15 NOVEMBER, 1917: Tiger Feats

So fighting on the streets of Petrograd and Moscow has been going on for ten days, but now it’s dying down. Revolutionary troops have dominated street battles against anti-Bolshevik elements and halted an attempt to retake the capital by Kerenski, who has just gone into hiding prior to fleeing the country, initially to France.  Lenin and the Bolsheviks are consolidating power at the centre, and although Russia’s withdrawal from the Great War is still officially pending, the whole world knows it’s coming soon. Informed observers everywhere are also aware that civil war is brewing in Russia, but for now pacifism is having its day.  That begs a question: what exactly did people mean by pacifism in 1917?

Moscow, 15 November 1917:  revolutionary forces enter the Kremlin.  Artist’s impression?  Yep.

The answer is less simple than it might appear to a modern mind familiar with pacifism as a general opposition to war itself, if not to violence of any sort.  This ideological position, named for the duration as conscientious objection, was recognised when the First World War began and took two basic forms.  Those objectors unwilling to bear arms but prepared to serve were usually given non-combatant roles, often as medical orderlies, cooks or labourers, while ‘absolute’ conscientious objectors – those refusing to play any part in war – were sent straight to prison in most belligerent countries.  A few thousand British and US absolute objectors passed stringent tests to gain official exemption from conscription (when it came), usually those able to prove long-term membership of religiously pacifist organisations like the Society of Friends, but they often suffered discrimination and ridicule in their local communities, especially in Britain.

By 1914, another definition of pacifism described the body of opinion, far more numerically and politically significant, that opposed the militarism and aggressive nationalism associated with the pre-war ‘great powers’.  In this sense the revolutionary wing of the socialist Second International, which rejected war between workers as a form of capitalist oppression, was pacifist, as were liberal ‘isolationists’ in the United States, who regarded any extension of statecraft into military aggression as morally wrong.

The War’s progress expanded a new and particular form of what was called pacifism by both its adherents and its ‘patriotic’ opponents:  a simple preference for peace over ‘war to the end’.  Bringing together religious organisations like the Papacy, which sought to end what it saw as senseless carnage, and revolutionary socialists (like the Bolsheviks) preaching ‘defeatism’ as a way to hasten the fall of capitalist regimes, along with politicians and agitators in favour of a compromise settlement in all the countries at war, this was always a broad church.

Pacifism of this type was also difficult to quantify.  Universally surprised and relieved by popular enthusiasm for war in 1914, belligerent governments constantly expected it to evaporate, a paranoia that existed to different degrees in different regimes, but that grew stronger everywhere as the conflict dragged on.  Factor in the psychological need to find scapegoats for a long list of unexpected military failures (on all sides) and it’s easy to see why wartime governments and their supporters at all levels of society saw disruptive, dangerous pacifism everywhere.

Fighters were heroes, pacifists pariahs.

The bitter course of 1917 had brought deepening popular war weariness in Europe, loud calls for peace from across the international pacifist spectrum, a long list of military failures on both sides that could be blamed on pacifists and, most alarmingly from the viewpoint of belligerent governments, shocking proof in Russia that pacifism could bring down an empire.  Public debate between pacifists and diehards, always a feature of every wartime home front, intensified everywhere throughout the year and was often acrimonious stuff, but it kicked off in France with a fury unmatched outside greater Russia.

The bloodletting of Verdun, the catastrophic failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the mass mutiny that followed brought a collective howl of outrage and bewilderment from a French body politic long polarised between those on the left in favour of a compromise peace and a right wing committed to total victory, or ‘war to the end’ (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front).  Conservative press and politicians had no trouble finding scapegoats for the disasters of the spring, and a hunt for spies and pacifist agitators, real or imagined, had come to dominate French political life by the summer.

Interior minister Louis Malvy, a liberal regarded by the right as soft on dissent and therefore potentially treasonous, was forced out of office at the end of August after being (mildly) implicated in a scandal surrounding German funding of a small pacifist magazine, Le Bonnet Rouge.  His left-of-centre Radical Party supporters promptly deserted the centrist government of Alexandre Ribot, leaving it isolated and under attack from both sides of the political divide until its resignation on 7 September.

President Poincaré, the one constant at the heart of French wartime politics, stuck with his overriding principle of national coalition to appoint another centrist administration under Ribot’s war minister, the relatively inexperienced Paul Painlevé.  Painlevé’s main qualification for the job was his well-known opposition to the Nivelle folly, but he attracted no more support from left or right than his predecessor and only lasted a couple of months, resigning on 13 November.

Poincaré now had no choice but to get off the fence and appoint a government representing one side or the other.  On 15 November 1917, with shockwaves reverberating across Europe as the Bolsheviks showed pacifism’s teeth, he handed power to a veteran politician who was ‘war to the end’ personified, Georges Clemenceau.

Already in his mid-seventies, Clemenceau had been a powerful and very lively figure within the Radical Party until he embarked upon a noisy semi-retirement from 1909. As a senator in the upper house and editor of his own magazine, L’Homme Libre, he was a strident voice for military preparedness before August 1914, and when war came he turned down the Viviani government’s offer of the justice ministry to carry on sniping from the sidelines.

Clemenceau – would you argue with him?

The Tiger, as he liked to be known, became the most belligerent of all the many critics attacking successive wartime French governments. Changing the name of his magazine to L’Homme Enchainé in protest at state censorship, he delivered scathing attacks against the dominance of Joffre’s military command and against bureaucratic inefficiency, while keeping up a stream of complaints about the spread of pacifist agitation. He had accused Malvy of being a closet pacifist, and had led calls for state suppression of internal unrest in the aftermath of the Nivelle Offensive. His call to the office of prime minister was an invitation to act the strongman in pursuit of total victory, and he played the role to the hilt.

Clemenceau immediately clamped down all dissent, closing pacifist publications, arresting some 1,700 ‘defeatists’ and putting several of the most prominent on trial for treason.  He dealt with political division by simply excluding all opponents from the government, and slowed the surge of strikes that was in danger of paralysing the economy with a combination of threats and wage rises. He was equally forceful with the military.  Working to counteract c-in-c Pétain’s acceptance of the Army’s relatively passive role on the Western Front, he influenced the appointment of the more aggressive Foch as Allied supreme commander in 1918 and insisted that exhausted French forces go onto the attack during the War’s last battles.

German poster of President Poincaré, with his Tiger.

All in all, Clemenceau behaved like a right-wing dictator for the rest of the War, and he would go on to play a major part in turning post-War peace negotiations into an unmitigated disaster that shaped the rest of the century.  Then again, Clemenceau proved to be exactly what the French Third Republic needed to get it through the War intact.  Arriving at the head of a society divided to the point of paralysis, and at the very moment when socialist revolution was claiming its first major empire, his single-minded aggression produced an effect that the British would later call Churchillian.

Clemenceau is well remembered in France, broadly speaking celebrated by the right and abhorred by the left in a country still fondly attached to twentieth-century political divides, but like many of the conflict’s most important political figures his wartime contribution gets very little international attention today.  I’m not here to judge Clemenceau, any more than I’d attempt to judge Churchill or De Gaulle for the dubious nature of their wartime heroics, but while we’re commemorating the icons that Lenin and Trotsky became, spare a thought for what might have happened to Western Europe if France hadn’t been tamed by the Tiger.

