In the early days of September 1917, the British Army was preparing for its own special Calvary: the assault on a tiny hump of Flanders soil known as Passchendaele Ridge.
Already the weather had turned. General Thomson at Etaples recorded the ‘terrible storms’ which blew down the tented hospitals. Two thousand eight hundred and thirty-one beds were put out of use, and nurses were tending to the wounded in the wind and the rain, On the Ypres front, vast expanses of mud were keeping the supply columns strictly to the Menin Road and corralling them at Hell Fire Corner under an endless cascade of comfortably calibrated shells from the German guns. A mere quarter of a million men were to fall in that all-enveloping quagmire within the next two months, less than half the number of casualties that the Somme had exacted a year before. Yet Passchendaele was to be remembered even more bitterly for the futility of its attacks, for the apparently effortless impregnability of the German pill-boxes, and above all for the special horrors of that distinctive mud: mud as soft and bottomless as quicksand, and as quickly lethal; liquid which filled up the shellholes and seeped into the trenches as fast as water into a child’s diggings on an English beach, The battle imposed the most agonized trials of endurance. Even today the memories are sharp-edged in the correspondence of Etaples veterans who went on to fight there.
‘I lay from Thursday morning until Sunday afternoon in a shell-bole’ with a shattered leg, up to my kneck in muddy water, until some lads from the Manchesters got me out’ – Ted Asher of Lincoln.
‘I was buried all but my head and shoulders after a shell blast. The Germans passed over me three times before I was picked up two days later’ – Peter Sanson of Birmingham.
By November, only three miles had been gained. ‘A victory without sweets,’ Colonel Seton Hutchinson called it. ‘The enemy gave only a crumbling mud honeycomb filled with a sticky gaseous slime,’ Mostly the enemy gave nothing at all. Stories of futile heroism were legion. The Royal Warwicks found themselves being slaughtered with nonchalant ease by shirt-sleeved Prussians in front of Polderhoek Chiteau. For two days they were pinned down, waiting for relief, or at the very least food.
On the third night a captain from the 14th Warwicks arrived ‘with neither food nor relief; only orders to attack again. As one of the Warwicks, H. V. Drinkwater, recalled in one of those vivid, bitter little stories which epitomize Passchendaele: ‘Our subaltern pointed out with all eloquence the impossibility of our men again attacking. What was left of our men could hardly stand. Whilst agreeing, the 14th captain nevertheless had orders to carry out the attack. They sat in the pill-box, both covered in mud – clothes, hands and faces. By the light of a candle it was apparent how much each felt his responsibility. At daybreak the captain walked out of the pill-box and along a trench. He was sniped in the head. It was bravely done. He knew that trench was exposed. The attack never took place.’ Passchendaele was to become the symbol of the First World War’s endless sacrifice and aimless attrition. But to Field Marshal Douglas Haig it was far from futile. Passchendaele, for him, met both public policy and private obsession. Throughout the late winter and early spring, ‘that man of gun-metal’, as one of his commanders described Haig, had suffered, in inarticulate indignation, a series of humiliations.
Lloyd George, the new Prime Minister, who hated Haig, had sent out a special commission led by General Smuts to visit the Flanders armies. Its instructions were to comb through the commanders in the field for a successor to this man Haig, whose sole strategy seemed to be to buy German blood with British blood, drop for drop. The mission failed, Despondently, Smuts and Milner trawled the staff quarters: Gough, Rawlinson, Plumer. But all seemed hypnotized by the black angel of attrition: Gough, who had seen his Fifth Army flounder to a stand #19 still in 1916; Plumer, who was too cautious even for Haig; Rawlinson, who had for a moment dared to propose an imaginative flight of strategy for the Somme battle. None had suggested to Milner or Smuts that they had any alternative to the monotonous collision of flesh against machine-gun bullets, the direct assaulting of wire, concrete, wire, pill-boxes and more wire by men with rifle and bayonet.
But Lloyd George, who thought the war could be won in the Balkans, or in Italy, or on the sea – anywhere but along the 350 miles of immense defensive fortifications between Switzerland and Zeebrugge – was not to be denied. When Haig came to London in January 1917, it was clear to Lloyd George that he was planning another Somme. With the doleful collusion of Admiral Jellicoe and the dour support of ‘Wullie’ Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Haig stuck to his plans.
There would, for a third time, be a battle of Ypres. It was certain that Germany was crumbling. Victory was assured. In that year, 1917, Lloyd George, the amateur strategist, raged but could make no headway against the united front of the military men and the enfilade from General Smuts, his colleague in the War Cabinet.
Then the French suddenly produced a man after Lloyd George’s own heart in General Nivelle, the hero of Verdun, who was appointed to replace Joffre in command of the French armies. Quick-talking, bilingual, charming, dynamic, Nivelle came to London with a bold, inventive plan to break the deadlock on the Western Front, and Lloyd George was captivated ‘to the point where he determined to give Nivelle total support and buckle the intransigent Haig to his plan. On a chilly night at Calais in February, Lloyd George confronted Haig with a secret decision of the British War Cabinet to place him and his armies under Nivelle’s command. Haig, rigid with indignation, and, as usual, at a loss for words, retreated to his room to gather himself for a fight. But there was no way out other than resignation of his command, which was not Haig’s way. So from February through March, April and May, Haig suffered the cocksure insolent instructions of Nivelle, endured the private humiliation. ‘It is a type of letter which no gentleman could have drafted and it is also one which certainly no Commander-in-Chief of this great British Army should receive without protest,’ he complained to his diary after a particularly peremptory note from Nivelle. But Haig was confident that in the end Nivelle’s plans would fail and his own time would come.
That day arrived on 16 April 1917, with immense consequences for Haig, for the new conscript British Army, for Percy Toplis, already a deserter, and for General Thomson, worrying principally about the absence of an officers’ venereal hospital at Etaples. The whole of Haig’s strategy for the rest of 1917, the third battle of Ypres, his response to trouble from his own troops, was to be dominated by the disasters of that day.
At dawn on that 16 April, the French Army went over top along the Aisne against the enemy which had for over month had full knowledge of their plans, and which had retreated to the most impregnable of all its defensive works – the Hindenburg Line. By evening of the second day, Nivelle had lost 120,000 men. Nowhere had he penetrated further than two miles. Haig, engaged in a diversionary operation up at Arras with 29,000 killed, watched with grim rectitude the collapse of the arrogant Frenchman and his chimera of the dramatic and sudden breakthrough. By 28 April, Nivelle was dismissed and disgraced. Lloyd George could do nothing and the chalice passed to Haig. But it was already poisoned. For as Nivelle left the battlefield, insulted and screamed at in a final showdown with his own commanders, the French Army mutinied.
The stories which Haig heard from his new colleague, General Pétain, were to be burned into his mind and dominate his own reactions when, five months later, his own army was faced with refusals of orders, violence and open mutiny. Haig’s mutiny was to stay a total secret. The French mutiny of 1917, too, remained an extraordinary, fragmented and veiled story. Certainly it seems to have begun when, on 3 May, a group of black colonial troops refused to go into the line. Several men were arrested and shot out of hand. The regiment, the 21st Division of Colonial Infantry, went back into action and was virtually wiped out in front of the German pill-boxes. But the German machine gunners had not erased the French Command’s difficulties.
Over the next two months the generals of the French High Command were to see the flower of their army collapse into mutiny. Seventy-eight regiments revolted. Rebellion spread the whole length of the front from Flanders to distant Savoy, 300 miles away on the Swiss frontiers, and the war was on the point of being lost. The French military authorities were in consternation. Like the British, they had no policy for dealing with mutiny and rebellion other than mass execution. But the new Com #20 mander, Pétain, agonizing over death sentences by night, touring division after division by day, attempted to stem the tide. He came to learn by heart the names of the agitators who were spreading the opium message of peace among his troops: Orieux, Jalina, Didier, Duval back in Paris, Globa with the Russians in Champagne. The government of France was to be reminded again that grievance and suffering could produce men capable of confronting the entire authority of the nation. And in the doctrines of socialism and Bolshevism, pouring out of Russia since the February Revolution three months before, were texts and to spare.
