WEAPONS OF TERROR II

Sir John French admitted to Haig that he had spent ‘several bad nights as the result of anxiety’ over Ypres, but increasingly he was looking beyond the old frontier, tempted by the prospect of a battle for Lille. By 6 May, Haig completed plans for supporting Joffre’s spring offensive. In what might be regarded as Neuve Chapelle Mark 2, the First Army would make a second attempt to reach the high ground southwest of Lille, this time by securing Aubers Ridge, the objective that proved too distant two months earlier. The following day – while the Germans were massing their artillery in the Salient around Frezenberg – French summoned First Army’s commanding generals to GHQ in Hazebrouck for a confident briefing on the favourable position of the allies across Europe and his hopes for Aubers Ridge and the simultaneous French assault on Vimy Ridge.

His optimism was misplaced. On the Eastern Front the Russians were forced back from the foothills of the Carpathians into Galicia; from Gallipoli the news grew gloomier by the day; in Artois the French advanced 3 miles and briefly held the crest of Vimy Ridge, only to be overwhelmed by counter-attacks, and on the same day – Sunday, 9 May – Aubers Ridge proved a costly disaster. The First Army and the Indian Corps incurred 11,500 casualties in 12 hours of battle. Haig lacked guns of heavy calibre, and the artillery was woefully short of high explosive. Shrapnel shells failed to cut through the barbed wire, exposing the infantry to merciless machine-gun fire. Haig wished to resume the offensive on the Monday, but each of his three corps commanders reported they did not have enough shells to support further attacks. A second battle was fought around Festubert (15–25 May), when once again initial success was thwarted by lack of high-explosive shells.

On 14 May, the eve of Festubert, The Times caused a sensation in London with an article under the triple headline, ‘Need for shells. British attacks checked. Limited supply the cause’. Colonel Repington, the paper’s military correspondent, based his article on figures fed to him secretly by Sir John French, who also sent his military secretary and an aide-de-camp to London to contact Lloyd George, knowing that the chancellor of the exchequer had for the past month been chairing a cabinet committee on munitions, from which Kitchener was pointedly excluded. On 21 May the Daily Mail – the paper with the largest circulation and, like The Times, owned by Lord Northcliffe – blamed the war secretary for the ‘shell scandal’. To French’s disappointment, however, Kitchener was not swept from office. Asquith had already resolved to strengthen the government’s authority by bringing the Conservative Unionists into a coalition. Bonar Law, their leader, insisted on keeping Kitchener at the War Office: the head he demanded was that of Churchill, the initiator of Gallipoli.

On 27 May, when the Liberal–Unionist coalition took office, Churchill was removed from the Admiralty, while Lloyd George left the Exchequer to become minister of munitions. Sound administration, together with unprecedented powers of requisitioning, ensured that the manufacture of weapons and output of shells and ammunition were speeded up. Within a month shell production had risen to 4,000 a day and by the autumn it reached 10,000, but for Haig the improved figure was far from satisfactory: in battles on the Western Front the British guns could get through 40,000 shells in a single day. Lloyd George was convinced that in the spring of 1916 the BEF would have all the guns and explosives needed for a sustained offensive – but not sooner. And still lacking was any means by which infantry could penetrate sophisticated field defences, where concrete pillboxes and deep dug-outs seemed impervious to artillery.

The summer of 1915 became a season of ripe politicking. There were jointly productive Anglo-French talks over munitions problems at Boulogne; discussions over the extent of the British commitment in France at Calais on 6 July, with subsequent Joffre–Kitchener talks later in the month, and the first inter-allied conference over grand strategy, at Chantilly, on 7 July. Ever present in the background was the British fear that if the BEF failed to back Joffre’s planned offensives to the hilt an exhausted France would seek a separate peace. To guard against this contingency Kitchener, while opposing ‘a too vigorous offensive’, pressed Sir John French to pledge his support for GQG even if the BEF suffered ‘very heavy casualties’. The war minister left Sir John to face harsh decisions in the months ahead, sometimes taken against his own strategic instincts.

Meanwhile, as May came to an end, Plumer was made sharply aware of business left unfinished from Second Ypres. Hooge chateau remained a British outpost defying German mastery of Bellewaarde Ridge, and work began on a redoubt to strengthen an almost untenable position. On 2 June a heavy bombardment of the chateau grounds was followed by an infantry assault that forced the British to pull back before the redoubt was completed. Next day an attempt was made to recover the chateau, the 1st Lincolns pushing ahead to the ruined stables, but they made too good a target to consolidate their position. Careful planning was needed to loosen the German hold on either the chateau or Bellewaarde behind it. Much of the summer’s deadliest fighting was a quest for the ridge with a view.

Over the next ten days the staff of V Corps – under Allenby’s command since Plumer’s promotion – meticulously planned an operation on 16 June committing the 3rd Division to recovering Bellewaarde Ridge. The attack followed two days of aerial reconnaissance, and Allenby’s staff even provided the forward troops with carrier pigeons to let headquarters know of progress or setbacks should shelling cut telegraph links. The attack was preceded by a two-hour bombardment of the German lines, a barrage that dug deeply into the limited stock of shells.

At dawn the 9th Infantry Brigade went over the top, met surprisingly little resistance and headed north-eastwards beyond Railway Wood to the embankment carrying the line to Roulers. A second wave from the 7th Infantry Brigade – the 1st infantry battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company (1/1 HAC), the Liverpool Scottish, the 1st Lincolns, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles – also went forward towards the embankment, advancing so rapidly that they came under shellfire from the British guns and, at the same time, from German positions along the embankment and on their flank. Casualties were heavy, and a German counter-attack drove them back to the trenches taken in the first attack. Out of 540 officers and other ranks in the Liverpool Scottish who fought on that day, 180 were killed and 218 wounded.

The dazed survivors of the brigade, now supported by the 3rd Worcesters, rallied and in the late afternoon attempted to resume their advance. ‘There was great confusion,’ Sergeant John Lucy of the Irish Rifles later wrote. ‘The German front line occupied by us was filled with the dead and wounded of about eight regiments, and our men . . . had to go forward without direct artillery support, over muddy ground spurting shell explosions every few yards and raked by enemy machine-guns from an unprotected left flank.’ By the end of the day the British had to be content with taking more than 150 prisoners, capturing two machine-guns and a half-mile line of better-built trenches 250 yards ahead of the ones they held when the attack began. To achieve these gains the 3rd Division lost 140 officers and 3,391 other ranks in 14 hours of battle. Among the 9th Brigade’s wounded was their brigade major, Archibald Wavell, who had been married in London on the day Second Ypres began. A shell splinter hit him on the forehead, blinding his left eye and threatening the sight of his right. He recovered in hospital in London. Colonel Wavell was beside Allenby when the victorious general in Palestine made his formal entry into Jerusalem in December 1917, and he went on to command in the Middle East in 1940–41. Two years later he became the only field marshal appointed viceroy of India.

Most of the fighting in the Salient during the summer of 1915 took place around Hooge, the apex of the British defensive line east of Ypres. It was even the scene of the first spectacular duel in the skies. In the evening of 25 July, Captain Hawker, flying a single-seat Bristol Scout from Abeele aerodrome, completed the pursuit of three German two-seaters that had begun above Passchendaele by swooping down sun from 11,000 feet to within a hundred yards of the rear aircraft and sending it crashing in flames by a burst of Lewis gun-fire over Hooge; Hawker was awarded the Victoria Cross ‘for most conspicuous bravery and very great ability’.

A map recovered from the crashed aircraft identified the position of German batteries in the neighbourhood. It did not, however, give warning of the attack that would come five days later, when liquid flame projected from a steel cylinder Flammenwerfer added a second terror weapon to the horrors of the Salient. The German assault was triggered by the British explosion of a mine, which had destroyed a fortified post behind the ruins of Hooge village on the evening of 20 July, enabling the 4th battalion the Middlesex Regiment and the 2nd Gordon Highlanders to rush forward into and around the crater, occupying good trenches, dug recently. The Germans made every effort to prevent the British consolidating their gains but failed to dislodge them. Like Allenby in the previous month, the Duke of Württemberg ordered careful planning for a sustained attack.

It came soon after three o’clock in the morning of 30 July. ‘There was a sudden hissing sound and a bright crimson glare over the crater turned the whole scene red’, Lieutenant Carey of the 8th Rifle Brigade recalled. ‘As I looked I saw three or four distinct sheets of flame – like a line of powerful fire-hoses spraying fire instead of water – shoot across my fire-trench.’ Carey was the only officer of his company to survive the day; a neighbouring company ‘seemed to have been almost completely obliterated’. Flame-throwers were also employed in a simultaneous attack south of the Menin Road at the northern fringe of Sanctuary Wood. Inevitably the surprised defenders – mostly from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC) – fell back across the fields towards Ypres. Once again ‘resting’ battalions were ordered from their billets and hurried eastwards up the Menin Road, under renewed shelling. By the afternoon the 1st Sherwood Foresters – technically the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment – and the 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI) had joined the KRRC in blunting the impetus of the enemy assault, but nothing could shift the Germans from the crater and the chateau stables.

‘I simply looked upon the coming adventure in much the same way that I looked forward to an exciting game of Rugger,’ Private Pollard of the HAC wrote years later, as he recalled his feelings on the eve of the first attack on Bellewaarde. At times it seems as if this terrible war, ever spawning agonizing ways to kill, had become trivialized into a deadly contest for possession of the ball among rival teams competing for a local trophy. No sooner had the British lost shell-pocked Hooge than they began for a third time to devise means to recover it and Bellewaarde Ridge, too. On this occasion resort was made to subterfuge: German airmen were able to see British and French troops assembling to the north, as if to bring the fighting back to Pilckem and Langemarck; observers at Messines could direct artillery on newly dug trenches that attracted attention, and there was constant movement out towards Zillebeke and Hill 60.

But at 2.45 in the morning of 9 August a half-hour bombardment of the Hooge crater area left no doubt of the objective. The 2nd Durham Light Infantry formed the vanguard of the 6th Division’s attack, together with the Sherwood Foresters. The day’s heavy fighting, much of it with bayonet, brought some success. The line was pushed back east of Hooge hamlet and to the south of the Menin Road, but ferocious German shelling made it impossible to retain the furthest gains. In the end, the 6th Division had advanced the British position some 250 yards. Sensibly the Germans did not attempt to come forward again. The two armies were separated by a wide no man’s land of broken tree stumps, shell holes filling readily with water and churned-up clay that a rain shower would turn into glutinous mud, even under the August sun. That night, as their colonel reported, the 2nd Durhams ‘marched to billets at Ypres – strength 4 officers and 166 men . . . For our time in the trenches’, they had lost 6 officers and 92 men killed, 6 officers and 262 men wounded, while another 100 were ominously listed as ‘missing’.

A billet in Ypres was hardly recuperative. ‘The town is a mere heap of rubble, cinders and rubbish’, the Life Guards captain, Sir Morgan Crofton, wrote in his diary a few weeks earlier. ‘Not a cat lives there now, it is the abomination of desolation.’ It was also at times a death-trap, liable to attract attention from the German heavy guns whenever intelligence believed troops were massed inside the city. On 12 August a company from the 6th DCLI was caught by a bombardment of the Grand Place. Some sought refuge under the twelfth-century cloisters of the cathedral. There they were trapped when another round of shells struck St Martin’s. Efforts to rescue them were frustrated by more shelling, in which their commanding officer was killed. After the war ended 40 bodies were discovered, entombed by fallen masonry.

‘The Salient at Ypres is simply an inferno,’ Crofton had added in his diary entry. ‘It is not war, but murder pure and simple . . . As a strategic or tactical point Ypres is worthless. Why we don’t give it up now, God alone knows.’ It was, he assumed, a question of pride and prestige. Crofton was jotting down private opinions at the close of a hot and humid day, and perhaps his comments should not be taken too seriously, but he was an intelligent officer from a military family, and he may well have been right. Ypres was already symbolic, a name in the headlines for the last eight months, the town where in November the ‘Old Contemptibles’ denied the kaiser the triumphant entry he daily anticipated. Crofton thought ‘this muck heap’ should be evacuated, with the Germans denied possession by using ‘our guns’ to make the place ‘untenable’, though at the same time he deplored the shortage of guns and ammunition: ‘If only we had shells, we would push through to the Rhine,’ he wrote confidently. Other field officers, including on occasions Haig himself, considered straightening the Salient by withdrawing from the forward trenches and falling back on the canal and the remains of Vauban’s ramparts. But Krupps and Skoda fire-power had already destroyed with ease Brialmont’s fortresses: it is doubtful if improvised defences amid the rubble of Ypres could have long delayed a German advance to the Channel ports.

After the failure of Aubers Ridge and Festubert, the ‘sleek deadheads of the Headquarters Staff’– as Crofton contemptuously called French’s team – turned again to plans for backing GQG’s grand offensive. Joffre intended to strike at the German right flank at Vimy, and he suggested the BEF might find the Loos area ‘particularly favourable ground’ for an attack: Loos, 5 miles south-west of Lille, was an unattractive mining town in which a historic Cistercian abbey now served as a prison. Haig disliked the project from the first, insisting that First Army still lacked shells and artillery. French vacillated. He rode forward to a distant ridge on 12 July, peered down on the industrial murk of the Loos valley, where the slag-heaps, canals and miners’ cottages revived memories of the difficulties of fighting in Mons, and he shared Haig’s doubts. But assurances that he could now employ chlorine gas and would receive two divisions of Kitchener’s New Army as reinforcements induced him to change his mind.

Haig’s First Army launched the attack on Loos at 5.15 in the morning of 25 September, after four days of preliminary bombardment (in which 250,000 shells were fired). The town was taken, without the costly struggle French had feared, by the 1st (Scottish) Division – to Germans ‘the devils in skirts’. The chlorine gas threw the defenders of the formidable Hohenzollern redoubt into such panic that it fell within the first hour of battle. But by half-past seven the gas cloud had drifted northwards; the British encountered the solid line of the German second position and could make no dent in it. The Germans summoned up reserves, including a guards division. But when Haig, in turn, called for reserves, they were held back on French’s orders, for he feared Haig would commit them too early. By the time 12 battalions of Kitchener’s New Army – 10,000 initiates – went into action on the second morning, the Germans had strengthened their positions, and artillery stocks were running low. In four hours the 12 battalions suffered 8,000 casualties. Like the battles in the Ypres Salient, the carnage continued long after the first two decisive days; officially the battle of Loos ended on 4 November. By then, 16,000 British soldiers were dead and more than 25,000 wounded: 2 miles of French soil was freed from the enemy.

As a feint, intended to prevent German reinforcements from being drawn southwards to Lille, Plumer was ordered to mount a diversionary attack on 25 September along the Menin Road. At precisely the same hour that the chlorine gas enveloped Loos, the Second Army’s 3rd division went forward on a mile-long front straddling the road between the lake at the foot of Bellewaarde Ridge and the northern edge of Sanctuary Wood. The brunt of the fighting was left to the veterans of the 1st infantry battalion of the HAC and the 2nd battalion Royal Irish Rifles (RIR). There was a shortage not only of shells for the gunners but of grenades and wire-cutters for the infantry as well. The RIR fought with particular tenacity, amid craters and shell holes familiar to them from the attack three months earlier. On this occasion the holes held more water and the churned-up clay made for slow progress. Little could be achieved; another 4,000 names were added to the lengthening casualty list of dead and wounded.

For the remaining weeks of the year the Salient was, officially, ‘quiet’. In reality, there was constant activity and the imminence of a mortal wound never receded. Around Zillebeke opposing trenches were no more than 25 yards apart. For a tall man to raise his head above the fire parapet was to court a sniper’s bullet. Any suspicious move sighted in a communications trench would bring a ‘whiz–bang’ crunching down, to be followed by an artillery duel that might drag on for more than an hour. The bitter cold, constant rain and need to wade through flooded communication trenches made life intolerable even without the proximity of the enemy, and spells of duty in the trenches rarely lasted longer than four days at a time, although the processes of being relieved and marching back again a few nights later were no less dangerous. The vibration of a bombardment would loosen the wet earth of dug-outs, which would then collapse and trap any troops taking cover within them. Shells exploding short of the trenches would leave gaps in the barbed wire.

On the night of 22 December, in bright moonlight, Second Lieutenant Roland Leighton of the 7th Worcesters was ordered to take his platoon forward to repair just such a gap in the wire. As he was supervising their work, a machine-gun already trained on the gap opened up, and he was hit by a bullet that penetrated his stomach. An ambulance took him, mortally wounded, to a clearing station 10 miles behind the lines, where he died the following night. He had been granted Christmas leave in England and his fiancée, Vera Brittain, by now a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, awaited him jubilantly at the Grand Hotel, Brighton. There on Christmas Day a telephone call from his sister told her Roland had been killed.

Similar tragedies rent other grieving families across Britain and Canada, France, Belgium and Germany in that traditionally festive season. On Christmas morning a Bavarian gesture of fraternization tempted some Coldstream Guards, but it was sternly rebuffed on orders from their Corps commander. ‘Our Artillery fired throughout the day as ordered,’ Major-General Cavan assured Haig. There would be no Flanders truce over this second Christmas at war.

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