Week 11

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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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13th-19th October 1914

For lack of any better idea

by David Hargreaves

IT WAS THE last time that the Allied Armies in the West would move much before 1918. Sir John French had been anxious to move the British Expeditionary Force to the allied left flank, a step which would make it easier to supply the Army from the Channel Ports. Joffre had scented in this a ruse by which the British might make good their escape, but both knew that the Allies were unlikely to achieve any big victory on the Aisne, and so he relented. The previous week had seen the bulk of British infantry not caught up in Antwerp travelling by train towards Flanders, while the cavalry enjoyed a gentlemanly progress on their mounts through Picardy. The weather was balmy and the journey appeared as a brief moment in which the taste and texture of peace was fleetingly recaptured.

In his Third Despatch was printed in the London Gazette on 16 October, French emphasised the difficult conditions on the Aisne, especially the heavy rain and cold, but also celebrated “the splendid spirit, gallantry and devotion of officers and men”. This was edifying, if non-specific, stuff — a soothing prelude to the sobering tally of casualties: 561 officers and 12,980 men were killed, wounded or missing. French, mercurial as ever, now convinced himself that the BEF was on the edge of making a rapid assault on Bruges and thence to Ghent. He wrote to the King that “The spade will be as necessary as the rifle and the heaviest calibres and types of artillery will be brought up in support on either side”.

That was true, but French also needed more men, having mustered three corps against five German ones. By 15 October, however, the Allied lines extended to the Coast and over the next couple of days they succeeded in occupying Aubers, Armentières, Neuve Chappelle and Herlies before they wound up their offensive. The Germans also had their victories, taking Ostend and Zeebrugge by 15 October. By the following day the Battle of Yser had begun, with a German attack on Diksmuide. The heavy German assaults now imposed a strenuous defensive burden on the Allies over the next month.

By the 19 October, the transfer of the BEF from Aisne to Flanders had been completed and the first Battle of Ypres had begun. The numbers assembled by Falkenhayn in the new Fourth Army were prodigious, but their impact was desperately diminished by the antiquity of their equipment, the age of many of the combatants and the perfect ignorance of many of its tacticians.

The death of Captain Hans Graf von Witzingerode during the week certainly suggests that the degree of useful learning absorbed by commanders as to the proper deployment of cavalry still had some way to go. Witzingerode had advanced into battle mounted on a charger with sword aloft, exhorting his men to follow him. A hail of bullets unsurprisingly followed after which he lay unattended in no man’s land for the six days and nights in appalling weather. When he was finally brought in, he died almost at once.

The big story of the week for the British was the Antwerp debacle. A rush of criticism was levelled against Churchill and, after being briefed by his son Oc and Rupert Brooke, Asquith wrote to his confidante Venetia Stanley: “I can’t tell you what I feel of the wicked folly of it all … Nothing excuses Winston (who knew all the facts) from sending in the two other Naval Brigades. I was assured that all the recruits were being left behind, & that the main body at any rate consisted of seasoned Naval Reserve men.”

The Daily Express on 17 October demanded an explanation for the “raw levies sent to Antwerp, poorly equipped and poorly trained”. Scenting blood, the Morning Post — an old enemy of Churchill’s — spoke of “deliberate murder” and maintained that the costly “Antwerp Blunder” rendered him “unfitted for the office [First Lord of the Admiralty] which he now holds”.

All history struggles to recapture the textures in which decisions were made and attitudes were struck which seem foreign to later generations. The next day, the Daily Express reported that the Belgian Government had ordered “all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 45 to enter the army within two days, threatening to treat all who refused as traitors”. As a patriotic call to arms, it was rendered that much more confusing having been issued just before the government had departed to safer shores in England.

Asquith’s crocodile tears are also hard to swallow. It had been open to him to veto Churchill’s posturing weeks earlier — but he sent his sons to the front without a murmur. Oc in particular had elicited admiration for his bravery at Antwerp. In the Daily Express of 16 October, an article by Stoker Robert Lawrence RNR insisted: “Lieutenant Asquith’s first thought is for the comfort and feeding of his men. He roughs it with the boys, who think the world of him…The last time I saw him he was drinking his tea from a corned beef can.”

The enormity of the courage summoned among men of all classes and armies was a truism in this third month of the war. It stood alongside much amateurishness and haughty do-goodism, in all of which the Asquith family were complicit. Two other Asquith children, Herbert and Violet, were part of a small group who had left for Boulogne on 18 October on a fact-finding tour to see how the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Red Cross were coping with the wounded. Herbert’s wife, Cynthia, found herself struck by the good looks of the professional British soldiers when contrasted with their conscripted French counterparts, the latter “like toys in their red trousers – ours in khaki about two feet taller”.

She also found some wounded German prisoners attractive: “fine-looking men — blond-beasts” with large schwarmerisch (passionate) eyes. Others in the party had demurred when she and Violet gave the prisoners cigarettes and chatted to them in German. Yet both women were impeccably bellicose — dismissing the Red Cross as “unpractical sentimentalists” for demanding clean shirts and bed linen as providing these risked delaying the munitions delivery to the front. Their jaw dropping self-assurance seems not to have been much appreciated: pressure from the fighting troops themselves, appalled by the conditions facing their wounded comrades, soon made supplying the Red Cross a priority.

At sea, HMS Hawke was sunk by a German U-boat on 15 October, but revenge (it may have felt thus) came the following day when HMS Yarmouth sank the Markomannia, collier ship to the ubiquitous SS Emden. On the day after that, HMS Undaunted despatched four German destroyers off the Dutch coast. The week also saw the first German action against a merchant vessel when another U-boat sank the British SS Glitra.

Over in the East, it seemed for a few days that the Russians were about to be thrown back decisively. Ivanov’s “invasion force” had reached the Vistula crossing points the previous week, but, lacking adequate bridging equipment, it had had to wait there for several days, killing off any element of surprise. When they began to cross on 11 October, the Austrians and Germans were waiting and, during the next few bloody days, the border zones fell into anarchy.

On 15 October, the Germans made the decision to move towards Warsaw and by the next day they were within seven miles of the capital. The Russians now prepared to evacuate but when, rather earlier than anticipated, reinforcements reached the city, Ludendorff had second thoughts. Later he blamed the desperate weather for his decision to withdraw on 20 October. Another theatre of war was again sunk in stalemate.

Germany was deeply loathed by her enemies, and they felt free to say so. After two months of war, the media still fanned the flames, but most people appear to have been thoroughly conditioned. On 15 October, the Daily Express recorded with evident satisfaction that the “fall of a meteor in Cheshire during Tuesday night’s thunderstorm caused a great boom in Zeppelin bomb insurance policies”. The Daily Mirror looked forward the next day to bonfire night on 5 November: “Effigies of the Kaiser, not Guy Fawkes”, it promised, “will proliferate”. On 19 October, it also reported, following the arrival of 800 Belgian refugees in Deptford, an anti-German riot in Deptford High Street, Brixton and the Old Kent Road. Nine German-sounding shops were pillaged.

To their near-universal execration, the Germans – even highly placed ones – responded with a thin skin. Der Kolnische Zeitung raged against the New York Herald and the New York World on 16 October for effrontery in questioning the accuracy of German briefings to the US press: “It is through such a vile crew as this that we are obliged to make the light of truth shine out on the world!”

Of course, disinformation assisted the process. Rumours circulated during the week that the Germans were planning to levy some hefty indemnities in the event of their victory. “Germany’s Little Bill”, ran a headline in the Daily Mirror on 15 October, claiming the Kaiser and his ministers sought £400 million in addition to a host of territorial demands. Le Temps commented that ‘We must keep this in mind when we come to consider our own conditions of peace’.

The war had now changed everyone’s lives. Amidst the now usual portion of loss and tragedy, the eccentricity of the British could never be quite extinguished. The Daily Mirror chose to opine on 16 October that “Women look prettier as a result of going to bed earlier. [They are also] learning to shoot. This is good for the nerves.”

The splendid and fearless Dorothie Feilding wrote home from Belgium on 17 October in testy vein: “I wish there was a man with a head in charge. As soon as I get back I shall settle down and marry a big strong man who will bully me.”

“Poor Willy McNeil of the 16th Lancers”, wrote Lionel Tennyson from the front that same day, “who used to ride Foolhardy in the Grand National was killed quite close to us here this morning”. For a man of his time and class, this kind of referencing was a way of coping with bad news. It would also take more than war, even a great one, to permeate all the shibboleths of class. A correspondent in The Lady on 15 October deplored the attrition wrought upon the rural upper classes by the departure of so many husbands and hunt servants to the Army. “The man who now reigns as a feeder”, she lamented, “is a dirty, slovenly creature”.

At least as bizarre, the New York Times published a letter the following day signed by 54 literary prominenti defending Britain’s involvement in the war. They included Arnold Bennett, who acknowledged to his publisher that he was motivated in part by a fear that pacifist and intellectual circles in Britain and the USA might influence Germany to sue for peace too soon – before her spirit of militarism had been decisively crushed on the battlefield. It was as well not to know what terrors lay ahead.

From the press of the day

* The Case of Oscar Slater (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-case-of-oscar-slater)  · The Spectator · 19th October 1914
* Expert Forecasts on the War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/expert-forecasts-on-the-war)  · Literary Digest (New York) · 18th October 1914
* German Spies (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/german-spies)  · Saturday Review · 17th October 1914
* The German People and the War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-german-people-and-the-war)  · Outlook (New York) · 16th October 1914
* A Remarkable Forecast (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/a-remarkable-forecast)  · The Nation (London) · 15th October 1914
* The Mailed Fist and its Prophets (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/the-mailed-fist-and-its-prophets)  · The Atlantic · 14th October 1914
* Some Early Lessons of The War (http://back.thebrowser.com/article/some-early-lessons-of-the-war)  · North American Review · 13th October 1914

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