At Coeuvres, only fifty miles from Paris, two French regiments set out for the capital, armed to the teeth, intent on forcing the government to stop the war. The trouble had spread from the great railway junction at Soissons where troops had beaten up a brigadier, stoned the commandant’s headquarters, attacked every officer who showed his face, and broken open the prison camp to free all their comrades from detention. (The British Army’s own mutiny would later open in an almost identical way.) The fever in the French Army then spread to the Third Corps in camp ten miles from Soissons. Frenzied mass meetings sucked in the whole of two regiments. Even junior officers joined in. Then, amid tumultuous shouting, the men voted to march to Paris.
In a long convoy of lorries they set out from camp. Three military policemen who tried to intervene were strung up from the trees. An army doctor showed his face. He was beaten up and left at the side of the road. The mob, full of French wine and Dutch courage, milled into the railway sidings at Soissons, waving red flags and singing ‘The Internationale’. Conveniently, a battered locomotive was waiting there with steam up and a string of empty carriages – the next leave train for the Gare du Nord. Within minutes the driver found himself converted into the vanguard of an armed advance on Paris. Cautiously he edged the mobile mutiny down the track towards the capital.
With troops lying on the carriage roofs and riding shotgun on the steps, the train made slow progress under the first low bridge two miles down the line. For a few moments there were the startled faces of new recruits as another train passed slowly enough to pick up the shouts of, ‘Stop the War. Join us in Paris.’ In fits and starts the train rumbled fifteen miles south to the junction at Villers-Cotterets. The driver explained incessantly the idiosyncrasies of steam traction. Another bend came up and the mutineers urged him on. They would see the Gare du Nord by nightfall. The train built up speed. Suddenly there were shrieks of warning. The driver snatched for the brake and the train clattered to a halt yards short of a pile of boulders and tree-trunks piled across the line. There was a moment’s silence. Then from the thick cover at either side of the line came the familiar tattoo of machine-gun bullets. The initial burst skimmed the heads of the men on the top of the carriages, and another moment of silence followed. Then came an order from the ground, ‘Put down your arms and surrender.’ Meekly, the 36th and 129th Regiments of Infantry shuffled down off the train and out of the revolution. The loyalist cavalry who had ambushed them never had to lower the sights of their machineguns. The mutineers marched sheepishly back to Soissons, to face the front again or the firing squad.
Three days later, two men heard the first full details of the developing mutiny: Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and Private Percy Toplis. For Haig, it was a guarded but authentic account at his headquarters from General Pétain’s chief of staff himself. For Toplis, in his bivouac on the Somme, it was a vivid and personal story from three French deserters. For Haig, discreet and unsurprised, it was another onerous burden on his great Passchendaele project. For Toplis, it was a moment of illumination. The first day of the battle of Arras, back in April, had finally convinced Toplis that there was for him no future in the war: snow, sleet, rain, the apparently impassable Sicgfried Line, the drift of gas from British shells, the deadly game of musical chairs for a seat on Vimy Ridge, the gruesome remnants he carried back to the clearing stations … Private Percy Toplis, RAMC, decided that enough was enough. One night in the middle of April he melted away to join one of the most bizarre of all the brotherhoods of the First World War.
Skulking, starving, marauding – but surviving – a numberless regiment of deserters was holed up in the old abandoned battlefield of the Somme away to the south. Germans, French, English, Belgians, they lived in uneasy comradeship in the hulks of command posts, old pill-boxes and battered trenches. The war had moved on from that most terrible of all killing grounds and left its own armistice. Occasionally sweeps of Haig’s cavalry quartered the wasteland. From odd dugouts men were flushed out and harassed back to the prison cages and courts martial.
#21 But through the winter and spring of 1917 the army of deserters grew. When Toplis arrived he found an almost military discipline. Food was stolen by roster. There was sentry duty against the cavalry. The talk was of the war, but even more of the great revolution.
To this international company there came in early June 1917 a new draft of French recruits with a tale to tell of which neither the German High Command nor the British government had yet heard a whisper. The French Army was refusing to fight. Reinforcements going to the front were baaing like lambs going to the slaughter. A machine-gun corps had overthrown its officers and set off for a munitions factory with guns mounted on lorries. Two regiments had held out for a week, entrenched in their own lines for all the world as if it were Verdun, and surrounded by cavalry. They surrendered, but the revolution spread, to the colonials, territorials, even to the crack Chasseurs Alpins. And at the centre of it all was the siren propaganda of the new socialism – leaflets, newspapers, tracts and the furtive oratory of a new Left flourishing, by official complaisance, in the boulevards of Paris.
From General Debeney, Pétain’s chief of staff, Haig heard the official story. With just seven days to go to his great assault on the Messines Ridge, he learned that the French Army was out of the fight. There could be no more attacks. It was even extremely doubtful if the defensive line could be held. The British would have to attack alone. Indeed, they must attack if the weight was to be taken off the French Army. Debeney kept from Haig the appalling statistics. And Haig kept the news from the British government. But the French Chamber of Deputies heard it all in secret session: fifty-four divisions of the French Army were affected, 21,000 men had deserted, only two reliable divisions remained between the Germans and Paris, Retribution had been severe, the firing squad accounted for dozens of men, there was summary execution in the field, even the literal and merciless use of the ancient Roman decimation: one man in every ten ordered to step forward and then be led away to his death. A whole battalion of 200 men or more was marched away into no-man’s land and shelled by its own artillery. To Haig, soldier from the class of 1884, it was the most chilling of news. If the Germans heard of it, if they were given any respite, the whole war might be lost. From those sunny days of early June to the chill of November, the British fought because the French could not fight. And fought on because Haig certain his troops could be pushed on for ever if need be in great game of attrition. It was unthinkable that the British soldier might collapse into rebellion or resistance like the Frenchman.
When the day of 9 September 1917 came to shatter the field marshal’s confidence, it was at a most crucial juncture in his prosecution of the war. The plan was to capture the Passchendaele Ridge, from which the Allied armies had been bombarded the Germans for more than two years. The ridge hunched its back on the horizon four miles from the pinched British front line around the battered town of Ypres. Its capture might be some reward for the blood of another sterile and demoralizing year of war. But the initial attack had drowned in four days of unseasonable downpour in early August, and the line had moved a mile, Yet Haig, in a miasma of self-delusion, thought a breakthrough was near: ‘A large proportion of the enemy troops are reported to have run away,’ he said in a dispatch from a front which had inflicted 30,000 casualties on his men in four days. He ordered General Plumer to attack again towards Passchendaele.
Plumer had watched the creeping disillusion of the conscript British Army. By 9 September he knew that the nine divisions of British and Australians that Haig had provided for him would hardly suffice. It was to be attrition again, and every man was needed. Along the Ypres to Menin Road were gathered dismounted cavalry, re-formed regiments, returned wounded, any man who could be rustled up to trade his life for a German.
That day, too, the French were engaged in a strange and bloody exercise, but far from the front line. For the fearful consequences of sedition which Haig and Pétain alike had cause dread had come to pass. Mutiny had given the spark to insurrection. Ten thousand troops of France’s Russian allies, serving in Champagne, had overthrown their officers, set up soviets and declared a Bolshevik revolution. Now they were surrounded by French cavalry, artillery and three brigades of infantry. Thousands of miles from home, but buoyed up propaganda from Trotsky and his friends in Paris, and the bewitching oratory of Private Globa, the Russians refused to surrender.
As the mutiny at Etaples unfolded victoriously through the middle days of September, simultaneously the new Bolsheviks of Champagne were systematically shelled into defeat by the heavy artillery of the French Army, but only after three days and nights of machine-gunning and trench warfare a hundred miles behind the front line. Some weeks earlier, Private Percy Toplis too had made his dispositions. He had made his way from the ragged company on the Somme back to the old familiar territory of Etaples where his talents for bluff and disguise would allow him a more elegant life. It was a journey which was to threaten the British Army with that same plague which had brought such mortal danger to France.