14 SEPTEMBER, 1917: You And Whose Army?

Today marks the centenary of one of modern history’s great non-events: General Kornilov’s attempt to seize control of Russia by a military coup in Petrograd.  It never really got off the ground, and the details of its inception are shrouded in controversy, but it did trigger another decisive shift in the cascading process of Russia’s long and winding Revolution.  As such it was lot more significant for the future of the world than any of the ferocious fighting taking place in Western Europe in the late summer of 1917, and it gifts me a chance to catch up with the Russian Provisional Government’s doomed quest for a moderate socialist revolution.

I last hung around Petrograd (to ruin a Stones quote) at the end of the Kerenski Offensive, an attempt to silence peace-mongers at home while pleasing allies abroad that failed militarily and backfired politically.  In its aftermath, the Provisional Government’s precarious perch on the fence became uninhabitable.  While grass-roots socialists were mobilising workers and soldiers for popular revolution on the streets, liberal political forces, rather less liberal business interests and generally authoritarian military leaders – all necessary props for a regime clinging to legitimacy on shifting ground – were pulling in the opposite direction, desperate for some restoration of order before anarchy or the Germans took over.

Crisis came quickly.  Four cabinet members from the essentially liberal Kadet Party resigned on 15 July, and protest against the ‘betrayal’ of the failed offensive hit the streets of Petrograd the following morning, beginning four days of armed demonstrations known as the July Days (which for once took place in July by both the old- and new-style calendars).

Begun on 16 July by a regiment of machine-gun troops in the capital, street protests quickly erupted among workers and other troops, all demanding peace and many coining the Bolshevik slogan ‘all power to the soviets’.  By the next day protest had spread to the Baltic naval base at Kronstadt, to Moscow and to almost every other Russian town of any size, a chaotic, violent expression of popular discontent that couldn’t be controlled by the Provisional Government, the Petrograd Soviet (which refused popular demands for it to take power) or any other political group.

The anti-War Bolsheviks, at this stage still a minority pressure group agitating for workers’ revolution, did have a stab at directing the protests towards insurrection, but in a characteristically divided and somewhat chaotic manner.  Some Bolsheviks in Petrograd supported the protests from 16 July and urged violent overthrow of the state, but the party’s leadership, including Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev, withheld formal support until the following day, and then called for the movement to remain non-violent.  The Bolsheviks officially withdrew their support on 18 July, by which time it had become clear that the Provisional Government and loyal Army units were willing and able to unite in suppressing the nascent rebellion.

July Days, Petrograd: there’s a riot going on and the Army’s not firing blanks.

They had done just that by 20 July (all these are new-style dates), and on 21 July Kerenski, the one political figure acceptable to both socialists and liberals, stepped up to become premier in a new ministry.  More reliant than ever on military and business support, less able than ever to represent the revolutionary pacifism engulfing soldiers, sailors and workers through their soviets, Kerenski lurched to the right in a bid to restore some kind of order.

The Bolsheviks were publicly accused of inciting the protests using German money, with Trotsky and other leaders imprisoned while Lenin escaped to Finland.  New laws were introduced restricting public gatherings and, under pressure from the military, Kerenski sanctioned restoration of the recently abolished death penalty to encourage military discipline.

At this point, General Lavrenti Kornilov moves to centre stage.  An unremarkable divisional general in 1915, when he was captured on the Eastern Front, Kornilov had ensured his status as a Russian Army hero and his rapid promotion by escaping from a Hungarian prison in the summer of 1916.  Thought to have some sympathy with liberal reforms, he had been put in command of the politically crucial Petrograd garrison after the February Revolution.  Any liberal principles withered in the face of mass rebellion, and he had resigned in May after Kerenski, under pressure from the Petrograd Soviet, refused to let him suppress street protests with armed troops.

Returning to the front in command of the Ninth Army during the Kerenski Offensive, Kornilov had achieved fleeting success in its early phases.  When the offensive’s overall failure forced the removal of Brusilov as Army c-in-c, he was the obvious replacement, and the Petrograd business and political classes generally welcomed his appointment on 1 August as the best hope of rescuing the Army as an instrument of state.

Kornilov gets the hero treatment in Moscow, August 1917.

What happened a month later is only vaguely understood, with details lost in a miasma of self-serving memoirs and political interpretations, so here’s a rough guide to the best guesses available to the dispassionate.

With its links to the Petrograd Soviet crumbling, and the Soviet anyway losing control over the revolutionary tide, the new coalition found itself planning for the restoration of order alongside moderate political opinion, business interests and the Army.  At the same time the government could only claim any kind of legitimacy by looking like representatives of the people’s will (and Kerenski was anyway a moderate socialist at heart), so discussions about what to do next were necessarily carried out in an atmosphere of secrecy and deniability.

Somewhere along the line, probably at a meeting in Moscow on 24 August, somebody in the Provisional Government – conceivably but probably not Kerenski – agreed to support Kornilov’s plan to restore order, as did a group of wealthy businessmen during a separate meeting with the general.  Since the plan involved marching his best and most loyal troops, most of them Cossacks, into the capital to arrest the Bolsheviks, break up the Petrograd Soviet, disarm the soviet-controlled Petrograd garrison and impose martial law, this amounted to a military coup.

Nobody has ever conclusively established whether Kornilov, by now the Army’s unchallenged figurehead, or Kerenski was to lead any new regime.  The scraps of available evidence suggests that Kornilov intended to establish a military regime and make himself dictator, but a minority claim that Kerenski was complicit in the plan, at least at the time of its conception.  Either way, once the last Russian survivors had been extricated from the front at Riga (3 September, 1917:  Trial By Fire), Kornilov began assembling his forces for railway journeys into Petrograd.

Kerenski wasn’t having it.  He may have accepted the idea of putting Petrograd under martial law, but once attempts to communicate with Kornilov had failed to clarify the general’s intentions the premier moved decisively to avert what he saw as an essentially counter-revolutionary military putsch.  Only one move was available to him, and so he put his faith in the revolutionary left.

The government denounced Kornilov as a traitor and stripped him of command on 8 September, installing Kerenski as the new c-in-c.  It issued calls for workers and soldiers to defend Petrograd from (as ever, allegedly German-sponsored) attack, and the Petrograd Soviet temporarily buried its party squabbles to organise the mobilisation. As Bolshevik leaders, including Trotsky, were released from prison to do what they did best, get the masses armed and onto the streets, and Kronstadt sailors arrived to defend the capital, the threat of ‘counter-revolution’ found the wildcat world of Petrograd in frenzied unity.

Say what you like about Lenin and the Bolsheviks, they knew how to organise the streets for action.

Counter-revolution didn’t live up to the hype, or even get started. Railway workers refused to run trains into the capital, and delegations of troops from Petrograd convinced most of Kornilov’s men to change sides, before Kornilov and his senior officers were arrested on 14 September.  Apart from one or two suicides among Kornilov’s aides, not a shot was fired.

Kornilov wasn’t finished.  He would escape from imprisonment in Bykhov Monastery within two months, and go on to become the first commander of the Volunteer Army, the main anti-Bolshevik force during the Russian Civil War, until he was killed by shellfire in April 1918.  Meanwhile his bid for power had achieved precisely the opposite of its intentions, because the Provisional Government had used the prospect of counter-revolution to mobilise the hard left in defence of the Motherland.

Counter-revolution was of course a genuine possibility in Russia during 1917, because the Army, the money and a large swathe of the political establishment were all more concerned with defeating what now became known as Bolshevism than with any post-Tsarist principles of their own.  Kerenski was well aware of this when he negotiated with them in the aftermath of the July Days, but seems to have been surprised by their lurch towards military dictatorship, forcing him to adopt very high-risk tactics in an attempt to stop them.

Kerenski’s call to arms at least partially vindicated and legitimised the Bolsheviks, enabling them to claim much of the credit for fighting off counter-revolution.  The threat of counter-revolution and/or conquest remained hot news (as it would in Russia for the next seventy years or so), and the Bolsheviks never looked back. Within days of Kornilov’s arrest they had won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet for the first time, a reflection of their burgeoning popularity wherever soviets had formed.  Meanwhile the Army’s disintegration was hastened by the failed coup, with most units melting away to their homes or joining new Red Guard units under the command of soviets, and Kerenski found himself hopelessly isolated, accused by the left of being in league with Kornilov and abandoned by the right (the Kadets quit again) for ‘betraying’ the general.  After months of instability as it manoeuvred in search of non-existent central ground, the Provisional Government was now a certified lame duck – and about to be a dead one.

Kerenski tends to be dismissed by historical commentators on all sides as a failure, too flexible (or dithering) to achieve what liberals wanted, too much the bourgeois compromiser for left-wing tastes and a scapegoat to right-wing opinion in need of someone to blame for the USSR.  Personally I’ve always found him a rather sad figure, a very competent, essentially well-meaning politician of the normal sort thrust into circumstances nobody could have sorted out – a bit like some of the War’s better generals. The Kornilov Revolt was his final nemesis.  By handing authority to the left, he effectively condemned his own vision of social democratic reform to death, but he isn’t responsible for, and could hardly have predicted, the long-term horrors inflicted on Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the world by the revolution that followed.  So maybe posterity should give him a small pat on the back for choosing the hard road to protect what looked like a good cause.

Gone and largely forgotten – Kerenski’s grave in SW London.

3 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Trial By Fire

First of all, on the off chance anyone’s noticed, apologies for being AWOL lately.  Plenty of travel, a busted laptop, a touch of war weariness and the presence of small children… give that lot to 1917’s sword bearers during a Mediterranean heatwave, they could’ve stopped the First World War in no time.  In my case it’s merely slowed things down a little, and requires me to slip something slight into the early September slot.  That’s fairly appropriate, because I want to spend a little time on the Eastern Front, and a century ago the war in Eastern Europe was all but over.

July’s failed Kerenski Offensive had left the Russian Army in no shape for any kind of attack, while what little coherent energy Austro-Hungarian forces could muster was focused on the Italian Front and everyone involved, including the Romanian Army, had settled for status quo in the Romanian campaign.  Only the German high command had the strength to consider attacking options in the east, but its thoughts had turned to exploitation of occupied territories, its ambitions were still centred on submarine warfare and its immediate concern was defence of the Western Front.

All the same, the German Army did bother to launch one last attack in the east, at the far northern end of the front, where a limited offensive launched on 1 September took the Latvian capital of Riga two days later.  It did this for three reasons, and one of them was quite interesting.

The first was a matter of tidiness, because Russian positions in front of Riga formed a small but irritating bulge in the line. The second was a matter of provocation, because a move on Riga might suggest a further attack towards Petrograd and add to the ongoing chaos in the Russian capital. The third reason was a matter of military experiment, because the German Army thought it had found a way to beat defensive trench warfare.  This was a potentially crucial development, and needed testing.

I think I’ve made it clear over the years that ‘breakthrough tactics’ had been tried, tried again and found wanting on all the main European battle fronts since 1915, but were still being used on the grounds that more men and bigger bombardments might just make them work.  BEF commander Haig had stuck with breakthrough tactics for his latest attack around Ypres, with disastrous consequences, and was only just learning to make use of the alternative approaches demonstrated at Messines in June.  The German Army was meanwhile developing a more radical departure from breakthrough, advocated in print by a French Army captain in 1915 but first put to full practical use during the attack on Riga. Called ‘infiltration tactics’ by the British, they were known to the Germans as ‘Hutier tactics’ after the operation’s commander, General Oskar von Hutier.

Breakthrough involved a long, a massed bombardment of enemy strong points, followed by a massed, concentrated infantry assault on the wrecked remains of enemy forward positions.  Infiltration was preceded by only a brief ‘hurricane’ bombardment, after which small but powerfully armed units would attack into the spaces between enemy strong points with a view to disrupting rear and artillery positions.  Equipped with light machine-guns, light mortars, flamethrowers and sometimes light artillery, and given first call on aircraft support, these ‘stormtrooper’ units were expected to penetrate as deep as possible behind enemy lines, forcing defenders to abandon the pre-prepared second- and third-line positions that had scuppered so many breakthrough attempts for so many years.

A German light mortar – the stormtrooper’s friend, developed as mobile support for attacking infantry.

Infiltration tactics certainly worked at Riga, which was defended by the Russian Twelfth Army, led by new c-in-c General Kornilov and pretty much the last coherent fighting force at his disposal.  Warned of the impending attack by the transfer of German reinforcements from Galicia, Kornilov was already preparing a retreat on Petrograd (of which more another day) when Von Hutier’s Eighth Army stormed into action across a 5km front along the River Dvina.

With important support from German Air Force units enjoying uncontested dominance of the skies, meticulously prepared German divisions carried out the new tactics perfectly, and had established a strong bridgehead across the river by the end of the first day.  The Russians abandoned the defence next day, and anything militarily useful was evacuated from Riga before it fell on 3 September.  The Russian retreat, though fairly orderly, was not particularly efficient, and von Hutier’s forces chased stragglers up the Dvina for the next three weeks before offensive operations were halted.  By that time any thoughts of advancing on Petrograd had been shelved as unnecessary, because the Russian war effort appeared to be collapsing on its own.

Infiltration tactics at their most effective: the Battle of Riga.

So were infiltration tactics the key to unlocking the ghastly stalemate of trench warfare?  Not really.  They did open up the possibility of making relatively large territorial gains in a hurry, but they didn’t solve the supply and transport difficulties that had been making long-range exploitation of gains impossible since 1914. Within a few months they would be tested three times on the grand scale – by Austro-German forces on the Italian Front at Caporetto, by the BEF on the Western Front at Cambrai and by the German Army for its 1918 spring offensive in France – and on each occasion attacking forces would quickly run out of momentum and support. Infiltration methods would be used during the relatively open warfare that brought final Allied victory on the Western Front in the autumn of 1918, but only as one element in a blend of tactics, and only for limited, pre-planned infantry advances.

My excuse for wandering off into trench tactics is, yet again, the persistence of popular myths about First World War command attitudes.  To listen to the heritage chorus you’d think tossing away tens of thousands of lives, time after time, was fine with most generals so long as there were yet more men available for the next round at the mincing machine.  While there is some truth in the accusation at strategic level, most obviously among the German Third Supreme Command, field commanders were almost uniformly horrified by the grim realities of twentieth-century ground warfare, and never ceased trying to change them.  Von Hutier and his staff (like Australian General Monash at Gallipoli and British General Plumer at Messines, to name a couple off the top of my head) were prime examples of this determination to alter the equation, and were backed by an embattled German high command desperate for any battlefield edge.

Well before the Germans arrived in Riga, the Russian Army fled, wrecking its infrastructure and making escape very difficult for civilians and native troops in the enemy’s path.

The German war effort didn’t need Riga, given that the Russian Baltic fleet had effectively ceased to function, and it didn’t need the burden of extra Latvian territory.  It had started transferring troops to the Western Front almost as soon as the city had fallen, and left only a skeleton force to occupy the region, a force more concerned with keeping Latvia quiet amid revolutionary turmoil than with bleeding it dry to supply the war effort.  That’s not to say the people of Riga didn’t suffer – even before the occupation their city was wrecked and stripped of food by the retreating Russians – but it does suggest that the German Army, already stretched beyond reasonable limits, had been prepared to mount an entire offensive to test out a tactical approach that might defeat trench systems.  Case closed.  Generals did care.

31 AUGUST, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen

Nothing was happening a century ago that I feel compelled to talk about, or haven’t already bombarded with my opinions, so let’s have another go at getting down to basics.  One of the irritating things about a lot of modern popular history, as transmitted through mass media, is its ability to be simplistic without being basic. It can, for instance, spend a lot of time describing the fear, suffering and fates of soldiers without saying much about what they were doing or how they were doing it.

This kind of behaviour promotes myths without really trying, because ignoring its banal, everyday realities reduces warfare to a highlights reel. We are shown war fought with propaganda-hyped, audience-friendly machines, imprinting their stories on the public mind as central to the conflict’s narrative.  In some ways some of them were – the dominance of the machine-gun over attacking infantry in trench conditions was, to pick a relevant example, fundamental to the War’s course – but on the whole the First World War was less to do with machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, submarines, giant guns or gas, more about foot soldiers armed with rifles.

Rifles – that’s to say guns with a spiral groove inside the barrel to improve accuracy and range – had been around since the early eighteenth century, but they had been expensive to manufacture and difficult to maintain in combat conditions, so their battlefield use was largely restricted to the kind of sharpshooter units familiar from the Sharpe stories.  Improving production techniques, and the invention of bullets that didn’t leave barrels too dirty for re-use, made it possible for major armies to arm ordinary soldiers with rifles from the mid-nineteenth century, and they quickly became world’s standard infantry weapon.

They were still at the heart of all infantry fighting in 1914.  As long as machine-guns and mortars were prohibitively cumbersome for mobile operations, and grenades remained a one-shot weapon, concentrated rifle fire was the most potent attacking force known to contemporary warfare.  A spurt of intense development in Europe had seen most major armies introduce a whole new breed of rifle during the 1890s. Small-bore, bolt-action weapons, they fired multiple rounds (usually five) from a spring-loaded clip inserted into the magazine, and they remained the standard infantryman’s friend in all major armies – and the better-equipped units of minor armies – throughout the First World War.

John Nash painted this. I like it. It shows plenty of rifles. Job done.

Aside from a preference for short-barrelled ‘carbines’ over clumsier long-barrelled weapons, and the addition of periscopes for trench fighting, wartime development of rifle technology was minimal, because everyone was more interested in mass production than experimentation.  Some refinements of the basic design were in place from the start of the War, perhaps the best of them being the German Army’s standard 7.92mm Mauser (1898), which incorporated the clip and magazine into a single detachable mechanism.  The British Army developed a 10-shot magazine for its standard 0.303-inch Lee-Enfield (1907), which was also used by US and Canadian infantry during the War’s later years, while the French Army waited until 1916 before replacing its reliable old Lebel (1886), which held eight rounds but took a long time to load, with the 5-round Berthier.   Late in the War, Germany developed a one-shot 13mm Mauser for use against tanks, and it achieved some success against early light models.

What the Anglophone infantryman was wearing in 1917… the Lee-Enfield MkIII.

These are just random examples of the wartime state of the art. Older, wide-bore, single-shot rifles remained in use with the armies of small nations and with the second-line or colonial forces of major belligerents, and as the conflict ate into the resources of every warring state every kind of working rifle, no matter how old, was pressed into service somewhere.  British imperial forces alone used more than twenty different rifle types during the War, and attempting to list even the modern weapons used by various belligerents would be very boring for everyone, particularly since their performance was roughly similar across the board.  They could be all aimed accurately over about 600 metres and at a general area over about 1400 metres, about half their maximum range – but although design variations did make some difference to the all-important factor of firing speed, the real determinant was the skill of the rifleman.

During the mobile campaigns of the War’s first few weeks rifle skills mattered, and the performance of the small BEF’s highly trained riflemen at Mons, where each apparently fired 15 rounds per minute, is usually seen as their high-water mark.  General virtuosity became a lot less relevant once trench warfare had been established on the Western Front and elsewhere, and once rifles were in the hands relatively ill-trained mass armies, but individually skilled riflemen could still have an enormous impact in mobile actions (as emphatically demonstrated by the story of Sergeant Alvin York) and as snipers in static conditions.

Rifles weren’t just about shooting.  As the infantryman’s principal close combat weapon they were equipped with a detachable blade, or bayonet.  In theory, with a long blade attached to the long-barrelled rifle preferred by pre-War armies, the bayonet enabled a soldier to kill while still out of an enemy’s reach, but although the French Army used a long ‘needle’ blade on its Lebel rifle most bayonets were based on standard knife types.  Some German Army ‘pioneer’ units (engineers to you and me) used a saw-bladed bayonet for practical purposes, a refinement worth mentioning because Allied propaganda persisted in describing it as a barbaric anti-personnel device.

Bayonets were much loved by those more orthodox officers in European armies, especially the British and French, who considered a bayonet charge the very epitome of ‘offensive spirit’ and put a lot of faith its psychological effect on defenders (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front).  Troops were sometimes required to advance from trenches with fixed bayonets, discouraging them from blowing the element of surprise by firing, and were officially expected to use the bayonet thrust as their primary close-combat tactic.

Canadian troops training with bayonets. Pointless, but they wouldn’t know that until later…

This official enthusiasm, largely based on colonial campaigns that seldom featured well-entrenched defenders with machine-guns, was not shared by the rank and file.  Bayonets were clumsy to use, often spoiled the accuracy of rifles in the hands of inexpert users, couldn’t be used while firing and were usually removed at the first opportunity by experienced infantry troops, who preferred to use a separate blade, club, knuckleduster or anything else they could carry and get their hands on.

As the War grew old light machine-guns, light mortars and sub machine-guns offered infantry soldiers with the best-equipped armies alternative forms of mobile close support, as did aircraft (which were often armed with long-barrelled rifles in 1914, before suitably light machine-guns became available) and tanks.  Used with sufficient tactical nous, these weapons improved the chances of success for attacking infantry, but the modern rifle, a state-of-the-art weapon in 1914 and essentially unchanged in 1918, remained the principal weapon of attack all the way through the War on the main European fronts.  Sadly for the poor bleeding infantry on all sides, it was a War fought with technology that could almost always beat a rifle attack.

23 AUGUST, 1917: World Invades Spain!

No real reason for the date at the top, except that it matched the date I started writing this post – just before the laptop fried, a long way from home.  That’s my excuse for running late, and for what will almost certainly turn out to be a somewhat lightweight, top-of-the-head wander through the War.  So anyway…

A hundred years ago, Western Europe was engaged in an outburst of unseasonal fighting.  The Third Battle of Ypres was into the fury of its second phase, the Italian Army had just launched its eleventh assault on the Isonzo, and the French Army was two days into a minor offensive around Verdun.

None of these attacks was destined to achieve anything very significant.  We know what happened at Passchendaele, and the French operation –essentially a test-run of the Army’s military competence after the mutiny of the spring – achieved the recapture of one stubborn (if symbolic) German outpost on the hill known as Mort Homme on 20 August, and then stopped.  The Italians meanwhile made moderate initial gains with their latest, and last, attempt to dislodge weakening Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo, but progress halted when large-scale German reinforcements arrived from the dormant Eastern Front, leaving Italian forces in exposed positions pending an Austro-German counterattack.

Posterity may not make much of these battles but they certainly hogged the headlines at the time, leaving barely a paragraph for news of serious internal disturbances in one of Western Europe’s biggest countries.  Spain’s experience of the First World War gets even less treatment from today’s heritage industry, so here’s a look at why the country was under martial law in August 1917.  It should be a long, complicated look, in line with the subject’s complexities, but I haven’t got time to put in the kind of research I’d need to get the details right so you’ll have to make do with a bunch of sweeping generalisations.

Broadly speaking, Spain in 1914 was a mess, economically and politically backward after centuries of sociopolitical stasis under an aristocratic oligarchy that used colonial wealth to keep a modernising world at bay.  A restored Bourbon monarchy had been in power since the end of 1874, in theory constitutional and liberal, but in fact operating along lines that pre-dated the advent of mass, or even bourgeois political influence in more advanced states, so that national politics were controlled by and for an oligarchy of nobles and their clients.  Trade and industry were similarly marooned in the pre-industrial age, and Spain’s capacity for external military activity was generally and rightly regarded as non-existent, a condition confirmed by a disastrous war colonial against the USA at the end of the nineteenth century.

This one was originally captioned ‘life in Spain, 1917’, and I guess that sums it up.

Military uselessness meant nobody was very interested in triggering the government’s pre-War defensive alliances with Britain and France in 1914, but mere decrepitude was not in itself enough to keep Spain out of the War.  Other countries in southern Europe with essentially pre-industrial economies and little military clout spent the first three years of the War being bribed or bullied into the conflict by one side or the other, but unlike Bulgaria, Romania or Greece, Spain was in no geographical or political position to harbour territorial ambitions, and unlike Portugal it had no colonial possessions near other people’s war zones.

So Spain was spared extreme pressure from either side to join the fighting, and was able to remain neutral throughout the War, but as warfare went total the country became part of the global battle for supplies.

For some neutral countries this was no bad thing.  Those neutrals outside Europe, particularly in the Americas, could enjoy economic good times based on massively increased demand (though British control of long-range trade routes prevented large-scale business with the Central Powers), and had little to fear beyond the occasional loss of ships and lives to U-boats or saboteurs.

Neutral European states could more easily trade with both sides, especially if they had overland links to the Central Powers, but ran a much greater risk of interference from, or even invasion by the belligerent empires on their doorsteps.  Those that managed to maintain and even benefit from neutrality tended to be prosperous, politically stable countries, equipped with social structures capable of withstanding the pressures brought by wartime economic change and political uncertainty – northern European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, but not like Spain.

In Spain, as in other neutral countries, debate about whether to join one side or the other rapidly became a major political issue, fuelled by the activities of agents from both sides seeking a monopoly over Spanish exports.  Where in some states, Greece springs inevitably to mind, the debate boiled over into civil war, in Spain it woke up politics.  The limitations and uncertainties of the government’s vaguely pro-Entente stance provided a platform for dispute that effectively reignited a system hitherto controlled from above by a combination of rigged elections and institutionalised bureaucratic corruption, but above all maintained from below by the political apathy of most Spaniards.

At the same time the flood of work and money into Spain, as it strove to meet escalating demands for raw materials from both sides, swept in a storm of modern ideas and circumstances that the monarchy and aristocracy couldn’t begin to control.  Seasoned by a smattering of rapid industrialisation in the textile and iron industries, rampant inflation fuelled the social discontent that bred mass politicisation, while socialist ideas flourished under the yoke of profiteering employers, and the concentration of incoming wealth in the relatively developed north of Spain fed tensions between the centre and the provinces.

The ruling oligarchy was forced to turn for support to the newly rich merchant and landowning middle classes, and to an army much more interested in internal affairs than foreign adventures, but by 1917 it faced serious opposition from elements of both groups.  As pressure for Catalan independence mounted in Barcelona, and the Army began organising its own political institutions in the name of centrism, the monarchist government of Count Romanones was forced to resign in April 1917.  Romanones was replaced by a series of prime ministers increasingly sympathetic to the military, which gained further influence at the centre in direct proportion to the threat level posed by the regime’s third big problem – the socialist revolutionary forces that were gaining support in the wake of Russia’s world-shaking February Revolution.

Displaying the same, almost touching optimism that characterised some of the Russian Provisional Government’s behaviour, Spanish socialists made a bid for revolution in August 1917.  The Workers’ General Union (UGT), by far the biggest in Spain, reacted to the failure of a railway workers’ strike to halt traffic by announcing its expansion into a general strike on 14 August.  Called in conjunction with the anarchist National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and the small Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the strike’s stated aim was the downfall of the monarchy, but the end of apathy isn’t quite the same as revolutionary fervour.  Despite strong support in some cities (especially Barcelona) the strike was ignored by most workers, caused only temporary disruption and collapsed within a few days.

Troops attacking strikers in Madrid, August 1917. They had it much worse in Barcelona, where 70 were killed.

After a period of falling membership and squabbling between moderate union reformers, separatists, anarchists and socialist revolutionaries, mass, left-wing politics would return to the national stage with a second, far more successful general strike in 1919.  In the meantime the failed strike of 1917 gave the regime and the Army an excuse to impose martial law, and to use violence to suppress strikers wherever they took to the streets.

Military support would continue prop up the regime for the remainder of War, representing the strengthening right wing of an increasingly, irrevocably polarized political landscape.  The Army would eventually run out of patience with separatists, socialists and liberals in 1923, when a coup d’état saw Catalan General Miguel Primo de Rivera take power as dictator under the nominal leadership of King Alfonso XIII.  Alfonso was driven into exile less than a year after Primo de Rivera’s death in 1930, but all the divisions exposed by Spain’s hothouse exploitation during the First World War resurfaced under a Spanish Republic that presided over the nation’s slide to civil war in 1936.

So the links between world war and civil war in Spain are as definite as they are generally ignored, and history offers a fairly straight line from civil war via Franco to modern Spain.  Nobody’s pretending the old Bourbon monarchy would still be presiding over a semi-feudal sump of decadent corruption if the First World War hadn’t come along, but there’s no denying that, hundreds of kilometres behind the backs of Haig’s poor, mud-soaked Tommies, a fundamental strand of European culture was being painfully resuscitated to meet the conflict’s insatiable demands.

14 AUGUST, 1917: Cruise Control

The day before Haig launched the second phase of his Ypres offensive on the Western Front was another quiet day by the standards of the First World War.  China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, but that had been coming for some time and has been covered in an earlier post (14 March, 1917: Breaking China).  Spain declared martial law as part of an internal crisis I’ll be talking about quite soon, and the row about sending Labour Party delegates to the Stockholm Peace Conference rumbled on in Britain (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).

Otherwise I have no particularly interesting anniversaries to commemorate, so I think I’ll spend a couple of hours chatting about cruisers.  And why not?  Cruisers were relevant to every day of the War and in action all over the world – but what exactly was a cruiser, and why?

The British developed the first cruisers in the 1880s.  Smaller and faster than battleships, but still capable of ocean-going operations, they were originally designed for two main roles.  Heavy ‘armoured’ cruisers, generally displacing more than 10,000 tons, carrying powerful main armament and fitted with strong side armour, were intended to act as the fast scouting force alongside battleships in confrontations with other fleets.   Less expensive ‘protected’ cruisers (anything from 2,000 to 14,000 tons) were equipped only with deck armour, and were tasked with protection of trade routes, troopships or imperial outposts.  In the days of sailing navies, all these jobs had been carried out by frigates, which had ceased to exist long before 1914 and were to be reinvented during the Second World War as something completely different.

 

A British armoured, or heavy cruiser, designed for fleet actions but destined to spend the War anywhere but…
HMS Challenger:  a fairly typical British protected cruiser, completed in 1904 and brought out of retirement in 1914.

Much cheaper and more versatile than battleships, and able to dominate any naval situation that didn’t involve battleships, cruisers were particularly crucial to the sprawling operations of the British Royal Navy, which built 42 armoured and 101 protected cruisers between 1885 and 1907.   In much the same way as they would render all their existing battleships obsolete by inventing dreadnoughts, the British then made armoured cruisers redundant as fleet components by coming up with the first battlecruisers in 1908.

With the speed of a cruiser and the striking power of a battleship, battlecruisers resembled the latter but with one less turret, less armour protection, more powerful engines and a longer hull.  Used as fast screens for battleships in fleet actions, as well as for long-range commerce duties, they were also adopted by the Japanese Navy, which spent the early twentieth century learning to copy the best European naval practices, and the German Navy, which would go on the use them for fleet actions and as commerce raiders.

Battlecruisers were the brainchild of forceful pre-War British First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, who pushed their construction in the face of strong opposition from many naval professionals.  Half greyhound, half Rottweiler, they would go on to play a major role in most North Sea naval actions, and several German ships had a major impact in other theatres, but on the whole the critics were proved right.  Though in theory able to outrun anything they couldn’t outgun, their lack of armour made them vulnerable, not just to enemy battlecruisers but also to the mines, submarines and other torpedo craft that were coming into widespread use in the early twentieth century.   The last battlecruisers ordered by the wartime Royal Navy, lighter designs for use in the shallow Baltic Sea but in fact deployed on North Sea patrols, were converted into aircraft carriers after the War, marking the end of the experiment.

Lean, mean and really quite vulnerable – the battlecruiser HMS Tiger

Meanwhile cruiser development focused on speed, and two types of light cruiser.   The larger variety, first developed by the German Navy and copied by the British (as the Town Class), were quick, lightly armoured and heavily armed to operate on fleet approaches or trade routes.  The British also designed smaller Scout Class cruisers with very little armour protection, intended for scouting, for long-range screening and as lead ships for destroyer flotillas.

Longer, obviously, and again just one among several profiles of the type, Town Class cruiser HMS Bristol.
Scout Class cruisers came in many styles, but HMS Active is as good an example as any.

Once replaced by newer designs, old British cruisers were transferred from the main battle fleets or the most dangerous trade routes to perform all sorts of secondary tasks.  They led submarine flotillas, they protected dozens of relatively minor ports at home and across the Empire, and (given the dubious value of old, pre-dreadnought battleships) they generally provided the most effective naval support for army operations in secondary theatres.   They also patrolled trade routes as protection against surface raiders at the start of the War, along with passenger liners converted as ‘armed merchant cruisers’, and from mid-1917 they led convoy protection squadrons.

I’ve been concentrating on British cruisers, because the Royal Navy needed a lot more cruisers than anyone else and used them for a lot more tasks, but they were central to the wartime operations of most major navies.

The German Navy, as mentioned, used battlecruisers and cruisers as the warhorses of fleet and commerce operations, while Austro-Hungarian, Italian and most French naval activity was confined to the Mediterranean, where dreadnoughts feared to leave port and cruisers were crucial.  All three fleets deployed very fast, modern cruisers, light on armour but heavy on armament, as their main naval strike weapons, and they were at the heart of all the major naval actions in the Mediterranean, apart from the Anglo-French shambles at the Dardanelles in 1915.

Although the feeble Ottoman Navy possessed only a few old cruisers, and they were particularly decrepit, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau, both transferred from the German Navy, were by far its most important weapons in the war for control of the Black Sea (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships).  Meanwhile the Russian Navy possessed few modern cruisers but made extensive use of its older vessels in the Black Sea and the Baltic, outclassing its opposite numbers in the former (whenever the Goeben was out of action) and holding its own against relatively threadbare German naval forces in the latter.

That just left the USA, the world’s second biggest naval power in 1914 and the exception to the norm.  The US Navy possessed 12 armoured and 24 protected cruisers when war broke out, but then embarked on a massive naval expansion programme that completely ignored cruisers.  That may appear weird at first glance, but in fact it was wise.

Looking at (and supplying) the War from the outside until 1917, the USA was able to tailor its navy to its actual wartime requirements, where Europe’s navies had been built on pre-War predictions. Primarily concerned with protecting an expanding maritime trade network, and far from Europe, the USA had no expectation of needing cruisers for any kind of fleet battle, and once the British had removed any threat to merchant traffic from German surface raiders, cruisers were not the ideal weapon for coping with U-boats and minefields.  So although US yards did build six dreadnoughts – necessary statements of power at a time when even Brazil was investing in them – construction was otherwise dedicated to merchant ships, destroyers and other smaller craft.

This was the future.  Beginning with mines, submarines and aircraft, small but lethal long-range weapons were taking control of naval warfare by 1914, and though the cruiser would continue to serve fleets, protect trade and dominate small actions for decades to come, its day as a state-of-the-art weapon of war was done.

Unlike the conflict’s great white elephants – the costly, cosseted dreadnoughts – mere obsolescence didn’t leave cruisers watching from the sidelines.  Partly because years of total war demanded massive global commitment from navies, in particular the Royal Navy, and partly because older vessels were seen as relatively expendable, First World War cruisers were still enormously important, the basic currency of worldwide naval power in all but the most hotly contested patches of ocean.

That’s a small window on the panoramic impact of cruisers, and me out of time, so an equally nerdy look at another important new kid on the naval block since the 1880s – the destroyer – will have to wait for another quiet day.

6 AUGUST, 1917: Deep Breath, Shallow Victory

August’s reputation as a slow month, news wise, took a bit of a knock during the First World War, but in 1917 the conflict’s third birthday came and went in a relatively subdued atmosphere.  After a few months that had been militarily disappointing for pretty much everyone, and with very little fighting taking place on any of the major battlefronts, early August provided Europe at war with a brief breathing space – predictably filled by a flurry of political finger-pointing and manoeuvre on the home fronts.

In Russia, where the failure of July’s offensive on the Eastern Front had done nothing to stabilise political ferment at the centre, Alexandr Kerenski’s political career reached its summit on 6 August when he became prime minister, head of state in theory but in fact the head of a faction losing its fragile grip on authority in Petrograd. Further west, Italian politics appeared ready to collapse into chaos under the weight of extremism and social unrest in the wake of yet another military failure at the Isonzo, and the pressures of popular disappointment extended to the Belgian cabinet-in-exile at Le Havre, which had undergone a major reshuffle on 4 August.

Although the French Ribot government was still hanging onto power, it was under attack from all sides and fighting off scandals that would soon bring it down, and among the Allies in Europe only the British remained politically stable.  This was partly because the British were in middle of some serious fighting, though rain had stopped play around Ypres for the moment, and partly because the Lloyd George coalition’s shrewd combination of social awareness and organisational efficiency still enjoyed widespread popular support (despite a few outraged squawks at the recent return to the cabinet of disgraced former naval minister Winston Churchill).

Among the Central Powers, Bulgaria was starving while entrepreneurs made huge profits selling the harvest to Germany, fertile ground for socialism and republicanism to take root under the feet of a repressive royal regime, and the Habsburg Empire’s ongoing disintegration under separatist pressure claimed another political victim on 9 August, when Hungarian premier Count Esterhazy quit after less than two months in the job.  In the Anatolian heartlands of the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha remained the dominant figure in an authoritarian Young Turk regime, but the rest of the empire was falling apart, with Armenia descending into anarchy in the east, invasion and revolt overwhelming the south, and most surviving provinces operating as autonomous fiefdoms under regional governors.

