Winston Churchill rather enjoyed war. In July 1914, as Britain prepared for the oncoming catrastrophe, Churchill, at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his wife, ‘I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’ And in 1916, in a letter to David Lloyd George’s daughter, Churchill admitted: ‘I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment, and yet, I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it’.
Churchill had been appointed to the Admiralty in October 1911, and had continued the policy established by his predecessor of keeping Britain ahead of the Germans and strengthening the navy by expanding the number of Dreadnoughts, the most powerful battleship of the time.
But despite these preparations, Britain suffered a number of setbacks during the first months of the First World War – on 22 September 1914, the German navy sunk a number of British ships at Dogger Bank (sixty miles off the east coast of England in the North Sea), killing 1,459 sailors; and on 16 December, German ships penetrated close enough to British shores to attack Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby causing 137 fatalities. Churchill, in his role at the Admiralty, took the brunt of the blame and the public’s anger.
In October 1914, with German forces bearing down on Antwerp, the British government dispatched Churchill to Belguim. Although, through his efforts, he helped delay the fall of the city by about a week, allowing the Belgian Army to escape and the vital Channel ports to be saved, he was still heavily criticised at home for failing to save Antwerp.
Stung by the criticism, Churchill offered to resign from the government in return for a post as an army officer in the field. His offer, met with derision and loud guffaws, was refused.
Nicknamed the Tiger for his fiery temperament, Georges Clemenceau was not averse to settling personal feuds by duel. He was anti-monarchy, anti-socialist and anti-Catholic. His father, Benjamin, who himself had been imprisoned for his republican views, was a doctor and although Clemenceau completed his medical studies, he didn’t take up the profession, being drawn instead to politics.
A staunch republican and troublemaker, like his father, Georges Clemenceau was once imprisoned for 73 days (some sources state 77 days) by Napoleon III’s government for publishing a republican newspaper and trying to incite demonstrations against the monarchy. In 1865, fearing another arrest, and possible incarceration on Devil’s Island, Clemenceau fled to the US, arriving towards the end of the American Civil War. He lived first in New York, where he worked as a journalist, and then in Connecticut where he became a teacher in a private girls’ school. Clemenceau married one of his American students, Mary Plummer, and together they had three children before divorcing seven years later. (Of his son, Clemenceau, known for his wit, said, ‘If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.’)
Five days after his divorce, Clemenceau returned to France and briefly worked as a doctor before returning to politics. In 1871, he witnessed France’s defeat to Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War.
‘A soldier of democracy’
An intellectual, Georges Clemenceau was fascinated by Ancient Greek culture, supported the work of the French Impressionists, wrote a book on Jewish history, and translated into French the works of English philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Following France’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, Clemenceau opposed France’s colonial ambitions, arguing that the country needed to concentrate its efforts on extracting revenge on the Germans and recovering Alsace Lorraine, territory it had lost to the Germans as part of the French surrender.
In 1916, the vicar of Margate in Kent, the Reverend David Railton, was stationed as a padre on the Western Front near the French village of Armentières on the Belgian border when he noticed a temporary grave with the inscription, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. Moved by this simple epitaph, he suggested an idea to the Dean of Westminster, who passed it onto Buckingham Palace. The idea of a tomb of the Unknown Warrior was well received and given the go ahead.
On 7 November 1920, the remains of six unidentified British soldiers were exhumed – one each from six different battlefields (Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, Somme and Ypres). The six corpses were transported to a chapel in the village of St Pol, near Ypres, where they were each laid out on a stretcher and covered by the Union flag. There, in the company of a padre (not Rev Railton), a blindfolded officer entered the chapel and touched one of the bodies.
The following morning, chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service for the chosen soldier. Placed in a plain coffin, the Unknown Soldier was taken back on a train to England via Boulogne. At Boulogne, the coffin was kept overnight in the town’s castle, a guard of honour keeping vigil.
A British Warrior
On the morning of the 9 November, the coffin was placed in a larger casket made from wood taken from an oak tree in the gardens of London’s Hampton Court Palace. Mounted on its side, a 16th century sword from the collection at the Tower of London, especially chosen by the king, George V. Draped over the casket, the Union flag, which had used by the Rev Railton as an altar cloth during the war. The coffin plate bore the inscription ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.
The procession, led by a thousand French schoolchildren and accompanied by solemn military music, took the casket to the town’s harbour. There it was met by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allies’ supreme commander, before being transported across the English Channel to Dover on board the HMS Verdun (named after the French battle).
A friend of mine recently bought for a tidy sum Lord Kitchener’s Memorial Death Plaque. He asked me to get it valued. These 12 cm diameter bronze plaques (click picture to enlarge, although this one is not Kitchener’s) were presented to the next of kin of those that had died during the Great War in the name of Britain and her empire.
My friend has a rather macabre collection of over 3,000 of these things, including this one of Lord Kitchener’s. I took it to an auction house in London and yes, it was genuine but, given Kitchener’s status, they reckoned there are probably about five or six in existence. Nonetheless, my friend seems delighted to be the owner of one.
The British government decided in October 1916 to award a token of commemoration for the next of kin to those that had fallen in the war while serving Great Britain and her empire. They settled on a bronze plaque and set up a competition to design it. Judges included directors of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and National Gallery. The competition generated such interest that the deadline had to be extended to 31 December 1917. In the event, the judges received over 800 designs.
On 5 May 2011, Claude Choules, an English-born Australian, died; he was 110 years old. He was also, having served on HMS Revenge, the last veteran to have seen action during World War One. With his death, the ‘Great War’ had truly passed from living memory into history.
Photographs of soldiers in the muddy trenches of the Western Front waiting to go ‘over the top’, from which many would not return, remain iconic images of the Twentieth Century. In Britain alone, barely a family was left untouched by a war that claimed the lives of 700,000 British soldiers, the ‘war to end all wars’. For generations, Britain was haunted by the Battle of the Somme. On its first day alone, 1 July 1916, we suffered 57,000 casualties, killed or wounded, the worst day in Britain’s military history. For the French, the Battle of Verdun holds equal horror.
The Urgency of War
Yet, throughout Europe and beyond, young men answered the call-to-arms in a way we find almost inconceivable today. My own father, Arthur Stutley Colley, born 1900, joined the army as an officer cadet in 1918 and wrote in his memoirs of his disappointment of having just missed the fight: ‘With the signing of the Armistice,’ he wrote, ‘the prospect of getting to the Front in time disappeared, and with it the possibility of any medal ribbons to sport on one’s chest. Faced with soldiering under peacetime conditions, after the compelling urgency of war, we were left feeling somewhat flat.’
When the First World War broke out, Edith Cavell was working as a matron in a Brussels nursing school, a school she had co-founded in 1907 and where she’d helped pioneer the importance of follow-up care. But at the time, July 1914, she was on leave, holidaying with her family in Norfolk, England. On hearing the news of war, her parents begged her not to return to Belgium – but of course she did.
Following the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell refused the German offer of a safe conduct into neutral Netherlands. She continued her work and in the process hid refugee British, Belgian and French soldiers and provided over 200 of them the means to escape into the Netherlands from where most managed the journey back to England. With the Germans watching the work of the hospital, and its comings and goings, her arrest was inevitable. It duly came on 3 August 1915. Edith Cavell, arrested by the Germans, readily admitted her guilt.
‘Patriotism is not enough’
Cavell was remanded in isolation for ten weeks, not even being allowed to meet the lawyer appointed to defend her until the morning of her trial, a trial which lasted only two days. Cavell, along with 34 others, was found guilty. Her case became a cause célèbre but the British government, realising the Germans were acting within their own legality, was unable to intervene. However, the Americans, as neutrals, pointed to Cavell’s nursing credentials and her saving of the lives of German soldiers, as well as British, but to no avail. Along with her Belgian accomplice, Philippe Baucq, the nurse was found guilty and sentenced to be shot. Continue reading
Paul von Hindenburg, the last German president before Hitler’s Third Reich took over, was the man who was never allowed to retire. Born 2 October 1847 into an aristocratic Prussian family, he had had a successful if not spectacular career in the army, decorated in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and then, aged 64, retired in 1911.
But with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hindenburg was recalled to service. With Erich Ludendorff as his deputy, he scored an impressive double victory on the Eastern Front against the Russians at the Battles of Tanneburg and Mausaurian Lakes (August and September 1914). But a total victory against the Russians was not forthcoming which Hindenburg blamed entirely on his counterpart on the Western Front and the German Army’s Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, and his excessive need for troops.
Chief of Staff
In August 1916, Hindenburg replaced Falkenhayn as Chief of Staff. Ludendorff, in theory, remained his deputy but in practice became more of a partner – all orders were issued under their joint names. With the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, increasingly sidelined during the war, the duo ran a virtual military regime. Hindenburg implemented Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, allowing his subs to attack civilian as well as military targets; dictated the harsh terms of the Treaty of Brest Litoski, in which Russia, having rid itself of its Tsar, Nicholas II, accepted defeat in the war under instruction from its new leader, Vladimir Lenin; and helped Ludendorff launch Germany’s last throw of the dice against the Allies, the Spring Offensive of 1918.
She enticed audiences with her dancing, her exoticism and eroticism – and her bejewelled bra, but in 1917, Mata Hari, a Malayan term meaning ‘eye of the day’, was shot by firing squad.
Born to a wealthy Dutch family, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle responded to a newspaper advertisement from a Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch army officer of Scottish descent, seeking a wife. The pair married within three months of meeting each other and in 1895 and moved to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) where they had two children. The marriage was doomed from the beginning – 22 years older, MacLeod was an abusive husband and Zelle was never going to play the part of the dutiful wife. Their son died aged 2 from syphilis, reputably inherited from his father (their daughter would die a similar death, aged 21) and in 1902, on their return to the Netherlands, they separated.
Unable to find work and uncertain about her future, Zelle moved to Paris and there changed her name to Mata Hari, claiming she originated from India and was the daughter of a temple dancer. She started to earn a living by modelling and dancing, and found work in a cabaret. Exotically dressed, she became a huge success and was feted by the powerful and rich of Paris, taking on a number of influential lovers. She travelled numerous times between France and the Netherlands. But by now war had broken out and Mata Hari’s movements and high-ranking liaisons caused suspicion.
The First World War started on 28 July 1914. The spark had been ignited a month before, on 28 June 1914, with the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne.
The assassination had very much been the work of a single band of terrorists, the Black Hand, and in particular 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip (pictured), but the Austrian–Hungarian empire saw an opportunity to assert its authority over Serbia. First it sought reassurance from its powerful ally, Germany. Together, they had formed the Dual Alliance in 1879 which, three years later, became the Triple Alliance when Italy added its signature. Now, the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, gave Austria-Hungary the assurance it needed, then promptly went off on a cruise around Norway.
‘The sword has been forced into our hand’
It took the Austrian–Hungarian government three weeks but the ultimatum they sent Serbia was, in the words of Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, the ‘most formidable document ever sent from one nation to another’. Serbia was given forty-eight hours to comply with ten demands, specifically designed to humiliate and therefore be rejected. Although the Serbs agreed to eight and suggesting, quite reasonably, that the other two be decided by the Hague Tribunal, it was never going to be enough for the bellicose Austrian–Hungarians and on 28 July 1914, they declared war on Serbia.
In the annals of notoriety, the name Gavrilo Princip should perhaps rank higher than it does. For this 19-year-old Serb committed a crime that, without overestimating the fact, set the agenda for the whole of the twentieth century. Princip was the man who shot and killed the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Exactly one month after the assassination, Europe was at war, a war that quickly spread and became the Great War, or, as we know it, the First World War. And from the post-war seeds of discontent came the rise of Nazism and the road to the Second World War.
Born to an impoverished family in Bosnia on 25 July 1894, Gavrilo Princip was one of nine children, six of whom died during infancy. Suffering from tuberculosis, the frail and slight Princip learnt to read, the first in his family to do so, and devoured the histories of the Serbs and their oppression at the hands of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.
The Black Hand