And the savage in you makes you adore it with its squalor and wastefulness and danger and strife and glorious noise. You feel that, after all, this is what men were intended for rather than to sit in easy chairs with a cigarette and whiskey, the evening paper or the best-seller, and to pretend that such a veneer means civilization and that there is no barbarian behind your starched and studded shirt front.
Germany announces unrestricted U-boat warfare.
USA breaks off diplomatic relations with Germany.
German troops in France make a planned withdrawal to behind the so-called Hindenburg Line.
British forces recapture Kut al-Amara in Mesopotamia.
Food riots in Petrograd worsen and turn into a revolution.
British forces march into Baghdad.
The First Battle of Gaza. The Ottoman defenders repel the British.
USA declares war on Germany.
British offensive at Arras. Some gains.
Major French offensive at Le Chemin des Dames. Minor gains.
The Second Battle of Gaza. Ottoman defenders once again repel the British.
Mutinies in the French army. They become widespread and continue until the beginning of June.
The tenth Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. Some gains.
Russian offensive in the east. It collapses completely towards the end of the month.
Major British offensive around Ypres in Flanders. It will continue until November.
Renewed Allied offensive in East Africa.
German-Austrian offensive in Romania.
The eleventh Italian offensive on the Isonzo begins. Some gains.
German offensive around Riga. Significant gains.
Start of the joint Austro-Hungarian and German offensive at Caporetto. Major gains. A general Italian retreat.
The Battle of Beersheba in Palestine leads to a British breakthrough.
Passchendaele captured by the Canadians. The offensive runs out of steam.
The Bolsheviks take power in Petrograd following a coup.
The Italian army establishes a new line of defence along the River Piave.
The last German forces retire from East Africa into Mozambique.
Peace negotiations begin between Germany and the new Russian Bolshevik regime.
Allied troops march into Jerusalem.
THURSDAY, 4 JANUARY 1917
Angus Buchanan attends the burial of his company commander at Beho Beho
In the beginning it looks like yet another failed pincer movement. The 25th Royal Fusiliers—or, to be more accurate, the 200 men remaining of the original 1,200—have been on their feet since before dawn. They have the reputation of being the most reliable and fast moving of the British units and they have once again been sent on in advance to carry out an encirclement. Their target, and that of the main force, is the village of Beho Beho. While the other units approach the hamlet from the east, Buchanan and his companions are to move round stealthily and approach from the west, preventing the German unit known to be in the village from slipping away in its usual manner. Sunshine. A baking sky. The scent of hot foliage.
After two hours of cautious marching through the bush they reach the position in which they intend to wait for the retreating enemy. There is a small road in front of them, leading from the village. The sound of sustained gunfire hangs in the hot air: the main force has started its attack. The men of the 25th Royal Fusiliers spread out in a long, extended line, lie down in the cool cover of the shade provided by the trees and wait. The sounds of battle in the distance show no sign of easing off and after a while the men begin to feel some impatience. Is this yet another operation that has come to nothing?
That is the story of the operations in German East Africa. The British columns have moved in a series of clumsy leaps from valley to valley, slowly pushing the mobile, elusive companies of Schutztruppen southwards. They will soon be at the Rufiji river.
On paper this looks like success and most of the German colony is now in Allied hands. But this has happened only at enormous cost in terms of suffering and resources. The war has also affected this part of Africa in a way no other conflict has done. Before it is all over the British alone will have recruited a million black bearers (virtually all the stores are carried on African backs for part of the journey), one in five of whom will not survive the war.
What the Allied commanders under the leadership of Smuts have failed to understand is that von Lettow-Vorbeck, their tough, intelligent and cynical opponent, does not give a damn about the colony. Right from the start, this master of guerrilla warfare has seen it as his task to draw in as many enemy troops as possible, because every man, every gun, every bullet shipped to East Africa means one man, one gun, one bullet fewer on the Western Front. And the German has succeeded in this beyond his wildest dreams: Smuts now has five times as many soldiers as von Lettow-Vorbeck but has come nowhere near defeating the German.
A couple of excited scouts come running back in the heat. They have seen the enemy approaching along the road. Orders are given and the line of lying men rises and moves towards the road with their weapons at the ready. Buchanan is in command of two Vickers heavy machine guns and manages to get them set up in firing position. Further along the road they can see German askaris, who have just left the village. Buchanan tells the story:
On these we immediately opened machine-gun and rifle fire, surprising them completely, and inflicting severe casualties. Notwithstanding this they retaliated, gamely enough for a little, but our firing wore them down, and soon those that remained were silent, and fleeing in the bush.
Much of the new military technology had problems functioning in the African terrain and the African climate. Motor vehicles often came to a standstill, artillery got bogged down and aeroplanes failed to find their targets in the dense vegetation. The machine gun, however, proved to be as murderously effective in Africa as it was in the other theatres of war. (Those with experience from earlier colonial wars already knew this.) During fighting in the bush or in the jungle there is a tendency for rifle fire to go too high. Heavy machine guns, however, can have the same effect as scythes as they send swathes of bullets backwards and forwards through the thick cover about three feet above the ground, dropping anything that is hiding there: and they are all the more effective in that they can easily be put into a fixed firing position by using ratchet wheels.
Buchanan and his men carry on past the fallen and the wounded, on towards Beho Beho. They take up position on a small open ridge just outside the village and a prolonged exchange of fire with the black troops in the village ensues. The sun is bakingly hot.
The hours that follow are difficult.
The low ridge on which they are lying is covered with gleaming white pebbles that reflect the sun’s rays in a way that would be beautiful from a distance but which make the heat almost unbearable for men forced to lie down pressed to the ground. They all get painful blisters, even those with the advantage of the brown, leathery skin caused by years in the African sun. The enemy troops in the village, on the other hand, are in the shade and also have the advantage of being able to station themselves in the trees and snipe accurately at the men lying out on the roasting pebbles of the ridge.
The firing continues and losses begin to mount among the men of the 25th. One of those hit is Buchanan, who takes a bullet through his left arm. After a little while a shout runs along the line—Captain Selous, their company commander, is dead. He had moved forward fifteen yards or so in an attempt to pinpoint the position of some particularly troublesome snipers and scarcely had he raised his field glasses to his eyes before a bullet struck him in the side. He was turning round with the obvious intention of trying to return to his own line when another bullet hit him in the head and killed him. They react with horror to the news since they all “loved him in an uncommon manner, as their officer and as their grand old fearless man.” No one is affected more than Ramazani, Selous’s African servant, who had accompanied him as his gun-bearer on his many big-game safaris before the war. Out of his mind with sorrow and a desire for revenge, Ramazani hurls himself into the firefight with no regard for the well-aimed bullets coming from the concealed riflemen in the village.
Towards four o’clock the enemy slips away and disappears into the bush yet again. Buchanan and the rest of the British troops are able to enter the empty village.
That evening they bury Frederick Courteney Selous and the other dead men in the shade of a baobab tree.*
TUESDAY, 16 JANUARY 1917
Michel Corday wonders how posterity will view the war
Something is happening. There is a change of mood, partly revealed by a declining interest in the war or, perhaps more accurately, by a greater tendency towards escapism: the romanticised tales of soldiers and heroism that filled most magazines during the first years of the war are disappearing and being replaced by whodunnits, crime fiction and other kinds of typically escapist literature. And it also shows in an openly stated antipathy to the war, even though articles and speeches by chauvinists and nationalists, opportunists and bombasts still set the tone of what passes for public debate.
Faithful echoes of the latter kind of thinking can still be heard among “ordinary” people and it has long been taboo to advocate peace or, indeed, even speak of it. “Peace” has become a dirty word, giving off a vague odour of defeatism, pro-Germanism and a spineless propensity to compromise. The word alone is enough to make people object, swear, roll their eyes and so on, and it has even been censored. Victory—absolute, unconditional, total victory—has been the only acceptable idea. Just as in the other warring states, the sufferings and losses have not promoted a desire for compromise but have made attitudes more rigid, even more disinclined to accept anything short of “victory.” Anything else would mean that all the sufferings and losses have been in vain, wouldn’t it? And why compromise, anyway, when there is no chance of being defeated?
But something is happening. Something has changed in the language being used, though so far it is only on the street, person to person.
It is no longer impossible to hear people talking about their desire for—yes—“peace.” A couple of days ago Corday was standing in the cold waiting for a tram when he overheard a conversation between a woman and an army padre who had just come back from the Somme and Verdun. The padre said to her, “There are already more than enough mothers in mourning. Let’s hope that the whole business will soon be over.” More recently, on the same tram, he heard an upper-class woman, well wrapped up in her fur coat, say loudly to a soldier, “You wouldn’t have had to put up with thirty months of this if it weren’t for the thousands of scoundrels and idiots who voted for the war parties.” Many of her fellow passengers grinned and squirmed in embarrassment, but a working-class woman sitting near Corday muttered: “She’s absolutely right.”
It is not only weariness and exhaustion that are beginning to make their voices heard. This change of mood is also a reaction to last month’s peace initiatives, one from the German chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg† and the other, a few days later, from the American president Woodrow Wilson. The rulers of the Allied countries immediately rejected the first out of hand, and they responded to the second with such a series of objections, demands and hazy claims that it is obvious to everyone that there is no immediate hope of peace.
But the Word itself has nevertheless resurfaced. “Peace.”
The publication of a letter from the Kaiser to his chancellor is one element in the propaganda for the German peace proposal. Among much else, Kaiser Wilhelm writes, “To put forward a peace proposal is to perform a moral act that is necessary to free the world—including neutral countries—from the burden that is now in the process of crushing it.” Every French newspaper has attacked this letter, usually by questioning its authenticity, and they have also given the American proposal a chilly, even scornful, reception: “Pure imagination! Illusions! Delusions of grandeur!” Corday has actually heard a man snort and accuse the American president of being “more German than the Germans.”
How can anyone hope to offer a fair picture of the possibility of peace when the press, the only real medium for the masses, is both strictly censored and in the hands of propagandists, warmongers and ideologues? Corday finds no great comfort in the thought that a succeeding generation will be able to make sense of the tangle of emotional storms, idées fixes, exaggerations, half-truths, illusions, linguistic games, lies and deceptions which this war has produced. He frequently tries to recall what it was that happened,really happened, when this great landslide began to move in the late summer two and a half years ago; he eagerly gathers the small splinters of fact that he can find here and there, scattered like the forgotten clues left at the scene of a crime that has long since gone cold. The question, however, is what information will it really be possible to obtain after it is all over.
He has known for a long time that the image of the war and of public opinion presented by the press is biased to the point of mendacity. He wrote in his journal in April 1915: “Fear of the censor and the need to flatter the basest instincts [of the public] lead [the press] to publish nothing but hate and abuse.” The politicians and generals who were involved in whipping up public opinion in favour of the war in 1914 have become prisoners of their own hate-fuelled rhetoric. It has made the very idea of a compromise peace unthinkable, and it has even made certain tactically motivated withdrawals impossible because withdrawal would immediately be converted into symbolic defeat in the eyes of the press and the man on the street: this was what happened with Verdun.‡ But now, perhaps, something has at last begun to move.
So it goes without saying that the newspapers will be anything but reliable as a source for future historians. What about private letters? Corday has his doubts even there: “Letters from the front give a false feeling about the war. The writer knows that his letters might be opened. And his main aim will be to impress future readers.” Photographs, then? Perhaps people will be able to turn to them to discover what things were really like, on the home front, for instance. Corday thinks not, and he writes in his journal:
Either vanity or shame prevents certain aspects of life from being reflected in our illustrated magazines. So posterity will find that the photographic documentation of the war is full of very big gaps. For example: it will not show the almost total darkness that exists indoors because of the restrictions on lighting, or the gloomy, dim streets where the fruit merchants are illuminated by candles, or the dustbins that remain unemptied on the pavement until three in the afternoon because of a shortage of manpower, or the queues of anything up to three thousand people waiting outside the large grocery stores to get their sugar ration. Nor—to look at the other side of the coin—will it show the huge numbers filling the restaurants, tea rooms, theatres, variety shows and cinemas to bursting point.
A DAY IN JANUARY 1917
Paolo Monelli learns how to deter nosy visitors
Both the winter weather and the gunfire have eased and the winding mule tracks have begun to be well trampled. It is in conditions like these that visitors tend to show up, curious about these notorious mountain peaks and keen to be able to say “I was there.”
They are not welcome.
If they are of lower status the soldiers simply bombard them with snowballs and pieces of ice from a distance and then, when they arrive confused, breathless and covered in snow, pretend to know nothing about it. More subtle methods are needed for those of higher rank. The men have laid a number of explosive charges a short distance away from their defensive position and the moment they receive a telephone warning that some bigwig down below has started to put on his snow kit they detonate some of these charges. This causes a cascade of snow and stones and, unfailingly, the Austro-Hungarian position on the mountain top opposite responds by firing off half a dozen shells. (Zeem choom zeem shoom!)
The battalion commander will then say dolefully that he does not know what is going on: “Everything’s been so quiet up there until now.” At which the high-ranking visitor down below “is immediately smitten by a nostalgic longing for the valley” and vanishes.
THURSDAY, 1 FEBRUARY 1917
Edward Mousley sees snow falling on Kastamonu
He survived the march and reached the railhead at Ras al-’Ayn. He and the rest of the men who finished the two-month desert march from Baghdad were then transported north-westwards in cattle trucks. And the places rolled past. The Euphrates. Osmaniye. The Anti-Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean as a silver sliver in the distance. Gülek Boğazi. The Taurus Mountains. Pozanti. Afyonkarahisar. Eskişehir. Ankara. From Ankara they were on foot again, northwards and upwards, over mountains covered in conifers, growing colder all the time, all the way to Kastamonu, about forty-five miles from the Black Sea. There the prisoners were quartered in a couple of large houses on the edge of the town, in Christian districts that were half-empty after the attacks on the Armenians.
Conditions are good in Kastamonu, very good when compared with those they endured in the months following their capitulation. They are treated well, and Mousley and the others begin to suspect that the horrors of the march were not so much planned as a result of the usual Ottoman combination of harsh indifference and incompetence. There is also the fact that the men at Kastamonu have the advantage of being officers: the conditions for the non-commissioned ranks and ordinary soldiers are extremely harsh. Whereas Mousley and the officers have to combat boredom, nightmares and the aftermath of the march and illness, the other ranks who survived transportation have been put to hard labour in various places.§ In Kastamonu Mousley is allowed to visit the shops and the bathhouse once a week, accompanied by a not excessively zealous guard. The prisoners are also allowed to attend church and to send and receive post, including parcels from home. They play chess, bridge and rugby and are sometimes allowed to go for long walks among the high hills that surround them. They are planning to start a small orchestra. Mousley has had a recurrence of his malaria and been forced to go to a Greek dentist to get his teeth fixed—they were badly affected by the monotonous diet during the siege. He has even put on some weight. Most of them try to stick to certain routines, such as changing for dinner, even if it only involves taking off one ragged shirt and putting on another equally ragged one. The Ottomans enforce a strict ban on fraternising with the inhabitants of the town, though they may occasionally get drunk.
He has been very cold since the start of winter. There is a shortage of wood and what little he can get hold of tends to be damp. When he puts it in the small stove there is more smoke than fire. Boredom and monotony are the worst things, however, and Mousley spends much of his time smoking and sleeping in the room he shares with another officer. It is a long time since he wrote anything in his journal.
When he looks out of his window this morning the light is colder and paler. Snow. The whole world has changed. The jumble of reddish brown roofs he is used to seeing are white and the town has suddenly become picturesque, almost as pretty as a picture. The streets are empty and the only signs of life are the sing-song voices of the muezzins in the minarets. The sight of this sudden transformation, the result of snow—“this pure and godly element, silent and secretive”—does something for him, filling him with remarkable energy that displaces his apathy. It makes him start hoping again, makes him want to remember again.
He takes out his journal and makes the first entry since the beginning of October: “February 1st, 1917.—Four months have gone. As I write the earth is white with feet of snow.” Later he and some other British officers go to a hill about a mile away, where they do some sledging “and pretend that we are schoolboys again.” They have a snowball fight on the way home.
FRIDAY, 2 FEBRUARY 1917
Richard Stumpf regains hope in Wilhelmshaven
The barometer is continuing to rise and in the morning those who have come off watch are allowed to go on a march or, perhaps more accurately, to make a short excursion to Mariensiel. The ship’s band marches in the lead, playing its instruments, the formalities are kept simple and they are all full of high spirits. The ice is gleaming and is still thick. Stumpf is impressed by its strength and beauty, but he thinks it will soon break up and disappear without trace. On the way home they march through Wilhelmshaven.
SMS Helgoland is once again being refitted, repaired and modified. This time it is the ship’s 88mm rapid-fire cannon that are being removed. The Battle of Jutland revealed their range to be insufficient and the guns have been deemed ineffective—“a view,” as Stumpf writes in his journal, that two years earlier would have caused anyone voicing it “to be shot as a traitor.” These guns have not fired a single shot and those manning them (including Stumpf) have been wasting their time. He tries to comfort himself with the fact that the guns are more needed ashore.‖ Stumpf also believes that great things are brewing. He has regained his faith in the future: “The whole world is holding its breath as Germany gathers herself to deliver one final, devastating, knock-out blow.”
Once back on the ship they have lunch and then the duty officer arrives with a piece of paper—“wonderful news.” “Listen to this, men, a telegram from Berlin. ‘As of today we shall be waging unrestricted U-boat war.’ ” The announcement makes all of them “extremely happy” and soon nothing else is being talked about on board. Most of them seem to be of the opinion that it is only a matter of time before Great Britain is forced to her knees. This is a “sentence of death for England.” This is the German version—put into action—of the fight “to the bitter end” French politicians have proclaimed for so long.
Stumpf is one of the doubters, though he is willing to give the whole business four months, after which the situation should have become clearer. He does, however, see this as a way of responding to the British blockade, which is what caused this cold and miserable “turnip winter” in Germany. That is what they have to eat most of the time, turnips of various kinds prepared in various ways. (The basic ingredient does not change but the variety of recipes is endless: they eat turnip pudding and turnip balls, mashed turnip and turnip jam, turnip soup and turnip salad. Some people refer to turnips as Prussian pineapples.) The turnips are often cooked with a meagre addition of slightly rancid lard, the faint odour of which is masked by adding apples and onions to the pot. The shortage of fat has led to an increase in intestinal ailments and the monotonous diet has caused many people to suffer from oedema. On average, Germans, both military and civilian, have lost about 20 per cent of their body weight and the majority of the sailors on the ship are a good deal thinner than they were. Stumpf has lost only five kilos, but he receives food parcels from his parents in Bavaria.
Unrestricted U-boat warfare? Why not? Let the British have a taste of their own medicine: “I hope they suffer the same acute hunger as our people in Saxony or Westphalia.”
WEDNESDAY, 7 FEBRUARY 1917
Alfred Pollard finds a trench full of corpses outside Grandcourt
For once he is hesitant about a mission. In the first place, he has only just come back from one—in fact, he is hardly back. Pollard has not even had time to climb down into the trench when he meets the colonel waiting there impatiently for him, and the Old Man says he will have to go out again. It is about one o’clock in the morning and his orders are to lead a patrol into the village of Grandcourt “at all costs.” The colonel repeats that ominous phrase “at all costs” twice, so Pollard understands that it is important. The air force has reported that the Germans have pulled back and the colonel wants their regiment to be the first to move into the empty village. (As a matter of prestige.) Pollard’s second concern is that he does not know how they can reach the village, given that the open River Ancre runs between their position and Grandcourt. He asks the colonel how they are supposed to cross the river and the colonel’s answer is a brief one: “I must leave that to you, Pollard.”
There is a full moon and the ground is covered with snow. Pollard and his four-man patrol work their way down a hill and reach a deserted trench. Deserted, yes; empty, no. It turns out to be full of the bodies of British soldiers from another division. When he sees the stiff bodies of his countrymen lying there powdered with snow, he recalls that someone told him about a platoon in a forward position that had been attacked in a German night raid—and finished off with bayonets. To the last man. He had heard the story but forgotten it. There are so many stories of units being wiped out and platoons disappearing.
As they move on and continue down to the river, Pollard remembers the first time he saw a trench full of dead men. It was during his very first attack, on that hot day at Hooge in June of 1915:
I was a mere boy looking on life with hopeful optimism, and on war as an interesting adventure. When I saw the Hun corpses killed by our shell-fire I was full of pity for the men so suddenly cut off in their prime. Now I was a man with no hope of the War ending for years. I looked at a trench full of corpses without any sensation whatever. Neither pity nor fear that I might soon be one myself, nor anger against their killers. Nothing stirred me. I was just a machine carrying out my appointed work to the best of my ability.
In the white snow Pollard finds the tracks of the German unit that attacked the men in the trench. It proves to be a piece of luck because they lead him across a frozen bog and down to the river, where he finds a small and rickety bridge. He slips across it with his revolver drawn, going first as usual. Everything is quiet. He waves to the others to come over. Step by step they creep into the snowy village. Everything is quiet. The reports were correct—the Germans have left the village.
Although neither Pollard nor anyone else on the Allied side knows it yet, this is part of a series of planned German withdrawals aimed at straightening out the front line. New, well-fortified positions are ready and waiting for them further back.
FRIDAY, 9 FEBRUARY 1917
Olive King is repairing her ambulance in Salonica
A raw February wind. The smell of snow in the air. Another winter in Salonica, another winter in this overcrowded, over-fortified army camp of a town with its seriously underemployed army. The streets are like a fancy-dress parade of uniforms: the blue-grey of the French, the khaki of the British, the brown of the Serbs, the brownish green of the Russians and the green-grey of the Italians. In addition to this polyglot conglomeration there are colonial troops from India, Indo-China and North Africa. A number of attempts were made last autumn to push the Bulgarians back in the north, but the front has hardly moved. Now everything is at a standstill again. The weather, as usual, is changeable: hot and sunny at one moment, cold and windy the next. It has been snowing for two days but the snow has failed to take the chill out of the air. Lying under her ambulance, Olive King is freezing.
King had planned to spend the morning at one of the hot bathhouses down by the harbour but her ambulance had other ideas. It is in need of repairs, which is why she is lying on the floor in a freezing garage working on it. Her fingers are blue with cold and she fumbles everything. There is a strong wind blowing outside.
