This is the war. It is not the risk of dying, not the red firework display of a bursting shell that blinds us as it comes whizzing down …, but the feeling of being a puppet in the hands of an unknown puppeteer—and that feeling sometimes chills the heart as if death itself had taken hold of it.
Start of a Russian offensive in Armenia. Some gains.
Russian troops enter Persia.
Start of the German offensive at Verdun. Major gains. The battles continue until November.
Great Britain and France divide the German colony of Cameroon between them.
The Battle of Verdun spreads to include the western side of the Meuse.
Germany declares war on Portugal. (The two countries have fought earlier in Africa.)
The fifth Italian offensive on the Isonzo is broken off. Insignificant gains.
The start of the Easter Rising in Ireland.
The British corps besieged in Kut al-Amara capitulates.
Austro-Hungarian offensive around the Asiago plateau in the Alps. Some gains.
The Battle of Jutland—the great sea battle in the Skagerrak.
Ottoman offensive in Armenia. Intensive fighting against Russian forces the whole summer.
The Russian Brusilov offensive begins in the east. Major gains.
The great British-French offensive on the Somme begins and continues until November.
The sixth Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. Some gains.
The town of Görz (Gorizia) on the Isonzo is captured by Italian troops.
A peace initiative by the Pope comes to nothing.
Romania declares war on Austria-Hungary. A German declaration of war follows.
Romanian offensive into Transylvania begins. Minor gains.
The seventh Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. No gains.
German and Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive begins in Transylvania.
The eighth Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. No gains.
The ninth Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. Insignificant gains.
Significant Russian successes in Persia.
Bucharest occupied by German and Austro-Hungarian forces.
German peace initiative is rejected by the Allies.
SATURDAY, 1 JANUARY 1916
Edward Mousley sees the sun rise over Kut al-Amara
It is called The Stack. It is a pile of sacks of flour some fourteen feet high and topped with an observation post. The view from the top is excellent. It is possible to see the horizon in almost every direction and to follow most of what the besieging Ottoman force is getting up to north of the town. The Stack stands in the middle of what they call The Fort, a large, walled enclosure at the north-eastern end of the British lines of defence around Kut al-Amara.
Edward Mousley has been in the Fort since yesterday, when he was sent there to replace a forward observer who had been wounded. The way there is long and dangerous: he had to navigate almost two miles of trenches to reach the position and enemy snipers are everywhere, shooting at anything that moves. Because of the Fort’s isolated situation, the food served is unusually bad even by Kut standards. They have started slaughtering their draught animals and mounts (though Mousley’s beloved Don Juan has been spared so far) and the soldiers closer to the town often dine on horsemeat. That is less common out here because of the distance.
Mousley has been awake since half an hour before dawn. He and the other forward observer in the Fort take breakfast in turns and on this particular early morning they have the same old stuff to eat: rice and tinned meat, washed down with tea—butter and sugar have already run out. Mousley likes watching the dawn and seeing the shadows of the night lift from the flat plain of the desert. The sky this morning is stunningly beautiful as it grows light, with shades of dark green, lilac and violet playing across an archipelago of fast-moving clouds driven by a south wind. Since this is New Year’s Day he would like to think he is observing an omen and that the fate of the army, like that of the racing clouds, is to sweep rapidly on to Baghdad. Everyone in Kut al-Amara is calmly waiting for the relief force which, according to the optimists, is just a few days away, though the pessimists prefer to measure the time in weeks. They have been laying bets on it. Sometimes they play football, though the heat is deadening.
There is another reason he likes the dawn: it is the easiest time to register gunfire because later in the day mirages begin to form. It is also easier for the simple reason that enemy fire is not so heavy at that time. The enemy has worked out that British artillery fire is directed from the Stack, which means that as soon as the British guns open fire enemy projectiles begin to rattle against the walls. (He describes the sound of a salvo hitting the walls as r-r-r-rip.) They have to reinforce the double layer of sacks at regular intervals since the stream of bullets eventually gnaws through the outer layer and shots begin to penetrate into the protected area.
Later in the day Mousley notices through his binoculars that Ottoman soldiers are starting to set up an artillery position. He warns one of his batteries, gives them the coordinates, and soon the guns open up. The enemy soldiers, however, prove to be not so easily frightened. With his binoculars he can see them leaping for cover when a shell comes whistling over but immediately returning to the task of digging and picking even before the cloud from the shell-burst has dispersed. Fearless fellows. So Mousley changes the barrage pattern. His battery begins to fire its guns one by one so that there are fewer shells but they land more frequently. That seems to have an effect and after a while he sees stretcher-bearers and medical orderlies with carts arriving at the Turkish position.
The Fort is one of the cornerstones of the defence of Kut al-Amara and like the Stack it is almost continuously under fire. (When Mousley walks along the wall there are bullets smacking in through the low loopholes and he has to rush past one after the other.) So the infantrymen holding the Fort spend most of their time underground and the whole place is a maze of connecting trenches and bunkers, along with deep pits used for the storage of provisions and ammunition.
In the afternoon Mousley visits one of the Fort’s outer defences. The Ottoman infantry tried to storm it on Christmas Eve and after the British machine guns were knocked out and the Ottomans had broken into the bastion ferocious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. The attackers were eventually put to flight, by which time the bastion was full of dead bodies. The same soldiers who drove off the attack a week ago are still in the position and are pleased at their achievement. They show Mousley the large numbers of Ottoman dead still lying around—the bodies are in an advanced state of decay and the stench is horrendous in places. In spite of the smell and the danger from enemy snipers some of the men have risked venturing onto the carpet of bodies to look for souvenirs. One Indian soldier shows Mousley his trophies: three Ottoman tropical helmets and an officer’s sword.
Dinner is really enjoyable—a small portion of potatoes, a fillet of horsemeat, dates and bread. The meal is rounded off nicely, too, since an officer offers him a Burmese cheroot and around seven o’clock Mousley retires to his bunker to smoke it reverently.*
The bunker he shares with another forward observing officer, a captain, is big for two people—about sixteen feet by ten—but unfortunately its ceiling is so low that it is impossible to stand upright. Mousley lies in bed, smoking and staring up at a ceiling constructed of a layer of beams with a diameter of six to eight inches, on top of which there is a three-foot layer of sand. He notes that the weight of the covering is making the beams bend. While looking at the sagging ceiling he tries to remember an axiom from Aristotle—something like, “just as some planks are stronger than others, so all will break if sufficient weight be applied.”
On that day Paolo Monelli writes in his diary:
Isn’t this what you wanted? To be sitting by a fire, part of the war, one evening after a successful reconnaissance, waiting for more serious missions. Thoughtlessly happy songs, the feeling that this is the best time of your life. And all your most morbid misgivings have been dispelled.
SUNDAY, 2 JANUARY 1916
Vincenzo D’Aquila emerges from his delirium in Udine
No one thought he was going to survive but an injection of something—opium, perhaps?—in some unfathomable way reversed his spinning descent down into the abyss. The first thing he can remember is one of the nurses shouting in amazement: “Tu sei renato!” You have been reborn! But for what?
It is only slowly that D’Aquila remembers fully what has happened.
From the calendar in the ward he can see that today’s date is 2 January 1916. He is confused and lies with his head on the white pillow trying to understand. The war is still going on, that much he realises. But what actually happened when he was rescued from the expectation of death in the trenches? Was it his intelligence or his cunning that he had to thank for his salvation? No, it was his faith. He cannot let go of what the nurse said about him being reborn and a grandiose idea takes hold of him—if his own faith saved him from the war, could it not do the same for all the other soldiers?
A nurse comes up to his bed and gives him some thin slices of sponge cake and a glass of warm milk. After eating, he lies back and falls into a deep and tranquil sleep.
MONDAY, 10 JANUARY 1916
Pál Kelemen visits the scene of the assassination in Sarajevo
The last few months have involved little more than patrols and the other duties of an occupying force. The mountainous landscape is blanketed in snow but it is not particularly cold. The remnants of the shattered Serbian army have disappeared over the Albanian mountains in the south and Allied vessels are said to have shipped them out to exile in Corfu. The major battles in Serbia are over and what remains to be done is to finish off the guerrilla war. Some parts of the country have been completely emptied of their male population. Time after time Kelemen has seen columns of men of all ages passing by:
Shrivelled old men, crippled by hard labor, shuffle helplessly along, resigned to their fate like doomed animals. At the back are driven the cripples, the halfwits, and the children.
He is familiar with the snail tracks left behind by these pitiful processions—emaciated corpses lying in the ditch every mile or so, or the heavy, sour smell given off by their unwashed bodies, which hangs in the air even after they have passed round the next bend in the road.
For those who have no scruples there are numerous opportunities for exploitation. The Serbian towns have plenty of women prepared to offer their bodies in exchange for provisions, perhaps for a little chocolate or even just for salt. He has been unable to bring himself to participate in the shabby, unrestrained sex which now goes on almost openly in the occupied towns. Perhaps he is too respectable. Or is he quite simply too vain? For what would be proved by something won so cheaply?
His unit has been stationed in Bosnia since the end of December and Kelemen is in Sarajevo today. He notes in his journal:
It is close to midnight. I have left the company and start home along the river bank. The snowfall has ceased; everything lies wrapped in white. In the Turkish quarter of Sarajevo on the other shore, snow lies thick on the domes of the mosques, and when the gusty wind blows off the mountain peaks, part of the white cover glides down with a reverberating crash, breaking the calm of the sleeping country.
The streets are deserted. A turbanned night watchman shuffles away before me in his straw slippers. I reach the bank of the river Miljacka and stand on the corner just where the fatal shots were fired at the Crown Prince of the Monarchy. There is a marble slab on the wall of the house. June 28th, 1914.
From the center of the city, the fine musical tinkle of sleigh bells approaches. And now the sleigh too can be seen, turning toward the river bank, the light narrow vehicle drawn by small steaming horses. In the uncertain sheen of the street lamp I glimpse the outline of a slight woman wrapped in furs and the silhouette of the man beside her. With rapid hoof-beats the whole vision flies away. The sleigh with the two lovers in it has already passed the third corner. The sweet tinkle grows faint, and I stand alone on the cold river bank below the marble slab at the source of world tragedy.
SUNDAY, 16 JANUARY 1916
Florence Farmborough follows the course of a raid in the Chertoviche region
The cold and the heavy snowfalls are their most important allies. Both German and Russian armies remain stationary in rapidly dug trenches and overcrowded bunkers. Florence and the rest of the hospital unit have little to do. Most of their patients are suffering from injuries caused by the cold, or possibly from wounds resulting from a sniper’s bullet, since those specialists in preying on their fellow men are never so active as in situations like the present one.†
Florence is rather pleased with life just now. She has just had ten days’ leave in Moscow and really loved being there: “The light, the colour, the warmth, which I had so wished for—all were there.” She went to the opera, saw the ballet, even danced. And the quiet evenings at home with her host family, with soft cushions, singing and playing the grand piano, that too had been undiluted pleasure, though after a while she had been troubled by a vague sense of restlessness. Something was missing:
Gradually it was borne to me that to be happy while the world was unhappy, to laugh while the world was in pain, was incongruous; in fact, impossible. I realised that my happiness lay with my duty, and, as a Red Cross nurse, I had no need to be told where that was.
In the end she had found herself counting the days until she could put on her uniform again and return to the front.
It is not only Florence who is in a good mood. Morale has recovered a little since the long retreat of the autumn and winter. The deadlock of recent months has allowed the shattered divisions to fill their ranks with new blood, their supply trains with new provisions and their arsenals with new materiel. The army of tsarist Russia now has fully two million men at the front and almost every one of them has his own rifle, which is considered to be an unusually good situation.‡ The shortage of shells that was being talked about for the whole of last year—though it was to some extent exaggerated—has been dealt with: they now have about 1,000 projectiles for every field gun, which is thought to be ample. And all the men have been fully rested.
As a result of all this, optimism in the Russian army is growing again. The fact that they have lost about four million men in the course of little more than a year and a half has been more or less repressed§ and they hope—indeed, many of them believe—that the new year will at last bring the turning point they have been looking for and discussing. And there is a lot of talk of future Russian offensives.‖
There is a new spirit of aggression among the soldiers. Florence has known for a while that some sort of operation is being prepared along their sector of the front. Yesterday, at a dinner, she found out what it is to be: there is to be a reconnaissance in force by two battalions, which will target an important section of the German line of defence. The aim is to test enemy strength and to bring back some prisoners at the same time. Many of the men in the attack will be raw recruits, keen young men who have volunteered to be in the advance guard. Their job will be to stealthily cut passages through the German barbed wire—a dangerous task which, in their inexperience, they imagine is going to be little more than an exciting escapade. (They have been specially equipped with snow camouflage in the form of white overalls.) Florence and a section of her unit are to remain in a state of readiness immediately behind the front line in order to treat the men who are wounded.
By morning they are ready to move forward and set up a first-aid station but the hours pass while they wait impatiently. They do not get their marching orders until almost half past ten in the evening. They had been intending to use tents but to their joy they are given permission to set up their equipment in a cabin in a small wood just over a mile behind the trenches. The weather is dreadful—a strong, cold wind and sleety rain.
The doctors are nervous. Who can predict how the Germans will respond to a raid like this? The front is still calm and quiet. Not a shot is to be heard. They sit and wait. And wait. Midnight passes. After a while the divisional commander turns up and they offer him tea. The waiting continues. At two o’clock the commander receives a telephone report. Good news and bad news: the first attempt to cut through the German wire had to be abandoned but another attempt is being made.
More waiting, more silence, then another telephone call. Everything is going according to plan. The reconnaissance units are working their way through the barriers. The people in the little cabin breathe out and exchange smiles of relief.
More waiting, more silence. Three o’clock comes, then four.
Then it happens.
The silence is broken by the combined growling roar of artillery pieces, machine guns and rifles. This must surely signal that the Russian attack has begun. The noise grinds on. Another telephone report. The reconnaissance group has been discovered at their task and now find themselves under heavy fire from the German artillery. The breakthrough has failed.
The wounded begin to come in, some carried on stretchers, others helped by their fellows, some limping in under their own steam. The scene is dominated by two colours—white and red. The blood stands out in sharp contrast on the soldiers’ new snow suits. She sees one holding a grenade in his hand, so shocked that he refuses to let go of it. She sees another man, hit in the stomach—his intestines are hanging out and he is already dead. She sees a third man, shot in the lungs and his breath is bubbling as he fights for air. She sees a fourth being given the last rites but he is already so far gone that he can hardly manage to swallow the wafer. White and red.
When it is all over Florence goes out into the fresh air. Everything is once again silent and calm, though the sound of scattered shots can be heard from a neighbouring sector. The reconnaissance force has failed, seventy-five men have been killed and about two hundred wounded. The commander of the regiment is missing and rumoured to be lying badly wounded somewhere out there in the wire and winter darkness.
TUESDAY, 18 JANUARY 1916
Michel Corday takes the Métro to the Gare de l’Est
Cold air. Winter sky. This morning Michel Corday is accompanying an old friend to the railway station. The friend is an officer in the engineers and is returning to his unit. The two men take the Métro to the Gare de l’Est. In the underground they hear an infantryman on his way back to the front at the end of his leave talking to an acquaintance: “I’d give my left arm to avoid going back.” This is not just a figure of speech because Corday then hears the infantryman say he has been trying to get himself wounded as a way of being taken out of the front line: he did so by putting his hand through one of the loopholes in the trench under enemy fire and holding it there for an hour—without success.
Other topics of conversation on this day: the war has cost, on average, 3,000 human lives and 350 million francs each day. There is talk of reducing these costs in order to be able to fight for longer. The expression “war paid by instalments” is to be heard. There is also considerable agitation that Montenegro—France and Serbia’s Balkan ally—capitulated yesterday. Not that Montenegro had much choice: the mountainous little country was occupied by the same German-Austrian troops who pushed the Serbian army out of its own country. Someone also tells a story about the capture of a badly wounded German officer at the front: as he dies he whispers, “It’s true, isn’t it, that Goethe … is the world’s greatest poet?” This is seen as a typical expression of German self-conceit.
It is ten o’clock in the morning when Corday and his friend arrive at the Gare de l’Est. There are uniformed men everywhere, sitting in their hundreds on luggage trolleys or on the stone balustrades. They are waiting for their trains or for the clock to strike eleven: it is strictly forbidden to serve anything to drink to men in uniform before that time.a Corday has heard of a minister who wanted to buy a pot of tea for two women and the fiancé of one of the women, only to be politely refused because the fiancé was in uniform and the time was wrong. Then the minister tried to order tea just for the women and was again refused on the grounds that there was a risk that the soldier might drink some of the tea served to the women. The waiter did, however, point obligingly to the entrance and suggest a solution: the fiancé could do what an officer with another party was doing—leaving the tea room so that the people in his group could have something to drink.
The platform, too, is swarming with soldiers returning from leave. There are emotional farewells by the carriages, women lifting up their little ones so that the men hanging out of the windows can give them a last kiss. Corday observes the scenes in his usual voyeurish way. His eyes fall on a soldier whose face is completely contorted, transformed into a mask of sorrow. The man’s suffering is so obvious, so palpably clear, that Corday has to turn away. He leaves the platform without looking back.
WEDNESDAY, 26 JANUARY 1916
Vincenzo D’Aquila is transferred to the San Osvaldo mental hospital
It is early and one of the orderlies brings in D’Aquila’s old uniform and tells him to change. He is then taken to an office where a doctor in a captain’s uniform is waiting. His name is Bianchi. D’Aquila salutes him smartly. The doctor receives him kindly and, feeling rather uncomfortable with the whole situation, hesitates. D’Aquila sees a pile of papers lying ready on the desk and manages to pick out fragments of what is written there. It is an order for him to be transferred for “observation and custody” to the San Osvaldo mental hospital. “Symptoms: cerebral typhus of a maniacal type—dangerous to himself and to others.”
D’Aquila has gone mad—or that is what the doctors think his behaviour demonstrates. In D’Aquila’s clouded and confused mind the whole experience of falling ill, followed by an apparently miraculous recovery, has driven to an extreme his belief that he is somehow being “chosen.” His mind is filled with the wild idea that he has been brought back from the dead for a specific purpose by a higher power. And his mission? To stop the war. He imagines he can see the workings of the supernatural in the hospital wards. He believes he is performing faith healing.
And there is certainly no lack of people to heal. Immediately after his reawakening he was moved to a convent just outside Udine, where the military are sending soldiers with different kinds of mental problems. The number of cases is growing day by day. The doctors do not, in truth, know what to do with all these men with their strange cramps, grotesquely obsessional behaviour and inexplicable paralyses, men whose bodies are uninjured but whose minds seem to have succumbed. In a bed to the right of D’Aquila there is a young man who sits up every tenth minute, day and night, and carefully examines his pillow for lice. In the same ward there is a fellow who repeatedly thinks he is back at the front and rolls out of bed roaring, “Avanti Savoia!” He wriggles backwards and forwards on the cold floor, ducking to avoid imaginary bullets until he faints, at which point the orderlies pick him up. Then he remains unconscious until the next attack (both clinical and imaginary) sets him off again.
For lack of anything better, they call it “shell shock.”
D’Aquila has seen it all and been appalled by it. It has merely served to reinforce his firm conviction that he both must and actually can put a stop to this utter madness—the war. He had a prophetic dream one night: right outside the hospital he saw two groups of fighting men clash with each other and he went outside and stood between them:
With upraised hand I motioned to the soldiers to stop shooting. Next I felt a sharp pain on my right side where an enemy bullet had hit me. But I did not reel. Instead I calmly extracted the bullet with my fingers and held it aloft to show the combatants my invulnerability. Instantly the firing ceased, the men threw their weapons to the earth and started to embrace one another, crying, “The war is over!”
D’Aquila believes himself to be a prophet and argues, not without some finesse, with both doctors and priests. They call him mad, but it is the world that has gone mad, isn’t it? It may perhaps sound like some gobbledegook philosophy when he says he will stop the war (him, just a solitary, unknown corporal) but surely someone must make a start, mustn’t they? So he has been wandering around in his dressing gown, preaching and debating. He suspects there are conspiracies. He thinks he has discovered secret messages from a higher power hidden in his underwear.
Captain Bianchi is strangely embarrassed, fiddles with his spectacles and blames orders from higher up. Once again D’Aquila starts arguing his case: it is the world that is mad, not him. He analyses, prophesies, orates: “Are we not told by Christ to love our enemies?” And so on. The captain listens patiently, shakes his hand, wishes him good luck and escorts him out into the yard, where an ambulance is waiting, its engine idling. As D’Aquila climbs aboard the engine splutters and cuts out. See, another sign from the heavens!
Eventually the driver and a mechanic get the vehicle started. They drive through Udine towards San Osvaldo at ferocious speed. The morning is cold and clear.
A DAY IN FEBRUARY, 1916
Pál Kelemen watches transport convoys on a mountain road in Montenegro
So Montenegro—one of the enemies of the Central Powers, although perhaps not the most important of them—has been knocked out. Pál Kelemen and his hussars took part in the operations, once again without seeing any fighting to speak of. They are now back to their familiar old routine—road patrols and guard duty. He notes in his journal:
General Headquarters is being moved. As the railway bridge is not yet repaired, the provisioning service between the two stations is carried on by motor truck. But in spite of the very inadequate facilities for transporting the general food supply, all the vehicles have been requisitioned to help move Headquarters.
Columns of trucks wind over the mountains, packed with cases of champagne, wire-spring beds, floor lamps, special kitchen equipment, and various crates of delicacies. The troops receive a third of their normal rations. The infantry at the front has had only a morsel of bread for four days, but the staff officers’ mess serves the usual four-course dinners.
SATURDAY, 5 FEBRUARY 1916
Olive King is looking forward to a day off in Salonica
She is sharing a tent with three other women. They make their own breakfast in the morning on a portable British military stove fuelled with meta tablets: it is small and pretty ineffective but does manage to boil water for coffee and just about heat a tin of sausages. Not much is happening in Salonica. As usual. The front is quiet, so quiet that the troops in the front line have even started digging vegetable plots in which they intend to grow peas. The only warlike activities on offer are the bombing raids made by the occasional German Zeppelin. The first more serious raid was made at the end of December and there was a second one four days ago. The effect of these attacks has been negligible.
Just as on all the other static front lines, the war in the air has been given a degree of attention out of proportion to its real importance. It has to stand in for all those things people had hoped for from the war but which are now so difficult to find: colour, excitement and drama, a scenario in which the courage and skill of the individual has some significance. A shot-down German plane was paraded through the whole of Salonica with a great hullabaloo the other day. (The fact that it was forced down just behind the French lines was mostly a matter of luck: there was only one bullet hole in the whole aircraft, but the shot had gone through the petrol tank.) King was there to watch. Allied cavalry clattered along in the lead, followed by several motor cars full of proud Allied pilots; then came the aeroplane, in pieces, carried on three lorries; after that were more Allied motor cars, with another column of mounted troops bringing up the rear. King gives an account of the events in a letter addressed to her sister:
That was the limited procession, to impress the Dagos, & they certainly stared open-mouthed, but the amusing part was the mass of lorries, ambulances, cars, trams, bullock wagons, packhorses & etc. which had been held up by the procession, & came straggling along after it.
In the darkness outside it is raining. King is lying in her tent writing to her sister and she keeps it short since she only has half a candle left. After that she goes to bed, which never takes very long. She simply takes her boots and skirt off and creeps half-dressed under the blanket and her overcoat. She and the other three in the tent have tomorrow off and she is looking forward to it. She is thinking of starting with a long lie-in, and for breakfast they will share the three eggs she bought earlier this evening.
SUNDAY, 13 FEBRUARY 1916
Rafael de Nogales and the wild duck on the Tigris
There is a chill in the air. The morning’s rain has turned into a heavy snowfall by eleven o’clock and the flat desert landscape around them is transformed into an exotic white. Rafael de Nogales is on a steamship going south down the mud-coloured Tigris, towards the front. He is once again in search of battle and danger. He left his post on the staff in Baghdad yesterday in order to serve with a brigade of cavalry involved in the fierce battles around Kut al-Amara.
Apart from the cold, it is a pleasant, almost idyllic journey:
The only things to break the monotony of the landscape were the djirts and waterwheels turning slowly on both river-banks, the contours of which were broken at regular intervals by dusty groves of palm trees and small, yellow-coloured villages. Here and there flocks of wild duck flew with beating wings across the leaden sky, perhaps frightened into taking off when the crew of a dhow further upstream hoisted their triangular sail to the accompaniment of one of those long, mournful songs that resemble a wail of lament rather than music and which are as long drawn-out and melancholy as the horizon of the desert.
