Week 10: September 8th - 14th (copy 01)


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Find below our weekly introductory essay by David Hargreaves and the pick of this week's journalism from 1914.

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6th-13th October 1914

Hubris

by David Hargreaves

HISTORIANS HAVE SOMETIMES sought to fashion an apologia for the fiasco of Antwerp. To seek to defend the city was always an idea worth entertaining, if only because the Channel ports were self-evidently an asset to national security, and therefore best left out of the hands of the enemy. Moreover, the quest to alleviate the sufferings of the Belgians speaks well, rather than ill, of the British. The Belgian government moved to Ostend on 7 October where the plight of civilians was frequently dreadful. Dr Munro's Flying Ambulance Corps had arrived there two weeks earlier on a humanitarian mission. Set up in Ghent, it set about feeding refugees and receiving wounded from Antwerp, climaxing at 800 - 900 within a single day.

What made the defence of Antwerp, to some, a hateful memory was less its failure than the manner of its execution. For a few torrid days Britain exhibited a toxic fusion of both boastfulness and ineptitude. So far as the former is concerned, Churchill bears a special responsibility. His braggadocio anticipated the noisy egoism of celebrity culture rather than the buttoned-down lip of an Englishman in a time of peril. As for the latter, the range of shortcomings which Antwerp exposed, militarily and politically, were part and parcel of what might be expected in war, but they were deadly nonetheless.

On 7 October, British Marines in Antwerp, whose training was at best lacklustre – it had been predicated on the assumption they would be exclusively on warships - found themselves without plans or equipment. They were ordered to withdraw from the line and then, after marching a short distance, inexplicably told to return. That same night, Belgian troops were commanded to exploit the sudden descent of fog in an effort to recapture lost ground ‘at any cost’. That was the night the Allies acknowledged that Antwerp was lost. Churchill had invested too much in Antwerp to be able to accept that defeat had been overwhelmingly probable from the time the siege had begun. Later he was to write contemptuously of the calibre of German troops defending the city, but this was poor history and sour grapes. The Marines had received their order to withdraw from Col Jack Seely, a former Secretary for War and a close friend to Churchill – ‘one of those wandering politician-soldiers’ Maurice
Festing, a Captain in the Royal Marines, styled him. ‘I sincerely cursed the day when fate had placed the unfortunate brigade in the hands of two professional politicians and amateur soldiers.’ The next day the city was bombarded.

Rupert Brooke had been a member of Anson battalion with 'Oc' Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. Both were under the command of the legendarily incompetent Captain George Cornwallis West, Churchill’s erstwhile stepfather. West, having lost the battalion's only map of Antwerp, was reduced desperately to ask citizens ‘Avez vous un plan d'Anvers?’ before finally dragooning a cyclist to act as guide as they retreated on the 8th across the Scheldt. The farce and horror of the episode was described vividly by Brooke in a letter home: ‘Rivers & seas of flame leaping up hundreds of feet, crowned by black smoke...it lit up houses wrecked by shells, dead horses, demolished railway stations, …and there we joined the refugees...The glare was like hell. We passed on, out of that, across a pontoon bridge, built on boats. Two German spies tried to blow it up while we were on it. They were caught and shot.’ Oc and Brooke struggled on through the night, some 30 miles, absolutely exhausted.
Eventually reaching Bruges and Ostend, they collapsed onto bales of hay in the ship taking them home. Once in London, he and Brooke went hotfoot to Number 10 Downing Street to brief the Prime Minister in unsparing detail about the episode to which they had been party. Others, less gilded, enjoyed a rougher denouement. In addition to the tally of casualties, over 2000 soldiers had had to flee to Holland where they were interned for the rest of the war.

Antwerp was host to glorious unsung heroics – bareknuckle bravery which translates seamlessly and movingly across the years, not least because several of the luminaries were English women trying simply to be useful. Lady Dorothie Feilding, the 25 year old daughter of the Earl of Denbigh was one, as was the novelist Mary St Clair. On 8 October, Fielding helped to carry two British casualties three miles back from the trenches. ‘I don’t mind running risks for our men or the French’ she said, ‘but I’m blithered if I’m going to have holes put in me by a bally Teuton while I pick up their men’. Elsie Knocker, then 30, and her 18 year old friend Mairi Chisolm were probably the most famous, their fearlessness somehow associated in the public mind with their use of motorcycles as their preferred means of travel. Elsie had seen first-hand the aftermath of a German atrocity in the village of Nazareth near Ghent: 300 Germans had taken 26 Belgian military policemen by surprise, shot them
at close range with dum-dum bullets and then, in her words, ‘bashed their heads in...the Germans are truly brutes to mutilate them after death’.

This took place on 9 October, the day that Antwerp was occupied by the Germans. Knocker now found herself abandoned with her cockney ambulance driver Tom in a turnip field, peopled only by German and Allied dead and dying. The pair filled the ambulance as best they could, and Tom then took the casualties off to hospital, leaving her to attend to three wounded Germans and a Belgian. Somewhat to her relief, he returned in time to allow them both to make their escape - before the Germans shot at her which, she had been warned, they would most certainly do if they saw her khaki form moving. ‘It was a wonderful and grand day’ she said, ‘and I would not have missed it’. The last forts in the city surrendered the following day, by which point most of the British contingent had managed to escape and rejoin the rest of the BEF on that narrow strip of Belgian coastline which the Germans had not occupied. There was no reason for celebration, and no time for respite was allowed. On 11
October, the Battle of Flanders began: a desperate struggle for the possession of the coast which would endure for six costly weeks.

However ill-conceived the defence of Antwerp, it had sprung (in part) from a generosity of vision that was not lost on Britain’s ally. A letter written on 11 October by a Belgian woman, Jeanne van Bleyberghe, to a friend in England made the point well: ‘We all admire England so much – it really is a grand and generous nation’. More tartly, the King’s Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, observed the following day: ‘our friend [Churchill] must be quite off his head!’ Churchill had returned to London on 7 October, just too late for the birth of his third child that same day.

Such pyrotechnics diverted the attention from both contemporaries and scholars from other theatres of war. That same week, the Eastern Front was, by comparison, becalmed, although it did not feel thus to those Russian soldiers in Poland and Galicia who were forced to fall back along the whole front. This was in the face of the German advance which began on 7 October and, within three days, the Germans had occupied Lodz. The Austro-Hungarians had approached Ivangorod in Poland the day before, which was to prove the beginning of a twenty-days' struggle. The bad news for Russia continued when the advance of the Central Powers forced them to raise the siege of Przemsyl on 11 October. At sea, the British submarine E9 sank a German destroyer at the mouth of the River Ems on 8 October, a rare moment of success in a week dominated by news upon which even the British press struggled to place a positive spin. Three days later, however, the Russian cruiser Pallada was destroyed by a
German submarine in Baltic and that same day, the last act of hostilities in Australasian waters took place when the Australian Navy captured the German gunboat Komet.

As crisis became the norm, at home the press and public found that they could not exist only on a diet of superlatives. Some of the habits of peacetime – irony and introspection among them – travelled over into war, if at first obliquely. On 7 October, The Daily Mirror noticed that ‘People Seem to be Getting Very Polite’. Developing the idea, it suggested ‘that the war was responsible for this remarkable and welcome change in our national temperament is not to be doubted. It is one of the Kaiser’s many miracles. It is on a par with his settlement of the suffragettes’ trouble and his solving of the Irish problem.’ The Kaiser thought so too, being lampooned on 12 October in The Daily Express for having suggested ‘I am the instrument of the Most High’. Someone ought to have explained to him what was meant by hubris.

The Church Times was not long on irony, however, although it may have indulged in understatement when it suggested, rather huffily, on 9 October that there was ‘we regret to say, a tendency noticeable here and there towards increased drunkenness.’ Four days later, one wonders at the straight face adopted by The Daily Express when it reported twelve ‘Don’ts’ in a time of war, made by Lord Curzon, another martyr to hubris, in a speech to the boys and masters at Harrow School. Among his apercus was the priceless nugget: ‘Don’t be unnerved by personal or family bereavements’.

As more and more imperial troops were pressed into service, racial anxieties continued to gnaw away, especially among the Germans. Vossische Zeitung reported on 7 October that Germany was ‘more justified in crushing under our hatred an enemy such as Britain, which has not scrupled to incite against her fellow Christians a hostile horde of heathens and Buddhists’. The Daily Express, under the bold headline ‘Burning to fight’, purported to relay the question asked by a burly Sikh to an officer in a French town: ‘When can we go and cut the Germans’ heads off, sahib?’ A report in The Clarion on 10 October deplored the unfriendliness of a British General who allegedly had dined in the same hotel dining room as an Indian prince in uniform without addressing a word to him. The Clarion columnist wondered: ‘If an Indian prince is not fit to speak to, why does our King accept his services?’ America was another part of the world definitely in the minds of the Entente Powers, although it
showed as yet no signs of escaping its neutrality. On 9 October, The Daily Express reported prophetically that ‘American financiers firmly believe that the war will result in Germany being compelled to pay so large an indemnity that her international credit will be destroyed…’

A German waiter in London, reported The Times on 7 October, had been sentenced to six months hard labour, and recommended for repatriation, having been found in possession of four pigeons. In the course of the trial, the defendant had been moved to protest, in a moment that may have served as the inspiration for a memorable episode of Blackadder eighty years hence, that the birds in question had been intended for no purpose more nefarious than that of filling a pie. In retrospect one is left wondering how much of this delightful vignette was germanophobia and how much leg-pulling.

Hints of nuance, of proportionality, surface here and there. The Daily Express reported on 9 October that ‘German and Austrian students are continuing their studies at University College, Gower Street, as though they were not alien enemies’. The Provost had proved apparently unmoved when questioned as to the propriety of this, saying: ‘I have asked no questions of them. Why should I?” (The exact date is uncertain but it was also probably during this week that the economist JM Keynes wrote to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein requesting he fund a scholarship for a Cambridge logician after the war. Wittgenstein, part of the crew of a picket boat on the Vistula at the time, was not unreasonably irritated by receiving such an importunate request at such an inopportune time.) And, while it was hardly an objective witness, the Cologne Gazette may have spoken for a few Britons when it took Sir John French to task on 7 October for ‘using sporting metaphors in dealing with so grave
a subject as war’. Sir John had referred, once too often, to ‘fair play’.

Fair play would not have been much in the minds of the Schadla family near Bremen that week. On 10 October news reached them that their son Ludwig had died at the Marne – reached them brutally too, since the first they knew of it was when the family’s letters to him were returned with the terse annotation ‘Died 4.9’. Three days later they received another abrupt official communication: ‘Wounded – whereabouts unknown’. Thus did they learn of the fate of their second son Gottfried. That same day the Archbishop of York declared ‘every man who respects his conscience must stand to his place until the war is ended. There can be no peace until this spirit of German militarism is crushed’.

From the press of the day

* Asylums for the hopelessly sane (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/asylums-for-the-hopelessly-sane)  · The Atlantic · 12th October 1914
* Nietzsche And The War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/nietzsche-and-the-war)  · New Statesman · 11th October 1914
* In a Nutshell (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/in-a-nutshell)  · The Outlook · 10th October 1914
* The Cultural War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-cultural-war)  · Literary Digest (New York) · 9th October 1914
* The Third Person (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-third-person)  · The Spectator · 8th October 1914
* Literary Notes (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/literary-notes)  · The Tablet · 7th October 1914
* Changed Temper of England (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/changed-temper-of-england)  · The Nation (London) · 6th October 1914

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