21 MARCH, 1918: Stalemate Ends (Posterity Shrugs)

As I never tire of pointing out, the Anglophone heritage industry treats the First World War as if everything beyond the Western Front was a sideshow, and therefore gets away with dismissing the whole conflict as an abhorrent waste of time, lives and resources. Stalemate on the Western Front hasn’t been the only key to the thesis – because the state of technology at the time created military stalemate on any front appropriate to trench warfare – but the battle lines in Belgium and northern France had been providing grist for its centennial certainties since the first Battle of the Marne in August 1914.

That changed on 21 March 1918, the day Germany launched the opening attack of its do-or-die spring offensives on the Western Front.  Known to the Allies at the time as the Second Battle of the Somme, the Ludendorff Offensive or the Michael Offensive (after its codename), often referred by modern English speakers as simply the Spring Offensive, and called Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) in Germany, it marked the end of the Western Front’s long and lamented static phase (though not of its horrors).  Trench lines would be firmly re-established during the summer, but they would never again rule the world at war.

The beginning of Kaiserschlacht was, in other words, a crucial turning point in the making of the modern world, yet you’re unlikely to be swamped with the same heritage fanfares that accompanied ghastly confirmations of the status quo like Verdun, the Somme or Passchendaele.  Sure, it was a German operation that didn’t reflect particularly well on Allied commanders, but neither of those factors has discouraged mawkish commemoration of other Western Front battles, and Allied command failures are usually guaranteed to spark a torrent of outrage and finger-pointing by our heritage industries. So what’s the difference?

As far as I can tell – and because we’re talking mass psychology, this is only guesswork – downplaying the spring offensive of 1918 is another symptom of the need to define the First World War as fundamentally atypical of our civilisation.  As I mentioned last week, the syndrome encourages focus on whatever makes the whole thing look like a crazy aberration.  The Somme and Verdun fit the thesis, along with smaller disappointments like Cambrai, but this was different.  The product of a logic that had nothing to do with attrition, Kaiserschlacht featured dramatic territorial shifts and, though not in itself decisive, instigated fundamental and irrevocable change to the balance of power on the Western Front.  Those may be reasons for playing it down, but they don’t look to me like good ones so here’s a quick run-though.

The background should be fairly familiar to anyone in touch with the War’s progress so far.  The German Third Supreme Command needed a big win, and needed it soon.  With Germany’s war effort already stretched to the point of socio-political breakdown, trade warfare was failing and the Americans were coming, so from Berlin’s perspective nothing less than a definitive victory on the Western Front could stave off ultimate defeat once the US Army joined the battle.

Ludendorff, always the strategic and tactical mainspring of the Third Supreme Command, recognised that the French Army was unwilling (and probably unable) to undertake major offensives, and regarded the British as the main obstacle to success in France.  He planned to attack in the Somme sector, at the join of the two Allied armies’ defensive positions, in the hope of separating them.

The Allies were meanwhile in no position to launch an offensive on the Western Front.  British and French commanders were still rebuilding their armies after the hugely expensive failures of 1917 (the Nivelle Offensive in the spring and Haig’s autumn offensive in Flanders), and the attempt to establish a unified command system through the Supreme War Council had so far generated nothing but bickering among the Allies.  Though German troop transfers to France from the Eastern Front were noted, Germany’s simultaneous commitment to the occupation of Eastern Europe was taken as evidence that the German Army was still too weak in the west to mount a successful offensive.

This wasn’t quite true.  German manpower strength on the Western Front had increased by 30% since November 1917, while Allied numbers had fallen by a quarter, leaving sections of the British line, especially those furthest from the Channel coast and closest to the French sector, with relatively sparse defences.  Ludendorff ranged a total of 63 German divisions in three armies (General Below’s 17th, Marwitz’s 2nd, and the 18th under master tactician General Hutier) along a 90km front between Arras and La Fère.  The northern third of the attack zone was defended by fourteen division’s of General Byng’s British Third Army, backed by the majority of British reserves, while the rest was defended by the twelve divisions of General Gough’s Fifth Army, strung out across 60km of frontline and short on reserves.

Elaborate German efforts to maintain secrecy worked to the extent of leaving the Allies unaware of the forthcoming attack’s scale, and when it was launched, with support from 6,000 artillery pieces, the ‘infiltration tactics’ pioneered by Hutier worked as well as they had done under trials in Latvia (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  Helped by a thick morning mist, protected by strong air support and a ‘creeping barrage’, German infantry enjoyed spectacular early success against Gough’s thin, poorly organised defences, and were held only at the far north of the sector, around Arras.

The offensive was as high-tech as war could get in 1918…
… but that wasn’t so very high-tech.

With his right wing melting away, Gough attempted a withdrawal to secondary positions on 22 March, but retreating units did a bad job of destroying bridges and causeways as they went, allowing Hutier’s troops to pursue at speed and forcing another retreat.  By 25 March the whole British Fifth Army had retired some 40km to the west, dragging Byng’s Third Army along with it, and on 27 March the first of Hutier’s units reached the town of Montdidier, about 65km beyond their start point.

Nice going – and by Western Front standards, astonishing.

So far, so spectacular, and now the German Army had Paris in its sights for the first time since the summer of 1914.  Ludendorff went for it.  During the opening attacks, most German strength had been concentrated against Arras, and the 17th Army continued to attack there until 28 March without making significant progress.  Hutier was meanwhile ordered to pause pending a turn towards Paris, and the central German force, the 2nd Army under Marwitz, was sent into the gap between the two British armies, towards Amiens.

Paris in its sights… the offensive put Big Bertha back in business, shelling the FRench capital from the railway.

Exhaustion, supply difficulties and the British Third Army halted the 2nd Army’s advance around Villers-Bretonneux, some 20km short of Amiens, on 26 March, and Marwitz paused to regroup for a renewed attack.  The obvious Allied reaction – bringing the nearby French Army into the battle – was delayed by French c-in-c Pétain’s reluctance to commit his forces to battle (a position that persuaded Haig to back the more aggressive Foch as overall Allied commander of reserves), but General Fayolle’s French reinforcements did reach the front in time to halt a second German attack on 30 March.

A final attempt to break through to Amiens was launched by fifteen German divisions – some of them in a state of utter exhaustion – on 4 April, and its failure convinced Ludendorff that the opportunity for strategic success had passed.  He called off Operation Michael next day and switched the focus of attack to Flanders, where the next phase of the offensive, known as the Lys Offensive, opened on 9 April and followed a similar, if less spectacular pattern over the course of nineteen days.

For a while there, it had looked to both sides as if Kaiserschlacht might win the War at a stroke – but although brilliant tactics, careful preparations and a degree of enemy lassitude had delivered a rapid advance and created an enormous bulge in the Allied line, the German Army had failed to break through into undefended country. This was partly because the German armies, stretched to their limits and worked beyond the point of exhaustion, simply ran out of steam, but the same old, technologically based problems were still fundamentally to blame.  As long as an attacking army in 1918 faced organised defenders, it was doomed to suffer insurmountable supply and mobility problems as soon as it crossed into enemy territory.

That doesn’t mean Kaiserschlacht was just another failed offensive, as the more simplistic heritage commentaries are apt to suggest. The two weeks of mayhem that followed its launch cost the German Army some 250,000 casualties it really couldn’t afford, and it would never again be truly fit to fight a powerful, well-equipped foe. Although the Allies lost almost as many men their resources for recovery were by now infinitely deeper, while the undoubted shock provided by the sudden territorial collapse of late March prompted reform of the Allied command system, triggered a radical reassessment of material requirements for the campaign in the US, and temporarily reversed the noisy growth of war weariness in France and the UK.

In other words, although many other factors would influence the fate of both sides on the Western Front during the next few months, the stalemate was finally broken a hundred years ago today.  So where’s that fanfare…?

12 MARCH, 1918: All Quiet On The Eastern Front?

What they used to call the West or the First World, and is now just a moderately influential segment of the planet’s G20 oligarchy, has been obsessed with trench warfare for more than a hundred years. You can see why.  In France, Italy, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Poland, you name it, life in trenches during the First World War was a graphic illustration of Hell, as inflicted upon itself by the proud civilisation of our forebears.  That’s a very nasty skeleton in the West’s cupboard, and we’ve been falling over ourselves ever since to dismiss it as a hideous anomaly, so noisily scratching our navels about it for a century or more has been an important prop for our self-image and for our image to the rest of the world.

The psychological impulse to focus on the ‘madness’ of trench-bound carnage has had its corollary in a tendency to downplay those aspects of the First World War that didn’t fit the image.  A post-War thesis dominated by the concept of pointless stalemate would have struggled to convince if it took full account of all those ways, military and otherwise, in which the First World War was a whirlwind of hugely significant change.  The opposite was true during the War, when the impulse to play down any idea of pointless stalemate required propagandists on all sides to give maximum publicity to the sweeping victories and eye-catching derring-do of ‘sideshow’ campaigns.  That’s one reason why the middle of March 1918 looked like a time of world-shaping geopolitical transformation to contemporaries, while most modern heritage narratives treat it as a logistic and diplomatic interlude, a mere preamble to great battles to come in France and Italy.

From today’s ‘Western’ perspective the Allies appeared becalmed a hundred years ago, but at the time they were perceived – internally and from the outside – as extremely busy with vital work.  Allied propaganda was making plenty of noise about the process of equipping and preparing the American Expeditionary Force, and claims that US participation would finally break the deadlock on the Western Front seemed more convincing than those attached to every spring and autumn offensive since early 1915.  Meanwhile citizens of the British Empire – and to a lesser degree those of France, Italy and the (essentially anti-imperialist) USA – were being serenaded with the siren song of imperial invincibility.

Every success, however small, of the British-led armies in Mesopotamia and Palestine was given a big propaganda fanfare, with plenty of pompous references to the crusades and, for audiences accustomed to applauding advances measured in yards, stress on distances gained.  A century ago today, for instance, General Allenby’s forces were reported as having advanced a relatively massive three miles along the coast of Palestine, and two days earlier they had made headlines for an advance of almost two miles along the road to Nablus.  Unlike the constant stream of small-detail ‘good news’ being transmitted from the main European fronts, these were clear and verifiable achievements, the kind that made a noticeable difference to regional maps, generated optimism about the prospects for the post-War empire and made excellent vicarious prizes for patriots back home.

Wartime prizes like Jerusalem and Baghdad do retain a residual presence in our folk memory despite popular history’s selective amnesia, partly because one way and another the British held onto them for some time afterwards, partly because they did turn out to have immensely important geopolitical effects during the next hundred years, and partly because winners never quite stop talking about their victories.  Losers are a different matter.

The West’s heritage commentators have effectively dismissed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria from the War by March 1918.  Though well reported and well known at the time, the momentous internal meltdown of Habsburg power and the Ottoman Empire’s mad leap into the political cauldron of Transcaucasia long ago disappeared from any popular narrative. Germany, though still part of the narrative, is viewed from a Western perspective that pigeonholes this part of March as a period of intensive preparation for the big, exciting offensive on the Western Front planned for later in the month.  By contrast, newspapers of the day gave plenty of space to troubles in Austria-Hungary and Transcaucasia, and even more to the other thing the German high command had going on in March – the occupation of Eastern Europe.

The peace finally agreed at Brest-Litovsk had, as discussed a few days ago, freed the German Third Supreme Command to chase one of its most treasured dragons, the belief that apparently inevitable defeat by superior enemy resources could be reversed by rapid exploitation of an eastern empire.  By that time the German Army faced very little serious competition in the region.  Its virtually unopposed advance towards Petrograd, Operation Faustschlag, had been suspended when its aim – Bolshevik acceptance German peace terms – had been achieved on 24 February, but any idea that Germany would respect the nominal independence of satellite states agreed by the treaty was instantly killed off.  German forces reached the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on the same day, found it occupied by nationalist politicians and marched in to take control anyway.

With German forces only about 150km from Petrograd, Lenin’s government moved its capital to Moscow on 12 March, a permanent change that proved unnecessary in the short term.  The need for rapid returns argued against any attack on a target as defensible and turbulent as Petrograd, so the northern arm of the German Army on the former Eastern Front, shrinking as units were transferred to France, concentrated on control and exploitation of the Baltic States, Belarus and Finland.  Further south, peace with the Bolsheviks was the signal for a German invasion.

An unstable cocktail of competing nationalist, socialist and Bolshevik elements – too complex and fluid to describe in anything but excruciating detail, and not my business here – was undermining German establishment of an expanded Ukrainian puppet state, and the German Army’s southern wing (including Austro-Hungarian forces under German command) began advancing east almost as soon as the ink was dry at Brest-Litovsk.  Again able to overwhelm pockets of poorly armed, organised and motivated resistance without much need for fighting, German and Austro-Hungarian forces swept through the Ukraine, occupying the Russian Navy’s Black Sea base at Odessa on 13 March, and pushed on towards the Crimea.

Static stalemate? Quiet preparations for a future offensive elsewhere? I don’t think so…

The Crimean peninsula occupies an obviously important strategic location on the northern Black Sea coast, and is good arable land, making it a bone of contention between competing states and empires since pretty much the dawn of recorded history.  Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Goths and the Ottoman Empire were just some of the powers to exercise control over Crimea before the Russian Empire annexed it from the latter in 1783.  Fear of greater Russian expansion at the expense of the Ottomans lay behind the excuses for the Crimean War (October 1853 to February 1856), during which an alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire (OK, and Sardinia) besieged and eventually took Sevastopol, the peninsula’s purpose-built fortified naval base.  Still Crimea’s greatest claim to fame in the Anglophone world, largely thanks to Florence Nightingale and the Light Brigade, the war laid waste to the region’s agricultural, village-based economy, which was slow to recover and remained essentially tribal in 1914.

Since the collapse of the Russian Empire in late 1917, the Crimea had been through the same kind of political spasms that had afflicted other imperial provinces with ambitions for self-government.  Ukrainian nationalists, Russian-led Bolsheviks and indigenous Tatar Moslems had all claimed the right to form a new state, and the latter had declared an independent Crimean People’s Republic in mid-December 1917.  The Tatar state had been overthrown by a series of Russian-sponsored Bolshevik coups during January, but a Bolshevik regime had barely come into existence when the German eastward advance began in early March.  Despite a fresh declaration of independence in late March, intended to marshal internal support and put legal barriers in the way of the invaders, the regime was crumbling in the face of opposition from all sides when the German Army entered Crimea on 13 April.

The 20th century took longer to reach some parts of the world than others: Ukrainian nationalist troops in 1918.

Accompanied by Ukrainian nationalists and welcomed by many Tatar villages as a welcome respite from the Bolsheviks, German forces were in effective control of Crimea by early May, when they entered Sevastopol unopposed, seizing those units of the Russian Black Sea fleet that had stayed in port (and hoisted Ukrainian flags in the hope of being left alone).  German authorities remained in control until the Armistice but soon lost local support as the need to provision the Fatherland outweighed the desire to promote regional independence as a bulwark against any future Russian incursions.  A Crimean regional government was formed on 25 June, but although it maintained a separate identity from the Ukraine throughout the occupation it was an entirely puppet regime headed by a Lithuanian Moslem (or Livka Tatar) in German pay, Maciej Sulkiewicz.

Political instability meant corpses in the Crimea. These were executed by Bolsheviks.

The Sulkiewicz government fell within two weeks of the Armistice, and was followed by a social democrat, anti-Bolshevik regime that was itself replaced by a Soviet regime in April 1919, after Allied anti-Bolshevik forces had landed in Crimea and departed without taking any action.  As the Russian Civil War ebbed and flowed across the former Empire, White Russian forces under counter-revolutionary leader General Wrangel drove the Bolsheviks from Crimea in June, and held the peninsula until November 1920.  Crimea then passed a relatively stable seventy years as part of the USSR, punctuated by another spell as a multinational battlefield during the Second World War, and followed by twenty-plus years as part of an independent Ukraine.  We all know what happened next.

This particularly vague ramble has been a reminder that the First World War reached a lot further than the entrenched stalemates of Western Europe, and that many of Eastern Europe’s modern tensions have roots that go deeper than Soviet history.  It’s also a passing introduction to the kind of chaos you can expect once the Russian Civil War gets up a head of steam, and a sympathetic nod to theTatars, Russians, Ukrainians and smaller ethnic groupings of the Crimean peninsula.  Like the people of Poland, the Baltic States and the Balkans, they live in lands condemned by accidents of history and geography to serve as the battlegrounds of empires.

3 MARCH, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace

At the end of a cold, hard winter in Britain,  the weather was turning mild and dry.  The ice and snow of the previous April were still fresh in the memory so nobody was taking good conditions for granted, but rain or shine one thing was certain in early March 1918:  with spring on the way, the fighting season was coming.

A year earlier, the immediate preamble to fighting season had seen huge shifts in the world’s geopolitical landscape triggered by the February Revolution in Russia and, a few weeks later, the declaration of war by the United States.  Those seismic events had not been permitted to derail Allied military planning.  They contributed only tangentially to the collapse of French General Nivelle’s ill-conceived spring offensive on the Western Front, and bore little or no responsibility for the more prolonged, British-led failure around Ypres in the autumn – but, along with the autumn collapse of the Italian Army’s positions around the Isonzo, they did inform an atmosphere of strategic uncertainty among Allied commanders when it came to planning their campaigns for 1918.

Almost a year later, on 3 March 1918, the long, somewhat bizarre peace negotiations between the Russian Bolshevik regime and the Central Powers reached their conclusion with an agreement that gave the pre-War worldview one more kick into oblivion.  Again, the Allies didn’t let the swerve alter their major offensive plans – but that was because they didn’t really have any.

Allied offensive strategy on most land fronts didn’t require much in the way of deep thinking in early 1918.  The Eastern Front was lost, as was the Caucasian Front, while the Allied army in Salonika was too far from anywhere to help win the War and was anyway an operational shambles, pinned to the spot by diplomatic and regional priorities.  Strategic priorities around the British-led Palestine and Mesopotamian Fronts were simple enough, and attempts to divert strength from them to address crisis on the Russian frontiers were already in the process of melting down (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!), while the relatively minor colonial business in East Africa had long since become a purely tactical struggle.

On the Italian Front, now a genuinely international enterprise with the arrival of British and French reinforcements during the late autumn, holding a line and rebuilding an army were the names of the game.  The Western Front was, as ever, ripe for the bi-annual exercise of offensive ambition, especially given the arrival of US forces in the theatre, but the need to cooperate in Italy had forced Allied strategists into a joint command structure, and once it had settled the Italian crisis the Supreme War Council turned into a forum for unproductive inter-Allied bickering.

British c-in-c Haig was all in favour of another spring offensive, as was his government, but his French counterpart, Pétain, was determined to preserve fragile armies by adopting a defensive posture until overwhelming (i.e. American) force could be brought to bear.  That left a lot of riding on the attitude of the US Army’s commander in Europe, General John J Pershing, and Pershing definitely had attitude.

John J Pershing – definitely the kind of general you name a tank after.

Born in 1860 and the US Army’s most experienced combat commander, ‘Black Jack’ Pershing had fought in the Indian wars, Cuba, the Philippines and, most recently, Mexico.  His appointment to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in May 1917 was no surprise to anybody, and he arrived in Europe the following month, long before almost all of his troops.  By the time he was promoted full general in October, Pershing needed all the seniority he could claim as he fought off repeated and increasingly frustrated demands from British and French commanders for the use of US troops as they reached the theatre, to reinforce Allied units on the Western Front.

A strong and confident character, in no danger of being overawed by Old World grandees, Pershing refused to use his army – which was still shipping to Europe en masse and would pass 500,000 men in April 1918 – as anything but a single national force.  Apart from an understandable desire to remain in direct command of his troops, two basic tenets sustained his resistance.  For one thing, he believed that his well fed, energetic, enthusiastic troops could, used en masse, defeat the tired old German Army in the field – and that sending his ‘Doughboys’ piecemeal into ill-planned battles alongside exhausted allies was a waste of their war-winning potential.  Secondly, and in many ways more importantly, Pershing held to the principles under which the United States had entered the War.

It’s impossible to overstate the sense of perilous embarkation on an unprecedented journey that accompanied US commitment to the First World War.  We’re very familiar with the USA’s more recent readiness to appoint itself world policeman, but in 1918 that was something startlingly new and had to be handled with care.  It was symbolically important, both inside and outside the US, for the AEF to operate as a national army, emphasising both national unity and the USA’s continued separateness from the imperialists it existed to oppose.  The same symbolism lay behind the USA’s belligerent status, at war against Germany and Austria-Hungary (though not Bulgaria or the Ottoman Empire), but fighting alongside the British and French, not as an ally but as an ‘associated power’.  As far as Washington and Pershing were concerned, associated powers couldn’t and didn’t operate under joint command.

While the Allies waited for (and by and large equipped) the gathering AEF, the desperate gamblers of the German high command had been planning their own do-or-die offensive in France, but were waiting on an official end to the war against Russia. Thanks to Soviet commissar for foreign affairs Leon Trotsky’s pursuit of ‘neither war nor peace’, more simply described as stalling tactics, it had been a long wait, but German patience had run out in mid-February.

On 9 February the Central Powers had concluded a separate treaty with the Ukraine, recognising its independence under a pro-German puppet regime (21 April, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine), and Trotsky had responded by yet again suspending negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  The German Third Supreme Command, driven by Ludendorff’s obsessive pursuit of territorial gains for economic exploitation, was all for retaliation with a full resumption of hostilities and the capture of Petrograd.  It was restrained by the politicking of German foreign minister Richard Kühlmann, who had always regarded Ludendorff’s ambitions as unrealistic, and who used his industrial and royal connections to force a compromise on the grounds that too much aggression might rekindle Russian military resistance in the theatre.  The result was Operation Faustschlag, a limited German attack that opened on 17 February and advanced some 250km in two days without meeting serious opposition.

Faustschlag was enough for Lenin.  He had been giving qualified support to Trotsky’s position, but with former Russian provinces moving towards independence and counter-revolutionary forces organising for civil war, survival of the Bolshevik regime was now his overriding priority.  After Trotsky had quit Brest-Litovsk to become commissar for war, the Bolshevik delegation finally agreed to German peace terms on 19 February.

Conquest by pen:  the signing ceremony at Brest-Litovsk.

The treaty duly signed on 3 March had nothing to do with the conciliatory approach favoured by Kühlmann and an increasingly panic-stricken Kaiser, but expressed the Third Supreme Command’s imperial ambitions in full.  Leaving aside the wealth of detail dedicated to German economic exploitation, it forced the Bolsheviks to recognise Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belorussia and the Ukraine as German spheres of influence, depriving the former Russian Empire of some 30 percent of its population, while the Ottoman Empire was granted full control of the Caucasus.  The Soviet regime also agreed to cease all interference in the internal affairs of lost territories.

Ambitious? Ludendorff? Germany’s new empire from March 1918.

Predictably denounced by the Allies (and associated powers), the treaty also provoked resentment in Sofia and Vienna with its overt concentration on purely German interests.  It was obviously unpopular in Russia, but in fact made little difference to the Soviet position, both because the annexed territories were in effect already lost and because the Bolsheviks proceeded to ignore non-interference agreements at every opportunity.  Needless to say it subjected East European and Caucasian peoples to varying degrees of military occupation and economic exploitation, but in many ways the states that suffered the most from the deal made at Brest-Litovsk were its supposed beneficiaries.

The Ottoman Empire was seduced into squandering resources it really couldn’t spare on a disastrous attempt to establish control over Transcaucasia, and Ludendorff’s ambitions for an eastern empire kept between one million and 1.5 million German troops (estimates vary) busy with its immediate administration.  Their efforts may or may not have gone on to provide the long-term economic salvation envisaged by the Third Supreme Command, but their absence would prove fatal to the German Army’s forthcoming spring offensive in France, and that failure that would render the question academic.

While the millions at war braced for the next instalment of military cataclysm, while the BEF chafed at the bit, the French waited for the Americans, the Americans waited for their army to get up to strength and the German Army planned a last, great offensive on the Western Front, a watershed moment was being signed into modern European history.  The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought the war on the Eastern Front to an official end, freed Ludendorff’s fatal ambition to leap a bridge to far, and plunged the whole of Eastern Europe, along with Russia, into a long, painful period of war and revolution.  As such it raised the curtain on a whole bunch of other stories, many of which the Anglophone world has been ignoring for decades, and seems worth remembering a hundred years on.

24 FEBRUARY, 1918: The Snail That Roared

I feel like telling a simple tale today, so let’s raise a glass to the extraordinary voyage of the German commerce raider SMS Wolf. The Wolf made it home to Germany a hundred years ago today after some fifteen months at sea without putting into port, much of it spent playing cat and mouse with British naval forces, some of it spent taking the War to places other German warships couldn’t reach.

In service as an auxiliary cruiser, the Wolf had begun life as a commercial cargo ship, the Wachtfels, completed in 1913.  Although it was slow, with a maximum speed of only 11 knots, the ship was built for long voyages, with room for enough coal to give it a maximum range of almost 60,000km.  It was converted to carry six 15cm guns, three 5.2cm guns, four torpedo tubes and more than 400 mines, as well as removable false superstructure for disguise purposes, before being commissioned into the Imperial German Navy in May 1916.  Sometimes referred to as Wolf II because, somewhat confusingly and for no good reason I know about, the German Navy already had an auxiliary cruiser called Wolf, it was also one of very few auxiliaries equipped with a seaplane, a single-engine, two-seater Friedrichshafen FF33 reconnaissance biplane known as Wölfchen (wolf cub).

A propaganda shot of the Wölfchen at work.

The Wolf and its 348 strong crew sailed from Kiel on 30 November 1916.  A U-boat escort and foul weather helped it break through the British naval blockade to reach the open sea on 10 December.  Its first priority was mine laying, and it laid its first field off Dassen Island, some 80km north of Cape Town, on the night of 16/17 January.  Working its way east, it put down further minefields off Cape Agulhas, at South Africa’s southern tip, off Colombo and finally, on 19 February 1917, off Bombay, before switching to a hunt for Allied merchantmen.

The first Allied ship taken by the Wolf was its former sister ship with the civilian Hansa Line, since captured by the British and renamed the Turritella.  The manner of its taking illustrates the difference between the everyday realities of commerce warfare and the explosive stuff they like to show in movies.  A warning dropped from the seaplane about the Wolf’s guns was enough to persuade Turritella‘s captain out of fight or flight, and he accepted a boarding party from the German ship on 27 February.  In no position to deliver his victim to a German port,the Wolf‘s Captain Nerger put a prize crew aboard, renamed the captured vessel the Iltis, gave it a small 2-pounder gun and 25 mines, and sent it off to work for the German cause.  On 5 March, after laying its mines at the Red Sea port of Aden, the Iltis was scuttled when challenged by the Royal Navy sloop HMS Odin.

Nerger meanwhile steamed slowly for the Pacific, capturing three more ships during March and making a maintenance stop off Raoul Island, some 600km north of New Zealand, where the Wolf dropped anchor on 22 May and captured another passing merchantman on 1 June.  By late June the German raider had reached New Zealand, laying 25 mines off North Cape on 25 June and 35 more off Cape Farewell a couple of days later, before crossing the Tasman Sea to mine Gabo Island off the Australian coast.  Nerger then turned north, capturing three more Allied ships en route to another maintenance stop at the island of Waigeo, just off the northwest tip of Papua/New Guinea.

Captain Nerger: a good egg and still a national hero in Germany after the Second World War, which is why he died in a Soviet interment camp in 1947

Late August saw the Wolf steaming slowly west across the Pacific towards Singapore, where it laid the last of its mines on the night of 2/3 September.  That was mission accomplished.  With no more mines on board, and not enough fuel or supplies to reach Germany, the Wolf‘s obvious next move was to sail to a neutral port and accept internment.  Instead, the ship turned south into the Indian Ocean, and got lucky.

On 26 September Wolf captured a Japanese freighter, which carried a gun and put up a brief fight before surrendering, and on 29 September it hit the jackpot by intercepting a collier.  Hauling 5,500 tons of coal, the Igotz Mendi was Spanish and neutral, but under the circumstances the fact that it was headed for a British port – Colombo – made it at least arguably fair game.  With fuel supplies secured, Wolf and its latest prize steamed in tandem for the Atlantic and home.

Capturing coal wasn’t quite the same the same thing as using it, and the first attempt to transfer fuel to the Wolf, in rough seas on 26 December, left both ships damaged.  Once repairs at sea were completed they tried again, in even worse conditions on 10 January 1918, and after 21 hours of bumping and grinding enough coal had been redistributed for the two ships to proceed independently towards Germany.

The last stage of Wolf‘s epic tour of duty was the most arduous, partly because of major storms in late January but principally because it faced danger from both the British blockade and German defences, which could not be informed of the disguised ship’s true identity without breaking radio silence.  Reaching the coast of Norway on 14 February, it succeeded in entering the Baltic on 17 February and was then able to contact Kiel, only to be told to wait offshore while preparations were made for a gala welcome.  Replete with speeches and medal ceremonies, the welcome took place on 24 February, the same day that the less fortunate prize crew of the Igotz Mendi ran aground on the Skaw spit, at the top of Jutland, and was captured by a (neutral) Danish gunboat.

A very long journey on a very slow ship

The fate of the Wolf and its equally well-known seaplane had been the subject of worldwide rumour and speculation for months, although British authorities had suppressed evidence of that the ‘Black Raider’ had reached Australasia because they had no minesweepers in the region.  The ship’s safe return was therefore a gift to German propagandists, and to be fair they had plenty to brag about.

The Wolf had made the longest single voyage of any warship during the conflict, and had sunk or captured 27 Allied or neutral vessels, including two warships and, representing the farthest reach of the German Navy’s trade war, two ships sunk by mines laid off New Zealand.  The ship had arrived home not just intact, but carrying a lot of booty, including rubber, copper, zinc, brass, silk, copra and cocoa, all of it very valuable to Germany’s starved economy.

The Australian cargo steamer Wimmera, seen here at Wellington harbour, was sunk by a mine from the Wolf off Auckland on 26 June 1918. Twenty-six of 151 on board were killed.

Captain Nerger seems to have been a good egg.  Thanks to his determination to protect civilians, a total of 467 prisoners captured from Allied merchant ships were also on board when the ship arrived at Kiel.  According to the many accounts written by survivors of the voyage, the prisoners were both a cause of universal hardship during the latter stages of the journey and, because they included crew from dozens of countries, an extraordinary and at the time unprecedented social experiment.  It seems to have passed in remarkably harmonious style, considering the history of inter-racial relations ever since, but then threats to basic survival do have a tendency to put human prejudice in its place.

The rest of the Wolf’s story was more prosaic.  It ended the War back in service, in the Baltic with a new captain and crew, but became a French ship, the Antinous, as a tiny part of the massive bill charged to Germany by the post-War peace treaty.  It ended its career in its original role as a commercial cargo vessel, and was finally scrapped in 1931.

If you’re looking for a message from this particular post, you’ll struggle.  The Wolf‘s propaganda value was fleeting and its strategic impact on the War as a whole was minimal, though it has been argued that its mines did more than anything else to bring the concept of global war home to the people of New Zealand.  Its story does offer glimpses of the realities behind the concept of trade warfare, one of the First World War’s most important and unsung battlegrounds, but is essentially a family-friendly tale with moderate violence.  In the end my only excuses for making both of you read it are a personal weakness for naval derring-do, and the fact that it’s a German wartime epic, inevitably left out of posterity showreels written by the winners.

17 FEBRUARY, 1918: Follow That Figment!

Thanks to happy accidents of history and geography, I’ve never had to fight in a war or survive as one goes on around me, but I have it on a number of good authorities that both can play tricks on the imagination.  This is obviously true of individuals but can also be the case for groups, particularly in hierarchical systems that grant certain individuals a lot of power to influence groups.

The First World War was a very big, very complicated war, fought between fundamentally hierarchical systems, and arguably fought in an attempt to preserve those systems in a changing socio-political environment.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at how often – even by the standards of comparably enormous conflicts – the command elites of First World War empires let their collective imaginations run out of control.

Imagined threats and imagined glories, not to mention a few imagined maps, generated a lot of wild, crazy and generally pointless action throughout the War.  The French invasion of Germany in 1914, the Dardanelles expedition in 1915, almost everything to do with British extension of the Mesopotamian Front, Italian involvement in the War, Romanian foreign policy, the whole basis of German war strategy after Ludendorff and the Third Supreme Command took power in 1916… the war years were in some ways defined by these and many other strategic responses to gigantic chimeras.

Wild flights of imagination, laced with optimism or desperation, also gave life to some of the War’s smaller but crazy operations – the British Naval Africa Expedition springs inevitably to mind (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut) – and today marks the centenary of a staging post in one such folly’s story.  I’m talking about the adventures of what came to be known as ‘Dunsterforce’, a British detachment that reached what was then the town of Enzeli in northwest Persia, and is now the Iranian town of Bandar-e Anzali, on 17 February 1918.

Nicknamed after its commanding officer, Russian-speaking British Indian Army General Lionel Dunsterville, Dunsterforce was a composite detachment of about 1,000 British, ANZAC and Canadian troops hand-picked from the Western and Mesopotamian Fronts.  It was assembled in December 1917 at the western Persian town of Hamadan, halfway between the Mesopotamian frontier and Teheran, and supplied by a fleet of 750 lorries across 500km of rough terrain from Baghdad.

Dunsterville: as dashing as he looks, and the inspiration for Kipling’s Stalky.

All this logistic effort was the product of some fairly wild imaginings on the part of British strategists.  They imagined a plan to invade India through Persia by Ottoman and German forces, and imagined that a thousand men could march across modern Iraq and Iran to prevent it.  They also imagined that the same men could march on into what was then known as Transcaucasia, where they could prop up the newly established, anti-Ottoman Transcaucasian Republic and ideally gain access to the regional oil industry centred on Baku.

The idea of aiding Transcaucasia did at least have a basis in reality. The strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea had formed the only land frontier between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1914, and comprised the Russian provinces of Azerbaijan and Georgia, along with the vaguely defined Armenian homelands either side of the border.  All three formed legislative assemblies with nationalist pretensions in the wake of the February Revolution in Russia, and after a joint meeting at Tbilisi in August 1917 they agreed to merge for mutual protection as the Transcaucasian Republic, which came into formal existence on 17 September.

It didn’t last long.  The dominant partner, Georgia, was interested in promoting its economic development as a client of Germany, while Azerbailjan favoured close relations with a Central Asian assembly based in Tashkent, and after years of genocidal violence Armenians were primarily concerned with reaching some kind of settlement with their Turkish neighbours.  By the time Dunsterforce was assembling, all three partners were behaving as if the Republic didn’t exist, and all three were bracing for attacks by Red Army forces as soon as a peace agreed at Brest-Litovsk left the Bolsheviks free to focus on internal affairs.

While I’m on this detour, I should correct a bad miss on my part some eighteen months back, a failure to mention one of the War’s almost completely forgotten horrors. In July 1916, native peoples of the region known as Central Asia – modern Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (eat your heart out, Borat) – rose up against the Russian Empire, which had expanded to control the region in the late nineteenth century.

Russia had left Central Asia’s tribal and nomadic societies virtually untouched, but had exploited their cotton output and used the land to seed colonists, who made up some forty percent of the population by 1914. War provided an outlet for longstanding tensions between natives and colonists because the Empire needed manpower, and the rebellion exploded into life after a government decree conscripted hitherto exempt native males for military labour service. Thousands of Russian settlers were murdered before the Russian Army moved in to join colonists in executing savage reprisals, and estimates of the number killed before order was restored vary up to about 500,000.

Even in this idealised form the Central Asian rebels of 1916 were easy meat for Russian Army guns.

Perhaps if the revolt had been a crusade for or precursor to some kind of nationalist movement, rather than a spontaneous expression of popular anger of a kind generally known as peasants’ revolt in the West, it would still be commemorated as part of some nation’s creation story. As it is, the slaughter in Central Asia has never been subject to propaganda exposure by anyone. Virtually unknown to contemporaries in Europe, it has been pretty much ignored ever since. It’s a fair guess that Western posterity would be all over any remotely comparable catastrophe if it had happened somewhere less remote from the concerns of history’s winners, and that justifies the swerve so I’ll move on.

Dunsterforce headed north to undertake its improbable twin mission on 27 January 1918, accompanied by an armoured car unit, and had covered the 350km to Enzeli by 17 February. Reality then reared its inconvenient head, because 3,000 revolutionary Russian troops were already there, and Dunsterville was forced to march back to Hamadan.

Tough country… Dunsterforce country.

During the following weeks a German division occupied Tbilisi, an Ottoman force moved to threaten Baku and Red Army forces quit Enzeli to retreat beyond Baku.  Dunsterforce armoured cars, this time accompanied by a British imperial regiment from the Mesopotamian Front and a force of some 3,000 anti-revolutionary Russian troops, duly struggled north again.  They occupied Enzeli in June, but didn’t stay long.  In response to an appeal for help from moderate socialists who had overthrown the Bolsheviks controlling Baku during July, Dunsterforce crossed the western Caspian Sea to join the city’s defence.

About 1,000 Dunsterforce troops had joined a garrison of some 10,000 local volunteers in Baku by late August, but they left again during the night of 14 September as 14,000 Ottoman troops prepared to attack the city.   Baku fell next day, but most of Dunsterville’s troops escaped and returned to Enzeli along with large numbers of Armenian refugees.  When Ottoman forces left Baku in line with the armistice agreement, Dunsterville led his troops back to occupy the port without a fight.  Having finally achieved this small, belated and temporary strategic success, he was ordered back to Britain.

He received rather less of a hero’s welcome than he might have expected for bringing his force through a considerable logistic and command challenge in far-flung and dangerous territory.  With the War effectively over and propaganda losing its hold over public debate, his mission was subject to severe criticism as part of a wider (and permanent) backlash against the perceived strategic failings that had prolonged the conflict. Dunsterforce was generally dismissed as either a reckless and pointless adventure or a strategic coup let down by pitifully inadequate investment of resources.  A century on, it’s hard to argue with that assessment – but equally hard to claim we don’t still fall for wartime tricks on our imagination.

11 FEBRUARY, 1918: Daydream Believer

I’ve spent the last few years trying to shine a little light on those aspects of the First World War that get left out of most heritage history, but sometimes even those events it does commemorate get such superficial or inaccurate treatment that I feel compelled to give their windows a polish.  A couple of those are floating around our media ether at the moment.

I’m tempted to spend the day explaining why modern focus on Emmaline Pankhurst, the very definition of a self-serving opportunist, is a betrayal of the women who made real sacrifices in pursuit of female suffrage, but that will have to wait.  Right now I’m exercised about the superficial nod delivered by posterity to the Fourteen Points, US President Wilson’s quintessentially liberal recipe for a peaceful world.

Wilson’s recipe has since been almost universally dismissed as a naive failure, which would explain why it hasn’t garnered much in the way of centenary action.  It that has also been blamed – often by the same people – for much that went wrong with the peace process at the end of the First World War, and by extension for the League of Nations, the Second World War and almost everything we remember as bad about the rest of the twentieth century.  That view reflects its enormous contemporary impact on what you might call the global psyche, and makes virtually ignoring it a hundred years on look pretty ridiculous.  So here’s a briefing.

I’ll start with the anniversary, by way of clearing up a nomenclature issue.  Wilson originally announced his principles for creation of a lasting peace in Congress on 8 January 1918, and there were fourteen of them.  On 11 February he again addressed Congress, and added four more principles to the list, but by that time news of his original speech had spread as fast as wildfire could travel in 1918.  The Fourteen Points were famous – had in fact provoked so much popular excitement and political irritation all over the world that they are a small watershed moment in the emerging age of mass communication.  Nobody was about to start calling them the Eighteen Points just because it was accurate.

The Fourteen Points Are Ours… sentiments echoed by street protesters all over the world in 1918.

So what exactly were they?  Compiled by Wilson with help from his special advisor, Colonel House, and a team of political experts (Wilson was, of course, an academic), the original fourteen were a very sketchy peace programme delivered to Congress as a statement of US war aims.  The first of Wilson’s fourteen paragraphs renounced secret treaties, calling for ‘open covenants openly arrived at’, and the second demanded absolute freedom of the seas outside of territorial waters, rendering the kind of blockade tactics carried out by the British illegal.  The third point called for the removal of trade barriers wherever possible, the fourth for worldwide arms reduction and the fifth for impartial arbitration of all colonial disputes.

After that, Wilson got down to specifics.  Point six required an end to all occupation of Russian imperial territory by the Central Powers, a sop to the Bolsheviks locked into peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  Point seven demanded the complete restoration of Belgium, point eight accepted French claims to Alsace and Lorraine, both absorbed by Germany since 1871, and the ninth point recognised some but not all of Italy’s territorial claims.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire received relatively lenient treatment from the tenth point, which only called for ‘autonomous development’ of its separatist elements, but point eleven was more firm on the future of the Balkans, insisting on an end to the occupations of Romania, Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter to have access to the Adriatic coast.  Point twelve guaranteed Ottoman sovereignty of the empire’s Turkish heartlands, but granted autonomy to its subject peoples and declared the Dardanelles an open sea, while point thirteen recognised the existence of an independent Poland, and that it should have access to the sea.

Having passed principled judgment on the world’s most pressing international disputes in the space of a few minutes, Wilson went on, in point fourteen, to recommend the establishment of ‘a general association of nations’ as a means of keeping the peace.

The four points added on 11 February were less easily said, even more vague and even less easily done.  The first accepted that no general formula for peace could be applied to every post-War claim, and that each must be judged on its individual merits, while the second stated that peoples and provinces could not be bartered as diplomatic currency between empires.  The third declared the benefit of local populations to be the basis upon which all future territorial agreements should be made, and the fourth gave the world a get-out, stating that ‘well-defined national aspirations’ could only be satisfied if they didn’t introduce or perpetuate causes for war.

The man who saved the world – when he still believed the hype.

Faced with social injustice, socialists and liberals have always agreed about some short-term aims, and in 1918 Wilson’s prescription for peace agreed in many ways with the version presented by the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk.   I think I’ve already mentioned that Bolshevik peace proposals had an enormous impact on populations all over the world, and contributed directly to permanent political and social change for some of them, but the Fourteen Points made an even bigger splash thanks to a propaganda machine that really knew its business.

The man in charge of US wartime propaganda was George Creel, a committed social reformer and ‘muckraker’ journalist, well known for his exposés of commercial and political corruption.  Creel had been a strong supporter of Wilson during the 1912 and 1916 election campaigns, and was appointed to head the Committee of Public Information (CPI) in 1917.  Energetic and confident, though inclined to impulsive verbal outbursts, he turned what had been no more than a government news agency into a sprawling propaganda service.

George Creel in 1917. Doesn’t look forty, does he?

The wartime CPI expanded rapidly to include a Pictorial Publicity Division, employing the nation’s most celebrated painters, sculptors and cartoonists, and a Motion Picture Division.  It also employed an estimated 75,000 ‘Four-Minute Men’, trained public speakers who roamed the country giving short speeches in schools, churches and movie theatres, promoting food conservation, War Bonds or any other federal policy.  Each Four-Minute Man gave an average of more than a thousand wartime speeches, reaching a total audience of almost 315 million and proving a highly effective propaganda tool in a nation still thoroughly hooked on declamatory speechifying.

Speaks for itself…

Partly to promote peace, and partly to make sure the world knew why the US was going to war, Creel’s department was charged with selling the Fourteen Points abroad, and did a fabulous job, albeit working with audiences desperate to believe in any plan that promised a workable peace.  Wilson found himself lionized across six continents, his programme hailed as visionary genius by foreign populations, even those who stood to lose by its propositions, wherever they were able to express their views.  Governments were generally less impressed.

Without making any formal protest, Allied governments rejected the reduction of Italy’s territorial claims (as they were bound to do by the 1915 treaty that bribed Italy into the War) and the proposed ban on naval blockade tactics.  They also objected to Wilson’s complete silence on the subject of reparations, an issue turned into a political hot potato in Britain, France and Italy by their own propaganda, which consistently accused Germany and Austria-Hungary of forcing war on Europe.  On the other side of the lines, the governments of the Central Powers viewed the Fourteen Points as inimical to the survival of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and greeted them with predictable derision.

Given popular opinion’s relative lack of worldwide clout in 1918, even in countries dependent upon public support for survival at war or in the midst of populist revolution, rejection by belligerent governments on both sides could easily have consigned the Fourteen Points to history’s dustbin then and there.  That they avoided the fate of all the previous attempts to broker peace did have something to do with the sheer breadth of their popular appeal, and with a growing sense in all the belligerent states (encouraged by the collapse of Russia and the imminent involvement of US forces) that the War’s long stalemate was finally nearing breaking point.  Above all though, their continued currency during the months that followed was a reflection of the USA’s particular place in the world of early 1918.

The United States was the success story of the age, a model nation built on strict democratic principles that was entering the world stage as powerful economic, diplomatic and (potentially) military force.  It was already showing signs of losing its halo, on the back of military adventures inspired by greedy and corrupt corporate interests, but was still essentially admired around the world, carrying none of the world policeman’s baggage that has soiled its reputation ever since.  If any nation on Earth stood a chance of being trusted as an international peacemaker, and of bullying those incapable of trust, the USA was it.

A self-conscious guardian of the American halo and a president elected on a pacifist ticket, Wilson not only believed in the righteousness and practicability of his peace formula, he couldn’t afford to let it fade from the global agenda.  He needed his home constituents and the world at large to recognise that the US was going to war for noble, selfless reasons, in tune with the liberal ideals he and his supporters espoused.  So US propaganda and diplomacy kept up pressure for the Fourteen Points through the spring and summer of 1918, and were rewarded in the autumn.

Facing military defeat, the Central Powers demanded that Wilson’s programme form the basis for peace negotiations, primarily because it was far more lenient to defeated states than the punitive war aims of the European Allies.   Wilson publicly insisted on the same thing while making a few amendments to the Points as sops to Allied objections, leaving Britain and France, let alone Italy and the smaller Allied nations were, in no position to argue.  That put everyone concerned on a path to attempt the reconstruction of a shattered global civilisation using a blueprint nobody believed in, except the liberal wing of the US political class.   There will be more to say about the Fourteen Points, but in the meantime that’s your briefing.

31 JANUARY, 1918: Bring Them Down!

During the night of January 30/31, a century ago, two German bomber squadrons dropped fourteen tons of bombs on Paris, killing 49 civilians and injuring another couple of hundred. The raid was carried out in response to Anglo-French attacks on German cities, and illustrated how far the dark science of strategic bombing had come since the first single-seater machine had dropped the first small bombs on Paris at the end of August 1914 (30 August, 1914: The Bomb!). The attackers’ only loss over Paris was a reconnaissance machine, a DFV-CV, shot down by a French night fighter over the city’s eastern suburbs, and that was as good an illustration as any of how the science of anti-aircraft warfare had failed to keep up.

The most basic form of anti-aircraft fire was delivered by riflemen on the ground, who couldn’t help shooting at passing planes and occasionally brought one down, but systematic destruction of enemy machines had been considered a matter for artillery by all armed forces since the birth of military flight. Known to the British as ‘Archie’ or ‘ack ack’, and as ‘flak’ to the Germans, anti-aircraft guns were controlled by the artillery commands of armies or navies in every belligerent country except Germany, where they were run by the Army Air Service.

They didn’t amount to much between them when war broke out in 1914. A few German field guns had been modified to fire at the sky, the French Army possessed a total of two purpose-built anti-aircraft armoured cars carrying 75mm guns, and the BEF made do with a handful of mobile 3-inch guns on an enlarged mounting. This hardly mattered at first, given the small number of aircraft in use, their limited use in combat roles and a performance level that meant they could be pursued on the ground, but rapid development during 1915 forced all the major belligerents to come up with countermeasures.

At first, standard field guns were fitted with upward-firing mountings and set to work, and many of these mutants remained in service throughout the War. Purpose-designed AA guns were soon in production everywhere, but they were almost all minor adaptations of existing field gun designs. The Germans adapted 80mm and 75mm field pieces, and the French stuck with their ubiquitous ‘Soixante-Quinze’, while the British and US armies maintained their preference for 3-inch guns.

That was about it for wartime technological development in the field. Some shells were lightened but fired with the same charge (because that made them go higher), and 1918 saw the German Air Service introduce a rapid-firing 20mm cannon that became the basis for light anti-aircraft defence during the Second World War, but otherwise the guns themselves remained essentially unchanged.

On land, AA batteries were originally scattered around large areas in small groups (of at least two guns, so that a ranging shot could be followed up quickly), in the hope of catching slow-moving aircraft wherever they appeared. As it became clear that visual targetting of one aircraft’s three-dimensional movement almost never did the job, and as the numbers of aircraft and their attack potential mounted, guns were massed in large formations around anticipated targets such as military installations close to front lines, airfields, industrial centres, population centres and coastal installations. At sea, most major warships carried standard anti-aircraft guns by 1916, singly or in pairs, but nobody really expected them to hit anything.

Not too complex – just stick a field gun on wheels and give it room to point upwards – German AA gun, 1918.

Within this very basic framework, some advances were made in technique. Improving central command and control systems made massed AA operations steadily more efficient, as did use of telescopes to chart and anticipate a target’s course, while ‘barrage’ systems were employed to apply blanket coverage to a particular sector of airspace. As night attacks from the air became more common, searchlights and flares were employed to illuminate targets, and ‘barrage balloons’ sent up to force attackers into ‘barrage’ corridors. In case you were wondering about altitude settings for AA shells, they didn’t need much in the way of technical advance… the longer the fuse, the higher the explosion.

Most AA guns fired shrapnel, which stood by far the best chance of hitting something, but some battery commanders preferred to use high-explosive (HE) shells, which stood an outside chance of obliterating something. By 1918, HE shells had been superseded by incendiary shells, which offered gunners the best of both worlds. Originally designed by the British for use against German Zeppelins, they behaved like shrapnel but threw out balls of burning thermite.

Nobody could do without anti-aircraft guns to protect threatened areas, but they were responsible for only a small fraction of aviation losses, mostly on the busy Western Front, and it was generally recognised that they were no more than a token threat to rapidly improving aircraft designs. By 1918 they were seen as intrinsically deficient by most military planners, and post-war development concentrated on the use of fighter aircraft as the best defence against aerial bombing.

I mentioned balloons, and while I’m delving into the War’s smaller details I’ve got an excuse for a word about them. Barrage duties aside, hot-air and gas-filled balloons were a common sight throughout the War on static battlefields, where they performed observation duties for artillery commanders. Cheaper to run than aircraft, and a more stable viewing platform, they were winched by ground crew to various heights in groups of two or three, and their cross-referenced observations were transmitted to the ground by flag signals, or sometimes radio.

The two or three men crewing an observation balloon, ‘balloonatics’ to the British, were sitting ducks for any attacker, and on busy fronts they were attacked all the time, but the balloons themselves were notoriously difficult to destroy. Standard bullets generally passed straight through the fabric, forcing enemy aircraft into repeated, close-range attacks that risked entanglement in wires or cables, as well as the attention of any AA guns in the vicinity. Shooting down a balloon was generally credited as a full ‘kill’ by all air forces, and several ‘aces’ on both sides of the Western Front earned their name as ‘balloon busters’.

Up, up and a way to die… but at least they’ve got their parachutes.

Although some German balloons were equipped with powered winches by 1918, for rapid descent when under attack, crews’ survival chances had been further reduced by increased use of HE and incendiary bullets.  It was a tough job, and that was why balloon crews were, along with airship crews, were the only British airmen allowed to use parachutes.  And so to one of the War’s weird yet characteristic details, the parachute…

And this is how they used it.

Parachutes were well known in 1914, but the types used by wartime air services were strapped to the outside of the aircraft, and attached to the crewman by a long cord that automatically opened the chute when he jumped. Regular requests for the use of these from aircrew on both sides were refused on the grounds that they were too fragile for attachment to powered aircraft, and the fairly costly alternative of providing parachutes worn by the jumper was never considered, primarily on the grounds that the crew of an armed aircraft had no right to such protection. The German Air Service changed its mind in 1918, when it faced a critical shortage of aircrew, and a few pilots were given wearable models, but the British flying services in particular continued to regard requests for a parachute as tantamount to cowardice.  Wearable parachutes were used by espionage agencies on all sides for dropping agents behind enemy lines, but that’s another story.

There are no moral messages or world-changing historical threads here, just a quick glance at some of the less storied strangeness polluting Europe’s war-torn skies in 1918 – and a shred or two of evidence that the Great War featured more ways to die than heritage recalls.

24 JANUARY, 1918: All We Are Saying…

Fighting on the wartime Western and Italian Fronts never really stopped, and British imperial forces were keeping reasonably busy with minor operations against Ottoman garrisons in the Middle East, but broadly speaking the First World War’s guns were pretty quiet during January 1918.  As was the way during such interludes, preparations for future campaigns were in progress, but the absence of potentially world-changing military action also gave war-weary civilian populations a moment to consider their futures. This was particularly true for millions of socialists who had been on the cusp of significant political progress all over Europe before the War’s injection of nationalist fervour stifled their ambitions, and particularly incendiary in those belligerent empires under the most acute economic and social stress.

Though Ottoman Turkey was under acute stress, it was barely industrialised and had no socialist tradition to speak of, so its largely rural population remained disorganised, incapable of coherent protest while it suffered and starved.  Not so the politically sophisticated workers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian heartlands, who reacted to the bleak midwinter of early 1918 with an eruption of mass discontent that dwarfed any previous protest in either state.  It began in Austria-Hungary, and a hundred years ago today the winter’s first wave of mass strikes in Vienna was halted on the brink of all-out revolution.

Vienna was no stranger to wartime civil discontent. Food shortages had been a critical problem in the city since the brutal winter of 1916–17, when strikes had swept Vienna and spread south to the industrialised parts of Upper Styria.  News of the February Revolution in Russia sparked a further wave of unrest in the capital, culminating in a strike of more than 40,000 metal workers in May 1917.  They soon went back to work, but only after relatively moderate Social Democrat politicians had won important concessions from the government, including the relaxation of censorship, decriminalisation of public meetings and the recall of the Austrian parliament (Reichsrat), which had been dissolved in 1914.

Russia’s October Revolution had a similarly slow-burning but even more profound impact on workers in distant countries.  The subsequent return of PoWs to Austria-Hungary from the Eastern Front raised the number and intensity of socialist agitators within the empire, and the Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace raised hopes of an end to the conflict.  Meanwhile news of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a putative blueprint for peace based on liberal values and the principle of ethnic self-determination, encouraged popular expectations of fair post-War treatment from the Allies.

Hard times in Vienna, 1918, as painted by Josef Engelhart.

Anger at delays to the peace process at Brest-Litovsk, popularly blamed on the Central Powers’ demands for territorial annexations, was already fuelling calls for strike action when desperate urban food shortages forced the government to halve the bread and flour rations, on 14 January.  The dangerous brew of war-weariness, hope and frustration ignited into furious protest.   Workers at the Daimler factory in the industrial town of Wiener Neustadt, just south of Vienna, immediately struck for peace (rather than improved pay or conditions), and by 20 January some three-quarters of a million workers around the empire had joined them, amid a wave of peace protests and food riots.  Strikes hit the empire’s armaments, railway and metal industries, along with printing, retail and dozens of other domestic trades, and a few days later engulfed the industrially developed Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, once nationalist leaders had made it clear that Czech workers were acting independently from their Austrian counterparts.

For several days, as strikers organised themselves into workers’ councils (or soviets), the situation lurched out of control and revolution appeared imminent – but, as in May 1917, the Social Democrats played the role of intermediaries.  The largest party in the Reichsrat, and openly committed to ending the War since 1916, they were able to take control of the politically inexperienced soviets and negotiate with the (well-meaning but deeply reactionary) government of Emperor Karl to win further concessions, including the introduction of a minimum wage.  These were enough to convince a majority of workers’ groups to halt their action.  Strikers in Vienna began returning to their jobs on 21 January, and most strikes were officially called off three days later.

If revolution had been staved off for the moment, Austria-Hungary was hardly calm.  New strikes, demanding peace and an end to imperialist greed at Brest-Litovsk, broke out all over Austria, Bohemia and Moravia during the next ten days, and the government was forced to break up street protests using troops.  Though the Army gradually restored a fragile semblance of order during the first week of February – at least in Vienna – it had become dangerously unreliable as an instrument of state policy.   Troops from the empire’s non-German provinces frequently joined protesters, a pacifist mutiny broke out at the garrison town of Judenburg, which was also a major steel production centre, and the Navy put down a brief mutiny at the Adriatic naval base of Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro).

Vienna calmed down a little during the spring, but Austria-Hungary as whole remained in a volatile and precarious condition, wracked by civilian shortages, on the edge of disintegration into its ethnic components and crumbling from the ground up under revolutionary socialist pressure.  The next crisis would be along in the early summer, by which time the end of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire was near.

Bad moon rising… national groupings in the pre-War Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Vienna erupted in mid-January, the German Third Supreme Command had been considering annexation of its principal ally (an issue since the 1870s, when the rest of German-speaking central Europe united as one nation under Prussia), but by the end of the month Germany was facing its own socio-political crisis.

Food shortages no less acute than those in Austria-Hungary, the same angst around the Brest-Litovsk/Fourteen Points equation, and an opportunist desire to exploit the revolutionary atmosphere coming out of Vienna prompted a call to strike by Berlin union organisers.  It began on 28 January, and by the end of the day half a million workers had downed tools.  Revolutionary German socialists (of whom more another day) organised a central Action Committee that drew up a list of demands inspired by Bolshevik peace proposals at Brest-Litovsk – but while the government sent troops to break up factory meetings, and the far left demanded revolution on the spot, the protest was being hijacked by the moderate reformists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the smaller but more streetwise Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP).

Invited to join the Action Committee by the far left – by celebrity revolutionary theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg, to be precise – the SDP found allies in union organisers shocked by the scale of revolutionary activity they had unleashed.  Violent clashes between strikers and scab workers on 30 January cemented moderate left-wing determination to end the strike, and while the SDP orchestrated calls for negotiation, it’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, announced his support for further military intervention by the state. Thus encouraged, the government began arresting radical strike leaders on 31 January, and threatened to impose martial law in Berlin if the strikes were not called off by 4 February.

Berlin, 28 January 1918: strikers outside the trade union building… and an announcement in the 2 February issue of the SDP newspaper, ‘Vorwaerts’, that martial law was coming.

Union leaders in Berlin obliged with a day to spare, but unrest had meanwhile spread across the military/industrial heartlands of northern Germany, affecting (among other towns and cities) Kiel, Dusseldorf, Nuremburg, Augsburg, Hamburg and Cologne.  The military moved in hard and fast.  Mass arrests, the execution of 150 ringleaders, and the conscription some 50,000 strikers for service with occupation forces in Eastern Europe had brought organised strike action to an end by about 11 February.

Watched keenly by Allied and neutral observers at the time, the Austro-Hungarian and German strikes of early 1918 barely register with the modern commemorative industries.   Even big-picture historians generally give them no more than a passing mention as a preamble to the full-scale revolutions that followed military defeat. That may have been their status in Austria-Hungary, but the German strikes were in themselves an important turning point.

Radical elements behind the mass spread of industrial unrest in late January clearly failed to achieve their stated aim of immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, and failure sharpened the angry frustration of pacifists and revolutionaries in Germany – but the strikes did provide a shock to the ruling Third Supreme Command, and it reacted in typical fashion by doubling down.  Having gambled against the odds in search of military success by pinning everything on submarine warfare, and in search of economic salvation by attempting to run an empire in Eastern Europe, Ludendorff and his ultra-conservative cabal faced the rising tide of revolution the only way they had ever known how, with another desperate roll of the dice.

More than ever convinced that a crushing victory over the Allies, and only that, would frighten the unruly German population into long-term obedience, Germany’s leaders intensified pressure for annexations at Brest-Litovsk, clamped down ruthlessly on  popular dissent and pressed ahead with plans for a major spring offensive on the Western Front.  In other words they lit the blue touch paper, at home and abroad, and hoped for the best, a climactic moment of madness that seems well worth remembering.  My other, rather flimsy excuse for featuring the January strikes is their reminder of the enormous differences, in aims and methods, between social democrats and socialist revolutionaries in 1918, a distinction that remains relevant today, particularly but by no means only in the UK.

12 JANUARY, 1918: Port In A Storm (Part One)

Back in peacetime, when the Great War’s coming was a matter of dire prediction, orthodox geopolitical thinking had assumed that, if the massive effort required to sustain mechanised warfare went on for more than a few weeks, Europe’s empires would crumble under economic and associated social pressures. More than three years of total war in fact passed before the Russian Empire melted down to become something completely and aggressively new, but fear of collapse had never stopped haunting the continent’s governing elites.

Fed by evidence of socio-political fragility in every belligerent empire, even in the richest and most politically stable of them, elite fear translated into something approaching panic in the face of Bolshevism. The German regime was willing to let Russia have its revolution, at least until it had dealt with the existential threat from the west, while Austria-Hungary and Turkey were too far along the road to collapse to do anything but grasp at pickings from the Russian Empire’s carcase – but Allied governments fell over themselves to disrupt and (ideally) destroy what they saw as a harbinger of apocalypse.

There wasn’t all that much the Allies could do. They could cut off some maritime supply lines to Petrograd, and they could use existing supply lines (across Sweden or via the Arctic and Murmansk or Archangelsk) to provide counter-revolutionary forces with funds and equipment, even direct military support. The British could conceivably divert forces from the Middle East into southwestern Russia, though for the moment they were busy with another fight, but otherwise the Central Powers occupied Russia’s European frontiers. That left the back door.

The back door was Vladivostok, Russia’s major port in the Far East and it’s only warm-water port in the region since the loss of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905. Vladivostok wasn’t entirely ice-free, but could remain open for much of the winter and had become an important supply hub for the Russian war effort, increasingly so with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway link to the west in 1916, and Russia’s alliance with a Pacific trading power, the United States, in 1917.

Get the picture?

The railway and the port were under Bolshevik control by late 1917, when the British, French and US governments began discussing joint action to support counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia. Japan, which had a longstanding strategic interest in its maritime frontier with Russia, was at first left out of the discussions, but in December 1917 obtained an invitation from its ally, Britain, to take part in any action. The only major Allied warship in Vladivostok during the chaotic weeks after the October Revolution, the US Navy light cruiser Brooklyn, had already left by late December. With diplomatic and commercial interests in the port in need of protection amid the street fighting and general anarchy, the British didn’t wait for discussions to reach a conclusion before doing what came naturally and sending a gunboat.

The British Admiralty ordered HMS Sussex, a cruiser stationed in Hong Kong, to Vladivostok. The Japanese government, ever alert to signs of European encroachment in eastern Asia (and to any diplomatic slight), reacted by ordering two old, pre-dreadnought battleships, the Iwami and the Asahi, to get there first. The Iwami won the race, arriving on 12 January, two days before the Suffolk and five days before the Asahi. Having made a show of force, and in Japan’s case made a statement about its right to a dominant role in the future of eastern Asia, the Allied warships then anchored offshore in the hope that their mere presence would encourage both anti-Bolshevik agitation and the restoration of order.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, these somewhat contradictory hopes failed to materialise, and as the situation in Vladivostok became ever more dangerous for foreign nationals, Allied intervention on the ground in Siberia appeared inevitable.  Tokyo wasted no time telling Britain and the US that any intervention should carried out by Japanese forces alone, but the proposition was officially turned down in mid-February, ostensibly because Japan’s unpopularity in Russia would drive the population into Bolshevik or even German hands. By that time the Japanese Army was drawing up plans for an invasion of eastern Siberia, with a view to setting up a nominally independent buffer state as protection against future interference in the Pacific by Russia.

The military dominated Japanese politics during the early 20th century, and prime minister Masatake was a former general.

A lengthy spell of inter-Allied dithering followed, while Japanese, British, French and US diplomats attempted to work out the details of a joint ground operation in Siberia. Although Tokyo was prepared to accept a joint intervention, and the European Allies considered the region’s future a matter for Japan and the US, progress was stymied because the Wilson administration refused to sanction the use of American ground troops. This was still the case in April, when a company of Japanese marines (hastily followed by a company of British marines) went ashore to police looting and rioting in Vladivostok. The Brooklyn had returned to the port in March, but no US Marines took part.

Russia’s southeastern tip – the port of Vladivostok in 1918.

This was the beginning of something weird and not altogether wonderful. Allied plans would eventually be forced into focus by the plight of some 40,000 Czech troops, trapped in Bolshevik Russia but still at war with Germany after the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front. Rescuing the Czechs became an Allied cause célèbre as they battled their way across Siberia towards evacuation from Vladivostok, and that provided Wilson with a way to change his mind in the name of liberal values.

International intervention would take the form of a multi-national invasion of eastern Siberia during the summer, featuring troops from Japan, the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and eventually even China. A long, strange campaign would follow, forming part of the Russian Civil War and extending into the early 1920s – but that’s another chapter of the story, as is the extraordinary tale of the aforementioned Czech Legion.

I’ll be getting back to both when the time feels right, but for now this has been a quick look at why Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace turned Siberia into a war zone, and at how the Allied empires lined up for the purpose. It’s also a quick reminder that Japanese aggression during the Second World War was not some sudden aberration, rather the catastrophic conclusion of a long, ultimately misguided attempt to imitate and match the great global empires of the nineteenth century – empires the First World War was in the process of consigning to history.

8 JANUARY, 1918: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Today’s the day, a century ago, that US President Woodrow Wilson revealed his Fourteen Points to the world.  The Fourteen Points were really big news, and the repercussions of Wilson’s grandiose exercise in liberal chutzpah cast a long, global shadow over the succeeding decades – but I’m not going to talk about them today. We’re this far into a world war that to all intents and purposes began there, and I’ve had very little to say about Belgium, so as an excuse for a skim through the First World War’s impact on the country no wartime Briton could name without the prefix ‘brave’, I’m going to give some context to the arrival in office, on 1 January, of new Belgian foreign minister Paul Hymans.

I guess most people are aware, however vaguely, that Great Britain went to war in 1914 in defence of Belgian neutrality, but this is usually reported without much interest in why the sanctity of Belgium mattered so much.  The basic answer is that Belgium had come into existence as a symbol of European peace in the aftermath of a long, painful series of wars that had ravaged the continent for 22 years between 1893 and 1815.

Fifteen years after the final defeat of Napoleon, in 1830, the largely Catholic southern provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands erupted into nationalist revolt.  After his attempts to restore order with troops had backfired, and the newly formed Belgian National Congress had declared independence, King William I of the Netherlands appealed to Europe’s Great Powers for arbitration – and didn’t get the result he wanted.

The 1830 London Conference of Europe’s major powers – Russia, France, Prussia (representing all the major German states), Austria-Hungary and Britain – recognised Belgian independence, and the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, took the throne in July 1831.  An immediate Dutch invasion was blocked by French military intervention, but the Netherlands didn’t fully accept Belgian independence until it signed the Treaty of London in 1839.

Signed by Belgium, the Netherlands and all five of the European Great Powers, the Treaty guaranteed Belgian territorial integrity and, at Britain’s insistence, its neutrality in any future war.  It also gave a large, economically rich portion of Luxembourg to Belgium, but that’s another story and didn’t trigger any world wars. Recognised at the time as a defining moment in Europe’s concerted attempt to create a lasting peace between competing empires, the treaty survived the test of Franco-Prussian war in 1870 (when the Prussian Army invaded France without passing through Belgium), and was still in effect in 1914.  That it was still seen as the linchpin of Europe’s geopolitical stability reflected Belgium’s strategic importance.

Uncomfortably placed between northern Germany, France and Britain, Belgium was a largely flat country full of wide-open spaces, and thus a natural battleground for any future war between the empires.  It was also a prosperous trading nation with major ports at Antwerp and Ostende, and well endowed with coalfields and iron ore (the latter thanks to very favourable special arrangements with Luxembourg).  By the early twentieth century it was among the world’s most industrially advanced economies, with a well-developed infrastructure that included some 9,000km of railways and 2,000km of busy canals, serving a population of 7.5 million (in 1910).  In other words, Belgium was a prize worth seizing in a very tempting location, and the most likely point of conflict if France and Germany went to war.

Tricky spot – Belgium in 1914.

A constitutional monarchy, under which the king held legislative powers and (in time of war) personal command of the armed forces, but was responsible to a two-tier parliament, Belgium had been ruled since late 1909 by King Albert I.  Only 34 when he took the throne, Albert’s military competence and vocational seriousness struck a marked and much-admired contrast to his uncle and predecessor, the spectacularly venal King Leopold II – notorious for his ruthless, fruitless attempts to make money out of his personally financed conquest of the Congo.  Well aware by 1914 that Germany planned an attack on France through Belgium, Albert was strongly in favour of expanding the Belgian Army and grouping it to face the threat, but military command rested with parliament in peacetime.

There’s a dashing young monarch for you… Albert I.

Elected by a complex system of universal male suffrage that gave two or three votes to the wealthy and educated, both parliamentary chambers were dominated by Baron de Broqueville’s Catholic Party in 1914, and it maintained the policy of strict, visible neutrality that had been Belgium’s diplomatic mantra since day one.  That was why the Belgian Army remained very small – some 43,000 men before reserves were mobilised – and was stationed in the centre of the country when the invasion came, a situation that has since excited much controversy but that made little practical difference against an exquisitely timed and planned advance by 750,000 German troops.

The German invasion was already unstoppable by 2 August, when a state of war allowed Albert to take command of his hopelessly outnumbered army and lead in retreat to the country’s northwestern corner.  The government was eventually relocated to Le Havre in France, from where it ruled the small patch of western Flanders not under German control after the front stabilised at the end of the year.  The rest of the country was governed from Brussels by German occupying authorities, which had by then acquired a global reputation for brutality that would haunt Berlin for the rest of the War.

I haven’t the time or space to go into details of the atrocities committed by invading German forces in Belgium during the War’s first months.  Always justified as reprisals for (real or imagined) resistance to the invasion, they involved mass executions and wanton destruction of Belgian national treasures, most notably the massacre of 612 civilians at Dinant and the destruction visited on the town of Louvain, both in August 1914.  They were a deliberate act of oppression on the part of the German Army, designed to encourage obedience among conquered populations and displayed openly to the world’s press by way of spreading the word.  Present throughout the occupation, neutral observers were in fact a propaganda gift to Germany’s enemies, giving widespread coverage to the views of Belgian pacifists and nationalists, spreading outrage all over the globe and helping create an enduring wave of international sympathy for all things Belgian.

German attitudes to neutral commentary highlighted a basic truth about the First World War that is often ignored.  Unlike Nazi Germany, the German Empire in 1914 saw itself as part of what you might call the normal world order.  As such it tried to behave within the constraints of international law (or at least to make the same attempts to appear legal as everyone else), and sought to present itself as the righteous beacon of civilisation it believed itself to be.  I realise I’m treating a nation like an individual, but I haven’t got time to go the long, semantically correct route – and I’ll stick to shortcuts by using the story of Cardinal Mercier to illustrate the schizophrenic results of trying to look like the good guy while adhering to brutal militarism as a form of social control.

And there’s a heroic old cardinal – Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

Mercier was the Roman Catholic primate of Belgium, and in the absence of the king he took on the role of national spokesman, issuing a series of open letters to his flock that received plenty of publicity overseas.  German authorities generally deported or executed dissident clerics, but although briefly arrested in early 1915 Mercier was generally left to get on with it.  A very senior figure, very well known in neutral countries and very popular among southern German Catholics, he was considered too propaganda sensitive to touch – and was therefore allowed to become a major Allied propaganda weapon.

Lurid? Yep.

Allied propaganda spent the rest of the War portraying the German occupation of Belgium as a lurid orgy of gratuitous violence, but once the initial frenzy of reprisals had abated it could better be described as very harsh.  Any hint of civil disobedience was met with routine execution of hostages, and the civilian population remained under martial law while the country’s economy was ruthlessly stripped for German use.  Plant, rolling stock, food and raw materials were transported back to Germany en masse, and remaining Belgian industry was turned over to German war production.

The Belgian population reacted to occupation, deprivation and exploitation with understandable hostility.  Most refused offers to work in German factories, preferring to face high levels of unemployment at home, and though the German Third Supreme Command instituted enforced deportation of Belgian workers in October 1916, it was abandoned as inefficient and diplomatically damaging the following February.  Most Belgians also ignored attempts to exploit tensions between the country’s two provinces (Flemish-speaking Wallachia and francophone Flanders), which were aimed at creating a separate Flemish state for future absorption by a German economic union.

Meanwhile, civilians were starving.  Poor harvests and the cold winter of 1916 had reduced Belgium’s urban populations to desperate dependence for food and fuel on a programme of international aid, coordinated with full German cooperation by neutral ambassadors in Brussels.  Charity was never enough, and malnutrition had helped double the pre-war mortality rate in Brussels by 1917.

More than a million Belgians had fled to the Netherlands, France or Britain in 1914, and although many refugees returned from the Netherlands after Germany guaranteed their safety, some 300,000 remained in Allied countries throughout the occupation. These, along with the population of ‘Free Belgium’, were subject to conscription into the Belgian Army, which took part in four years of bloodletting at the northern tip of the Western Front.

Thanks to King Albert’s refusal to commit Belgian forces to major Allied offensives (and thanks to Anglo-French weapons and equipment), the Army remained in relatively good shape into 1917 and maintained its strength at about 170,000 men until the Armistice, by which time it had played a significant role in the final offensives along the sector. Otherwise, small numbers of Belgian troops were occasionally loaned to other sectors in France, while colonial troops played a largely peripheral role in the East African campaign, and an armoured car company fought with the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. In total, 267,000 men fought for the wartime Belgian Army, of whom 54,000 were wounded and 14,000 killed, almost all of them on the Western Front.

Belgium possessed no naval forces, but the tiny Belgian Air Force, which mustered a dozen obsolete machines in 1914, was re-equipped by the British and French and grew steadily throughout the War. From 1917, when mushrooming production enabled the Allies to provide them with the most modern aircraft, Belgian aircrews more than held their own against German units in their sector, and the expanded service deployed around 140 machines in 11 squadrons by the end of the War.

The wartime Belgian Air Force started small… very small.

The coalition government-in-exile’s stated war aim was simple – the full restoration of Belgium to its pre-War status – but unity of purpose masked internal differences about how that might be achieved. Albert’s priority was his pastoral responsibilities, and the sharp worsening of civilian conditions in occupied Belgium by late 1917 led him to put pressure on de Broqueville, still serving as prime minister and foreign minister, to make a separate peace with Germany.  Despite strong cabinet opposition, de Broqueville approached the Central Powers in October 1917, a move that wrecked his political position and forced him to hand over the foreign ministry to Liberal Party leader Hymans.  With support from the rest of the cabinet, Hymans put an immediate and permanent stop to any deviation from Allied war aims, and De Broqueville went on to lose the premiership when his own Catholic Party voted him out of office in late May 1918.

So that was the state of play in Belgium as 1918 got going.  Civilians were starving, the army was getting by and the king – lionized by the Allies as the very spirit of indomitable resistance – was just back from the brink of going seriously off message.   Sorry that took so long, and I’ll get around to the Fourteen Points some other day.