8 NOVEMBER, 1917: World Shaken (Not Stirred)

After three days of uprising on the streets of Petrograd, capital of the crumbling Russian Empire, a coup d’état brought the militant pacifist Bolshevik Party to power on the morning of 8 November 1917. Because November had not yet arrived according to the Russian Julian calendar, the coup was named the October Revolution, as distinct from the February Revolution that had overthrown the Tsarist regime earlier in the year. Anglophones tend to call it the Bolshevik Revolution or simply the Russian Revolution, but however you name it the arrival of Lenin’s new regime in Russia was one of the defining moments in twentieth-century world history.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, posterity treated the October Revolution that way. Its anniversary was celebrated with big fanfares and military parades throughout the Soviet bloc, where it was hailed by the ruling system as a kind of Big Bang that gave birth to all things good. Elsewhere, especially in the liberal West, it attracted intense study and a sort of horrified reverence as the source of a global force that was huge, mysterious and potentially anything from catastrophic to messianic, depending on your viewpoint. Now that the USSR has proved to be neither, at least according to the apocalyptic terms of reference that were commonplace before the 1990s, posterity has found reasons to downgrade the Bolsheviks’ great moment.

Seizing the day, in a staged kind of way…

It’s not hard to see why modern Russia chooses to give the Revolution’s centenary no more than perfunctory recognition. Unable to muster the totalitarian control exerted by the Soviet system, the current regime is not remotely interested in endorsing revolutionary activities, but much more interested in discouraging any popular nostalgia for the perceived efficiency of the Soviet machine.

Mainstream western media are meanwhile trotting out commemorative material that, if British press and TV are anything to go by, is light on political analysis and big on the all-action dramas of those wild days in 1917. When the BBC News devotes a memorial piece to the bullet holes still visible at the Winter Palace, it reminds me of the way popular Anglophone history packages the French Revolution, reducing it to the storming of the Bastille and a bunch of stylish decapitations, fixed images that tell us we don’t need to think too hard about something quaint and no longer relevant.

The Bolshevik Revolution is still relevant. Its shadow still blots out a lot of sun in Russia and other former Soviet states, and it still informs the military-industrial matrix around which the West’s defiantly capitalist response to the Soviet system has been built. That said, I’m not going to run through it in any detail, partly because the job has been well and truly done by a lot of other people, some of them brilliant, and partly because it would take at least a book to do it justice. I’m old school, still infused by shock and awe at what the Revolution did to the world, and that makes giving it the usual skim treatment a bit tricky – so I’m going to cop out, suggest you start any reading with Ten Days That Shook The World, and talk about other stuff.

Even by its own crowded standards, the First World War was having a particularly busy week in early November 1917. The Balfour Declaration of 2 November had sparked global headlines and debate about the future of Palestine and the Jewish people, but was soon superseded by news from the Western Front. The capture of Passchendaele by Canadian troops on 6 November was celebrated by the British, British imperial, US and French press with far more fanfare than its negligible strategic significance deserved – but the orthodoxies of contemporary (and subsequent) propaganda insisted that nobody could end a major offensive without claiming a victory, and this one allowed Haig to finally give up on the long, painful Third Battle of Ypres.

Elsewhere, General Allenby’s capture of Gaza was a genuine victory for the British, though it was more important to the future of the Middle East than to the outcome of the War, and the same could be said of General Maude’s continuing advance into Mesopotamia. Less positively from an Allied point of view, the Italian Army was still falling back in disarray before the Austro-German offensive at Caporetto, and suffering losses that couldn’t be disguised as anything but signs of defeat. With the very real possibility that Italy’s war effort was on the point of collapse, an Allied summit at Rapallo was in session for three days from 6 November.

By the time agreement had been reached and the conference closed, Italian positions were stabilising and (largely) Austrian advances were losing momentum – but as the leaders of France and Britain left the picturesque Italian port on 9 November, with the Italian Front shored up and three-way cooperation assured, they knew that chaos in Petrograd had crystallised into the worst possible result for the Allies. Russia’s Provisional Government hadn’t seemed effective, stable or particularly friendly to strategists in London and Paris, but it had been open to diplomacy as they understood it, and it had remained committed to the War. Now the Allies had to face the news that the dreaded Bolsheviks were establishing a hold on political power and had announced ‘an immediate democratic peace’ as their first priority. The war for control of Eastern Europe was over.

Most of the above has been covered in recent posts, but the moment at which Lenin and Trotsky seized the day to change the world forever seems a good time for a brief state-of-the-War recap, if only as a reminder that it’s almost impossible to sort geopolitical events into any kind of cause-and-effect classification without the benefit of hindsight. Wartime Allied newspapers more interested in Passchendaele than Petrograd summed up the effects of political pressures and partial perspectives on contemporary analyses of world affairs, and the future will undoubtedly prove that today’s orthodox worldviews had their eyes off the ball.

Future shocks can’t be helped of course, but watching for the relatively quiet developments in world affairs can provide at least some preparation and a shot at responding with the right manoeuvres. In that spirit, one of the smaller international stories of early November 1917, the signing of the Lansing-Ishii Agreement on 2 November, is worth a mention.

Robert Lansing was a lawyer specialising in intergovernmental legislation when he was appointed advisor to the US federal State Department (or foreign ministry) in April 1914, and he became US secretary of state in June 1915. Whatever else Lansing was – and I might one day get the chance to lament his role at the postwar peace conference – he was a man for the long view.

Convinced at an early stage that the US would eventually join the Entente at war against the Central Powers, and as such not especially forceful in his many official protests about the British naval blockade, Lansing pressured President Wilson into tacitly allowing major bank loans to the Entente powers, and pushed for peace with Mexico as preparation for war elsewhere.  Once the US was at war his efforts were focused on its aftermath.  By the spring of 1918 he would be instructing the ‘Inquiry’ – a secret global strategy think tank of some 125 researchers and experts, headed by respected journalist Walter Lippmann – to focus on the future of South America, but in late 1917 he was addressing the other main object of US economic ambitions, the Pacific.

In possession of Hawaii, in effective control of the Philippines and equipped with all the requirements for successful maritime trade from its west coast, the US was already established as a major Pacific economic player by 1914. As in Latin America, the subsequent shrinking of European wealth and influence in the region offered the US an opportunity to infiltrate new markets. With India already taken and jealously guarded by the British, the big prize was China, which was politically fragile and ripe for economic penetration, but had only been nibbled at by the European powers, and hardly approached by the US, in the decades before the War.

Tokyo in 1917 – modernising very nicely.

The US wasn’t the only rising economic star in the Pacific. Japan had been undergoing rapid industrialisation and pursuing aggressive, expansionist economic policies backed by a strong military. China was the prime focus of Japan’s aggression, and it had made no secret of its intent to seize control of the vast Manchurian territory, so although Japanese and US interests had not yet clashed directly, future rivalry was accepted as almost inevitable by both sides. Once the US was at war in 1917, Japan was in effect an ally, and that gave Lansing a diplomatic platform to seek a mutual understanding over their interests in China.

In the exchange of notes between Lansing and special Japanese envoy Ishii Kikujiro, announced on 2 November, both sides agreed that Japan held a position of special economic influence in China. They also confirmed Chinese territorial integrity and mutual adherence to the ‘open door’ policy, which theoretically guaranteed equal trading and commercial opportunities to all foreign powers in China.

Lansing and Count Ishii have come to an Agreement – I’ll let you guess which one’s which.

Both sides declared themselves pleased to have avoided any future misunderstandings – but in fact the Agreement had just the opposite effect. Japan interpreted it as sanctioning both economic and political interference in Manchuria, and provoked nothing but resentment in the US by proceeding with its effective conquest of the region. By the time the Agreement was abandoned in 1923, economic rivalry between Japan and the US was solidifying into suspicion and hostility against the background of a naval arms race. We all know how that panned out, but to end on some semblance of a point, who in November 1917 could have guessed that, among all the blockbuster stories dominating the week’s news, this one would end with an A-bomb on Nagasaki?

31 OCTOBER, 1917: Promised Land

During the latter part of 1916, in line with an evolving strategy aimed at securing postwar economic and geopolitical clout for the Empire, Britain’s Imperial War Cabinet had decided to invade Palestine from the Sinai Peninsula.  It was something of a non-decision.  Circumstances rather than strategy had turned British defence of the Suez Canal into an offensive war, and though theatre commander General Murray was sent reinforcements for the invasion, they were fewer than he needed and much of their equipment was obsolete.

Two attempts to take Gaza, effectively the gateway from Sinai into the wider Middle East, failed during the spring of 1917 in the face of a well-organised Ottoman defence that was dominated by modern German aircraft and field weapons, all under German command (24 March, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip).  After that the British got serious about Palestine, and a hundred years ago today they launched an altogether more powerful invasion with a third attack on the 40km line in front of Gaza, known to posterity as the Battle of Beersheba (or Beersheba/Gaza).

Getting serious had involved a change of command and major reinforcement during the summer. Edmund Allenby, a cavalry general in command of the Third Army on the Western Front since October 1915, had replaced Murray in late June.  Allenby’s once high reputation had slipped a little since the spring’s Nivelle Offensive in France, largely because his cavalry’s perceived failure to exploit minor openings during the offensive’s opening attack –generally known as the Battle of Arras – had given Haig a chance to shovel blame onto a troublesome subordinate who had argued strongly against continued use of standard breakthrough tactics. Transferred to a theatre of wide-open spaces between defence points, in other words ideally suited to cavalry warfare, Allenby was destined to become one of the wartime British Army’s few genuinely successful generals.

They all look alike, I know, but this is General Allenby, and he did OK.

Unlike his predecessor, Allenby was given the tools to get the job done. Reinforcements from Salonika (including a few French and Italian troops) had brought his frontline strength up to around 95,000 troops by the early autumn, including about 12,000 cavalry, against some 33,000 men available to the German commander of Ottoman defence forces, General von Kressenstein. Kressenstein had constructed new defensive strongpoints since the spring, north of Gaza and in the centre of the line at Tel es Sheria, but his forces were short of basic trench weaponry while Allenby enjoyed a three to one advantage in artillery and ammunition. Meanwhile the arrival of modern Bristol Fighters enabled the Royal Flying Corps to regain control of the skies, and therefore a vital reconnaissance edge.

Further defensive reinforcement was on the way in the form of Yilderim Force.  An elite German-Ottoman strike force, Yilderim was commanded by former chief of staff Falkenhayn and originally intended for the recapture of Baghdad on the Mesopotamian Front, but was still in the process of transferring to Palestine (for a planned offensive into Sinai) when the British attack opened.

Allenby’s plan of attack, devised by frontline commander General Chetwode, concentrated the main assault at the less heavily defended southwestern end of the line, around Beersheba, where it was least expected. Some 40,000 Allied troops were deployed around Beersheba for the purpose, while another 30,000 (supported by 218 field guns, the biggest wartime concentration of artillery yet seen outside Europe) were left in front of Gaza as a diversion.

The aim was to follow up the attack by ‘rolling up’ the defensive line – east to west, all the way to Gaza – while cavalry leapt ahead to cut off any Ottoman retreat on Jerusalem. Success depended above all on surprise and water. Secrecy was maintained thanks to the RFC, which prevented German air reconnaissance, and misdirection was achieved with a six-day artillery bombardment of Gaza before the Beersheba attack opened early on 31 October. Water supplies depended on the rapid capture of Beersheba’s wells, without which the second stage of the operation couldn’t go ahead.

The plan worked almost perfectly. The attack struck to the west of Beersheba and took defenders completely by surprise. The town was surrounded by evening and at dusk a (celebrated) light brigade cavalry charge thwarted Ottoman attempts to poison the wells. By the end of the first day Allenby was ready to start rolling up the defensive line with an attack on the central stronghold at Tel es Sheria, but disappointing yields from the wells caused several days’ delay and it took a little good fortune to keep things on track for the British.

This needs a map. It’s a complex, detailed map, but it’s the right map.

A diversionary operation northeast of Gaza by a 70-strong camel company, lifted from support work with the Arab Revolt, occupied Hebron on the road to Jerusalem and was mistaken for a major flank attack. Two Ottoman infantry divisions and one cavalry division were promptly transferred to Hebron from the front, leaving plans for the defence of Gaza in disarray. Falkenhayn, who assumed overall command of the theatre on 5 November, had little choice about allowing Kressenstein to retreat north of Gaza, which was occupied by the British the following evening. Allenby meanwhile launched his attack on Tel es Sheria, the fortified hill in the centre of the Ottoman line, at dawn on 6 November, and completed its capture late on 7 November, at which point the British were in position to cut off Kressenstein’s retreat.

Thanks to a series of minor Ottoman counterattacks and a rugged rearguard action around the town of Huj, northeast of Gaza, most of the retreating units escaped pursuit, but not without suffering significant damage.  An ammunition dump and Kressenstein’s new headquarters were captured intact when another British cavalry charge took Huj on 8 November, and desertions meant that only about 15,000 Ottoman troops took up new defensive positions some 30km southwest of Jerusalem on 10 November.  By then elite Yilderim units were arriving from the east, and Falkenhayn ignored staff advice to send three divisions on a wide sweep through the desert to attack Allenby’s inland flank. Aware of their approach, Allenby relied on a single cavalry division – the Australian Mounted Division –to hold them off, and committed the rest of his cavalry to a continued attack on Kressenstein’s coastal positions.

In what is known to the British as the Battle of Mughar Ridge, Allenby’s infantry attacked on 13 November towards high ground near Junction Station, where the railway to Beersheba joined the Haifa-Jerusalem line. Although the advance became bogged down in difficult terrain (cacti, to be precise), yet another cavalry attack turned the battle by storming the hilltop village of Mughar.  British armoured cars took control of Junction Station next day, severing the rail link between the two Ottoman armies.  Meanwhile the Australian Mounted Division held off Falkenhayn’s flank attackers, who eventually withdrew to defend Jerusalem itself.

Mughar Ridge. Just so you know what they mean by a ridge.

After being warned against over-extension by his chiefs in London (where lessons learned on the Mesopotamian Front hadn’t been forgotten), and in expectation of a major Yilderim counterattack, Allenby then paused on the road to Jerusalem to wait out the winter rains.

From a British military perspective the invasion had begun very well, delivering an impressive sequence of undeniable battle victories, complete with an excellent performance by the RFC and – even more satisfyingly after years of operational disappointment in France – a crucial contribution by Allenby’s cavalry in desert conditions ideally suited to mounted warfare.  From a geopolitical perspective the British had taken a giant step towards de facto control of the Middle East once the War was over, but it was a step fraught with diplomatic complications.

Ottoman cavalry in Palestine, where cavalry really mattered, because the open, desert landscape made rapid long-range transport and reconnaissance crucial – and made contemporary motor vehicles break down.

Three years into a war publicly justified as a defence of liberal values, and six months into alliance with a US administration determined to extend the same values into a global blueprint for post-War peace, Britain no longer possessed the political, military or economic authority to act like Gordon Gecko on the world stage. Whatever its strategic justification in strictly military terms, the invasion of Palestine had to appear motivated by more than simple greed, both to Britain’s allies and to the populations it planned to control – and that brings me to the centenary everyone else will be talking about this week.

Published only two days after the invasion’s launch, on 2 November 1917, the Balfour Declaration teased out a humane response to longstanding debates about a Jewish homeland and Jewish control of Jerusalem, albeit in terms that were vague yet replete with self-righteousness.  It made no mention of the large-scale British invasion that was in the process of conquering Palestine, but it hardly needed to in 1917, so Balfour’s words garnished the Empire’s essentially venal enterprise with a diplomatically useful hint of higher purpose.

The British heritage industry likes to take the Declaration at face value, hence the heavy whiff of intellectual heroism given off by most popular coverage of the centenary, coverage that appears to be completely ignoring the invasion of Palestine.   At a guess, this is not because nobody needs reminding of it in 2017, but is more in tune with the British prime minister’s insistence that the Declaration’s centenary is Israel’s celebration, with Britain no more than a benign spectator.  Denial?  Shame?  Mere timidity in the face of global controversy?  You decide, I’m just here to say the invasion happened and talk about how.

By way of a PS, the Declaration quite understandably said nothing about the influence exerted by naturalised British scientist and Zionist Chaim Weizmann – and most modern commentators are keeping quite about what is a controversial, uncertain issue.

Weizmann’s pioneering production of acetone from maize had freed Britain from dependence on German supplies for high explosives at the start of the War, and he headed the Royal Navy research laboratories between 1916 and 1919, but he devoted much of his wartime energy to lobbying the British government for a Jewish state in Palestine.  The Declaration can be (and has been) seen as a payment to Weizmann for services rendered.  In my view, Weizmann may have been part of the bundle of motives that inspired the Balfour Declaration, but was by no means the most important factor in play – but I’ll leave any further speculation to you.

24 OCTOBER, 1917: This Plan Sucks

When the First World War got started everybody knew it couldn’t last long, because the social and economic effort required to fight a war with the massed armies simply couldn’t be sustained for more than a few weeks, even by the world’s richest and powerful empires. The only person of any military or political significance to doubt this blindingly obvious truth in the late summer of 1914 was British war minister Lord Kitchener, who insisted the war would last for years and cost millions of lives but never explained his views.  Given that Kitchener generally gave off an air of enigmatic mysticism, the more normal movers and shakers felt he could be safely ignored.

We know now that the normal people got it wrong.  Military stalemate spurred every nation at war, and in particular the great empires at the conflict’s heart, to previously unimagined levels of industrialisation and organisation that extended their military lifespan beyond anything thought possible in 1914.  The stresses created by their extraordinary responses to the demands of total war eventually helped destroy the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, permanently diminished the British and French, and wrecked Italy’s self-conscious attempt to join the ranks of what were, until 1914, known as the ‘great powers’.

The strategists guiding them were well aware that the War’s big European players were running their systems too hot, and the repeated failure of military efforts to conjure any kind of decisive victory during 1915 reduced them to the desperate resort of attrition.  Effectively a gamble that the enemy’s war effort would crumble first, war of attrition depended on the efforts of Europe’s two strongest and most industrial economies, Germany and Britain.

Although France was just about capable of surviving the hothouse into 1917, the bloodletting at Verdun had confirmed its inability to win a war of attrition against Germany on its own, while neither Russia nor Italy possessed the economic infrastructure to fight one with more than simple manpower.  All three relied on military and economic aid from Britain’s (once bottomless) well of money and goods, and on Britain to make attrition work.

By late 1916 Berlin’s principal allies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, were only able to fight at all because Germany’s astonishing economy was continuing to provide large-scale military and industrial support.  The Third Supreme Command had come to power well aware that a strategy of attrition depended entirely on Germany, and convinced it was doomed to failure.  From the moment the it chose to provoke US involvement by launching an all-out U-boat offensive, attrition was no longer an option for Germany, but it looked like a guaranteed winner for the Allies, albeit in the medium-to-long term and far too late save the Russian Empire, once the US had entered the War in April 1917.

During the summer of 1917 it became clear to both sides that submarines were not going to knock Britain out of the fight anytime soon.  While the British could choose to keep piling into the Western Front, this time around Ypres, in the knowledge that even if Haig’s big offensive failed attrition was on their side, Germany was now in desperate need of a new game-changer.  Ultimately, only a sweeping victory in France would do the trick, but the only hopes of that lay in distraction at least some Allied strength from the Western Front as a preamble to concentrating all German and Austro-Hungarian strength in the theatre.

The most likely theatre to attract large-scale military aid from Britain and France was the Italian Front.  Italy had been promised substantial Allied reinforcement in the event of a crisis, and after more than two years of almost continuous warfare – most of it unsuccessful, all of it attritional – the Italian war effort appeared volatile and fragile enough to collapse in the face of a major military setback.  Unfortunately from Germany’s point of view the Italian Army’s immediate opponent, the Austro-Hungarian Army, was in grave anger of collapse in its own right, in no condition to mount an offensive and only notionally in a position to plan one.

The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Baron Arz von Straussenberg, had replaced the appalling Conrad the previous March, but had little actual influence over the course of the War.  He functioned as a personal advisor to the earnest, reformist young Kaiser Karl, taking instructions rather than formulating policy, and had little say in the dispositions of Austro-Hungarian armies controlled from Berlin through German military advisors.  He kept himself strategically occupied wit proposals to Berlin for joint operations in Italy, and had no more success than his predecessor until mid-September.  Aware that Austrian positions on the Isonzo had barely survived Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s eleventh offensive in the sector – which was only just slowing to a halt – the Third Supreme Command finally said yes, and committed German forces to an attack on the Italian Front.

The attack was launched a century ago today, and is known as either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Caporetto Offensive.  Like so many efficiently conceived and executed German offensive operations in a war defined by victory’s mirage, this one began with a flourish and promised the Earth but couldn’t quite deliver.

The Austrians had proposed a repeat of their 1916 near miss in the Trentino valley, but were overruled by German planners, who prepared a limited offensive intended to buy the Austro-Hungarian Army a breathing space for reconstruction.  Nine Austrian divisions were reinforced by six German divisions drawn from General von Hutier’s highly successful army around Riga, to form the German Fourteenth Army.   Commanded by General Otto von Bülow – not the Karl von Bülow who messed up the invasion of France in 1914 –it concentrated against a lightly defended 25km stretch of the Italian line north of Gorizia, in front of the town of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) .

This one needs a map. Here’s a map.

Well informed of German movements by spies and deserters, Cadorna and the Italian high command reacted to the long-feared news that the Germans were finally coming to the theatre by suspending all offensive operations on the Isonzo – but no attempt was made to take up superior defensive positions in preparation for an attack.  Italian armies merely stopped where they were and adopted a generally defensive posture.

While history has never doubted that this was a mistake, explaining it has been harder.  Cadorna probably underestimated German strength and overestimated the fighting capability of his exhausted troops.  He also seems to have assumed that Italian numerical superiority over the whole front (41 divisions against 35) provided sufficient protection against attack, and ignored the fact that enemy concentration had left Italian forces heavily outnumbered in the Caporetto area.  Defensive preparations weren’t helped when the commander of the Caporetto sector, an inveterate maverick by the name of General Luigi Capello, ignored orders to withdraw his artillery to safe positions across the river and instead deployed his best units for an attack on Bülow’s east flank.

General Cadorna had a good view of the situation – but didn’t see it.

If the Italians were ill-prepared to meet attack, they certainly weren’t ready for General Hutier’s new ‘infiltration tactics’ (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  The main German advance in the centre of the position took Italian defenders by surprise on the morning of 24 October, broke through the lines almost immediately and had stormed forward some 25km by the end of day.  Secondary attacks on either flank were held off by defenders, as was an Austro-Hungarian attempt to push south from positions near the coast, but the collapse at the centre threatened to leave the majority of Capello’s army cut off at the River Tagliamento.

Capello wanted to retreat at the end of the first day, but Cadorna ordered counterattacks in the centre.  They lasted for another six days, and although they failed to block the central gap they did give most Italian troops time to get back across the Tagliamento. German attempts to take a bridgehead beyond the river began on 2 November, prompting Cadorna to order a further retreat to the fast-flowing River Piave, less than 30km north of Venice.

The Italian retreat from Caporetto, not quite headlong but very miserable…

By the time the retreat was complete, on 10 November, the shock of defeat had reverberated around Western Europe.  The somewhat inert liberal government of Paolo Boselli, in power in Italy since June 1916 and already under pressure as the economy lurched into crisis, was voted out of office on 25 October.  New premier Vittorio Orlando, the former interior minister, wasted no time appealing to Britain and France for emergency help, meeting British PM Lloyd George and French premier Painlevé at the north-west Italian port of Rapallo on 5 November.

In line with contingency plans laid out during the spring, Italy’s allies agreed to reverse the recall of heavy artillery lent from the Western Front for Cadorna’s last Italian offensive, and to provide substantial ground and air reinforcements to help stabilise the Italian line at the Piave.  Rapallo also saw the dismissal of Cadorna – on 7 November, at the insistence of the Allies – and creation of the Supreme War Council, originally comprising (as its military representatives) new Italian c-in-c General Diaz, French General Foch and British General Wilson.  Established as a means of curtailing the independence of Italian field commanders, and as such a classic case of shutting the stable door, the Council would eventually mature into a fully unified Allied military command, led by Foch.

Six French and five British divisions from the Western Front reached the Italian front line in early December, but by then the Austro-German offensive had run out of steam.  An attack by two Austrian armies in the Trentino area had opened on 12 November, but was short on reserves and made little progress.  Further east, attacks between the upper Piave and the River Brenta resumed on 13 November, but were held off during five days of heavy fighting.  The battle dragged on into late December, with attacks steadily diminishing in scale, before bad weather and the withdrawal of German units from the theatre halted major operations for the winter.

Although the German high command had orchestrated a stunning victory, it had lacked the resources to complete the job, and had exhausted the last offensive gasp of an enfeebled Austro-Hungarian Army, which would never again mount a successful offensive.  In strategic terms, the transfer of Allied troops from France could be called a minor German success, but in the end it made much less difference to the balance of power on the Western Front than it did on the Italian.

The Italian Army lost 300,000 men at Caporetto, all but 30,000 of them as prisoners, as well as most of its artillery, but it survived and would be strengthened from now on by Allied involvement in the theatre, which brought both a continuous stream of reinforcements and a major reorganisation programme.  What’s more the threat of invasion silenced the rising crescendo of popular pacifism in Italy, as public opinion reacted as it had done at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive in 1916, uniting behind the government and military in time of national crisis.  So the Third Supreme Command’s best-laid plans, intended to knock Italy out of the conflict, had instead breathed new life into a failing Italian war effort.

If there’s a point to this story it’s that even the most careful plans for war – about its size, its length or its strategic direction, not to mention its tactical details and aftermaths – are never much more than blind guesswork.  History, particularly heritage history, inevitably draws on the rationalisations of participants to give war a coherent narrative, to make its outcomes look planned, but war is always a time of chaos and none of the plans has ever worked.

10 OCTOBER, 1917: National Stereotypes

The big story in the British press a hundred years ago was still the Third Battle of Ypres, as it was then being called, which was in the throes of another British reboot, distinguished by contemporaries and posterity as the Battle of Poelcapelle.  This latest phase of the fighting achieved very little for the Allies at substantial cost for both sides, and although British newspapers were accentuating the positives for all they were worth, faithfully trumpeting every inch of ground gained and every German casualty, their tone had lately undergone an increasingly familiar shift of focus.

Although everyone was able to be relatively honest about their generally successful defensive operations, the press on the attacking side greeted any major wartime offensive with confident predictions of a great victory.  Haig’s latest offensives were no different, but as hopes of success floundered in Flanders mud readers were being let down gently with reports that spoke less about the strategic situation, more about the horror of the carnage and the bravery of the troops.

This quiet evasion of uncomfortable truths was characteristic of wartime internal propaganda produced by liberal democracies, and was more subtle than the big lies about the big picture perpetrated by German propagandists conditioned to regard the body politic as intrinsically hostile.  Though hardly convincing  to a public accustomed to reading between the lines after three years of war, it did make allowances for natural scepticism and trusted its target audience to respond positively to sugar coated bad news.  As such it spared populations the kind of visceral shock administered to Germany when the truth got out, as mentioned in my last post – but before we get too comfortable with liberal democracies it’s worth noting that all they shared a propensity for other, less inclusive forms of internal propaganda.

We’re the good guys, OK? The British government knew what its people wanted to hear.

When it came to persuading populations that they were on the side of the angels, that their government and armed forces were honourable reflections of the home culture’s intrinsically superior morality, nobody’s propaganda was willing to trust its audience.  By way of illustration, British newspapers on 10 October also carried a small story about four Swedish merchant ships seized in UK ports. According to the reports, the ships had been commandeered for their own good because, although they flew the Swedish flag, they were partly British-owned and therefore likely to be attacked anyway by German warships.

Leaving aside the assumption that German naval officers were extraordinarily well informed about the ownership details of neutral merchantmen, one elephant in the room here was the fact that losses to U-boats, though less than catastrophic since the establishment of a convoy system, still left the British desperate to use any excuse to grab any merchant shipping within reach. Informed readers may well have understood and forgiven this, but a second elephant was more carefully concealed.   A public conditioned to view Britain as the much-loved global policeman, protecting the world from aggressive militarism, wasn’t being told that the British regarded neutral Swedish shipping as fair game.

Of the northern European states known in Britain as the ‘adjacent neutrals’ – the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden – the constitutional monarchy of Sweden was by far the most pro-German.  The country enjoyed strong cultural and economic links with Germany and had long regarded Berlin as the natural counterweight to the enemy it most feared, expansionist Russia. Though quick to declare its neutrality in August 1914, Sweden had at the same time signed a secret agreement to maintain a ‘benevolent’ attitude towards Germany, an arrangement at least partly motivated by a desire to forestall any German aggression.

Like the other adjacent neutrals, Sweden faced a combination of bullying and indulgence from both sides as the War progressed, because while the regionally relevant belligerent powers – Germany, Britain and Russia – wanted to prevent Swedish trade with their enemies, they also needed Swedish cooperation.

Germany relied heavily on Sweden as one of the few places willing and able to maintain trade links during the British blockade, and above all as a major supplier of desperately needed horses.  Britain’s imports from Sweden included important iron ore and timber supplies, and British diplomats fretted about Sweden’s attitude towards Russia and the Eastern Front.  Early in the War, before the development of Murmansk as an ice-free port, Sweden was the only viable through-route for Allied supplies to Russia, but London and St. Petersburg were always aware that any signs of German victory in the east might persuade Sweden to join the Central Powers for a share of the spoils.

Sweden going to war was less likely than the Allies imagined. Though a noisy Activist Party lobbied consistently for an alliance with Berlin, winning support from significant minorities within all social groups and strong backing from the military, sound commercial instincts and the pacifist preference of the majority kept the Stockholm government committed to formal neutrality throughout the War.

The fact remained that Germany mattered more to Sweden than Britain.  Sweden was less dependent than its neutral neighbours on British imports, and found it could replace most them with German imports when the British flexed their blockade muscles by curtailing supplies, while Germany was both the enemy of Sweden’s Russian enemy and, if provoked, a potential invader .

Though the Swedish government was apt to make a show of reluctance, it bowed to a series of German demands during the first two years of the War.  It agreed to black out Swedish lighthouses and mined the strait between Sweden and Denmark, both by way of keeping British warships out of the Baltic, and it banned the overland passage of military equipment en route for Russia.  Sweden was also the only European neutral to back Germany in the propaganda war, with government and press supporting Berlin’s take on Belgian atrocities, submarine warfare and most other controversial issues.  This was all perfectly legal, and in response the British could only impound Swedish ships, blacklist Swedish businesses and attempt to negotiate guarantees from the Swedish government against the re-export of goods to Germany.

By the end of 1916 the negotiations had achieved nothing much in the face of intransigence from Swedish premier Hammerskjöld, who had headed an essentially pro-German cabinet of conservative and business interests since the beginning of the War.  Facing nationwide food shortages and high unemployment, byproducts of the British blockade, and under pressure from its right-wing supporters to prepare the military for war, Hammerskjöld’s government eventually fell in early 1917.  The new conservative cabinet reopened negotiations with Britain, but no practical progress had been made by September, when the Luxburg Affair broke.

The laugh out loud paragraph here is the one about London’s astonishment.

During the summer US intelligence had intercepted and deciphered a cable to Berlin from a German diplomat in Argentina, Count Luxburg, recommending the sinking of Argentine merchant ships. At London’s behest, Washington delayed exposure of the cable, and the fact that it had been sent via the Swedish consular service, until just before Swedish elections.  The scandal stressed but didn’t break the Argentine government’s generally good relations with Germany, but revelation of such a clear breach of neutrality regulations did help defeat the conservatives in Sweden.  Engineering a change of government didn’t do the British much good, because the liberal coalition that took power under premier Nils Éden proved no less amenable to German influence and hardly more interested in reaching agreement with the Allies, dragging out negotiations until a re-export accord was eventually signed in May 1918.

The internal stresses exacerbated by wartime neutrality did complicate the lives of Swedish people and encourage post-war political reform (which expanded the franchise and concentrated executive power in parliamentary hands), but Sweden’s was hardly the most significant or dramatic of the War’s many diplomatic tightrope acts.  It is one of the least the least well known, partly because heritage history – the stuff peddled to the public via mass media, and arguably a form of state propaganda in fancy dress – has had reasons to forget the troubled wartime relationship between Britain and Sweden.

Sweden had peace but no quiet – the war years saw a surge in popular protests demanding constitutional reform

The Swedish public hasn’t been encouraged to dwell on a situation that might tarnish its generally well-deserved reputation, in Britain as elsewhere, for non-aligned fair dealing through the violence and geopolitical duplicity of the twentieth century.  Meanwhile British heritage history likes to preserve the righteousness of its Victorian heyday, and seldom questions the orthodoxies of modern international relations.  Given that it ignores almost anything that doesn’t fit its Tommy-centred, liberal agenda, it’s hardly likely to spotlight a time when the British government treated Sweden as an enemy in all but name and seized the country’s ships as a form of profitable punishment.  So I’m giving it a mention.

9 OCTOBER, 1917: Home Truth

A century ago today, the German parliament – the Reichstag – debated an incident that had taken place more than two months earlier but been kept quiet by the government.  Conducted in public session, the debate shattered an illusion that was precious to the German people and vital to the German war effort.

The incident in question had taken place at the naval base of Wilhelmshaven on 2 August, when some 400 sailors of the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold mutinied. The Prinzregent Luitpold was one of the most modern dreadnoughts attached to the High Seas Fleet, but like other major German warships it had been largely inactive for a year, relegated to secondary status after the fleet’s perceived failure at Jutland had convinced the German high command to devote all possible resources to submarine warfare. Bored, on short rations and subject to iron discipline by officers on permanent alert for revolutionary tendencies, the sailors had marched into Wilhelmshaven demanding immediate peace and better working conditions. Quickly pacified by troops, they had soon returned to work, but 75 of them were imprisoned and two ringleaders were executed.

The Prinzregent Luitpold, because we like a handsome old battleship.  Shame it functioned as little more than a floating prison for miserable matelots…

The illusion in question was the belief, assiduously fostered by state propaganda, that the German military was not just the best in the world (which almost went without saying and was probably true) but was in fine fighting fettle and on the brink of great victories.  Made public because the end of the German political truce, or Burgfreiden, had freed opposition parties to expose government scandals (14 July, 1917, Stuck In The Middle), the almost unthinkable news of German servicemen refusing to fight, together with the deeply unsettling news that the government had been covering up the mutiny, delivered a massive shock to popular opinion.  Popular belief in victory and the regime would recover, at least among the middle classes, but faith in the Navy was permanently shaken by consequent revelations of crisis and dispute among its commanders. The debate has since been credited with opening the first cracks in the hitherto rock solid edifice of the German war effort.

The military-industrial dictatorship that had been running Germany since August 1916 – the Third Supreme Command – had founded its strategies on the false premise that the German war effort was anything but rock solid, and that only total military victory would restrain a body politic on the brink of revolution.  In fact, popular faith in a national system that had brought soaring wealth, quality of life and global influence during the previous decades had never really faltered during the first two years of the conflict, and dedicated commitment to the war effort was basic to most Germans until the Armistice.  Revolution was meanwhile far less likely in mid-1916 than it had seemed in the years before the War, and had been kept off the immediate political agenda by the parliamentary truce.

A year later the truce was dead in the water, while a paranoid regime’s coercive social and economic policies were in the process of fostering the very revolution it feared.  The government’s reaction to the August mutiny and its response to the October debate were both symptoms of this self-fulfilling paranoia.

As the Reichstag debate made fairly clear, and subsequent studies have confirmed, the Wilhelmshaven mutineers were strikers demanding better treatment.  The regime treated them as revolutionaries, leaving grievances unsatisfied and widespread resentment within the ranks, exacerbated by executions that were generally viewed as judicial murder.  This provided fertile ground for revolutionary agitation among the crews of the High Seas Fleet and, still without any significant military role to play, they would become thoroughly radicalised during the following months.  When, a year later, crews at Wilhelmshaven mutinied on a much larger scale, they would be calling for revolution.

The October debate brought a government response that managed to be paranoid, clumsy and counterproductive all at once.  Imperial Chancellor Georg Michaelis, the first commoner to hold the office, had been a compromise choice to succeed Bethmann-Hollweg during the summer.  Forced on the Third Supreme Command after the Kaiser rejected its first two candidates, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz, he was selected because he got on well with Wilhelm and because, although he had no kind of parliamentary power base, he was considered capable of managing the Reichstag.  Little more than a mouthpiece for the supreme command, Michaelis attempted to blame the relatively moderate parliamentary socialists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the August mutiny, a ridiculous claim that left him without a shred of credibility in an outraged Reichstag and triggered his resignation at the end of the month.

Georg Michaelis – a leader every bit as as inspiring as he looked.

The next chancellor, veteran Bavarian academic and politician Georg von Hertling, was a virtual nonentity in his mid-seventies, with neither the influence nor the energy to mediate between the Reichstag, the supreme command and the Kaiser.  That he remained in office until October 1918 reflected the end of the need for cooperation between them, as reformists in the Reichstag abandoned hope of state cooperation and turned to popular support, the Third Supreme Command abandoned the pretext of governance through consent, and the Kaiser sank into a royal torpor born of impotence in the face of what he now saw as his inevitable downfall.

The Allies had enough agents providing enough information about German life to recognise the political fires fuelled by the October debate, and Allied newspapers were full of speculation about the impending collapse of German national unity in its wake. Like most ‘big picture’ propaganda, designed to foster hopes of a quick and total victory, the stories were taken with a pinch of salt by most British or French readers, but three years of warfare had failed to generate the same level of healthy scepticism among German citizens.

German internal propaganda, state and private, was a much less flexible instrument than its British, French or American counterparts, shielding the public and most politicians from all bad news and leaving them with no inkling of Germany’s true position. The glimpse of the truth provided by the Reichstag debate on 9 October, and the palpable shock it applied to German civilian life, reflected the brittle nature of a society functioning under a shared illusion.  When the edifice was torn away, suddenly and completely, at the end of the War, German society collapsed into violent, anarchic revolution.

Harder than the rest… classic First World War propaganda for Germans.

I was about to sign off by calling the debate a straw in the wind of fundamental change, but it was more like a breeze block in a gale.  It delivered a blow to German society and leadership that left them functioning – still marching forward along an ever more fragile tightrope – but concussed and ready to collapse.  That’s what happens when truth escapes the smothering grasp of leaders peddling fake new:  the harder it comes, the harder they fall.

28 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Wheels Come Off

I’ve made the point before that the First World War was largely fought on foot and horseback, but is often defined for posterity by its mechanised elements, or rather by some of them. While aircraft, tanks, massive guns, big warships and submarines attract most of the modern world’s attention, pretty much in that order, the practical importance of less vaunted machines tends to be overlooked. Motorbikes and light railways spring to mind, but today marks the centenary of the Battle of Ramadi, an engagement that featured another prime example of unsung technology.

A strategically marginal but comprehensive Anglo-Indian victory on the Mesopotamian Front, Ramadi was the last success of General Maude’s tenure as theatre commander, and owed much to one of the most useful and least celebrated military vehicles of the day – the armoured car.

On the River Euphrates, 30km west of Falluja, the town of Ramadi was an important local irrigration point. In September 1917 it was also a centre for black market sales of food to Ottoman forces further north, and it housed the largest concentration of Ottoman troops in the vicinity of British-held Baghdad. In July, it had been the target of the only Anglo-Indian operation on the front during the summer, but an attack by a single motorised column had been repulsed by a thousand or so disciplined defenders. The attackers had lost 566 casualties, two-thirds of them to the sweltering heat.

Temperatures were slightly lower by late September, when the British made a second, more determined effort to take the town. On 28 September, a division moved up the east bank of the Euphrates towards Ramadi, where some 4,000 Ottoman regulars were deployed in expectation of an attack close to the bank of the river. By sending armoured cars and cavalry to circle behind Ramadi and cut the road north to Hit, British field commander General Brooking was able to surround the defenders once his infantry had stormed ridges overlooking the town. British cavalry picked off a few attempts to break out of the cordon overnight, and the garrison surrendered next morning.

Look carefully, you’ll find Ramadi, Falluja and Hit.  Mosul and its oilfields are easier to spot…

The armoured cars received great credit for the victory from the British press, and by the autumn of 1917 they had proved their worth time and again – when used in the right circumstances. They could reach distant targets quickly and provide infantry with rapid mobile support, like cavalry but with greater protection and firepower, but they needed relatively open terrain, ideally with roads or tracks to follow.

Armoured cars had evolved from the ordinary road vehicles used by European empires for colonial policing. By 1914 all the Entente armies were using standard production cars, armoured and carrying a machine-gun or light artillery piece. By the end of the year purpose-built cars were in service, and later models were fitted with a revolving central turret.

The Allies used a lot of these light armoured cars, basically civilian vehicles decked out with a bit of armour plate and machine-gun.

At the very beginning of the War the Belgian Army had been the first to deploy armoured cars in combat. The success of Belgian Minerva models in hit-and-run raids persuaded the German Army, which had previously only used armoured cars as anti-aircraft defences for observation balloons, to develop designs of its own. Not untypically, German designers ignored the improvised nature of other armies’ cars and came up with much bigger, heavier vehicles, heavily-armoured and powerfully armed, that proved prohibitively cumbersome on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Only a few dozen were built, most of them the Erhardt model that would go on to serve as a policing weapon into the 1930s, and the German Army was forced to use captured Allied vehicles when armoured cars were needed in numbers during the War’s last campaigns.

By way of contrast, the heavy German Ehrhardt car took armoured protection seriously.

As initially deployed with British, French and Belgian forces on the Western Front, armoured cars were used as mobile strongpoints for infantry support, but once trench warfare was established their tactical value was very limited, and they were anyway almost useless in the theatre’s heavily broken terrain. They came into their own in more open conditions, and though eventually important during of the final offensives on the Western Front they were generally most effective in the less confined spaces away from the main European battlefields. No surprise then, given its global commitments, that the British Empire made by far the most enthusiastic and widespread wartime use of armoured cars.

The first British vehicles in France and Belgium were crewed by Royal Navy and Royal Naval Air Service personnel.  Naval operatives continued to crew armoured cars deployed in African and other colonial outposts,  and a small Navy unit was sent, along with Belgian cars, to fight under Russian command during the latter stages of the campaign in Romania, but by 1915 armoured cars had otherwise been incorporated into the Army’s operational structure. As such they were initially deployed in units of four vehicles, either as Armoured Motor Batteries using heavy, purpose-built Rolls Royce machines (as pictured above the title), or as Light Armoured Car Batteries equipped with adapted British or US production models. By 1917 the types were being deployed together in eight-car Light Armoured Motor Batteries, or LAMBs, often crewed by imperial troops.

British armoured cars enjoyed their greatest successes in desert conditions, against the Senussi tribes of Libya (13 December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), during the conquest of Palestine in 1918, and above all as the spearhead of guerilla attacks on Ottoman supply lines during the Arab Revolt.  Their part in the victory at Ramadi was a rare case of opportunity and terrain combining to make the most of their tactical potential in less open spaces, and their luck didn’t last long.

British prisoners rescued from Senussi tribesmen by armoured cars in 1916. The cars were commanded by Major Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, just so you know.

Once Ramadi had fallen, Brooking made an immediate attempt to capture the town of Hit, which guarded the road linking Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates. A completely motorised force of 400 infantry in lorries, with ambulances and armoured cars in support, set out for Hit on 1 October, but a poor road proved too much for the vehicles and the attempt was abandoned next morning.

So yes, armoured cars were more useful and important to First World War fighters than posterity cares to notice, and there’s no real excuse for leaving them out of the picture, but overall they couldn’t be called a successful weapon. Like all the latest forms of motorised transport available to contemporary armed forces (everything but ships and trains), they were still in a relatively primitive stage of development, too fragile in battle conditions to fundamentally change a tactical and strategic picture that still, on the whole, belonged to men on foot and horseback.

There’s your problem.

21 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Tried Teamwork?

A century ago, Costa Rica severed diplomatic relations with Germany. This didn’t make a lot of difference to the First World War. Costa Rica didn’t actually declare war on Germany until the following May, its tiny army was still preparing for action when the War ended and becoming a belligerent made no substantial difference to the country’s economic position.  So why did Costa Rica bother to get involved?  The answers to that question are straightforward enough, but only when taken in the context of South American geopolitics during the early twentieth century – so here’s a slice of very general context.

Most former colonies of Spain and Portugal had gained their independence during the early nineteenth century.  Most had come into being because their former colonial administrators had broken ties with feeble European governments to seize control for themselves, and most had been involved in long, expensive wars of independence that left the new republics in a state of economic and political disarray.

For several decades, most Latin American ruling elites lived in fear of European re-conquest while seeking to develop transatlantic trading links.  As they found markets for raw materials and agricultural produce in Europe and the USA, increased prosperity brought rapid socio-economic development in and around the coastal areas that had served as colonial trading hubs.  This developmental spurt had relatively little impact across vast swathes of the interior, which remained poor, relatively lawless and politically ill-defined – fertile ground for rebellions and border disputes.  Development also came at an economic cost, encouraging large-scale loans and investment from Europe (and, as the century grew old, the US) that left most of the continent’s governments heavily in debt and left increasingly important export sectors dependent on the whims of European and US markets.

The trade boom fed the rich, inflation starved the poor… general strike in Sao Paulo, 1917.

From about the 1880s, the process of ‘Europeanisation’ accentuated the social divisions and tensions promoted along these fault lines of inequality.  When framing more stable and prosperous futures for their fledgling republics, ethnically European ruling elites turned naturally for inspiration towards Europe, and particularly towards the ‘socially successful’ liberal democracies of Britain and France.

Major cities, particularly in the southern republics, were self-consciously modelled on their European counterparts, maintaining strong cultural and communications links with the European world, and as part of a generalised tendency to compete aggressively with ethnic cultures considered inferior, Europeans were encouraged to follow the money and emigrate to the up and coming continent, the ‘new Europe’.  Millions took up the offer in the decades leading up the First World War, with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany providing the biggest immigrant populations.

Clued-in as they were when it came to the latest strands of European news and ideas, Latin America’s ruling oligarchies shared the view that the first years of the twentieth century were a time of rapidly approaching, world-shaking change.  Europe, it was felt, was heading for a conflagration that might threaten its place at the head of the world, and this prospect was generally viewed as an opportunity to advance their visions of modern, economically stable, independent states based on liberal (if racist) principles.  On the other hand, over and above the need to address social, political and economic instability, they also knew what the expected European war could do for the imperialist ambitions – overt and growing, economic and geopolitical – of the western hemisphere’s emerging, aggressive and potentially dominant great power, the United States.

When European war erupted, all the Latin American nations immediately declared neutrality for essentially the same reasons as the USA:  they had no formal obligations to the powers at war; they wanted to keep trading with both sides; and those with large European immigrant populations wanted to avoid trouble between them.

Maintaining neutrality was easier than coping with its effects.  The dramatic flight of European money from the continent after August 1914, along with consequent crises in the import and export sectors, seemed to presage an economic slump that would leave the door wide open for dollar dominance of regional economies.  By 1915 it was becoming clear that the opposite was true, as mushrooming demand for raw materials (Bolivian tin, Peruvian copper, Argentine meat and Chilean nitrates, to cite a few important examples) brought unprecedented wealth into Latin America – but the boom only pushed economies further into the grip of US interests, because rapidly expanding export sectors needed venture finance, and Wall Street was now its only available source.

Export boom and spiralling commodity prices meanwhile brought wealth to the powerful few and rapid inflation to everyone, creating hardship among the impoverished many across the continent. Poverty and hunger fuelled social tensions and socialist tendencies among the masses, fed the political instability that underlay the post-colonial republics, and prompted repressive reactions from many ruling oligarchies.

So neutral Latin American governments were juggling economic boom, a rising challenge from the masses and the looming juggernaut of US economic imperialism.  They also faced constant diplomatic and propaganda pressure from the Entente, which was determined to cut off all trade to the Central Powers, and from Germany, which spent the next three years dangling unlikely carrots to encourage behaviour that might distract Washington from European affairs.  Meanwhile a continuous chorus of demonstrations from European ethnic groups, for or against both sides, was increasingly trumped by more widespread popular demands for action, usually in response to attacks on Latin American shipping by German U-boats.

These were the parameters within which Latin American nations remained more or less solidly neutral until April 1917, when the US declaration of war against Germany, and Washington’s call for all American states to join the Allied side, forced them into some kind of repositioning.

You are here, 1917.

Of the four biggest Latin American economies, only Brazil reacted by joining the Allies, although it took loss of Brazilian lives to a U-boat attack and a consequent spike in popular anti-German sentiment to push the government beyond pro-Allied platitudes into a declaration of war in October 1917.  In Mexico, a nationalist, anti-US regime remained neutral throughout the conflict, taking German money and fostering pro-German sentiment while wrestling with revolutionary turmoil, supplying the British Royal Navy with oil and almost daring Washington to intervene further in its internal affairs.

The Argentine government of President Irigoyen was equally hostile to the US, deaf to the pro-Allied sentiments of its British, French and Italian citizens, and focused on extracting maximum profit from trade with both sides.  Irigoyen refused US requests for support after April 1917, and made an unsuccessful attempt to convene a conference of Latin American nations that would isolate Washington.  Argentina finally agreed to sell surplus crops to the Allies in May 1918, but the government’s overtly nationalist position left the country diplomatically isolated in the War’s aftermath, albeit in credit for the first time in its history.  Chile, the region’s other big player, pursued a similar line once it had satisfied Allied demands for use of German-owned nitrate output, and paid a high price for wartime profiteering when peace brought its boom to an end. Sudden mass poverty and unemployment fuelled a violent class struggle, and diplomatic isolation left it vulnerable to attacks from neighbours.

The neighbours in question were Bolivia and Peru.  Elements of both societies were already enjoying unprecedented prosperity though trade with the Allies, and both followed the US lead in breaking relations with Germany in 1917.  Partly motivated by popular outage at German submarine attacks, but largely by the (ultimately vain) hope that Washington would support their long-standing territorial claims on Chile.  Uruguay also chose solidarity with the US in 1917, partly because it cherished good relations with Brazil, but also because Germans living in southern Brazil had long threatened to colonise Uruguay for the Fatherland, making Germany particularly unpopular in Montevideo.

The rest of Central America and the Caribbean were, on the whole, too close to the USA to have much choice about their support for Washington, and some of them – Cuba, Panama, Haiti, the modern Dominican Republic and Nicaragua – were either officially or unofficially under US control by 1917.  Of those that remained fully independent, the government of Honduras eventually went to war in 1918, preferring US support to that of an influential German population that took its post-War revenge by sponsoring rebellion, while Guatemala’s dictatorial regime went to war as a means of grabbing massive German investments in the country for itself.

Further south, strict neutrality was a more a feasible option for small countries.  Although German provocation and diplomatic clumsiness eventually drove Ecuador to  declare war, Venezuela and Colombia maintained their neutrality until the end and traded with both sides, the latter in part motivated by lingering fury at US sponsorship of Panamanian independence.   Paraguay, poor landlocked and comfortably controlled by a small European elite, was able to virtually ignore the War, remaining uncontroversially neutral and merely stating its broad support for whatever the US was doing.

That just leaves my excuse for this self-indulgent ramble, Costa Rica. Costa Rica had entered the twentieth century as it would enter the twenty-first, as an example of tranquil stability.  It enjoyed a balanced economic relationship with Europe and the US, based on banana and coffee exports, and provided a calm, peaceful political environment for its 400,000 or so inhabitants – but it was undergoing an unusual period of political unrest during the First World War.

After a general election in 1913 had failed to produce an overall majority for any of the country’s three major parties, Alfredo Gonzales became president of the republic in May 1914.  A compromise candidate, he introduced a raft of popular reforms and is now regarded as a founding father of Costa Rican democracy, but as loss of European markets plunged the country’s economy into crisis he was overthrown by a military coup in January 1917.  The new regime of former war minister President Frederico Tinoco was anything but popular, and set about seeking support from the only nation in the world that could guarantee the survival of any Central American government, the USA.

Backed by the military, hated by everyone else, Tinoco didn’t last long.

It didn’t work, and Wilson’s administration refused to recognise Tinoco’s government.  A blatantly rigged election didn’t help, and Washington ignored an offer to station military forces in Costa Rica as extra protection for the Panama Canal, so Tinoco broke diplomatic relations with Germany on 21 September in the hope of changing Wilson’s mind.  That didn’t work either, but then again it didn’t do Costa Rica much harm, given that the country’s 600-strong standing army and its two naval gunboats saw no wartime action.

Costa Rica wasn’t invited to the post-War peace conference (and therefore didn’t sign the peace treaty, remaining technically at war with Germany until after the Second World War), and Washington supported the coup that overthrew Tinoco in August 1919.  The next president lasted two weeks, but subsequent leaders had restored peaceful, stable democracy to the country by the early 1920s.

The varied Latin American responses to Washington’s declaration of war had one thing in common – a failure to cooperate.  Apart from a fruitless joint meeting with US financial authorities in 1915, Latin American republics made no wartime attempt to meet geopolitical and economic pressures with a united front.  Nobody can say if solidarity, even among a few leading nations, could have curtailed US political and economic influence, controlled economic instability or addressed mounting social unrest.  It can be said that continent-wide pursuit of individual national interests – in many cases the very narrow interests of a ruling elite – exacerbated all of those problems, and that they all brought big trouble to Latin America for the rest of the twentieth century.

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.

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR