This is going to be our evil inheritance, or our good inheritance, in any case our irrevocable inheritance—and we are going to be fettered by our memories for ever.
After an armistice, German forces begin to advance again in Russia.
Peace is made between the Central Powers and Russia at Brest-Litovsk.
Continued Allied offensive in Mesopotamia.
Start of a major German offensive in the west. Very significant gains.
French counter-attack in the west temporarily halts the German offensive.
Start of a renewed German offensive in north-west France. Significant gains.
Start of a German offensive in Flanders. Significant gains.
The first American units go into battle on the Western Front.
British forces take Kirkuk in Mesopotamia.
British forces land in Murmansk.
Start of the German offensive around Aisne. Major gains. The Germans soon reach the Marne.
Major Austro-Hungarian offensive on the Piave. Minor gains.
Start of major German offensive on the Marne. Some gains. Three days later a powerful Allied counterattack forces Germans to retreat.
Start of major Allied offensive at Amiens. Very significant gains.
Start of the general German retreat to behind the Hindenburg Line.
Allied offensive in Macedonia. Bulgarian army forced into a general retreat.
Start of a major British offensive in Palestine. Major gains.
Start of American offensive in Argonne. Significant gains.
Start of major Allied offensive in Flanders. Significant gains.
After massive attacks, the whole of the Hindenburg Line is finally broken through.
Allied offensive on the Piave. Very significant gains.
The Ottoman army in Mesopotamia capitulates.
Revolution in Vienna; the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy is dissolved.
The Serbian army liberates Belgrade.
German mutiny begins in the High Seas Fleet in Kiel.
Armistice between the Allies and Austria-Hungary comes into effect.
German republic proclaimed following revolution in Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm II announces his abdication.
Armistice. All military action ceases at eleven o’clock in the morning.
A DAY AT THE BEGINNING OF JANUARY 1918
Pál Kelemen watches the war in the air over Castellerio
A beautiful, clear and sunny winter’s day. When the fronts are quiet, as here in northern Italy, the war in the air still continues. A big Italian Caproni bomber is droning along in the clear blue sky and the Austro-Hungarian anti-aircraft guns are aiming heavy fire at it. Puffy clouds of white smoke blossom like flowers in the sky, but always in vain.* The smoke from the explosions gradually thins and disperses in the wind. A solitary Austrian monoplane flies into view and begins chasing the slow, three-engined bomber. Pál Kelemen notes in his journal:
Above us the big Caproni is seriously engaged with our little fighting monoplane. Our anti-air batteries send heavy charges against the sky without avail. The white smoke-clusters from the detonations spread and evaporate slowly on the sharply brilliant blue.
Our flyer gets nearer all the time to the clumsily manoeuvring biplane, and the frequent cough of their machine guns can be distinctly heard on the earth. All of a sudden the Italian machine settles downward. Ours wheels above it for a brief moment, then flies off northward while at ever-increasing rate the Caproni speeds toward the ground, its motor stopped, the wings wavering, and plunges to earth.
By the time I get there the body of the Italian flying captain, killed by a machine-gun bullet, is laid out on the turf beside the plane. One wing of the gigantic bird of war, bent and broken, has pierced into the earth and oil is filtering out of the riddled motor.
The Italian officer is clad in a full leather suit, his faultless elegance disturbed only by the angle at which his cap is crushed over his clean-shaven face. A fine-worked silver wrist-watch ticks on unshaken and the whole body stretched out at ease seems to be only sleeping.
We search his pockets; his portfolio is handed to me. Besides letters, banknotes, slips of paper, there is a double-folded card in a hard black binding: “Season ticket to the circus, Verona.”
Here on this barren shell-plowed field the circus is just a printed name on a piece of cardboard. The glittering lamps at the base of the box rows, the grubbed-up carpet of the sawdust, the snapping whip of the ringmaster, the bareback rider with her tulle skirt and flashing jewels, and all the other endless delights of youth have been left behind forever by one young life. The other slender rakish officers in the box will wait tonight in vain for this comrade. But the music of the circus band will still blare and the floury-faced clown will turn somersaults with paid good humour on a velvet cover on the sand. And the ladies will flirt from afar, just as if he were there, as he was perhaps even yesterday.
I should like to slide the card back under the bloodstained shirt so that, as in pagan times when everything that served the hero followed him into the tomb, this property of his also should disappear from the face of the earth and there should be at least one place left empty in his memory, in the circus in Verona.
Willy Coppens writes the following in his journal that day:
During a patrol over the southern part of our sector, in the direction of Ypres, I flew into a snowstorm and got completely lost. Our aircraft have poor compasses, located on the floor where they aren’t much use. I don’t recognise anything until I have theKemmelberg in front and then I get to Dunkirk, from where I have no difficulty in finding my way back to my unit.
MONDAY, 7 JANUARY 1918
Florence Farmborough arrives in Moscow
The train sways and clunks, sways and clunks its way through a white winter landscape illuminated by the weak morning sun. The settlements begin gradually to grow denser and at half past twelve they roll into the station in Moscow. The journey from Odessa has taken her a whole week, such is the confusion in Russia just now. The journey has not only been long, it has been extremely uncomfortable, and she has feared for her safety on a number of occasions.
The train has been full to overflowing with soldiers of all kinds in all kinds of moods: happy, aggressive, drunk, helpful, inconsiderate, euphoric, angry. During some stages of the journey there have even been people travelling on the roof, and sometimes people boarded the train by simply smashing the windows and wriggling through. They, like Florence, had left the front and the war behind them and wanted to get home as quickly as possible. The original idea had been that the whole of her disbanded hospital unit would travel together, but this soon proved impossible as they became separated in the crowds and confusion. She lost her precious seat when she went to help a pregnant woman who had been taken ill, so she has spent a large part of the journey standing with her aching head pressed against the cold window in the corridor. When she changed trains in Kiev and finally secured another seat, she did not dare move from it for two and a half days for fear of losing it—in spite of the fact that she had nothing to eat and very little to drink and was surrounded by the noise and smell of smoking, drinking and shouting soldiers. All of her luggage had been stolen by this point.
Florence is depressed and confused as she gets off the train in her worn, dirty uniform:
I had returned like a vagrant, bereft of all I had held dear. My Red Cross work was over; my wartime wanderings had ceased. There was an emptiness in heart and mind which was deeply distressing. Life seemed suddenly to have come to a full-stop. What the future held in store, it was impossible to predict; it all looked too dark and void.
It is less than two months since she was last in Moscow but the city has changed enormously. The darkened streets are patrolled by all-powerful and trigger-happy soldiers wearing red armbands. (Many of the people she knows intentionally dress in shabby clothes so as not to bring themselves to the attention of these patrols.) Gunfire can often be heard at night and her host family sleeps fully dressed so that they might leave the house quickly if necessary. Food shortages have grown much more severe and have reached famine proportions. The guaranteed daily ration consists of three and a half ounces of bread or two potatoes. It is now impossible to obtain even a simple basic like salt. There are still restaurants open but their prices are astronomical and the meat is usually horse flesh. The atmosphere is one of fear and uncertainty.
SUNDAY, 27 JANUARY 1918
Michel Corday contemplates the future
The bitter cold has begun to ease—just a couple of weeks ago the temperature was down to minus 18° C. The authorities have banned the sale of absinthe and forbidden the wearing of scarves by soldiers.† Cakes have been abolished (the tea rooms sell only pastries now), and the bread ration is soon to be reduced further—to ten ounces per person per day. There are rumours of imminent disorder in working-class districts, of imminent enemy bombing raids on Paris, and of an imminent German offensive on the Western Front. It is also said that an exclusively female circle of spies has been uncovered in the Parisian theatre world.
Corday writes in his journal:
The shipyard workers on the Clyde are intending to strike on 31 January “if peace negotiations have not begun before that date.” This really does reveal a new challenge in the struggle between the people and their rulers—the people are demanding to know why their rulers are forcing them to fight. It has taken four years for this legitimate desire to come to the surface. It has already achieved its aim in Russia. Now it is raising its voice in England. It is beginning to break out in Austria. We do not know how strong it is in Germany and France. But the war has entered a new phase: a conflict between the shepherds and their flocks.
TUESDAY, 29 JANUARY 1918
Richard Stumpf reads a call for a general strike
For the last two months SMS Helgoland has been in dry dock again. The major work being carried out means that the ship is filthy: “You can hardly touch anything without getting dirt on your hands.” Stumpf has resigned himself to the situation. Discontent is simmering among ordinary people, but, although politics is the subject of much talk on board, sailors as a group are, in Stumpf’s view, much too disunited, much too easily fooled, much too lazy and much too stupid to be able to do anything about the current state of affairs.
Stumpf has fallen back on his own resources instead and has found a new outlet for his energy: he plaits a kind of coarse, hempen shoe which he then sells to his fellow sailors. The business is going well and he has set up an improvised cobbler’s shop in the ship’s bakery, away from the prying eyes of the officers. The calendar says it is winter, the weather says it is spring.
On this particular morning, however, something happens that seems likely to go some way towards countering Stumpf’s misanthropic pessimism. There is a rumour that socialist leaflets have been found on board and within a few minutes the whole crew knows what has happened. The sailors huddle in groups and the flyers are passed from hand to hand. He reads one of them himself and notes that it is unsigned and does not reveal where it was printed; he also notes that some of what it states is true but some of it is just “stupid platitudes and phrases.” The main slogan is: “If Germany is not to be ruled by the sabre then you must prepare yourselves for a general strike.”
The tremors that are just reaching the port of Wilhelmshaven have their epicentre in Vienna, hundreds of miles away. Around the middle of the month a wave of strikes broke out in the Austrian capital’s armaments factories in protest at the reduction of the bread ration and the continuation of the war. The situation soon became so threatening that the Habsburg royal family fled the capital with an armed escort. The wave of strikes spread rapidly, including to Budapest and to the naval base at Cattaro, where the sailors arrested their officers and raised red flags. The unrest in Austria-Hungary is over for the moment but yesterday major strikes started among the munitions and metal workers in Berlin. The discontent in Germany is also about food shortages and the fact that the military men now in control are simply allowing the war to continue. The truth is that Germany is being ground down in a purely economic sense. The spark that set things alight was the news that the peace negotiations with Russia at Brest-Litovsk had broken down.‡ The strikers are demanding peace—a peace in which neither side will suffer annexations or reparations, a peace based on the right of peoples to self-determination.
The strike has spread right across Germany today and over a million people in Munich, Breslau, Cologne, Leipzig and Hamburg have withdrawn their labour.
Before lunch the crew is ordered to muster on deck, section by section. The officers address their men. On the one hand, they express their gratitude that the rabble-rousing leaflets were brought to the captain’s attention so promptly and they exhort the sailors to do the same on any future occasion. On the other hand, the crew is given a strict warning against participating in strikes or other political activities.
Stumpf finds it difficult to know what is going to happen. He is well aware that there is widespread discontent: “If there was anyone capable of channelling this discontent, a major eruption would be virtually inevitable.” There is plenty of grumbling among the sailors and the workers but the protests lack both focus and staying power. In his experience, the energy released simply becomes hot air after a short time. And when he looks at the dockyard workers on board the ship everything seems normal: they show no signs of wanting to lay down their tools, nor do they seem to be simply pretending to work.
But when Stumpf goes up close to one of the workers he hears him say, “Starting from tomorrow, we’ll put a stop to all this hammering.” By “hammering,” Stumpf takes him to mean the war.
The following day there is an announcement that all shore leave has been suspended because of the unrest in Wilhelmshaven. At lunchtime almost all the shipyard workers lay down their tools and quickly leave the battleship. The sailors shout words of encouragement to them as they leave, advising them “never to come back.” The sun is shining and the air is warm and spring-like.
On that day Harvey Cushing is in Wimereux, a small resort just north of Boulogne-sur-Mer. He is there to attend the funeral of his Canadian medical colleague John McCrae. McCrae’s fame rests on a poem rather than on the fact that he was in charge of No. 3 Canadian General Hospital. The poem is called “In Flanders Fields” and there are few people who have not read its famous opening lines:§
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Since its publication in Punch in December 1915 it has become one of the Allied side’s most often quoted and widely reproduced verses. And with its uncompromising message about the continuance of the struggle, it was used in particular during the campaign to draw the United States into the war.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
McCrae died yesterday of something as banal as inflammation of the lungs. Cushing writes in his journal:
We met at No. 14 General—a brilliant sunny afternoon—and walked the mile or so to the cemetery. A company of North Staffords and many R.A.M.C. orderlies and Canadian sisters headed the procession—then [McCrae’s horse] “Bonfire,” led by two grooms and carrying the regulation white ribbon with his master’s boots reversed over the saddle—then the rest of us. Six sergeants bore the coffin from the gates, and as he was being lowered into the grave there was a distant sound of guns—as though called into voice by the occasion.
FRIDAY, 1 FEBRUARY 1918
Elfriede Kuhr’s brother receives his call-up papers
It does not sound like a very pleasant experience. Elfriede’s brother Willi is upset when he tells her how they all had to line up naked in a freezing barrack room. Willi has been exempted from military service so far for medical reasons: water on the knees and a weak heart “resulting from scarlet fever.” But this has now been reconsidered. The German army, like all the other warring European armies, is suffering an acute manpower shortage. A doctor presses his stomach and listens to his lungs before announcing: “Sound as a bell!”
Willi spits and snorts: “The self-important fool! All he wants to do is to scrape together some more cannon fodder for Kaiser Wilhelm!” Elfriede and Willi’s close friend Hans Androwski tease him and laugh: “What a magnificent sight you must have been—naked! A model of divine Olympian youth!” Then the tone of the conversation changes and they start discussing how Willi should handle the situation. Androwski, who is excused from service because of poor eyesight, says that whatever happens he must avoid the infantry. The air force is best—behind a desk, of course, not at the controls of a plane. “Tell them that your handwriting is fantastic!” Willi rejects everything they say and looks on the dark side: “Prussian military service. Now I’m right in the shit.” Elfriede says that he had better not let their mother hear him say that—she still believes in the war and when Willi falls, Elfriede says ironically, she will see him as a hero.
Then they start talking about the war. Elfriede asks the same question as so many other people are asking: why, why have all these people died? “Millions dead for nothing, for nothing at all.” Androwski does not agree. It has not been meaningless. By their deaths, all these fallen Russians have paved the way for the great revolution in their country. Elfriede becomes angry. “By their deaths? If that’s the price I don’t want any more revolutions.” Willi does not say anything, just bites his nails.
FRIDAY, 8 FEBRUARY 1918
Olive King contemplates her lack of eyebrows
It is winter but it is unusually warm. Some Italian officers have apparently already been hardy enough to bathe. Olive King is no longer living in the little house on the edge of the burnt-out city of Salonica and has moved instead into a cabin improvised from an enormous wooden crate that once contained an aeroplane.
Bathing? Perhaps it is for lack of anything better to do. There is nothing new in Salonica. In spite of significant reinforcements joining the Army of the Orient, very little has happened. Critics of the operation—and there are many of them these days—refer to the fortified city as Germany’s biggest internment camp. There were attempts to break through the Bulgarian lines to the north during 1917 but any advances have been painfully small. (Sarrail himself, though, was replaced as commander some months ago.) Part of the problem is that disease is rampant. Nominally the Army of the Orient can reckon on 600,000 men, but once malaria, dengue fever and other afflictions have done their bit there are only about 100,000 of them fully fit for service. The hospitals are swamped.
Olive King, however, has not been suffering from any lack of activity. Recently she has been making repeated trips to Corfu or, more accurately, to Santi Quaranta, the port right opposite the large island. The American Red Cross has donated twenty-nine ambulances to the Serbian military medical service and she has been one of the people driving the new vehicles to Salonica. The round trip takes eight to ten days and by this point King knows the road well.‖ The journey along these narrow, precipitous mountain roads is often troublesome and sometimes dangerous. King has endured both snowstorms and breakdowns. She has noticed that she often bears the hardships better than the male drivers, “who hate the discomfort, the rain & mud & cold.” For her own part she says she lives “the gypsy life.” Her health is excellent apart from occasional toothache and the colds she always treats with a mixture of boiling water, rum and masses of sugar.