Olive King is now a part of the Serbian army—Olive and her two vehicles. (In addition to old Ella she has also bought a faster, lighter Ford ambulance, which is the one she is repairing at the moment.) And since the Serbs lost almost all their vehicles during the great retreat, she has more than enough to do. There is no more endless patrolling from lamp to lamp for her, no more lugging around sacks of ragged clothes: instead, she is dispatched on long, difficult trips on narrow, dangerous mountain roads, roads that would scarcely have been graced with the name in western Europe—bridle paths, perhaps, or mud tracks. Just now, conditions are at their worst. If the temperature is above zero, everything turns to sludge; if the temperature dips below zero, she can expect an ice rink.
King has come much closer to the war and the war has come closer to her. Mrs. Harley, whom she has worked with ever since their days hunting for furniture in France and who—“at an age when most old ladies are content to sit at home knitting socks”—has endured hardships enough to break women half her age, was killed a month ago. She was struck by bullets from a shrapnel shell fired by enemy artillery—Bulgarian? Austrian?—while working with refugees up in Monastir. From her own journeys to the front up in the north King has not only brought back two Bulgarian rucksacks full of battlefield souvenirs—cartridge cases, shell splinters—she has also returned with memories of a battlefield decked with half-buried corpses. She has also, for the very first time, actually seen the “loathsome enemy” (in the form of Bulgarian prisoners of war).
And she has fallen in love, which is hardly strange—there is something in the atmosphere, in the situation, in being forced to live in uncertainty, that breaks down the everyday fears and conventions which would otherwise put barriers in the way. To judge from the evidence, this love means more to her than anything else at the moment. More than the war, which has become a mere backcloth, figures in a landscape, monotonous routine, sometimes absurd or bizarre, sometimes dangerous or downright nasty, and frequently simply irritating. Like now, when dreams of a hot bath are suddenly put paid to by a faulty footbrake.
The object of her love is a charming Serbian liaison officer, Captain Milan Joviĉić, known as Jovi, a man of her own age and happy, bright and droll. The whole thing blossomed through dinners and simple parties—one can imagine the scratchy tones of “La Paloma” played time after time—but also under the stress of shared danger. When she was confined to bed with her first bout of malaria last September he visited her at least twice a day and often stayed for hours. Her love seems to be reciprocated. They have to be secretive about it, but there is still a good deal of gossip about them. Which she finds annoying.
This is not just an affair. She has had affairs before, but this is something far more.
King is aware that something has happened to her during these years and it frightens her. Or, perhaps, she is most frightened by how others will react to it. In a letter to her father, written after she had enlisted in the Serbian army, she wrote as follows:
Bless you, darling Daddy, I love you so much, you’ll never have any idea how much. I often wonder if you’ll find me very changed. I think I’ve got pretty selfish in the war, & I know I’ve got more horribly independent than ever.
She does not mention a single word about being in love. Jovi is just referred to as “a pal,” which itself is radical enough compared with what would have been acceptable before the war. But not many people think any longer about supervision, chaperones and the proper forms of social intercourse between unmarried men and women. Not here, not now.
At lunchtime Olive King takes a break from her work in the chilly garage and walks through the snow back to the small flat she shares with two other woman drivers. As soon as she gets in she lights the little paraffin stove, which is the only heating in the room and has to be kept alight whenever they are in the house at this time of year. She is worried about the price of paraffin, which seems to be going up all the time—a can costs nineteen francs and lasts only a couple of days. “If America comes in, she ought to let us have it at reduced rates.”
King decides to stay in her room for now. She has done her bit for the day and the other mechanic will have to finish the job. She starts thinking about those wonderful Tasmanian apples and wonders if they are still in season at home in Australia. She wonders whether her father might be able to send her a box.
A DAY IN FEBRUARY 1917
Florence Farmborough reflects on the winter in Trostyanitse
It has been a bad winter both in big ways and in small. In December she received news that her father had died at the age of eighty-four, and last month the famous heart surgeon, the father in her Russian host family, also died. And the front has once again come to a standstill. In the snow and low temperatures on this part of the Eastern Front all major military operations have stopped and Florence’s hospital unit is receiving patients only in dribs and drabs. A couple of wounded one day, perhaps, a couple of sick the next, but they have nothing to do most of the time.
Food shortages have, as usual, worsened during the cold months and this year they have been worse than ever. There have been bread riots in both Moscow and Petrograd, war weariness has become more and more acute and the growing dissatisfaction is being aired with surprising openness. Rumours of disorder, sabotage and strikes abound. Before 1914 a string of economic experts had stated that any war would have to be short since a long war would bring economic catastrophe. They have now been proved right. Money—real money—in all the warring countries has run out and the war on both sides is being financed either with credits or by printing banknotes. So the food crisis in Russia is not just about the cold, not just about immediate shortages, it is also a result of spiralling inflation. Moreover, joy about all the many victories of last summer soon turned to disappointment and disaffection when it became clear that the sacrifices had not led to a final turning point or decisive solution.
Over and above the general loathing of the war, increasingly vocal criticism of the war leadership and even of the Tsar himself has bubbled to the surface. Rumours about what has happened or possibly is still happening at court are particularly common: the murder of the notorious monk Rasputin, which was committed a month and a half ago, seems to reinforce the image of a corruption that goes right to the top.a Much of this has passed Florence by, preoccupied as she has been by the deaths of two people close to her, but she does feel sorry for the Tsar, who can best be described as well-meaning but incompetent.
So yes, it is a bad winter. When the general sense of disquiet is added to their general lack of activity, it all leads to nervous tension, irritability and endless petty squabbles among the staff of the hospital unit. Florence, too, shares these feelings:
We seem to be waiting for something to happen. Things cannot continue as they are. Many questions are asked, but none can answer them. “Will the war continue?” “Will a separate peace be arranged between Russia and Germany?” “What will our Allies do in such an emergency?” …
It is a dull oppressive winter; the frost and ice do their best to numb our thoughts and hamper our movements.
SUNDAY, 25 FEBRUARY 1917
Elfriede Kuhr’s grandmother faints outside the horse butcher’s in Schneidemühl
There is a butcher who sells horsemeat on the street where Elfriede lives. He is a Jew and his name is Herr Johr. Elfriede is well aware that there are people who dislike Jews but she is not one of them. Once she even started a fight with a boy who had called one of her Jewish friends a swine. Many Jews and even Poles live in the area and as far as Elfriede is concerned they are all Germans, even if of different kinds.
Unfortunately, Elfriede’s grandmother fainted today, outdoors, in the cold, outside Herr Johr’s shop. Some passers-by carried her inside and slowly she came to, lying on the sofa in Herr Johr’s living room. Her legs were so shaky, however, that Herr Johr felt it necessary to bring her home in his van. When they see their grandmother being carried to her bed and notice how pale and cold her face is, Elfriede and her brother are frightened. Fortunately, however, one of their neighbours is visiting and she makes their grandmother a cup of coffee. There is no longer any real coffee, of course, just ersatz made from roasted grain, but their neighbour does put real sugar in the cup rather than the artificial sweetener that is now usual. Elfriede’s grandmother drinks it and after a while begins to feel more herself: “Now I feel warm again, children.”
Why did she faint? Possibly, like many other people, she has been working too hard. Or possibly, like everyone else, she has been eating too little.
But Elfriede cannot help feeling anxious and when it is time to do her physics homework she moves into the bedroom so that she can keep an eye on her grandmother while she does it. School is not uppermost in her mind just now, anyway. A little under a week ago she and a friend had gone ice skating on a flooded meadow down by the river; there were masses of people there, all skating round and round to scratchy music from a wind-up gramophone. While she was there she bumped into the young lieutenant she had met for the first time on the stairs at the party given by her school friend’s big sister. His name is Werner Waldecker. Quite by chance she had met him on the street shortly after the party and got into conversation with him—an exchange that had ended with him kissing her hand and expressing the hope that they would meet again. And they did, five days ago on the frozen meadow. Afterwards, by which time it was getting dark, he took her to the Konditorei Fliegner where, though there were no éclairs, they drank mulled wine and ate sugar pastries and she was very happy. Lieutenant Waldecker walked her home and tried to kiss her on the steps of the porch. She had slipped shyly from his embrace and disappeared into the house, though she later regretted doing so.
Not much is happening at the moment according to the war map they have hanging in the classroom. Nothing of any note has happened in Africa or Asia for several weeks. Yesterday, unfortunately, 289 men capitulated in Likuyu in German East Africa, and several Turkish trenches were taken by the British south-west of Kut al-Amara in Mesopotamia. That is all. Things are also quiet in Italy and the Balkans; nor is anything new happening on the Western Front, apart from the occasional raid. It is only the Eastern Front that is providing the newspapers with anything more than the occasional notice, and almost all the fighting there has been concentrated in one area—Romania—for months. That part of the map is now a patchwork of small black, white and red flags and there could well be a major victory there soon. The last was on 6 December when Bucharest fell and the children were given a day off school. Elfriede used that sudden holiday to go for a walk.
SUNDAY, 18 MARCH 1917
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky tries to get into the Hotel Astoria in Petrograd
“Just follow the general trend,” the doctor had said. It is two o’clock in the morning and bitterly cold. Lobanov-Rostovsky leaves Anton, his batman, to deal with the luggage at the station and sets off directly for the hotel. Oddly, there are neither taxi-cabs nor horse-drawn cabs available outside the station and he has to go on foot. There is something strange going on, something that does not fit. He passes armed patrols on the dark streets and they “eye him suspiciously.” He passes a burnt-down police station. On Morskaja, the fashionable shopping street, he notes clear evidence of the disturbances: the shop windows are smashed, the shops have been looted and there are bullet holes on the walls of the buildings.
Lobanov-Rostovsky was, of course, aware of the disturbances that had broken out on 8 March when women took to the streets to protest about bread shortages.b And he had already witnessed trouble at the railway station in Kiev, where a mob broke into the first-class dining room and, to the accompaniment of much roaring and yelling, tore down the portrait of the Tsar from the wall. Nicholas II abdicated three days ago. Lobanov-Rostovsky heard the news last Thursday as he was leaving hospital: an officer came up to him and passed on the sensational information—in French, to be discreet. In his journal Lobanov-Rostovsky greets the news with optimism: “A new Emperor, or a Regent more energetic and intelligent, and victory is assured.”
This is possibly a hard-won hope. He has been ill with malaria since the turn of the year and was only discharged from hospital on 15 March, the day before the abdication. When he reported back to his battalion he was told he was being sent to the reserve battalion in Petrograd. The news filled him with despair since he had heard that troops there were being sent out onto the streets to shoot demonstrators and strikers. He met a doctor, who tried to calm him down and asked if he was thinking of taking his own life. Lobanov-Rostovsky then confessed to his doubts: “It’s the imbecility of the government which is causing this revolution. It’s not the people’s fault, and yet I am sent to Petrograd to fire on the people.” The doctor consoled him and gave him a piece of advice that stuck in his mind: “Just follow the general trend and everything will work out all right.”
Lobanov-Rostovsky arrives at the Hotel Astoria, where his uncle and aunt are staying. The hotel shows the marks of the disturbances, of street fighting even, since the walls are pockmarked by bullets. The large windows on the ground floor have been smashed and badly boarded up. The lobby is completely dark and the swing doors are locked. No one appears when he pounds on them. Strange. He goes round to a side door, knocks on it and is immediately surrounded by a group of armed and aggressive sailors. They aim their weapons at his chest and fire threatening questions at him: “Where’s your pass?” they ask. He replies that he does not have one. “Why are you carrying a revolver?” A young naval lieutenant arrives and manages to convince the armed men to let Lobanov-Rostovsky go: “Comrades, let this man out. He has just arrived and didn’t know there was a revolution.”
Once out on the street again, Lobanov-Rostovsky hurries back to the railway station to drink tea and wait for the dawn.
He tries again at about eight o’clock. Factory whistles are sounding in the distance. Snow is falling from a grey morning sky. The temperature has risen and the streets are wet and slushy. Apart from the traces of fighting, everything looks almost normal. Crowds of people stream past on their way to work as usual. There is one thing, however, that is different: there are patches of red everywhere, both on the buildings and on the people. All the passers-by are wearing something red: a rosette or a paper flower or just a piece of cloth tucked into a buttonhole. Even the motor cars and elegant horse-drawn carriages are decorated with something red, as are the house fronts and the windows. The large pieces of cloth hanging on the facades of the houses appear almost black in the weak morning light.
Lobanov-Rostovsky gains entry to the hotel this time. The lobby offers a sorry sight: shards of glass and smashed furniture everywhere and the thick red carpets are covered with frozen puddles of water. People are streaming in and out. An excited group is clustered around a table in one corner—they are recruiting for some kind of association of radical officers. The heating has stopped working and it is the same temperature indoors as out on the street. He can find no trace of his relations. “Everything seemed to be disorganised, and nobody knew anything.”
Although he couldn’t have known it, some of the bloodiest clashes of the whole revolution had taken place in the luxury Hotel Astoria. That was where many of the higher-ranking officers and their families were staying and someone, or perhaps more than one, had fired out on passing demonstrators. The demonstrators had responded with machine-gun fire, after which armed men had stormed the lobby and heavy fighting had broken out amid the crystal chandeliers and mirrored walls. Many officers had been shot or bayoneted to death and the hotel’s wine cellar had been looted. (It was quite usual during these days in Petrograd for acts of genuine indignation and protest to be mixed with vandalism and outright criminality.)c Lobanov-Rostovsky ventures out again onto the slushy streets. As evening approaches he is not much wiser about the situation, but he has located his uncle and aunt. They had fled from the Astoria to the Admiralty during the disturbances—and found heavy fighting raging there too. As to the reserve battalion of the Guards Regiment he was supposed to be joining, he receives completely contradictory pieces of information:
[The unit had] refused to join the revolution and had been completely exterminated; it had been among the first units to join the rebellion, and the soldiers had killed off all the officers; all the officers were safe, and so on.
Not without some anxiety he decides to take a taxi to the barracks the following morning and report for service. “Just follow the general trend and everything will work out all right.”
SATURDAY, 24 MARCH 1917
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky is elected officer by the soldiers’ committee
There are signs of disintegration everywhere. The soldiers are sloppily dressed, do not salute and show no respect. He has effectively been a prisoner in the barracks, waiting for the soldiers’ committee to come to a decision. Are they going to approve him?
The decision came today. Yes, they have decided that he is to serve as their officer. That does not mean he has the same status as before: as the leader of the battalion explains to him, officers are like constitutional monarchs, they have formal responsibility but no real power. Lobanov-Rostovsky feels relieved—if he had not received their approval he might well have been imprisoned instead. Or even worse. He writes:
It appeared that the deciding voice was that of a sergeant who had served under my orders and told the committee about the time at Rejitsa in 1916 when, on my own responsibility and against the orders of the commander of the regiment, I had given my men permission to go on leave. Presently two members of the committee came to see me, informed me of their decision, and asked me very politely if I would do them the honour of remaining with the battalion. That same evening we learned that five officers of the Moscow Regiment who had been elected by their soldiers the day before had been murdered by them during the night.
MONDAY, 26 MARCH 1917
Rafael de Nogales takes part in the First Battle of Gaza
Rafael de Nogales has not slept a wink for a day and a half and he is exhausted. He has been deep behind the enemy lines leading a patrol with orders to find and blow up the pipeline for drinking water the British have built from the Suez Canal, up through Sinai and all the way to the front line outside the old coastal city of Gaza. Over the last thirty-six hours they have covered some ninety to a hundred miles of desert terrain and their mission has been a miserable failure: they failed even to find the pipeline. When he and his companions get back to camp the first thing he is intending to do is get some sleep.
Things are anything but calm, however. All available units are preparing for battle because there have been reports that a significant British force is crossing the big wadid which lies in front of the line of defence at Gaza. The sight of all this activity is enough to give de Nogales renewed energy: “The overpowering tiredness I was feeling disappeared in an instant.” He gets a fresh horse and rides off ready for new duties.
First of all de Nogales is ordered to lead the baggage train and all its camels, packhorses and wagons back to a safe position. The only things left behind are the white tents, which they hope will disguise their regrouping. He then comes back to join the rest of the Turkish cavalry, which has been positioned to cover an important section of the large wadi. This is a point at which the British will certainly launch an attack since it marks the left flank of the Ottoman line of defence, which virtually hangs in the air just there. If the British break through at that point they will be within easy reach of the Ottoman rear and will also be a threat to the headquarters at Tel el-Sharia.
This major British attack is another sign that the tide of war is turning in the Middle East. Ever since the second Ottoman attempt to cut the Suez Canal failed last summer, the British have been mounting a counter-offensive and their efforts have been characterised by the kind of systematic approach that comes only from bitter experience. They have breached Palestine’s final and in some ways most effective line of defence—the desert—by constructing a narrow-gauge railway, as well as that impressive freshwater pipeline that de Nogales could neither find nor blow up.
It is a cold and foggy night.
At dawn the sound of heavy artillery can be heard from the direction of Gaza. The noise gradually intensifies as the rattle and crack of machine guns and rifles join in. An attack has been launched.
A first report comes in: the British have thrown up bridges and crossed the wadi with unexpected speed. Tanks accompanied by infantry have begun to shoot their way into Gaza at the same time as cavalry have advanced around the town and are threatening to cut it off from the rear. A German officer to whom de Nogales speaks is pessimistic: the position of the city is pretty hopeless and it may have already fallen. As it grows lighter they can see the clouds of smoke in the distance, billowing up from the explosions and fires that encircle Gaza.
The Ottoman cavalry regiments continue to wait for the British assault but nothing happens. Instead they are ordered to mount and advance along the wadi towards Gaza. De Nogales is given the job of leading the ammunition carts to safety but he leaves that task in order to search for a unit that has gone astray. Having found the unit, he eagerly accompanies it into battle as it fights its way towards Gaza against the British forces encircling the town. De Nogales says that, despite his weariness, he is spurred on by the mixture of enthusiasm and nervous rapture that “is inevitably inspired in even the dullest heart by the howl of the first shells and the dry cracks of shrapnel-shells exploding overhead.”
British warplanes fly overhead and drop bombs. Soon he is able to survey a “magnificent panorama” of the battlefield around Gaza which, in a swathe twenty miles wide, is wreathed in thick smoke from which red flames and shell-bursts continuously spit forth.
It is not until later that de Nogales remembers his original mission. He leaves the battle and he and his batman ride back to sort out the column of ammunition wagons. Their horses are tired and running with sweat. The two men find the convoy just in time to see it being accidentally bombarded “with an enviable rate of fire and precision” by one of the German artillery batteries which are in Palestine to help the Ottoman army. After suffering considerable losses, particularly among the draught animals, they are saved from further bombardment by a German pilot who notices what is happening and manages to signal to the battery to cease fire.
As the evening light fades de Nogales leads the column to the headquarters at Tel el-Sharia, where he meets Colonel Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, the commander of the Gaza front. The German is nervous and sending telegrams right and left since he is convinced the battle is lost. The same thought has occurred to de Nogales, too, the whole situation being marked by confusion. Consequently he is more than a little surprised to hear—just as he is about to mount his horse and ride to the battlefield—that the British have for some inexplicable reason begun to withdraw.
The battle is over. Both sides have conceded defeat but the British were simply the first to retire.
In the evening de Nogales rides into a moonlit and devastated Gaza:
The silence of death ruled everywhere. In the middle of the streets, piled up among soot-blackened rafters and smashed carriages, lay hundreds of bodies, the burnt and shattered remains of people and animals. On the blackened walls of buildings that were still smoking and tottering on the point of collapse could be seen big purple patches that resembled red carnations, carnations of blood marking where the wounded and dying had rested their chests or heads before drawing their last breath. When the last streaks of the red and gold sunset had died away into the deep darkness of the sky, the wailing calls of the muezzins rose from the minarets to announce to the faithful followers of the prophet that the Angel of Death has spread his wings over a desert where thousands of Christian soldiers are now sleeping a glorious and eternal sleep under the starry sky of Palestine.
He rides back to the camp, where his horse almost collapses from exhaustion. De Nogales wraps himself in a blanket and lies down, his head resting on the horse’s flank. He falls asleep almost at once.
A DAY IN APRIL 1917
Pál Kelemen practises with a machine gun outside Kolozsvár
The modern age has even caught up with the Austro-Hungarian army. The cavalry, the pride of that army, the jewel in its military crown, the men with the finest uniforms, is to be wound up. It no longer has any meaningful function and can hardly ever be sent into action. They have tried, and whole regiments have been mown down by a couple of machine guns. On the whole, the cavalry have done little more than herd prisoners of war, patrol behind the lines and put on splendidly colourful parades. Their horses, moreover, demand huge quantities of fodder which, like everything else nowadays, is in short supply.e The fact that the Austro-Hungarian cavalry is considered to have by far the most beautiful uniforms on the continent is of no help to them. No longer mounted, they are having to say good-bye forever to their fur-edged blue tunics, embroidered red trousers, leather helmets with a comb, their plumes and their buckles, their braiding and gold buttons, their galloons and high boots of polished light-tan leather and from now on they will be wearing the same drab, practical, cheap and anonymous hechtgrau (pike grey) as the infantry. One more piece of the old Europe is disappearing. Kelemen’s regiment, too, is being disbanded and the men retrained as foot soldiers, which he detests, probably not just because infantry service is more dangerous and more strenuous but because the aesthete and the snobbish side of him recoils from it. When he turned up for the machine-gun course that was to turn him into an infantry officer, the captain who greeted him—a man of more than middle age, unshaven and wearing a creased uniform jacket—immediately came down on the fact that Kelemen was still wearing the gold epaulettes typical of the cavalry. He said abruptly: “This has to come off.” Kelemen is having his own little rebellion and is still wearing them.
The course is unbearably tedious, as are the other men on the course and the town they are staying in. Tedium is the order of the day. This afternoon they are in horse-drawn wagons and on their way out to an isolated firing range to practise with live ammunition. They pass through a village. The empty, flat Hungarian plain stretches out to the horizon. It has recently been raining and the sun is covered by thick clouds. They arrive and Kelemen notes in his journal:
The spire of the village is far behind us. At our right is a thatched-roof shelter that serves now as the shooting range of the machine gun detachment. The target figures stand like bizarre scarecrows in the loamy soil, and in a freshly dug trench two machine guns are placed ready for practice.
They begin to speak. The bullets whizz with frantic speed toward the target dummies. After the vast silence, the ceaseless rattling makes the ears ache. I walk about as far as possible from the machine gun stand and turn away toward the darkening firmament until westward sooty stripes announce the falling evening. Toward the south tinted clouds still float and the white walls of a remote farmhouse shine dimly in the sun’s last rays. The immense field reverberates with the shrilling of bullets.
I thought that only soldiers were witness to the practice of those grisly instruments of murder. But from the direction of one of the draw wells, with quick flapping wings, a swarm of wild duck flies up and eddies, irresolute in the air. One of the guns is turned on them. A line of birds drops to the earth.—Tomorrow, a good dinner.
FRIDAY, 20 APRIL 1917
Rafael de Nogales and the final phase of the Second Battle of Gaza
They are a good distance behind the lines and convinced that the worst is over. The battle had reached its peak the day before and de Nogales rode in two cavalry charges. The first time they were ordered to attack it felt like receiving “a sentence of execution”—the Ottoman cavalry were to charge British machine guns. By some miracle it had turned out all right, though he had been wounded in the thigh. His bodyguard, Tasim, stopped the flow of blood with a plug of chewing tobacco, “which stung a little but was very efficacious.”
It is hardly a month since the First Battle of Gaza, a confused affair with heavy losses. Both sides initially thought they had lost the battle, but it finally ended in an Ottoman victory since the British, partly because of a shortage of water, withdrew from the ground they had gained. The Second Battle of Gaza is mainly a result of the over-optimistic (thoroughly inaccurate, in fact) reports sent to London by the British commander in the region afterwards. They stirred the government into hoping—yet again—that a great breakthrough was imminent: all that was needed was a few more men, a few more artillery pieces, another attack, and so on.
Strengthened by rapidly shipped-in reinforcements (including eight tanks and 4,000 gas shells) and by the promise of more if they managed to open the road to Jerusalem, the British launched a major assault yesterday. The whole thing degenerated into a sun-baked copy of the failures on the Western Front, with air attacks, massive but pointless artillery bombardment, broken-down tanks and infantry attacks that were smashed to pulp while running into a well-constructed system of trenches.
The cavalry division de Nogales belongs to has contributed to the success by harassing the British flank. He and the other officers are visited at dawn by a messenger from the commander in Gaza, Colonel von Kressenstein, who sends his congratulations and thanks them for their efforts. The Second Battle of Gaza is now practically over and the British have not broken through.
A quarter of an hour later, in the light of dawn, the whole division is on its way towards Abu Hureira, a marshy area further back, where there will be water for their horses and rest for themselves. As the air warms up, the great host of riders stirs up an enormous cloud of dust that hangs in the air behind them like a giant tail. De Nogales is worried—the British will undoubtedly be able to see the cloud and realise that a major force is on the march. The divisional commander, however, brushes aside his concern with a smile and when they arrive at the marshy zone they halt in serried columns, regiment by regiment.
They have hardly had time to dismount before it starts.
At first they just hear the buzz of engines. Immediately afterwards six or seven British biplanes appear. Bomb after bomb explodes among the tightly packed rectangles of men and horses, bombs that within half a minute have inflicted greater losses than they suffered the whole of the previous day:
Almost two hundred horses lay on the ground in their death throes, or fled in all possible directions, maddened by pain and with blood spurting from their dangling guts. Any riders whose feet had been caught in the stirrups were dragged with them and any soldiers foolish enough to try to stop them were trampled under their hooves.
Rafael de Nogales is impressed by the pilots and thinks they have carried out a “particularly brilliant attack.”
A nearby German anti-aircraft battery manages to hit two of the planes, one of which flies unsteadily away towards the horizon, the other nosedives straight down. De Nogales watches the plane and sees it hit the ground in a plume of smoke. He immediately remounts and, accompanied by a patrol of lancers, rides as fast as he can towards the distant column of smoke, which is about three miles away.
His thought is to save the pilot’s life. Or at least his body.
He knows that the Arab irregulars currently fighting for the Ottoman army will kill, butcher and loot any wounded enemies they find. During the night he has repeatedly come across the naked and mutilated bodies of British soldiers. He also met a guide who was leading a horse laden down with rifles, bloody uniforms, boots, belts and so on, all of which he had looted from dead troops. The man had even held out a long, pale object, which in the light of a torch proved to be a man’s arm hacked off above the elbow—hacked off for the sake of the fine tattoos that decorated it. Feeling slightly nauseous, de Nogales had bought the arm and made sure it was buried.
They reach the shot-down plane, but it is already too late.
The pilot is lying dead under the wreckage. His body is naked and his feet have been chopped off, probably because the looters didn’t want to waste time unlacing his boots:
The dead officer was blonde, his hair somewhere between tawny and red, and he was still very young. The only apparent wound on his body was in the chest, where a piece of shrapnel had entered and penetrated the lung. Because of the tremendous impact caused by a fall of more than a thousand metres his blue or hazel eyes had been pushed out of their sockets.
One of the dead pilot’s colleagues is buzzing around above them, seeking revenge.
Something stirs in de Nogales. Perhaps it is because of the dead man’s beauty, or perhaps (as de Nogales puts it himself) it is because he feels respect for an honourable and fearless enemy, an officer and a Christian like himself, but he cannot bring himself to leave the body there as prey for the desert dogs. Drawing his revolver he forces a man to load the body on his camel and take it back to Abu Hureira.
There de Nogales ensures that the pilot is given a proper burial. It is impossible to get hold of a coffin in a hurry so he wraps the dead man in his own cloak. He also takes off the little gold cross he has worn since he was a child and pins it like a medal on the dead man’s chest.
WEDNESDAY, 25 APRIL 1917
Alfred Pollard writes a letter to his mother
What keeps him going is the same hope that leads the generals to persist with their plans and attacks: the belief that although his own side is suffering severely, his opponents are suffering even more. So it is just a question of time, of holding out a bit longer, just a bit longer. Then the enemy’s front will collapse and the war will be decided, won, finished. (The use of the term “push” derives from the same mentality: all that is needed is a decisive “push” and the Germans will be forced to their knees.) The planned German withdrawal in France back to the Hindenburg Line is interpreted—not without some justification—as a sign of weakness.f Pollard’s unit is one of those that has followed on the heels of the Germans. On one occasion he led his company up on a hill and for the first time in almost three years he suddenly found himself looking out over a spring-green landscape that was almost completely untouched by war. He really believed at that moment that they were on the threshold of victory, that they had only to push a little bit more, a little bit more. He was genuinely frustrated when the news reached him that his unit was to be relieved—now, when the end was so close. “However, orders are orders and have to be obeyed.” His company, down to only thirty-five men, marched back along muddy roads. The spring sun was warm enough for them to take off their tunics.
At the beginning of April when the British army launched yet another offensive, this time at Arras, Pollard was back at a base camp recovering from an injury of a banal kind: he had tripped in the dark and sprained his foot badly. He wanted to take part in the offensive at any price and quickly returned to the part of the front where his battalion was waiting to be sent into battle. And, once again, his task has been to lead patrols into no-man’s-land.
Today he is writing to his mother about his latest exploits:
I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I hear a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I’ve been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I’ve merely done what I’ve been asked to do.
Well, dear old lady, although out of the line we are still away from civilisation. By the way I have received another box of new records but cannot play the wretched gramophone until those governor springs arrive so please hurry them up.
Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I have killed another Hun. Hurrah!
SUNDAY, 29 APRIL 1917
Alfred Pollard stops a German attack at Gavrelle
The fierce firestorm up on the forward line is not enough to disturb his sleep. He is woken instead by a messenger, who has brought him a very terse order: he is to organise cover for the flank immediately. Pollard leaps out of his bunker: “There was no time to enquire what had happened. It was obvious that something had gone wrong. I must act at once.”
The strange thing is that when he gets out into the clear spring sunshine everything is absolutely quiet. There is neither the sound of exploding shells nor even any rifle fire. The apparent calm serves only to make him even more uneasy. Pollard feels his heart begin to pound. His instincts tell him they are in deadly danger. He starts scanning the trenches in the forward line. Everything seems to be in order on the right. He looks to the left. Suddenly he sees it: over there, about a mile away, there is a German counter-attack under way. No soldiers can be seen moving but he can hear the characteristic sound of hand grenades—Bang! Zunk! Zunk! Zunk!—and see the small grey clouds of smoke left by the explosions.
This continues for five minutes.
Then the utterly unexpected happens.
The positions that are under direct attack seem to be holding firm, but some of the British troops manning the trenches alongside have started to run—away from the enemy. The panic is spreading quickly and a dense crowd of men is fleeing across the field.
Then Pollard sees that the German counter-attack is rapidly rolling forward through the gap that has been left, through the connecting trenches, towards the second line and straight towards the position he is in. At a moment like this, with German storm troops only minutes away, a brave but more averagely constituted man would have considered it sufficient to organise a defence quickly and then await the inevitable clash. The German force is a strong one, at least a company, possibly a whole battalion.
But Pollard is not average.
At first the sense of shock almost makes his knees give way and he is forced to grab hold of the edge of the trench to avoid falling over.
Then the curious feeling came to me which I have described before that I was no longer acting under my own volition. Something outside myself, greater than I, seemed to take charge of me. Acting under this mysterious influence I ran forward.
First of all, he manages to stop some of the panicking men and he positions them in shell holes with orders to shoot—it does not matter if they hit anything or even take aim. Then he draws his revolver. Gun in hand, with three men behind him, armed with no more than six hand grenades, he prepares to charge towards the Germans in the connecting trenches. And he does this giving hardly a thought to the fact that his enemy is possibly a hundred times more numerous.
He gives his small party some rapid instructions. Pollard will go in front and the three men are to follow him with hand grenades primed. Whenever they hear him fire his revolver they are to throw a grenade so that it lands about fifteen yards in front of him and beyond the next bend in the trench.
They set off.
They run forward.
For the first hundred yards they see no one. All is clear and they move on quickly. They meet a solitary British soldier, “the fourth member of my little army.” They carry on along the empty connecting trench.
After just another hundred yards Pollard rounds a corner and sees a German soldier, bayonet fixed, coming towards him. Pollard fires. He sees the German drop his rifle and collapse, hands clutching his stomach. Two hand grenades fly over Pollard’s head towards the next bend. Another German appears. Pollard fires again and this one falls in a heap, too. The hand grenades explode. He sees a German turning back but he also sees several other Germans pushing forward. He fires again. More hand grenades sail over his head and detonate: Bang! Zunk! The remaining Germans withdraw.
At this stage, with the German attack turned back against all odds, a brave but more averagely constituted man would have considered his work done, particularly since all the hand grenades were now finished.
But Pollard is far from average.
His blood is up, and he feels “a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try.” He rushes after the fleeing Germans in the connecting trench. He catches glimpses of figures in field grey, fires and misses. Finally, he comes to his senses and begins to organise the defence. His speciality is hand grenades and to his joy he finds heaps of them left behind by the Germans. Pollard prefers the German stick grenades to the British version, partly because they can be thrown further and partly because they have a more powerful explosive charge and make a considerably louder bang—purely psychologically, the noise is very important. They take with them as many as they can carry.
Within no more than ten minutes the Germans have pulled themselves together sufficiently to mount a counter-attack. The fighting takes the form of a duel with hand grenades. Grenades fly through the air in short arcs. Explosion follows explosion. Dust and grey smoke hang in the air. Pollard removes his helmet so that he can throw better and after a while he also rips off his gas-mask bag. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! When German grenades land between their legs they pick them up quickly and hurl them over the side of the trench. The Germans, shaken and taken by surprise, obviously have no idea that they are facing only four isolated men. But anyway, space is so tight down in the depths of a connecting trench that only two or three men at a time can take part in the fighting. If the Germans had thought to climb out and advance over the flat ground alongside the trench, Pollard’s little troop would have been overcome in a matter of minutes.
The supply of captured grenades is shrinking fast. One of Pollard’s men notices this and asks whether it is time to start pulling back. Pollard refuses: “I’m not going back one foot, Reggie.”
Then everything goes quiet.
The Hun attack has ceased as suddenly as it had started. They count their hand grenades—they only have six left. He and a couple of his soldiers go back along the connecting trench to collect the grenades they had left behind. On the way they meet men from Pollard’s company moving forward to assist them. Thus strengthened, they repel the next German counter-attack without too much difficulty.
Everything goes quiet again.
Pollard spends the rest of the afternoon organising the defence of the connecting trench.
Things remain calm.
As night approaches, they are relieved. Pollard is utterly exhausted by then. As they are marching back they pass through a belt of poison gas but he is simply too tired to put on his gas mask. By the time they get back to the cookhouse wagons he feels very sick, but a cup of hot tea eases the worst of his nausea.
TUESDAY, 1 MAY 1917
Willy Coppens spends four and a half minutes over Houthulst
He is guilty of over-estimating himself, of that there is no doubt. Even though his plane has still not had its forward-firing machine gun mounted, which means he is completely reliant on his observer’s armament, Willy Coppens has decided that he is going to fly deep into enemy territory and find an opponent to shoot down. Coppens feels virtually “invulnerable” today. It has something to do with his confidence in his own ability—he is now a competent pilot even though his combat experience is limited—but it also has something to do with his confidence in his machine: a Sopwith 1½ Strutter, the fastest and most modern aircraft type Coppens has ever flown.g They cross the front line at Ypres and for once everything is quiet in the shell-shattered swathe of country around that shell-shattered town. A little to the south there is a British offensive going on at Arras, and right down on the Aisne there is a battle still raging around Le Chemin des Dames.h Their flight path takes them north-east. At a height of just over 3,000 metres they pass over Langemarck and the old battlefield of 1914. As the plane flies in over the great forest of Houthulst Coppens finally sees what he is looking for. He catches sight of four German single-seaters; they are below him but have started to climb in his direction. As he tries to manoeuvre into a position to attack, he keeps a careful watch on them—so careful that he does not see four other enemy planes creeping up from the opposite direction.
A classic beginner’s mistake.
Coppens remains oblivious until the first clattering salvo strikes home.
Probability is the enemy of fighter pilots in this war: there are simply too many things that might go wrong. The aircraft are easily combustible, the construction fragile, the engines weak, protection non-existent and the armament unreliable. They have no parachutes.i The fact that aircraft engines must be hand cranked and do not have a starter motor means that there is nothing to be done if they cut out in the air. (The usual altitude for air combat is between 3,000 and 6,000 metres. It is always cold at that altitude, which as well as giving constant discomfort to the pilots in their open cockpits can also easily lead to engine failure because of problems with the cooling and lubrication systems.) It is not only the sudden silence after a crash that Coppens finds distressing; the sudden silence when an engine cuts out in the air is almost as bad.
Few if any combatants were faced with such appalling odds against survival as Allied pilots in the late spring of 1917. People talk with horror of “Bloody April.” With the help of technically better machines, improved training and new tactics, the German air force has slowly achieved superiority in the air. This superiority is peaking just now, during the Arras offensive. During the past month the French pulled back many of their badly mauled squadrons in order to rebuild them, but the British chose to continue the battle in the vain hope that superior numbers would make up for technical and training deficiencies.j The result has been a massacre. Great Britain has lost one third of all her fighter planes in the last month. On average, a British fighter pilot has only seventeen and a half flying hours before being killed.
Willy Coppens is now perilously close to becoming one of these statistics. The salvo from the German fighter rattles along his machine. A fragment of a bullet that struck a stay-wire hits the left side of his head with great force but without leaving a wound. The blow, however, knocks him to the right and the joystick—and consequently the plane—follows his involuntary movement. Which is a piece of pure luck, since it means that the rest of the salvo goes in at a slight angle, along the fuselage of the plane rather than broadside.
Coppens describes the experience as being “squirted all over with molten lead” and afterwards he willingly confesses “that being shot at is bad for the nervous system.”
In all the panic, however, he remembers the advice he was recently given by a French pilot. If a larger, two-seater machine like his is attacked by a smaller single-seater there is only one thing to do: keep turning, turn back and forth. The simple point being to give the fighter as little chance as possible of hitting its target.
So that is what Coppens does; he turns, pendulums, twists, swings and sways, all the time losing height in irregular spirals. His aircraft hardly remains in level flight for a second at a time. Coppens himself scarcely sees the enemy, now and then catching a glimpse of one plane or another with a big black cross painted on it diving at his aircraft or climbing up into position for a new attack. He can hear them, though, and at regular intervals he can also hear his observer firing his machine gun at the enemy in short bursts.
Once Coppens has crossed back over his own lines the four German fighters break off the attack and fly away. It has taken four and a half minutes but it feels like “an eternity” to him. During the short battle he lost 1,200 metres of height.
After they land he and his observer inspect the damage. They count thirty-two bullet holes, twenty-nine of which are so close to the cockpit that Coppens can touch them without leaving his seat. One bullet went right between his knees and then passed very close to his right hand resting on the joystick. But apart from the fragment that he finds embedded in the leather of his helmet he has not been hit. He calls it “a miracle.” Invulnerable?
In Kastamonu, where Edward Mousley is sitting writing his journal, it is spring and green.
The band has made great strides. I’m now first violin and leader of the “Orchestra.” We have five violins, two cellos and a double bass, besides the drums, two clarionettes [sic], flute and banjo, and the Human Crotchetk has made commendable progress in writing out our music from bits of anything we got through the post, piano solos, and many we have had to write from memory. We perform on Saturday evenings alternately at either house. Sometimes we sound almost like a seaside band at Home!!! I long for the old Queen’s Hall concerts again.
Mousley also spends his time writing for Smoke, a hand-written newspaper which is secretly passed around among the British prisoners of war in Kastamonu. He is also sketching out a project about international law and the possibility of starting a supranational organisation after the war, “a possible Society of Nations or International Body.” He longs to be home. He thinks about escaping.
MONDAY, 21 MAY 1917
Harvey Cushing sees wreckage in the Atlantic
It is their tenth day at sea and for once the weather is good. The sun is shining and the sea is calm. The ship is called SS Saxonia and it is carrying Harvey Cushing and the rest of the staff of Base Hospital No. 5, one of the very first American units to be sent over to the war in Europe. It is just a month since the United States entered the war—to make the world “safe for democracy.” The intervention has, economically speaking, made things safe for the British, anyway. They have been fighting this war on credit, credit that appeared to be running out at the end of last year, and some members of the British government had been talking sombrely of the risk of economic collapse. Now, at the eleventh hour, Britain has been propped up with American money and, not least, with cheap American raw materials.
The voyage so far has been undramatic but anxious. SS Saxonia has been sailing alonel and the ship has been zig-zagging constantly across the ocean, ever watchful for the periscope of a U-boat. All of them are wearing life jackets twenty-four hours a day and they practise taking to the lifeboats time after time. At evening time everything seems to be coloured various shades of blue-grey: the ship, the sea, the clouds.
Military formalities have begun to lay a heavy hand even on this essentially unmilitary unit. Armed guards can now be seen on different parts of the vessel, exercises are performed on deck, shoes are well polished, and when the officers do their daily gymnastic exercises they ensure that the other ranks cannot watch in case it undermines their respect for their superiors. Cushing has some difficulty getting used to it. He was more than a little surprised when he was given his spurs (purely a token of being an officer, since Base Hospital No. 5 has no horses) and a pistol (Model M 1911)—“a villainous-looking, greasy automatic,” which he rarely carries and has no intention of using.
It is not that Cushing has any doubts about the war. He has been convinced for a long time that the United States would be drawn in sooner or later—indeed, must become involved. And he has been working both long and hard to prepare his professional colleagues back in Boston for it. The month he spent in France as a sort of medical observer in the spring of 1915 helped to increase his hatred of the war as a phenomenon but lessened his fear of it as an event. He was rarely afraid on the occasions he visited the front. As he wrote in his journal that spring: “the further away from home you get and the closer you actually get to the scene of the war, the less you hear about it and the less terrifying it seems.” As a neurologist he then became very interested in the phenomenon of “shell shock,” and this purely professional motivation still remains. But other, much more powerful factors have been added to that.
At that time he had been a neutral observer and he had treated the endless stories of German aggression with scepticism. That cool and distant stance has been eroded. The decisive moment came on 8 May 1915. He was off Ireland on his way back to the United States when his ship sailed into the wreckage of RMS Lusitania, which had been sunk by a German U-boat the day before with the loss of 1,198 men, women and children, 124 of them American citizens. They had ploughed their way through wreckage for a whole hour and Cushing, in a state of shock, had seen deckchairs, oars and boxes drifting past and, worst of all, the bodies of a woman and a child alongside a collapsible life raft. A trawler was circling in the distance, picking up bodies—for a bounty of one pound each.
Those are the memories that come to the surface now, on this day in May 1917, when he sees wreckage. This time, no more than a plank, some pieces of rubbish and a life jacket. That afternoon they are joined by an escort vessel, a small and aged destroyer with the number 29 painted on its bows. The destroyer takes up station 500 yards behind them and they cheer and wave, considerably relieved. Cushing thinks that more people will risk sleeping below deck tonight.
They practise stretcher-bearing on the upper deck later that afternoon—their inexperience shows. The training is done with the help of an instruction manual. All of their new army suitcases are stacked in the bow and if everything goes according to plan they will dock in Falmouth at six o’clock tomorrow morning.
TUESDAY, 29 MAY 1917
Angus Buchanan is put ashore on a white sandy beach in Lindi
There are times when three months can pass quickly. That is how long Buchanan’s unit has been down in Cape Town, that is how long their visit to “a beautiful, peaceful land”—pure heaven—has lasted. This period of rest was utterly essential and it is doubtful whether the 25th Royal Fusiliers could have continued without it. The mood of both officers and men during the latter part of their time in East Africa was one of depression and apathy.
There is, anyway, little that can be done during the wet season and battalions of black troops from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and the West Indies were left to hold the fort in the pouring rain.
The rested units are now on their way back to East Africa by boat, refreshed and ready, as the word has it, to finish the business off. Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces may have been pushed back into the south-eastern corner of the colony, but they are still undefeated. The new South African Allied commander Major General Sir Louis “Japie” van Deventer, is intent on more direct combat and fewer of the ingenious but usually fruitless pincer movements. (“Hard hitting” is his chosen method.) All of those tortuous marches through bush and jungle were aimed at reducing combat losses while outmanoeuvring the enemy, but time after time they led to lines of communication being stretched to breaking point. The general feeling is that the lives saved on the battlefield by the tactics of Smuts—the previous commander—were lost several times over in the hospitals.m And many of those who, like Buchanan, were evacuated to South Africa to recover were in such a miserable and emaciated condition that it caused widespread concern. Most people had not seen white men in that condition before: blacks, yes; whites, never.
The convoy loaded with troops for the coming offensive is made up of five vessels. They have dropped anchor just over a mile from a beach of white sand, which is where the troops are to disembark. Just a short distance away is the town of Lindi, which is already in British hands. Buchanan writes:
We viewed the shore with mixed feelings; adventure still held an attraction to us, but the country had, in its latent possibilities, the power to appal the searchings of imagination, and it was with feelings more sober than otherwise that we contemplated the land before us. For there lay the bush-land, as it had always lain before us, an over-dark picture which no man could surely read.
A small steamer comes up alongside the cruiser and the men pick up their packs, their equipment and their rifles and climb down into it. The steamer transports them to a waiting longboat, which takes them the final, shallow stretch. Then they are carried, dry-shod, on the backs of the black oarsmen, up onto the white sand.
THURSDAY, 31 MAY 1917
Richard Stumpf sees twenty Iron Crosses awarded on SMS Helgoland
When there are no new victories you have to make as much as you can of the old ones. The first anniversary of the Battle of Jutland is marked by great celebrations throughout the High Seas Fleet. The captain of SMS Helgoland gives a speech “with fiery eyes.” The further he gets into his highly charged oration, the more polemical and shrill he becomes:
“Our enemies are working with a special purpose in mind, which is to break the bond between our Supreme Commander and his navy and his army. Once the House of Hohenzollern has been overthrown they will compel us to accept a parliamentary form of government similar to that in England and in France. Which means that, just like them, we shall be ruled by merchants, lawyers and journalists. In those countries, whenever they grow tired of a general or a military leader they simply dismiss him. But when this war is over we shall need an even stronger army and an even stronger navy. You must oppose all those who want to introduce parliamentary government into Germany, and you must never forget that the greatness of Germany stands and falls with her imperial dynasty, with her army and with her young navy. Remember one thing: the social democrats in all the countries we are at war with desire to destroy us.”
The finale is three cheers for “His Majesty, Our Supreme Commander in War,” after which twenty Iron Crosses are awarded on a more or less random basis to men who took part in the battle.
Stumpf, as usual, feels divided, concerned and angry. The energy of the speaker and the power of the words take hold of him and he feels more than thinks that some of what has been said might possibly be true. But if his emotions pull him in one direction, his reason pulls him in another. He understands very well why the captain holds these views, and perhaps he would think the same way if he was an officer. But he is nothing but an ordinary seaman, a “propertyless proletarian,” as he puts it himself, and, as such, it is impossible for him to support “any increase in the autocratic power of the Kaiser, the army and the navy.” Indeed, “it is easy to talk about such a thing if you don’t have to pay for it yourself.” Stumpf has no fear of a parliamentary system and he thinks there are many good men among the leaders of Germany’s enemies. Just now, he would “rather be an English slave than a German seaman.”
The restlessness, irritation and disappointment that have built up in Stumpf during the years since the outbreak of war are only partly a result of the frustration he feels at the rigid discipline and the monumental tedium caused by the inactivity of the fleet. He is also filled with anger, an anger directed at Germany in its current form, particularly at what Stumpf regards as the fundamental principle that lies at the heart of the country—the class system. That, ultimately, is what has caused the ultra-patriot of 1914 to become the confused but angry radical of 1917.
The war has developed into something that few people foresaw and even fewer desired, and the class system is one of the things that has been unmasked: where decades of socialist and anarchist propaganda failed to lay bare the lies, hypocrisy and paradoxes of the old order, a couple of years of war have succeeded in doing so. And there are few places in which the absurdities of Europe have been so thoroughly exposed as in the German High Seas Fleet.
The officers and the crew live together, are both metaphorically and literally in the same boat, but their living conditions are actually grotesquely different. That is true of everything from their food and their living quarters (officers’ cabins are furnished like upper-class homes, with oriental rugs, padded leather armchairs and original art) to their working conditions and leisure (ordinary seamen are rarely given leave whereas officers can sometimes be excused from duty for months on end and, when in port, often sleep in their own homes). The proximity which is inevitable aboard ship has revealed these hitherto hidden distinctions with unprecedented clarity. At the same time, the absence of activity, of battle and of victories—in short, of blood—has made it possible to question the differences.
Things are different in the army. Even though there are eye-catching differences in conditions there too, there are practical reasons why they are not so glaring, and they can even be excused to some extent by reference to the demands and sacrifices of army service. There is no more dangerous occupation in this war than that of a junior officer in the infantry.n In the navy, however, in the virtually immobile High Seas Fleet, the demands on officers are small and their sacrifices even smaller. So what justification can there be for their privileges other than that they come from a privileged class? And is there not a real possibility that all this high-flown talk of honour and duty and sacrifice will eventually lose its power and stand revealed as a pretext to keep the masses in their place?
Stumpf sees manifestations of the class system even in this anniversary celebration. The officers naturally keep their own company in their luxuriously appointed mess and enjoy a bacchanalia that goes on until four o’clock in the morning. The ordinary seamen are treated to nothing more than “a few barrels of watery beer” and their party is held up on the deck. What bothers Stumpf most, however, is not that the officers get so much and the crew so little—what really upsets him this evening is that so many of the ordinary seamen are still prepared to bow and scrape to their masters (who grin at them condescendingly) in order to be rewarded with some words of appreciation and some crumbs from their table:
The officers’ mess resembled a lunatic asylum. But what was even more scandalous was to see the seamen begging beer, cigarettes and schnapps off these drunkards. I could have screamed out loud at the way they humiliated themselves. Some of them lost all self-control and assured the officers that they were good sailors and good Prussians, and as a reward they got an extra glass of beer. It finally reached the stage where they were cheering individual officers and their generosity.
WEDNESDAY, 6 JUNE 1917
Paolo Monelli marches up to the front line at the Cima della Caldiera
Evening. They march. The long column of the battalion makes its way steadily upwards in the dusk. They all know where they are going. Those who were here during last year’s battles point out the places they recognise and name the names of men who fell. “Via dolorosa.” At first, looking down, down into the valley bathed in moonlight, gives Monelli a marked feeling of vertigo, but soon his growing tiredness means that he slowly loses interest in everything around him. Finally, there is only the tramping of feet, and weariness.
They march across the plateau under the cover of darkness, feeling the vague waves of cold coming up from the snow that is still left. He sees some big fires and he sees men sleeping: these are the units that will be in tomorrow’s attack. He thinks, Poor devils. Then he thinks:
Every man’s lot seems more wretched than my own. Not to have been selected to take part in the first wave of the attack seems to me to be an immense piece of good fortune and I am amazed that these men can sleep so calmly, these men who once outside the trench tomorrow will let go of everything that protects their lives. I am afraid for them. (It’s not so different from the times I have been seized by vertigo when standing on a boulder watching a man clinging to a sheer rock-face—and then the next day I have followed in his footsteps.)
They reach their goal at dawn and make camp. He sees cliffs, snow and the occasional pine tree.
MONDAY, 11 JUNE 1917
Angus Buchanan comes under attack at Ziwani
Where is the enemy? Where are our own people? These are the questions that always come up during night operations. At the stroke of twelve, under cover of darkness, Buchanan’s 25th Royal Fusiliers, together with one of the growing number of black battalions, are put ashore at a spot up the Lukuledi river ten miles from Lindi and the coast. The idea is a good one: in this way they, in combination with a force that is advancing in the north, will outflank the strong German positions closer to the coast.
The problem is that a march that would be difficult enough in daylight will be something approaching a nightmare in the dark, and in the bush. For once, however, those in command have thought about this. The idea is that Buchanan’s battalion will march through flat bush country along a narrow-gauge railway that they know runs from the river in the direction of Mkwaya. Which is what they do, with the result that his unit moves quite quickly. They all got wet and cold while disembarking on the muddy river bank and the march warms them up. But the questions remain: where is the enemy and where are the rest of our own people? They hope that the black battalion is advancing on a parallel course somewhere to the left of them.
Buchanan hears a solitary cock crowing, loud and clear. He realises that they are approaching a settlement and that dawn is close. He can see a weak glimmer of light on the horizon. He can hear the first muffled explosions of artillery in the distance. It is one of their own gunboats, which has been seen and engaged in an exchange of fire. Soon he can also hear the sound of the British aeroplanes that have been sent up to spot the enemy, who is keeping himself well concealed in the fragrant, dark-green bush.
They pass Mkwaya in the pale light of dawn and there the column turns west in the direction of Mozambique. Two hours later it is broad daylight. When they come up onto a ridge near Ziwani they get their first sighting of what they have been watching for since midnight—the enemy. On the other side of the valley, less than a mile away, large groups of German askaris are on the move. He can also see puffs of smoke from the enemy artillery—105mm pieces that the Germans, with their usual talent for improvisation, have salvaged from the light cruiser SMS Königsberg after it was knocked out by the British. When Buchanan and the others move down into the valley they discover that the enemy is already there and they immediately encounter strong German patrols. There are some confused exchanges of fire and the British withdraw to the top of the ridge. It soon becomes clear that the battalion on their left has also made contact with the enemy and the 25th Royal Fusiliers are ordered to dig in on the ridge for the time being.
This work takes the rest of the morning and goes on again after lunch.
At two o’clock, however, something happens.
From a distance of no more than thirty yards there is sudden, deafening and intense gunfire from askaris equipped with both rifles and machine guns. They have crept forward through the bush and tall grass completely unseen. Buchanan compares the noise to the clash of a violent thunderstorm.
When he comes to describe the events later he finds it difficult to give a clear picture once the fierce close-range fighting began:
From then on one lost all reckoning of time, all reckoning of everything, except that there was something big on that kept every energy alive and working at fever speed.
One small piece of luck for the British is that the attackers make what is a very common mistake when fighting in dense vegetation: they instinctively aim too high, with the result that most of the bullets go over the defenders’ heads. There is, however, one drawback: the swathes of bullets shoot down bees’ nests that are hanging in the trees and the infuriated insects attack everything and everyone they can find. The stings of this species are particularly painful, and when the otherwise reticent Buchanan writes that the pain drives them “almost crazy” he is not exaggerating. This type of thing happened on several occasions during the campaign in East Africa and on one occasion Buchanan saw a man so badly stung that he quite literally went out of his mind.
The fighting is over by the evening. The attackers withdraw and the 25th Royal Fusiliers remain on the ridge. All the British troops are covered with yellow swellings, in some cases their faces are so swollen that they have difficulty in seeing. Tomorrow they will go back towards Lindi.
THURSDAY, 14 JUNE 1917
Michel Corday strolls along a Paris boulevard in the evening sun
A whole new theme—not a mere variation—has been added to the old one. Understandably enough, it is related to the American entry into the war. Michel Corday has been in the Chambre des Députés listening to René Viviani. Corday does not have a high opinion of Viviani. It is not just because the man is a weak politician surrounded by rumours of drug abuse, but mainly because of what he did, or rather did not do, in 1914. Viviani, a man of the left who was prime minister at the time of the outbreak of war, had done nothing to avert the catastrophe; indeed, he was one of those who pushed for the war credits that were a necessary precondition for fighting the war.
Viviani’s days as a “Man with Power” are already more or less over, but there is still considerable use for his talents as a speaker, which are undoubtedly great. Viviani specialises in stylish and excited rhetorical flourishes and, as always in these situations, the manner in which something is said is at least as important as the words spoken. The speech he made was, indeed, “an oratorical triumph.” He said more or less the same thing as everyone else is saying and on this occasion, as usual, he put the needle down on the same scratched old record that proclaims fighting “to the bitter end.” But something new was added, something that made Corday catch his breath. The war has a new goal, a new meaning, a new excuse. Its real purpose is now said to be so that “our sons’ sons will not need to lose their lives in such conflicts.” So that’s what it is all about! They are fighting a war to put an end to all wars. A new idea. Neat. A neat slogan.
It is almost seven o’clock in the evening as Corday strolls along one of the boulevards in warm, low sunshine. Street life is a motley scene and in many ways a reflection of the war:
[There are] prostitutes with hats the size of parasols, knee-length skirts, bosoms bared, diaphanous stockings and made-up faces; young officers with unbuttoned collars and magnificent medal ribbons; Allied soldiers—muscular British, inoffensive Belgians, unfortunate Portuguese, Russians with their impressive marching boots, young men in tight battledress.
Corday also comes across a representative of a new phenomenon, the soldier beggar. Of late it has become usual to see them at restaurants or cafés. They are often wearing medals on their chests, fine medals like the Croix de Guerre, awarded for heroism in the field. They sell picture postcards or sing patriotic songs to collect a little money.
The begging soldier Corday meets on the pavement has an arm missing. He is also drunk. He is meandering through the stream of people, asking one, then another, for a few coppers or for a cigarette at least. And he repeats the same word all the time: “Peace … peace …”
Corday later talks to an acquaintance who tells him that the mutinies in the French army are not over and that over 400 mutineers have been shot so far.o His friend also tells him about one mutineer who, when threatened with this fate, said: “If they shoot me at least I’ll know why I died.”
WEDNESDAY, 20 JUNE 1917
Florence Farmborough returns to the front at Voloschyna
A summer sun. Heat. Thunder in the air. Up on the hill she can see tents covered with branches. She can see horses clustering under the few trees to enjoy the shade. She can see figures bathing in the muddy water of the river. Farmborough is happy to be back. Everything is quiet at the moment, but rumour says that the Russian army will launch a new attack in a few days and in that case they will have more than enough to do.
Farmborough has been away for only a few days to meet some British nurses in another unit, but it was long enough to make her sensitive to things that had earlier passed as everyday normality. Like the food. She hesitates when the standard soldier’s gruel is served. The lumps of fat disgust her. And the fish soup is too salty. Despite her hunger she does not eat anything apart from black bread, washed down with tea. She finds the conversation depressing and the mood is argumentative.
After dinner, I walked up to the top of our hill with Sofiya. In the far distance were the high mountain peaks, bathed in a soft, cobalt haze. The small villages of Saranchuki, Kotov and Ribniki were lying far below us in their respective valleys; we could see that the homesteads were ruined and deserted. The enemy’s trenches were visible; they seemed perilously near the Russian lines—only 70 feet away, Sofiya said she had heard. There are scarlet patches of poppies in the fields around, marguerites too and a few cornflowers. There is something so comforting, so home-like, about a field of poppies.
On the same day Elfriede Kuhr notes in her diary:
This war is a ghost in grey rags, a skull with maggots crawling out of it. New, hard battles have been raging in the west in recent months. We are fighting at Le Chemin des Dames, at Aisne and in Champagne. The whole region is a field of ruins, blood and mud everywhere. The English have brought in a new and terrible weapon, an armoured vehicle on rollers which can get across any kind of barrier. These armoured vehicles are called tanks.p No one is safe from them: they roll over every artillery battery, every trench, every position and flatten them—not to mention what they do to the soldiers. Anyone who tries to take shelter in a shellhole no longer has a chance. Then we have that beastly poison gas. The English and the French (unlike the German soldiers) still don’t have really safe gas masks with an oxygen supply. There is also a sort of poison gas that eats its way through clothes. What a way to die!
MONDAY, 25 JUNE 1917
Paolo Monelli’s battalion enters the inferno on Monte Ortigara
Now it is their turn. They have been waiting for this moment. For about a fortnight they have watched battalion after battalion dispatched towards the top of Monte Ortigara and each time they have also watched the result: first to come are the stretcher-bearers with the wounded and the mules with the dead, then—after a few hours or a few days—what remains of the battalion trudges past. That is how it works, such are the mechanics of it. Battalions are sent into the mill of artillery fire and remain there being ground mercilessly down until they have lost the majority of their men. Then they are replaced by new battalions, which stay until they have lost the majority of their men. Then they are replaced by new battalions, which stay until they have lost the majority of their men. And so on.
It is called a materiel battle. Now and again one side or the other will mount an attack, through valleys filled with craters still warm from shell-bursts, up towards some peak or over rocky ridges. But, for the most part, the infantry has no other task than to hang on grimly to a particular point, a point that seems to them to have been chosen more or less at random but which has some significance in the cartographic reality inhabited by the general staff or in the deluded world of victory communiqués. These “points” are often places that God or the surveyors saw fit to give an elevation to, which elevation has then ended up firmly established on the map as 2003 or 2101 or 2105—figures which in due course are transmogrified into “hills” to be conquered or defended.q Things look bad this morning. The thunder of artillery fire is stronger than ever when Monelli wakes at dawn. He crawls out of his sleeping bag and goes out to see what is going on. After a while the battalion is ordered to form up. They set off, a long line of silent, heavily laden men moving uphill, always uphill along a narrow track that runs along the high, steep rock wall. The sun is rising higher in a blue sky and it looks like being a hot day.
The soldiers’ faces express what Monelli describes as “a calm resignation in the face of the inevitable.” As far as possible he avoids thinking, tries to lose himself in details and practicalities. And it works quite well. He notes to his joy that his voice sounds crisp and controlled when he is giving an order to one of his subordinates. He tests his feelings: does he have any premonitions? No, he does not, but a line of poetry by Giosuè Carducci, the Nobel prizewinner, has stuck in his head: Venne il dì nostro, e vincere bisogna—“Our day has come, and we must be victorious.” Monelli feels he has been transformed into a tool, a good and strong tool governed by a power far outside his own body. He sees a column on its way out with its mules. He sees the clouds from bursting shrapnel shells, all black and orange.
Eventually they come to a cave, the mouth of which opens out towards the line of battle. Once they leave it they will come under direct fire. The mouth of the cave is narrow and crowded, full of telephonists and artillerymen who squeeze against the cold walls of the cave to allow Monelli and his companions through. They give him and the other Alpini long, searching looks that take Monelli by surprise and he immediately tries to put them out of his mind. But the thought has already sunk in: “Good God, so it’s that bad.”
The captain says just one word: “Andiamo!” Forward!
At which they take off at a run and rush one after another in quick succession out into the open air, rather like people jumping off the top board at a swimming baths. The Austrian machine guns begin to rattle. Monelli leaps forward and down. He sees a man hit in the head by a big shell splinter. He sees that the ground is full of small shell holes. He sees bodies, small piles of them at some points, and takes note that those places must be particularly dangerous, those are places to be careful. He takes shelter among some rocks and gathers his breath for the next stretch. “The whole of one’s life passes in a moment of remorse, a premonition comes to the surface and is dismissed with terror.” Then he sets off, hurls himself forward, some bullets whizz past—zio, zio—and he is past it. But he sees the captain lying back there.
They are warned about gas and he struggles to put on his gas mask. After five minutes he takes it off again—it is impossible to run with it on. They carry on down into the next dip in the ground. It is packed with dead bodies, both old corpses from the battles last year, which are now little more than skeletons dressed in rags, and fresh bodies, still warm and still bleeding—but all of them are united in the same timeless state. Monelli comes to another dangerous passage. There is an Austrian machine gun ready and waiting further on and it opens fire on anyone who dares try to cross—six or seven men have already been mown down. He sees a man hesitate—his friend has just been hit. The man is talking about going back but the way back is just as dangerous. He sees the man cross himself and then throw himself out across the rocky slope. The machine gun spits but the man escapes and runs, jumps and tumbles on down the slope. Monelli does likewise.
It is about twelve o’clock. The sun is shining. It is hot.
Now it is uphill again, up over a ridge. And there, finally, Monelli reaches his company’s position. Position? It is no more than a long row of blackened rocks and great mounds of stones on a ledge, and they squeeze in behind them, motionless, silent, wide-eyed, utterly ineffectual under the heavy shelling, passive, but there. A young soldier sees Monelli and stands up to warn him, beckons him towards his own shelter, but is struck in the chest by a projectile and crumples.
Later Monelli and his battalion commander go looking for the brigade command post and eventually find it in a cave in the mountain. The sandbagged mouth of the cave is, as usual, jammed with people who have taken shelter from the constant artillery barrage. It is so overcrowded that the two of them climb over arms, legs and bodies and no one even reacts. The staff officers are located right at the back of the cave, where it is dark and absolutely silent. If Monelli and his commanding officer thought that the news that two battalions of reinforcements have arrived would be greeted with gratitude and perhaps even jubilation, they are disappointed. The staff officers have not heard of their arrival and greet them “without any enthusiasm.” The mood in the dark cool cave is gloomy, more than gloomy in fact—it is marked by humiliation and resignation, a feeling of being abandoned to the inevitable. The brigadier, overcome with weariness, says, “As you can see, we are surrounded by the enemy and he can do what he wants with us.”
In spite of that, they depart with an order to attack, improvised at random by the brigadier. Monelli thinks that someone at the highest level—the officer commanding the corps, perhaps—is in the process of a mental breakdown because the instructions they receive become increasingly contradictory and incoherent. When they do receive them, that is, since the constant artillery bombardment cuts the telephone cables about every five minutes. Then men have to be sent out into the noise and the smoke and the whirring shell splinters to find and fix the break. Being a signaller is the most dangerous occupation up on Monte Ortigara.
But it is not only the signallers who are victims of one of the many paradoxes of the war—in this case, the fact that the ability of the armies to cause destruction has increased much more than the generals’ ability to control and direct their troops. Communications almost invariably break down during major battles, with the result that battles turn into a blind and confused melee of butting and jabbing amid the smoke of exploding shells.r Darkness falls. The air is filled with three smells: the bitter odour of explosives, the sweet stench of putrefaction and the sour stink of human excrement. Everyone does his business wherever he happens to be crouching or lying, simply taking down his trousers in full view of everyone else. Anything else would be stupid. Bitter, sweet, sour.
That night one of the companies attacks Hill 2003. They take it.
Three days later the Austrians take it back.
SATURDAY, 30 JUNE 1917
Paolo Monelli returns from Monte Ortigara
He has survived five days up there. There have been times when they have been under fire from every point of the compass at the same time. It has sometimes felt as if the whole mountain was being criss-crossed by powerful electrical currents: the earth itself has trembled, jumped, crackled, hissed. They have lived with dead men, lived off dead men, using their ammunition, eating their rations, drinking from their water bottles, stacking their bodies on the top edge of the barricade to stop the bullets, standing on them to avoid frostbitten feet. After two days they had already lost every second man, dead, wounded or shell shocked. It has occurred to Monelli that maybe one in ten will come through unharmed and he hopes and prays to be one of them. When the enemy artillery holds fire for a while, he seeks omens by randomly consulting lines in his pocket Dante.
And he has survived.
Monelli notes in his journal:
A sense of dumb amazement at being reborn, at sitting in the sun in the doorway of the tent and receiving new impressions. Life is something good to eat and we chew it in silence with healthy teeth. The dead are impatient comrades who set off in haste on unknown missions of their own. We, however, feel how the warm caress of life reaches us. Sipping gently at some pleasing family memory, and then the relief of once again being able to tell the poor old folk down there that the prodigal son is returning—something one did not have the courage to think about on the day we set off.
THURSDAY, 19 JULY 1917
René Arnaud sees Marie Delna receive a mixed reception in Noyon
Why shouldn’t a performance be concluded in the traditional way with “La Marseillaise”? The commanding officer of the division is surprised and not a little upset. The theatre director, probably a touch embarrassed and nervous, explains that they “have learned from bitter experience that with morale as low as it is at present it is better to avoid singing the French national anthem in front of the troops.”
It is three months since mutinies broke out in the French army and it is only now that the army can be considered fit for combat again. But only just. The tensions are still there under the surface.
The mutinies at the end of April are perhaps best described as an implosion of disillusion. The generals and the politicians blame socialist agitation, pacifist propaganda, the spread of revolutionary infection from Russia and so on. It has been a troubled spring in France in general. There is no doubt that there is the same war weariness as in Russia and, in some respects, it has manifested itself in the same ways: disobedience, strikes and demonstrations. These things are not, however, being driven by dreams of the future but by the nightmares of the present. And underlying everything is a colossal sense of disappointment.
The great French offensive in April began to the sound of the same fanfares of rhetorical exaggeration as the great offensive in Champagne in the autumn of 1915: the preparations were flawless, the Germans were at breaking point, a breakthrough was certain, the decisive point had been reached, victory was assured and so on. Sweeping promises that the war would be decided within forty-eight hours made even the most war-weary pull themselves together and make an effort. Allons enfants de la Patrie / Le jour de gloire est arrivé! But when the offensive ran into the sand with minimal success and maximal losses, something quite simply broke.s Arnaud’s own battalion was not affected by the mutinies—it comes from the Vendée, a region with traditions that are anything but revolutionary. They first became aware of the events one night when they were supposed to come out of the front line after ten days there, but they were informed that their relief was being postponed for twenty-four hours. The battalion that was meant to be taking their place had refused to enter the trenches until a number of carefully specified demands had been addressed.
It is probably because his troops held firm during the mutinies that their commanding officer insists that “La Marseillaise” shall be sung at the end. The theatre director submits—reluctantly. Today’s theatre performance can also be seen as an expression of the solicitude the military command now feels compelled to demonstrate for its men as a result of the mutinies. The performance takes place alfresco so that as many men as possible can attend. Since it is high summer, being outdoors is no great problem.
Towards the end of the performance the star of the show takes to the improvised stage. The star is no less a figure than Marie Delna, perhaps the finest contralto in Europe, with a decade of successes behind her: the Paris Opéra, naturally, but also La Scala in Milan, Covent Garden in London and the Metropolitan in New York. A very big star, indeed. And big in girth too, these days, as Arnaud and the rest of the audience note: the fragile, sylph-like creature they are familiar with from posters and photographs has metamorphosed into an enormously fat woman. She sings as beautifully as before, however, standing on the stage in some sort of white chemise with a tricolour in her hand. Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! / Marchons, marchons! Thundering out such exhortations might well seem a touch provocative in the current situation when so many people are unwilling to do the first or the second, and especially the third.
When she has finished singing the final verses the applause from the majority of the soldiers is mixed with hissing. The commanding officer goes berserk with rage and gives orders for the men who hissed to be identified. Which proves to be a pointless exercise.
SATURDAY, 21 JULY 1917
Alfred Pollard receives his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace
There are twenty-four Victoria Crosses being awarded, but there are only eighteen men waiting in the fenced-off area at Buckingham Palace: the other six are being awarded posthumously. Standing alongside are a number of people in civilian clothes—they are the close relations who will receive the medals on behalf of the men who have died. A military band is playing and there is a guard of honour formed up and bearing flags. A crowd of onlookers can be glimpsed behind the tall, gilded railings that surround the palace.
The celebrations began as soon as it was announced that Pollard had been awarded the Victoria Cross, but they were nothing compared to what was waiting for him when, along with another winner of the VC, he travelled home for a month’s leave. Since then his life has been a round of parties, visits to the theatre, invitations to dinner, cheering and pats on the back. He has sometimes been embarrassed but has always been pleased. When the two of them try to pay for their own drinks there is always someone who pushes in front and insists on treating them. If they arrive at a posh restaurant they are immediately recognised, taken to the front of the queue and shown to the best available table. Pollard is famous. His picture is in the papers.
Pollard is also engaged. To Mary Ainsley, “My Lady,” the woman who once so firmly turned him down. He suspected that one of her reasons was that he was then just an unknown ordinary soldier, but now, now! Now he is an officer and has been awarded the highest and most prestigious military honour the British Empire can bestow. The war has given him a new level of self-confidence and one evening he put his arms round her and poured out a torrent of “half incoherent phrases” about how much he loved her and wanted her. During a walk the following morning, Mary said that she still did not love him but that it would be wrong to disappoint him when he loved her so much—and love is something that can grow. The engagement ring is made of platinum, set with diamonds and a black pearl. They have spent the last few days at a hotel on the coast together with some friends, swimming, taking boat trips, walking, going to concerts, enjoying good dinners and having their first quarrel.
But now he is here, waiting outside Buckingham Palace along with seventeen other men. There is a special hook on each man’s uniform to make it easy for His Majesty to attach the medal. Then the formalities start. Everyone comes to attention and the guard presents arms. The band breaks off the piece it is playing and strikes up “God Save the King” instead. The guard of honour lowers its flags. The King appears. The King! He is accompanied by a shoal of adjutants. The eighteen men stand rigidly at attention. The music dies away. “Stand at ease!”
They are called forward one by one, Pollard being the sixth in line. Just like the others he marches forward ten paces and comes to attention in front of the monarch. A colonel reads the official citation, which starts, “For the most conspicuous bravery and determination.” When the last words of the citation have been read—“with an utter contempt of danger, this officer, who has already won the DCM and MC, infused courage into every man who saw him”—the King hangs the medal with its wine-red ribbon on the hook on his chest and utters some words of praise. He then shakes Pollard’s hand, hard, so hard that a cut Pollard got during his seaside holiday opens up again. The newly decorated twenty-five-year-old takes a step back and salutes.
That is the high point of Pollard’s war; indeed, the high point of his life.
Alfred Pollard, the insurance clerk from London, doomed to a life of insignificance and tedium, has now achieved everything he has ever dreamt of, become the man he always believed he was. And it is the war that made it possible.
After the ceremony there is a packed programme of festivities and tributes, and tomorrow he will return to the continent. There is a rumour going round that a big British offensive is being planned somewhere in Flanders. He is aware of a new and unusual emotion: for the very first time ever he is not burning with impatience to get back into battle.
That day Willy Coppens goes into combat in a single-seater aeroplane:
Over Schoore I met a two-seater machine circling round at an altitude of 3,200 metres. I attacked it with determination but without the least effect. The passenger in the two-seater fired back at me but also achieved nothing—my plane showed no trace of a hit. At 500 metres I let go of my prey, who disappeared, and I was left cursing my incompetence.
A DAY IN JULY 1917
Paolo Monelli witnesses the execution of two deserters
Dawn. The whole company is standing waiting in a small woodland glade. The firing squad is also there, as is the doctor. And the priest, who is trembling with fear at what is to happen. The first of the two prisoners arrives:
Look, there is the first of the condemned men. Weeping but without tears. A rattle from his tight throat. Not a word. His eyes no longer express anything. His face just shows the dull fear of an animal about to be slaughtered. When he is led up to a fir tree his legs will not hold him and he crumples. He has to be tied to the trunk with some telephone cable. The priest, pale as a corpse himself, embraces him. Meanwhile the platoon is formed up in two ranks. The front rank will do the shooting. The adjutant of the regiment has already explained to them: “I’ll give the signal with my hand—then fire.”
The two soldiers are men from his own unit. During the dreadful fighting up on Monte Ortigara they were sent down to the valley on fatigue duty. But after three days in the front line they had had enough and they did not come back. A military tribunal down in Enego condemned them to death for desertion. Discipline in the Italian army is harsh to the point of being draconian.t After being sentenced the men were returned to their unit, which is responsible for carrying out the execution itself (in the presence of all the men, to act as a terrifying example), escorted by two military policemen who did not have the heart to tell them the fate that awaited them. Locked up in a small hut, the two men screamed, shouted, wept, pleaded and tried to negotiate: “We promise to go out on patrol every night, Lieutenant.” No use. So they stopped screaming, shouting, pleading and trying to negotiate. The only sound to be heard from the locked hut was weeping. Both of them are experienced soldiers who have been in the army since the beginning of the war. All armies function on a mixture of external compulsion and consent (spontaneous or orchestrated); indeed, this whole war originated in a meeting of those two concepts. And the shakier the consent becomes, the harsher the compulsion applied. But only up to a certain point. When the only thing remaining is compulsion, there is nothing left and the whole edifice collapses.
The adjutant raises his hand and gives the silent signal.
The soldiers look at the adjutant, look at the blindfolded man tied to the tree. Among the soldiers in the firing squad there are comrades, brothers-in-arms, “perhaps even relations” of the condemned man.
Another sign is given.
The adjutant claps his hands nervously. It is as if some sound is necessary to convince the soldiers that it is time for them to shoot.
A salvo crashes out.
The condemned man falls forward but is held up by the wire with which he is bound and slides down the tree trunk a little instead. In this short movement he has changed from a man to a body, from subject to object, from being to thing, from he to it. The doctor steps forward and after a short token examination pronounces him dead. No one can be in any doubt of that. Monelli sees that half his head has been blown away.
Then the other man is led forward.
In contrast to his fellow deserter he is quite calm and has something resembling a smile on his lips. He speaks to the members of the firing squad in a strange, almost ecstatic tone of voice and says, “This is right and just. Just make sure that you aim properly—and don’t do what I did!” Confusion breaks out in the firing squad. Some of them want to be excused on the grounds that they have already shot one man. Words are exchanged. The adjutant swears and threatens and manages to reestablish order in the squad.
Shots ring out. The man crumples. He too is dead.
The firing squad is dismissed and the men walk slowly away. Monelli can see how shaken they are, and he sees fear and pain on all their faces. Nothing else is talked about all day and their voices are quiet and unobtrusive, from shame or from shock:
Questions, doubts arise in our reluctant minds, and we push them away fearfully because they sully our high principles too much—the very principles that we accept with our eyes shut as though they were matters of faith—and because we are afraid that without them it would be too difficult for us to do our duty as soldiers. Fatherland, necessity, discipline—a line in our instructional manual, words whose meaning we don’t really know and which are just sounds to us. Death by firing squad—that makes the words clear and comprehensible to our sad minds. But those gentlemen down in Enego, no, they did not come here to witness the reality of the words of the sentence they pronounced.
THURSDAY, 2 AUGUST 1917
Angus Buchanan takes part in the storming of the Tandamuti ridge
Another night march, another attack. The bald ridge lies in front of them and rises from the dense surrounding vegetation like the back of some drowned prehistoric creature. On the crown of the hill there is a small stand of trees in which a fort is concealed. The fort is the target of the attack.
The main attack begins at nine o’clock. The constant rattle of machine-gun fire and the dull crack of grenade launchers sound through the bush. The first wave of men to go in is a black battalion, the 3/4 King’s African Rifles. They take heavy losses and their attack stalls on the bare slope. The second wave is called up, Angus Buchanan’s unit, the 25th Royal Fusiliers. They are beginning to respect the black troops and there is even a kind of comradeship developing with some of the more experienced African units—something that would have been quite unthinkable before the war. Buchanan is in command of the battalion’s machine-gun platoon and he and his gun crews follow the chain of riflemen along the corpse-strewn slope of the ridge and up towards the summit. The gunfire is now a continuous roar.
As the German forces have been pushed back into an ever diminishing corner of the colony and started to base their resistance on a number of fortified positions, the fighting has become fiercer and more costly. Although the total number of troops involved is considerably fewer than during earlier campaigns, losses in combat are three times as great.
Both sides are feeling an increasing sense of desperation: the Germans because they are defending the last scrap of territory remaining to them on this continent, the British because those in command have received increasingly brusque statements that this campaign must be finished—and sooner rather than later. It is not just that war credits are running low, the tonnage of the merchant fleet is doing the same. Since sanctioning unrestricted U-boat warfare at the end of January the Germans have been sinking more ships than the Allies can manage to build.u In a situation in which every fourth vessel fails to get through and in which the supplying of the British Isles is threatened, convoys to East Africa are regarded as something of a luxury.
After retreating from the valley at Mohambika the Germans dug in firmly on the Tandamunti ridge. The two sides have been taking it in turns to attack and counter-attack ever since the middle of June. And now it is happening again.
The two companies of the 25th Royal Fusiliers move quickly on towards the clump of trees but are held up by a boma, a wide barricade of intertwined thorn bushes, at least as effective as barbed wire. They bounce off this and are pushed back towards the left. Meanwhile, however, Buchanan has managed to position his machine guns no more than fifty yards from the barrier. There is a sharp exchange of fire and within a short space of time four of Buchanan’s “most able and invaluable gunners” have fallen. But Buchanan holds on and the chattering fire from his guns sweeps back and forth across the enemy position while grenades from the grenade launchers further back swish almost silently over their heads and explode with smoke and fire among the trees.v Buchanan notices that the return fire from the fort is slowly growing weaker and he thinks he can hear German buglers blowing the retreat beyond the ridge. But with victory within his grasp he receives an order to pull back: the Germans have mounted a counter-attack further over and there is a risk of being cut off. When Buchanan and his men move away from the ridge they hear the sound of heavy gunfire in the distance. All their bearers have disappeared and their sacks, boxes and chests are lying scattered along the path. No sooner have they worked out that askaris must have swept right through their baggage train than they themselves come under fire from close range.
Later again they reach the field hospital and find it has been looted by German troops, but in a remarkably orderly manner:
[The Germans] had the audacity to order the native orderlies to supply the German whites with tea, while they removed all the quinine and such medicines of which they were in need. But the whites had treated the wounded with consideration, and, with revolvers drawn, had ordered their wildly excited blacks to stand clear of any possibility of interference.
While the war on all the other fronts is characterised by increasing brutalisation, the warring whites in East Africa frequently behave in a notably chivalrous manner towards each other. This camaraderie is not just a remnant of the pre-war idea that the colonies should be excluded from any conflict, but is also an expression of the feeling that they—as a drop of white in that continent’s ocean of black—share a kind of collective colonial fate.w On the whole, white prisoners are treated very well, sometimes being given better food than the soldiers. On one occasion during this campaign a German doctor crosses the British lines and asks for the return of a bag of medical equipment which was left behind; he is given the bag and allowed to return to his own side. And when von Lettow-Vorbeck is awarded the Pour le Mérite during the fighting, the British general opposing him sends a courteous letter of congratulation.
At around eleven o’clock in the evening Buchanan and the rest of the battalion—those who are still on their feet—reach the camp at Ziwani. They are utterly exhausted, having been on the move or in battle for twenty-two hours.
In a week’s time they will attack the same ridge yet again.
That same day Harvey Cushing writes in his journal:
2:30 a.m. Pouring cats and dogs all day—also pouring cold and shivering wounded, covered with mud and blood. Some G.S.W.’s of the head,x when the mud is scraped off, prove to be trifles—others of unsuspected gravity. The pre-operation room is still crowded—one can’t possibly keep up with them; and the unsystematic way things are run drives one frantic. The news, too, is very bad. The greatest battle in history is floundering up to its middle in a morass, and the guns have sunk even deeper than that.
WEDNESDAY, 8 AUGUST 1917
Florence Farmborough crosses the border into Romania
They start their march at seven o’clock in the morning. It has been raining and the roads are muddy but she finds the open, hilly scenery attractive, with its colours and contours softened by the gentle morning light. They cross the Prut on a bridge that is being worked on by Austrian prisoners of war and she sees that their tents are soaked through after the rain. Some of the prisoners are just sitting motionless, waiting for the morning sun to rise high enough to dry their sodden clothes.
Once the wagons have clattered across the wooden roadway of the bridge and rolled down to the opposite bank they are in Romania. What is it that has raised their feelings of hope? Yesterday, when they were told that they would be going south into the neighbouring country, the staff of the hospital unit greeted the news with joy. Part of it is simply that they are getting away, not just from the advancing Germans but also from the scenes of collapse, demoralisation and retreat that have characterised the last week.
By this point the “freedom offensive,”y the new government’s last effort to continue the war, has collapsed. Florence’s unit belongs to the Eighth Army, which initially seemed to be successfully breaking through the enemy lines south of the Dniester but which ground to a halt after advancing less than twenty miles. The reasons: a shortage of supplies and lack of enthusiasm on the part of the soldiers. The latter have been holding meetings, asking questions, discussing conditions, choosing committees and demanding the right to elect their own officers. The number of desertions has increased enormously and now occurs quite openly. Whole divisions have refused to attack the enemy. Florence has noticed, to her amazement and disquiet, that a large proportion of the soldiers really do not want to fight any longer. Their displeasure has also found a new target to set alongside their own officers—the female nurses. Is it because they are volunteers or because they are women, or both? Whatever it is, they now find themselves the victims of sneering, swearing and sexual innuendo: for the very first time Florence has felt afraid of their own side’s soldiers and has kept well away from them.
Over the frontier, with luck, they will be spared the sight of the continuing disintegration of the Russian army. And over the frontier Romanian and Russian units together have started their own little version of the freedom offensive and by all recent accounts they are having some success. So they greeted this march with joy, not because it was taking them away from the war but because it was taking them somewhere they could make a real contribution.
They halt out in an open field to eat an army concoction in which “fish and meat had been lumped together into thick kasha soup, and there were strange greenish leaves which had certainly not been reared on a cabbage-plot.” The sun is high in a blue sky and it is hot. Florence hears people arguing—politics, of course. She picks up some of the details: Kerensky will undoubtedly dismiss Brusilov—their hero—as being the man responsible for the failure of the offensive. Other angry voices join in and even Florence is upset. But she does not let herself get dragged into the discussion and goes off with her friends to cool down with a bathe in the river. Unfortunately they cannot find anywhere private enough—there are soldiers everywhere—so they return to the column up in the field and crawl into the shade under one of the big wagons. She manages to write some letters before the order is given to move on. By then it is about four o’clock in the afternoon.
Later on they come to a long, steep hill and have to wait their turn since the horses need help to haul the heavily laden wagons up it. She writes in her journal:
A bevy of stalwart young soldiers assisted each horse and cart to reach the summit, and there was much shouting and unnecessary whipping of horses. They, poor frightened creatures, knew what was expected of them and did their best; but their deep, spasmodic breathing and foam-streaked, perspiring bodies told of the strenuous exertion which every movement demanded of them.
They carry on along poor roads, up and down through the hilly terrain, through villages with neat little wooden houses, their windows covered with curtains, past women and children in exotic, beautifully embroidered clothes. She hears an old woman let out a yell of terror at the sight of all these uniformed men and Florence thinks that the words remind her of Italian. So this is Romania. They stop in a small town and buy apples from the Jewish merchants—for roubles. There are no eggs to be had since the soldiers have already bought them. The summer heat is made more bearable when they enter a beautiful, shady pine wood.
As evening approaches they make camp on a hillside close to a village. The heat is such that they disdain their tents and set up camp beds in the open air. Their leader has managed to get hold of a newspaper only three days old and he reads it aloud to them by the campfire. Much of it is about the usual political chaos in the Russian capital and Florence is only mildly interested. There is, however, one story that grips her and some of the other nurses: it is the news that, because of the critical situation, infantry battalions consisting solely of women are being formed.
She already knows that woman soldiers exist in the Russian army and has actually met some of them among the wounded. She remembers one in particular, a twenty-year-old woman she nursed in Galicia who had a nasty wound on one temple where a bullet had grazed her. The woman wanted to get straight back into battle. The new all-woman battalions have been formed on the initiative of “Yasha Bachkarova,”z a Siberian woman from a simple background who initially fought alongside her husband and then stayed in the army after he was killed. She has been wounded and decorated several times and has been promoted to the rank of sergeant. The newspaper quotes her: “If the men refuse to fight for their country we will show them what the women can do.” A battalion composed entirely of women has already seen action during the “freedom offensive,” when they were sent in to hold a trench abandoned by deserters. Florence and the other nurses think this is fantastic news.
It is a warm evening and a big, shining moon is hanging in the starry sky.
SATURDAY, 18 AUGUST 1917
Olive King sees Salonica burn
By this afternoon it is clear that a major conflagration is raging in the city and Olive is keen to see it at closer quarters. So when there is a call for cars to help rescue the supplies at the Serbian Quartermaster General’s depot she is obviously quick to grab the opportunity. It is not until she drives past Venizelos Street that she realises how serious the situation is. What started as an ordinary enough fire has now accelerated into something on an enormous scale. The whole of the Turkish quarter seems to be in flames:
It’s impossible to describe the scenes of pandemonium in the streets, the jammed mass of panic-stricken people getting their goods away in bullock carts, on their own backs, in little open fiacres, or in those long narrow falling-to-pieces little Greek carts that make driving here so difficult. There was a continuous roar of the flames, every moment came a great crash & millions of sparks as some buildings, [sic] a Vardar hot-wind gale was blowing & showers of sparks & burning fragments poured over us all the time. It was not yet dark, but everything was lit by the weird golden glow, like a wonderfully brilliant sunset.