De Nogales had actually attempted to get a discharge from the Ottoman army when he arrived in Aleppo, exhausted and sick after his long and dangerous ride from Sairt. Nothing he saw during the journey made him change his mind. Quite the reverse. Time after time he stumbled across traces of the massacre of Christians and he saw long columns of deported Armenians, above all women and children, being reduced to “filthy, ragged skeletons” as they were marched to death under the watchful eyes of Ottoman soldiers.
A telegram from the war ministry in Constantinople, however, informed him that his request had been rejected but offered him treatment in the headquarters hospital. De Nogales did not dare accept the offer: as a witness to the massacres he was in fear of his life. After being in close contact with the German military delegation in Aleppo, however, he felt sufficiently safe—after a month’s convalescence—to report for a new posting.b
First of all he landed up in an administrative job in a small, distant place in the province of Adana, where he carried on an unequal, but to some extent successful, struggle against the disorder, corruption and appalling incompetence that characterised the Ottoman army’s transport system. In December, however, an unexpected telegram summoned him to a new posting, this time on the staff of Baron Colmar von der Goltz, the German field marshal who was in command of the Ottoman Sixth Army in Mesopotamia.c
Still feeling some disquiet but eager for new excitement and glad to escape this internal exile along the caravan routes in Adana, de Nogales set off south towards the Mesopotamian front. The halting of the British push towards Baghdad was judged to be a great success and an even greater success was on the cards if the British corps surrounded in Kut al-Amara could be made to surrender. There is now fierce fighting going on around the small town, and also further downstream, where British units are attempting to force their way through to relieve the siege.
After travelling for a few hours they meet another boat on the river. The two vessels stop alongside each other and he sees a small man in the uniform of an Ottoman colonel come across on a gangplank. The man, who has a pointed beard and a “proud but unassuming” manner, is Nureddin Bey, the Turk who was not only in command when the British advance was checked at Ctesiphon but was also largely responsible for the successful encirclement of Townshend’s corps. Nureddin is now on his way to Constantinople, “stripped and humiliated,” removed from his post as governor of Baghdad. Halil Bey, the new governor, may not be able to boast of any great military talent but he has first-class political contacts and now, with the scent of a great victory in the air, he is eager to usurp the role of official victor.d
Halil’s nephew was Enver Pasha, one of the leading Young Turks and an aggressive nationalist who was the driving force in taking the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers. In practical terms Enver was now the ruler of the empire as a sort of military dictator, and it was he who had dismissed Nureddin from Baghdad and replaced him with his uncle.
Because of its scale this war produces heroes at a phenomenal rate and the newspapers are full of them. Once used, they are cast aside just as rapidly. Death or oblivion awaits most of them. Also in Baghdad is another architect of the victory at Ctesiphone—Field Marshal von der Goltz. In spite of his high rank the seventy-two-year-old German is virtually isolated, and he is ill, spending most of his days alone in a small, dirty tent.
As evening approaches, de Nogales sees rows of thin spirals of smoke “rising into a pepper and salt sky of grey and gold.” The front is not far away and they have reached the point at which river transport will become land transport. Here he can see the spinning cogs of the enormous machine that keeps the war going—most armies need something like fifteen men working behind the lines to supply one fighting soldier.
Weaponry has undergone great change over the past fifty years, becoming ever more deadly, but the means of transport have hardly changed at all. This is one of the main reasons that the war so often stalls and becomes static. Once the trains have reached their termini the further progress of the armies relies on exactly what it relied on in Caesar’s or Napoleon’s day—the muscles in a man’s legs or in a horse’s back. But these ever more complex organisations demand more and more equipment, and the weapons, with their increasingly rapid rate of fire, demand more and more ammunition.f
The majority of campaigns, particularly those fought beyond the well-developed railway network of western Europe, are decided more by logistics than by tactics. However brave an army’s soldiers may be and however advanced their weapons, it will inevitably find itself at a disadvantage if the transport system that is supposed to support it is weak or underdeveloped. The conflict has increasingly become an economic competition, a war between factories. And logistics is the Ottoman army’s weak link.
During his service de Nogales has witnessed any amount of Ottoman ineptitude and corruption but on the Mesopotamian front they have mobilised everything they can. What de Nogales sees as his boat draws closer is, in its way, impressive. There is no mistaking the Turks’ determination or their energy. At the same time, however, there is something timeless about the scene:
With every moment that passed I could see more and more clearly the line of steamers, dhows, nankeens, terradas, cufas and rafts moored along the left bank of the Tigris, all busily loading or unloading military supplies and provisions, which were standing in tall, pyramid-shaped stacks along the steep banks of the river. Thousands of buffaloes, camels and other beasts of burden, tended by Arab herdsmen in picturesque dress, were grazing peacefully over a vast expanse covered with white tents that spread as far as one could see in the hazy distance. Cavalry patrols and infantry platoons were marching backwards and forwards to the sound of military music through an enormous uniformed throng, from which rose a ceaseless mumble of voices like the roar of a distant sea. Now and then the hubbub was pierced by the shrill braying of the animals, the hoarse notes of sirens, the singing of imams calling men to prayer and the yells of Persian, Arab and Jewish merchants who, gesticulating grandly, offered our soldiers tobacco, olives and plates of greasy fare.
De Nogales spends the night aboard the Firefly, a sooty, bullet-riddled British gunboat that fell into Ottoman hands during the fighting at Umm two months ago. Both sides keep small flotillas of heavily armed boats on the Tigris, mainly to protect their own supply chain since the river, which is unusually difficult to navigate this year because of drought, is a living artery for both armies.
The faint roar of distant explosions can sometimes be heard and on the distant horizon oily smoke rises densely above some groves of palm trees. Somewhere over there is Kut al-Amara and its beleaguered defenders.
One of the men over there in the encircled town is Edward Mousley. At the moment he is suffering from dysentery and waking up this morning was more than usually unpleasant: apart from the inevitable diarrhoea he has severe pains in the small of his back and in his head, and he has a high temperature. The doctors’ orders are simple: “Improve your diet.” Mousley comments: “They might as well have recommended an ocean cruise.” Food supplies are slowly but surely shrinking in Kut al-Amara. Some of the men who want to stay on their feet at any price keep themselves going on opium pills and various other home remedies, such as a mixture of castor-oil and Chlorodyne, a well-known analgesic patent medicine with a minty taste: its active ingredients are opium, cannabis and chloroform.g
The situation at Kut al-Amara is unchanged—they are all waiting for new efforts to relieve them. Some of them are growing impatient whereas others are simply waiting, bordering on apathetic, having stopped believing in a quick rescue. They talk jokingly of feeling “siegy” or “dugoutish.” And the screw has just been tightened one more turn: they were bombed by an enemy plane today. Mousley despairs: “The circle is closed. We are being shot at from all directions, including above.” The most upsetting news of the day is that people at home in Britain do not know anything about what is happening in Mesopotamia; they think the corps has just gone into some sort of winter hibernation.
Mousley notes in his journal:
I finished [reading] a novel today. It has at least made me long for England again. We are all full of longings; and the chief blessing of civilisation is that it supplies the wherewithal to quieten them. Lord! For a glass of fresh milk and a jelly. Temperature 103° and shivering. I am going to have an attempt at sleeping. Everything is quiet. The sentry’s steps beside my roof make the earth shake. It is the seventieth day of the siege.
MONDAY, 14 FEBRUARY 1916
Kresten Andresen is in Billy-Montigny and thinking of peace
Winter turning to spring. Puddles covered with ice. The landscape is light brown. There have been some quiet months, which has pleased him. Andresen has had a few tours of duty in the front line but as a digger, not as a fighter. During the day they sat in a cellar listening to the shellfire, and at night they marched up to the forward line and dug and dug. Their positions are in a state of constant development, both in depth and extent, and the sight of mile after mile of deep trenches and ever thicker belts of barbed wire has become depressing rather than impressive. He has told himself and the others that a solution by military means is no longer possible—the more time passes, the more impenetrable the lines become. He has also heard that this is one of the sectors where the German and the French soldiers have come to a kind of silent understanding to leave each other in peace as far as possible. Now and then, however, severe fighting breaks out and then dies away just as quickly, following a logic he finds impossible to discern.
Apart from the nights of digging Kresten Andresen has been having a relatively comfortable life. He has been spared anything really unpleasant and any great danger, but he is still unsettled and longing for home. He has withdrawn from his German comrades to a great extent, finding them over-partial to drink, and even from everyday life, which he finds monotonous and melancholy. They sometimes play practical jokes on each other, like putting pepper in each other’s “pig snouts”—soldiers’ slang for gas masks. Whenever he can he seeks out other Danes to talk to and spend his time with. He has been reading Molière and become friendly with one of the draught horses. When news reached them that Montenegro had capitulated to the Austro-Hungarians, it was enough to set off endless speculation that this was just the first step, that others would soon follow suit and a general peace would break out by Easter or not long after. And so on. Andresen writes in his diary:
The offensive that was going on here has now come to a complete halt and everything is perfectly calm. It’s a long time since I heard the big guns. And I believe the war will be over before August. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll get home immediately. There is bound to be a terrible mess in all the old world. I believe that life will stop for a while before blooming with renewed vigour.
SATURDAY, 19 FEBRUARY 1916
Sarah Macnaughtan is on her way from Kasvin to Hamadan
At eight o’clock they get into the motor car and set off. The low houses of Kasvin soon disappear behind them and the plain opens out. Snow everywhere. The wind is piercingly cold. She thinks: “I always had an idea that Persia was in the tropics. Where I got this notion I can’t say.” Northern Persia—that is where Macnaughtan and her party have ended up.
The road that brought them here has been crooked and unpredictable. At the beginning of December the Russian authorities—in the shape of a grand duchess—finally informed them that they would be serving in the Caucasus and so they travelled there by train via Moscow. The further south they get (Vladikavkaz, Tblisi, Batumi and back to Tblisi), the vaguer the idea of the “Front” becomes. Where is the “Front” actually?h And what are they actually supposed to be doing? Only one of the ambulances they shipped out from Britain has got through and it turns out to be in need of repairs. (The car they are driving is one she bought in Tblisi with her own money.) And are motor vehicles any use at all on the awful mountain roads down in the Caucasus? The only thing they know is that a Russian infantry division has advanced quite a long way into Persia and the fighting is said to be continuing.
The fact that the war has spilled over into neutral Persia and that her unit will be working to support an army of invasion is not something that Macnaughtan has given any great thought to. Events are following a logic of escalation of their own,i separate from and beyond the high-flown ideals she was doing so much to propagate during last summer’s lecture tour. When one is submerged, as Macnaughtan is, in an ever-changing torrent of events, it is difficult to say what is what, what has anything to do with the High Ideal or the Struggle for Victory, or what is simply an expression of crass national self-interest or equally crass imperial expansionism. Does she really want to ask herself those questions anyway? Russia, when all is said and done, is an ally of Britain.
But her nagging doubts have been stirred into life again.
The motor car drives on along the frozen road, hemmed in by high banks of snow. There is a sharp wind. They stop at a small tea-house, eat some sandwiches and drink a glass of port: “I think a glass of this just prevented me from being frozen solid.” Then they drive on, slowly leaving the plain behind them and travelling up into the mountains. She is freezing.
The experiences of these past months in Russia have, however, served to reinforce her conviction that the British are superior to all other peoples and cultures. And, half-jokingly, she has begun to wonder whether they are on the wrong side in this war. At least in the east:
I often despair over [Russia], and if the Russians were not our Allies I should feel inclined to say that nothing would do them so much good as a year or two of German conquest. No one, after the first six months, has been enthusiastic over the war, and the soldiers want to get home.
There is very little in Russia that she can find anything good to say about: the climate is harsh, the towns are filthy, the people unmannerly, the officials corrupt, the morals low, the social gatherings poor, the food monotonous and their homes ugly. One of the few bright moments occurred on Christmas Day, when she was invited to dine with Grand Duke Nicholas in Tblisi: she was utterly delighted, partly by Nicholas himself—“an adorably handsome man, quite extraordinarily and obviously a Grand Duke”j—and partly because he proposed a toast to her! But then everything returned to the grey reality of waiting, inactivity and contradictory information. Macnaughtan is not in the best of health.
At three o’clock in the afternoon they reach the top of the snow-covered pass, where they meet some Russian officers and eat lunch together. Then they get into the car and begin the slow journey down. She sees birds. She sees wolves. She sees hares. She sees a jackal. She sees abandoned vehicles. She sees a regiment of Cossacks. She sees transport wagons. She sees horse-drawn guns. There really is a war going on somewhere in the distance and that thought serves to liven her up. Not much is happening at the front at this stage but General Baratov’s division will soon be resuming its slow advance on Teheran and then she and her companions will be needed to tend the wounded.k That is the intention, anyway.
It is beginning to get dark. Hares caught in the car’s headlights remain sitting in the road as if bewitched. Once the sun has gone it suddenly becomes even colder. She sees the surrounding hills disappear in an icy mist.
They reach Hamadan at ten o’clock—“a clay-built, flat Persian town.” The car gets stuck on the awful road into the town and Macnaughtan continues on foot while some of the party remain with the car. Two Russian officers escort her to the hospital where she is to work. She notes that one of them is drunk. She becomes even more annoyed when they arrive, only to be met by “an unpleasant Jew doctor” and two young nurses and to find that no preparations have been made for her arrival. (To make things worse, the officers have started flirting with the nurses.)
After a great deal of confusion and a long wait in the cold she gives up. It is now about midnight and she goes to a house occupied by an American missionary couple. They are helpful, give her a cup of tea and a bed for the night in an unheated room, where she goes to sleep rolled up in her “faithful plaid.”
THURSDAY, 2 MARCH 1916
Pál Kelemen observes a woman at the railway station in Bosna Brod
The fevers and the weariness he has been suffering from recently have at last been diagnosed—malaria. Not the worst kind, but he still needs nursing. He is, of course, very pleased that the bed waiting for him is in a Hungarian hospital. Kelemen said farewell to his men and to his brother officers in the light, mild spring rain, and it was an emotional farewell—his sergeant actually wept. Then he left the camp on that marshy field outside Cattaro and sailed on a military transport ship to Fiume.l
They sailed along the Dalmatian coast with the ship’s lanterns doused, through the ice-cold Bora wind and past the most dangerous part of the Adriatic Sea: the sea is a cul-de-sac, secured by an enormous Italian mine-barrage down by Otranto. He could not understand the ill-concealed excitement of the crew: he “couldn’t comprehend that somebody’s eyes could still gleam at the sense of danger, or that such living, defiant energy still exists.” While all the rest of them were out on the freezing deck nervously keeping a lookout for Italian mines, Kelemen sat alone in the ship’s mess getting drunk on red Vöslauer Goldeck wine.
Today he is in Bosna Brod, sitting waiting for a train. It is a railway junction and swarming with soldiers.m Lorries tear back and forth along the streets, and at the station he can see engines and carriages of every variety and age. There are great stacks of tinned food and ammunition everywhere. The loading and unloading is being done by elderly, bearded militia in dirty uniforms. The station restaurant is packed with military men and government officials of all kinds, but sitting at one table is a young woman and all Kelemen’s attention is focused on her:
She has on a plain worn dress with some kind of a fur about her neck. I keep looking at the frail, weary figure, the traveling cushion, the shawl and handbag, the boxes on the chairs, and the coat on the peg.
For one moment she turns an apathetic face towards me, but then, with total indifference, is occupied again with her own affairs. There is a field postcard before her on the table;n a pencil has lain in her hand for a long time but she has not written a single word. Perhaps because I am watching her, perhaps because she is roused from her musing by the clatter of a fresh company departing for the front, she makes up her mind at last, and with long strokes writes down the address. Then her head droops to her hand and she sits motionless again with fixed gaze.
The train with the field company is just pulling out. Whooping, shouting, and singing echoes into the restaurant. She raises her head a bit but does not look outside. Watching from behind the broad pages of an opened newspaper, I see tears well into her eyes. For a while she will not take her handkerchief; then she touches her cheeks with it. She picks up the pencil and writes a few words more.
The conductor comes in from the platform, clangs a bell, and in stentorian voice shouts the arrival of the homebound train. The girl pays, and, with the fuss and helplessness of a woman traveling alone, puts on her coat and gathers up her many little things. Suddenly she catches sight of the unfinished postcard on the table, takes it and tears it up, her gloved hands trembling, and throws it on the tablecloth. The busboy carries her suitcase out after her.
SATURDAY, 4 MARCH 1916
Richard Stumpf sees SMS Möwe returning in triumph to Wilhelmshaven
A clear spring night. The whole German High Seas Fleet is lying just off the mouth of the Elbe, rocking gently on the watered-glass surface of the sea. Perhaps something is going to happen at last! Everything has been made fast for battle and even the officers’ luxuriously furnished cabins have been emptied of everything unnecessary. The officers are wearing their pistols in order “to be able to enforce their orders with arms”—this is a novelty and ultimately has to do with the growing sense of frustration among the crew.
The ships weigh anchor in the middle of the night. Richard Stumpf hears the familiar sounds, above all the tremors emanating from the three steam engines. They are transmitted through the metal of the hull like a vibrating pulse. He does not, however, know in which direction they are headed. Instead of their usual northerly course leading out into the empty North Sea, the great mass of grey-painted vessels, silent and blacked-out, steers north-west past the East Frisian Islands and then on along the coast. Strange.
The morning turns out clear, warm and sunny. Stumpf is acting as lookout on the ship’s bridge and for once he is genuinely pleased—with the weather, with the mission and with life (well, almost). The reason is not just that the weather is good and the fleet is at last going to do something but that this morning a copy of a telegram was posted on the notice board outside the radio cabin: addressed to SMS Möwe and from the commander of the High Seas Fleet, the message consisted of just two words: “Welcome home!”
They all know about SMS Möwe. Möwe represents everything Stumpf and millions of other Germans thought the war at sea would be like: bold manoeuvres on the oceans of the world, in which the elements would be defied and an apparently superior opponent outwitted time after time and with very definite results.
SMS Möwe began life as Pungo, a very ordinary freighter used to ship bananas from the German colony of Cameroon during peacetime. The war had been going on for only a few days when French forces, soon to be followed by the British, invaded the German colony.o There, as elsewhere, the invaders’ hopes of rapid success quickly ran into the sand. Following a clumsy and protracted campaign that lasted throughout 1915, the German outposts did eventually fall one by one.p And since it was obvious that the German banana trade with Cameroon was ruined at least for the duration of the war, the Pungo was converted to the Möwe in the autumn of 1915 in order to serve as a merchant raider. The German fleet has perhaps a dozen such vessels. On the outside they look like ordinary freighters from neutral countries (mainly Scandinavian countries) but they are heavily equipped with both mines and concealed guns. Their prime target is Allied merchant shipping and they have caused fear and confusion out of all proportion to their numbers. It is also more than a touch embarrassing for all concerned that these insignificant vessels have succeeded in sinking more ships than the combined might of the great, costly and muscular High Seas Fleet.
The fact that all these battleships have largely been languishing in port has led to a good deal of derision from many people in civil life: the whole of this great and expensive fleet, which in pre-war days consumed one-third of the military budget, is seen as passive and even, some whisper, unusable. The last commander-in-chief of the navy, finally dismissed because of his cautiousness, used to be the target of pointed remarks, particularly from women, whenever he went out on the street. The following lines have been seen scribbled on walls or heard sung by boys on the street in Wilhelmshaven:
Lieb’ Vaterland magts ruhig sein
Die Flotte schläft im Hafen ein.q
Given this situation, then, ships like SMS Möwe have had to make up for the manifest deficit in naval exploits. She sailed away in December—under a Swedish flag—and has had a daring voyage by any account. She mined the waters close to the great British naval base at Scapa Flow, thereby sinking the elderly battleship HMS King Edward VII. She then sailed on round Ireland to reach the French coast, before passing Spain and the Canary Islands and finally crossing the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil. She has been laying mines and holding up Allied merchant vessels all the way: she has taken fifteen ships in three months, thirteen of which were sunk and two taken to harbour as booty.r
Just as they are about to sit down for lunch they hear shouts from the port side. Stumpf and his companions rush to where the cheering is coming from. When they emerge into the March sunshine they see the little SMS Möwe puffing along between the lines of great grey battleships, and the flags of the fifteen ships she has taken or sunk are fluttering from her mast. The first officer calls for a cheer and they all join in, “wildly, with all the strength of our lungs.” The crew down on the low deck of the Möwe are all lined up and respond with their own happy hurrahs. Stumpf notes with amazement that “there were a number of negroes wearing blue shirts and red caps standing on her deck, and unbelievably enough, they were cheering too.”
Then there is a remarkable balletic scene—the whole squadron performs a perfectly coordinated turn by way of greeting:
It was an indescribably splendid sight. Just a short distance away the island of Heligoland gleamed in the golden rays of the sun, the sea was dark-green and it looked as if fifty prehistoric monsters were dancing a triumphal dance around the returningMöwe. I really lamented my lack of a camera on this occasion.
A triumph, for once. Later the whole of the first squadron sails into Wilhelmshaven yet again and takes on coal until eight in the evening. They are supposed to go out again immediately—rumour says that this time it is for real.
A few days later Richard Stumpf notes in his journal:
Yet again there was no battle! As I write this we are back in the mouth of the Jade river, safe, sound and in one piece, without having fired a single shot. I have just given up all hope! Our fighting spirit has sunk to new depths.
WEDNESDAY, 8 MARCH 1916
Florence Farmborough comments on the life of the civilian population in Chortkov
They are back in enemy territory. Chortkov, where they have been for a month now, lies in the Austrian part of Galicia. The town was badly damaged last year when Russian units, expecting to be driven out, set fire to many of the buildings. Jews form a large part of the population. Florence writes in her diary:
The position of the Hebrews living in Chortkov is most pitiful. They are being treated with vindictive animosity. As Austrian subjects they enjoyed almost complete liberty, experiencing none of the cruel oppression poured out on to the Russian Jew. But under the new Government their rights and freedom have disappeared and it is obvious they resent the change keenly.
When it snows—and it has snowed a great deal this winter—one Jew per household is compelled to go out and clear the streets under the supervision of Russian soldiers wielding knouts, and they do not hesitate to administer a whipping with them. There is a ruin opposite the house where Florence and several of the other nurses are quartered. One of the town’s rabbis used to live there. Next door to it is a synagogue which has been vandalised.
This morning Florence receives a visit from a Jewish seamstress who has made her a grey cotton dress. The woman is upset. When Florence asks why, she tells her that three Cossacks pounded on the door the evening before and demanded house room. (All soldiers have that right and the majority quarter themselves on Jewish families, sometimes twenty or thirty men to a house. The overcrowding is indescribable.) She told the Cossacks quite truthfully that all her rooms were already overcrowded with soldiers, but they forced their way in all the same and began to carry out a sort of improvised search. They soon found what they were looking for—a revolver they had obviously planted there themselves. The seamstress and her husband protested, upset and, indeed, terrified since possession of a weapon was strictly forbidden and punishable with death. It was all a trick, of course, and the Cossacks offered to forget the whole business as long as they were paid ten roubles. The seamstress and her husband had no choice:
So the ten roubles were scraped together and handed over to the Cossacks who, as they left, commented in loud, scandalised voices on the treachery of the heathen Jewish race. Such tales of injustice are commonplace in this part of the world; it would seem the very name “Jew” is, to Russian soldiers, a word of scorn.
Otherwise the last months have been quiet. Apart from the costly and ineffective attacks made far to the north, on Lake Narocz outside Vilnius, no one has seen any signs of the Russian offensives everyone was talking about so expectantly. Something close to a sense of disappointment has begun to spread and even Florence feels frustrated by all the waiting.
The front is so quiet at the moment that there have been very few wounded to take care of, so Florence and the other nurses have been trying to help the civilian population instead. There have been many cases of typhus and smallpox and the outbreaks have been made worse partly by the extreme overcrowding, which has facilitated the rapid spread of infection, and partly by the shortage of food. The shops in the town are well stocked with luxuries like corsets, high-heeled shoes, silk ribbons and chamois-leather gloves but it is difficult to get hold of simple basics like butter, eggs and yeast—and what little there is of them sells at ridiculous prices.
A severe typhus epidemic raged here last year and the smallest and youngest were hit hardest. Between ten and twenty children a day were dying at one point. Florence has seen a good deal by this time but she writes in her diary:
Sometimes it seems to me that not one of those dreadful wounds which I saw and treated during last year’s retreat touched me so deeply as the sight of these suffering children, with their small wan faces and limp little bodies.
One of the people she nurses is a four-year-old called Vasilj who comes from a poverty-stricken peasant family from outside the town. His father, who was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army at the start of the war, has disappeared and his mother makes her living by doing washing for Russian soldiers. The boy caught smallpox last year and because of the illness and malnutrition he has stopped growing. When Florence picks him up his arms and legs feel like thin twigs.
Another of those seeking her help today is a young Ukrainian woman. She says she is eighteen but she looks younger. She came yesterday, surly and scared, to get help with her skin problems and they started by cutting off her filthy, matted hair. Then they gave her green soap to wash with. “Her body, full of sores, told its own sorry story of prostitution.” The girl survives by selling her body to soldiers. She has come back today with a slightly easier mind now that she understands that the nurses really want to help her.
Florence is standing by the door as the girl is leaving. She sees her turn round. She sees her bow her head to the doctor and mumble a thank-you. As the girl passes her, Florence has “a momentary glimpse of tears below her tightly compressed eyelids. She, too, was a victim of War.”
Edward Mousley is woken by the sound of shelling. His first thought is that it is their own artillery in Kut al-Amara; then he thinks it must be the Ottoman artillery bombarding the British relief force which, according to the latest reports, is less than twenty miles away on the north bank of the Tigris. He climbs up onto the roof to investigate and sees flashes in the distance; they are coming from the guns of the relief force, which is pounding the Turkish lines at Dujaila on the south bank of the river. That is only about eight miles away. The relief force has clearly crossed the river covertly and, after marching under cover of darkness, is making an attempt to break through to them.
The excitement among the besieged troops is enormous. As daylight grows stronger they can see Ottoman units making hastily for the threatened position. Mousley knows there are plans for the besieged to support the relief force by making a sortie, either to the north or to the south depending on which side of the river the relief force arrives, but he does not hear an order to put the plan into operation. Around nine o’clock he can see rows of heads moving along the Ottoman trenches and all of them are heading south-east.
The sounds of battle grow more intense and Ottoman units continue to pour in the direction of Dujaila.
Then everything goes very quiet and there are no more flashes to be seen on the horizon.
Mousley assumes that the silence means the British infantry has reached its target and that fighting is going on with cold steel at close quarters.
The silence continues. The besieged men are becoming increasingly nervous. What has happened? Why are they not making a sortie?
The hours pass and nothing happens. The big guns round Dujaila remain silent.
Everything is quiet.
Meanwhile, Sarah Macnaughtan is still in Hamadan in northern Persia. She is ill and alone. She writes in her diary:
I lie in bed all day up here amongst these horrible snows. The engineer comes in sometimes and makes me a cup of Benger’s Food. For the rest, I lean up on my elbow when I can, and cook some little thing—Bovril or hot milk—on my Etna stove. Then I am too tired to eat it, and the sickness begins all over again. Oh, if I could leave this place! If only someone would send back my car, which has been taken away, or if I could hear where Mrs. Wynne and Mr. Bevans are! But no, the door of this odious place is locked, and the key is thrown away. I have lost count of time. I just wait from day to day, hoping someone will come and take me away, though I am now getting so weak I don’t suppose I can travel. One wonders whether there can be a Providence in all this disappointment. I think not. I just made a great mistake coming out here, and I have suffered for it. Ye gods, what a winter it has been—disillusioning, dull, hideously and achingly disappointing!
THURSDAY, 9 MARCH 1916
William Henry Dawkins’s father receives his dead son’s belongings
Today Arthur Dawkins has signed receipt of a parcel shipped by Thomas Cook & Son from the Australian military authorities in Egypt. The parcel contains William Henry Dawkins’s personal effects. They are:
1 Electric Pocket Lamp
1 Leather Sovereign Purse
1 Pocket Book
1 Pr Scissors
3 Jack Knives
In Kut al-Amara, at three o’clock on the same afternoon, Edward Mousley writes in his journal:
The relieving force did not get through. We have heard this unofficially. We all have the feeling it is “the big effort,” and not a side show. We are disappointed, but having had little else than disappointments we are accustomed to them.
SATURDAY, 11 MARCH 1916
Angus Buchanan and the mist on Kilimanjaro
They make a road as they march along—not by building it but simply because of their weight. This column consists of 4,000–5,000 soldiers, thousands of mules and horses, numerous cannon, ammunition wagons and various kinds of supply wagons, and even a number of motor vehicles that are skidding around at the back of the queue. Their progress is not rapid.
At the start of the march, when they were still moving across the flat sandy plain, Buchanan looked back through the swirling dust and saw in the distance the tracks they were leaving behind them: they resembled “the fine line of a sinuous thread across the blank space of an incomplete map.” Their advance guard has had the occasional short brush with the enemy, who seems to be pulling back. They have discovered and set fire to a German encampment that had been hastily deserted.
Now they are going to conquer German East Africa.
On paper it undoubtedly looks like a big and impressive operation. The Germans, just as in Europe, are going to be attacked simultaneously from a number of different directions: a British force will attack from Northern Rhodesia, the Belgians will invade north of Lake Tanganyika and the Portuguese are expected to threaten the south (a state of war between Germany and Portugal has existed for the last two days). The main operation, however, is to take place in the north-east corner of German East Africa, in the areas around Kilimanjaro. The idea is to trap and destroy the main enemy forces in a classic encirclement operation. The column Buchanan and the rest of the 25th Fusiliers are accompanying is supposed to sweep down from the north and act as the anvil to hold the retiring German forces so that the hammer—the main force advancing from the westt—can pound them to pieces. The destination for both columns is Moshi. (This small town is the final station on the long railway the Germans have built from Tanga on the coast.) It is the logic of a great European war but grafted onto the geography of Africa.
“Sweep down”? Well, what was meant to be a rapid advance on the enemy rear has degenerated into a slow, jerky thrash through unknown terrain. Since the column got into the bush, its speed has diminished significantly. What is more, they have just arrived in tsetse-fly country, and the horses and mules imported for the operation are particularly susceptible to the diseases spread by the insects. The animals are dying at a horrifying speed and in equally horrifying numbers.u (Whose idea was it to use these horses and mules here? Clearly not someone with any experience of this part of Africa.) All day they have been passing dead and dying draught and riding animals lying beside the track they are trampling out. It takes no more than twenty-four hours from the death of one of these creatures for the corpse to “become a swarming mass of blowfly larvae—horrible to behold.” (The same thing is true for fallen soldiers, of course.) The stench is overpowering.
Another bit of bad news is that the rainy season is just round the corner. Last night the heavens opened and it poured down. At present they have neither tents nor blankets (they are packed somewhere in the distant baggage train), so Buchanan and his fellow soldiers managed only three hours’ sleep—out in the open, directly on the ground, freezing and soaked. Endurance is far harder than bravery.
They have been marching south all day, the whitewashed peak of Kilimanjaro over on their left, and towards dusk they finally break out of the bush into open country. It is more or less at that point that the column swings east and heads for the great mountain. At last they catch sight of their destination, Moshi, away in the far distance. The name means “smoke” in Swahili, referring to the wreaths of cloud that permanently crown the dome of the 19,340-foot mountain. As the sun sets they hear the sound of gunfire. The march comes to a halt: the advance guard has bumped into some enemy scouts. It does not, however, turn into a serious engagement because, true to their usual pattern, their opponents simply disappear without trace. After waiting for a short while, the winding column lurches into motion again.
They set up camp by the Sanja river at nine o’clock. In the far distance, in the darkness between their own bivouac and Moshi, they can see fires. In the last seven days they have marched less than forty-five miles. During the night they hear occasional shots fired by nervous sentries. Otherwise everything is calm.
The anvil has slowly begun to reach its allotted position—but where is the hammer?
The following day it becomes obvious that the German forces have already slipped out of the trap and disappeared to the south, surprisingly quickly, in good order and without any major losses. Moshi has been taken. The German part of the population has fled, leaving only Africans, Greeks and the ubiquitous merchants from Goa. In other respects the operation is a failure.
It rains almost all day on Monday, on Tuesday likewise.
WEDNESDAY, 15 MARCH 1916
A letter is written to Vincenzo D’Aquila’s mother
D’Aquila’s family in the United States know that he is in hospital, but little more than that. His mother sends one telegram after another to the Italian military and to the hospital enquiring about her son: she wonders how he is and whether he can perhaps be allowed to come home to the United States to be looked after there. She finally receives the following answer from the director of San Osvaldo:
Udine, 15 March 1916
I am sorry to be unable to comply with your request since the military authorities have already arranged for his transfer to the Asylum in Siena, which removal was effected on March tenth.
His physical condition was quite satisfactory; on the other hand, however, his delirious, grandiose and absurd ideas persist. I fear we are faced with a mental affliction of long duration.
SATURDAY, 18 MARCH 1916
Paolo Monelli is bombed in Roncegno
All of a sudden—just look at that, shit from the air, two bombs explode only five metres away from you, and you still don’t know whether you are injured or not. (After an eternity of deafness you hear—as if from an infinite distance—the voice of the companion lying hugging the ground alongside you: “Monelli, are you wounded?” “I’m just going to feel to see.”) And then you think that this sense of grace is deceptive. In a blind rage the field doctor hurls kitchen plates at the airborne intruder.
TUESDAY, 28 MARCH 1916
Kresten Andresen encounters spring and discontent in Billy-Montigny
Spring but still not spring. Bushes and beech trees are showing little mouse-ears of green, the apple trees are in bud and anemones and other flowers have opened in the woods. But it is still cold and the wind is bitter.
Andresen is having some bad days: “I’m sick and tired of the whole business and finding it difficult to keep my spirits up.” This is in spite of—or perhaps because of—the fact that he has recently been home for ten days’ leave, the first leave he has had since the war began. He had only just returned when he was admitted to hospital yet again, this time with a severe throat infection and fever. He has still not taken part in any really fierce fighting: in a letter to a relative he almost seems to be apologising for this, apologising that he does not have any particularly dramatic experiences to pass on. (He has, however, sent souvenirs home; mainly shell fragments.) For him it is not so much a matter of the awful reality of war as its awful tedium. His service consists largely of working behind the lines or digging at night.
This is his twentieth month in uniform and he has started to lose any hopes he had for an early end to the war. He remembers, not without some bitterness, how almost exactly a year ago he believed the war would soon be over. Those frustrated hopes are undoubtedly part of the reason for his depression.
He is not alone in feeling frustrated about the way this war just grinds on and on at an ever higher cost. Inflation and food shortages are afflicting all of the warring countries and, apart from Russia, it is Germany and Austria that are suffering most. It is not just that the Allied naval blockade is proving to be deadly effective.v Food production has also been hit by administrative carelessness, by lack of transport and by the fact that so many farmers and farm workers have been called up to serve under the flag. And those who have remained in agriculture often cannot resist the temptation to sell their products through the black market, where prices can be up to ten times higher. (It has, for instance, been estimated that roughly half of all the eggs and pork produced in Germany and Austria go straight into the black economy.) Add to that the rapidly rising prices of everyday items and the result is an equation impossible for most families to solve, particularly those in the towns. Every single graph has begun to point in the wrong direction: ill health, undernourishment, child mortality, discontent and criminality among the young are all on the increase.
Andresen has met other soldiers returning from leave and they have had some astonishing stories to relate:
One of them told us of something approaching a riot in Bremen where large crowds of women smashed shop-windows and stormed the shops. Mortensen from Skibelund met a man from Hamburg who left Hamburg four days before his leave was up because his wife no longer had any food to give him.
For some inexplicable reason a couple of the malcontents have taken to directing their outpourings of rage at Andresen—one of them, for instance, accused him of extreme patriotism. A soldier from Hamburg came up to him today and, with the Social-Democrat party paper Vorwärts in one hand, began to question him about the attitudes of the South Schleswig Reichstag representatives to the war. Andresen responded: “There are many people there who think for themselves.” The men at the front, too, have begun to feel the impact of the food shortages: they rarely get butter to put on their coarse army bread—it has been replaced by an unappetising variety of jam that the soldiers lampoon with abusive ditties. (Military humour has also coined a string of alternative names for this jam, such as “Hindenburg Cream” or “Kaiser Wilhelm’s Memorial Butter.”)
The front is calm:
I’ve hardly heard the sound of gunfire in the week I’ve been back here. All the forces are gathering down at Verdun. There is talk here that a fort has fallen, but there are so many rumours flying around. What’s the situation with Romania? Everything seems calm to me, but it is no doubt the calm before the storm.
MONDAY, 10 APRIL 1916
Edward Mousley sees the slaughter of the last horses in Kut al-Amara
They have been slaughtering the draught animals and the mules for some time but they have consciously been sparing the riding animals. That is no longer possible. Another attempt to relieve them has run into the sand and orders have now been given that the last horses will have to be slaughtered in order to feed the besieged garrison, which will soon be starving.
Mousley tears up some fresh grass and goes to where the horses are lined up. His own horse, Don Juan, obviously recognises his owner and welcomes him eagerly in the way he has taught the horse to do. Mousley feeds him the grass.
Then the slaughter begins.
A non-commissioned officer shoots the horses. There is the crack of a gunshot and one by one the big, heavy animals crumple to the ground. The blood flows. At first Mousley watches, noting that the horses follow the proceedings, trembling as they wait their turn. Like the other horses Don Juan stamps uneasily but otherwise remains quite still. When it is almost Don Juan’s turn Mousley can watch no longer; he asks the man with the gun to take careful aim and to tell him when it is all over. Then he kisses the horse’s cheek and walks away. He can see how the horse turns and watches him go.
Then there is another crack from the gun.
His dinner that evening is Don Juan’s heart and kidneys. (These parts of the horse are always reserved for the owner—Mousley has also kept Don Juan’s black tail.) Admittedly it feels strange, but he does not think there is anything wrong about it. He writes in his diary: “I am sure he would have preferred that I, rather than another, should do so.”
• • •
Sarah Macnaughtan is now in Teheran. Ill and exhausted, she has decided to cut short her service in Persia and travel home. She has had so little to do that her time here can, in reality, hardly be called service. She writes in her diary:
It is such an odd jump I have taken. At home I drifted on, never feeling older, hardly counting birthdays—always brisk, and getting through a heap of work—beginning my day early and ending it late. And now there is a great gulf dividing me from youth and old times, and it is filled with dead people whom I can’t forget. In the matter of dying one doesn’t interfere with Providence, but it seems to me that now would be rather an appropriate time to depart.
TUESDAY, 25 APRIL 1916
Elfriede Kuhr witnesses a disturbance at Schneidemühl railway station
Once again Elfriede goes to the railway station. She is going to visit Dora Haensch, her best friend, whose parents run a small restaurant in the station building. Two soldiers come in while Elfriede is there. One of them is a young man with elegant, regular features and the other is big, broad and very drunk. The drunken soldier shouts for beer but plump Herr Haensch refuses him. Then the drunk leans over the bar to pour himself a glass but Herr Haensch takes him by the shoulders and shoves him away. The drunk immediately pulls out his bayonet and lunges at Herr Haensch, who runs for the back door with an unexpected turn of speed, while Dora and her mother scream. Several guests get up and grab chairs, which they raise either as weapons or as shields. The drunk’s companion, who has meanwhile sat down at a table with his legs stretched out in front of him, calmly says to his comrade, “Get out of here—and quick.” Which the drunk duly does.
Herr Haensch returns immediately, accompanied by a warrant officer and two soldiers of the watch. The warrant officer goes up to the drunk’s friend, who is still sitting at his table calmly leafing through a newspaper, and asks in a pleasant tone for the name of the man who has fled and the name of the regiment he belongs to. The soldier with the newspaper refuses to give the information, at which the warrant officer goes closer to him and says something that Elfriede does not catch. The young soldier stands up and yells, “You are a swine, sir. I didn’t want this bloody war and I’ve been forced to play at being a soldier. Fine. Well, then! If you want to say something to me then be good enough to use a military form of address. You can pester me as much as you like but I will not disclose my friend’s name!”
The heated discussion continues: the young soldier stubbornly refuses to answer the officer’s questions and finally he is arrested himself. Elfriede watches him being led away between the two guards, who have gleaming bayonets fixed on their rifles. The arrested soldier’s face is so pale that his lips look almost white. Everyone starts talking again as soon as the door closes behind the four men. The restaurant is filled with excited voices. Elfriede puts her hand on Dora’s heart and feels that it is pounding hard, hard.
Elfriede tells Dora that she cannot decide who was right—the warrant officer or the man who refused to give his friend’s name. Herr Haensch hears Elfriede’s comments and yells at her, “Now just you listen to me, there is no doubt about it. The warrant officer was obviously right. The army has to have discipline, otherwise … otherwise there’d be chaos.” The enraged Herr Haensch gives Elfriede a hefty slap on the backside and pushes her out of the restaurant.
Confused and upset, Elfriede makes her way home. She can see both sides of the argument—on one hand, the elegant young man who refused to inform on his friend and, on the other, the warrant officer who was just doing his duty:
But most of all I was upset by myself. I can never really decide for myself what is right and what is wrong about this war. I rejoice at our victories but at the same time the thought of all those dead and wounded makes me beside myself. I heard yesterday that there is a military hospital hidden in the forest for the soldiers who have had their faces shot away. They apparently look so horrific that ordinary people can’t even look at them.w Things like that make me despair.
Today is Elfriede’s fourteenth birthday and she has started wearing her hair in a different and more grown-up fashion.
In Kut al-Amara that night Edward Mousley watches as one last effort is made to bring in supplies for the besieged British garrison. An armour-plated riverboat, full of provisions and manned by a special crew of volunteers (all of them unmarried), has tried to work its way up the Tigris under cover of darkness in a desperate effort to creep past the Ottoman lines and reach the beleaguered troops. The boat, SS Julnar, is sighted, however, and fired on from all sides until she finally runs aground. Mousley writes in his journal:
Here the Turkish guns confronted her at a few yards’ range. Her officers were killed, Lieut. Crowley [sic] captured,x and she was taken within sight of our men waiting to unload her by the Fort, and of the sad little group of the garrison who beheld her from the roof-tops of Kut. She lies there now. It appears that the tragic but obvious end of so glorious an enterprise is a last hope. We have scarcely rations for tomorrow.
SUNDAY, 7 MAY 1916
Kresten Andresen and his dull life in Billy-Montigny
The green of early summer. The warmth of early summer. Birdsong. Just now it is the utter waste of time that is troubling him most: the fact that the days just pass, one the same as another, with nothing happening that has not happened before, with the same routines, the same words, and nothing being done. He is also terrified that he is becoming so forgetful. He searches in vain through his memory for so many of the things he had learned earlier—history, the history of literature. He has hardly put a book down before he has forgotten what is in it. As usual, he is ready to listen to any tiny rumour that peace will come soon, even though he has been disappointed so often in the past. The front is absolutely quiet, and he is happy about that.
Andresen is writing a letter home today:
The same day I sent you my last letter from this place I fell over and sprained the top joint in the middle finger of my left hand, as Misse has perhaps told you. The transport I should have gone with has now left. But my finger should certainly be better within the week. It was actually straightened out quickly. I’m wandering round enjoying life and enjoying nature. My washerwoman has lent me a good French novel and when I get tired of reading I do some sketching. I’m intending to send you a couple of small drawings—I’ve already sent one to Aunt Dorothea. Not that they are really worth having—this life is so unbelievably stupefying that I’m absolutely no good at anything any longer. I don’t know what to do about it. But I do believe the condition has something to do with the fact that we never get anything to eat but incessant oatmeal soup! And army bread and that never-ending jam.
MONDAY, 8 MAY 1916
Sarah Macnaughtan arrives back at her London home
A young man helps Macnaughtan in through the door of her house at 1, Norfolk Street. She is welcomed home by two of her sisters and by Mary King, her old maid. When Macnaughtan sees her maid, she says, “You were right, Mary. Russia has killed me.”y
Only a few fragments remain of her memories of the journey from Persia to Great Britain: the missionary, who was her companion and helper on the journey north; the car journey of more than 300 miles over snow-capped mountains and up to the Caspian Sea; the boat that they missed by only one hour; the week she spent recovering at the British embassy in Petrograd; her walk—on sticks—across the ice at Helsingfors to reach another ship.
Macnaughtan has stopped keeping a diary by this point. The last entry was about a month earlier:
I should like to have “left the party”—quitted the feast of life—when all was gay and amusing. I should have been sorry to come away, but it would have been far better than being left till all the lights are out. I could have said truly to the Giver of the feast, “Thanks for an excellent time.” But now so many of the guests have left, and the fires are going out, and I am tired.
They carry her upstairs to her bedroom. Her prematurely grey hair is thin. She, too, is very thin, very weak and very, very pale.
THURSDAY, 18 MAY 1916
Angus Buchanan leaves Mbuyuni and learns something about mules
The worst of the rains are over. After almost two months of waiting in the wet around Kilimanjaro it is time to march on in search of the elusive enemy. The capture of Moshi was a success but they failed yet again to defeat the enemy. Like many of his companions, Buchanan is reluctantly impressed by their German opponents, not least by their native troops, who have demonstrated their discipline, skill and great courage. So this is not going to be easy. The Germans are already behaving like the guerrilla army they are well on the way to becoming, whereas the British corps moves with all the weight and cautious, clumsy slowness of a regular army.
The main force marches out from Mbuyuni during the afternoon. Buchanan happens to be in command of the battalion baggage-train for the day, which consists of pack animals—mules—since they are once again setting off into rugged terrain. There is the scent of steaming, damp, sun-baked vegetation.
It turns out to be, in his own words, “a memorable march.” Most of the animals are new and some of them have never carried pack-saddles before so they rear and play up. Time after time the mules break free or twist themselves out of the unaccustomed harnesses and Buchanan and several other soldiers spend the whole evening riding back and forth along the column chasing animals that are on the run. They stop every now and then to mend a harness or to re-saddle “the rearing, frightened, stubborn brutes.” This continues all night.
When they eventually make camp Buchanan knows that four of his mules are missing, but, even then, they still have two more than they counted at the start of the march. In the darkness they simply caught all the animals they found running loose and some of them clearly belong to other battalions. They decide, as usual, to keep the animals they have found and not report it to anyone.
TUESDAY, 23 MAY 1916
Paolo Monelli takes part in the retreat down from the Cima Undici
They were taken up to the front in lorries in great haste, the drivers telling them what they knew, which was not much, just rumours about continued retreats. An Austro-Hungarian offensive around the Asiago plateau has been going on since 15 May and the enemy has had great success, at least by comparison with the fruitless pushes by the Italian army over on the Isonzo. Unless the Italians succeed in stopping them they will reach the lowlands and will then be in a position to carry on to the coast, to Venice. It is only about twenty miles to Vicenza. The Alpini battalion Paolo Monelli belongs to has been on Monte Cima for some days and they have occasionally come under artillery fire. But what is happening? And why?
Monelli and the rest of them are not receiving any news but they are still trying to understand what is going on, trying to read the signs—and the signs they can find are anything but good. Their own artillery is becoming ever weaker and yesterday evening the last guns in their sector—a battery of light mountain cannon—disappeared. Worse still is the fact that the noise of battle, explosions and muzzle-flashes, slowly moved closer to them and then went past them. One of the companies in their battalion has already been recalled down into the valley, so when they wake this morning they find themselves all alone on the mountain top. Someone says that Cima Dodici has fallen. Cima Dodici? They all turn their heads—that mountain lies to their rear, surely? “We are caught like rats in a trap.”
Then orders reach them: they are to stay there until darkness falls—they are the rearguard and any resistance they can put up will give others the chance to get away. “What is going to happen to us? What is going to happen to Italy?” They can see with their own eyes how Austro-Hungarian battalions are streaming down from the mountain next to them. They can only watch helplessly since the enemy is out of range and the Alpini do not have any heavy weapons. Monelli and his companions are left in peace; it is as if everyone has forgotten about them, including the enemy. The morning turns into day and there is nothing for them to do but to wait there, cut off and isolated, “and the torment of waiting is all the more bitter because of the feeling of catastrophe that has gripped us.”
At lunchtime Monelli climbs up to the cave where the battalion staff officers are located. At its mouth he meets the battalion commander, a major, his eyes red from lack of sleep. The major stands there twisting his beard. He is drunk. “Come here,” he says to Monelli and gives him some wine. “Have you made your confession? By tonight we’ll be surrounded.” The major has been ordered to stay in position. “And so we’ll stay in position and then we’ll be captured. And then we’ll be blamed and mocked.”
The wine works. (The major calls it “a friend that never deserts you.”) Slightly intoxicated, Monelli begins to see the situation in a somewhat brighter light. It will be evening in a few hours. Perhaps they will manage to escape. And if the enemy attacks before then the company will do its best to win a little time, “and then perhaps the division will manage to get its office papers back to safety.”
The miracle happens. No one attacks them.
When darkness falls they begin to work their way in small groups down the mountain and into the woods.
Cold rain is falling. A nearby village is burning and the shapes of the trees and rocks are distorted by its reflected glow. They cross the river half an hour before the bridge is due to be blown and they take a short break on the other side. They have a drink of the water, metal mugs jangling against the stones of the watercourse, and eat some dry biscuits. Before they continue up over the next ridge they take the time to bury the last man to die that day. His name is Giovanni Panato and he was struck by a fragment of a randomly fired shell while they were climbing. That is often the case: a random cause has a random effect. Panato shouted out when he was wounded but struggled on, only to collapse and die at last.
As they pack their things, their mugs clinking as they are shoved back into the rucksacks, the soldiers start asking questions. Why are they retreating? Why don’t they stay and fight? Monelli has trouble coming up with answers:
What do they know and what do I know about what is happening? Nothing. We fight, we march, we halt, we are just numbers among the mass that pours forward, that manoeuvres along this mountainous front in the ice of the mighty Dolomite Alps, with a dull grudge in our hearts, a painful feeling of not knowing, of not seeing.
At the same time, in some distant castle with thick carpets on the floor, there are the people Monelli calls “those mysterious gods who spin the threads of our fate,” in other words, “an officer who writes, a clerk who copies, an adjutant who leaves the room, and a colonel who swears.”
This is the war. It is not the risk of dying, not the red firework display of a bursting shell that blinds us as it comes whizzing down (and rise to his feet, look around, quite confused by the great anguishz), but the feeling of being a puppet in the hands of an unknown puppeteer—and that feeling sometimes chills the heart as if death itself had taken hold of it. Chained to the trench until orders to be relieved arrive as suddenly as a cannon shot or a snowstorm, tied to ever-present danger, to a fate that is inscribed with the number of your platoon or the name of your trench, unable to take your shirt off when you want to, unable to write home when you want to, seeing the most modest needs of existence governed by rules over which you have no influence—all this is war.aa
They continue in the darkness, uphill again. Their steps are heavy in the mixture of mud and snow. He sees yet another burning village and can hear explosions and rifle fire behind them. The rearguard—or, more accurately, the rearguard’s rearguard—is under attack: it is poor old da Pèrgine and his men.bb
Their progress becomes even more leaden, staggering and vacant, their steps dully mechanical. After a while no one even has the energy to complain. Monelli and his companions have not slept properly for several nights and their weariness is painful, numbing, almost narcotic in its effect. Wrapped in the dull ache of exhaustion they let the world around flow slowly past, stripped of all its significance. They no longer pay any attention to explosions and burning houses, hardly think of the fact they are being pursued and could be attacked at any moment. Rests are no longer of much help either, since when they wake from a brief nap (on the ground, in the snow) they feel even more numbed, even more desperately grey and weary.
They walk on through the forest all night until a cold pale dawn arrives.
The sun is already rising when they reach their own lines. Two sentries try to stop them, demanding passwords. The exhausted men hurl a torrent of oaths at the sentries and stagger past them. Further on, they come across men from other companies and other battalions, a confused jumble of soldiers, carts and nervous mules, “the sharp sound of shod hooves on stone.” A light drizzle is falling.
Rest, at last, at last. Monelli crawls into a small tent. He falls asleep with his hands tightly clenched, and in his dreams he continues to march a march that has no end.
• • •
That same day René Arnaud and his battalion are still waiting in the village of Belval-en-Argonne. They can just hear the sound of the guns away at Verdun. They are extremely nervous, suspecting that they will soon be thrown into the great battle. Being at the front when things are calm can undoubtedly be dangerous but is not particularly costly in terms of lives: there might be the occasional raid to be undertaken, but it is mostly the British who do things like that. But to be sent to the front in the context of a major offensive is a completely different matter. Then there will inevitably be losses, huge losses:
We tramped around, swapped rumours and discussed things. I can still remember Truchet, the battalion doctor, standing there with his head bowed, legs apart and an anxious, restless expression on his face as, more nervous than ever before, he scratched his black beard with his left hand: “This is a disgrace! This slaughter should be stopped! They’re allowing thousands of men to be massacred just to defend a heap of out-of-date old forts. It is horrible! Oh, what a fine bunch of generals we’ve got.”
TUESDAY, 30 MAY 1916
René Arnaud reaches the front line on Hill 321 outside Verdun
The worst mental suffering in wartime is when one’s thoughts rush off and anticipate what one has not yet done or experienced, when the imagination is given ample opportunity to consider the dangers that await—and to multiply them a hundred times over. It is a well-known fact that the fear induced by thinking of a danger is more nerve-racking than meeting the danger itself, in the same way that desire is more intoxicating than the satisfaction of desire.
So writes René Arnaud. The great battle has been going on almost continuously since the end of February, when the German army launched its carefully prepared offensive. Arnaud and his men knew that sooner or later it would be their turn,cc that they too would soon be travelling up along “La Route,” the only road that can be used to supply this sector of the front and along which lorries pass at an average rate of one every fourteen seconds. To those who receive the order to march to Verdun it feels like a sacrificial progress.dd
Arnaud has heard people talking about the statistics. An officer recently returned from Verdun said straight out, “The whole thing is very simple. You will be relieved when three-quarters of your men have been knocked out. That’s the going rate.”
Arnaud and the rest of his battalion have spent the day in the seventeenth-century citadel of Verdun, an enormous structure of staff rooms, stores, endless corridors, subterranean casemates and bombproof barrack rooms. A warm smell of cabbage, mouldy bread, disinfectant, sweat and sour wine permeates the whole place. The sound of distant shell-bursts, like a ceaseless growl, penetrates through the small loopholes in the three-foot-thick stone walls. The Germans have three times as many artillery pieces per yard of the front here as they had during the great breakthrough at Gorlice—and it shows.
The heat is stifling. Arnaud has been lying on his straw mattress thinking about the statistics. Three-quarters. Which of his men will not be returning from out there? Which of the battalion’s officers will get through the coming week without being wounded or killed? Statistically speaking, just three or four. Will he be one of them?
They receive their orders during the afternoon:
Tonight the 6th Battalion is to relieve the battalion from the 301st Regiment that has been stationed on Hill 321. The battalion will leave the citadel at 19:15 hours to arrive at 21:00 hours at the point where the road to Bras meets the Pied du Gravier ravine. A gap of 50 metres is to be observed between each group.
Arnaud talks to his men, who are busy filling their packs with tinned food, dry biscuits, tools and ammunition. The atmosphere is a nervous one. He tries to calm them, not by making patriotic speeches—he knows that never works in this kind of situation—but by invoking precedent: “We have always been a lucky company. We are going to return from Verdun.”
They move out in single file in the dusk, group by group, out of the dark and safe interior of the citadel and through the empty and silent ruins of the town. Now and then a heavy shell lands close to the cathedral. The long chain of heavily laden men crosses the river by a pontoon bridge, its planks echoing under their feet. Arnaud looks at the dark water and wonders “how many of us will ever cross this bridge again.”
While they are taking a rest a man “with a flabby, swollen face and crafty eyes” comes up to Arnaud, holds out some papers and appeals to him. The man is clearly making a last-minute attempt to be excused. He points out he is a tailor and has never been in the front line before because he has a hernia. The papers confirm this. Arnaud, who is already bitter that, given the prospect of being sent to Verdun, one of the professional officers in the battalion suddenly managed to wangle a transfer to the baggage-train, merely snarls at him.
Arnaud cannot help feeling sorry for the man as he watches him going away crestfallen, his head bowed and the papers still in his hand. And he thinks that he, too, might have tried the same thing were it not for the badges of rank on his arm.
Immediately after this they pass a unit on its way out of the fire, all of them with muddied clothes and feverish eyes; he cannot help envying the young lieutenant commanding them—“How I wished I was him!”
They begin clambering up the high sides of the ravine that leads to the battlefield.
The thunder of the artillery grows, all the individual sounds merging together. The sky to the right of them is glowing where shells are falling over Fort de Douaumont, captured by the Germans on the fourth day of the battle and now a centre point for the fighting. Indeed, it has become more than that and is now a landmark, a magnet, a myth (for both sides), a symbol which, in the way of symbols, has acquired a significance beyond its strategic importance and become the focus of keen competition between German and French propagandists, its capture a measure of success at a time when successes have become more and more abstract in nature whereas reverses are all too concrete. Since the battle began at the end of February roughly twenty million shells have landed on the battlefield.
The darkness grows deeper as they continue moving forward along an empty road. Suddenly there is a lightning flash above them, followed by a short, sharp report. Instinctively they all duck. The first enemy shell. Now and then they take a break. They can smell the stench of rotting flesh. Arnaud is afraid and becoming more and more impatient. Finally, they meet their guide:
We set off at a fast pace, across a ravine, up some steep slopes, turned off to the right and then swung to the left. Shells were exploding on both sides of us. We jumped down into a connecting trench, climbed out of it again, leapt down again and at last scrambled up yet again. I was following in line behind the last group and was marching as though asleep.
They come to a halt immediately in front of a ridge that is being fired on by the German artillery. Their guide has disappeared into the night. Arnaud is under a lot of pressure: he has no idea where they are but he knows that they must be in position before sunrise. If they are not in a bunker by then they will be spotted by the German forward observers and machine gunners and that will be the end of them. So he goes to the front of the company and they quickly set off again, down into a little hollow peppered with shell holes, past a hill where 15cm shells are thumping down regularly in salvoes of four and into an empty connecting trench. They come across two officers half-asleep beside a lit candle in an improvised bunker: they have no idea where Hill 321 is.
Arnaud moves on, gambling that it is to their right:
I could already sense that cold edge to the air that means that dawn is not far off. I hurried along, followed by swaying bayonets and water bottles. If only we can get there before it’s light! In the distance the contours of the ridge were beginning to show up against a sky that was still dark. The bombardment became more intense, as it always does before dawn. “Get a move on! Get a move on!”
At last—bunkers, shadowy figures, Hill 321.ee He finds the commander of the battalion. He is given a guide to accompany them for the very last section, up a seemingly endless slope. Once up on the plateau they are met by a hail of shells but still move forward. Then they meet a captain, the officer in command of the company they are to relieve. The handover in the grey light of dawn is the simplest imaginable—the captain points out where the Germans are, where the line of their own trenches runs and rounds it off with a quick, “This is the front line. Good night.”
What the maps show as a trench turns out to be little more than a ditch that is hardly a metre in depth. His soldiers lie down and soon go to sleep, leaning against one another. Arnaud himself is utterly exhausted, both by the physical exertions and by the enormous strain. He sinks down with his head between his knees. “I was on the battlefield at Verdun but was hardly conscious of the fact.”
WEDNESDAY, 31 MAY 1916
Willy Coppens lists the accidents during the spring in Étampes
There is a special procedure to be followed whenever a fatal accident occurs. All flying comes to a halt, the flying machines are rolled into their hangars and all the trainees gather round to hold a wake over the mangled body—“a depressing business.” The funeral takes place the following day, and the citizens of the town and all the classes in the school, as well as the other trainee pilots, all file past the grave. (Those killed in accidents are always buried in Étampes’ own small cemetery.) Then the hangar doors are opened and flying lessons start again.
Willy Coppens has seen this procedure repeated many times during the spring. Accidents are, in fact, very common occurrences.ff It is the noise, above all, that sticks in his memory. First of all the screams of the spectators, followed by “that dreadful sound of splintering wood.” And finally, silence, that indescribable silence when the engine has stopped, the pieces of wreckage have settled and the body has hit the ground with a strange sort of dull crunch, that empty silence that lasts for a few seconds—and for eternity.
The first smash Coppens saw with his own eyes occurred on 1 February. He and a couple of others were lying wrapped in their fur-lined flying coats sunning themselves in the weak winter sun and waiting for their turn. The air was alive with the rising and falling buzz of flying machines circling the aerodrome when he suddenly heard one of the nicely ticking engines begin to race and someone shouted, “My God, he’s going to kill himself!”
At the very moment I raised my eyes I saw a Farman machine on its way down in an inexplicable and almost vertical dive, at a speed that was far too fast, which is why it broke apart in the air. The body of the aeroplane literally burst apart and the wings, stays and other parts flew in all directions. I could pick out the tail, the engine and the pilot. Everything fell straight down and crashed right in front of us in a field some 400 metres away.
Some of the onlookers rushed there immediately. Coppens was not one of them. He did not want to look. And the accidents had simply continued:
On 8 February we buried the French pilot Chalhoup.
On 6 March Le Boulanger performed a turn that was much too tight, lost speed and spun to the ground. He was severely injured when we dragged him from the wreckage.
On 14 March we buried Clement, a French pilot.
On 26 April Piret was doing a turn in a Blériot machine, lost speed and glided down sideways to the ground from a height of 90 metres. Once again he escaped with minor injuries.
On 27 April Biéran de Catillon turned a Henri Farmangg upside down in a truly terrifying way but escaped without serious injuries.
On 16 May François Vergult crashed a Maurice Farman without any harm to himself.
On 17 May Adrien Richard crashed another Maurice Farman on landing and they built us a new aeroplane from the wreckage of the two machines.
On 20 May De Meulemeester, an excellent pilot, went into a spin after performing a pretty risky manoeuvre. Even though he fell from a greater height than Le Boulanger he was not injured as badly and was back on his feet after a day or two.
On 27 May Evrardhh ripped the undercarriage off a B.E. 2.
Today, 31 May, there is yet another smash. This time it is a pilot by the name of Kreyn, who lands his Maurice Farman so clumsily that there is a screeching crash. He is saved by something that is a recent introduction—a flying helmet. Not everyone wears one.ii Some of them think it is just too ugly and too reminiscent of the padded caps that worried Flemish mothers put on their children when they are learning to walk.
Coppens cannot wait to take his test. He will then get golden wings on his uniform, the rank of sergeant and five extra Louis d’or in his pay every month.
Richard Stumpf writes in his journal on the same day:
At last, at last—finally it’s happening, the great event that has been the object of our desires, thoughts and feelings for the last twenty-two months. This is what we have been hoping for, working for and training for with such passion for years.
What he is describing is the Battle of Jutland, the great naval battle in which 274 German and British warships clash off the Danish coast during the afternoon and evening. By nightfall fourteen British and eleven German warships have gone to the bottom and over 8,000 seamen have lost their lives. Stumpf’s ship, SMS Helgoland, fired sixty-three shells during the battle and was hit only by one. The crew came through unharmed. There is another entry in his journal for that day:
I am convinced that it is actually impossible for a man to describe the thoughts and feelings that go through his mind during his baptism of fire. If I said I was afraid I would be telling a lie. No, it was an indescribable mixture of pleasure, fear, curiosity, apathy and … the joy of battle.
Quite soon, and with some justification, the confused battle is being described as a minor German victory. It had no impact on the war.
THURSDAY, 8 JUNE 1916
Angus Buchanan goes hunting for food on the Pangani river
He would actually rather not get up, he would like to stay here, lying wrapped in his warm blankets. Angus Buchanan can see the thin pinpricks of light from the stars above him but he can sense the coming sunrise. “Just five minutes more.”
“Come on!” A hushed voice stirs him and he sits up in the early morning light. Under a bush alongside him Gilham, the other lieutenant, is lacing his boots and the two men grin at one another, sharing their secret. In spite of the fact that hunting is forbidden, as is leaving the camp, the two of them are intending to do just that. They are sick of the endless stew made of unappetising tinned meat and, anyway, rations have been cut because supplies are running low. Both of them are hungry, and how are they supposed to manage without food?
Many of the soldiers are on the verge of malnutrition, as a result of which the number of cases of sickness in this heat is rising steeply. The sick then have to be sent back for nursing care and that takes up a significant part of their already limited transport resources. And the sick still need feeding: the men being sent back eat just as much food as those moving forward to join the fighting units, so the rations for the latter have to be cut even further. It is a vicious circle. Units that started as regiments have shrunk to 170–200 men, more the size of companies.jj
The German forces they are chasing through bush, jungle and swamp, across rivers, mountains and savannahs, are apparently untroubled by the climate and disease, which is hardly surprising given that their troops are native and consequently used to the former and stoical about the latter. They are often familiar with the terrain, can move through it with impressive ease and know what can be foraged. And thanks to good treatment and good pay they have developed a high degree of loyalty to their German masters.
The British have been forced to reconsider their reluctance to arm Africans and use them in the fighting. Part of the point of the operation Buchanan has been involved in since the end of the rainy season has been to push the Germans out of Tabora, the region where they recruit their best askaris. Von Lettow-Vorbeck has also proved to be a master of improvisation: supplies are no longer reaching him from Germany so he has started manufacturing his own ammunition, taught his troops to make their own boots and acquired heavy artillery by salvaging the guns of the cruiser Königsberg after the British navy chased her into the Rufugi delta.
Buchanan and Gilham take their army rifles and creep out of the camp past rows of sleeping men. They take Buchanan’s African servant Hamisi with them. At first they have to fight their way through dense, dry bush. The worst parts are the thickets of thorny shrubs and trees, and the worst of the lot are those the Africans call “mgoonga,”kk which have thorns that are inordinately long, sharp and prolific. They avoid these small trees if at all possible and Buchanan says: “I will carry memories of Mgoonga as long as I live.” Their hands, arms and legs are soon bloody.
After an hour the landscape begins to open up and they are now far from the camp for their shots not to give them away. Buchanan and Gilham load their rifles and creep forward silently. Hamisi falls back a little and follows them at a distance.
They have gone little more than half a mile when a kudu jumps out, but the graceful antelope bounds off and disappears into the bushes before they manage to get a shot at it. Buchanan swears. After a mile and a half they have come across nothing but animal tracks—those of impala and warthog—and have set up a couple of flocks of guineafowl. It is time to turn back. The sun has begun its voyage across a clear blue sky and within an hour it is going to be almost unbearably hot. Their morning’s hunt for these quick and elusive animals has been as fruitless as the division’s hunt for the quick and elusive companies of German Schutztruppen.
Buchanan, Gilham and Hamisi take a different route back and it turns out to be a lucky choice. First of all they run into a gerenuk, which both men fire at and both miss. When they move on, the bush becomes denser again and Buchanan can no longer see Gilham, but he does hear a sudden shot followed by a triumphant shout: Gilham has spotted another gerenuk and brought it down. The two men yell with glee. Meat! Antelope meat, no less! Buchanan looks tenderly at the animal lying there dying at their feet. He has never seen the species until today:
slender and delightfully delicate of build with a coat of close, short, glossy hair, dark chocolate brown, above the central sides, where a distinctive horizontal line clearly separated the dark upper part from those a shade or two lighter below.
The three men butcher the animal. Hamisi carries most of the bloody pieces and Buchanan and Gilham carry what he cannot manage. Scared of being discovered, they creep very cautiously back into camp.
They will be able to eat their fill today.
That same day René Arnaud and his men on Hill 321 at Verdun come under attack from the German infantry. The artillery fire eases off and then grey-clad figures appear in the cratered landscape in front of them:
The sound of the shooting and the garlicky smell of the powder-smoke soon led to a kind of intoxication. “Shoot the swine! Shoot them!” Suddenly I saw a big man moving in front of me and to the right; I aimed and had that intuitive feeling that comes from a shot that is going to find its target; I pulled the trigger and as the recoil hit my shoulder the large body disappeared. I wondered later on whether it was my bullet or someone else’s that hit him, or whether he had just thrown himself to the ground because of the fierce rifle fire. Anyway, he is the only German I think I have “downed”ll during three and a half years of war, and I’m not even sure in his case.
The attack is eventually beaten back with the help of hand grenades.
SATURDAY, 10 JUNE 1916
René Arnaud leaves Hill 321 on the front line at Verdun
By the time the news comes Arnaud has lost count of time. He does not know how long they have been up here on this broad ridge. (He will later calculate that it was ten days.) So much time has passed and so much has happened that Arnaud has given up hope of being relieved; indeed, given up hope of anything. It is as if he has been numbed by days and nights of bombardment and by the two attacks they pushed back. Danger hardly affects him, nor does the sight of yet another dead man:
This indifference is perhaps the best condition for a man to be in in the midst of battle: to function instinctively, from habit, without either hope or fear. The long period of overwhelmingly powerful emotions has finally ended with emotion itself dying.
For a moment or two he cannot understand why the men sent to fetch their food rations should have returned empty-handed in the twilight. But they are quick to explain: “We’re going back tonight.” They all start jumping with joy. “We’re going back tonight!”
There is still one thing to be done, however. Their captain, who has been drunk on cognac most of the time, turns up and tells them that they cannot leave the position until all the dead have been picked up and gathered in a half-finished trench immediately behind them. They cannot leave their own dead lying around when a new company takes over. The men grumble but Arnaud convinces them it must be done.
The unpleasant task is performed by the light of signal rockets and exploding shells. One body after another is lifted onto the piece of tarpaulin they are using as a stretcher and they trudge off with it to the improvised grave. Even though the dead are already “far gone and falling to pieces” they can recognise every one of them: Bérard (killed, like so many others, by the German machine gun over by Le Ravin des Dames—it could sweep their position from end to end); Bonheur (the runner who was so fond of wine); Mafieu (the cook who had been made a foot soldier as punishment for being drunk on duty); Sergeant Vidal (with his black beard and mournful eyes, killed by a bullet in the middle of his forehead when they were driving back a German assault the day before yesterday); Mallard (the man from the Vendée with his black hair and blue eyes—his foot was accidentally blown off by his own hand grenade and he bled to death); Jaud (Arnaud’s old corporal, dark and suntanned, with the gentle eyes of a child and an awful beard); Ollivier (courageous, loyal little Ollivier with his straight fair hair); Sergeant Cartelier (tall, slim and recognisable anywhere by the special low boots he wore in spite of regulations); etc., etc., etc.mm
The days have been hot and the stink of putrefaction comes in waves as the bodies are lifted and carried away. The men have to take regular breaks to breathe fresh air before returning to their task.
They do not finish until almost two o’clock in the morning and Arnaud feels “a bitter sense of satisfaction to have done what has to be done.” He watches the unit that is coming to relieve them—heavily laden men who leave a smell of sweat hanging behind them. The lieutenant taking over the position is a whiner. All that is left of the barbed-wire barriers are some bent and twisted spirals, and the command post is just a hole between two piles of sandbags. Arnaud is furious about the complaints at first: “Have we really been through all this suffering just so that an idiot can come along and pretend that we haven’t been doing our job?” But he calms down and thinks that the surly lieutenant will soon find out what it means to hold Hill 321 for ten days and ten nights.
The march back from the front line goes remarkably quickly. It is as if their weariness has been washed away. Nobody wants to take a long rest break, preferring to get as far as possible from the firing before the sun rises. The route back passes Fort de Froidterre and they stop in its shelter long enough to meet a troop coming from the other direction and going up into battle. It is a mirror image of themselves ten days earlier: “their coats are bright blue, their tanned leather equipment still yellow, their cooking pots still gleaming silver.” Arnaud is wearing a coat covered in mud, binoculars round his neck, crumpled puttees, ten days’ stubble and a damaged helmet—the crest was shot away during fighting at close quarters on 8 June. Most of his soldiers have neither rucksacks nor belts. Some of them no longer even have a rifle.
While Arnaud and his men are contemplating these impeccably kitted-out newcomers they see a shell land in their midst. Not one of Arnaud’s men reacts; instead they continue on their way, following a muddy road. They can see dead men and dead horses along the roadside banks, and even a deserted ambulance. The men plod on as quickly as they can, in a “fearful and disordered way as if they were fleeing from a battle.” Their eyes are fevered, their faces muddy. They do not look round except to cast repeated glances over their shoulders and swear at the observation balloon hanging over the German lines in the dawn light—it could call down artillery fire on them at any time. The estimate Arnaud heard on their way to Verdun has proved right, almost exactly: of the hundred men he led to the front only thirty are returning.
They reach the crossroads they passed ten days before. Arnaud sees Verdun shining red, white and silent in the morning sun and thinks: “War is beautiful—to the eyes of generals, journalists and scholars.”
They cross the river and slowly put the dangers of the battlefield behind them. They take a break on the fringes of a wood and Arnaud sees a reservist sergeant reading a news sheet. Arnaud asks him what has been happening and the sergeant snorts, “Just the same old thing.” He gives Arnaud the paper and Arnaud reads it before exclaiming: “It’s us! It’s us!” His men gather round him and he reads the press communiqué aloud:
8 June, 23:00 … On the right bank, after massive bombardment, the enemy made several assaults on our positions east and west of the Thiaumont farm. All the attacks were repulsed by our defensive fire and our machine guns.
9 June, 15:00 … On the right bank the Germans continued to mount fierce attacks along an almost two kilometre front east and west of the Thiaumont farm. All of the assaults to the west failed and the enemy suffered severe losses …nn
One of the men interjects that the communiqué has carefully refrained from mentioning their own losses, but all of the rest are strangely gratified and repeat time after time—like a comforting mantra—“It’s talking about us.” And these brief notices about their battle perhaps offer one reason for it being fought at all; perhaps this event was intended to become text right from the start; perhaps the company suffered its ten days of martyrdom so that someone would be able to say that Hill 321 (not in itself of any great military importance) was held.
Indeed, from the French point of view, the defence of Verdun is mostly symbolic, so that the generals, the politicians, the journalists and the public can say to one another, “Oh yes, the town has been held, is being held and will be held.” But has anyone properly considered what that little transitive verb tenir, “to hold,” actually stands for? “To hold” means one thing to the top generals, another to the megaphones of the nationalistic press in Paris, yet another to the commanders in the field, and something entirely different to foot soldiers like Arnaud and his thirty surviving men. The cruel and tragic forms the battle has taken are, therefore, not just the sum of the collective forces of destruction among those doing the fighting, they are also the sum of the rhetorical and semantic confusion among those at whose behest the battle is being fought.
But they have now come through one of the very worst and most climactic points of the battle. Over the course of little more than a week, the Germans have mounted some of their most concentrated assaults since February along the whole of the front, achieving significant successes. Among several other places, the important French strong point, Fort de Vaux, has fallen after quite exceptionally severe fighting.oo
Later, Arnaud hears the whistle of the narrow-gauge railway that winds its way between Verdun and Bar-le-Duc. He realises that he really has survived:
I had climbed down from the scaffold of suffering and returned to the world of peace and life. I thought I was the same person I had been before spending ten days face to face with death. I was wrong. I had lost my youth.
Florence Farmborough writes in her diary that day:
It was a hot, rather sultry day. In the morning Alexander Alexandrovich, one of our Transport Heads, offered to drive us to see the deserted Austrian trenches; we gladly consented. One excelled all others in luxury and cosiness: we decided it must have been the “blindage” of an artillery officer. It contained chairs, tables, pictures on the armoured walls and books; there was even an English grammar.
SUNDAY, 25 JUNE 1916
Edward Mousley steals a tropical helmet from a dead man in Nusaybin
The march continues. It is almost two months since the encircled British garrison in Kut al-Amara capitulated to the Ottoman army and just over 13,000 men were taken prisoner.pp In spite of promises to the contrary, the prisoners were plundered and the officers were separated from the men. While the officers were put on riverboats for transport to Baghdad, the other ranks were forced to march the whole way in spite of the fact that many of them were already in a bad way and the hottest period of the year had just started—temperatures could reach 50° C in the shade.
Mousley was ill at the time of the capitulation and consequently had to wait for special boat transport to Baghdad. Ironically, the vessel they eventually boarded was the Julnar, the steamer used in the last desperate attempt to relieve them back at the end of April. As he was being carried on board he noted that there were bullet holes everywhere. During the interminably slow journey the boat stopped at intervals to unload the bodies of prisoners who had died.
In Baghdad Mousley recovered enough strength for the next stage. With Russian troops less than 125 miles north of the city, the Ottoman authorities were anxious to get the British prisoners away from the area as quickly as possible to prevent them being liberated if the Russians advanced. They were taken by train to Samarra and from there they had to march under guard, first up the Tigris to Mosul and then west out across the desert.
The column of captured officers is permitted to transport its baggage on mules and camels, and the weakest men are allowed to ride. The march has been terrible despite that and they are leaving a trail of sick and dying men, collapsed mules and discarded equipment along the way. Corpses, dried and shrivelled by the burning sun, mark out the trail of those who preceded them. Meanwhile, their progress is also being shadowed by armed Arabs, waiting to plunder and kill those who fall by the wayside. They have been tormented by sandstorms, heat, hunger and, worst of all, thirst. They have survived on figs, black bread, tea and, in particular, raisins—all bought at excessive prices in the places they have passed through. Like everyone else, Mousley has more or less lost all sense of time. “I knew two seasons only,” he writes in his diary, “when we walked and when we did not.” He is weak and feverish. He has lost almost two stone in weight, has severe stomach problems, and his eyes are painful.qq
They have now reached the small town of Nusaybin, in which they are to spend a night or two before continuing the march to Ras al-’Ayn, where there is supposed to be railway transport waiting for them. They set up camp in the shade of an old Roman bridge. The sky above them is a cloudless and scorching vault and Mousley is weaker than ever. He has just recovered from a bad attack of heatstroke, having lost his topee in an unusually strong sandstorm yesterday, and the handkerchief he put on instead provided little protection.
He happens to hear that there is a collection point for sick prisoners somewhere in the town and that a British lieutenant has just died there. Mousley intends to go and try to get the dead man’s topee—he is, after all, not going to need it anymore. He spends a long time working his way “through tiny streets and dark quarters and backyards” before eventually locating the place. Passing through a wall via a small gateway hidden by a hanging carpet, he enters an open courtyard.
Along the inner sides of the walls rows of emaciated men are lying under improvised sunshades of grass and leafy branches. Most of the skeletal figures are completely naked apart from a piece of cloth around their loins. Their faces are hollow and covered with week-old bristle. They are the British troops from Kut al-Amara and, apart from some black biscuits, they have virtually no food at all. They have to fetch their own water from a watercourse some 200 yards away and the long scrape marks in the dust and sand show where the prisoners have crawled there and back to get a drink.
Some are dead, many are dying.rr He sees a man with his jaw fallen open and his face covered in flies; at first Mousley takes him for dead, but the man is alive and when he makes a weak movement great swarms of disturbed flies pour out of his open mouth. Mousley has seen this before, the mouths of dying men filling and emptying with hosts of flies in time with their feeble movements: he calls it “the beehive phenomenon.”
Mousley searches for the dead lieutenant, finds his tropical helmet and takes it. Then he returns to his column and alerts the other officers to what he has seen. They go to the town commandant in order to protest. All the soldiers still capable of moving now join the officers, who collect what money they can to leave with the men who are too feeble to march. The sixty pounds they collect is given to these unfortunates so that they can at least pay for some food and care.
Mousley returns to the Roman bridge, where he writes in his journal:
At night, when the remorseless sun is gone, we wander up and down our tiny front between the sentries, smoking what Arab tobacco we can get and casting many an anxious glance towards the western horizon over which, far, far away lies Ras-al-Ain, the railway terminus. Between this and that there are many marches throughout long nights and days. Shall we reach it?
TUESDAY, 27 JUNE 1916
Florence Farmborough nurses the wounded in Buchach
As of today the Brusilov offensive is entering its fourth week and good news—indeed, surprisingly good news—is still coming in. The army to which Farmborough’s unit is now attached (the Ninth) has achieved the best results of all, having driven its Austro-Hungarian opponents back in something resembling a frantic retreat or, more accurately perhaps, a retreat in utter panic.ss Florence and her colleagues are very pleased—the high expectations they had for the new year and the much discussed great offensive have truly been fulfilled. The weather is hot.
Florence has now seen crowds of prisoners of war (something that was unusual earlier),tt and she has seen and been reluctantly impressed by the enemy’s well-constructed though now shell-shattered trenches. She has also seen the aspects of success that are less often mentioned: the freshly filled mass graves, beside which the survivors are sitting sorting through the heaps of boots, belts and other equipment that had belonged to their fallen comrades. And she has seen the victors staggering around after drinking themselves stupid on captured or looted alcohol.
Her medical unit is stationed in Buchach at present, a pretty little town straddling the Strypa river. The town has been badly scarred by the fighting and many of its inhabitants have left, but it is still vividly colourful thanks to the masses of acacias in flower. Florence’s unit has taken over a house that used to belong to the Austrian superintendent of schools, who left Buchach along with the Austrian troops. The building has already been looted by the time Florence and her companions arrive and books, pictures, geological samples and dried flowers lie scattered all over the floors. Those Austrians who still remain in the town have been ordered out of their houses and will be sent east. Florence has witnessed a repetition of the scenes of last summer, except that it is now mainly German speakers who are fleeing, and she has seen thousands of them on the move, people of all ages driving their animals before them and with their possessions piled up on overloaded carts.
But good news is not the only news to reach them. Good news has a price and it is people like Florence who have to try to save what can be saved from the flood of crushed and broken fragments of humanity that continues to pour into the field hospital.
Yesterday evening she assisted when two men with stomach wounds were operated on. The prognosis for this kind of injury is extremely poor, mainly because it is difficult to avoid fatal infection when the gut contents have been spilled into the stomach cavity. She was impressed by the skill of the surgeon in cutting away the torn pieces of the gut and then patching together the parts that were still functioning. Men with stomach wounds make difficult patients, not only because they usually die but because, dehydrated from blood loss, they are always calling for water, which they cannot be allowed to have because of the danger of complications. Once the procedures were finished Florence remained in the improvised operating theatre because she had heard that more wounded men were expected. She fell asleep on a chair there and did not wake up until around midnight.
It is six o’clock in the morning before any more wounded men arrive and Florence is there to help tend them, the only break being for an early breakfast. One of the wounded is a young soldier, just a boy, who has been hit in his upper left arm. She takes the bullet from the wound, which proves unusually easy since most of its force had been spent and the rear part of it is sticking out. The boy cries and complains the whole time, even when the wound has been cleaned and bandaged: “Sestritsa, it hurts!”uu Another of them has a very odd wound: he too had been struck by a bullet, which had then bounced off his shoulder blade, changed direction and passed through the right-hand side of his body, gone down through his groin and lodged in his right thigh. A third patient, another young man, is covered with dirt, dust and dried blood and she begins by washing his face:
“Little Sister,” my patient said, with an attempt at a smile. “Leave it dirty! I shall not go visiting any more.” At first I thought he was joking and some light-hearted repartee was on the tip of my tongue; then I saw the ugly gash on his head and I understood what he meant.
Later on she sees one of the two patients with stomach wounds whose operation she had assisted at the evening before. He is going downhill. His craving for water is such that she has to get a male orderly to help hold him down on his straw mattress. His mind is beginning to wander and he shouts that he and his comrades are now down by the great river drinking, drinking, drinking.
FRIDAY, 30 JUNE 1916
Kresten Andresen is repairing connecting trenches on the Somme
A blue sky. Sun-warmed grass, smelling of summer. Yet more digging. Andresen has spent much more time with a pick and shovel in his hands than with a rifle and hand grenade—and he is not complaining about it. Sentry duty in the forward line is dangerous, unpleasant and exhausting; and never more so than now when the British are subjecting the German lines a dozen or so miles away to a virtually continuous barrage of drum fire, presumably in preparation for a major assault. Now and again the fire waltz even sweeps across Andresen’s connecting trenches and they continually need to be repaired. The white chalky soil is heavy to dig but, once dug, provides excellent bunkers.
The work follows a set pattern: eight hours digging with a fairly long pause for food in the middle, after that the men can do whatever they like. One of the connecting trenches he is working on runs through the flickering, fragmented sunlight of a wood still clothed in summer greenery, where the blasted trees lie on the ground like pickasticks; the trench then runs on along a stream and straight through an old water-mill. They sleep in deep subterranean bunkers, safe but crowded. The beds are so narrow they have to sleep on their sides and the wide gaps between the slats of the beds make it extremely difficult to sleep comfortably. The mattresses are stuffed with wood shavings that tend to stick together in lumps. And the air supply is more than a little suspect:
When you’ve been lying there asleep for five or six hours you get a tight, spongy feeling across your chest, as if you had asthma, but it goes away fairly quickly once you get up into the fresh air and light.
Andresen is not really well. He cannot shake off his persistent cold, his stomach is playing up and he often suffers from headaches. They have watched many dogfights up in the clear blue summer sky. The British seem to have the upper hand in the air. “The famous airman Immelmann was recently shot down here.vv I was in bed asleep in the bunker but those who were up above saw it.”
As usual he is hungry to hear any talk of peace. At the moment there is a particularly persistent rumour going around that the war will end on 17 August. That will be a Thursday.
SUNDAY, 2 JULY 1916
Angus Buchanan buys some chickens in Kwadirema
It is Sunday and for once the Sabbath is being respected. They have been in camp for a couple of days—waiting, so the word goes, for supplies to be built up before they continue their march. They have been suffering food shortages recently and the men have once again been going hungry.
The day is a very quiet one and Buchanan is not even doing machine-gun drill with his men. The result is not entirely beneficial, however, as it is easy to feel homesick when there are no distractions on a close, windless Sunday like today. Buchanan would be happy just to hear how things are at home, but news is rare in the bush and letters even more so. For several weeks now they have been hoping that the post will reach them.
But the day is by no means completely wasted. Apart from having a chance to rest Buchanan is pleased that he manages to pull off a fine business deal. He met two natives a few days ago and they have been away to their village: now he can barter with them and, in exchange for some clothes, he gets flour and thirteen chickens. This unexpected addition to their calories is a great joy and there will be chicken for dinner. It also stirs the zoologist in him. (Not that the zoologist ever switches off completely. Whenever he has the time and the energy Buchanan collects plants, eggs and, above all, birds. He catalogues everything he finds with the care—bordering on love—of the scientist. His latest find, made on 14 May, was a pygmy kingfisher, a female of the species Ispidina picta, to which he gave the reference number 163.) One of the chickens he has bought has a peculiar white plume on her head and for some reason he cannot bring himself to kill her, deciding instead to keep her for a while. She might produce eggs—she might even turn into a pet.
FRIDAY, 7 JULY 1916
René Arnaud’s battalion prepares for a return to the front at Verdun
The news comes as a shock in the heat of high summer: they are to be sent back to Verdun “in order to fill a gap.” None of them believed they would have to return there, especially after suffering such heavy losses. As a result of the losses the two regiments in the brigade have been amalgamated and Arnaud and his fellow soldiers have had to unpick the number 337 from their collar flashes and stitch on the number 293—the 337th Regiment no longer exists, not since fighting at Verdun just a month ago.
Arnaud is doing his best to reassure the men in his company but does not feel he has succeeded. And he, too, is depressed. All of them are obviously thinking the same thing as him: “You can survive it once, but hardly twice.” During the evening the commanding officer of the regiment gives them a briefing in one of the small subterranean rooms in the Verdun citadel. The unit is to retake a recently lost piece of ground between Thiaumont and Fleury, not far from the place they were defending at the beginning of June. The lieutenant colonel subjects his officers to the same kind of inspiring speech Arnaud has already used on his own men—with the same meagre result. Arnaud can see how tense the commander is, how hard he is clenching his jaws and how he no longer believes his own words. Arnaud does, however, feel a little calmer—initially his battalion is to be held in reserve.
When Arnaud goes out into the corridor he sees fifty or so men from his battalion standing in a queue outside another room, which is where Bayet, the acting battalion doctor, a rotund man with cropped hair and large glasses, is located. The men are reporting sick and thus hoping to avoid the purgatory that awaits them. Every conceivable ailment and condition is cited: hernias, rheumatism, badly healed wounds. The battalion doctor is sweating with the effort, surrounded as he is by a cluster of men “clinging to him like drowning men clinging to a life-buoy.” Arnaud hears later that several of the battalion’s senior officers have also reported sick: “In short, there was a general state of disintegration.”
That evening Arnaud meets Doctor Bayet and makes an attempt of his own to be declared unfit. He feels he does it in a rather subtle way. Arnaud starts by complaining about one of the officers (one of the highly decorated ones) who has seen fit to report sick, and he suggests that he himself would never do such a thing, even though he actually has good reason to because of a heart problem. As if incidentally, he unbuttons his uniform jacket and asks the doctor to listen, hoping frantically that the doctor will hear something and send him to the rear clutching yet another medical exemption. The doctor listens and then says in a bored voice that perhaps there is a slight murmur. But that is all he says. Feeling ashamed of himself, Arnaud buttons up his jacket: “This demonstration of weakness stopped me condemning others from then on.”
Once it is dark they march out of the citadel again. The lines of heavily laden men wind their way across the river and towards the dark heights with their glowing aurora of explosions. When they have climbed the first of the steep ridges Arnaud lies prostrate on the ground, his heart pounding wildly. “I was exhausted, morally more than physically. I thought I was going to pass out, perhaps even hoped that I was going to.” After a long march through a narrow connecting trench they reach a simple bunker with a corrugated-iron roof. There he falls asleep.
The attack takes place at dawn two days later. It fails. The losses are considerable and one of the men to fall is the commanding officer. Arnaud’s unit does not take part in the attack and he survives.
A DAY IN JULY 1916
Rafael de Nogales witnesses the execution of a deserter outside Jerusalem
Virtually every morning there are two or three new bodies dangling from telegraph poles and other improvised gallows around the Holy City. Most of them are Arabs who have been caught after deserting from the Ottoman army. They are the very opposite to Rafael de Nogales in that they did not choose war, war chose them. They represent the silent majority of those now in uniform (irrespective of the colour of the uniform): unlike de Nogales, who eagerly allowed himself to be swept up by the energy, danger and illusions of war, they are men who have been forced into it reluctantly, questioningly, unenthusiastically and—last but not least—mutely.
It is not that de Nogales looks down on them: there is a sense in which he actually understands the deserters. The Ottoman army has yet again been afflicted by supply problems, largely as a result of corruption, wastage and organised theft. And undernourishment has once again opened the way for disease, particularly typhus. Since the whole region is suffering from food shortages, typhus has taken on epidemic proportions, its impact being felt in particular by the many new Jewish immigrants to the city who, because of the war, have been deprived of all assistance from their former homelands. The simultaneous combination of hunger and homesickness has meant that the number of desertions from Arab units has gone through the roof.ww
The typhus epidemic and the desperate supply situation in Palestine means that the so-called Pasha Expedition (a corps consisting partly of Turkish units and partly of German and Austro-Hungarian troops equipped with considerable quantities of artillery, lorries and other modern equipment) does not stop for its planned rest period in Palestine after its long trek through Asia Minor but continues on to Sinai in the intense heat. They have been sent to take part in a second attempt to cut the Suez Canal.xx De Nogales was impressed by the sight of these columns of motor lorries and brand-new cannon rumbling past.
Non-stop hangings have been the Ottoman commander’s answer to the desertions but their effect has been negligible. (De Nogales takes the view that such draconian measures are an attempt to cure a sickness for which the commander himself is at least partly responsible: he is thought to be involved in the corruption that has led to food shortages among the troops.) Which is why he has decided that the latest deserter will be given a very public execution by firing squad and die before the eyes of his comrades in the Jerusalem garrison.
The execution is to take place today.
The condemned man is yet another Arab, this time an imam.
A long procession winds its way out of the shady multitude of roofs and cupolas that is Jerusalem. At the front is a military band playing Chopin’s Funeral March. It is followed by a group of high-ranking officers and civilians. Then comes the man who is to die, strikingly well dressed in a brilliant white turban and a kaftan of bright red cloth. Behind him marches the firing squad. And behind them there is a long tail, consisting of the Jerusalem garrison—or large parts of it, anyway—including Rafael de Nogales.
This long snake of people gathers round a small, low mound of earth on which a thick post has been driven into the ground. As the death sentence is being read out de Nogales carefully observes the man who is about to die. He seems “very little concerned by the fate that is awaiting him and is calmly smoking his cheroot with all the scorn for death that is characteristic of Muslims.” After listening to the reading of the sentence the man sits down cross-legged on a mat opposite another imam, who is supposed to be his spiritual comforter, but the spiritual comfort gets out of control when the two of them indulge in an ever more animated theological debate that threatens to end in blows.
The condemned man is made to stand up and is tied to the post. A blindfold is put over his eyes. He continues smoking calmly throughout this procedure. When the command “Ready” is given and the squad raises its rifles into firing position and takes aim, the man quickly moves his cheroot up to his lips. The shots ring out, the two shades of red in the kaftan and the body meet and the man crumples, “his hand pinned to his mouth by a bullet.”
THURSDAY, 20 JULY 1916
Olive King distributes clothes in Salonica
The day begins to cool down. There are nine sacks lined up in the clothing store and Olive King is waiting impatiently. The sacks contain the clothes, equipment and personal possessions of nine patients due to be shipped out of Salonica today and her task is to ensure that they are issued to the rightful owners. None of them has arrived yet and she hopes to have time to bathe in the warm sea before the camp gates are locked. Eventually she goes over to the ward where the nine patients are and asks them to hurry up. Now she can hand out the sacks, but one of the patients opens his and protests that these are not his belongings. Accompanied by the patient, Olive King starts a hopeless search for the right sack.
She will not be able to bathe this evening.
She finishes a letter to her father instead and confesses to something she has hitherto treated as “a deep and dark secret”—the fact that she no longer has long hair:
I cut my hair when we first came out here (that’s why I’ve never sent you any snapshots since I’ve been here) & it’s just been the greatest imaginable blessing, saves such a lot of time & always tidy & comfortable. It really looks quite nice, & has grown so thick, & it’s lovely not having anything blowing in your eyes driving. As soon as it was done I couldn’t imagine why I’d never done it before.
Sarrail’s Army of the Orient is still in Salonica, in lofty defiance both of Greek neutrality and of the fact that there seems to be little or no point to the whole business any longer. The overcrowded city is now surrounded by a belt of fortifications almost as deep as those to be seen on the Western Front.yy In other words, a standstill. What real fighting there is is going on up in Macedonia, nicknamed Muckedonia by the British troops because of the mud and dirt there. It is hotter than down on the coast and disease is rife up there, particularly malaria, but also dengue fever. Battlefield casualties are few.
Olive King is considering enlisting in the Serbian army, partly because she is tired of all the trivial jobs, all the waiting and all the well-organised inactivity in the fortified enclave of Salonica, and partly because she has discovered that the nurses in general and their new supervisor in particular detest women volunteers like her. King says that she has “had enough of women’s discipline—or rather, lack of it” and would rather work for a real military organisation. There is also another factor in the equation, in the form of a charming Serbian liaison officer she has become acquainted with. Large parts of what remains of the Serbian army have been shipped from Corfu to Salonica.
The evenings can be pleasant, at least as long as the wind is not blowing too hard and filling the air with dust. She reads or she writes letters. She and some friends sometimes find tortoises and organise races with them. Sometimes they crawl through the wire and go to a small café just behind the camp. It is often empty and there they drink lemon juice and soda and dance for hours to the rasping tones of a wind-up gramophone. There are only two records of dance music—“Dollar Princess” and “La Paloma”—and they play them time after time.
MONDAY, 24 JULY 1916
Sarah Macnaughtan dies at home in London
She regains hope after her return from Persia. For a while, anyway. Relations and friends visit, sometimes in such numbers that her maid feels compelled to impose a strict limit on how many minutes each can stay. The doctors are vague about what is wrong with her. It is possibly some sort of tropical disease and they have put her on a special milk diet, but she has trouble keeping it down. Just a month ago it seemed that she might recover: her weight increased, she began to organise her correspondence, she made short visits to her library downstairs and she talked of refurnishing the house. Plans were made to move out to the country so that she could enjoy the summer there.
Things have changed since then.
It is weeks now since she left her room, and yesterday she sank into a sort of coma. It is no longer possible to communicate with her.
Some headlines from today’s Daily Mirror: “British Smash Through Defences Into Pozieres”; “Drivers’ Protest—More Buses Stop Today”; “Big French Air Raid on Rhine Town”; “Is It to Be Another Year of War?”; “Last Week of Gorringtons Summer Sale”; “Red Cross Regatta on the Thames”; “Grand Duke Pushes on in Asia Minor.”
During the day, she unexpectedly becomes rather restless. Perhaps it is simply a fear of death, or perhaps her body is summoning its last reserves of physical and mental strength before her final journey. One of her sisters is downstairs playing hymns on an organ and the sounds can reach up to Macnaughtan through her open bedroom door. No one knows if she can hear them. She dies later in the afternoon. The room is full of flowers.
• • •
Michel Corday makes the following entry in his diary on the same day:
An old man in dirty-grey uniform, with a cap drooping over his ear, tawny top-boots, sword clanking against his spurs, a score of mysterious ribbons on his chest, so radiant with pride as to light up the whole boulevard. Next to him, there was a poor devil on two crutches, with his drill coat, his corduroy trousers, one leg amputated right up [to] the thigh. A pitiable contrast!
THURSDAY, 27 JULY 1916
Michel Corday has dinner at Maxim’s
It is a beautiful, hot summer in Paris. The cafés are well patronised and the tables that cover the pavements are full. On Sundays the local trains out into the green countryside are packed with trippers. Groups of young women dressed in white swish along the streets on their bicycles. For those seeking the sea air, it is utterly impossible to find a vacant hotel room at any of the many resorts along the Atlantic coast.
Michel Corday and an acquaintance are in Maxim’s, close to the Champs-Élysées, and he is once more struck by the contrast between what he sees going on and what he knows to be going on. He thinks yet again about how infinitely far away the war seems to be. The restaurant is famous for its cuisine and for its fashionable art-nouveau décor, which has made it something of a time capsule, a refuge from the present, a reminder of happier days, a promise of a future. Yes, the war is a long way away, but it is nevertheless present, although people prefer to keep quiet about the way it manifests itself here—through alcohol and sex, or perhaps more accurately, drunkenness and lust.
The restaurant is full of men in uniform, from different branches of the armed forces and of many different nationalities. There are also a few well-known faces, such as Georges Feydeau, the writer of farces, and François Flameng, professor and war artist, whose watercolours are to be seen in virtually every new number of the widely read magazine L’Illustration. Flameng is one of those civilians who cannot resist the gravitational pull of the military world and he has come up with his own uniform-like style of clothing: this evening he is wearing a kepi, a khaki jacket with rows of medal ribbons on the chest, and puttees. There are also women present, many of them—the majority, perhaps—are high-class prostitutes.
The quantity of alcohol consumed at Maxim’s this evening is enormous. There are some pilots who are having what is called a champagne dinner and eating nothing at all. The level of drunkenness in the place is high: incidents that before the war would have led to sharp reprimands or to people looking away in embarrassed silence are now tolerated or even give rise to appreciative laughter from the other diners. Corday sees some British officers who have imbibed so much that one of them can hardly stand: the man tries to put on his uniform cap but, to the obvious delight of those sitting around him, misses his own head. Two extremely drunk men are standing at separate tables and hurling crude insults at each other across the elegantly ornamented room. No one pays any attention to them.
The business of prostitution is being conducted with virtually no attempt at concealment. If a customer wants to buy the services of a woman he simply speaks to one of the restaurant managers. Corday hears one of them respond quickly to a potential client: “Ready and at your service this evening.” After which he names the price, provides an address and directions and concludes with “the hygiene requirements.”
Even in France, where legalised brothels have a long history, the war has led to a massive increase in the sex industry. This, of course, is due partly to increased demand—swarms of soldiers arrive in Paris on leave every day and whores have poured in from all over the country—but also because the authorities, encouraged by the military, frequently choose to turn a blind eye to the problem. Even so, arrests for illegal prostitution have risen by 40 per cent.
There has also been a significant increase in sexually transmitted diseases.zz Many of the armies routinely issue condoms to soldiers going on leave. Not that it does much good.aaa Surprisingly, not everyone tries to avoid infection: infected prostitutes sometimes earn more than healthy ones since they attract soldiers who want to catch a venereal infection in order to evade service at the front. The most grotesque expression of this can be seen in the trade in gonococcal pus, which soldiers buy and smear into their genitals in the hope of ending up in hospital.bbb Those who are really desperate rub it into their eyes, which often results in lifelong blindness.
Even the prostitutes are doing their bit for the war. Some brothels used to take in homeless refugees and Corday believes that all the high-class whores in Maxim’s this evening will have what is called “a godson.” This means that, for patriotic reasons, they have “adopted” a soldier, which in turn means that when that soldier comes home on leave the prostitute in question will have sex with him free of charge.
The drunken uproar in the restaurant continues, to the accompaniment of popping corks, shouting, laughter, shrieks, yells and chinking glass. An officer in a particularly well-tailored uniform roars: “Down with civilians!”
On the same day Florence Farmborough writes in her journal about a wounded young officer whose death she has witnessed:
The terrible odour of putrefaction that accompanies that form of gangrene was harassing us desperately, but we knew that it would not be for long. Before Death came to release him, he became calmer—he was back at home, among those whom he loved. Suddenly he seized my arm and cried, “I knew that you would come! Elena, little dove, I knew that you would come! Kiss me, Elena, kiss me!” I realised that in his delirium he had mistaken me for the girl he loved. I bent and kissed his damp, hot face, and he became more tranquil. Death claimed him while he was still in a state of tranquillity.
SUNDAY, 6 AUGUST 1916
Elfriede Kuhr plays the piano at a party in Schneidemühl
It is a confusing time, dreadful and exciting, painful and alluring, agonising and happy. The world is changing and she is changing with it, both as a result of the things that are happening and also quite independently of them. Wheels are moving within wheels, sometimes in opposite directions, but still moving as one.
Once upon a time many people had rejoiced at the war as both a promise and a possibility, a promise that all that was best in mankind and culture might be realised, a possibility to tilt against the unease and the disintegration that had been discernible all over pre-war Europe.ccc But wars are and always have been paradoxical and deeply ironic phenomena that frequently change what people want to preserve, promote what people want to prevent and demolish what people want to protect.
In complete contradiction to the fine hopes of 1914, there is a tendency for certain phenomena—traditionally lumped together under the heading of “dangerous disintegration”—to mushroom out of control. Many people are concerned about the ever-increasing freedom in relationships between the sexes and the growing levels of sexual immorality. Some of this is blamed on the fact that so many women, like Elfriede’s mother and grandmother, have been permitted or even compelled to take work previously done by men—men who are now in uniform. This has, of course, been absolutely crucial to the war effort and consequently should not really be called into question, but it is not difficult to find people who maintain that this “masculinisation” of women will prove to be fatal in the long run.ddd Some of this is blamed on the fact that the long absence of men at the front causes a drastic increase in sexual demand, which has in turn led to a huge rise in such behaviour as masturbation, homosexuality and extra-marital affairs, which were previously strictly forbidden or denounced.eee (Germany, like France, has witnessed an increase in prostitution and sexual diseases.) Some of it is blamed on the fact that the ceaseless flood of men in uniform backwards and forwards across the country causes there to be a sudden excess of young, sexually active men in certain places at the very time there are fewer resident men capable of supervising the women left at home. A marked rise in extra-marital pregnancies and illegal abortions, for instance, has been reported from garrison towns. Schneidemühl is no exception to this: the town is home to an infantry regiment and to the well-known Albatros factory, which both manufactures military aircraft and brings in large numbers of young pilots for training.
(Biplanes, both those that have crashed and those that have had to make an emergency landing, are not an unusual sight in the area, even in the centre of the town. And Elfriede knows that fatal accidents are not unusual: every week she sees funeral processions making their way either to the war cemetery in the forest or to the railway station, where the coffins are put aboard trains.)
Up until now Elfriede has watched all this from a distance—curious, confused and watchful. A thirteen-year-old girl at her school has been expelled after being made pregnant by an ensign. And during a visit home from the music school she runs in Berlin, Elfriede’s mother was amazed to see that “the levels of elegance here are not far behind what you can see on the Kurfürstendamm.” Elfriede thinks she knows why:
It’s because of all the officers from away who are in the 134th Reserve Battalion or in the 1st and 2nd Reserve Air Squadrons. Because of these men, our women and girls spend a lot of time doing themselves up.
The older girls can often be seen hanging round with soldiers, as indeed can some adult women, ultimately perhaps “out of sympathy” because the soldiers “are on their way to the front where they will be killed or wounded anyway.” It is obvious that the proximity of death and the sheer volume of deaths have helped to break down what would otherwise be strict moral codes.fff Elfriede has not yet let herself be tempted but she has noticed that soldiers have begun talking to her in a new way. She believes it is because she is now wearing a proper skirt and has her hair pinned up like a grown-up.
The big sister of one of her classmates often organises small parties for the young pilots. Coffee and cakes are on offer, couples chat and, indeed, even kiss a little while Elfriede plays the piano. So far the whole business has just been a titillating game for Elfriede. On these occasions she has pretended to be “Lieutenant von Yellenic” (the persona she often resorts to when playing war games), playing background music in the officers’ mess for friends, “just like in a novel by Tolstoy.”
As she arrives at today’s party she meets a young, blond and blue-eyed pilot officer on the stairs:
He stopped, greeted me and wondered whether I was also “one of the people who had been invited.”ggg I said no, I was just the one who played the piano. He pulled a face and answered: “I see. That’s a pity.” “Why is it a pity?” I asked. He just laughed and disappeared into the room.
TUESDAY, 8 AUGUST 1916
Kresten Andresen disappears on the Somme
No more sun, just mist and haze. The front line has not moved much since the middle of July but the battles continue to rage. The landscape is strangely colourless. All the colours, particularly the greens, are long gone. The storm of shells having kneaded everything to the same drab, grey-brown shade.hhh There are dense ranks of artillery pieces on both sides; in some places they are wheel to wheel and they are firing day and night. Today British foot soldiers are attacking the village of Guillemont—though it is a village in name only, since weeks of bombardment have reduced the place to tangled heaps of stones, beams and debris. Nor is it really a village on the maps used by the British high command: there it is marked as an important position that must be taken, not because it would break the German line but because it would provide room for manoeuvre. (There are several reasons for the British attack, not least that King George V is presently visiting his troops in France and General Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, would like to be able to welcome His Majesty with some small victory.)iii
The British attack has been well prepared. They have dug new connecting trenches from the closest point in the shell-shattered wood at Trônes so that the infantrymen can launch their attack as close as possible to the German lines. An experienced and battle-hardened division, the 55th, has been chosen to carry out the attack and the preparatory bombardment has been both lengthy and merciless.
One of the German soldiers who will have to face the attack is Kresten Andresen.
His regiment has been sent in to reinforce one of the most exposed sectors on the Somme. To one side of Guillemont there is Longueval, then Delville Wood, then Martinpuich, Pozières, Thiepval, Beaucourt and Beaumont Hamel—all places well known from the army communiqués of the past month and now shrouded in a dark aura of stinking corpses and shattered hopes. Two days ago he wrote to his parents:
I hope I have now done my bit here, for the present anyway. One can never know what will happen in the future. But even if we are sent somewhere in the very depths of the sea, we could not go anywhere worse than this place.
The losses have been great, not least among his Danish friends. Most of them have fallen victim to the constant artillery barrage:
My good, dear friend Peter Østergaard—I can’t understand why he should fall. How many sacrifices are being demanded of us. Rasmus Nissen is badly wounded in his legs. Jans Skau has lost both his legs and is wounded in the chest. Jens Christensen from Lundgaardsmark is wounded. Johannes Hansen from Lintrup is badly wounded. Jørgen Lenger from Smedeby—wounded. Asmus Jessen from Aarslev—wounded. There is no one left now: Iskov, Laursen, Nørregaard, Karl Hansen—they are all gone and I am almost the only one remaining.
The drum fire has been dreadful. Shells of every possible calibre have rained down on them, particularly those of the heaviest calibres, 18cm, 28cm, and 38cm. When a brute of the latter variety explodes, Andresen writes, it is like meeting “a monster from the sagas.” Suddenly everything is silent and dark. Then, after a few seconds, the dust and smoke clear enough to see for a few metres before another shell comes screaming in. On one occasion they came under heavy fire in a connecting trench without any bunkers.jjjHe and the others could do nothing but press themselves against the side of the trench, press their helmeted heads down on their knees and clutch their rucksacks in a pathetic attempt to protect their chests and bellies. In one of his most recent letters home he wrote: “At the beginning of the war, in spite of all the terrible things, there was a sense of something poetic. That has now gone.”
Kresten Andresen now finds himself in the forward line. He has tried to come up with anything good that can be said about his situation and actually thinks he has found something. Chatting to a Dane in a different company a few days earlier he said, “we might easily be taken prisoner.” Perhaps that is what he is hoping for when the enemy firestorm lifts and the British soldiers of the 55th Division climb out of their trenches a couple of hundred metres away.
The clumsiness of the attack on the place the British troops call “Gillymong” is reminiscent of many other British attacks on the Somme.
The British artillery is, of course, laying down a so-called creeping barrage, which in theory means that the foot soldiers are advancing behind a curtain of fire intended to keep the German defenders down in their bunkers right until the last minute. In practice and as usual, the artillerymen follow their own timetables, which means that the fire moves forward a certain number of metres at given intervals irrespective of whether the British infantrymen are keeping up or not.kkk Soon the barrage disappears into the distance leaving the lines of advancing infantry behind, and then these lines run straight into the German curtain of firelll—and even into each other: in all the smoke and confusion two British battalions end up fighting one another. The men who manage to push forward in spite of this soon come under cross-fire from German machine guns hidden in a sunken road immediately before the village.
A number of isolated groups do reach the German trenches on the edge of what was once Guillemont and chaotic close-quarters combat breaks out there.
Kresten Andresen is still alive around the middle of the day on 8 August.
During the afternoon German units carry out a counter-attack. They are very familiar with the terrain and have soon recaptured the lost stretches of trench and overcome the British attackers. (Ten officers and 374 soldiers are taken prisoner.) In one trench they find a wounded man from Andresen’s company: when he was wounded he hid in a bunker because he had heard that the British bayoneted the wounded to death. He had, however, seen the British taking German prisoners back to their own lines with them.
When the 1st Company is mustered it is discovered that there are twenty-nine men who cannot be accounted for among either the living or the dead. Kresten Andresen is one of them.
There has been no word of him since.
His fate is unknown.mmm
SUNDAY, 13 AUGUST 1916
Florence Farmborough views a battlefield on the River Dniester
The countryside spread out before their eyes is breathtakingly beautiful. On both sides run long, winding hills, covered with trees; in front is an undulating plain, framed by the high, dramatic peaks of the Carpathians in the distance. But as the column approaches and then reaches yesterday’s battlefield, the idyll is shattered. They pass the recently deserted sites of gun positions; they roll through villages so smashed by shells and dissected by a web of trenches that all that remain are piles of stone and wood; they drive past blackened crater fields full of deep, spiky hollows. The size of a crater depends on the calibre of the shell: an ordinary field artillery shell of 7cm or 8cm makes a crater less than a metre across; the real monsters of 42cm make a hole twelve times that size, or more.
They come to a halt on a small hill. Yesterday this was one of the best fortified positions in the Austro-Hungarian line of defences. Today it is just a mess of crumpled barbed wire and partially collapsed trenches. The enemy dead are still lying on the ground. They died so recently that even in the summer heat they show no signs of putrefaction—indeed, they seem as if they might almost be alive. She sees three bodies pressed together and it is only the contortion of their limbs that convinces her that these people really are dead. At another spot she looks at an enemy soldier lying outstretched in a shattered trench: the man’s face is completely unmarked, his skin still has the light of life. Just as so many others have done when faced with death in its less dramatic manifestations, Florence thinks: “He might have been resting.”
They climb back into their cars and continue their journey. They soon begin to understand the scale of this battle, which led to yesterday’s great breakthrough. From being a single battlefield it becomes multiple fields and they come to places where there has not yet been time to remove the Russian dead:
The dead were still lying around, in strange, unnatural postures—remaining where they had fallen: crouching, doubled up, stretched out, prostrate, prone … Austrians and Russians lying side by side. And there were lacerated crushed bodies lying on darkly stained patches of earth. There was one Austrian without a leg and with blackened, swollen face; another with a smashed face, terrible to look at; a Russian soldier with legs doubled under him, leaning against the barbed wire. And on more than one open wound flies were crawling and there were other moving, threadlike things. I was glad Anna and Ekaterina were with me; they, too, were silent; they, too, were sorely shaken. Those “heaps” were once human beings: men who were young, strong and vigorous; now they lay lifeless and inert; shapeless forms of what had been living flesh and bone. What a frail and fragile thing is human life!
These maimed and torn bodies are a reality in themselves but also a picture of what war does to man’s conceptions and hopes, indeed, to the old world as a whole. As much as anything else, the war began as an attempt to preserve Europe exactly as it was, to uphold the status quo, but it is now changing the continent in a more sweeping way than anyone could have imagined in their worst nightmares. An ancient truth is making itself manifest yet again—the truth that sooner or later wars become uncontrollable and counter-productive because men and societies will tend to sacrifice everything in their blind drive to be victorious. That has rarely been more true than it is at present, when those in power, unintentionally and without any plan, have unleashed uniquely uncontrollable forces: extreme nationalism, social revolution, religious hatred. (Not to mention a grotesque level of debt that is undermining the economic health of all the states involved.) Farmborough, shaken by what she has seen, finds refuge in her faith: “Oh! One must believe and trust in God’s mercy, otherwise these frightful sights would work havoc in one’s brain; and one’s heart would faint with the depths of its despair.”
Later, when they stop and set up camp, they still find themselves surrounded by dead bodies but now, after the passage of more hours, the inevitable processes of putrefaction have begun to set in. They can smell the unpleasant sweetness in the air and hear the buzzing of the gorged flies. The men in the unit are unconcerned by the corpses—or pretend to be—other than as problems of hygiene. But Florence and the other nurses feel very ill at ease when it is time to eat. There is a corpse immediately behind her tent, half buried by the earth thrown up by an exploding shell, but his head is clearly visible. One of the nurses goes and places a piece of cloth over the dead man’s face. A little later Florence regains her courage and takes out her camera to photograph the many dead Austrians. She has taken only two photographs when she is overwhelmed by a sense of shame: what right does she have to intrude on these lifeless beings? It was not that long ago that she went out of her way to see her first cadaver, not that long ago that she “wanted to see Death.”
And so the day continues, with death ever present.
Later again, while waiting to be given things to do or orders to move on, she overcomes her feelings and goes off exploring. She walks past a village that has been completely razed by Russian artillery fire (“God help the inhabitants”), past a stinking and still uncovered mass grave and arrives at last at the logical end point of this whole business—a small and rather pretty war cemetery that is probably a few years old. She already knows that the Austro-Hungarian army takes its war cemeteries very seriously and that it also treats its fallen enemies with great respect. The small plot is carefully fenced and the way in passes through a beautifully carved gateway, over which is a wooden cross and an inscription in German: “Here rest the heroes fallen for their Fatherland.” And “heroes” refers to the dead of all nationalities, since Russians and Germans lie buried here alongside Austro-Hungarian soldiers. A fallen Jewish warrior has not been made to lie under a cross: his grave has been marked instead with the Star of David.
At suppertime they receive nothing but good reports. They already know that operations in the north are coming up against great difficulty but they have seen today with their own eyes that the great offensive in the south is continuing and, to their joy, they hear that as a result of this new breakthrough the Austro-Hungarian armies are retreating at such a speed that the Russians have lost contact with them. The enemy appears to be at the point of complete collapse. This breathes new life into their hopes. Germany will find it hard to continue without Austria-Hungary and the Italian army will have room to manoeuvre and be able to complete its invasion of the double-monarchy without any resistance.nnn
Florence also hears another little piece of news that makes her personally happy. One of the states that has been dragged into the war is Persia, which was invaded by British and Russian troops less than a year ago. Fighting has been going on since then. This evening Florence is told that one of the men who has done most to re-establish so-called order in Persia is a Briton, Brigadier General Sir Percy Sykes.ooo Being British, Florence cannot fail to be proud of this.
So in spite of everything the day ends with smiles. The sun goes down and the night wind wafts the ever stronger smell of thousands of putrefying heroes into the tents.
On that day Angus Buchanan and the column he is part of are at a watercourse. They have been racing south-west in pursuit of a rapidly retreating enemy force that is destroying all the bridges behind it. He writes:
We have now descended into low, unhealthy marsh country, where the atmosphere is close and damp, and fly-ridden. For the remainder of the day and the next two days, swarms of us, like busy ants, laboured to and fro on the construction of the large timber-buttressed bridge being thrown across the high-banked river. At the end of the latter day fever laid hold of me, and left me with just enough energy doggedly to carry on.
TUESDAY, 29 AUGUST 1916
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky almost takes part in the Brusilov offensive
The incident that put his life at stake and gave him what was perhaps his worst experience during all his years at the front began as a silly joke. The news reached them some time on Monday that Romania, after a year of devious vacillation, had joined the Allies and declared war on the Central Powers. It seemed to be good newsppp and some of the men in the company Lobanov-Rostovsky had been sent to support could not resist the temptation to rub the Germans’ noses in it: they put up a large sign, in German, informing their opponents in the trenches opposite of the Romanian decision.
At first the Germans do not seem to react at all. Everything is still quiet when Lobanov-Rostovsky returns to his post in the forward line at nightfall. It is actually quieter than usual. No rattling of machine guns and for once the night sky is not lit up by the cascades of green, red and white sparks from signal rockets.
In spite of the calm, or perhaps because of it, he feels nervous. He reaches for the field telephone, rings the command post and asks what the time is. The answer is “23:55.”
Five minutes later it starts. German punctuality.
The prevailing calm has not actually been an illusion. He and the rest of the Guards division are stationed on the Stokhod river, where the front line stabilised after the Russian army’s notably successful summer offensive—an offensive which has been named after the man who planned and led it, the intelligent and unorthodox Alexei Brusilov. The offensive started at the beginning of June and has been going on in stages throughout the whole summer. The results have been amazing. The Russian forces have not only taken territory on a scale unequalled since the autumn of 1914 (some units are now back in the Carpathians and posing a direct threat to Hungary) but they have also inflicted such losses on the Austro-Hungarian army that it is on the point of collapse.
What Brusilov and his southern army group have achieved should not really have been possible: without any great superiority in terms of numbers or firepower they have successfully carried out a rapid offensive against an enemy who was well entrenched.qqq
Two paradoxes explain why most offensives end in failure and why the fronts so often become static. The first is this: in order to succeed, offensives need both thorough preparation and the element of surprise. But one excludes the other. An attacker who makes all the preparations considered necessary will inevitably be discovered and the surprise element comes to nothing. If surprise is prioritised, however, it is necessary to forget about careful preparation. The second paradox is this: in order to succeed, offensives need both weight and mobility. Weight—above all in the form of thousands of artillery pieces, many of them heavy, some extremely heavy—is needed to blast a way through the enemy’s defensive lines. Mobility is needed to be able to exploit the gap thus created before the defender has time to react and plug it with reserves or new, hastily excavated lines of defence.
But in this case, too, it is only possible to have the one at the expense of the other. If an army has as many cannon, howitzers, mortars and so on as are necessary to achieve a breakthrough, it will become so slow that it is unable to convert the breakthrough into anything more than a salient filled with corpses and shell craters. And then the enemy reserves are brought up and everything can start from the beginning again. If, however, an army is sufficiently mobile to exploit a breakthrough quickly, it is unlikely to have the weight to break through in the first place. These (rather than any particular imbecility on the part of generals) are the main reasons for this drawn-out war of position.rrr
Brusilov’s model was brilliant in its simplicity. It relied primarily on surprise, but that was to be achieved without the massive assemblage of men and materiel; nor did he need that kind of preparation since—the second point—he was not aiming for huge superiority in just one small sector (as had recently been the case with Evert’s earlier Russian offensive in March) but was attacking at a series of points along the whole of the southern front. This meant that the German and Austro-Hungarian generals did not know where to send their reserves and the result was that the attacking forces for once came out on top.sss
The place on the Stokhod river where Lobanov-Rostovsky is currently located is precisely the point at which the Brusilov offensive ran out of steam and chugged to a halt because of massive German reinforcements and equally overwhelming Russian losses. There were also logistical problems in that the Russian attackers were moving ever further from their railway network whereas the defenders were being pushed ever closer to their own. There was a long series of attacks and counterattacks in the region but things have now been quiet around the Stokhod for some time. Neither side has the strength to do much: the summer of 1916 in the east, just as in the west, has seen more blood spilled than anyone could have imagined.
The last few months have been relatively peaceful for Lobanov-Rostovsky. We can perhaps see evidence of his not notably soldierly disposition in the fact that he has been transferred from the sappers to a posting that involves even less combat: he is in command of a column of bridge-builders, which consists of eighty men, sixty horses and a number of unwieldy pontoons, and they have marched in the rear of the army the whole time, along with the artillery. But even from that position he has noticed two things. Firstly, the ability of the Russian army has really improved, particularly in Brusilov’s army group; thus, for example, Russian trenches are much better built now than they were in Poland just a year ago, and camouflage skills are outstanding. Secondly, many of the Russian units are in very good shape: he has seen them march past “singing and in good order.” He has also observed that the units are at full strength, though the officers are boyishly young, the fresh products of the cadet schools. Most of the veterans of 1914 are gone—dead, missing, in hospital or invalided home.
Lobanov-Rostovsky has, for once, been sent up to the front, where he has been put in temporary command of a couple of searchlights, the usual officer in command having had a nervous breakdown after six weeks in the forward line. Along with their generators, these searchlights have been dug in as far forward as possible and the idea is that they will be switched on if the Germans try to make a surprise attack by night. The infantrymen under his command think this is a stupid idea and they tell him openly that they do not want him and his searchlights there. Searchlights attract fire. But orders are orders.
The searchlights, however, have not been put to use and Lobanov-Rostovsky, true to his character, has been able to spend most of his time with his books. In the slightly touching way of bookish people, who always try to read their way to an understanding of the great and incomprehensible events that are affecting them, he has been spending a good many hours studying various German military theorists and war historians such as Theodor von Bernhardi and Colmar von der Goltz, as well as Carl von Clausewitz, the dark master himself.
Well, now. That rather childish sign triumphantly announcing Romania’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies—a direct result, by the way, of the great and unexpected successes of the Brusilov offensive—sparks off an equally petulant reaction on the part of the Germans. On the stroke of midnight a raging firestorm is unleashed on the trench where the sign was put up and the German artillery plays every instrument in its orchestra in unison with the unpleasant accuracy it alone is capable of: the shrieking falsetto of the light field guns, the bass of the howitzers and the baritone of the mortars.
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky finds himself right in the middle of this whirling storm of steel, dust and explosive gases. He and some of his men squeeze into an improvised bunker and, as if afflicted by cramp, he still has the field telephone jammed against his ear. There is a short break between explosions and he hears fragments of a conversation: “Ninth Company reporting. Fifteen dead so far. Otherwise all right.” Then a fresh salvo crashes down, this time very close. Everything shakes. Dust. Noise. The telephone falls silent. Light filters in through a newly blown hole in the roof. To be caught under drum fire is a new experience for him.
It is impossible to convey the sensation in words, but anyone who has been through such an experience knows what I mean. Perhaps the nearest description would be a continuous and violent earthquake together with thunder and lightning while some foolish giant amused himself by taking hundreds of flash-lights. I lay in my hole amidst the thundering and roaring, trying painfully to think and to do the right thing.
He endures the same experience that has already been suffered by millions of soldiers when they make their real debut in the trenches: the visible world shrinks and very little can be seen, but the senses of smell and hearing are drastically amplified. The noise, in particular, becomes overwhelming and deafening. Two thoughts shine through the dark confusion of his mind. “The one: If anything happens to me, what a pity I didn’t have time to finish that book of Clausewitz! The other: I am being watched by my soldiers, so I must conceal my fear.”
After a while in this cauldron of chaos Lobanov-Rostovsky loses all sense of time. At one point he feels—not hears, not sees—feels that something is coming, and before his senses manage to register any more than that, a salvo of 15cm shells lands in a circle around him. When he comes to, unhurt but covered in earth, one of the NCOs lying alongside him says that the searchlight has been hit and smashed to pieces. The shells continue to fall from the dark sky in an unbroken stream.
Suddenly everything is dark and still.
And then silence: “The change was so sudden that the transition was physically painful.”
It is three o’clock on the dot. German punctuality.
Now that the attack is over Lobanov-Rostovsky starts to tremble violently. He shakes so much that his whole body is covered in sweat.
Nothing more happens that night.
SATURDAY, 16 SEPTEMBER 1916
Michel Corday is working late at the ministry in Paris
Early autumn, with high, clear skies. As usual, the newspapers are annoying him. The front page is dominated by bold headlines announcing new Allied victories and it is only on the third page that he encounters a negative item: there is a three-line reference to the continued retreat of the Romanian army.
No trace of anything else. Corday has just read a letter written by a colonel and telling of an appalling event that happened recently at Verdun—yes, that battle is still going on, though with rather less intensity. (French troops attacked Douaumont a week ago and took some trenches. Two days ago German units mounted a counter-attack. Also, on the Somme, after being dormant for a time the battle has hotted up again: yesterday they used a completely new war machine for the first time—some kind of motorised vehicle, armed with a cannon and machine gun, protected by armour plating and running on caterpillar tracks.)ttt The colonel’s letter tells of a disused railway tunnel at Tavannes which the troops have been using for a long time as a bunker, cantonment and ammunition store. This blocked-off tunnel was always packed with people, either soldiers who have become separated from their units or men seeking shelter from the continuous shelling. On the night of 5 September one of the ammunition dumps exploded and between 500 and 700 soldiers died in the resulting fire. There has not been a single word about this in the papers. (Nor was the disaster reported to the leading politicians.)
Censorship is strict and its regulations wide, convoluted and inscrutable.uuu The newspapers often contain white spaces where articles have been removed at the last minute. In other cases it is a matter of semantic manipulation—sometimes bordering on the ridiculous. Writers who use the expression “after the peace” are urged to write “in the post-war period.” A colleague he knows, who works in a neighbouring department, has just managed to convince the papers to stop using the words “horse competitions” and to use instead the phrase “equine selection tests.” “We are saved!” Corday snorts.
But it is not really the censorship or language regulations that Corday finds most upsetting, it is the fact that journalists are so willing to allow themselves to be turned into megaphones for nationalistic politicians and blinkered military men. Corday writes in his journal:
The French press has never revealed the truth, not even whatever truth is attainable under censorship. Instead we have been subjected to a heavy bombardment of fine-sounding prattle, of limitless optimism, of a systematic vilification of the enemy, of a determination to hide the horrors and sorrows of the war—and all this has then been concealed behind a mask of moralising idealism!
Words are one of the war’s most vital strategic resources.
In the afternoon Corday walks to his office in the ministry. Along the boulevard he encounters numerous bemedalled, wounded officers on leave: “They seem to have come here specially in order to receive their reward in the form of admiring glances.” He passes the queues outside grocers’ shops. A fairly important propaganda point so far has been that the Germans are suffering shortages of all kinds of goods whereas everything is available in France, but shortages have now begun to be felt here. Sugar is difficult to get hold of, butter is sold only in 100-gram rations and there are no longer any oranges in the shops. The city scene does, however, have one new element—the nouveaux riches, or NR, as they are sometimes known. They are black marketeers, war profiteers and others who have made big money out of contracts with the military or as a result of the shortages and the like. NR are a permanent feature of all the restaurants, where they are often to be seen eating the most expensive items and drinking the finest wines. Women’s fashions are extravagant and ostentatious and the jewellers have rarely done better business. The war is talked about less than ever, at least among the lower classes.
Michel Corday is working late this evening. He and a colleague from the Ministry of Education work long and hard on a report for the Committee on Inventions. It is almost two o’clock in the morning by the time they finish.
A DAY IN LATE SEPTEMBER 1916
Pál Kelemen goes to a railway restaurant in Sátoraljaújhely
Having more or less recovered from malaria and feeling well rested after his long convalescence (which has included both going to church and indulging in drinking sessions), Kelemen has once again been given light duties. Today he is on his way back from the Carpathian front, where he was making a delivery with packhorses close to Uzok. A captain of infantry in Uzok has given him his first real leave for a year and a half—in discreet exchange for a pair of new and very smart riding boots. Kelemen’s destination is Budapest, and he is in the best of humours.
He has to change trains in Sátoraljaújhely and while waiting there he spends his time in the railway restaurant. It is full of passengers, old and young, women and men, civilian and military, “in disorderly confusion around tables covered with discolored cloths.” His eye falls on a young, highly decorated ensign with the face of a boy:
Seated at the head of one table, he is calmly eating a wedge of yellow, cream layer cake that lies on its side on his plate. His eyes move constantly about the hall but the gaze is blank and tired and returns each time to the slice of cake he is consuming with obvious pleasure. He wears a shabby general issue field uniform with both the large and the small silver medals on his breast. Probably returning from furlough on his way back to the trenches.
The lively picture of the restaurant is changing from moment to moment. But he sits there beside the wall, as if there were no confusion around him, concerned only with his own pent up thoughts—and the second piece of cake that is rapidly diminishing on his plate.
He takes a draught of water and helps himself to a third wedge from the pedestaled glass stand where the richly iced cake is set out, invitingly cut into portions. He is no longer eating because it tastes good. He is trying to store up in himself for the coming hard times, delicacies typical of home.
SATURDAY, 23 SEPTEMBER 1916vvv
Paolo Monelli communes with a dead man on Monte Cauriol
By this point they have been on many dreadful mountains, but this one promises to be the worst of the lot. They stormed and took Monte Cauriol about a month ago—a feat in itself, since the mountain is high and the Austro-Hungarian position was a strong one. Since then things have gone as they often do: after all the effort and losses involved they had insufficient strength to continue. The enemy brought up fresh troops and began a counter-attack—for no other reason than that this essentially meaningless spot was beginning to feature in communiqués and newspaper reports and was thus transformed into a trophy to be won or to be defended.
Monelli’s company have beaten back several counter-attacks. There are dead Austrians hanging on the barbed wire. But the Italian losses, too, have been very high. They are under almost continuous fire and artillery bombardment from the surrounding mountains. Monelli notes that practically no one is left from the original platoon. The stench of decomposing bodies hangs in the air day and night. There are twenty or more dead men rotting away in a crevice very close to them, one of whom is an Austrian medical officer. The body is lying in such a way that Monelli can follow the slow process of decay: yesterday the nose burst and some sort of green fluid began to seep out. Strangely, however, the corpse’s eyes remain almost unchanged and Monelli thinks they are staring accusingly at him. He writes in his journal:
It wasn’t me who killed you—and you were a doctor, so why did you go and take part in that nocturnal attack? You had a loving fiancée who wrote you letters, perhaps untruthful, but so comforting, and you kept them in your wallet. Rech took the wallet from you on the night they killed you. We’ve also seen her picture (a pretty girl—and someone made indecent comments) and photos of your castle and all the cherished possessions you had there. We piled everything in a little heap and sat around, ensconced in our bunker with a bottle of wine as reward for our toils and happy to have beaten off the attack. It wasn’t long ago that you died. You are already nothing, nothing more than a grey lump crumpled against the cliff, destined to stink. And we are so alive, ensign, so inhumanly alive that I’ve tried in vain to find a touch of regret in the depths of our consciousness. What good has it done you to have looked at the world with such avidity, to have held her young body in your arms, to have gone to war as if it were a vocation? Perhaps you too were intoxicated by the great mission, by your place in the advance guard, by the fact that perhaps you were fated to sacrifice yourself? But dying for whom? The living who are in such a hurry, the living who have become used to war as the fierce rhythm of life, the living who do not believe that they themselves will need to die—they are no longer thinking of you. It is as though your death has not only ended your life but annulled it. You will still exist for a little while as a number on the sergeant’s muster-roll, a pathetic subject for memorial speeches; but you, man, you do not exist and it’s as if you never had existed. We call them dead men, but what’s lying there is actually no more than carbon and hydrogen sulphide, covered in ragged shreds of uniform.
The stench of the corpses in the crevice has become more and more distressing and when darkness falls four soldiers are given the job of dragging away the bodies. They are given a glass of brandy each and gas masks against the smell.
TUESDAY, 26 SEPTEMBER 1916
Vincenzo D’Aquila is discharged from the mental hospital in Siena
It is exactly twelve o’clock. He is down in the inner courtyard with several other patients when the telephone call comes. One of the male nurses waves him over, tells him he is to report to the hospital superintendent’s office and adds: “Say goodbye to your buddies, Corporal, you’re leaving us.” D’Aquila calls to his brothers in misfortune, they say their goodbyes and wish each other well, and he is suddenly afflicted by contradictory emotions, “sadness over leaving the boys—gladness to be in the free air again.” After changing into his uniform and collecting his possessions he goes over to the administration building, finds the superintendent’s office and knocks on the door.
It is in Siena that D’Aquila has begun to return to life. He still believes it is necessary to stop the war and that war is unjust and wrong, but he now recognises that it is going to be difficult to take on such a colossal task while shut behind bars in a mental hospital. He has worked in the hospital laundry, hung up sheets and folded endless numbers of pillowcases. He wants to be set free and declared of sound mind, and he will not actually admit he has been mad. The doctors have countered that by saying that if he has not been mad they are in no position to say now that he has recovered. In answer to a direct question, D’Aquila told them that he has no intention of ever going back to the front.
There are doctors who suspect D’Aquila of bluffing, of simulating mental illness, and there have been attempts to show him to be a malingerer. The business of sorting the malingerers from the genuinely afflicted is one of the main functions of the staff. Not that all the staff are equally zealous in this respect and D’Aquila has actually seen some of them helping patients to simulate their symptoms. They have warned them when the doctors are coming and they have smuggled food to those who are officially refusing to eat. D’Aquila himself is convinced that a high proportion of the mental patients he meets are malingerers and, without any sense of self-contradiction, he views them with a degree of scepticism that borders on scorn. At the same time, however, there are some people who suspect he is doing just that, especially since he has been heard to say things such as, “While the war is going on a mental hospital is better than a trench.” When not folding pillowcases or walking in the yard he has joined in with the other inmates, reading newspapers and magazines, playing cards and dominoes, and—with an earnestness that exceeds their knowledge—having endless discussions about the war situation and what can be expected next.
In August D’Aquila led a short-lived hunger strike against the monotony of their food: rice soup, for instance, was a permanent item on the menu. The result was a threatening dressing-down from the superintendent and three days’ solitary in a padded cell, and since then the superintendent has him marked down as a malingerer. Discharging the young man as having recovered is probably seen both as a way of getting rid of a troublemaker at the same time as punishing him: D’Aquila will now have to return to active service and if he refuses he will de facto be classed as a deserter.
The door opens and D’Aquila is received not by the superintendent but by one of the doctors, a little professor by the name of Grassi. The doctor shakes his hand and congratulates him on being discharged.
D’Aquila leaves Siena that day and travels to Rome. His journey takes him via Florence, where he has a few hours to wait for a connecting train. He walks out into the town but comes to an abrupt halt, amazed and angry, on the beautiful Piazza della Signoria. With a sudden and resounding crash his different worlds collide. There is no sign here of the questions and torments that have been occupying him for the last year and which quite literally drove him out of his mind. There is nothing here that even suggests that a war is going on. People are drinking coffee, eating ice cream and flirting. In one part of the piazza there is an orchestra playing Viennese waltzes.
SUNDAY, 15 OCTOBER 1916
Alfred Pollard finds traces of the summer’s battles on the Somme
The darkness of autumn. Cold. Damp. A full moon. Tonight Alfred Pollard is out scouting in no-man’s-land again. He is on the Somme. Face blackened with burnt cork and revolver in hand, he is creeping forward through an endless series of shell holes:
I had not proceeded very far before I felt something yield and scrunch under me. It was the skeleton of a corpse, its bones picked clean by the army of rats which scavenged the battlefields.www The rags of a tunic still covered its nakedness. I felt in the pockets to try to discover some means of identification, but they were empty. Someone had been before me. Further on I found another; then another and another. They were the bodies of those slain in the terrible fighting at the beginning of July. All were British.
Angus Buchanan writes in his diary on the same day:
Seven German askaris gave themselves up overnight. They report food scarce, and also that numbers of natives are deserting and going off west through the bush, their purpose to try to find their way back to their homes. They also say, as we have heard before, that the German carriers are partially bound when in camp, so they cannot run away in the night, if they wanted to escape.
THE MIDDLE OF OCTOBER 1916
Florence Farmborough loses her hair
Florence has been suffering from paratyphoid fever. One night a few weeks ago when her fever was at its worst Florence thought she had three faces: one was her own, one belonged to one of her sisters and the third seemed to be that of a wounded soldier. Sweat poured from each of them and they had to be wiped all the time. She knew she would die if the wiping ceased. She tried to shout for a nurse but found that she no longer had a voice. She is now convalescing in the warm autumn sun in the Crimea. The hospital in which she is being cared for is actually a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers but she has been allowed to stay there anyway. Everything is still green outside and she has made an unexpectedly quick recovery. She writes in her journal:
My hair was in bad condition and coming out in handfuls. So, one day, the barber came to my room and not only cut my hair, but shaved my head! I was assured I should never regret it, and that it would grow again stronger and thicker than it had ever been before. From that time, I wore my nurse’s veil round my head and no one—save the few initiated—could ever guess that the veil covered a bald pate—devoid of even a single hair!
Michel Corday notes in his journal during this period:
Albert J., currently on leave, mentions how much the soldiers hate Poincaré, a hatred based on the idea that he was the one who started the war. He points out that what makes the men take part in attacks is the fear of appearing cowardly to the others. He also says—with a laugh—that he is thinking of getting married since that will give him the right to four days’ leave and a further three days when a child is born. Also, that he hopes to get the certificate exempting him from military service once he has produced six little ones.
THURSDAY, 19 OCTOBER 1916
Angus Buchanan is confined to bed in Kisaki
The bed on which he is lying is made of grass and even though he is now feeling much better than he has felt for the last few days he is still very weak. Dysentery. Everyone knows the symptoms: stomach pains, a high temperature, painful and bloody bouts of diarrhoea. Buchanan has managed to remain one of the healthy ones for a long time but in the long run it was inevitable that he too would be afflicted.
The campaign with all its weary traipsing about has continued. In what has increasingly taken on the character of a pure guerrilla war, the enemy has been pushed away from the Pangani river towards the interior of German East Africa and Buchanan and his companions have been chasing them southwards through the bush. Sometimes they have passed through inhabited regions, in which case supplies have temporarily improved as they have been able to barter goods with the local population.xxx On one occasion Buchanan managed to exchange an old shirt and waistcoat for two hens and half a dozen eggs.
They have had some successes, however. On the Lukigura river at the end of June they succeeded for once in engaging the usually elusive German units in a real battle. In spite of being in a pretty poor state the 25th Royal Fusiliers gave a good account of themselves again, firstly by making a rapid flanking march and then by putting their enemy to flight with a bold bayonet charge. The important town of Morogoto, located on the central railway, was taken at the end of August, though only after significant losses and some exhausting and sometimes completely pointless marches through very difficult terrain that ranged from the hilly to the waterlogged and marshy. Dar es-Salaam, the biggest and most important harbour in the colony, has been in British hands since the beginning of September. As Buchanan’s division marched south, the Germans continued to retreat, step by step, and with repeated skirmishing.
Everything came to a halt at the end of September after further costly and unsuccessful efforts to get to grips with an enemy who somehow always managed to slip away. By then the supply lines were too extended, the supplies too few and the men too exhausted. Buchanan’s company is a pitiful sight. Most of the men are emaciated, many of them have no clothes above the waist and lack socks in their boots. News seldom reaches them and letters from home sometimes take six months to arrive. They have only a very vague picture of what is happening in the war.
Earlier this autumn Buchanan caught malaria but has since recovered; then came the dysentery. To keep him company he has the hen with the white comb that he decided to keep. The hen has become very tame and is now a pet. During the marches she travels in a bucket carried by an African servant and when they make camp she runs around free, scratching for food. In some strange way she always finds her way back to him through the forest of feet and hooves, and she lays him an egg every day. On one occasion he saw her kill and eat a small poisonous snake. At night she sleeps beside him.
Buchanan is lying on his bed of grass writing his journal. He is ill and depressed, not least by their lack of tangible success:
Feeling better today and cheerier, but I wish, since I’ve lost patience, that we could get along with “the Show,” and then be quit of Africa for a time, for I have a passionate desire that we should be free to change, just for a little, the colour and the quality of a long familiar picture whose strange characteristics are now indelible. Sometimes, I’m afraid, I feel as if I was in prison, and long for the freedom of the life beyond these prison walls. Those are times when thoughts quickly fly in and out of the old scenes—dear old familiar scenes—and they are touched now with a deep and sure appreciation. Would that they could stay; would that, by the strength of their willingness, they could lift me in body over the vast space and set me in some fair peaceful land.
That same day Paolo Monelli is listening anxiously to the sound of the preparatory bombardment by the Italian artillery, which is hammering away at Monte Cauriol, where the fighting is still going on. He writes in his journal:
The sky is overcast, grey and low. Mist is rising from the valley and cutting off the two peaks, ours and the one we are to attack. If we are going to die, we shall die cut off from the world and with a sense that no one is really interested. Once one is resigned to the thought of sacrificing oneself, one would like to think that it might happen in front of an audience. To die in the sun, in full view, on the open stage that is the world—that is how one imagines dying for one’s country: but the way it is here is more like a condemned man being strangled secretly.
SUNDAY, 29 OCTOBER 1916
Richard Stumpf finds life monotonous on board SMS Helgoland
He wonders which is worse—the permanent clouds of blue tobacco smoke that fill their quarters below decks or the ubiquitous coal dust “that seeps into our guts the whole time.” Stumpf is as gloomy as the day itself. He recalls the expectations he had when he enlisted almost exactly four years earlier and he is plagued by the contrast with how things are now. The emotional surge that followed the great Battle of Jutland has faded away. They are back to the old, grey routines—grey as the battleships themselves: short, uneventful patrols along the coast interspersed with long periods in port. The High Seas Fleet, if anything, is behaving even more shyly and cautiously than before. His “iron prison,” SMS Helgoland, is once again lying at her moorings, this time waiting for a broken cylinder in the port engine to be repaired.
The tobacco smoke drives Stumpf up on deck yet again: “These stinking bloody pipes! They make me feel ill and they ruin my appetite. I’m only too glad to hear that the price of tobacco in the canteen has gone up.”yyy The smoke bothers him and the monotony bores him. And he has few friends on board. The other sailors find him strange, both because of his intellectual interests and because he spends all his time writing. There are no outlets for Stumpf’s energies here, nothing for him to get his teeth into mentally or physically; and at the moment he has nothing to read, though he has ordered some books from Berlin.
It looks like being another wasted day for Richard Stumpf. In the early afternoon, however, the whole crew is called up on deck to welcome the arrival home of a U-boat returning from patrol. Stumpf watches the crews on nearby ships begin to cheer and throw their caps in the air. There she comes—the slim hull of U-53. The whole of the U-boat crew is lined up on the deck: “They are wearing oilskins and their faces are beaming with joy.”zzz
Stumpf is envious of these radiant submariners and wishes he could be one of them. At the same time he longs for the war to be over soon; as usual, his emotions are divided:
Did we really have such a good life in peacetime? Even if it might seem as if we did, we weren’t really satisfied. I remember that many of us hoped for war so that things would get better for us. Whenever I remember how we used to worry about getting a job, about pay disputes and the length of the working day, it makes the thought of peace less attractive. But at the moment it seems like paradise, a time when we could buy all the bread, all the sausage, all the clothes we wanted. Not that that was much help to all the poor buggers with no money to buy anything! Perhaps the real crisis will come when we are all lucky enough to be at peace again.
SATURDAY, 16 DECEMBER 1916
Angus Buchanan sees reinforcements arrive in Kisaki
It is a period of recovery—for everyone. Angus Buchanan has recovered from his dysentery and his battalion, or what remains of it, has recovered from the hardships of the autumn. In a very short time both Angus and the battalion have regained surprising levels of energy. Buchanan himself has continued collecting birds, has been off on a lengthy reconnaissance mission beyond the Mgeta river and, in spite of a touch of malaria, bagged his first two elephants—a young bull followed immediately by a large cow elephant. Meanwhile the troops have been working hard preparing the route for their continued advance through enemy territory, felling numerous trees and building several bridges over the Mgeta. At Kirenwe they have also cut a wide road through the primeval forest.
Today their spirits were lifted even further by the arrival of a column of about 150 men, a welcome reinforcement for the weakened battalion. At their head is a man wearing a big soft hat and armed with a hunting rifle—it is Buchanan’s old company commander, Frederick Courteney Selous. He is now sixty-five years old. Just a few months ago Selous had been so ill that he was sent home to Great Britain and no one expected to see him again. Now, however, he looks to be in extraordinarily good shape and Buchanan and his companions are happy and impressed. “How fine an example of loyalty he gave, in thus, at his great age, returning again to the front to fight his country’s battles.” Selous is doubly welcome since he can tell them how things are going at home and what is happening in the war in general.
Later, when the day begins to cool and the shadows lengthen, they discuss this and that. Selous talks about his large collection of butterflies, which he took back to Great Britain, and Buchanan tells him about the elephant hunt. Meanwhile the black bearers in Buchanan’s machine-gun platoon build a grass hut for the man they call Bwana M’Kubwa, the big boss. In a few days they will all be moving south-east towards the Rufiji river, where the enemy is said to be entrenched. There is a new sense of expectancy in the air.
SATURDAY, 30 DECEMBER 1916
Alfred Pollard writes a letter to his mother
It has been a good year for Sergeant Alfred Pollard DCM. The successful fighting around the crater in Sanctuary Wood in September 1915, during which he was wounded, resulted in the Distinguished Conduct Medal, which he is very pleased with, though in his heart of hearts he is a touch disappointed since he had hoped for the Victoria Cross.
After a period in hospital in England and while waiting to be declared fit for active service, he spent his time going to the theatre and to music halls (all free for wounded soldiers), attending parties, practising his grenade-throwing technique in his mother’s garden and writing an application for officer training, which was successful. He has been back in France since May and has been given responsibility for training the battalion in hand-grenade combat. He has also returned to his old habit of making nocturnal trips into no-man’s-land.
The only thing to have upset Pollard was the news that his older brother had been killed at the end of the summer. At that point—out of concern for his mother, who only has one child left now—he considered applying for a less exposed posting. But he soon dismissed the idea and decided instead to avenge his sibling from that day on: “Rather would I do my utmost to kill as many [Germans] as possible.” He celebrated Christmas at a French château behind the lines, where he was once again instructing soldiers in where, how and when to use hand grenades. He has been given a new nickname—Bombo.
Today he is writing to his mother:
I hear you have not been very well. I hope you are all right again now. The post is absolutely up the stick, probably owing to Christmas. I have received the footer clothes and the uniform and Perk’s cake; all very acceptable. I am at present at the school as I told you and intended to remain here, but really, mater, internal inspiration tells me I must go back up the line when the battalion go. I don’t suppose that will be until nearly the end of January so don’t start worrying, but I feel it’s up to me to go with them. I have sent in my resignation but may be retained until the end of the course. Anyhow, you might wash out addressing me to the school and continue addressing me to the battalion. I am very sorry, mater, but I know you will understand.
I have had some splendid riding lately. Yesterday afternoon I rode into a town about seven miles away. Coming back we had a three mile gallop without a check. Rather splendid! There were two rows of trees by the side of the road with soft earth between them.
Two weeks later the battalion marches back to the front and Pollard is with them. Is there some sort of death wish in this? Probably not. He is carrying a new mascot in his pocket—a small china doll with a lilac ribbon round its waist and an angelic expression painted on its face. It is a gift from the sister of Mary, the woman who turned down his marriage proposal so firmly.aaaa Pollard has christened the doll Billiken and he always carries it with him from now on.
* Cheroots were popular at the time, particularly among white men in tropical countries, since smoking them was thought to provide some degree of protection against a number of tropical diseases. (A Burmese cheroot usually contained rather light tobacco.) It might perhaps be worth mentioning that the cigarette made something of a breakthrough during the years of the First World War. Both the previously dominant cigar and the cigarette, as well as the intermediate cheroot, had an obvious advantage over the pipe in that they allowed the user to have both hands free.
† Sniping was often encouraged, or even demanded, by those in command as a way of sustaining tension on the front, where calm conditions could lead to a spontaneous outbreak of peaceful restraint or—worse—out-and-out fraternisation between friend and foe.
‡ Just a few weeks earlier over 400,000 men had no weapons of their own.
§ Although at this stage, no one had any accurate idea of overall losses, not least because the Russian army was notoriously bad at keeping reliable statistics about its casualties. This defect was inherited by the Red Army.
‖ Those in the know were aware that the Allied powers—Great Britain, France, Italy and Russia—had decided to introduce synchronised attacks and advances in 1916. The idea was to make it more difficult for the Central Powers to use the transport advantages of their geographical position to move reserves easily to areas under threat.
a The prohibition applied to both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. I have been unable to ascertain the reasoning behind it.
b He also realised—or feared—that he would be stopped if he tried to go west or to Constantinople.
c Dubbed Goltz Pasha by the Turks.
d One of Halil’s first actions as new commander was to order a regrouping of the Turkish forces that were aiming to prevent the British relief force reaching the men besieged in Kut. The regrouping was notably ill conceived and left one flank of the Turkish line exposed, a weakness the British recognised and immediately mounted an attack to exploit. The result was the Battle of Hanna on 13 January, which would probably have been won by the British had it not been for faulty reconnaissance. Halil’s manoeuvre eventually proved successful: the honour for the victory at Kut al-Amara fell to him and to immortalise the fact he added Kut to his name. He survived until 1957 as the “Hero of Kut,” a celebrated, if not necessarily deserving, Turkish military hero.
e And at Kut, although he never lived to see it. He died two months later, a fortnight before the siege there was broken, officially carried off by typhus, although there were a number of rumours, never substantiated, that he was poisoned by Turkish officers.
f A German army corps needed only 457 wagons for its transport in 1871 whereas in 1914 it needed no fewer than 1,168—an increase of over 250 per cent. All these extra wagons had to be pulled by horses, and the extra horses needed fodder, which also needed to be transported. Weight for weight, a horse eats ten times as much as a man, which in turn demands more wagons and more horses to pull them, and so on. A contemporary headcount suggests that there was one horse for every three men. About eight million horses died in the war, which means that the horse population suffered proportionately greater losses than the human one.
g Chlorodyne, primarily intended for the treatment of cholera, was invented by a British army doctor in India and was much copied by competitors. It was very popular at the time, though the concoction was highly addictive and could even lead to death if taken in immoderate doses. It was eventually discontinued in its original composition—to the great sorrow of its many enthusiasts. Chlorodyne offers a good example of how the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were one of the most liberal periods in history where drug abuse was concerned; those involved would not, of course, have thought of it in that way.
h She puts the word in quotation marks in her diary.
i It is not particularly surprising that Persia was drawn into the war. Even before 1914 this weak and unstable state had been a playground for Russian and British imperialists, who had in practice divided the country into spheres of interest. The outbreak of war made the whole situation even worse. After just a few months British troops occupied an important centre for oil production on the Persian coast and the Germans countered with a vigorous propaganda campaign and an intensification of espionage activities. When the Persian gendarmerie, trained and led by Swedish officers, placed itself under German control in November 1915, Russian troops immediately invaded the country.
j Until September 1915, when he was dismissed as a result of various court intrigues, Grand Duke Nicolai Nicolaevich—an unusually tall man—was the head of Stavka, the supreme command of the Russian army. Following his dismissal, the position was taken over by Tsar Nicholas II, a military dilettante. The Grand Duke was then transferred to the Caucasus front, where, thanks to the good planning of his subordinates, which he was happy to go along with, and to his own ability to summon reinforcements, the Russians were now fighting a successful campaign against the Turks.
k A number of people have been trying to gain Macnaughtan’s support for the Armenian refugees who are currently pouring into this part of the Caucasus. There is much talk of last year’s massacres and, having spoken personally to a number of eyewitnesses and survivors, she is in no doubt about the scale and brutality of the events. But she has a distaste for the Armenians—“an odious set of people”—and prefers to work with the Russian army at the front.
l Cattaro was the Italian name—it is now called Kotor and is in Montenegro. Fiume was the Italian name of what is now Rijeka in Croatia. It is worth mentioning that Fiume, formally speaking, was Hungarian territory, not Austrian, and had been a semi-autonomous corpus separatum since the eighteenth century. Bosna Brod is now Bosanski Brod in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
m The crowds at the station are partly a result of one of the peculiarities and weaknesses at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. Different parts of the empire had their own railway systems, in terms of both rolling stock and tariffs. Both goods and passengers had to be transferred when moving from one railway system to another. In the case of Bosna Brod, the village made its living out of the fact that the gauge of the track in Bosnia was different from the gauge in Austria.
n Members of the armed forces could write home postage-free using field postcards, and their correspondents could reply without payment as long as they used the special stamps or postcards attached to them. Light parcels could also be sent free of charge.
o The main pretext was the need to knock out the radio station at Douala, which had a powerful short-wave transmitter that could be used to coordinate the small German naval units that were scattered across the ocean at this point. Ultimately, of course, it was all about improving their own colonial position.
p Just two months earlier the remaining German population had moved into the Spanish enclave of Rio Muni, where they were interned. And on this very day, 4 March 1916, Cameroon was officially divided up between the French and British after Mora, the last German outpost, surrendered, having been guaranteed favourable terms.
q “Dear Fatherland, be quite calm / The fleet is asleep in harbour.” The lines are a play on the refrain of “Die Wacht am Rhein.”
r There can be no doubt as to how risky Möwe’s activities were: only four days earlier, on 29 February 1916, another of these merchant raiders—SMS Greif—was sunk in the North Sea. The British had their own equivalent, the so-called Q-Ships, small vessels with carefully concealed armament, which were designed to ambush German U-boats.
s Her two companions.
t This consists mainly of troops from South Africa, which after some hesitation decided to side with the British Empire. (As usual, it is the thought of future territorial gains which persuaded yet another nation to choose sides in the conflict. The war in Africa, just as in the Middle East, is little more than a continuation of the imperialist competition for territory that the great European powers indulged in during the middle of the nineteenth century.) Many of the soldiers now marching side by side with the British are old Boer fighters who a decade earlier had been bitter foes of the British. The commander-in-chief of the whole operation is also an old Boer commander, the legendary Jan Smuts. War creates many strange alliances.
u In the course of the operation the main column lost 5,000 of its 7,000 mules.
v The British blockade had the paradoxical effect of forcing Germany to tighten its control of resources and to put the economy on a war footing that was much more efficient than Britain’s for a considerable time.
w Such cases existed in all the warring countries, as did the policy of isolation—for the most part, voluntarily—in closed nursing homes. In France, 9,900 men with destroyed faces formed a special veterans’ association after the war.
x Lieutenant Commander Charles Henry Cowley, who was executed immediately afterwards by his captors. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
y See Monday, 30 August 1915, this page.
z “Quando si leva che intorno si mira—tutto smarrito della grande angoscia,” from Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXIV. As has been mentioned (this page), Monelli always carried his volume of Dante.
aa Monelli continues (and personal experience permits the present author to vouch for the truth of the statement): “The press correspondent who visits the trenches does not know this [war]; the officer from the general staff who pops up to ensure that he gets a medal by being with us does not know this [war]. Once they are hungry or tired or think they have done their job, they take out their watch and say, ‘It’s late. I have to go now.’ ”
bb Garbari da Pèrgine, the officer who volunteered to lead the rearguard. Monelli felt confident that “our rear is safe for [da Pèrgine] is defending it: he asked for that dangerous task because, he said, he knew the positions well.”
cc Of the 330 infantry regiments in the French army, 259 at some stage served at Verdun.
dd The road was later christened La Voie Sacrée (Sacred Road) by Maurice Barrès, one of France’s best-known nationalist politicians and wordsmiths, and it perhaps caught on, suggests the author Ian Ousby, because it seems “to evoke the thought of Via Dolorosa, ‘the road of suffering,’ and thus compares the suffering and sacrifice of the soldiers at Verdun with Christ’s progress to crucifixion on Golgotha.”
ee Hill 321 is the point of an elevated section that starts from the ridge where the Ossuary is now located. The actual spot can be found by going about 400 metres north-west from the parking area, along what is called Le Chemin de l’Étoile. Those visiting should wear stout shoes and avoid blind alleys.
ff And would continue to be. During the war more Belgian pilots died in crashes than in battle.
gg Maurice Farman and Henri Farman were two very similar types of aeroplane, both having the engine and propeller behind the pilot.
hh Lili Evrard was, however, killed in another accident that summer.
ii There were even pilots who went without goggles: eyes get used to the wind after a while and the tears stop flowing. And the speed was not that great. In some aeroplanes with the propeller behind the pilot (such as the Farman just referred to), it was perfectly possible to take to the air wearing a uniform cap without it flying off in the wind.
jj Although Buchanan might be thought guilty of exaggeration here, since a regiment commonly comprised 3,000–5,000 men, the claim of some historians that for every man lost in battle during this campaign a further thirty were killed or incapacitated by disease lends credence to his assertion.
kk Swahili mgunga: Acacia polyacantha ssp. polyacantha—the falcon’s claw acacia or white thorn tree.
ll The word Arnaud uses in ironic quotation marks is descendu.
mm Not all were killed by the enemy—both sides at Verdun lost men to their own misdirected shells. The mistakes were partly the result of human error—inaccurate aiming and the like—and partly because of mechanical failure caused by excessive use. The usual firing life of a field artillery piece was about 8,000 rounds.
nn It is worth noting that the material provided by these official communiqués, which was relied on and used constantly at the time (The Battle of Verdun by the pseudonymous Henry Dugard was, for instance, published as early as 1916), still holds historians in its clutches. For all its merits, the huge French work Les 300 Jours de Verdun, which appeared for the ninetieth anniversary of the battle in 2006, relies heavily on precisely such communiqués.
oo The German assaults were renewed immediately after Arnaud’s decimated battalion was pulled out of the battle. And Hill 321 did fall in the end.
pp Only 3,000 of these men were white and British, the rest were Indian. Any civilians in Kut al-Amara thought to have collaborated with the British (by acting as interpreters, for instance) were hanged, in some cases after being tortured.
qq Higher-ranking British officers, however, with General Townshend at their head, were being treated extraordinarily well. (Mousley writes sarcastically that Townshend travelled like a prince.) At about this time the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin was present at a remarkable dinner laid on by Halil Pasha. The guest of honour was none other than Townshend, whom Hedin had met during one of his pre-war journeys. Hedin tells us that the Englishman “was taking his fate with equanimity. The atmosphere was happy, even. It really was an occasion for forging fraternal links. Halil filled his glass, made a speech to his guest of honour, wishing him good fortune in the future. And the English general clinked glasses and thanked him for the hospitality he had received in Baghdad. Then the celebration was over and Townshend travelled home in Halil Pasha’s motor car.”
rr During the Second World War the Japanese army used the following rule of thumb to decide how long a starving man had left: “Anyone who can stand up—30 days left to live. Anyone who can sit up—20 days. Anyone who has to urinate lying down—3 days. Anyone who can no longer speak—2 days. Anyone who can no longer blink—dead by dawn.”
ss A first attempt to stop the rolling advance of the Russian divisions was made at the Dniester river and, when that failed, at the Prut river. The Russians had broken through the Austro-Hungarian positions on the Prut ten days before and the Ninth Army was able to take Czernowitz and push forward into Austrian Bukovina.
tt Since the start of the Brusilov offensive on 4 June the Russians had taken almost 200,000 prisoners of war and about 700 artillery pieces. The Austro-Hungarian defence in Galicia had effectively imploded and the Austro-Hungarian army never recovered from this catastrophic defeat.
uu “Little Sister,” a term commonly used by Russians when addressing a nurse.
vv Max Immelmann, Germany’s second most successful air ace at the time with seventeen victories (to Oswald Boelcke’s eighteen). He was the first airman to receive the Pour le Mérite, then Germany’s highest military honour, which subsequently became known as the “Blue Max” among German pilots. It remains uncertain whether he was downed by British bullets or mechanical failure.
ww Many Arabs were conscripted to uniformed but unarmed labour battalions, used, for instance, in the maintenance of roads and for digging trenches.
xx For the first attempt see 6 February 1915 (this page). The Pasha Expedition was equally unsuccessful.
yy In answer to a question as to what the Army of the Orient was actually doing, the French ex-Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is supposed to have snarled: “Digging! Let them be known in France and in Europe as ‘the Salonica gardeners.’ ” It might also be mentioned that Sarrail expended more energy poking his nose into Greek politics than in fighting against the Central Powers on the other side of the border, and that Clemenceau returned to office in 1917.
zz One of Corday’s fellow diners, Georges Feydeau, would die from syphilis before the war ended.
aaa In the Austro-Hungarian army soldiers who became infected with an STD were punished. Attempts were made to reduce the prevalence of such diseases by the old approach—control at source. (One of the first measures the Germans introduced after taking Warsaw in August 1915 required all women involved in “professional fornication” to register and undergo medical checks.) Even so, 22 per cent of the Canadian troops in France suffered from venereal disease of some kind during 1915 and 20 per cent of the Allied soldiers who visited the French capital in the summer of 1917 became infected.
bbb The same reasoning motivated a similarly disgusting trade in the coughed-up phlegm of tuberculosis sufferers.
ccc The British field marshal Lord Roberts, for instance, thought that a war was the only antidote to “the great human rottenness that is rife in our industrial cities.” Remember, too, Thomas Mann’s fine hopes in 1914 that the war would make German culture both “freer and better.” For more examples of the war as hope, promise and liberation, seeKänslornas krig by Jens Ljunggren.
ddd Interestingly enough, this might be compared with the fact that soldiers who had a breakdown as a result of their experiences at the front were frequently considered to be “hysterical,” for which reason their behaviour could be interpreted as a form of “feminisation.”
eee In June 1915 a German magazine published the story of a cinema proprietor who stood up in front of the audience during the interval and warned them that a man in uniform had just entered the establishment intending to catch his wife and her lover, whom he knew were in there somewhere. To avoid the scandal the cinema proprietor pointed out that there was a small, discreet emergency exit on the right-hand side: 320 couples immediately left the cinema in the semi-darkness.
fff To quote Frederic Manning: “In the shuddering revulsion from death one turns instinctively to love as an act which seems to affirm the completeness of being.”
ggg The words used in her journal are “mit von der Partie.”
hhh This drabness in terms of colour is another point at which the conflict failed to correspond to the pre-war expectations of various overly romantic aesthetes: the war actually turned out to be dreary in colour as well as in its everyday routines.
iii The British decision to mount an offensive on the Somme had nothing to do with the strategic importance of the region (it had none); it was launched there quite simply because this was where the British and French front lines met and the offensive was intended to be an exercise in cooperation. The main German defensive line lay where the British Guillemont Road Cemetery is now located, that is immediately outside the rebuilt village.
jjj This was not at all unusual since connecting trenches, unlike the main trenches, were not designed for fighting but to facilitate movement.
kkk The infantry carried with them an array of devices to help the artillery observers further back see the forward position of the advancing attackers. On this day, for instance, British infantrymen had small flashes of polished metal stitched on their backs—these were supposed to gleam in the sun and show where the men were. The problem was that the day was overcast and, in addition to that, the swirling clouds of smoke and dust caused by exploding shells meant that there was very little chance of actually seeing what was happening during the attack.
lll German artillery fire was, generally speaking, more lethal than that of the British and French because the Germans did not attempt the rather futile task of blasting enemy fortifications out of existence but concentrated instead on bombarding the troops as they prepared to attack and then, once an attack was under way, laying down curtains of exploding shells in no-man’s-land. In one section of his famous book Le feu Henri Barbusse has described what it is like to move through a wall of explosions of this kind.
mmm The paths of one of the forgotten and one of the most famous participants in the war almost crossed at Guillemont. On 24 August Lieutenant Ernst Jünger and his 73rd Regiment of Fusiliers were sent into action there. Jünger has described it in his superb war memoir In Stahlgewittern (The Storm of Steel). By the time of Jünger’s arrival the village had been completely obliterated: “only a whitish mark on the field of craters still showed the spot where the chalky stone of the houses had been ground to dust.” There was an all-pervasive stench of putrefaction and millions of fat blowflies filled the air. Even Jünger, normally so cool, was shaken by what he saw. “The ploughed-up battlefield was a scene of horror. The dead lay there among the living defenders. When we dug bunkers we saw how the dead lay in layers one above the other. One company after another had been mown down as they made a stand shoulder to shoulder under the drum fire; then their corpses had been buried under the tons of earth hurled up by the projectiles and new men had taken the place of the fallen.”
nnn Four days earlier the Italian army—after enormous efforts and equally enormous losses—had finally taken the Austrian town of Görz on the Isonzo and changed its name to Gorizia, the name it still bears today.
ooo This Sykes should not be confused with the British politician (and ex-soldier) Sir Mark Sykes who, together with the French diplomat François Georges-Picot, had come to a top-secret agreement (the Sykes–Picot Accord) earlier in the year. Under the accord their respective governments agreed that after the war the Ottoman Empire should be divided up and a large part of its territory would be placed under the direct control of Russia, France and Great Britain. Among other decisions, Mesopotamia would go to Britain, Lebanon to France and Armenia to Russia. A War to End All Wars, indeed. The result of all this—as we all know to our cost—has been (to borrow the title of a book by David Fromkin) A Peace to End All Peace.
ppp It was not good news. Romania’s entry into the war proved to be a burden for the Allies, particularly for Russia, which was eventually forced to send significant forces south in a costly and vain effort to help the new ally. The strength of the Romanian army was impressive—on paper—and it had undoubtedly won a degree of prestige in the two Balkan wars of 1912–13, but that turned out to be essentially unmerited. Its equipment was in short supply or antiquated; many of its soldiers were dressed in the handsome, colourful uniforms of the nineteenth century; its officer corps was weak, inexperienced and usually preoccupied with the wrong things. One of the first measures taken by the Romanian army after mobilisation was to issue an order stipulating that only officers above the rank of major had the right to wear eye-shadow in the field. The entry of Portugal into the war, which happened in March of this year, similarly failed to provide the Allies with any noticeable or measurable benefit.
qqq This operation, just like the British offensive on the Somme, ultimately came in response to a plea for help from hard-pressed allies: the French were under pressure at Verdun, the Italians at Asiago. When Brusilov agreed to the pleas of his superiors and offered to mount a general offensive, asking for no more than very modest reinforcements, some of his colleagues shook their heads in dismay. Madness, they thought: everyone knew (didn’t they?) that mounting an offensive demands massive superiority in terms of numbers, control of the air, millions of shells and so on.
rrr In reality, battles were less a competition between the trenches and machine guns of the defenders and the assault units and artillery of the attackers than a pitting of the defenders’ reserve units (which could be moved quickly to threatened sectors by train) against the slow forward push of the attackers’ advance units, whose artillery trailed behind and frequently encountered enormous problems in advancing across a landscape that it had only just (and usually very successfully) blown to pieces.
sss It helped, of course, that Brusilov was attacking the Austro-Hungarian army, which by this stage was suffering from an “almost Spanish-Hapsburg combination of serenity and incompetence” (to quote Norman Stone). There is also the fact that the railway network was considerably less developed and troop density much lower than on the Western Front. (This also explains why the war in the east was, in general, much more mobile than in the west.) Many of the Central Powers’ divisions had spent much of their time on trains, being shunted from one threatened point to another by irresolute commanders; Lobanov-Rostovsky himself had been in this situation during the previous year’s February offensive. Moreover, many of the German and Austro-Hungarian units that arrived were exhausted and well below strength after having been pulled out of the witches’ brew of Verdun or from the harsh plateau around Asiago.
ttt The name “tank” has its roots in an attempt to deceive. The project was, of course, top-secret and anyone who asked was told that these big vehicles were “water tanks” to transport water to the troops. The latter part of the description stuck.
uuu A few examples from this period. An article with the headline “We Are Not Beaten” is stopped, as is another article that reports that around 50,000 Frenchmen have been killed in the war so far. A suggestion that the Allies have most to win by prolonging the war is also banned; a report pointing to the deaths of a large number of small children during the war in Romania likewise. Any detailed discussion of German peace feelers is forbidden. Only the most extreme and nationalistic German newspapers are quoted, the aim being to suggest that these offer a picture of German opinion in general. The official British documentary film of the Battle of the Somme, which has just arrived in France, has scenes cut out—including the most famous in which a group of soldiers is seen storming out of a trench and one of them falls back dead. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that this scene was probably staged.)
vvv Or possibly a day or so earlier.
www Front-line soldiers of all nationalities felt a mixture of disgust and hatred for the trench rats because they lived on the corpses, and they lived well, growing unusually large. Two indicators of how long a body had been dead were putrefaction and rat damage. The two processes were in competition and it was often the rats that won.
xxx Money was of no interest to the local population: they already had more than enough of the worthless German emergency paper currency.
yyy Ian Gately has shown that there were increasing restrictions in Europe on tobacco smoking before 1914, but that the war undermined this change of attitude. Vast quantities of tobacco were consumed in the war years and tobacco was part of a soldier’s basic rations right from the start. British soldiers received two ounces of tobacco a week whereas the Germans were given two cigarettes or cigars a day. (The British navy received a ration double that of the army and if the same was true of the German navy it would explain why Stumpf suffered so much.) Tobacco in one form or another was a standard item in parcels sent by the aid organisations and by relations. The French soldiers’ newspaper La Baïonette, for example, in addition to expressing constant nagging concerns about shortages, published paeans to tobacco at regular intervals. The popularity of smoking was probably due to a combination of factors. The mildly narcotic effect of the nicotine, along with the fact that it gave the men something to do in stressful situations, would undoubtedly have helped calm the nerves of many. At least as important for those in command of the armies, anyway, was the fact that tobacco suppresses appetite. A third factor was that the smoke helped to mask the stench of putrefaction: it was not unknown for units in trenches particularly affected by rotting corpses to be given extra rations of tobacco.
zzz U-53 had been all the way to the United States and even docked at Rhode Island harbour (the United States was still neutral at this stage). The purpose of the voyage had been to act as escort to the enormous ocean-going merchant U-boat Bremen, which had been sent to the United States to bring back strategic raw materials. After theBremenmysteriously disappeared during her maiden Atlantic voyage, U-53 simply returned home, torpedoing five vessels on the way. The German navy had seven huge merchant U-boats of the Bremen’s class (U-151), designed to ensure the supply of vital goods. The recognition of the effectiveness of submarines during the war led Germany to construct a range of U-boats as well as the standard type: UB-boats were designed to attack in coastal waters and UC- and UE-boats were small vessels designed mainly for mine laying in coastal and ocean waters, respectively.
aaaa See 30 September 1915