In German-occupied Namur, the Duchess of Sutherland negotiates her status.
The Padre came in at last and said that the flames would not reach us. In the afternoon we ventured into the smoky street. It was like walking through a dense fog. All the buildings were smouldering… A German officer told me that the town was burnt because some of the civilian inhabitants had been shooting at the soldiers from dark windows.
The Germans has arrived in Belgium primed to treat any resistance to their occupation by anything other than a formal military unit as serious crime. Perhaps there were a number of Belgian civilians who took pot shots at Germans, or scattered members of overrun Belgian army units who fought on, but the German army tended to treat any rear-area firing as evidence of an “illegal” guerrilla resistance, and respond with brutal punitive violence.
The Doctor and I thought we had better visit the Commander, General von Bülow…
General von Bülow said he was sure he had met me at Hamburg, and that he would arrange with one of the diplomats to get a telegram through to Berlin, which he trusted would be copied in the London papers, announcing the safety of our Ambulance.
‘Accept my admiration for your work. Duchess,’ he said. He spoke perfect English. To accept the favours of my country’s foe was a bad moment for me, but the Germans were in possession of Namur and I had to consider my hospital from every point of view. Also those who are of the Red Cross and who care for suffering humanity and for the relief of pain and sickness should strive to remember nothing but the heartache of the world and the pity of it.
General von Bülow ‘did me the honour’ to call the next morning at our Ambulance. He was accompanied by Baron Kessler, his aide-de-camp, who composed the scenario of La Legende de Josephe. He had been much connected with Russian opera in London during the past season. It was exceedingly odd to meet him under such circumstances.after having so often discussed ‘art’ with him in London.
It’s the forgettable ballet that keeps being remembered. Harry Graf Kessler, one of the last of the great Europeans, was culturally and linguistically fluent in French, German, and English; he was diplomat and a soldier, yes–and latterly famous for his diaries–but he was primarily an artist and patron of art. He had written the book for La Légende de Josephe, a collaboration with Strauss and the Ballets Russes, and he had recently been in England to oversee the first London production, which was seen, on the same night, by Siegfried Sasson, Edward Thomas, and Osbert Sitwell, all unbeknownst to each other.
That was back on June 23rd. In July–on the 19th, in fact–Kessler had dined with the Duchess of Sutherland at Lady Ripon’s. Now the society lady and art world insider faced each other again as staff officer and civilian volunteer nurse. A small world, and still, here, just barely a civilized one–a polite conversation among friends who happened to be enemies.
Like the good international gentlemen they were, the count and the general would make sure that the Duchess got home safely. Were they aware that she had sought them out only after seeing apparent evidence of punitive arson by the occupiers?
Namur was far from the worst of the arson. As they chatted politely, forty miles away in Louvain the University Library was a still-smoking ruin. Tends of thousands of rare and unique manuscripts were gone. The library had been fired late the night before as another act of nihilistic reprisal after unexplained shots were blamed on non-uniformed snipers, or “francs tireurs,”and German troops had prevented Belgian fire fighters from saving the medieval buildings and their treasures.
Nor was arson the worst of it. More than 200 civilians died in Louvain, and, elsewhere in Belgium, German officers were responding to similar incidents of “illegal resistance,” real or imagined, by ordering the execution of dozens or even hundreds of innocent civilians, with few apparent qualms about the massive disparity in scale between the casualties they may have suffered and the retribution they took or the morality of collective punishment.
So not such a civilized world, after all. And we begin today to see the horrors of battle, too.
John Lucy began the 26th of August, a century back, “sleeping soundly on the stone floor” of a kitchen in the town of Caudry. The 2/Royal Irish Rifles had marched about 75 miles in five days, during which they had fought the Battle of Mons and interrupted their retreat several times to deploy against German cavalry (which never did charge–“they feared our rifle fire”). Lucy was again detached from his battalion, and so it was that when German shells began to crash into the town he and his section of eight men were part of a scratch force of several units that fell out to mount a defense. This was the beginning of the battle of Le Cateau (a town a few miles south and east of Caudry), a real 20th century battle: no cavalry charges, little close-in action, and a great deal of accurate artillery fire.
Then we got it… A heavy shell exploded just over our heads, and we were all knocked flat on the pavement, where bricks and pieces of mortar rained on us. I rose slowly and waited for the others to get up. I was dazed slightly. A sergeant went off at the double, leading those who were not injured. All my section except two went with him. He beckoned to me. I thought a moment and looked hard at the scattered khaki forms, dead and dying, from which little streams of blood flowed across the pavement into the gutter, and I turned away too.
I had only gone a few yards when a voice dried in anguish: ‘For God’s sake, Corporal!’
One of his men was dead, but another was alive, and, once Lucy had inexpertly bound his numerous shrapnel wounds, able to walk. Lucy was stumbling through the town with the wounded man on his arm when he came upon a number of corpses in the street–other men of his regiment.
The sight of the badges and buttons of those dead men if my own corps had a queer effect on me. I became angry with the Germans for the fist time. Then my anger turned to anxiety, Was my brother among the slain?
After leading the wounded man to a hospital, Lucy “fled” Caudry and was able to find the body of his battalion, reforming to the south. His brother was there, unhurt.
The Royal Welch had reached Le Cateau yesterday afternoon. They had yet to fire a shot in anger or suffer any casualties, other than a single slight wound from a spent bullet. As Frank Richards told us yesterday, confusion abounded, yet it was clear that a general retreat was in progress, and that it was wearing down the men.
As they assembled, before dawn, several officers (including Major Geiger, commander of Richards’ A company) decided to order their men to leave their packs behind, pretending that they would be picked up later. This fooled no one, but it was deemed better to stack packs and march off than to permit the men to discard them, and allow a retreat to become a rout.
After several wrong turns, after which “one humourist started singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary'”–solid exceptional-rule-proving evidence that this regular battalion, unlike the Royal Irish Rifles, was too cool to sing the song except for satirical effect–the battalion marched south and west out of town, moving through several villages without seeing any Germans. Artillery fire was accurate, and one officer spent several hours galloping up and down a nearby Roman Road under shell fire trying to obtain clear orders from the tangled command structure. The battalion was eventually told to form a rear-guard for the rest of the infantry.
It was now twilight. Deploying into two lines, the battalion eventually saw a body of cavalry passing across their front at extreme rifle range, and, when a cavalry officer rode up and demanded that they fire, the order “was given.” Firing independently, the marksmen of the Royal Welch emptied a few saddles. These shortly proved to belong to their countrymen, a troop of the 19th Hussars. This small disaster passes with comment in Dunn’s unofficial unit history.
Frank Richards goes into a little more detail about this incident:
I was the extreme left-hand man of the Battalion, Billy and Stephens being on my right. Our Colonel was speaking to our Company Commander just behind us when… a staff-officer came along and informed our Colonel that all our cavalry patrols were in and that any cavalry or troops who now appeared on our front would be the enemy. He had hardly finished speaking when over a ridge in front of us appeared a body of horsemen galloping toward us. We… opened out with rapid fire at six hundred yards. I had only fired two rounds when a bugle blew the cease-fire. This I may say, was the only time during the whole of the War… [with one future exception] that I head a bugle in action. The light was very bad, and the majority of the bullets had been falling short because we couldn’t clearly see the sights of our rifles, but several horses fell. The horsemen stopped and waved their arms. We had been firing on our own cavalry who, I was told later, belonged to the 19th Hussars: I never heard whether any of them had been killed.
I don’t know whether Dunn’s account of emptied saddles or Richards’ account of fallen horses best describes the friendly-fire casualties of the 19th Hussars–perhaps both horses and men were hit.
Soon after, the 2/Royal Welch were again marching south, so exhausted that some of Richards’ buddies were dreaming (or hallucinating) as they marched–a fact which will have some considerable relevance once certain fantastic stories of the retreat from Mons begin to be told.
Earlier in the day, Francis Grenfell had left Le Cateau
in a cattle truck with five other wounded. A very amusing thing happened in the railway station. About 500 refugees were there, all in a great state of distress and alarm, and a few gendarmes and soldiers. Suddenly a German aeroplane came over. You would have roared with laughter as all the refugees started yelling and rushing about the station. Every gendarme or stray soldier who possessed any sort of firearm loosed it off into the air, which made the women yell all the more. A very fat officer seized a rifle and rushed forward to shoot the aeroplane, which was about five miles away. The bolt jammed, so he put it on the ground, gave it a kick, and it went off through the roof.
Francis would eventually reach England, and receive a hero’s welcome. Vera Brittain, however, is still stuck in Buxton, sweating out her Oxford exam results. What better way to pass the time waiting for test results than to take more tests?
Wednesday August 26th
To-day took place the dreadful First Aid Exam., on account of which I was not at all nervous, but at which I nevertheless did not acquit myself magnificently. The doctor was a tall fine man, with a kind manner, but plenty of sarcasm and disdainful criticism at his command. He asked me what I should do for a fish hook embedded in the skin. I answered promptly & I think correctly, but he gave me no indication, & told me to bandage Mrs Gibbons for a broken forearm. I received a small criticism for turning my back on the patient, but remembered how to do the arm, improvising with handkerchiefs as I had not sufficient bandages. Then he told me to treat another woman for a cut throat, at which I made three bad mistakes, by not finding the artery at once, forgetting to make the patient sit down, & saying a tourniquet should be put on above & below when I really knew perfectly well that no tourniquet could be applied. However he seemed better pleased when I said I would send for an assistant at once to relieve me in digital pressure.
I thought I did not care whether I passed or not, but I do very much now I have been in for the exam., not because I think I shall ever go in much for that type of study, but because of the general principle such an exam, as this involves. One of my greatest aspirations is to succeed in whatever I undertake, So to undertake nothing unless I do it well. I seem of late to be falling below this personal ideal, since I do not imagine for a moment I shall be passed in this one, & am expecting every post to hear that I have failed badly in the Oxford Senior, that therefore my Exhibition is rendered void, & my chance of Oxford postponed. I must again arise, & set up my inexhaustible fount of enthusiasm, energy, & will once more.
In Gloucestershire, Edward Thomas took a long walk with Robert Frost, so long that it ended by moonlight. The moon led his thoughts in a direction that he had hitherto resisted:
“a 1/3 moon bright and almost orange low down clear of cloud and I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it could perhaps be ravaged and I could and perhaps would do nothing to prevent it.”
In Croydon, “an ordinary boy of elementary education and slender prospects” named George Coppard tried to enlist at Mitcham Road Barracks. Upon confessing that he was just sixteen years old, the recruiting sergeant replied “Clear off son. Come back tomorrow and see if you’re nineteen, eh?” He would.
And one more note from the home front, a fait divers on the sorrows of a minor writer. Arthur Conan Doyle might get his unit of bustling and self-serious middle-aged volunteers recognized, but not every such effort would find favor. Victorian polymath and scholar/translator Edward Heron-Allen organized today a meeting in the very same county with the very same purpose, but either he was too little or it was too late: in short order “a letter from the military authorities told them that this was not desirable.”