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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricky spot – Belgium in 1914.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lurid? Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wartime Belgian Air Force started small… very small.

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

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

30 DECEMBER, 1917: Let’s Drop The Mask

The Great War had just endured its fourth Christmas.  Popular history has reduced wartime seasons of goodwill to one heavily mythologised football match at the end of 1914, and so I’m always tempted to cry humbug at this time of year.  That’s because (in my opinion) the football match trope has come to exert an unfortunate influence on popular thinking about the First World War as a whole.

Sure, the story goes, the whole thing was ghastly, pointless, ill-led and an insult to the humanity of its victims – but at base we were still a more noble breed a century ago, somehow playing war by the rules of gentlemanly conduct. This echoes the kind of homespun machismo spouted across the social spectra in developed nations during the decade before 1914, when the idea that too much peace had diluted humanity’s will to progress helped nourish the political and popular militarism that propelled Europe towards war.  Both ideas are pure poppycock, like anything else based on the nobility of brutal violence, and so let’s commemorate Christmas 1917 with a nod to the First World War’s standard, none too gentlemanly response to the festive season.  That’s right, it’s time for another chat about civilian bombing.

Fighting went on all over the world throughout the Christmas period. Trench warfare persisted along the Western Front, particularly fierce in the areas around the BEF’s recent offensives, while Allenby’s invasion of Palestine engaged in mopping up operations after the capture of Jerusalem. The German guerilla war spat fire across East Africa, violent chaos engulfed Eastern Europe and the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Empire’s collapse, and the global battle for control of the world’s oceans raged unabated. Many of these conflicts caused what we now call collateral damage, bringing suffering and death to civilian populations, but on one European battlefront civilians were being targeted for Christmas.

The war in northeastern Italy had taken a dramatic turn during the autumn.  Driven back in disarray by an Austro-German offensive, Italian forces were holding a line at the River Piave while Allied reinforcements of men and machines were rushed to the front (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  If Austro-Hungarian forces (along with the few German units still attached to the theatre) could break through at the Piave, the rich and heavily-populated plains of eastern Lombardy lay open to invasion, and the run-up to Christmas saw heavy fighting around, on and above the river.  Because the new frontline was so close to Venice and other large Italian towns, they became targets for aerial bombing.

Nice easy map – tricky position if you live near Venice.

Bombing of civilian targets had been a feature of Austro-Hungarian operations on the Italian Front since 1915, but it reached a crescendo as 1918 approached.  The lovely cities of Padua (Padova) and Treviso suffered the most.  Padua was attacked by air raids on the nights of 28, 29 and 30 December, and suffered six more raids in January and February, receiving a total of 718 bombs, while Treviso was attacked 16 times over the same period and took 517 hits. Vicenza, Venice and Ravenna were among the other venerable cities subject to attacks from the air, most of them carried out by the 4th Bomber Squadron of the German Air Force, which was transferred to the Italian Front in December and flew purpose-built Gotha bombers far superior to anything the Austrian air service possessed.

The numbers of bombs involved and their relatively small size highlight the difference in scale between civilian bombing in 1917/18 and its Second World War equivalent.  The early attacks by Austro-Hungarian aircraft had been carried out by small, single-engine machines that inflicted relative pinpricks, and the attacks on northern Italy over the Christmas period were no Blitz, but they were terrifying just the same and caused destruction on a scale that would be considered shocking today.  In total, air raids against Italian cities during the War killed 965 civilians and wounded 1,158, more than four-fifths of them in the regions immediately behind the front, as well as causing significant damage to ancient buildings, civic facilities and works of art.  They also provoked enormous outrage in Italy.

In many ways Italian fury was justified.  Civilian bombing was new and widely regarded as a barbarian practice, and though every air force claimed that its aircraft were aiming at militarily or economically legitimate targets, nobody expected them to be very accurate about it.  In other words collateral damage was inevitable, but the Italian government insisted (long, loud and into the 1920s) that German bombers were targeting non-military buildings on purpose.

This was of course denied, and couldn’t be proved either way, but there is no doubt that German air authorities, like those of every other country carrying out long-range bombing raids, regarded attacks on civilians and civilian culture as intrinsically valuable. Whether deliberate or accidental, the act of raining terror on unprotected populations was seen by strategic bombing theorists as a potentially war-winning tactic, likely to erode a nation’s will to fight and, according to the real enthusiasts on various air staffs, capable of doing so overnight.  Bottom line, and despite the heartfelt regrets expressed by German propaganda, bombers over Italy weren’t discouraged from scattering their loads onto the occasional Renaissance church or triptych, both as a contribution to the war effort and as a test of public reaction (among the victims and at home).

So while Allied propaganda made the most of every opportunity to illustrate enemy barbarism by lamenting its wanton disregard for irreplaceable cultural treasures (check out the film on YouTube), the outraged Italians had a point when they accused the German Air Service of war crimes – but both were fine examples of one-eyed hypocrisy.

Padua suffers…
…and Allied propaganda makes a fuss.

The Allies in general were every bit as excited as their enemies about the potential of massed strategic bombing, and no less comfortable experimenting with the effects of terror bombing on civilians. This was particularly true of the British, who had formed a strategic bombing group to carry out raids on the largest possible scale – but the only country more enthusiastic about strategic bombing than Britain or Germany was Italy.

An Italian air officer, Giulio Douhet, had been the first to propose the theory several years before the War.  He was still thundering its virtues in the Italian press as 1917 came to a close, but in the meantime he had done his best to promote Italian heavy bombing capability, encouraging the designer Gianni Caproni to build his three-engine CA heavy bombers, and then ordering them into large-scale production on his own authority.  Highly controversial at the time, and well above the pay grade of an Army major, Douhet’s initiative reflected the passionate turbulence of Italian military planning and, along with a series of scathing memos criticising his superiors, earned him a court-martial and a prison sentence in 1916. It also gave Italy an early lead in the field of strategic bombing.

Douhet: that moustache says fanatic, and wasn’t far wrong.

Douhet was pardoned thanks to the intervention of a man who was both the incarnation of Italian military passion and a near-fanatical proponent of strategic bombing, the poet and all-round human tornado Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio is worth a paragraph or two of digression because he was, to put it mildly, a colourful character, and because he’ll crop up again as a very noisy wildcard amid the War’s last rites.  A writer by trade, and a fervent nationalist given to political agitation with an oratorical bent, he had quit Italy for France in 1910 to escape personal debt, but returned in May 1915 to add his voice and flair for publicity to the mounting chorus for intervention in the War.

D’Annunzio: that pose says narcissist, and wasn’t far wrong.

Once Italy was at war, D’Annunzio kept his profile high.  He’d turned 52 in March 1915, but gained permission to serve at various times as a cavalry officer, aboard a torpedo boat and as observer in command of a Caproni squadron.  His irrepressible ego and evident personal courage – highlighted by a wound in 1916 that cost him an eye but didn’t prevent him returning to action – had won him a lot of medals and made him an Italian national hero by 1917, with sufficient clout to secure the release of an air theorist he considered a visionary lighting the road to national glory.

Douhet would be rehabilitated as the head of the Italian Army’s Central Aeronautic Bureau in 1918, and would produce the first edition of his internationally influential blueprint for strategic civilian bombing (Il dominio dell’aria) in 1921, but his time in the wilderness had been about personal behaviour rather than his ideas.

Douhet was certainly considered a crank, if not a crackpot, by much of the Italian political and military establishment, but that was the lot of air enthusiasts in all the warring nations, especially those who made extravagant claims about bombers rendering the ground-warfare expertise of their superiors all but obsolete.  Douhet attracted extra opprobrium with his wartime demands for the immediate construction of 500 heavy bombers, a feat way beyond the capacity of Italy’s economy even if the government had been prepared to divert resources from the all-consuming ground campaign on its frontier.

And there’s the rub.  In Britain, France and Germany, desperation to find a way out of the ghastly stalemate meant cranks and crackpots were being given a chance to prove their ideas.  All three economies were capable of producing new aircraft designs for experimental purposes without diluting their efforts on the main battlefronts, and all three empires had plenty of use for heavy bombers, for attacks on both military installations close to the Western Front and the plethora of major civilian targets within range of their airfields.  The Italians not only needed everything they could produce, including ground-support aircraft, to maintain a front-line effort that became increasingly dependent on Allied reinforcement, but because the Alps and the range restrictions of contemporary heavy aircraft put most Austro-Hungarian towns of any size beyond attack from Italy, their heavy aircraft lacked targets for any serious civilian bombing experiment.

That’s enough rambling for one bleary day.  Aside from drip-feeding a bit of relatively obscure information, this particular ramble was aimed at the tendency, in Britain at least, to condemn strategic bombing as something designed and practiced by the bad guys, in our case Germany.  Just as the Blitz of the 1940s is shoved down our collective throats as the exemplar of evil, while the altogether more monstrous and massive bombing of Germany by the RAF is quietly downplayed, so Allied and Italian outrage at the festive bombing or northern Italy in 1917 masked their active desire to do exactly the same thing to their enemies on the grandest possible scale.  Gentlemanly?  Yeah, right…

22 DECEMBER, 1917: Loose Talks

Brest-Litovsk is now Brest, a regional capital of some 340,000 people in Belarus, close to the border with Poland.  For much of the last three centuries this has not been a peaceful part of the world, one of those unhappy regions stuck between the ambitions of competing empires that I mentioned a couple of weeks back (6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?).  During the First World War, the town stood in the path of three imperial armies on the Eastern Front, and was reduced to a burned, battered wreck by the Russian Army as part of its ‘Great Retreat’ in 1915. By late 1917, when the front line had shifted some 150km to the east, what remained of Brest-Litovsk was serving as the German Army’s regional headquarters, and on 22 December 1917 it played host to the first formal peace talks between Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria on one side, and Bolshevik Russia on the other.

When posterity ponders peace treaties and the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles loom large. Fair enough, because nobody should try and wrap their head around modern geopolitical history without appreciating the mess made at Paris and the principles behind it – but you can’t do that without context, and you can’t really put Versailles into context without some understanding of the various wartime treaties that preceded it. By blotting out the sun when it comes to looking at other treaties, the heritage industry’s obsession with the tournament-style pomp of Paris actually makes understanding it more difficult – and of all those other treaties Brest-Litovsk was the big one.

Brest-Litovsk, as left behind by the Russians in 1915.

I’m not giving away any secrets (or I shouldn’t be) by saying that the negotiations begun on 22 December produced a treaty of enormous significance, in terms of both immediate impact and historical reach. It triggered a breathtakingly ambitious (if not bonkers) German attempt to establish an instant eastern empire, and was a pivotal step in the painful birth process of the Soviet Union – but it wasn’t destined to be signed for another three months, so for now I want to talk about the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.

A combination of hindsight and a worm’s eye view makes it very easy for us to invest history’s chaos with coherence, and to assume that great historical events, in particular great staged events, came with the kind of trappings and organisation we associate with a modern summit meeting or World Cup. This tendency can turn blind blunders into plans of action and make stumblebums look like statesmen, or it can make the results look stupid because the circumstances look sensible.

For example, punitive Allied attitudes towards Germany during the postwar peace process are much discussed and deplored as fundamental to the ruin that followed. They can’t really be explained if, like much of the heritage industry, you ignore the agreements signed at Brest-Litovsk, which can’t be understood without an appreciation of the improvised, occasionally farcical process by which they were reached.  So let’s have a look.

Pretty much the moment it took power in Petrograd, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia had declared peace. The government in fact declared peace between all the warring nations, on the grounds (not seen as altogether fanciful by many reputable foreign observers) that Western European war efforts were anyway about to be overwhelmed by socialist revolution. Given that ‘bread and peace’ had been the Bolshevik call to revolution in Russia, it was necessary to deliver peace in advance of world revolution, and so three Russian emissaries had crossed German lines under white flags on 26 November 1917, empowered to discuss the terms of an armistice between Russia and the Central Powers. A general ceasefire was agreed with the Germans on 4 December, signed at Brest-Litovsk by representatives of all the Central Powers on 5 December, and came into official force next day.

Talks towards a full armistice then began, also at Brest-Litovsk, at which point things got a little slapstick. On the Russian side the recently appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, sent a 28-strong delegation that expressed Bolshevik disdain for old world diplomacy. Led by an old revolutionary ally, Adolf Joffe, aided by a couple of veteran revolutionaries in Lev Kamenev and Lev Karakhan, it included soldiers, sailors and factory workers as representatives of the revolution’s core support, along with a female representative (Anastasia Bizenko, notorious as the assassin of an imperial official). Legend claims the delegation completed the set by picking up a passing peasant en route for the railway station.

Lev Kamenev arriving at Brest-Litovsk for the armistice talks.

The Russians arrived at Brest-Litovsk to face old world diplomacy in full effect, as organised by General Max Hoffmann. Hoffmann was an interesting figure, a staff officer who had taken much of the credit for the campaigns that had made the names of Hindenburg and Ludendorff during 1914 and 1915, and who had been theatre chief of staff since Prince Leopold, the King of Bavaria’s younger brother, had taken command of the Eastern Front in August 1916. A born fixer, energetic, imaginative and equipped with the kind of vaunting ambition appreciated by his former chiefs at the Third Supreme Command, Hoffmann effectively controlled subsequent German strategy in the east. He organised the return of revolutionary leaders (like Lenin) to Russia, and suspended offensive operations after the attack on Riga in September 1917 to avoid the risk of igniting Russian patriotism at a revolutionary moment. Perhaps with one eye on a wider world scared of Bolsheviks, he now assembled a negotiating team of old school, elite diplomats.

Max Hoffmann… almost as scary as he looks.

Five Germans, four Austro-Hungarian representatives, three Ottoman and two Bulgarian treated the Russians – housed in wooden huts within the, largely intact, Brest-Litovsk fortress – to the wining, dining and conversation in French that came with the territory, and by all accounts the days that followed were an exercise in mutual bewilderment and contempt. Bad vibes made little or no immediate difference to the process. The Russians had no bargaining chips remotely comparable to the German Army, while the Central Powers, especially Germany, were in a hurry to get on with formal peace negotiations and associated annexations, so a 28-day armistice was arranged in three days.

A delay followed because Joffe had been instructed to sign an armistice for every battlefront, including those contested exclusively by Russia’s allies, and had to go home for new orders. Demanding world peace may seem as ridiculous to modern eyes as it did to many contemporary observers, but it followed from the genuine conviction among Bolsheviks that the workers of other countries were about to seize power. The same belief made any delay to the negotiating process a good thing from Petrograd’s point of view, because it bought time for world revolution to gestate. The Russian delegation eventually returned to Brest-Litovsk a week later, and a 30-day armistice was signed on 15 December.

The Central Powers brought their big diplomatic guns to Brest-Litovsk for the actual peace negotiations, including German foreign minister von Kühlmann and his Austrian counterpart Count Czernin. The Russian delegation was strengthened by the addition of a professional historian and, as military advisor, a former Tsarist general, but was stripped of its symbolic revolutionary representatives (although Anastasia Bizenko kept her place at the table). The banquets seem to have passed off rather more convivially as a result, and in more languages, but the negotiations themselves collapsed into almost instant confusion.

Joffe began proceedings by presenting Bolshevik peace demands, which amounted to the established slogan of peace ‘without indemnities or annexations’, and the German delegates agreed to this in principle, provided it was also accepted by all the other belligerent nations. Joffe was delighted at what the Bolsheviks thought was an agreement not to carve up the old Russian Empire, but had to reverse his optimistic reports home when, a day later, Germany’s position was explained in more careful detail. In accordance with the principle of national self-determination, as espoused by the Bolsheviks, territories under German occupation would be granted their independence… and then treated as German puppet states.

Protest as they might, and did, the Russian delegation had no way of preventing the Germans from doing whatever they liked, whenever they liked, because the one force on any Russian front that was still an effective instrument of state policy, the German Army, had remained in potentially offensive positions for the duration of the armistice. The only tactic left to the new Russian regime was to delay agreement for as long as possible, and hope revolution reached Western Europe before a treaty reached the statute books. Under strict instructions from Trotsky – who would later lead Russian negotiations in person – Joffe and his team responded to the certainty of a punitive settlement by doing just that.

And so it went; an elaborate dance between two mutually hostile worldviews seeking peace but refusing compromise. The German Empire and its virtually powerless allies were desperate to get their hands on the resources of Eastern Europe before the wider war was lost, but stepped lightly to exploit a rare shot at looking like the good guys, or at least more acceptable than the Bolsheviks, to their prospective new subjects. The Russians, equally determined to incorporate those same resources into their new world order, stepped nimbly because every day wasted at the negotiating table brought the downfall of their former enemies a little closer. When the music finally stopped, in March 1918, the two sides would be left with a treaty that lasted no more than a few months but changed the world forever – and is another story.

11 DECEMBER, 1917: Marquee Signing

As may well be obvious, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the ridiculous way posterity – another word for popular history – devalues the crucial role in our development played by the First World War.  Whenever that bee starts buzzing, and I feel the need to irritate some innocent interlocutor with a blockbuster example of why we should look back beyond Hitler’s war to find blueprints for the modern, the first words out of my mouth usually involve the Middle East.

I think it’s safe to call the modern Middle East a mess, and I never cease to be amazed by how little attention we pay to the fundamental links between what was done to the region during the Great War and how it stands today.  By way of illustration, and by a neat coincidence (I hesitate to call it happy), the eyes of the modern world are on exactly the same spot that dominated the news a century ago, because on 11 December 1917 the British Empire formally occupied Jerusalem.

In strictly military terms, Jerusalem was not the most important target for General Allenby’s British armies invading Palestine, because it could easily be bypassed on the way to the far more strategically valuable prizes of Baghdad or Damascus.  On the other hand, although the city wasn’t quite the symbolic powder keg it is today (no Israel, obviously), it was considered sacred by all the major biblical religions and it was central to the faltering religious prestige of the Ottoman Empire.  So Allenby, who had anyway taken command under orders from Prime Minister Lloyd George to capture Jerusalem by Christmas, had little choice about attacking the city, and Ottoman forces were bound to defend it.

Only as is important as you think it is – Jerusalem in 1917.

In the aftermath of defeat at Gaza in late October, the 15,000-strong remnant of the Ottoman Seventh Army had fallen back on positions southwest of Jerusalem to await reinforcement from the Germano-Turkish Yilderim Force, most of which was en route for the front under the command of regional c-in-c Falkenhayn.  Allenby meanwhile cut railway links between the two Ottoman armies, took up positions for an advance on Jerusalem and, from mid-November, paused to consolidate supplies and bring up his own reinforcements (31 October, 1917: Promised Land).

It’s a messy, complicated map, but if you look hard it’s all here.

Afraid that the arrival of Yilderim Force would be a game changer, the British didn’t pause for long.  Allenby launched an attack against the Seventh Army’s positions west of Jerusalem on 18 November, backed by a secondary advance up the coast to the River Auja. Hampered more by the winter rains than by Ottoman resistance, the main advance had almost reached Jerusalem when it turned north on 21 November.  The turn was intended to cut the road to Nablus, where Falkenhayn had set up his headquarters, and to surround Jerusalem – but it also reflected a prior (and indeed PR) arrangement made between Allenby and Falkenhayn to avoid fighting in or around the holy city if at all possible.  The plan was in any case thwarted by strong Ottoman defence of elevated positions to the west of the road, and the British advance came to a halt after two days of heavy, costly fighting.

Meanwhile the secondary coastal attack had degenerated into static warfare after making some progress but failing to cross the Auja, and the same fate subsequently befell two relatively minor Ottoman counterattacks – one against lightly defended positions just inland from the coast, the other from the east by the vanguard of Yilderim forces against the British rearguard north of the city, at Nabi Samweil.  By the end of November the whole front was stable, if busy, giving Allenby time to bring up his reinforcements and cement a considerable numerical advantage.

Allenby renewed his attacks in pouring rain on the night of 7/8 December, when infantry, supported by mobile artillery, advanced on the Jerusalem suburbs along the main road from the west, and a second force approached the city from the south, via Bethlehem. The main attack was launched without a preliminary bombardment and achieved complete surprise, driving defenders back some 7km by dawn and reaching positions south and east of Nabi Samweil by evening, when operations were temporarily suspended to allow the secondary advance to catch up.  Hopelessly outnumbered, demoralised and all but surrounded, surviving Ottoman units used the pause to escape, and by the morning of 9 December the entire force north of Jerusalem was in full retreat towards Jericho and Nablus.

Despite regular attacks by RFC aircraft, the remains of the Seventh Army got away, because heavy rain and thick mud made pursuit on the ground virtually impossible.  Meanwhile Jerusalem’s fate was sealed, and the city formally surrendered to the Allies on 10 December.  The surrender in fact took place three times, initially to the first British troops encountered by city authorities, then to the nearest divisional general and finally, when he arrived in Jerusalem on 11 December, to Allenby himself.

Along with the adventures of Lawrence, Allenby’s well-orchestrated acceptance of the surrender is the best-remembered aspect of Britain’s entire Middle Eastern campaign during the First World War.  Both the orchestration and its long-term impact reflect an enormous British propaganda effort at the time.

Lloyd George knew what he was doing when he demanded the capture of Jerusalem because, regardless of the city’s military importance, it was far and away the most famous prize taken by Allied forces during the War so far.  After a year of miserable disappointments on every European front – encompassing the Nivelle and Ypres offensives, near disaster in Italy and the collapse of Russia – the prime minister understood how badly a worried British public needed to revel in Allenby’s ‘Christmas present’.

For the record, and for that matter recorded by a small army of press photographers and a film camera, Allenby dismounted his horse at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate and entered the city on foot.  Coming from a man who had long cultivated a reputation for high moral standards, the gesture was generally accepted as the expression of humility it was intended to be, but it was also intended to strike an obvious contrast with the behaviour of Wilhelm II.  The Kaiser had generated almost as much publicity on his state visit of 1898, but had arrived on a white horse at the head of a big parade and been perceived in the Arab world as arrogant (perish the thought!).

When the fuss had died down, British forces by the coast finally crossed the Auja after a surprise attack on 20 December, and Allenby prepared to defend Jerusalem against the counterattack expected once the rest of Yilderim Force joined up with the Seventh Army.  The attack came during the night of 26/27 December, against the Khadase Ridge just north of Jerusalem, but Falkenhayn’s 20,000 combat troops made no progress against 33,000 defenders, and by 28 December it had turned into a retreat on Jericho.  A combination of bad weather and mutual exhaustion then forced suspension of major operations in the theatre until the spring, by which time the British high command had put further advances in Mesopotamia on hold and made preparations for a decisive offensive in Palestine.

British blanket coverage of Jerusalem’s fall was all about national glory…
… but the New York Herald’s coverage managed a scary,  21st-century feel.

Noisily though the fanfares blared in Britain for Allenby’s success, the Ottoman Empire’s loss of Jerusalem was much bigger and more important news to the Arab world in 1917. Imperial prestige, or lack of it, was a major factor determining the loyalty of tribal societies, and the Arab Revolt’s recruitment efforts benefitted accordingly. Meanwhile the Ottoman regime, no longer able to pin its hopes on the offensive potential of Yilderim Force, turned its back on the Empire’s evaporating southern territories.  Inspired by war minister Enver Pasha’s boundlessly optimistic ambition, it instead committed dwindling resources to an ill-judged and ultimately disastrous attempt to exploit Russian military collapse by expansion into the Caucasus.

In the longer term, British occupation of Jerusalem turned out to be big news for the whole world. The British remained in control of the city, one way or another, for thirty years, and had shaped most of the Middle East to suit their strategic priorities by the time they departed in 1947.  They left behind a set of arrangements that, whatever your viewpoint, are still dangerous for everyone, so dangerous that these days all it takes are a few ill-chosen words about Jerusalem to set the whole world on edge.  There you go: the First World War did that.

6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?

For more than three hundred years, ever since Peter the Great turned his empire’s expanding ambitions westward, life in the lands between Russia and the rest of Europe has been fraught with danger.  On the front line, Georgia, the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic States have been subject to serial conquest or oppression from east and west, and regular devastation as the venues for wars between their powerful neighbours, while geopolitics has been almost equally unkind to a second line of frontier states in southeastern Europe – think Warsaw Pact.

One way or another, whether as provinces of collapsing empires or as sovereign nations, all these states suffered appallingly during both world wars, but for most of the First World War one such frontier zone, very much on the front line between Russia and Europe, was left in peace by both sides.  I’m talking about Finland, which announced what amounted to its debut on the wartime front pages by declaring national independence on 6 December 1917.   So how did Finland get so lucky?

Finland had formed the eastern third of Sweden until the early 19th century, when Swedish involvement in the Napoleonic wars left it vulnerable to invasion.  Diplomatically isolated after Napoleon’s French Empire agreed a (short-lived) peace with the Russian Empire in 1807, and already in dispute with Denmark about control over Norway, Sweden faced war on two fronts when Russian forces entered Finland in 1808, and ceded the province to Russia as part of the treaty that ended the war the following year.

Finland remained an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire until 1917, with the Tsar holding the title of Grand Duke, but its national identity developed in the meantime.  By 1914 the Finnish language, as spoken by the peasant majority of the country’s three million people, had become established as a legitimate alternative to the official Swedish still spoken by the wealthy and bureaucratic classes (some 15 percent of the population), and in spite of an aggressive programme of linguistic and cultural Russification imposed by St. Petersburg since the turn of the twentieth century.

You can see why Finland worried about Russian expansion. Vaasa is on the Bothnian coast, about halfway between Turku and Oulu.

The Finnish Party, formed during the 1860s, represented pure political nationalism in Finland when the War began.  The Swedish-speaking elite meanwhile dominated the politics of liberal reform, which tended inevitably towards independence, and pro-Russian groups provided noisy, well-funded opposition to nationalist politics. Recent industrialisation around Helsinki, and conscription into the Russian Army (begun in 1901 as part of the Russification programme), had encouraged the spread of socialism among an active minority of workers and intellectuals, but they were split into internationalist and pro-nationalist groups.  During the next two and half years, the impact of pan-European war on this potentially lively political admixture was relatively muted and generally positive.

Though some of Finland’s intellectual movers and shakers reflected Swedish cultural links with Germany, and regarded a German victory as the most likely route to independence, the region’s industrial and trading interests were strongly pro-Russian.  The biggest pre-War markets for Finnish exports of timber and raw materials, Germany and Great Britain, were no longer accessible, but trade with Russia had been growing throughout the Russification period and now took over.  Led by exports of raw materials for the manufacture of metals in St. Petersburg, business with Russia gifted the Finnish economy the kind of boom enjoyed by many neutrals trading with warring empires.

Despite being part of Russia, and hosting most of the Russian Baltic fleet at Helsinki, Finland was effectively neutral.  The Russian government never instituted formal wartime conscription in Finland, and although a few thousand Finns fought for the Russians as volunteers, they were matched by numbers of volunteers for the German Army.  Finland had no army of its own, and though some 50,000 Russian troops were garrisoned in the country against the possibility of German invasion from the south, the war on the Eastern Front was still a long way away when the February Revolution overthrew the Russian Tsar in 1917.

Russian warships waiting out the winter at Helsinki – despite their permanent presence, Finland managed to behave like a neutral country.

Like many small, neutral countries, Finland experienced political fallout from its sudden economic upsurge, which triggered rapid inflation and lowered the real value of wages.  At the same time, inability to trade across the Baltic left Finland dependent on Russia for the import of food supplies, and consequent shortages, especially of cereals, fuelled popular discontent and support for change.  Revolution in Russia gave these elements, as well as liberal and socialist politicians, a sudden and galvanising dose of optimism, fortified when the new Provisional Government in Petrograd granted restoration of the Finnish constitution as one of its first acts in power.

Finland already had a parliament, the single-chamber Eduskunta. Established after the 1905 revolution in Russia, and elected on a form of universal suffrage that was the first in Europe to enfranchise women but that allocated votes according to taxes paid, it had been effectively powerless under the Tsar, who ran Finland through appointed imperial officials.  Elections in 1916 had given a small overall majority to the Social Democrats – socialists, but not at this stage necessarily revolutionary socialists –and in March 1917 the Provisional Government re-designated the Eduskunta as a senate, governed by a coalition cabinet based on those results. Social Democrat leader Oskari Tokoi became prime minister in a spirit of cooperation with the new Russian regime, but it didn’t last for long.

Social Democrats began making plans for immediate full independence, and were supported inside Russia by the Bolsheviks, but liberal and conservative elements in parliament refused to support the socialists, preferring to trust the Provisional Government’s promises of good intentions.  When Petrograd sent additional troops into Finland and, on 18 July, dissolved the new Senate, socialists demanded a complete break from Russia – but non-socialist politicians accepted the dissolution in anticipation of success in new elections, and went on to win an overall majority when they were held in October.

At this point, with violence escalating between socialist groups centred on the relatively industrialised south of the country and conservative elements in control of the rural north, Finnish politics was turned on its head by the Bolshevik Revolution.  While Finland’s socialists gradually came to regard Bolshevik Russia as their most reliable protector against a conservative or bourgeois state, liberal and conservative interests suddenly wanted nothing to do with Russia and sought full independence at once.

On 15 November, hours after the Bolsheviks’ announcement of self-determination for ‘the peoples of Russia’, the Senate declared itself in temporary control of Finland, and it voted for full independence on 6 December.  The Bolsheviks recognised Finland’s independence at the end of the month, and were swiftly followed by Germany, but these were hardly benevolent acts.  The German high command had its eye firmly fixed on an empire in Eastern Europe that might include Finland, and the Bolsheviks played nice because they confidently expected a socialist uprising in Finland.

The Social Democrats and other socialist groups in Finland had indeed formed a Red Guard, and they staged a coup in Helsinki on 28 January 1918.  The Senate government fled to the town of Vaasa, on the west coast, where it waited for help from the ‘White Guard’, an anti-socialist force gathering under the command of former Russian Army General Mannerheim.  This was civil war, but it was at least destined to be brief.

The key to Finland’s independent survival in 1918 – General Mannerheim inspects German-Finnish White Guard forces at Vaasa.

Reinforced by the German Army’s Baltic Division – a unit largely staffed by volunteers from the Baltic region – Mannerheim won a conclusive victory over Red forces near the southeastern frontier at the Battle of Viborg on 29 April.  The remnants of the Red Guard surrendered in early May, while its leadership fled to Russia.  No longer threatened by socialist uprising, and spared any serious attempt at German occupation before the Armistice put an end to the threat (and to conservative plans to establish a constitutional monarchy under a German prince), Finland proceeded into the post-War world as an independent democratic republic.

In many ways, as I hope this superficial skim illustrates, the centenary of Finland’s independence commemorates one of the First World War’s very few winners.  The country enjoyed several years of peace and relative prosperity while undergoing accelerated political development before 1917.  Relatively conservative nationalist leaders were then able to exploit the chaos surrounding the Russian revolutions to establish independence, and to maintain it using German help without becoming clients of Berlin.  Despite perennial menace from the Soviet Union, involving two wars (and dangerously close relations with Nazi Germany) between 1939 and 1945, Finland has retained its independent, democratic status ever since, becoming a prosperous and peaceful state with a longstanding commitment to neutrality in geopolitical disputes.

On the other hand, let’s not get too carried away with the good news.  Glad as I am to remind British heritage consumers that, beyond Tommies and trenches, the First World War did have some positive long-term effects, it says something very grim about the way of the world in 1917 when a country that lost 37,000 lives in a four-month civil war gets to count as lucky.

30 NOVEMBER, 1917: Active Service

There was plenty going on in the world at war a hundred years ago. Heavy fighting southwest of Cambrai on the Western Front, where the German Army was launching a counteroffensive; total chaos on the Eastern Front, where the Russian Army had quit the War; action in the Middle East, where British General Allenby was securing the approaches to Jerusalem; and important action on the Italian Front, where Austro-German forces menaced the outnumbered remnant of the Italian Army across the River Piave.

I’ve talked about all these places lately, and gateway anniversaries from more obscure areas are in short supply this week, so it’s back to basics.  On 30 November 1917, a Royal Navy monitor destroyed a floating bridge made of small boats at Passarella, on the Piave, about 8km upriver.  I’m not doing deep research today so that’s all I can tell you about the event itself, but it does offer me a way into naval matters I’ve been meaning to mention, and I’ll start with monitors.

A lot of warships performed a lot of operations in direct support of ground forces all through and all over the First World War, but the work doesn’t get a lot of attention from posterity.  This is understandable.  There was always a land campaign in progress to hog any limelight, and support work for ground troops was a fairly mechanical business, seldom offering much in the way of derring-do for a sensation-seeking heritage industry.

All the same, providing mobile artillery to back up troop landings, advances or defences was among the most tactically significant tasks allotted to warships throughout the conflict.  Coastal actions may have added little more than a few extra guns to the cacophony of artillery at the northern end of the Western Front, but they had a greater impact on the overall picture at the eastern edge of the Italian Front, were pivotal to some of the most important fighting in the Middle East and the Caucasus, and played a part in many other actions fought near coasts or around navigable rivers.

Bombardment operations of this kind were usually given to the biggest available surface ships that were considered expendable, so modern dreadnoughts and battlecruisers were kept at a safe distance while pre-dreadnought battleships and older cruisers got on with the support work.  Even these amounted to a very expensive way of bringing big guns to bear on a battlefield, and so the British Royal Navy – which was responsible for the vast majority of the world’s naval support actions during the War – revived an old idea to come up with something cheaper.

Monitors were light, shallow-draft warships, essentially gigantic rafts that provided stable platforms for naval artillery.  They had been used extensively for river work and coastal bombardment by colonial powers during the nineteenth century, and had played a significant role in the American Civil War (when the first of the type, the Monitor had made its appearance), but by the early twentieth most major navies had replaced them with faster, less heavily armed warships.  The exception was the Austro-Hungarian Navy, which had to deal with less sea and more river frontiers than the services of other European empires.  It used monitors with its flotillas on the Drina and the Danube, and to guard the Austro-Hungarian Army’s retreat from the Kolubara River in December 1914, by which time the British had rediscovered the type.

This shot of HMS Humber, a monitor originally intended for Brazil, shows off its raft-like quality.

Three light monitors under construction in British shipyards for the Brazilian Navy – then engaged in a regional naval arms race with Chile and Argentina – were requisitioned in the autumn of 1914 by the Royal Navy, which went on to order 35 new monitors before production was stopped in 1916.  Nineteen were light monitors, numbered M-15 to M-33 and mounting 9.2-inch guns or smaller, and the sixteen heavy monitors carried 12- to 15-inch guns otherwise used by battleships – but they were all relatively cheap and easy to build, while most were armed with weapons from captured or redundant warships.

Monitors generally carried a single, two-gun turret, along with smaller weapons against attack from land or air, and were bigger than you’d expect.  The heavy monitor Erebus, for instance, displaced 8,000 tons, was almost 130 metres in length and 27 wide, required a crew of 223 and could raise a sedate top speed of 12 knots.  Monitor production was briefly revived in 1918, when two Norwegian coastal defence ships were converted for Royal Navy use, and three new Lord Clive Class ships were equipped with modern 18-inch guns.

The Erebus: the outsize turret, too big for its ship, was typical of monitor design.

Royal Navy monitors saw plenty of wartime action, bombarding coastal positions on the Western Front, protecting British ports, and taking part in the Italian, East African and Middle Eastern campaigns.  Although five were lost to enemy action, and another was sunk by accident in Dover harbour, it would be fair to call them a success – and bearing in mind that even the most expensive cost around £350,000 to build and equip, they certainly gave the British better value for money than dreadnoughts at ten times the price.

So that’s a quick look at a type of warship revived to meet the requirements of war in artillery’s heyday, and largely forgotten today.  I’ll follow up with an equally brief examination of a type designed to meet the changing requirements of late nineteenth-century naval warfare, produced in unprecedented numbers during the First World War and lodged firmly in the public mind ever since.

There’s no great mystery about the destroyer’s enduringly high popular profile.  Destroyers were and are versatile, fast and useful for almost any kind of naval warfare, including crowd-pleasers like fleet actions, battles between swarms of destroyers and anti-submarine operations.  Many of the destroyers churned out by the dozen during both world wars, above all by US and British shipyards, were surplus to immediate requirements in peacetime – but they had a longer shelf life than most other weapons in a similar position and were more expensive to replace.

Most old tanks and aircraft, for instance, could be and were scrapped after both world wars, but destroyers were worth keeping, either in mothballs for future emergencies or as general-purpose warships, so they hung around for decades.  Like the only twentieth-century aircraft to outlast its wartime application by any distance, the Douglas Dakota, they were therefore available to reprise their crowd-pleasing adventures for movie audiences.  Add in the sexy name and the fact that, despite seismic changes in the nature of naval warfare, destroyers are still being built today, and it’s no wonder they’re a celebrity class among warships.

Although their ubiquitous involvement in the First World War made destroyers famous, they had been introduced to major navies in the late nineteenth century to protect battle fleets from the new threat of light, fast torpedo craft.  Originally known as Torpedo Boat Destroyers, and at first designed as long-range torpedo boats, they became steadily bigger and more seaworthy during the century’s last decades.  By 1914 modern examples carried between four and 12 torpedoes for use against larger warships, along with sufficient surface or anti-aircraft armament to deter anything smaller, and generally displaced between 500 and 800 tons – still small enough to be built in quantity by major powers, and cheap enough to form the backbone of minor navies.

At the beginning of the War most destroyers were rugged vessels designed for ocean-going work, with speed sacrificed for structural durability and armoured protection against encounters with larger fleet units.  Those modern navies centred on Mediterranean operations – the Italian, the Austro-Hungarian and to a lesser extent the French – took a different line, stripping down armour to produce fast, light destroyers designed for short-range raiding in calm waters.

Both breeds were generally deployed in flotillas, which typically comprised between four and eight ships, but sometime as many as twenty, and were usually led by a light cruiser or a large ‘leader’ destroyer.  Fleet flotillas functioned as fast scouts, and as strike weapons sent en masse to deflect enemy fleets, but were principally intended as a screen around battleships and battlecruisers, masking them from torpedo attack wherever they went.  No ship larger or slower than a light cruiser was considered safe without a destroyer screen, but protecting the big boys was just the tip of their operational iceberg.

Destroyers played an active part in most surface actions and coastal support operations, functioned as fast-response coastal protection craft, worked as fast minelayers and led flotillas of smaller craft. They also became more and more crucial to the protection of trade routes from submarines, so that Allied naval commanders (especially in the Mediterranean) were engaged in a constant internal scramble for destroyers, above all the large modern ships capable of long-range convoy protection.  The importance of long-range work was reflected in wartime destroyer design, which saw the ships become steadily larger, stronger, more heavily armed and more expensive, so that new vessels displaced more than 1,100 tons by 1918.

HMS Swift and HMS Broke – British destroyers on the Dover Patrol.

By the time the War ended, the Royal Navy had used almost 450 destroyers during the conflict, the German Navy more than 230, and the US Navy more than a hundred.  Russia managed to build 58 news destroyers during the War, Japan embarked on a production programme that would expand into the 1940s, and even the beleaguered wartime shipyards of France and Italy produced a few. This outpouring left the post-War world was awash with destroyers, and left a so far indelible mark on naval warfare.  Modern destroyers may be hunting missiles rather than torpedo boats or submarines, and they look very different to the ‘battleships in miniature’ of a pre-electronic age, but they are still a basic unit of worldwide naval currency– and I hope that’s given you an idea of where they came from.

A modern British Daring Class destroyer weighs in at around 8,000 tons and only shoots at the sky.

20 November, 1917: Reputations

King George V, the British king-emperor, famously approved of Sir Douglas Haig’s appointment as c-in-c of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front because, in the monarch’s opinion, the general was not too clever.  To be fair, the word ‘clever’ was often a pejorative term in early twentieth-century Britain, with a meaning we have since extended to the phrase ‘too clever by half’, but the faint praise still says something basic about the way British ground forces were perceived by their leaders during the First World War.

When the War began, the British Army was a small, professional force of highly trained men, well capable of conducting clever manouevres in pursuit of clever tactics.  Trying to do anything clever with gigantic armies made up of volunteers or conscripts, rushed to the front after minimal training, struck military professionals (like the King, who had spent fifteen years in the peacetime Royal Navy) as asking for trouble, so the bloated BEF needed a commander more comfortable with a sledgehammer than an epée.

Fair to say that’s what it got in Haig, and arguments will never cease about how the Western Front might have panned out if a bold British c-in-c had been given his head in 1917.  But if Haig’s performance has rightly been described as dull and cautious, the man himself was quite capable of being clever, or at least shrewd, particularly when it came to looking after his job and reputation.

On 20 November, the British Third Army launched a relatively minor offensive north of Arras, towards Cambrai.  Haig had originally vetoed the operation, but changed his mind in October, by which time the evident failure of his Ypres Offensive had left his good name in need of a success, what he called a ‘theatrical blow’, before the end of the year’s fighting season.

Haig’s was not the only reputation threatened by the summer failure at Ypres.  The British Army’s vaunted new assault weapon, the tank, had proved spectacularly useless in the Flanders mud, giving weight to the substantial body of military opinion opposed to its priority development.  The British Tank Corps, which was of course staffed by tank enthusiasts, looked for a way to restore faith in the weapon, and Third Army commander General Byng accepted a plan for a massed tank attack across dry ground in the Arras sector, between the Canal du Nord and St. Quentin.

The plan had been presented by Colonel John Fuller, the Tank Corps chief of staff and a figure well known to military historians as one of the twentieth century’s most influential and prescient armoured warfare theorists.  Like most committed ‘tankies’, Fuller was regarded as something of an eccentric by his more orthodox superiors, and grew used to having much of his wartime tactical advice ignored or only partially followed.

By 1917 Fuller was already planning the future of tanks as long-range strike weapons, penetrating far beyond enemy lines under cover of strong air, motorised and artillery support.  Though the War ended before sufficiently fast and reliable machines had been developed for the purpose, he laid out his ideas in a famous document known as Plan 1919.  This was ignored, or at least rejected, by the British Army, as were his postwar writings on the subject (along with those of his oppo, Basil Liddell Hart), but his work was very well received in German military circles and formed the blueprint for what was later called Blitzkrieg.

John Fuller, egghead and tank theorist, planned the Tank Corps success at Cambrai and was ignored in its aftermath.

The operation that began on 20 November (known to posterity as the Battle of Cambrai, and not be confused with the following year’s Cambrai Offensive) was the first BEF attack of any size to make use of Fuller’s tactical ideas, but they were fatally fudged by the high command.

Fuller recommended a massed raid across dry ground, without any warning in the form of a preliminary bombardment, followed by a rapid withdrawal – but Byng opted for a full-scale ‘breakthrough’ attempt spearheaded by the tank attack.  Under those circumstances, Fuller insisted that armoured reserves were held back to exploit and protect any successes – but Byng sent all 476 available tanks in at once, along with six infantry and two cavalry divisions, supported by about 1,000 artillery pieces.  As the icing on a cake that was already pretty unpalatable to tank commanders, the general also ignored forecasts of bad weather to launch on schedule.

Julian Byng, cavalry general and future Governor-General of Canada, messed up Fuller’s plan and got promoted in its aftermath.

Opening at dawn along a 10km front, and without a preliminary bombardment, the attack achieved complete surprise against the two German divisions holding the position.  By the end of the first day the BEF had made gains of about 6km and forced a gap in the German lines that opened the road to Cambrai, although General Harper’s 51st Division had been halted in front of its first objective, the village of Flesquières.

Harper’s failure has excited controversy ever since.  What you might call the ‘lions led by donkeys’ tendency has accused him of imposing his own, outdated ideas about tank tactics and keeping his infantry away from the machines, with expensive consequences. Apologists argue that the German defence system around Flesquières –heavier and cleverer than elsewhere in the sector – caused the setback, and forced Harper into a change of tactics to protect his men from heavy fire concentrated on the tanks.  Harper died in the early 1920s without leaving any memoir, so the controversy can expect eternal life, but Flesquières wasn’t the reason the attack’s good start went wrong.  The village was taken next day, and the British made small gains all along the battlefront, but without reserves they could do nothing to prevent German reinforcements blocking the road to Cambrai.

This being a war that somehow imbued field commanders with inexhaustible optimism (on land and in the air, not at sea), Haig took sufficient encouragement from the first day’s gains to press further attacks.  They continued, with little or no success, until 30 November, when a major German counterattack got underway using the ‘infiltration tactics’ perfected on the Eastern Front in the late summer (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  The northern wing of the new British salient held but attackers broke through to the south, and almost all the ground gained by the BEF had been lost by the time fighting died down on 7 December.

All the maps of the battle I could find were rubbish. This was the least rubbish.

The Battle of Cambrai made very little difference to the state of the War, despite costing 45,000 British and 50,000 German casualties. It did keep the Tank Corps in business, because despite a routinely disappointing outcome (from an attacking point of view) its opening gambit proved to the British high command that massed tanks could be effective.  In contrast, Cambrai encouraged the German high command to the rather more sophisticated conclusion that, although tanks could bust through trench defences in ideal conditions, they didn’t solve the fundamental problem of how to exploit initial gains, and so weren’t worth the increasingly precious resources needed for extensive development.

The last major attack on the Western Front in 1917, Cambrai completed an almost uniformly disastrous year for the Allies in the theatre, but the tankies big moment at least gave the battle the appearance of strategic purpose.  For a British government wary of war weariness in revolutionary times, and no less anxious than Haig to benefit from a ‘theatrical blow’, this was a godsend.  Britain’s highly effective propaganda machine made a lot of noise at the time about the success of the tanks, and by the end of the War their fleeting impact at Cambrai has been woven into the kind of rational narrative that gets constructed for popular consumption around any final victory.

The Battle of Cambrai went badly wrong for the British, but made the name of the Tank Corps.

The tanks proved themselves at Cambrai, their leaders learned how to use them, they went on to roll over the German Army in 1918, and were thus established as the armoured weapon of the future. That was the narrative, and it was nonsense.  It completely ignored the marginal nature of tank warfare during the 1918 campaigns, and later proved indifferent to the fact that tanks as used by the Allies during the War bore little resemblance in design or purpose to those that became the armoured weapons of the future.

A basis in fiction hasn’t prevented the narrative from growing and solidifying to persist into the present, so take a pinch of salt before you get comfortable with the anything the Anglophone heritage industry has to say about Cambrai during the next few weeks.  If it’s still peddling the wartime tank narrative, you’re being sold hundred year-old propaganda.

 

15 NOVEMBER, 1917: Tiger Feats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighters were heroes, pacifists pariahs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clemenceau – would you argue with him?

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

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

German poster of President Poincaré, with his Tiger.

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

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

8 NOVEMBER, 1917: World Shaken (Not Stirred)

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

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

Seizing the day, in a staged kind of way…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokyo in 1917 – modernising very nicely.

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

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

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

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

31 OCTOBER, 1917: Promised Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR