Military history


WHILE BLOODIED BRITISH and French forces retreated, filling the roads of northern France with haggard troops and ambulances and open wagons full of wounded men, their commanders could at least take comfort that, unlike them, the Germans had to battle on two fronts. For Russia, with its bottomless reserves of manpower, was attacking Germany from the east. Russian armies were already well across the border, heading for the medieval Teutonic city of Königsberg on the Baltic, and had won a battle with German troops on the way. Since so many Germans had been sent west, the advancing Russian forces outnumbered their adversaries by three to one, and, in cavalry, by eight to one. On August 23, 1914, the same day as the battle at Mons, a titanic clash began on the Eastern Front.

Unfortunately for the Allies, though Russia's army was the largest on earth, it was also one of the most inept. There were, for example, little more than half as many rifles available as soldiers who needed them, a matter to which no one seemed to have given much thought. The army had only one battery of antiaircraft guns—which were protecting the Tsar's summer palace. Many Russian generals were elderly and overweight; the nerves of one corps commander proved incapable of withstanding the sound of rifle fire. Higher-ranking officers had been promoted largely by seniority and connections at court; the main claim to renown of the army's chief, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, was being the Tsar's cousin. His most visible asset, along with royal blood, was commanding height. At six feet six inches, he towered impressively above all others; in his headquarters, aides pinned pieces of white paper over door frames built for ordinary mortals, to warn him to duck. He had no battlefield experience, and upon being appointed commander in chief he wept, believing himself not up to the job. Furthermore, he and the minister of war were barely on speaking terms, and he was also out of favor with the Tsarina, who connived ceaselessly to weaken his position in the eyes of her husband.

In the Russian military supply services, corruption was the norm. When a major general led a purchasing mission to buy war materiel in the United States, according to a New York businessman, "He and his officers quickly became notorious in the metal trade as grafters. The General himself was less interested in the prices his government had to pay than in trying to get the companies to add a concealed commission for him."

Western suppliers discovered the same expectations when they went to Russia. "A French businessman, seeking a contract to supply ten thousand platoon tents, was duly placing his bribes in the Ministry of War," the historian Alan Clark has written. "Finally he came to the highest point, the minister's personal secretary.... To the businessman's alarm the private secretary insisted on a personal 'gratuity' equal in size to all the lesser disbursements which he had been obliged to make on the way up. He protested that, if this last sum were paid out, he would have no profit left on the order. 'Ah,' replied the secretary with a silky smile, 'I understand. But why deliver the tents?"'

When the Grand Duke met his supply staff for the first time, his words to them were "Gentlemen, no stealing."

Russia was a peasant country and roughly one-third of its millions of conscripts were illiterate. Unfamiliar with modern technology and in need of cooking fuel, soldiers sometimes chopped down telegraph poles for firewood. Exasperated commanders then resorted to the radio, but as codebooks had not been properly distributed, the Germans could simply listen in. In these early days, Russian soldiers tended to fire on any airplane, including their own. Not having seen one before, they assumed such an exotic invention must be German.

For the upper classes, the war was still an adventure. Wealthy women sponsored their own private hospital trains, in which their daughters did the nursing, at least when marriageable officers were involved. Such volunteer nurses, however, were allowed to treat only "cases of light wounds, above the belt." Observers noticed that these hospital trains tended to migrate to the rear of the Imperial Guard regiments, whose officers were likely to come from the most eligible layer of St. Petersburg society.

This, then, was the army that went into battle in the swamps and forests of East Prussia on August 23, with a German force whose size and position were unknown. In the inscrutable ways of the Russian bureaucracy, the commanding general, Alexander Samsonov, had just finished seven years as governor of Turkestan when, less than two weeks earlier, he had been placed in charge of troops and staff he had never seen before. As his tired, ill-fed soldiers blundered forward through unfamiliar terrain, they were set upon by large detachments of well-supplied German troops, who—thanks to overheard radio transmissions—knew exactly where to find them. Largely unaware, Samsonov was at his headquarters in a town behind the lines having dinner with a British military attaché when a whole division of panicked retreating troops came pouring down the street. As the sound of German artillery fire drew closer, Samsonov commandeered some Cossack horses and headed to the front to take on-the-spot command of whatever forces remained. Urging the British attaché to get away while he could, the general rode off, saying, obscurely, "The enemy has luck one day, we will have luck another."

Samsonov had no luck. The Russians who were not captured tried to retreat, only to find that the Germans now controlled all passable roads. From one entire army corps (well over 25,000 soldiers) under Samsonov's command, only a single man returned to Russia. When the battle was over, although the Germans had suffered 13,000 casualties, the Russians had lost more than 30,000 men killed or wounded, plus 92,000 taken prisoner—60 German trains were needed to transport them to POW camps. Like his army's remnants, Samsonov, too, ended up fleeing. With their horses unable to cross marshy ground, he and some aides slogged through the night on foot. When their supply of matches was exhausted, they could no longer read their compasses. Shortly after midnight, Samsonov moved apart from the rest of the group and shot himself.

Soon after this debacle, the Germans crushed a second invading Russian army. The Russian general commanding it lost his nerve and fled home by car. All in all, during a month of fighting, the Russians lost 310,000 men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, as well as 650 artillery pieces. Industrial war had taken an instant and devastating toll of their half-industrialized country. For the rest of the conflict, Russia's armies would never again pose a threat to Germany.

In November, sensing that the winds were blowing in Germany's favor, a longtime rival of Russia, the Ottoman Empire, joined the Central Powers, as the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary was now called. This opened up a new front in the rugged mountains and valleys of the Caucasus, where the Turkish and Russian empires met. As if they had not heard enough bad news already, toward the end of 1914, Russian officials began receiving troubling secret-police reports of revolutionary agitators spotted talking to wounded soldiers, and to fresh troops heading for the front on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Antiwar leaflets were also found. In several units, including those that ran the crucial railroads to the front, the army discovered cells of the most militant underground revolutionary faction, the Bolsheviks. In the more developed countries of Western Europe the lower classes had stopped talking of revolution and patriotically joined the fighting, but in Russia, it seemed, their loyalty was not so certain.

That prospect did not trouble the Tsar and Tsarina. Long after Russian casualties started streaming home from the front, she still ordered special trains each week to rush fresh flowers more than a thousand miles northward from the Crimea to the capital, to decorate the imperial palace.

The Russian defeats were so massive they could not be kept hidden, but the British press preferred to emphasize instead the news from a less important front where the Russians were having success against the only major army that was even more incompetent than their own. Reflecting the power structure of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, three-quarters of its officers were of German-speaking stock, while only one enlisted man in four understood the language. Throughout late 1914 until they were halted by winter, Russian troops advanced steadily, inflicting great casualties as they pushed the Austro-Hungarians back into the rugged Carpathian Mountains, where wounded men stranded on the battlefield faced an additional terror: prowling wolves, already gorging themselves on the bodies of the dead.

Austrian cavalrymen made excellent targets in their brilliant blue-and-red uniforms (which, unlike the French, they would not abandon for several years). One of many Britons who took heart from this Russian advance was Sir Ernest Shackleton, who had his last news of the war that autumn as he set sail for Antarctica. "The Russian SteamRoller was advancing. According to many the war would be over within six months."

In England, enthusiasm remained strong. "I would not be out of this glorious delicious war for anything the world could give me," Churchill told Margot Asquith, the prime minister's wife. Most people were so confident that it would be over quickly that brokers began offering "peace insurance": if you paid £80, you would receive £100 if the war hadn't ended by January 1, 1915—and you could more than quadruple your money if the war wasn't over by September 15, 1915.

At soccer matches, army recruiters patrolled outside the gates with sandwich boards saying "Your Country Needs You"; patriotic speakers addressed crowds before the games started; players themselves stepped forward as volunteers, to great bursts of applause. Fans followed their example, so these games proved the single best venue for recruiters. One poster, taking a phrase from Newbolt's poem, invited volunteers to "Play the Game!" and showed Kitchener, French, Haig, and others lined up in different positions on a team for another sport, rugby. The first correspondent sent to cover the fighting in France by the proprietor of the Daily Mail, Lord Northcliffe, was the paper's sports editor. The Times, which Northcliffe also owned, published these verses:

Come, leave the lure of the football field
With its fame so lightly won,
And take your place in a greater game
Where worthier deeds are done....

Come, join the ranks of our hero sons
In the wider field of fame,
Where the God of Right will watch the fight,
And referee the game.

Eagerness to fight was not the full story behind soaring recruitment figures, however. When London trolley workers went on strike, for instance, the city council simply fired all males of military age and urged them to join up. Young men working for local governments and businesses often found themselves "released" from their jobs so they could volunteer. Although a bumpy economy had thrown hundreds of thousands of people out of work and was raising food prices, the government quietly asked charities not to aid jobless men eligible to enlist. The bull-necked, immensely wealthy "King of Lancashire," Lord Derby, who owned 68,000 acres of land and employed more than 75 servants and gardeners at his manor house alone, declared that after the war he intended to hire only men who had been at the front. Hundreds of other landowners and employers followed his example—especially after Derby was appointed director general of recruiting.

Young John Kipling once again was crushed when he failed the army medical exam. But this time, making use of the new climate of national urgency, his father called upon a friend for help, the renowned Field Marshal Lord Roberts, a hero of many nineteenth-century colonial wars, whom he had first known in India. Roberts pulled the necessary strings and, to Rudyard Kipling's delight, got John a commission in the Irish Guards. Kipling proudly identified with his son, writing to a friend that "he's rather like what I was, to look at, at his age." Just turned 17, John began training with the regiment in Essex. His father, meanwhile, suggested that Oxford should close down and that all undergraduates should be sent into the military. His poetry throbbed with martial fervor:

For all we have and are,
For all our children's fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!

But Kipling was not all blood and thunder. Trying to assuage a shaken Violet Cecil, he carefully tracked down wounded survivors of the battle where young George had last been seen, and interviewed them in their hospital beds. None knew George's fate, but Kipling was able to sketch for Violet a map of the fighting. The Germans had been surging down a forest road near the French town of Villers-Cotterêts and George's unit, near a clearing in the woods, could hear their shouts and bugle calls. A German machine gun began spraying bullets into the clearing and surrounding forest, dotted with British troops. By one account, with enough of a storybook feel to make one skeptical, George ordered his men to fix bayonets and led them in a counterattack. When a bullet hit him in the hand, he stumbled, then drew his sword and shouted, "Charge lads, and we'll do 'em in yet!" The charge, it was said, delayed the Germans and helped other British troops escape, but left dozens of Grenadier Guardsmen dead or wounded, George among them, on the forest floor.

Milner found Violet "terribly distressed and looking very ill." The War Office could offer her no further details. Desperate for information, she turned to the American ambassador, as a representative of a neutral power, but he could not help either. She then wired a cousin working in neutral Holland, asking him to check whether George could be a prisoner of the Germans. Or might some French family, she wondered, be sheltering him behind enemy lines? After all, George spoke French well. "I have every reliance on George's resourcefulness and brain," she wrote. "But he may be too ill to think."

The Germans advanced well beyond the point where George had gone missing, and for a terrifying moment it looked as if Paris itself might fall. On September 5, 1914, German troops were only 23 miles away. Shops closed, traffic vanished, hotels emptied. Thousands of Parisians who had not fled were impressed into labor battalions to build barricades of felled trees and dig trenches on the main roads into town. To provide food in case the city was besieged, cattle were put to graze in the great park of the Bois de Boulogne. Ingloriously, in the dark of night, government ministries burned nonessential files and moved their offices hundreds of miles southwest, to Bordeaux. In a foretaste of the scorched earth that would become a hallmark of the war, retreating French soldiers destroyed bridges and railway lines behind them, slowing down the advancing Germans and their chain of supplies. Then an imaginative French general commandeered 600 taxis to rush some of his infantrymen to the front. After Kitchener laid down the law to Sir John French, the reluctant field marshal ordered British troops into action as well. The Germans were finally halted and in the end pushed back some 45 miles. Paris was saved.

The news was flashed around the world, bringing jubilant headlines—"Turn of the Tide," said the Times—and joy and relief to millions. It was soon followed by word that General von Moltke, whose mission had been to achieve a swift victory, had lost his job. For Violet Cecil, however, what mattered was something else: Villers-Cotterêts and the forest clearing where George was last seen had been retaken by the Allies. Although Milner tried to dissuade her, on September 19 she embarked for France.

There she promptly enlisted the help of her old family friend Georges Clemenceau, now a senator and newspaper editor, who made inquiries of hospitals and ambulance stations around Villers-Cotterêts. Trying to bolster her spirits, he told her that he believed George to be a prisoner. With a car and military attaché on loan from the American ambassador, she made her way to the town. "The Mayor had had instructions to facilitate my search. I found many relics picked up on the battlefield, some of them men's pocket books, and among them some signed by my boy." (Every soldier was required to carry a small brown leather-covered notebook showing his identification details, next of kin, inoculations, and other data. Each record of a wage payment bore an officer's signature.) Then, from a Grenadier Guards officer news reached her that George had last been seen lying in a ditch with a bad head wound.

Frustrated and despairing, she returned to England. Milner met her ship and they drove back to Great Wigsell together, too depressed to talk. Late the following day, however, came a telegram from her cousin in Holland: George, it said, might indeed be a wounded prisoner at Aachen, Germany. "It is only a rumour," she wrote to an army officer acquaintance. "I am not building any hopes on it."

Kipling was able to enlist former president Theodore Roosevelt in the search for George. "Mr. Roosevelt is asking the Kaiser to give him a list of our wounded," Carrie Kipling wrote. Nothing came of this either. "And so the horrible see-saw goes on," Rudyard Kipling told a friend. "She dying daily and letters of condolence and congratulation crossing each other and harrowing her soul. Meanwhile the boy's father thousands of miles away and cut off from all save letters and wires."

"I don't feel as if George could be dead," Violet wrote her husband in Egypt, "but that is simply because I saw him last so well and full of life. My instincts tell me he is alive—my reason that he is dead." A kind of numbness crept over her: "I write calmly—I eat, I walk, I talk, I sleep, I feel hot and cold, I write my letters. I have all the appearance of a live person." Further searching turned up nothing. Milner asked a friend to travel to Holland, where it was possible to contact German government officials in a way that couldn't be done from England, but a wire from him reported that the Germans had no record of George as a prisoner. Gradually Violet's hopes began to flicker out.

George Cecil was but one of hundreds of thousands of soldiers already missing, wounded, or dead only two months into the war, a chaotic and bloody period in which the fighting had not gone according to the orderly plans of either side. The battlefield was still one of movement, as huge armies tried to wheel and outflank each other, sometimes marching a dozen or more miles a day with thousands of supply wagons rumbling along behind and sending up choking clouds of dust. Short of military vehicles, the British mobilized everything at hand, from moving vans to beer trucks, and these, with their original signs promising less deadly contents, carried ammunition to the troops. There was still a role for the British cavalry: not the thousands-strong charges of the pre-machine-gun age, but occasional small skirmishes and, especially during bad weather that grounded spotter planes, reconnaissance forays to probe French lanes, fields, and forests, trying to find where the Germans were.

Sometimes the Germans themselves did not quite know where they were. Wars abound in chaos, but in the early stages of this one the confusion was of a new order of magnitude as millions of soldiers streamed along narrow country roads in the late-summer heat. In their wake came an array of problems that no commander had expected. This may have been the first industrialized war, but the industrialization was erratic and undependable. As the German army moved ever farther from its railway lines—an infantry division required some two dozen freight cars of supplies per day—other forms of transport became crucial. But automotive engines were in their infancy, and during the army's push into France, 60 percent of its trucks broke down. This left preindustrial horses to do the work. But they, too, required fuel: some two million pounds of feed a day, far more than the countryside could furnish. Eating unripe green corn from French fields, German horses sickened and began dying by the tens of thousands. And when horses pulling supply wagons gave out, soldiers started running low on food—and on artillery ammunition; it evidently had not occurred to planners on either side that the new quick-firing howitzers would use up shells so rapidly. In the end, the very size of the German juggernaut proved a liability: a full-strength German army corps on the move, for example, could stretch out over 18 miles of road, which meant that when the head of the column finished its day's march, the rear had barely begun. The longer the fighting continued, the less it resembled the tidy, forward-thrusting arrows that rival general staffs had long been used to inscribing on maps. The armies began to bog down.

By late October, neither side could make much headway against the other, so each began digging protective trenches. The war of maneuver was over—just temporarily, the generals thought—and the front line began to solidify. Two parallel rows of trenches faced each other on a wriggling, northwest-to-southeast diagonal beginning at the English Channel, then crossing a corner of Belgium, northern France, and finally a tiny sliver of its onetime province of Alsace (all France had been able to capture from Germany), some 475 miles in all, ending at the Swiss frontier.

Trench warfare was not new. The American Civil War had ended with a version of it, at the besieged Confederate capital, Richmond, and at nearby Petersburg, and more recently British troops had sometimes dug in to protect themselves against Boer fire. But it seemed such an ignoble sort of combat that hardly anyone in Europe planned for it, certainly not Sir John French, who concluded, almost incredulously, in a report to the King, that "the spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle." Nonetheless, his cavalryman's optimism remained undaunted. "In my opinion," he insisted to Kitchener in October, "the enemy are vigorously playing their last card, and I am confident they will fail."

As his men wielded their spades, French began dreaming of cavalry attacks that would make combat glorious once again. He proposed an aggressive thrust at the Germans, unfazed by the fact that his troops would have to cross a large swamp in the process, but his subordinate commanders and staff officers talked him out of it. "The little fool has no sense at all.... He cannot read a map in scale," one of them wrote. "It is really hopeless."

While France held most of the front line against the Germans, the British Expeditionary Force had moved to the end of the front closest to the English Channel. From late October through most of November, they and nearby French and Belgian troops were battered by repeated German attacks around the ancient Belgian weaving center of Ypres. Heavily reinforced with new men from England, the British held a bulge in the front line that included the town itself, a picturesque assemblage of Gothic arches, medieval ramparts, a spired cathedral, and the landmark Cloth Hall with a clock tower—almost all of which would soon be shattered into rubble by German artillery fire.

In their introduction to trench warfare, the British made all kinds of mistakes: they did not have enough spades, for instance, and sometimes had to dig with pitchforks taken from Belgian barns. But the German attackers proved even more maladroit. Masses of them advanced head-on into British rifle and machine-gun fire, young officer cadets walking to their deaths with flowers in their helmets, singing patriotic songs. Astonished British soldiers looking through their binoculars saw German troops advancing with arms linked, wearing caps with what appeared to be the badges distinct to university students. Nor did Germans with regulation helmets seem to realize that the little spikes on top only made the wearers better targets. (These would not be removed until 1916.) "When immediately in front of the enemy," ran the German army's infantry regulations, "the men should charge with bayonet and, with a cheer, penetrate the position." The regulations spelled out what drum rolls should accompany the assault, but not what to do when British machine guns started firing.

Although they greatly outnumbered the British, sometimes by as much as seven to one, the attackers made little headway as British fire slashed huge holes in their lines, leaving thousands of Germans dead. There should have been a clear lesson here about how strongly this strange new style of battle favored defenders, but it was a lesson that, in different ways, each side resisted learning. No general was ready to acknowledge that the machine gun had upended warfare as it had been known for centuries. A single such gun emplacement could stave off hundreds, even thousands of attackers. "I saw trees as large round as a man's thigh literally cut down by the stream of lead from these weapons," wrote an American journalist in Belgium.

Nor was anyone prepared for what the best defensive weapons turned out to be. In times past, defenses had offered their own kind of glory: great turreted stone fortresses that took years to construct. Now, however, almost anything above ground could be smashed by heavy artillery in days or even hours, as the Germans had done to Belgium's forts. Could it really be that the best defensive position was below ground, in nothing more, in the end, than a deep, narrow slit in the earth? And that the most impenetrable fortification was something as mundane as cattle fencing?

It was an Illinois farmer and former county sheriff, Joseph F. Glidden, not a military engineer, who had used some of his wife's hairpins to construct the prototype of a new kind of fence he patented in 1874. Forty years later, unrolled at night in great coils and staked firmly to the ground, barbed wire turned out to be the barrier of all barriers. Cutting through it was hard enough for attackers under the best of circumstances, and almost impossible when bullets were flying. Paradoxically, the same tangle of wires, being porous, easily absorbed the blast of exploding shells, which made it remarkably difficult to destroy.

German barbed wire in particular would prove a nearly insuperable obstacle, spread out for miles in a dense maze 50 to 100 feet wide and anchored to long rows of six-foot-high wooden posts pounded into the ground. For both sides, as they dug in, trenches and wire only grew more elaborate. In case the first line of trenches was breached or captured, several backup lines remained, each with its own thick belt of barbed wire.

Although the generals had not yet grasped it, these multiple lines instantly rendered obsolete the time-honored attacker's goal: the breakthrough. In more old-fashioned combat, once a fortress had been taken, soldiers on foot or horseback could quickly stream many miles beyond it, because the enemy didn't have the months or years needed to build another. But now, if pushed out of one set of trenches, the enemy could simply take refuge in the next one and fight on—or could unroll dense coils of barbed wire in a matter of minutes and dig a rudimentary new trench in a few hours.

Despite machine guns and barbed wire, in these first few months the war sometimes still had a courtliness carried over from earlier times, when people observed a strict distinction between soldiers and civilians. At one point, for example, German troops captured an Englishman—but when they discovered he was a London Times correspondent and not a soldier, they let him go. Other civilians also won special treatment, among them Millicent, the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland, one of several aristocratic women who led or sponsored private medical teams in the war zone. When the Belgian city where she was nursing wounded troops was overrun by the Germans, it turned out that both the local German commander and his aide-de-camp were noblemen whom she had met before the war. The Duchess called at their headquarters, presented her card, and, among other demands, asked for transport to Mons so she and her nurses could care for wounded British prisoners there. The Germans dutifully complied, supplying a car and driver.

Many soldiers on both sides found combat thrilling. Julian Grenfell, the eldest son of Lord Desborough, had boxed, rowed, and won steeplechases while at Oxford. A keen shot, he recorded a successful day's bag of "105 partridges" in his "game book" in early October 1914. He took the book to France with him, and the very next entries, following raids on German trenches, are for November 16, "One Pomeranian," and November 17, "Two Pomeranians." "It is all the best fun," he wrote home. "I have never felt so well, or so happy, or enjoyed anything so much.... The fighting-excitement vitalizes everything, every sign and word and action." A piece of shrapnel would end his life six months later.

By late November, as winter blizzards started, both sides were mainly concentrating on keeping warm. Of the original British Expeditionary Force, one-third were now dead and many more seriously wounded. Before the end of 1914, 90,000 British soldiers would become casualties. Trainloads of maimed men flooded London, where they were rushed into the care of nurses in white, flowing, nun-like headdresses. Banners saying "Quiet for the Wounded" hung outside the city's hospitals, and nearby streets were covered with straw to muffle the sound of horses' hoofs.

For his headquarters, Sir John French had taken over a lawyer's house in Saint-Omer, a village in France some 20 miles inland from the English Channel. Parked outside could be seen a row of automobiles whose chauffeurs wore civilian black double-breasted uniforms and caps, for many well-to-do officers had brought their own cars and drivers to France. One young aide-de-camp, as dutiful about saluting superiors as any other junior officer, was the Prince of Wales, who, two decades later, before abdicating, would reign briefly as King Edward VIII. A steady stream of VIP visitors arrived from London, and one of French's aides was soon ordered to request that headquarters be given a larger entertainment allowance. The King came to award medals, look in on his son, and be assured by French that the war would be over by Christmas. Winston Churchill appeared—there were no nearby sea battles for him to observe as First Lord of the Admiralty, so he wanted to savor some combat on land. So did the venerable Field Marshal Lord Roberts, whose great desire was to visit Indian troops now on the front line. The 82-year-old Roberts was "enraptured by being amongst us," French reported to a lady friend, but then complicated his visit by catching pneumonia and dying.

Additional guests included George G. Moore, French's American playboy housemate from London, who essentially moved into headquarters despite the fact that he was a citizen of a neutral country, and Charles À Court Repington, a fellow womanizer and cavalry enthusiast who was a military correspondent for the Times. At this point journalists were not permitted at the front, but Sir John assured London that Repington was staying with him "in an entirely private capacity." Nor did French lack for female company; during these months a more puritanical general was heard to complain to him, "Too many whores around your headquarters, Field-Marshal!"

For others, the season was more grim. As 1914 drew to a close, Edward Cecil at his post in Egypt received a telegram: "Grave opened George believed identified broken hearted Violet." At Villers-Cotterêts, workmen had exhumed a mass grave that held 98 British soldiers. George's body was identifiable only by the initials on his vest. The bodies of 94 enlisted men were quickly reburied. George and the other three officers got coffins, flowers from the mayor, and a burial in the town cemetery, under a cross with the inscription " Tombés au champ d'honneur" (Fallen on the field of honor), with twenty French officers in attendance. Artillery fire could be heard in the distance.

Knowing where George was buried did little to ease his mother's grief. He had, she wrote, been "thrown like carrion into a pit. When I think of the inhuman waste of a beautiful life I can hardly endure myself or to be a part of a world where such things were possible." Nor did his death bring her any closer to her estranged husband. "You and I can't talk about any of the great vital things without my saying something which might touch upon your religious views," she wrote to him, "so I won't write about the Great Dissolver, Death—we have no common ground at all.... I had written and ... then came your letter with a reference to 'future life' and I felt mine had better go into the fire and the whole subject remain untouched."

Like most Britons, Violet Cecil did not question the aims of the war. As a memorial to George, she wanted to donate something to his old boarding school, Winchester. Her gift was a rifle range. Rudyard Kipling, his bushy eyebrows still black though his hair and mustache were turning gray, gave a speech at the opening ceremony, fired the inaugural shot, and hit a bull's-eye.

After several months of war, the hopes of peace-minded socialists throughout Europe were all but gone. Their dream had dissolved in the face of an ancient and greater force: the deep, instinctive human impulse for solidarity with fellow members of one's tribe—a group most people defined, in this moment of crisis, not by class but by nation. Surprisingly haunting testimony to the strength of this feeling came from someone who largely resisted it, the prominent left-wing editor George Lansbury, who argued that it was nothing less than criminal madness for Europe's workers to be fighting each other at the behest of the ruling classes. Nonetheless, once it became possible for journalists to visit the front, he confessed that "every troop or regiment of troops on the march created a longing in me to get out and march with them. I had no sort of feeling about killing or being killed. There was a sense of danger and service—impersonal service—which, as men swung past, made me wish to be with them." If even a committed antiwar socialist could experience such longing, young Britons without leftist convictions felt it far more, and those speaking out against the war found themselves depressed and isolated.

Among them were Sylvia Pankhurst and Keir Hardie. Although no longer lovers, they still saw each other frequently. He was in despair that all his efforts against war had failed, and she was bruised by her final, very public rupture with her mother and sister. The written record is scanty, but they seem to have offered each other some solace during what must have been, for each, the worst winter of a lifetime. One night when Sylvia was giving a speech, she received a telegram from Hardie telling her to pay no attention to press reports that he was ill—which sounds like a desperate plea for her to do just the opposite. As soon as the meeting was over she rushed to his flat and found that he had been escorted home after having had a seizure in the House of Commons. Near the end of the year he suffered a stroke, as if his body were reflecting the grief he felt at the war. He was only 58, but, his writing arm now paralyzed, he had to compose by dictating. For a time he was not even able to take his daily walk.

Sylvia worked on in the East End, ceaselessly badgering officials at every level. In this time of emergency, why not impose government controls on prices? Why not nationalize food supplies? Immersed in the war of daily life, she saw the war in Europe as the enemy of all she had been trying to do. To read her autobiographical account of these years, The Home Front, is to enter the trenches of down-and-out London: women getting by on their husbands' paltry military pay and allowances (a mere extra twopence per day per child at the start of the war), women crowded out of hospital beds needed for wounded soldiers, a blacksmith with nine children and no work because so many horses had been commandeered for the army. The book is humorless, intense, and long-winded; you cannot imagine her bursting into song, as Hardie, in better days, had been wont to do.

Yet she did amass some solid accomplishments in a difficult time, when the nation was focused on war against Germany and not against poverty at home. She opened a garment workshop and a boot-making co-op, upending tradition by paying women the same wage as men. She took over a pub, the Gunmaker's Arms, renaming it the Mothers' Arms and installing a Montessori nursery school. Many of its pupils had fathers at the front; soon there would be others whose fathers were jailed war resisters. When women and children were evicted by their landlords, if no shelter could be found, she took them into her own home. On one occasion when no midwife was available, she assisted at a birth. And throughout this time she edited one of the few newspapers in Europe where voices dissenting from militarism could be heard.

The year's end brought no improvement to conditions in the East End—or at the front. Every British soldier, however, received an embossed brass box of cigarettes, pipe, and tobacco (or another gift for nonsmokers, such as spices for Indian troops) and a Christmas card from the royal couple, showing the Queen in broad choker necklace and crown and the King in his field marshal's uniform. In Haig's headquarters, they celebrated Christmas well, with turtle soup and other delicacies; Leopold de Rothschild sent the general some prized 1820 brandy and more than 50 pairs of fur gloves for him to distribute as presents to his staff. In the trenches, however, a very different sort of Christmas was under way.

South of Ypres, where the British and Germans faced each other across the white-frosted fields of Flanders, as northern Belgium was known, Christmas morning dawned cold and foggy. Looking at one section of German trench, British soldiers noticed that a wooden board had been hoisted with the words "You no fight, we no fight." From another trench farther down the line, a German officer emerged with a white flag. On the British side, some soldiers of the Queen's Westminster Rifles climbed out of their trench, waved, then jumped back in. When no shots were fired, they emerged a second time and began a cautious, unarmed advance into no man's land. "Suddenly from the enemy hurrahing was heard," a German soldier wrote to a socialist newspaper in Berlin, "and, surprised, we came from our mouse-holes and saw the English advancing towards us.... They had no rifles with them, and therefore we knew it could only be a greeting." Soon a German NCO hauled a Christmas tree into no man's land.

These forays multiplied along more than two-thirds of the British-held section of the front. By that afternoon, thousands of British and German soldiers were trading cigarettes, helmets, canned food, and other souvenirs, taking pictures, and singing carols in both languages. One lieutenant, wielding barbed-wire clippers, snipped two buttons from a German officer's coat in exchange for two of his own. Some German soldiers turned out to speak English well, having worked in Britain before the war, often as clerks, barbers, or waiters. (British troops would sometimes shout "Waiter!" from their trenches.) A German soldier who had lived in Suffolk gave a lieutenant of the Scots Guards a postcard to mail to his girlfriend there. A member of the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade got a haircut in no man's land from a German who had been his barber on London's High Holborn.

One officer described the day almost as if it were the fraternization between teams following a soccer match. "The Germans came out ... they're good fellows on the whole and play the game," he wrote to the Times. In several stretches of no man's land British and German troops played games of soccer, despite the half-frozen ground pocked with shell holes. "We marked the goals with our caps," wrote a German lieutenant, Johannes Niemann. "Teams were quickly established ... and the Fritzes beat the Tommies 3–2." Where there was no ball, the two sides made use of a tin can or a sandbag stuffed with straw.

Later in the day, a German juggler who had been onstage in London before the war gave a bravura performance; soldiers from both sides chased and caught hares running between their trenches. Men from the Cheshire Regiment slaughtered a pig, cooked it in no man's land, and shared it with the Germans, and some Saxon troops rolled a barrel of beer over their parapet and into eager British hands.

The Christmas Truce, as it came to be called, has passed into legend, celebrated in books, poems, popular songs, short stories, and films. The truce represented, it is said, an outburst of spontaneous solidarity among ordinary, working-class soldiers that outraged higher-ups and militarists on both sides. Adolf Hitler, for example, at the front in an infantry regiment and much given to brooding alone in his dugout, strenuously disapproved: "Such a thing should not happen in wartime," he told his fellow soldiers. "Have you no German sense of honor?" But tempting as it may be to see the Christmas Truce this way, the Britons who strolled out between the lines to wish their German counterparts a Merry Christmas ranged as high as colonels. Sir John French seems to have learned of the truce only after the fact, and promptly issued orders that nothing of the sort should happen again. Looking back after the war, however, he wrote of the occasion as a valiant gesture within the warrior caste, and compared it to a Christmas in the Boer War when he had sent whiskey and cigars through the lines to an opposing general. "Soldiers should have no politics, but should cultivate a freemasonry of their own and, emulating the knights of old, should honour a brave enemy only second to a comrade, and like them rejoice to split a friendly lance [i.e., take part in jousting competitions] today and ride boot to boot in the charge tomorrow."

Keir Hardie, on the other hand, was eager to see the truce as anything but chivalry. Many descriptions of the event by soldiers appeared on newspapers' letters pages; still crippled by his stroke, he dictated a column quoting them and hailing the truce as an omen of revolutionary changes. "Why are men who can be so friendly sent out to kill each other? They have no quarrel.... When the war is over ... each will realise that the lies told them by their press and their politicians had been deliberately concocted to mislead them. They will realise ... that the workers of the world are not 'enemies' to each other, but comrades." The Christmas Truce, he felt, was essentially a matter of soldiers staging a one-day wildcat strike against the war. And if that could happen now, why not a general strike before the war went on much longer?


Above: Charlotte Despard, suffragette, prison veteran, pacifist, communist, IRA supporter. Right: Her brother, "dearer to me than anyone else," Field Marshal Sir John French, cavalryman, commander in chief on the Western Front, viceroy of Ireland.



Horsemen en route to Kimberley, South Africa,
for Britain's last great cavalry charge, 1900.


Rudyard Kipling, staunch patriot in his country's wars.


Above: Alfred, Lord Milner, the "man of no illusions." Below: His great love, Lady
Violet Cecil (left); his nemesis, antiwar campaigner Emily Hobhouse (right).




The Pankhurst family, bitterly split by the war: Christabel (left), Sylvia addressing a public meeting (opposite), and their mother, Emmeline, under arrest (below).




Socialist leader (and Sylvia's secret lover) Keir Hardie speaks
against the coming war, Trafalgar Square, 1914.


Above: Royal cousins before the storm: Tsar Nicholas II (left) and Kaiser
Wilhelm II (right) on Wilhelm's yacht. Below: King George V and
Queen Mary in Delhi as Emperor and Empress of India.



Basil Thomson, Scotland
Yard spycatcher


Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig


John Buchan: novelist, officer,
chief propagandist


Bertrand Russell: resisting the
"red blast of hate"


Friends who met similar fates: John Kipling (left), George Cecil.


The tight Royal Navy blockade cut off food and fertilizer
imports to Germany, hastening hundreds of thousands of
deaths. A woman faints in a Berlin food line.

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