Meanwhile Germany’s increasingly authoritarian Third Supreme Command was willing and able to ignore all opposition, but still paid lip service to a theoretically absolute monarch, hence the appointment, on 5 August, of the Kaiser-friendly Richard von Kühlmann to succeed Artur von Zimmermann as foreign minister.  A right-wing ex-diplomat who was intent on German territorial expansion, and would go on to preside over ruthless peace treaties with Russia and Romania, Kühlmann was less inclined to fantasy than the Ludendorff gang, and his efforts to dilute their madness through the ear of the monarch would make him a thorn in the Third Supreme Command’s side during a year in office.

Political headliners, August 1917: Count Esterhazy…
young Alex Kerenski…
old Alex Ribot…
and Richard von Kühlmann.

If most of Europe’s governments and generals were navel gazing, waiting for the weather to change or playing Canute against waves of rebellion , serious fighting was taking place on one front.  In Romania, on 6 August, the Battle of Marasesti got underway between the reconstituted Romanian Army and an international force under German command.  It was a relatively minor affair, and it had very little strategic impact, but it would carry on for almost a month and be the last major wartime action on Romanian soil, so it can be seen as more than excuse to take my first look at Romania in months.

Back in October 1916 two multinational armies, largely though not solely composed of Bulgarian and German troops, were poised to converge on Wallachia – the most economically useful Romanian region – while the Romanian royal government was cowering in Bucharest, planning its escape (29 October, 1916: Feeling Brave?). One army, led by former German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn, broke through into Wallacha from the Carpathian mountain passes in early November, and had reached the central plains to threaten Bucharest by the middle of the month. The other, led by German General Mackensen, made no attempt to advance north from its positions in the Dobrudja region, because a Russian army had arrived in the northeast of the country to block its path, but instead crossed the Danube into Wallachia on 23 November.  Brushing aside Romanian forces scattered in its way, it too moved on the capital.

Romanian c-in-c Averescu did make an attempt to fight back, gathering his remaining forces west of Bucharest for a counteroffensive on the River Arges at the start of December, but it barely slowed Falkenhayn down before collapsing.  About 70,000 surviving Romanian troops then retreated northeast into Moldovia, to be joined by the royal government, and Bucharest fell on 6 December, leaving German authorities free to begin the economic exploitation that had been the main reason for occupying Wallachia.

Agriculture was Wallachia’s principal economic activity, and the Central Powers were always on the lookout for food supplies, but as far as the German supreme command was concerned the Ploesti oilfields were the big economic prizes on offer.  That was because, while surface warships could get by on coal or kerosene, the planned all-out submarine campaign was going to need a lot of diesel fuel.

By the time the German ‘Economic Staff’ reached Romania at the end of 1916, German troops were already guarding the oilfields, but had found them heavily damaged by British agents. Their subsequent reduced output (along with falling output from diesel refineries in Habsburg Galicia) would leave the German Navy struggling for fuel to power the submarine war during the coming months, with severe implications for domestic diesel consumption (and therefore popular morale) in Romania, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Mackensen had pursued the Romanian Army’s remnant into Moldovia in early December, but worsening weather and the arrival of Russian reinforcements persuaded him to abandon the effort late in the month, when the front stabilised along the River Sereth. Mackensen made two attempts to get across the river, but his attacks ceased after 20 January and fighting died down almost completely for the next five months.  During that time, King Ferdinand issued promises of post-War electoral and land reform that temporarily boosted his regime’s popular support in Moldovia, and with help from French aid it was able to partially rebuild the army.  By the summer, confidence was sufficiently high for the Romanian Army to be committed, along with Russian units, to an attack in support of the Russian July Offensive (1 July, 1917: The Last Straw).

The Russian-Romanian attack began, somewhat belatedly, on 22 July 1917, pushing southwest from Moldovia around the lower reaches of the Siret River.  After some early success, German and Austro-Hungarian reinforcements from the Galician front halted its progress, but although most Russian units quickly subsided into pacifist political activism the Romanian element maintained good order and held most of its ground until fighting died down on 1 August.

Mackensen launched the German Ninth Army into a renewed attack on Romanian positions around Marasesti from 6 August, but six days of heavy fighting failed to dislodge Romanian and remaining Russian units.  During the following week Romanian reinforcements helped hold off a series of German assaults that reached a climax on 19 August, while the Romanian Second Army restricted a subsidiary German advance to insignificant gains around the village of Oituz. Relatively minor German attacks, largely aimed at outflanking defenders, were contained during the next two weeks before Mackensen called off the offensive on 3 September.

You’ll be needing this – and a bit of time to work it out

Romanians view the Battle of Marasesti as the wartime Army’s finest hour.  It inflicted some 47,000 casualties on the Ninth Army at a cost of 27,000 Romanian losses (according to Romanian figures), and is seen as a victory that successfully defended the last vestiges of national integrity.  It was definitely the Romanian Army’s best performance of the War, a tribute to troops transformed from terrified peasants into disciplined defenders, but it was also its last performance and an ultimately pointless exercise .

The adventure that ended at Marasestri had left the Romanian Army and government more threatened than supported by the feral remains of Russian forces, so they now found themselves alone and surrounded by enemies.  Short of supplies and with political support slipping away, King Ferdinand’s government could only begin preparing the ground for an inevitable surrender to the Central Powers.  Mackensen had halted his attacks in September 1917, not because he was beaten, but because German forces had bigger fish to fry and could defeat Romania without wasting further resources.

That was the end of the fighting in Romania, but it was by no means the end of the country’s troubles.  I’ll be back there one day to talk about them, but in the meantime this has been a largely information-based, message-free post, and we can’t have that.  So how about we all remember that just because you’ve got your army together, and it looks in good shape, doesn’t always mean it’s smart to use it.  Got that, Kim?  Donald?

31 JULY, 1917: The Crying Game

This is one of those moments when I find myself thinking along the same lines as the British heritage industry. The lines in question divided the northern sector of the Western Front, and the event that has us both interested was the opening of the British-led summer offensive in Flanders on 31 July 1917. Known officially as the Third Battle of Ypres, but better remembered in Britain by the name of its final objective, Passchendaele, it went on until November and was a God-awful mess.

It was by no means the first disastrous offensive failure on the Western Front, but it would prove to be the last attempt to end the campaign, and indeed the War, using ‘breakthrough’ tactics. Intended to smash a hole in the enemy line by massing vast forces for an attack on a narrow front, breakthrough tactics had been discredited many times during the previous two years, and their latest spectacular failure had taken place only three months earlier. Haig’s willingness to persist with the orthodoxy long after it had again proved redundant, along with the loss of an estimated 310,000 BEF casualties (as well some 260,000 German casualties) for what amounted to trivial territorial gains, helps explain why Passchendaele has become the great emblem of First World War futility and incompetence in the British public mind – as does the fact that this disaster was an entirely British creation that couldn’t be blamed on the French.

Deplored across a century of British heritage history, popular history and military history, the battle has provided generations of commentators with ammunition for outrage and for condemnation of those deemed responsible for the failure. That is changing. As must be blindingly obvious to anyone in the path of Britain’s Passchendaele centenary tsunami, the battle now provides a prime outlet for ‘human interest’ disguised as history or, to put it another way, emotion in place of analysis.

In the press, on the radio, on television, in Parliament and all over the Internet, the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Anglo-Belgian style, has been about the suffering and death of the soldiers involved. Fair enough, there was a lot of death and suffering, but if history is about illuminating to past to inform the present what kind of information is that giving us? War is bad, its horrors are horrible… and that’s about all.

We have heard this before. It’s the same message we were given a hundred years after the Somme Offensive of 1916, and (for those Anglophones paying careful attention) a century after all the other ghastly, failed French, German, British, Russian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman offensives that took place between the spring of 1915 and July 1917. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the message, but there is something wrong with ignoring any and all of Passchendaele’s other messages to the future. By way of putting all that emotionally draining mass slaughter into some sort of context, diluting our righteous indignation with a little understanding, and exploring those other messages, here’s a very basic rundown of the battle’s genesis and outcome.

The roots of the Third Battle of Ypres can be traced pretty clearly to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. Haig had been in his post since December 1915, but had been required to support the plans of French commanders until May 1917, when the collapse of the French Army as an attacking force finally passed responsibility for strategic initiative on the Western Front to the BEF (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Haig responded by planning yet another breakthrough offensive but shifting the focus of attacks north, to the British-run sector in Flanders. With hindsight this was without doubt a mistake, but at the time there was something to be said for Haig’s reasoning.

Like most Western Front commanders, Haig still believed that breakthrough tactics represented the best hope of a significant victory, a belief reinforced by the commonly held view that conscript mass armies with only basic training would subside into chaos if asked to do anything more sophisticated. He also subscribed to the widely held view that the German war effort was close to collapse, and that a demoralised German Army on the Western Front was ready to crumble. General Plumer’s victory at Messines in early June didn’t change Haig’s mind on either score (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn), but at that stage, with the usual costly, clumsy preparations for the main offensive already well underway, it would have taken a major leap of faith to prompt any significant alterations to the battle plan.

Once settled on another breakthrough attempt, Haig’s choice of Flanders as his main target couldn’t really be faulted. The region’s broad, flat plains seemed to offer the best chance for an attacking army to successfully exploit any breakthrough, and breakthrough tactics hadn’t been tried there before (although they had failed in wide open spaces on the Eastern Front). Any breakthrough in Flanders would also offer the BEF a chance to attack German U-boat pens on the Belgian coast, a prospect that appealed strongly to a British high command still very worried about the effects of submarine warfare.

So take away the hindsight, add in the perceived need to keep attacking in the west before Russia’s ongoing collapse freed German reinforcements from the east, and the offensive plan dismissed as futile and/or blinkered by the heritage industry (before it gave up on commentary altogether) makes a broadly acceptable kind of sense in the crazy context of 1917.

It only takes one big mistake to ruin a plan, and for all the talk of rain and mud during the battle that followed, the mistake that counted at Ypres in 1917 was the British command’s gross underestimation of the German Army’s power to resist. The weaknesses visible at Messines had been addressed, and the huge ten-day bombardment that preceded the attack on 31 July (3,000 guns firing a total of 4.25 million shells) found defenders in prepared, shellproof positions ready to meet advancing British and Empire forces. Led by General Gough’s Fifth Army, flanked by a corps of Plumer’s Second Army to its south and a corps of General Anthoine’s French first Army to its north, the attack was launched along an 18km front and made only insignificant, expensive gains before grinding to a halt. At this very early stage, Haig’s plan had failed.

It was the same old story, so why not end it there? For plenty of reasons, none of which satisfied generations of post-War critics but all of which had something going for them from a contemporary command viewpoint.

First, giving up on a big plan after one false start was inconceivable to everyone involved, including the civilian public, so of course there had to be a second try. Secondly, Haig and many other observers were victims of what you might call the ‘one-last-push’ illusion, unable to let go of the (essentially sensible) idea that nations couldn’t sustain this type of warfare for long, and that the other side was one firm push away from collapse. This had been at the heart of Allied thinking on the Western Front since the start of 1915, and the longer reality outstripped socio-economic logic to keep the enemy in the fight, the more certain it seemed that the next push would do the trick. Thirdly, and perhaps more culpably, Haig’s refusal to recognise failure smacked of political desperation. These were uncertain times for Europe’s ruling elites, and British leaders were in no hurry to present a war-weary population (civilian and military) with yet another disappointment at a moment when the very fabric of conventional society was being tested by fallout from the revolution in Russia.

You couldn’t go telling ordinary people the appalling truth…

So failure was postponed and the attack resumed, but only after a fortnight’s delay for unseasonal, torrential rain, which combined with bomb craters and further bombardments to produce the almost impassable morass of mud that has since become synonymous with the battle. Under those conditions, the launch of a second attack on 16 August was an exercise in extreme optimism, and the four days of heavy fighting known as the Battle of Langemarck produced miniscule Allied gains in return for heavy casualties.

Still in no position to declare a failure, Haig at last gave up on breakthrough. He switched the focus of his next wave of operations to the north, put Plumer in effective field command and pursued the policy of limited offensive operations foreshadowed at Messines. Plumer launched three tightly focused attacks around the Menin Road at the centre of the front between 20 September and 4 October, each of which succeeded in its very limited objectives but paid a high price in casualties. With the rain still teeming down and conditions for attackers worsening all the time, Haig was at last in a position to call a halt and claim a victory – but Plumer’s efforts had revived the ‘one-more-push’ orthodoxy. Once more convinced that the German Army was all but spent, and grasping one last time at the mirage of sweeping victory, Haig decided to continue the offensive with attacks towards Passchendaele Ridge, some 10km east of Ypres.

This is where the horrors of war so carefully reported by modern heritage commentators get tangled up with the command failures so noisily deplored by their predecessors. The mud was worse than ever while the German Army, far from exhausted, was being rapidly replenished by reinforcements from the east. It had also been supplied with copious amounts of mustard gas, and this took a terrible toll on the first two attacks towards Passchendaele on 9 and 12 October. Both were grotesque failures, gaining tiny amounts of ground at enormous cost, and dispelled any lingering idea that the enemy was crumbling. Haig nevertheless decided to hurl exhausted troops into three more attacks in late October, and to continue the offensive until British and Canadian troops finally took the village of Passchendaele on 6 November.

What Haig did.  Not much really.

This last phase of the battle has been regarded ever since as an unforgivable waste of lives, and the sentiment still occasionally gets an airing amid today’s mawkish memorabilia. Much as I prefer understanding to outrage, it is hard to disagree. Any strategic point to the offensive had vanished well before mid-October, and the only substantial excuse for carrying on regardless seems to have been maintenance of national prestige, not to mention that of the BEF and its commanders.

In the short term, strictly from a British high command perspective, Haig’s prolongation of the agony kind of worked. The British Army didn’t mutiny or collapse, and the British people didn’t give up on the war effort or fall to revolution. Despite lot of criticism from press and politicians – not least from Prime Minister Lloyd George, an ‘Easterner’ who had long been at odds with the Western Front command and had opposed the battle plan from the start – Haig kept his job and went on to plan a few more shots at glory.  In the longer term, Passchendaele has always been the definitive blot on Haig’s reputation and, along with the opening phase of the Somme Offensive in 1916, the principal piece of evidence that British Empire troops on the Western Front were lions led by donkeys.

A hundred years on, controversy around Haig seems to be all but ignored in the popular media, and not because the basic lessons to be learned from his darkest hour have ceased to be relevant. Modern British society may have grown out of treating ordinary soldiers as cannon fodder, but we still need reminding about the dangers of fatally underestimating a foe, and we definitely need to remember that when orthodox methods repeatedly fail to win a battle (against guerilla fighters, terrorists, drug addiction, you name it), it’s time to question the orthodoxy.  Then again, why bother with what actually happened around Ypres in 1917 when you can fill so much consumer space with easy exploitation of humanitarian outrage?

25 JULY, 1917: Green Shoots

Today marks the centenary of the first session of the Irish Convention, an attempt to resolve what the British persisted in calling the Irish Question that failed completely, reflected badly on its creators and participants, and helped polarise Irish politics through the decades of civil violence that followed.  Despite taking place slap in the middle of a crucial phase in the modern political development of a country hooked on history, you can see why the Convention has been largely ignored by posterity.

That doesn’t make it right, and forgetting about the Convention is a classic case of history being written by the winners.  While the subsequent successes of militant Irish republicanism have rendered glorious a failure like the Easter Rising, they have tended to obscure the failures of history’s losers, in this case those trying to negotiate for Irish autonomy within the British Empire.  You miss things that way.

I sketched a few paragraphs of Anglo-Irish history into my post about the Easter Rising (24 April, 1916: Heroes and Villains), so here I’ll just remind us all that autonomy within the British Empire, known as Home Rule, had been a raging political issue on both sides of the Irish Sea since the 1880s. Furiously opposed by the right wing of British politics (and the British Army occupying Ireland) and by the unswervingly pro-British Protestant population of Ireland’s industrially developed northeast, Home Rule was also despised as a half-measure by those Irish nationalists seeking full independence, whether or not they accepted violent struggle as an acceptable means to that end.

Home Rule was the aim of the moderate nationalists that made up the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the smaller All-For-Ireland League (AFIL), and it had the theoretical a support of the British Liberal Party.  The Liberals in government were never strong or brave enough to actually enact Home Rule until the second general election of 1910 left them as a minority government.  Dependent for survival on the support of 42 Labour MPs and 84 IPP/AFIL members, the Asquith government had no choice but to force Home Rule through a hostile House of Lords, but an attempt to introduce it in 1914 collapsed under the threat of rebellion in pro-British Ulster, and the War gave the Westminster government an opportunity to put the process on hold for the duration.

For most Irish people, as for most Europeans in 1914, political issues were trumped by war in all its emotive (and illusory) glory.  For almost two years the British were able to get away with yet another relapse into dithering inaction in Ireland, but the actions of relatively small cohorts of militant nationalists – gathered around organisations like the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and the more politically focused Sinn Fein – had already shaken British confidence by the spring of 1916, when the Easter Rising convinced Asquith’s coalition to throw the Irish a bone.

A month after the Rising, Asquith announced that he was sending war minister Lloyd George to Ireland to discuss the implementation of Home Rule with IPP leaders John Redmond and John Dillon. Given that Home Rule for a united Ireland was still fundamental to IPP aims and still anathema to Ulster Unionists, the talks stood no chance of success, but they did boost popular hopes of peaceful change at an important time.

Lloyd George – who held simultaneous but separate discussions with Unionists – made enough hopeful noises to both sides to keep the discussions dragging on until late July, when they finally collapsed, leaving the IPP leadership with nothing to show for its trouble except a very public humiliation.

The sense of crisis that pervaded Britain during and after the Somme Offensive extended to Ireland, and it wasn’t until 1917 that the extent of damage to the moderate cause became clear.  On becoming prime minister in December 1916, Lloyd George had responded to IPP requests for action on Home Rule with another piece of gesture politics, granting a Christmas amnesty to Irish internees in Britain.  The gesture merely released committed republicans back into Irish politics, which did the IPP no good at all, and in an atmosphere of rising popular support for an immediate ‘Irish Settlement’ Sinn Fein won its first two by-election victories in April and May 1917.  Well aware of the need to appease the strongly pro-Irish sentiment of Britain’s newest and most important ally, the USA, Lloyd George tried again.

Joseph McGuinness won Sinn Fein’s second ever seat in parliament, at South Longford in May 1917. He was in prison at the time, and didn’t take up his seat when he got out.

On 16 May Lloyd George made the Irish parliamentarians an offer of home rule for the 26 counties of southern Ireland, excluding the six counties of Ulster.  If this was unacceptable, he offered to call a conference of all parties in Ireland for the purpose of hammering out a system of self-government.  Faithful to their long, public commitment to all-Irish autonomy, the moderates chose the latter option, and in the process lost their last vestiges of political credibility in Ireland.

Sinn Fein refused to attend the Convention, as did the small AFIL delegation, both preferring to focus their efforts on winning electoral support, but 95 delegates representing a fairly broad cross-section of Irish life and political opinion were present for the opening session on 25 July.  That was as good as it got, because it quickly became clear that, no matter what the British had led them to believe, neither side had any intention of budging an inch.

The majority, led by IPP delegates, remained committed to autonomy within the Empire for all Ireland, while the northern unionist minority refused to include Ulster in any devolution process.  The small group of southern unionist delegates did put forward a compromise proposal, known as the Midleton Scheme, for an all-Irish parliament hedged by guarantees of Ulster’s separate identity.  It prompted weeks of highly detailed debate, and gave increasingly desperate moderates an opportunity to express a lot of unwarranted optimism, but had changed nothing by the time the Convention spluttered to a halt in late March 1918.  Its final report in early April amounted to little more than separate statements of both sides’ unchanged aims.

Members of the Irish Convention outside Trinity college, Dublin, in 1917 – a cross-section of moderate, middle-aged, white Irish men.

The Convention’s prolonged and much-derided failures did permanent damage to the IPP, to the cause of moderate Irish reformers in general and to the popular credibility of Home Rule in Ireland.  Lloyd George wasted no time finishing them off.

Although the Convention’s majority report in no way amounted to the ‘substantial agreement’ stipulated by the British government as a condition for implementing Home Rule, Lloyd George agreed to begin the process of implementation on the IPP’s terms, but only in return for the extension of conscription to Ireland.  Deemed necessary in the light of a sudden manpower crisis created by the German spring offensive on the Western Front, this bundling of Home Rule and the spectre of compulsory service effectively guaranteed the former’s popular rejection in Ireland.

The tortuous death of Home Rule pushed the Irish political agenda firmly and irretrievably towards republicanism, and the most obvious political consequence of the Convention was the irresistible rise of its most trenchant critics.  Sinn Fein had made a breakthrough in 1917 by winning its first four by-elections, and went on to win two more in 1918 before adding another 67 at that December’s general election.  The same election saw the IPP’s vote collapse, leaving it with only six parliamentary seats, and signalled the ‘War of Independence’ that finally secured southern Ireland’s freedom from the British Empire – but that’s another story.

The Convention was hardly Irish nationalism’s finest or most important hour, but looked at dispassionately it seems worth remembering for a few reasons.  In itself, it was the long, loud anticlimax that exposed the futility of seeking Home Rule within the Empire for all of Ireland, and conclusively confirmed the refusal of Ulster’s unionists to countenance any degree of separation from Great Britain.  Meanwhile the well-meaning, all-absorbing and circuitous efforts of the IPP,  some northern unionists and a small group of southern unionists to achieve an unlikely agreement left moderates in the south politically paralysed, stuck in wait-and-see mode while republicans galvanised popular opinion with demands for immediate change.

From a British perspective – the one I’m stuck with – everything about the Convention and its outcomes is a reminder of something our heritage view of the First World War tends to bypass altogether. By the time war broke out, it was probably impossible for Ulster and the rest of Ireland to develop as one nation, but the British routinely peddled false hope to both sides as a means of neutralising any distraction from the war effort, and casually shattered that hope when the same war effort had more need of Irish soldiers than Irish approval.

In 1917 Great Britain was fighting for its life or, if you prefer to take a social-historical view, British ruling elites were fighting for their fiefdoms.  Either way, the struggle entailed the ruthless exploitation of allied and occupied countries in ways that often left them poor, unstable, vulnerable to conquest or all three.  Germany tends to attract most of the opprobrium for that kind of behaviour during the Great War, and it’s not hard to see why, but if we forget what the British got up to we might end up with a warped worldview based on the idea that the rest of the world thinks we’re the good guys. Where that might lead, Gove only knows…

14 JULY, 1917: Stuck In The Middle

A hundred years ago today, after exactly eight years in office, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg resigned as Germany’s Imperial Chancellor.  On the same day, far to the northeast, the first Provisional Assembly of Estonia opened its first session.  Neither centenary is likely to make much of a splash in British heritage terms, but both signalled big changes in the modern history of their own countries.  I’ll start, like you do during world wars, with Germany.

Bethmann Hollweg’s departure had been coming.  The advent of the Third Supreme Command, a lurch towards totalitarian control over an all-out war effort by a military-industrial oligarchy, had condemned Germany’s wartime political truce, or Burgfrieden, to a slow death, leaving the Chancellor adrift in the space between polarising political extremes.

I won’t repeat my enthusiastic condemnation of the Third Supreme Command’s dictatorship (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint), except to point out that its attempt to harness every aspect of German economic life to the pursuit of total victory deliberately rode roughshod over political opposition.  Liberal or moderate left-wing elements, both within the labour movement and in the Reichstag (parliament), were by then accustomed to being consulted, and even occasionally listened to, in line with the Burgfrieden, and reacted by stiffening their opposition.  As the exceptionally harsh winter of 1916–17 brought severe civilian shortages and faltering popular morale, political opposition focused on the Supreme Command’s refusal to consider any peace built on less than total victory, while industrial opposition took the form of strikes and street protests.

Bethmann Hollweg could only weave between the lines and hope to find some route back to national unity, but he never really stood a chance.  Although he retained the support of the Kaiser – who was, in his one-eyed, bewildered way, equally desperate to keep the nation together – the Chancellor was regarded as part of the problem by both the Reichstag and the Supreme Command.  His attempts to broker a negotiated peace were as hopeless as they were half-hearted (18 December, 1916: Peace?  No Chance), and though he hoped to appease the Reichstag by prising a promise of post-War constitutional reform from the Kaiser in March, it was too little too late.

April saw the US enter the War, while a wave of strikes hit industrial production in northern Germany and the political debate about war aims became entangled with demands for immediate constitutional reform.  All this helped undermine a hitherto solid popular faith in the Supreme Command’s promises of imminent victory, and with no sign that the regime intended to listen to, let alone meet any of its demands, rising public discontent encouraged the Reichstag’s main opposition parties to come together and formally demolish the Burgfrieden.

All pomp and bad circumstances… the Reichstag in July 1917.

On 7 July 1917 the centre and socialist parties tabled a joint declaration in the Reichstag demanding an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities.  Known as the Peace Resolution, it was proposed by Max Erzberger, a leading member of the conservative Catholic Centre Party who generally regarded socialists as Satan’s little helpers, and it was passed by 212 votes to 126 on 12 July.  A direct affront to the Supreme Command’s ambitious plans for expansion into Eastern Europe, the Resolution left Bethmann Hollweg high and dry, unable to support either its proponents or its right-wing opponents.  Liberal leaders in the Reichstag, the Supreme Command’s phalanx of right-wing deputies and senior military officers were all sufficiently dissatisfied with the Chancellor’s dithering response to form an unlikely (and very temporary) alliance that forced his resignation on Bastille Day.

Appropriately enough, Bethmann Hollweg’s fall marked the start of a new phase in Germany’s accelerating collapse to revolution.  Faced with the firm parliamentary expression of public opposition, and with something less than full support from the civilian head of government, the Supreme Command simply sidelined the Reichstag and the office of chancellor.  Bethmann Hollweg’s replacement, Georg Michaelis (appointed after the Kaiser refused to accept the Supreme Command’s first two choices, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz) was a puppet of the Ludendorff regime with no personal support in the Reichstag.  That didn’t matter to the Supreme Command because it had stopped listening to the Reichstag, which did manage to remove Michaelis in October – only to be saddled with another puppet, the elderly Bavarian right-winger Georg von Hertling – but otherwise exerted no significant influence on policy for the rest of the War.

In response to its loss of parliamentary legitimacy, and by way of providing a semblance of popular mandate for its pursuit of the Hindenburg Programme’s crazy targets, the Supreme Command put funds into a new political pressure group, the Fatherland Party.  Led by Tirpitz, and loudly in favour of all the Supreme Command’s expansionist visions, it was launched in the autumn of 1917 and did eventually boast more than a million members, but most came from the conservative agrarian or military communities, and it had no impact on the gathering storm of disempowered opposition from practically every other sector of German society.

The emblem of the Fatherland Party, 1917-18.

While Germany was being plunged into a deadly experiment in totalitarian post-democracy, a nation with rather less hubris when it came to world-changing destiny was taking its first, albeit faltering step towards a future as a sovereign democracy.

Until the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917, modern Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, divided between the province of Estonia to the north and the northern, Estonian-speaking part of Livonia to the south. The region was effectively ruled by an oligarchy of semi-feudal landowners, many of them German-speaking, but Russification during the nineteenth century had reduced the influence of the German language on popular culture. Nationalist and Estonian language groups had sprung up during the early twentieth century, particularly during and after the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and had become well established without achieving anything much by 1917, when the February Revolution changed everything.

You are here…

In line with its revolutionary principles, the new Provisional Government in Petrograd issued a decree on 12 April 1917, unifying the regions of Estonia and northern Livonia as an autonomous Governate of Estonia, and calling for elections to a national assembly. Using a system of two-tier suffrage designed to ensure the influence of reliably socialist soldiers and industrial workers, the elections were a political battleground on the Russian model, with Bolshevik and other revolutionary agitators competing for popular support with more moderate socialists, liberals and nationalists. The 62-seat Provisional Land Assembly (known locally as the Maapäev) that met on 14 July at Toompea Castle, the traditional seat of power in Estonia and the country’s current parliament building, reflected all those interests across seven fairly evenly matched party groupings.

While nationalist and moderate elements coexisted with revolutionaries for whom independence and liberal parliamentary institutions were merely steps on the way to a new world order, autonomy left Estonia open to the free passage of Russian agitators and ideas. Far from producing the basis for unified progress towards sovereign status, the arrival of democracy plunged Estonia into the same kind of chaotic factional warfare that was undermining the Provisional Government in Russia.

Months of instability culminated in a failed Bolshevik coup d’état in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution, prompting a declaration of full independence by the Assembly in November 1917. Revolutionary parties fared poorly in new elections held the following January, but Russian-funded Bolsheviks responded with a second, more serious attempt to seize power, and that persuaded the newly independent nation to ask for German protection.

Russian war minister Kerensky addresses sailors in Revel (Tallinn). The port was a major Russian naval base and a hotbed of revolutionary activism.

Estonia got German protection in spades. After expelling revolutionary forces from the port of Revel (Tallinn to you and me) in February 1918, the German Army put the country under military occupation, inevitably coupled with economic exploitation. The small Estonian Army created by the Assembly was disbanded in April, which left the country virtually defenceless when the German withdrew after the Armistice, a situation immediately exploited by a Red Army invasion.  The Soviet force (ostensibly made up of Estonian revolutionaries) was eventually prevented from retaking Tallinn by Royal Navy warships in the Baltic, and driven back into Russia by a reconstituted Estonian army the following January. Fighting inside Russia continued for most of 1919, and Russia’s Bolshevik regime officially recognised Estonia’s full independence by a peace treaty signed in February 1920.

So while a defiant expression of German liberal democracy left it helpless in the face of right-wing dictatorship, the first expression of Estonian liberal democracy plunged a country so far untouched by three years of fighting into virtual civil war as it fought off left-wing dictatorship.  In both cases, the existence of democracy depended on the goodwill of authorities that were anything but liberal, and in both cases it would take a long, painful process to establish liberal democracy as genuine political force.   If there’s a lesson for the future to be drawn from these vaguely linked events, I guess it’s that anything stuck in the middle of the political road – be it Bethmann Hollweg, Estonian nationalism or liberal democracy – is a fragile thing in extreme times.  Oh, and that democracy handed out to populations by powerful third parties – be they kings, empires or multinational coalitions – can always be taken away again.

6 JULY, 1917: Image Bank Raided!

A best-selling memoir and a brilliant biopic can do wonders for a person’s place in posterity, and the stirring legend of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia to you – definitely owes something to the fictions perpetrated by both. This is generally accepted by modern historians, and has prompted an understandable tendency to play down both the influence Lawrence exerted on the Arab Revolt and the value of his military exploits.

Fair enough, and if all memoirs were treated with the same scepticism we’d be a happier human race, but revisionism (like revolution) has an innate tendency to overshoot.  It is true that Arab leaders deserve more credit for their successes than Lawrence himself gave them, and that other British figures at large in the Arab world played important roles in encouraging, fostering and arranging support for the Arab Revolt – but Lawrence was at least partly responsible for some pretty amazing stuff, and shouldn’t be downplayed out of sight.

I mention this because today marks the centenary of the Battle of Aqaba, an engagement that was raised to such improbable glory by memoir and movie that it can be (and sometimes is) dismissed as mythology.  To be sure, it wasn’t quite the heroic, crucial victory against massive odds portrayed by David Lean, and Lawrence wasn’t its sole or necessarily its major architect, but it was a very important moment in Arab Revolt’s development as a strategically significant movement, and Lawrence certainly played a resourceful part in making it happen.  Before I attempt a moderate, unbiased account of the thing, a little context wouldn’t go amiss.

When I was last there, the Arab Revolt was on the up.  From a position of embattled defence against numerically superior Ottoman forces, the Revolt’s principal army had successfully defended the port of Yenbo at the end of 1916, captured the small but important garrison town of Wejh in January and conducted an effective guerilla campaign against Ottoman supply lines to southern Arabia (24 January, 1917: Trains And Boats And Brains).

At this point the Revolt’s two main priorities were maintaining momentum and securing supplies from Britain.  Momentum and the high reputation that came with victories were vitally important recruitment tools in a land of war bands whose willingness to fight depended on essentially mediaeval principles of personal loyalty to particular warlords.  Military defeat, or even relative inactivity, was always likely to deprive the Revolt’s ‘Sherifian’ leaders of troops and sympathetic help from local populations.  Without the help of British weapons, British military advisors and Royal Navy units in the eastern Mediterranean, numbers of troops would hardly matter, because they would be fighting the relatively modern Turkish Army with nothing but swords, spears and the occasional musket.

The extent to which Lawrence was responsible for field commander Prince Feisal’s decision to make a surprise attack on Aqaba remains a matter of opinion, but he certainly played some part in planning a bold enterprise that addressed both priorities.  A little-used port at the junction of the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia (and now part of Jordan), Aqaba offered a supply route to British bases in both Egypt and Palestine, and could be a base for future Arab Revolt operations in northern Arabia.  On the other hand it was well protected from attack by sea, and its desert overland approaches were generally regarded as impassable for attackers, so taking it would be a major boost for the Revolt’s all-important fighting reputation.

You’ll be wanting another map. Won’t you?

Lawrence was among the leaders of a war band that left Wejh on 9 May 1917, at the start of a thousand-kilometre trek to seek approval and assistance for the attack.  He helped secure the support of Auda abu Tayi, known (by the British) as the ‘Robin Hood of Arabia’ and the region’s most storied warrior, whose presence helped swell the group’s numbers by about 500 men, most of them mounted.  Lawrence also led a diversionary raid into southern Syria – blowing up a bridge in what is now the Lebanon by way of distracting 3,000 Turkish Army regulars stationed at Maan, east of Aqaba – and seems to have been responsible for the decision to attempt the attack on Aqaba by the overland route.

Auda led the party, by now some 5,000 strong, across the desert to Aqaba, and that was the hard part, not least because only about 1,000 Ottoman troops were stationed in or around Aqaba and most of their heavy weaponry was positioned against an attack from the sea.  An Arab assault on a fort outside the port on 2 July killed or took prisoner about two-thirds of the garrison, and Auda led a camel charge that overran the port’s sparsely populated inland defences on 6 July.  The 300 or so Turkish troops left in Aqaba surrendered without a fight next day.  The battle had apparently cost the attackers two casualties, a claim that can never be verified because all Arab manpower figures derive from some kind of guesswork, and the folklore brownie points that came with the victory added around 2,000 more troops to the Revolt’s cause.

Aqaba – more important than it looks.

Exhausted and hungry after its epic desert sortie, the Arab army was likely to evaporate if it wasn’t supplied in a hurry, and although Lawrence didn’t play much part in the actual fighting around Aqaba he did set off overland for British headquarters in Cairo immediately after the battle.  His effort was rewarded by a very positive reception from British c-in-c Allenby, and a rapid supply operation that kept the Arab army intact.  Allenby agreed to establish Aqaba as the centre for logistic support of the Revolt’s operations in northern Arabia, and Feisal moved his headquarters there in August.

Always worth a picture of a quality First World War general, and Allenby knew his stuff.

More importantly from an Arab (or at least a Sherifian) perspective, news of the victory, routinely exaggerated in the telling, boosted support on the ground for the Revolt’s spread into northern Arabia. From now on, a pan-Arabian post-War state seemed within reach to the Revolt’s leaders, as did the more immediate prospect of driving the Ottoman Empire out of the Arab world altogether by sweeping the Revolt into Syria and seizing the main hub of Constantinople’s power in the Middle East, Damascus.

Beyond the Technicolor legend and our national obsession with Lawrence, Aqaba was a watershed in the history of modern Arab independence, and should be celebrated as that… but it was also a fateful turning point in the relationship between modern Arab independence and the British Empire.

As well as supplying the Revolt, Aqaba would soon serve as the eastern base for British advances through Palestine and into Syria, and the British (as well as the French) were very interested in the post-War economic benefits of controlling Damascus.  British strategists were happy enough to make promises to Arab leaders about pan-Arabic independence – as they were happy to promise almost anything to any ally or potential ally during this war – but they had no intention of relinquishing their economic ambitions in the region.  They were confident that possession of Damascus would secure those ambitions at the post-War conference table, provided they could get to the city ahead of the Arab Revolt.

So capturing Aqaba didn’t just ignite the Revolt in northern Arabia and cement the alliance between its leadership and the British Empire; it turned the unequal allies into unequal rivals.  In the short-term, that set up a race to Damascus between Allenby and the Revolt, and once the War was over it inspired a post-War betrayal of the Sherifian cause that, while routine to the great white powers responsible, would have fateful consequences for the future of the world.  Important stuff, and for my money well worth a high-concept blockbuster – but I guess it’s short on domestic ‘human interest’ for the heritage market, and it’s way less audience friendly than Anthony Quinn on a camel.

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR