16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

By way of an anniversary, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd a hundred years ago today.  I plan to talk about it in context rather than in detail, because although it confirmed the legitimacy of the Provisional Government that had, in the form of various coalitions, been trying to run Russia since the February Revolution (in March), it otherwise reflected the chaotic nature of its political environment.

Most of the thousand or so delegates, and most of the workers or soldiers they represented, simply wanted food and peace in a hurry, but debates were guided by the more political animals among them, representing a wide spectrum of liberal and socialist views. These politicians, some of them hardened opponents of the old regime at the climax of a decades-long struggle, bickered along the lines anyone with a working knowledge of socialism in the early twentieth century would expect.

The majority wanted controlled, relatively gradual change within something like the social, political and geopolitical norms of the day, while a substantial minority argued for immediate revolution and a completely new socio-political world order. For the moment, the political gradualists still held sway in Petrograd and Moscow (the only places that really mattered when it came to controlling Russian politics), but with every day that passed without peace or economic transformation the workers and soldiers became more impatient, their mood more in tune with the aims of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary political factions.

Messrs Skobelev, Chkheidze, Plekhanov and Tsereteli.  Members of the Provisional Government and executive committee members of the All-Russian Congress, these were the relatively moderate socialists trying to hold back the tide of revolutionary pacifism in Russia.

The Congress both reflected the wild state of flux that had characterised Russian politics since the beginning of the year (and that generally accompanies revolution on the streets wherever it takes place), and was one of its by-products. Worker’s and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, had been a feature of the half-cocked 1905 revolution in Russia, and had returned in force during 1917, springing up spontaneously or as the work of local agitators all over Pertrograd, Moscow and the armed forces. During the February Revolution, those in the capital had been loosely organised into a central Petrograd Soviet, which had since been acting as a form of volatile but extremely powerful parliament, allowing the new Provisional Government to remain in power at its pleasure and drawing it ever further to the left.

The Petrograd Soviet was meanwhile facing its own challenges from below. In an attempt to add some semblance of concrete to its essentially ad hoc authority, it had organised a meeting of all the soviets it could muster, convened on 3 June with the understandably grandiose title of the National Conference of Soviets. The main business of the Conference was to organise the systems of credentials and voting necessary to turn itself into a congress that could claim a national, democratic mandate for policy decisions.

After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik-controlled All-Russian Congress would go on to function as the supreme political authority in Russia (rather than the whole USSR) until 1936, but in June 1917 it was just another noisy institution flailing in the whirlwind of ongoing revolution. While its leaders jockeyed to fill power vacuums, its constituent soviets swung towards radicalism and their delegates waited to be replaced, its debates centred on the one shared aim that might, if achieved, bring relative calm and the prospect of real social progress: peace.

Everyone with anything to say inside revolutionary Russia talked about wanting peace, and Russia – with its army, economy and society in ruins – was obviously ripe for peace, but wanting peace wasn’t quite the same as being a pacifist or as simple as it sounds.

For Marxism-inspired revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky – important street politicians in the context of the Petrograd whirlwind, but at this stage hardly bookies’ favourites as Russia’s next leaders – peace was a simple matter. Unwavering pacifists, they had opposed the War since before it began, regarded the conflict as a grotesque example of elite classes getting underclasses to do their fighting for them, and simply demanded that Russia stop fighting at once, leaving the warring states to sort out any fallout for themselves. This view resonated nicely with the impatient masses, but not with the gradualist side of Russian socialism, and not with the Provisional Government.

Left-leaning, and lurching further that way to keep up with events, but still essentially attached to the principles of pre-War liberal Europe, the Provisional Government desperately wanted peace and a chance to calm the storms, but not at any price. It promoted the socialist slogan – ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ – that had already become a global buzz-phrase for pacifists, but it didn’t want to leave Russia at the mercy of a victorious German Army and it didn’t dare risk the loss of Allied economic aid by walking away from the fight. The government instead pinned its hopes on ending the War by bringing international socialism together for a peace conference – but by mid-June that wasn’t going so well.

In early June, the National Conference of Soviets (along with Dutch and Scandinavian socialist groups) had sent invitations to a conference in Stockholm to socialists from all the belligerent countries, but most belligerent governments were in no mood to grant passports to travelling pacifists and immediately banned delegates from travelling to Stockholm. Even more damagingly, a majority of Western European socialists at war, though in theory committed to seeking peace, remained patriots first and foremost, determined on a peace in line with their country’s needs and ambitions. The same catch had undermined international socialism’s stand against war in 1914, and pre-conference talks with international socialists already in Petrograd as observers quickly demonstrated that as yet, despite war-weariness and the rebirth of socialism as a revolutionary force in Russia, nobody else on either side was willing to abandon national interest for international brotherhood.

Displaying the kind of optimism it takes something like the overthrow of an emperor to generate, the Provisional Government clung to the belief that Stockholm represented a real chance of peace, pinning its hopes on the fact that the British government, alone among the major allies, had granted passports to pacifists. By the time the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened those hopes had been dashed, and the British government was in the process of changing its mind. Why and how the Lloyd George coalition dithered its way to disapproval pretty much summed up why mainstream socialism was, as diplomacy had been a few months earlier, incapable of delivering peace in 1917.

For obvious strategic reasons, the British government wanted the Provisional Government to survive and carry on fighting. With the Labour Party installed as part of the governing coalition, it was also less afraid of pacifists or revolutionaries than most European governments (and less hostile to socialism in general than the USA), so its first reaction to the Stockholm proposals was to give peace and the new Russian regime a chance. Passports were therefore granted to a small group of pacifists, led by Labour MP and future premier Ramsay Macdonald, but they were prevented from sailing from Aberdeen on 11 June by the Firemen’s and Seamen’s Union, which then organised a nationwide blockade of ports to stop them finding a another route out of the country.

The leader of Labour’s pacifist wing thwarted by a picket line? Cartoon gold in 1917.

The stated reason for this superficially bizarre behaviour was the seamen’s fury at public rejection by pacifists, and by MacDonald in particular, of their demands for reparations from Germany to compensate the victims of submarine warfare. MacDonald tried to defuse the situation by making a statement accepting the seamen’s view that reparations should be paid to both Allied and neutral victims, but it made no difference because the real issue behind the blockade was the union’s mistrust and resentment of pacifism itself.

The delegation gave up and went home on 15 June, by which time popular and press support for the union’s actions had made clear to the cabinet that, much as the government wanted to give peace without indemnities a chance, the nation as a whole wanted the pound of flesh propaganda had led most people to expect. The delegates’ passports were cancelled, any hope disappeared that the Stockholm conference would be more than another token gathering of powerless pacifists, albeit bolstered by the newly empowered pacifists of the Russian revolutionary left, and the government in Petrograd was left with the impossible task of satisfying bellicose allies and a pacifist population.

Peace was what everyone wanted, even in Britain, but pacifism was another matter altogether.

Just how badly that turned out is another part of the wider story. For now, this grossly simplified, largely fact-free amble through the muddy, swirling waters of socialist politics in June 1917 is a reminder of how quickly the solidarity of opposition can be turned into civil war by the expectations, dilemmas and compromises that come with power. It is also, like the fate of Austrian Emperor Karl I (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), a reminder that once you start breaking up a system you’d better go all the way, or someone else will do it for you. They can often seem like a good idea to people trying to balance a vested interest in stability against a conscience, but moderate revolutionaries are still an oxymoron trying to deliver the impossible… so watch your back, M le Président.

7 JUNE, 1917: Listen and Learn

This seems a good moment to take another look at the Western Front, because at ten past three in the morning on 7 June 1917 a massive explosion in Flanders, heard clearly in London, signalled the start of the limited British offensive known as the Battle of Messines.  Messines stands out as something rare indeed during the first three years of war in the theatre, a clear-cut victory for the BEF, and it marked a minor turning point in the War on the Western Front – but it gets my attention today because, with a little more creative thinking from the British high command, it might have been a major turning point.

The unarguable sense in which Messines was a turning point followed from the French Army’s mass mutiny at the end of the spring’s Nivelle Offensive (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front), which handed prime responsibility for further offensive action on the Western Front to the British.  British c-in-c Haig, who had been required to comply with the plans of successive French commanders since his appointment in December 1915, was finally free to run his own campaign, and the first thing he did was transfer the main thrust of British attacks north to Flanders.

The Messines Ridge, a natural strongpoint just south of Ypres, had been in German hands since 1914, forming a small salient (or bulge) in the Flanders front line. General Plumer, commanding the BEF’s Second Army in front of Messines, had been planning an attack on the Ridge for almost a year, and had devised a relatively cunning plan for the purpose. Making no attempt to achieve any kind of breakthrough, Plumer planned to make maximum use of mobile artillery, tanks and poison gas to protect advancing infantry. Heavy artillery would also support the attack with a creeping barrage, a tactic that had worked well during limited operations in the latter stages of the Verdun campaign but had failed miserably in support of full-scale breakthrough attempts (12 February 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear). Plumer’s plan also placed great reliance on one other surprise element: mines.

Anybody reading this probably doesn’t need telling about the nature of conventional land mines a century ago, but I’ll tell you anyway. Mines as we understand them today – essentially explosive booby-traps placed in the ground as anti-personnel devices – did exist in 1914. Primitive and largely ineffective, because they relied on the force of the explosion to cause any damage, they were regarded as barbaric by most regular armies and hardly used during the first three years of the War. Improvised anti-personnel mines had become a weapon of choice for guerilla fighters by 1917, most notably those of the Arab Revolt, who added shrapnel (stones, spent shells or anything hard that could be crammed inside the casing) to make them more dangerous, and underground mortars planted by the German Army as anti-tank weapons would become commonplace on the Western Front during 1918. In the meantime, mines on the War’s main battlefronts still meant tunnels dug beneath enemy positions.

Digging mines under the enemy had been a common extension of trench warfare, usually in siege conditions, since at least the sixteenth century. Used to hide infantry or filled with explosives and blown up, they were inevitably employed in great numbers by both sides of the static Western Front, and formed an almost private subterranean battlefront in its busiest sectors.

Shhhhh…..!

Wartime military mining was a tense and horrible job, whether in the crowded conditions of the Western Front or in the dangerous climates of other fronts. Specialist miners, usually drawn from coal-producing regions, worked under constant threat of discovery, often by enemy mines only a matter of yards away. Secrecy depended on silence, with ‘listening parties’ employed to detect enemy mines. Once discovered, mines were generally blown up (or ‘had their cover blown’), either by enemy ‘counterminers’ or by pre-emptive self-destruction, and sudden underground explosions were a routine occurrence around heavily contested hills and ridges.

Military buffs, then and now, get quite excited about Plumer’s mines.

Messines was one such ridge, and Plumer’s pre-match preparations counted as one of warfare’s great mining efforts. Starting in January 1917, his troops dug twenty mines under German positions, completing more than 8km of tunnels. Only one was discovered and blown, and the other nineteen were packed with 600 tons of explosives. Before the battle, an 18-day preliminary bombardment of German forward trenches by more than 2,300 big guns and 300 heavy mortars informed the defenders that an infantry attack was coming, but they weren’t expecting the mine explosions, which brought utter chaos, created a number of enormous craters and killed at least 10,000 men.

And I mean enormous…

Nine divisions of infantry advanced under a creeping barrage in the wake of the explosions, and took all their preliminary objectives within three hours. Reserves from the British Fifth Army and the French First Army had moved in to take their final objectives by mid-afternoon, and a German counterattack the following day failed badly, losing more ground than it recovered. Counterattacks continued for another six days but made no progress, and the BEF had occupied the entire Messines salient by the time they petered out on 14 June.

A tidy victory, and the first battle in the history of the Western Front to see defenders lose more casualties (25,000) than attackers (17,000), Messines provided a huge boost for Allied morale at a time when it was badly needed – but it could have been more. The enormous impact of Plumer’s mines, the knowledge that getting away with the same trick again would be very difficult, a sense that the Germans had been caught at an unusually weak moment, and the fact that mining was only really feasible under high ground all contributed to the operation being viewed by the high command as a one-off, when it was in many ways a blueprint for success in the context of trench warfare.

With the chimera of the knockout blow removed from the drawing board, Plumer’s success drew on the experience of front-line commanders fighting in conditions that made anything more than limited gains impossible – notably Australian veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, like General Monash, who had learned to focus everything on protection of initial infantry advances, and to settle for what they could get without losing that protection. As such, Messines foreshadowed the approach that would eventually bring Allied success during the last months of the war in France and Belgium, but in June 1917 it failed to change the thinking of the Western Front’s new head honcho.

To repeat one of my more routine tropes, there’s no justification for the idea that a collective failure of generalship was one of the fundamental reasons the First World War went so badly for everyone. Generals were needed in far greater numbers than ever before, so some pretty mediocre officers were inevitably given jobs they were barely fit to handle, but the real problem was the technology of the day, which rendered useless every form of attack known to military theory in 1914. Plumer was only one of many generals in many armies who found ways of overcoming or adapting to those terrible circumstances – but that doesn’t mean the First World War was distinguished by much in the way of great generalship at high command level, or that commanders you might class as competent didn’t have bad days or particular weaknesses.

I’ve always been inclined to classify Field Marshal Haig as a competent general, not special or exciting but on the whole sensible, and I like to rail against the ridicule he suffers at the hands of the heritage industry – but he wasn’t the man to spot a way forward in the details of Plumer’s attack, and you could call that a weakness, or at least as evidence that he wasn’t any kind of military genius.  Haig also had his bad days, and his subsequent decision to repeat the mistakes of his French predecessors and launch yet another massive breakthrough offensive, this time around Ypres, was definitely one of them. The decision propelled the BEF into the prolonged mess the British usually call Passchendaele, a disaster that has, for many of them, defined Haig ever since.

30 MAY, 1917: All Guts, No Glory

Offensive warfare can be seen as strategically desirable, as a means of overcoming opposition to getting what you want.  It can also be seen as psychologically necessary, a means of venting fear, anger, outrage, jealousy, simple hatred or any other negative emotion. Chuck in the simple need for self-protection that defines defensive warfare, and you have the motivations behind pretty much every military activity during the First World War – except the long fight for unchallenged possession of colonial East Africa.  That had become an example of war for war’s sake.

The East African campaign began as a standard case of strategically desirable offensive warfare, as the British Empire sought to expand its colonial interests in Africa at the expense of German colonies all over the continent.  By the time the Empire’s latest theatre c-in-c, South African general Jaap van Deventer, took up his new command on 30 May 1917, the campaign had become a saga.  That was because a small, brilliantly organised force of German and native troops, led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had been leading an ever-expanding British pursuit on an epic wild goose chase for almost three years.

Lettow-Vorbeck was still at large in the spring of 1917, still defying all attempts to capture, wipe out or even permanently subdue his elusive columns, and still performing military wonders for the sole purpose of keeping the fight going.  His justification for waging war for war’s sake was a desire to divert as many Allied resources as possible from fronts that had more strategic value, and the British high command had obliged by pouring men and machines into the theatre in ever-increasing numbers.

Sketchily, and without ever really getting across how Lettow-Vorbeck’s Robin Hood act made the British look like the Sheriff of Nottingham, I’ve already covered East Africa until the departure of Jan Smuts as British c-in-c in January 1917.  I’ve given a nod to at least some of its crazy-paving sideshows (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut), and I’ve banged on at length about the destructiveness of the whole pointless exercise.  It killed a lot of people, it permanently degraded a hitherto fertile, relatively comfortable part of Africa, it dragged third parties (like Portugal and the people of other African colonies) into a war they really didn’t need… and I’m not planning to repeat the long versions of all that.  I am planning to take the story a little further, and to follow it into another one of its weird backwaters.

Once he took over in January 1917, new British c-in-c General Hoskins spent the next four and a half months reorganising supply and communications systems, which had been left in a terrible mess by the autumn campaigns.  A particularly heavy rainy season, along with desperate food shortages and the loss of about 20 percent of his (largely African) strength to disease, prevented any kind of offensive action, and his requests for reinforcements quickly made him unpopular in London, where Smuts had fostered the illusion that the East African campaign was all but won (16 March, 1916: Alien Invasion).

After South African premier Botha had refused to send further reinforcements north, Hoskins was removed and Deventer, a veteran of the campaign and a trusted colleague of Smuts, returned to East Africa to become the tenth British c-in-c in the theatre since 1914.  South African reinforcements were duly supplied, and Deventer (who spoke no English and needed an interpreter to deal with most of his subordinates) took over the process of building up and organising imperial forces for a summer offensive aimed at finally defeating Lettow-Vorbeck, rather than at occupying territory and calling it a victory.

Another fine moustache… and is that Captain Darling to the right of General van Deventer?

Deventer did, however, face one immediate operational challenge. In a miniature mirror of the campaign as a whole, a single enemy unit was busy making a mockery of the claim that Smuts had reduced the theatre to ‘mopping up’ operations.

Lettow-Vorbeck had escaped Smuts the previous autumn by fleeing into the swamps of the Rufugi Delta, in the southeast of the old German colony, where his forces survived on improvised rations and supplies, completely cut off from contact with Germany but safe from faltering British efforts to trap them. They were still there on 6 February, when part of one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s columns – a force of about 700 native troops, or askaris, accompanied by a handful of German troops, several hundred bearers and three light field guns – broke away from the main body and marched north into British-held territory.

Their commander, Captain Max Wintgens, launched the expedition without official sanction from Lettow-Vorbeck, against the explicit orders of his immediate superior (who retreated further south at the same time), and for reasons that have never been made clear. He may have been responding to askari requests to fight closer to home, to an urgent need to find new food supplies or to a simple personal dislike of Lettow-Vorbeck, but his maverick moment turned out pretty well from the point of view of anyone waging war for war’s sake.

After conducting a few local skirmishes, Wintgenns led his force northwest towards the northern end of Lake Nyasa and the town of Tabala.  Meeting and defeating a combined South African and British colonial force on the way, it besieged Tabala from 18 February, but was driven off by a British relief column on 22 February. His strength down to 450 men, 11 machine guns and two field pieces, Wintgens made a series of feinting manoeuvres to escape pursuit, and had almost reached the relatively fertile and undamaged region around Lake Rukwa before the British re-established contact in mid-March.

An attack by one British battalion on 17 March threatened to trap Wintgens at the mission of St. Moritz, which was hemmed by swollen rivers on two sides, but a counterattack on 20 March saw the British camp surrounded. Though Wintgens abandoned the position after a British relief force arrived on 26 March, he used the delay forced on the British evacuate his entire force from St. Moritz, using improvised rafts to cross the rivers, by 3 April.

Too short of supplies to pursue, the British drafted extra troops into the region and requested the help of Belgian forces from the Congo, while Wintgens focused on finding food supplies and headed east, before turning north towards Kipembawe. His main force clashed with one of the reinforcing British battalions in late April, driving it back from Kitunda mission and occupying the town on 4 May. By this time Wintgens needed to pause for rest and recuperation, not least because he and many of his European contingent were suffering from typhus, but the arrival of Colonel Murray’s main British pursuit force compelled him to move north again within a week.

War was Hell in East Africa, and though the British sent machines to help, they weren’t much use in jungle conditions.

Wintgens had become seriously ill by 21 May, when he passed command to Naumann, and he surrendered to Belgian forces on 24 May. Naumann meanwhile had little choice but to keep running, and led his askaris northeast to cross the Central Railway at Mkalama, now pursued by imperial forces that amounted to some 4,000 men. By early June, Deventer was forced to recall Murrray’s regiment in preparation for the British summer offensive, and Belgian units, finally ready for action two months after they were mobilised, took over the hunt for Naumann, who reached the shores of Lake Victoria late that month.

Hampered by poor supplies and lack of reconnaissance aircraft, the Belgians eventually caught up with their prey on 29 June, but were defeated near the lake at Ikoma. Naumann escaped again, this time to the south, and made for Kondoa Irangi and the Central Railway. Once the Belgians had dealt with their severe losses, they spent the next month chasing in vain.

By late August Naumann had eluded or defeated all pursuers to reach the Kilimanjaro area, but the endgame was coming. With Belgian units being withdrawn to take part in the main Allied offensive, now in progress far to the south, the pursuit was again dominated British forces, and the dispatch of British reinforcements by rail compelled Naumann to run southeast.  This time, Deventer had attached mounted infantry to join the pursuit, and it made the difference.  Desperately short of supplies and unable to outrun the horses, the remnants of Naumann’s column were pinned down at Luita, north of the Central Railway, and surrendered on 2 September.   Even then a detachment remained at large, and it took another month before the British finally captured the last 14 Europeans, 150 askaris and 250 bearers.

Route map – German, so the names don’t quite match, but hard work will get you there.

During the course of a chase lasting almost nine months and covering some 3,000km, what is known as the Wintgens-Naumann Expedition had punched way above its weight when it came to influencing strategic dispositions in the theatre, not just because it attracted pursuit from thousands of troops but also because it forced British commanders to defend all the places it might attack. It had also laid waste to everything in its path that could be of use to the enemy, and had sparked a propaganda tantrum from the British. Faced with such shocking evidence that the East African campaign was not done and dusted, the British had devoted a lot of column inches to publicising tales of atrocities carried out on German orders, a response that forced them to charge Wintgens with murder after his capture – and then to release him for lack of evidence.

These were the achievements that made heroes of the Expedition’s leaders and provided the world with a tale of derring-do, improvisation and endurance that stands with the most stirring military adventures of modern times.  Looking back from 2017, and bearing in mind the matrices of pointlessness the Expedition inhabited, they don’t seem to me to amount to anything very positive, more an illustration of the nineteenth-century attitude to warfare – as an essentially ennobling exercise, character-building for individuals and societies – that helped propel the developed world into the catastrophe of 1914.

So why am I bothering to talk about this?  First, because it shines what seems to me an interesting light on the weirdness of warfare in East Africa a century ago, and secondly as a rambling but timely reminder that stirring military adventures, especially when carried out for no reason any sane person could possibly call good, inflict just as much death, misery and long-term destruction as the dull ones.

18 MAY, 1917: Lottery Winners

Since the United States had entered the War, at the start of April 1917, the impact of its decision had been felt on every battlefront and in every belligerent country, or at least in those that could be considered strategically self-propelled (6 April, 1917: Woodrow Who?).

Belligerents on both sides knew the clock was ticking on a decisive shift in the War’s balance, and that had everyone on the hurry-up, including Allied strategists anxious to limit US influence over the shape and character of the post-War world. On the other hand, the USA wasn’t going to make much practical difference to the conflict in the short term, because it would take at least a few months to bring its enormous military and economic potential to bear on the battlefields, so at this stage the decision’s impact on the War was almost entirely psychological.

The same couldn’t be said of war’s impact on the United States.  A century ago today, the US Congress passed the Selective Service Act into law, introducing conscription to the nation for the first time, so this seems a good moment to take a look at what joining the First World War did to a vast democracy founded on pacifism.

Three years of neutrality had hardly left the USA untouched. European wartime needs for armaments and raw materials had fuelled a massive manufacturing and trade boom. Because the Central Powers had been blockaded off the trading map, trade was focused almost exclusively on supplying the Allies, which had quickly exhausted their cash and saleable US assets before taking loans from US banks to the tune of $2.6 billion by April 1917 (out of a total spend of about $7 billion, compared to a German debt of only $27 million).

The boom altered the dynamics of American politics. The sudden rise to global economic status of the ‘great neutral’ shifted the balance of a long conflict between the non-interventionist, liberal values upon which the US was founded, and outward-looking, socially conservative elements seeking to establish a global economic empire through the unfettered expansion of big business. Weighed down with orders, politically ironclad as purveyors of the new prosperity, with money to burn and free to exploit all those markets (in Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific) left open by the flight of European money, big business couldn’t lose.

Although a steady improvement in US workers’ rights and conditions during the early 20th century continued after 1914, wartime political clout enabled businesses to maintain the restrictions on union action imposed by ‘antitrust’ laws. At the same time, the boom brought 40,000 women into the US workforce for the first time, adding strength to calls for female suffrage, and encouraged the migration of southern black workers to northern factories, creating new racial tensions in the north-eastern US and encouraging some southern communities to pass laws banning the departure of workers.

Conservative businessmen, who had literally billions of vested interests in an Allied victory, meanwhile used their wealth and influence to erode isolationist sentiment and promote intervention in world affairs through the Preparedness Movement. Funded and supported by business leaders, fronted by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and ex-US Army Chief of Staff General Wood, the Movement dominated an ongoing public debate about neutrality. Comprehensively outgunning organisations promoting pacifism, it focused on demands for greatly increased military capability, in particular for ‘universal military training and service’ (UMT&S), which was essentially a euphemism for conscription.

By 1916 the Movement had gained widespread support among conservatives of all kinds, and had the backing of moderate unions, which were fighting their own battles for influence against left-wing organisations, but it was still seen by a majority of Americans as the extremist voice of big business. That was certainly the view of the Wilson administration, which represented the liberal, non-interventionist side of the great American argument.

Pacifist by inclination, and seeking re-election as ‘the man who kept us out of the War’, Wilson was ready and willing to intervene in Europe if the deadlock couldn’t be broken or peace brokered, but on strictly liberal terms that had nothing in common with the ambitious chauvinism of business interests.  Safely back in office by the time the crunch came, he was careful to avoid any hint of imperialist aggression by declaring war against the German government for its specific crimes, rather than against the Central Powers or Germany – but he had no choice about announcing his intention to raise a ‘National Army’ for the fight.  As the US public reacted to war with, broadly speaking, a muted version of the patriotic fervour that swept Europe in 1914, the fact of military expansion offered the business lobby an enormous opportunity to pursue its political agenda in the national interest.

The Preparedness Movement seized the chance with both hands, calling for the immediate dispatch of a volunteer army to Europe, to be led by an authentic (if rusty) military hero in Teddy Roosevelt. The campaign quickly recruited a corps of 25,000 men for the job, prompting Republican calls for it to be incorporated into the proposed National Army.  The White House fought back with the Selective Service Act, which had been prepared the previous autumn with the aim of limiting flow of skilled workers into uniform, and which would have been opposed by many southern and western Democrats had Roosevelt not made conscription a party-political issue.

Bully.

As it was, Wilson’s party rallied round to pass a bill that required all males between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft by 5 June, but that exempted all government officials at any level, clergymen, convicted criminals, aliens and mine workers. The Act also prohibited any volunteers from joining the National Army, though volunteers could still join the National Guard militia or the regular US Army, and all service in the US Navy remained voluntary. Conscription was later expanded to include men aged between 18 and 45, while exemptions were widened to include shipyard workers, pacifist sects and (a mere 4,000) conscientious objectors.

A total of 6,373,414 men were eventually conscripted into the wartime army, and it would be fair to say that the Act was a success, in that it re-established government control over the size and composition of the wartime army and did so without causing serious political disruption.  Then again, racial discrimination in local draft boards meant that conscription had less impact on registered white males, of whom only 25% were deemed fit for service, than on registered Afro-Americans (36%), while pacifist and socialist opposition to US involvement in the War refused to go away.  Its subsequent repression by the state demonstrated that compulsory military service was not the only big change in American life to sneak in via the war door.

Lottery losers… black US conscripts in 1917.

The Espionage Act (June 1917) and the Sedition Act (May 1918) gave the federal government power to arrest dissenters for a wide range of ‘disloyal’ activities – and most of the 1,600 people imprisoned were charged with spoken offences – while the Trading With The Enemy Act (October 1917) allowed the administration to censor the foreign press, and federal control of the mail system enabled suppression of undesirable publications.  American socialism, which had been a globally significant force before 1914, was particularly targeted, with Eugene Debs, leader of the resolutely pacifist Socialist Party of America, receiving a 20-year prison sentence for unpatriotic speeches after the October Revolution in Russia had sparked a nationwide ‘Reds scare’.

Nice thought – but US socialism was being crushed by the state in 1917.

While the government was busy quelling opposition, it was also forming an ad hoc alliance with the same big business interests it had spent the neutrality years trying to restrain.  The War Industries Board, established in July 1917 along with Food, Labor, Trade and Finance Boards, brought together industrialists and military authorities to control the production and supply of all war-related goods and materials.  The Boards did an efficient and largely harmonious job of driving the US economy through the War, a process that happened to concentrate orders and profits in the hands of their co-opted tycoons, and that helped establish the dominance of big business over American politics through the 1920s.

This hasn’t been any kind of overall picture of the US at war, and wasn’t meant to be.  I’m just picking out a few details from the big, popular picture of Uncle Sam’s world-historical march to superpower status, details offering yet another reminder that, a century ago, total war wreaked social havoc wherever it was practiced. Like every other belligerent, the USA was changed forever by the experience, but while the European empires were refashioned, mortally wounded or destroyed by the Great War, the Great Democracy learned to behave like an exuberant version of their nineteenth-century predecessors.

14 MAY, 1917: One Track, Two Minds…

I seem to be running a little late – often a problem with world wars – so this may be a brief trip to northern Italy.  A hundred years ago, as the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo got underway, no trip to northern Italy could have been brief enough, because conditions for troops on the Italian front were at least as bad, and in many ways worse, than those on the Western Front.

All the familiar horrors of trench warfare were in place, replete with hideous ways to be killed, maimed or driven to madness, but the armies involved were poorly fed and equipped by Western Front standards. They were also required to fight in a less hospitable climate, sweltering through hot summers and freezing through Alpine winters, and if anything they were even more familiar with the role of cannon fodder than their Western Front counterparts.

Posterity’s classic image of warfare on the Western Front? Welcome to northern Italy, May 1917…

Through nine previous Italian assaults on Austro-Hungarian positions northwest of Venice, around the River Isonzo, and one major Austro-Hungarian offensive in the Trentino region, the only other part of the front line geographically suited to large-scale infantry attacks, nothing significant had been gained by either side in the theatre since the outbreak of hostilities two years earlier. Hundreds of thousands of lives had meanwhile been lost, and the launch of yet another Isonzo offensive on 14 May 1917 begs two obvious questions. Why hadn’t the leaders of Italy and Austria-Hungary bowed to the stalemate and ended the fight? And why hadn’t the Italian or Austro-Hungarian armies behaved like the Russian or French armies, and simply refused to fight?

The leadership question has some straightforward answers. The government and military leadership of Austria-Hungary did whatever the Germans wanted, or faced economic, military and political collapse, in that order and in short order. Germany wanted the Allies kept as busy as possible on as many fronts as possible while the Third Supreme Command pursued more creative ways to win the War, so the Austro-Hungarian Army remained in position on the north Italian frontier, diminished and dug in for defence but ready to fight any Italian advance.

The Italian position was little more complex, but not much. Italy had joined the War for gain, hoping to acquire the lands it was invading to the north and pick up a number of bonus territories promised by the Allies in return for joining their side in 1915.  Gain was still on the table if the Central Powers could be beaten, and with the USA due to shift the balance of military power some time relatively soon this was no time to let the Allies off the hook.  At the same time Italy couldn’t hope to maintain its military campaign, or indeed its socio-political stability, without Allied military and economic aid, so the Italian leadership generally tried to do whatever the British and French wanted. Most of Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s offensives so far had been conceived and timed in support of Allied attacks on the Western Front, and the latest was no exception, designed to draw German forces away from the Allied Nivelle Offensive in France.

The Nivelle Offensive was already grinding down to failure by the time Cadorna launched his attack, but you couldn’t really call off a major offensive during the First World War. Preparations had taken weeks if not months, such was the weight of manpower and equipment needed for 1917 conditions, and they could hardly take place in secret. With a lot of eggs in one very visible basket, sending them all back where they came from without a battle to show for it would be an invitation to the enemy to exploit yet more weeks of logistic upheaval.

It would also be a propaganda disaster, a major blow to the morale of civilians and troops that might destabilise a nation’s entire war effort. Fear of social and political breakdown, of mass refusal to fight and potential revolution, had been a factor in every European government’s approach to warfare since long before 1914. Almost three years of unproductive mass slaughter had only sharpened the fear, and by May 1917 the revolution in Russia had the fear digging into the psyche of every member of the elite classes in every belligerent country.

So cancelling the offensive at the last minute would have risked sending a potentially fatal shockwave through the Italian political system, but not just because Italian civilians or troops were sick of the slaughter (of course they were). Italian unity and morale were still being sustained by a fervent national desire for victory through military aggression. Since the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive a year earlier, which had briefly threatened to turn into a successful invasion of northern Italy, the young nation’s relatively simple greed for territory and glory had been overtaken by fear, anger and a desire for revenge on the battlefield that was obvious to anyone reading the Italian press. Even if the latest longshot on the Isonzo could have been called off, few people in Italy wanted it cancelled.

That pretty much deals with why Italian soldiers were still ready to fight, despite being prey to all the same socialist and pacifist agitation available to French or Russian troops. As for the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Italian Front, German influence and attachés undoubtedly played some part in keeping discipline fairly intact, but so did circumstances. When your troops are dug into secure and superior defensive positions, able to pick off attackers from height and distance, and in no danger of being ordered into an offensive of their own, they can probably think of better times to mutiny.

Austro-Hungarian troops, nicely perched on the high ground.

Fourteen Austro-Hungarian divisions were in position along the whole front in mid-May, but they were heavily outnumbered. Cadorna, always a master of logistics, had dug deep into dwindling Italian manpower reserves to muster 38 divisions and concentrate most of them for a breakthrough attempt along a 40km front running west from the coast. After a two-day preliminary bombardment of enemy lines, the infantry attack began on 14 May and at first swept all before it, driving the line back to within 15km of Trieste by the end of the month.

Just so you know…

The unfamiliar scent of victory soon faded away. Like so many breakthrough attempts on the Western and Eastern Fronts, this one couldn’t sustain momentum once it outstripped immediate contact with supply lines and supporting artillery. Austro-Hungarian forces concentrated for a counter-attack on 3 June that quickly pushed the stalled Italian offensive back to where it had started, and virtually all the ground gained had been lost by the time Cadorna called off the operation on 8 June.

The offensive had gained nothing at a cost of more than 150,000 Italian casualties (against about half as many Austro-Hungarian), and its failure triggered exactly the kind of reaction that its cancellation might have provoked. Disappointment fuelled a surge of popular fury at the government and high command, and the national unity promoted by fear of invasion began to fall apart.

Food and fuel had been in desperately short supply since the start of the year, particularly in major cities, while pacifist and socialist agitation had been feeding on Russian revolution and the winter’s failed peace initiatives. Now the bread queues began to riot and strikes began to mushroom out of control, reaching a climax in August when a worker’s uprising in Turin had to be put down by the Army. With Cadorna already scraping the manpower barrel in preparation for yet another attack on the Isonzo – intended to finish off the Austro-Hungarians while the Eastern Front was still keeping potential German reinforcements occupied – there was a logic to conscripting the uprising’s ringleaders, but the punishment’s most significant effect was to plant experienced agitators in military units already showing alarming signs of disaffection.

The tenth Isonzo offensive and its fallout offer a snapshot of how Italy was permanently maimed by the First World War. The nation’s pre-War thirst for adventure and glory may have been dangerously teenage (geopolitically speaking), but for good or ill it was sure of itself. During its first two years at war, failure in attacking an enemy, followed by the spectre of invasion and an another, even greater attacking failure, all accompanied by hunger, weariness, bereavement and fear, split what I’ll risk calling the Italian political personality.

Italian society had learned to turn on itself and play the blame game. It had rediscovered a swaggering unity in the face of shared danger, but had tumbled back into introversion after this latest failure. It would flip again before the end of the year; it would keep flipping in the aftermath of the War; and it’s fair to say that, pace Il Duce, it has been flipping ever since. Italy would somehow stumble through to the Armistice in one piece, but by 1917 it had already been permanently damaged, infected by a strain of War-induced volatility that still hasn’t gone away.

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

29 APRIL, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front

It was kept very quiet, effectively hidden from the world’s press and publics, but a hundred years ago today the French Army on the Western Front mutinied.

The mutiny began as a number of small and disorganised refusals to fight, and mushroomed into a vast and disorganised surge of discontent that spread to parts of 54 divisions (a division generally mustered between ten and fifteen thousand troops). Bizarrely, at least to modern eyes, it passed without having any immediate effects on the Western Front’s strategic state of play. That’s enough to make it interesting, but it also marked a watershed in French military affairs that was important for the development of the French nation, for the future conduct of the war on the Western Front and for the future of Western Europe.  Worth a look then, starting with some background.

The French Army that began the Great War was a peculiar beast. On one hand it was the nation’s greatest pride and joy, the instrument of conquest that had, in the minds of most French people, elevated the country to global greatness during the Napoleonic era. As such it exerted enormous political influence, to the extent that governments rose or fell on the word of the officer class, as delivered through the minister of war. On the other hand, the nation’s greatest pride and joy had been in disgrace since its catastrophic defeat by Prussia in 1870, the humiliating occupation of Paris that followed and the eventual loss of two provinces – Alsace and Lorraine – to the new, united Germany.

How to address the Army’s failings, how to make it a world-beater again and how to recover the lost provinces were national obsessions in France, and the perceived answers to those questions informed the condition of the Army in 1914.

The big answer had been that the French Army lacked offensive spirit, a commodity known in France as élan, or sometimes attaque à l’outrance. The Army was seen as having been too defensively minded in 1870 to survive against an opponent committed to aggression in the field, and so it had become offensively minded to a fault. Long before 1914, all-out attack was established as the key to every military success, and was therefore the rationale behind every tactic, every choice of weapon, every decision about training priorities and every strategic plan. Defensive warfare was accepted as an occasional necessity, but never studied, developed or modernised to anything like the same degree.

I’m not sure if faith can move mountains but it can definitely promote denial, and the French military’s faith in attack as the answer to every question took some shaking. It survived the shocks of the War’s opening months, when everyone’s attacking plans fell apart in the face of technology that overwhelmingly favoured defensive warfare, and it went on to inspire a year of disastrous, French-led offensives on the Western Front in 1915. Plans to give it another go in 1916 were thwarted by the German attack on Verdun, which forced the French Army into a year of desperate defence and brought it to the brink of terminal exhaustion.

The hard-earned victory at Verdun convinced many commanders of the need for a changed approach, but that wasn’t enough to shift the paradigm. Command passed from the stoically attack-minded Joffre to the dramatically attack-minded Nivelle, who conceived and conducted yet another giant offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1917, claiming that tweaked tactics backed with sufficient élan would overwhelm (very well prepared) German defences within 48 hours. By the end of April, the Nivelle Offensive had failed, obviously, completely and expensively, and at that point the cannon fodder fought back.

Men being mutinous… quietly.

France was, and still is, a nation shaped by the strength and frequency of its popular uprisings. French soldiers had been exposed to plenty of socialist and pacifist agitation throughout the War so far, and conservative political opinion had long feared its influence. Signs of mounting discontent had been difficult to miss during the latter stages of the Verdun campaign – when, for instance, whole units en route for the front took to bleating aloud, lambs to the slaughter – and many field commanders expected trouble in the wake of the latest failure. Front-line forces were left decimated and disappointed, adding bitterness to long-term grievances about cancelled leave, poor pay and battle fatigue. Trouble duly erupted and took various forms, with some mutineers deserting (a record 27,000 French troops deserted in 1917), some simply refusing to fight, others demanding peace and a few groups threatening to march on Paris, but there was little or no coordination among mutinous units and soldiers generally proved amenable to pacification.

The hero of the hour was General Henri-Philippe Pétain, the same Pétain who had ‘saved’ Verdun by reorganising its defences a year earlier. Pétain had been passed over as c-in-c in favour of Nivelle, but was finally given the job on 15 May, after which he visited 90 divisions in person to hear grievances and discuss solutions. Careful to handle mutineers with kid gloves, he kept executions to a relative minimum and was credited (from above and below) with restoring the morale of ordinary troops in a remarkably short time. The last mutinous units had been pacified by about 10 June, the Army was back in position on the Western Font in July, and it was pronounced fit for combat in August.

Pétain being soothing – it worked.

All Pétain’s restorative work was carried out in strict secrecy. The French public knew nothing about the mutiny, neither did the country’s allies, and although the huge gaps in the French line were obvious to watching German units, they made no serious attempt to exploit the situation. I know that seems weird, but the German high command was busy frying other fish, and its army on the Western Front was in no position to exploit what otherwise seemed likely to be only limited, temporary gains.

Given that the war on the Western Front carried on as if nothing had happened for the rest of 1917, it may seem that the great mutiny came and went without changing anything much, but it did make an enormous difference to the French Army, to French soldiers and to French political life.

For the ordinary poilu (that’s the French word for Tommy or doughboy), pay and conditions improved, leave began to materialise as planned and best of all the doctrine of all-out attack lost its hold over their masters. The French Army on the Western Front was never again asked to provide the main thrust of a major offensive. Pétain restricted his ambitions to defensive operations, adopting the ‘defence in depth’ tactics perfected by the Germans (basically a matter of retreating from the front-line when attacked, and regrouping in prepared defensive positions), and although the French Army did manage one last counteroffensive effort after the German offensive of spring 1918, it played a largely supporting role in the Allied attacks that brought the War in the west to an end.

So did Pétain. His wise caution kept the French Army in the field for the rest of the War and restored it to a useful level of operational effectiveness, but he still faced opposition from conservative field commanders, staff officers and politicians who refused to accept that élan had been rendered unworkable by the mutiny. Failure to prepare defence in depth would still bring occasional disasters – the collapse of French positions near the Aisne in May 1918 springs to mind – and although Pétain retained his command until after the Armistice he was effectively sidelined from April 1918, when the more aggressively inclined Foch was appointed Allied Supreme Commander.

Much of the Army high command and many conservative politicians also persisted in regarding the mutiny as the work of pacifist and socialist agitators, a view encouraged by a spate of simultaneous strikes and civilian protests throughout France, and sharpened by news from revolutionary Russia. Their loud calls for suppression of left-wing dissent would eventually be answered by the government of Georges Clemenceau (of whom more later), which began mass arrests of pacifists, dissidents and suspected German sympathisers in November 1917, and orchestrated a series of sensational treason trials through the first half of 1918, citing the mutiny as the basis for most charges.

So the centenary of the mutiny provides a reminder that there was more to Pétain than his part in the horror of 1940s Vichy France, which can be seen as an old man’s last, disastrous attempt to protect French lives with defensive thinking. Perhaps more importantly, the mutiny is also a reminder that when radical discontent goes off half-cocked it tends to promote conservative suppression, and that the rule applies in western democracies as well as in less self-satisfied cultures.

21 APRIL, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine

You couldn’t say it was exactly world-shattering news at the time.  It couldn’t really compete for headlines with the monstrous Allied offensives in full cry on the Western Front, accompanied by the crowd-pleasing dogfights of Bloody April and the Red Baron’s surge to fame.  From anywhere West of the Rhine, it hardly seemed important compared with the rising crescendo of submarine warfare, the exotic dramas of British advances through the Middle East, the diplomatic fallout from Washington’s momentous move to war, or reports of mayhem in St. Petersburg as Lenin joined the crowded ranks of revolutionaries returned from exile.  What with all that and more kicking off at around the same time, it’s hardly surprising nobody in the West made too much fuss about the successful conclusion, on 21 April 1917, of the first Ukrainian National Congress.  A century on, nothing’s changed.

What little attention Western academics have paid to the Eastern Front over the decades has tended to view it from the perspective of the major empires involved, understandably enough given that most available source material comes from imperial bureaucracies, especially the German bureaucracy.  So our standard Western view of the First World War skates over its enormous importance to those countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic states – that stood on the western frontiers of the Russian Empire and would one day form an inner ring of Soviet satellites.  In the Ukraine, for instance, the Great War was on one hand a social and environmental catastrophe, as the country became a battlefield under military occupation and conscripted Ukrainians fought for both sides, but was on the other hand a golden opportunity that transformed the idea of national independence into fleeting reality.

Ignoring the current battle for its eastern territories, modern Ukraine comprises the western majority of what was, in 1914, the Russian imperial province of Kiev, along with parts of what was then southern Poland, some of it under Austro-Hungarian control. Nationalist ideas and organisations had taken hold among academics, businessmen and politicians in pre-War Kiev, aiming at greater regional autonomy and promotion of the Ukrainian language, but they were efficiently suppressed in one of the most militarily controlled sectors of the Russian Empire and had little impact on the rest of the country. Controls were tightened further under wartime conditions, but everything changed when the February Revolution of March 1917 toppled the Russian Tsar (8 March, 1917: False Start).

Ukraine as envisaged by the Rada in 1917. Big, huh…

News travelled fast by telegraph in March 1917, and views moved like lightning through the conduit of a Russian Army consumed by revolutionary turmoil at every level. On 17 March, only five days after proclamation of the new Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, Ukrainian politicians, workers, military agitators, businessmen, students, bureaucrats and churchmen came together in Kiev to found the Central Council of Ukraine. More commonly known as the Central Rada, it was led as chairman by historian and nationalist activist Mikhailo Hrushevsky, and wasted no time testing the St. Petersburg government’s avowed liberal principles.

Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, among the finest beards of the War so far.

After issuing a declaration of support for the Provisional Government on 22 March, the Rada began establishing itself as St. Petersburg’s rival for authority over the Russian Ukraine. Hrushevsky, essentially a social democrat, guided the Rada in pursuit of autonomy as a prelude to full independence, and spent his first weeks in office building a wider mandate for its authority, organising delegates from the many elements represented by the Rada, and anyone else willing to participate, into a national congress.

Seven hundred voting delegates – along with 200 non-voting observers and some 600 guests – attended the National Congress that convened in Kiev on 19 April.  The Congress elected 150 delegates to form a new Rada that was in effect a governing parliament, and confirmed Hrushevsky as its chairman, with leaders of the two main Ukrainian political parties as his deputies.  Most significantly, the new Rada included representatives from provincial authorities, and from the socialist workers’ organisations and soviets that were surging into life in every urban area of any size, extending its writ beyond the Kiev region for the first time.  By the time the Congress dissolved on 21 April, it had transformed the Central Council into a provisional government that would lead the Ukraine towards tentative and short-lived independence.

During the next few weeks, the Rada worked to establish its bona fides as a legitimate national government.  It elected a ‘small council’ of thirty members, including representatives of most political groupings, to serve as a cabinet, and on 10 June it declared national autonomy for the Ukraine.  Later that month, in an attempt to widen its influence beyond Kiev, the Rada was expanded to include 130 representatives from soldiers’ councils and 133 from the peasantry.

Peasants made up the vast majority of the Ukraine’s 30 million people.  Principally concerned with peaceful subsistence, they gave the Rada important if somewhat uncommitted support, and presented no serious threat to its authority.  Soldiers’ councils, or soviets, were much more dangerous to the Rada.  In control of most Russian Army units in the Ukraine, they were inclined to preach socialist revolution and generally looked to St. Petersburg for authority, as did many socialist groups in urban areas.  The Rada’s attempt to incorporate the soviets, which was only partly successful and had little impact outside the north of the country, reflected its greatest challenge in the months after the Tsar’s demise – how to achieve peaceful co-existence with a Russian Provisional Government that still claimed political control over the Ukraine.

A compromise was reached in July, when the Russian government agreed to recognise the Rada and defer any binding decisions concerning the Ukraine’s autonomy or sovereignty.  The deal prevented any immediate, mutually unproductive conflict but otherwise solved nothing.  With Kerensky’s Russian regime being forced further and further to the left in order to survive, Ukrainian soviets becoming more radical with every passing day and the Central Powers waiting in the wings if the Russian Army collapsed, the Rada government could do little more than survive through a summer of rising instability, maintaining an appearance of cohesion in its Kiev power base amid seismic socio-political shifts on all sides.

For all its rapid reaction to events, impressive attempts to promote unity and efficient creation of ‘national’ institutions, the Rada’s provisional government was not long for this world.  Viewed by revolutionary socialists as a liberal, bourgeois enemy of the workers, and dismissed as such by the Bolshevik regime after Russia’s October Revolution, it was effectively overthrown in January 1918 by a rival soviet government based in Kharkov.  The Rada responded by declaring Ukrainian independence from the new Soviet Union on 22 January and making a separate peace with the Central Powers, which had been providing diplomatic and financial support since the spring.  This treaty, signed on 9 February and known in Germany as the Brotfrieden (‘bread peace’), left the Rada as a powerless puppet government and ushered in a long period of violent misery for the Ukrainian people.

Signing the ‘bread peace’. Bad idea.

On the positive side, the Central Powers granted Ukrainian control of the Cholm region, a northern province that was also claimed by an independent Poland.  The concession ruined Vienna’s hopes of getting Poland to accept an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, but the urgent need for Ukrainian food supplies was seen as more important.  In return, the Rada invited the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies to occupy Russian Ukraine, authorised their immediate seizure of grain and other supplies on a vast scale, and accepted German Field Marshal Eichhorn as effective military dictator of Ukraine and the Crimea.

Eichhorn’s ruthless attempts to meet the colossal demands for food laid down by the Third Supreme Command in Berlin brought severe hardship to rural Ukrainians, while his imposition of forced labour programmes to increase agricultural production fed rising nationalist unrest in the countryside.  By the time Eichhorn was assassinated by nationalists in Kiev, on 30 July 1918, military occupation was the only force keeping a lid on a chaotic cauldron of revolutionary turmoil, and the collapse of Germany in November brought anarchy in the Ukraine.

During the next three years fourteen different governments claimed to represent the Ukraine, and a state of civil war was only calmed by a fairly secure Bolshevik takeover in 1921.  From the that point the Ukraine became part of the USSR, and though the new Soviet Republic permitted some nationalist and peasant representation, no echo of the Rada’s legacy survived the brutal repression of Stalinism in the 1930s.

So why bother commemorating the birth of something that can only be described as a short-lived failure?  Because the Ukraine is now a sovereign state, in part constructed from the blueprints laid down by the Rada in 1917 and under severe pressure a century later. These days I think we can all agree that its future matters to ours, so on the grounds that it’s good to understand things that matter, here’s to the flawed godfathers of Ukrainian nationhood, and here’s to sneaking a bit of the Ukraine’s history, however sketchy and blind to its many controversies, into our heritage.

13 APRIL, 1917: Long Arm Of The War

A century ago, after a prolonged period of recuperation and planning, the Western Front was back in full-on, bloodletting action. In line with Berlin’s decision to focus resources on the escalation of submarine warfare while remaining poised to exploit fallout from Russia’s revolutionary chaos in the east, the German Army in France had taken a small step backwards to occupy carefully prepared defensive positions.  In line with recent tradition, the French and British armies on the Western Front had chosen to hurl themselves at those positions in the same northern and southern sectors of the front that had been their targets since the beginning of 1915, employing a tweaked and expanded version of the same tactics that had failed every time.

As usual, the Allied attacks were launched in the belief that final victory was just a well-aimed push away, but this time the belief was a little more desperate and a little less universal.  While politicians clung gratefully to French Army c-in-c Nivelle’s assertion that his version of breakthrough tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours, they were forced to override opposition from many senior commanders in both armies.  I’ve talked about the build-up to the Allied spring offensives on the Western Front before (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and on 9 April they finally got underway, when the BEF launched its opening assault in the northern sector.

This was the start of the Battle of Arras (sometimes known as the Second Battle of Arras), which encompassed various smaller battles (beginning with the Battle of Vimy Ridge), and which formed the northern prong of the Allied Artois and Champagne Offensive (often known as the Nivelle Offensive).  If that seems unclear, bear in mind it’s a simplification and then let’s move on.

Vimy Ridge – you know what happens next.

The Nivelle Offensive was destined to be the usual disaster and its centenaries (again beginning with the genuinely heroic, largely Canadian and distinctly minor victory at Vimy Ridge) are destined to keep the Anglophone heritage industry busy for the foreseeable future.  There’s no real need for me to bang on about the combinations of bad weather, bad strategy, bad tactics and bad luck that turned the spring of 1917 into another miserable confirmation that contemporary methods of attack were no match for efficient, trench-based defence, so I won’t.  Instead, let’s take a look at South America, because on 11 April 1917 Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and Bolivia followed suit two days later.

The standard line on Latin America during the First World War is that the flight of European money and influence during the conflict opened the door for American business interests, bolstered by money, military force and diplomatic pressure, to gain control over much the continent’s exportable economic output.  This was true enough, broadly speaking, but sweeping generalisations applied to whole continents – like the ones about all African music or all European food – tend to be short on nuance and riddled with exceptions.  US economic encroachment in Latin America was primarily driven by trade winds, so it was directly concerned with securing all approaches to the new Panama Canal and focused on exploitation of small states with easy access to sea lanes; the kind of countries that could be easily coerced by the dispatch a few marines and plenty of dollars.  Much of Central America, the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America were targetted accordingly, but for very different reasons neither Brazil nor Bolivia came into these categories.

Brazil, a country with plenty of accessible coastline, rich in resources for exploitation and a system of government ripe for the marines and dollars treatment, was simply too big to be an easy target for American dominance, as were its neighbours Argentina and Chile. As the region’s most powerful states, the three of them make for an interesting subset within the world at war, pursuing lines of alliance and development that would shape the continent’s turbulent twentieth-century history, so they’re worth a post of their own another day.

On the other hand Bolivia was small, possessed valuable natural resources and was dominated by an almost feudal political system that could be controlled from the centre – but it didn’t meet the accessibility criterion, having been landlocked since the loss or sale of territory to its more powerful neighbours in the late 19th century. Partly because of its relative isolation, and partly thanks to the talents of a particularly acquisitive ruling elite, the country faced no wartime threat to its political or economic independence – but that didn’t protect it from the War’s destabilising effects.

How Bolivia ended up landlocked…

Bolivia’s otherwise agricultural economy was built on abundant tin and silver resources, and during the late 19th century its politics were run by competing oligarchies of tin and silver barons, both principally concerned with maximising their wealth and content to treat the native population as forced labour.  Promises of reform had won some native support for the Liberal Party, representing the La Paz-based tin industry, which had seized power from the silver barons of the Conservative Party, based in the city of Sucre, in 1899. The Liberals still ran a government tightly controlled by the presidency in 1917, by which time they had established La Paz as the national capital and become a lot richer on the back of a tin boom based on European shortages during the early 1900s, but had done nothing to improve the miserable condition of the workforce.

Foreign investment poured into Bolivia during the tin boom, but wealthy Bolivian entrepreneurs quickly learned to exploit the dependence of overseas smelting industries on Bolivian tin.  The process of putting the tin industry back into Bolivian hands was well underway by 1917 and would be complete by the early 1920s – but though the ruling elite remained prosperous during wartime, the long-range economic effects of world war, especially disruption of trade with Europe, were forcing socio-political changes that threatened its hold on power.

A long slump in the silver trade helped keep the Conservatives weak and divided, but the dip in general trade with Europe before and after the outbreak of War, along with a series of droughts that hit agricultural production, brought a third, elite-based political force into play, as a faction committed to territorial expansion broke away from the Liberals to form a Republican Party.  Rapid growth of the tin mining sector, and associated construction of roads and railways, meanwhile bred rising social tensions as native workers moved into cities, where they became more organised and more militant.  With strikes beginning to disrupt the mining sector, the Republicans making appeals for support to workers’ organisations, and a presidential election due in May 1917, the ruling Liberals were understandably keen to promote economic recovery through a resumption of normal trade patterns.

Ismael Montes, President of Bolivia between 1913 and 1917.  All moustache and no chops.

German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 had precisely the opposite effect, and made trade with the American continent, above all with great market of the USA, even more important to Bolivia.  Under the circumstances, the US declaration of war against Germany offered the ruling oligarchy a free hit, which it took by severing diplomatic relations on 13 April.

The move was a no-brainer, offering a chance to display solidarity with the USA and to mop up the remnants of extensive pre-War German investment in the country, as well as leaving Bolivia poised to become an official belligerent should it need a voice at the peace conference.  It was also good local PR, and a sense of better times on the horizon helped the Liberals win the 1917 election, but it made no difference to Bolivia’s immediate economic problems.

Nothing Bolivian leaders could do was ever going to interfere with the tsunami progress of world war economics, and better times were too long coming for the tin barons.  Two decades of relatively stable misery for the Bolivian people came to an end in 1920, when a bloodless coup by the Republicans ushered in a long period of upheaval underpinned by a multi-faceted popular struggle for social reform.

The Bolivian government’s dip into world-war diplomacy involved no pressure from foreign powers, but was yet another case of a ruling elite’s opportunistic self-interest disguised as national interest.  Bolivia’s behaviour was more like that of Bulgaria or Romania than of Cuba or Panama, which had declared war against Germany on 7 April in their capacity as what amounted to US client states.  As with almost every state in any way involved in the First World War, those behind Bolivia’s involvement were destined to disappointment in its outcome, and couldn’t stop the ripples from distant battlefields contributing to fatal cracks in a political system built on repression.

Giving human and civil rights a small shove from a great distance isn’t such a big deal, and war-related changes didn’t conjure up any happy endings (or many happy intermissions) for the people of Bolivia – but even that has probably made a more significant contribution to modern times than the springtime slaughter on the Western Front, and it’s definitely less depressingly repetitive.

6 APRIL, 1917: Woodrow Who?

There is a book, published in 1930, called 1066 and All That.  It’s a very silly book, taking the piss out of British history with a bunch of childish jokes strung together by a couple of failed Oxford students, but it does come to a slightly sombre conclusion.  In 1917, it announces, America became ‘top nation’ and so history came to an end.  I mention this because, although nothing in the universe has a precise starting date and I guess history is still in progress, on 6 April 1917 the United States entered the First World War on the side of the Allies – and from that day to this nobody in the world has seriously doubted the USA’s position as the most powerful nation on Earth.

Once the USA had committed its economic clout and manpower to the First World War, it was a matter of when rather than if the Allies would overpower Germany and its increasingly feeble partners. Once the USA was part of the War, it couldn’t be kept out of any future peacemaking process, and once the USA had sent armed forces across the Atlantic it could never again claim or practice a disinterested separation from foreign affairs.  The ‘American century’ had begun and as it ticks past the hundred-year mark I’d say we’re still not sure how it’s going.

There’s obviously a lot more to say on the subject, and plenty to say about the Wilson administration’s final acceptance that war couldn’t be avoided, but it’s pretty well covered by the commemoration and heritage industries, not to mention a powerful posse of scholars and journalists. There’s no real excuse for any literate person from a first-world background not being aware that 6 April 1917 was a fundamental turning point in his or her modern history, and if you’re not aware of it consider yourself told.

On the other hand, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, modern history meant different things to different parts of the world in the early twentieth century.  Important changes were being forced on all sorts of people living outside the bubble of mass communication and mechanisation that defined the richest countries.  What mattered to their history was important, wasn’t necessarily in tune with our standard narrative and tends to be ignored by modern reproductions of that narrative.

April 1917 was, for instance, an important time in the history of the Gold Coast, but that had nothing much to do with the birth of American geopolitics and much more to do with an increasingly desperate British Empire giving up on its first big attempt to recruit native troops for fighting outside western Africa.  Explanation is in order, beginning with the basics.

The name Gold Coast was originally (and obviously) applied to the coastal region of West Africa that provided Europeans with gold. Like the Ivory Coast to the west and the Slave Coast to the east, it was easily accessible to 18th-century European shipping, and had attracted incursions from Portuguese, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Prussian and British colonists by the early nineteenth.  By the mid-nineteenth century bribery and bullying had enabled the world’s undisputed ‘top nation’, Britain, to remove the competition, and establish a multinational (or in imperial terms multi-tribal) Gold Coast colony that stretched far inland and would eventually become modern Ghana.

 

The Gold Coast was hardly one nation in 1914, but the green, yellow and mauve bits were one British colony.

Colonial administration in the Gold Coast followed the pattern established in India and employed across much of Britain’s African empire, turning local rulers into clients and letting them get on with the traditional business of local government, but keeping them under very firm personal control.  This had the great advantage of saving the British lots of money and resources that would otherwise be expended in colonial policing, along with the useful side effect of leaving much of the native population unaware that colonisation was taking place, and therefore inclined to carry on blaming the same old leaders for their troubles.

Although the northern Gold Coast interior, home to the Asante people, remained troublesome and occasionally violent into the twentieth century – more a product of internal African tensions than any colonial pressure – the British were generally able to develop their colonial interests in peace, extracting metals, diamonds, ivory, pepper, timber, cocoa and grain, along with gold, and building a trading infrastructure of roads and railways from the interior to the ports.  By 1914 British administrators were referring to the ‘sheep-like docility’ of Gold Coast natives, and on the outbreak of war only some 3,000 imperial troops and police were deployed to administer a population of about 1.6 million.

The War had a generally, though not critically depressing effect on the Gold Coast economy, which enjoyed a minor surge in demand for cocoa but otherwise suffered from the conflict’s disruption of global sea trade and attendant price fluctuations – but economic uncertainties had little immediate social impact before 1917.  Local chiefs continued to give support to the colonial regime for a variety of internal reasons, usually involving their own security or territorial ambitions, and loyally provided troops for campaigns against German forces in neighbouring Togoland and Cameroon. Meanwhile the colony’s educated, largely urban African elite and its mouthpiece, the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, continued to profit from collaboration with the British and to exploit any opportunities for increased influence thrown up by wartime personnel shortages.

Broadly speaking, most local leaders and imperial administrators regarded the War as a faraway irrelevance, a view shared in spades by those natives aware that it was taking place – but the colonial government was nevertheless afraid that the inconveniences of an economic downturn could undermine popular acceptance of the white man’s invincibility.  Careful to avoid policies likely to trigger unrest, it ignored European demands for tighter quality control over cocoa exports, refused to expel immigrants from neighbouring French colonies, where natives were regarded as French citizens and conscripted accordingly, and rejected all attempts by an increasingly manpower-starved UK government to impose conscription on the colony.   Although some of the northern territories brought under largely military control in the previous couple of decades did see uprisings against chiefs seen as British agents, this Afro-centric approach kept most of the Gold Coast relatively peaceful during the War’s first two years.

Government policy couldn’t disguise the wartime reduction of imperial resources available for colonial work.  This forced the closure of fortresses in the northern hinterland, brought a 30 percent reduction in the number of troops and police available by early 1917, and did exactly what the colonists feared most, feeding a growing popular belief that the white empire’s days were numbered. Under the circumstances, the British Army recruitment campaign launched by the colonial government in January 1917 was a very bad idea.

Given the Empire’s desperate manpower needs after the carnage of 1916’s Western Front offensives (and a clamour in the British press for conscription of native populations that could be heard loud and clear in the colonial capital, Accra), the Gold Coast administration had little choice but to attempt the recruitment drive.  It went about the job in the only way it knew how.  Local rulers were told to provide recruits, and left to do so in any way they saw fit, while the rich folks of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society – which had previously been useful in encouraging contributions to various voluntary war funds – were allowed to spearhead attempts to attract volunteers by individual persuasion. The results were divisive and universally unsatisfactory.

Local chiefs and other rulers needed young men for their own communities and while some were slow to provide recruits, many more simply bribed or coerced their least useful subjects into joining the British Army.  Colonial administrators recognised that this amounted to conscription, or in some cases forced labour, and they bemoaned the low quality of recruits.  They also complained that many refused to fight or deserted during training, but they felt no need to interfere with what could be dismissed as local methods, particularly since they weren’t picking up recruits by any other means.  Details are scant, but the general picture seems to have been of a population that regarded going away to fight in a distant war as a ridiculous idea, and that wasn’t about to do anything recommended by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

The recruitment drive was abandoned as a failure in April, but would be repeated the following year with similarly unfortunate results. Although Gold Coast troops were recruited to take part in the British East African campaign, alongside greater numbers from other British West African colonies, and would be on the verge of deployment in Palestine when the War ended, the main effects of the drives were to dilute the authority of white rule and along with it the authority of local rulers.  Local chiefs, particularly in the largely autonomous countryside, lost support as the agents of recruitment, and lost status as recruitment fuelled popular belief that the British Empire was running out of resources.

 

Gold Coast troops in East Africa – a long, long way from home and hating it…

The primary wartime forces undermining the traditional rural power structures upon which Gold Coast colonial rule was built were economic instability and connected phenomena – like the concentration of wealth and labour resources in the main ports, and the 1916 issue of paper money to cover imperial cash flow problems – but the British Empire’s clumsy scramble for manpower served as an emblem for their decline.  As such it helped alter the mindset of an entire people, and helped hand the colony’s future to the educated elite represented by the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society.

As political influence came to depend more and more on access to economic and population hubs, wealthy urban natives were sufficiently in touch with the wider world to be influenced by liberal talk of post-War self-determination.  By the time the War ended the Gold Coast educated elite and the press it controlled were expressing desires for equality of civil opportunity, increased native control over economic resources and political representation. The Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society was meanwhile reorganising to become a political organisation in pursuit of those desires.  It would evolve during the 1920s into the kernel of a nationalist movement dedicated largely to the interests of social elites and destined to grow steadily during the next four decades.

By then, of course, the presence of the USA at the post-War peace table seemed important to at least some future Ghanaians, but in April 1917 Woodrow Wilson really didn’t matter in West Africa.

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR