4 JULY, 1918: Little Big Stuff

This exercise in vanity publishing has been largely inspired by a desire to shout about the First World War in all the ways popular sources don’t, but today I’m sticking to the populist script.   US Independence Day marks the anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel, a small Allied victory on the Western Front that has long been celebrated as a highly significant indicator of the final victory to come.  It was that and more, so here’s what happened and then I’ll talk about its extra dimensions.

The Allied attack around Le Hamel was originally conceived as an attempt to straighten a small westerly bulge (or salient) in the front line east of Amiens, opposite the British Fourth Army, and was never more than a minor operation in the context of major offensives being prepared on the Western Front.  A succession of German spring offensives had taken the front back to where it had stood in the late summer of 1914 – threatening Paris at the River Marne – and both sides were planning attacks there for later in July. Erasing the Le Hamel salient would prevent German forces from launching flank attacks on the massed artillery support being gathered for the proposed Allied offensive.

I like this map. It includes Hamel and gives a nice, easy picture of the flux on the Western Front in 1918.

The Le Hamel operation was planned by the new commander of the Australian Corps, General Monash, and executed by its 4th Division, with support from sixty heavy tanks and every machine gun unit that could be mobilised, along with four companies of US troops that had been attached to the Corps for training.  Launched on 4 July, the attack was a complete success, sweeping the surprised and lightly entrenched defenders of the German Second Army out of the salient.  Its limited objectives, the village of Le Hamel and the woods on either side, were achieved within an hour and some 1,500 prisoners were taken for the loss of about 1,000 Allied troops.

Australians and Americans sharing a trench for the first time in history…

Leaving aside the coincidence of its date with one of the first major actions fought by US troops, the reasons this little success has been so well remembered across the decades are primarily tactical.  The victory provided the most strategically significant demonstration of a new approach to the problems faced by attackers in the context of contemporary trench warfare.   Refined and perfected during three years of trench fighting, and able to flourish once the Allies enjoyed significant numerical superiority in most forms of infantry support weaponry, it was given the oddly insouciant title of ‘peaceful penetration’.  The man generally regarded as its leading pioneer was the aforementioned General Monash.

General John Monash – tip your hat to this guy, because he was as good as it got.

John Monash ended the War as Australia’s most famous soldier, and is still well known there, but these days he’s nobody’s idea of a big star anywhere else.  That’s a shame, because he stands out as an example of excellence in a War dismissed by posterity as a command black hole.  A reservist, called up to lead a brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in September 1914, he led his troops at Gallipoli, where they suffered horribly and he learned some hard lessons.  Given command of the Australian Third Division, which he trained and took to France, he soon gained a reputation for meticulous and efficient organisation, reflected in the division’s much-praised work at Messines and Passchendaele as part of General Plumer’s Second Army in 1917 (7 June, 1917: Listen and Learn).  By the time he was promoted to lead the Australian Corps in France, in May 1918, Monash was ready to put his ideas into concerted action – and they made a difference at once.

The basis of peaceful penetration was the concept that infantry should be used to simply occupy territory, rather than expended attempting to reach it.  In practical terms, that meant making maximum possible use of mechanised weapons – machine guns, tanks, artillery and aircraft – to devastate a limited quadrant of enemy territory.  Ground troops, usually supplied from the air, would then move in to occupy and secure the ground taken, while other mechanised forces were concentrated to prevent counterattacks. Carefully planned coordination between the various battle arms, a speciality of Monash, was obviously vital to any success, but the key word here was ‘limited’, because the difference between peaceful penetration and everything the British and French had done before on the Western Front was that it sought no ‘breakthrough’ into undefended territory beyond enemy lines.

Strictly limited aims, tight secrecy, overwhelming mechanised force and pinpoint coordination had demonstrated their effectiveness during the early summer in a series of highly successful Australian raids across no man’s land, which quickly began to make a noticeable difference to the position of the frontline, albeit metre by metre. Mopping up forward German trenches and taking prisoners with only minor losses, the peaceful penetration raids exposed defenders’ vulnerability to the tactics and prompted the experiment in larger-scale action around Le Hamel.

The success on 4 July did the trick as far as the Allied high command was concerned, and Allied generals would go on to imitate peaceful penetration tactics with varying degrees of success during the offensives of the autumn.  The other message received loud and clear by Allied leaders analysing Le Hamel was that the German Army was not the force it had been four years earlier.

The German Third Supreme Command had, characteristically enough, gambled everything on the success of its spring offensives on the Western Front, betting that it could achieve, if not total victory, at least a strong bargaining position from which to negotiate a compromise peace agreement.  By the summer, with the front line moved but unbroken, the gamble was failing, and the loss of around a million troops since March could not be made up.  If the British and French were already reduced to conscripting men in their fifties, German manpower shortages were far more acute, so that old men and boys now populated large swathes of the German trench system in France, while German economic atrophy was sharpening supply shortages that were already critical.  These were recognised by contemporaries as the prime reasons for an evident decline in German Army morale and operational discipline by mid-1918, and that’s still the heritage industry’s line – but the most cursory use of hindsight reveals another important factor:  the ‘flu.

It’s in Europe, and it’s coming here – Washington DC gets ready for the ‘flu epidemic.

The global influenza epidemic of 1918–19 (of which much more another day) is generally regarded as a post-War phenomenon.  It certainly killed a lot of people in 1919, but its first wave had arrived in Western Europe by the summer of 1918 and in France it hit the German side of the trenches first.  In other words, the victory at Le Hamel was in part the product of intelligent tactics, carefully planned, and partly an accident of nature.  This basic, unplanned change in the military situation during the Western Front’s last months has tended to get left out of standard popular narratives written by the winners, and is still being ignored by most of today’s heritage peddlers.  If you’re wondering why, I’m afraid you’re being naive about the enduring influence of nationalist triumphalism in a world that imagines itself more socially mature than the one that tore itself apart a century ago.  World Cup, anyone…?

30 JUNE, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere

So the world as people know it is going to Hell in a handcart, and the pace of scary change is accelerating all the time.  Some kind of big, global endgame is surely imminent, and local or regional endgames are already blowing away political certainties unchallenged in decades, even centuries.  In case you’re in any doubt, I’m talking about the middle of 1918.

Tsarist Russia was gone, and the Habsburg Empire was all but gone. The Ottoman Empire had already lost most of its outlying provinces, and had finally given up its attempt to expand into the Caucasus when it made peace with Armenian nationalists in May.  On 11 June, in a belated attempt to spark nationalist outrage at the Empire’s failure to gain more from the Treaty of Bucharest (7 May, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy), the Young Turk government in Constantinople gave up on the strict press censorship it had imposed throughout the War, releasing a torrent of internal criticism that would soon tear apart a corrupt and reckless regime.

Any excuse for a shot of Constantinople in 1918…

Germany, the other major player destined for defeat, was screeching towards economic collapse and political revolution, while those big hitters with better immediate prospects – France, Britain and the USA – were in the throes of momentous (if often temporary) internal change, self-consciously on the brink of a victory they expected to create a new world order.

Wherever you lived in the world at war in June 1918, except possibly Japan, a peep over the local parapets meant a disquieting glimpse of a bigger picture in rapid flux.  The old certainties were evaporating and the prospects kept shifting.  In that context, and without providing much in the way of reassurance, trench warfare had become something of a constant by 1918, if only because it had been around for almost four years and didn’t seem to have changed. For ordinary people in major belligerent nations, the static horrors of trench warfare had become a relatively well-established fact of modern life.  Reported and debated at enormous length and in great detail by press and politicians, war in the trenches had become the conflict’s principle and most consistent narrative strand, a status it has maintained ever since.

The wartime trench narrative was, of course, a mythic creation, a rolling propaganda tapestry of constant victories that made no difference to anything, side-lit by the ghastly, first-hand evidence of trench veterans.  These days, the heritage industry’s core narrative still resides in the trenches and is still steeped in mythology, but presents an anti-propagandist picture of constant defeats amounting to nothing, heavily arc-lit by memoirs of personal suffering.  Both pictures have conspired to turn our view of Western Front trench warfare into a collection of one-dimensional snapshots that stress lack of change during the course of four years.  Fair enough on one level; the Western Front trenches were static in terms of geographical movement, and the human suffering they inflicted remained the same – but the snapshot obscures the basic truth that trench warfare itself went through plenty of changes.

Trench warfare wasn’t completely new in 1914 – it had, for instance, been a terrible feature of the American Civil War half a century earlier – but the world had never seen anything to compare with the long lines of opposing, massively defended trench systems, invulnerable to flank attack, that were established across northeastern France and western Belgium during the War’s first months.  Although the Western Front was by no means the only theatre to experience trench warfare at its most gruesome, it was generally the test-bed for new weapons, defences and techniques, and after a brief phase of desperate improvisation both sides geared up for what they defined, quite understandably, as a gigantic form of siege warfare.

The first requirement of a siege, heavy artillery, was ranged behind the lines to destroy enemy earthworks, kill any troops in the open and take out enemy artillery, all tasks particularly suited to high-trajectory howitzers.  As I’ve mentioned before, wartime developments in the use of big trench guns involved increasing their size, trying (with little success) to find ways of moving them around efficiently, and improving their support mechanisms with advances in ballistic science, ammunition technology and aviation techniques (12 April, 1916: Crater Makers).

At closer quarters, whether across the narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’ or in direct combat, reliance on the rifle as the soldier’s basic weapon never changed, with refinements of existing designs again the main thrust of wartime development (31 August, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen).  More radical progress was made in the development of heavier anti-personnel weapons with greater killing potential, such as machine guns and mortars.