Until today Salonica was a confusing, picturesque and, in parts, very beautiful city with the unmistakable stamp of centuries of Ottoman government. There were minarets, a strong city wall and an excellent bazaar. Anyone walking round the labyrinth of narrow streets and medieval lanes would feel quite convinced that he or she was, in a purely geographical sense, in Europe but would simultaneously recognise immediately that the place felt, smelled and sounded like the Orient. And, in fact, until less than five years ago the city was under Ottoman rule. Far from detracting from the place, its oriental character was an important part of its attraction, and the years of Western occupation with its accompanying flood of troops from virtually all corners of the world has served only to reinforce the glaring contrasts and the cosmopolitan spirit of the city. Here mosques, Byzantine cathedrals and Greek Orthodox basilicas stand shoulder to shoulder with trams and cinemas, variety theatres and bars, expensive shops, fine restaurants and first-class hotels. For some people, however, Salonica is not just a polyglot conglomerate (King and many of her friends speak a unique pidgin, in which the basis is English but with a significant admixture of French and Serbian) but much more a Babel of sin.
Well, if that really is its true character, the time for punishment seems to have arrived. The strong wind causes the fire to spread with unexpected speed.
King makes several trips into the growing sea of fire, rescuing necessities or people’s private possessions. Whenever she stops she has to run round the outside of the little Ford ambulance putting out the sparks that are falling on it. And as she drives she has to sound her horn almost continuously to force a way through the dense crowds of people, some of them hysterical and panic-stricken, others so distressed that they have become virtually apathetic. She notices that the two most common things people salvage from their homes are large mirrors and bronze bedsteads. When the flames eventually reach the harbour and the sea she realises that a wall of fire three miles long is now separating her from the garage. She still drives on and, when she runs out of petrol, she continues on foot in order to find more fuel.
Military discipline largely breaks down in this flame-flickered confusion. As usual, chivalry and heroism are mixed with selfishness and cowardice. There is a wave of looting. A number of large casks of wine burst in the heat and their contents pour out across the street “like blood.” Both soldiers and civilians hurl themselves to the ground and drink the sludge. The next time King passes the spot it stinks of wine and she sees blind-drunk, vomit-covered people lying all over the place. A stockpile of shells ignites with an enormous explosion. Sporadic gunfire can be heard.
When the sun rises after a long night the sky is so full of smoke that it never becomes properly light. King drives down to the harbour. The electric cables for the trams have partially melted and are hanging down across the street so she has to zig-zag between them. She sees soldiers and civilians raking through the smoking ruins in search of loot.
Olive King has been behind the wheel for over twenty hours. When she returns to her room, exhausted and hungry and in need of some sleep, she finds a homeless woman and nine children in the hall. Almost half the city has been burnt down and 80,000 people have lost their homes. It will take the best part of two weeks to put the fire out and the city will remain a sooty ruin for the rest of the war. The Salonica that existed before the fire will never be rebuilt.
SUNDAY, 26 AUGUST 1917
Harvey Cushing finally sees a three-dimensional map
The front is quiet but everyone knows the lull is only temporary. Most of the morning is spent changing the wounded men’s bandages. Cushing thinks that many of those he operated on earlier seem to be recovering—or perhaps it is just that he is in a better frame of mind after managing to get two nights’ sleep in succession.
There are no American units to speak of involved in the fighting yet so Cushing and his hospital unit have been moved north to the Flanders front. Another British offensive, the biggest of them all, has been going on there since the end of July. It already has a name: the Battle of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres.
Four major attacks have been launched so far. It has rained almost the whole time and the battlefield has been churned into a sea of mud. Up to now the successes have been as small as the losses have been great, but it is difficult to know much about what is happening and few people have an overview since censorship is strict and the official communiqués uninformative. Cushing, however, has made some fairly accurate guesses about the course of the fighting from his observations of the stream of ragged, bleeding men being brought in by a seemingly endless convoy of mud-spattered ambulances. How many men have been wounded? Is their morale holding up? How long has it taken them to reach the bandaging station? Most of the wounded are so caked in mud that it takes an unusually long time to remove their clothes, clean away the dirt and find their wounds. Those who have already been given a tetanus injection have a “T” written on their foreheads with an indelible pencil. There is a steadily expanding cemetery next to the hospital, the graves being dug by Chinese labourers in blue tunics.
Severe head wounds are Cushing’s speciality and he tries to get through eight procedures a day. He operates in a tent, wearing a thick rubber apron and army boots. One of his special techniques is to use—with immense care—a powerful magnet to extract shell splinters from the brains of wounded men. Few men arrive with common or garden bullet wounds, and bayonet injuries are a rarity. Almost all Cushing’s patients are the victims of shellfire and almost all of them have multiple injuries. Cushing has become something of an expert on wounds: he has learned, for instance, that the most devastating injuries often lurk behind the smallest entry wounds.
There is a ring of observation balloons around the horizon. Sometimes bombs fall near the hospital. If they have any time at all to spare they play tennis on a court close by. Today, after lunch, Cushing and a colleague drive round the other hospital units in the neighbourhood to visit friends. The weather is nice and dry for a change. The sound of artillery fire hangs in the air. The road from Mont des Cats to Rémy runs along a high ridge with an excellent view and, to the north, they can pick out the front line at Ypres as a ribbon of muzzle-flashes.
A Canadian colonel allows Cushing to see something he has been curious about for some time—one of the big, three-dimensional maps of the battlefield, made of sand to a scale of 1:50 and used in the planning of attacks. Everything is carefully marked: every wood, every building, every height contour. Allied trenches are marked with blue ribbon, German trenches with red. Cushing reads the names written on small labels: Inverness Copse, Clapham Junction, Sanctuary Wood, Polygon Wood. Cushing is little wiser after reading them but to judge from the map the next attack will have Glencourse Wood as its objective—the wood projects as a red bulge into all the blue lines.
They are not the only ones studying the map, as a number of officers and NCOs are doing the same and trying to learn the terrain. These are the men who will be going over the top tomorrow.
Cushing and his colleague return just in time for dinner, after which his commanding officer disappears with Cushing’s unread copy of yesterday’s Times. When Cushing asks for it, the senior officer hides the paper behind his back and points Cushing in the direction of an army bulletin pinned up on the door of the mess. Cushing is annoyed, and he also finds the document with its codenames and map coordinates completely incomprehensible:
At about midnight Cushing lies in his tent listening to the storm of heavy artillery fire building up in the distance. Immediately after that rain starts drumming on the tent again.
• • •
The following day someone tells Cushing that 17,299 cases were discharged or sent on for further treatment elsewhere from the three field hospitals in this sector between 23 July and 3 August. (The dead, of course, are not included in this figure.) The Fifth Army has twelve other field hospitals like theirs.
TUESDAY, 4 SEPTEMBER 1917
Edward Mousley is travelling to Ankara by horse and cart
Breakfast is first class: sausage, cakes, tea and jam—Mousley has just received a parcel from home. The men guarding them eat bread, olives, melon and onions. Then they all set off from the little inn, which is infested with bedbugs. Mousley and the other prisoner of war—a British soldier with a badly inflamed broken arm—ride in the wagon at the start but once the road begins to climb up over the mountain they get out and walk alongside: the draught animals are simply too weak to pull them. The mountainside is covered with tall pines. A large group of mounted gendarmes is accompanying them, partly to prevent them escaping and partly to protect the party from attacks by bandits. They pass a waterfall.
Mousley has actually been thinking about escaping and last summer he was one of a group of prisoners who spent months preparing a daring escape from Kastamonu. Their intention was to follow a track through the mountains up to the Black Sea, where a small boat was supposed to be buried in the sand—with oars but no sail. Disguised as a Turk, Mousley even managed to make several practice runs to test out the best way of fooling the guards. He was almost caught on one of these occasions and after that he was kept under close watch. Part of the group did, however, escape but were (probably) recaptured after (possibly) being betrayed or (more probably) caught while making a clumsy attempt to pass as Germans.
But now Mousley is leaving his confinement in Kastamonu. He is still suffering from the after-effects of his time in Kut al-Amara. The real problem is severe bruising to his back, which was struck by a shell fragment that damaged some of the vertebrae—the pain frequently keeps him awake at night. But the reason for his journey to Ankara is to get specialist treatment for his eyes: all the dust and muck driven into them by the explosion is causing almost continuous inflammation which, so far, is more annoying than dangerous but could become serious. He received a letter from acquaintances in the foreign ministry in London and he managed to use it to frighten the Turkish commandant into believing that London was taking a special interest in his case, with the result that the Turkish officer arranged for his transfer to Ankara. Mousley himself is pressing to be treated in Constantinople, the thought in the back of his mind being that it will be easier to escape from there.
The journey up the mountain takes the greater part of the morning and they do not reach the pass until three o’clock. The peak is not far away, cloaked in mist. At the pass they take a longer break and eat lunch before starting down. Mousley thoroughly dislikes Ali, the officer in command of the transport. Ali is choleric, power mad, aggressive and cowardly, but they try to keep him in a good mood by constantly giving him cigarettes. Mousley has a much higher opinion of Mustafa, the ordinary soldier guarding them, and the two prisoners have developed a good relationship with him. They are actually quite impressed by the way this “patient soul of the Turkish peasant” does his duty faithfully and uncomplainingly in spite of suffering badly from malaria.
The temperature rises. Even though Mousley and his companion are now once more able to ride in the wagon it is not a very pleasant journey. It is hot and jolting, the horses are so weak that they sometimes fall over and have to be helped up, the harness is forever in need of repair and, at one point, they come close to driving off the steep road. Mousley’s eyes are playing up more and more but he is in an unusually good mood in spite of that. He writes in his journal: “But these have been wonderful days of movement, a voyage of rediscovery of the world, a passing from sleep to dreamland, from death to life.”
Along the way he recognises details from when they were being taken to Kastamonu as prisoners: a little cottage here, a mill there, that demolished Armenian house. They spend the night in another of those small inns. After having a smoke they go to sleep up on the roof, perhaps because the place is full of bugs or maybe just because it is too hot inside.
• • •
The same day Angus Buchanan sets off from Camp C23, yet another hot and unhealthy camp in the jungle:
On 4th September the battalion left C.23 and advanced to the centre and left camps before Narunyu, to occupy the front line there; relieving the 8th South African Infantry, who were tottering with sickness and unfit for further service in active fields.
Here utter physical exhaustion, and fever, which had gripped me for some time, began slowly to master endurance.
MONDAY, 10 SEPTEMBER 1917
Elfriede Kuhr cooks “peasant’s omelette” in Schneidemühl
Everyone is talking about food at the moment—and about the need to stock up. No one wants to go through another winter like the last one, the “turnip winter.” Fortunately they have a cellar full of potatoes at Alte Bahnhofstrasse 17 (they bought a whole load off Herr Kenzler), as well as turnips. They have almost no bread, however, nor cooking fat. Their diet is utterly drab and monotonous.aa Elfriede, however, has become a real expert at making “peasant’s omelette,” a dish both she and her brother are very fond of. First of all she rubs the iron pan with a piece of old bacon rind, adds salt and puts in sliced potatoes, frying them carefully so that they do not burn. Then she whisks an egg together with water, flour, salt and pepper and pours it in along with some onion or chives—if there are any. The knack is to have just enough water in the mixture to cover the potatoes but not so much that it drowns the taste of the egg.
Two days ago Elfriede and her friend Trude went for a long walk with Lieutenants Leverenz and Waldecker. It was still warm and summery and they walked all the way to Königsblick. Lieutenant Waldecker walked with her, listened to her, put his arms around her, laughed at her stories, looked at her in such a strange but loving way, kissed her fingertips, the end of her nose and her forehead. At one point Lieutenant Leverenz had wagged his finger at his colleague and said in an annoying way, “No, no—under-age!” And then Lieutenant Leverenz and Trude had kissed each other time after time but Lieutenant Waldecker had contented himself with holding Elfriede’s hand and pressing her head to his shoulder. They did not return home until the evening and when they parted on the stairs at Alte Bahnhofstrasse he whispered in her ear that he loved her. He, Lieutenant Waldecker, in his fine pilot’s uniform, his officer’s cap at an angle, his leather gauntlets, his Iron Cross, his blue eyes and his blond hair. She was so happy and pleased, it made her go weak at the knees.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, she still plays her usual games of pretend with Gretel Wagner. Elfriede likes it most when she is being Lieutenant von Yellenic and Gretel is being Nurse Martha. There is a new twist to their games now: usually, Lieutenant von Yellenic is terribly in love either with some absent imaginary lady or with Nurse Martha. Unfortunately, however, the object of his/her love is already married to a major so there can be no question of anything more than platonic love at a distance.
This is taking up most of her time at the moment, though she still goes down to the station sometimes to help her grandmother in the Red Cross canteen as she used to, or just to watch the troop transports and hospital trains. But her visits are less and less frequent, and the black-white-red flags on the war map on the classroom wall no longer interest her. These days they seldom talk in school about what is happening on the different fronts—it comes up only when someone’s friend or relation has been killed. And it is a long time since they had a day off to celebrate a victory. The war, as Elfriede writes in her journal, has been going on so long that it has almost “become a kind of normal condition. We can hardly remember what peace was like. We scarcely think of the war any more.”
FRIDAY, 28 SEPTEMBER 1917
Michel Corday pays a visit to Anatole France in Tours
The train pulls into the station in Tours at lunchtime. Anatole France is standing on the platform, an elderly, corpulent gentleman with a short white beard and a red hat on his head. They travel by car with him out to La Béchellerie, the author’s country estate, beautifully situated on a little hill a mile and a half outside the city.
The war has been a trial to the old man. Not that it has affected him directly. He has no relations at the front and he has been living here quietly on a tributary of the Loire ever since August 1914, when he—like many others—moved south to get away from the apparently unstoppable German armies. No, it is more that the war, right from the start, has turned out to be such a bitter and disillusioning defeat for everything he used to believe in.
The pain of it all has been especially difficult for this old man. He was accustomed to hearing the soothing and harmonious sound of choirs singing his praises, but then he was suddenly deluged with torrents of abuse and threats, simply because he stood by what he had said earlier and refused to be swept along by the war fever of 1914. Caught off guard, hurt and afraid, the old man had then (at the age of seventy-one) offered to volunteer, which had brought him nothing but ridicule. Anatole France is now more ignored than persecuted and although he still ventures to make occasional small, dispirited and modest suggestions, they are passed over in silence. Corday has the impression that Anatole France has completely lost faith in humanity, though the great writer cannot stop brooding over what is happening. He has told Corday that he sometimes imagines the war will continue forever and that thought almost drives him out of his mind.bb They are given lunch when they get to La Béchellerie. The solid stone seventeenth-century building is very beautiful and packed with the things Anatole France, a manic collector, has gathered over the years. One of the visitors to the house at this time likened it to “an antique shop,” and there is a gilded torso of Venus standing in the middle of the drawing room. There are other guests at lunch, including a draper from the town, and he too is very pessimistic about the future:
The overwhelming majority of people in Tours want the war to continue because of the high wages it has brought to the workers and the increased profits made by tradesmen. The bourgeoisie, whose only mental nourishment comes from the reactionary newspapers, has been completely won over by the idea of a war without end. In short, he declares, it is only the men at the front who are pacifists.
They spend the afternoon in the library, which is situated in a small building out in the garden. The conversation inevitably gravitates back to the war, this scab that none of them can or will stop picking at. They discuss the different peace initiatives of the last year—the German one, the American one and, of course, the one proposed by the Pope just a month ago.cc We can imagine the special atmosphere. A group of cultured people in a room that is, one might say, buttressed by books—people like Corday and Anatole France, sensitive, refined, radical humanists, forced to live like strangers to their own age, upset and confused by events they cannot understand and forces they cannot influence. Is it really true that all roads to peace are now closed? They grasp at thin, straggly straws of comfort. Perhaps the translation of President Wilson’s answer is incorrect. Perhaps the German memorandum that accompanied their response to the Pope is a forgery. Perhaps there is a hidden strategy for negotiation. Perhaps, possibly, hopefully. Why, why, why?
Words and thoughts go back and forth across the warm, sheltered room as the hours pass. Soon twilight begins to fall. A great moon rises and colours the autumnal scene in silver and white.
SATURDAY, 13 OCTOBER 1917
Harvey Cushing lists the day’s cases
The bad weather is continuing. It is raining most of the time and there is a strong, almost gale-force wind. Cushing has once again spent the day at the operating table. At 5:25 on Friday yet another attack was launched at Ypres—in spite of the awful weather, rising water levels, bottomless mud and poor visibility. From the survivors he is treating, Cushing has heard of wounded men drowning in shell holes.
He starts the morning by running through the cases waiting for him:
Winter, E. 860594. 7th Borderers, 17th Div.—penetrating cerebellar. Sitting down. Helmet on. Blown into the air. Unconscious for a time, does not know how long. Later crept back to a trench—legs wobbly—dizzy etc.
Robinson, H. 14295. 1st S. African Inf., 9th Div.—penetrating rt temporal. Wounded yesterday c. 6 p.m. Knocked down but not unconscious. Helmet penetrated. Walked 20 yards—dizzy—vomited—numbness left arm, etc. No transport until this morning owing to mud.
Matthew, R. 202037. 8th Black Watch—penetrating right parietal; hernia cerebri. Thinks he was wounded three days ago, etc. A fine, big Jock.
Hartley, J. 26th M.G.C., 8th Div. Wounded at 11 last night, not unconscious. Walked to dressing station. Thinks they had reached their objective, etc.
Bogus, 3rd N.Z. Rifle Brigade, 1st Anzac. Frontal gutter wound. In line for two nights before show began—awful conditions. Had gone 1000 yards when wounded etc.
Beattie, 7th Seaforths, 9th Div. Stretcher-bearer, wounded while bringing out his third man—4 to a stretcher—300 yards from advanced line. Occipital penetrating (?)
Medgurck, 11th Royal Scots, 9th Div. Multiple wounds, including head etc.
Dobbie, Household Batt’n, 4th Div. Wounded near Poelcapelle some time yesterday afternoon. Adm. here 7 p.m. In “resus” since. Severe. For X-ray, etc.
Towards the end of the day Cushing feels reasonably satisfied. The operations have gone well and he has also successfully used the special magnet system to extract splinters from three of these men’s brains.
Cushing realises that the attack has not gone particularly well and the wounded continue to pour in. But no one has seen any recent newspapers or official communiqués and it is impossible to know what has actually happened.
Two days later it is quiet again at Ypres. The weather is clearing up. There is a rumour that three British divisions have been so badly mauled that they are having to be pulled out of the fighting and reinforcements from the Second Army are on their way in. In the afternoon Cushing sees thousands upon thousands of birds gathering in swirling flocks close to a little copse near the field hospital. Someone tells him they are starlings.
WEDNESDAY, 24 OCTOBER 1917
Michel Corday comments on the street talk in Paris
A fourth winter of war is just round the corner and the mood in Paris is wearier than it was a year ago. In spite of the fact that shortages are less severe than before. Anyone with money can get hold of anything. Black marketeers are becoming more and more common, more affluent and more shameless in their behaviour. Many of the best restaurants have employed highly decorated veterans and war invalids as doormen and Corday wonders what they must think as they stand there holding the door for people who are no more than “voluminously embodied appetites rushing to their troughs.” He notes in his journal:
One hears people in the street making their small plans. People often say, “After the war I shall …” in the same calm tone of voice as they say, “After having a shower I shall …” They classify this world-shattering event in the same category as natural catastrophes. They never suspect for a moment that they themselves would be able to stop it, that its parasitic life is dependent on their acquiescence.
SUNDAY, 28 OCTOBER 1917
Harvey Cushing sees the Canadian build-up at Zonnebeke
A light mist. Hazy sunshine. Thin clouds. A chill in the air. There is absolutely no part of him that affirms this war. Quite the opposite. The wrecks it creates pour in waves into his hospital and his daily business is to try to patch them back together. Experience has made him acutely conscious of the cost. Hardly a day passes without him washing blood and brain matter from his hands. And coming as he does from a sheltered upper-class life in Boston, he finds many aspects of his present life distinctly uncomfortable: the perpetual wet, the monotonous food, the cold that makes it difficult to sleep in the thin tent. He has brought his own collapsible bathtub with him.
And the costs—Cushing is horrified by the almost limitless waste of materials. There are bunkers in which the floor is insulated by layer upon layer of unopened tins of food. In one place they found 250 pairs of new waist-waders, intended for use in the most flooded trenches: they had simply been discarded by some unit after being used only once. The soldiers throw away everything that is heavy or not immediately necessary before they go into combat, in the certain knowledge that if they survive they will be able to report it as lost in battle and they will then be issued new equipment without further question. Discarded rifles can be seen everywhere, being used as signposts or props in the trenches or just rusting away. Five minutes’ bombardment of a small piece of ground can consume ammunition costing £80,000.
He has seen and heard too much not to be critical of the British army’s methods of waging war at Ypres. Take, for instance, the story he heard the day before yesterday from one of his patients, a non-commissioned officer from the 50th Division. The young man was lying trembling in his bed, pretending to smoke a cigarette. His battalion had gone astray in the rain and darkness and had tried to dig in. Since there was nothing but mud everywhere the best they could do was to throw up small heaps of sodden earth and lie down in the wet puddles behind them. After twice being ordered to advance in the darkness they were finally given the order to attack. They tried to follow the creeping barrage—tried, but it was moving too quickly. And suddenly they found themselves standing in front of a row of concrete German bunkers. “Well, there was practically nobody left.”
Cushing cannot for his life understand why an attack cannot be called off if, for instance, the weather is quite atrocious. He put that question once to a senior British officer and was told that, unfortunately, it was quite simply impossible. Not at such short notice. There is much too much organisation involved, and the planning is too complicated for it to be possible. Too much, too complicated—in a sense, beyond human control. That is an image of the war as a whole.
This particular Sunday is fairly quiet and only the odd wounded man is brought in. But the battle is not over. New attacks are being prepared. One of Cushing’s contacts in the Second Army has earlier promised to take him up to the front and today seems to be a good opportunity for such a visit. The two men sign in at one of the many control points, exchange their car for an ambulance and drive towards Ypres via Poperinghe. The closer they get to the town, the denser the traffic becomes. They zig-zag across the muddy road, between marching soldiers and motorcycle dispatch riders, convoys of lorries and horse-drawn artillery. They drive through a grey confusion of rubble and ruins. After passing the pockmarked Menin Gate they drive as far as Potijze, where they park their vehicle and continue on foot. For the sake of safety, since the forward line is only a mile or so away.
Cushing is astonished. Not just by all the rubbish lying everywhere in the sticky morass of mud—“dead horses, smashed tanks, crashed and crumpled aircraft, cordite buckets, shells, mortars, bombs, broken or discarded wagons, barbed wire”—but by the fact that the place corresponds in some way to his expectations. In fact, it looks just as it looks in the photographs.
On the road up towards Zonnebeke Canadian troops, caked in mud, jostle with lorries, cannon and mules laden with ammunition. At the side of the road there are troops waiting their turn to move on. The air is filled with the noise of innumerable artillery pieces: the noise rises and falls, rises and falls but never falls silent. Aircraft circle up in the hazy sunlight, surrounded by the brief watercolour puffs of smoke from anti-aircraft fire. He sees a German shell land hardly more than 200 yards away and watches the black earth spurt up “like a geyser.” Then he sees another shell land, closer still. He is surprised by his own reaction:
And the savage in you makes you adore it with its squalor and wastefulness and danger and strife and glorious noise. You feel that, after all, this is what men were intended for rather than to sit in easy chairs with a cigarette and whiskey, the evening paper or the best-seller, and to pretend that such a veneer means civilization and that there is no barbarian behind your starched and studded shirt front.
In a moment of dizziness as he stands there on the edge of the abyss, this man—who knows only too well the sorrows and misery caused by war—suddenly and almost reluctantly thinks he can also perceive its greatness and its beauty or, anyway, the dark and devastating energies that shape the tragedy. But enough is enough. They return to Ypres. He watches the sun go down behind the ragged ruins of the medieval Cloth Hall and sees its last glowing rays caught by an observation balloon being winched down for the night.
Florence Farmborough notes in her journal for that day:
In the early morning a man was led in who had been wounded by a German bullet. He soon came to know that he was the only soldier in that ward who had received a wound from an enemy. He strutted up and down feeling quite a hero among the many who had self-inflicted or accidental wounds.
TUESDAY, 30 OCTOBER 1917
Paolo Monelli is drinking brandy and waiting for news
Something big has been happening over on the Isonzo in the last week. With a single attack the enemy has succeeded in doing what the Italian army has failed to do with eleven offensives—that is, to achieve a breakthrough. And they are advancing. Monelli and the rest of the men on the northern front do not know exactly what has happened or what is happening. They are holding a good, strong position and until a few days ago were ready to sit out the winter in their newly constructed huts. They are at high altitude and there is already plenty of snow.
No, they know nothing. Neither newspapers nor communiqués are reaching them and they exist up here in the clouds of unknowing, fed on nothing but rumours, which are—as usual—confusing, contradictory and full of fantasy. Such as that the Germans have taken Udine. Such as that 200,000 Italians surrendered as prisoners. Or was it 300,000? The mood is gloomy. There is total silence in the officers’ mess and Monelli is drinking brandy to take the edge off his feeling of hopelessness.
He writes in his journal:
Tragic news is reaching us from the front in the east. Our enemy is trampling the soil of our fatherland and our soldiers are throwing down their weapons. Here, nothing. Our waiting made worse by bureaucratic stupidities, by signatures and circulars, by the pedantry of nervous commanders and jokes from superiors we don’t respect.
THURSDAY, 1 NOVEMBER 1917
Pál Kelemen sees an infantry battalion coming out of the front line on the Isonzo
A steady, silent rain is falling from a grey sky above a grey mountain. It is early evening and an Austro-Hungarian infantry battalion is pulling back after a period in the front line. Pál Kelemen is there and watches them stagger down the path from their positions up on the mountain plateau.
The Caporetto offensivedd was actually only intended to give the hard-pressed Austro-Hungarian units on the Isonzo a small breathing space in the face of the threat of yet another major Italian push. But something—mist, gas, surprise, the idiotic Italian dispositions, the experienced German units trained in new and mobile tacticsee—produced a breakthrough far bigger and far deeper than anyone had dared hope. And then one thing led to another. Threatened with being outflanked, the whole of the Italian army on the Isonzo began a panic-stricken retreat towards the River Tagliamento. It was a huge triumph for the double monarchy.ff The battalion that Kelemen meets on its way down has not actually taken part in the attack but it shows the marks anyway. He notes in his journal:
As they start forward or stand still, blocked by those ahead, or lie down at the roadside, it seems impossible that these are the fighting troops with which the statesmen and the generals are defending the Monarchy. That this tattered ravaged band with their shaggy beards, their crumpled, soaked, and dirty uniforms, their dilapidated footgear, and the exhaustion in their faces constitutes “our brave infantry.”
Now there is a halt. The whole battalion sinks down on the slope. Some of the soldiers take ration cans out of their knapsacks and with the long blades of their claspknives they lift out the food and shove it raw into their mouths. Their hands are black with dirt, horny, heavy moving. On their faces the wrinkles stretch and fold again as they chew. They sit on the wet stones and stare into the open tin cans without expression.
Their uniforms are made of more inferior cloth than was prescribed. The soles of their boots are paper, turned out for the profit of the army purveyors exempt from military duty.
At this hour at home, in houses untouched by war, dinner is being laid. Electric bulbs shine. White napkins, fine glasses, silver knives and forks glitter in the light. Men, clean and in civilian clothes, lead ladies to the table. Maybe even a band is playing in a corner. Drinks sparkle. With easy smiles they talk of trifles—in mixed company, conversation should be light and pleasant.
Do they think this evening of the shabby troops who, masters of a superhuman task, make it possible for so much to be the same at home? The same?—Even better for a good many.
SUNDAY, 11 NOVEMBER 1917
Florence Farmborough hears rumours of a coup
He is handsome, almost beautiful in fact, the twenty-year-old lieutenant who was brought in yesterday. Even as he was being carried in she noticed that he had “the regular classical features of the southern Russian; dark, curly hair; light grey eyes, heavily fringed with long dark lashes.” She has also noticed that his body is well formed. His name is Sergei and his batman is with him. The latter has told them that the lieutenant is the eldest of a family of seven children, that he volunteered at the age of seventeen and was selected for officer training.
The young lieutenant is a difficult patient. He is agitated, in pain, frightened and demanding; against the doctors’ express instructions, he wants to be lifted out of his bed; he shouts orders and yells at his poor batman, who obviously loves his lieutenant and makes awkward efforts to help him in every way possible. The prognosis is bad: the lieutenant has severe stomach wounds—his bladder is shredded and his intestines punctured in many places. But the surgeons have done what they can and all they can do now is hope for the best. The twenty-year-old lieutenant roars at his batman: “Away to the trenches, scoundrel! Away to the very foremost fighting line!”
Florence sees how the little man sidles away to the next ward to wait for his master’s temper to pass. For some reason the lieutenant calls Florence Zina: he is probably becoming delirious.
They are still in a relatively isolated location on the Romanian front, but some rather sensational news reached them from Russia today. There was a coup in Petrograd three days ago, organised by the Bolsheviks, one of the revolutionary factions. Unrest has been spreading ever since. The picture is still confused and contradictory and a great deal is merely rumour, but it seems that the Bolsheviks are now in power in Petrograd while the Kerensky regime is still hanging on in Moscow. “Our worst fears have been realised: a civil war is in progress in Free Russia.”
In the early afternoon someone makes the dreadful but not unexpected discovery that the lieutenant’s belly is becoming discoloured. Gangrene. His death is now just a matter of hours away.
She sits at his side all night and lets the male orderlies take care of any wounded who are brought in. The lieutenant is rapidly sinking towards unconsciousness and death. He shouts for his mother several times, and the only thing Florence can do is to dull his pain with heavy doses of morphine.
He dies at half past five in the morning and his body is carried out into a small room. Florence sees him lying there—sees it lying there, rather—with eyes closed and hands crossed. His batman is sitting beside him, his face rigid and pale. The thunder of the artillery sounds very close but the batman seems unconcerned.
Afterwards Florence writes in her journal:
I don’t think I could stand any more. I had always hoped that my war experiences would, despite their misery and bitterness, act as a stimulus to my spiritual life, would heighten my compassion, would “strengthen my soul in all goodness.” But now I wanted to find a quiet spot where the world was at peace.
On the same day Willy Coppens is at a party given by a British squadron in Uxem. He has been invited because he intervened in a dogfight between two British planes and seven Germans and his surprise action made the German pilots break off their attack. He writes:
The dinner was very lively. The expressions of gratitude from the pilots I saved from the attentions of the German squadron increased at the same tempo as the generous quantities of drink that were consumed. I became more and more convinced that I really was a hero, helped in this belief by the assurances of the others and a variety of alcoholic mixtures.
When he eventually returns to his own base on his motorcycle Coppens is very drunk and in the cold night air repeats aloud that he is a hero. During the night his friends nail up the door to his room so that he has to climb out of the window in the morning.
WEDNESDAY, 14 NOVEMBER 1917
Harvey Cushing takes the train from Paris to Boulogne-sur-Mer
Travelling by train is becoming more and more troublesome. To be sure of getting aboard it is necessary to be at the station at least an hour before the departure time and, once on board, the law of the jungle obtains, at least as far as getting a seat goes. Harvey Cushing has been on one of his many visits to Paris, where he is on various committees working to improve medical care in the forces and to spread knowledge of new methods of treatment. So that side of him is still alive—the practical and professional side, which was what drew him to France in the first place. But it is touch and go.
That, however, is not what is occupying Cushing’s mind today as he sits on the rocking train that is taking him back to Boulogne-sur-Mer and the hospital where he has just started work. The time is just after ten in the morning.
The people sharing the compartment with Cushing present a picture of how big and complicated this war has become. There is a middle-aged French couple, she wrapped in a travelling rug and he immersed in the morning paper. There are several Russian soldiers, one of whom has colossal white mutton-chop whiskers. There are a number of Belgian soldiers, easily recognisable by the small tassels that dangle from their caps and which Cushing considers “silly.” There is a Portuguese officer standing sulking out in the corridor (Cushing suspects that he has taken this man’s seat). There is a pilot dressed in a dark blue uniform reading the risqué magazine La Vie Parisienne, notorious for its pictures of scantily dressed women (frequently torn out and used as pin-ups in the trenches and billets) and for the many contact advertisements from women seeking a (new) husband or, above all, from soldiers seeking a “godmother.” People know or suspect that most of these advertisements are code for temporary sexual contacts and the American troops have received warnings from on high, exhorting them not to buy this French scandal sheet.gg Cushing has already started to put the prolonged and bloody battles around Ypres out of his mind. They finished just a week ago when Canadian troops finally took a heap of rubble, which was all that was left of the village that gave the battle its name—Passchendaele. It looks as if the British army command allowed the futile attacks to continue purely for reasons of prestige, refusing to call a halt to the whole thing until they could say that they had achieved their “aim.”
Some aim. Cushing is feeling dark and pessimistic today. “One sometimes wonders what it’s all about and what indeed we are all over here for,” he writes in his journal, “and why we are actually here.” Much of his gloomy mood is a reaction to the disturbing news from Russia and Italy. The Bolsheviks, with their slogan “Peace now!,” have seized power in the east and the badly mauled Italian army has retreated from one river to the next. Will they really be able to hold their new line on the River Piave? (The reason Cushing’s unit has had to take over the hospital in Boulogne-sur-Mer at such short notice is that the British unit that was running it has been ordered to move to Italy as quickly as possible.) Cushing himself feels that the Allies are in the worst state they have been in since the Battle of the Marne in 1914.
This mood of crisis leads, as always, to reproaches. Cushing glares at the Belgians and Russians in the compartment. The Belgians, he writes, no doubt wear those silly tassels “on the principle of dangling a wisp of straw before a reluctant mule.” And the Russians just eat and do nothing: “The men won’t fight of course and, worse, won’t work.” There is no solidarity among the Allies and reverses have come one after the other in rapid succession. Meanwhile, “the Hun is known to be planning to break the Western Front before spring.” No, Cushing is not particularly optimistic and, like millions of others, feels that his fate is in the hands of distant forces, forces that no one can control any longer. “Some kaleidoscopic turn may alter our destinies at any minute.”
The pilot has put down La Vie Parisienne and started reading a novel with the title Ma P’tite Femme instead. The train is swaying and clunking along.
THURSDAY, 15 NOVEMBER 1917
Paolo Monelli takes part in the defence of Monte Tondarecar
Wet snow and sludge. The army engineers have erected barbed wire on the shoulder of the mountain and that is where the enemy must be stopped. It is not the first time they have heard those words. Quite the reverse. They have heard them time after time during the last month, but the Italian retreat has continued in a series of leaps between mountain tops and rivers: from the Isonzo to the Tagliamento, from the Tagliamento to the Piave. On the Asiago plateau in the north the line is still more or less holding, but even there it is slowly moving back. If either front gives way, the other will automatically be left in a difficult, indeed impossible, situation.
The position they are to defend up on Monte Tondarecar is anything but ideal. The field of fire is useless and the sector that Monelli’s company has to defend is so long as to be ridiculous. On average he has eight men for every hundred metres. Monelli himself is controlled and determined, even though he has been shaken by the retreats and the threat of an Italian defeat—not just in a battle but in the war as a whole. He really intends to fight here, however bad the position and the odds. The latest entry he made in his journal is two days old. He wrote about how sad it was that all those mountains had now been taken by the enemy. “But,” he concluded, “when they come face to face with our pain and our hatred they will not get through.”
The attack they have been waiting for begins.
Enemy storm troops rush forward. Shouts and screams. Monelli glimpses a grey swarm moving rapidly. They are attacking in tight groups, unusually tight for 1917. They consist of their own equivalents in the enemy army—Austrian Alpenjäger. Shouts and screams and gunshots. Weapons open fire, machine guns rattle, bullets whistle past. Monelli sees some of his own troops: De Fanti, Romanin, Tromboni, De Riva. They are unshaven and haggard and clearly just as determined to hold firm as he is. Their faces are remarkably calm. Shouts and screams and gunshots. The grey wave is slowing down, coming to a stop, being washed back. One of the other officers leaps up on the edge of the trench in triumphant ecstasy and screams abuse at the retreating enemy, who disappear back down into their own lines. They leave behind an uneven patchwork of motionless bodies. Shouts. Bodies hang heavily on the thin barbed-wire fence. That is how close they came.
This is repeated twice more. Then things settle down a little. A major in the artillery carefully looks over the edge and observes—with an expression that reveals his surprise—that the line actually did hold. He utters a few words of praise and disappears.
Monelli takes out his journal when the battle is over and, under today’s date, writes just three words: “Non é passato.” He did not get through. That is all.hh
MONDAY, 3 DECEMBER 1917
Elfriede Kuhr watches a coffin leave Schneidemühl
The day is bitterly cold but she stands there anyway. She waits for two endless hours, holding in her hand a rose she has bought with her savings. At about half past two the first rattle of drums can be heard. Then more noises: first the tramp of boots marching in perfect time, then wind instruments, then singing. She can see the procession now: the band in field grey at the front, then the padre, followed by the hearse and the mourners, and lastly a guard of honour of soldiers in steel helmets and carrying rifles.
The mourners? She ought to join them—after all, she is one of them.
Lieutenant Werner Waldecker is dead. He lost his life when his plane crashed two days ago. Elfriede heard the news when she got to school yesterday. It is as if there is a “gaping black hole” in her head and all her movements are mechanical. The hole has now been filled with two questions. The first is, what does he look like now? Has his head been smashed, shattered to pieces? The second, how am I to keep my feelings hidden?
The hearse rolls towards her. She sees the coffin. It is brown and has a flat lid with a wreath lying on it. When the hearse draws level with her she takes a few steps forward and throws her rose up on the coffin. The rose slips off and falls onto the street.
The hearse moves on through the open gates of the goods section of the railway station and Elfriede follows it. The body will travel as registered freight. A reddish-brown goods wagon is waiting there on the track. The coffin is lifted from the hearse and there, among the stacked crates of goods, the padre recites something from a little black book. The men remove their helmets and recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison. The men in the guard of honour raise their rifles and fire three rounds in quick succession. Silence follows. Elfriede can smell the cordite. The coffin and the wreath are lifted into the waiting wagon and two railwaymen in sooty working clothes close the doors with a bang.
She goes back out into the street and sees her rose lying there. She picks it up—the bloom is undamaged. She holds it under her nose and runs away, bent low. She can hear the military band playing behind her.
TUESDAY, 4 DECEMBER 1917
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky is alone on a mountain top on the Pisoderi Pass
It starts off rather well. They leave the camp at the foot of the mountain at dawn and begin the long journey upwards. The road is narrow but well constructed, snaking up to the pass in sharp loops. The weather is good and the view is magnificent—wherever the eye looks it sees the high, dramatic peaks of the Albanian mountains. After a march of no more than six miles, however, the difficulties begin.
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky is in the Balkans, far from home and far from his own country. He is here as a volunteer in a unit sent to reinforce the Russian contingent in Salonica. His decision to volunteer has nothing to do with any thirst for adventure: rather the reverse, it is a carefully considered plan to get away from Russia, where a political revolution is turning into a social revolution. “Much blood is likely to be spilled and we can perhaps even expect terror.”
He has tried, as always, to read his way towards understanding. He has been ploughing through historical literature for the last six months, books about revolutions (the French, of course, but also those of 1848) and about the struggle for power between Marius and Sulla in ancient Rome, for instance. He has sat pen in hand, taking notes and pondering, while Russia was beginning to fall to pieces around him. He thinks he has found an obvious parallel in the phases of the French Revolution. What would a sensible person have done in France at that time? He would have left the country in good time before the Terror and then returned after the fall of Robespierre. In that way he would have managed to leap over the destructive period and re-emerged when everything was getting back to normal again. That is what he hopes to do. That is why he volunteered to serve on this front. The uniform is his asylum.
Salonica, however, has come as an unpleasant surprise. It is partly the sight of the burnt-out city: “I had never seen desolation on such a vast scale as Salonica.” Mile after mile of burnt houses. The civilians—Greeks, Turks, Jews, Albanians—living “wretchedly in tents or wooden shacks amidst the ruins of their burnt homes.” And then there is the mood among the Allied units: it soon became clear to him that morale is at rock bottom and that they “all hated this front.” Battles are infrequent but disease, above all malaria, is taking thousands of lives. In the better restaurants it is quite usual for bowls of quinine tablets to be put on the tables along with the salt and pepper pots. Off-duty soldiers frequently cause riots, and even in the officers’ messes there are fights between men from the different armies. Lobanov-Rostovsky finds the latter particularly shocking, never having seen anything like it before. As a rule it is the same nationalities that gang together against others: the British, Russians and Serbs fight the French, the Italians and the Greeks. Somewhere up in the mountains a half-mad French colonel has proclaimed a little independent republic of his own, printed his own currency and issued his own stamps.ii Lobanov-Rostovsky’s own plans are not working out as he predicted. The tremors of revolution are being felt even down here in the Balkans. Unrest in his battalion has increased, especially since they received news that the Bolsheviks have seized power and started—yesterday, in fact—to negotiate an armistice with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk. The soldiers and the non-commissioned officers are grumbling, growling, contradicting and slow to follow orders, or they turn up late on parade. Sentries sleep at their posts. Officers are reluctant to issue ammunition to their men. And Lobanov-Rostovsky has actually been shot at, after which he was transferred and put in command of a signals company.
This is the company he is now leading over the mountains to join the Russian division stationed up at Lake Prespa, to which the only road crosses the Pisoderi Pass at 1,800 metres. The going is easy at the start but higher up snow is still lying and the narrow, winding road is covered in ice. Lobanov-Rostovsky hears shouting behind him and when he turns round he sees that one of the horse-drawn wagons is sliding over the edge and falling. When they reach the wreckage one of the horses is already dead and he is forced to put the other one down. A little further on, the gradient is so steep that the exhausted horses can no longer get a grip and the soldiers have to push the wagon metre by metre up to the pass. The seventy mules that are carrying the telegraph equipment manage rather better, but they are not properly trained for the job and two of them hurtle down into the abyss. The hours pass and the company is stretched out in a long, ragged line of men, wagons and animals, all dragging themselves uphill extremely slowly.
It starts to snow during the afternoon and they have still not crossed the pass. Lobanov-Rostovsky is patrolling on horseback backwards and forwards along the ever more extended column. Around six o’clock they reach the top, by which time dusk is falling. On a snowy field beside the road he sees a soldier trying to get a single mule to move on but in spite of his efforts the stubborn beast refuses to budge. Lobanov-Rostovsky says he will wait by the mule while the man goes to fetch help.
Lobanov-Rostovsky waits and waits. No one comes. What is going on? Have they decided to forget about him? Or are they simply unable to find him in the dark and snow? What to do? It has been a year of disappointment and reverses for him but now he has hit bottom:
I seldom felt so miserable during the entire war. A biting wind was blowing; fog was rolling in and covering the hills from view; night was coming on rapidly, and there I was alone on the top of a mountain, holding a mule.
Finally, he hears some voices in the darkness and he shouts. It is a couple of latecomers with their wagon and horses. They help him with the mule. It is two o’clock in the morning before the last wagon crosses the pass.
WEDNESDAY, 5 DECEMBER 1917
Paolo Monelli is taken prisoner on Castelgomberto
As early as yesterday he began to suspect that the end was approaching. The end—in the singular, and with the definite article? This battle might well have more than one outcome but the probability of its’ having a happy ending is shrinking by the hour. After an intense bombardment, after being attacked with poison gas, after the threat of encirclement, after failed counter-attacks, after confused close combat—after all that, Monelli and his fellow soldiers have retreated and taken up position a little lower down, in a wood on Castelgomberto. But once the sun rises the Austrian storm troops are going to attack this position too.
This is the hour. The hour I have foreseen, however reluctantly, ever since my first day in the war. It is as though some enormous force has concentrated all the fighting and all the torment and toil of the past into one single decisive, tragic moment.
It is cold, snowy and dark. Monelli and his men are freezing, as well as hungry and thirsty. Yesterday’s retreat was so hasty that there was no time to eat the meal that had already been served, no time even to take it with them. Their fear and their uncertainty are great. They do not know where the enemy is. Monelli sends out a patrol to make contact with their own troops—who are or might be or ought to be somewhere to their left—but the patrol does not return. They get very little sleep. They have a grenade launcher and they fire it blindly out into the darkness. They have ten boxes of grenades and would prefer to get rid of them before the next attack comes. And anyway, why should the enemy enjoy the peaceful slumber they themselves are denied?
Dawn. As soon as there is enough light the Austrian machine guns begin to play on their position. And then the artillery. Smoke fills the earthworks, stinging their eyes and noses. The situation is becoming hopeless—the situation is hopeless. The company is shrinking, hungry and almost out of ammunition.
They surrender. Austrian soldiers surround them.
Monelli takes out his revolver, throws it away and watches it spin down a steep slope. He is filled with bitterness at that moment: thirty months of war and now this. He sees several of his old soldiers weeping. He hears one man exclaim, “But what will Mama say?”
FRIDAY, 7 DECEMBER 1917
Willy Coppens enjoys himself in De Panne
It is after lunch and they are already sitting in the cars ready to set off when a telephone message comes. A German aircraft is attacking some of the forward trenches. Can they send up a couple of fighter planes to drive him off? The German pilot has defied the awful flying weather that has kept the whole squadron grounded for two days and which has encouraged them to take a break from the tedium of hanging round the airfield by driving to De Panne for some entertainment.
Libeaujj and his famous concert party are performing there in the hospital theatre. Libeau and his troop put on theatrical and musical productions behind the front and they often attract audiences of a thousand or more, most of them French or Belgian troops, many of them convalescents and all of them hungry for recreation and distraction. Two of the men climb out of the cars and hurry to change their clothes. The rest carry on to the theatre in De Panne, along the birch-lined road they now know so well. They do, however, see the first plane lift off into the grey skies. It is Verhoustraeten—Coppens recognises him by the special way he test-fires his machine guns. On this occasion it sounds almost like a greeting, and perhaps it is.
Later in the evening, during a pause in the entertainments, a brief telephone message reaches them: Verhoustraeten is dead, hit by a machine-gun bullet fired from the ground. His plane has crashed behind their own lines. There is a moment’s silence among the young men in uniform but then the conversation continues “as if nothing has happened.” Death is so normal, hovers so close to them that they simply cannot dwell upon it. Not if they want to continue doing what they are doing, anyway.kk But denial has its limits:
Later, after leaving the mess with a cheerful “Good night, gentlemen!,” I walked past Verhoustraeten’s room, which was next door to my own. It was now cloaked in darkness and there, in the doorway of his unlit room, I stopped, deeply moved because the whole drama of his disappearance suddenly became clear to me. Up to this point I hadn’t understood the scale of the tragedy. I began to ask myself whether a sacrifice like this was really necessary, and I began to have my doubts.
THURSDAY, 20 DECEMBER 1917
Pál Kelemen is impressed by a battalion of Bosniaks in Paderno
The great offensive at Caporetto is over. Winter has come and the tough German divisions have gone off to practise their infiltration tactics on other victims,ll while French and British reinforcements have arrived to support the reeling Italians. The front has firmed up along the River Piave.
Today Pál Kelemen meets a battalion of Muslim Bosniaks. Just like the Muslim colonial troops in the service of the French, they have come to be seen as elite units. And they are often sent into action where the situation is unusually dangerous. Kelemen, urbane and refined as he is, is rather baffled by these men, alien to him in many ways. He is frightened by their inexplicably warlike spirit. What can they hope to achieve from this war? Bosnia was annexed by Austria-Hungary as recently as 1908. Kelemen thinks that at least some of the older Bosniaks there must have “resisted the power whose reliable and diligent soldiers they have become.” But he still cannot avoid being impressed by them:
Tall, lean, mighty fighting men, like the species of rare cedar now dying out. They stoop a little, as if embarrassed at having grown and developed so stalwart. When walking, they draw their heads down between their shoulders and their deep-set small eyes flash everywhere with piercing gaze. Seated, they cross their bowed legs beneath them, push the fez back to the crown of their heads, and smoke their long-stemmed wooden pipes with as much tranquillity as if they were at home in the fabled land of slim, lovely minarets. Almost all of them are in full manhood. Pointed beards frame the sunburned faces. They are resting now and eating. The shabby tin cans of Army rations look strange between their crooked bony fingers.
On the same date Paolo Monelli reaches his destination, an old castle in Salzburg, now converted into a prison camp. He has been marching for almost two weeks in a column of weary, demoralised prisoners of war, wearing ragged uniforms from which the medals and badges of rank have been torn. Some of them have fought over food, and trouble has broken out here and there, when some of the troops have exploited the inevitable breakdown of organisation caused by being prisoners to rebel against the strict discipline of the past and to attack their officers. Many of them are happy that their war is now over—and they do not hesitate to show it. Monelli has also noticed that, even though triumphant, their enemy has his own significant problems: many of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers standing at the roadside watching the column of prisoners have looked undernourished and thin. (The enemy is clearly also suffering a desperate shortage of men since Monelli has noted several hunchbacks and even a dwarf among their number.) For Monelli and his companions life in the camp will begin today, but he has already recognised that his existence for the foreseeable future will pendulum ceaselessly between two states—boredom and hunger. He writes in his journal:
We arrive at the castle in Salzburg on 20 December—a grim fortress with steep, thick walls on top of an inaccessible hill; no sun and we tremble with the cold in the empty rooms. In this northern winter, surrounded by fog and snow, the thought of traditional Christmas festivities is a torment. In this rhythm of misery, rendered even more bitter by hunger, there is no element of sweetness or delight to knock on the doors of a soul wrapped up in its own hatred.
MONDAY, 31 DECEMBER 1917
Alfred Pollard plays a joke on some Americans in Le Touquet
Perhaps it is his childish side showing through, perhaps it is his growing irritation with the Americans, probably it is a bit of both.
It is late in the evening as Pollard creeps cautiously into the long and narrow barrack room occupied by the American officers. He is accompanied by three friends. All the lights are out, but the light of the moon is filtering into the room through the windows. The only thing to be heard is the sound of men sleeping soundly, tucked up well in their sleeping bags and blankets.
Americans. Pollard, like most other people, knows that they are certainly needed. The French army has scarcely recovered from the colossal losses of recent years and from the mutinies in the spring; the British army is still drained of blood after the long, costly and failed offensive at Ypres; the Italian army is still reeling and weak after the sudden collapse at Caporetto in late autumn. And on the Eastern Front everything points to Russia being on her way out of the war. The Bolsheviks have come to power in Petrograd, voicing slogans about peace and concluding an armistice with the Germans—an armistice that is now two weeks old. All the German divisions formerly occupied in the east will now doubtless be moved west. So the Americans are certainly needed—their soldiers, their money, their industries.
If only they were not so, so … self-confident.
Pollard had expected the Americans to welcome advice, to be glad to share the dearly bought experience of the British army. But no. Many of the American officers he meets are either notably naive or unexpectedly arrogant and do not think they have anything to learn from their allies. They have, after all, been at war themselves for over a year. (Well, a war of sorts, if that is the right name for the skirmishes they have been having with Mexican bandits.mm) The newcomers are clearly competent when it comes to exercises on the barrack square and their ordinary soldiers are keen, well built and well nourished. Even Pollard has to admit that. But the Americans think that the British methods of attack—which by this stage have become advanced, imaginative and increasingly successful but which demand close liaison between the various arms of the service, with creeping barrages accompanied by mobile and well-armed small units—are unnecessarily artificial and over-complicated.
When the British hear the Americans talk, they sometimes get the impression that the latter intend to turn the clock back to August 1914 and advance in closed ranks with fixed bayonets. Pollard can only shake his head. The time will come when the Americans will learn their lesson but the price they pay will be in blood.
And there is another thing. The party animal in Pollard is irritated by the ban on alcohol in the American army and the hypocrisy it leads to. In private, virtually every American officer is quick to produce the bottle he keeps hidden in his kit. This evening, however—New Year’s Eve, for Heaven’s sake—all nineteen Americans on the course turned down the chance to celebrate and went to bed at ten o’clock. Pollard thinks that the placid Americans are more like bank clerks than real soldiers.
He is in Le Touquet at the moment, where he and officers of various nationalities are learning to handle the Lewis light machine gun. Pollard’s summer has been a quiet one, his autumn likewise. He has had a number of postings behind the front, one after another. Among its other duties, his battalion has been guarding the Expeditionary Corps headquarters in Montreuil and in September it took part in suppressing the only minor revolt that this year of revolutions spawned among the British forces.nn But Pollard’s feelings are split. On the one hand, the lack of combat is getting to him, making him restless and bored. On the other hand, he has finally recognised the truth of what others have said in the past but he dismissed as rubbish—that “fellows who had a girl at home thinking of them were less keen on taking risks than the totally unattached.” He can live with all these postings behind the lines. As long as he can be there at the end of the war, he will be satisfied.
The four Englishmen tiptoe up to the nearest bed, two men to a bed.
On the word of command, they lift their allotted bed and tip out the cocoon with its snoozing contents before rushing on to the next bed and doing the same … and then the next … and the next. Muffled screams and loud protests echo round the walls. Some of the half-awake Americans start throwing wild punches but connect only with their fellow victims who, of course, hit back. A confused brawl begins in the darkness. Before anyone has managed to switch on a light, Pollard and his companions slip unseen and delighted out of the barrack room and into the night.
Nineteen-eighteen has arrived.
* Another eyewitness account says it is a tamarind tree.
† Bethmann-Hollweg’s proposals, one of the wasted opportunities of the war, arose partly from his recognition that Germany’s chances of achieving an unconditional victory had diminished even though, following the defeat of Romania and the failure of the British offensive on the Somme, Germany’s position was apparently stronger than before. The proposals were also a rather desperate attempt to resist the favourite idea of the German hawks and militarists—their desire to wage an unrestricted U-boat war. The German chancellor, and many with him, correctly feared that this would drag the United States into the conflict. His proposals were, however, rather vague: he did not formulate any conditions or offer any promises—least of all a commitment to allow Belgium to emerge from the war unscathed. These were not the first German peace proposals. Feelers had been put out in the direction of Russia in 1915 but, since Paris and London had a lot more to offer (Constantinople, for instance) than Berlin, Petrograd responded with little more than silence.
‡ A vocal and influential body of opinion in Germany also rejected all compromise and considered it self-evident, for instance, that Belgium would in some way remain German. The same people also regarded German colonial expansion as a given.
§ Around 70 per cent of the other ranks taken prisoner after the capitulation at Kut al-Amara will die. That mortality rate is on the same level as that in the worst Nazi and Soviet labour camps.
‖ A historical curiosity: when used on land these rejected 88mm cannon proved excellent as anti-aircraft guns. Also, one of the most feared guns of the Second World War, the German 88mm cannon, was ultimately developed from them.
a In itself the murder changed nothing, but it does seem to have led to all the hatred and bitter criticism previously aimed at the Tsarina’s bizarre favourite being directly targeted at the royal family.
b Widespread discontent lay behind the protests but the reason they broke out when they did was at least partly due to the weather. A period of extreme cold eased around 8 March and it became much warmer, which meant that many more people were prepared to join in the demonstrations.
c Orlando Figes has shown that the idea that the March revolution was peaceful is largely a myth. In reality more people were killed in these disturbances than during the more famous and momentous coup by the Bolsheviks in October of the same year.
d A dried-up river bed.
e One contemporary estimate reveals that forty trains a month could supply a division of 16,000 infantrymen whereas it took four times as many trains to supply the same number of cavalry. A further disadvantage was that the long, broad columns of cavalry could easily block vital approach roads.
f The Hindenburg Line was a heavily fortified and well-prepared defensive line between Arras and Reims. It was built to shorten the German front by thirty miles and thus free up some ten divisions. The Germans made a strategic withdrawal to behind the line in March 1917.
g This aircraft was a proven workhorse, used by a number of different air forces in a variety of roles and in many theatres of war—everywhere from the Western and Eastern Fronts to the Balkans, Italy and Mesopotamia. Its strange name derived, according to Kenneth Munson, from “the short inner wing-struts, sloping outwards and rising diagonally on each side from the upper part of the fuselage.” It was the first British aircraft that could shoot through its propeller, its makers utilising a synchronisation mechanism copied from a German aircraft which had veered off course in dense fog and landed on the wrong side of the front line. The 1½ Strutter had been a decisive factor in the Allies’ gaining superiority in the air during the summer of 1916.
h Because of the losses suffered and the disappointment caused by the lack of success, this would soon lead to a wave of mutinies in the French army. For the moment, however, both battles were, so to speak, pausing for breath, in a way typical of battles of that kind. The attackers were replenishing their supplies of ammunition and materiel and replacing the exhausted and diminished units in the front line with fresh, rested forces. The defenders, of course, were doing the same, and thus the whole process of attrition would soon start again more or less from square one. Often, this pattern was repeated ad nauseam.
i Even when suitable parachutes became available most air forces forbade their use since they were considered likely to encourage pilots to ditch their aircraft unnecessarily. Nor were life jackets provided. Some pilots tried to make their own by pumping up old car-tyre inner tubes and wearing them round their waists.
j In numerical terms, the situation looked good. At the start of the fighting the British had 385 fighter planes to the Germans’ 114. But statistics are not everything.
k The nickname of one of the other prisoners. Presumably a reference to his appearance.
l The convoy system had not yet been fully introduced.
m Of the 20,000 South African troops sent to East Africa, half were transported home suffering from serious illnesses.
n The chances of a first or second lieutenant surviving the war were considerably less than those of an ordinary soldier. Estimates suggest that junior officers proportionally suffered six times the losses of other categories of servicemen.
o This figure is grossly exaggerated. The courts martial set up after the mutinies sentenced around 23,000 men to punishment, slightly over 500 being sentenced to death. The aim, however, was to set an example and in the end fewer than fifty were actually shot—usually in front of their fellow soldiers. The stories that whole units were driven out into no-man’s-land and then slaughtered by their own artillery are myths.
p See asterisked footnote at 16 September 1916, this page.
q In the German army they refer to “blue points.” Enemy trench lines are designated with blue figures on their maps.
r The technology for effective battlefield communication simply did not exist. The new wireless radio sets were too big, heavy and unreliable to be practical. Wired telephony worked well for permanent networks or when the shelling was not too heavy, but under concentrated fire cables were easily damaged. By this stage cables were being buried metres deep and, if possible, encased in pipework, but that kind of thoroughness was available only when the front was static and relatively calm. All the armies employed various methods of optical signalling (flares, heliographs, lamps, semaphore and flags), but those required good visibility—something that was in short supply when the fighting became heavy. A further possibility was to transport orders and reports physically. All sides experimented with dogs as runners but that method proved ineffective under heavy bombardment: dogs, like horses, tend to become crazed in heavy artillery fire. And all sides used carrier pigeons—the German army alone got through 300,000—which were sometimes the most reliable form of communication. According to one estimate, nine out of ten pigeons reached their destination. Carrier pigeons were even awarded military decorations and other honours, one of the best known being the last bird to be dispatched from the encircled Fort de Vaux at Verdun during the fighting in June 1916. It got through but died of its wounds and is now commemorated by a plaque at the fort. There is also the famous Cher Ami, a pigeon that, in spite of being wounded in the breast and having a leg shot off, managed to reach its destination with a message from a surrounded American unit during the fighting in the Argonne in October 1918: it was awarded the Croix de Guerre and its stuffed body is on show in the Smithsonian in Washington. If there was no alternative, human runners were used, usually dispatched in pairs in the hope that one at least would survive. This was obviously a mission fraught with great danger. (Adolf Hitler frequently acted as a runner during the First World War and was twice decorated for doing so. It provided him with the concrete if somewhat limited knowledge of military matters that he later used to trump various generals whose experience had been moulded more by the theoretical world of the operations room.)
s When things were at their worst, fifty-four divisions were involved and large parts of the Western Front were effectively undefended. (The fact that the German army somehow failed to discover and exploit this significant disruption has to be seen as the biggest intelligence blunder of the First World War—all the more so as the Germans were very skilful in exploiting and supporting the Bolsheviks in Russia as a means of undermining the Russian war effort.) Some of the French mutineers demanded an immediate peace, others threatened to march on Paris, while the majority were simply satisfied with refusing to carry out attacks and submitted lists of demands for simple, concrete improvements in food, medical care, leave and so forth. The resulting executions were consequently few in number whereas the improvements in material conditions for the troops were quite considerable.
t The Italian army executed just over 1,000 of its own men during the war, which is far more than the number executed in the British army (361), not to mention the German army (48). Over 15,000 Italian troops were condemned to life imprisonment for crimes against military discipline and many of them remained in prison long after the war was over, in some cases until 1945. The Italian commander-in-chief, Luigi Cadorna, insisted on “iron discipline.”
u During January 1917 German U-boats sank thirty-five vessels with a combined weight of 109,954 tons; by April those figures had risen to 155 vessels and 516,394 tons, though the losses declined following the introduction of the convoy system and a policy of more aggressive mine-laying. Air Force pilots also became more skilled at sinking U-boats. (The first submarine sunk at sea by aircraft was the French Foucault, dispatched by Austrian seaplanes in the Adriatic on 15 September 1916.)
v Many soldiers detested being under attack from grenade launchers and mortars since, unlike other artillery pieces, their projectiles made very little noise as they travelled through the air and therefore arrived without audible warning. (They were, however, rather slow, so it was often possible to see them coming.)
w Educated Africans were beginning to think that the war would lead to colonialism destroying itself.
x Gunshot wounds.
y Now better known as the Kerensky offensive after Alexander Kerensky, the incumbent prime minister in Russia’s Provisional Government, who had ordered it that July when minister of war.
z Maria “Yashka” Bachkarova, who was eventually executed in 1920 as an enemy of the people for her connections with the White Russian military. Her unit was known as the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death.
aa The problem was not just that imports were being cut off by the British blockade; the previous year the government had banned the import of “exotic” foods such as mandarins, raisins, pineapples, ginger and vanilla.
bb He felt there was some justification for a reaction of that kind. In a letter to another acquaintance France wrote, “As if it wasn’t enough that the war is causing such dreadful suffering; it is also making idiots of all those who haven’t already gone mad.”
cc The first two of these proposals were by that time off the table: the American proposal because the United States had entered the war and the German one because its originator, Bethmann-Hollweg, had lost his battle against the hawks in Berlin and left office. In July a majority in the German Reichstag had voted by 212 to 126 in favour of a resolution demanding peace without either territorial gains or reparations: this ran completely counter to the ambitions of the men who in reality now held power in Germany—the military high command, with Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the lead. This meant that the so-called civil truce of 1914 was broken and Bethmann-Hollweg’s position as the man trying to balance the scales became untenable.
dd Caporetto is actually the name given to the place after the war, when the region became Italian; in 1917 it was still Austrian territory and the small town was called Karfreit. The name of the offensive is slightly misleading in that the real breakthrough took place north of Caporetto/Karfreit. This idyllic spot, now in Slovenia, is called Kobarid and has a small but excellent museum devoted to the battle.
ee The storm-troop tactics were used for the first time at the beginning of September when, without any great strain, they broke the Russian front at Riga and sent the whole of the Russian Twelfth Army careering wildly to the north. In France, later in the same month, German units trained in the new infiltration tactics beat back the British tank-supported breakthrough at Cambrai.
ff The most famous description of the Italian collapse at Caporetto is Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms. For all its literary merits, however, this is not a first-hand account. Hemingway did not arrive in Italy until the following year and was never present at the actual scene of the fighting. He wrote most of the book at home in Kansas City during the summer of 1928, after equipping himself with sundry maps and historical works. Another account, nothing like as well known although written by a man who was to become famous, is Erwin Rommel’s Infanterie greift an (Infantry Attacks). The battles he took part in as a young lieutenant in an Alpine regiment are described in slightly Cubist language and in great detail, with the aid of plentiful cartographic material. He won the Pour le Mérite at Caporetto.
gg Given that the American forces also had a very strict ban on alcohol, warnings of this kind tended to reinforce the image of the Americans as moralising puritans.
hh A vigilant reader might wonder how such an enigmatic entry can provide a picture of that day’s fighting. Fortunately, in addition to other source material, the preface to the fourth edition of Monelli’s book about his war experiences (written in April 1928) relates what happened in much greater detail.
ii The colonel was Henri Descoins; the republic the Autonomous Albanian Republic of Korçë, which reverted to Albania in 1920.
jj Gustave Libeau (1877–1957), Belgian actor.
kk At the moment, at least, the situation is quite favourable. The slaughter of Allied airmen during the spring is a thing of the past and the war in the air is much more evenly balanced. Indeed, there are even signs that the Germans are under pressure. In this area, as in others, the weight of the Allied production apparatus has begun to make itself felt.
ll Infiltration tactics meant that the attacking forces, instead of attacking on a long, unbroken front in the hope of overcoming the whole of the enemy line, functioned as small mobile units, which would try to exploit weak points in the enemy’s defences and simply circumvent the strong ones. These small mobile units would then attempt to push as far as possible into the rearward areas, preferably reaching the enemy artillery, without which the tough strongpoints further forward would be lost.
mm Since 1916 Mexico had been the scene of a civil war between the rebel Pancho Villa and President Carranza (a man with the interesting Christian name Venustiano). Allied propaganda in the United States worked hard to convince public opinion that Villa was some sort of German-controlled threat, and he went some way towards justifying their claims by accepting relatively small sums of money from German agents. Enraged by American support for President Carranza, Villa then attacked American citizens in northern Mexico and in March 1916 carried out a raid into New Mexico, where he attacked the small town of Columbus, killing some twenty Americans. The United States responded immediately by invading northern Mexico. (This was not the first time during this period that the American military had simply marched into various more or less sovereign countries. They fought against Spain in 1898, fought a colonial war in the Philippines between 1899 and 1902, went into Nicaragua in 1912, and sent the Marine Corps into Haiti in 1915 and into the Dominican Republic in 1916. This invasion of Mexico was the second within just a few years: they had mounted a military intervention in 1914 with the aim of toppling the sitting government.) For some time American forces chased the clouds of dust that the ever-evasive Villa and his men left behind them. Villa’s raids across the border into the United States were still continuing at this point.
nn The reference is to the mutiny in Étaples (known to British soldiers as “Eat-Apples”) from 9 to 12 September. In Étaples, which was near the coast, there was a training camp where the discipline was unusually harsh. The whole thing started when a New Zealand soldier, who had been absent without leave, was arrested by the hated military police and accused of desertion. His fellow soldiers and other discontented troops gathered and demanded that he be freed; fighting broke out, shots were fired and one of the demonstrators was killed. More and more soldiers flocked to the spot and the military police were driven out of the camp without further ado. Disturbances and spontaneous demonstrations continued over the following days. On 12 September Pollard’s battalion and two other reliable units were sent in, armed with clubs, and between them they succeeded in quashing the mutiny.