But the truth is, that personal experience in this thing called war is at best an awakening of memory from a dream of seas and foggy islands bewildering and confusing. A few personal incidents loom a little clearer, deriving what clarity they have from the warmth of personal contact. Then incidents fraught even with the greatest danger become commonplace, until the days seem to move on without other interest than the everlasting proximity of death. Even that idea, prominent enough at first, gets allocated to the back of one’s mind as a permanent and therefore negligible quantity.
Start of the Third Battle of Warsaw. It ends in a marginal Russian victory.
Protracted Russian-Austrian battles in Galicia and the Carpathians, which continue until April.
The Ottoman Caucasus offensive is broken off after a disaster at Sarikamş.
British troops invade German South West Africa.
Ottoman troops attack the Suez Canal. The attack fails.
British offensive at Neuve Chapelle continues for a week with insignificant gains.
The Galician town of Przemyśl capitulates to its Russian besiegers.
British forces land on the Gallipoli peninsula with the aim of opening the Bosphorus.
Large-scale massacres of Armenians begin in the Ottoman Empire.
A major and successful German-Austrian offensive is launched in the east.
The American passenger liner Lusitania is torpedoed by a German U-boat.
Italy declares war on Austria-Hungary and invades the Tyrol and Dalmatia.
First Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. Minor gains.
German South West Africa capitulates.
A large-scale Russian retreat begins in the east.
Second Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. Insignificant gains.
Warsaw occupied by German troops.
A German-Austrian invasion of Serbia begins.
A major Franco-British offensive opens in the west. Minor gains.
A British corps starts to advance up the Tigris.
A Franco-British army lands at Salonica to come to the aid of the Serbs.
Belgrade falls. The Serbian collapse begins.
Bulgaria declares war on Serbia and invades immediately thereafter.
Third Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. No gains.
Fourth Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. Small gains.
Battle of Ctesiphon. The British advance on Baghdad is broken off.
The British corps that failed to reach Baghdad is besieged in Kut al-Amara.
The evacuation of Allied forces from Gallipoli begins.
SUNDAY, 17 JANUARY 1915
Richard Stumpf is scrubbing the deck of SMS Helgoland off Heligoland
A cold, leaden sea. Excited anticipation has subsided into a yawn. Not once have they gone into battle, not once have they seen the enemy. During the naval Battle of Heligoland Bight at the end of August they heard the thunder of the guns in the distance but never got the chance to join in. Stumpf describes that as “a black day” for him and the rest of the crew. The closest they have come to combat was when they heard the sound of British airships on Christmas Day. Since SMS Helgoland was shrouded in fog they were never actually attacked but, further away, one of the airships dropped bombs on a cruiser and a cargo ship and succeeded in starting a fire on one of them. Stumpf’s ship had, however, opened fire at the sound—admittedly, blindly, which made it seem all the more impressive.
It is not that SMS Helgoland and the other vessels of the German High Seas Fleet have been keeping out of the way. German naval strategy rests on carefully choosing its encounters with the numerically superior British navy. It is the U-boats that are expected to perform the more everyday function of cutting off supplies to the British Isles and gradually weakening the enemy.* But there have been no big, impressive naval battles, the admirals on both sides being acutely aware that it would be possible for them to lose this war in an afternoon. In Germany, however, the lack of success at sea had to be padded out with other stories. At the start of the war there were various German light naval squadrons scattered here and there across the oceans of the world, often attached to one or the other of the German colonies. These evasive freebooters very quickly started a sensational game of cat and mouse with the British fleet as it patrolled the seas.† But the High Seas Fleet has so far restricted itself to patrolling its own waters in order to protect the homeland from enemy landings, and just occasionally it has harassed the English North Sea coast with pinprick attacks.‡
Every other day since Christmas SMS Helgoland has been out on patrol, a wearisome job that usually means the crew gets little sleep. It is also extremely monotonous. Stumpf notes in his journal: “There is nothing happening worth mentioning. If I were to list my activities every day, they would always be the same things.”
This particular day is also filled with routine tasks.
First of all Stumpf and the other sailors scrub the decks, then they polish all the brass fittings until they gleam. Finally, there comes a pedantic check of their uniforms. This last enrages Stumpf. He writes in his journal:
In spite of the fact that because of the general shortage of wool we have been unable to exchange worn-out pieces of kit in the ship’s stores for ages, the divisional officer inspects every wrinkle and every stain on our uniforms.§ He dismisses every attempt at explanation with a standard answer: “Poor excuse!” Lord above, this sort of behaviour makes me so sick of the navy. Most of them aren’t bothered any longer. We’re glad that not all officers are like this.
Stumpf keeps his mouth shut during the “odious inspection” but silently wishes that an enemy plane might appear and “drop a bomb on the fellow’s head.” He comforts himself with the fact that they have the afternoon off.
Then an order arrives: SMS Helgoland should make her way back to Wilhelmshaven and go into dry dock. “Bloody Hell!” he writes, “another Sunday ruined.” The war continues to fail to live up to Stumpf’s expectations. The afternoon is wasted with problems in the locks. As dusk falls they give up trying to go any further and tie up for the night.
Sarah Macnaughtan has left her soup kitchen in Belgium and returned to London via Calais. Once there, she has a nervous breakdown. On this day she writes in her diary:
It was difficult, I found, to accommodate myself to small things, and one was amazed to find people still driving serenely in closed broughams. It was like going back to live on earth again after being in rather a horrible other world. I went to my own house and enjoyed the very smell of the place. My little library and an hour or two spent there made my happiest time. Different people asked me to [attend] things, but I wasn’t up to going out, and the weather was amazingly bad.
FRIDAY, 22 JANUARY 1915
Elfriede Kuhr is visited by a baker’s apprentice in Schneidemühl
It is late. The doorbell rings and Elfriede opens the door. Outside in the frosty winter darkness stands the baker’s apprentice, wearing clogs on his feet and dressed in his white working clothes, which are covered with flour. He holds out a covered basket, which contains freshly baked rolls, still warm from the oven. They usually have fresh bread delivered every morning, so why now? It’s nighttime, isn’t it? The baker’s boy laughs: “No, not any longer, Miss.” He tells her that because of new state restrictions on the use of flour they are no longer allowed to bake at night. Which he is not in the least sad about—now he can sleep at night like a normal human being. He rushes off, shouting back to her: “It’s because of the war!”
Her grandmother thinks this is all for the good—Germans eat too much bread anyway. The newspapers are publishing strict warnings against using grain as animal fodder: “Any individual using corn as animal fodder is committing a sin against the Fatherland and may be punished.” The nutritional pattern of the German people was about to undergo radical transformation: instead of consuming calories via the circuitous route of eating meat, more of them were to be taken in their original, vegetable state. (Eating corn provides four times as many calories as when that corn has to be converted to meat first.) Vegetables, not meat, were to dominate the German dinner table from now on. Three-quarters of the population in this district work on the land, which does not, however, mean that they all live under the same conditions. Small farmers and farm workers have already begun to feel the worsening conditions, whereas the big farmers are doing very well indeed. Elfriede has heard of big farmers who are still feeding corn to their horses and cows in spite of all the bans—you can tell from the plump bodies and bright, shiny coats their animals have.
No, the big farmers and estate owners certainly have not felt the war yet:
For breakfast every morning they eat that wonderful wheaten bread, sometimes with raisins and almonds in it, and on top of that eggs, sausage, cheese, smoked ham, smoked goose, various kinds of preserves and I don’t know what. They can all drink fresh milk whenever they want, they can all have coffee or tea. They even put whole spoonfuls of fruit jelly in their tea.
On this occasion, however, Elfriede’s agitation and envy of the way of life of big farmers contains a touch of bad conscience. She too, in a certain sense, is sinning against the Fatherland: she has a very soft spot for horses and sometimes when she meets one she secretly gives the animal the bread or apple she is supposed to be eating herself. But you do not see as many horses as before the war: all those not directly needed for agriculture have been taken over by the army.
WEDNESDAY, 3 FEBRUARY 1915
Michel Corday meets a hero in Paris
Yet another lunch. The most illustrious member of the company is undoubtedly Pierre Loti,‖ famous author, adventurer, traveller, and member of the Academy; the oddest is a Lieutenant Simon, in civilian life a teacher of French in England and a translator. Translator? Well, Simon has translated one book from English to French: it has not exactly achieved any great popularity but, then, it does deal with a German (Goethe). In spite of his weak literary credentials the lieutenant has, however, earned his place in this company. He is a veteran of the Battle of the Marne, where he lost an eye and was wounded in one arm. Outside the window lies a bitterly cold Paris.
A special aura hangs over the Battle of the Marne. Part of the reason is self-evident: this is the point at which the apparently unstoppable German armies were stopped, Paris was saved and the defeat that threatened was averted. (Besides which, the triumph of the Marne also served to veil a truly great disappointment—the failure of the notably costly French offensive into German Lothringen in the opening phase of the war.) But there is another reason. The battlefield is quite simply accessible. War zones are usually hermetically sealed areas to which civilians do not have access and where special permission is needed just to make a telephone call. (Even high-ranking politicians are faced with problems when they want to visit the front, which they are very keen to do since it looks good and gives them the opportunity to dress in peculiar, individual creations in the style of uniforms. On one occasion when Briand visited the front someone took him for the group’s chauffeur.) The places where the Battle of the Marne was fought are, however, open to anyone and are situated within easy reach of Paris. They have consequently become popular destinations for excursions. People go there and pick over the debris of battle that still clutters the battlefield. They collect pickelhaubes, caps, buttons, cartridge cases, shell splinters and shrapnel and take them home as souvenirs. And for those who cannot make the little day-trip for themselves, or cannot be bothered to, there is authentic memorabilia for sale at certain markets—by the basket, freshly picked.
Lieutenant Simon begins to describe his experiences during the battle and to say how he came to be wounded. To his dismay Corday notices that the rest of the people round the table become preoccupied with other things and almost cease listening—the market in heroes and dramatic war stories is already inflationary. He is reminded of an officer who had both his legs amputated and who said, “Yes, at the moment I’m a hero but in a year’s time I’ll be just another cripple.”
It is still impossible to say you desire peace. Anyone who hears a remark of that kind invariably responds with cries of shame: “Disgraceful!” The restaurants are once again full of people.a
SATURDAY, 6 FEBRUARY 1915
William Henry Dawkins is sitting by the Pyramids, writing to his mother
“My dear Mother,” he begins, “unfortunately we have received no mails this week owing to the lack of mailboats.” The post to the Australian troops in Egypt is erratic. Three weeks ago he and the others received the letters they had been waiting for since November—176 sacks of them arrived. Before that, nothing; then, too much—some people hardly had time to answer everything; now, again nothing.
Dawkins, however, has received news about how things are at home. He knows they are all well, that his mum has taken the twin girls to the dentist, that the flowers he tried to send to a girl he knows unfortunately did not arrive, that prices have gone up in Australia. As for himself, he is keeping pretty well. But he has begun to be bored by the situation and by Egypt: the interminable exercises are continuing and they have been hit by the first sandstorm of the year. They still do not know what is to happen next, whether they are to stay here in Egypt or to go on to Europe.
The war has slowly crept closer but is still not within sight or hearing. Just a week ago British spotter planes discovered Ottoman units moving through the Sinai desert towards the Suez Canal, and the long-awaited attack took place three days ago. Two battalions of Australian infantry were sent to Ismailia—the place most threatened—as reinforcements and the attack was soon beaten back.b Dawkins and many of his companions are slightly envious of those who marched off to the canal and we can sense a touch of jealous disparagement in his comments to his mother:
There has been a little scrapping down on the canal but you will no doubt get all the news at home and a good bit more too. Thursday was a notable day for us, our first instalments for the defence of the canal left, consisting of the 7th and 8th battalions. William Hamiltonc is in the 7th, and also Major McNicholl my old C.O. They were envied very much but I doubt if they are having a very enjoyable time down there as it is fairly monotonous waiting for Turks who apparently are not very good fighting material.
He himself has spent most of his time building, ripping down and transporting pontoon bridges.d Today, however, has been a day off and he and a fellow officer have ridden to the ruins of the ancient city of Memphis. What impresses him most are the two gigantic statues of Rameses II. He writes in his letter: “They were splendidly carved and must have taken many years to complete.” But now it is evening and he is sitting in his tent:
You will have got over the heat of the summer by the time you receive this letter. Things will be getting a little cheaper in the flour and wheat line after the harvest I should hope. I am feeling fairly tired so will close with Love to all. From Will xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx to the girls.
FRIDAY, 12 FEBRUARY 1915
Florence Farmborough goes through her travelling wardrobe in Moscow
Now it is all behind her: six months at the private military hospital in Moscow; six months of diligent study to achieve her nursing qualification—she had no trouble with the practical side, it was the theory, in complicated Russian, that caused problems; the exam and the graduation ceremony in an Orthodox church, where the priest had trouble pronouncing her name—“Floronz”; and, finally, her efforts to be accepted for service with the newly formed Mobile Field Hospital No. 10 had been successful after the intervention—once again—of her former employer, the famous heart surgeon.
Farmborough writes in her journal:
Preparations for my departure are well under way. I am breathlessly impatient to be off, but there is much to be done and the Unit itself is not yet fully organised. My nurse’s dresses, aprons and veils have been made already, and I have bought a flannel-lined, black leather jacket. An accessory to the jacket is a thick sheepskin waistcoat, for winter wear, whose Russian name, “dushegreychka,” means “soul-warmer.” I hear that our Unit will be stationed for a time on the Russo-Austrian Front in the Carpathian Mountains and that we will have to ride horseback, as direct communication can be established there only by riding: so high boots and black leather breeches have been added to my wardrobe.
Today Suwalki is once again taken by German forces. This time, however, Laura de Turczynowicz and her family cannot flee since one of her twin boys has fallen ill with typhus and cannot be moved. She is missing her husband, Stanislaw, more than ever. It is cold and they have deep snow. She writes:
Suddenly hearing an uproar, I saw some of the bad elements of the town looting, searching for food, knocking each other down, screaming—a horrid sight! The Jews, who were always so meek, had now more self-assertion, strutting about, stretching up until they looked inches taller. It was hard work to tear myself away from the balcony. I, too, seemed unable to control myself, running from the balcony to the child and from the child to the balcony.
At eleven the streets again grew quiet, the time was near, and I saw the first pikel-haube [sic] come around the corner, rifle cocked—looking for snipers! The first one was soon followed by his comrades. Then an officer, who rounded the corner, coming to a stop directly before our windows.
SUNDAY, 28 FEBRUARY 1915
René Arnaud is given an insight into the logic of historiography on the Somme
A cold spring morning. The sun has still not risen but Ensign René Arnaud is already awake. He makes his usual tour of the trench in the half-light, goes from sentry to sentry—each is on duty for two hours—checks them and at the same time checks that the enemy is not getting up to anything. They all know that this is the best time of day for surprise attacks. Not that they are especially common here on the Somme.
In fact, this is a quiet sector. The risks are small. A German shell may perhaps whoosh overhead from time to time, but not heavy stuff—just the occasional 77mm with its characteristic shooooo … boom. Then there are snipers, of course, lying in wait for anyone who is careless, and there is the danger of using the connecting trench, which runs up over a hillock and is open at one point to fire from a lurking German machine gun. That is where his predecessor was killed, hit in the head by a bullet from that machine gun. That was also the very first time Arnaud had seen a man go down. When the body was carried past on a stretcher, its head and shoulders covered with a piece of tarpaulin and its red uniform trousers hidden by blue overalls, Arnaud had not found it particularly upsetting in spite of his own lack of experience. “I was so full of life that it was impossible for me to see myself in his place, lying on a stretcher with that air of indifference that the dead always radiate.”
At the outbreak of war Arnaud was one of those who were jubilant. He had just reached his twenty-first birthday but looked scarcely a day older than sixteen. His only fear was that the war might finish before he reached the front: “How humiliating it would be not to get to experience the greatest adventure of my generation!”
This last hour as darkness slowly turns to light can be nerve-racking for the inexperienced:
When I halted at the edge of the trench and spied out over noman’s-land it would sometimes happen that I thought the posts holding our thin network of barbed wire were the silhouettes of a German patrol crouching there on their knees ready to rush forward. I would stare at the posts, see them move, hear their coats brushing against the ground and the sheaths of their bayonets clinking … And then I would turn to the soldier on sentry duty and his presence of mind would calm me. As long as he didn’t see anything, there was nothing there—just my own anxious hallucinations.
Then comes the moment when the horizon grows pale, the first birds start to sing and the contours of the terrain begin to emerge indistinctly in the milky-grey morning light.
He hears a shot. Then another, then two, then more. In less than a minute rifle fire is rattling all along the trench. Arnaud rushes back to wake the sleeping men. At the doorway of the bunker he is met by soldiers already on their way out, weapons in their hands and trying to put on their rucksacks at the same time. He sees a red signal rocket rise above the enemy lines. He knows what it is—a signal to the German artillery.e The consequences are immediate: a storm of shells bursts in front of, over and behind the French trench. The edge of the trench shows up against the flowing fire of explosions. The air is filled with “whirring, whining and explosions.” The smell of explosive gases is choking.
My heart was beating, I must have turned pale and I was shaking with fear. I lit a cigarette as I instinctively assumed it would help calm my nerves. I noticed the men crouched there in the bottom of the narrow trench with their rucksacks over their heads waiting for the barrage to finish.
It occurs to Arnaud that the Germans may already be on their way through no-man’s-land. He clambers quickly over the backs of the lying soldiers to where there is a bend in the trench from which he knows it is possible to view the enemy lines. The air is filled with crashing, howling and whizzing. Once he gets there he quickly becomes utterly focused on watching the Germans: “My concentration on what needed to be done freed me from fear.” He stares intently at the slope that separates the French and German positions. Nothing.
Slowly the barrage eases and dies away.
The dust settles. Silence returns. Reports begin to come in. Two men have been killed in the section alongside them, five in the company to their right.
Gradually Arnaud manages to construct a picture of what had happened. Two bored sentries had taken it into their heads to shoot at a flight of migrating birds; as far as anyone could judge they were curlews on their way up to their nesting grounds in Scandinavia. The shots had misled other sentries who, afraid there was some invisible danger, started shooting too. It took only a moment for this panic firing to run along the whole trench. The sudden shooting obviously led someone in the German trenches to fear an attack and whoever it was then brought their artillery into play.
They were able to read the official epilogue to this incident in a French army communiqué the next day. It read as follows: “At Bécourt, near Albert, a German attack was totally crushed by our fire.” Arnaud’s own comment was: “That’s how history is written.”
• • •
On that same day, William Henry Dawkins writes to his mother:
I received your letter dated 26th Jan during the week and it may be the last I receive in Egypt as we are moving shortly. To where no one knows. The 3rd Bde, 3rd FD Amb, 1st Fd Coy and 4th ASC marched out during the day for Alexandria and we will be following during the next fortnight. I tip the Dardanelles as our destination but it may be anywhere in France, Turkey, Syria or Montenegro. Anyway it is a move and at last we will be getting to work.
WEDNESDAY, 3 MARCH 1915
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky and the great snowstorm at Lomza
Winter is coming to an end, as is the German February offensive. Both of these are phenomena which, in spite of the laws of meteorology and the plans of strategists, cannot be absolutely predicted. So when Lobanov-Rostovsky’s regiment is set the task of launching an attack—the last one or, perhaps, the last but one—in order to straighten out some little bend in the front line or to eliminate some threatening position or to carry out something or the other that will only really show up on the abstract 1:84,000 scale of the staff maps—well, it seems almost inevitable that there will be a severe snowstorm.
It has been a dreadful winter in many ways here in north-west Poland. Hindenburg’s most recent offensive has not had any great effectf and the Russian front in this area has moved a little here and a little there, but it has held. Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky belongs to a Guards division, one of those elite units that are frequently used as firefighters and moved backwards and forwards to wherever the danger is greatest. He has, however, been spared the worst of the fighting. First of all he was ill in Warsaw, after which he spent days getting in and out of railway carriages or simply travelling on trains in one direction or another while the generals tried to decide where his division was most needed. “These oscillations in our itinerary showed that the situation was changing from minute to minute.” They finally detrained in Lomza and the division marched off to a line drawn on a map, north-west of the station. “And when the enemy approached, [this] became the front.”
The winter and the winter battles are supposed to be over. Now it is just a case of some fighting “of local interest.” The snowstorm is not allowed to hold up the Russian attack, which starts according to plan. Yet again Lobanov-Rostovsky is just an observer: he is, after all, a sapper and not really in demand in situations such as this. What he finds particularly frightening is to see how war, or perhaps more accurately, the generals, refuse to bow to the forces of nature: “The noise of the artillery preparation and the flares of the cannon, through the howling wind and the swirling snow, appeared more sinister than ever.” The losses are unusually high, even by the standards of this war, because the majority of the wounded freeze to death wherever they happen to fall. And those wounded men who do survive the wind and the snow and the temperatures below freezing often suffer from severe frostbite. The hospitals are full of amputees.
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky is not feeling particularly well. Above all, it is the uneventful waiting that is getting to him. He finds passivity and the lack of activity very depressing. The only thing that breaks the monotony is when a German plane flies over, usually at dusk or late at night, and drops a few bombs.
FRIDAY, 5 MARCH 1915
Sarah Macnaughtan is serving soup in De Panne
She is back, but not in Veurne, which is now too dangerous, too close to the front. One of the nurses in her old field hospital was killed by shellfire and the house she lived in had all its windows blown out when a shell hit the house next door. So she is now in De Panne, a small seaside resort on the Channel coast, which is empty for the winter. There are a number of high-class hotels along the sandy shore and some of them have been turned into military hospitals. The front is within hearing.
What else could she do but come back? For a woman with her sense of duty and her principles there was no other choice. Her trip back to London at the beginning of January was never intended to be more than a short break and once she had recovered from her breakdown and rested for a while she returned via Calais. She is not, however, in good health and had spent more than a week confined to bed in an empty flat in Dunkirk. She still has her doubts, but she keeps them to herself. And her patriotism has certainly not been dented—indeed, her experiences have only served to reinforce it: “God knows, we are full of faults, but the superiority of the British race to any other that I know is a matter of deep conviction with me.”
Her doubts are more about war as a phenomenon and as a tool.g She hates it not just for what it is doing to others but for what it is doing to her: “I think something inside me has stood still or died during this war.” And even though she is proud of what she and other women are doing, she is not entirely comfortable with what the war is doing to her sex. An example of what she means are the ugly, coarse, mannish clothes that so many women are wearing as if they were something quite natural. No, Macnaughtan longs for nice clothes, for good manners, for “beautiful things, music, flowers, fine thoughts.”
Macnaughtan is also finding it more and more difficult to work. As the front becomes ever more static and all hopes of a rapid victory disappear, the flexible and amateurish lack of rules and regulations has begun to be replaced by regulations, structures, systems. One Tuesday at the start of February a Belgian officer turned up at the railway station where she had her soup kitchen and threw them out of the small space they were using. (In formal terms, the soup kitchen is now under the Belgian army, the soup being cooked by other people and subject to official inspection.) And when she was in Dunkirk new regulations meant she was not even permitted to cross a particular bridge.
She feels that she is both unnoticed and unappreciated, and although it is quite out of character for her, she is actually feeling rather sorry for herself. When she fell ill immediately after arriving in De Panne no one took any notice: “Not a soul came near me, and I wished I could be a Belgian refugee, when I might have had a little attention from somebody.”
Macnaughtan is working her usual afternoon shift today—just like any other kitchen skivvy. It lasts from twelve to five and she serves dinner and washes up afterwards. She is bored. It is all in glaring contrast to her life before the war; she never gets to see interesting places now, nor meet interesting people. But she does not want to give up. She notes in her diary:
To give up work seems to me a little like divorcing a husband. There is a feeling of failure about it, and the sense that one is giving up what one has undertaken to do. So, however dull or tiresome a husband or work may be, one mustn’t give them up.
Afterwards she goes for a short walk on the sandy beach. She is annoyed. Her leather-covered Thermos has disappeared. Stolen, of course. Everything gets stolen. The front is quiet.
SUNDAY, 7 MARCH 1915
Kresten Andresen sketches a donkey in Cuy
In his sermons the padre congratulates them on living in a momentous period. Then they sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” missing out the second verse, however, since it could be interpreted as expressing doubt about armed might.h The past few months have been strange. Battles have been both few and distant. During the whole of his time at the front Andresen has fired only three shots, and he is pretty certain that all three lodged somewhere in the defensive barriers in front of their position. Sometimes, when it has been really calm, he has felt that strange sense of unreality that sooner or later affects all the participants and which makes it difficult to imagine that there is actually a war going on.
Perhaps it is this calm and silence which has lately tempted him to feel—and it is mainly a feeling—that in some incomprehensible way this whole business is moving towards its close. In any case, he does a lot of fantasising about peace. Andresen has also been having striking dreams: last night, for instance, he dreamt he was on the streets of London wearing his best confirmation suit, after which he was suddenly transported to his childhood home, where he was laying the dinner table.
Birdsong and a sky that forms a warm blue canopy over a landscape in which the dry yellows and browns are beginning to be touched with bright green. Spring has reached Picardy. The crocuses are in flower, violets and arum lilies are in bud in the woods, and Andresen has found both Christmas roses and snowdrops among the fresh ruins. This is usually the time for the spring sowing, but not here and not now. Andresen can just hear the sound of a steam-driven threshing-machine thumping away on some backstreet of the village. The grain the machine is spitting out will bring no benefit to the French farmers, however: they are even forbidden to plough their own land, a ban made even more bitter by the fact that it was not announced until they had already done much of the sowing—which will be no use to them now.
Andresen feels truly sorry for that part of the French civilian population that is still hanging on in the villages immediately behind the lines. Their food is …
… extremely monotonous. The mayor gives them a few round loaves of bread, the size of an ordinary wheelbarrow wheel, half wheat, half rye. They usually eat it dry, sometimes with a little piece of meat or a couple of fried potatoes. Apart from that they live on milk, and some beans and beets.
Since he comes from a rural background himself, Andresen finds it easy to understand the French farmers’ worries; he also finds it hard to tolerate the thoughtless waste that is an everyday part of war. At the beginning of their time here they made their beds every night with new, unthreshed wheat from the fields. And over in Lassigny, which has been shot to pieces, some of the streets are covered with a thick layer of unthreshed oats, laid down to muffle the noise of wagon wheels.
Perhaps, too, it is the countryman in Andresen that has made him fond of Paptiste, a little donkey kept on one of the farms in Cuy. His affection is not reciprocated: the beast emits little grunts whenever someone approaches and shows signs of wanting to kick them. Andresen, however, finds this donkey irresistibly comic in its stupidity and natural indolence. This particular Sunday he takes the opportunity to sketch a little portrait of the donkey as it stands there in the farmyard enjoying the warm spring sun. He is intending to send the drawing home when it is finished.
The donkey is not his only local acquaintance. He has also got to know two Frenchwomen in Cuy, one fair-haired, the other dark. They are refugees from a nearby village in no-man’s-land. Their acquaintanceship has probably been made easier by the fact that he is Danish rather than German. The dark-haired woman has an eleven-year-old daughter called Sous and she has christened Andresen “Kresten le Danois.” The dark woman has had no word of her husband since the end of August. “She is very unhappy.”
The other day they asked me when peace was going to come but I don’t know any more than they do. I comforted them as well as I could—they were weeping over all the misery. Otherwise you rarely see them cry, though they have every reason to.
Andresen has helped the dark woman to write to the Red Cross information bureau in Geneva to try to get news of her missing husband. He has also given Sous a doll, christened Lotte, which the girl happily pushes round in an empty cigar box. He has decided to try to make her a doll’s pram.
FRIDAY, 12 MARCH 1915
Rafael de Nogales arrives at the garrison in Erzurum
What makes the greatest impression on him during the long and difficult march over snow-clad mountains is the fact that there are no trees to be seen. Nor birds. He had thought that there would at least have been ravens or vultures or other carrion eaters since towards the end of the journey he had seen the remains left after the great catastrophe at Sarikam?ᅟ—the bodies of thousands of frozen horses and camels. “It really must be a wretched country when even the birds of prey shun it.”
But he shows no signs of regret. This is what he wants.
When the war broke out last August there were many people who travelled a long and tortuous road to Europe in order to take part in it. Rafael de Nogales’s road may, perhaps, not have been the longest but it was without doubt among the most tortuous. If anyone deserves the title “international adventurer,” he does. Born into an old family of conquistadors and freebooters in Venezuela (his grandfather took part in the fight for independence), he grew up and was educated in Germany, but was driven by a lust for adventure of the more unusual kind.
Rafael Inchauspe de Nogales Méndez is quite untouched either by the nationalistic fervour or by the semi-utopian energies that moved so many millions. Nor, by this stage, does he have anything to prove to himself or to others. Fearless, impatient and carefree, he has lived a life of ceaseless action for years. He fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898, took part—on the wrong side—in the Venezuelan revolution of 1902 and was consequently driven into exile, was a volunteer in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 (where he was wounded), panned for gold in Alaska (and considers himself one of the founders of the city of Fairbanks), and worked as a cowboy in Arizona. Rafael de Nogales is now thirty-six years old, energetic, charming, tough, educated, short and dark, with an oval face, sticking-out ears and eyes close together. In appearance, de Nogales might be described as a Latin Hercule Poirot—well dressed, dapper, and with a small and very well-trimmed moustache.
As soon as the news of the war reached him he took a mailboat to Europe, determined to take part. The vessel’s name was Cayenne. His route was circuitous and when he finally reached Calais his arrival was filled with drama. The streets were deluged with refugees, mostly women and children carrying the “pathetic pieces” of what possessions they had managed to take with them. Time after time troops of soldiers or rattling artillery batteries went past, forcing people to hug the walls. Coming from the opposite direction they were met by cars loaded with wounded men in a variety of uniforms: “A battle seemed to be going on. God knows where.” He remembered two sounds in particular: the first was the threatening buzz of the aeroplanes that sometimes circled overhead—“steely, eagle-like”; the second was the ceaseless clatter caused by thousands of people in clogs passing along the cobbled streets. All the hotels were overcrowded and de Nogales was forced to spend the first night sleeping in an armchair.
His upbringing tended to make him favour the Central Powers but the news that German troops had marched into one of their smaller neighbours made him “sacrifice my personal sympathies and offer my services to heroic little Belgium.” That proved easier said than done. Heroic little Belgium politely turned him down, at which he turned to the French authorities, but they refused to allow him into the regular army and then, feeling hurt and embittered, he was advised to try … Montenegro. That resulted in him being arrested there, up a mountain, as a spy. The Serbian and Russian authorities likewise rejected his offer, in the politest possible terms, but nevertheless … The Russian diplomat he met in Bulgaria suggested he might possibly try Japan: “Perhaps they will …” By this stage de Nogales’s irritation and disappointment were so great that he came close to passing out in the beautifully furnished hall of the Russian embassy in Sofia.
Rafael de Nogales simply did not know where to turn. Returning home was not an alternative, but nor could he stay “and do nothing, which would have been the end of me, if not from starvation then from boredom.” An accidental meeting with the Turkish ambassador in Sofia decided things: de Nogales made up his mind to enlist on the opposite side instead. At the beginning of January he signed up for the Turkish army and three weeks later left Constantinople to travel to the Caucasus front.i
Now the white mountains are behind them and they are riding past the small forts that form the fortress’s outer defences. The sky is grey, covering “this god-forsaken landscape like a leaden vault.” Here and there they can see freshly dug trenches—or perhaps they are mass graves? He sees frozen corpses. He sees dogs tearing at them. (Later they discover that a typhus epidemic is raging.) The party enters Erzurum. The town is not an inspiring sight and its narrow streets are full of snow. But Erzurum is buzzing with activity in spite of the cold, both in its bazaar, where the merchants are sitting cross-legged in rows, wearing furs and smoking their “eternal hubble-bubbles,” and in the garrison where units of soldiers, groups of bearers and caravans laden with materiel are coming and going. This is the headquarters of the Third Army or, at any rate, what is left of it.
In the afternoon de Nogales reports to the commander of the fortress, a colonel.
The war has ground to a halt because of the cold and the deep snow. Nor is anyone going to risk another winter campaign so soon after the enormously costly failure back at the turn of the year when 150,000 men marched out and 18,000 returned. Even the Russians, more than satisfied by their great and unexpected victory, are simply watching and waiting in their virtually impregnable mountain positions right opposite Köprüköy.
Now and then the distant thunder of Russian artillery can be heard. The hollow rumble rolls through the enclosing mountainsides and the explosions sometimes set off avalanches on Mount Ararat: “Enormous white masses of ice slide down and fall from ridge to ridge, from cliff to cliff, until they smash with a formidable crash on the silent banks of the River Aras.”
THURSDAY, 18 MARCH 1915
Pál Kelemen looks round an empty schoolroom in the Carpathians
The wound he received that night in the pass did not prove serious. He is now back at the front after a stay in a Budapest hospital and a period of convalescence, during which he was in charge of remountsj in the Hungarian border town Margita, where he managed to start but never really consummate an affair with one of the carefully guarded middle-class girls, a strikingly tall and slim young woman.
The thrusts backwards and forwards in the various passes in the Carpathian Mountains have continued with wearisome predictability and an equally wearisome absence of any real result. Both sides have won some territory here and there in recent months, at the same time as losing enormous numbers of men, above all as a consequence of cold, disease and a shortage of provisions.k Kelemen himself has smelled the stench which pervades these areas as old corpses thaw out at the same time as new corpses are added. Few people are talking any longer of a quick conclusion.
Kelemen’s unit is now serving behind the front, mainly as a kind of police reinforcement to protect and help the long, winding supply columns which are ever-present along the slushy roads. It is an easy job. And safe. Nor does he have any great desire to return to the forward lines. He and his hussars often billet themselves in empty schools in Hungarian villages. That is where he is today, as he writes in his journal:
In ruined schoolrooms turned into filthy stalls by the straw dragged in, the desks are like a terrified herd, dispersed, driven one upon the other, scattered about, and the inkstands are like buttons torn off of some holiday garment, lying as rubbish in the corners and on the window sills.
On the wall, the text and the music of the National Anthem, the map of Europe. The blackboard is lying backside up on the teacher’s desk. Flung about in the bookcase are copybooks, textbooks, slate pencils, chalk. All mere trifles, yet pleasing, at least to me after having breathed abominations for hours. When I read in these elementary school books the plain words: earth, water, air, Hungary, adjective, noun, God—somehow I find again that balance without which I have been tossed about so long, like a contraband ship, her rudder lost, on unknown seas.
SATURDAY, 3 APRIL 1915
Harvey Cushing makes a list of interesting cases at a military hospital in Paris
Grey, black and red. Those were the colours he had before his eyes the whole time as he and the others travelled by bus two days ago from the Gare d’Orléans, across the river, past the Place de la Concorde and on to the hospital out in Neuilly. Full of curiosity, indeed, hungry with curiosity, he had stared out at the streets of the city. Grey was for all the military vehicles, painted in the same uniform shade—staff cars, ambulances, armoured vehicles; black was for all those wearing mourning—“everyone not in uniform seems to be garbed in black”; red was for the soldiers’ trousers and for the crosses on the hospitals and ambulances. His name is Harvey Cushing, an American doctor from Boston, and he has come to France to study war surgery. In a few days’ time he will be forty-six.
Today Cushing is at the Lycée Pasteur in Paris—or the Ambulance Américaine as it is now called.l It is a private military hospital founded at the outbreak of war by enterprising American residents in France and financed by collections. Those who work there are mainly from the United States—they are volunteers from the medical faculties at various universities and they serve here for periods of three months. Some of them come for purely idealistic reasons. Others, like Cushing, are motivated mainly by professional interest since there is an opportunity here to treat injuries of a kind that hardly ever occur in a neutral country like the United States, screened off from international politics. And since Harvey Cushing is a brain surgeon, a particularly accomplished one indeed, he hopes to see and learn a great deal in wartime France.m He has not yet reached any firm conclusions as far as the war is concerned. As a reasonable, educated man he regards many of the extravagant and elaborate horror stories about what the Germans are doing and have done with a degree of ironic scepticism. He thinks he can see through the empty pathos. Harvey Cushing is small, fair and thin. His gaze is scrutinising, with narrowed eyes, and his mouth small and tight: he gives the impression of a man used to getting his own way.
Yesterday, Good Friday, was his first proper working day at the hospital and he has already begun to form a picture of what the work involves. He has met the injured, often patient, quiet men with broken, twisted bodies and infected wounds that are taking a long time to heal. Bullets and shrapnel are not the only things that are taken out of their wounds: there are also what are known in the trade as secondary projectiles—pieces of clothing, stones, splinters of wood, cartridge cases, bits of equipment and even fragments of other men’s body parts. He has already had time to see some of the worst problems. Firstly, many of the soldiers’ feet are sore, blue, frozen and almost unusable, which seems to be a result of standing in cold, muddy water day in and day out.n Secondly, there are the malingerers and those who exaggerate their problems, whether from shame or vanity. Thirdly, “souvenir surgery”—the dangerous business of operating to remove projectiles which could, in fact, have been left in the body, operating partly because the wounded man himself would like to have that particular bullet or piece of shrapnel as a trophy that he can proudly show off. Cushing shakes his head.
Today is Easter Saturday. The cold but clear spring weather of recent days has turned into steady rain.
Cushing spends the morning walking through the half-full wards and listing the cases that are of most interest from a neurological point of view. Since there are few men there with serious head injuries he also includes various kinds of nerve damage. The patients come almost exclusively from the south-eastern sectors of the front, so the majority of them are French, with a few black, colonial troops (he has been told that the Germans do not take black prisoners, but he doubts the truth of this) and a small number of Englishmen (who are usually soon taken to hospitals up on the Channel coast or transported home). Eventually his list is complete. It reads as follows:
Eleven upper-limb injuries varying from wounds of the brachial plexus to minor ones of the hand; five of them musculospinal paralyses with compound fractures of the humerus.
Two painful nerve injuries of the leg; operated on by Tauer with a suture.
Three facial paralyses. One of them had “un morceau d’obus” as big as the palm of a hand driven into his cheek which he proudly exhibited—i.e., the “morceau.”o
A cervical sympathetic paralysis in a man shot through the open mouth.
Two fractures of the spine, one dying, the other recovering. A beam supporting the “tranchées d’obri” had fallen on him when a shell landing near by blew up the section where he was stationed.
Only one serious head injury; this in the case of Jean Ponysigne, wounded five days ago in the Vosges and brought in here to the Ambulance in some mysterious fashion.
One of the orderlies tells Cushing during lunch that a few days earlier he saw a legless veteran from the war of 1870–71 stand to attention, swaying on his crutches, to salute a man forty-five years younger than him, a victim of the current conflict who had also lost his legs. During the afternoon Cushing visits the section for dental surgery and is very impressed by the new, ingenious and efficient methods being developed. “It is remarkable what they are able to do in aligning the jaws and teeth of an unfortunate with a large part of his face shot away.”
FRIDAY, 9 APRIL 1915
Angus Buchanan waits for a train at Waterloo Station
Another day of rain. As dusk falls over London the city seems unusually grey and damp. He has been waiting on Platform 7 since six o’clock this evening and there is still no sign of their train. There are many of them standing there. The platform is full of people, not only men in khaki uniforms but also crowds of civilians—relations and friends who have come to Waterloo to wave them off. The weather may be miserable but the mood among those standing in groups, waiting and chatting, is free and easy. If any of them are impatient about the delay, they are not showing it.
The men gathered on the platform make up the main body of a battalion of volunteers, the 25th Royal Fusiliers, and they are just setting off on their long journey to East Africa. They already know that it is not easy for European units to work in that part of Africa but the majority of the uniformed men here already have experience of hot climates and difficult terrain. “This old Legion of Frontiersmen” comes from places as varied as Hong Kong, China and Ceylon, Malacca, India and New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Egypt; the battalion includes both former polar explorers and former cowboys. When the war broke out Buchanan himself had been in the far north of the Canadian wilderness, fully occupied collecting Arctic flora and fauna, and it was the end of October before he heard what had happened. He immediately set off south, reached the first larger settlement around Christmas but moved on at once, all in order to enlist.
Buchanan’s company is led by the experienced big-game hunter Frederick Courteney Selous, well-known for two very popular books about Africa.p Selous is the embodiment of the classic Victorian explorer: fearless, optimistic, ruthless, innocent, tough and inquisitive. He has a short white beard and is sixty-four years old but moves with the ease of a thirty-year-old. (The battalion has a generous upper age limit of forty-eight, but a good number of the men are older and have clearly lied about their age—there was still that much enthusiasm around.)q
From the start the battalion has been surrounded by an aura of being an elite troop of chosen adventurers. Among those waiting on the platform are actually a number of men who have deserted from other units in order to join the 25th Royal Fusiliers. And it speaks for itself that this is the only unit in the whole British expeditionary corps which has not been put through any military training at all: the men are considered to be so experienced that it is unnecessary—indeed, it would be an insult to these gentleman adventurers. It is hardly strange, then, that there is “a spirit of romance” in the air this evening.
Most of the men do not know one another and many of these singular individualists are quite unaccustomed to seeing their own individuality—usually so marked—cloaked in uniform. They are very keen to become acquainted. Angus Buchanan is twenty-eight years old, a naturalist, botanist and zoologist with a particular interest in birds. He intends to collect specimens of East African flora and fauna when he has time to spare.
The hours pass. The hum of voices and laughter continues to rise from the many clusters of people. By eleven o’clock, however, family and friends begin to tire of waiting and disappear sadly in groups of two or three. After one o’clock only the uniformed men are left on the platform. The train rolls in and they climb aboard. Immediately before it departs the police appear and start searching the carriages for deserters, but they have all been forewarned and quickly climb out of the other side of the train, where they remain hidden until the police have left.
At two o’clock the train rolls out of Waterloo Station. The destination is Plymouth, where a steamer, HMTSr Neuralia, is waiting. It will take them all the way to East Africa.
ONE DAY ABOUT THE MIDDLE OF APRIL 1915
Laura de Turczynowicz sees a soldier eating an orange in Suwalki
The incident with the orange affected her very badly, which is perhaps surprising, given that she has already witnessed so much. But what she has been through in recent months probably explains her reaction—everyone has a breaking point. Her frenetic activity, always rushing from one thing to another, does not only stem from a genuine desire to help, it is a conscious method of keeping her own demons in check: “Every moment was occupied or I should have gone mad!”
Two whole months have passed since the Germans marched into Suwalki for the second time and Laura and her children have been stranded on the wrong side of the front line ever since.
The worst thing was the typhus. They had been unable to flee the advancing enemy because one of the five-year-old twins had fallen ill with it, and soon afterwards his brother had caught the same disease. She came close to losing them both:
I was a machine—night after night with my patients—how pitiful they looked—little grey shadows of my darling boys. They never stopped talking—only their voices grew weaker—each night meant a battle with death.
During one of these long days and nights of anxious watching and waiting Laura happened to catch sight of “a wild, white, strange-looking woman” and it took her a moment to realise that it was herself she was seeing, reflected in a mirror on the wall. When at last, after three weeks of struggle and against all expectations, the boys recovered, her six-year-old daughter went down with it and all the worry and wearying anxiety began again.
But now the snow has started to disappear. Spring is here.
The shortage of food is a constant scourge. The stores she laid in at the outbreak of war are now almost gone, most of them stolen by German soldiers or confiscated by their officers. All that remains is quite a lot of flour, some jam, macaroons (large and tough), tea and a few well-guarded potatoes, and that is about it. (The Germans have failed to discover one of her hiding places—inside a sofa.) Fortunately she still has a little money, but neither she nor the servants can always find produce to buy with it. Sometimes she is lucky enough to procure some black bread, and sometimes not. Sometimes there is milk, sometimes not. Wood, only occasionally, and the house is often freezing. Potatoes and eggs go for astronomical prices.
The day she bought five live chickens was a day of joy. They are now shut in what used to be the library, sitting perched up on the filthy bookshelves or scratching round the floor and covering the books with their droppings. But she no longer cares. The books have lost any significance for her—it is as if they belong to a different world, a world that came to an end in August last year.
For Laura, these problems are inextricably linked with two other evils: the war in general and the German occupation in particular. The family exists in a constant state of emergency, in which their private life is just as restricted as their mobility. German soldiers can force their way in at any time, claiming some errand and behaving threateningly or authoritatively or both. And since the house is so large and imposing, it acts as a magnet for German officers, keen to find a billet there or just to use it for parties. There is an improvised typhus hospital in one wing but the rest of the building is mainly used by the German command.s Laura and her children and servants are squeezed into a couple of overcrowded rooms and strictly forbidden to enter the parts of the house where the Germans have their telephone exchange and telegraph. A tangle of telephone cables now runs from the house and there is a tall aerial sticking up from the roof.
The town has changed. Street cleaning has broken down completely and there is rubbish and filth everywhere. The streets are littered with abandoned furniture and other objects. The front is still so close that they can hear the roar of the big guns all the time. The roads are jammed with the constant comings and goings of German supply wagons and automobiles, and German infantry sometimes march through, almost always singing. She has come to detest that sound.
Laura cannot help hating the Germans. They are her enemies and they have occupied her home and transformed her life into one of perpetual darkness and anxiety. Not all Germans are the same, however, and some of them have been sympathetic and even helpful. But many of them behave in an arrogant, superior, self-confident and sometimes brutal manner. She has seen Russian prisoners of war being mistreated on numerous occasions. German propaganda, which talks about liberation from the Russian yoke, has had little impact, except possibly among the Jews of the region, for whom the occupation appears to offer relief from the arbitrary nature and ingrained anti-Semitism of the old regime.t The strangely mixed behaviour—now helpful, now brutal—she has encountered from the German occupiers is to some degree a mirror image of official policy. In view of the current chaos, which was caused by the war but which the Germans in their arrogance are inclined to interpret as an inherent characteristic of eastern Europe and its motley and confusing mixture of peoples and languages, the high command in the east has introduced an ambitious and wide-ranging programme. It is intended partly to exercise complete control over the conquered areas and their resources and partly to save the inhabitants from themselves by instilling German discipline, German order and German culture into them.
The cannon are growling in the distance and Laura and the others live in constant hope that the Russian army will break through and liberate them. (They can usually tell whose artillery is firing since Russian batteries fire their guns to a particular rhythm: one—two—three—four—pause, one—two—three—four—pause.) She often fantasises that her husband, Stanislaw, is somewhere over there in the Russian lines, quite close, perhaps only five or six miles away, and that as soon as the German front is broken she will see him standing there in front of her again. But mostly she is filled with a sense of complete isolation, trapped with her children in an absurd and comfortless limbo. New York is very, very far away. The children have Dash, their little white dog, to play with.
It is possibly the absurdity of the whole situation that makes her react to the orange. She sees an ordinary soldier on the street carrying a juicy looking orange, and he raises the fruit to his mouth and bites it. She stares, aghast. She would have given almost anything for that orange, to have been able to take it home to her children. She knows that is not going to happen. What really upsets her most, however, is the soldier’s manner—he eats it in such a slovenly way. The man chews his way through that beautiful, round, exotic, shining orange “as though it was something you ate every day here in Suwalki.”
When the wind blows from the west Laura can smell a pungency in the air. It is the smell of the carelessly buried dead of the past winter. Rumour says that there are tens of thousands of them.u
THURSDAY, 15 APRIL 1915
Willy Coppens sees a Zeppelin outside De Panne
The enormous oval body of the airship moves majestically and almost silently across the evening sky. It is a dreadful but impressive sight indeed, bordering on the sublime. The fact that this is an enemy vessel is fairly irrelevant in the context. Just watching it reinforces Willy Coppens’s old desire to be a pilot—a desire which, strangely enough, the Belgian grenadier first felt in almost exactly the same place where he is now standing and watching the German Zeppelin steer out across the English Channel over De Panne.
He was five years old at the time and there among the sand dunes he had watched his first kite hovering in the breeze. Afterwards he thought the paper kite “possessed some kind of occult power which in an irresistible and inexplicable way drew me up towards the infinity of the heavens.” As the thin line tautened in the wind it emitted a singing sound that made him tremble with excitement—and fear.
Willy Coppens is a soldier in the Belgian army, or what is left of it after last August’s German invasion—the invasion of the territory of a neutral state, which is what gave Great Britain its official excuse to enter the war.v And he now finds himself in the strip of trench-scarred Belgian ground, stretching from Nieuwpoort on the Channel coast down to Ypres and Messines on the French border, that has remained unoccupied by the Germans. His parents and brothers and sisters are in Brussels on the other side of the front. When the order for mobilisation came last August he was called up into the 3rd Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment of Grenadiers, and his service number was 49800. Then they just hung around the mobilisation area and he found this waiting so “awful” by the end that “when the declaration of war finally came, it came as a clear relief.”
The fact that his country was attacked and his home city occupied is something that obviously gives him energy and motivates him. The atrocities the Germans were guilty of during those weeks in August (the massacres at Dinant, Andenne and Tamines,w the sacking of Louvain and so on), which Allied propaganda has returned to time after time, depicting, dramatising and embellishing them to the extent that the original atrocities have begun to disappear beneath a highly coloured blanket of clichés, are things that he never even refers to. Perhaps Coppens is one of those people who have come to believe that it was all nothing but propaganda. Perhaps new and more tangible and personal sufferings have already replaced these second-hand horror stories. Or perhaps the adventure of it all has gained the upper hand. He is, after all, only twenty-two years old.
But he certainly feels bitterness towards the Germans and has an intense hatred of them: afterwards, when thinking of that Zeppelin outside De Panne, he said that he “always regretted never having been given the job of bombing the enemy in his own country.” But that is not what he is thinking at this moment, during this April evening, as he watches the Zeppelin disappear out over the sea. The men on board are less objects of his hatred than of his envy, and as he watches it receding into the waning light he thinks “how wonderful it must feel for those on board.”
Coppens has actually applied for a transfer from the infantry to the air force. That was in January. He has still not received an answer.
The Zeppelin has already disappeared into the darkness by the time two Belgian planes come buzzing along in search of the great vessel. Coppens notes that they are “biplanes from a prehistoric era, quite unusable in war.” He suspects they have been sent up purely as a matter of morale, a theatrical exercise—they have to do something, after all. Nor has any pilot yet managed to shoot down a Zeppelin.x They are still surrounded by an aura of technological invulnerability and brutality. Which is the reason the Germans use airships in spite of their vulnerability to anti-aircraft fire and their sensitivity to wind and weather. They frighten people. They are the first terror weapon.y
The Zeppelin that Coppens sees disappearing out over the Channel is one of a group of three to attack the south-east of England on this particular night. Zeppelin L 7 makes a sweep along the coast in the Norwich area but finds nothing worth attacking. Zeppelin L 5, under the command of Captain-Lieutenant Böcker, forms the spearhead of the attack and drops bombs over Henham Hall, Southwold and Lowestoft but without hitting anything.
The only one of the three to cause any damage that night is L 6 under the command of Senior Lieutenant Baron von Buttlar. His airship reaches the coast north-east of London but since there is still a strict ban on attacking the British capital von Buttlar drops five explosive bombs and thirty incendiaries over Maldon and Heybridge. Then he turns back out over the sea.
He leaves behind him one damaged house and one wounded girl.
FRIDAY, 16 APRIL 1915
William Henry Dawkins writes to his mother from the harbour on Lemnos
Finally on their way, and now they are no longer in any doubt about their destination—the Dardanelles. Rumours of the operation have been in the air ever since February. That is when news reached them that Allied warships, apparently to no great effect, had attacked the Ottoman artillery batteries blocking the straits, an attack that had been repeated a month ago with the same notable lack of success.z As early as the end of March a large section of Dawson’s brigade had disappeared across the Mediterranean by ship to the island of Lemnos in the northern part of the Aegean Sea. He himself stayed behind for a while in the big camp outside Cairo. He was very well aware, however, that something big was going on. He wrote in an earlier letter home: “Rumour has it that we are to form part of a huge army—French, Russian, Balkanese and British with the role first of subjugating Turkey and then marching on to Austria.”aa
It is about time something happened. The months of inactivity, if exercises can be called inactivity, have had a corrosive effect on fighting spirit and above all on discipline. The Australians have shown a growing lack of respect for British officers, and soldiers of all nationalities have been behaving in an increasingly undisciplined way in Cairo. This culminated on Good Friday, two weeks ago, when riots broke out in the city’s red light district. Some people consider Cairo to be one of the world’s most sinful cities, full of brothels and gambling dens where those intent on pleasure can enjoy everything from narcotics to naked dancers. And in accordance with the old law of supply and demand all this has mushroomed thanks to the sudden influx of tens of thousands of young soldiers with a fair amount of money in their pockets. The problems are partly a result of the erosion of discipline and partly caused by growing friction between the troops and the local population.bb
So on Good Friday hundreds of soldiers, primarily Australians and New Zealanders, started running amok on a street in the red light district. In a fit of unbridled disorder they smashed up bars and brothels, hurled the fittings out into the street and set fire to them. The noisy, violent mob grew as more and more soldiers joined them. The military police tried to intervene and were bombarded with bottles, so they opened fire, wounding four soldiers. British troops were summoned and went in with bayonets but were disarmed and had to watch their rifles being burnt. An attempt to use cavalry to subdue the rioters also failed. Little by little, however, the rioting died out of its own accord. Dawkins had been there, helping out by manning a road block across one of the streets. During the days that followed a camp canteen and a camp cinema were burnt down by angry, violent troops.
Just over a week ago Dawkins’s unit was relieved to be leaving Egypt. The harbour in Alexandria had been full of troopships. Two days later they made land on Lemnos. The island is too small to house all of them so many of the soldiers have quite simply had to remain aboard the vessels that brought them here. Today William Henry Dawkins, aboard the troopship Mashobara in Lemnos harbour, is writing to his mother:
There are quaint old windmills here which are used for the grain. They are big stone buildings with large windmill sails. The place is very clean, so are the people, thank goodness, quite a contrast. Everything is covered with green grass and the fields are very pretty with their red poppies and daisies studded all round. We were all ashore yesterday—took the company for a little exercise and touring—best expresses the outing. The people here are like other places, all out to make as much as possible out of the soldiers. There are no large shops here so we strolled about, one with a round of cheese under his arm, another with a string of figs, another with a pocketful of nuts, another with a bag of biscuits and everyone trying to get rid of their stuff onto the others. We had a jolly time.
Dawkins knows that they will soon be moving on and he knows the task that awaits him and his company when the time comes: they are to be responsible for the brigade’s water supply. The Mashobara is carrying masses of pumps and pipes and drills and tools and digging equipment. In the meantime, one of the ships is being converted for special operations—they are, for instance, cutting large landing doors in the bows of the vessel. They have received the maps of the place where they are to be sent in. It is called Gallipoli and is a long, narrow peninsula that guards the entrance to the Sea of Marmara. He does not write anything about this in his letter, however, which he ends:
As I can’t think of any more news I’ll have to close. Sending you best love to all. Your loving son Willie xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx to the girls.
SUNDAY, 25 APRIL 1915
Rafael de Nogales witnesses the destruction of the two most sacred buildings in Van
Dawn. He wakes from his sleep lying in a dream of down and Nile-green silk. The room around him is furnished in keeping with the luxurious bed: on the ceiling there is an Arabian lamp with different coloured crystals set in bronze; on the floor, hand-knotted rugs and a stand containing ornamental weapons of Damascene steel. There are also precious figurines in Sèvres porcelain. This used to be a woman’s room, as he can tell from the kajal pencils and carmosine red lipstick scattered on a small table.
Some distance away the Turkish artillery begins to come to life. Battery after battery opens fire. They add their sharp cracks to the thickening curtain of noise until everything sounds just as it usually does: explosions, crashes, thumps, booms, roars, shots and pained shouts.
Later he rides off. This morning he is to inspect the eastern sector.
Rafael de Nogales is on the outskirts of the ancient Armenian city of Van in one of the north-eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, close to Persia and with the Russian border due north and less than a hundred miles away. There is an uprising in the city and de Nogales belongs to the force sent to crush it.
The situation is complicated. Armenian rebels occupy the old, walled part of the city and the suburb of Aikesdan. The Turkish governor’s forces hold the citadel on the cliff above the city, as well as the rest of the surrounding district. Somewhere to the north there is a Russian army corps, currently held up in the difficult mountain pass at Kotur Tepe but, in theory at least, still a day’s march away. The mood on both sides is swinging between hope and despair, between terror and confidence. The Christian Armenians have no choice—they know they must hold out until the Russian corps arrives—and their Muslim opponents know that the battle must be won before the Russians appear over the horizon because the arrival of the Russians will mean that besieged and besiegers swap places.
This is what accounts for some of the extraordinary brutality of the fighting. Neither side takes prisoners. During the whole time he is in Van, de Nogales sees only three living Armenians up close: a waiter, an interpreter and a man who was found down a well, where he had been for the last nine days, having for some reason fled from his own people. The last is interrogated, fed until he recovers a little and then shot “without further ceremony.” The atrocities are also a result of the fact that the majority of those involved are irregular soldiers, enthusiasts, volunteers, civilians suddenly presented with the weaponry and unrestricted opportunity to repay old injustices—real or imagined—and to forestall future ones—real or imagined. Among the forces de Nogales has under his command are Kurdish warriors, local gendarmes, Turkish reserve officers, Circassian irregulars and out-and-out bandits.cc
The war is providing pretexts, creating rumours, cutting off the spread of news, simplifying thought processes and normalising violence. There are five battalions of Armenian volunteers fighting on the Russian side and attempts are being made to foment a general uprising against Ottoman rule. Small, armed groups of Armenian activists are carrying out sabotage and minor attacks. And time after time since the end of 1914 unarmed Armenians have been massacred in blind reprisals for the deeds perpetrated by the activists, as a warning to other Armenians, and as revenge for the fiasco at the front.dd Or just because they can be massacred. By unleashing the latest massacres, the stubbornly stupid cynicism of the local Turkish commander has sparked off precisely the kind of major uprising the measures were in some vague way supposed to prevent.
Rafael de Nogales has already heard the rumours, listened to the misgivings and seen the evidence (refugees, burnt churches, groups of mutilated Armenian bodies at the side of the road). In a small town on the way to Van he saw a mob hunting down and killing all the Armenian men in the place—except seven he himself saved by drawing his pistol.ee It has left him with a bad taste in his mouth. The situation here in Van, however, is different and more straightforward. He is an officer in the Ottoman army and his job is to put down an armed uprising. And to do so quickly before the sluice gate at Kotur Tepe bursts open. De Nogales, moreover, does not like Armenians: he admires their loyalty to the Christian religion but finds them in general to be sly, avaricious and ungrateful. (His enthusiasm for Jews and Arabs is similarly limited. On the other hand, he finds it easy to like the Turk as “the gentleman of the Orient.” And he respects the Kurds, although he considers them unreliable: he calls them “a young and vigorous nation.”)
The task of taking control of Van is problematic. The Armenians are defending themselves with the wild, desperate courage that comes from knowing that defeat and death are synonymous. At the same time, many of the volunteers in de Nogales’s units are undisciplined, inexperienced, headstrong and, to an extent, utterly undeployable in any real fighting. As if that is not enough, the old quarter of Van is an absolute labyrinth of bazaars, narrow alleyways and mud-walled houses, as difficult to reconnoitre as it is to penetrate. So the subjection of the city has mainly been left to the Ottoman artillery. Most of the cannon really belong in a museum—ancient muzzle-loaders that fire round-shot,ff though de Nogales has discovered that these crude missiles actually have more effect on the houses than modern shells, which are so powerful they whizz straight through one mud wall and out through the next.
In this way they are blasting their way through Van’s maze of streets and alleys, quarter by quarter, house by house, “with scorched hair and powder-blackened faces, half-deaf from the rattle of machine-guns and the sound of rifles fired off at close quarters.” When a house has been reduced to ruins and its defenders to corpses, they set light to the rubble to prevent the Armenians’ returning under the cover of darkness. Pillars of smoke from the fires rise above the city day and night.
During his ride along the eastern sector de Nogales discovers a field gun which has just been buried in the rubble of a collapsing building. He leaps from his horse, pistol in hand and in the utmost danger, and manages to get the piece salvaged. A corporal alongside him is hit in the face by a bullet.
An hour later he is up on the breastwork of the citadel. Through his field glasses he follows an attack on one of the fortified Armenian villages immediately outside the city. Standing with him is the governor of the province, Djevded Bey, a gentleman in his forties who likes talking about literature, dresses in the latest Paris fashions and, in the evening, likes to eat his grand supper wearing a white necktie and a fresh flower in his buttonhole. In other words, to judge by appearances, a civilised gentleman. Given his close contacts with the rulers in Constantinople and his utter ruthlessness, he is, however, one of the most important architects of this tragedy. In fact he represents a new species in the bestiary of the young century: the articulate and ideologically convinced mass murderer in well-cut clothes who performs his butchery while sitting behind a desk.
De Nogales stands alongside the governor and watches the storming of the village. He witnesses 300 mounted Kurds cutting off the Armenian escape routes. He sees the Kurds slaughtering the survivors with knives. Suddenly bullets slice through the air close to de Nogales and the governor. The shots are being fired by some Armenians who have climbed to the top of the great cathedral of St. Paul in the old city. Both sides have so far shown respect for this ancient place of worship but now the governor orders it to be blown to pieces. Which duly happens, though it does take two hours of bombardment with round-shot before the high old dome collapses in a cloud of dust. By this stage a number of Armenian snipers have worked their way up to the minaret on the great mosque. The governor is not quite so quick this time to give the order to open fire. De Nogales, however, does not hesitate and just says, “War is war.”
“In this way,” de Nogales tells us, “the two greatest temples in the city of Van were destroyed in the course of a single day. For almost nine centuries they had been among the most famous of historical monuments.”
This is also the day William Henry Dawkins steps ashore at Gallipoli.
He wakes as early as half past three in the morning and takes a hot bath. The ship, with all its lights doused, is heading north-east. They drop anchor when the sun breaks the horizon. They are surrounded by the shadows of other vessels and in front of them lies the long shape of the Gallipoli peninsula—a vague, watercolour silhouette. Breakfast follows, after which they prepare to disembark. Meanwhile the guns on the warships begin to thunder. Dawkins and his men transfer first to a destroyer which takes them closer to the shore. From the destroyer they move over to wooden landing-craft towed by motor-boats.
Waves. A dawn sky. Loud explosions. He sees his first wounded men. He sees the bullets from exploding shrapnel shells showering down, perforating the surface of the water and sending up hundreds of small fountains. He sees the shore getting closer. He jumps out of the boat and notes that the water reaches up to his thighs. He hears the sound of rifle fire beyond the steep slopes on the shore. The shore is stony.
At eight o’clock all of his men are standing drawn up at the water’s edge. Bayonets fixed. Dawkins notes in his journal:
On the beach we wait about an hour. The Generalgg and staff pass. The former appears quite bright which is a good omen. No one really knows what has happened. The rest of our company land. Myself and [a] patrol then work south along the beach searching for water. Find a small pool near a Turkish hut where the belongings of the inhabitants were strewn in all directions. Pass on over a ridge into a deep gully but infantry in rear of us yell and we have to return. Send a party to dig a well near the hut—another to sink a Tube well in the same valley—another to improve a small supply on the beach. In the gully near hut over shot bullets are landing in swarms. Infantry on hill in front keep yelling out frantically that we are under fire. Of course we are.
And so it continues. Dawkins and his men rush back and forth between the swathes of bullets from the shrapnel shells, digging, drilling, laying pipes. Two of his men are wounded, one in the elbow, one in the shoulder. The detonator from a shrapnel shell hits his boot but does not inflict a wound. Later he hears the din of heavy firing—“a splendid sound”—from the high ground immediately behind the shore: a Turkish counter-attack.hh A thin but unbroken stream of wounded men is trickling back from the high ground the whole time. He sees a confused colonel, clearly affected by some sort of shell shock, ordering fire onto hills held by their own troops. Dawkins helps unload ammunition from a transport barge.
He falls asleep, “dead tired,” at around nine in the evening but is woken after only an hour and a half by a major who tells him the situation is critical. For the rest of the night Dawkins helps to bring up reinforcements and ammunition to the hard-pressed and scattered infantry in the front line. The firing goes on all night. Dawkins lies down again at sometime around half past three in the morning.
SATURDAY, 1 MAY 1915
Florence Farmborough hears the breaking of the front at Gorlice
As for millions of others, bidding farewell at the railway station was actually the most sublime experience of all: for most of them it was the only sublime experience. The crowds on the platform at the Alexander Station in Moscow had been enormous. They had sung the Russian national anthem, shouted blessings and encouragement, exchanged embraces and good wishes and distributed flowers and chocolates. Then the train had puffed off to the accompaniment of thunderous cheers, passing waving hands and faces full of hope and uncertainty. She herself had been possessed by “a wild exhilaration [that] swept like fire through my veins; we were off, off to the Front! My very gladness left me speechless.”
She and her unit are stationed in Gorlice, a small, poor country town in the Galician part of Austria-Hungary, occupied for over six months now by Russian troops. Gorlice lies very close to the front. The Austrian artillery fires on the town daily in a rather absent-minded way, as if doing it as a matter of principle rather than according to any plan. They do not seem greatly concerned that the majority of the casualties of their fire are, like them, subjects of the Emperor in Vienna. The tower of the big church is split down the middle. Many of the houses are already ruins. The town had 12,000 inhabitants before the war, now there are only a couple of thousand who have not fled and they spend their days crouched in their cellars. Up until now Farmborough and the other staff of the field hospital have devoted most of their time to alleviating the distress of the civilian population, primarily by distributing food. The shortages are severe. The landscape is a pleasant spring green.
Mobile Field Hospital No. 10 consists of three parts. There are two “flying detachments” which can easily be sent to wherever they are most needed: each of them consists of an officer, a non-commissioned officer, two doctors, a medical assistant, four male nurses, four female, thirty ambulancemen, two dozen two-wheeled, horse-drawn ambulances with a red cross painted on their tarpaulins, and the same number of drivers and grooms. Then there is the base unit, where there are more places for the wounded, where the stores are kept and where there are also more transport facilities, notably two motor cars. Florence is attached to one of the flying detachments. They have organised an improvised hospital in a deserted house, scrubbing it clean, painting it and setting up both an operating theatre and a pharmacy.
Gorlice, as already mentioned, lies on the front line at the foot of the Carpathians and shells plump down among the houses every day. This section has, nevertheless, been quiet for a long time and the Russian military have been lulled into some degree of apathy. Anyone who goes up to the forward line becomes aware of it. There are no fortifications of the stout, well-built kind that are the rule on the static Western Front to be seen here.ii Instead, the trenches are shallow, rather carelessly scraped-out features, resembling ditches more than anything else, protected by a few thin strands of barbed wire. Admittedly it was difficult to dig down to any depth here during the winter, but the digging has not gone any faster now that the frost is out of the ground: this is a result partly of laziness, partly of a shortage of spades.
The Russian artillery rarely responds to the Austrian bombardment. It is said that this is because of a lack of ammunition but there are actually plenty of shells stockpiled farther back. The bureaucrats in uniform who control these things are happy to keep them there, waiting for bigger things. The Russian army is planning a new offensive farther to the south, in the direction of the famous passes over the Carpathians (the “Gateway to Hungary”!), which still stink from the corpses left scattered everywhere after the hard but fruitless battles of the winter. The resources will be put to better use there. The question is whether that is really true: for some days now a sense of anxiousness has been spreading among the Russian units at Gorlice and a rumour has been going round that the Austrians opposite them have been reinforced with German infantry and heavy artillery.
On this particular Saturday Florence and the others at the hospital are woken before dawn by heavy artillery fire.
She tumbles out of bed. Fortunately she has been sleeping fully dressed. Everyone—everyone except possibly Radko Dimitriev, commander of the Russian Third Army—has been suspecting that something was about to happen. Explosions of varying strength and intensity become more frequent as the Russian artillery around them joins in. The bullets from exploding shrapnel shells clatter down on the streets and roofs.
Through the rattling windows Florence can see the lights playing against the still-dark sky. She can see the great lightning flashes from the muzzles of the guns and the subdued flashes from the explosions. She sees the beams of searchlights and the bright, multicoloured light from flares mixed with a muted glow as fires begin to rage. They crouch indoors. The walls and floors are shaking.
Then the wounded start coming in:
At first we could cope; then we were overwhelmed by their numbers. They came in their hundreds, from all directions; some able to walk, others crawling, dragging themselves along the ground.
In such a desperate situation the only thing the hospital staff can do is to be brutally selective. Those who can stand up on their own get no help—they are just sent on their way after being told to try to get to one of the base units. There are so many unable to walk that they are laid out in rows out in the open air, where they are first given painkillers and then have their wounds tended. “The groans and cries of the wounded were pitiful to hear.” Florence and the others do what they can to help in spite of feeling that it is all in vain since this flood of ragged and torn bodies seems to be endless.
This goes on for hour after hour. Now and then there is a longer silence.
Daylight begins to dim and twilight falls.
Among the shouting and the screaming, shadowy figures move round illuminated by glaring, distant lights.
At around six o’clock the following morning Florence and her colleagues hear a new and terrifying sound: a sudden, vibrating roar like a waterfall, which is the noise of over 900 artillery pieces of every calibre imaginable all opening fire simultaneously—that is one for every fifty yards of the front. Seconds later comes the drawn-out, rough echo of the impact. The crash of metallic explosions in every key becomes a dense wall of sound, the din intensifies, whirls and spirals like some sort of natural force.
There is something new and unpleasantly systematic about this artillery fire and the way it is crashing down on the Russian front line. The German technical term is Glocke, a bell; the English, a creeping barrage. The fire waltz swings backwards and forwards and side to side along the Russian lines and connecting trenches. This is something quite different from the casual, incidental bombardment by the Austrian artillery, something even more than yesterday’s thunderously powerful barrage. This is artillery fire as a science, calculated to the second and to the ton to produce maximum effect. This is something new.
They hear the word “retreat”—with disbelief at first.
Then the spectacle of long, uneven lines of mud-covered soldiers with weary faces passing them. Finally, the order for immediate withdrawal, leaving the equipment and the wounded. They are to leave the wounded? Yes, leave the wounded. “Skoro! Skoro!jj … The Germans are outside the town!”
Florence takes her coat and her rucksack and rushes out of the building. The wounded are screaming, praying, swearing and begging the nurses “not to forsake them, for the love of God.” Someone grabs hold of the hem of Florence’s skirt. She twists the hand loose and disappears down the uneven road along with the others. It is a hot and sunny spring day but the light is nevertheless muted. The oil tanks outside the town have started burning and the air is filled with oily black smoke.kk
WEDNESDAY, 12 MAY 1915
William Henry Dawkins dies at Gallipoli
We might perhaps wonder which was uppermost in his mind, his exertions on the shore or his toothache. In all likelihood it was the former. Dawkins was a conscientious and purposeful man. His visit to the doctor does show, however, that the toothache must have been there in the background all the time, a distraction, a filter,ll and his experience of those days must have been a strange mixture of the grand-scale epic and the limited and private—as always—with a sort of empty zone between the two: he probably quickly lost his grasp of ordinary things, such as which day of the week it was.
Ever since they had landed a full two weeks earlier the weather had been fine, though the nights had been cold. Two days before, however, it had started to drizzle. And it was still drizzling. The great numbers of people and animals moving back and forth between the shore and the trenches up on the steep hills have trampled the paths into sticky mud and it is difficult to move on the wet, slippery clay in the ravines. William Henry Dawkins and his corporal sleep in a covered cleft in the slopes by the shore. The only piece of furniture is an old armchair that floated ashore a few days ago and Dawkins sometimes sits in it when giving out his orders. When he wakes this morning it is raining hard.
Everyone can see that this grand operation has ground to a halt.
There are actually only two points at which the Allies have succeeded in creating real bridgeheads: one of them is right down at the southern point of the peninsula and the other is here at Gaba Tepe, on the western side of Gallipoli.mm Dawkins and the others, however, landed at the wrong place, well over half a mile north of the intended spot. In one sense that was fortunate since the Ottoman defence was unusually weak at that point, the terrain being so rugged that the defenders judged it highly unlikely the Allies would even try to land there.nn The result was that the attackers could wade ashore without serious losses but, once there, it was only with the greatest of difficulty they could move through the confusing labyrinth of steep bush-covered ravines and sharp ridges that plunge steeply to the shore. By the time the hastily dispatched Turkish infantry had reached the place, the Australian and New Zealand companies had—at best—managed to advance a mile and a half inland. And that is more or less where it came to a stop, as an ironic reflection of the static Western Front. Just as in France and in Belgium, attack and counter-attack came in quick succession until both sides, relentless but exhausted, realised that their opponent was not going to be budged. At which point they settled down to the usual plodding drudgery of trench warfare.
Part of this drudgery is care, maintenance and the provision of food and water. Those in charge had actually given some thought to these things: they knew that access to water was going to be a problem, especially as the hottest season of the year was approaching. So when they landed they had with them barges loaded with water from Lemnos, water enough to satisfy the most immediate needs until the engineers managed to sink wells. Dawkins and his crew had worked quickly, building several wells and setting up access points to the vital liquid for both animals and men.
Not that it was ever a case of abundance. There was, for instance, insufficient fresh water for the men to wash in and so they had to look after their personal hygiene by bathing in the sea. They were, however, advised to avoid cleaning their teeth in sea water because of all the animal corpses floating around as well as the filth from the ships lying anchored offshore. One of the problems was that a great deal of fresh water was lost because the thin and fragile pipes bringing the water from the pumps at the wells were punctured so often, either by artillery fire or quite simply by careless soldiers letting carts and guns trundle over them. Dawkins and his men have consequently been busy for some time burying the pipes deeper.
It is an ordinary morning, though grey and rainy. Dawkins organises his troops in the usual order and allots the various groups their tasks for the day. One of them is to continue sinking the pipes into the ground. Little glory in it, and hardly a motif for a lurid print in some illustrated magazine, but necessary all the same. Several of the worst troublemakers in the company have happened to end up in his platoon. But a combination of the seriousness of the hour and Dawkins’s qualities as a leader—particularly his genuine care for his men—have helped calm down the worst of the unruliness and a marked sense of solidarity has developed between these apparently incorrigible moaners and skivers and their mild young captain.
It is still early when they set to work.
The rain is falling.
An unusually dangerous section awaits one of the groups this morning and it is easy to see where it is: there are thirty or more dead mules, killed by Turkish shells, lying along a stretch not much longer than a hundred yards. The ditch is already dug, however—it was dug at night. Now it is just a matter of laying the pipe and joining it up. Everything is still calm and quiet. No sound from the Turkish artillery. The only unpleasant part is the dead animals, with their bellies swelling and stiff legs sticking out. The ditch goes past the cadavers, alongside them, under them and even through them in some cases. The seven soldiers become covered in blood. Dawkins is with them. The time is a quarter to ten.
Dawkins moves a little further down the ditch to inspect it. Then they hear the whine of a shell.
It is the very first one of the morning. The whine becomes a howl. The howl is followed by a hard, sharp report. The projectile explodes just above the heads of the seven crouching soldiers and their water-pipe, but it is a shrapnel shell and they are untouched: its payload of round bullets showers down into the ground fifteen yards further on. One of the soldiers, a man by the name of Morey, turns round. He is just in time to see William Henry Dawkins fall to the ground in that peculiar way characteristic of the severely wounded—the fall is not controlled by the body’s usual reflexes but by the simple laws of gravity.oo
They rush to him. Dawkins has been hit in the head, throat and chest. They lift him up from the wet ground and carry him to a shelter. Another shell explodes behind them with a short, powerful crash. They lay him down. Blood and rainwater run together. He says nothing. He dies before their eyes.
Sarah Macnaughtan makes the following entry in her diary on this day:
The other day I heard some ladies having a rather forced discussion on moral questions, loud and frank. Shades of my modest ancestresses! In this war time, and in a room filled with men and smoke and drink, are women in knickerbockers discussing such things? I know I have got to “let out tucks,” but surely not quite so far!
Beautiful women and fast women should be chained up. Let men meet their God with their conscience clear. Most of them will be killed before the war is over. Surely the least we can do is not to offer them temptation. Death and destruction, and horror and wonderful heroism, seem so near and so transcendent, and then, quite close at hand, one finds evil doings.
A DAY IN THE SECOND WEEK OF MAY 1915
Laura de Turczynowicz sees a prisoner of war find a piece of bread in Suwalki
Laura hears a German nurse shouting at someone to stop at once. The yelling continues and Laura goes to see what it is all about. A Russian prisoner of war is grubbing around in a stinking heap of hospital rubbish and, refusing to let the German nurse’s protests put him off, he just carries on searching.
Parts of Laura’s grand house have been turned into a temporary hospital for all the civilian typhus cases in the town. She often works there herself. The building is afforded some protection by the notices warning about typhus, just as she herself is given some protection by the Russian Red Cross nurse’s uniform she wears. (Going out alone on these streets full of men in uniform can be an unpleasant experience for a woman, all the more so as drunkenness is becoming increasingly common.) Shielded by her uniform, she has started feeding some of the starving Russian prisoners kept in the town as labour. Among their other jobs they have dug up the corpses of fourteen soldiers buried in her garden after the fighting of last autumn.
There are few things that upset her more than the treatment of the Russian prisoners of war. They are undernourished, filthy, ragged, verminous, frequently ill, badly housed and badly treated. Worse, perhaps, than the filth and the wounds and the rags is the fact that they are, almost without exception, worn-out and broken men, who have lost all hope and who, in their silent and submissive suffering, have begun to lose some of their humanity. They are being turned into, well, animals, or things even.pp Laura is profoundly shocked by this and helps them whenever she can.
The German nurse is still shouting and the Russian prisoner is still digging. Then he finds something. Laura sees what it is—a filthy crust of bread, which the prisoner holds up triumphantly to his fellows before starting to eat it. The German nurse is upset. How can he eat something like that? Doesn’t he realise the piece of bread will make him ill, possibly fatally ill? The man carries on chewing.
Laura is upset too and she turns to the German nurse. Can she not give the man something proper to eat? The nurse hesitates and is not sure whether she dare. One of the uniformed German hospital assistants hears the discussion and intervenes—she goes away and returns with a big bowl of thick, steaming soup in which pieces of real meat are floating about. The Russian prisoner gulps down the food.
Three hours later he is dead.
His stomach clearly could not handle the sudden abundance.
FRIDAY, 14 MAY 1915
Olive King is scrubbing floors in Troyes
It is a cold and windy day. For a change, it has to be said, since the weather has been pleasantly warm recently. They have even been able to sleep in the open air in a nearby pine wood, lying on the as yet unused stretchers. It is not, however, the warmth that has made sleeping outdoors attractive but the fact that the small manor house, the Château de Chanteloup, that has been requisitioned for their use has no furniture and is pretty filthy. In addition to which, most of their equipment has gone astray. With no tents and without a functioning kitchen they cannot take any wounded men. But the manor is pleasantly situated: it may be right by the road but it has a fine orchard and kitchen garden and there is an attractive wood close by.
Olive King is up early as usual. By a quarter past eight she is sitting behind the wheel of her ambulance, ready to set off to find benches and tables to furnish the place. She is accompanied by one of her superiors, Mrs. Harley, head of transport. Olive May King is a twenty-nine-year-old Australian, born in Sydney, the daughter of a successful businessman. (She is her father’s girl in many ways, especially since her mother died when Olive was only fifteen.)
Her upbringing and education have been conventional, finishing off in Dresden where classes in music and painting porcelain were part of the syllabus, but her life since has been anything but conventional. There is a tension within her between, on one hand, an upright and naive longing for a husband and children, and on the other, an energetic and restless nature. She travelled a great deal in the years before the war, in Asia, America and Europe—though always accompanied by a chaperone. She was the third woman to climb the 17,887-foot volcano Popocatépetl, south-east of Mexico City—and the first to risk descending into its smoking crater. But there is something missing. She prays to God in a poem written in 1913: “Send me a sorrow […] To wake my soul from its engulfing sleep.” She is yet another of these people for whom the gospel of the war is change.
It is thus hardly surprising that, motivated both by her adventurous spirit and by her intense patriotism, King found a way of becoming a participant rather than an observer very soon after the war broke out. She took the only course open to women in 1914, the medical service. It is, perhaps, telling that King did not train as a nurse but enrolled instead in the much more unconventional role of driver, at the wheel of a large Alda ambulance she had bought personally with her father’s money. The ability to drive a motor vehicle is still a very exclusive skill, particularly for a woman.
The organisation King is now working for is the Scottish Women’s Hospital, one of many private medical units started in the enthusiasm of the autumn of 1914, but this one is rather unusual in that it was founded by radical suffragettes and is staffed exclusively by women.qq
King is driving her own ambulance this morning—its number is 9862 but she always calls it Ella, which is short for The Elephant. And it is big, virtually a small bus, with space for as many as sixteen seated passengers. The specially built load area at the back is heavy and King is rarely able to push Ella up to speeds higher than twenty-eight miles an hour.
They return at about half past ten. Helped by Mrs. Wilkinson, another of the drivers, King unloads the benches and tables they have acquired and stands them out in the garden, then King and Mrs. Wilkinson change their clothes and begin scrubbing out the outhouse where the drivers are to be quartered. The two of them wield scrubbing brushes and sponges, use several changes of water and keep on scrubbing vigorously until the floor is completely clean. They have also thought about re-papering the room but that will have to wait.
Dinner consists of asparagus, which tastes good, is cheap, and is in season. As usual they have an audience as they eat. The dining-room window looks out onto the road and inquisitive passers-by look in to catch a glimpse of these strange women, who have not only volunteered to come and help with the war effort but who are also managing without men. Then she and a number of the others go to their rooms to write letters because the post goes early tomorrow. King tells her sister:
I don’t believe it will be many months now before the war is over. The failure, thank God, of that damnable gas will be a great blow to Germany, I believe. Isn’t it magnificent that the new respirators are such a success? Thank God for it. I wish He would make all their brutal gas-shells explode among themselves and kill 500,000 Bosches [sic]. It would be a gorgeous revenge for our poor slaughtered soldiers and I wish He would send fires or floods to blow up or wreck all the German ammunition factories.
King writes this in her freshly scrubbed room, half-lying on a rickety stretcher that is presently serving as her bed. The room is empty otherwise, apart from a chair and a wind-up gramophone. There is an open fireplace with a marble mantelpiece, which is where they throw their cigarette ends, matchsticks and other rubbish. The walls are covered with a wallpaper she is very fond of—it shows brown parrots sitting in rose bushes and eating nuts. She is cold and she is sleepy. When is her real war going to start?
WEDNESDAY, 26 MAY 1915
Pál Kelemen buys four loaves of white bread in Glebovka
The Russians are really in retreat now. That has become clear to him during the last few days while riding through one badly damaged place after another and seeing everything the retreating enemy is leaving behind—from scrap and rubbish along the roads, to dead and dying soldiers, as well as newly erected road signs with incomprehensible names in the Cyrillic alphabet. (A year ago this road led to Lemberg, now it leads to Lvov, and soon it will be Lemberg again.rr)
Kelemen has nothing against being on the march again and certainly nothing against the Russian invasion forces being driven out. The news of the great breakthrough at Gorlice, however, was greeted with much less jubilation by the troops than might have been expected. “Everyone here has become indifferent,” he writes in his journal, “worn down by the everlasting tension.”
They have been in the small town of Glebovka since yesterday. When he and the other hussars rode in there were two things that gave him a shock: the first was a house with its windows intact, behind which he caught a glimpse of white lace curtains; the second was a young Polish woman—he always has his eye open for young women—moving among a crowd of soldiers and Russian prisoners. She was wearing white gloves. It will be a long time before he forgets those white gloves and lace curtains, forgets that immaculate whiteness in a world of filth and mud.
Today he has heard that there is white bread for sale and since he is sick of the standard-issue bread, which is either doughy or dried out, he has gone to buy some. He buys four large loaves and notes in his journal:
I cut into one. It was not yet cold. Its thick strong smell filled my nostrils. Slowly, almost with awe, I took the first bite and tried to savor the taste clearly, thinking that this is the same white loaf I was used to once, before the war.
I ate and I concentrated. But my palate would not recognise anything at all, and I ate the white loaf as if it had been some new food, the fame and the taste of which I had never known before.
Afterwards I realised that the bread was just the same as at home. It was I who had changed; the war had given such a foreign flavor to the good old white bread I used to take for granted.
THURSDAY, 27 MAY 1915
Sarah Macnaughtan’s time in De Panne is coming to an end
Enough is enough. She is going back to England in a week’s time. Probably for good. Macnaughtan is one of those people who were swept along in the first rejoicing wave of enthusiasm and who then, as reverses and disappointments mounted, has seen her energies draining away. She is tired. Tired in body and tired in soul. Tired of suffering. Tired of danger. Tired of the constant bickering. Tired of pettiness and incomprehensible rules. Tired.
She has carried on working in the soup kitchen at the station, dutifully but without any joy. She does the same things every day: ladles out soup, coffee, bread and jam, and shares out the sugar. At least the cold, dark, lonely winter is over but the return of the sun has its disadvantages because it can get very hot standing out there on the platform at the station, and the smells are much worse. Some helpful people have sent her a motor car, but it has already broken down.
It is still a Fight Against Evil, of course. That is not something she has any doubt about. (That feeling has, in fact, only grown stronger in the course of the spring since she heard of the sinking of the passenger liner and since she saw the victims of German poison gas for the first time.) And she still feels strongly that the war is about Duty and Principles and The Honour of the Name of Britain. But for how long can it actually continue?
Surely the expense of the thing will one day put a stop to war. We are spending two million sterling per day, the French certainly as much, the Germans probably more, and Austria and Russia much more, in order to keep men most uncomfortably in unroofed graves, and to send high explosives into the air, most of which don’t hit anything.
Macnaughtan is struggling to solve the equation in her head. At the start of the month a volunteer soldier told her in confidence that he was longing to be wounded “so that he might go home honourably.” When she considers her own role, she has come to the conclusion that she could be far more useful on the home front, as a propagandist. She is working on a little book about her experiences. (Somewhat adapted, admittedly, with a candid but mildly humorous tone and with the text carefully purged of all doubts and disagreeable elements. A publisher has already been found for the project.) She is also thinking of realising her plan to travel round giving talks to workers at a number of munitions factories.ss
She is struggling to find a solution to the conundrum of whether a sacrifice can be magnificent even if it is meaningless—indeed, whether the very fact that it is meaningless can make it even more magnificent. She has heard a story about some artillerymen who were sent back to fetch a gun and their NCO is supposed to have said: “We shall be killed, but it doesn’t matter.” Their captain responded “heavily”: “No, it doesn’t matter.” The story has affected her deeply. She writes in her diary:
“It doesn’t matter”—nothing matters. I rather dread going back to London, because there things may begin to seem important and one will be in bondage again. Here our men are going to their death laughing because it doesn’t matter. There is a proud humility about my countrymen which few people have yet realised. It is the outcome of nursery days and public schools. No one is allowed to think much of himself in either place, so when he dies, “It doesn’t matter.” God help the boys! If they only knew how much it mattered to us! Life is over for them. We don’t even know for certain that they will live again. But their spirit, as I know it, can never die. I am not sure about the survival of personality. I care, but I do not know. But I do know that by these simple, glorious, uncomplaining deaths, some higher, purer, more splendid place is reached, some release is found from the heavy weight of foolish, sticky, burdensome, contemptible things. These heroes do “rise,” and we “rise” with them.
Spring has been late in coming but now it has arrived at last in its full force, “a marvel of green,” but the lilacs and the warm sea breeze only make her even more homesick. One week to go.
SUNDAY, 6 JUNE 1915
Kresten Andresen is evacuated from the hospital in Noyon
Perhaps it is luck, just a quirk of fate, that will save him. One dark night at the beginning of May Andresen fell into a narrow sap trench and fractured his right leg immediately above the ankle. Since then he has spent most of the time in hospital, lying in a large ward that used to be a theatre and being cared for by kindly French nuns. He is bored because he has little to read and he is fed up with the poor food—the sick are not considered to need as much as soldiers at the fronttt—but he is nevertheless quite content. At least six weeks, the doctor has told him. With a little luck he can stay out of the front line until July even, and perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, the war will be over by then.
While lying in bed Andresen has, as usual, done a lot of fantasising about the war and what might happen soon, and about peace and what might happen then. Italy declared war on the Central Powers in May; the British attacked up in Flanders and the French attacked with great tenacity at Arras; exceptionally severe fighting has surged across the crater-covered Loretto Heights; and the rumour going round is that the United States and several Balkan countries will soon join Germany’s opponents. Andresen is amazed at how self-confidently many Germans have reacted to the growing threats: they say that it will probably lengthen the war but that Germany will nevertheless be victorious in the end. For his own part he hopes that the great political developments—real or imaginary—will lead to peace. He knows what he intends to do in that case. Before August 1914 he worked as a teacher in Vinding for a full six months and he wants to return to that after the war, to continue working in popular education and with young people. And he dreams of building himself a small house, a house no bigger than “Aunt Dorothea’s hen-house but very romantic both inside and outside.”
In recent days, however, the situation has become severe around Roye, which lies only some six miles from the section of the front held by his regiment. They have been able to hear the sound of artillery fire day and night and it is said that the French infantry has broken through the line. He has been spared that battle, thank God. And that is not the only thing: since the hospital beds are soon going to be needed for the hordes of freshly wounded men, all the convalescents are to be evacuated—to Germany, according to the word that is going round.
He knows nothing of this at first, since he spends a large part of Sunday lying on the fresh green grass under a pear tree, the warm air filled with the softly rolling murmur of the distant guns. As evening approaches he goes and listens to a church concert and it is only when he has limped back to the hospital that he hears what is going on. Andresen immediately packs his things. To Germany! His weapons and the bulk of his military equipment go in one pile, his private possessions in another. Their names are called out, they are provided with travel documents, and each of them has a small cardboard label—name, unit, injury and so on—attached to his chest. Their marching orders come at eleven o’clock.
They climb into motor cars, five men to a car, and roar off into the summer night. Along the road they pass a number of high-ranking officers who are standing at the roadside studying a horizon which is sparkling with muzzle-flashes and shell-bursts, searchlights and the signal rockets that are slowly spinning down. But this is no longer of any concern to him.
We’re all off to Germany and I really don’t know how to express my joy. Away from the battle and away from the shells. Soon we shan’t be able to hear the guns any more. And we are travelling through fertile countryside and past smiling villages. My travelling mood is one of joy, of Sunday peace and ringing bells. Home, home and onwards.
The intention is that they should change in Chauny and the rest of the journey will be by train. They gather in a large park and a doctor carries out a new examination of those waiting. When he reaches Andresen he studies his papers and then tears the cardboard label from his chest. That is the end of the journey for him. As far as the doctor is concerned Andresen is sufficiently recovered to return to the front in just a couple more days.
Andresen walks away, utterly crestfallen; everything is suddenly just “black and black.”
When he eventually returns to the park he sees the others all lined up. Several of them shout to him. His name has been called out—he is going to Germany after all! Andresen has hardly joined the ranks before it is discovered that he lacks the cardboard label on his chest. He is once again ordered to leave the group: “Farewell leave! Farewell home! I’m going back to the war again!”
FRIDAY, 11 JUNE 1915
Florence Farmborough hears of the breakthrough on the San
This is their third week in Molodych. That first panic-driven retreat after the breakthrough at Gorlice has now been forgotten—well, almost forgotten. The Third Army has lost an unbelievable 200,000 men—140,000 of them as prisoners of war—since those days at the beginning of May, but now it has occupied a new and apparently strong position along the broad River San. Reinforcements have arrived, at last. And orders have come down from the highest level: here, right here, the Germans and Austrians will finally be stopped. No more retreats!uu Battles have raged along the river and both sides have made minor attacks.vv One evening Florence saw large numbers of grey-uniformed German prisoners for the first time; they came walking along a road in the moonlight, wearing their typical pickelhaubes and guarded by mounted Cossacks. Rumour has it that the enemy has suffered major losses. There is new hope.
There is virtually no fighting going on where Florence is and that certainly reinforces the feeling that the crisis is probably over. There has been plenty of time for other things, such as washing down by the river and celebrating Italy’s entry into the war or her own name-day. She has done a lot of walking in the silent, green woods, picking the abundant flowers of early summer. Apart from the usual cases of typhus and cholera things have been so quiet that several of the nurses have become impatient and started talking of applying to other units where they might be of more use. Their superintendent has tried to calm them down, hinting that the unit will soon be moved anyway, possibly to the Eighth Army down at Lemberg and perhaps even to the Caucasus. (Good news of the kind everyone longs for is coming in from the Caucasus front: Russian units have begun moving south and across the Ottoman border, encouraged by talk of unrest and rebellion behind the Turkish lines.)
It is now three o’clock in the afternoon. Florence Farmborough is sitting outside her tent, resting after the day’s work. Everything is calm, as usual. She sees four orderlies carrying off some bodies in order to bury them in the improvised cemetery in the adjoining field. She hears the clapping noise made by a pair of storks that have built a nest on the thatched roof of a farm. A man from the other rapid-response unit comes up to her and hands her a letter addressed to their doctor. She asks him in passing how things are at his unit. The man tells her “with suppressed excitement” that bullets from shrapnel shells fell close to them that morning and the unit is preparing to move. The Germans have broken through on the San river!
She is shaken by the news but is not really convinced that it is true. She can, however, hear the noise of heavy artillery fire in the distance but, towards dinnertime, when she asks around among the others they are as sceptical as she is. After dinner she returns to her tent, which smells of the heat. There she meets Anna, another of the nurses, and Anna wearily confirms the news. The rumours of a breakthrough on the San are true:
It is said they are pouring over in masses and nothing can stop them. We have the men, but we haven’t the means. Whole regiments are said to be without a cartridge, and only a certain number of batteries can continue shelling.
Anna adds: “The result will be that our armies will be butchered, and it is but a day’s march into Russia.” She conjures up a picture of a Russia invaded and laid waste and the mental image is too much for her. She throws herself down on the bed, covers her face with her arms and weeps noisily. Florence makes a clumsy effort to stem her tears: “ ‘Annushka,’ I said, ‘stop; this is not worthy of your nature.’ ” Anna removes her arms from her face and gives Florence a dark look: “ ‘Nature!’ she flashed, ‘what is this talk of nature?’ ” Then the words pour out of her. “ ‘Is it God’s nature to allow this wholesale destruction? Not only does one lose one’s nature among all this carnage, but one’s soul dies too!’ ” And she carries on weeping. Florence says nothing: “I did not attempt to comfort her; I could find no comfort to give.”
Then the final confirmation arrives in the form of an order to prepare to move. They start packing, a task that is interrupted when a large group of wounded men suddenly arrives:
When we saw them we knew that the worst had happened; they were dazed and their faces were lined with an anxiety which dominated the keenness of their pain and there was that something in their eyes that checked all questioning.
Darkness falls. The thunder of distant guns fades and falls silent. A battery of artillery pieces swings into a nearby field and unlimbers. Florence and the others take down their tents in the soft night mist. Then they hear noises from the road. When Florence goes closer she sees that it is full of mounted men—Cossacks. She sees a farm boy run past and disappear towards the woods, his head bent low. She hears screaming and tumult: the Cossacks are going through the farms systematically one by one and gathering all the animals they can take with them—pigs, cows and chickens. They are also gathering all the men and tying them up.ww Florence sees some Cossacks wrestling a young man to the ground while a woman screams shrilly.
Then the Cossacks go off along the road taking their two- and four-legged booty with them. The screams of the women continue without break. Later, when Florence and the rest of her unit move off in the darkness on their overloaded horse-drawn carts, the wailing can still be heard.
It is a beautiful, clear, starry night.
TUESDAY, 15 JUNE 1915
Alfred Pollard is waiting for dawn at Hooge
It is a hot day, with no wind. They are in full battle kit and have eight miles to march before they reach the launching point for the attack. Things are easy at the start as they trudge along the always busy road from Poperinghe to Ypres. They are hemmed in by other units on foot, both large and small, and by “limbers drawn by horses, limbers drawn by mules; endless ammunition columns; siege guns and howitzers; strings of lorries; motor cycle dispatch riders.” They realise they are going to be taking part in a big and important attack since they can also see cavalry, battle-ready and waiting for that much-discussed hole to be punched through the German lines at last so that they can pour through—sabres drawn, picturesque pennants waving and suitably dramatic poses—and make the war mobile again.
This is Alfred Pollard’s first attack. He is full of fervour, almost happy in fact. Months of frustration and disappointment are finally over. Up to this point the war has not turned out as he expected. He has been ill with jaundice, suspected of being a malingerer (him! malingerer!), been an officer’s batman and worked as a cook. The woman he has fallen in love with hardly ever writes. The war he had fantasised about has not yet materialised—far less the heroism he’d dreamt of. But now, at last.
The mood of the men in his unit undergoes a marked change the closer they get to the front. He knows the phenomenon:
Leaving the line, when every step means a further distance from bullets and shells, there is an atmosphere of gaiety; songs are heard, jokes are exchanged, laughter is frequent. Going up, on the other hand, is a very different business. There is an air of seriousness, remarks are answered in monosyllables; men are mostly silent, occupied with their own thoughts. Some laugh and chatter from a sense of bravado, or to prevent their imaginations from becoming too active; others to bolster up the shrinking spirits of their weaker comrades. Only a few are natural.
Immediately before the notorious stretch called Hell Fire Corner the mass of men marching in step along the road is directed away and out across the sun-warmed fields. They are still not under fire but a solitary shell comes whistling down from the blue sky, explodes and knocks the battalion’s mounted adjutant from the saddle. So it has started. The ranks go very quiet. “We were going into something of which we had no experience. No man felt sure he would live through the coming ordeal.”
Finally, they come to a halt in a field where they are to wait until dusk. During the wait the field kitchen is driven up and the soldiers are given hot tea. Immediately afterwards the horse-drawn kitchen wagons withdraw to the safety of the camp. As he watches them disappear Pollard wonders how many of his companions would really like to be going out of danger along with the cooks. Then he turns the question round and thinks that perhaps some of those leaving are envious of those who are staying.
When the sun goes down they continue their march. Spread out in a single line, they disappear into the half-darkness, following and stumbling along a railway track. The trenches waiting for them at the launching point for the attack are new, narrow and shallow. They have to wait there “herded into ours literally like sardines,” in full kit, sitting in uncomfortable positions. They smoke and chat. There are simple, rough ladders ready and waiting—they have only three rungs. Although nothing is going to happen before dawn and sleep is the only truly reliable blessing left to the soldiers of this war, Pollard finds it impossible to doze off:
Not only was I too uncomfortable but I was far too excited. In a few hours I was to go over the top for the first time. I felt no trace of fear or even nervousness; only an anxiety to get started. The hours seemed interminable. Would the dawn never come?
An hour before the attack Pollard is sent up to the forward line to act as runner for the first wave. He is pleased. He does not think of the fact that it increases his chances of being killed or wounded. It is not a case of ignorance on his part. (In March, at the same time as the battle later known as Neuve Chapelle was ending in failure and dreadful losses for the British, he watched at close quarters and in a state of impotent despair as an attacking unit was mown down virtually to the last man by the crossfire from German Maxim machine guns.) It is rather a case of Pollard’s naively childlike streak once again revealing itself: he feels that death can only strike others, not him. They have, moreover, been promised massive artillery support on this occasion—unlike in March when the contribution of the British artillery was little more than symbolic. And his role also means that he will increase his chances of doing what he has been longing to do for so long—use his weapons: “With luck I might bayonet a Hun.”
The artillery firestorm begins: “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Swisch! Swisch! Swisch! Swisch! Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump!”xx It is soon so fierce that shouting is insufficient to make himself heard, he has to scream right in the ear of the man he is talking to. When soil begins to fall on his head now and again Pollard realises that the Germans are returning their fire. The soldiers around fiddle with their equipment. Their captain turns round in all the noise, smiles and mouths the words, “Only a minute to go.” They all stand up. The short ladders are put in place. The soldiers, their rifles with fixed bayonets on their backs, take up position by them, one foot ready on the lowest rung. The captain drops his hand as a signal and climbs up. Pollard is right behind him.
The attack is successful. The losses are appalling.
FRIDAY, 18 JUNE 1915
Rafael de Nogales witnesses the massacre in Sairt
They arrive rather too late, and he is very glad that they do. At a distance it is a pastoral idyll that opens out before their eyes. Herds of cows and buffalo are grazing quietly in the green fields and some dromedaries are resting by a spring under a turquoise sky. The town of Sairt is a peaceful sight: a labyrinth of oblong white houses with six slim minarets rising above them “like alabaster needles.”
They ride closer.
That is when Rafael de Nogales’s eyes fall on the hill.
That morning, with no beating about the bush (with a degree of satisfaction, in fact), a couple of the Turkish officers in his party said that now that all the preparations in Bitlis were complete they were just waiting for the order from above for the killing to start in Sairt. So they would have to hurry if he wanted to see it.
But they did not get there in time.
The hill lies right by the main road. It is covered with … something. Soon he can see what that something is. The slope …
… was crowned with thousands of half-naked and still bleeding bodies, lying in heaps, tangled, as if in a last embrace in death. Fathers, brothers, sons and grandsons lay as they fell from the bullets or the murderers’ yatagans. Heartbeats were still pumping the life-blood out of some slashed throats. Flocks of vultures sat on top of the heap, picking the eyes out of the dead and dying, whose rigid gaze still seemed to mirror terror and inexpressible pain, while carrion dogs sank their sharp teeth into entrails still pulsing with life.
The field of bodies stretches right down to the road and in order to advance they eventually have to let their horses jump over these “mountains of corpses.” Shocked and stunned, de Nogales rides into Sairt where the police and the Muslim part of the population are busy plundering the houses of the Christians. He meets some of the people in authority in the district, among them the head of the town’s gendarmes, who had personally led the massacre. De Nogales receives confirmation once again that the murder of all Christian males over twelve years old is not, as in the past, a more or less spontaneous pogrom but is actually a thoroughly planned operation conceived at the centre.
He is given quarters for the night in one of the plundered buildings. De Nogales realises now that the attack is no longer aimed only at Armenians but at other Christian groups as well. This house, in fact, belonged to a Syrian family. It has been stripped of its contents apart from a couple of broken chairs. There is no trace of its former owners with the exception of an English dictionary and a tiny little picture of the Virgin Mary hidden away in a corner. Bloodstains are visible on the floor and walls.
Later, as he sits with a group of very polite and pleasant officers outside the garrison mess, the ghastly scenes continue. He is horrified but does nothing to prevent them. With the help of a forced smile he mimics understanding. A mob goes by, dragging the corpses of some children and an old man, their skulls bouncing slackly on the round cobbles of the street. The people standing around spit or swear at the corpses. De Nogales also sees a group of gendarmes leading an old man of venerable appearance:
His black robe and purple cap clearly showed him to be a Nestorian bishop.yy Drops of blood were trickling down his forehead and flowing down his cheeks like the scarlet tears of martyrdom. As he passed us his eyes gave me a long look as if he could see that I too was a Christian, but then he passed on and away to that dreadful hill.
At sunset Rafael de Nogales rides out of Sairt accompanied by his Albanian batman, the tall and well-built Tasim, and seven mounted gendarmes. De Nogales fears for his life. There is a rumour that those above want to see him liquidated, and doubts have been expressed as to his loyalty. The ride takes them south through trackless country. He wants to get to Aleppo. There he is going to apply for a discharge from the Ottoman army.
TUESDAY, 22 JUNE 1915
Laura de Turczynowicz hears the fall of Lemberg being celebrated in Suwalki
A summer evening. Laura is in the house bathing the children. A church bell rings. Then another bell begins to toll, followed immediately by two more, three more, many more. It sounds as if all the churches in Suwalki are ringing their bells and the warm air is filled with their harmonious, vibrating tones. But why?
As usual, they know little or nothing about what is happening on the battlefields. The war for them is less an event to be followed than a condition to be endured. Which should not be taken to imply that the battles are meaningless: Laura and all those round her have been hoping and praying for a Russian breakthrough, for the return of the Russian army, for liberation. Recently, however, they have heard the distant roar of battle growing louder, then weaker and finally fading away. There are rumours of German victories. So what has happened?
She is still hanging on to that wild hope. The bells are ringing and Laura’s immediate thought is that the Russians have finally broken through and the Germans are ringing the bells to warn their troops in and around Suwalki that they are being encircled. A woman friend rushes in, out of breath, excited and expectant. What is happening?
Once she has got the children to bed Laura and her friend try to find out. They go out onto the balcony and look out over the streets. They can see German troops cheering and singing in the evening sunlight. Their disappointment is immediate: “We came down so rapidly from our high hopes, with hearts sick and sore from hope deferred, that I hardly cared what it was.” But what was it?
One of the German hospital assistants sees her on the balcony and shouts joyfully: “Lemberg has fallen!”
The Austro-Hungarian city, which has been in the hands of the Russian army since September last year, has been recaptured. It is a great victory for the Central Powers, almost enough—but only almost—to erase the memory of last year’s great defeat for the Austro-Hungarians in Galicia. It is also a personal disaster for Laura de Turczynowicz: Lemberg is where her husband, Stanislaw, is stationedzz and she has not heard from him for a long time.
Anxiety and uncertainty overwhelm her. Is Stanislaw still alive? Has he been taken prisoner? Did he manage to get away? “The bells kept up their din—they seemed to beat one into the ground.”
WEDNESDAY, 14 JULY 1915
Michel Corday celebrates Bastille Day in Paris
It is an overcast summer day with the sun occasionally breaking through the blanket of cloud. Michel Corday notes in his journal:
Silent crowds of people. Wounded men, some of them with limbs amputated, soldiers on leave in greatcoats faded by the sun. As many people collecting money as there are spectators, and they are asking for contributions to a variety of benevolent causes. The regiments march past with their bands; remember that all these men are on their way to the slaughter.
At the Place de l’Étoile he sees the Foreign Minister Théophile Delcassé arrive in an open motor car. Delcassé is probably the man who has worked hardest to bring Italy into the war and he is clearly hoping to be cheered. The great crowd remains silent, however.aaa Corday interprets the silence as an unconscious protest against the war but at the same time he suspects that there would have been wild jubilation if there had been a victory to boast of. (One of the attendants at the ministry discovered a while ago that the small flags marking the front lines on the department’s war map had cobwebs on them.) “The Marseillaise” rings through the air and woe betide anyone who does not remove his hat. There is the buzz of aeroplanes in the sky overhead.
President Raymond Poincaré speaks. Once again he produces an aggressive, highly emotive and cliché-laden speech about fighting “to the bitter end.” Poincaré is notorious for his ham-fisted rhetoric. An article by him was published in May that some people assumed, in view of all its banality, to be a parody: it proved to be authentic. The president points to the ultimate aim of the war, which is “to banish the nightmare of German megalomania.” Corday believes “There are premonitory signs here of the ill-omened results that could result from a one-sided peace. In that case he is condemning our country to a struggle so drawn out that it could almost be fatal.”
For once, it is almost possible to be conscious of the war even in Paris. Almost.
THURSDAY, 29 JULY 1915
Elfriede Kuhr listens to nocturnal singing in Schneidemühl
It is dark. The air is warm. A late summer night. She does not know why she wakes up. Perhaps it is the bright moonlight. Because of the heat she is sleeping on a chaise longue out on the veranda. Everything is silent, utterly silent. The only sound to be heard is the reassuring tick of the grandfather clock in the living room. Quite suddenly Elfriede hears singing, faint but melodious and coming from the railway station next to the house. She pricks up her ears, does not recognise the tune and listens for the words. She hears more and more voices joining in and the singing grows stronger: “Es ist bestimmt in Gottes Rat, dass man vom Liebsten, das man hat, muss scheiden.”bbb
The song rises ever stronger, ever more sonorous and clear into the bright, starry night sky, while she sinks, deeper and deeper and deeper. We are always reluctant to leave childhood and we do so step by step; at this moment Elfriede has been affected by one of those insights from which a child never really recovers and which an adult always laments. She curls up on her chaise longue and she weeps:
Why were the soldiers singing like this in the middle of the night? And why this particular song? It wasn’t a soldier’s song. Were the people singing it actually soldiers? Perhaps it was a transport train reaching our town and carrying army coffins with fallen men? Perhaps their mothers and fathers and widows and orphans and girlfriends were on the train? Did they weep as I wept?
Then she hears something from her grandmother’s bedroom—the sound of someone blowing their nose. Elfriede gets up, tiptoes carefully in to her grandmother and says beseechingly, “Can I creep into bed with you for a while?” At first her grandmother is reluctant, but then she lifts the covers and says, “Come on, then.” She cuddles up with her grandmother, presses her head to her grandmother’s breast and sobs. Her grandmother’s forehead is pressed against Elfriede’s hair, and Elfriede can feel that she is crying too.
Neither of them explains why, they make no excuses and they ask no questions.
SATURDAY, 7 AUGUST 1915
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky is resting to the north-east of Warsaw
His company left the city yesterday, without losing any men, even though they had to travel along streets close to the river that were directly open to fire from German machine guns. They saw that the Germans were avoiding firing on civilians so Lobanov-Rostovsky hired civilian horse-drawn cabs to disguise his own wagons. Today it is calm and they are taking advantage of it …
… to rest and take stock of our position and war materials. We were told by the Staff that the enemy had crossed the Vistula in several places but so far was not molesting our forces except for small cavalry patrols which had appeared near by. On the other hand, strategically speaking, we seemed to be at the bottom of a sack as the two corps on our flanks had retreated more quickly than we had.
SUNDAY, 8 AUGUST 1915
Vincenzo D’Aquila is laughed at in Piacenza
The smell of coal smoke. A baking sun. Dust. No one is there to meet them when the train stops at the station. The whole town seems empty of people, most of whom seem to have hidden indoors to avoid the worst of the heat. They have to find their own way through narrow, stifling alleyways to get to the army barracks to enlist.
He is more than a little disappointed not to be greeted with some gratitude at least, even if not with enthusiasm. D’Aquila and the rest of them have braved the Atlantic and the roving German U-boats in order to risk their lives “for the greatness of the Italian fatherland.” Early one bright summer morning he crept out of the house in New York, hid in the hall until his father had passed and then set off for the harbour, where the vessel that would take him to Europe was lying. Not just him: he was one of about 500 Italian-Americans who were intending to enlist in the Italian army. He remembers that all sorts of people were crowded together on board: “the fools and the wise, the strong and the weak. Every walk of life was represented: doctors and quacks, lawyers and shysters, workers and drones, adventurers and vagabonds.” He had also noticed, with some surprise, that many of them, in their eagerness, had come armed with weapons such as stilettos, small automatic pistols and sawn-off shotguns. He had walked impatiently round the foredeck waiting for the foghorn to announce that it was time to cast off, time for the adventure to begin. Vincenzo D’Aquila has thick, dark, curly hair, an open face, with a straight nose and a weak mouth. The impression he gives is of someone rather uncertain and slightly shy.
He was already feeling the first pangs of disappointment when they stepped ashore into the Mediterranean sun in Naples. He had been expecting an enthusiastic welcome, been hoping for “frantic cheering, flag waving, band playing, scattering of flowers by pretty Neapolitan maidens.” Instead they were herded unceremoniously into a roasting-hot customs hall where they had to wait half a day before a lawyer in a Panama hat and light-coloured suit climbed up on a suitcase and gave a speech. That was all. Apart from that, no one seemed to care.
Things did not improve when it was discovered that some of his papers had got lost in the bureaucratic muddle and the army officials initially refused to enlist him. He was not the only one getting cold feet: quite a few of those who had been on the ship had second thoughts by this stage and had either taken French leave or packed themselves off home to New York again. D’Aquila has not reached that stage: he is still curious “to see what a real war looks like.” (Although deep in his heart he is hoping that it will be over before he actually reaches the front, in which case he will be able to sail back to the United States without having to do anything to justify his status as hero.)
After weeks of waiting and just when D’Aquila is on the point of giving up, he is informed that they have found the missing documentation. After a hasty medical examination he is enlisted in the infantry and put on a train for Piacenza, where he is to do his basic military training. When the train stops at a small station along the way he sees a simple coffin containing the body of a dead soldier being lifted down on to the platform. The other volunteers are drinking wine and singing obscene songs.
The barracks of the 25th Regiment in Piacenza are virtually empty. Eventually they come across some men in uniform just sitting around. He and the other volunteers—with, one imagines, some pride—tell them why they have come. The uniformed men burst into mocking laughter. They find it incomprehensible—no, simply stupid—no, crazy—to leave a peaceful life on the other side of the globe voluntarily in order to take part in “the madness in which the old world was then engaged.” The new arrivals are greeted with a shower of abusive names: “fools,” “donkeys,” “boneheads.” The uniformed men themselves are intending to do anything they can to avoid the trenches. The volunteers are far from welcome as far as they are concerned: by coming here they will merely lengthen this unjust war—and all the suffering.
D’Aquila is now more than a little disillusioned. These repeated disappointments have stirred a hint of doubt in his passionate and easily moved temperament. “Our full-blown bubble of self-glorification was finally beginning to burst.” He and his friend Frank, a naive and cheerful young man he met on the boat on the way over, go out into the town again. D’Aquila visits a barber to get a shave. They return to the barracks in the evening and are received by a non-commissioned officer. It is too late for regrets now. He spends that night in a large barrack room, sleeping on a mattress stuffed with straw.
WEDNESDAY, 11 AUGUST 1915ccc
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky oversleeps in the neighbourhood of Tchapliddd
The corporal was actually supposed to wake them all at one o’clock. When Lobanov-Rostovsky and the men in his company bedded down at the farm, the idea was that they would just rest for a couple of hours in the dark and then set off on the march again. They are well aware that the rearguard is due to continue its retreat at two o’clock and after that time there will be nothing between them and the pursuing Germans.
Just a couple of hours’ rest, then.
They are, in fact, beyond exhaustion. Earlier, Lobanov-Rostovsky was suffering from a lack of anything to do, now his problem is the opposite one. The company of sappers is fully occupied during the great retreat: if they are not blowing up bridges, setting fire to houses or tearing up railway lines, they have to assist various units in the building of trenches and everything that involves—not just digging or blasting their way down into the earth but also clearing fields-of-fire and erecting assault barriers. Unfortunately, they do not have any barbed wire, no more than they have planks and nails or even ammunition, but they still erect posts which, at a distance, might fool the Germans into believing that the position is stronger than it really is. They have spent the last forty-eight hours building trenches for an infantry regiment—dreadful work and much of it done in the rain. They finished the position just in time to receive orders to abandon it.
The retreat goes on.
Lobanov-Rostovsky has a sensitive nature and he is not only tired, he is also depressed. He admitted this openly to his immediate superior, Gabrialovich, a day or so ago, confessing, “My nerves are beginning to go to pieces.” Gabrialovich was indifferent, suggesting that his lieutenant was not depressed, just tired. Then he started talking about something else. Lobanov-Rostovsky is also quite concerned about his books—he has some French novels and a number of bulky history books. Anton, Lobanov-Rostovsky’s loyal batman, sees no point in carting this lot around, especially as he is the one who does much of the carting. Lobanov-Rostovsky has to keep a careful eye on Anton to make sure he does not let the books disappear. The batman is particularly careless with the great three-volume work on Napoleon and Tsar Alexander by the French historian Albert Vandal: he often packs this in a way that puts the volumes at risk of sliding out while they are on the march.
So, just a couple of hours of rest, then. After that they will continue to retreat.
Lobanov-Rostovsky is the first to wake. He realises at once that something is wrong since it is broad daylight outside. He looks at his watch. Six o’clock. They have overslept by five hours.
He wakes Gabrialovich, not without some difficulty, who orders him to rouse the men, who are sleeping by the carts in the farmyard, and to bring them into the barn in complete silence. Then he is to take a cautious look to see whether the Germans have already occupied the town.
They have not.
They start moving immediately.
Their concern now is that, as well as being threatened by the German cavalry they know to be somewhere behind them, they are running the risk of being fired on by the Russian units retreating in front of them. No-man’s-land in every sense. What is more, they know from their own experience that all the bridges are being blown or burnt, so will there be any way for them to cross the river?
In order to limit one of these dangers they reverse the usual order of march and put the wagons with the explosives, equipment—and books—in the lead and let the troops march along at the back. This seems to be effective since they reach the river without being attacked by their own side, and nor do they see any Germans. By great good fortune, on reaching the sparkling green river they find that one bridge is still standing: “Soldiers of an unknown regiment were preparing to destroy it and looked at us in wide-eyed amazement.”
They reach the railway that runs to Bialystok at around eleven o’clock—that is also in the process of being demolished. A large armoured train is steaming back section by section while soldiers tear up the track behind it. Lobanov-Rostovsky’s unit follows the train. First they blow up a bridge, then they come to a railway station which, as a matter of course, they set fire to.
The flames are already licking up the wooden walls of the building when Lobanov-Rostovsky notices a cat wandering around up on the roof, terrified and screaming helplessly. He goes and finds a ladder and climbs up to save the cat:
The animal was scratching with his claws in such terror that it was unsafe to attempt to climb down with him so I hurled him from the two-storey building. He made two somersaults in midair, landed on four paws, and, with his tail erect, disappeared into the bushes.
MONDAY, 23 AUGUST 1915
Angus Buchanan guards the railway at Maktau
It is early morning. Standing guard is a cold business with the strong monsoon coming in from the south-west. At around half past five dawn begins to break and a wet mist rises and blankets the flat bush below them. The forms of the landscape become faint, vague, are blotted out. Visibility becomes virtually nil. Everything is silent except for the sounds of guineafowl, hornbills and other birds greeting the rising sun with their calls and chattering.
Buchanan and the rest of this temporary picket are guarding the Uganda railway, which passes through Maktau on its way up from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu on Lake Victoria. It has been a calm night. For once, one might say. Over the last week there have been almost daily engagements with German patrols from over the border who have been trying to sabotage the railway traffic. Yesterday they succeeded in blowing up a section of track, causing a train to be derailed.
That is what the war looks like in East Africa, at least for the moment: no major battles at all but patrols, skirmishes, tentative scouting, more or less successful ambushes—pinpricks across the borders. The distances are immense.eee Roughly 10,000 armed men are looking for each other in an area the size of western Europe but where communications are almost non-existent. The most difficult task is not to defeat the enemy, it is to find him. Any sort of movement demands an army of bearers.
Both the climate and nature present a bewildering variety that is difficult to cope with. There is everything from damp, tropical jungle and snow-capped mountain massifs to dry savannah; what is routinely referred to simply as “bush” might consist of open plains resembling parkland or dense and almost impenetrable forests. What is more, the combatants are frequently moving across frontiers that in many ways are abstractions, arrogantly drawn on the map with a ruler and aniline pencil at some distant negotiating table in Europe without any noticeable regard for the people, languages and cultures of the places in question, nor even for the boundaries defined by nature herself.
Yet, however limited it may be, the fighting here has resulted in the colonialist logic that once created these peculiar frontiers, being replaced by a logic created by the war itself. Gone are the days of the autumn of 1914 when local governors attempted to prevent any military action. There is no longer any point in referring to old agreements or arguing that a war among whites will inevitably undermine their dominion over Africa’s blacks.fff The Belgians and the French have already marched into Cameroon and Togo, and the rapid success of the latter invasion in particular has been the deciding factor in the decision that German East Africa must also be conquered. And just as the British fleet ignored right from the start the colonial administrators’ edict that there should be no war in Africa, a military leader on the German side—Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who would soon achieve legendary status—disregarded the obstinate pacifism of his own civilian authorities, armed a steamship and sent it out to wage war on Lake Tanganyika, while also making aggressive raids into Rhodesia and British East Africa.
Which is why Angus Buchanan and the troops with him have just spent a cold and sleepless night on a hill near Maktau. German patrols are somewhere out there in the misty bush, though on this particular night they have kept their distance. Well, there are Germans and Germans: those in command of the small groups are Germans, clad in all the usual accoutrements of the colonists—light-coloured uniforms, cork tropical helmets and commanding appearance—but the soldiers are all professional native soldiers,askaris, who have been given the same training, weapons and trust as white soldiers. British decision-makers consider this to be utter madness: they want to avoid arming the Africans and hope instead to wage the war by bringing in units from South Africa and India, and by using white volunteers and troops shipped over from Europe.
Buchanan has seen little of the fighting so far, apart from one spectacular raid he and his fellow soldiers took part in last June. They attacked the small German harbour at Bukoba on the far shore of Lake Victoria. It took them a day and a half to cross the lake by boat, two days—part of the time in thunderstorms and torrential rain—to chase out the German defenders, and a couple of hours to loot the town. From a military point of view the action was meaningless, but it did serve to boost morale and looked good in the newspapers. Like quite a few of the events in this war, its primary purpose was to generate newsprint.
At nine o’clock in the morning Buchanan and his fellows are relieved. Taking their weapons and equipment, they walk back to camp through the shadows created by the fluttering leaves.
Life in the camp is the same from day to day. Reveille is at 5:30, parade and sick parade at 6:30, after which they work on the defences and fortifications until breakfast at 8:00. The meal almost always consists of tea, bread and cheese. Then another parade at 9:00, followed by more work on the defences and fortifications. As Buchanan’s own account tells us:
They laboured on in the heat, swearing and joking (I think a soldier will joke, aye, even in H—) and perspiring, and with faces and clothes smothered in the fine red lava sand, which was raised by the labouring picks and shovels, or which incessantly wafted downwards in gusts off the bare compound of the encampment.
The digging goes on until lunch, when they are given exactly the same food as in the morning except that the cheese is replaced by jam. The sun is now at its zenith in the blazing African sky and the heat makes physical work impossible so everything comes to a halt. Some of the men try to sleep “under stifling hot canvas,” others wash clothes, bathe naked or play cards in the shade. There are always great swarms of flies everywhere. At 16:30 there is another parade, followed by an hour and a half’s digging. Dinner is served after 18:00 and
consisted always of badly cooked stew, an unchanging dish which became deadly monotonous, and which, in time, many men could not touch, their palate revolted so strongly against the unseasoned, uninviting mixture.
The diet is sometimes varied with the contents of parcels from home, sometimes with the meat of an animal they have managed to shoot. And sometimes merchants from Goa turn up, but their wares are exceptionally expensive, at least in comparison to normal British prices: a pound of tea, which at home would fetch a price of 1s 10d, sells here for 2s 6½d; a bottle of Worcester sauce, which goes for 9d at home, costs 2s here. The incidence of ill-health has increased enormously in recent months and Buchanan believes that at least half the cases are a result of the lack of adequate nutrition.
There is more digging after dinner and it does not stop until the light has faded into a twilight that saps all the colour from the world. The sun goes down quickly at this latitude. The remainder of the day consists of moonlight, the whine of mosquitoes and the smells of burning rubbish and red lava sand.
MONDAY, 30 AUGUST 1915
Sarah Macnaughtan gives a lecture in Cardiff
Her lecture tour began at the start of June and she has already spoken in many places: Erith, London, Sheffield, Barrow-in-Furness, Newcastle, Parkhead, Whiteinch, Rosebank, Dumbarton, Greenock; Beardmore’s and Denny’s shipyards. The venues have almost always been full and the audiences have sometimes numbered upwards of 3,000. Bands have played and the atmosphere has been tense—she has seen and heard grown men weep. The experience has been a powerful one for her, too: “The cheers of horny-handed workmen when they are really roused just get me by the throat till I can’t speak for a minute or two.” She recognises how important it all is: “Somehow I knew that I must speak, that I must arouse slackers, and tell rotters what is going on.”
After the meetings she has a feeling of unreality. She lies in bed in the dark and all she can see is “a sea of faces, and eyes all turned my way.” She refuses to accept payment for her lectures. She feels tired but satisfied.
Her energy is by no means at an end. One of the women she worked with earlier in Belgium has asked her whether she will come to the Russian front with a volunteer ambulance unit. After some private but well-concealed doubts Macnaughtan has said yes. Duty again: how could she have done otherwise? There is important work to be done in Russia: “The Russian wounded are suffering terribly, and getting no doctors, nurses, or field ambulances.” Her maid has tried to advise her against going: “I feel sure you will never return alive, ma’am.”
Macnaughtan is currently in South Wales to give a series of fourteen lectures to audiences made up predominantly of coal miners. Her tour of this district is supported by the Bute family, major mine-owners, who have her to stay with them in Cardiff Castle for the duration of the tour. There she walks in the garden, meets the organising committee and writes a little. At midday she stands on the back of a lorry and addresses several hundred dock workers.
The big meeting of the day is later that evening and is held in Cardiff’s grand City Hall. The event has been advertised as “Stories and Pictures of the War” and it is packed. A military band plays and Macnaughtan is introduced by the Lord Mayor, who takes the opportunity to tell them she has just been awarded the Belgian honour “Chevalier de l’Ordre de Léopold.” All eyes turn to the little woman on the stage.
And Sarah speaks.
About the war: that it is the result of a German plan, a plan that has been many years in the preparation, and it has to be seen as a test of character for all of them. About Great Britain: that the nation is afflicted by selfishness and greed, and that strikes and quarrels and the class struggle are crippling the country. About duty and principles: that this is a time when they must all gather round the flag; that they must ask whether all those present are really doing what they can. About the British army: that it may be small but it is the finest army in the history of the world (she is interrupted by applause at this point). Macnaughtan is a good speaker: energetic and clear and with a good rapport with her audience.
A local journalist reports the rest of the speech:
Miss Macnaughtan then related a number of interesting incidents, one of which was, that when a party of wounded Englishmen came to a station where she was tending the Belgian wounded, every wounded Belgian gave up their bed to accommodate an English soldier. The idea of a German occupation of English soil, she said, was the idea of a catastrophe that was unspeakable. People read things in the papers and thought they were exaggerated, but she had seen them, and she would show photographs of ruined Belgium which would convince them of what the Germans were now doing in the name of God. However unprepared we were for war, the wounded had been well cared for, and she thought there never was a war in which the care of the wounded had been so well managed or so efficient. (Applause.) They had to be thankful that there had been no terrible epidemic, and she could not speak too highly of the work of the nurses and doctors in the performance of their duties. This was the time for every man to do his duty, and strain every nerve and muscle to bring the war to an end and get the boys home again. (Applause.)
The speaker who follows her asks the audience whether they are prepared “to fight for right till right had won.” They all rise to their feet, raise their hands in the air and roar a resounding “Aye” in unison. Then Macnaughtan shows her lantern slides of villages and towns destroyed by the Germans. The meeting comes to an end.
ONE DAY AT THE END OF AUGUST 1915
Laura de Turczynowicz is filled with despair in Suwalki
The summer is coming to an end. Lemberg has fallen. Zamoś? has fallen. Przasnysz has fallen. Windau has fallen. PuŁtusk has fallen. Ivangorod has fallen. Warsaw has fallen. Kovno has fallen. Novo-Georgievsk has fallen. Brest-Litovsk has fallen. For Laura and the people in Suwalki the seemingly endless series of German victories on the Eastern Front are not just distant abstractions on a map, they also have direct consequences. The armies are moving north-east and the town no longer has any “military significance.” The columns of horse-drawn wagons and singing infantrymen are becoming a less frequent sight and units that have been stationed in the town for some time are now moving on. Things are getting quieter. It is weeks since anyone heard the sound of cannon.
The children are ill again. Dysentery this time, with bloody diarrhoea. Once again she is trapped in a nightmare cycle of vigil and endless worry. A German army doctor who has helped her before helps her again and gives the children cholera serum. The outcome is uncertain. And the shortage of food has become acute.
Laura does not know how much longer she can go on. (She is not alone in this. More and more people in the town are committing suicide, acts of pure despair caused by a lack of food or an equally dreadful lack of hope. One acquaintance hanged herself in a wardrobe.) She has applied several times to the German authorities for permission to leave Poland—she is an American, after all. But permission has been refused every time. She writes:
Something broke down in me those days. I had come to the point where I knew if we were not released it meant giving up my children; and now I wished to give them up rather than see them suffer. I had clung to them so desperately, calling on them not to leave me. They had been left to me, but now I was willing to leave the decision to the Higher Power, not forcing things my way. Looking Death in the eyes, one loses the fear of Him.
One of the twins is in a particularly bad way. She spoon-feeds him with red wine, one drop at a time.
THURSDAY, 9 SEPTEMBER 1915
Michel Corday takes the train to Paris
An autumn morning, and an autumn feel to the air. Michel Corday is on the train to Paris. As usual he finds it hard not to eavesdrop on the conversations of his fellow passengers. Some of them are leafing through the morning papers they have just bought. One of them asks: “Anything new?” The answer is brief: “A Russian victory.” Corday is amazed. Are they unaware of the fact that the Russians have been retreating ever since the German-Austrian breakthrough at Gorlice and Tarnów in the middle of May? Those laconic remarks are the only references to the war on the whole trip from Fontainebleau to Paris.
He recalls another railway journey, when he saw a woman at a station skimming through the official war communiqué in a newspaper and then exclaiming in a very satisfied voice: “We have advanced 400 metres!” Then she immediately proceeded to talk about other things. Corday comments: “That’s enough for them. Enough to satisfy them completely.”
Once he reaches his office he talks on the telephone to Tristan Bernard, a close friend and successful vaudeville writer. Bernard shares Corday’s scepticism about the war and is always quick to make caustic comments about what is going on. Talking of the developments on the Eastern Front he has said that the Russians “always retreat in good order whereas the Germans advance successfully in disorder.” (With reference to the attacks on Tout-Vent and Moulin-sous-Touvent, two places very distant from each other, he claims that one of the attacks was a mistake caused by someone at headquarters quite simply muddling up the names: the attack that was never intended to happen was the one that succeeded.)
These two men know—as do many others—that the Allies are preparing to mount a major offensive up in Artois and in Champagne. Most people are pinning enormous hopes on this. Since the two of them know their conversation might well be listened in to, they have developed a private code so that they can discuss the planned action. They pretend that they are writing a play together and questions about dates are camouflaged as questions about page numbers. Thus, when Bernard enquires whether the manuscript has been expanded or cut, what he really wants to know is whether the date for the offensive has been brought forward or moved back. (At one point there was a rumour that the operation had been cancelled and the question then asked was, “Is it true the manuscript has been thrown in the fire?”) Bernard now asks Corday how many pages the manuscript adds up to. Corday answers, “Fifteen.”
Later Corday reads a circular the Ministry of Education is sending out to all schools before the approaching autumn term. The circular exhorts teachers in all subjects to remind their pupils about the war in the most explicit way possible: “heroic examples and the noble lessons that can be drawn from them” should be given special emphasis.
On this same day Florence Farmborough, who is exhausted, writes in her journal:
At 7 a.m. I tumbled out of bed, I was on duty from 7:30 onwards, and walked downstairs with a heavy head and legs which felt they would crumble under me at every step. Ekaterina, whom I relieved, looked white and drawn from sleeplessness; she was puffing away at a cigarette outside the dressing-room door. “Slava Bogu!” [Thank God!] she said brusquely. “Now I can go and get some sleep,” and she threw the end of her cigarette away. There had been no wounded to occupy her hands; I could well believe that the hours had hung heavily.
Today Laura de Turczynowicz is making a short trip in a cab to visit the area where the family’s summer villa had been. Her mind is easier: her application to be allowed to leave Poland and return to the United States has at last been approved by the German authorities. She writes:
We drove a little way from Suwalki. I wondered why we didn’t come to the woods of Augustów—but then understood. The woods were all gone—graves, myriads of graves instead. I begged the man to turn around; it was too much to bear. The town, in its desolation was not much better—roofless houses, and windowless—and doorless; no animals, no people, and no children! They were gone—wiped out! There I made also a pilgrimage to say good-bye to the old house, our palace! Most of it I had not seen in months, and now I am sorry I looked upon it in its desecration.
FRIDAY, 10 SEPTEMBER 1915
Elfriede Kuhr visits the military cemetery outside Schneidemühl
There is a war cemetery immediately outside the town and it has grown significantly in the last six months. The road there passes through a dark pine wood and then through a beautiful ornamental gateway. Elfriede and a schoolfriend have decided to visit the cemetery today. Elfriede is carrying a bouquet of roses in her hand.
They see an empty, freshly dug grave. Alongside it six spades lie waiting. Elfriede drops her bouquet into the grave and says to her friend, “When a soldier is buried here he will rest on my flowers.” At that moment a small funeral procession enters through the carved gateway: a group of soldiers with rifles comes first, followed by an army chaplain and then a small cart with a plain black coffin. Bringing up the rear is a small funeral party carrying a large burial wreath. The little procession stops at the open grave and the soldiers form up.
The coffin was lifted from the cart and carried to the grave. The command “Attention! Present arms!” rang out. The soldiers stood as if rooted to the ground. The coffin was slowly lowered into the earth. The soldiers removed their helmets and the chaplain said a prayer. Then another command: “Load! Ready! Fire!” The soldiers fired three volleys over the coffin. Six men then stepped forward, took up the spades and shovelled earth on to the coffin lid. It made a dull, hollow sound.
Elfriede stands there trying to imagine how the man in the coffin is slowly disappearing beneath the earth that is being thrown in. “Now his face is covered … now his chest, now his stomach.”
Afterwards they ask the cemetery superintendent who was being buried. “An airman—non-commissioned rank,” he answers. “Almost certainly an accident. But you never know. Sometimes they drink too much.”
SUNDAY, 12 SEPTEMBER 1915
Laura de Turczynowicz travels from Suwalki to Berlin
It is a cold morning, grey and misty. As the cart carrying Laura and the children moves off she takes a last look back. Her glance does not settle on the house but on the piano, the piano that German soldiers carried outside during an alcohol-fuelled party sometime at the beginning of the summer and which has remained out there in the open air ever since. The instrument, once so elegant but now ruined by the rain and the sun, stands crookedly, leaning to one side, with one leg broken.
Laura feels surprisingly little as they leave the grand house behind them. In the same way as the house has been emptied of its contents bit by bit, she has been emptied of emotions. What had once been her home is now just a place of suffering.
Right up to the last minute she is afraid something is going to happen, that someone will suddenly appear and stop them. The station is full of German soldiers who will be travelling on the same train. The children and Laura and their white dog, Dash, climb down and Laura is introduced to the captain who is to be her escort on the journey. Laura is tired since she neither could nor dared sleep the night before, but the captain and his men are even more tired. They have been on the move for six weeks almost without a break and the German officer is so far gone in exhaustion that he can hardly make himself understood.
Laura takes charge of their luggage and makes sure that all three pieces are on board. Then it is time to say a few hasty words of farewell to the cook. Laura gives her a little money and tells her where she has hidden a bottle of ether to be used to put Dash down if there is insufficient food to keep him. It is impossible to take the little dog with them and he has begun to sense it and is becoming agitated.
Then the train departs.
Laura sees the cook disappearing from sight. She sees a friend of the family waving goodbye with her hat. She sees the flat, devastated autumn landscape open out round them. She sees ruins. She sees prisoners of war working. She feels relief but she also feels worried because they are on their way into the country of the enemy. East Prussia. Germany.
Marggrabowa. They get out to change trains and to have their papers inspected. The station is full of people, many of them well-dressed ladies and young women waiting for a transport train of wounded soldiers due to arrive soon. Laura and the children can find no bench to sit on so they sit on the floor in a corner and wait. Time passes. The children are tired and whining. People standing around look at them inquisitively. The children become more and more restless, moan and make a fuss. Laura is at the end of her tether and snaps at them to be quiet and, forgetting herself, does it in English.
The reaction from those around is immediate. “Engländerin!” a couple of the women shriek. Laura tries to explain—“Nein, Amerikanerin!”—but no one listens. She is surrounded by a circle of threatening figures, most of them women, who hurl abuse and throw things at her. Laura presses into the corner, hiding the terrified children under her skirts. After what seems like “a century” the officer escorting her pushes through the crowd and leads them away. They get into the waiting train and Laura sits rubbing gobbets of spit from her clothes.
Insterburg. It is evening by now and they change trains again. The children are “miserable, a little hungry and thirsty.” In spite of having first-class tickets they soon lose their compartment. The train rolls on all night through the dark, foreign countryside.
Berlin. It is six o’clock in the morning.
Three days later Laura de Turczynowicz and her three children cross the border into Holland. At Bentheim they and their luggage—what is left of it—are subjected to a thorough search. Under the supervision of a German official, a woman, they are stripped naked and their clothes are examined so closely that even the linings of their jackets and their shoes are slit open. Laura’s hair is parted with a toothcomb to ensure that there are no hidden messages written on her scalp. Apart from the clothes they are standing in she is permitted to keep only the children’s birth certificates, three photographs and a prayer book. That is all. Then they are allowed to continue. As the train enters Holland she begins to shake uncontrollably.
SATURDAY, 25 SEPTEMBER 1915
René Arnaud sees the start of the great offensive in Champagne
A south-westerly wind. Grey, low clouds. Rain. An ordinary autumn day. But here in south-eastern Champagne and also further to the north, up in Artois, it is anything but ordinary, for the big day—le jour—has at last arrived. In Champagne, two French armies—Pétain’s Second and de Langle de Cary’s Fourth—are about to attack on a front ten miles wide with the aim of driving the Germans up along the Meuse towards Belgium. That is one axis of the offensive. Simultaneously, in Artois, the British and the French are to attack round Loos and the Vimy Ridge. That is the other axis.
It is true that exactly the same thing was tried as recently as last spring, and in almost exactly the same places. And it is true that the successes were small and the losses considerable,ggg but things are different this time: the preparations have been much more thorough and the numbers of attacking soldiers and supporting guns are much greater—about 2,500 artillery pieces have been installed in Champagne. No one seems to wonder whether all these weapons are perhaps being used in the wrong way: the only solution they can imagine is to use more weapons, more guns, more shells. The solution to the equation equals mass and weight.hhh And the aim of this double offensive has been set very high: it is not just a case of winning some ground; the aim is nothing less than “to drive the Germans out of France,” to quote Order of the Day No. 8565 issued by Joseph Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French army, to the troops who are now waiting to attack. The intention is that the order will be read out to the men. And this operation is to be no more than a beginning—breaking through the German lines here in Champagne and up in Artois will signal the start of a general offensive.
It marks a return to the illusions of 1914, more particularly to the dream of a rapid victory.iii Expectations are pitched at the same very high level as the aims and the preparations: if Joffre can pull off what he is promising, the war could be over by Christmas!
René Arnaud is one of the men looking forward to the offensive. He has been impressed by the preparations in terms of their scale, their thoroughness, their mass and their weight: the enormous troop movements, the digging of new connecting trenches, the huge stockpiles of shells, the assemblage of both heavy and light artillery, the number of cavalry ready and waiting and, of course, “the constant buzz of brown and yellow aeroplanes above our heads, targeted unsuccessfully by enemy shells from which white puffs of smoke would suddenly burst into flower in the sky like Japanese paper flowers cast onto water, to be followed immediately by the sound of muffled explosions.” Based on the evidence he can see before him and on Joffre’s promise, Arnaud, too, is convinced that this is the turning point. He writes in a letter home:
Our commanders have promised us success to such an extent that they must be completely convinced of it. And if we were to fail, what a miscalculation that would be, what a crisis of morale and fighting spirit that would imply for all the troops engaged!
The preparations include the distribution of a completely new piece of equipment—the steel helmet. They are quite light, painted blue (to match the new, pale blue-grey uniform), decorated with a small ridge across the top and a flaming grenade badge on the front. The French army is the first to introduce this novelty. As with quite a few other “new” pieces of equipment (steel shields for the trenches, spiked clubs for assault troops, sharpened infantry spades and all the different kinds of hand grenade) they remind one of earlier centuries and reveal how, paradoxically, the hypermodern can be a return to the past. Helmets are a necessity in the trenches: it has become obvious that head wounds account for a disproportionately large percentage of battlefield injuries and that they are far more likely to be fatal.jjj Although the helmets are unlikely to provide protection against a rifle bullet, they will stop a bullet from a shrapnel shell without difficulty. Arnaud and his men, however, find it difficult to take these contraptions seriously—they seem so … unmilitary: “We shrieked with laughter when we tried them on, as if they were carnival hats.”
Arnaud’s regiment, in a state of readiness for the start, is positioned in a wood out on the right flank. In front of them they can see a shallow river and beyond the river lies another wood, Bois de Ville, where the Germans are said to be, but they have seen and heard very little of the enemy. (The battlefield is, as usual, empty. Not a man in sight.) That wood is their first objective, once the main attack has secured the German forward lines, that is; then the idea is that the German defences on both sides of the breakthrough should be rolled up. When the German lines have “crumbled,” Arnaud’s regiment is “to pursue the retreating enemy with the assistance of the cavalry” and so on. Soon. Mass and weight.
They have been witnesses to the firestorm for four days now and it has undeniably been spectacular:
The shells from our 155mm guns have been falling regularly on the edges of Bois de Ville with terrifying explosions. From the protection of the raised ground behind us a battery of 75mm guns has been firing its four pieces one after the other, making the air vibrate as if from the ringing of four bells. The shells whined as they passed over our heads and then, after a short silence, came the four sharp barks as they struck home. Under this torrent of fire we thought that everything in the enemy lines must inevitably be pounded to dust.
The clocks are ticking away. The attack is set for 9:15. Arnaud peers through the misty grey rain at the point he knows the first attack will take place.
Then it starts. Arnaud sees very little. Just “black shapes advancing slowly in broken lines.” The dots work their way towards the German forward trenches, which are veiled in smoke. Then the attackers are swallowed up by the clouds and are no longer visible.
Soon there are rumours of a great victory and that the cavalry has broken through. There is great excitement. But why has Arnaud’s regiment not been ordered to attack? They remain in the wood and wait. What has happened?
Three days later, on Tuesday, 28 September, all attacks are called off. The offensive has been held by the German second line and by the rapid arrival of German reserves. (It has been proved yet again that soldiers on trains move faster than soldiers on foot.) The French have taken roughly two miles of ground at a cost of 145,000 men dead, wounded, missing or captured. Arnaud’s regiment never needs to attack Bois de Ville.
THURSDAY, 30 SEPTEMBER 1915
Alfred Pollard is wounded outside Zillebeke
How is he supposed to feel? Pollard is depressed and hungover and ashamed, having just received a terrible dressing-down from the colonel because, in his haste, he forgot to put on his puttees. But he is also excited about the mission he has been given. He has always longed for a chance to shine—and now is his opportunity.
Not that he takes things easy. His platoon commander has had an eye on this big, aggressive and utterly fearless twenty-two-year-old who takes every opportunity to be involved in the fighting, who never fails to volunteer for dangerous tasks and who sometimes sets off into noman’s-land of his own accord. On one of these trips Pollard found in a crater a Burberry coat with only a few shrapnel holes in it and, alongside the coat, a detached head standing upright, with no sign of a body. He found the sight “so droll and yet so pathetic.” He now wears the coat in bad weather. He sometimes fantasises about the head. Was he a friend or foe? Was he a brave man, killed “whilst he was dashing forward in a charge full of the lust of battle” or was he just someone “cowering down in sickening fear”?
Pollard has just been promoted to sergeant and second in command of the battalion’s bombing platoon,kkk which he trained himself and then, with his usual zeal, drilled time after time in the art of throwing grenades.
His moment has come. The great British attack at Loos began five days ago, well prepared and with large numbers of men, but yet again their efforts have failed to produce any significant results beyond colossal British losses. (Two of the divisions involved have lost half their strength, dead and wounded, in just a couple of days.) And as usual, the fighting has spread to other sections of the front. The Germans have detonated a large mine under the British lines in a wood the British call Sanctuary Woodlll at Zillebeke outside Ypres, and then they occupied the enormous, corpse-filled crater it made. Pollard’s bombing platoon has been ordered to retake the crater.
The platoon has been divided into two sections, one of them under Pollard’s command, the other led by the platoon officer, Hammond. The plan is that the two groups should work their way forward through the trenches and then move round the crater from opposite sides until they meet. Their main weapons are hand grenades, which they are carrying in sacks. The private soldiers are also carrying clubs for hand-to-hand combat. Pollard feels no fear of what is to come, in fact he is grateful to have been given the task. He views the whole thing as a bit of a competition and he is determined that his part of the platoon will get further round the crater than Hammond’s.
Pollard’s mind is not, however, entirely dominated by his eagerness for action. For some considerable time he has been corresponding with a woman whose family he knows, a woman who has been sending him gifts and friendly, encouraging letters. He is head over heels in love, has christened her “My Lady,” “the most divine and wonderful creature who has ever existed,” and—bearing in mind that severed head—he hopes that her name will be the last words to pass his lips if he should meet the same fate. (Her name, incidentally, is Mary.) A few weeks ago he wrote a letter in which he proposed to her.
Yesterday he received her reply. In her letter Mary expressed something close to dismay at his proposal, telling him that if she were ever to consider marriage he would probably be the last man she would choose. Shocked and depressed by the response, Pollard went off to a pub in a nearby village and got drunk on champagne. He was still drunk when he was woken up with the news of his mission.
A short bombardment begins at three o’clock and immediately afterwards the group of men sets off through the trenches in all the noise. There are tall, leafy trees all around them. They have gone little more than fifty yards when they are stopped by a tall barricade of sandbags. They all start throwing hand grenades over it: Bang! Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! Zunk! Three minutes later the response arrives in the form of German stick grenades that come sailing down. More bangs and zunks. This continues for a while until Pollard loses patience. According to the method he was taught at the grenade-training school, Pollard, as the leader, should be in position number five in the group, but he now goes to the front instead.
After three soldiers have each thrown five grenades in quick succession, Pollard and six men climb up out of the trench in order to circumvent the barricade. The Germans have obviously been expecting this because the men are immediately caught in cross-fire. Four of the six fall. Pollard, however, survives and jumps down into the trench, where he is met by the explosion of a German grenade. The shock wave hurls him back against the barricade and he can see small red spots all over his uniform where splinters have entered his body. He gets up.
His group tears down the barricade and rushes on through the twists and turns of the trench. They are throwing grenades in front of them the whole time. The Germans they are pursuing are falling back but others at the side climb up in the trees and open fire on Pollard’s group from a range of no more than forty yards. One by one Pollard’s men drop. He turns to give one of his soldiers an order but at the same moment the man receives a bullet in the throat. Pollard then enters a strange, dreamlike state:
It was just as though my spirit were detached from my body. My physical body became a machine doing the bidding, coolly and accurately, which my spirit dictated. Something outside myself seemed to tell me what to do, so that I was never quite at a loss. At the same time I felt quite certain I should pull through.
They reach a second barricade of sandbags and pass it in the same way as the first. As Pollard turns to one of his remaining men to hand him a sack of hand grenades, the man simply crumples. At the same moment he feels his right arm drop and the sack slip from his grasp. A bullet has gone right through the man in front of him, turned through 180 degrees and continued on into Pollard’s shoulder, blunt end first. There it lodges. Through a haze he sees a red patch spreading on the sleeve of his tunic. His knees give way. Someone gives him a mixture of water and rum to drink. He gets up unsteadily and urges his men on.
Among the last things he remembers is thinking that he must not faint: “Only girls faint.”
Then he faints.
SUNDAY, 3 OCTOBER 1915
Vincenzo D’Aquila spends the night firing his rifle
The order is at once both clear and incomprehensible. This very morning Vincenzo and the others have been sent to the trenches as replacement troops for the 7th Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 25th Regiment. They are soaked after having spent the night in the open. The trench itself is right in the forward line, looking towards the cone-shape of Monte Santa Lucia on the Isonzo. D’Aquila ends up in a sideshoot of one of the sap trenches. There is a deep and steep-sided valley separating the Italian lines from the Austrian, and the latter also have the advantage of being at a higher level. D’Aquila’s company commander is a warrant officer by the name of Volpe.
The beginners are given instructions. Once the sun sets they must all start firing. All of them. And they should keep on firing all night. The aim is partly to disturb the enemy and partly to guard against possible surprise attacks in the darkness.
The last broken rays of the setting sun fade away on the horizon and the scene shifts from grey to black. The shooting starts. Along the whole section of the front held by the battalion rifle muzzles flash rapidly. D’Aquila is amazed by this aimless firing out into the darkness and by the enormous waste of ammunition: time after time he has heard how ill prepared Italy was for this war, how there is a shortage of everything from money and food to guns and ammunition and so on. He is also amazed that he, against all probability, is now in a position to take the life of another human being. Like very many of the other volunteers his thoughts have mainly focused on his own death, not on the fact that he is expected to kill other people.
D’Aquila looks at the sky. It is bright and starry. No, he neither will nor can kill anyone. But what will happen if he refuses to obey orders? D’Aquila comes to a decision. He wanted this, and he came here of his own free will. He will not refuse to attack when the time comes; when they tell him to leave the trench and storm those apparently impregnable Austrian positions up there on the small mountain, he will do so. He will take his chances. But he will not kill. No. Not now, and not ever. And perhaps some higher power will see his decision, recognise it with approval and, in the name of symmetry, spare D’Aquila himself from all harm. D’Aquila raises his loaded rifle, aims it up into the darkened sky and pulls the trigger. In the course of the night he fires hundreds of rounds in this ineffectual and meaningless way.
Not until dawn is approaching does the firing begin to slacken off. As the wisps of morning mist rise, silence falls over the mezzotint autumn colours of the valley.
Pál Kelemen is on the Serbian border that morning and he notes in his journal:
We are in camp on the vast endless plain. Military and horses all around. Lead gray clouds hang low on the horizon. The Danube marshes start here; the rich Hungarian plain melts into the immense stretch of reed. German infantry is marching southward with resounding steps. Under the wind the sedge bows weakly, as if everything must tremble at the roar of the heavy guns over on the Danube.
WEDNESDAY, 6 OCTOBER 1915
Florence Farmborough leaves Minsk suffering from toothache
There is a new bite in the air. Gradually the nights are getting longer and colder. One of Florence’s molars has been giving vague but definite twinges of discomfort that today has developed into a distinct and painful throbbing. She is sitting in her wagon, silent and dogged, her face covered by the veil she wears as protection against the sun and the dust on the march.
They left Minsk three days ago, its streets filled with people in uniform and its shop windows full of expensive goods. The city came as a revelation to her, not least because it sparkled with colours like pinks and whites, colours she and her companions have almost forgotten after months of existing with the many shades of brown of the earth, of the road and of uniforms. With simultaneous feelings of embarrassment and pride she and the other nurses have been able to compare themselves—badly fitting and discoloured clothes, rough, red and scabby hands, weary and sunburnt faces—with the well-dressed and immaculately made-up society ladies of Minsk. And then they moved on, in slightly strange high spirits, to the familiar sounds of the dull echo of artillery fire and the indistinct buzzing of aeroplanes, passing through fields still green and woods turning yellow and red and rust-brown.
The great Russian retreat is practically at an end. Both sides are beginning to dig in for the winter. Florence’s unit is now marching at a noticeably slower pace. On an ordinary day the long, swaying column of horse-drawn wagons covers eighteen miles at most. But they are pleased to no longer be fleeing; they are even beginning to hope for a new turn of events.
Traces of the retreat are still visible in the surrounding fields and ditches. There are scores of dead animals of all kinds, animals that people had taken with them to prevent them falling into the hands of the enemy but which, fairly predictably, died as a result of the long daily marches. She sees dead cows, dead pigs and dead sheep. They awaken a memory:
I remembered seeing a horse fall during the early months of the Retreat; I think it was in the dreadful sand of Molodychi. The men cut it hastily out of the gun-carriage harness and left it lying by the roadside, without so much as a word of regret. As we passed, I remember how its sides heaved and its eyes looked at us like the eyes of a human being being forsaken, and left to suffer and die in solitude.
They come to a halt. The long column stops. They have reached a place where the road cuts across a peat moss covered with spruce trees and some of the wagons in the other flying unit have stuck fast. Slowly, one at a time, the wagons are dragged free, and then they scatter spruce branches over the ground to make passage a little more secure.
They jerk into motion again and Florence sinks back into her isolated world where little or nothing exists apart from that aching tooth. Only once does she lift her veil and that is when they drive into an area where the stench is unusually strong. She hears agitated and questioning voices. It turns out they are passing a heap of some twenty cadavers, many of them horses, that have been lying there infecting the air for weeks.
No one knows exactly what is to happen next. The latest order says that they should attach themselves to the 62nd Division, which is located somewhere in the district.
Laura de Turczynowicz and the children are now on a transatlantic liner taking them from Rotterdam to New York. The quiet and security of Holland have been exchanged for all the noise and sense of isolation an ocean voyage involves. There are a number of American Red Cross nurses on board but Laura avoids them, having discovered that they are all pro-German. A doctor on board has examined the children and found them to be “surprisingly well” and only in need of “quiet for the nerves and proper food for the body.” But in spite of leaving Europe and the war behind her, Laura is still gripped by anxiety—it is as though anxiety has become a bad habit. In Holland she took the opportunity to send a telegram to Petrograd, to be forwarded to her husband, Stanislaw. In it she tells him that they are all alive and now on their way to the United States. But is Stanislaw himself still alive? It is a long time since she received any word of him. And does anyone know where Laura is going? Does she know herself? “The nearer we got to America the more alone I felt.”
THURSDAY, 28 OCTOBER 1915
Vincenzo D’Aquila witnesses the unsuccessful storming of Monte Santa Lucia
It is like having a seat in the front row, and not just in a metaphorical sense. The position D’Aquila finds himself in really was designed for observation, a place from which the course of attacks could be monitored through field glasses. The weather is clear for once, so watching the columns storming up the mountainsides should not present a problem.
Orderlies, batmen and the rest of them have got the observation post ready. The damage done to the carefully applied camouflage of branches by the wind during the night has been fixed; tables and chairs have been laid out and the field telephones have been tested. Everything is overlaid by a fuzzy blanket of sound, in which the noise of one explosion scarcely has time to fade before another replaces it. On the other side of the valley the final stage of Italian drum fire is pounding the Two Sisters—Monte Santa Lucia and Monte Santa Maria—and their forested slopes are wreathed in the white smoke from explosions. Binoculars and sherry are laid out.
Somewhere down there the 7th Company is waiting in a trench to start the attack. D’Aquila is not with them: with the unexpected help of his company commander he has managed to find a posting in which there is no risk of having to kill nor of being killed. He has become an assistant on the headquarters staff because, thanks to his American background, he has a novel and unusual skill—he can type. The shock that hit him that first night in the trench has not receded and D’Aquila has instead entered a state that resembles a confused religious crisis. It manifests itself in two ways: on one hand, it takes the form of brooding on what a Christian can permit himself to do in this situation; on the other, there is his hope that faith can somehow save him and, in his ever more agitated mind, this hope has gradually become his comfort. He has twice taken part in night patrols out into no-man’s-land and on both occasions, in spite of considerable dangers, has returned unharmed. Has he been chosen? And he sees his unexpected posting to the brigade staff as yet another intervention by a higher power.
What he experiences during his time on the staff, however, does not make him any the less anxious and guilt ridden. Rather the opposite.
The staff officers emerge from their protected bunker. They have breakfasted on chocolate and toast and rounded it off with wine. Now they go down into the well-protected observation post. All the underlings immediately make room for them and greet them with smart salutes. The senior officers accept the salutes in a rather distracted manner and take their seats. The orderlies push in their chairs and hand them binoculars.
The performance can begin.
The bombardment ceases. The last shells whistle through the cool air and fall on the Two Sisters. The bursts of white smoke disperse in the air.
It remains silent for a long time.
Then it becomes possible to see movement in the forward Italian trenches. Spread-out chains of men in grey-green uniforms are beginning to move towards the steep mountainsides. One of these clusters of men, scrambling, climbing, crawling and jumping, is D’Aquila’s company, the 7th. It all happens slowly. At this distance their posture and their way of moving is reminiscent of people looking for something. Then comes the hollow rattle of Austrian machine guns—Schwarzlose machine guns. One by one they open fire from invisible nests somewhere up there on the wooded peaks. In spite of days of bombardment the Italian artillery has failed to silence them. There are two weapons that now dominate the battlefields: the artillery and the machine gun. Ordinary foot soldiers have increasingly become their servants (and their victims), whose task is to occupy terrain that has been swept clean by the hail of shells and to protect the machine guns while they perform their function. As they are doing here. The machine guns rap and the lines of men are thinned out, slow down, fall to the ground, turn back.
This jerky, disjointed procedure is repeated time after time down there in the valley. A company will rise from its trenches, work its way a little up the mountainside, lie down to avoid the lash of machine-gun fire and finally flee back, decimated. After a while another attempt will be made, which will also fail, since there are fewer men than before; they, too, will turn back, their ranks even thinner, only to be ordered out yet again. And so it continues.
D’Aquila is horrified, not just by the realisation that some of those dark, motionless stains on the distant hillside are his comrades but also by the indifference of the senior officers and the complete absence of any tactical finesse. All the warring parties have recognised by this stage that the firepower of the armies has become so overwhelming that attackers will inevitably suffer heavy losses. Yet many generals still subscribe to the pre-war illusion that it is possible to compensate for firepower with pure and simple willpower—the will to struggle on forward through the hail of bullets, irrespective of losses. But whose will, that is the issue? Towards the end of the day D’Aquila hears a conversation on the field telephone. The captain of a company of Alpini telephones and begs that his men be spared from making further attacks. His elite Alpine troops have stormed the mountainside fifteen times and fifteen times they have been beaten back. Of 250 men, barely twenty-five are left. The commander rejects the request and tells the man holding the receiver to remind the captain of the oath he swore to Italy and to the Crown.
The Alpini company attacks one last time. That attack also fails. The captain is not one of the survivors: the rumour is that he took his own life.
On 30 October D’Aquila is given an order to type out on his machine: it announces that all attacks are to be suspended for the present. Thus ends what has since been called the Third Battle of the Isonzo. Not a single one of its objectives has been achieved.mmm
A few days later the Italian army celebrates All Saints’ Day with particular reverence. D’Aquila eventually discovers that one of those killed in the unsuccessful attack was his good friend Frank.
Sarah Macnaughtan is on her way to the Russian front. She and her party have arrived in Petrograd on the 28th after a long journey through Norway, Sweden and Finland. They move into a hotel. Then there is the first of a series of meetings. (No one knows exactly where their unit is to be sent in.) She notes in her diary:
There is a story I try to tell, but something gets into my throat, and I tell it in jerks when I can. It is the story of the men who played football across the open between the enemy’s line of trenches and our own when it was raked by fire. When I had finished, a friend of mine, evidently waiting for the end of a pointless story, said, “What did they do that for?” (Oh, ye gods, have pity on men and women who suffer from fatty degeneration of the soul!)
SUNDAY, 31 OCTOBER 1915
Pál Kelemen witnesses the hanging of a Serbian guerrilla fighter
The invasion of Serbia by the Central Powers is going completely to plan. Public opinion at home thinks that it is about time too: in 1914 the Austro-Hungarian army had gone on the offensive against their Serbian neighbour on three occasions and three times it had been driven back. Not this time. On 6 October the combined German and Austro-Hungarian armies attacked, on 8 October they took Belgrade (for the third time since the previous August, incidentally), and on 11 October the Bulgarian army also invaded. The defeated Serbian forces are now retreating to avoid the threat of encirclement and huge numbers of civilians are accompanying them on their uncertain flight south.nnn
Pál Kelemen and his hussars are among the pursuers. They are advancing rapidly in the late-October rain and there have been periods when he has not been out of the saddle for days at a time. They have ridden past burning, looted buildings, along roads overcrowded with refugees—mostly women of all ages and children. And all the time they have been riding towards the sound of distant gunfire.
This Sunday the squadron is standing by the ruins of a Serbian inn. Hundreds of wounded men are lying on the muddy ground surrounding the building. There is still fighting going on against the rearguard of the retreating enemy—not here, but two mountain ridges further on, which is why there is some consternation when a soldier is brought in with a leg wound during the afternoon. He has been fired on from a cottage. An hour and a half later another soldier arrives, having been shot at from the same place; this one has a stomach wound.
A patrol is sent to investigate and it returns after a short while, bringing with it a badly dressed individual of medium height. His hands are tied together. The patrol is followed by people who are clearly relations and neighbours of the prisoner—some women and children and several older men. Pál Kelemen notes in his journal:
They tried the man with the aid of an interpreter and heard the principal witnesses. It seems that, in spite of repeated warnings from his fellow villagers, he was firing viciously on our soldiers. As he surveys the crowd gathered there, he looks half savage, dropped from another world.
The sentence is soon passed; the guerrilla must hang.ooo
The cook of the station, a Viennese pork butcher, undertakes the role of hangman with pleasure. He fetches a long rope and gets hold of an empty box to serve as trap. The komidatschi is told to say his last prayers and answers that he does not need them. The women cry, the children whimper and stare, petrified, while the soldiers stand around the tree wearily matter-of-fact but with excitement in their eyes.
The komidatschi is brought up by two soldiers. He shows no particular emotion but looks around with a truculent stare as if he were insane. They put the sling around his neck and pull the platform from under his feet. The rope was not hung high enough, and, with a supplementary powerful tug, the butcher adjusts it. The man’s face is slowly distorted. Long jerking convulsions shake his body, dying. The tongue twists out of his mouth as he swings with stiffening limbs.
The spectators disperse in the twilight, the soldiers leaving first, then the civilians. Later Kelemen sees two soldiers coming along the road. They notice the body swinging in the autumn wind, go up to it and laugh. One of them gives the corpse a hard thump with the butt of his rifle, then they both salute and go on their way.
SUNDAY, 7 NOVEMBER 1915
Richard Stumpf sees two acts of Lohengrin in Kiel
It is a pleasantly warm and sunny November day. SMS Helgoland is entering the Kiel Canal and rumours immediately begin to spread through the crew. Hard land battles have been raging around Riga and perhaps they are on their way up into the Baltic to offer support. Or perhaps the English are on their way in through the Great Belt. Or perhaps neutral Denmark is being dragged into the war. Or perhaps it is all … yet another torpedo firing exercise. Stumpf settles for the latter “so that I won’t be disappointed yet again.”
The atmosphere on board is dreadful. Stumpf and the rest of them are sick of the inactivity, sick of the worsening quality of the food, sick of the harsh discipline and sick of being bullied by the officers. The ship has a special punishment unit and every day twenty to thirty men can be seen running round and round the ship carrying their rifles and full battle kit. It takes very little to be punished: a dirty handbasin, a forgotten sock, a visit to the lavatory when on duty, an objectionable comment. Stumpf writes in his journal:
The fighting spirit of the crew has sunk so low that we would be delighted to get a torpedo in the belly. It’s what we would all like to see happen to our despicable officers. If anyone had been heard wishing any such thing a year and a half ago he would have received a good thrashing. There is an evil spirit loose among us and it is only our good upbringing that stops us imitating what happened in the Russian Baltic fleet.ppp We all recognise that we have more to lose than our chains.
As they pass up through the canal Stumpf sees how the woods and hills shine in many different shades of yellow, red and brown. There will soon be snow.
It is evening when they arrive in Kiel. He notes that they have begun to ease up a little on the blackout that used to be so strictly enforced. Is there something lurking behind that? Or is it just a sign that the serious and dedicated mood of the first year is slowly beginning to wear thin? The crew is allowed ashore. (Because, as he suspected, what they have to look forward to is not a battle but a couple more days of torpedo exercises.) Richard Stumpf rushes to one of the theatres in the city and manages to catch the last two acts of Wagner’s Lohengrin. Afterwards he comments in his diary:
It’s a pity I can’t get to more occasions like this. They make you feel like a human being rather than just a worthless beast of burden.
TUESDAY, 9 NOVEMBER 1915
Sarah Macnaughtan watches soldiers drilling in Petrograd
Snow and cold. Sarah Macnaughtan is confined to her comfortable room in the Hotel Astoria nursing a lingering cold and studying Russian. Trying to, anyway. She is finding it difficult to concentrate. Her eyes are drawn time after time to the window and out over the open square in front of the hotel, where a troop of soldiers is drilling.
Macnaughtan and her companions have been in Petrograd for just two weeks and the time seems to have been wasted. Nothing has happened. They have no idea where their six ambulances are—the vehicles were sent by ship through Archangel—and nor do they know where they are to be sent to serve. If anywhere. In complete contradiction to earlier assurances, the Russian Red Cross is unwilling to accept them. And Russian bureaucracy has proved to be even more impenetrable than British. They are lost in a maze of meetings, audiences and formal dinners. All to no effect. She writes in her diary:
We want to be one in the great sacrifice war involves, and we offer and present ourselves, our souls and our bodies in great causes, only to find that there is some strange unexplained quality of resistance meeting us everywhere.
They are perhaps going to be sent to Dvinsk, where there has been heavy fighting ever since September—and perhaps not. The rumours emerging from the front are as confused as they are contradictory.
The soldiers on the square are drilling in the snow and Macnaughtan notes their inadequate clothing. Their coats are made of a cotton material, not of wool. This is just one example of the shortages that have hit Russia and her army. On the other hand, it is possible to get hold of just about anything if you have money. The well-heated hotel restaurant is full to overflowing every evening with well-dressed people gorging themselves on copious quantities of food and alcohol to the accompaniment of an orchestra. (She has a strong suspicion that some of the women are prostitutes.) She feels uncomfortable—sickened, even—when she is sitting in the restaurant.
And while this is going on, soldiers are starving, freezing, being wounded, maimed and dying at the distant front and there is suffering to be seen at close quarters, too. Just the other day Macnaughtan was helping to distribute food at a barracks full of people who had fled before the German advance in Poland. It is not just the smell and the disorder and the poverty that fills her with disgust, the people do so as well. The Polish refugees seem to her “as being very like animals, but not so interesting.” These are the lucky ones—many more are said to be still out on the roads, sleeping in the snow.
And here we are in the Astoria Hotel, and there is one pane of glass between us and the weather; one pane of glass between us and the peasants of Poland; one pane of glass dividing us from poverty, and keeping us in the horrid atmosphere of this place, with its evil women and its squeaky band! How I hate money!
These contrasts existed earlier, of course, but the war has made them more acute, more glaring and, morally speaking, more offensive. Which restaurants are the best is a popular topic of conversation.
It is probably all this hanging about and enforced inactivity that account for her lack of strength. The energy that flowed into her during her lecture tour of Great Britain has begun to leak away. She can feel her thought processes slowing down. When Macnaughtan arrived in Petrograd she had the idea that she would use the waiting time to write another book, but she simply does not have the strength. She sniffs and leafs through her Russian textbook. The soldiers down on the square carry on drilling backwards and forwards. They lie down, stand up, lie down, stand up.
FRIDAY, 12 NOVEMBER 1915
Olive King and the light in Gevgelí
She had never really wanted to leave France. In a letter to her stepmother in the middle of October she allows something approaching dejection to show through for once:
I sometimes feel I’m never going home, as if this rotten war were going on for ever. Every few weeks it seems to increase rather than slacken off, more countries getting dragged in, everything getting worse & worse. As for us, we don’t know at all where we are going …
Then the women in the Scottish Women’s Hospital heard that they were to be sent by ship to the Balkans, where a Franco-British corps under General Maurice Sarrail—sent in great haste and with almost no equipment—had landed in October at Salonica in neutral Greece in the hope of helping the Serbs by opening a second front.qqq King did not want to go at first. Ella, her big ambulance, was altogether too heavy and her engine too weak for the dreadful road conditions there.
The sea voyage that took King and the other members of the Scottish Women’s Hospital to Greece lasted three weeks. A hospital ship on the way to the same destination was sunk by a German U-boat. In Salonica they were met by utter confusion—military, political and practical. Orders were followed by counter-orders in the “oceans of black mud” that constituted the streets of the city. Finally, in November, they were sent by train to Gevgelí, on the border between Greece and Serbia, to set up a field hospital.
Their tents came with them, but no tent pegs, and the ones they hastily improvised will not hold in the rocky ground. People have to go round night and day hammering in the loose tent pegs and tightening the slack guys. It is one of her main tasks. Another is to assist with the collection of the patients’ clothes for washing and disinfection. She is not particularly bothered by lice and the weather is not so cold that they cannot wash their hair and bodies in the river.
They have electric light in the dining room, driven by the generator used for the X-ray machine, but it is switched off at half past seven in the evening and after that there is little to do but go to bed since they are not permitted naked flames in their tents because of the fire risk. Darkness falls early and it is already pitch black by five o’clock. On the other hand, it gets light well before six in the morning. She watches the sun rise every day, enjoying the sight as the surrounding hills take on the texture of wine-coloured velvet and the mountain peaks glow pink in the morning light.
Slightly to her surprise, Olive King realises she is happy. In today’s letter to her father she writes: “This is just the loveliest place, the mountains are glorious, & the air so fresh and invigorating. We work all day like giants, & eat like wolves.”
SUNDAY, 14 NOVEMBER 1915
Pál Kelemen visits the officers’ brothel in Užice
The campaign has ended in victory. Serbia has been occupied. Sarajevo has been avenged. The victors can now begin to collect their reward and this evening Kelemen and some of his colleagues are visiting a brothel reserved for officers. It is in Užice, a small town on the Đetinja river. Kelemen notes in his journal:
Dim hall, carpets, and hangings on the wall. A wreck of a civilian sits strumming the piano. Four tables in the four corners. Four girls in the room. Two of them are lolling over an artillery lieutenant. At another table a group of Army Service officers are having black coffee. Beneath the lamp a first lieutenant of the Honvéd-Hussars sits reading the newspaper, days old.
This is the scene as we enter. We sit down at the only table left free and would like to have red wine, but on tasting it we all prefer coffee. In the corner Mohay, my cadet, tinkers with the gramophone without any luck. A spring must be broken.
One of the girls goes out, comes in again. Skipping over a chair, she sits at last in our cadet’s lap. The other one, a black-haired girl in a red dress, lies stretched on a bench and stares at me.
Time passes. The evil-looking pianist is still playing. Something very familiar—the music that was played to me in a girl’s room at home when I came to say farewell. Ages ago, far from here.
I get up and leave. They are wrong to think the wine has sickened me.
SATURDAY, 27 NOVEMBER 1915
Kresten Andresen attends a birthday celebration in Lens
Cold rain, and windy. Trees bare and swept clean. Grey, grey, everything is grey—the weather, their uniforms, the ever more watered-down coffee. But he has a free day. He does not have to be back at his post until tonight so Andresen grabs the opportunity to visit some friends from back home who are now serving in the 2nd Company. He has not spoken Danish to anyone for ages and he has been feeling lonely.
Night and day; in the trenches life indeed often changes character in accordance with the light. This is something he has become aware of during this most recent posting. He digs and digs, mainly at night and mainly at the foot of the notorious Loretto Hill that the French finally took during their May offensive. The front, however, is quiet at the moment. The French and the Germans move about quite openly during daylight hours, within sight of one another. And neither side shoots. (It is said that some really courageous fellows even visit the enemy trenches.)
This is an example of the kind of tacit pact that has developed here and there during the war: live and let live; don’t disturb us and we won’t disturb you.rrr But that is only during the day. The nights are almost always more uneasy, noisier, nastier. Darkness breeds uncertainty and uncertainty breeds fear. It is, as Andresen writes in his journal, like the story “of the man who changed form—during the day he was a human being, at night a wild animal.” It is usually at night that people are killed.
They are quartered in Lens at present, a medium-sized mining town, and that suits him since there is more to see and more to do than out in the country. Andresen is walking up Rue de la Bataille when it happens.
The projectiles come whistling down here and there. An unusually big one hits a house a small distance in front of him and he sees how the greater part of the roof is lifted thirty feet or more up in the air. He sees a big piece of shell land in the gutter. He sees the water splashing. He is paralysed at first but then he says to himself: “You have to run.” And he runs, through the hot, dense layer of air created by the pressure waves, through the sound of more explosions coming at him from both sides, until he reaches shelter.
When he dares go out again dusk is already falling. Things are quiet by now and there are people out walking on the pavements. In many places householders and shopkeepers are sweeping up the shards of glass from broken windows. At one spot he sees a soldier standing guard by a heap of straw: a direct hit from a shell killed two soldiers and a horse at this point, quite literally blowing them to pieces. The straw has probably been spread to conceal the grotesquely jumbled remains. Andresen can see, however, that the wall alongside is spattered with blood. He shudders and hurries on and very nearly stumbles over something … wormlike, lying on the pavement.
Andresen finally reaches the 2nd Company. Lenger, one of the Danes there, is celebrating his birthday and serving coffee and home-baked cakes. Andresen can at last speak Danish again, but unfortunately he soon has to set off back to his unit.
At nine o’clock they march out to do the night’s work. He thinks at first that they are going to Angres, a village they have worked at in recent nights, but they march beyond that. The night is cold and cloudless, with a bright, shining moon. They finally halt at an altogether different place, not far from the Vimy Ridge. There they are set to dig an absolutely new trench. Now and then flares go up to the left of them and in the silvery light of the rockets the ridge shines as if covered with snow.
SUNDAY, 28 NOVEMBER 1915
Edward Mousley meets the retreating British corps in Azizi
There is nothing very remarkable about Azizi—just a bend in the river and a few mud houses. Edward Mousley has been sailing up the Tigris by riverboat from palmy Basra down on the coast to Qurna, Qala Salih, Amara and Kut al-Amara. He has heard the name Azizi mentioned several times and some people say it is where the British corps in Mesopotamia is located at present—Force D, as it is officially designated. Others say that the corps is at the gates of Baghdad and that the daring operation to take the great city is about to be crowned with success.
Edward Mousley is a twenty-nine-year-old lieutenant in the British field artillery. He was born in New Zealand, read law at Cambridge and was stationed in India until very recently. Since the operations in Mesopotamia are primarily being run by the colonial government of India it is only natural that reinforcements are also brought in from India. (The majority of the troops in the British corps are actually native Indians.) Reinforcements are what Mousley and the others in the riverboat are—replacements for the men killed, wounded, missing or sick. Photographs of him show a self-confident man, with close-set eyes, a small, well-trimmed moustache and intense gaze, wearing a signet ring. There is a touch of ironic nonchalance in his posture. He has not served in the field before and has never been under fire.
Mousley was not one of those who grabbed the first opportunity to get into battle. He was summoned by a telegram that reached him when he was out on exercises. He then immediately began to get ready “to exchange training for reality.” His colonel treated him to some good advice, his fellow officers to a steady stream of drinks. He was not in perfect health since he was still suffering the after-effects of a bout of malaria, but he did not allow his ill health to delay him. He put a number of surplus items—his motorcycle, for instance—into store to await peacetime and his return, but to his great joy he was allowed to take his most precious possession with him—his beautiful horse, Don Juan. Then, along with a number of other uniformed men, he embarked in a small mailboat and it carried them across the ocean.
Force D’s march north is neither really necessary nor properly thought out. The whole business rests to some extent on the magic of a name (“Baghdad has fallen”—what a fine headline that would make in London, at the same time as being one in the eye for Constantinople, Berlin and Vienna), and to some extent on an all-pervasive and over-ambitious arrogance. British operations in the Persian Gulf began immediately after the outbreak of war, even before the Ottoman Empire had sided with the Central Powers: their original purpose was the very limited one of securing the oilfields down on the coast.sss As so often happens in situations like this, however, the appetite had increased with the eating.
An initial effortless success on the coast encouraged the British to advance further. When that was also successful and, moreover, when the Ottoman army showed every sign of wanting to take to its heels whenever it was given a serious prod, the British took a few more leaps up along the Tigris until General Nixon, the commander-in-chief in that theatre, who had remained back in shady Basra, looked at his map and said with a satisfied grunt that they might as well have a go at taking Baghdad, too—it was no more than 250 miles away after all, right?
Wrong. The 250 miles on the map have, so to speak, stretched in the doing and the corps has found itself advancing through swarms of flies, scorching heat and flooded watercourses. And meanwhile the supply line down to Basra has been getting longer.
Mousley has already seen signs that the capture of Baghdad is not perhaps going according to plan. Two days ago they passed a heavily armed sloop carrying a unit of the general staff: it was covered with shot-proof defences improvised out of bales of something or the other. In other words, traffic along the river is anything but safe. Now the steamboat carrying Mousley heads inshore and he realises at once that something really serious has happened. He sees a nervous urgency in the way people are moving around. He sees that the horses are weary and ungroomed and that wagons and harness gear are coated with dust. And he sees whole battalions, still wearing their tropical cork helmets, lying sleeping on the bare ground in “roughly organised rows.”
He walks around among the exhausted men and animals and sees a small flag flapping above a mud hut, indicating that the commander of the corps artillery has his post there. The officer tells Mousley what has happened. Five days ago a major battle was fought at Ctesiphon, only fifteen miles south of Baghdad. The Ottoman army had dug in there and the British corps had succeeded in storming the first line of defence but then got stuck. Both sides suffered very serious losses and, since both sides had heard rumours that their opponent was about to receive significant reinforcements, the battle concluded in an original though not wholly unusual way with both sides withdrawing in confusion from the hot, dusty and corpse-covered battlefield.
The British force, however, no longer has the necessary strength to continue to Baghdad and is, in fact, overwhelmed by the numbers of wounded. The corps has four field hospitals with a capacity for 400 patients but after the battle they are having to care for 3,500 men. In the battery in which Mousley is to serve, the 76th, all but one of the officers have been wounded. And, unlike the British corps, the Ottoman army actually has received reinforcements, with the result that they have now turned round and are pursuing the retreating British.
That evening Mousley joins in the building of the ground defences that form a half-moon around Azizi. He thinks that it is all going surprisingly quickly and easily and, like a good many others at the start, he has difficulty in shaking off the feeling that he is taking part in a peacetime exercise. But he has only to look at the worn and battered state of the wagons, at the reduced numbers of horses pulling the guns and carts, and at the guarded expressions on the faces of the soldiers, to know that this is not the case.
As many as possible of the wounded are loaded onto barges and riverboats, and all superfluous equipment is also being shipped out. Mousley is one of those who lightens his baggage of unnecessary items such as his riding gear, bits and pieces of uniform and his camp equipment. He does, however, keep his horse, Don Juan.
When darkness falls, Mousley lies down to sleep alongside his gun battery, which is ready for action. The Ottoman army is somewhere out there in the darkness, and now and again the crack of shots can be heard. He hears jackals yelping—they have been shadowing the British corps all the way back from Ctesiphon, waiting for more corpses, whether human or animal. “Their ghost-like song” becomes fainter and more distant as weariness overwhelms him. Finally, he falls asleep.
THURSDAY, 9 DECEMBER 1915
Olive King takes the last train from Gevgelí
The order they receive provides final confirmation of the complete collapse of the Serbs. For Olive King it also marks the end of a period of upheaval, but also a strangely happy time.
The work in Gevgelí has been hard. The field hospital has 300 beds, but it was soon treating almost 700 patients. The winter has arrived in earnest, and in the last months they have been hit by several severe snowstorms, with tents being blown down or blown away. It is so cold that it is difficult to sleep at night. King has discovered that digging is the best way to keep warm. Her working day lasts anywhere from sixteen to twenty hours, her main task being to look after the paraffin lamps that now light the tents: light them, clean them, trim the wicks, fill them—all of which she has found deadly dull. She has begun to learn Serbian. Lice are spreading. She reports happily to her sister:
We never get any papers here, & have no news of any sort. This is a grand country & a grand life for making you fit. I haven’t felt so splendidly well since I was in Arizona.
The not altogether surprising news has now reached them, however, that the field hospital is to be pulled back. Since there is no longer a Serbia to support there is no point in trying to push forward to Belgrade. The Army of the Orient, as Sarrail’s corps is now known, is about to withdraw briskly towards neutral Greece—with Bulgarian troops on its heels. Yet another eccentric and grandiose Allied plan to use a circuitous route to break the deadlock of the war has collapsed and ended in disappointment.ttt King and the twenty-nine other women in the field hospital have less than twenty-four hours to evacuate their patients, pack the equipment and break camp.
The only way to get out of Gevgelí is by train. The roads are in an appalling condition or controlled by the Bulgarians. Thirteen French ambulances have set off down them and have disappeared—ambushed, or so it is said. So the net is closing around them.
It is midnight and Olive King watches the rest of the field hospital disappear on a train. She and two other drivers, along with the field hospital’s three ambulances, for which there was no room, are the only ones remaining. Olive finds the idea of leaving Ella behind simply inconceivable.
One southbound train after another arrives, fully loaded with people and materiel. There is space for three women but absolutely not for three ambulances, one of them unusually cumbersome. They wait and hope. They watch the sun rise and hear the echoes of shooting rolling down from the snow-covered mountains. “It is a strange fact that the thought of personal danger never once entered our heads. Our only concern was for our precious cars,” she later recalls.
The last train arrives.
Bulgarian troops are not much more than half a mile away.
And, yes! They see three empty flatbed trucks and without waiting for permission they drive their ambulances up onto them. The train rolls out of the station. Gevgelí is burning. Just before the town disappears from view King sees the station building explode as a shell hits it.
MONDAY, 13 DECEMBER 1915
Edward Mousley directs artillery fire at Kut al-Amara
He gets up earlier because, as from today, he has a new role—he is to act as the forward observing officer. The task is both arduous and dangerous since it means he has to work his way as far forward as possible through a primitive system of sandy trenches, and there are places where he and his signaller will have to creep along what are really no more than ditches. He is no longer wearing his sun helmet since it is far too visible. He is instead wearing a woollen cap, hardly the most comfortable headgear in this heat.
The British corps has halted its southward retreat at the small town of Kut al-Amara and here they are going to wait to be reinforced or, to be more accurate, to be relieved since they are now surrounded by four Ottoman divisions. The corps commander, General Sir Charles Townshend, has allowed his force to be encircled, partly because his troops are too exhausted to continue the retreat and partly because this gives the enemy something else to do rather than to advance on down to the coastal areas and the oilfields. The mood among those under siege is, however, good and all of them are convinced that it is just a matter of time before they are relieved. Mousley is unconcerned, even though he—like many others—is deeply critical of the hazardous attempt to take Baghdad with much too small a force and deficient preparations. But things are going to turn out all right.
In the course of the day he crawls on all fours for at least a couple of miles. There are times he is crawling through a dense, foul stench where the bodies of the fallen have just been thrown over the sides of the trenches and ditches and are now lying black, swollen and rotting out in the baking sun. There are times when he is no more than thirty yards from the enemy trenches. He directs the shells with considerable skill and great satisfaction and they pass no more than twelve or fifteen feet above his head, sometimes landing within twenty yards of him. He thinks that forward observation of this kind is great fun.
There are Ottoman snipers on the lookout everywhere and they are extremely accurate. When the telephone cable is not long enough Mousley uses flags to signal back to his battery, even when the enemy is shooting. He is under fire for the whole day.
Later he notes in his diary:
But the truth is, that personal experience in this thing called war is at best an awakening of memory from a dream of seas and foggy islands bewildering and confusing. A few personal incidents loom a little clearer, deriving what clarity they have from the warmth of personal contact. Then incidents fraught even with the greatest danger become commonplace, until the days seem to move on without other interest than the everlasting proximity of death. Even that idea, prominent enough at first, gets allocated to the back of one’s mind as a permanent and therefore negligible quantity. I firmly believe one gets tired of an emotion. A man can’t go on dreading death or extracting terrific interest from the vicinity of death for over long. The mind palls before it, and it gets shoved aside. I have seen a man shot beside me, and gone on with my sentence of orders without a break. Am I callous? No, only less astonished.
WEDNESDAY, 15 DECEMBER 1915
Willy Coppens puts up at a hotel in Étampes
The room is small or, rather, peculiarly long and narrow, but the view is good. When Coppens goes over to the window he can see the square and the railway station and beyond that, behind a screen of leafless trees, the ruins of the Tour de Ginette. This room at the Hôtel Terminus also has another advantage: the famous French flyer Maurice Chevillarduuu stayed here—always something to boast about. It was in any case the only available room at the Hôtel Terminus and the Hôtel Terminus is the only hotel in Étampes with a bathroom, shared in proper order by all the guests.
Coppens has come to Étampes, south of Paris, with great expectations. At his own expense he has completed two months of basic flying lessons at a private flying school in Hendon, near London. After being instructed by choleric gentlemen in machines so small, frail and low-powered that they may only be used when it is absolutely calm (all flying ceased when the leaves on the trees began to stir), he made his first solo flight ten days ago. (This was after thirty lessons and a total of three hours fifty-six minutes in the air.) Immediately afterwards he took his official flying test, which consisted of steering the plane in a series of flat figures of eight and then landing, with his engine turned off, exactly in front of the instructor. All went as it should, and with Royal Aero Club Pilot Certificate No. 2140 in his pocket Coppens is now in Étampes to start the military part of his training.
There is, however, some contrast between “the wild delight” he felt on gaining his certificate and the reception he received when he got off the train in Étampes earlier today. Or lack of one, for there was no one to meet him.
The square in the little provincial town is as desolate and joyless as the December evening. From his window he sees nothing but “uninteresting houses occupied by uninteresting citizens.” The cafés are empty. However, during these past months the town has reluctantly started to come to life since, as in many other places, the war, chance and—not least—the fact that a railway line passes through it, have given it a new significance, in this case as a pilot training centre. There are several military aerodromes outside Étampes and the air is continuously filled with the drone of aircraft, except on Sundays when all the exercises are suspended and silence reigns. A chance meeting with a friend from before the war (they had studied mechanical engineering and gone motorcycling together) is what led Coppens to the Hôtel Terminus and his arrival has not been without its bad omens: he saw a funeral procession in the distance and it seems that the dead man was a French pilot who had lost his life in a flying accident.
He takes his dinner that evening in a small hotel next door, which, unlike the Hôtel Terminus, has its own dining room. There he meets his old motorcycling friend and several other Belgians who are also here to be trained as military pilots. They are served by a rather haughty but verbose young woman called Odette.
Meanwhile,vvv in Tel Armeni on the border of Mesopotamia, Rafael de Nogales once again comes across evidence of the massacre of Christians. He is busy admiring the particularly beautiful and romantic scenery when he becomes aware of the smell of putrefaction among some ancient ruins on the edge of the town:
I began to search for where the smell was coming from and backed away in horror from some wells or cisterns filled with Christian corpses in an advanced state of putrefaction. A little way away I came across yet another subterranean tank which, to judge by the smell, must also have been full of corpses. As if this wasn’t enough there were unburied bodies on every side, or bodies barely covered with heaps of stones from which a bloody strand of hair or an arm or a leg stuck out here and there and had been gnawed by hyenas.
WEDNESDAY, 22 DECEMBER 1915
Edward Mousley on the sound of bullets
It is evening. He is lying awake in the bunker, well-wrapped in his Burberry sleeping bag. The only thing that breaks the darkness in the windowless space is a solitary stearin candle in a niche in the earthen wall; it casts a shadow that cuts across the floor and the ceiling. Edward Mousley looks towards the door, which is framed with sandbags. He can see an ammunition cart. He can see rifles. He can see a battery telescope. He can see a field telephone. He can see a wall scarred by shrapnel. He can see rows of palm leaves, clipped off and hanging down. The air is cool and there is no wind.
They are in a state of readiness this evening in Kut al-Amara. They are anticipating yet another Ottoman night attack and Mousley’s battery of eighteen-pound field guns, which has been dug in among a grove of date palms, will be expected to fire a defensive curtain. Out in the darkness the chattering of a machine gun can sometimes be heard, and now and then the sharp crack of a bullet hitting the wall behind his head. It is less than a month since he was attached to the corps in Mesopotamia and the physical sensations of warfare are still of much interest to him. The sound of bullets, for example. He writes in his diary:
One hears a sudden crack just ahead like the sharp snapping of a stick, and in the early days of one’s initiation a duck is inevitable. I don’t say one ducks, but one finds one has ducked. For a time every one ducks. It is no use telling people that if the bullet had been straight one would have been hit before hearing it strike the palm. Some people go on ducking for ages.
The night remains calm. At one stage the Ottoman machine-gun fire increases considerably and Mousley creeps out of his warm sleeping bag to check. But nothing happens apart from a few more horses being killed, an Indian groom wounded—and more leaves being clipped off the palm trees.
The same day Florence Farmborough, who has just returned from leave, writes in her diary:
So eager were we to commence work again that on the following day we squabbled as to which of us should be on duty, but as Anna was celebrating her name-day, the verdict was given in my favour. A new surgery had been equipped in my absence; it was a clean, whitewashed, homely little room; I looked round it with pride. As night fell, I found myself strangely wide awake. I sat reading in the candlelight, ears alert to the slightest sound outside—although wounded, I knew, were unlikely to come, for the Front was peaceful.
FRIDAY, 24 DECEMBER 1915
Vincenzo D’Aquila is in hospital in Udine
First of all he hears the sound of small bells and then he sees a small group of people coming along the corridor. A priest in a surplice is walking in front and he is flanked by two nuns carrying candles. D’Aquila tries to decide which of his brothers in misfortune they will be visiting this time.
They enter the ward. Someone is to be given extreme unction.
Vincenzo D’Aquila is in the military hospital in Udine where, like so many others, he is suffering from typhus. He was brought here by ambulance a few days ago along the skiddy winter roads. He was lying on a stretcher high up in the vehicle and his head almost hit the roof every time the ambulance drove over a pothole. When they eventually arrived D’Aquila was in such a bad state that the orderlies thought he was dead and carried him into the unheated mortuary, which was where he was later found lying on a stretcher on the floor.
His illness has worsened. His high temperature has overheated his brain and in his delirium he has been shouting for Kaiser Wilhelm in order to hold him personally responsible for the war. When the nurses placed something on his head he thought it was a golden crown: it was an ice-bag. He has heard voices, supernaturally beautiful voices, and he has heard music.
These bells, however, are very real. The priest and the two nuns walk through the ward. D’Aquila follows them with his eyes, feeling sorry for the poor soul for whom the bell is about to toll. Imagine dying on Christmas Eve, at “the moment which all the world is supposed to commemorate with the greatest of good cheer and happiness.”
The small group passes bed after bed, their bells tinkling. It is as if time becomes extended, stretched, slowed down in D’Aquila’s fevered mind. Time does not count. It’s as though the whole of eternity can be contained in a single moment. The three figures come closer and he does not take his eyes off them.
They come to a halt at his bed. The nuns go down on their knees.
He is the one who is to die.
D’Aquila does not want to, does not intend to and will not. The priest mumbles his prayers and anoints D’Aquila’s brow with oil, but to D’Aquila’s mind he has become an executioner whose actions are intended to take his life. D’Aquila, however, is so weak that he cannot utter a word. His eyes meet the priest’s. One of the nuns blows out the candles and he is left alone.
D’Aquila tells us what happens next:
Everything about me was in pitch darkness which helped, I suppose, to produce an extraordinary feeling of suspension. It was for all the world like standing still in the air, neither moving to the right nor to the left, forward nor backward, neither rising up nor sinking down. The ether itself stood still. It was a state of immobility carried to absolute zero […] Abruptly, after an oppressive dose of suspended animation in this impenetrable medium […] a wall of light like a silvery screen appeared against the jet black background. A kaleidoscopic as well as multi-coloured projection of my entire life cycle, from my very birth and babyhood up to that moment when I received the Sacraments of the dying, was then slowly unrolled to my gaze, evidently for my absorption and edification.
Everything changes and he goes from fighting against death to welcoming it with joy.
The visions continue. He becomes a woman giving birth. He flies through the universe, past planets, stars and galaxies, but then his whirling path through the cosmos bends and he returns to earth, to northern Italy, to Udine, to the hospital on Via Dante, where he passes through a narrow little window into the hospital ward and to that thing at the outermost limit of existence—his own waiting body.
Paolo Monelli receives his baptism of fire on Monte Panarotta
The time has come. The time for his baptism of fire. They start marching at midnight. A long chain of soldiers and loaded mules stretches out across the snow. Paolo Monelli is thinking of two things as they march forward: one of them is home, the other is how happy he feels that he will be able to tell them all in the future about what he is about to experience. It is cold; the sky is cloudless; the stars are pale; moonlight is playing over the glistening white snow. The only sounds to be heard are the squeak of their nailed boots in the ice, the rattle of empty cooking pots, the occasional oath and short, muttered conversations. After six hours they reach a deserted, looted Austrian village. They rest there during the day, waiting for darkness when they are to make a surprise attack on an Austrian position on Monte Panarotta.
Paolo Monelli was born in Fiorano Modenese in northern Italy. His original intention was to be a soldier but he started studying law at university in Bologna instead, which is where two of his passions coincided: his interest in mountaineering and winter sports and his writing. During his time at university he wrote a string of texts on these topics, which were published in the local daily, Il Resto del Carlino. It goes without saying that he and his student friends enlisted as volunteers when Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary in May of this year. This is more than just a gesture on Monelli’s part since, as the only son of the family, he has the legal right to be excused from military service. He has consciously avoided taking advantage of this and instead, thanks to his mountaineering experience, succeeded in being selected for the Alpini, the elite mountain infantry. He joined up in June, in Belluno.
At the very last moment, however, Monelli was smitten with regret. On the morning he was to leave he was woken early by a knock on his window and he suddenly felt a vague and fleeting pang of fear. He remembers the feeling as having a touch of the hangover about it in that he had gone to sleep in a state of intoxicated and carefree euphoria and woken up with a feeling of dark and thoughtful regret. (The girl he spent the evening with wept, but he did not take that too seriously.) Dark images of the sufferings, both great and small, that lay ahead ran through his mind. Joining up had seemed the obvious thing for him to do, but he was not really sure why.
Is it that I’m bored with my empty peacetime life, am I attracted to the risky game up there among the peaks, is it that I can’t bear the idea of not being involved in what others will be talking about later—or is it simply an honest and humble love of my country that is persuading me to give my eager assent to a life of war?
And he remembers that it was cold on the morning he set off.
His regrets, however, are soon replaced by excitement. He describes a “voluptuous feeling of emptiness—the pride of healthy youth—the excitement of expectation.” Up to this point he has hardly seen the war, let alone experienced it. (The first time he heard rifle fire in the distance he associated the reports with the clicking sound of billiard balls hitting one another.) Photographs of him reveal a rather slender man with sloping shoulders, thick dark hair, deep-set inquisitive eyes, sensual lips and a dimple in his chin. He looks younger than his twenty-four years, and in the pocket of his uniform jacket he carries a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Monelli spends the day in a white cottage, where he lies down to rest on a low divan in a rococo-style bedroom. He has difficulty in getting any peace, perhaps because he is disturbed by the tramping feet of all the soldiers running up and down the wooden staircase, perhaps because his mind is too full of what is to come. Later they start to go through the plan for that night’s attack. It is not going to be easy. They do not really know how to reach their target and, as they sit poring over the map, they cannot even locate their own position.
At nine in the evening they form up and march off. The night is bright, starry and cold. They enter dense woodland. Their nervousness increases. To their own ears, the sound of their boots crunching through the snow-crust is so thunderously loud that it will give them away. Monelli notices that he is hungry. Then comes the echo of a single shot: Ta-pum. Alarm.
A chill blast, my heart becomes agitated. The first shot of the war: a warning that means that the machinery has been set in motion and is inexorably dragging you with it. Now you’re in, and you’ll never get out. Perhaps you didn’t believe that before—right up to yesterday you were playing with life but simultaneously felt sure you could pull back out of your involvement at any point. You talked casually of heroic deeds and sacrifices—things you knew nothing about. Now it’s your turn.
Monelli watches one of his comrades, whose face no longer wears its usual closed, inscrutable expression but is instead glowing with inner excitement. His comrade sees a couple of Austrians running away between the trunks of the trees below them and looses off two shots. “At that point,” Monelli tells us, “something fell away and I no longer felt any anxiety. I am as controlled and clear-thinking as if I was exercising on the drill-ground.”
Patrols are sent out to scout around.
Monelli and the rest of them keep watch, half-asleep. Dawn breaks. A cheerful lieutenant appears, his face red with exertion, and gives an order before disappearing off to the right. Rifle fire crackles in the distance. Monelli hears the groaning of a wounded man.
The sun rises. They start to eat breakfast.
Then the sound of machine guns. The noise of battle grows, spreads, comes closer. A few men with light wounds pass them. Somewhere up in front there is a battle going on.
They stop eating. Some of the men swear. The platoon forms a line and sets off across the snow. Monelli wonders, “Is this death, this chaos of screams and whistles, these branches being clipped off the trees, this drawn-out wheezing of shells up above?”
The mood is high during their return march. Admittedly they did not even locate the position they had orders to take, but the soldiers are happy to have come through unscathed and Monelli himself is pleased, indeed almost jubilant, to have undergone his baptism of fire. They pass back behind their own lines through a gap opened up in the barbed wire. There, however, the divisional commander is standing waiting, cold, stiff and glowering. When Monelli’s battalion commander, a major, appears among the ranks of his marching men, the divisional commander stops him and gives him a dressing-down. They should have located the position. They should have taken the position. Their losses have been suspiciously small. And so on. After which the divisional commander remains standing at the side of the path and glares acidly at the soldiers as they file past. When it is all over the general takes his place in the back seat of a waiting motor car and disappears.
Towards evening they are back at the deserted village. Monelli goes into the cold white cottage and once again spreads out his sleeping bag on the low divan in the room with rococo decorations. Through a hole in the roof he can see the stars twinkling.
SUNDAY, 26 DECEMBER 1915
Angus Buchanan goes out on night patrol near the Taita Hills
They are surrounded by deep darkness. Above them are the stars but no moon as yet. Buchanan and his companions are wearing moccasins since it is virtually impossible to move silently through the bush while wearing heavy army boots. Their mission is the usual one: to prevent German patrols carrying out more acts of sabotage on the Uganda railway. It is about half past nine in the evening and the small group of men is moving quickly along a road which will lead them to a point about five miles away, where they intend to lie in ambush. They are moving in single file with long gaps between the men. Now and then they stop to listen.
Angus Buchanan has just been promoted to lieutenant. His career in the 25th Royal Fusiliers has been a quick one—last April he was a private. It is not without some sorrow that he has left life in the ranks, which he describes as “a gay, care-free, rough-and-tumble experience.”
After marching in silence for a while they hear a sudden, loud crash. They come to a halt.
The noise is coming from the left-hand side of the road.
They can hear the crashing of branches being snapped and the rustling of the undergrowth. Enemy patrols do not move round in such a careless fashion. And right enough, they catch sight of a rhinoceros. They all stop immediately. In the darkness it is impossible to see whether the magnificent animal is showing any signs of aggression towards them. There are a few tense moments. Rhinoceroses are common in this region and are particularly dangerous—much more dangerous than lions. Buchanan has learned that the latter will attack only if they have been wounded. During the current year thirty British soldiers have been killed by wild animals in East Africa.
The rhinoceros lumbers off through the undergrowth. The danger is over.
The four men creep on in the dark.
They find the still-glowing embers of a campfire under a large mango tree. The enemy is somewhere out there in the darkness.
The moon rises and they can see the elongated, weightless shapes of their own shadows gliding along the dusty white road. Just a little way off there is the shimmer of a river.
At midnight they reach a place where they have a good view of the railway. They hide in the bush and wait. And wait. And wait.
Night passed quietly, stirred only by African sounds. Among the high trees on the river-bank, beyond the railway, monkeys yelled occasionally and snapped off dry branches as they swung from limb to limb. A solitary owl hoo-hooed away out in the distant darkness … Sometimes, too, an animal of prey would betray its presence and its prowling: the deep blood-curdling howl of the hyena and the dog-like bark of the jackal at times awoke the silence, for one or two brief moments, ere, phantom-like, they were swallowed in the dark, fathomless pit of night, and lost on their onward trail.
When the sun rises yet another uneventful night has passed. They light a small fire and make tea before walking back in the morning sun.
The soldiers are in the process of clearing large areas around the camp and huge stacks of provisions of all kinds are visible. Rumour has it that they are expecting significant reinforcements: “Daily our spirits rose at the prospect of the coming advance into the enemy’s country.”
* There had been a promising start in September when the German U-boat U9 had sunk three British cruisers in the space of just over an hour—old cruisers, admittedly, but still …
† As has already been mentioned (footnote ‡ on this page–this page), the German Pacific Squadron had an unexpected victory at Coronel on 1 November 1914, though it was annihilated later at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December.
‡ In the middle of December 1914 German cruisers bombarded Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. Casualties, mostly civilian, amounted to 137 dead and 592 injured.
§ In this context a division is a distinct unit of a warship’s gunnery crew.
‖ If Loti is mentioned these days it is usually because he was much admired by Proust.
a It is perhaps worth a mention that on this day three of the men involved in the assassination in Sarajevo at the end of June 1914 were hanged. Gavrilo Princip, the man who actually murdered the Archduke and his wife, escaped the death penalty because he was under the age of twenty at the time of the deed. Princip was placed under lock and key in the Theresienstadt fortress, condemned to twenty years’ imprisonment. He was to remain there until he died of tuberculosis on 28 April 1918, still fanatical and still untroubled by remorse for what he had caused.
b The Ottoman attack in the east was not the only threat to the British presence in Egypt. Towards the end of 1915 a Wahhabite-inspired grouping in Libya, who were fighting in the name of Islam against both French and Italian colonial expansion in North Africa, began a series of attacks across Egypt’s western border. These attacks were supported by Ottoman units, and it took considerable effort on the part of the British forces to put a stop to them. (While on the topic of problems in North Africa, we should note that the troubles in Morocco that had started when it became a French protectorate in 1912 were still continuing.)
c An old acquaintance from the cadet college in Duntroon.
d The single word “Pontooning” often appears in his short diary during this period.
e Red, green and white can be said to be the iconographic colours of night during the First World War. All the armies used rockets in these colours and they were used in combination to create different messages. Red usually meant “Enemy attack!” whereas green signified that one’s own artillery was firing too short and needed to advance its firing range.
f The Germans undoubtedly had a number of local successes: they pulled off a complete encirclement at Augustów, where a whole Russian corps (Bulgakov’s XXth) was annihilated, and the German press was quick to beat the Tannenberg drum. Russian losses had been high, at times horrific, but German losses were also significant and, as mentioned, accompanied by few gains.
g Even though she is convinced of the truth of the German atrocities, and equally convinced that Kaiser Wilhelm was a mad beast who must be stopped, she actually likes all the German prisoners she has met so far.
h “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,” and so on.
i The name Constantinople (Konstantinye) was also used by the Turks at this time to describe modern-day Istanbul.
j Remounts were horses brought in to replace those injured or killed.
k The Austro-Hungarian army had lost about 800,000 men in terms of the dead, wounded or, above all, sick or frostbitten, since the turn of the year. These figures were not known, however, until 1918. All the countries kept the figures of their losses secret and to ask for them was considered little short of treason.
l “Ambulance” was the term used in France for a military hospital at that date.
m Cushing, educated at Yale and Harvard, had already by this time made a significant reputation for himself among his peers. Something of a prodigy, he became Professor of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University at the age of thirty-two and was a world-leading researcher in the area of various brain centres and their functions.
n The term “trench foot” has not yet been coined.
o A shell splinter or, to be more precise, a piece of shell.
p A Hunter’s Wandering in Africa and Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa. Selous had become particularly well-known because, like many other explorers and adventurers, he made lecture tours describing his experiences. He has a place in history as being, along with the famous Cecil Rhodes, the first to point to the Rhodesian high plateau as a suitable place for the British to settle and practise large-scale agriculture. Later, ironically enough, he himself discovered the great difficulties involved in this, difficulties that anyone who has read Doris Lessing’s African novels and short stories will be familiar with but which Selous, with his fervour for colonisation, gravely underestimated.
q The commander of the battalion, Colonel Patrick Driscoll, was also the man who had initiated its formation. During the Boer War he had led a celebrated force of irregulars—Driscoll’s Scouts—and the idea is that the battalion should be a unit of a similar kind.
r His Majesty’s Troop Ship.
s The famous German field marshal, Paul von Hindenburg, stayed there when passing through. Laura found him to be a chivalrous but self-centred glutton. The fact that he is the commander-in-chief on this front—and therefore ultimately responsible for all the misery—makes him repulsive in her eyes.
t Accusations of Jewish collaboration with the Germans fanned the flames of the old, ingrained Russian-Polish anti-Semitism. Even Laura has become suspicious of many of the Jews in the town.
u A winter game among some of the bolder children in Suwalki was to go round the fields outside the town probing the snow with sticks to find the corpses of the slain.
v As Niall Ferguson has shown, there was considerable hesitation among British politicians about whether Britain should enter the war at all. Why line up on the same side as autocratic Russia against a Germany that in many areas, not least social legislation, art and science, was seen as a model? To begin with, a majority of the government was quite clearly against entry. Some of them were prepared to accept a limited German breach of Belgian neutrality, others were ready—should it prove necessary—to allow British forces to breach that neutrality. They kept very quiet about that later.
w In Dinant 612 people were murdered, in Andenne 211 and in Tamines 384; women and children were among the victims. The perpetrators were in all cases German regular army troops, whipped up to hysteria by alleged local guerrilla actions.
x The first Zeppelin to be brought down by an enemy plane was LZ 37 on the night of 6–7 June. It is incorrect to say it was shot down: the British pilot responsible for the exploit, R. A. J. Warneford, was actually on his way to attack the huge Zeppelin hangars at Berchem when he happened to meet LZ 37. Warneford flew above the great vessel and bombed it, causing it to crash. Warneford was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action. Ten days later he lost his life in a very ordinary air accident.
y What, of course, is most terrifying is that this is a completely new way of waging war. Firstly, to a very great extent it is the civilian population that suffers, and secondly, the threat comes from the air. The agitation in Britain was great and there were even demands that captured Zeppelin pilots should be executed.
z The purpose of this badly planned and reckless operation was to use warships to blast a way first through the Dardanelles and then through the Bosphorus, primarily to enable the shipping of war materiel to the hard-pressed Russians. The intention was also to relieve them in the Caucasus, although the dangerous earlier Ottoman offensive had already ground to a halt in the cold, snow and chaos by this stage. It was also hoped that the Ottoman Empire could be knocked out of the war. There was constant debate between what were called the “westerners” and the “easterners,” in which the former (usually the military) wanted to prioritise efforts to break through on the Western Front, whereas the latter (usually politicians) wanted instead to operate against the weak flanks of the Central Powers, above all in the Balkan area and in the southern Mediterranean. The Dardanelles operation was to a large extent the idea of the young, manipulative and controversial First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. As early as 1907 the British navy had looked at the matter and come to the conclusion that it was impossible for a purely naval attack to succeed—but such mundane facts did not appeal to Churchill’s adventurous nature.
aa This is a somewhat forced but not completely inaccurate summary of what was planned. Troops were necessary since bitter experience had shown that it would not be possible for Allied warships alone to secure the Dardanelles. The first task of land forces would be to knock out the coastal artillery batteries that were causing major problems for the Allied naval forces, particularly by their ability to direct accurate fire on the minesweepers that went ahead of the fleet.
bb In his letters Dawkins expresses his growing animosity towards Egyptians, referring to them as, among other things, “contemptible.”
cc Massacres of Christians had occurred before and the conflict between the Armenians and the Ottoman central authorities was an old one, but one that had become worse during recent decades. The Great War led to a sudden, unforeseen and particularly nasty deterioration. Many Turks were obsessed by a kind of anxiety about survival. In October 1914, when those in power in Constantinople took the decision to join the Central Powers, the Ottoman Empire had just lost yet another war (the First Balkan War, 1912–13, in which the Empire was defeated by the combined forces of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania) and suffered yet again the loss of territories mainly inhabited by Christians. Other parts of the Empire, such as Egypt and the Lebanon, were de facto in the hands of the western great powers. It was uncertain whether this erosion was going to continue. A new ingredient—and a pretty deadly one—had just been added to this ancient witch’s brew: modern nationalism. Even before October 1914 this led the rulers in Constantinople to consider ideas of major ethnic relocations aimed at the creation of an ethnically uniform state or, at least, at freeing important provinces from their non-Muslim “tumours.” Simultaneously, among the increasingly hard-pressed minorities—particularly among activist Armenians—nationalism aroused separatist fantasies and the hope of a state of their own.
dd Actually multiple fiascos, since it was not only the over-precipitate invasion of the Caucasus that had come to a bitter end. The Ottoman incursion into independent Persia had also ended in defeat by this stage. The Russian corps which had now reached Kotur Tepe was coming—victorious—from those operations.
ee He handed over these seven men to a high-ranking local official who promised to protect them. Later, de Nogales discovered that the official had the prisoners strangled the very same night.
ff They would later use several mortars more than 500 years old—with considerable effect, though also at considerable risk to the artillerymen.
gg William Bridges, the commanding officer of the 1st Australian Division, whom Dawkins knew reasonably well since he had also been in command of the Royal Military College at Duntroon.
hh The Ottoman infantry defending Gallipoli during these days was brave, outnumbered, had defective equipment and was simply being used as cannon fodder. This fact is well summarised in a famous utterance by the then commander of the 19th Ottoman Division, Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, later famous as Kemal Atatürk. In a critical situation at Ariburnu on this very day, when he sent in a regiment whose ammunition was almost exhausted to stop a dangerous breakthrough by the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), he shouted to his soldiers, “I am not giving you an order to attack, I am ordering you to die.” That unit, the 57th Regiment, was indeed annihilated. Q.E.D.
ii The trench system in the east was rarely as well-developed and labyrinthine as in the west. This was mainly because the front, as has been noted, was more mobile. The distance between the enemy lines, perhaps a couple of hundred yards in the west and frequently much less than that, was often a mile or more in the east.
kk There are almost as many war cemeteries in this area as there are in Flanders and they can still be seen today by anyone driving along route 977 from Tarnów to Gorlice. In contrast to the situation in Flanders, many of these cemeteries are in a melancholy state of decay, which may sometimes be romantic but is often depressing. Most of them contain the bodies of soldiers from several different armies.
ll Dawkins had visited the dentist several times while they were still in Egypt but all of the problems had clearly not been dealt with. As late as 10 May he was seeking medical help—on the shore—for his pain.
mm Now best known as Anzac Cove.
nn There was no longer any question of surprise: the repeated naval attacks on Gallipoli during the months beforehand meant that the Ottoman generals—under their German commander-in-chief, Otto Liman von Sanders—had their eye on the place and sent all the reinforcements they could scrape together.
oo Had it been an ordinary high-explosive shell Dawkins would have escaped but his men would have been injured or killed. Shrapnel shells spread their bullets in a long cone directly ahead whereas high-explosive shells send out their fragments at almost ninety degrees. It is consequently possible to escape injury from a high-explosive shell even if it detonates just a few yards away as long as one is along the line of the shell’s trajectory. There is also the fact that metallurgy was still relatively undeveloped and high-explosive shells sometimes broke into just a few large fragments, which explains why people could sometimes survive even if they were very close to the detonation. One theory held that it was precisely experiences of this kind which were, purely physiologically, the cause of shell shock: the vacuum created by the detonation was thought to cause damage to the brain.
pp There was a peculiar dialectic relationship between dirt and subordination in the east. Cleanliness was one of the virtues the German occupiers never tired of preaching and was something that they felt to be proof of their own superiority. As Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius has shown, there were circumstances in which the subordinates could play on this, and on the German fear of infection, in order to evade punishments and control.
qq It was probably straightforward practicality rather than gender-political principle that drew Olive to this unit: the first medical unit she joined had been stopped almost immediately after it landed unannounced in Belgium, and Olive and two other women drivers had been arrested under suspicion of being spies. Mrs. Harley, however, one of the leaders of the Scottish Women’s Hospital and the woman accompanying Olive on the hunt for furniture, was the sister of Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force: this, self-evidently, would have made it easier for the unit to gain permission to operate.
rr After the war the road would lead to Lwów; today it leads to Lviv.
ss Macnaughtan had heard of the scandalous shortage of shells and the problems it caused during the battles around Festubert (and elsewhere) which had ended a few days earlier.
tt Men serving at the front received certain items—soap, for instance—free whereas those in hospital had to pay for them. Since their pay was low and the prices in the few and poorly stocked shops were sky-high, this soon became a problem. Consequently Andresen’s letters home during this month, as well as expressing his joy at being out of the firing line, contained many requests for material support.
uu There was nothing new about this categorical command that there must be no retreat: the high command issued it time after time after the breakthrough of 2 May. It was, however, completely counter-productive in that it forced the hard-pressed Third Army to defend a number of indefensible positions, which simply served to increase its already substantial losses.
vv The enemy did succeed in crossing the San at several points around the middle of May, doing so with the same self-confident, brutally crushing power as at Gorlice, but at this point it seems that these intrusions have been checked and held back.
ww Florence Farmborough is uncertain as to whether the Cossacks are simply carrying out orders or whether this is a largely private bout of pillaging. Most of the evidence suggests the former. As the Russian army once again began retreating it fell back on its old speciality—what is usually called a scorched-earth policy. It made a systematic attempt to take as much as possible of the resources of the country—cattle, in particular—with it, at the same time as destroying whatever it had to leave behind, regardless of whether this condemned the civilian population to great hardship or, indeed, outright famine. At this point the Russians were occupying territory that belonged to Austria-Hungary, which explains why they also removed the men of military age; this had also been done earlier, during the invasion of German East Prussia in 1914, but not with the same degree of methodical planning. (On that occasion the retreating Russians had forcibly taken rather more than 10,000 German men, women and children.) This organised pillage and burning continued with undiminished force even after they had crossed the border back into Russia, resulting in extreme suffering even for their own civilian population. This, of course, did nothing to make the war any more popular among the latter.
xx The description is Pollard’s own. Anyone who has heard artillery fire will know that this is not merely a silly approximation of the different sounds: the slightly drawn-out “Bang” represents the firing, the “Swisch” is the shell passing overhead, and the shorter, more compact “Crump” is the shell detonating not too far away.
yy De Nogales uses the term “Nestorian” for “Syrian.”
zz Laura had visited Stanislaw there in December, before the Germans had retaken Suwalki, and she would have moved to be with him, taking the family with her, but for the fact that there were regulations against taking children into the Russian-occupied zones.
aaa The expectations raised by the Italian entry into the war had not been fulfilled. This was partly because the over-optimistic advance of the Italian army was stopped almost immediately in the rugged mountains that line the borders of Italy—the existence of the mountains seemed to come as a surprise to some of the more boneheaded of the Italian generals. And partly it was because the Italian attack led to an upsurge of commitment on the part of the Slav population of Austria-Hungary, for whom this attack—unlike the war against Russia and Serbia—provided a cause they were actually willing to die for.
bbb “It is determined in God’s plan that one must part from those one loves most.”
ccc Or possibly Thursday, 12 August.
ddd There are several Tchaplis (now usually transliterated Chapli) in modern Ukraine; this one is in L’vivs’ka oblast.
eee The scale of distances in Africa may be seen from the fact that when Buchanan’s unit left Plymouth by ship it took them five days to reach Africa, but they sailed a further twenty days along the African coast before they reached their destination, Mombasa in British East Africa.
fff The small civil war that broke out among the Boers in South Africa in August 1914 shows the kind of thing the colonisers were afraid of: it was between those supporting the South African government, which sided with the British (even though the Boer War was only twelve years in the past), and a militant minority seeking revenge against Britain by forming an alliance with Germany. This internal conflict ended in February 1915 with the defeat and surrender of the last pro-German rebels.
ggg Up in Artois the French lost more than 100,000 men and the British about 26,000: the gains were marginal—no more than a mile or so. The first British attack, at Neuve Chapelle on 9 May, was a total failure, which was quickly blamed on the worthless preliminary bombardment by the artillery—a barrage of no more than forty minutes with almost exclusively light guns, severely handicapped by a shortage of high-explosive shells. This marked the start of the “Shell Scandal” in Great Britain, which led both to demands for the resignation of the Asquith government and to a radical reorganisation of munitions production and, indeed, of the whole war economy. It was this crisis that really caused the British public for the first time to recognise what it was going to take to win the war.
hhh However thorough their preparations, there was one factor the Allies could do nothing about, which was that the Germans held the ridges and higher ground along almost the whole of the front. This is because the Western Front became fixed wherever the Germans decided to break off their retreat (or their advance) and they had, of course, chosen to halt where the terrain was most advantageous to them. This gave the Germans the advantage of better visibility and, in places where the water table was high—particularly in Flanders—allowed them to dig in much more thoroughly and to a much greater depth than the Allies, who were stuck with the lower-lying ground. These factors were a major cause of concern to the Allies in virtually all their offensives.
iii This illusion should be seen as a consequence of earlier experiences rather than of a complete lack of imagination. The most recent European war had been the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, and that had certainly been decided quickly. Which shows how deceptive historical parallels can be.
jjj Early statistics indicated that just over 13 per cent of all battlefield injuries were head wounds and no less than 57 per cent of these were fatal. Head wounds were much more common than in earlier wars: the troops were now spending much of their time in trenches where, for obvious reasons, the head was the most exposed part of the body. The custom of cutting the hair short was introduced during the First World War, not (as is often assumed) as a way of dealing with lice but because it made the treatment of head wounds faster and simpler.
kkk Most British battalions had a bombing platoon, its members specialists in the use of explosives. During the First World War this meant primarily Mills grenades and gun cotton.
lll It was given its name during the fighting of October 1914 when fleeing British soldiers gathered there and a local commander gave them permission to stay there temporarily rather than return to the fighting. By this stage, however, the wood was anything but a sanctuary, but the name had stuck. It is perhaps worth mentioning that there is now a curious little café there, where, for a small fee, the fenced and preserved remnants of some trenches as well as a quite improbable collection of rusty bric-a-brac from the 1914–18 war may be viewed.
mmm The Italian army suffered 68,000 casualties, 11,000 of them fatal. These figures were, of course, not made public until after the war.
nnn As a result of these movements alone, 15 per cent of the Serbian population died before the end of the war. No other nation suffered to the same extent as the Serbians in the years 1914 to 1918.
ooo Both the German and the Austro-Hungarian armies developed a hard-line culture for dealing with guerrillas, partisans, komidatschi, francs-tireurs or whatever they may have been called—that is, armed men, who shoot from ambush and fight without uniforms. Both colonial and historical experience played a part in forming the rather indeterminate mental image of such irregular fighters. They were viewed as a particularly uncivilised phenomenon since a civilised war should be fought only by uniformed men, without the involvement of civilians, and should the latter join in, they must be punished in the most severe way possible—with the death penalty. Taken in conjunction with seriously exaggerated rumours of atrocities committed against their troops, this hard line, which was theoretically laid down in the name of civilisation, led both armies to be guilty of the worst mass murders of civilians Europe had witnessed for more than a century. Things were at their worst during the opening phase of the war in 1914 when over a thousand civilians in Belgium—men, women and children—were killed by German troops as reprisals for imagined guerrilla actions. And Austro-Hungarian troops (particularly Hungarians) repeatedly ran amok in Serbia, killing everything and everyone they encountered. The hysteria of August 1914 had calmed down by this point but both armies continued to take an extremely severe stance against anyone who fought without being clothed in the external accoutrements of a regular soldier: guerrilla fighters should, quite simply, be hanged.
ppp Stumpf’s reference is to the mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905. His memory, however, fails him on this: the Potemkin belonged to the Russian Black Sea fleet not to the Baltic fleet.
qqq Towards the end of September news had come that Bulgaria was mobilising, a clear sign that the country—after much vacillation and even more duplicitous scheming—had finally decided to join the Central Powers. This put the wind up the Greeks who, in turn, placed their small army on a war footing and invited the Allies in, which is why Sarrail’s corps were sent to Salonica. The next day it emerged that the Bulgarians had fallen on their old enemy, Serbia, and invaded the southern parts of the country at the same time as Germans and Austrians were marching into the north. Sarrail’s corps received a chilly, even threatening, reception because Eleftherios Venizelos, the Greek prime minister who had invited the Allies in, was driven from office by the German-friendly King Constantine I, with the result that Greece changed its political stance and once again became neutral. (The landing at Salonica was, therefore, according to A. J. P. Taylor, an act that in its way was as ruthless as the German invasion of Belgium.) Next came the short-lived victorious fanfares announcing that Sarrail’s corps was pushing north along the Salonica–Belgrade railway—short-lived because they were immediately followed by the not very surprising news that the Serbs had finally crumbled under the overwhelming forces against them and that the scattered remains of their army were now somewhere up in the snow-covered Albanian mountains and hurrying south.
rrr The generals on both sides detested this sort of behaviour. And it is worth noting that certain types of unit—Guards units, for instance—were immune to it, as were certain nationalities (such as Hungarians and Serbs) when they were facing one another.
sss The great importance of oil at that stage was not, however, to power aeroplanes and cars, since these were relatively few in number, but as fuel for the British fleet. The British Admiralty had discovered that oil had a number of advantages over coal, not the least of which was that it was much easier to load.
ttt The day after this the evacuation of the Allied forces from Gallipoli began and the Ottoman Empire achieved its greatest military success of the modern age.
uuu Well-known before the war for his daring, indeed dangerous, stunt flying.
vvv Probably on the same day, though possibly 16 December.