Universally pigeonholed as trench warfare’s great defensive weapon, the machine gun was a bulky, cumbersome, unreliable piece of kit in 1914.  Guns weighed between 40kg and 60kg – not counting carriage, mounting, ammunition or (sometimes) an armoured shield – and required a crew of between three and six men.  Generally mounted on a flat-trajectory tripod, they could fire 400-600 rounds of small-calibre ammunition per minute from a fabric belt or metal strip, but they were apt to overheat and needed cooling with air vents or a water bag to prevent buckling and jamming.  Water bags often needed changing every couple of minutes but machine guns still jammed all the time, so they were usually deployed in sections of three or more for defensive purposes.

Even when put on wheels or broken down for haulage the machine guns of 1914 couldn’t keep up with advancing infantry, so they were of little use when attacking and most wartime development was concerned with finding ways to turn them into viable offensive weapons.  They were attached to armoured cars for use on roads or in flat conditions, and eventually mounted on tanks for use in all ground conditions, at least in theory – but neither solution provided reliable direct support for advancing infantry on a regular basis, and the big change in wartime use of machine guns for trench conditions was a general shift to lighter weapons.

Light, portable machine guns existed in 1914 – a few Danish Masden models were in Russian service when war broke out – but were soon being churned out in large numbers by all the world’s arms manufacturers, and had become standard additions to all infantry units by 1918.  Weighing between 9kg and 14kg, they could be carried by one man and fired at a rate comparable with heavy models.  Ammunition still had to be carried on belts, drums or magazines, and was still heavy, but by late 1917 aircraft were being used to drop ammunition for attacking machine-gunners.  The War’s last year saw the appearance in the trenches of automatic rifles and sub-machine guns that were even lighter but often carried only 10- or 20-shot magazines.

Light machine guns could also be fitted to aircraft, for use against ground troops (and other aircraft) when weather conditions permitted, and became standard after the German invention of interrupter gear in 1915 enabled pilots to shoot through their propellers.  The mushrooming threat to trenches from the air meanwhile gave heavy machine guns a new role as high-trajectory anti-aircraft weapons, sometimes mounted on lorries.

No army enjoyed any great advantage over its rivals in the design and development of machine guns.  Among the most commonly used heavy weapons, the British Vickers and the German Maschinengewehr 08 – both derivatives of the original machine gun design, the American Maxim, as was the Russian standard Pulemyot Maxima – were generally more reliable than the French Hotchkiss and fired more quickly than the Austro-Hungarian Schwarzlose.

Maschinengewehr 08 – your standard German heavy machine gun.

The British Lewis and the German Maschinengewehr 08/15 were similarly well-matched light machine guns, although the former’s incompatibility with interrupter gear meant British planes mounted stripped down Vickers guns, but the most commonly used French light gun, the Chauchat, was notoriously unreliable.  The United States produced some 57,000 Browning guns after April 1917, along with a slightly smaller number of Browning automatic rifles, but although both were reliable, rugged weapons they didn’t enter service until the autumn of 1918 and the AEF fought most of its battles using borrowed French guns.

When it came to mortars – portable high-trajectory artillery, designed to launch the heaviest possible projectile from its stubby barrel – the German Army began the War with an enormous head start.  Mortars had been a feature of siege warfare in the 18th century, but had fallen out of use until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when they were deployed with some success by Japanese troops. This was ignored by most European armies but noticed in Germany, which had about 150 of its own Minenwerfer design in service by August 1914.  Production was stepped up once trench warfare became established on the Western Front, and they served throughout the War in light (76mm), medium (170mm) and heavy (245mm) versions.  Grouped in specialist engineering companies, they all had a maximum range of about 1,000 metres, and during the first year or more of trench warfare on the Western Front they made an important contribution to German tactical superiority.

By contrast, British and French forces entered the War with no modern trench artillery, and relied on antiquated siege weapons, improvised catapults or other crude projectors for a very long time. Allied forces could seldom deploy anything with an effective range of more than about 250 metres until the British Stokes mortar became widely available to trench fighters in early 1916.  Probably the most successful Allied design, the Stokes was a very light weapon and easy to construct, but it was relatively inaccurate and its effective range was only 750 metres.  By 1917 a full spectrum of French and Belgian mortars was also available, but though the Allies enjoyed an increasingly obvious numerical advantage during the War’s last year they never produced anything to match the Minenwerfer.

The Stokes mortar – second-rate but solid.

The arc of machine gun and mortar development was matched in almost every technical aspect of trench warfare between 1914 and 1918, and nobody seeing the entire Western front campaign from the inside could possibly have called it static.  Barbed wire, grenades, camouflage, ammunition, communications and trench design spring to mind as undergoing important changes, but the list could be a lot longer with a bit more effort on my part and might get some proper attention another day.  For now, this has been a small reminder that, no matter how often posterity freeze-frames them, the First World War’s trench fighters were experiencing the same tsunami of change that was sweeping the world beyond their shrunken horizons.

23 JUNE, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!

A hundred years ago today the first elements of an Allied invasion force landed at the port of Murmansk, in northwestern Russia.  Their arrival marked a significant uptick in a steadily expanding international campaign against Bolshevism in Russia, and its centenary gives me an excuse to talk about it.

What is usually known as the North Russian Intervention or the Northern Russia Expedition (or three or four other names, none of them any better known) was a complicated, messy and fairly crazy business, entwined with the equally complex and largely shapeless Russian Civil War.  It was geopolitically connected to anti-Bolshevik interventions from Japanese and US forces far to the southeast, around Vladivostok, and to the adventures of the relatively powerful Czech Legion as it marched across Russia in search of safe passage to Allied territory.  I’ve touched on Vladivostok (12 January, 1918: Port In A Storm, Pt.1) and the Czech Legion (31 May, 1918: Fame And Fortune) during the last few weeks, and I’ll be getting back to them sometime soon.  One day I’ll even attempt some kind of overview briefing about the Civil War as a whole, but for now let’s wonder why and how the British came to be invading Russia in mid-1918.

The roots of British military involvement inside Russia lay in the wartime battle for control of Arctic trade routes.  Like convoys and submarine warfare in general, fighting in the Arctic theatre is popularly associated with the Second World War but was an equally significant factor during the First – and for the same reasons.

Russia, like every other state fighting against the Central Powers, expected and received direct aid from its filthy rich ally, Britain. Given the virtual impossibility of Allied shipping reaching Russia via the Baltic, and the regular interruptions to overland trade traffic via neutral Sweden (10 October, 1917: National Stereotypes), supplies had to be shipped across the top of Scandinavia to the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and the smaller White Sea port of Archangelsk.

Nice, simple map – in case you weren’t sure.

Nobody had anticipated this before the War, and neither port was remotely fit for purpose in 1914, so all Russian activity in the region during the conflict’s first months was concerned with expanding their harbour and railway facilities for use as major supply centres for Allied coal and weapons.  The German Navy eventually decided to interfere with the process in June 1915, when an auxiliary cruiser laid 285 mines at the entrances to Archangelsk harbour, and that was enough to trigger an Allied response.

A makeshift minesweeping force, consisting of a few British armed trawlers and 18 Russian boats seconded from the Baltic Fleet, was cobbled together, and a miscellaneous collection of second-line warships was gathered from other theatres for patrol duties in the Arctic Sea.  By the end of 1915 these included two old British cruisers, a Russian submarine and a minelayer transferred from the Far East, while two coastal batteries were established and thirty old naval guns fitted to merchant ships.  German mines meanwhile sank a British minesweeper and twelve merchant ships.

Levels of Allied naval protection for Arctic shipping rose in line with a steady increase in traffic during 1916.  The Russian Navy formed an Arctic Flotilla in February, operating out a new ice-free base at Kola, and the Royal Navy began establishing a larger presence in the theatre during the summer.  The old, pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Glory was stationed in Murmansk from August, and a scratch force based around the light cruiser HMS Askold and a few old destroyers from the Far East was still being formed in the autumn, when six U-boats of the German High Seas Fleet spearheaded a brief but highly effective campaign against Arctic shipping.  In six weeks before winter ice prevented operations, they sank 25 Allied ships, captured two more and damaged several small Allied warships, losing one submarine in the process.

The biggest warship in the region – the old battleship HMS Glory.

In the wider context of a world at war, and in terms of its practical impact on the Eastern Front, the Arctic theatre was still very small beer, and British aid to Russia amounted to only about £20.5 million of war materials in 1916.  Even that was far more than northern Russian ports could handle, and half the year’s imports were still piled up at Archangelsk awaiting rail transport in early 1917.  By that time four British icebreakers and a few more auxiliary craft had reached northern Russian waters, bringing the combined strength of the Anglo-Russian naval presence up to about 40 vessels – but the German Navy had better things to do with its submarines in 1917 and only 21 more Allied ships were sunk in the Arctic before hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers ended in December.

Although the Arctic Flotilla’s Russian units continued to patrol alongside British ships until the Armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Arctic naval war to an effective end – but it also triggered the outbreak of land warfare in northern Russia.  British theatre commander Admiral Kemp was charged with maintaining Murmansk and Archangelsk, along with the territory in between and transport links to the Russian heartlands.  The vast area involved, along with the arrival of a German army in neighbouring Finland, threats of Finnish incursions across the Murmansk railway, and chronic uncertainty about whether local Bolsheviks were allies, enemies or neutrals fighting their own civil war, prompted Kemp to ask for reinforcement by the Army in April 1918.  Bad timing, what with the BEF’s desperate need for manpower against the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, and Kemp was told to make do with the marines aboard his ships.

In early May about a hundred marines, supported by Red Guards and naval units, were landed at the small port of Pechenga, about 50km along the coast from Murmansk, to hold off attacks from German-backed, anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ Finns.  Later that month a single German U-boat appeared off Pechenga and sank a few small craft before disappearing, never to return.  Both incidents served to convince strategists in the British Admiralty and War Office that a major German-Finnish attack on northern Russia was in preparation.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of agreements made with the Petrograd regime concerning the Czech Legion’s safe departure from Russia opened up the possibility that half its troops, some 50,000 men, would march to join any Allied forces in northern Russia.  With Petrograd pressurising the Murmansk soviet (more socialist than Bolshevik at this stage) to stop cooperating with the British, and threatening to send Red Army units to commandeer the trove of war materials lying around in Archangelsk, the British War Office finally approved the dispatch of ground troops to the region.

It didn’t approve much.  The Royal Navy sent an extra marine force of some 300 men to Murmansk, including a naval artillery battery and a machine-gun section, while the British Army managed to scrape two detachments together under the codenames ‘Syren’ and ‘Elope’.  Syren amounted to 600 troops, most of them fresh out of basic training, just released from PoW camps or invalided out of France.  Commanded by Major-General Maynard, an officer previously retired as unfit for duty, they were supposed to protect Murmansk.  The 500 men of Elope were British trainees, backed by a few companies of ANZAC and Canadian volunteers.  Under the command of Brigadier-General Finlayson, they were detailed to cross the White Sea from Murmansk to Archangelsk, and its supply mountain, once the winter ice melted.

Assembled in strict secrecy, because the Allies were not at war with Bolshevik Russia, Syren and Elope sailed from Newcastle on 18 June.  After a difficult journey, during which the emerging flu epidemic struck down the transport ship’s Moslem crew (many of whom were malnourished because they were serving during Ramadan in a region without sunsets), the detachments reached Murmansk on 23 June.  Their arrival brought total Allied ground strength in the new theatre up to around 2,500 (largely second-line) troops, including a few French and Serbian soldiers sent as token assistance by their hard-pressed governments.

Overall command of North Russian operations was given to another British officer, Major-General Poole, who had retired in 1914 but was serving as a military attaché in Petrograd, and who had arrived in Murmansk on 24 May.  Poole was expected to protect a very large stretch of land and its port facilities, to recruit and train local anti-Bolshevik or anti-German elements for their own defence, to absorb any Czech forces that happened to show up, and to use these forces to reopen the Eastern Front.

With hindsight, this was a pretty ridiculous fantasy, particularly given that Poole received hardly any funding for the task and that the entire Czech Legion had by then decided to march east towards Vladivostok – but there is an argument for letting British strategists off the hook.  Deep ignorance of the actual situation in Russia, the sheer scale of the crisis involved and Germany’s obvious desire for an eastern empire all conspired to encourage extravagant speculation, and extravagant strategies naturally followed.  On the other hand, there was no good excuse for General Poole’s extreme optimism about military prospects or his unshakable, seemingly authoritative belief that the Bolshevik regime was a shambles on the point of collapse, both of which exerted a powerful influence on Allied strategic thinking.

A cheery chap, very optimistic and good at despising Bolshies – General Poole, and friends.

The Supreme War Council had already agreed to recruit additional troops for northern Russia from other Allied nations, though most were at least as hard-pressed for manpower as Britain, and Poole’s insistence that, with another five thousand or so troops, he could work all the miracles required of him prompted a steady growth of Allied strength in the theatre.  The campaign that followed eventually occupied some 13,000 British imperial troops, 2,000 French (most of them from French colonies), a mixed group of about 1,000 Serbs and Poles, a battalion of former Russian troops recruited from the autonomously inclined Karelian province and, eventually, about 8,000 US troops.

Long before most of them arrived, and once the winter ice melted, Poole was committed to the occupation of Archanglesk and its supplies.  The port’s Bolshevik government was far less sympathetic to British intervention than the Murmansk authority, and Poole spent July organising a coup by local ‘White’ forces, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Elope force and strong naval support. By way of illustrating the disconnects within what is often mistaken for coherent strategic planning at national level, the coup also happened to coincide with the arrival from Petrograd of a British trade mission that had been instructed to seek friendly relations with Lenin’s regime.  Whatever London’s intentions, the success of the coup on 2 August sparked a state of open warfare between the Bolshevik regime and Allied forces in northern Russia, a breakdown cemented by Poole’s subsequent establishment of regional martial law under a puppet, avowedly ‘socialist’ government.

So now the North Russian Intervention really was an invasion.  Like Britain’s accidental advances through Mesopotamia to Baghdad and beyond, it was a product of strategic sloppiness that blurred the line between attack and defence, allowing feral local commanders to dictate imperial policy.  Never remotely capable of achieving the revival of war on the Eastern Front envisaged by Poole and his political supporters in London (including, inevitably, Winston Churchill), it was destined to expand in black comic, bloodstained fashion during the autumn… when I’ll come back to Russia’s Arctic coasts and point the way to its long, slow deflation, a process that lasted well into 1920.

This has been long and late, because I’ve been under heavy distraction, but the landings of Syren and Scope at Murmansk seem to me worth remembering, and not just as an illustration of the military clumsiness still at large within a British war effort down to its last barrel-scrapings.  Feeble, half-hearted examples of gesture strategy at its most absent-minded, those two little detachments – barely fit for manoeuvres let alone combat – turned out to be the straws that broke the hope, once and for all, of friendly relations between Britain and the new USSR.

15 JUNE, 1918: Pawn Sacrifice

A century ago today, one of the First World War’s architects launched his last, unlikely bid for military glory.  It went the way of most wartime plans laid by Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, the former chief of staff to the Austro-Hungarian Army and latterly in command of its forces on the Trentino sector of the Italian Front, and its failure ended the war on the Italian Front as a serious contest.

Conrad was only partly responsible for the shambles known to posterity as the Second Battle of the Piave River, and although it served as a fitting epitaph for one of modern history’s great forgotten villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy), it was also a stark illustration of Austria-Hungary’s reduced status as the pawn of a German imperial regime that was ready to sacrifice anything and anyone, on almost any off chance, to prevent its own extinction.

One last look at the forgotten arch-villain – Field Marshal Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf; one bad general.

There was nothing new about great powers trying to improve their wartime prospects by sacrificing smaller countries.  When the First World War began, land fighting erupted on three main battlefronts, known to posterity as the Western, Eastern and Southern (or Serbian) Fronts.  Expansion followed.  It began with imperial greed, otherwise known as seizing German colonial territories, but soon developed a more existential edge with the creation of ‘sideshows’.

Sideshows came in more than one form.  Some were the product of British and French lateral thinking, as the ghastly conditions on the European fronts encouraged some strategists in both countries to seek alternative routes to victory.  The disastrous attempt to attack the Ottoman Empire through the Dardanelles and the shambolic tilt at reaching Austria-Hungary from Salonika fell into this category. Others were essentially accidents.  The British invasion of Mesopotamia was in effect a forward defence of oil resources at Basra that got ridiculously out of hand, and the subsequent invasion of Palestine stemmed from a similarly inflated programme for defending Cairo and the Suez Canal, though by that time the British high command had found good strategic reasons for dominating the post-War Middle East.

Two theatres of war regarded by contemporaries as sideshows were genuine wars waiting to happen, conflicts between two would-be aggressors.  The war in the Caucasus was a frontier battle between the Russian Empire and the Central Powers.  As such it was in many ways an extension of the Eastern Front, but qualified as a sideshow on diplomatic and geographical grounds.  Its genesis lay in Germany’s recruitment of Ottoman Turkey as an ally in late 1914, and Germany’s use of that alliance to distract its enemies from other fronts, while the fighting took place in a region that was of secondary strategic importance to both empires involved.  The war on the Italian Front was a frontier battle between an increasingly arthritic Austro-Hungarian Empire and a young nation with imperial ambitions.  It was geographically central to the strategic interests of several powers, but it was otherwise a classic sideshow.

Once bribed into the War in pursuit of extravagant prizes promised by the Entente powers, Italy became a means of distracting the Central Powers from the main fronts, bullied by the British and French (and to a lesser extent the Russians) into attacking whenever it best suited their wider plans.  In the eyes of Anglo-French strategists, the purpose of the Italian Front was to keep Austro-Hungarian strength pinned down and force Germany into diverting forces from the Western Front.  So far, so sideshow – and although Italian ambitions were limited to the territories just north of the frontier, the standard sideshow dream ticket was also in play, with some Anglo-French optimists (and journalists) imagining an Italian victory so comprehensive that it knocked Austria-Hungary out of the War and threatened southern Germany.

Like all wartime Allied sideshows except the invasion of Palestine (which was conceived and executed with a thoroughness born of experience, in good fighting conditions against an enemy already close to collapse), the Italian campaign went horribly wrong before it went at all right, and by 1918 the it was looking like a very expensive Allied mistake.  An almost continuous series of Italian offensives, many of them ordered in support of Allied operations elsewhere, failed to achieve anything except massive expenditure of lives and resources.  Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian Army remained largely untroubled in its mountain strongholds, and brought Italy to the brink of defeat whenever it was given enough German support to mount an attack of its own.  By the end of 1917 the Allies were diverting resources from the Western Front to shore up Italian defences, while the Central Powers were on the brink of a breakthrough into the Italian heartlands.

Fast forward to the spring of 1918, and the situation has changed. The Italian line at the River Piave has held, thanks to the arrival of troops and equipment from France and Britain, along with a thorough reorganisation of an Italian Army under new command. The Austro-Hungarian Army has meanwhile lost its German reinforcements, withdrawn to fight on the Western Front, leaving it to hold forward positions with levels of manpower, supplies, equipment and morale that reflected the Empire’s crumbling chaos. In other words, the Allies had started taking the Italian Front seriously and Germany, which had followed Austria-Hungary into the War as a coalition ally, was treating it as a sideshow.

Italian soldiers at the Piave in 1918 – in much better shape now Allied supplies had arrived.

I’ve talked before about the extent to which Austria-Hungary’s war effort had come to depend on Germany (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), and about the Empire’s internal disintegration under wartime pressures (24 January, 1918: All We Are Saying…).  By the time its spring offensive on the Western Front was being prepared in early 1918, the German Third Supreme Command recognised that Austria-Hungary was probably doomed to extinction and certainly offered no positive help as an ally.  Its response, bang in character, was to treat Vienna as a chattel, and Austria-Hungary – like Greece, Portugal, Romania or any other country abused by belligerents as a sideshow chattel – soon found itself hung out to dry for the benefit of its masters.

The Third Supreme Command had been pushing for an Austro-Hungarian offensive in Italy since February 1918, in the hope of diverting Allied (and particularly arriving US) forces away from its planned spring offensive on the Western Front.  Austro-Hungarian Army chief of staff Arz von Straussenberg was well aware that apparent superiority in divisional numbers on the Italian front masked the shrunken condition of most units, and that the Italian Army was drawn up in good defensive positions at the Piave.  He might conceivably have refused to comply with German demands – because it was obviously the sensible thing to do – but that would have meant his certain dismissal in favour of someone more cooperative.  It would also have brought down the wrath of his own front commanders, Field Marshal Boroevic at the Piave and, commanding the Trentino sector to the west, Conrad.

Conrad, his enthusiasm undimmed for attack as the best form of everything, had been lobbying for reinforcements to mount an offensive ever since the previous autumn’s Caporetto Offensive had ground to a halt.  Boroevic, whose relationship with Conrad was rivalrous and hostile, was at first against any form of attacking strategy but seems to have changed his mind and demanded reinforcements for his own sector as a matter of personal honour. Arz von Straussenberg responded by agreeing to mount an attack, committing virtually every available soldier to the operation and dividing his strength for a two-pronged strike.  This was a fine idea given the necessary resources, as demonstrated by the early successes of the very similar German operation in France.  Given the actual condition of the attacking forces it was a form of dramatic suicide akin to the Franco-Spanish decision to send their battered old fleets out to face Nelson at Trafalgar.

Planned at the usual ponderous pace – slow, even by First World War standards – the Austro-Hungarian offensive was eventually ready to rumble in June.  By that time, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to exploit its early successes, the German Army’s hopes of a game-changing victory in France were fading, and with them the Third Supreme Command’s hopes of securing (at the very least) a negotiated, conditional end to hostilities.  Even the major Austro-Hungarian success envisaged by blinkered optimists like  Conrad, and to a lesser extent Arz von Straussenberg, wasn’t going to change that narrative.

And so, on 10 June, Boroevic sent his Fifth and Sixth Armies across the Paive near the coast.  They advanced a few kilometres before Italian counterattacks forced them into retreat on 19 June.  Conrad launched the second phase of the offensive in the Trentino on 15 June, but made no significant gains, became bogged down around the town of Asiago and lost 40,000 men in a week.  Meanwhile a botched attempt to re-cross the river exposed the Fifth and Sixth Armies to strong flank attacks, and their losses had passed 150,000 by the time they eventually reached relative safety on 22 June.

When fighting died down next day, the offensive had achieved none of its aims and had no discernible effect on Allied Western Front operations.  Its abject failure dealt another blow to Emperor Karl’s floundering attempt to hold his empire together, and from 23 June 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Army ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.  Desertions went unchecked, many commanders simply went home and the skeleton force facing well-equipped Allied units across the Piave wasn’t fooling anyone. Italian c-in-c Diaz simply had to decide when to brush it aside, and he decided to wait for the relative cool of the autumn.

Italian c-in-c Armando Diaz – more flexible about tactics than his predecessor, and luckier.

Pointless, doomed from the start and mounted at the behest of serial gamblers blind to even the longest odds… if you’re looking for donkeys to blame, or another good reason to revile the legacy of swivel-eyed militarists like Ludendorff and Conrad, look no further than the ritual sacrifice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s last military adventure.

6 JUNE, 1918: Satan’s Little Helpers

Of all the gaps in our general appreciation of the First World War, none gets me more worked up than the way Anglophone posterity ignores the wartime invention of aerial bombing and its evil offspring, long-range bombing of civilian targets.  So I’m going to talk about it again.

Maybe it’s the strong whiff of denial that upsets me.  Anglophone popular history has long been accustomed to blaming Germany for everything bad that happened during the first half of the twentieth century, and is comfortable with blaming the Luftwaffe for the cult of civilian bombing.  Ask many Brits how that started and they’ll cite the Blitz of 1940, showing scant regard for the suffering of civilians bombed during the previous decade in China, Spain and the Low Countries (to name the most obvious cases), and completely ignoring the First World War.  Even those relatively informed Anglophones who might mention Guernica, Zeppelins and Gotha raids are apt to leave it at that, simply backdating the assumption of German guilt.

To be sure, the German military was an enthusiastic early proponent and serial pioneer of what was known as ‘strategic bombing theory’ – but only as part of a story that also has roots in Italy, Russia and above all Britain (30 December, 1917: Let’s Drop the Mask).

An Italian, Giulio Douhet, developed the theory and the Russian Army developed the first aircraft big enough to make it potentially viable, while German armed forces made the first systematic attempts to put it into practice, with their Zeppelin fleets and then with their purpose-designed Gotha bombers.  The British were meanwhile open to the arguments of their own strategic bombing theorists.  Though never first on the plot during the War’s early years, the British Army and in particular the Royal Navy always kept up with the game, developing purpose-built bombers and using them in increasing numbers to carry out raids against militarily relevant targets ever deeper inside enemy territory.

Nobody’s efforts ever came close to fulfilling the war-winning potential ascribed to strategic bombing by its ‘air-minded’ European proponents, but then nobody thought the technology was yet ready for the job and in any case no European authority was willing or able to advocate the slaughter of countless civilians during an epoch that still considered warfare a civilised activity.  By 1918 it had become clear to all but the most ardent enthusiasts that, even if strategic bombing might be a game-changer, it wasn’t going to win this war anytime soon.

The Italians and Russians were anyway in no position to risk resources pursuing the theory further, and the German high command, having noted the limited impact of Gotha raids, had scaled down its interest in air power.  With the French never more than dabblers in long-range bombing, because they were primarily interested in aircraft as an adjunct to the ground war on the Western Front, and the US military effort entirely focused on the same campaign, the only major military power still chasing the dragon was Britain.

Relatively rich in resources and right at the forefront of contemporary aviation technology, Britain was home to a fervent group of strategic bombing believers within the RFC and the RNAS, led with bombastic commitment by the nation’s most persistent profit of air power, Hugh Trenchard, and backed by some very noisy armchair strategists running the popular press.

Trenchard in 1918 – moderate moustache, radical views.

An early fan of Douhet, Trenchard had joined the RFC in 1913 and taken command of its home training squadron in August 1914.  By general consent one of the least competent British pilots to have gained his flying certificate in peacetime, but equipped with a clear-eyed determination to prove the importance of air power to modern and future warfare, he was transferred to France in November of that year as commander of No.1 Wing and was promoted brigadier-general in August 1915, when he replaced General Henderson as the RFC’s field commander on the Western Front.

It was a fact of life that Allied aircraft were inferior to German machines in 1915, but Trenchard wasn’t a man to let the weapon of the future languish on the defensive.  He committed his squadrons in wholehearted support of the BEF’s aggressive policy of ‘permanent warfare’ in the trenches, sending large numbers of obsolete aircraft on constant raiding missions over enemy lines and accepting heavy losses more cheerfully than many of his field commanders.  During another period of German superiority in the spring of 1917, he flung everything the RFC could muster in support of the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive, and emerged from the carnage of Bloody April as a fully-fledged bête noir for many combat officers (7 May, 1917: Up In The Air).

Trenchard’s approach was, understandably enough, a lot more popular with the British Army’s high command, and he made that count.  Always convinced that the offensive potential of aerial warfare lay in strategic bombing, he lobbied insistently for development of a mass bomber fleet, and eventually got one.  The creation of an independent RAF was in part a reflection of his views (not least because it enabled the grouping of army and naval heavy aircraft), and his preliminary appointment as its chief of staff in January 1918 was a demonstration of government commitment to the concept of strategic bombing.

The appointment was also fraught with political intrigue, centred on the machinations of Lord Rothermere, Britain’s new air minister and the contemporary definition, along with his brother Lord Northcliffe, of a press baron.  Rothermere’s principal aims can be summed up as a desire to get rid of Haig and his like, and to end the horror of the trenches by concentrating all available resources on winning the War through strategic bombing.  As such he led a political faction supporting a far more radical swerve to heavy bombing strategy than anything advocated by Trenchard, who never lost sight of the need for aircraft to respond to immediate tactical priorities on the ground, and was anyway a friend and supporter of Haig.  On discovering that Rothermere was simultaneously promising the Royal Navy a massive fleet of anti-submarine aircraft – a move that would effectively starve the Western Front of air power – Trenchard resigned in March, although his resignation was not officially accepted until 11 April.

Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere: check him out, he was nasty.

Now a major-general, Trenchard was instead offered command of the RAF’s planned strategic bombing force, the very embodiment of his ideas.  After trying and failing to add overall control of RAF offensive operations to the job description, he accepted the offer in May, and the new Independent Air Force  (IAF) came into being on 6 June 1918.

The IAF was specifically tasked with carrying out its own strategy for long-range, heavy bombing attacks on any target deemed militarily relevant, without reference to British Army or Royal Navy priorities.  Other powers had imagined it, and Germany had taken the first, relatively half-hearted steps towards putting it into practice, but the British were the first to follow strategic bombing theory all the way and create a weapon designed to win wars by inflicting mass carnage on an enemy’s homeland.

Like every other massed bombing fleet in history, the Independent Air Force was a failure.  Stationed at various airfields in eastern France, it dropped around 350,000 tons of bombs during the course of 162 raids that were rarely accurate and made little strategic difference to the course of the War.  Long-range raiders faced vastly improved anti-aircraft defences by mid-1918, and casualties were high.  In total, 153 IAF pilots and 194 other aircrew were killed before the Armistice, although those figures include losses during the final Allied offensives on the Western Front, when the IAF made a more conventional contribution, co-operating with other formations in support of ground operations.

Faced with disappointing results, Trenchard behaved like every other believer in strategic bombing theory in deciding that success was just a matter of deploying bigger fleets of bigger bombers.  The IAF grew in size throughout its short life.  By August it comprised four squadrons of day bombers and five of night bombers; it expanded constantly during the next four months; and plans to add Italian, Belgian and US units to Trenchard’s strength were interrupted by the Armistice.

State of the dark art: the Handley Page 0-400 was standard equipment for IAF squadrons in the summer of 1918.

Trenchard and his followers (including a rising star in Major Arthur Harris and a full battery of popular press barons) also typified true believers by exaggerating, or at least optimising, the impact of bombing raids on enemy production and morale.  Their excuse was the conviction that technological progress would make failure to develop a strategic bombing force a recipe for total defeat in any future war.  Their tragedy, in an epoch enthralled by the world-changing potential of new technologies, was to be believed.

Trenchard went on serve as RAF chief of staff from 1919 until 1930, and guided development of the service as a strategic bombing force while other powers opted for a more mixed approach to aerial warfare.  Though he had government support, he was never remotely likely to receive funding for the kind of fleet he envisaged in a political atmosphere dominated by disarmament and pacifism, and when war came the RAF’s bombers again proved too small and few in number to deliver on strategic bombing theory.

Belief was still strong – in 1938 official British government figures predicted the death toll from one major raid on London at around 600,000 – and so the Second World War’s heavy bombing story was essentially a repeat of the First.  Germany tried to bomb Britain into submission with what turned out to be insufficient force, and the British led the Allies in once more upping the game, pounding Germany (and Japan) with massive bombing raids, exaggerating their impact to secure the further expansion that would surely bring results, and failing consistently until 1945 revealed the grim truth about strategic bombing’s destiny.

Winning wars with huge fleets of big bombers had after all been a hideous chimera, leading humanity to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the gateway to Hell.  The false, dark vision was foisted on humanity during and after the First Word War by misguided militarists from many countries, but the British tried harder than anyone to make it a reality.

31 MAY, 1918: Fame and Fortune

Today marks the centenary of the Pittsburgh Agreement, sometimes called the Accord or Pact.  Signed by representatives of Slovak-Americans and Czech-Americans resident in the US, and presided over by the visiting (half-Czech, half-Slovak) nationalist leader Tomas Masaryk, the Agreement declared the participants’ intention to form an independent Czechoslovak state from ethnic lands within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and committed the new state to a democratic constitutional framework.  It was discussed and signed in Pittsburgh because the Pennsylvania mining industry had become a centre for Slovak immigrants, and talks were timed to coincide with what was then Memorial Day in the US (30 May) so that Czech immigrants from other regions could attend.

The Agreement made a big global splash at the time, at least in those countries drawing on Allied propaganda for their world news, but today’s Anglophone Great War showreel seems to have forgotten about it.  That’s a shame, because it shines a light on the Czech and Slovak campaign for national status – a struggle that pre-dated the First World War and was one of the very few with a happy ending, at least in the short term – and demonstrates the transformative power of mass communication in the propaganda-fuelled, proto-populist world of 1918.  And it gives me an excuse to talk about both.

In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire housed some 6.5 million Czechs, concentrated in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, who were among the most literate and urbanised peoples of Eastern Europe.  Officially classified as Austrians, they played an active role in imperial government and administration, while the 2 million Slovaks were officially Hungarian citizens and, though ethnically self-aware, largely excluded from that kingdom’s political life.  Both shared homelands with about four million linguistically distinct Ruthenes (85 percent of them in greater Austria) who were among the least developed rural elements of imperial society.

Czechoslovakia, as imagined in 1918 and pretty much as it came into the world.

Czech nationalism had been a pre-War political force in Vienna, with two parties (the radical Young Czech Party and the more moderate Realist Party) well represented in the imperial parliament (Reichsrat), and future wartime leaders Masaryk and Eduard Benes well established as prominent campaigners for independence. Slovak nationalist ambitions were already dependent upon and largely intertwined with Czech political activity, and would remain so throughout the War.

Masaryk and Benes – good friends and a brilliant political team.

Czechs, like other ethnic groups within the Habsburg Empire, faced mass conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army from July 1914. Although large numbers of them went to war with the same, essentially patriotic enthusiasm seen elsewhere in Europe, some dissent and anti-imperial agitation affected Czech units from the start.  During the first years of the War this was less damaging to Army efficiency than many of the largely German-speaking officer corps believed (and liked to claim as an excuse for failures), but desertion, mass surrender and refusal to fight became more common among Czech troops as both military and civilian conditions worsened.

With parliamentary activity suspended at home, the wartime political campaign for Czech independence was mostly conducted by exiles, and inevitably looked to the Allies for support.  Russia was seen as a possible liberator until mid-1915 – by which time Russian military victory seemed unlikely and St. Petersburg was (somewhat discouragingly) floating the idea of annexing Slovakia – after which nationalists focused on winning support from western Allied leaders through the Czechoslovak National Council, based in Paris and led by Benes.

As long as they held out hopes of a separate peace with Austria-Hungary, the British and French governments were unwilling to promote its future partition, but the diplomatic tide was turning by February 1916, when French premier Briand declared his support for an independent Czechoslovakia.  The real breakthrough for Czech nationalists came in 1917, with general Allied recognition that Vienna could no longer separate its fate from that of Germany, and the introduction of two very positive new elements into Czechoslovakia’s popular and political international profile.

President Wilson’s declaration of war gave a huge boost to the Czech and Slovak cause in the US.  A romantic attachment to national self-determination built into the US political psyche, stimulated in early 1918 by a commitment to Czechoslovak independence in Wilson’s popularly acclaimed Fourteen Points, generated rapid growth in popular and political support for nationalist representatives of the country’s large ‘hyphenated’ Czech and Slovak populations.  Given Washington’s global diplomatic clout in 1918, and the acquiescence of the European Allies (confirmed by Italy’s recognition of the Paris Council as a government-in-exile in April 1918), the question at issue by the time those populations came together on a public holiday in Pittsburgh was not whether there would be an independent Czechoslovakia, but which peoples it would include and how it would be run.

Before I get down with the planning of a nation in Pennsylvania, another element in the Czech wartime story demands a mention, because massive global interest and sympathy made the desperate adventures of the unit known as the Czech Legion the great emblem around which international support for independence gathered.

A number of specifically ‘Czech’ formations fought with the Russian Army against the Central Powers at various times during the war on the Eastern Front.  The first, formed in 1914 from among the 100,000 or so Czechs and Slovaks living inside the Russian Empire’s Ukrainian provinces, was disbanded and distributed among Russian units after the military disasters of 1915.  A Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment was established in December of that year, and was expanded to become a Rifle Brigade during the spring and summer of 1916, by which time it mustered about 2,500 men – but the brigade’s units were scattered among various Russian armies on the central and southern sectors of the Eastern Front, because the Tsarist government had no desire to foster nationalist movements on its western frontiers.

That problem appeared to have gone away after the February Revolution of 1917.  The new Provisional Government, always keen to display its liberal credentials to the western Allies, quickly established good relations with the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris.  In mid-May Masaryk visited St. Petersburg, securing formal recognition of the Council by Czechs and Slovaks inside Russia and lobbying for creation of a unified Czech Legion that could fight for the Allies as a national force.  Russian military leaders remained suspicious of the idea, but their doubts about reliability and counter-revolutionary tendencies were silenced by the much-praised performance of Czech troops at the start of the July Offensive (1 July, 1917: The Last Straw), and orders were issued in early August to expand the Czech brigade into a full army corps

The new army’s formation in the Ukraine was delayed while Masaryk, unwilling to stake the great symbol of Czechoslovak nationhood on survival of the Provisional Government, negotiated successfully for the Legion to be formally identified as part of the French Army (under the aegis of the government-in-exile) and for some 30,000 Czech and Slovak prisoners of war to be sent from Russia to fight on the Western Front.  The corps finally came into being on 9 October – under Russian command because there were no experienced Czech officers in Russia – but was barely ready for action when the Bolshevik Revolution changed everything.

After initially declaring its support for the Provisional Government (against Masaryk’s instructions to maintain strict political neutrality) and taking part in skirmishes against Bolshevik forces in Kiev, the Legion remained virtually inactive on the southern section of the Eastern Front.  Meanwhile it attracted large numbers of deserters from the failing Austro-Hungarian Army, so that its strength had risen to about 100,000 men by the time the Brest-Litovsk treaty brought a formal end to hostilities in March 1918. The Legion’s global fame had grown even faster, because the British, the French, the Americans and the national council in Paris had all worked out that an anti-Bolshevik, implacably anti-German force, surrounded by enemies, fighting for a small nation’s right to liberty based on representative democracy was pure propaganda gold.

As a French Army unit, the Legion took its orders from the Allied Supreme War Council, which toyed with the idea of sending it north to protect Allied interests in Murmansk (of which more one day soon) but eventually instructed it to return to France… via Vladivostok, almost 10,000 kilometres to the east.  I’ll save the details of the Legion’s extraordinary long march for another space – or you can look them up pretty easily online – but by May it was engaged in heavy fighting with Bolshevik forces along the trans-Siberian railway, its every movement tracked and reported in heroic terms by the world’s press.

It’s 9,700km from Kiev to Vladivostok, so the Czech Legion took the trans-Siberian railway – and the ‘democratic’  world cheered it on.

When US Secretary of State Robert Lansing accompanied Masaryk to Pittsburgh on 30 May 1918, he addressed welcoming Memorial Day crowds with what became known as the Lansing Declaration.  In expressing his ‘earnest sympathy for the nationalistic aspirations of the Czecho-Slovaks and Yugo-Slavs to freedom’ he demonstrated that the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia was now as fundamental to Allied war aims as the restoration of Serbian and Montenegrin independence, the conflict’s original cause.

Czechoslovakia’s status as an Allied cause célèbre in 1918 reflected more than just the power of propaganda.  It owed a great deal to the capabilities, conduct and political unity of thousands of Czech and Slovak exiles, emigrants, soldiers and civilians – and a great deal to Tomas Masaryk, who would go on to become his country’s first and most revered president.  Masaryk’s work to shape the euphoria surrounding Lansing’s speech into the Pittsburgh Agreement typified his unifying influence, generating a written, very public guarantee that Slovaks would enjoy equal political status under a democratic constitution in the new state.  The formalities would take a few months longer, but the nature of future Czechoslovakia ­– a swathe of Eastern Europe that has since been a beacon for liberal values whenever left to its own devices – was fixed for all the world to see, in Pittsburgh, on 31 May 1918.

24 MAY, 1918: Really Bad Tourists

It wasn’t exactly quiet across the world at war a hundred years ago, but the big picture was quieter than usual for late spring.  The Western and Italian Fronts were in skirmish mode for the moment, and the Eastern Front – though anything but quiet – was in the throes of what you might call internal chaos, with civil war brewing in Russia while nationalist ambitions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus struggled to survive a power grab by victorious but resource-hungry German, Ottoman and (occasionally) Austro-Hungarian invaders.

Elsewhere, Allied armies were still loitering with unconvincing intent at Salonika, British imperial forces in Mesopotamia were into a long period of reorganisation after a limited advance up the Euphrates in March, and General Allenby’s invasion of Palestine was still in a state of suspension enforced by the emergency transfer of men and materiel to meet the German spring offensive in France. Not much for Allied propaganda machines to crow about there, for all that they made the most of any trench raid, air operation or naval action that could claim even a hint of success, but they did find apparently exciting news to report from the ruthlessly ridiculous campaign in eastern Africa.

It was a very big theatre of war…

The British press hadn’t had much to say about East Africa since early 1917, when the government had accepted the (self-serving) analysis of former theatre commander Jan Smuts and pronounced the campaign all over bar the mopping-up operations (13 March, 1916: Alien Invasion).  It wasn’t.  Despite covering and ‘occupying’ an enormous amount of ground, British armies had failed to stop, let alone defeat or capture the Schutztruppe, the small, infinitely pesky German colonial force rampaging around East Africa under the tactically brilliant command of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

During the first half of 1917 Smuts’ successors – General Hosking and, from May 1917, South African General Deventer – rebuilt forces ravaged by disease for a renewed attack on the Schutztruppe, which had retreated into the largely untamed southeastern corner of German East Africa (modern Tanzania).  Heavily distracted by the antics of the maverick Wintgens-Naumann expedition (30 May, 1917: All Guts, No Glory), and burdened by imperial assumptions that his task was straightforward, Deventer eventually launched a major offensive in September.

By that time Deventer commanded some 35,000 troops of the King’s African Rifles, and he was able to detach two overwhelmingly strong columns south and southwest from the coastal bases at Kilwa and Lindi.  Hopelessly outnumbered, desperately short of supplies and facing an obvious pincer movement, the Schutztruppe made a stand at Mahiwa, about 80km inland, on 17-18 October.  Lettow-Vorbeck stationedhis last two field guns and 1,500 of his troops, more than half his remaining strength, in strong positions on a ridge, where they held off two simple frontal assaults by a tired Anglo-Nigerian brigade (4,900 men) before South African General Beves called off the attack.  Having inflicted some 2,700 casualties against 500 losses of his own, Lettow-Vorbeck withdrew south.

The battle at Mahiwa, which was both the bloodiest and the last major engagement of the campaign in East Africa, received scant attention from Allied propaganda but was big news in Germany and earned Lettow-Vorbeck promotion to the rank of major-general.  It didn’t solve the Schutztruppe‘s supply problems, so having broken free of the pincer and unwilling to risk further battle casualties, Lettow-Vorbeck marched his remaining 2,200 troops south and into Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique).

Crossing the Rovuma River into Portuguese East Africa in late November 1917, and chasing off a half-hearted attempt to confront the invasion by about a thousand native troops under Portuguese command, the Schutztruppe found plentiful supplies and easy pickings.  Able to loot colonial supply bases almost at will, it used some of the proceeds to trade with native villagers, who were used to being robbed with violence by Portuguese colonists and found Lettow-Vorbeck’s scrupulously honest dealing far more to their liking.  Meanwhile the British, having yet again let their prey slip away, could only rest their exhausted troops, open negotiations with Portuguese authorities to send a force into Mozambique, and wait for the winter rains to subside.

With permission granted, Deventer assembled a brigade known as PAMFORCE at Port Amelia (now Pemba) in December 1917.  Heavy rains restricted its operations to skirmishes with the small German rearguard in the hinterland until 7 April, when field commander General Edwards marched the entire force west.  While Lettow-Vorbeck responded by withdrawing deeper into Portuguese territory, his six companies of rearguard troops performed another exemplary tactical retreat, drawing British forces into skirmishes against good defensive positions before falling back on prepared supply dumps and water sources.  PAMFORCE marched doggedly in pursuit, its two columns struggling to remain in tactical contact through uncharted, hilly country while disease and supply problems rapidly reduced their fighting strength, until by mid-May they were close to exhaustion.

The tour of Portuguese East Africa, from a British perspective.

Finally, on 22 May, a detachment sent to aid PAMFORCE from Nyasaland stumbled upon the German rearguard near Mahua and attacked its baggage train – but the nearest of Edwards’ columns, though within earshot of the fight, was unable to cross rough terrain in time to join it, and most of the rearguard escaped to follow Lettow-Vorbeck south.  Further skirmishes took place next day, by which time PAMFORCE actions were being portrayed in the British press as the prelude to final victory in East Africa, but this particular false dawn was fleeting and optimism evaporated within 48 hours.

Another well-executed rearguard action on 24 May completed the Schutztruppe‘s escape, after which Edwards chose to preserve the lives of his sick, hungry and exhausted troops.  The hunt was called off, PAMFORCE limped back to Port Amelia and Edwards began developing a new base of operations further south at the port of Mozambique.  Lettow-Vorbeck meanwhile continued his fruitful tour of Portuguese East Africa without meeting serious resistance until 28 September 1918, when the Schutztruppe re-crossed the frontier into German territory.

The last chapter of the war in East Africa was still to come, and I’ll be back to take a look at it, but I make no apology for using this post as an update on the campaign.  That’s because it is either ignored by modern European commentators, or discussed purely as a prime example of a successful guerilla war against overwhelming force, and both positions reflect a shamefaced silence about the real tragedy of East Africa that set in immediately after the War.

Tens of thousands of soldiers, drawn from a bewildering array of nationalities spanning four continents, suffered illness, injury or death during the campaign (I’ll report the final tallies when it’s done), but the War’s negative impact on East African civilian life was on an altogether different scale.

Learning the European way – native askaris with the Schutztruppe.

As well as native troops, or Askaris, some 350,000 civilians were employed as bearers for European armies on the move, stripping a significant portion of the workforce from croplands and livestock herds that were anyway under pressure from military supply demands, the scorched earth policies adopted by retreating armies and the widespread destruction of local infrastructure.  The region known as the ‘breadbasket’ of Africa, arguably the continent’s most socioeconomically promising experiment in colonialism, suffered famine in 1917–18, was particularly vulnerable to the post-War influenza epidemic that killed perhaps 1.5 million of its people, and would never fully recover its potential for prosperity.

Askaris and civilian bearers enjoyed challenging work conditions…

That was only half the story, and a future story at that.  For those post-War British authorities aware of the campaign’s detailed course, the immediate debt to be ignored concerned the enormous wartime loss of civilian life in East Africa.  Nobody ever counted the campaign’s civilian casualties but some estimates range above a million dead, and informed British contemporaries saw no reason to tarnish the Empire’s post-War reputation with that kind of butcher’s bill.  So East Africa wasn’t talked about during the War’s aftermath, and while the ‘civilised’ world was struggling with the paradoxes of its own reconstruction, nobody who could be heard cared.  That’s the way the world was in 1918 and 1919, but there’s no real excuse for keeping quiet about it now.

15 MAY, 1918: Blamespotting

Almost four years in, and it’s getting harder to come up with centenaries that have anything new to say about the First World War, so here comes another rambling excursion into generic territory.  Back in the early twentieth century, the key to mounting a good excursion was the same as the key to fighting a huge, mechanised war – so let’s talk about trains.

For almost a century now, a great deal of thought, print and educational torture has been devoted to analysing and correlating the ’causes’ of the First World War.  For reasons that are pretty obvious (learning from mistakes, for instance), the roots and triggers that produce wars are always of interest to posterity, but no conflict in human history has provoked anything like the intensity and controversy of our search for the First World War’s true parentage. This is largely because, having turned out so much bigger, longer, more ghastly and less decisive than it was supposed to be, the First World War needs some serious explaining, but it also has something to do with the wide range of debatable, disputable and damnable explanations available for its outbreak.

You’ll be glad to know I’m not planning a tilt at that particular windmill today, but competitive, chauvinist nationalism has its place among a litany of ’causes’, and there are arguments pinning the blame on one or other of those competing nations, on failure of an outdated diplomatic system, on social and economic pressures within the same states, on the shape of European geopolitics in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, on Karl Marx… the beat goes on, and it’s still generating plenty of funky arguments among academics not otherwise inclined to a lot of dancing.

The bottom line is that generations of historians and less objective commentators have failed to come up with a consensus about the relative importance of those political, social and economic factors they all agree had something to do with starting the First World War.  This is understandable and, if you’re looking to trace the War back to its seeds, unavoidable, but approach the question from a more holistic perspective and answers come more easily.  Ask yourself what factors were fundamental to the War’s origin and continuation, what it could not have existed without rather than what gave it such distinctive features, and it becomes clear that trains caused the First World War.

I know I’m begging the question of what caused trains, but every search for causation involves gazing into infinite mirrors.  In any case, however much the very existence of HMS Dreadnought served to exacerbate the contemporary world’s geopolitical and socio-economic tensions, none of the other beacons of technological progress that symbolised, facilitated or shaped it can claim to have made the First World War possible.

Prompted by fear, ambition or revenge, the Great Powers of mainland Europe were all ready to fight each other for many years before 1914, but their carefully if optimistically laid plans for massed invasions and rapid conquests would have been inconceivable without the great infrastructural leap forward that had created comprehensive national rail networks during the later nineteenth century.  You couldn’t rapidly mobilise and deploy million-man armies, or even hundred-thousand-man armies, using horses – and it took the false certainties of train timetables to inspire military minds to create the Schlieffen Plan, Plan 17 or Plan 19 (the German, French and Russian invasion plans for the outbreak of war in the years leading up to 1914).

Europe’s railway networks in 1850…
… had definitely expanded by 1910.

Precise, minutely detailed schedules for the transport of troops by train were at the crux of French, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German war plans in August 1914.  As military authorities took more or less complete control of networks, hundreds of thousands of reserves were rushed from their homes to their assigned battle positions, and delivering them more quickly than the enemy was seen as a fundamental precondition to the rapid victory everybody expected to win.

The German railway network performed its task almost perfectly as the War began (giving rise to the never-ending trope about German trains running on time). The French railway system performed a far less arduous operation with reasonable efficiency, and Russian armies (though not many of their weapons) were transported to front lines in East Prussia, Poland and (modern) Ukraine far more quickly than anybody, including most Russian commanders, expected.

By contrast, the Austro-Hungarian railway experience in August 1914 was nothing short of calamitous, as strategic dithering at the top forced armies to reverse course the hard way, taking single-track railways all the way to the Serbian frontier in order to travel back to the southern stretches of the Eastern Front.  Chaos, breakdowns, bottlenecks and the occasional skirmish between rail workers followed, so that Austro-Hungarian armies arrived late and in bad condition to every important action during the War’s first months.

Once the European frontlines had stabilised, railways played a vital part in creating and maintaining stalemate.  Defenders in France, Italy and (to a lesser extent) Eastern Europe could call upon sophisticated rail networks to whisk troops, weapons and supplies to wherever they were needed at the front, while attackers lost all those advantages the moment they crossed into enemy-held territory.

Cheating, I realise – but it saves a couple of paragraphs.

Railways played a different but no less crucial role in extending land warfare across the globe.  Vital tools for colonial and imperial powers, they connected ports with remote inland population or resource centres all over the world, and made it possible for belligerent Europeans to fight mechanised wars at the fringes of their empires.  Connection often amounted to a single, narrow-gauge railway line, and during the First World War some of those lines – in the Arab lands, in East Africa and across Russia’s Asian hinterland to Vladivostok, for instance – became battlefronts themselves.

Railways were obvious military targets whenever and wherever they came within range of hostile weapons.  Blowing up bridges or important junctions, train-wrecking and other forms of sabotage were high priorities for all spies and resistance groups behind enemy lines.  They were also the principal tactics of the Arab Revolt during its difficult early stages, and as such achieved significant strategic impact by effectively isolating the Ottoman Empire from its Arabian provinces.  The whole of the sprawling Ottoman Empire was ‘railway poor’ in that most of its (largely foreign-owned) network was of the narrow-gauge, single-line variety.  The system never recovered from a chaotic attempt at mass mobilisation in late 1914 and ground to a virtual halt after the Russian navy cut off coal supplies from the Black Sea in 1916, but I digress…

Railway systems close to busy front lines were in particular danger from hostile artillery and aerial attacks, which began as sporadic light raids by small aircraft, singly or in groups of three or four, but became steadily more organised and heavier as aerial tactics and technology underwent rapid development.  By the later years of the War purpose-designed light bombers were targeting railways near all the main European fronts, and heavy, long-range bombing forces on both sides were attacking railway systems deep inside hostile territory.  The long-range bombers weren’t very accurate or effective, but they kept trying because – by way of underlining the trains-to-blame theory – the national commitments to ‘total war’ that made such a long conflict possible could only have been developed and could only be sustained through the arteries of a sophisticated railway system.

Left alone, properly maintained and efficiently run, contemporary railway systems were quite capable of keeping the Great War in motion, so wartime technological innovation was unnecessary, give or take experiments in transporting enormous guns or small aircraft. The War did trigger one rapid change in the global railway landscape as thousands of kilometres of light railway track, hitherto used for local services or transporting mine and factory goods to main lines, were torn up and transported to war zones.

Railways near any battlefront, but particularly near the crowded artillery of the main European fronts, tended to get blown to bits during major battles or overrun when the lines shifted.  They could hardly be rebuilt in their original form amid the (potentially deadly) crater-scape left by the big guns, but ground could be flattened for light railways.  They were slow, fragile and could only carry reduced loads over short distances, but light railways could and did maintain the defenders’ advantage in supply and manpower deployment wherever trench warfare took hold, most famously during the French defence of Verdun in 1916.

Useful yes, comfortable no – light railway in action.

Light railways were also extremely useful as supply lines for forces operating in remote or desolate regions without roads, navigable rivers or established rail lines.  As such they were responsible (along with shipping, obviously) for extending the global reach of the Great War and its consequences, as chillingly demonstrated by the long-term fallout from British establishment of a line across Sinai in preparation for the invasion of Palestine in 1917.

Much of the above is fact-free and quite a lot of it is incidental to this post’s small message – but stats about global railway systems and the Great War are available in spades online, and I’m allowed to ramble off the point during conversational excursions.  The small message is this.

There’s no denying the argument that trains were to blame for the First World War in all its misery, and it’s always worth reminding ourselves that history isn’t just about human decisions but can be shaped by the circumstances of humanity’s development.  Then again, that doesn’t mean railways were THE cause of the War.

History isn’t, or shouldn’t be about nailing down cause and effect. That’s what heritage and demagogues do.  History is about gathering up all the possible causes, causes of causes and influences to causes that can shine any light on the impossibly obscure big picture of the past.  History won’t ever show us the whole picture of anything and will always leave us guessing.  It won’t ever grant us understanding of its effects, of the present, and it won’t ever stop trapping the unwary into dangerous ‘eureka’ moments.  What it can do, looked at from enough angles, is help us to stay open-minded.

7 MAY, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy

A century ago today Romania signed the Treaty of Bucharest, a peace agreement with the Central Powers that represented the beginning of the end for something rather unpleasant and much overlooked by modern commentators.  I’m referring to the dishonesty, bribery and bullying employed by European diplomats – above all those of Britain, France and Germany ­– to persuade smaller nations to join their side during the first three years of the First World War.

Some smaller independent countries – Portugal springs to mind – were already little more than client states by 1914 and could to all intents and purposes be ordered into the War by their effective masters, but most needed bribing with promises of territorial acquisition, economic aid and diplomatic support.  These were particularly tempting carrots for ruling elites in small countries at a time when chauvinistic nationalism was a standard position, and they were generally as happy to accept and trust promises as their suitors were to make them.

Entering the War on the basis of promises by either side represented a gamble on two levels.  National leaders were betting on their chosen team winning the fight, and then on the promises being kept.  During the first two years of the War, possibly even the first three, the first bet was a reasonably straight fifty-fifty call, at least potentially worth the risk, but staking a nation’s fate on the promises made smacked of gambling addiction because, for all that great power diplomatic arrangements in wartime were secret, it took a lot of Nelsonian blindness to ignore the strong possibility that they were dishonest.

It really didn’t require hindsight to see, or at least to guess, that German promises could never satisfy both the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, each of which cherished ambitions against the other, or that the same problem made the Entente’s promises to Italy, Serbia and Greece impossible to keep.  Falling for the promises was a mug’s game, but if you didn’t join one side or the other you risked being left friendless after the War, out in the cold while the winners arranged what virtually every contemporary observer assumed would be a new world order.

So they fell for the promises, and on the whole paid a very high price in human and other resources – but from the lofty perspective of strategic statecraft these were acceptable, provided the pay-off came at the end.  The Treaty of Bucharest provided the first clear indication that the pay-off wasn’t going to satisfy any of the lesser powers, and that promises made by great powers at war were at best indications of what they would like to deliver, at worst not worth the paper they were written on.

Romania had gambled on a Russian victory in the east and trusted Anglo-French promises of support when it joined the War on the Allied side in 1916 (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…).  Bad move.  The Russian revival on the Eastern Front was a mirage, and quickly dissipated; the only realistic springboard for direct military support was the Allied force at Salonika, but it was hopeless; and the country’s economic resources, above all its oil, attracted a German-led invasion far more powerful than anything the Romanian Army could hope to stop.  By late 1917, with the war between the Central Powers and Russia effectively over, Romania had been reduced to an embattled rump, with three-quarters of the country occupied by German or Bulgarian forces and no hope of help from anywhere once the Russian Army had collapsed.

King Ferdinand of Romania: he gambled, lost, gambled again, won, and doomed his country to a strife-torn future.

The government of King Ferdinand signed an armistice on 9 December 1917, but was able to delay any serious progress towards a peace settlement as long as Russia carried on frustrating the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk.  Once those negotiations were complete, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin convinced Ferdinand that the German supreme command was ready to renew its invasion, and the King gave in.  A pro-German conservative, Alexandru Marghiloman, was installed as Romanian prime minister and a preliminary peace treaty was agreed only two days after the signing at Brest-Litovsk, on 5 March.  The preliminary treaty accepted Romania’s loss of the Dobrudja region and the immediate demobilisation of the Romanian Army’s small remnant… but at this point Germany’s wartime diplomacy came home to roost, because both Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire refused to accept the arrangement as a basis for formal peace.

Bulgaria demanded the full control over the Dobrudja it had been led to expect when it joined the Central Powers in 1915, and Ottoman Turkey wouldn’t settle unless it regained control over Central Thrace, which had been given to Bulgaria as an inducement to join.  It took another two months, but the Central Powers eventually cobbled together a somewhat shaky solution that kept them all happy enough to at least move on.

