A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

Continuing our centenary series, Margot Asquith, the wife of the Prime Minister, describes a haunting trip through the ruins of Ypres

At 1.30pm on 12 December, the Belgian Commander accompanied me across the brick paths through the sand dunes to the King’s villa. My coat was taken off by two footmen in black, and I was shown into the sitting-room, where I found a tall fair man studying a map, and leaning over a low mantelpiece. He turned round and shook hands, and we sat down and began to talk. I thought to myself: “You are extraordinarily like your King,” but I have often observed that Court people take on the look of their Kings and Queens, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

It was not till he congratulated me on having a remarkable husband, and alluded in touching terms to Henry’s speech on him and the sorrows of Belgium, that I suspected who he was. I instantly got up and curtsied to the ground, at which he smiled rather sadly, and, the Queen interrupting us, we all went into the dining-room.

We had an excellent lunch of soup, roast beef, potatoes, and a sweet flavoured with coffee. I found the King easy and delightful; both wise, uncomplaining, and real.

He has no swagger, and is keen and interested in many things. I told him I had bought several photographs of him to sign for me to take back to England, but they all had dark hair. He said it was clever of the photographer to give him any hair at all, as he was getting balder daily, and felt that everything about him was both dark and bald.

He told me, among other things, that the Germans had trained off to Germany all his wife’s clothes and under-clothes, and all his own wine, adding: “As I drink nothing, this is no loss to me, but it is strange for any soldier to steal a woman’s clothes.”

After lunch M Davreux, Major Gordon and I motored to the Belgian trenches and on to Pervyse Station. We passed a dead horse lying in a pool of blood and heard the first big guns I have ever heard in my life; the sound of which excited and moved me to the heart. Aeroplanes hovered like birds overhead in a pale and streaky sky.

We passed a convoy of men with straggling winter trees upon their bent backs going to hide the artillery. For miles round the country was inundated with sea-water; and the roads, where they were not pavé, were swamps of deep and clinging mud. The fields were full of holes, and looked like solitaire boards. The houses had been smashed and gutted and were without inhabitants; only a few soldiers could be seen smoking or cooking in the deserted doorways. Every church was littered with bits of bombs, and débris of stained glass, twisted ribbons of molten lead, and broken arms of the outstretched Christ.

Major Gordon had brought a wooden cross with him to put on the grave of the Duke of Richmond’s son, and I had taken one out at the request of Lord and Lady Lansdowne to put on their boy’s grave at Ypres, where we ultimately arrived.

The Ypres cemetery will haunt me for ever. No hospital of wounded or dying men could have given me a greater insight into the waste of war than that dripping, gaunt and crowded churchyard. There were broken bits of wood stuck in the grass at the head of hundreds of huddled graves, with English names scrawled upon them in pencil. Where the names had been washed off, forage-caps were hanging, and they were all placed one against the other as closely as possible.

I saw a Tommy digging, and said: “Who is that grave for?” He answered without  stopping or looking at me: “For  the next...”

Two English officers, holding their caps in their hands, were standing talking by the side of an open grave, and single soldiers were dotted about all over the cemetery.

Major Gordon, who had borrowed a spade, asked me if I would help him by holding the cross upright, which I was only too glad to do till we had finished.

All the time I was standing in the high wet grass I thought of the Lansdownes and my heart went out to them.

Suddenly a fusillade of guns burst upon our ears. It seemed as if some of the shells might hit us at any moment, they were so near and loud.

Margot Asquith, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith and the wife of Britain’s wartime leader Margot Asquith, the Countess of Oxford and Asquith and the wife of Britain’s wartime leader (Getty Images)
Aeroplanes circled over our heads, and every soldier in the cemetery put on his cap and rushed away.

An excited Belgian officer, with a few other men, ran up to me and, pointing to a high mound, said would I not like to see the German guns, as one could only die once.

As Major Gordon had left me to go to a further cemetery, I was glad enough to accompany them. Frightfully excited and almost deafened by the Crack! Crack!! Crack!!! Boom!! Boom!!! I tore up to the top of the hill with the officer holding my elbow.

Had it not been for a faint haze over the landscape I could have seen everything distinctly. Thin white lines of smoke, like poplars in a row, stood out against the horizon, and I saw the flash of every German gun.

My companion said that if the shells had been coming our way they would have gone over our heads; the German troops, he explained, must have come on unknown to them in the night, and he added he did not think that either the Belgians, the British, or the French knew at all what they were up to.

A French officer, looking furious, arrived panting up the hill and coming up to me said I was to go down and remain under the shelter of the Hospital walls immediately. Two Belgian soldiers who had joined us asked me if I was not afraid to stand in the open, so close to the German guns. I said not more than they were, at which we all smiled and shrugged our shoulders; and the French officer took me down the hill to the Hospital quadrangle, where I waited for Major Gordon.

The clatter of the guns was making every pane in every window shiver and rattle till I thought they must all break, and sitting in our motor, writing my diary, I felt how much I should have hated fighting.

A French sentry after eyeing me for some time came up and presented me with his stomach-belt of blue cashmere. I thanked him warmly and gave him six boxes of Woodbine cigarettes, of which I had brought an enormous quantity. A Belgian Tommy, on seeing this, took off his white belt and presented it to me with a salute which moved me very much.

I began to think Major Gordon must be killed, as he had been away for over an hour. The sun was high and when he returned his face was bathed in perspiration. He told me he had put the Duke of Richmond’s cross on his son’s grave in a cemetery so close to the German lines he thought every moment would have been his last, and after munching a few biscuits we started off on our journey south.

On our way to Merville we stopped at Major Gordon’s brother-in-law’s house, a cottage at the side of the road. It was pitch dark and we had tea with him in the kitchen, lit by one dim oil lamp.

We had not been at the table more than a few minutes when a loud sound, like the hissing of an engine, made the whole cottage rock and sway.

I felt genuinely frightened and wondered what the children were doing at home.

An aide-de-camp dashed out of the room and came back scarlet in the face. “If you please, sir,” he said, saluting: “four Jack Johnsons have dropped 30 yards from the door.”

General Nicholson jumped up white as a sheet and said to his brother-in-law: “Great God, what will the Prime Minister say? I’ve let you in, my dear Gordon! ... but I assure you, Mrs Asquith, we’ve not had a shell or a shot here for weeks past....”

From ‘The Autobiography of Margot Asquith’ (1920-22; reprinted with an introduction by M Bonham Carter, 1962) 

© The Trustees of the Asquith/Bonham Carter papers

Tomorrow: Yorkshire under attack

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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