On the Western Front, the Ceaseless Trail of Death.
‘The Foment of Revolution’
Special to The Great War Project.
(22 October) It was during these days a century ago that “the British army,” reports historian Adam Hochschild , “experienced the nearest thing to a mutiny on the Western Front.”
“Six days of intermittent rioting by several thousand troops at the big supply and training base” at Etaples in northern France.”
According to Hochschild, “a military policeman killed one soldier.”
“Amid protest meetings, the red flag flew briefly, and one rebel was later tried and executed. Rates of desertion and drunkenness rose, and the army increased the ratio of military police to other soldiers.
One veteran British soldier described the scene near the Belgian village of Passchendaele as the battle there dragged on and on, and soldiers continued to die senselessly: “Reinforcements shambled up passed the guns with dragging steps and the expressions of men who knew they were going to certain death. No words of greeting passed as they slouched along, in sullen silence they filed past one by one to the sacrifice.”
But the British command – especially General Douglas Haig, the top commander of British forces on the Western Front — would hear nothing of protest or dissent among the troops.
Reports historian Hochschild, “When a brave colonel told him that further fruitless attacks would leave no resources for an offensive next spring, Haig turned white with anger and said, “Colonel, leave the room.”
More and more rain fell and more and more British soldiers succumbed to the mud at Passchendaele. During these days a century ago, another British general toured the front. “Approaching the battlefield, he saw for the first time the terrible expanse of mud, dotted with water-filled shell wholes. Reportedly he said: “Good God. Did we really send men to fight in that?” He is then said to have burst into tears, although there is some dispute about that.”
It is not surprising that these days a century ago, according to historian Hochschild, “late 1917 was a time of great nervousness for British ruling circles….
The Times newspaper ran a series of articles on “The Foment of Revolution,” and government control of the press tightened…
as a new regulation subjected all books and pamphlets about the war, or the prospects for peace to censorship.”
“More than 4,000 censors were at work monitoring both the press and the mail. For the first time, police suppressed two issues of the Workers’ Dreadnought. Rumors flew that German money was somehow financing antiwar activities.” Surveillance operations increased.
But it was not possible to contain reports of the terrible bloodletting at Passchendaele. “The public began to sense it,” writes Hochschild, ‘and the mood in England turned bleaker.”
Word of the enormous bloodletting at Passchendaele came back to England with the legions of wounded soldiers, a macabre counterpoint to the parade of triumphal headlines. Some of the survivors were in wheelchairs or hobbled along with crutches or on wooden legs.
Wrote one observer: “All the time the big guns were roaring in Flanders,” heard as far away as southern England, so we could hear the war and see the sad results of it.”