Military history


AFTER TWO YEARS of fighting, the war's death toll already far exceeded that of the entire decade and a half of the Napoleonic Wars. And these were not just military deaths. Although Britain and France had regarded Germany's air raids on cities as shocking acts of barbarism, they themselves were now bombing Germany from the air, and the Royal Navy was indirectly killing a far larger number of civilians by its tight blockade. British naval control of the key chokepoints of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the English Channel, and the North Sea threw a near-impenetrable barrier around the Central Powers. Germany was thereby cut off from major sources of a wide range of raw materials, from cotton to copper, as well as the 25 percent of its food it had imported before the war. Moreover, crops at home were stunted, for German farms had imported half their fertilizer.

Germany's high command had never planned for any of this, since they were so certain the war would be short. With the army and navy first in line for food, civilians increasingly went hungry, and by the war's end hundreds of thousands of them would starve to death. Bad weather in late 1916 killed nearly half the country's potato crop and brought to Germany and Austria-Hungary what became known as the "turnip winter." More than 50 food riots erupted. When a horse collapsed and died on a Berlin street one morning, a foreign visitor described the scene: "Women rushed towards the cadaver as if they had been poised for this moment, knives in their hands. Everyone was shouting, fighti ng for the best pieces. Blood spattered their faces and their clothes.... When nothing more was left of the horse beyond a bare skeleton, the people vanished, carefully guarding their pieces of bloody meat tight against their chests."

Europe had not seen war like this before: millions of civilians mobilized into factories making weapons, with the entire population targeted as each side tried to starve the other into submission. In response to the blockade, German U-boats roamed the North Atlantic, the Arctic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the North Sea, their captains peering through spray-splattered periscopes, not mainly stalking enemy warships (which, being faster, could almost always evade them) but Allied merchant vessels. It did not matter whether these were carrying arms, industrial goods, or food; all were targets. By the end of the war, U-boat torpedoes would send 5,282 merchant ships to the bottom of the sea, and tens of thousands of sailors with them. So far, despite increasingly urgent attempts, the Allies had not found ways of detecting U-boats when they were submerged.

Total war brought something else unfamiliar to Europe's civilians. Hundreds of thousands—from Belgium, Eastern Europe, and the occupied parts of France and Russia—found themselves conscripted into labor battalions and put to work on tasks ranging from producing munitions in German factories to digging trenches at the front. Often these men and women lived in harsh barbed-wire-ringed camps. Nor were the hands of the Allies clean: like the Germans, they had for decades used forced labor in their African colonies, but now the number of such laborers swelled and their working conditions grew unbearably hard as both sides conscripted huge numbers of African porters to carry military supplies long distances through terrain that lacked roads for vehicles.

Massive civilian deaths and forced labor camps would become all too familiar across Europe only two and a half decades in the future, and one feature of 1914–1918 eerily foreshadowed a still later part of the twentieth century. To prevent civilians in occupied Belgium from fleeing into neutral Holland, in 1915 the Germans lined the border between the two countries with a barbed-wire fence, electrified at a lethal 2,000 volts. Some people succeeded in getting through, but at least 300 died trying.

Unlike other wars before and since, there were no behind-the-scenes peace negotiations while the battles raged. Both sides were committed to fight to the bitter end, and by now, two years into the war, if someone in a prominent position on either side so much as advocated peace talks, it was considered close to treason. When Reverend Edward Lyttelton, the headmaster of Eton, gave a sermon outlining some possible compromises that might end hostilities, the resulting uproar eventually forced him to resign.

For people not in such positions of authority there was, for the time being, a little more leeway. From the beginning, Bertrand Russell had proposed peace terms, such as promising Germany no loss of "genuinely German territory"—as opposed to disputed land like Alsace and Lorraine or an occupied country like Belgium. He suggested that for the future an "International Council" should be set up to resolve disputes before they turned into war. In 1916, he wrote to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to use his influence to start peace talks.

Although Russell had spent most of his life in the rarefied circles of Cambridge and literary London, he discovered, to his surprise, that he had the ability to talk to a far wider audience. In the summer of 1916, he toured industrial and mining towns in south Wales for three weeks speaking in favor of a negotiated peace. Although his steps were dogged by hecklers and by uniformed and plainclothes police, his audiences in this staunchly radical region sometimes reached 2,000 or more and cheered him enthusiastically. When the authorities closed meeting halls to him, he spoke in the open air. After the tour, two Scotland Yard detectives visited Russell at home to inform him that he was banned from giving more such lectures, scheduled in Scotland and the north of England. "It makes my blood boil," he wrote. A War Office official proposed withdrawing the lecture ban, but only if Russell would abandon politics and return to mathematics.

Russell and other war opponents continued to press for negotiations, but one activist did something bolder. In a quixotic effort to actually start them, she went to Germany.

After working with a Quaker relief organization in France early in the war, Emily Hobhouse had provoked the ire of Whitehall by spending several months in Holland doing follow-up work after the 1915 women's peace conference at The Hague. Correspondence and telegrams about denying her a passport and permits for future travel flew back and forth among alarmed British bureaucrats. Violet Cecil's brother-in-law, a high-ranking official at the Foreign Office, in one letter called Hobhouse "a woman known to have indulged in absurd and undesirable conduct."

Always a loner, in late April 1916 Hobhouse was the sole Briton to join socialists from both sides and several neutral countries who met in a hotel at the small Swiss village of Kiental. Mostly sectarian ideologues, few of whom, least of all Hobhouse, represented parties of any size, they spent a week arguing such questions as "The Attitude of the Proletariat to the Question of Peace"—which drew seven competing resolutions from a mere 43 delegates. The conference's final compromise manifesto proclaimed, "Down with the war!" and was issued to an uninterested world on May Day. The delegates could only have felt grim as they went their separate ways while workers did their best to kill each other on half a dozen fronts. May Day of 1916 was no advertisement for international proletarian solidarity. One sign of hope flickered briefly in Berlin, however, where the socialist Karl Liebknecht led a small peace demonstration. He was quickly jailed, as was his colleague Rosa Luxemburg. But 50,000 Berlin munitions workers put down their tools on the day of his trial—the first political protest strike in wartime Germany.

Hobhouse's one-woman crusade against Britain's Boer War concentration camps had sent reverberations around the globe; seldom had a single person done so much to put an issue on the international agenda. Now, in the teeth of an immeasurably larger conflict, she hoped to do so again. In June, to the dismay of British authorities, Hobhouse popped up in Berlin, where she met, among others, Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow, whom she had known before the war. Her account of their conversation was colored by wishful thinking, for she came away believing he was prepared to use her as a channel to exchange possible peace terms with the British government. She was hearing no less wishfully, it seems, when she believed two other unnamed "high authorities" who suggested that Germany might be willing to cede Alsace and Lorraine to France in return for peace. Hobhouse also visited a Berlin internment camp for British civilians who had been living in Germany at the outbreak of the war, and talked with von Jagow about an exchange of civilian prisoners.

The day of her return to the British capital, with typical confidence, she telegraphed the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, assuming he would want to hear firsthand the messages she was bringing from Berlin: "Arrive London about midday await kind instructions Westminster Palace Hotel." She waited in vain. But in her determined fashion, she eventually managed to talk with at least one person in the Foreign Office, as well as various MPs, several newspaper editors, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and even her antagonist from South Africa days, Alfred Milner. "A bridge is needed," she wrote to her old friend the Boer leader Jan Smuts, now a trusted ally of the British. "Let me be that bridge. I have begun to build it—and am not afraid to cross it alone to begin with."

When officials seemed disbelieving about Alsace and Lorraine—given that Germany had sent no other such signals—Hobhouse lobbied them instead with a detailed plan for a prisoner swap. Why couldn't Britain and Germany at least exchange all civilian prisoners who were not men of military age? Even the Foreign Office had to acknowledge that this was "quite sensible." She also had ideas about how to partially lift the British naval blockade in a way that much-needed food could reach occupied Belgium. The government had little interest, however, and refused her a passport to leave the country again. Outraged MPs asked in Parliament how this British citizen had managed to spend several weeks in enemy territory. Surprisingly, it turned out that there was no explicit regulation against doing so; one was now hastily issued after the fact. As always, though, the government was wary of creating a martyr. "After a good deal of discussion," Asquith reported to the King, "the Cabinet agreed that it would be inexpedient either to prosecute or to intern her."

Visiting Berlin was not all that Hobhouse had done; she had also taken a two-week, tightly supervised tour of German-occupied Belgium. She reported in Sylvia Pankhurst's Woman's Dreadnought that the German occupation was nowhere near as cruel as the British burning of Boer farms in South Africa. That may have been true, but the Germans had been brutal, prefiguring the Nazis' even more ruthless occupation regimes of the Second World War. In addition to deliberately shooting more than 5,000 Belgian civilians and setting fire to thousands of buildings, they had poured gasoline into the famous university library at Louvain and burned it to the ground, along with its priceless collection of 230,000 books and 750 medieval manuscripts. Occupation authorities shipped back to Germany money from Belgian bank vaults, machinery from Belgian factories, more than half of the country's cattle, nearly half its pigs, and two-thirds of its horses. Hobhouse was aware of little of this, for she had not been allowed to speak to any Belgians. When, after interrogating her at Scotland Yard, Basil Thomson reported that she had come to "the sort of conclusions the Germans desired her to form," he was largely right.

Although the British government gave her no credit and insisted it had been planning something similar all along, one aspect of her vociferous lobbying paid off: the Foreign Office submitted to Parliament a proposal for a civilian prisoner exchange that seemed drawn from her blueprint. Some months later the British and German governments reached an agreement on the subject. More than that Hobhouse did not accomplish. But however hopeless her lone-wolf diplomacy, and however naive she was about what she saw in Belgium, in the entire course of the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen, she was the sole person from any of the warring countries who actually journeyed to the other side in search of peace.

Those in power dismissed Hobhouse out of hand, but on one man she made a lasting mark. Stephen Hobhouse, the son of a first cousin, was in his early thirties at the outbreak of the war and very much a child of privilege. His father was an MP and a wealthy landowner. Having grown up with a succession of governesses in a grand country house built in 1685, Stephen had been sent off to Eton, where he won a book prize (Deeds that Won the Empire) for his academic achievements, a silver cup for marksmanship, and another for commanding the best-performing section of his battalion of the Eton College Rifle Volunteers. In 1897, the Diamond Jubilee year, the Volunteers marched to nearby Windsor Castle and from its courtyard serenaded Queen Victoria by torchlight.

Then came Oxford, boating on the Thames, shooting parties, London dances during the social season. Once the Boer War began, however, Hobhouse found his "patriotic ardor for the British cause" challenged. "With Emily, in particular, a cousin whom I often saw ... I remember arguing earnestly.... Thus, no doubt, it was that my mind was prepared for the awakening."

This awakening came at the age of 20, after he read a sixpenny pamphlet by Tolstoy he had bought at the Oxford railway station. From then on, Stephen Hobhouse would be an ardent pacifist. He also found himself appalled that, as the eldest son, he stood to inherit his family's "semi-feudal" 1,700-acre estate and would be expected, on his 21st birthday, to make the traditional speech of greeting to its assembled tenant farmers and their families. To an aunt, he wrote, "I cannot make up my mind just how far to compromise in accepting things as they are, and striving after them as they ought to be."

He made few compromises. After renouncing his inheritance, he became a Quaker and ran a boys' club for London slum children. He had suffered a variety of health problems, including two nervous breakdowns and a bout of scarlet fever, but none of this daunted him from moving into a modest cold-water flat in a working-class neighborhood, where he copied his fellow tenants by using a newspaper for a tablecloth. He worked for a Quaker relief mission in Greece and Turkey that aided refugees from the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 and, just as his cousin Emily had in South Africa, saw firsthand the way war could turn farms and villages to rubble.

In 1914, two days before Britain entered the war, Hobhouse heard Keir Hardie make his desperate plea for peace at the foot of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square. The following year he met his future wife, Rosa, at a dinner party of Christian pacifists, where he was touched to see "the look of eager and affectionate curiosity on the face of my cousin Emily" as she noticed the first glimmer of a budding romance. They married a few months later, but, determined to live simply, took the bus home from their wedding. In early 1916, Rosa shared the speaker's platform with Charlotte Despard at an Independent Labour Party meeting and not long after spent three months in jail for distributing pacifist leaflets. Drafted later that same year, Stephen refused both military and alternative service, citing his convictions as an "International Socialist" and a Christian.

The prosecutor at Hobhouse's court-martial was a young second lieutenant, A. V. Nettell. Knowing the prisoner's health was fragile enough to disqualify him from the military, Nettell unsuccessfully urged him to take the army medical examination. Unlike a number of officers who roughed up COs in their custody, he treated Hobhouse and 11 other COs jailed with him respectfully. The dozen men were duly sentenced to hard labor, but before being taken away, Hobhouse presented Lieutenant Nettell with a copy of Wordsworth's poems, signed by all 12. The gift made a huge impression. "Few things moved me as much.... I thank God with all my heart for having known him," Nettell wrote to Hobhouse's widow, Rosa, a half century later.

Already worried that Stephen's health might break in prison, his wife and parents became even more alarmed when they heard that he had been placed in solitary confinement.

As ever more families received telegrams with news that a son or husband had been killed or was missing in action, Britain's clairvoyants did a lucrative business. For a fee, they would stage a séance to put grieving relatives in touch with the spirit of a missing soldier who was sending back through the ether clues as to where he was captive. The confirmed dead, of course, they could not bring back. From the most distant Scottish island to the heights of London society, the war was unceasingly taking its toll. On September 15, 1916, as he led his troops in yet another attack on the Somme front, a German bullet struck the chest of Raymond Asquith, son of the prime minister. Trying to keep up his men's spirits by a show of nonchalance, he lit a cigarette after falling to the ground. He died on his way to a first-aid station.

So many deaths for a sliver of earth so narrow it could barely be seen on a wall map of Europe. How was it all to be explained back home? No one was more aware of that problem than the apostle of high casualties himself. "A danger which the country has to face ... is that of unreasoning impatience," Haig wrote in mid-1916. "Military history teems with instances where sound military principles have had to be abandoned owing to the pressure of ill-informed public opinion. The press is the best means to hand to prevent the danger in the present war."

And so the press was mobilized, more rigorously than ever. As John Buchan put it afterward, "So far as Britain is concerned, the war could not have been fought for one month without its newspapers." A blizzard of regulations shaped what could appear in print, the government periodically notifying editors of topics "which should not be mentioned" and, wielding the ominous power of vagueness, indicating "subjects to be avoided or treated with extreme caution." Mention of these instructions themselves was forbidden. Lloyd George even told Bertrand Russell he would not hesitate to prosecute someone for publishing the Sermon on the Mount if it interfered with the war effort. When it was all over, the drumbeaters would be duly honored: at least twelve knighthoods and half a dozen peerages were conferred on wartime newspaper correspondents, editors, or owners, the peerages usually going to the owners.

At the front, correspondents routinely sugarcoated British losses. Writing during the Somme bloodletting, William Beach Thomas of the Daily Mail had this to say of the dead British soldier: "Even as he lies on the field he looks more quietly faithful, more simply steadfast than others." Beach Thomas, who spent most of the war in France, later admitted, "I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written." Haig regarded the half-dozen permanent Western Front correspondents as so many additional British troops. They were outfitted with captains' uniforms and provided with drivers, escorts, and comfortable accommodations. At one point, pleased with the patriotic tone of their dispatches, Haig invited the group to see him and gave them his highest compliment: "Gentlemen, you have played the game like men!"

The game worked more effectively on readers at home than on soldiers. The average war correspondent, recalled C. E. Montague, whose job was to shepherd and censor just such men, wrote "in a certain jauntiness of tone that roused the fighting troops to fury against the writer. Through his despatches there ran a brisk implication that regimental officers and men enjoyed nothing better than 'going over the top'; that a battle was just a rough, jovial picnic; that a fight never went on long enough for the men.... Most of the men had, all their lives, been accepting 'what it says 'ere in the paper' as being presumptively true." No more. Montague once found himself in a dugout with a sergeant who said, "Can't believe a word you read, sir, can you?"

Key to presenting the war to the public was the trusted John Buchan, now at the front in a bewildering variety of roles. While continuing to publish a patriotic spy novel nearly every year, he was also, in modern terms, an embedded correspondent, writing for theTimes and the Daily News —and was simultaneously in uniform as an officer in Haig's Intelligence Corps, drafting the weekly communiqués that were sent to the press, British diplomatic posts, and elsewhere. In addition, his literary renown and genial personality made him the ideal guide for taking VIP visitors on tours of the front. Haig typically turned Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times and other newspapers, over to Buchan for a weeklong red-carpet trip. Afterward, the satisfied general found Northcliffe "most anxious to help the Army in every possible way." (A subsequent visit led the commander in chief to triumphantly record Northcliffe's suggestion to "send him a line should anything appear in The Times which was not altogether to my liking.")

Buchan's novelist's eye did take in some of Haig's peculiarities, although he did not share them with readers until decades after the war. He noticed, for example, that once Haig became commander in chief, his speech sounded less Scottish; his accent seemed to move southward, as it were. And he observed that Haig did not have "Sir John French's gift of speaking to the chance-met soldier. Once, I remember, he tried it. There was a solitary private by the roadside, whom he forced himself to address.

"Haig: 'Well, my man, where did you start the war?'

"Private (pale to the teeth): 'I swear to God, sir, I never started no war.'

"It was his last attempt." Haig was similarly inept at the dinner table. "When eminent and cultivated guests came on a visit ... to prevent the Commander-in-Chief sitting tongue-tied a kind of conversational menu had to be arranged. For example Walter Pater, who had been his tutor, had once said something to him about style which he remembered, and it was desirable to lead the talk up to that."

Meanwhile, Buchan, a fount of writerly energy, continued to spin out the successive best-selling installments of Nelson's History of the War. Several short volumes about the Somme appeared by the end of 1916, almost before the smoke had cleared. They succeeded as propaganda because Buchan's prose focused on comprehensible, human-scale events: a trench taken, a village overrun, a hillock triumphantly seized. The books' maps were of close-up scale as well, managing to magnify British advances so that they swept across an entire page. And how could the reader, who before the war had never heard of these tiny French villages, doubt that this hamlet or that ridge was as "important" or "strategic" as the famous writer claimed?

Buchan's Somme volumes are filled with short profiles of heroes, like Private McFadzean of the Royal Irish Rifles, who threw himself on two exploding grenades to protect his comrades; or Lord Lucas, a one-legged pilot who vanished over German lines. All of these men, "clerks and shopboys, ploughmen and shepherds, Saxon and Celt, college graduates and dock labourers, men who in the wild places of the earth had often faced danger, and men whose chief adventure had been a Sunday bicycle ride," had served their country gallantly, and every Briton, of course, should be proud of them. The photographs in the books are upbeat too: Scottish troops with bagpipers, or soldiers heading to the front cheering and raising their helmets in greeting.

That the first foray of the new tank had been an awkward failure in no way deterred Buchan from celebrating it; he presciently sensed the romance the public would soon have with the "strange machines, which, shaped like monstrous toads, crawled imperturbably over wire and parapets, butted down houses, shouldered trees aside, and humped themselves over the stoutest walls.... The crews of the tanks—which they called His Majesty's Landships—seemed to have acquired some of the light-heartedness of the British sailor.... With infinite humour they described how the enemy had surrounded them when they were stuck, and had tried in vain to crack their shell, while they themselves sat laughing inside."

Buchan did not mention the tank crews reduced to charred skeletons when shells ignited their vehicles' fuel tanks, or any such detail about how death or injury came to nearly half a million British soldiers at the Somme. Instead, following Haig and General Charteris, he insisted that "a shattering blow" had been struck against enemy morale, and concluded somewhat vaguely that "our major purpose was attained." That, of course, was what Britons wanted urgently to feel.

Did Buchan believe all this? Surely not. He had close friends in infantry regiments who knew just how mindless the slaughter had been; indeed, the historian of propaganda Peter Buitenhuis speculates that it was "the strain of duplicity" in what he wrote about the Somme that soon afterward gave Buchan an ulcer attack that required surgery. But we will never know more, for any anguish Buchan felt on this score he kept entirely to himself; there is no sign of it in his published work, diary or letters.

His fellow writer turned propagandist, Rudyard Kipling, shaken to the core by the loss of his son, continued to report from various fronts, but his work took a dark and bitter turn. "Whenever the German man or woman gets a suitable culture to thrive in," he wrote in mid-1916, "he or she means death and loss to civilised people, precisely as germs of any disease.... The German is typhoid or plague— Pestio Teutonicus," In one speech, he declared that the world was divided into "human beings and Germans," although his rage at some of those human beings—Jews, the Irish, and lazy trade unionists who had supposedly left the nation short of munitions—was growing as well.

He was consumed by not knowing John's fate. From letters or interviews with more than 20 survivors of the Battle of Loos, Kipling and his wife compiled a timeline of John's last known movements on the day he disappeared, marking these on a map. In desperation, he had leaflets printed in German asking for information, and arranged with the Royal Flying Corps to drop them over German trenches.

Confirmation that John had been wounded before vanishing came from the writer Rider Haggard, who had tracked down the last fellow Irish Guardsman to see him alive. John had been crying in pain, the soldier told Haggard, because a shell fragment had shattered his mouth. Haggard did not dare to pass that news on, and so the unknowing Kipling was able to imagine:

My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would I knew
What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests are few.

Visitors to his country house in Sussex found the writer looking older and grayer, with more lines in his face. When Julia Catlin Park, an American friend, came to see him, he mentioned his boy only as she was leaving; then he squeezed her hand hard and said, "Down on your knees, Julia, and thank God you haven't a son."

The unfathomable carnage of the Somme presented the military with its most difficult public relations problem yet, driving the new profession of propaganda beyond the printed word. More innovative in communications than on the battlefield, the authorities turned to the new medium of film and produced one of the earliest and most influential propaganda movies of all time. Two cameramen with their cumbersome hand-cranked cameras were given unprecedented access to the front lines, and the resulting 75-minute Battle of the Somme was rushed into cinemas in August 1916, when the battle was not yet at its midpoint. It opened in 34 theaters in London alone, and 100 copies were soon circulating around the country. Long lines formed outside theaters, and in West Ealing the police had to be called out to control the impatient crowds. In the first six weeks of its release more than 19 million people saw the film; eventually, it may have been seen by a majority of the British population. (Noticing this success, the Germans hurried out a copycat production of their own, With Our Heroes at the Somme.)

The film offered jerky, flickering, sometimes blurred footage interspersed with the printed titles of the silent-film era. The medium was still a novelty, and in scene after scene everybody looks curiously at the camera, including men who, you would think, had more urgent matters on their minds: British troops on their way into battle, captured Germans, the walking wounded, even one British soldier hurrying along a trench, bearing on his shoulders a comrade who would, a screen title informs us, die 30 minutes later.

For audiences accustomed only to short, set-piece newsreel clips of formal occasions like parades, the film was nothing short of electrifying. Its black-and-white images also provided a wealth of detail about the front-line lives of ordinary, working-class soldiers, for here were the army versions of daily routines people at home knew so well—feeding and watering horses, preparing a meal over a fire, opening mail, washing up in a roadside pond, attending a church service in a muddy field—plus the drudgery of unloading and carrying endless heavy boxes of artillery ammunition.

Many parts of the film were calculated to inspire awe, such as shots of huge mines exploding underneath the German lines or the firing of heavy howitzers. TERRIFIC BOMBARDMENT OF GERMAN TRENCHES, says the title. Some scenes, including a famous one showing men swarming out of a trench to attack, several dropping when shot, are now believed to have been faked, taken well behind the lines, but neither audiences nor critics appeared to notice at the time, so riveted were they at what seemed to be the authentic nitty-gritty of the real war.

Millions of people must have watched The Battle of the Somme yearning for a glimpse of a familiar face—or dreading it: what if a husband or son appeared on the screen wounded or dead? For although the battle's casualties were sometimes presented sentimentally—THE MANCHESTERS' PET DOG FELL WITH HIS MASTER CHARGING DANZIG ALLEY— or misleadingly—WOUNDED AWAITING ATTENTION AT MINDEN POST. SHOWING HOW QUICKLY THE WOUNDED ARE ATTENDED TO— the remarkable thing is that they were presented at all. Unlike almost all earlier propaganda in this war, the film did not shy away from showing the British dead and surprising numbers of British wounded: walking, hobbling, being carried or wheeled on stretchers.

The film's images, wrote the Star, "have stirred London more passionately than anything has stirred it since the war [began]. Everybody is talking about them.... It is evident that they have brought the war closer to us than it has ever been brought by the written word or by the photograph." Men in the audience cheered when attacks were shown; women wept at the sight of the wounded; people screamed at the staged sequence showing British soldiers falling as if hit by bullets.

Letters from the bereaved about the film (or "films," as a movie long enough to require several reels was sometimes called) filled the newspapers, many voicing the same theme. "I have lost a son in battle," ran a typical one to the Times, "and I have seen the Somme films twice. I am going to see them again. I want to know what was the life, and the life-in-death, that our dear ones endured, and to be with them again."

The government had taken a calculated risk in allowing these images into the nation's theaters. David Lloyd George, recently made secretary of state for war, argued that the film, however painful to watch, would reinforce civilian support for the war—and he was right. The more horrific the suffering, ran the chilling emotional logic of public opinion, the more noble the sacrifice the wounded and dead had made—and the more worthwhile the goals must be for which they had given their all.

What did the battlefield look like after four and a half months of fighting? One civilian had a rare opportunity to take a close look, and to a few select friends offered a vivid description of the Somme in mid-November 1916, just as the long, fruitless offensive was coming to a halt:

"All the villages ... are absolutely flat—not one stone standing upon another. As you look over the vast expanse of desolation all you see is certain groups of stumps of trees, all absolutely stripped of leaves and branches.... There are not two square yards of ground anywhere, which have not been shattered by shells." All roads were "feet deep in sticky mud, through which innumerable vehicles of all kinds were struggling, riders plunging, troops marching, either pretty spick and span on their way to the advance trenches, or covered with mud from head to foot and intensely weary on their way back." At Delville Wood, bitterly fought over for months, "many dead bodies, decomposed almost to little heaps of dust and rags, helmets, German and British, rifles, entrenching tools, shells, grenades, machine gun belts, water bottles, and every conceivable fragment of weapons and shreds of clothing littered the whole ground between the blasted trees."

The observer, writing in the wake of an exclusive eight-day tour, was Alfred Milner. After crossing the Channel, "the only experience even faintly approaching discomfort" he met with was a night in a French farmer's house; otherwise he slept in commandeered châteaux. In one, "I had a capital bedroom and every comfort.... The Divisional Band played during dinner—not badly. Bands are very important out here and there are not enough of them." Each day was a busy round of meetings with generals, a horseback ride with an escort officer, a stop at a Royal Flying Corps base to see the latest-model fighter planes, a look at the new tanks. Milner watched German antiaircraft guns in action ("The bursting shells looked like so many little fleecy clouds"), heard the "tremendous gun-fire" of artillery, and was taken through several captured German dugouts, one of them "a perfect series of underground chambers, panelled, in some cases upholstered, and connected by galleries."

Again and again he met officers he had known in South Africa, including, of course, the commander in chief. For three nights he had dinner with Haig and his staff, and each time, Milner proudly noted, "I had [a] ½ or ¾ hour private talk with Haig in his own room after dinner, before he settled down to his work and I returned to the general sitting-room." However awkward a conversationalist he may have been in a group, the general was an expert in making influential people feel important; Milner did not know that these intimate after-dinner chats were Haig's standard routine with visiting VIPs. On Sunday, the general took him to hear his favorite preacher, Reverend Duncan. After breakfast on Milner's last morning at headquarters, "Haig took me into his room and went over with me, on a big raised map, the operations of yesterday, showing me exactly the positions we had gained and why he attached importance to them." That Haig would lavish such attention on a visitor with no government position might seem strange, but he had a keen eye for whose star was rising in London. It was he who had invited Milner to come to the front.

For more than two years, Milner had been growing increasingly restless, convinced that he was far more capable than the men surrounding the colorless, uninspiring Asquith, who seemed to have no clue about how to break the war's endless stalemate. Derisively nicknamed "Squiff," the prime minister drank too much, allowed no crisis to interfere with his two hours of bridge every evening, and, while hundreds of thousands died, spent leisurely nonworking weekends at friends' country houses. On one occasion he raised eyebrows by attending a Saturday morning meeting at 10 Downing Street in his golf clothes. His critics, including the stridently prowar newspaper of Milner's British Workers' League, grumbled about "Squiffery" infecting the entire government.

The success of conscription—which Milner had vigorously championed—in keeping the trenches filled with troops seemed to him and his admirers proof of his foresight. Now his mind brimmed with strong opinions on much else, sometimes shaped by back-channel information from friends high in the army. In the House of Lords in 1915, he had been one of the first to argue for withdrawing British troops from the disastrous beachhead at Gallipoli—rare outspokenness for a legislator in wartime. He had ideas for ramping up the propaganda campaign, and, among many other peeves, fumed that the Royal Navy had been "outwitted" by the Germans at Jutland.

Whenever he asked, his speeches were reported at length in the Times, Surprisingly, given that they had been fierce political opponents over the Boer War, one of Milner's allies was the new secretary for war, Lloyd George. Beginning in early 1916, when they first held a working dinner at Milner's house, a small group of influential political figures and journalists, sometimes including Lloyd George, met regularly for confidential talk. Dubbed the "Monday Night Cabal," the group had a common goal: maneuvering Asquith out of power. It was almost certainly word of these meetings that had led Haig to invite Milner to France.

Although it is the war's great battles that are most remembered, the air above the Western Front was also filled with bullets, mortar rounds, shrapnel bursts, and deadly clouds of poison gas (now delivered by artillery shells) even when no named battle was raging. The toll from these constant skirmishes was part of what British commanders chillingly referred to as the "normal wastage" of up to 5,000 men a week. For soldiers, minor engagements, never mentioned in a newspaper, could be every bit as fatal or terrifying as a major battle.

Take, for example, events during the frigid predawn hours of November 26, 1916, in a supposedly quiet sector of the front, north of where the Battle of the Somme had just drawn to a close. Holding the line here were several "Bantam Battalions." At the start of the war, a new recruit had to be at least five feet three inches tall; shorter volunteers were turned away. As the need for bodies increased, however, men above five feet were allowed to enlist in special units and issued rifles with smaller stocks. Since shortness is often due to childhood malnutrition, these battalions were filled with men who had grown up poor, often in Scotland or the industrial north of England. In civilian life many had been miners, a job where being short could be an advantage, for underground coal seams in some northern mines were only three feet high. Scorned by tradition-minded British generals who felt bigger was better, and mocked by the Germans, who made rooster calls across no man's land, the Bantams fought and died like everyone else. More than one out of three Bantams involved in the Somme fighting were killed, wounded, or declared missing during the first two months of battle. One unit made up a song:

We are the Bantam sodgers,
The short-ass companee.
We have no height, we cannot fight.
What bloody good are we?
And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say Hoch,
Hoch mein Gott, what a bloody fine lot
is the Bantam companee.

On the sector the Bantams now held, the front line ran through a spot called King Crater, only 50 yards from the German trenches. Among the Bantams was Lance Sergeant Joseph "Willie" Stones. Twenty-five years old, with a wife and two small daughters at home, he had served in France for a year, winning the praise of his superiors and two promotions. At about 2:15 A.M. on November 26, Stones was accompanying a lieutenant on an inspection of the front-line trench when they ran into a group of some dozen German raiders who had slipped across no man's land undetected. The Germans shot and fatally wounded the lieutenant. Stones escaped. He ran along the trench and then toward the rear, shouting desperately: "The Huns are in King Crater!"

The Germans, meanwhile, rushed along the British trench in the other direction, shooting, tossing hand grenades into dugouts, and then slipping back across no man's land with a prisoner in tow. Theirs was one of several German raids on this sector of the front that night. Some British troops, thoroughly panicked, fled the front-line trench, shouting, "Run for your lives, the Germans are on you!" Among them were Lance Corporal John McDonald, who had been in charge of a sentry post near King Crater, and Lance Corporal Peter Goggins, who had been in a nearby dugout. Stones and another soldier were ordered to a halt some distance to the rear, and found to be without their rifles—a serious offense.

It is easy to imagine the complete terror the troops must have felt as the darkness suddenly rang with German voices, bursting grenades, and the screams of the wounded. After fleeing, Stones, by the testimony of one soldier who saw him, "seemed to have lost the use of his legs. He sat down for a good while and tried several times to get up." Even after being ordered back to the front line, he still "could not find the use of his legs." (Stones had twice before gone to the battalion medical officer complaining of rheumatic leg pain.) A sergeant described him as being "in a very exhausted condition and trembling.... He said that the Germans were chasing him down the trench.... He seemed thoroughly done up."

Panic, in the eyes of those in command, was no excuse for a soldier's "casting away his arms and running away from the front line," in the words of the formal charge against Stones, nor was his claim that he had run toward the rear to warn his comrades at the orders of his dying lieutenant. In December 1916, a string of courts-martial dealt with the traumatic night's events by sentencing 26 Bantams, including Stones, Goggins, and McDonald, to death.

Generals frequently recommended mercy after a court-martial decreed capital punishment, and Haig, whose decision this ultimately was, usually agreed, commuting 89 percent of the death sentences that crossed his desk during the war. Joseph Stones had good reason to hope that his own sentence would be commuted, for his company and brigade commanders both urged clemency. "I have personally been out with him in no-man's-land and I always found him keen and bold," wrote the first. "...I can safely say that he was the last man I would have thought capable of any cowardly action." But the division commander and two generals above him confirmed the sentences, and the fate of all the condemned Bantams now rested with Haig.

Casting away arms in the face of the enemy was not the only offense that revealed a draconian side to British military justice. That same December, a man in a nearby unit did something that in civilian life would be no crime at all: he wrote a letter to a newspaper.

At 32, Albert Rochester was older than the average soldier, and when he enlisted at the start of the war he had a pregnant wife and three children. An ardent socialist and a columnist for the newspaper of the National Union of Railwaymen, he had been a signalman for the Great Western Railway, operating the semaphores that showed locomotive engineers whether a track was clear. He sustained a wound at the Somme, and in December 1916 was at the front as a corporal. Although Keir Hardie had been devastated when hundreds of thousands of unionists like Rochester volunteered, enlisting did not mean that they abandoned all awareness of class.

The British military, like most armies, replicated its society, and every officer had a batman, or personal servant. This galled Rochester no end, and was the main subject of the angry letter he wrote from a rest billet behind the lines that he described as a "filthy, manure-soaked ... mud-swamped, stinking, rat-ridden barn." He sent his missive to the London Daily Mail, because he was particularly exasperated with its correspondent William Beach Thomas, who had been sending home "ridiculous reports regarding the love and fellowship existing between officers and men." Rochester wrote:

In the infantry arm of the service, there are no less than 60,000 (or 3 complete divisions) of men employed as servants. Look next at the Infantry Brigade Headquarters staff—comprised of six Officers. Those half dozen men retain around them fifteen to eighteen servants, grooms, mess waiters etc. Infantry brigade headquarters therefore swallow up another 5000 men (5 battalions).... Each General, Colonel, Major, many Captains and Subalterns have their horse and groom.... It is generally recognised that those animals ... are to Officers in France practically useless, excepting for a once-a-fortnight canter.... I leave my readers to guess what those horses and grooms are costing the nation in fodder, rations, saddlery etc.... Probably if a roll call was taken of the batmen, grooms, servants, waiters, commissioned and non-commissioned "cushy" jobs, it would be found that quite half a million men were performing tasks not necessary to the winning of this war.

In the peroration that ended his letter can be heard both Rochester's patriotism and his socialist beliefs: "I ask then, as a soldier, on behalf of Millions of Citizen-soldiers, that ... the Officer be regarded as NOT of Royal blood; that he be expected to clean his own boots, get his own food and shaving water. It may generate within him more respect for his rank and file brethren. And certainly release men for more essential military work."

Rochester's letter never reached the Daily Mail, A censor stopped it, and the writer was hauled before a court-martial on charges of "conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline."

At his trial, Rochester defended himself with withering eloquence. If, he said, serving officers such as Winston Churchill could speak out publicly, surely "the private soldier" could as well. The reference to Churchill, someone no censor ever tamed, was brilliantly appropriate. Churchill had spent the first half of 1916 commanding an infantry battalion at the front, but in the middle of that period he had returned home on leave and given a speech in the House of Commons attacking the management of the navy.

Rochester would have made a formidable lawyer. "I appreciate," he said, "that one object of the Censorship regulations is to prevent documents coming into the hands of the enemy which might lead him to think that there was some dissatisfaction in the Army.... [But] I think the letter might add to the discouragement of the enemy in so far as I have merely tried to increase the fighting strength of our Army.... I think the letter would show the enemy a desire on the part of the rank and file to fight in every way to a knock-out blow." Furthermore, he pointed out, he had passed through London on leave two weeks earlier, and if he had wanted to evade censorship, why would he not have taken his letter directly to the Daily Mail then?

The only witness in his defense was the divisional chaplain, who offered a somewhat backhanded endorsement: "I have known the accused about three months.... I think he is a thoroughly sincere man and a genuine patriot; he has rather pronounced opinions on political questions; I believe he would call himself a socialist; he has been in the habit of speaking in public rather forcibly on political questions.... But I have nothing to suggest that his opinions would lessen his readiness to submit to discipline."

The court-martial found Rochester guilty. Friends who waited on tables at his brigade's officers' mess told him that they had overheard officers talking angrily about earlier letters he had sent home, which they had read as censors, so it is possible that they were waiting for an excuse to punish him. According to Rochester, when his letter was discovered, he was first hauled before his commanding general, an Indian-army veteran, who fumed, "I'll break you, my man: I'll break your very soul."

Stripped of his corporal's stripes, he was sentenced to 90 days of Field Punishment Number One, plus menial labor and an hour every morning and afternoon of "pack drill"—rapid marching while wearing a full load of equipment. The general was out to break him, and "frankly," Rochester wrote later, "...I felt afraid."

A burly sergeant took him to a small outbuilding, guarded by sentries, that served as the nearest military prison. It was a particularly harsh winter; rivers froze solid and soldiers in the trenches found ice forming on the edge of their plates before they had finished eating. A handful of men shared Rochester's cell on this piercingly cold night. "Only one blanket per prisoner was allowed, so that for warmth, we laid one blanket on the filthy straw, and anchored together under the remaining bedding. Live rats ... kept us awake for hours, so that we began to confide in each other." As they talked through the night, Rochester realized that the others had troubles far worse than his. His cellmates were Bantams, and included Stones, Goggins, and McDonald.

The three were, Rochester discovered, working-class men like himself: Stones and Goggins were coal miners from Durham, in England's far north, known for its militant unionism, and McDonald was a steelworker from nearby Sunderland. "These men huddled up along side me," remembered Rochester, "...all spoke hopefully of acquittal. Poor devils!"

In the morning, after a meager breakfast, pistol-carrying military police took the three condemned Bantams away to a more isolated cell. Rochester, meanwhile, was led off between two sentries to a storage dump, where he was given three wooden posts, three ropes, and a spade. Then the sentries marched him up a hill "until we reached a secluded spot surrounded by trees." An officer and two sergeants arrived and marked three places in the snow, a few yards apart, ordering Rochester to dig a posthole at each. Suddenly he realized that this was where his cellmates were to be shot—unless Haig commuted their sentences.

In Britain, this winter was a depressing one for opponents of the war. Several thousand conscientious objectors were in prison, but there were few signs of the groundswell of antiwar feeling that they kept hoping for. Sometimes, however, encouragement came from unexpected sources. In December, Bertrand Russell received a letter that began, "To-night here on the Somme I have just finished your Principles of Social Reconstruction. . . . It is only on account of such thoughts as yours, on account of the existence of men and women like yourself that it seems worth while surviving the war.... You cannot mind knowing that you are understood and admired and that those exist who would be glad to work with you." The writer, Second Lieutenant Arthur Graeme West of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, was killed three months later, at the age of 25.

As the year drew to a close, Herbert Asquith at last paid the price for his lackadaisical leadership. Under pressure, he capitulated to a proposal, put forward by Milner and other critics, for tight, decisive control over the war effort to be vested in a small committee—soon to be known as the War Cabinet—headed by Lloyd George. Soon after, his support in Parliament eroding further, Asquith went to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation to the King. Lloyd George became his successor. The new prime minister quickly decided on the other four members of his War Cabinet, an all-powerful body that would meet more than 500 times before the war was over.

On the evening of December 8, 1916, at his London lodgings, Milner received a message summoning him to 10 Downing Street. Before leaving the house, he sent a note to Violet Cecil with the news, adding, "My own disposition is strongly against being in the Govt. at all, most strongly against being in it unless I am part of the Supreme Direction." But part of the new inner-circle War Cabinet he was to be, as minister without portfolio, charged with supervising the war effort. At 64, after more than a decade in the political wilderness, Alfred Milner had suddenly become one of the most powerful men in the embattled empire he loved.

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