Alexander Pepys’ War Diary – December 1917

The first few days of December saw the forced withdrawal of our troops to winter lines. Despite the early signs of the long-awaited breakthrough the stalemate of the past three years prevailed. Again, our casualties were high. Both Passchendaele and Cambrai promised so much but delivered little return, except grief to so many families in the British Isles and Dominions.

A t least away from the Western Front, the 11th brought the good news of the Turks leaving Jerusalem. After 673 years of subservience to Mecca, Christians were able to worship at the centre of our faith. The Turks did try later to recapture the City but were driven back.

A worrying development is the ceasefire on the Eastern front. The Imperial Commander-in-Chief was murdered. The Czech prisoners of war, allowed by him to form themselves into a military formation, now have no choice other than to move east towards Vladivostok, 5,000 miles away. But this will release some 100,000 German soldiers for use on the Western Front should the Kaiser decide. We shall need to strip the factories of fitter men, replacing them by women, to counteract the threat, as well as taking new conscripts of younger years.

This gloomy prediction of Auckland Geddes was heightened by secret discussions in Switzerland to conclude a separate truce with the Austrian Empire and the Turks. Neither parties are willing to conclude peace in case Germany defeats the Allies after the Russian collapse.

The Austrians showed their willingness to continue fighting by launching a large attack in the Dolomites. But the peaks they seized were retaken by Italian next day; the snow then came, stopping further fighting.

Canadian citizens now are taking losses besides their gallant soldiers. Early in the month a munitions ship, the ‘Mont Bland’, blew up in Halifax harbour. Up to 2,000 were killed, some 10,000 injured.

Our Intelligence tell that the civilians of the Axis countries are suffering hugely from our blockade. Not that I can be sympathetic, British rationing is causing hardship. Whilst the military leaders suppress the civilian populations in these countries, there will be no relief for them.

For me, 1917 will always be the passing of my beloved Natasha. Though I cannot forgive her irresponsibility in persuading the Canadian doctor to take her forward into the trenches, I forgave her for the years of love, friendship and carrying our three lovely children. I recognise it was her spirit, which I admired so much, that led her to disaster. It was that spirit that helped her continue her nursing and looking after the children, especially Rose in the aftermath of Rory’s death in the ‘Invincible’.

Once Cambrai was closed down, I and our staff were able to wind down after ensuring the administration of the engines and rolling stock in France was in hand to maintain supplies to our troops and to prepare them for 1918. Eric Geddes tabled a dinner at the Reform Club for his ‘brothers-in-War’. He was pleased that we had overcome the many glitches, including the transportation of the tanks from British factories to the Cambrai front. Thinking of which, I was glad not to have been sniped near Bourlon Wood.

The highlight of my leave at home was the Christmas Eve request by Charles to ask for my daughter’s hand in marriage. Though Rose is young, she told me that she loves him. I agreed the request. Next day they left in the early hours to motor cycle to his parents. For the rest of the family, we were in good spirits, Flora and Delphine fashioned a magnificent lunch out of the available rations and we spent the afternoon in card games before an evening in front of the log fire, the wood having been cut by Thom.