It is quite clear that she is devoting herself to her work with the kind of obsessive dedication shown by someone in need of distraction. To her great disappointment her love affair with the Serbian captain Jovi has come to an end. The last time they met was in October when, just after she had been decorated with a Serbian medal for bravery shown during the great fire, she met him on Corfu. (He was about to go to London on an official mission.) They spent several days together and then said their goodbyes at the boat back to the mainland. She cried a little—she would actually have liked to sit down and howl. A period of loneliness and depression followed, a depression that became severe when she received a letter from Jovi telling her he had met someone else.
So now she is sitting in her wooden cabin writing to her father once again. He wants to have a photo of her and she promises to send one all in good time. It is not that there is any shortage of opportunities—there are a number of street photographers in the city and they have plenty of customers: “You nearly always see a Tommy standing up with a shamefaced defiant smile, surrounded by critical & jeering friends.” But there are cosmetic reasons for delaying the photograph. When her stove would not light she poured in a sploosh of petrol and “whizz went my eyebrows and lashes and front hair, the second time this year.” King does not want to have her photograph taken until they have grown back. She has already told her father in an earlier letter that she will probably never be able to return to an ordinary family life:
O, Daddy, I often wonder what you’ll think of me when we meet after these five long years. I’m sure I must have got awfully rough & coarse, always being with the men, & I’m not a bit pretty or dainty or attractive.
On Monday she is off to Santi Quaranta again. Nothing, not a thing, is happening up at the front—as usual.
MONDAY, 18 FEBRUARY 1918
Willy Coppens flies over occupied Brussels
Coppens has done everything it is possible to do: tested the new engine, made sure the tanks are full to the brim, got hold of a small map, packed an automatic pistol and a box of storm matches (to set light to the aircraft if he is forced down behind enemy lines), and taken his best uniform cap with him (to wear if he is taken prisoner, since one cannot just be dressed anyhow in that situation). It is a beautiful, clear winter’s morning with a blue, cloudless sky.
At 8:35 he takes off in his machine. His destination is Brussels. The city is over sixty miles away, deep inside German-occupied territory.
The purpose of the flight? There is no real purpose—as the Belgian generals have recognised, which is why they have imposed a ban on such long flights. Technically speaking, what he is planning to do is against orders and could lead to a court martial, but Coppens is prepared to take both that risk and the risk of flying so deep into enemy territory. To some extent it is just a matter of dash and élan, with the added attraction of doing something that is both dangerous and remarkable. During the night the very thought of this flight made him tremble with excitement. The flight is not just an enjoyable but empty gesture, however: the showing of the Belgian colours over a city that has been occupied for three and a half years is also a way of demonstrating defiance and a will to win—qualities that are needed at a time when weariness, uncertainty and doubt are more prevalent than ever.
Because how is it all going to end? There are probably not too many people who would bet on an Allied victory, and even the optimists coldly calculate on the war continuing into 1919. The French army has still not fully recovered from last year’s mutinies, nor the British from the bloodbath at Passchendaele, nor the Italian from the catastrophe at Caporetto. Admittedly, the Americans are on the way, but there are still far too few of them. And Russia? Well, Russia has descended into revolutionary chaos and is to all intents and purposes out of it. There are, moreover, rumours of a massive redeployment of German troops from the increasingly quiet Eastern Front to the Western.
There is also something else drawing him to Brussels—his family. He corresponds with them by letter via Holland so he knows they are alive but he has not seen them since 1914. The simple fact is, he wants to see his home town again.
Just after nine o’clock Coppens passes over the front line at Diksmuide at an altitude of 5,400 metres. Beneath him he can see two French SPAD planes flying in the opposite direction. He is in luck. The French aircraft attract the attention of the German anti-aircraft batteries. He sees how they are surrounded by clouds of smoke from the detonating shells while he is allowed to continue untouched and apparently unseen. He is by no means an expert navigator so he is intending to stick to the usual procedure and fly by well-known and obvious landmarks, which is why his route does not make directly for Brussels. He steers a course up towards Bruges until he catches sight of the mass of red roofs in the distance, and from Bruges he follows the railway line that goes down to the capital via Ghent. Immediately south of Ghent, Coppens resists the temptation to launch an attack on a German two-seater that unexpectedly appears off to his right.
Now he suffers his first tremors of apprehension. When he looks behind him he can no longer pick out his own lines, and a little while later the River Yser and even Diksmuide are no longer visible. He is utterly alone. “Alone in a fragile craft” are the words that accompany him on his way. The feeling of isolation that comes over him is so strong that he ceases looking around him and fixes his gaze on the horizon ahead—even though this seriously increases the risk of becoming the victim of an unpleasant surprise.
When he is over Aalst, Coppens catches his first glimpse of Brussels. Leaning forward and screwing up his eyes, he can pick out the huge Palace of Justice, its colossal dome sticking up above the clustered roofs of the southern part of the city. Happy but confused, he begins to sing loudly, though the words are drowned by the drone of his engine.
Coppens passes over a train chugging along down there—the first sign of life.
At 9:52 he flies in over the city.
At the Gare du Midi he goes into a steep dive and sweeps low over the roof. At that height and at that speed his flight breaks down into a series of impressions of lightning. There, on the Avenue Louise, two trams are passing each other outside a couple of light-coloured buildings; there, at the market on Place Sainte-Croix, some stallholders are throwing vegetables into the air in joy; there are the trees in the Parc Solvay and the rippling mirror of the water reservoir; there, his parents’ house, a tall white house with a red roof. Home! Coppens pulls his aircraft into a sharp turn to the right and inside one window of the house he sees the silhouettes of two women and instantly concludes that one of them must be his mother. At the rear of the house he sees the window of his own boyhood room. Through the gleaming glass he thinks he sees red curtains and something makes him think of the model aeroplane he hung on his ceiling perhaps eight years ago—it is probably still hanging there, somewhere in among the shadows.
After flying for thirteen minutes back and forth over Brussels, Coppens turns away from the city’s tangle of roofs and lanes, palaces and avenues and makes for Ghent, and then from Ghent direct to Diksmuide and the front line. In the distance the North Sea is glistening in the sunlight. He knows now that he will almost certainly get back and he feels relieved, although the feeling is short-lived:
But when I thought of what I had just done and thought of my parents I was filled with despair yet again—despair that made me shrivel up inside. I have never again experienced such spiritual pain, almost impossible to bear.
At 10:45 Willy Coppens glides in and lands at the aerodrome at Les Moëres. He sees the narrow barrack blocks and the green tarpaulin hangars, but now his “feeling of despair has given way to one of triumph” and he laughs almost hysterically as he jumps out of the cockpit. He pats the hot engine cowling of his aircraft and walks away singing.
A DAY IN FEBRUARY 1918
Pál Kelemen witnesses an accident on the mountain road at Caldonazzo
He is still stationed on the northern Alpine front in Italy, with a view out over the flat Friulian plain. When the weather is really clear it is possible to catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean as a shining line far off in the distance. Rumour says there is to be a renewed Austro-Hungarian offensive, but where are the forces going to come from? The shortage of food and munitions is worse than ever and most units are far below their nominal strength. But warmth is beginning to return.
Provisions for the elevated sector in which Kelemen is located are brought in by lorry. Great skill is required to manoeuvre the heavy, clumsy vehicles along roads that wind and snake along the precipitous mountainsides. Pál Kelemen notes in his journal:
In the beautiful sunny weather a general comes out in his automobile to inspect one of the fortifications, beside him the indispensable aide—arrogant officer of the General Staff. Their car dashes recklessly ahead with continuous sounding of the klaxon, signalling from afar to the heavy provision truck to draw aside. It turns as far off the road as possible, but still there is not room enough for the big, varnished field-grey motor car to pass. The General Staff officer leans out, shouting angrily, “Pull over, there, you swine!” And the poor swine pulls over so far that he crashes with his truck, somersaulting into the abyss.
MONDAY, 11 MARCH 1918
Michel Corday attends a play at the Comédie-Française
It is the premiere of Anatole France’s play The Bride of Corinth at the Comédie-Française in Paris. Michel Corday and his wife are, of course, present. The performance is interrupted in the middle of the second act: one of the actors steps forward to the footlights and announces that the air-raid alarm is sounding and German bombers are again on their way to Paris. Voices in the stalls shout: “Continue!”
The actors start performing again in spite of the fact that a fifth of the audience has disappeared. Corday is uneasy. He, too, would have liked to leave the theatre but is ashamed to do so in front of all his acquaintances on the balconies, so he and his wife stay. It turns into a strange experience. The sound of wailing sirens cuts through the high-flown speeches of the actors and at 21:25 the sounds of the first bombs are heard. They sound like slow, muffled drumming.
Paris has been bombed many times since the turn of the year, most recently three nights ago. The bombers—big, twin-engined Gotha aircrafta or, even bigger, huge, four-engined Zeppelin-Staakens—always made their raids after dark. The night sky was lit up by searchlights, exploding anti-aircraft shells and the silver streaks of signal rockets.
Paris is now a city with a total blackout. Once the sun has gone down people find their way around with small torches in their hands. (Criminals have been quick to exploit the situation and the number of street robberies has increased.) There are blue-painted glowlamps in the trams and in the Métro and Corday thinks that their light makes the heavily made-up faces of the street prostitutes take on the same colour as “rotting corpses.” Important buildings and monuments have been shrouded in a protective covering of sandbags and the shop windows are covered with aesthetically interesting patterns made by the strips of paper glued on to cut down the risk from shards of flying glass. After the raid of 30 January Corday saw pieces of curtain and wall-hangings and a woman’s pink stocking flapping in the trees outside a bombed-out house in Avenue de la Grande-Armée. The windows were blown out in all the neighbouring houses and servants were going round sweeping up the shattered glass and putting in temporary fixtures made of newspaper.
Because of the dark and the great height the bombs are dropped from—usually over 4,000 metres—there is no point in the aircraft aiming at specific targets. The attacks are purely terror raids, even if on a limited scale. But they are having some effect and people have started to flee from Paris. The British and the French air forces are also carrying out raids, targeting the German cities in range—Stuttgart, Mainz, Metz, Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Freiburg and Frankfurt. Apart from Dover, however, London is the most bombed city in Europe.b At first it was fleets of Zeppelins but then, in the course of 1916, when these proved not to be up to the task, heavy bombers took over. But even there the number of casualties has not been really significant—the most in one raid being 162 during a daylight raid on 13 June 1917.c These bombing raids do, however, mean that yet another important taboo has been broken: the sole target of the attacks is the unarmed civilian population. Corday considers such behaviour barbaric.
In the interval between the second and third acts, Corday and his wife find their way down to the blacked-out foyer. It is empty apart from a statue of Voltaire hidden behind a pyramid of sandbags. The interval lasts for an unusually long time: the director of the theatre is involved in discussions as to whether the performance should continue. It is decided that the show must go on, even though the raid is by no means over. “Naturally,” Corday comments sourly, for he is sure he is right in thinking that they all want to go home but are staying “for fear of being criticised by the others—who are all bursting to do the same. Pride means more than death!”
So they return to the auditorium for Act III. The raid is still going on outside when the curtain falls. The actors invite the audience to shelter in the cellars of the building. Corday and his wife follow the stream of people in evening dress down into the enormous vaults, where all of the marble busts that used to decorate the theatre are now lined up, cloaked in tarpaulins. Corday sees a uniformed man put his cap on Molière’s head. The mood in the cellar is subdued and apathetic even though the actresses try to provide some distraction by reciting poetry.
At midnight someone shouts that the bombs have stopped falling. When they leave the theatre the streets are veiled in a dense fog. The little pricks of light from the pocket torches move around jerkily in the gloom.
TUESDAY, 12 MARCH 1918
Rafael de Nogales hears the thunder of artillery coming from the River Jordan
The headquarters is housed in a large Franciscan monastery. The mood is uneasy. Is the front east of the Jordan going to hold firm? The muffled rumble of British gunfire can be heard in the distance. The situation has become so critical that all officers and other personnel whose duties are not considered vital are ordered to take their weapons and report for battle. They are driven away in lorries in the direction of the artillery fire.
It is not perhaps the best time to pay a courtesy call, as Rafael de Nogales almost certainly knows when he enters the monastery to visit the commander. But how can he resist? The man he wants to pay his respects to is a man who is more than famous, having become something of a heroic icon. Otto Liman von Sanders, Prussian general, Ottoman field marshal. Grandson of a converted German Jew. Before the outbreak of war, inspector general of the Turkish army.d After the outbreak of war, the right man in the right place when the Allies landed at Gallipoli and he, as commander of the Fifth Army, was involved in stopping what could have developed into a rapid catastrophe for the Central Powers but turned instead into an ultra-rapid catastrophe for the Entente. Someone who met the charismatic Liman von Sanders called him “a highly educated soldier with relentless energy, indefatigably active and stern with himself and with others.” Unlike many of the other German soldiers sent to the Middle East to act as advisers and commanders, he has no great problem cooperating with the Ottoman generals.e A month ago Liman von Sanders had been dispatched here to Palestine to work his famous magic once again.
And it is needed. Gaza fell in November last year, followed by Jerusalem in December—the former a great blow militarily, the latter a political and prestige catastrophe. The front now runs from Jaffa in the west to the Jordan in the east. The British are presently continuing their efforts to hammer their way out of the bridgehead north of the Dead Sea.
The distant sounds of battle increase during the afternoon. Rafael de Nogales recognises that he, too, will probably have to leave for the threatened sector. Or as he puts it himself: “I began to get ready to contribute my grain of sand.”
The phrase “grain of sand” is in itself not without interest. It is a sign that even de Nogales has at last been afflicted by the same feeling that has already led to the disillusion of millions—namely, that in his anonymity and interchangeability he has been reduced to a virtual nothing, a fleck, a drop, a mote, a particle, a thing infinitely tiny, swallowed by an enormous Something to which the individual is forced to give his all, but without his sacrifice affecting what happens in any perceptible or measurable way. That is why the decorated heroes and the famous generals are so important—they represent some hope that the opposite might still be true.
Since the Battle of Gaza de Nogales has spent his time far from the front, first in Jerusalem, where he received treatment for an ear complaint, and then in Constantinople, purely for recreation. There, one evening, while sitting at a magnificently spread dinner table, among happy people and magnolias in flower, it caught up with him, “that strange unease that la vie en salon often wakens in the hearts of those who wear a sword and boots with gilded spurs. And without knowing why, my thoughts began to travel across the seas, to my distant homeland.”
Just as de Nogales is about to set off for the front, some unexpected news comes in. The British have broken off the attack and withdrawn.
Magic. Or probably just the usual old reasons: misunderstanding, exhaustion, faulty intelligence.
SUNDAY, 17 MARCH 1918
Willy Coppens sees an insect turn into a human being
Nothing of any importance has occurred. The two patrols with three planes in each have joined forces to return to the aerodrome together. Then Coppens sees one of their pilots, De Meulemeester, suddenly throwing his plane into a steep dive. Coppens follows immediately.
Then he sees why—a slow German two-seater is below them.
De Meulemeester reaches it first, follows the rule book exactly and waits until the last minute before firing. The Belgian then shadows the German plane and continues firing salvo after salvo into his prey. Coppens follows. He sees a tail of blue steam pour out of the enemy aircraft and sees that the shots are still striking home. He sees the German plane suddenly keel over and break up. All that is left is a cloud of wreckage and debris.
Two objects emerge from this cloud of spinning and flying fragments. One of them is the fuselage, which plummets straight down, spewing black smoke. The other is the observer, still alive, falling head first towards the ground. The man is spinning slowly round in the air, slowly, his arms outstretched, like a man crucified. Coppens cannot prevent his gaze following the descent, even when the falling man shrinks to a dot, a minute dot. Time after time Coppens thinks that surely the man is going to hit the ground now, but the fall just goes on and on for what seems to be an eternity, until suddenly the dot stops.
Coppens is shaken:
The poor man! The poor man! This time, for the first time, I had seen the human being and could no longer hang on to my old feeling that it was some kind of gigantic insect I was dealing with.
When Coppens turns his aircraft round he passes the remains of the enemy plane, still drifting slowly down. A map that is floating round in the air attaches itself to one of his wing tips for a moment.
He needs “some kind of violent reaction” to shake himself free from the dreadful sight and the thoughts it has spawned. So he begins to put his plane through loop after loop, again and again. The others do the same.
THURSDAY, 21 MARCH 1918
Alfred Pollard hears talk of the German breakthrough on the Somme
The great German spring offensive began this morning. Even though they knew that the Germans had been moving masses of troops and materiel from the east, even though they had been expecting some sort of attack for a long time, it comes as a great surprise, not least because the attack is so successful. Most people had expected a repetition of the fate of Allied offensives, that is to say a slow, ultimately fruitless gnawing away at practically impenetrable defensive lines and taking heavy losses in the process. But, helped by a successful combination of stealth, an unexpected quantity of artillery and the infiltration tactics tested in Italy and the east, the German army has managed to achieve a great and unanticipated breakthrough.
Alfred Pollard writes:
The first we knew of the affair was an urgent order to pack up and be prepared to move at half an hour’s notice. It was very interesting to see the effect of the order on the various fellows in the battalion. Those who had not been up to the line before were pleased; the others were divided into two classes. Some were down in the dumps, most were indifferent; a few like myself were frankly delighted. I was definitely filled with joy. After the terribly boring months through which I had just passed the prospect of some fighting was decidedly bracing.
SUNDAY, 24 MARCH 1918
Harvey Cushing finds it difficult to enjoy the spring in Boulogne-sur-Mer
Bombs have fallen during the night. Now it is a warm and sunny spring morning and Cushing is accompanying a general who wants to study the damage inflicted by the night raid. A bomb has hit the field hospital’s stores and X-ray tubes; glass vessels and other laboratory equipment lie mixed with chemicals among the rubble that crunches beneath their feet as they walk around. The roof has been blown off but no one has been injured—not in the hospital, anyway. A little further away a number of houses have collapsed after being hit by another bomb and it is thought that there are still people under the wreckage.
They then move on to a nearby prisoner of war camp—No. 94 POW Camp—which the zealous general also wants to inspect. Cushing is interested and goes with him. When they arrive there the German prisoners are formed up outside the barbed wire in two groups of 500 or so. They are well treated, live in well-scrubbed barracks and are allowed to receive parcels from home. Some of the German NCOs have had new uniforms sent to them and they wear them on Sundays, decorations and all. They also stick rigidly to military etiquette in spite of imprisonment. The sound of heels being clicked can be heard throughout the visit. Cushing, however, is not particularly impressed by them. Even though the prisoners are obviously well nourished, he thinks they are short—even smaller than the British troops, who tend to be on the small side. He also thinks there are “few intelligent faces among them.”
The British general, too, is punctilious about the formalities. He inspects both groups, passing from man to man. The general remarks on the fact that several of the Germans are wearing big, ill-fitting corduroy coats and he pounces on a prisoner who has mended his field-grey trousers with a blue patch. He then snoops everywhere in search of anything else he can criticise. On the rubbish tip he finds some potato peelings that could have been eaten and a bone that should have been boiled up for soup. When the inspection is over the prisoners march past the British general in columns four abreast, lifting their legs high in the classic Prussian goose-step.
In the afternoon Cushing is back at the large seaside villa where he is living. The warm spring air streams in through the open window. He looks out over the English Channel and sees three destroyers heading south. He sees some “absurdly camouflaged transports” moored closer to the shore, and he sees lines of fishing boats waiting for a wind. It is ebb tide and people are walking on the dry beach below the villa, enjoying the warm sunshine and looking for mussels.
Cushing is restless and ill at ease. The great German offensive is rolling on. It is mainly aimed at the British Fifth Army, which has still not recovered from the losses it suffered during the Third Battle of Ypres last autumn. The reports, as usual, are contradictory, censorship is tight and rumours plentiful—but the British do seem to be retreating. The hospital has received hardly any wounded men at all, which is a bad sign: the Germans are clearly advancing so quickly that the British are given no time to evacuate the casualties. Shells fired from some kind of giant gun have started to crash down on Paris. Cushing and the rest of them, however, have not received any new instructions and all they can do is “sit in the sun and stroll on the sands—and wait. This is the hardest thing to do.”
He looks out of his window down onto the promenade and sees some officers sitting on a bench and playing with a child.
WEDNESDAY, 27 MARCH 1918
Edward Mousley turns thirty-two in Constantinople
Recent months have been full of variety. On Christmas Day, having been transferred to Constantinople, Mousley made an escape bid. It started well. By a mixture of bluff and good preparation he and his companions made their way along a well-reconnoitred escape route down to the Galata Bridge and sailed out into the Sea of Marmara in a boat acquired in advance by a helper. The boat contained a plentiful supply of eggs, to be used as food during their journey, but it lacked some vital pieces of equipment, bailing buckets in particular. The wind was strong, the sea running high and the current powerful. The mast broke and soon the whole escape attempt turned into a farce. Smeared from head to foot in smashed eggs, they headed for shore in a boat that was rapidly filling with water. They had no choice but to return surreptitiously to the house in which they were being held prisoner, where they managed to climb back in, sodden and covered in egg.
After that he had a nice surprise—a transfer to Bursa, a pleasant spa with famous sulphur baths. All this happened on the orders of Dr. König, his eye specialist, who had been the ship’s doctor on the battlecruiser SMS Goeben, one of the two vessels involved in drawing the Ottoman Empire into the war in 1914.f It was in Bursa that the top British generals were being held prisoner and for a while Mousley was able to share their privileges in such matters as good and plentiful food, relatively recent newspapers and considerable freedom of movement. He played a lot of chess.g Then the order came for him to be returned to Constantinople.
Mousley had hoped that this might mean he was going to be sent home as part of a prisoner exchange but yesterday he was taken instead to a notorious prison. He has just been informed that he is to be brought before a military court, charged with attempting to escape. He is locked in a small dark cell together with an Arab, a Turk and an Egyptian. When he looks through the bars he can see a long corridor, a lavatory and a burly guard walking up and down.
Today is Mousley’s thirty-second birthday and he is very hungry and not feeling well. He asks for food but no one seems in the least concerned about him. He gets hold of a newspaper but that fails to cheer him up: the German offensive in France is rolling forward, seemingly unstoppable. He writes in his journal:
My guards and gaol companions amused themselves by showing literally how Germany was now walking over the French and us. I, however, awaited the counter-offensive, if we were not too broken, and, in any case, the moment when the German advance must be outdistanced owing to the elaborate communications required for pushing on the great masses of men and materials of modern war. It was a most miserable birthday.
The only bright spot comes in the evening. Two of his cell mates start fighting and Mousley takes advantage of the confusion to slip away for a moment and leave a message with an RAF officer he knows to be in the adjoining cell.
SATURDAY, 6 APRIL 1918
Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky draws his revolver in Laval
He is fairly certain he has never come this close to shooting someone during the whole war, and the irony is that he is threatening to kill one of his countrymen. Andrei Lobanov-Rostovsky’s odyssey has continued, a journey not so much away from the security of home (even if that is the result) as away from the threat of the revolution.
It turned out that Salonica was no refuge from the troubles at home and that the tremors of the revolution were reaching even the Russian forces there, particularly after the Bolsheviks came to power. Why fight now? So Lobanov-Rostovsky continued his flight—to France, as company commander in a battalion of Russians willing to fight on, in Russian uniform though in the service of the French. (The overwhelming majority of the Russian soldiers in Salonica refused to join, forming revolutionary committees instead, waving red flags and singing the International. They had then been shipped off, closely guarded by Moroccan cavalry, to the penal servitude that awaited them in French North Africa.)
But the Russian Revolution is making itself felt even in France. Or, perhaps, just “the Revolution,” because the mood is the same all over a Europe that is tottering grey, exhausted, disillusioned and drained of blood after almost four years of war, four long years in which all promises of quick victory and all hopes of inspiring renewal have been turned into their opposites. Lobanov-Rostovsky has not been long in the big camp at Laval where the Russian troops on the Western Front have been gathered, but he can already see signs “that the soul of the battalion [is] becoming contaminated.”
Which is not really so strange. In the first place, Russia is no longer at war, the notably harsh conditions of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty between the victorious Germans and the hard-pressed Bolsheviks having been signed a month ago.h So, for the moment, Russians have no good reason to risk their lives. When the battalion arrived from Salonica the camp was already overflowing with demoralised and rebellious Russian troops, part of the Russian corps that had been stationed in France earlier. Meeting them has inevitably had an impact on the new arrivals. Moreover, Paris is not far away and the troops are easily affected by the agitation among the many radical emigrant groups in the city.
There have been many signs of unrest. During a parade a heavy bolt was thrown at the general in command of all the Russian troops in France. Whole platoons have suddenly gone on strike and, just as in Salonica, officers have received anonymous death threats.
Everything came to a head today because his battalion is to be sent up to the front for the first time. When Lobanov-Rostovsky arrives at the parade ground to inspect his company this morning, there is no one there. He is told that the soldiers have just held a meeting and decided to refuse to leave the camp. Lobanov-Rostovsky is worried and nervous to the point of cracking, but he realises that unless he does “something really drastic, everything [will] be lost.” He does not know what to do, but he gives orders for his 200 men to be summoned from the barracks. It takes a long time but eventually they are all there.
He makes a short improvised speech to his company. He tells them that he actually does not give a damn for the political side of things but, purely formally, they are now part of the French army and have sworn to fight until the war is over. And that it is his duty to ensure that the company goes to the front. Then he asks them if they are prepared to march. The answer is unanimous: “No!”
He has no idea what to do next so he waits a few minutes and asks the same question again. The answer yet again is a resounding no. His brain is working feverishly, and he is “watching the whole scene as though in a dream.”
Lobanov-Rostovsky recognises forlornly that he has manoeuvred himself into an utterly untenable position and, more from despair than calculation, he draws his revolver, a gesture which he admits afterwards was “rather theatrical.” Then he utters the following words: “This is the third and last time I am going to ask you. Those of you who definitely refuse, step out of the ranks. But I warn you that I will fire at the first man who does so.”
There is complete silence.
Lobanov-Rostovsky calculates what the worst outcome might be. Is he really prepared to shoot anyone who steps forward? Yes, having uttered the threat he cannot do otherwise. There is, however, the risk that the soldiers will simply rush him and lynch him. Such things have happened before. In that case he will use the revolver on himself. “The seconds of silence which followed I remember as a kind of hallucination. Thoughts were whirling through my head. What to do next?”
The silence lengthens. Every moment of inaction, every second of hesitation on the part of the soldiers bring him closer to victory. The men realise this and the silence gradually softens; rebelliousness turns to docility. Someone shouts from the ranks, “We’re not against you, personally, Captain.” Still with his revolver in his hand, Lobanov-Rostovsky answers by appealing to duty and to principles. The silence continues. Then he asks those willing to serve to raise their hands—and the whole company declares itself prepared to go to the front. With a great sense of relief he gives his soldiers the rest of the day off: they will depart early tomorrow.
When Lobanov-Rostovsky leaves the parade ground he is staggering like a drunkard. The ground beneath his feet is spinning. He meets a fellow officer who stares at him in consternation: “What’s the matter with you?” he enquires. “You’re green and purple.”
MONDAY, 15 APRIL 1918
Florence Farmborough arrives in Vladivostock
Early in the morning the train rolls slowly into Vladivostock. From the carriage window she can see the harbour, where there are four big warships moored, one of them flying the British flag. Florence Farmborough feels an enormous sense of relief at the sight of the Union Jack. It is as though all the tension, all the trouble and dark concerns are suddenly washed away just by the sight of that piece of cloth. She can hardly restrain herself:
Oh! The joy! The relief! The comfort! The security! Who will ever know all that this glorious flag symbolised for us travel-stained, weary refugees? It was as though we had heard a dear, familiar voice bidding us “Welcome home!”
It is twenty-seven days since they left Moscow, twenty-seven days on a screeching, snorting goods train, together with strangers, most of them foreigners fleeing eastwards, in a dirty, uncomfortable wagon designed for prisoner transports. But even though the cold has been hard to bear and even though they have sometimes been short of both food and water—for a while they had so little water that no one was even allowed to wash their hands—she has been through worse. And their well-organised foreign papers, covered to overflowing with official stamps, have helped them get past suspicious Red Guardists and despotic railway officials.
The decision to leave was in a sense inevitable. She had no work and the situation in Russia and in Moscow was becoming untenable, with famine, lawlessness and imminent civil war. Even then it had not been an easy decision to reach, and before making it she was overwhelmed by a kind of depression. One of her friends came across her one day sitting and weeping, and she could not explain why, not even to herself, since there was no simple answer. She leafed through her journal entries and relived various unpleasant scenes with a shudder or with disgust, asking herself: “Was it I—really I—who saw that? Was it I—really I—who did that?” And she thought of all the dead bodies she had seen, right from the very first, little Vasiliy, the groom in Moscow who was not even a real victim of the war since he died of a brain tumour. She asked herself, “Will they be remembered? But who could remember all those many thousands and thousands?” When she said goodbye to her friends and host family in Moscow twenty-seven days ago she had felt clumsy and cold and words had been insufficient to express her emotions.
They leave the railway carriage and make their way into the town. She can see a polyglot mixture of nationalities and uniforms on the streets. There are Chinese and Mongolians, Tartars and Hindus, Russians (naturally), British, Romanians and Americans, French, Italians, Belgians and Japanese. (Two of the large warships down in the harbour are theirs.) The foreign intervention has started and what began as an effort to keep Russia in the war is on the way to becoming a stand against the Bolsheviks in Moscow. The markets and the shops are well stocked. It is even possible to buy butter. Once she gets to the consulate she meets a helpful official who passes over £20 sent by her brother in England. Sea transport out of Vladivostock can also be expected, though he is unable to say when.
She really enjoys being able to eat white bread and strawberry jam again.
That is the day Harvey Cushing writes in his journal:
Unseasonably cold, with a high wind blowing from the north. An occasional plane struggles against it, but not many. This standing by with nothing to do but await orders is the very devil. It affects everyone alike, for we know that somewhere there is overwhelming work under which surgical teams are struggling.
THURSDAY, 18 APRIL 1918
Michel Corday overhears some card players in Paris
Yet another overcast day. The anxiety has eased a little, but only a little. The great German offensive has been going on for almost a month, but the push south towards Paris really does seem to have stopped and there has been a new series of attacks up in the north instead, in Flanders. At the same time, however, the Germans have started moving on the Oise and the Meuse.
The great topic of conversation in Paris is, of course, the giant cannon. Since 23 March the French capital has come under fire almost daily from some sort of special artillery piece, which can hurl its projectiles for eighty miles from a well-camouflaged position behind the German lines—a distance so sensational that the experts initially doubted its veracity.i The random bombardment (now here, now there, at a rate of two or so an hour), in combination with news of the rapid German advance initially caused something close to panic in the French capital.
Corday writes in his journal that the atmosphere reminded him for a while of the situation in August 1914. Every conversation began with the same anxious question: “Have you heard anything?” Stations were overflowing with people trying to find room on a train and the queues stretched right out into the streets. The banks were crowded with depositors seeking to withdraw their money for fear that it would all be lost if the Germans marched in. About a million people have left Paris by this time, seeking refuge in towns such as Orléans, the population of which has tripled at a stroke. Trade has diminished noticeably—firms dealing in luxury goods have been particularly hard hit and been forced to lay workers off.
Corday has noticed that most of those leaving the city do not want to appear cowardly and put forward a string of excuses to justify their flight. There is a joke doing the rounds: “No, we aren’t leaving for the same reasons as all the rest. We are leaving because we are frightened.” He feels he can sense a great deal of hypocrisy, not just in the furtive duplicity of motives for fleeing but also with regard to the type of people who are running away. According to Corday, many of those now leaving Paris have previously been vocal supporters of the war, exhorting others to “Fight to the bitter end!” Now that they are finally in real danger themselves they have immediately taken to their heels. (Corday also has the impression that it is the upper and middle classes who make up the bulk of the evacuees. They have the necessary resources to get out and the contacts that make it easier to do so.)
It is the very uncertainty of the situation that nourishes the fear. What is actually happening? Strict censorship—even of letters and postcards—increases the sense of living in a no-man’s-land between the fixed and the fluid, a twilight zone in which it is no longer possible to rely on what the press claims or the official communiqués state. In many ways these two media have merged anyway, and nowadays it is forbidden to claim in print anything that contradicts what is stated in a military announcement. Even what is said face to face may be punishable, and anyone claiming in conversation that the Germans are closer than the authorities maintain, or that enemy resources are probably greater than is officially admitted, may be charged with “alarmism.” It is forbidden, for example, to discuss where the shells of the giant cannon landed or what damage they caused—to do so can lead to fourteen days in gaol.j Prosecutions usually result from intelligence provided by informers. A regiment of civilian volunteers has been set up to eavesdrop on conversations on the street and call the police if they hear anything unacceptable. Telephone conversations, too, are listened in to. Today Corday notes some of the warnings recently issued in his ministry:
On such and such a day at such and such an hour someone from the office telephoned the prefect in Amiens and the latter answered that the situation was critical and that the British, as usual, were in flight. An utterly reprehensible conversation.
Extension such and such at your office rang a lady, number such and such, and asked what the situation was like. Inappropriate expressions were used during the conversation and this must not happen again.
Since the bombardment of Paris began Corday has noticed yet again how strong people’s need for normality is—and how double-edged their talent can be when it comes to constructing everyday normality even in extreme conditions.
When the shells begin to fall, the police raise the alarm all over Paris by going round blowing their whistles and beating on small drums. This leads to more ridicule than disquiet (blowing a whistle and beating a drum simultaneously is more difficult than might be imagined) and street urchins, housewives and passing soldiers tend to laugh at them. Then the distant explosions come and Corday, who had never heard shells exploding before, describes the sound as “hollow, hard and echoing.” He reports that when a shell landed one morning those nearby calmly continued beating their mats and that the sound of the mats being beaten drowned out the echo of the explosion. One of his friends did not even hear the explosion because the Algerians who have taken over the city’s refuse collection were making so much noise emptying the rubbish bins.
Corday is horrified by the reactions: “Fifty metres away from the disaster people carry on buying and selling, making love and working, eating and drinking.” A shell landed on the church in the Place Saint-Gervais during the Good Friday Mass. The church was full, since prayers were being offered for the many men who had fallen in the hard fighting of recent weeks. Seventy-five people were killed when the church roof collapsed.k On this occasion Corday was in the Métro and when he came up to street level at the Madeleine station a woman he did not know told him what had just happened. “Several young men sitting on a balustrade by the station entrance carried on swapping loud jokes.”
Corday is sitting in a café today. There are four men at one table, playing cards and commenting on the bombardment of the last few days:
I choose clubs … fourteen were killed … Trumps! … and forty wounded … Hearts! … women, too … Trumps! Trumps and one of spades!
SUNDAY, 19 MAY 1918
Willy Coppens shoots down his fifth observation balloon
The weather is beautiful. This morning Willy Coppens is flying towards Houthulst, where he knows there is a German observation balloon and he is planning to shoot it down. If he succeeds it will be his fifth kill, and five kills is the Belgian air force requirement for a pilot to be called a flying ace. There is a small flight of aircraft from his squadron keeping him company to protect him from German fighters. (An attack on a balloon is visible from a great distance; the sky will quickly fill with shell-bursts from anti-aircraft batteries and enemy aircraft will immediately rush to the scene to protect the balloon.)
They reach the front line at Diksmuide, where they see a flight of enemy aircraft heading south. Coppens and his escort turn towards them but the German aircraft seem to have no interest in a fight and just continue on their way. He sees the balloon. Puffs of smoke from the anti-aircraft batteries begin to blossom in the sky.
At 9:45 Coppens dives at the balloon and shoots it down in flames.
As soon as he lands he is immediately surrounded by the other pilots wanting to congratulate him. Not only the pilots: all the jubilation attracts some of the squadron’s many dogs, among them the fox terrier called Biquet, the Alsatian called Malines and Topsy the cocker spaniel. Later that day Coppens and another of the pilots in his squadron are summoned to the headquarters in Houthem, where the commander of the Belgian air force officially congratulates him on having achieved the status of air ace. When Coppens returns he joins another patrol over the front lines at about half past six.
That evening his name is mentioned in the official Belgian press communiqué for the first time. Coppens is very proud and excited since he knows that the statement will not only be posted everywhere behind the front lines but will also be published in the foreign and the domestic press. He goes to De Panne and mingles with the people standing studying the latest communiqué and he tells of the “childish pleasure” he felt on hearing the soldiers reading it aloud and coming to his name—his name! “But that was in the beginning, before I got blasé and before I became well known.”
The same day Richard Stumpf sees a warship being decorated for Whitsuntide. He notes in his journal:
The little vessel Germania, which belongs to the munitions depot, anchored close to us. Her highest masthead was decorated with a large bundle of birch cuttings. Fresh green branches had also been tied along her rails and superstructure. I thought to myself that these people haven’t lost their sense of beauty even after four years of war. Otherwise why would anyone risk his life by climbing right up to the masthead?
THURSDAY, 23 MAY 1918
Harvey Cushing buys sugar in London
The hospital is situated at 10 Carlton House Terrace, close to Pall Mall and with a view over St. James’s Park. The fashionable address reveals that this is a private institution, solely devoted to the care of wounded officers and founded by a rich patron, in this case an upper-class Englishwoman, Lady Ridley.l Cushing has come to visit an acquaintance, the airman Micky Bell-Irving, who is being treated here.
Cushing is in London on official business. He is to meet a number of high-ranking people involved in the organisation of British military medical care in order to discuss close coordination of resources relating to the treatment of neurological disorders. He was certainly not sorry to leave Boulogne-sur-Mer. The second German spring offensive—up in Flanders—has fortunately ebbed away and there is an uneasy calm at the front. But German air attacks have continued undiminished. The night before Cushing left for England was bright, moonlit and cloudless and Boulogne-sur-Mer was heavily bombed.
London is proving to be a confusing experience for Cushing.
In spite of the fact that the end of May is approaching, the city makes a grey and depressing impression. There are invalids everywhere. Most people seem to be longing for peace and there seems to be a general feeling that at least the war would have been over if the United States had not come in. And the mood has become much more open—the notorious British reticence has disappeared. Londoners have repeatedly come up to Cushing in the underground or on the street, obviously drawn by his American uniform, and politely offered him assistance or started explaining things that did not need explanation.
There are some food shortages in London, particularly of sugar and of butter, as Cushing has discovered. When he had breakfast in his hotel this morning he was served French bread with two small pats of some kind of unappetising, crumbling margarine, and there was no sugar for his coffee. At the same time, however, in a shop intended for American troops, he was able to buy two pounds of sugar for just a couple of pennies. His purchase was given to him discreetly wrapped in a box that had originally contained “Fatima’s Cigarettes” and he gave it away immediately to an English acquaintance. Everything is available as long as you have enough money and the right contacts. Cushing does not think the general level of health has deteriorated, however, since people are eating less and walking more and “their minds are probably the clearer” for it.
Cushing enters the ward where his friend is being treated. Micky was injured not in combat but while he was practising aerobatics. He had looped the loop several times and executed a number of rolls when one of the wings suddenly broke and the plane spiralled down from about 5,000 feet. By some miracle, he survived, though seriously injured. One of his legs was so badly smashed that the surgeons had no alternative but to amputate it.
Micky is sitting up in bed clutching his stump with his hands. He is having appalling phantom pains in the amputated limb and is heavily drugged, but he greets his visitor with his usual friendliness and charm. So it takes a while for the American to realise that the drugged man in the bed has no idea who his visitor is. Cushing finds this distressing and writes in his journal later that Micky is “now a suffering wreck—death would have been less bad.”
THURSDAY, 30 MAY 1918
René Arnaud makes his way back to his regiment at Villers-Cotterêts
Arnaud’s leave finished four days ago and he left Paris to rejoin his regiment and the company he now commands as a recently promoted captain. Rejoining them proves to be easier said than done as the regiment has been moved east, in the direction of the new German breakthrough. A couple of days ago the third phase of the German spring offensive opened, this time with massive attacks on the devastated old battlefields around Le Chemin des Dames. And, once again, the Germans have had considerable success: they have taken almost 50,000 prisoners and 800 artillery pieces and are moving with worrying speed towards the Marne, only sixty miles from Paris.
Arnaud has been following the same procedure for three days in succession. In the morning he leaves Paris by train for wherever the regiment was last located, only to find that it has moved on, so he is back in Paris by the afternoon, his mission unsuccessful. It is clear to him that the army high command does not really know what is going on and is trying by means of repeated chess-style moves to gather enough reserves for a counter-attack.m When he arrives at his destination today he hears that his regiment is still there, at Villers-Cotterêts. He hitches a lift in a butcher’s van for the last section. Arnaud does not fail to see the irony in this.
MONDAY, 3 JUNE 1918
René Arnaud leads an assault on Mosloy
He wakes with a jerk. There are trees around him and beside him is Robin, his lieutenant. “They are bombarding us.” German 7.7cm shells are landing around them. Short, loud cracks. He and the rest of the company hurriedly leave the copse in which they have spent the night and run for some buildings less than a hundred metres away. Fortunately for them many of the enemy projectiles turn out to be duds that fail to explode, a phenomenon that is becoming more and more common.
Down in a cellar they find the officer in command of the battalion holding this sector. Arnaud and his men have actually been sent to relieve a company in a different battalion, indeed, in a different division, but they got lost during the night and are not really sure what to do now. Once again, it is defensive combat that awaits them.
He thinks he can see signs in the French army of “a strange mixture of being on the way to losing control and on the way to regaining it.” There are many indicators of crisis. Soldiers who have “lost contact with their regiments” are a common sight on the roads—he has heard the expression so often he is sick of it. An acute shortage of foot soldiers has meant that cavalry units have been hurriedly converted into infantry, something the ordinary soldiers view with malicious and ill-concealed joy since the men in the mounted units have been enjoying a comfortable life behind the lines up to now, waiting serenely for the promised but never realised French breakthrough.n The mood of shock and surprise that reigned a week ago has, nevertheless, begun to ease and the French army is gathering itself for a counter-attack. But panic is still lying just below the surface.
Arnaud explains the situation to the major down in the cellar, telling him they are lost and that he is therefore putting the company at his disposal. The major thanks him. The conversation is then interrupted by a fat sergeant major coming rushing down the steps:
“Major, the Germans are attacking with tanks.”
“Bloody hell,” the major exclaimed. “We’d better get out fast.”
And with a quick movement, quite natural if hardly heroic, he grabbed his belt and his revolver, which were lying thrown on the table—but then he remembered me:
“Well, captain, since you’re here, mount a counter-attack!”
“But … in which direction, mon commandant?”
“Counter-attack, straight ahead!”
“Yes, mon commandant.”
Within a few minutes Arnaud’s company is formed up in two lines with twenty metres between them. And off they go. He has been drilling his unit the whole winter. It has not been easy because many of the men are older, timid, inexperienced and untrained, men who have spent the greater part of the war in safe positions far behind the front line and who would have been permitted to remain there if it were not for the acute shortage of conscripts. Arnaud sees the lines advancing in excellent order and he feels pleased—it is almost as though they are on the training ground.
The company rushes forward, all of them take cover, wait, move on, throw themselves down again. At the third rush he sees that two men out to the left remain prostrate and do not accompany the rest—they are under fire. “Down, all men down!” They all stop. Arnaud scans the ground ahead. They are lying on the crest of a long slope and can see all the way down to the river. There are no enemy soldiers in sight. But yes, further away, under a tree, he sees the square shape of a German tank. It shows no sign of moving. Arnaud decides that enough is enough:
An inexperienced officer newly arrived at the front with his head full of prescribed theories would probably have assumed he should continue advancing, which would have led to the majority of his men being killed for nothing. But by 1918 we had enough experience of the realities of the battlefield to stop ourselves in time. The Americans, who had just left the front line close-by, at Château-Thierry, did not have this experience for obvious reasons and we all know the enormous losses they suffered during the few months they were active.
Arnaud hands over command to one of his warrant officers (Lieutenant Robin has been wounded in the arm) and goes back to make a report. He has carried out his orders.
As evening approaches they are relieved and sent to rejoin their regiment.
Arnaud hears later that there is a new duty waiting for him: he is to take command of the battalion since the major who had been in charge earlier has been wounded. The account of this, as given by the man bearing the message, is as follows: “That bloody heap of shit got a tiny bit of shrapnel in his hand and pushed off straightaway. The cunt—the wound wouldn’t even have stopped my son going to school.”
SUNDAY, 23 JUNE 1918
Olive King is awarded a medal in Salonica
It is a hot day and full of disappointments. Olive King knows that she is to be decorated again, this time with the Serbian Gold Medal for exemplary conduct, and that the ceremony is to take place at about ten o’clock. Making a reasonable estimate that she will be in time if she gets up at nine, she stayed up until 3 a.m. writing a report. (She is working hard on setting up a canteen for the underpaid and sometimes undernourished Serbian drivers she works with.) But she is woken up at six o’clock by someone pounding on her door and by a small face peeping in through her window and telling her she is expected at the garage. She takes a quick bath to wake herself up and sets off.
The ceremony does indeed take place at ten o’clock. A colonel makes a long speech in which he praises her contributions, after which he pins the round, gleaming gold medal on her chest. King notices a little box lying on the table alongside and thinks for a moment that yet another distinction is in the offing. But no—that is disappointment number one. At about half past eleven the next disappointment occurs. Artsa, one of the Serbian drivers, has promised to help her explain the sketches of the planned canteen to the Serbian engineering troops who are going to build it. But no—he fails to turn up as agreed. Having had no time for breakfast because of the morning rush, she is hungry and decides to have lunch. But no—the woman who services her cabin arrives unexpectedly to do the weekly cleaning and King has to stay there. Things improve somewhat in the afternoon and when the post arrives she is hoping for a letter from her father. But no …
Disappointments large and small. Apart from a few minor battles nothing has yet happened on the Salonica front. Breaking the deadlock is out of the question, especially now that 20,000 French and British troops have been shipped off to France to counter the renewed German offensive there. (Rumour has it that the Bulgarians, not the Allies, are planning an offensive down here—that is what some deserters from the enemy camp have said, anyway.)
Olive King is worn out, cross and irritable. She is longing to go home. She has been working here for thirty-three months without a break and without leave, but it is not just the monotony of Salonica and the trivial everyday setbacks that are wearing her down. Another love affair has come to nothing. Grief-stricken after the break with Jovi, she rebounded to another of the Serbs she works with, the said Artsa. Their romance became serious and he proposed to her, but her father forbade her to marry the young man. She obeyed him—apparently with no great resentment.
Something within her has come to an end. Thus, in an earlier letter, when she suddenly became ideological—contrary to her usual custom—and started preaching geopolitics and the aims of the war with a tremor in her voice, it is not too difficult to sense that the sermon is ultimately directed at herself. An attempt to plug the haemorrhage in her soul with words:
Apparently there are still millions of people who have no notion of why Germany went to war. They have a vague notion that she wanted an outlet to the sea, & so walked over Belgium. She does want Belgium, & Holland too, but not in the same way that she wants Serbia, to join up with Turkey. The only way to save the British Empire is to support the Jugo-Slav dream of unity, to put a strong, friendly state where it will be a perpetual barrier to the “Eastern Push.”
It is now evening and Olive King is sitting in her little wooden cabin with all the doors and windows open. It is hot and close. The cooling wind of the last two days has suddenly died down and she is “fed-up & weary of everything tonight.” She drips eau de cologne on her feet and blows on it, feeling how the moisture evaporates with a short, cool caress.
SUNDAY, 30 JUNE 1918
Harvey Cushing discusses the future in Paris
Outside—a wonderfully warm and beautiful summer’s day. Inside—gloomy. It is the man in front of them who is spreading all this darkness. His name is Édouard Estaunié and he is a fifty-six-year-old author who won some success with his psychological, social-moralising novels just before the war. (He belongs to the same generation as Marcel Proust and is sometimes named in the same breath as Anatole France and Louis Bertrand.)o The house is silent and empty. Estaunié has sent his family away, away from the almost nightly raids by German bombers and away from those long-range guns.
Cushing, too, has become thoroughly familiar with the bombing raids. When he and a colleague were coming here a few days ago, their journey on the Métro was disrupted by an air-raid warning. A little later they were able to watch the attack from a balcony at the Hôtel Continental, which had a view out over the Tuileries: “Gothas—lights—shrapnel—the explosion and flame of an occasional bomb—a small fire—a pitch-black Paris.” And they crossed the Place Vendôme, where the pavements were covered in slivers of glass and the facades of the building pockmarked by shrapnel. But it is not these attacks, which have been going on for months, that have made Estaunié so depressed as he sits at his desk. They may have contributed, but what really depresses him is the overall state of the war.
The third German offensive since the end of March, north-east of Paris this time, began little more than a month ago. The Germans demonstrated yet again that they can break through the Allied line wherever they please and this time they surged forward faster than ever. Just two weeks ago the Germans came to a halt and they are now no more than forty or fifty miles from Paris. Everyone is expecting them to start moving forward again and the capital of France will be their next objective.
Cushing is taken to visit Estaunié by a colleague by the name of Cummings. The three men talk about nothing but the war. Estaunié is horrified and depressed by the destruction of several big and beautiful French towns during recent months: “First Reims, then Amiens, now Soissons, soon Paris.” Estaunié genuinely believes that Paris is about to fall, and he is convinced that the only thing left for them to do is to fight one final, heroic battle: “Better to go out against the enemy and lose 40,000 men than to lose them in a retreat like the last one.” Cushing and Cummings try to argue against that—the army must be preserved at all costs, so that it can continue to fight. No, replies Estaunié, look at the Belgian army or the Serbian: they have been preserved but their countries no longer exist. France will also go down but she will go down fighting to the last man. C’est effroyable.
The two Americans keep trying to come up with a counter-argument and suggest that they themselves represent one such: the American army in France is steadily growing in strength. Cushing has heard that it now has fifty or more divisions, 750,000 men, in France and with the help of reinforcements on this scale it should surely be possible to halt the German assault. And then there is the lethal influenza that has just started spreading up in Flanders—rumour has it that it has already affected the enemy armies severely. But it is difficult to make any impression on the Frenchman’s despair. Then Estaunié becomes philosophical: in the struggle between justice and barbarism throughout history, barbarism has always triumphed.
With pessimistic Gallic prophecies ringing in their ears Cushing and Cummings go sorrowfully out into the blazing summer sun. Finding themselves within walking distance of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and other famous buildings, they spend the whole afternoon walking around Paris, eager to see as much as possible, eager to imprint it all on their memories. Both of them have a feeling that they might be looking at all this for the last time.
A SUMMER’S DAY, 1918
Paolo Monelli on life behind the wire in Hart
He has tried to escape twice, the first time only ten days after arriving at the castle in Salzburg. And twice he has been recaptured.
Some people have settled into captivity, determined to remain there until the end of the war. Monelli, however, is withering away in this grey and melancholy world of pettiness. He feels he is locked into an eternal, unchangeable, hateful present. Monelli is twenty-six years old and it is as if he is being robbed of his youth. Perhaps it is already lost. He daydreams a great deal, remembers a great deal, pines a great deal and conjures up pictures of his life in peacetime, images of simple everyday things that are now impossible, unthinkable even, like walking along a pavement wearing newly polished shoes, or drinking tea in a café with female acquaintances. He thinks about women a lot. There is a high level of sexual frustration among the prisoners. The food is bad and there is little of it, so hunger lurks dangerously close all the time.p He is in Hart now, which is his third camp. They live in long barracks, stifling and fly-ridden in the hot summer sun. Over beyond the barbed-wire fence they can glimpse a rural idyll with the scent of new-mown hay, and somewhere beyond the blue-green mountains on the horizon lies Italy. Monelli finds boredom one of the hardest things to cope with:
And today is like yesterday. Nothing changes. Today like yesterday like tomorrow. Reveille in the gloomy dormitories, evening inspection to make sure it is all dark and, bracketed between those two points, a meaningless existence in which people have stopped thinking of the future because they no longer dare to consider it, an existence that hangs there monotonously on the hooks of a few unchanging and frustrating memories.
The stamping and tramping in the endless corridors of the linked barrack-block, where the only light comes from skylights in the roof and one is sometimes attacked by a nightmare that says that we are already dead and buried, that we are nothing but restless corpses that leave their graves for a short conversation with other dead men in the exercise yard. Hatred of the comrades whom the Austrians have forced you to become close friends with, the miasma of humanity, the dreadful stench of five hundred inmates, a hungry and egotistical herd, twenty-year-old bodies condemned to masturbation and inactivity. And it is not that I think I am any better than them even though I can produce the odd grain of wisdom now and then and even though a lively conversation with friends about past battles can still enliven and comfort me through the humiliations of the day.
Even I have learned to play chess; even I will sometimes press myself against the diamond patterns of the barbed-wire fence as an expression of my desire for passing women; even I will reluctantly hand over my kilo of rice to the communal pool as if it was an obligatory contribution. And who knows, even I might stoop to borrowing that pornographic book from a fellow-inmate.
TUESDAY, 16 JULY 1918
Edward Mousley writes a sonnet on a hill above Bursa
It is as if there are two people competing for space in his mind. Or perhaps it is no more than the usual old conflict between reason and emotion.
One part of him senses that the war has reached a turning point. It seems that the Germans will not get any further in France, and Germany’s allies (the Austro-Hungarians, the Bulgarians and, not least, the Ottomans) are showing every sign of war weariness. Mousley himself is doing fairly well. He has convinced the Ottoman military court to find him not guilty of attempted escape! He was helped by his own background as a law student specialising in international law and by his tactic of mounting an aggressive counter-attack when in a tight corner. He is now back among the captured senior officers in the spa town of Bursa where, under close supervision, he is permitted to go fishing and watch football.
One part of him is filled with despair as he sombrely watches the best years of his life trickle away in captivity.
Today Mousley is once again on his way to take the waters and, as usual, he is accompanied by an armed guard. It is a hot day and Mousley feels unwell and tired. They walk up one of the hills that surround Bursa. The view is magnificent, particularly of the high mountain, Kesis. After a while Mousley realises that he is not going to reach the bath before it closes and so he sits down by the roadside. There he writes a sonnet:
One day I sought a tree beside the road
Sad, dusty road, well known of captive feet—
My mind obedient but my heart with heat
Rebelled pulsating ’gainst the captor’s goad.
So my tired eyes closed on the “foreign field”
That reached around me to the starlight’s verge,
One brief respite from weary years to urge
Me to forget—and see some good concealed.
But skyward then scarred deep with ages long
I saw Olympusq and his shoulders strong
Rise o’er the patterned destinies of all the years
Marked with God’s finger by the will of Heaven—
Tracks men shall tread, with only Time for leaven—
That we might see with eyes keen after tears.
“But,” he admits when he ponders on this lyrical outburst later, “these moments were few.” He then adds in the slightly pidgin language he has adopted during his years in captivity: “And the pressure of existence and shikar [hunt] for food and money, and general bandobast [organisation] of plots and plans and pots and pans engrossed much attention.”
FRIDAY, 26 JULY 1918
Michel Corday looks at the women on a windy street in Paris
Corday is sitting on the train to Paris in the morning. Following his usual habit he is eavesdropping on the other passengers in the compartment. Someone says, “We are advancing everywhere!” A French lieutenant holds up that morning’s paper in front of an American soldier, whom he does not know and who probably does not understand French, points to the bold headlines and says, “Excellent!”
A civilian gentleman is bubbling over with delight at the latest military successes. In the middle of the month the Germans began yet another offensive on the Marne but it has been stopped in its tracks by determined Allied counter-attacks. And now the enemy has ceased attacking and withdrawn back across that infamous river. The wild German bid to win the war with one knock-out blow has come to nothing. The failure is obvious to everyone, especially to all the armchair strategists in civilian suits. The result of the German gamble has been to make a number of dents in the Allied front line—dents that look impressive on the map but are vulnerable in practice. Corday hears an enthusiastic gentleman explaining the new and unexpected situation at the front to a somewhat doubtful captain:
“I’m telling you, there are 800,000 men on their way there at the moment.” The captain demurred uncertainly: “Are you sure of that?” The other man replied: “800,000, I promise you. Not a man less. And we’re going to capture the whole bloody lot of them!” He leaned back and let his finger follow the operation on the map printed on the front page of the paper: “Look! There … and there … and there!” The captain was convinced. He said: “They really are thoroughly beaten! How they must hate it! Put yourself in their shoes …”
That same day Michel Corday hears about the death of a woman who ended up stranded behind the German lines in Lille at the beginning of the war. She succeeded in later rejoining her husband, who, when he heard her “praising the chivalrous behaviour of the German officers,” murdered her with a cut-throat razor. Now he has been acquitted.
Later that day Corday and a friend are walking on a street in Paris. There is a strong wind. His friend is in an excellent mood, having received good news that morning from his son, who is an ensign in the army. And his friend’s mood is further improved by seeing the wind pulling at the skirts of the women out walking. The war has changed everything, including women’s fashions. Over the years, for reasons that are more practical than ideological, colours have become more muted, the material simpler, the designs more suited to work and an active life. And the changes have been thoroughgoing, affecting what is not seen as well as what is seen: the complicated and lavishly decorated undergarments that existed before the war have disappeared and been replaced by smaller items with less artifice, again designed for an active life. The almost obsessive curviness, inherited from the nineteenth century and requiring stiff corsets that restricted movement, has fallen out of fashion. Lines have become straighter and skirts have never been so short—and never have they been made of such thin and light material. The women on the street are having to struggle to preserve their modesty in the strong wind. There is a young woman walking in front of Corday and his friend. A sudden gust lifts her skirt to her waist and Corday’s friend smiles contentedly.
SUNDAY, 28 JULY 1918
Elfriede Kuhr is working at the children’s hospital in Schneidemühl
They do what they can. When the babies cannot get any milk they give them boiled rice or porridge or just tea. When there are not enough real nappies, as is frequently the case, they use a new sort made of paper. They are not very good—the paper sticks to the babies’ skin and it hurts when the carers take them off.
Ersatz, everywhere ersatz. Substitute coffee, fake aluminium, imitation rubber, paper bandages, wooden buttons. The inventiveness may be impressive but the same cannot be said for the resulting products: cloth made from nettle fibres and cellulose; bread made from flour mixed with potatoes, beans, peas, buckwheat and horse chestnuts (which only becomes palatable a few days after being baked); cocoa made from roasted peas and rye with the addition of some chemical flavouring; meat made of pressed rice boiled in mutton fat (and finished off with a fake bone made of wood); tobacco made of dried roots and dried potato peel; shoes soled with wood. There are 837 registered meat substitutes permissible in the production of sausages, 511 registered coffee substitutes. Coins made of nickel have replaced coins made of iron, tin saucepans have replaced iron pans, copper roofs have been replaced by tin roofs and the world of 1914 has been replaced by that of 1918, in which everything is a little thinner, a little less solid, a little less substantial. Ersatz: pretend products for a pretend world.
Elfriede Kuhr is working in the children’s hospital in Schneidemühl. It took her some time to get used to the work there, to suppress her feelings of nausea at the sight of blood or pus or bedsores or of heads covered in scurf. Almost all the children are suffering from malnutrition or have a disease that is in some way attributable to it. (Their inadequate diet a result partly of the successful British blockade of Germany and partly of the fact that the German agricultural and transport systems are being ground down by the almost superhuman war effort. Even when food is available there are no trains to transport it.) There is a sense in which these children are just as much war victims as the men killed at the front. Or the children who went down with the Lusitania. Child mortality in Germany has doubled in the last few years.r Many of the little ones have been handed in by their mothers, young soldiers’ wives who have reached the end of their tether:
Oh, these babies! Just skin and bone. Little starving bodies. And how big their eyes are! When they cry it is no louder than a weak little whimper. There is a little boy who is bound to die soon. He has a face like a dried-up mummy. The doctor is giving him injections of cooking salt. When I bend over his bed the little one looks at me with those big eyes that remind me of the eyes of a wise old man, but he is only six months old. There is clearly a question in those eyes, a reproach really.
Whenever she can, she steals real nappies so that the little boy does not have to have those dreadful paper things.
Elfriede gets up at six o’clock in the morning, starts work an hour later and then works until six in the evening. Her brother Willi has been called up and is a private in the air force. At the moment he is still undergoing training. When she met him after he had joined up she thought he looked dreadful in his uniform and wearing a peculiar lacquered hat. Worst of all was seeing him standing at attention, rigid, absolutely still, hands pressed against the seams of his trousers, his eyes fixed on some point in the far distance. It was just like when she had played at pretending to be Lieutenant von Yellenic, but this is for real and much better—and much, much worse. The last time Elfriede met Willi was on his birthday, a fortnight ago. On that occasion he said to her twice: “Everything’s going to rack and ruin.”s
TUESDAY, 6 AUGUST 1918
Pál Kelemen meets some American prisoners of war in Arlon
He is living comfortably in a two-storey building with his own bedroom, his own living room and his own entrance. It seems to be an apartment built to be rented out, but who would take their holiday in this part of Belgium? As a symbolic gesture of cooperation and gratitudet the Austro-Hungarian army has sent four divisions and a number of their famous 30.5cm mortars to the Western Front. Pál Kelemen belongs to one of these divisions. The train journey from Friulia took eight days, across the dreadful, empty battlefields on the Isonzo, up into Austria (“cities, cultures, women, but everywhere the thousandfold symptoms of the fatigue of war”), through Germany (where he saw the heavily bombed and panic-stricken city of Metz), past Luxembourg and across the Belgian border to the little town of Arlon. The place was under heavy artillery fire when the train rolled into the station. He was afraid.
Arlon has been occupied for four years and the German occupiers have done their best to impose a kind of normality on the town, but without success. Shops, hotels and restaurants are open as before but anyone can see that life is far from normal—even if you ignore the most obvious signs, such as the bombs dropped during air raids and the shells from long-range guns that continually plummet down, killing Germans and Belgians alike. In the first place, the town dies at exactly eight o’clock every evening, the curfew being upheld with Prussian precision and the blackout being absolute. This is as different as it is possible to be from the carefree Austrian approach with its charm and its inefficiency: here strict discipline is the rule. In the second place, there are virtually no men here apart from the very old and the very young and the omnipresent Russian prisoners of war who make up the labour force. The men of Arlon either are away in the Belgian army or have been sent to Germany or elsewhere as forced labour. The Germans try to make full economic use of this and other occupied regions. There are women to be seen everywhere.
This ought to suit Kelemen, who has a great love of women, but he has quickly recognised that there is an unsurmountable barrier between him and the Belgians. The civilian population shows no respect for the occupiers and as far as possible even avoids looking at them. And if for any reason they are spoken to or faced with questions the locals simply pretend not to understand, and they do so with eyes and gestures full of scorn and defiance. In the hope of ingratiating himself a little with the woman who owns the house he is living in, Kelemen has tried to explain that he is a Hungarian, not a German, and that the Hungarians have frequently fought against the Germans throughout history. But the woman simply pretends not to understand. In Arlon itself he has already noticed “a charming young girl” and when he saw her standing in an open window a few days ago he immediately rode up and began conversing with her in French. He had hardly started his flirtation before an older woman appeared and drew the girl inside. It turned out she was the daughter of Arlon’s chief of police—and he had been imprisoned by the Germans.
The fourth German offensive since March opened in the middle of last month, this time on the Marne, but it seems to have gone the way of all the others: initial major and rapid successes and significant Allied losses, which German propaganda blared out in bold headlines and in the triumphal tones of church bells, followed by a gradual slowing down of the advance as a result of supply problems and the tougher resistance put up by swiftly assembled Allied reserves. The involvement of American units is also becoming increasingly apparent. These new arrivals are fighting with a thoughtlessness bordering on nonchalance, utterly contrary to the new insights into military tactics gained in recent years, and they have consequently—and quite unnecessarily—suffered huge losses. But their sheer numbers are tipping the scales, all the more so since the aim of the German offensives was to achieve a decisive result before the Americans became seriously involved. Since three days ago, the German units have been roughly back where they started.
Arlon lies close to the sector of the front where the latest offensive took place and the Austro-Hungarian units are intended to be reinforcements for the German front line. Today, for the first time, Kelemen sees a small group of American prisoners of war being led past. He finds the sight more than a little demoralising and notes in his journal:
Their amazingly good physical condition, the excellent quality of their uniforms, the heavy leather in their boots, belts and such, the confident look in their eyes even as prisoners, made me realise what four years of fighting had done to our troops.
On the same day Harvey Cushing writes in his journal:
After three days in bed with a N.Y.D. [not yet diagnosed] malady which I regarded as the Spanish flu—three days grippe—or what you will. This came on top of two rackety days around Château-Thierry, getting back home supperless, cold and wet, in an open Dodge at 1 a.m. I had suddenly aged and our driver had to help me upstairs—teeth chattering and done in …
SATURDAY, 17 AUGUST 1918
Elfriede Kuhr looks at a dead baby in Schneidemühl
A summer’s night. Warmth. He is dead now, that little boy of six months who had been Elfriede’s favourite. The emaciated child died in her arms yesterday: “He simply laid his head, which seemed much too big for his skeletal body, on my arm and died without as much as a rattle or a sigh.”
It is now three o’clock in the morning and Elfriede is going to look at his body once more. It is still lying in a bed covered with a net, a bed that has been rolled out into the corridor where it is a little cooler. She has put freshly picked wild flowers around the thin little corpse but the effect is not particularly successful. “Unfortunately, lying there surrounded by the flowers he looked like an ancient dwarf who had been dead for hundreds of years.”
As she stands there looking at the body, a faint sound suddenly rises from the bed. It is weak, a dull, muffled buzzing, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, sometimes not there at all. Puzzled by the noise, Elfriede bends forward. Yes, it is coming from the bed. Surely not … She looks and listens and realises to her horror that it is coming from the dead boy. But there is no way he could have come to life, is there? Yet the sound could be from his little lungs. She bends further forward—yes, it is coming from his half-open mouth. He must be trying to breathe.
She plucks up all her courage, takes hold and forces the boy’s jaw open to give him more air.
And she immediately recoils as a large blowfly crawls out of the boy’s mouth.
Feeling sick, Elfriede chases it away.
Then she ties the net back round the bed—tight, really tight.
SATURDAY, 24 AUGUST 1918
Harvey Cushing studies frozen hands in Salins-les-Bains
It has been raining almost all day. The journey up the hill is long and hard but is worth the effort. The view is breathtaking, as is the landscape, which is completely untouched by the war. Cushing is part of a small delegation visiting Station Neurologique No. 42, which is housed in the old hill fortress in Salins-les-Bains, south of Besançon.
Cushing is here for purely professional reasons. The army has many neurological hospitals and No. 42 specialises in a particular kind of brain disorder—the sort that results in frozen hands and lame feet. The first of these is of particular interest to Cushing. All the army doctors are familiar with the phenomenon: men whose hands are locked in a kind of permanent cramp, frequently twisted back towards the forearm in impossible-looking positions. A kind of origami of the muscles, yet rarely is there any physical damage to the extremities affected. They have, so to speak, simply frozen solid. Cushing is amazed at the variations and the French doctors have even developed a typology: main d’accoucheur, main en bénitier, main en coup de poing and so on.
The affliction often develops after a long period in bandages or in traction, but a different background is also well recognised. The defect frequently affects men who have received a small—indeed, often trivial—wound on the battlefield but who are afraid of being sent back to the front. Their brains, consciously or unconsciously, appear to be overriding the wound’s insignificance, worsening its effects.
The treatment consists exclusively of psychotherapy and it is being led by a captain called Boisseau. He is very skilful and Cushing watches in amazement as Boisseau treats a newly arrived “self-deformed” soldier and carefully coaxes the man out of his deformity using words alone. In one room there is a small display of sticks and crutches and corsets and calipers that were used by ex-patients.
The treatment is not guaranteed to succeed. In the village at the bottom of the hill is a barracks to which the patients are sent on discharge. There they are divided into three groups: (a) fully recovered and fit for service at the front, (b) uncertain cases, (c) permanently ill. Cushing and the rest of the delegation watch the first group march past in full battle kit. One of the French neurologists notices one among them who is suffering a relapse and the man is immediately pulled out of the ranks to be sent back to Station Neurologique No. 42, where, after three days in isolation, the therapy will be tried again: “One mind struggling to get control of another that has good reason to resist.”
They drive back to Besançon in the pouring rain. Later one of their guides invites them to supper.
SUNDAY, 1 SEPTEMBER 1918
Willy Coppens is confined to bed with a cold
The heat of August is past. It has been an eventful month. Willy Coppens has added to his list of kills by shooting down six more German observation balloons, his speciality. (He has made twenty-seven kills since the start of the year.) He knows the dangers, having returned home several times with holes punched through his aircraft by bullets and shell splinters. The rips are mended with white patches that stand out against the garish light-blue of his Hanriot machine. Just over a week ago he came close to being shot down by a German plane that had sneaked up on him.
Coppens is in a slightly strange frame of mind for all that. On the morning of 10 August he shot down three balloons in the space of an hour and a half, and
while the flight lasted, all this success, allied with the sense of having escaped from danger, was exhilarating but as soon as I landed and was back in the company of the squadron, the combat which had filled me with such excitement a moment before lost much of its meaning. The joy died away and weariness and tedium took its place.
When they are not flying, their lives are characterised by the restlessness of youth. He and the other pilots are always on the lookout for fun—arranging parties, going to restaurants and to the theatre, playing tennis on the court they have built for themselves at the airfield and devising an endless string of practical jokes. The most recent of these involved telephoning another squadron and tricking the man who answered into believing that King Albert was coming to visit.
Today Coppens is confined to bed with a cold. This is unusual since all the time they spend out in the fresh air and at a high altitude seems to give them a resistance to minor ailments. He is reading a letter from his father, who is still in occupied Brussels. Coppens writes:
The letter was phrased in the usual highly inventive language we used for this purpose but, reading between the lines, I could tell that he had heard of my latest successes against our hated enemy. But in one sentence, in which he advised me to be careful, I sensed his fear that I would push my luck too far and see it turn against me. Was that a somewhat prophetic apprehension as well as a natural one?
TUESDAY, 10 SEPTEMBER 1918
Elfriede Kuhr is reading a letter from her mother
Autumn has arrived. Most of the street lights are turned off because of the shortage of gas. They have run out of potatoes. Elfriede’s grandmother has caught the flu that is going round and spends most of the time lying on the sofa. The brother of one of their neighbours has just had a leg amputated. Elfriede’s brother has been given a job as an army clerk. And Elfriede has killed off her pretend alter ego, Lieutenant von Yellenic, because she thinks she is now too big for games of that kind. (She and Gretel gave him a proper funeral. Lieutenant von Yellenic lay in state wearing a cardboard Iron Cross, the ceremony being accompanied by the tones of Chopin’s Funeral March and concluded with a final salute from three paper bags that Elfriede blew up and burst. Gretel wept inconsolably.)
Elfriede received a letter from their mother today, addressed to her and her brother:
Children, this autumn is making me depressed. It’s raining, it’s pouring down and it’s cold. And can you believe it—I’ve lost my ration card for coal. The first thing I have to do tomorrow is to contact the coal merchant. Fortunately, he likes me and won’t leave me in the lurch. The soul-destroying work at the office is starting to wear me down and I’m longing for freedom and music. But who’s interested in studying music in the current situation? If it wasn’t for faithful Fräulein Lap coming for her evening lessons the piano would be utterly silent. I shudder at the sight of the empty music rooms. Everyone in Berlin is calling for peace, but what kind of peace is it going to be? Is it something we can honestly look forward to? We will lose everything if we are defeated. Our brave soldiers! Dear Gil, dear Piete,u keep your fingers crossed for poor Germany! All this blood must not be allowed to have been shed in vain!
MONDAY, 14 OCTOBER 1918
Willy Coppens is wounded over Thourout
If Coppens had known that he was going to take part in a dawn patrol he would have gone to bed earlier. The lights were out and everything was quiet when he arrived back on his motorcycle at about midnight and read the orders for the coming day by the light of a match. He realised he would have to get up much too early.
Now it is five o’clock and he has had no more than four hours’ sleep. Coppens knows why they have to rise so early: the Belgian army is going on the offensive this morning in order to increase the pressure on the already hard-pressed Germans. The decisive moment cannot be far away.
The problem is that the weather is misty, overcast and grey. The aircraft have been rolled out of their green tarpaulin hangars but you can hardly see them in the darkness. It is not light enough to fly; not yet, anyway. So they wait.
At 5:30 the artillery away to the east of them opens fire and the flashes of the guns melt into the thin red haze of the rising sun. Coppens has never heard artillery fire of such intensity on this sector of the front. He turns to the man alongside him and says, “Could this be the end of the war?”
One of the staff officers comes up to them at 5:35 with an emergency call from the front lines—they are to destroy the observation balloon at Thourout. The Belgian artillery is being subjected to a very accurate counter-barrage and the German observer directing the fire is almost certainly in the saucisse hovering in the air a little behind the enemy lines. Balloons of this kind, anchored by steel cables and equipped with a basket from which one or two observers telephone their observations down to the ground, are used by all the armies. They are a favoured aid for the artillery, but infantrymen hate the sight of them and they provide a welcome if dangerous target for airmen. The “sausages” are protected by clusters of anti-aircraft batteries and it is actually more difficult than people think to set fire to the hydrogen-filled bags. It takes courage and it takes special projectiles, in the form of either incendiary ammunition or rockets.v A successful outcome is by no means guaranteed.
At 5:40 Coppens takes off in his patched light-blue Hanriot. He has a new pilot, Etienne Hage, as his wingman. The cloud cover at an altitude of 900 metres is unbroken and both Coppens and Hage fly 100 metres below it. The sun has risen but is only just beginning to penetrate the grey October haze as the two airmen fly towards the front in semi-darkness.
As they approach the lines of trenches Coppens sees that they will have to deal with not one balloon but two. One of them is hanging at about 500 metres over Thourout as expected, but a second is going up over Praet-Bosch—it has already reached an altitude of 600 metres and is still rising.w Coppens knows from experience that in a situation like this the lower balloon should always be taken out first because the men on the ground start winching a sausage down as soon as it comes under attack, and now that the Germans are using motorised winches the procedure can be a fairly rapid one. There is also the point that once an observation balloon is at a low altitude it becomes easy for the anti-aircraft batteries to hit an incoming aircraft—in which situation it becomes suicidal to continue with the attack. (British fighter pilots, for instance, will generally never attack a sausage at 300 metres or lower.)
Hage, however, is inexperienced and eager. Coppens is steering towards the Thourout balloon but Hage gets his aircraft in front and thus forces him to attack the higher balloon over Praet-Bosch first. Hage follows suit, leaving the Thourout balloon unmolested for the time being.
At six o’clock Coppens fires his first short burst. He sees the skin of the balloon catch fire and so starts to turn towards balloon number two. Fire spreads slowly in this raw, damp atmosphere, however, and Hage fails to see that the balloon is burning and turns back to attack it again. Coppens is uncertain what to do. He sees that they are already winching down the Thourout balloon and from the corner of his eye he catches sight of some aircraft he is unable to identify. They could be enemy planes. He cannot leave Hage on his own so he goes back and is just in time to see the Praet-Bosch balloon flare up and crumple in flames before spinning down to earth.
Now, at last, both pilots steer towards the Thourout balloon.
The balloon is descending rapidly and by the time they arrive it is already below 300 metres.
Nevertheless, Coppens flies through a storm of exploding anti-aircraft shells and swaying streams of tracer. He is so low that he can hear the “evil barking” of the machine guns, a sound usually drowned out by the noise of the aircraft engine.
Seconds later, at 6:05, he is close enough to open fire. A moment later he feels a violent thump on his left leg and a white wave of pain washes through his body. The shock is so powerful that his right leg shoots out involuntarily, pressing the right rudder pedal to the floor and throwing his aircraft into a downward spiral. Heaven and earth change places again and again. At the same time a spasm of cramp locks his hand on the control stick’s trigger and bullets spurt from the spinning, twisting aircraft.
The pain in his leg eases a little and with a great effort Coppens succeeds in pulling out of the spin. His left leg is no longer obeying him—it is hanging lifeless and he can feel the blood pumping out of it. (He learns later that a tracer bullet had penetrated the cockpit floor and struck the lower part of his leg, ripping open the muscles and severing the shinbone and the artery.) He can, however, still use his right foot to control the rudder, since the pedals are linked.
Coppens now has only two thoughts in mind. Firstly, he must reach his own lines—he does not want to be taken prisoner; secondly, he must not lose consciousness because if he does he will crash.
Although dizzy with pain and blood loss he rips off his goggles and his leather helmet and stuffs them inside his jacket. He then unwinds the silk scarf that acts as a muffler around his face to protect him from the cold. Cold is what he needs just now. Cold to keep him awake.
And it works.
After crossing back over the Belgian lines he crash lands in a small field by a road. Soldiers rush up to help him and in their eagerness to get him out of the bloodstained cockpit they literally tear the plane to pieces.
Along with two wounded soldiers, Coppens is taken by ambulance to the hospital in De Panne. Weak from blood loss and lashed by pain, he feels as if the bumpy journey in the ambulance is never going to end. He knows the road since he and his friends have travelled it countless times on their way to or from the pleasures of De Panne. As he lies in the windowless ambulance he tries to work out where they are and how much longer the journey is going to take.
At 10:15 the ambulance brakes to a halt outside the Hôpital de l’Océan and he hears the driver shouting that the famous pilot Willy Coppens is dying. He is carried in on a stretcher and while waiting for the doctor he sits up and manages to wriggle out of his leather jacket. That is the last clear memory he has.
After that unconsciousness, fever, ether and chloroform combine to leave only images of a floating, dreamlike kind: operating theatres and white-clad doctors; a tall, slim figure bending over him and pinning a medal on his chest; a man greeting him with a drawn sword and reading aloud from a communiqué. And the thirst, the constant thirst that always accompanies blood loss.
Afterwards he remembers “these dreadful days and never-ending nights” with horror. Even a week later it is still uncertain whether he will survive. His left leg is ruined and has to be amputated.
My general condition deteriorated and my courage was failing. I no longer had the strength to resist. Being anaesthetised on the operating table every day gradually wore my system down and I became—in spite of all the care I was being given—a nervous wreck.
He sometimes suffers from a depression that is “far too terrifying to be put into words.” The nights are the worst.
TUESDAY, 15 OCTOBER 1918
Alfred Pollard collapses outside Péronne
It has been a very unpleasant train journey and he feels cold all the time, even with a blanket to keep him warm. On top of it all, he has a splitting headache and when he does manage to grab a few short and restless snatches of sleep his mind is full of “strange nightmares.”
Pollard is on his way to the front. He wants “to feel once more the thrill of ‘going over the top.’ ” That is what he is telling himself. The German army has begun a general retreat and the end seems to be near. But it is not just the excitement of battle that is pulling him, he feels it is a matter of self-respect for him to be there at the deciding moment.
His year has been filled with a variety of tasks behind the front line, most recently selecting active soldiers from the many uniformed non-combatants cluttering the baggage train and the rearward areas. For every man in the trenches there are fifteen or so more involved in various supporting roles, not least in the business of keeping those at the front supplied with rations and ammunition. But the losses the British army has suffered are so great that the shortage of men in the front line has become acute. (France is also having to deal with the same problem and, out of necessity, the French army is now beginning to call up ever younger conscripts—they are filling the ranks with seventeen-year-olds.) The men who have been selected and whom Pollard has to train are anything but willing: they range from people with mild physical handicaps through to convicts who have been freed in order to fight—there are no fewer than eleven convicted murderers among his men. Pollard imposes strict discipline and is a hard taskmaster. The uniform he wears is tailor made.
The news that his unit is on its way to the front again has led Pollard to request leave from his duties in the training camp and he is now on the train to Péronne, where he hopes to be met by someone from the battalion. He is so cold that he is shaking and he is still being plagued by unpleasant fever dreams.
He gets off the train in Péronne a few hours after midnight. It is a cold and starry night. There is no one to meet him at the station so he leaves his batman to guard the luggage. The town is empty, silent, blacked-out and feels almost deserted. It is little more than a month since Australian troops recaptured it. Pollard makes his way out of the town and heads east, steering by the stars. He is bound to reach the front sooner or later and then he will find someone who can tell him where his battalion is positioned.
Pollard’s steps become more and more unsteady. He falls over and has trouble getting up. He is ill. He has caught the influenza that is affecting so many people all over Europe, indeed, over the whole world. The disease originated in South Africa but has been called “the Spanish flu” or just “the Spanish.”x The road through the night gets narrower and narrower, or is it that his legs are no longer obeying him properly? He is waging what is to be his last battle, a battle between a body that is growing weaker and a spirit that will not accept the fact—the same spirit that has led him to risk his life time after time, in spite of the enormous risks and the unfavourable prospects. Pollard’s feverish brain fills with “strange fancies.”
He falls down again and when he tries to rise he steps instead “into an abyss.” His last memory is of falling and of the fall having no end.
SATURDAY, 26 OCTOBER 1918
Edward Mousley witnesses a bombing raid on Constantinople
Mousley hears the sound of the explosions at about two o’clock in the afternoon. Bombers. He and the others in the large hospital run outside to get a better view. The sky is blue. Seven fast-moving aircraft fly in over Constantinople, followed by a tail of clouds from exploding anti-aircraft fire. The planes drop bombs here and there. Clouds of white smoke rise above the muddle of roofs, pinnacles and towers. Mousley notes with pleasure that the war ministry seems to have been hit.
The aircraft turn in perfect formation (they remind him of a flight of game birds), sweep over the Golden Horn away towards Beyoğlu, drop some bombs on the Galata Bridge and a few at the German embassy. Then they turn again and swoop down towards the main railway station, which lies right by the hospital. A machine gun set up in a neighbouring garden opens fire and its sharp chattering joins in with the distant thump of the anti-aircraft guns. A few more bombs sail down. One of them hits a barracks.
The puffs of smoke from the anti-aircraft guns continue to follow the planes as they move around but none of them is hit. Finally, the guns stop their barking and the smoke clouds are dissipated by the wind. An Ottoman plane takes off to attack the raiders. Several Turks standing alongside Mousley point with obvious pride to the solitary plane. Two of the seven raiders break out of the formation and head for the Turkish fighter. Machine guns rattle high in the blue sky and a few seconds later it spins down to earth. The seven raiders then disappear westwards.
Some hours later Mousley is told the results of the raid. In material terms the damage is insignificant. A Turkish colonel is said to have been killed. But the effect on morale is much greater. As well as bombs, the seven aircraft dropped leaflets giving a detailed account of the successes and failures of the various warring parties. Perhaps most importantly, the raid has shattered once and for all the grand sense of invulnerability that has reigned in Constantinople. The city is in a state of shock. Mousley writes in his diary:
When one realises how slender was the official hold that kept Turkey in the war over many crises, how indifferent provincial Turkey was about entering, and how averse to continuing for the sake of Germany, one can realise how air propaganda and attacks would have brought before them the meaning of this war.
He hears later that the anger stirred up by the raid has not been directed at its perpetrators—the British—but at Germany. Germans have been attacked in Beyoğlu and angry women have been threatening German officers with knives.
WEDNESDAY, 30 OCTOBER 1918
Harvey Cushing hears a young captain telling his story in Priez
Whatever it is that is wrong with Cushing will not go away. Ten days ago he admitted himself to hospital, reluctantly, even though he knew he was in a bad way. Cushing was giddy, had trouble walking, even found it difficult to do up the buttons on his clothes. He is in hospital in Priez and he is now recovering. He is spending his convalescence reading novels, sleeping, chasing flies and making toast at the little open fire.
Even though his body is still failing him his mind is as alert as ever and the professional in him is finding it hard to tolerate the lack of activity. One of the patients in his corridor is a young captain, a fellow American, and Cushing has learned to understand the young man’s stammering speech and to recognise the sound of his shambling, jerky footsteps. The young captain is said to be suffering from some kind of shell shock. Cushing’s own doctor in Priez knows of his interest in this kind of disorder and he has allowed Cushing to sit in when he is having sessions with this patient.
Today both doctors have carried out a final interview with the stammering young captain and Cushing then summarises the case in his journal.
The patient, referred to as B, is twenty-four years old, a clean-cut, fair-haired young fellow, of medium height and well built. He used to play American football. B does not indulge in alcohol or tobacco and he comes from a good, sound background. He has been in the National Guard since 1911, was stationed on the border during the war with Mexico in 1916, enlisted in 1917, was promoted to ensign eight months later and arrived in France with the 47th Regiment of Infantry in May 1918.
B has been transferred from one of the forward military hospitals to Priez to receive treatment for his serious psychosomatic problems. Apart from a couple of minor wounds (including burns from mustard gas) he was physically uninjured when he left the front line on 1 August, but he was suffering from severe visual and motor disturbance. B himself insisted that all he needed was rest, and a mild degree of force was necessary to bring him to the hospital. When B reached Priez he was blind and could scarcely walk.
As a recent arrival in France, B had been seconded to various units in the front line to observe and gain experience, which meant that he was quickly involved in combat. In May he took part in the British retreat on the Somme; at the beginning of June he was with the Marine Corps when it was given its baptism of fire in Belleau Wood; in the middle of July he was attached to a French unit defending itself against repeated German assaults.
At the end of July he was sent by lorry with his own regiment to the front to the west of Reims, where the French and the Americans were mounting a counter-push. The idea was that the regiment would act as firefighters, to be sent in wherever the attack was getting bogged down. On the night of 26 July they drove through a gas-filled wood and towards morning were dropped off to join an attack that was already under way. Since he was only a lieutenant, B knew nothing about the plan. This was his unit’s first real battle and they had scarcely reached open ground before they came under heavy fire. The lieutenant colonel and one of the majors were seriously wounded and the other major and B’s captain were killed soon after. This meant that B suddenly found himself the senior officer in the battalion.
In this chaotic situation, a general unknown to B “appeared from somewhere,” pointed his finger and said, “You’re to cross a river over there and take a town called Sergy.” The battalion was already tired after the night’s march and shaken by the heavy fire but B formed it up for battle. They advanced through a field of waist-high wheat under heavy German artillery fire, crossed the river (which proved to be hardly wider than a stream) and went on into Sergy. By about ten o’clock in the morning they had cleared the enemy out of the town. Later they came under a very heavy preparatory barrage and the German infantry mounted a counter-attack.
And so it went on. Attack alternated with counter-attack and in the course of five days the little town changed hands nine times. Time after time the battalion was driven out of the town back to the narrow river and the little mill that B had selected as a combined headquarters and dressing station. Time after time they counter-attacked and recaptured Sergy. They had started the battle with 927 men and twenty-three officers and towards the end of the fifth day they were down to eighteen men and one officer—all the rest were dead or wounded.y Cushing notes:
B. admits he was getting rather fed up. He was acting as gas officer, for many of the men were suffering from bad burns and all had been more or less gassed.z Then as intelligence officer—in other words, as a runner, once or twice by day and two or three times by night, always in the open—a necessity, since lines that he got over to the 168thaa were soon blown to bits and there was no one at the 168th P.C. who could read flash messages; there was no communication at any time with the rear. Also as medical officer, directing the getting in of the wounded, always under fire, back to the mill; he did two leg amputations himself with a mess-kit knife and an old saw found in the mill. One night they had sent back 83 wounded men on improvised litters.
When sufficiently quiet, the nights had to be spent in searching their own and the enemy’s dead for food and ammunition. They once got down as low as twenty rounds of cartridges, and much of the time they used Boche rifles and ammunition—also Boche “potato-masher” hand grenades, which caused at first a good many casualties among the men, for they were timed at three or four seconds instead of four or five like ours. The Boche food was good when they could find it—sausages and bread and Argentine “bully.”
The least fatigued men had to be used to get in the wounded, for it was an exhausting process, since they often had to be dragged along a foot or two at a time, as occasion offered. Many men with three or four wounds continued to fight—had to, in fact—and a sound man and a wounded man often fought together, the latter loading an extra gun even when he might not be able to stand. Their only protection was to get in shell holes.
During these days B. saw for the first time a case of shell shock, though he did not know what was the matter with the man—thought he was yellow. Every time a shell would land near, he would race to shelter, shaking and trembling; but he always came back and got to work. He simply couldn’t stand the explosions. They were all pretty shaky from the almost constant artillery fire—high explosive alternating with gas of one kind or another. Many of the men still fighting had mustard burns.
But almost the worst was a “rotten-pear” gas which made them sneeze and often vomit in their masks, so they had to throw them away and take a chance. Everyone was more or less affected, and marksmanship was poor from lachrymation.
On Monday B. was quite badly stunned by a high-explosive fragment which struck his helmet—like getting hit in the temple by a pitched baseball. Men often thought they were wounded—would feel a blow on the leg, perhaps, and see blood and a tear, but on slipping off their trousers would find only a bruise, the blood having come from a neighbor’s wound.
The patient tells Cushing and his colleague that they were relieved at sunset on the Wednesday. Even though they had scarcely slept in six days they were forced to march all night and it was not until lunch the next day that they could halt. They were then given hot food and a sympathetic lieutenant colonel forced the men to lie down and sleep.
B himself did not get any rest. He discovered that his code book was missing so he borrowed a motorcycle and rode back to Sergy. He found his code book there in his uniform jacket, which he had folded up and used as a cushion under the head of a wounded man. The man was dead but the code book was still there. Just as B was about to leave the place he found a wounded man who had been forgotten down by the bank of the river. B tried to carry him across the stream but came under fire. The wounded man was shot to pieces and B himself took a violent bang. Dazed, he found the motorcycle and rode away, still under fire.
When he got back people noticed at once that something was wrong. B was shaking and stammering and even found it difficult to sit down. They gave him some whisky to drink and poured ice-cold water over him. Nothing helped. B was feeling extremely ill, was vomiting, suffering from a severe headache, heard whistling in his ears, felt dizzy and began to see a yellowish mist in front of his eyes. He was afraid to go to sleep because he had got it into his head that he would be blind when he woke up. His memories become incoherent after that.
Towards the end of the conversation they ask the patient how he is feeling at the moment:
“The chief trouble now is the dreams—not exactly dreams, either, but right in the middle of an ordinary conversation the face of a Boche that I have bayoneted, with its horrible gurgle and grimace, comes sharply into view, or I see a man whose head one of our boys took off by a blow on the back of the neck with a bolo knife and the blood spurted high in the air before the body fell. And the horrible smells! You know, I can hardly see meat come on the table, and the butcher’s shop just under our window here is terribly distressing, but I’m trying every day to get more used to it.”
The patient wants to get back to the front to take part in the great final offensive, but he is in no condition to return. Cushing notes the twenty-four-year-old captain’s diagnosis: “psychoneurosis in line of duty.”
SUNDAY, 3 NOVEMBER 1918
Pál Kelemen hears of the abolition of censorship in Hungary
It is as good a sign as any other. He is sitting eating lunch in the officers’ mess in Arlon when an officer in the supply corps comes rushing in with panic in his eyes. It seems that official censorship has been abolished in Budapest and the newspapers can now printanything and everything! They get hold of copies of the latest editions that have arrived in the post and see that the front pages are demanding in bold type that Hungarian troops should immediately be brought home. “Put an end to the bleeding in foreign lands for foreign purposes.”
The divisional commander immediately issues an order that all mail should be searched and any newspapers confiscated. The news might well have a disastrous effect on fighting spirit—which is already shaky. No sooner said than done. The post is gone through with a toothcomb but no more newspapers are found.
The officers watch tensely for any sign that the news has reached the men but there are only a few “slight incidents” during the afternoon. A few copies of the newspapers turn up during the evening, however—no one knows how or where they come from—and they are passed around the barracks. “Reading aloud to one another laboriously by candlelight, men and non-commissioned officers everywhere discussed only the contents of the papers.”
MONDAY, 4 NOVEMBER 1918
Richard Stumpf and five critical moments in Wilhelmshaven
Autumn air. Grey weather. He dresses in parade uniform in honour of the day. Then he and the rest of the crew go off to demonstrate. The attitude of the officers suggests that the sailors might well end up being victorious. The mood has undergone a decisive change. The old Wilhelmine self-confidence has vanished into thin air and those in command are confused, awkward and despondent. After some lame, almost symbolic protests, the crew is permitted to leave the ship. “I can’t stop you,” the first officer says meekly to Stumpf.
A week ago the whole High Seas Fleet got ready to sail out and give one final heroic war cry, but mutiny broke out on several of the ships.bb Richard Stumpf thinks he knows what happened: “Years and years of injustice have been converted into a dangerously explosive force that is now coming to a head.” Refusing to obey orders has become an everyday event. Just a week ago Ludendorff, the Supreme Commander, left his command and rumour has it that the Kaiser will soon follow suit and abdicate. A lieutenant on board one of the ships has been killed.
There is a powerful wave of disappointment, rage and frustration sweeping across Germany. It is not just a result of weariness with all the injustice, the war, the high prices and the food shortages, it is also a result of the fact that German propaganda has consistently (and with considerable success) concealed problems and inflated expectations.cc The height from which people’s expectations then plummeted was great, much too great. During those beautiful summer weeks of 1914 public opinion allowed itself to be whipped up to such a frenzy that it “transformed all the circumstances of life in such a way that they could only be expressed in terms of heroic tragedy, of a superhuman, even sacred, struggle against the forces of evil.”dd This meant that for years anything other than total victory became unthinkable. Now, however, in utter disillusion, public opinion has swung to the dark and bitter opposite pole.
Stumpf himself, as ever, feels divided. He thinks it is a pity the war has been lost but, then, perhaps it was impossible to win it right from the start. He welcomes the fact that the day of reckoning has come but finds it disturbing that those who shouted loudest in support of the strong men of the war are now the very people shouting loudest for them to be sacrificed. Perhaps there is an element of bad conscience mixed with his malevolent pleasure. The sense of drama is great and is increasing day by day but he himself feels remarkably unmoved: “I am living through it all without any strong inner emotions.”
The mass of uniformed men moves along the quay towards the barracks, which is guarded by armed sailors. What will happen next?
As the demonstrators approach the armed men the latter welcome them with shouts of joy and three cheers. People are pouring in from all sides and the crowd, its numbers growing by the minute, moves on. What is to be done? Now and again someone stops, tries to hold up the procession, tries to give a speech and get a decision made. There is confusion all round. Finally they agree to march to SMS Baden, the flagship of the High Seas Fleet, to try to get its crew to join them.
That is where the first of the day’s critical moments occurs:
A verbal duel was fought between the ship’s captain and a number of spokesmen for the demonstrators. The prize was the crew of the Baden, which was standing lined up on the upper deck. If the captain had been any sort of competent speaker our spokesmen would have had to withdraw without winning over a single man. But both the officer, who was deathly pale, and the seamen’s council made a rather poor job of it. The result was that about a third of the crew joined our ranks.
The growing host pushes slowly and tentatively on. The march does not have any particular goal, nor is there anyone in particular leading the demonstration. Stumpf and a couple of others fetch their musical instruments and the sounds of the old military marches spur the procession on to move rather more quickly along the quaysides. And the music attracts more people to join them.
The second critical moment occurs on Peterstrasse, where the street is blocked by a platoon of forty armed men under the command of a lieutenant. But the soldiers show no inclination to use their weapons and go and join the demonstrators instead. “It was very funny to see the lieutenant when he suddenly realised he was all on his own.” The crowd pushes on, still driven more by collective instinct than by any clear thought.
At a big, locked gate stands a solitary, elderly major. With his pistol drawn he tries to stop the flood of people. This is the third critical moment. But the outcome is more or less inevitable. The gate is lifted off its hinges in an instant and the major is forcibly disarmed. Some men also try to tear off his epaulettes, after which the officer is just swept along in the mass of people. Stumpf cannot help feeling sorry for the old man “who courageously tried to do his duty.”
There are now perhaps 10,000 men gathered on the big parade ground, where one speaker after another mounts an improvised platform. The messages vary from exhortations to stay calm and orderly to “the most ridiculous demands”—which are, however, met with storms of applause. Stumpf is convinced that the mood is such that virtually any idea at all would be able to win approval.
Then the great host sets off again, with the people of the town watching guardedly from behind closed windows. Any passing women are greeted with “coarse comments and whistles.” A red flag—a coloured bedsheet—flies above the sea of heads and shoulders. They cross the Deichbrücke over the Ems-Jade Canal and arrive at the torpedo boat division. This is the fourth critical moment. The torpedo boat crews applaud them but do not come ashore to join the demonstrators. The explanation follows immediately: “We’re having lunch at the moment.” Lunch, indeed, and many of the men begin to talk about food. “We moved on in nervous and aimless haste.”
The finale comes outside fleet headquarters. This is the last critical moment. The results of negotiations with Admiral Krosigk, the local commander, are to be announced here.
There is absolute silence as a man climbs up on a large statue in front of the building. Admiral Krosigk has given way on all points: “Our demands have been accepted!” There is applause and rejoicing. It is all about things like improved rations, better conditions for leave, the formation of special committees to supervise military courts, an easing of discipline,ee the freeing of the men arrested at the start of the mutiny. Someone shouts: “Down with Kaiser Wilhelm!” The speaker chooses to ignore this. A dockyard worker with what Stumpf describes as “a classic Apache face” steps forward and demands the formation of a “Soviet republic.” Applause. The first speaker then exhorts them all to go back to their posts. Laughter.
The demonstration breaks up and they “all head in the direction of the nearest canteen.”
WEDNESDAY, 13 NOVEMBER 1918
Pál Kelemen is demobilised and returns to Budapest
Dusk. The clickety-clack of the joins between the rails. The train journey continues. It started some days ago when the staff and the last soldiers in the division entrained in Arlon late at night by the light of pocket torches. Since then they have trundled along jerkily and unsteadily, with many inexplicable stops. Through Belgium, through France, through Germany, through Austria. The officers are travelling separately in a special passenger carriage right at the front; the men and the equipment are in ordinary goods wagons.
In Germany they were treated “as if infected with plague.” Just as they were during those last days in the west, when the German authorities were trying to prevent the rebellious and homesick Hungarian troops from infecting those elements of the German army still in fighting condition. Discipline, which had already been showing signs of crumbling, has completely broken down during the journey. This is largely due to the effects of alcohol: most of the soldiers are very drunk, loud-mouthed, happy and aggressive. Every now and then there is a crackle of shots as soldiers fire their weapons into the air in joy or intoxication.
When they are about to cross into Austria the train is stopped by German officials who demand that they hand over any military equipment, probably to prevent it falling into the hands of the many Austrian revolutionary groups waiting on the other side of the frontier. There could have been some nasty scenes here since the drunken and combative soldiery refused point-blank to give up its weapons. The situation was defused when the Germans satisfied themselves with taking the horses, the kitchen wagons and things of that kind. (When they crossed the frontier and were met by “unshaven, ill-clad, excited civilians with armbands,” there was nothing left for them to grab but the divisional typewriters.)
Once they are in Austria the mood becomes more exhilarated and more threatening. At each and every station soldiers hop off, usually filled with relief, at the same time as others hop on, usually filled with alcohol. There has also been more shooting during the last night and day. Theft and threatening behaviour is becoming more and more overt. On his journey to Budapest Kelemen is being accompanied by Feri, his batman; Laci, his groom; and Benke, one of the orderlies. These three help to protect him and have even arranged for his luggage to be hidden in the locomotive’s coal tender.
Darkness falls. Lights sweep past outside the windows. Celebratory yells and gunshots can be heard from the goods wagons further back. The train stops and remains at a standstill. The soldiers are becoming more and more impatient and they fire burst after burst through the open doors of the wagons. Some of them are starting to cluster round the officers’ carriage, which is now half empty; they shout, wave their fists threateningly and demand money for wine. Shots crash out and the glass in the windows is shattered, the shards and slivers tinkling down onto the floor. Before anything really serious can happen the train jerks into motion and the troublemakers have to hurry to scramble back aboard.
Gradually the housing outside the sooty carriages begins to get denser as they enter the suburbs of Budapest. At about twelve at night the train stops very briefly at a small station in Rákos and Kelemen and his three companions seize the chance to get off. The relief he feels at being back in his home city is short-lived: a railway worker warns him that everything is in a state of chaos and people calling themselves revolutionaries are running round the streets, looting shops and ripping the badges of rank and medals off returning officers, and robbing them of any other possessions they have.
“Deeply depressed” and with his military insignia concealed under his cloak, Kelemen walks out of the little station and searches the dark, silent, empty streets for any kind of transport. He just wants to take his things home with him—his saddle, his firearm, his sword and all the other things he has been carrying round since 1914. After searching for an hour he manages to find a horse-drawn cab which is on its way back to the stable.
With his luggage stowed away under the seat, Kelemen and his companions are driven into the city and reach his parents’ house at four o’clock. He rings at the main gate. Nothing happens. He rings again and again. At last the porter appears and approaches cautiously and guardedly across the dark inner courtyard. Kelemen shouts his name, opening his cloak at the same time to show his badges of rank. The porter greets the little group “whispering excitedly” and unlocks the heavy barred gate to let Kelemen and the others slip through.
They take the goods lift up to the kitchen entry. Since he does not want to wake his parents, Kelemen beds down in the clothes closet in the hall.
* This is not unusual: in 1918 Austro-Hungarian anti-aircraft batteries on average achieved one hit for every 3,000 rounds fired, which was considered a quite respectable strike rate.
† Corday does not explain the motives behind these measures.
‡ Much of the responsibility for this may be attributed to the Russian Bolsheviks. Since 9 January the Russian delegation had been led by Leon Trotsky, who had been playing a carefully prepared (and transparent) waiting game. He expressed his negotiating strategy for dealing with the Central Powers with the kind of sophistry that was all too typical of him: “Neither war nor peace.” It is hardly surprising that this slogan enraged his German military counterparts. It should also be said that a civil war was breaking out in newly independent Finland at this point: “White” and “Red” Finns began fighting against each other in a war that was also to some extent a sideshoot of the main war. This was partly because it was the main war that made independence possible and partly because German units gradually began to provide significant support for the Whites while Russians sided with the Reds.
§ The story—often quoted—that he wrote it in twenty minutes in May 1915 while sitting in the back of a little ambulance, overwrought after attending the burial of one of his friends, is sadly untrue. As is the story that he threw it away at first but a colleague rescued the crumpled piece of paper.
‖ The present-day road distance between Salonica and Santi Quaranta is 230 miles, but King was not, of course, driving on modern roads.
a Nicknamed “Wong-Wongs” by the British population because of the characteristic sound of the double, unsynchronised engines.
b Around 2,600 civilians were killed by Allied bombing raids against Germany; 1,736 civilians were killed or wounded by German bombing raids on Great Britain. In France, a combination of air raids and long-range artillery bombardment resulted in the deaths of over 3,300 civilians.
c London was only one of the targets on this occasion and the casualty count includes those who lost their lives in other places.
d The significant growth of German influence in the Ottoman Empire in the years before the war made the Russians nervous and led them to consider their military alternatives. It was one of the factors in the background when Russia initiated its great programme of military modernisation, which in turn frightened the life out of the German general staff and led it to consider its own military alternatives. And so on.
e Which did not, however, mean he had unlimited influence. He was ignored, for example, when he tried to put a stop to the genocide of the Armenians.
f The other was the light cruiser SMS Breslau. In August 1914 the pair were being chased by the British Mediterranean Fleet after bombarding Bône in French-controlled Algeria. They escaped through the Dardanelles and on reaching Constantinople were officially transferred to the Turkish navy (as were their German crews). The collaboration is widely regarded as instrumental in cementing the alliance between the Central Powers and the Ottoman Empire.
g Though not against General Townshend, who was spending his time as a prisoner of war comfortably housed in his own private villa on one of the Princes Islands off the shore of Constantinople.
h It was more of an expansionist decree than a treaty, under which Russia was forced to cede control of Ukraine, White Russia, Finland, the Baltic states, Poland and Crimea. Most of these were to become independent satellite states of Germany. The Caucasus was granted to the Ottoman Empire. Russia, moreover, had to hand over to the victors (or rather victor—the governments of Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were frustrated and enraged that the fruits of victory were to go almost exclusively to Germany) enormous quantities of oil and grain, as well as a great deal of militarily important equipment such as locomotives, artillery pieces and munitions. The new Soviet Union of the Bolsheviks was set to lose 34 per cent of her population, 32 per cent of her agricultural land, 54 per cent of her industrial enterprises and 89 per cent of her coal mines. German forces had already marched into Georgia—with oil in mind—while German generals, intoxicated by this victory, are now talking wildly of transporting German U-boats to the Caspian Sea and perhaps even invading India.
i By using a very long barrel the “Paris Guns” fired shells up into the stratosphere, where the lower air resistance meant that the projectiles could travel further. The stresses created by firing the 21cm shells were so extreme that the calibre of the barrel widened slightly with every round fired, which meant that successive shells needed successively larger driving bands. Similarly, firing-chamber expansion meant that the explosive charge continually needed to be increased. Only sixty or seventy rounds could be fired before the barrel had to be rebored to 24cm. These guns were enormously expensive and time-consuming to manufacture, and, considering the outlay, achieved very little.
j The punishment for this and similar offences was far harsher for those in uniform, whose crimes were subject to military jurisdiction.
k Such a high casualty figure was rare. Accurate aiming from such a distance was impossible and the random landings of these giant projectiles usually resulted in far fewer victims than this. Indeed, many of them exploded harmlessly. Part of the explanation was that, in order to keep the weight of the shell down, the German constructors used a fairly small charge. Experienced soldiers hearing the explosions thought that it sounded like a much smaller 7.7cm shell. All in all, Paris came under bombardment forty-four times between 23 March and 9 August, during which 367 shells landed on the city and 250 people were killed.
l A cousin of the former First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.
m Constant and confusing movements by train, backwards and forwards along the front line, were the lot of many German soldiers a few months later. By that stage it was their turn to be shunted back and forth in attempts to stem enemy pushes. It has been estimated that there were times when anything up to a third of the German army was sitting in slow-moving trains scattered across the French and Belgian countryside.
n This joy was enhanced by the fact that the officer corps in the cavalry was a kind of special reserve for the unpopular French aristocracy.
o In so far as Estaunié is remembered today, it is for his coining of the word télécommunication in 1904. He was a qualified engineer and worked for the French post and telegraph office.
p This was also true for the camp guards. There were food shortages all over Austria-Hungary by this point, largely because of chaotic conditions and a lack of transport.
q The Greek name for Kesis is Olympus. The sonnet was written at a time when there was still a large Greek minority living in this part of Turkey. The war that would end in their expulsion still lay some years in the future.
r Mortality among women also rose. It increased by 11.5 per cent in 1916 and by 30.4 per cent in 1917 compared with pre-war figures. Mortality among the elderly was 33 per cent higher in 1918 than in 1914. It has been estimated that 762,000 German civilians died from malnutrition and associated diseases during the war. The average weight of a nine-year-old in Vienna dropped from 30kg to 22.8kg; in the same city only 70,000 litres of milk were being consumed daily compared with 900,000 litres before the war. Numerous institutions for the mentally ill and for the elderly closed down simply because many of the inmates had died of hunger. On top of all this, the number of births fell by almost a half.
s The exact phrase he uses is: “Es kracht im Gebälk.”
t After being saved by German intervention on numerous occasions since 1915 on the Eastern Front, in the Balkans and in Italy.
u Their mother’s pet-names for her children.
v The pitting of aircraft against balloons was a case of nineteenth-century technology facing that of the twentieth. Unsurprisingly, modernity prevailed and a balloon of this type had an average lifespan of about fifteen days. The life expectancy of the observers was, however, improved by the fact that, since 1916, balloon crews had been equipped with parachutes (in contrast to pilots; see footnote, 1 May 1917, this page), although these could not be deployed at altitudes below sixty metres.
w The maximum altitude for this type of balloon is about 1,500 metres.
x The pandemic eventually killed at least 20 million people, more than died in the war itself. (Some estimates say 40 million died, others even claim 100 million.) The first outbreak came during summer 1918 and affected the German army worst. At a critical stage, when it needed all of its troops for the push on Paris, large numbers of men were knocked out by the illness. What made this pandemic so spectacular (apart from the unusually high rate of mortality—in most influenza epidemics the death rate was 0.1 per cent of sufferers, whereas this one claimed 2.5 per cent) was that young adults, usually the most resilient age group, were hit hardest. The reasons for this are still not clear. The symptoms were also unusually severe: those infected suffered a dreadful headache, an extremely high temperature and a painful phlegmy cough. They either died or recovered within three days. Although originating in Africa, Spanish flu was so called because the uncensored Spanish press was the first to report the outbreak upon its arrival in Spain. By then, however, it had already affected several of the warring nations.
y Hardly surprisingly, Sergy (today no more than a large village near the E50 west of Reims) is only about a mile and a half from the second biggest American war cemetery (6,012 dead) of the First World War. The cemetery is set beautifully amid greenery and situated almost exactly where the front line ran in July and August 1918. The “river” is still no more than a brook.
z They had been exposed to mustard gas, which can easily penetrate clothing, the soles of the shoes and the skin. (Even brushing against an object that has been lying on soil polluted with mustard gas can result in injury, and inhaling the vapour from someone else’s gas-infected clothes is enough to cause illness.) Nothing is noticed at first but after about two hours the skin at the affected place begins to go red and after eight to nine hours it starts to swell. After about twenty-four hours masses of small blisters form on the swelling and these blisters then coalesce into a single large zone of injury. The wounds do not heal easily and the worst effects of gas are on the eyes, nose and mouth. In the worst cases the wounds can lead to blood poisoning and death, but as a rule recovery is achieved after six weeks of hospital care.
aa The regiment holding the sector to his right.
bb The proposed operation was effectively tantamount to a colossal suicide mission, hatched independently by various naval officers of limited intelligence, keen to save the “honour” of their service at the eleventh hour. Their idiotic plan caused a riot among the sailors, which was the beginning of the German revolution—an irony of history if ever there was one.
cc At the start of the year it was still possible to find Germans who expected the war to end with the virtual extinction of Belgium and with large areas of France and Russia being handed over to Germany.
dd To quote Frederic Manning.
ee For instance, a seaman addressing an officer would now only have to use the officer’s title of rank once, at the start of the conversation, instead of at the end of every sentence, as had been the case earlier.