This evening I will begin publishing a series of articles written by my Dad, Tony Jordan, a history of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. It's a very personal account: Dad's father miraculously survived one of the bloodiest landings of this initiative, unlike the majority of his companions, who were mown down in minutes. The tale of intertwined lives is as fascinating as it is horrific: Churchill, the architect of the botched mission; Robert Jordan, a foot-soldier in the Royal Munster Fusiliers; and a young officer named Nightingale, the uncomfortable interface between Whitehall's strategy and the grim reality of a Turkish beach.
I'm very grateful to my Dad for writing this and for allowing me to read and publish it, and also to my old history teacher Chris Holland, for giving Dad the impetus to turn decades of study into a finished article.
The reasons for the Gallipoli Campaign were rooted in the events of 1914 and, like many, if not most, my family were involved. It may seem self-indulgent to concentrate attention on one battalion and one family, but a true picture of war needs a close up look at the effects on individuals as well a the wide angle view of large armies on the move. The hope is that those individuals may in some measure represent the experience of those who are otherwise ignored.
As it happens, my mother's brother, Arthur Flemming, passed through Stretton [Stretton on Dunsmore, the village where Tony lives] on the day war started. He left a diary and told how on that day he was cycling from Coventry to London. He took shelter from the rain under a railway bridge and was told the news of war's outbreak by other shelterers. He was a reservist with the 3rd Coldstream battalion and within a few days was at the front near Mons. And, as a corporal in charge of a machine gun unit, he was deeply engaged in ferocious battle within three weeks.
Those first engagements of the war brought the military theories of three nations into bloody conflict with the new nature of modern war and hundreds of thousands died because of the gap between theory and reality.
The French climbed the learning curve at greatest cost. Before the war, their military theorists had forcefully taught that only aggressive spirit won wars: imprudence became a virtue. This was the doctrine of offensive à outrance. It reckoned not with the new reality of machine guns and barbed wire: the balance had shifted firmly in favour of the defensive. About four hundred thousand Frenchmen lost their lives in reckless attacks in those early weeks. Colonel de Grandmaison had done for them all with his plan of attack.
The German Schlieffen Plan embodied a less extreme version of the same concept. It envisaged a powerful right hook by two strong armies, passing through the part of the front held by the British, leading to the envelopment of Paris and a swift conclusion of the War. The British army — "contemptible" was the Kaiser's word — was not held in high regard; it was thought that they had shown a lack of rifle skill against Boer farmers a decade or so earlier.
In the event, chance and practice favoured the British. Their allocated role at Mons was defensive, which was fortunate. And, precisely because of the lesson learned from the Boers, they had practised formidable rifle skills. Fifteen rounds a minute was the claim. Now, if you have ever operated the Lee Enfield 303, you will know that this is a supreme claim: up with bolt to gather the cartridge; forward to push it into the barrel; aim; take up finger pressure; fire; bolt back to eject cartridge case; bolt down to collect the next cartridge. All in 4 seconds.
Germans have testified to this murderous firepower. At Mons, the mass of grey uniforms met British bullets and recoiled. Many believed that each British soldier was equipped with a machine gun.
But at the same time the French, on the British right, were recoiling, badly mauled from their frustrated attacks. As they retreated, they left the British flanks unprotected so the British, in their turn, had to retreat. Thus began the Retreat from Mons: days of hard marching, interspersed with fierce fighting engagements, costly to both sides.
When war was declared, there had been wild cheering in the streets of London, Berlin and Paris. Not quite everyone. Lord Esher, who was to prove consistently prescient about Churchill and Gallipoli, wrote on 27th August that London Society tended to regard war as 'a sort of picnic, chequered by untoward incident, but there will come a day when the flower of our manhood will have been gathered by the reaper, and when the casualty lists will contain nothing but plebian names that convey nothing to anyone beyond the mourners in obscure homes.'
Two days later, Arthur Flemming recorded just such an untoward incident. The Guards Division, dog-tired and foot-weary, paused to rest for the night at Landrecies. They were suddenly pulled from their rest by an urgent alarm when the small town was attacked by German cavalry. Arthur's machine gun was set up in the main approach road and they became part of a fierce close engagement, with hastily erected barricades of carts and wagons, weirdly illuminated by the light of a burning haystack. The fighting went on till early morning when the Germans withdrew, leaving 800 dead and a badly damaged 3rd Coldstream battalion. The High Command distinguished themselves less well: Haig, the Corps Commander, sent a panicky call for help to GHQ, which caused one general to faint.
However, the German advance was no victorious strut. Thirty-two days from Mons to Marne took their toll. Their ragged, dust-covered soldiers, with boots worn thin, were suffering. And their commanders were having to face the fact that retreating French and British armies, far from being annihilated, were withdrawing in good order, powers of resistance intact, while they themselves were outrunning supply trains. The critical Battle of the Marne was about to test both sides.
If the Allied position was still precarious, the odds were changing in their favour. And in Joffre they found the man for the hour. The counter attack he organised, after days of fierce but indecisive conflict, eventually turned retreaters into advancers, advancers into retreaters. And those on both sides have recorded the profound change in morale in both armies.
Roles were now reversed. The Germans retreated to prepared defensive positions north of the River Aisne. The Allies advanced, only to be checked by the German static defences. It was the end of the short period of mobile warfare. Each side tried to outflank the other; each failed. And the line was extended until mutually repelling static defences stretched from the Alps to the English Channel.
There was still to be a time of crisis in October, before Ypres, when the Germans almost achieved breakthrough. And there, as it happened, another of my mother's brothers, Alf Flemming, was involved in an episode of high drama, which cost him his life.
The situation was roughly as follows. The High Command of both sides still entertained unreal pipedreams of breakthrough. The ancient textile town of Ypres, an important road junction, was the key to the northern front. From Ypres, the Menin road led to the front through the village of Gheluvelt, about five miles away. Between the two was Hooge Chateau, divisional HQ. Breakthrough at Gheluvelt was a prize that could have allowed the Germans to outflank the entire British army and open the way to the Channel Ports.
In late October, a series of attacks were resisted at high cost to both sides. On the morning of the 31st, the Germans launched a massive attack with seven fresh divisions and Gheluvelt fell. One of those involved on the German side was Adolf Hitler, who had had received his baptism of fire on the Menin Road two days before. That same day, a shell hit Chateau Hooge HQ. The Commander in Chief, Sir John French, looked disaster in the face and wrote later that it was the worst half hour of his life. Haig prepared orders for retirement.
In the afternoon, 1st S. Wales Borderers had counter attacked, regaining a small part of the old position. Their position was precarious, with small chance of holding on without reinforcement.
And reinforcements there were none. No reserves left, except for one depleted battalion of 2nd Worcesters. About 350 men, a third of full strength.
It was enough. Led by Major Hankey, the Worcesters moved up and put in a charge over a thousand yards of open ground. This caught the Germans relaxing after success and drove them off. It is one of the most celebrated actions of the entire War and Sir John French said that on that day 2nd Worcesters saved the Empire.
Not without cost. More than half those in the charge were casualties. Alf Flemming died of wounds in German hands the next day. He left a young wife and infant son.
There was a strange postscript. Some time later, Alf's wife received a letter of condolence from a German soldier, which said — when they had found someone to translate it — that Alf had died in his arms.
That day, for those with the wit to realise it, signalled the end of the dream of breakthrough, although the lesson was slow to be learned by some in command and many paid with their lives for such mental rigidity. Machine gun and barbed wire between them left only the prospect of stalemate and endless indecisive trench warfare.
