moment, a recognition that the country had been thrown into war without any real warning—and a big war, at that, not one of those distant colonial adventures but a colossal war that threatens to turn the world upside down. Not only threatens to do so but promises to do so, which is why some of the people were cheering: the war stood for a promise of great and radical change. But that is not what moved Pollard so deeply that he started weeping. His tears were tears of envy. He wanted so much to be one of them. “How could I be left behind?”
To many people the war really came as a grand promise of change, and it appealed to Pollard in a number of ways, not the least of which was that he was thoroughly fed up with his job and had even been thinking about emigrating. But now the war had come instead. He was twenty-one years old.
He and all the others had queued for almost three hours. When the gates of the recruiting centre finally opened, he and another man—an acquaintance from the tennis club—pushed and elbowed their way through and then sprinted for all they were worth to the main building in order to be first. After all, what if the number of places was limited? And what if it was all over before they even got to the front? (His brother enlisted as a volunteer in the same unit at first, but then deserted in order to join a different unit under an assumed name simply because this second unit was expected to be one of the first sent into battle.)
Pollard loved the drill, found the long marches “rather fun” and could hardly control his excitement when he was given his rifle: “I was armed. It was a weapon designed to kill. I wanted to kill.” He often sat playing with his bayonet in secret, testing the edge: “The desire to get to the front had become an obsession.” They marched through London to the sounds of a military band. Weapons training consisted of firing fifteen shots. The order for departure came so suddenly that he did not have time to let his parents know. As the train to Southampton passed through a station, he threw a short message addressed to his mother out through the window. It reached her.
After all this waiting Pollard is at the front at last. Digging. For the second day in succession. The air is filled with the smell of earth and rotting leaves. Suddenly there is a noise “like an express train travelling at an incredible speed,” followed by a ringing, metallic detonation. In front of them, not far above the ground, he sees the billowing, swelling cloud from a shell-burst. Pollard leans on his spade and stares “fascinated”:
I was really under fire. My pulses raced with excitement. A second shell followed the first. Then a third. There was a commotion a little way along the line. Men were running. Someone rushed by calling for the doctor. A direct hit. We had suffered our first casualty.
FRIDAY, 13 NOVEMBER 1914
William Henry Dawkins writes to his mother from HMAT Orvieto
Heat and a sea wind. Life on board the troopship is strange. He has probably never lived so comfortably before. Even though William Henry Dawkins is no more than a newly commissioned lieutenant he is nevertheless an officer and has therefore been given a first-class cabin of his own on board a ship that until just a month ago was one of the Orient Line’s best and most modern vessels. So there is a shower and a hot bath and he is not far from the beautiful dining room in which they serve three excellent meals a day: “Our meals are better than could be had in the best Melbourne hotel.” There is a ship’s orchestra to play for these uniformed passengers.
The only thing to disturb the idyll is the stink of the horses down in the hold. That and the temperature, which rises as HMATaa Orvieto and the other ships in the great convoy steam their way northwards across the Indian Ocean beneath a fiery sky. Many of the other ranks sleep on deck at night, hoping it will be cool. Since leaving Australia Dawkins has celebrated his twenty-second birthday. A photograph taken immediately before embarkation shows a young man with a gentle smile, oval face, narrow nose and open, inquisitive gaze. He has just started wearing a moustache and his uniform tie is tied in a four-in-hand knot.
But even though he and the other officers are literally living in luxury their existence is far from idle. They usually rise at quarter to six in the morning and the days are spent in physical training, instructing the soldiers, holding sporting competitions and running courses in subjects such as boxing and French. (The idea is that he and the 20,000 Australians and 8,000 New Zealanders in the convoy will be sent to the Western Front.) Le prochain train pour Paris part à quelle heure?
At the start of the voyage the war was very far away.bb At first the vessel sailed with its full peacetime illumination, which in the case of a beautiful liner like the Orvieto meant that the ship was lit up at night with thousands of brightly coloured lamps. But now the ship has a strict blackout: they are even forbidden to smoke on deck after sunset. They are afraid of the German cruisers, which are known to be freebooting in the Indian Ocean: their ghostlike and unforeseeable raids across the breadth of the ocean have already sunk almost twenty Allied merchantmen. The convoy’s departure from Australia was, in fact, delayed because a squadron of German cruisers was known to be in the region.cc Now they are heading north-west, surrounded by an escort of Allied warships. When Dawkins looks out over the starboard rail he can see the Japanese cruiser Ibuki, whose wide funnels, for some reason, emit much denser smoke than the British and Australian vessels. The thirty-eight ships in the convoy make an impressive sight and today Dawkins is sitting in his cabin writing to his mother:
It is wonderful the power of Britain at sea. This huge convoy just proceeds uninterruptedly on its own course in its own time. Then again a lone ship like the Osterley runs its usual mail course to Australia and back. Again cruisers flying our flag appear at odd moments from odd places. All these things point to a complete mastery of the sea. Today we heard of the fall of Tsing-tao and there was a pretty exchange of compliments between ourselves and the Jap battleship.
William Henry Dawkins had intended to be a teacher. His family had neither money nor any tradition of education (when he was born his mother was a seamstress and his father a workman), but his parents recognised that he was a bright child and, with the help of a scholarship, he was able to continue his education at a boarding-school in Melbourne. At the age of just sixteen he began to serve as pupil teacherdd at a school no more than twenty-five miles from his home. He would probably have been happy in the teaching profession, which he was actually very keen on, if he had not happened to see in the paper that an officer-cadet school was to be opened in Duntroon. He applied, took the examinations and, to his own surprise, was accepted.
The building of the cadet school was still unfinished when he and the rest of the first cohort of aspirant officers moved in. The place itself had been a bit of a disappointment: the location was dry, cold and isolated and they lived in prefabricated, single-storey barracks with asbestos cladding. But the education was good and Dawkins, who was ambitious, achieved the highest grades in both theoretical and practical subjects. He is, however, rather small, only about five foot six inches and slightly built, and that—together with his intellectual abilities—pushed him in the direction of a specialisation in which the mind is more important than brute strength. The majority of the thirty-seven men in the passing-out class of 1914 went on into the infantry or the cavalry, whereas he and one other high-performing cadet ended up in the engineers. That particular branch of the forces probably suited his temperament best; even though Dawkins is pleased to be part of the Australian Expeditionary Force and just as happy as all the others to cheer British successes, it is clear that he is not afflicted by war fever in its most intense form. The character that emerges from his letters is that of an ambitious, quiet, slightly prim young man—an elementary school teacher in uniform. He is a keen churchgoer and the eldest of six brothers and sisters, the two youngest of whom—the twin girls Zelma and Vida—he is particularly fond of and pays a lot of attention.
The outbreak of war did not come as a complete surprise to him, since rumours had preceded it. Few people, however, had taken the rumours too seriously: if anything was going to happen it would literally happen on the other side of the world, where it would affect foreign places of which few people had ever heard and even fewer could pronounce. When the news finally reached them and they understood that their country too had been dragged into it in some incomprehensible way, Dawkins and his fellow cadets had existed in limbo for the first few confusing days. What was going to happen to them? They still had four months’ education and training left to do. Then they heard they were to take their examinations early so they could join the expeditionary force that was being put together. They had happily packed their possessions and given away or sold everything surplus to requirements, and a grand and emotional dinner had been given in their honour. Now they are on their way.
Even though Europe still lies far ahead, Dawkins has already seen something of war. Or almost, anyway. When they were passing the Cocos Islands four days earlier the convoy took the eastern route instead of the more usual western route because they were afraid of encountering the most notorious and feared of the German freebooters, the light cruiser SMS Emden.ee Their caution proved justified: the Emden was, indeed, lying in wait. A telegram informed the convoy of this fact and the largest of the convoy’s escorts was dispatched to deal with it: a message—“Attacking the enemy”—reached the Orvieto at 10:25 and “the boom of the gun was heard by some on board our ship.” The Emden, which was severely outclassed, was shot to pieces before being beached.
The rumour is now going round the Orvieto that the wounded and prisoners from the twenty-five-minute naval engagement are to be brought on board. Dawkins is really looking forward to this. The convoy is now approaching Ceylon, where he hopes to be able to post the letter to his mother:
I hope you are in the best of health. I am splendid and in perfect health. I do hope Aunty Mary is improving. Give my kindest regards to all who may enquire of me. I will close now—looking forward to getting your letter at Colombo. Best love to all, From Willie xxxxxxxxxxxxxx to the girls.
THURSDAY, 19 NOVEMBER 1914
Kresten Andresen goes through his kit before travelling to the front in France
One by one Andresen’s friends have gone. Since he has carefully refrained from stepping forward as a volunteer he has managed to remain in the barracks for some time—a furtive, uncertain existence waiting for the inevitable. But the disappearance of the others—most recently his namesake Thöge Andresen—has had an effect on him. Thöge, unlike Kresten, volunteered for front-line service. His reason? Thöge wanted “to undergo his baptism into manhood in war.” Kresten Andresen can certainly understand how Thöge and others like him feel. He writes in his journal:
Go to war not for the sake of goods and gold, not for your homeland or for honour, nor to seek the death of your enemies, but to strengthen your character, to strengthen it in power and will, in habits, custom and earnestness. That is why I want to go to war. But I refuse to learn that lesson voluntarily since I believe that the aim can also be achieved in another way.
Andresen knows that it cannot be much longer, but he is nevertheless grateful for the extra time he has won.
They were vaccinated against typhus and cholera yesterday. Today they are being injected against diphtheria. He is going through his kit, which is now all complete:
Grey uniform with red piping and bronze buttons
Dark cloak, army issue
Pickelhaube with green cover, R86
Grey uniform cap
Own boots, bought in Vejle
Laced boots, yellow, army issue
Yellow Belgian belt
Ditto ammunition pouch
Ditto leather items and straps
Tent and tent pegsff
Two tins of coffee
Tin for rifle grease
Iron rations, consisting of two bags of biscuits, a can of meat and a packet of peas
Two first-aid bandages
Rifle, Model 97
Two woollen jerseys
Two pairs of underpants, one blue
Thick, navy-blue jersey Grey scarf
Pair of knee-warmers
Pair of gloves
Identity tag, ANDRESEN, KRESTEN K.E.R.R. 86.
Four pairs of socks, one of them in open work (love gift)
White armband for use in night-fighting
Bag of salt with a silk ribbon
Half a kilo of ham
Half a kilo of butter
Tin of fruit spreadgg
Flight of the Staghh
Field Postcards, 30
“Something for the Troops”: Anise oilii
A Danish Flag (Lacking at the moment)jj
150 rounds live
Half a kilo of bacon
One Speckwurst sausage
One loaf of bread (army issue)
All in all his pack weighs about thirty kilos, which (as Andresen writes in his journal) “can be said to be quite enough.” The newspapers are writing about some units composed of young students who went into the attack at Langemarck singing “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles.” Winter is approaching.
SATURDAY, 28 NOVEMBER 1914
Michel Corday lunches with two ministers in Bordeaux
There are six of them in the party and they talk about this and that. Given the huge gravitational pull of the topic, however, the conversation always comes back to the war. There is the fact, for instance, that although there is a word for a woman who has lost her husband (“widow”) there is no word for a woman who has lost her child. Or that it is almost certainly possible for German Zeppelins to reach and bomb Paris. Or that they have begun putting up special lampshades on the street-lights in London and that the person who invented them is the famous choreographer Loie Fuller. Or there is the business of these peculiar chain-letters containing prayers that have started circulating: the recipient is urged to copy the prayers and send them on to nine other people or “misfortune will strike you and those you love.”
No, the war is a difficult topic to avoid, particularly when two of the men round the table are in the government.
One of them is Aristide Briand, Minister of Justice and an old political animal if ever there was one, an adroit pragmatist (some would say opportunist), vaguely pinkish in outlook and outspokenly anti-clerical. The eloquent Briand is becoming an increasingly important figure in politics and many other ministers are envious of him because he has visited the front. This month he has come up with a particular idea: since the war in the west seems to have bogged down, why not send a Franco-British army elsewhere, the Balkans, for instance. The other politician is Marcel Sembat, Minister of Public Works, a lawyer, journalist and one of the leading figures in the French socialist party. Both men are now part of the coalition government set up after the outbreak of war. Not many people are surprised that Briand joined the government: he is known as a careerist, accustomed to power and its conditions and possibilities. Very many more people, however, particularly among the radicals, were surprised by Sembat’s acceptance of office: there are many in that camp who see it as an act of treachery on a par with the German Social Democrats voting in favour of war credits.kk
During the course of the conversation it becomes clear that not even the ministers have any firm grasp on how many soldiers there actually are in the army. This is partly because the higher echelons of the military, who frequently and openly show their scorn for the civilian powers, are notoriously secretive, and partly because registers and rolls are still in disarray after the great mobilisation of the late summer and the colossal losses of the autumn, which culminated at the Battle of the Marne. (How many died is a secret and will remain so until after the end of the war.) None of the civilian ministers dares raise a voice against the generals—the latter still have the status of infallible Gods of Thunder in all the warring nations. They have, however, managed to come to a rough estimate of the losses by using the figures for the total number of food rations served in the army every day. On the basis of this information the government is estimating how many bottles of champagne it will need to distribute to the troops on Christmas Eve.
After lunch Corday is rather distressed by how much his old idol Sembat enjoys his new role as minister, how much he loves the title. Corday notes in his journal:
Exceptional circumstances have enabled him to enjoy a position of power that he previously rejected as a matter of principle; but it is sad to see these men now, to see them riding around in their cars, see them climbing into their special trains, see how gladly and openly they bask in their power.
FRIDAY, 11 DECEMBER 1914
Kresten Andresen witnesses the looting of Cuy
When they left Flensburg the town was wrapped in a blanket of wet, new snow. The ritual was the usual one. Women from the Red Cross showered him and the other soldiers with chocolate, cakes, nuts and cigars, as well as putting flowers in the muzzles of their rifles. He had accepted the gifts but said a determined “no” to flowers in his gun: “I’m not ready for my funeral yet.” The train journey took ninety-six hours. He did not sleep for many of them, partly from nervousness, partly from curiosity. Most of the time he had just sat there at the carriage window (they had been lucky enough not to travel in cattle trucks as many others did) and greedily taken in everything he saw: the battlefields around Liège where virtually every house seemed burnt or demolished after the severe fighting in August (the very first major battle in the west); the dramatic landscape and many tunnels of the valley of the Meuse; the beautiful winter-green plains of north-west Belgium; the line of the horizon made jagged by muzzle flashes and the light of shell-bursts; villages and towns quite untouched by the war and resting in deep, deep peace; villages and towns badly scarred by the war and filled with its ghosts. They detrained finally in Noyon in north-west France and marched south in the moonlight along a road on which artillery pieces and carriages and motor cars rattled past them, while the sound of distant explosions grew ever sharper.
The regiment has now taken up position along a railway embankment immediately outside the small town of Lassigny in Picardy. To his relief Andresen realises that, apart from some unpleasant but on the whole ineffective artillery bombardment,ll this is a quiet section. Their duties are not too taxing: four days in the muddy trenches followed by four rest days. It is all about watching and waiting, with the occasional night on duty at a listening post between the lines. The French are dug in about 300 yards away. The two sides are separated by some simple barbed-wire entanglementsmm and a flat field on which there are still drooping sheaves of rotting rye—the harvest for 1914. Otherwise there is not much to see. But there is plenty to hear: the tsji and tsju of rifle bullets, thedadera-dadera of machine guns and the pum-tsiu-u-i-u-u-pum of shells.nn The food is excellent. They get two hot meals a day.
Some of it is better than he had feared, some worse than he had expected. Christmas is approaching and Andresen is homesick, which is made all the worse by the acute shortage of letters from home. The little town in which they are quartered between their spells in the forward line is under almost constant shellfire, with the result that it has slowly been emptied of its population. The word went round today that the last of the French had deserted their homes. The civilians had scarcely left their houses before German soldiers began looting them.
The rule is that you take what you want from empty, deserted buildings. Both the camps behind the line and the shelters in the trenches are cheaply and gaudily furnished with loot from French homes—everything from woodstoves and soft beds to household equipment and beautiful sofas and chairs.oo (The bunkers are often decorated with ironic mottos. One popular one is: “We Germans are afraid of nothing but God and our own artillery.”) Now that it is clear that the last houses are being deserted things proceed in the usual order—officers can take what they want first, then it is the men’s turn.
Andresen goes along with ten or so others, all under the command of a sergeant major. Lassigny is a more and more depressing sight: where there had once been tall white houses with shutters on their windows, nothing remains but spiky, rain-blackened heaps of rubble, bricks and splintered wood. The projectiles from shrapnel shells and shell fragments lie scattered all over the streets. The little town is slowly being ground down into the earth. The church has been shot to pieces and is just an empty shell. Inside it the old bell is balanced on a couple of collapsed beams and will soon drop and hit the ground with a final, cracked peal. A large crucifix, blown apart by a shell, hangs on the facade of the church. Andresen is deeply moved:
How brutal and ruthless war is! The finest values are trampled underfoot—Christianity, morality, home and hearth. And yet, in our time, there is so much talk about Civilisation. One is inclined to lose faith in civilisation and [other] values when they are not shown more respect than this.
They approach the recently deserted houses. The sergeant major, who is a teacher in civilian life, leads the way. He rummages eagerly through cupboards and crannies, but there is not much to take. Most of it has already been looted. The chaos is indescribable. Andresen stands back a little, his hands in his pockets, feeling more and more sickened but saying nothing.
In a door that leads to a recently stripped shop they are met by a well-dressed but hatless woman, wearing a coat with a fur collar. She turns to the soldiers and asks where her husband is. Andresen says that he does not know. He meets her eyes and her gaze is dark: he finds it hard to tell whether her expression is one of despair or of scorn, but he feels ashamed, so ashamed that he just wishes that he “could run far away” and hide.
TUESDAY, 15 DECEMBER 1914
Elfriede Kuhr helps to feed the troops at the station in Schneidemühl
Frost haze, white snow, biting cold. Many of the smaller children are so cold that they no longer want to play soldiers. Elfriede, however, the oldest of them, argues in favour of the pretend exercise. It is all about learning to endure: “After all, the troops at the front are suffering much worse cold than we are.” Little Fritz Wegner is, however, really frozen. She is forced to wipe his running nose time after time, which she does not really think is appropriate to her dignity as the unit’s officer.
Later she goes to the railway station. Her grandmother works there almost every day as a Red Cross volunteer. Elfriede’s usual job is to help feed the soldiers who stop there. The transport trains continue to run night and day: carriages full of healthy, singing men going east to the battles that are still raging there and carriages full of silent, bleeding men coming back. On this particular day several hospital trains will be arriving so there will undoubtedly be plenty to do.
Elfriede helps out when, in spite of being forbidden to do so, they feed 300 civilian workers who come in on a train from East Prussia, where they have been constructing trenches and other fortifications. She watches the hungry men eat, silent and afraid of being caught: soup, bread and coffee. They quickly devour 700 sandwiches before slinking back into the waiting train. She helps to make new sandwiches in a hurry. The sliced sausage is all gone so they spread drippings on the bread instead, and the pea soup has to be watered down, but when the train with the wounded arrives they do not hear any complaints.
Towards evening she is sent to buy more sausage. She has to go to two butchers before getting everything she needs. On the way back she meets Gretel, one of her friends:
For protection against the cold she is so wrapped in clothes that only her nose and blue eyes are peeking out. I hung a whole string of onion sausages around her neck and said, “Give me a hand so you don’t get called a lazy-bones.”
The two of them help at the railway station, lugging big churns of coffee back and forth. Just before ten o’clock they get their reward—a sausage sandwich and pea soup—then they go home, completely exhausted but very contented. Outside it has started to snow heavily. “It was beautiful to see the way the snowflakes whirled past in the light of the gas-lamps.”
SATURDAY, 19 DECEMBER 1914
Sarah Macnaughtan is serving soup in Veurne
Rain. Rain again. Rain and darkness. The days have begun to run together, one following another, each the same as the last. The work does not change, the sights remain the same. The news from the front no longer offers any variety: a bit of territory lost here, a symbolic bit of ground won there. It is as if the war has stalled, is not getting anywhere, is trapped in itself, while still mechanically continuing to demand its daily tribute of lives and bodies. And the waste flushes past Sarah every day as she stands there in her soup kitchen at the station.pp
The only thing that is new is a baffling ailment which is afflicting soldiers who have spent a long time in waterlogged trenches: their feet become cold, swollen, numb and blueish—sometimes affecting them so badly that amputation is the only solution. For those who have not reached that stage, dry footwear helps and Macnaughtan has sacks of socks to hand out to those in need of them. (All the socks are home-knitted and have been collected in Great Britain; some of them are darned, some knitted from different sorts of wool, and some of them contain little gifts of chocolate and cigarettes.) Some of the soldiers come in barefoot even though the end of December is approaching. She can see that what she is doing is appreciated but she is still prey to doubt: “I can make none of them really better. I feed them, and they pass on.”
Macnaughtan is still living in the damp attic of the little house. The owners have returned and the woman of the house spent a week cleaning up after the earlier lodgers. Sarah eats a modest breakfast in the kitchen with the family at half past eight and goes to the station around ten o’clock.
The first transports with wounded men usually start coming in about half past ten. Sarah’s soup kitchen is no more than a space in an archway, curtained off with the help of some nailed-up sacking. She has all her equipment and pots and pans in there, in a space about eight feet by eight. The object she is most familiar with is a small coffee grinder with a picture of a blue windmill on it. The grinder is often on the go all day and she has “conceived an earnest hatred” of it. She sometimes loads coffee, hot soup and bread onto a little red cart and takes it out to feed the troops on waiting trains.
She eats lunch at the field hospital and then goes back to the house for a short rest. She is not really feeling too well. Life back at the little house is characterised by monotony. The family sits around a stove in one of the rooms and the father occasionally plays the pianola while the girls cut out scraps from old papers. Macnaughtan is amazed that none of them read. She feels lonely. The streets are wet and muddy and a harsh, cold wind blows in from the sea.
Macnaughtan has noticed that care of the wounded has begun to improve more and more and there is much less to complain about than before. At the same time, however, people are becoming more quarrelsome than they were. She writes in her diary:
No one is affable here, except those who have just come out from home, and it is quite common to hear a request made and refused, or granted with, “Please do not ask again.” Newcomers are looked upon as aliens, and there is queer sort of jealousy about all the work. Oddly enough, few persons seem to show at their best at a time when the best should be apparent. No doubt, it is a form of nerves, which is quite pardonable. Nurses and surgeons do not suffer from it. They are accustomed to work and to seeing suffering, but amateur workers are a bit headlong at times. I think the expectation of excitement (which is often frustrated) has a good deal to do with it. Those who “come out for thrills” often have a long waiting time, and energies unexpended in one direction often show themselves unexpectedly and a little unpleasantly in another.
The evening is long and dark and she is feeling unwell with a severe headache. She thinks that the drumming of the rain on the windowpanes is a melancholy sound.
TUESDAY, 22 DECEMBER 1914
Michel Corday witnesses the opening session of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris
The government and the ministries have returned to the capital and the Chamber of Deputies is reopening. As a senior civil servant in one of the ministries he is able to follow all the proceedings from a balcony. Organising the session has not been entirely without problems: one of the questions that has been debated—with great animation—right up to government level is whether deputies should be permitted to appear in uniform or whether they must all dress in civilian clothes. All those in a position to do so would like to turn up in military uniform. They have finally decided to make the frock-coat obligatory.qq
Corday is frightened by the speeches and the effect they have on the listeners: “Alas, how words cast a spell on these people!” He finds that the more a soapbox orator insists on his resolve to hold out “to the bitter end,” the more exaggerated his voice and gestures become.
Afterwards, out in the corridor, he meets a man who is now the adjutant to a high-ranking general but whom Corday knows from civilian life as director of the Opéra Comique. He tells Corday that 1,500 or so theatregoers have to be turned away every evening, such is the public demand. And the boxes are mainly occupied by women in mourning: “They have come to weep. Only music can subdue and ease their sorrow.”
The man tells him a story from his months as a staff officer. There was a woman who refused to be separated from her husband, a captain, and who followed him on his journey to the front. In Compiègne they were supposed to go their separate ways since it was time for him to go to the front line, but his wife still refused. And she stood her ground stubbornly. The ban on civilians visiting the war zone is, of course, also applicable to women whose husbands are there, indeed, it is particularly applicable to them. Their presence is considered a distraction. (The only exceptions are prostitutes, who are issued with special passes to practise their profession—it is said that some particularly desperate women take advantage of this to stay in contact with their husbands.) Those in command said that there was nothing they could do in a case like this other than to declare the captain’s service at the front at an end and to send him back to the mobilisation centre. What did the man do when faced with this threat? He murdered his wife.
SATURDAY, 26 DECEMBER 1914
William Henry Dawkins is sitting by the pyramids, writing to his mother
From anticipation to disgust to disappointment and back to anticipation. The feelings among the Australian troops in the great convoy on its way to Europe—or to what they thought was going to be Europe, anyway—followed that trajectory. Over a month at sea dampened much of their initial enthusiasm, and homesickness was growing apace among these young soldiers, many of whom had never been away from their families for so long. (The postal service was—for reasons that are understandable—both irregular and unreliable.) The gloom on board increased more and more, the water had begun to run out in the ever more intense heat, and when it was announced that they were not even to be allowed ashore in Aden the dissatisfaction became general. Nor did the disappointment diminish when they were told a few days later that the journey to Europe was being cut short and the whole force would instead go ashore in Egypt. Many of them, like Dawkins, had set their hearts on celebrating Christmas in England.
The main reason for the change of plan was the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war. The Allies were already fearful that this new opponent would attack the strategically important Suez Canal. By landing the Australian and New Zealand troops in Egypt a significant reserve force was in place and ready for use if the worst should happen. The government in London was also planning to take advantage of the war to turn the nominally Ottoman Egypt into a British protectoraterr and the presence of these 28,000 troops would be useful if this should lead to uproar, turmoil and protests by the Egyptians.ss
William Henry Dawkins also found the news that they were to disembark in Egypt rather disappointing but he soon got over it and saw the advantages of the turn of events. Their big, tented encampment lies quite literally at the foot of the pyramids; it is well organised, has plenty of food and its own water supplies, shops, cinema and theatre. The climate is surprisingly pleasant for the time of year and Dawkins thinks it reminds him of spring in South Australia but with less rain and wind. There is, moreover, a local train into the frenetic city of Cairo, which is only ten miles away. The train is usually packed with soldiers searching for recreation and there are frequently passengers even on the roofs of the carriages. In the evenings the streets of the great city are full of Australian, New Zealand, British and Indian soldiers.
Dawkins shares a large tent with four other junior officers. They have covered the sand with colourful rugs and there are beds, chairs and a table with a cloth. Each of them has his own wardrobe and bookshelf, and there is a bathtub right outside. During the hot evenings the tent is lit by a candle and a hissing acetylene lamp. At this point Dawkins is sitting in his tent and once again writing to his mother:
Yesterday was Christmas Day and our thoughts were in Australia. Some of my section had the most gorgeous dinner—about six courses. They said that they only had to shut their eyes and they could imagine they were home again. Here we have many bands and at daybreak yesterday we had our carols played. Mother—whoever dreamt of having Christmas under the pyramids—very strange, when one comes to think of it!
No one knows what is in store for them next. The time is filled with education and training, training and education. At present Dawkins and his engineers are practising digging trenches and excavating tunnels to lay mines—not particularly easy in the unstable desert sand. He often rides round on his horse which, although it lost some of its mane and coat during the long voyage, is otherwise in good shape. Dawkins ends his letter:
Well, Mother, I must close now and I hope you had a very happy Christmas and got my cable. I remain your loving son, Willie xxxxxxxxxxxx for the girls.
* Which was quite true: before the end of the month there were two Russian armies on German territory.
† “Dear fatherland, put your mind at rest, / Fast stands, and true, the Watch, the Watch on the Rhine!” “Die Wacht am Rhein” had the status of a kind of unofficial German national anthem from the middle of the nineteenth century.
‡ “… at home, at home—that’s where we’ll meet again.”
§ Tsingtao, transcribed as Quingdao nowadays, lies on a peninsula on the coast of the province of Shangdong and was ceded to Germany at the end of the nineteenth century in compensation for the murder of a number of German missionaries. (The German influence is still evident in that by far the best beer in China is brewed here.) Japan’s unlimited imperialist ambitions on the Asian mainland had already led to wars with both Russia and China and this demand marked a further step in Japanese expansionist plans—under the pretence of fulfilling the duties inherent in the 1902 alliance with Great Britain. Japanese forces had been in a state of readiness to attack Tsingtao since the middle of August—that is one week before Japan delivered the ultimatum referred to above.
‖ Seine Majestäts Schiff—His Majesty’s Ship.
a Launched in Kiel in 1909, the Helgoland was an incarnation of the pre-war naval race in that she was built as a direct response to the British HMS Dreadnought, the largest and most powerful battleship in the world at the time. HMS Dreadnought, with her steam turbines, armour and heavy armament, was epoch-making: overnight she made all earlier armoured ships out of date and made the naval strategists of the world forget all budgetary restraints. SMS Helgoland’s armament was of a class with Dreadnought’s and her armour was, in fact, slightly heavier. (This was because German battleships were not intended to have the same range of operation as British ships and consequently some of the weight saved in terms of coal-carrying capacity could be used for extra protection.) With her twelve 30.5cm guns she was the most modern ship in the German High Seas Fleet and she and her sister vessels Ostfriesland, Thüringen and Oldenburg, raised expectations very high—among the public, the admirals, her own crew and with Kaiser Wilhelm. Everyone knew that the expensive (and foolish) High Seas Fleet project was one of the Kaiser’s favourites and the implementation of it in the years before the war is what set Germany on a collision course with Great Britain.
b “Every shot a Russian, every bayonet stab a Frenchman, every kick a Briton.” A further line was also added to the jingle: “Jeder Klaps ein Japs,” that is, “Every slap a Jap.” Numerous silly rhymes of this kind were composed.
c “O my Germany, how strong you must be, / how healthy right to the core, / since no one dared alone / but sought the help of six others. // Germany, how upright your heart must be, / O how brilliantly pure your rightness, / for you to make the most powerful hypocrite hate you / and the Briton to go pale with rage.”
d “Kill the devil and grasp from the heights of heaven / the seven victory wreaths of mankind, / seven suns of immortal honour.”
e The various fronts on which the Russian army fought were, in practical terms, independent zones with their own reserves, own trains, own supplies and own goals, making a sudden transfer of resources practically impossible, at least as long as Russian generals jealously and petulantly stood guard over the territories they had staked out for themselves.
f The muddled and unproven reasoning was that the fire had been started to signal to the Germans that there were Russian troops present.
g The reason is logistic. All armies move according to minutely worked-out and unbelievably complicated timetables in which one of the preconditions for the endlessly complex calculation of hundreds of thousands of departures and meetings is that the speed is constant in principle and low out of necessity. Some people claim it was often possible to pick flowers at the side of the track during the journey, though that may be an exaggeration. We can, however, be pretty sure that some people tried.
h As part of a major programme of military modernisation Russia had by this stage started upgrading its railway network, and it was the extension of railways in Russian Poland that really put the wind up the German general staff. The faster an army could be brought together and brought into action, the bigger its chances of victory—that was axiomatic. The German Schlieffen Plan—which was not a plan in the accepted sense but rather a simple memo based on the situation that existed after Russia’s overwhelming defeat by Japan in 1905—was based on the premise that the French could be knocked out before Russia would be ready for action. The railways were an important factor in this: as late as 1910 the Russian army would not have been able to use more than 250 trains for the mobilisation of its forces. (As a comparison it is worth mentioning that regional traffic in the Cologne area alone at this time was served by 700 trains.) But the Russian modernisation programme meant that far more trains were available and, moreover, they were able to unload closer to the German border. Without it, Lobanov-Rostovsky’s journey would have been even slower.
i The spellings are Macnaughtan’s.
j “At music halls and revues, girls, dressed as admirals and colonels, saluted with alarming sharpness all the time.” A year or so later she writes: “Women were, I think, exceptionally military those days.”
k There was an embryonic women’s volunteer organisation, the semi-official VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments), which had a place in army planning but no place in its budget and was entirely financed by private funds. The British army was still very doubtful about it.
l Sharon Ouditt has analysed the thinking underlying this attitude: “To have conscripted women would have been to accord them equivalent status in the emergency and to have broken the stereotypical presentation of women as war’s ‘other’ on which so much of the ‘home fires’ mythology depended.”
m Her father, a Scottish JP with shipping interests, left her very well provided for.
n It is worth noting that certain national minorities welcomed the war since a demonstration of loyalty and service was perceived as a way of winning increased respect. This was the strategy chosen by many Jews, particularly those who were well assimilated, in countries such as Germany and Russia; they met with greater success in the former than in the latter simply because German anti-Semitism was so much weaker than Russian (or French). German newspapers contain accounts of German Jews who left Palestine at the outbreak of war and made their way home, often with some difficulty, in order to become volunteers.
o The Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein and Lauenburg became part of Prussia after the Dano-German War of 1864. They had a significant German-speaking population even at that time.
p Like so much of the early hysteria about potential spies and traitors, this faded with time, especially once it became clear that Danish-speaking recruits like Andresen served under the German flag without any problems arising. The majority of those arrested, including his father, were released. An entertaining and perspicacious account—drawn from her own experience—of the excitement and spy hysteria in Germany in August 1914 may be found in Klara Johanson’s essay “Prisoner of War.”
q Using the railways, Messrs. Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Co. had managed once again to pull off a strategic move of the kind the Russian high command could only dream of: the Germans rapidly transferred forces from a sector that had been made secure (East Prussia) to a sector under threat (southern Poland). It did not, however, amount to another Tannenberg. Both sides had been marching hither and thither in a fairly aimless manner, either without locating the enemy or passing each other unnoticed. The two sides quite simply bumped into each other outside Opatov, with the Germans playing the part of eager attackers and the Russians adopting a tenacious but retreating role. The battle had no real significance either for the campaign or for the war, and both sides later claimed victory.
r At the start of the war the shrapnel shell was by far the most common field-artillery projectile in all the armies. It is a typical example of a weapon that is brilliant on paper. Each shell contained several hundred hard lead bullets, which were ejected from the body of the shell by a small charge of black powder in its base and which thus made the whole thing function rather like a gigantic shotgun cartridge. The effect depended on a special timing fuse causing the shell to explode in the air immediately in front of the target—an operation that was not that simple. If it detonated immediately overhead, it meant that the bullets would just fly past the target. Furthermore, the target needed to be above ground, which was why this kind of projectile lost most of its value once the combatants had disappeared down into trenches. It was the black powder that created the characteristic, slightly downward pointing smoke cloud when a shrapnel shell detonated.
s Kuhr gives the date as being 11 October, but that seems unlikely to be right, partly because the capitulation referred to happened on 10 October and partly because even German children did not go to school on Sundays.
t The treatment of prisoners of war on the Eastern Front at this time—as Alon Rachamimov has shown—was far better than in the Second World War, during which both sides were guilty of numerous violations as well as clearly systematic maltreatment. Conditions were relatively humane during the First World War and over 90 per cent of prisoners of war returned home alive after the war. (Because of food shortage and, above all, typhus, German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russian camps suffered most.)
u It is still not known exactly how many men were lost but it is likely to be somewhere around 400,000—and this was in less than a month. The historian Norman Stone has written: “The pattern of the war was now set: in the west a stalemate, and in the east a more or less constant Austro-Hungarian crisis.”
v The border between Galicia and Hungary.
w The date is an estimate. The dating in Corday’s 1914–18 journal is rather erratic: the entries are chronological but it is not always possible to see when one date changes to another. His visit to his family in Saint-Amand Longpré took place sometime between 22 and 26 October and, since he had his professional duties to perform during the week, it seems reasonable to assume that he travelled during the weekend of 24–25 October.
x He assumed the name Corday because his family was loosely related to Charlotte Corday, the woman who murdered the revolutionary leader Marat in 1793—a deed immortalised in Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat. The fact that a staunch republican like Michel Corday chose to take the name of a Girondist like Charlotte Corday is interesting and suggests a degree of vanity or, at any rate, a desire to add a touch of notoriety to his background.
y The date may have been a day earlier or a day later.
z The officer commanding this section had been expecting an artillery unit as reinforcement, but as the result of a simple error Pollard’s infantry battalion had been sent instead.
aa His Majesty’s Australian Transport.
bb The first shots in the war between Germany and Great Britain were actually fired in Australia when a German merchant ship attempted to slip out of Sydney harbour on 4 August but was halted by warning gunfire.
cc This was Maximilian von Spee’s Pacific Squadron, which was soon to make a name for itself and spread panic and destruction as it steamed east. At this point the squadron is off Chile on the west coast of South America, where on 1 November it inflicted a surprise defeat on a British flotilla at Coronel. Heavy British reinforcements were on the way to the South Atlantic to avenge Coronel and to stop von Spee and his squadron at any price.
dd The education of new teachers in Australia relied on a kind of apprenticeship system whereby newly qualified candidates (“Junior Teachers”) worked in the class under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
ee By this point the Emden had sunk seventeen merchant vessels and was already surrounded by an aura of romance, partly because of the cunning of her commander, Captain von Müller, but also because of his humanity. He always picked up the crews of vessels he sunk, treated them well and ensured that they were quickly put ashore. This chivalrous behaviour corresponded well to the expectations most people still had of the war.
ff The part of the tent a soldier carried with him was humourously christened by the troops as “the hero’s coffin” since it was often used as a shroud for the fallen at field burials.
gg A kind of marmalade made from a mixture of apples and oranges.
hh A popular novel by the Danish author Christian Winther (1796–1876).
ii An antiseptic.
jj Later he actually did carry a small Danish flag with him into the field, which—together with Winther’s novel—he considered to be the embodiment of “the most precious of everything that is Danish.” So Andresen was by no means immune to nationalistic sentiments; it is just that his were not German sentiments.
kk Particularly since Sembat had worked closely with Jean Jaurès, the socialist leader who tried to prevent the outbreak of war by calling a general strike but who was murdered on 31 July 1914 by a young French nationalist. And as if that was not enough, Sembat was also known to be the author of a widespread and widely discussed pacifist manifesto.
ll Andresen is observing the same thing as many other people: that shrapnel shells, by far the most common type of artillery ammunition, have a negligible effect on troops who are well dug in.
mm Barbed wire of the kind we now know was invented in the United States for agricultural purposes. It made animal husbandry possible on a completely new scale. The first mention of it in a military context—as a barrier against attack—is during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. It is known that American forces used barbed wire to protect their camps during the Spanish-American War of 1898. Even though barbed wire is referred to in British army ordinances as early as 1888, the opposing forces in 1914 went into battle without wire: the expectations were that the war was going to be both highly mobile and soon over. When the first trenches were dug in the early autumn of 1914, improvised barbed-wire barriers (at best) were constructed from wire collected from nearby villages. (It is clear that the phenomenon was still rather unusual since the term “barbed wire” does not occur immediately: some accounts, for example, refer to “barbed fence-wire” and at the early stage they used whatever wire they could get hold of, including wire without barbs.) Such defences, moreover, were often thin, frequently consisting of a single line of posts linked by three or four strands of wire. Soon, however, they began to produce barbed wire specially designed for military use: the barbed wire used in agriculture up until that point normally had seven paired barbs per metre whereas the new military wire had fourteen or more paired barbs a metre. The barriers also became wider and denser: a French ordinance of 1915 refers to a minimum barrier of two rows with the posts roughly three metres apart, whereas a British ordinance of 1917 prescribed that a barbed-wire barrier should be at least nine metres deep. And there were soon many variants in use, some of them moveable, such as “Spanish Riders,” “Cubes,” “Hedgehogs,” “Gooseberries” and “Knife Rests.” The British ordinance mentioned above also refers to a number of different types of fixed barbed-wire barriers such as apron, double apron, fence and apron, trip and loose wire, concertina (also called Brun wire), trip and crossed diagonals, rapid double fence, low wire, French rapid wire, high and low wire combination (this last named alone came in six different variants). There were also experiments with obstacles consisting of electric fencing but these were not found to be practical. The Frenchman Olivier Razac has written that barbed wire, although never a metaphor for the First World War, may be said to have played an important role in artists’ attempts “to give form to the monstrous sublimity of the destructive forces unleashed by modern war.”
nn The onomatopoeia is Andresen’s own.
oo This careful furnishing of the trenches—it would soon be possible to find bunkers with electric ceiling lights, carpeted floors and panelled walls—is a consequence of the fact that the German army in the west was already beginning to set its sights on long-term defence. For purely ideological reasons the French army did not wish to create the impression that it intended to remain in its trenches and thus its trenches remained relatively improvised throughout the whole war. Hardly surprisingly, the Austro-Hungarian army in the east was quick to make conditions comfortable for itself. There are even said to have been bunkers with glass in the windows, though there seems to be a touch of the oxymoron about that.
pp The soup kitchen was Macnaughtan’s own. She started it on her own initiative and with her own money in order to alleviate the hunger and thirst of the less severely wounded soldiers who, because their injuries were less acute, often ended up waiting a long time for onward transport. She had three Belgian women as helpers.
qq Respect for hierarchy was what decided the issue: how would it look if a lieutenant were to rise to his feet and put pointed questions to his absolute superior, the War Minister?
rr Egypt had been under de facto British control since 1882. At this stage the powers in Britain were even beginning to plan the dissolution and dismembering of the Ottoman Empire, which would imply an almost unparalleled Allied expansion in the Middle East: Russia, for instance, was offered Constantinople.
ss There were, however, no such problems.