The Christmas of 1914 is remembered for the account of Germans and British playing football in a Christmas truce. Arthur read of this and recorded: "Not in our part of the line they didn't. And it would have gone hard with them if they had tried". There had been casualties the day before and, on Christmas day, a day of hard frost, when a few Germans put their heads up and shouted "Merry Christmas!" they were immediately shot at and sniping back and forth went on all day. One of the Guardsmen wounded that day was Captain Edward George Spencer Churchill. Surely some relative of Winston's?
And Winston was one of the few to give deep thought to the new military problem. He was looking for some alternative to what he described as sending the new armies "to chew barbed wire". The Gallipoli campaign was the result.
A future prime minister and Churchill's deputy during WW2, Clement Attlee, who fought at Gallipoli, once described Churchill as half genius, half fool. The astute Lord Esher said he was "bold and fertile, but wild and impractical". A.G.Gardner, in 1912, said:
He is always unconsciously playing a part — a heroic part. And he is himself his most astonished spectator. He sees himself moving through the smoke of battle — triumphant, terrible, his brow clothed in thunder, his legions looking to him for victory, and not looking in vain. In the theatre of his mind it is always the hour of fate and the crack of dawn.These characteristics were to be stamped on the Gallipoli campaign.
From the East, the 1st Battalion Munster Fusiliers left Rangoon in December 1914. From the West, two young men in their twenties — my father Robert Jordan and his brother Peter — left New York to join up with them.
The connection between these two events goes back to my Grandfather, John Jordan. Born in 1836 in County Limerick, Ireland, John Jordan lived in interesting times. He was a child of nine when the Irish Potato Famine began, but survived when millions died. Many are the tales of horror from those years but, for some reason, one small story stays in my mind. The Relieving Officer from John's town was passing a churchyard at dusk and saw a figure among the graves. Fearing some desecration, he crept in and found an emaciated woman. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Oh sir", said she, "my children are starving and the nettles do be growing here so nicely, I pick them at night unnoticed."
At the age of 17 years and 10 months, John Jordan enlisted with the 57th regiment of Foot at Tralee, and saw service with them in the Crimea, where he was present to observe the Charge of the Light Brigade and to take part in the capture of Sevastopol. Later, he was in India at the time of the Indian Mutiny and in New Zealand for the Maori Wars.
Marrying late, he still managed to produce 19 children with two wives. Leaving the Army and returning to Ireland, he was recruiting Sergeant for the Munsters. On his death, in 1906, the family emigrated, two by two, to America.
Many of the soldiers returning from Burma would have been recruited by him, as were at least four of own sons, including the two now rejoining their old regiment.
It puzzles me to know what motivated them to do so. I suspect that, if I had been safely settled in America, I would have needed some persuasion before putting my head in the fire. There is irony in the affair because, sixty years before, John Jordan had passed through the Dardanelles to the Crimea to help the Turks and prevent the Russians getting access to the Mediterranean. Now, two of his sons would be going there to fight the Turks in order to preserve Russian access.
There is a photograph of the Munsters on Pool Meadow, waiting to be billeted around the city, when they arrived in Coventry on 11th January 1915. Truth to tell, they look a pretty raggedy lot, with a strange mixture of uniforms: some in tropical kit, with pith helmets; some in new uniforms; a few looking particularly bedraggled. I suspect that the latter might be survivors from the sister battalion, 2nd Munsters, which had been virtually wiped out when forming the rearguard at Etreux in the Retreat from Mons.
On the very day the picture was taken, Admiral Cardan presented his plan for the naval assault on the Dardanelles to the War Cabinet. Already, fatal flaws in the higher strategy were beginning to show: the Navy assumed that this would be no more than a demonstration that could be broken off at any time, leaving the Army to finish the job; the Army expected only to be a reserve to assist a Naval operation.
The soldiers in Coventry, of course, knew nothing of the rhetoric and delusions of politicians and the higher military in London. There, the determined optimism of Churchill confronted the doubtful pessimism, or realism, according to point of view, of Jackie Fisher and the more complex reservations of Kitchener. Churchill said: "what an excellent thing it is to have an optimist at the front." Prime Minister Asquith said: "Excellent, provided you also have, as we have in Kitchener, a pessimist in the rear."
Even had they known all, the soldiers would not and could not have done other than they did. For them, one option only, the ageless tactic of the powerless: imitate the action of the ostrich; what cannot be cured must be endured; seek pleasure today, for tomorrow we die. Seek warmth.
All accounts of the Munster's stay in Coventry agree that they won and warmed the hearts of Coventrians with their humour and geniality. If you have ever visited the West of Ireland, you will recognise this extraordinary warmth and openness. Even seventy years later, elderly Coventrians, writing to the local paper, recalled this. Warmth met warmth.
But, if the people were warm, the climate certainly wasn't. These troops were transported suddenly from tropical summer to bitterly cold and bleak English January. Their light clothes were not suitable and one account says they were dropping in the street with ague. One reputed remedy was the cheap whiskey of those days with, at times, predictably unfortunate results. One story describes them as big, rough fellows, always ready for a scrap, and tells of a particular incident when a drunken soldier insulted a lady in a chip shop on the Radford Road. An officer was called to investigate.
"Paddy", he said, "You are a damned nuisance and a sloppy soldier and this time you are going to get it." Then he knocked the soldier into the gutter with a left and a right. Two soldiers were then ordered to frogmarch the offender back to barracks.
Other sources of warmth were sought. Most of the troops were billeted in Earlsdon or Chapelfields and practised their shooting at the Butts. Now, these were young men, with young men's urgencies. Coventry was not short of attractive young women, many working nearby at Rotherhams watch factory. Unsurprisingly, there were mutual attractions. Some later resulted in marriages. William (Paddy) Long, one of two brothers from Glanworth in County Cork, was billeted with the Allen family in Lord St., Chapelfields and soon began courting the eldest of their three daughters. He came back from the War to marry her and raise a family in Coventry, working for years on the trams.
My father met my mother, Elsie Flemming then. She was just convalescing from a cycling accident.
Not all waited to return from the War. The Graphic ran a picture story, reporting the happy occasion when Lieutenant Sullivan married Miss Maud Bates at St. Osburgs.
The Coventry Graphic ran regular stories on the Munsters. In December, the main topic had been 'Spy Scares'. By the middle of January, 'Khaki Coventry' was the new topic of interest. There were pictures of training in the lanes of Warwickshire and of soldiers helping gardeners set potatoes as well as coverage of concerts and sporting competitions.
One item caught my attention. The Munsters dug a deep depression "more than a mere trench" at the Kenilworth Road end of Earlsdon Avenue. They were trying out a new entrenching tool. The depression, like a small valley, can still be seen. Thirty years later, when I was a boy, trees had grown round it, and it was known as the "Devil's Dungeon". Now, it happened that our school cross-country race passed through it and I remember Tom Wyer and myself plotting to take advantage of its cover to make a break from the pack and get a good lead. It worked. Tom was first that year, and I was third. I didn't know then that my father had anything to do with the feature.
Soon enough, the weeks in Coventry drew to a close. By the end of February, there was a slight note of premonition about the Graphic "Our military guests are expected to depart for their war stations soon." There was a flurry of presentations from the Citizens of Coventry and warm words of appreciation from their Irish guests.
The battalion was presented with a mascot , an English bull-terrier called 'Buller'. He was given a khaki coat for weekdays and a braided emerald green one for Sundays. Buller was put on the battalion roll and drew billet money of eight shillings and nine pence — half that of a soldier.
The Coventry Irish Club presented a flag with the emblem Erin go Bragh (Ireland for Ever), given with the hope that it would inspire them in the stirring events before them. Sergeant O'Donaghue gave thanks and hoped to carry the flag to Berlin.
Beneath the air of buoyant joviality, there must have lurked apprehension. Ten-year-old Elsie, from the fruit shop in Earlsdon Street was sharp enough to notice this. Seventy years later, she still remembered when the soldiers were issued with new boots and Martin O'Malley said quietly: "I expect they are for my grave."
Such thoughts have no place in patriotic fervour. The City presented the battalion with an illuminated scroll of thanks and the soldiers marched through the streets of Coventry with the band playing. Then they marched out to Stretton to be reviewed by their King before departing for whatever fate awaited.
Before departure, my father marched up to the Nursing Home where my mother was convalescing. He charmed the stern matron to let him see Elsie. He asked her to wait for him. She said she would not promise, but said she would be straight with him and let him know if she met someone else.
The departure of the Munsters from Coventry was a tumultuous and emotional affair. It was meant to be a dignified march to the station but the good citizens of Coventry would have none of it. These sons of Ireland had been adopted as their sons, their lovers. Children weaved their way in and out of the marching ranks, women hung round the necks of soldiers. The police tried to control things, but were no match for the high emotion of the people.
Through the night, there continued the tears and embraces. Three trains came, and went, carrying away their cargo of men. Until, in the cold dawn, there was nothing but silence. And waiting.
The progress of the troops would now be recorded by officers of the battalion. Twenty-six officers, a chaplain, and one thousand and two other ranks left Coventry. Three in particular engage our attention because of the records they left. As it happens, two of these were named Guy.
The name you will see on the monument is that of Colonel Tizard, battalion commander. Now, by chance, I once met the Colonel, at a memorial service, fifty years after Gallipoli. To me he did not seem especially prepossessing — a little, as I recall, like Captain Mainwaring, in the television series, "Dad's Army". I did not suspect then, what I suspect now, that I might owe my very existence to one of his unspectacular decisions. As battalion Colonel, he would be placed at HQ, not as close to the action as the junior officers.
Captain Guy Geddes was closer to the action than any human being would wish to be. He may have been a New Zealander, though I am not sure. There is a terse, sharp and direct, quality to his comments. He describes himself as not having the pluck of a louse, a phrase that seems a favourite with him. In fact, the record shows just the opposite: he demonstrated both outstanding physical bravery and moral courage.
Lieutenant Guy Warneford Nightingale was a much more complex character. He was born in India, the son of an English engineer at the time of the Raj and was sent home to be educated here, at Rugby. It was a definite part of his intention that he should put on record the activities of the battalion, as part of regimental history. He put these accounts in the form of diaries and letters to his mother and, sometimes, to his sister. Since he was responsible for censoring his own letters, these are more open than might otherwise have been the case.
His mother, Maude Nightingale, was an interesting character in her own right. She was born a Warneford, one of those long established County families — in her case, in Berkshire — and there were connections to India and Warwickshire. Some will recall the Warneford Hospital. Maude wrote a charming and lively account of growing up in Victorian England and India, where she was presented at Court to the Governor.
The day following departure from Coventry, the Munsters sailed from Avonmouth in the Anson and Alaunia. There was a submarine alert on the way out, but otherwise, days of lovely sailing by way of the Bay of Biscay through the Straits of Gibraltar to Malta, where they spent a day or two. I don't know whether Bob and Peter Jordan realised that they were treading ground that their father had trodden before them: he spent two years in Malta between The Crimea and the Indian Mutiny.
Then they were diverted to Alexandria. The reason for this was that the rushed organisation had resulted in the boats being mis-packed, the equipment needed first buried beneath other stuff. "A pretty fair state of chaos" was Geddes comment.
In a way, this comment might be seen as the first of many criticisms of the organisation of the Gallipoli Campaign. It is, I suppose, normal that many seek a share of the praise in the case of victory and seek to divert blame for failure. Retrospectively, the Gallipoli Campaign has been often praised for the brilliance of the strategic vision and the dismal quality of the application. There has been much blame of individuals. In some ways, this is just; in others, grossly unfair. Much of the blame should attach to culture and the climate of social expectations.
I think of a significant moment when Hamilton was appointed by Kitchener to command, the very day that the 29th were inspected by the King, rather late in the day you might think. There was a short pause, when, it seemed, the diffident and gentlemanly Hamilton expected guidance on how to carry out his task. There was none. The problems were his. Diffidence, a lack of will to impose control on his generals is seen as the key weakness of Hamilton.
Only two days before that, Hunter-Weston had been appointed. His characteristics were the very opposite of those criticised in Hamilton. He was to be criticised not without cause, for butchery, the unthinking disregard for casualties. Somewhere, implanted in his mind, was the unquestioned slogan: "casualties do not matter, if the military objectives are obtained." This was held to be the logic of war. Both were, in their way, victims of hierarchical structures, where the man at the top has the vision, those below have to deal with the awkward details. Those who criticise the vision cannot expect enhanced career advancement. Understanding of their implicit roles was almost bred in the bone. Inadequacy may seem a feeble defence; it may be a true explanation.
Churchill, too, would not, could not, question his role. He belonged to a long aristocratic line. Look at the great gardens of England, and you may see what I mean.
It is for the aristocrat to display the vision; for the labourer to wield the spade. But, if the detail is left to others, the devil may find his way in.
Such thoughts aside, it would be interesting to read the minds of the soldiers as they sailed into Alexandria. I guess the men would explore for what sources of interest and pleasure they might discover. Geddes recorded strolls in the town with Jarrett and Henderson. Guy Nightingale cried off with 'flu. There was tennis and tea at the club. There were also military exercises at Camp Mex: Geddes says the men performed splendidly.
For some, Alexandria may have held a special interest. Many, if not most, of the officers had received a classical education and may have remembered the special place of Alexandria in the Ancient World. It was the meeting place of East and West, the meeting place of Greek and Roman civilisations. While Athens remained the centre of philosophy, of Plato and Aristotle, Alexandria became the centre for Science, of mathematics, astronomy, biology and medicine, the home of Euclid and Archimedes.
All this was symbolised by the great Library of Alexandria, built by the Ptolemies in 290BC. Here was collected all the accumulated knowledge at that time. The circumference of the world was first calculated here, the stars were first mapped, the power of steam was discovered.
Here too, Cleopatra practiced the political use of sex to preserve Egypt from Roman rule. In the process, she bore Julius Caesar a son, and Mark Antony three children, all coincidentally to great political advantage. Ultimately, all to no avail. Defeated, with Antony, at Actium, she preferred suicide by poisonous asp to the indignities of defeat. The great library was then burned down by Augustus Caesar. It held too much knowledge that was offensive to too many people.
Little was all this to do with the soldiers of the Fusiliers, except for one significant matter. One person at least remembered something of a classical education. On the coast of the Dardanelles Straits, opposite to where they were to invade, was the site of Ancient Troy, where Greeks defeated Trojans by means of the deceptive gift of a Wooden Horse containing soldiers. Commander Unwin of the Navy saw that this idea could be adapted to modern needs. A 'wreck ship' could be adapted to become what we now know as a landing craft for landing soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli.
The idea was clever and ingenious. But was it wild and impractical?
Twenty-four days after leaving Coventry, the Munsters departed Alexandria, en route for the Greek Islands, in the Anchor Line ship Caledonia. Their stay in Egypt had advertised their intentions. Von Sanders and the Turks were given good advanced warning. They would use this time well.
The Munsters arrived at the harbour of Mudros, on the island of Lemnos, on the 10th of April. They looked with awe at the great armada of ships assembled there: French and Russian as well as British. Among the black ships there moved strangely rigged Greek boats, with peasant food for sale: meat and fish and wine.
They were at Mudros for two weeks — longer than expected because of unsettled weather, unsuitable for the planned landings. Time for more training and practice for what was expected to come.
Hamilton had done what he could, with what he had, to plan the landings, but what he had was little enough. Above all he lacked time. In the day or two available before leaving London, he had gathered a tourist book and a map. That map, somehow, symbolises the core problem of the entire campaign. It was drawn up sixty years before, for the Crimean War. The contours are few and far apart, no detail, deeply misleading. Now, for skilled map-readers, contours tell the story: contours far apart tell of a gentle terrain, easy for an army to stroll over, exactly opposite the reality of the jagged resistance offered by the actual landscape. In London, details of geography would not matter. Reality was different. The devil is in the detail.
Hamilton's plan called for diversionary attacks on the Asian shore of the Dardenelles; for landings by the Anzacs in the north of the peninsula and for five landings: S, V, W, X, and Y around the southern tip.
On Friday, the 23rd of April, the weather cleared, and ship after ship, crammed with soldiers, began to move out of Mudros harbour. Geddes recorded that at 5.30 P.M. on that day the Munsters left for the great adventure. A perfect evening, he says, with solemnity and grandeur, cheering from the crews and bands playing.
But, he says:
What struck me most forcibly was the demeanour of our own men, from whom, not a sound, and this from the light hearted, devil-may-care men from the South of Ireland. Even they were filled with a sense of something impending which was quite beyond their ken.
Doubtless men were immersed in personal thoughts. One such was Lt. Col Doughty-Wylie. At home, two women, his wife and Gertrude Bell, his lover, had indicated that they might commit suicide if he were killed. He writes to Gertrude from the Clyde:
When I asked for this ship, my joy in it was half strangled by that you said, I can't even name it or talk about it. As we go steaming in under the port guns in our rotten old collier, shall I think about it: Don't do it. Time is nothing, we join up again, but to hurry the pace is unworthy of us all.
Now, the story of those landings has been told many times, not least by John Masefield, later to become poet laureate. But, it has to be said, that he was sent to report on the campaign with propagandist intent — and it shows. All is bathed in an effulgent, patriotic glow. Describing the departure of the ships, he writes of:
... the beauty and the exultation of the youth upon them like sacred things as they moved away ? All that they felt was a gladness of exultation that their young courage was to be used ... Till all the life in the harbour was giving thanks that it could go to death rejoicing. All was beautiful in that gladness of men about to die, but the most moving thing was the greatness of their generous hearts.
The next day the Munsters were taken aboard the River Clyde. Geddes was lucky to be given hot chocolate and a shake down on his cabin floor by Commander Josiah Wedgwood, socialist M.P. and Navy Volunteer Reserve Officer. He had a pleasant night's rest.
Beautiful dawn on the 25th, a slight haze but not a breath of wind. The day of the landings had arrived.
Now, some landings were to be much harder than others. None were picnics and, in particular, the exploits of the Lancashire Fusiliers, on W Beach, have been properly acclaimed. But there can be no doubt that those on board the River Clyde drew the short straw. Masefield described the landing on V beach as the worst and bloodiest of all the landings.
Commander Unwin's plan for the assault was clever and ingenious, but would it work? The River Clyde, an old collier, was his Trojan Horse. Armoured cars, in sandbagged emplacements, were strapped on deck to provide gun cover. Ports had been cut in her sides from which the men would emerge and gangways built out for them to run down. The Clyde was to be beached as near to the shore as possible and a string of lighters, barge-like vessels, which she towed, would form a bridge to the shore.
At the same time, other vessels, with most of 1st Dublins aboard would be towed fairly close inshore and row the rest of the way.
On board the Clyde were the four companies of Munsters, two of 1st Hampshires and one of 1st Dublins. About 2100 men.
So far, so neat.
V Beach was a narrow crescent, about 300 yards across, a natural amphitheatre: on the left, steep cliffs about fifty feet high, say twice the height of an average house; on the right, an old Fort; beyond that, the village of Sedd-el Bahr. Little cover for those landing; natural defences for the Turks. And Liman Von Sanders and the Turks had used their time effectively. Well-concealed trenches and formidable barbed wire — under the water as well as on the beach.
At 0500 the naval bombardment began. Churchill had used the power of the naval guns as an argument in pressing the merits of the campaign. He was wrong. The low trajectory of naval guns, compared to the dropping arc of land artillery, was less effective. The Turks were well spread out and little disturbed. They were disciplined, held their fire, and waited. They were not numerous; they did not need to be. Four machine guns, well placed, and a few score rifles, would be ample.
At 6.25 the River Clyde beached, with no jar. As she did so, the boats of the Dubliners came in alongside. They were met with a violent fury of rifle and machine gun fire. Geddes and Tizard saw the carnage with horrified apprehension. Slaughtered like rats in a trap, said Geddes. Many were killed or wounded in the boats; some were knocked into the water and tried to get a little protection by clinging to the sides of the boats; some tried to make it, up to their necks in the water; many drowned; some came back to rescue a mate, only to lose their own lives. A Navy flier saw the water, red with blood, for fifty yards from shore.
A few made it to the shore and found protection behind a small bank of sand.
Then the turn of the Munsters. X company, under Captain Geddes, on the port side; Z company, under Captain Henderson, on the starboard; Y company under Major Jarrett in support; W company, under Major Hutchinson, in reserve, on the River Clyde.
But first there were problems to be cleared up. The steam hopper towing the bridge of barges broke away, or got shot away, and the barges finished crossways in front of the Clyde. They were pulled back into place, under murderous fire, by Unwin and naval crew-members, with help from Fusiliers.
So Tizard now gave the order to disembark. Now, said Geddes: "we got it like anything, man after man behind me was shot down, but they never wavered."
Knowing the exact point where the men were going to emerge, the Turks had a fixed and easy target. Someone counted the first 48 men to follow Geddes: all fell. Lieut. O'Sullivan, the bridegroom of January, fell. His best man, Lieut. Watts, wounded in five places, cheered the men on with cries of "follow the Captain".
The barges gave trouble again, drifting in the strong current. Geddes, finding himself alone, had to jump into the sea and swim ashore. Many others who tried this drowned because of the great weight they were carrying: 84 lbs; full pack, 250 rounds of ammunition; 3 days rations.
Henderson's company on the starboard side fared no better; Henderson himself was badly hit. He died from his wounds later.
The lighters became piled with dead and wounded; those following had to run over heaped bodies. Few, very few, made it to the shore and the protection of that little bank of sand. The landing was repulsed and the Turkish fire ceased at about 0800. There was, for a while, silence.
With a Sergeant and six men, Geddes tried to secure the right of the beach and get some sort of lodgement in the Fort but three were killed and he, himself, wounded
At about 0900, Tizard tried again, sending Major Jarrett and some of Y company. There was a spit of rock, which looked like a good spot to head for, but the enemy had got its range nicely, and it was a death trap. Few made it to the sheltering sandbank.
Hunter-Weston, divisional commander, had concentrated all his attention on W beach, to the complete exclusion of all other landings. Opposition there had been overcome. Hamilton, from his vantage point at sea, was aware of the problems on V beach and could see the advantage of diverting troops to W Beach. With his usual diffidence and unwillingness to interfere, he made this a question to Hunter-Weston, rather than an order, and it was ignored.
Later, Tizard, on the Clyde, spotted men from the next beach on the cliffs to his left. He sent a message to Divisional HQ, asking that they be used to outflank the Turkish defences. His message was ignored. Later came an order to continue with the landings, so Tizard unwillingly sent another company of Hampshires. Again the barge closest to the shore had become detached, so the Hampshires were halted. General Napier and his brigade major went to investigate and both were killed by shellfire. Nightingale watched Napier die.
Guy Nightingale was sent to join Jarrett's company. He managed to get through the sea despite the bullets. Jarrett sent him back to the Clyde to advise Tizard not to send more men in daylight. Tizard took this advice, despite Hunter-Weston's order.
Nightingale went back to the beach. Jarrett and he organised the few unwounded to set up some sort of defence. Jarrett was killed; Geddes was, by now, suffering too badly from wounds to do much. So the day passed, somehow, with cries of wounded under the searing sun.
At about 1700, it grew dark. The remainder of the troops on the Clyde could now get ashore safely. Geddes was evacuated to the Clyde and taken aboard a hospital boat next morning.
Tizard said that before the landing it had been surmised "that by 8 a.m. the ground above the beaches would have been won; by noon we should be in the vicinity of the village of Krithia, and have taken the Hill of Achi Baba that night." These objectives were never reached in the eight months of the Gallipoli campaign.
Night would bring no rest for the survivors. At midnight, Hunter-Weston ordered that the advance should be continued.
Darkness brought some relief: the gunfire faded; the wounded could be moved, defensive trenches dug, gaps cut through the wire. Guy Nightingale, young and inexperienced, was now effectively in command on the beach. They buried Major Jarrett and spent a cold, wet night dug in under the cliff.
The Turks were also weakened and in difficulty, but still able to defend fiercely, though not strong enough to throw the invaders into the sea.
By the morning of the 26th, Lt-Col Doughty-Wylie was sent ashore and a plan was devised for a double attack through the Fort and from both sides of the village of Sedd-el-Bahr. The remnants of Munsters, Dubliners and Hampshires were now combined into one unit, known as the 'Dubsters'. These took the fortress with a bayonet charge and moved on into the village.
The village was a formidable problem. Destroyed by the naval bombardment, it still offered concealment for snipers, and it took several hours to clear. Eighty Turks were killed and twice that number of British.
Beyond the village, the target was Hill 141, which was taken by bayonet charge. Nightingale describes the attack.
My company led the attack with the Dublins and we had a great time. We saw the enemy, which was the chief thing and all the men shouted and enjoyed it tremendously. It was a relief after all that appalling sniping. We rushed straight to the top and turned 2000 Turks off the redoubt and poured lead into them at about 10 yards range. Nearly all the officers had been killed or wounded by now. A Colonel Doughty-Wylie who led the whole attack was killed at my side. I wrote in about him to the staff and he has been recommended for a VC. I buried him that evening and got our Padre to read the service over him.
Seven months later, an unknown woman visited the grave of Doughty-Wylie. His wife, probably; his lover, possibly.
The very day that he was killed there was a letter from Winston Churchill in the Times:
A voice had become audible, a note had been struck, more true, more thrilling, more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth in arms engaged in this present war, than any other.
That night, the Turks made a couple of attempts to retake the hill, but were held off. In the morning, the Dubsters were relieved by newly arrived French troops and returned to V Beach, where they breakfasted and tried to sleep on the hot beach among the dead.
Not for long. In the afternoon, they were moved to a new position ready for a battle planned for the next day, which became known as the First Battle of Krithia. Hunter-Weston's plan for this was more ambitious than effective. Little progress was made; casualties were high: a dismal shambles of a battle, all to no point.
On the night of May 1st, the Dubsters were attacked by a silent mass of Turks, creeping up through the gorse and bayoneting the men in their sleep. After five hours of hand-to-hand fighting, resisting charge after charge by the Turks, the Turks were driven off.
Gradually, the fighting diminished, as both sides began to recognise the expensive futility of attack. Bodies were everywhere. Nightingale records digging in one night and finding in the morning that he had dug in next to the remains of an officer of the K.O.S.B. who he had last seen at the Opera in Malta.
The stalemate began to resemble that on the Western Front, to avoid which had been the entire purpose of the Gallipoli Campaign.
Geddes returned from treatment, now promoted to command of the entire battalion. Nightingale comments: "Geddes is a ripping commanding officer to work with but he is frightfully worried and his hair is nearly white! I have never seen fellows get old so quickly."
There is a photograph of the Munsters on parade, taken by Guy Nightingale 18 days after the landing. 5 officers and 372 other ranks, from the 26 and 1002 who set out from Coventry. Two men, side by side, wear the new flat caps rather than the tropical helmets of Burma. My sister and I both believe we can recognise our father by his stance and believe the other must be Peter.
Nightingale was sent a copy of the Times in May. He complained vigorously about the way the news is softened, with news of casualties dribbled out gently to avoid alarm at home. "I suppose they'll try to make out it's been nothing at all out here, just a scrap with the Turks whereas it's been hell and frightfully mismanaged."
News management was more effective than military management. Kitchener allowed only one correspondent with the troops and his reports were heavily censored. Nevertheless, some glimmering of the true state of things must have dawned on some. In Coventry, starting with an account of Jarrett's 'heroic death', casualty lists were published each week through the year.
Sad stories for those in Earlsdon and Chapelfields. Paddy Long's brother, Jack: shot down in the water; the bridegroom and best man of January: gone. Sergeant O'Donaghue did not survive to carry his flag to Berlin. Martin O'Malley did die in his new boots. A photograph of ten-year-old Elsie on her bicycle was found in his effects and returned to her family with a covering letter. Most of those who received the mascot were dead, though the Graphic published a cheerful account of how the mascot, Buller, skipped onto V Beach through a hail of bullets and survived unharmed.
Many of the names might convey nothing though, doubtless, there would be sharper mourning in obscure Irish homes.
Reports and photographs regularly appeared of wounded in Alexandria. Later many large houses were converted into convalescent homes for wounded soldiers. There were 23 in Warwickshire.
The War Cabinet would perhaps receive less filtered news of Gallipoli. A 'sulphurous' contest of blame game was about to begin in London. Next moves on the Peninsula would depend on decisions taken there.
On the Peninsula, slowing of the pace of battle may have given the soldiers a brief chance to lift their eyes from the battlefield. They would have been all too aware of the military aspects of the landscape: the jagged terrain was as effective as barbed wire in resisting attack. Now, observer after observer commented on the extraordinary colourful and flower-filled beauty of that fresh Spring. The experience was brief.
Fresh Spring moved towards hot Summer. All around were the dead and the smell of death became unforgettably awful, the bodies food for flies. Food could not reach the mouth without clinging flies. The inevitable result was disease, particularly the debilitating dysentery, which the soldiers called the Turkey Trots.
The geography of the place had another unhelpful consequence. Soft limestone meant no water. All water had to be shipped in, so tiny rations of water had to suffice in the dreadful heat.
For the next three months, the war became almost routine, if agony can ever become routine; the smell of death and the sound of shell and bullet almost normality.
Not without incident. On 20th June a private Davis was posted as a flying sentry for two hours. One and a half hours later, when the sergeant checked, he was missing. He reported back to the guardroom three hours later. No field officer being available for his court martial, 2 majors and Guy Nightingale formed the court. Davis claimed that he had continued his duty till two o'clock, when he was struck by severe stomach pains and had to find a latrine, where he remained for two hours. He was disbelieved and, having a bad previous record, was executed. Nightingale appears to have had no qualms about this verdict, arguing that such conduct endangered other men.
At the end of June, Hunter-Weston ordered yet another attack to try and take Krithia. As so often, it began well; as so often, it faded against determined Turkish defenders and relentless machine guns. By the end of July, only three officers remained of the 26 who had landed in April and 314 other ranks, half of whom had returned after treatment for wounds.
Even in London, it was clear that nothing would be achievable without greater investment. Reinforcements of fresh, unbattled troops were found and despatched and a new plan hatched. The new strategy involved a landing at Suvla Bay, to cut off the Peninsula in the north. The Munsters, of course would know none of this; they just received the order, at the end of August, to move.
The fresh division, the 10th, were sent first to Mudros. Some of the 29th were resting there. One of the officers of the 10th recorded his impression:
Thus we learned from the men who had been at Gallipoli since they had struggled through the surf and the wire on April 25th the truth as to the nature of the fighting there. They taught us much by their words, but even more by their appearance; for, though fit, they were thin and worn and their eyes carried a weary look that told of the strain they had been through.
The landings at Suvla fell into a familiar pattern, initial success followed by failure, but with a new twist. What was unexpected was that the landings were, in a sense, too easy, against weak Turkish forces. What was then needed was a swift advance to capture the dominating hills beyond the coastal plain. Minds accustomed to the minimal advances of the Western Front could not adjust to this opportunity. Instead of exploiting the situation and advancing rapidly, they dug in against an expected counter-attack, which never came. So the Turks were given time to rush up troops and retain the heights.
The Munsters did not take part in the first weeks of Suvla. They were shipped in on August 21st and launched against Scimitar Hill. Here a new experience of horror awaited them. Shelling had set alight the dry undergrowth and many of the wounded were simply burned alive. Guy Nightingale described this:
We had to lie flat at the bottom of the trench while the flames swept over the top. Luckily both sides didn't catch simultaneously or I don't know what might have happened. After the gorse was burnt the smoke nearly asphyxiated us! ... The whole attack was a ghastly failure, they generally are now: Barrett, my old servant, who had only rejoined from hospital a short time ago, is still out there; dead, I hope for his sake, for those who are still alive and wounded must be suffering agonies from thirst and exposure.
Again both sides settled into defensive trench routines.
On 12th September, exactly six months from the inspection at Stretton, Sir Ian Hamilton visited the Munsters. Both Nightingale and Hamilton recorded the occasion. Nightingale:
It was a very different Bn to the one he saw in Egypt last. He was nice and insisted on being shown all the men and officers who had been here since the day of the landing, barely 40 in all, out of 1037.
Ran across in the motor boat to see the 86th. Brigade. Went man-by-man down the lines of the four battalions — no very long walk either! Shade of Napoleon — say, which would you rather not have, a skeleton Brigade or a Brigade of skeletons? This famous 86th Brigade is a combination. Were I a fat man, I could not bear it, but I am as insubstantial as they themselves. A life insurance office wouldn't touch us; and yet — they kept on smiling.
As signs of winter appeared, Nightingale grew more gloomy. Then he went down with enteric fever and was evacuated to Alexandria.
In London as in Gallipoli, realisation of the hopeless futility of it all slowly dawned. Hamilton was replaced and the decision to withdraw taken. This was executed with unexpected efficiency.
Fusilier Flynn, of the 1st RMF describes the withdrawal.
When we withdrew on the 20th December it was dark. The soldiers were all packed so tight and quiet in the barges making their way to the big ships. We never lost a man, which was remarkable. As we were steaming quietly away I thought of what 'Pincher' Martin, who had done twenty years in the Navy, had said to me a few days after we'd arrived at Suvla Bay: "We're not going to be flying the Union Jack here."
He was right. We were never going to make it ours.
Almost exactly a year after arriving in Coventry, the Munsters arrived back in Egypt.
The campaign cost 114 thousand lives: 66,000 Turks; 28,000; British; 10,000 Anzacs; 10,000 French. And countless wounded.
Bob and Peter Jordan? They survived. In what condition, I do not know. Certainly my father was wounded twice at Gallipoli, and there is a photograph of him in military hospital, possibly at Alexandria. He looks well enough and I guess he was lucky to get acceptable wounds. Peter was less lucky. He was severely wounded; whether at Gallipoli or later, I do not know. He was hospitalised at Clopton House, near Stratford-on-Avon for nearly a year. Mother visited him there and said that half his throat was shot away. Eventually, he was patched up and sent back to the front.
The campaign also cost Winston Churchill his job and he thought his political career was at an end. He protested loudly that his idea had not been tried properly and decided to go into the Army.
He was given command of a battalion. He thought he should have been given command of a Brigade, but got nowhere with his protests and had to cancel the brigadiers uniform he had ordered. For five months he conducted a vigorous campaign to rid his battalion of lice. Then boredom set in and his optimism and his restless ambition revived. He began to think of the possible advantages of resigning his commission and changing his party allegiance. He writes to Clementine, his wife, instructing her to mingle and use her influence in the London political scene.
Perhaps he might have a political future, after all?
There is little time for rest in war. Early in 1916 the battalion was sent to France, now to become part of the 16th (Irish) Division there. Soon Irish politics were to affect them. To understand why we need to go back a little in time.
In the Summer of 1914, the topic of conversation in political London was not Germany but the prospect of civil war in Ireland. The long campaign for Irish Home Rule had come to a head. Irish Nationalists were promised Home Rule by the Liberal Government. This was fiercely resisted by the Protestant Ascendency of the North, which had been effectively in charge, not only of Protestant Ulster but, also, of the Catholic South. They feared being dominated by those of a religion they regarded as alien.
Under the leadership of Carson the resistance became militant. "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right", was the slogan. Arms were acquired and training of a Volunteer Army began. In response, the Catholic Nationalists of the South began to raise a similar force of Volunteers.
Matters climaxed in 1914 with what became known as the Curragh Mutiny. The government in England showed signs that they were prepared to enforce Home Rule and put down any Protestant rising. Now, this was fiercely resented by many officers in the British Army in Ireland — not least by General Gough — many of whom were members of the Protestant Ascendency. They threatened to refuse orders and resign their commissions.
With the outbreak of war with Germany, matters subsided but did not go away. Among Nationalists of the South there was division. The Sinn Fein party saw England's difficulty as Ireland's opportunity. They conducted a vigorous campaign against the idea of Irishmen joining the British Army. The numerically larger Parliamentary Party, under John Redmond, took a different view. They were much more sympathetic about the immediate cause of the outbreak of war: the invasion of Belgium, a small nation, like themselves, by Germany. The Redmondites supported enlistment. Since enlistment was then voluntary, it must be supposed that soldiers of the RMF did not take the Sinn Fein view. This did not help them in the future since perception often counts for more than fact.
Just after the arrival of the 1RMF in France, there took place in Dublin The Easter Rising: rebellion against British Rule. To tell truth, it was a bit of a ragbag of a rebellion, organised, or rather disorganised by a mix of dreamers and activists. They took possession of the Dublin Post Office and a bakery and, really, not much more. The rebels were not popular with the inhabitants of Dublin, sometimes finding themselves spat upon by women, who might have men fighting at the front.
The British Army did not have too much difficulty putting down the revolt, bringing in superior force and gunships on the Liffey. Then they made an enormous mistake: they simply shot the ringleaders.
Suddenly, general Irish hostility to the rebels disappeared. They became, and have remained, Irish heroes. This was to have crucial importance in the later struggle for Irish Independence. The connection between events in Dublin and Gallipoli were clear to many Irishmen. The song 'The Foggy Foggy Dew' about the Easter Rising contains the lines:
Tis better to die 'neath an Irish sky Than at Suvla or Sedd-el Bahr.
The Rising had a more immediate effect on the 1st RMF. Within 48 hours, the Germans tried to turn it to propaganda advantage. They put up placards in the trenches opposite them. Under the heading 'Brave Munster Fusiliers', the Times reported that the Munsters responded by singing Irish songs and 'Rule Britannia'. A raiding party, many of them said to be wounded, crawled across no-mans-land and seized the obnoxious placards carrying them back in triumph. The battalion war diary was less dramatic. A reconnaissance party had found the placards in an unoccupied German sap and brought them back. They said: "Irishmen! Heavy Uproar in Ireland: English guns are firing at your wives and children! 1st May 1916."
Attitudes to the Munsters and other Irish regiments were changed by all this, however unfairly. There grew to be suspicion of their loyalty, particularly among the officer class. And among lower ranks: they could now be expected to be greeted with the taunt: "Here come the Sinn Feiners"
The battalion was lucky enough to be in reserve for that terrible day which launched the Battle of the Somme, but they were soon engaged in fighting, significantly alongside the largely Protestant 36th (Ulster) Division. In the Autumn they played a major part in the capture of Guillemont and Ginchy, two German strongpoints that had resisted attack after attack. The week of their capture was notable for fierce fighting in which perished Tom Kettle, Irish Nationalist Member of Parliament, writer friend of James Joyce and a character in many of Joyce's works. He wrote a beautiful poem for his daughter the night before he was killed.
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for the flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
Also killed that week was Raymond Asquith, writer son of the British Prime Minister, who also left memorable accounts of life in the trenches.
Also iconic for me is a photograph taken of soldiers of the 16th Division returning from that battle of Ginchy. Tiny details tell an unintended story. The groups of soldiers somehow have a jaunty look, though those nearest the camera carry on their shoulders a stretcher with a wounded soldier. They are passing a dead horse. You notice the hand of the wounded man, holding his forehead. You notice the schoolboy faces of some of the soldiers and that they pay no attention at all to the horse, it is clearly too ordinary a sight. And you notice that the horse, in its moment of deathly fear, has evacuated its bowels.
At Christmas, some relief for the Munsters. There is Leave. Bob Jordan returns to Coventry and he and Elsie Flemming are married. She has gathered together, in her own words, a few sticks of furniture for a home in a room above a shop in Far Gosford Street.
Back to the Front for the Year of Passchendaele. Again it is to be a story of great plans, with little success at great cost. The Haig doctrine of attrition, that ultimately we would be able to stand the casualties better than the Germans, was to be tried again. Soon, for once, the Munsters were about to be lucky in their general.
General Plumer could not have looked less like an effective general if he had tried. Think of an older version of the comic character 'Mr Pastry'. The very image of a blimp. But his actions demonstrated complete professional efficiency. The target was to be the Messines Ridge. The battle plan was thoroughly thought out in meticulous detail and rehearsed over and over. Survival, not sacrifice, was part of the thinking and the confidence of the soldiers was won. In the event, in June, an enormous explosion in tunnels dug under the German lines opened the attack, which was completely successful, with low casualties.
Elation did not last. The Messines battle was only a prelude to the main campaign that was about to begin. For this, the 16th Division was to be part of General Gough's 5th Army and this was unfortunate.
Gough was no impartial observer of Irish politics. In 1914, he had been a leading actor in the Curragh Incident. He had previously reported to the King's Private Secretary:
The Nationalist Party would not be loyal. The idea of these disloyal men becoming our rulers was an outrage to very decent feeling I possessed — they would not give us clean government but, instead we would have corruption and graft and probably the country would be inundated with unscrupulous Irish American low class politicians — I could not tolerate the possibility of having a priest-ridden government.
These views would not be without future relevance.
As if timed to coincide with the opening of the attack on the Passchendaele Ridge, the rains came. It rained and it rained. It rained in cataracts such as no one could remember. The 16th were given targets on the Fregenburg Ridge. They had a long march to the battle, were thrown straight in and fought from zero hour till nightfall. But they were thrown back. The corps commander was full of praise for their performance but, yet, they were thrown back.
At first reports of the Great Battle were golden accounts of triumph. Misleading reports sent by Haig encouraged this belief. The Times reported: "Everywhere our objectives were obtained. — The beginning is splendid — The German front line broken ... Casualties remarkably light."
It was not true; it could hardly have been less true. As this became apparent, blame began to fly and the commanders concerned hastened to revise history. Haig seemed to blame his commanders for being in too much of a hurry and not following his suggestion of waiting for better weather. Gough found a more congenial scapegoat: blame the political unreliability of the 16th for inducing insufficient determination.
There is nothing new in Generals blaming their troops when things go wrong. I can't help being reminded of an occasion six decades earlier, when John Jordan, then an eighteen-year-old, was flung with the rest of the 57th Regiment of Foot — the original 'Diehards' — against strong Russian defences at the Redan, Sevastopol. They were repulsed and there was criticism from Lord Raglan. An observant Colonel took a different view:
The men, I understand did not behave well. But this no doubt arose from mismanagement of the attack and is possibly a good lesson for some of our officers, who always think that British pluck has done and can do, everything. Now British pluck is not absolutely universal. When present it is as good as any pluck, and is in some respects better but without head is worth very little.
To me, Gough's attitude seems like a case of: "my mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts." For the record, the 16th lost 221 officers and 4064 men in the first 20 days of August. But a sort of whispering campaign against Irish soldiers had begun.
It would be tedious to detail the despondent soldiering of the British Army for the rest of 1917. This was the point at which there set in a kind of hopeless despair in the mud and blood of Passchendaele. Many died of drowning in the shell-holes. The Munsters, with the cold, wet, lice, and rats of Flanders might even have been nostalgic for the parched heat and flies of Gallipoli.
Meanwhile there took place an event that would have profound effects on the soldiers in 1918: The Russian Army collapsed and the October Revolution took Russia out of the War. This allowed the Germans to transfer something like 70 Divisions from the Eastern Front to the Western.
In December the 16th were moved East of Peronne, to what was reckoned a quiet sector.
As 1918 opened, the British High Command realised that the Germans would use the massive new forces for an attack aimed at ending the War before American troops arrived in numbers to change the balance of power, but GHQ misjudged where it would take place. Haig was more concerned about the northern part of the line because of the threat to the Channel Ports. Consequently, in the south, Gough's 5th Army held 42 miles of front with fewer men than elsewhere. Brigades were reduced from 4 battalions to 3 and those understrength.
To cope with the lack of men, a new theory of war was borrowed from the Germans: Defence in Depth. The Germans had had years to implement the method; the British had only a few weeks.
Briefly, the system relied, since there were insufficient men to man trenches — defence in breadth — on separated strong points, from which cross firing machine guns would destroy attacking troops. Beyond that there would be troops in a battle zones to deal with any breakthrough, and reserves further back.
It may have been a good system, given time, but in practice, projected strong points that appeared on maps did not always exist in reality. Whether the Germans realised how weakly held was this section of the Front is not clear, but it was here that the Germans massed.
As the winter passed, Gough began to be alarmed at signs of activity in front of 5th Army but his concerns were dismissed by GHQ, who said it "was unlikely to be the scene of serious hostile attack." Gough, in turn, resisted requests from 16th Division officers on the spot for changes to meet the inadequacies. They wanted reserves further forward. Gough refused, saying: "The Germans are not going to break my line.", a response received with pessimism by the 16th.
The huge assault, which became known as the Kaiserschlacht, was launched on 21st March and aimed with some precision at the point where the 16th were placed. Four weak battalions faced a dozen times as many German battalions.
At 4.30 in the morning, 6000 German guns delivered the heaviest bombardment of the war. With the explosive shells were mixed gas shells: chlorine, mustard, tear gas. The earth trembled with the force of it all.
The total confusion that followed was assisted by heavy fog. Trenches collapsed, wire and strong points flattened. Infantry groped about in gas masks. Horses panicked. Command and control virtually ceased to exist as communication cables were broken by the shellfire. The defenders were deaf, dumb and blind.
When the German Infantry assault began, they found it easy, hidden by the fog, to infiltrate between and surround the strong points and destroy with grenades. Behind them, through the gaps, followed hordes of Germans. Units in the so-called battle zone found themselves cut off and surrounded.
The 1st RMF were lucky that day: they were some way back in Reserve, with 6th Connaught Rangers. A knee jerk order for a counter attack was given. It was a useless, suicidal gesture. Someone at HQ must have realised this for the order was cancelled. The Munsters got the second order in time; the Rangers did not. The result for them was a tragic episode of useless valour.
At GHQ it was thought that the Germans would halt to re-organise the next day. They did not; they swept forward. Many units found themselves cut off and surrounded. Some fought till the ammunition ran out and then were forced to surrender. The Munsters were among those cut off. The Great Retreat had begun.
On the 23rd, Gough ordered retirement behind the Somme and the remaining decimated battalions of the 16th slipped away. They were mixed with vast columns of French civilians, fleeing with whatever possessions they could manage.
Confusion everywhere. The destruction of the Somme bridges was ordered. Mixed groups from different units organised a fighting retreat from behind German lines as best they could. A mixed group of 1st RMF and 6th Rangers, under the command of Lt. Col Feilding, gathered stragglers from other units. They tried several bridges across the Somme without success. Finally they got across by rushing the guards on a bridge occupied by Germans.
With others, they were gathered for hastily organised defence before Amiens. It held and counter attacks began. Feilding was wounded and Guy Nightingale, now a Major, assumed command.
Despite the disorganisation and confusion, the Amiens line held and Foch was put in overall command at a hurried conference of High Command in Doullens. The Germans failed in their attack on 30th March.
After the Retreat, the inevitable blame game began. Gough was sacked. Haig did defend him on grounds of lack of adequate resources but this reason would have reflected badly on the government itself, so it was ignored. The 16th also came in for criticism for lack of determination, not least from Haig. There seems to have been no evidence other than prejudice for this and it flew in the face of German accounts. Nightingale is furious about the criticism:
We owe it all to the Sinn Fein trouble. An Irish division or regiment is mud out here or anywhere and however fine it did there would be all sorts of nasty rumours.
Later he wrote:
I'm glad I'm an Englishman in an Irish regiment, as I can go unprejudiced to those outside fellows and tell them straight that though I'm not an Irishman I would sooner be in an Irish regiment with Irish soldiers behind me in a scrap than any English or Scotch troops they would like to produce.
Nevertheless, what little was left of the 16th Division was disbanded and the remains sent to other Divisions. 1RMF went to 57th Division.
Somewhere in all that confusion Peter Jordan was wounded and he died of wounds on 30th May. The adjoining graves to his are those of a group of Canadians who were killed in a German bombing of a hospital at Doullens that same day. Whether Peter's death was part of the same incident, I do not know.
The Kaiserschlacht was the Germans last serious throw. They had advanced more than any time since Mons, yet a little mysteriously they were on the verge of collapse. Part may be psychology. Even before March 21st, there were some signs of low morale among the Germans. Even during their advance, there were signs of indiscipline, many getting drunk on French wines and enjoying the stores they found, instead of pressing home the attack on Amiens. For some, knowing of their families close to starvation at home, the relative plenty of the Allies may have created something like hopeless despair. Add to that the prospect of the arrival of unlimited American soldiers and their victory may have had a touch of hollowness.
Twice more, the Germans attacked and failed. In August they were attacked, in turn, in what came to be called the black day of the German Army. From now on they are in general retreat.
The 1st RMF, with the 57th Division are with the first group to break through the Hindenburg Line
Nightingale records it all. Still protesting about the bad treatment of Irish regiments, he also records the steady forward movement:
The Boche is evidently very worried and doesn't know where he is. He is shelling very unmethodically and mostly with big guns further back than usual... Gerry is gassing us at present, but so wildly and vaguely that it can do no harm.
In September, the crumbling morale of the Germans evidenced by extremely cooperative prisoners: "The prisoners we took this morning said that they were flogged on to the attack last night and ended by shooting their officer."
But danger is not behind them. Nightingale takes command again when the CO is killed. A much-reduced battalion of 7 officers and 261 men.
By mid-October, they were outside Lille and soon after entered the town as Liberators:
This morning we walked into a city with 125,000 civilians still there, mostly women and all in a high state of excitement! I laughed till I nearly fell off my horse. It was a bit early in the morning and they were not expecting to see any troops, but they were brought from their beds by the sound of our band playing O'Brien Bourru and the Marseillaise! They were laughing and screaming and crying and flinging themselves round the necks of the men and I was very glad that I was on my horse and even then was nearly pulled off several times.
Somehow that recalls the moment they left Coventry, nearly 4 years before. And somehow, after that, all is anti-climax. The Munsters ended the War in Lille and formed the Guard of Honour there for the French President. One of those present for the celebration was Winston Churchill; now back in the Government, as Minister of Munitions.
I have a sort of imagined picture of Nightingale and my father and the very few of those that left Coventry looking at each other emotionally and emotionless.
Kipling has described beautifully the peculiar psychological confusion of the moment when the Armistice was signed on the 11th hour of the11th day of the 11th month:
Men took the news according to their natures. Indurated pessimists, after proving it was a lie, said it would be just an interlude. Others retired into themselves as if they had been shot, or went stiffly about the meticulous execution of some trumpery detail of kit-cleaning. Some turned around and fell asleep then and there; and a few lost all holds for a while. It was the appalling new silence of things that soothed and unsettled them in turn. They did not realise until all sounds of their trade ceased, and the stillness stung their ears as soda water stings the palate, how entirely these had been part of their strained bodies and souls. It felt like falling through into nothing. Listening for what wasn't there and trying not to shout when you remembered for why.
Nightingale's account is somehow much more downbeat, almost depressed:
I expect you had a great time when the Armistice was signed. We had a very quiet time. We were in Lille and heard about it at about 9 a.m. Nothing happened. We had parades till 12.30 as usual... There was no excitement in the place we were in... I believe they rang the bells at some of the big churches in Lille, but that was all. Since then we've been training harder than ever and have had several inspections by Generals.
The rest is epilogue. With Irish Independence, the Royal Munster Fusiliers were disbanded in 1922. Guy Geddes was one of the small group handing over the Colours at the ceremony at Windsor.
Bob Jordan returned to Coventry, got drunk at the Victory Celebrations and had to be helped home. For the next 27 years, he and Elsie applied themselves to the difficult but more congenial work of raising a family in the harsh economies of the Twenties and Thirties. They lost their eldest son in the Second World War.
There is a curious little incident, which stays in my mind, at the end of that WW2. In the general election of 1945 Winston Churchill came to Coventry, electioneering. He was naturally then at the height of popularity and everyone wanted to see him. Except my father, who said very firmly: "I wouldn't cross the road to see him." He was the least political of men and, as a 14-year-old boy, I took this in with silent incomprehension. I did not then know about Gallipoli. Within a month or so Churchill had been defeated by Clement Attlee, one of those who fought at Gallipoli. A few days after that my father died suddenly and, a few days later, the atom bomb was dropped and another War was over.
Guy Nightingale seems to have found difficulty in adapting to Peace. He was still in his twenties and had no experience since school except soldiering. He did bits of soldiering about the world, then retired to Somerset as a half-pay Major. He died at the age of 43, in 1935. There are differing accounts of his death. One, dramatically, says he killed himself with his own service revolver on the twentieth anniversary of the Landing on V Beach. A second obituary suggests a long illness, bravely endured. The death certificate is more prosaic. It gives three causes: cardiac syncope; delirium tremens and chronic alcoholism. "'What is Truth?', said Jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer."
The casualties of war do not all take place on the battlefield. Let the last word go to Maude Nightingale, Guy's mother. Writing from a Nursing Home in Newbury in 1947 to the former chaplain of the Munsters, she writes:
The mishandling of the RMF broke my Guy's heart — I am glad you saw Guy's grave — I shall never cease to miss him. I am 83 now so it will not be long before I see him. I have no family left in England: my daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren are scattered all over the Empire.
Perhaps not quite the last word. Let that go to the Irish poet, Tom Kettle, who was killed, on the Somme, at Ginchy:
I have seen war and faced Artillery and I know what an outrage it is against simple men.