The formal treaty – as eventually signed at Buftea, a small town some 20km northwest of Bucharest, on 7 May – gave Bulgaria control over the southern part of the Dobrudja, but put the north under joint occupation by the Central Powers and left the Danube delta in Romanian hands (because it was too valuable a bargaining chip for anyone to win).  Austria-Hungary was meanwhile given control over the passes through the Carpathian Mountains as compensation for Germany’s wholesale appropriation of Romanian oil, grain, railways and financial systems.  The Treaty also recognised the union of Bessarabia, part of the Russian Empire in 1914, with Romania.

Blue to Bulgaria, purple to Austria-Hungary, green to the joint administration of the Central Powers and Bessarabia absorbed… Romania after Bucharest.

On the surface it appeared, and was intended to appear, that Romania had done pretty well out of the deal.  The country had, somewhat bizarrely, suffered catastrophic defeat but ended up bigger than it started, and it was spared the kind of client or protectorate status imposed on other nominally independent states within the reach of the German Army in Eastern Europe.  The true picture was a lot less benign, as German civil servants were appointed to every Romanian ministry, given the power to fire ministers or officials, and effectively took over national government. Although the King remained the nominal head of state, by way of keeping resistance to a minimum and making sure Romanians policed the arrangement, trade routes to the Black Sea and the country’s economic planning were fully geared to supply of the German war effort.

So the Treaty of Bucharest took Romania prisoner, broke promises made by Germany to Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, and forced Austria-Hungary to accept territory in place of the supplies it really needed.  It produced only one winner in Germany, which used its regional military superiority to ride roughshod over the promises of its diplomats, and it was a stark illustration of what other relatively minor belligerents could expect from the post-War pay-off, no matter which side they were on.  Oh, and it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

The Central Powers had won the war on the Eastern Front, but their long-term prospects on other fronts weren’t looking good, especially after the German Army’s spring offensive on the Western Front had run out of steam.  Well aware of this, King Ferdinand and his advisors, led by former prime minister Ion Bratianu, took the last gamble in town and stuck with Allies – but trod a lot more cautiously than they had done in 1916.  The King refused to ratify the Treaty of Bucharest in public, and Bratianu waited until 10 November, one day before the Armistice took effect, before denouncing the Treaty and again declaring war on the Central Powers.

Annulled by the terms of the Armistice, the Treaty of Bucharest would eventually be replaced by the Treaties of Neuilly and Trianon, which almost doubled the size of post-War ‘Greater Romania’ and more than tripled its 1914 population.  Products of the Paris Peace Conference (and worth more detailed attention on another day), the treaties were easy giveaways for the western Allies because Romania’s territorial claims were all against defeated enemies or the war-torn Soviet Union.

Romania in 1920 – and it’s huge!

Greater Romania temporarily fulfilled nationalist ambitions to unite all the ‘historic’ Romanian lands, so the country could count itself a winner when the swings and roundabouts of wartime diplomacy finally came to a halt. That didn’t make the diplomacy involved any less criminal or its results any less circumstantial, and from any perspective not warped by the poison of nationalism the price of territorial expansion was ridiculously high.

War and the hardships of occupation had killed an estimated 500,000 Romanian civilians, or more than 6% of the 1914 population, by late 1918, and although the economic effects of wartime occupation could be reversed, the regional tensions exacerbated by wartime and post-War diplomacy could not.  Those tensions would resurface when another war put an end to Greater Romania in 1940, and would be a blight on the country’s history for the rest of the century.  If this ramble has a point to make, it’s that small countries can never really be winners of wars run by bigger ones.

30 APRIL, 1918: Of Mass And Men

I’m in the mood for one of those generic, anniversary-free posts today, so here’s a general chat about ordinary automobiles during the First World War, specifically those in military use.  It’s a subject largely ignored outside the petrolhead bubble, it touches on several debates as yet unresolved, and it’s another small light on the differences between reality and the heritage history.

Arguments are still in progress about the First World War’s role in the rapid development of automobile technology, and about its part in the establishment of mass production.  Because they are based on individual interpretations of the same inconclusive information, the arguments will never be resolved, but here’s a skim through the majority view that works for me.

While the demands of war gave an undeniable boost to automobile research and development, the fundamentals were already in place by 1914 and wartime efforts were understandably focused on refining existing design than inventing anything new.  Mass production of motors was also getting started on both sides of the Atlantic before 1914, and plans were already in place for its expansion, but it grew on steroids in response to mushrooming demand and the increasing willingness of governments to provide massive levels of support.

By the end of the War this had created a huge industry with enormous production capacity.  Manufacturers everywhere, especially in the United States (and above all Ford), had already geared up for mass supply of a 1919 campaigning season that never happened, and European arms manufacturers like Citroen and BMW were converting themselves into automobile companies as means of finding something profitable to do with all those newly obsolete factories.  Both the refinement of existing automobile design and the sector’s forced growth into mass marketing laid the ground for a post-War sales surge that saw cars become humanity’s favourite toy, a situation the planet is still struggling to survive.

It was a world war, and a global auto-boom.

A third debate still in progress concerns the extent to which motor vehicles took over wartime military transport, communications and other auxiliary roles hitherto carried out by horses.  The question didn’t interest anyone much at the time (better things to be doing), so a lack of basic information means any answer will always be a matter of extrapolation and speculation, rendered uncertain by the vagaries of individual choice in a world still divided on the relative merits of horse and car.  But some relevant stats are available, along with plenty of more or less reliable memoir, and between them they tell a tale of horses over horsepower.

By the end of the War, modern armies were using plenty of motorised vehicles that weren’t armoured cars or tanks, in numbers that reflected their wartime economic status.  The British armed services led the way, as befitted the biggest industrialised nation with four years of war behind it and no blockade to beat.  At the Armistice, they employed 66,352 trucks, 48,175 motorbikes, 43,187 cars (including ambulances), 6,121 tractors and miscellaneous other vehicles, and (of course) 1,293 steam-powered wagons.  France is thought to have been in roughly the same league, while Italy mustered about 25,000 trucks and perhaps 12,000 other vehicles. By that time United States armed forces had brought about 20,000 vehicles to Europe, but had a quarter of a million more ready for shipment if needed in 1919.  As for the Russian Empire, nobody knows.

On the receiving end of the Allied naval blockade mass production of automobiles was undoubtedly more difficult, but the figures to prove it are hard to find.  It seems safe to assume that German armed forces had access to and used more motorised transport than any of their allies, but the German Army’s vehicular roster at the end of the War was relatively paltry, amounting to some 16,000 tractors, 25,000 trucks, 12,000 cars, 3,200 ambulances and 5,400 motorbikes.

Austria-Hungary did have a fairly successful pre-War automobile industry, with centres in Bohemia and Hungary, but expansion was hampered by material shortages and the refusal of some manufacturers to expand output beyond levels sustainable after the War.  No figures are available, but anecdotal evidence backs up the assumption that, although Imperial forces certainly used some trucks, cars and motorcycles, they were few and far between.  Most, if not all motorised vehicles used by wartime Ottoman and Bulgarian forces – generally trucks – were supplied by Germany or Austria-Hungary.

So the Allies held a growing advantage over the Central Powers in vehicle numbers as the economic world war progressed, a situation destined to be repeated for a different set of alliances during the Second World War.  At first glance the numbers look big and important, but they shrink in the context of millions mobilised (the British figures, for instance, take in every service all over the world), and they are only as important as the vehicles were useful.  In some circumstances and conditions they were immensely valuable, bringing increased speed, efficiency and capacity to a variety of transport, haulage and communications tasks.  In many more situations and for many reasons, they were either unused or useless.

The use of staff cars to whisk field commanders from place to place provides a good example of the differences between theory and practice in this branch of mechanised warfare.  Early in the War, many officers in the major western European armies remained suspicious of the new technology and preferred to get around on horseback, a prejudice that was eroded but never eliminated by wartime experience, and that persisted throughout the conflict in many of the less advanced forces.  Plenty more military men everywhere were automobile enthusiasts, but the most car-friendly officer with the most state-of-the-art vehicle might still have trouble putting it to good use.

The D-Type Vauxhall, very handsome, very popular with British bigwigs…

Fast, reliable automobiles were readily available by 1914, but they were still fragile by modern standards, so that the broken terrain around a battlefront – which was anyway difficult for an ordinary wheeled vehicle – frequently caused breakdowns and damage, as did the extremes of climate found in most theatres.  Cars of the period were also relatively difficult to maintain, and commanders in all the main armies complained of a shortage of mechanics.  Fuel and oil were often in short supply, particularly for German and Austro-Hungarian forces, but the Vienna administration’s failure to plan for any other supply needs in 1914 left many of its vehicles crippled during the War’s first months and highlighted another major issue, because large numbers of spare parts were also absolutely vital to field operations.  Another limitation on automobile use, for staff officers or anyone else, was a chronic shortage of qualified drivers in an age when driving was a relatively complex task and hardly a popular pastime.

All these obstacles served to limit the practical impact of all the other wartime applications for motorised vehicles except motorbikes, which were simpler, more rugged machines capable of delivering one man and a message (and later in the War, a radio) across most terrain.  None of them made any difference to the motor vehicle’s symbolic impact on perceptions about the First World War, then and ever since.

Automobiles of every kind were propaganda stars for every armed force in every belligerent country, and senior commanders used some of the finest models to add swagger to their profiles, particularly when photographs were involved.  The epitome of this tendency was a man who knew a thing or two about swagger and symbolism, General Joffre, French Army c-in-c for the first half of the war, who plucked famed racing driver Georges Boillot from the air service in 1914 to speed him up and down the Western Front – on good roads behind the lines, of course.

Joffre’s off to work – and the saviour of France gets a great, big car.

Boillot soon escaped his c-in-c’s clutches and took to the sky, becoming a much-decorated ‘air ace’ (in French terms, any pilot with five or more confirmed victories) before his death during a dogfight in 1916, but he’d done his bit for the conflict’s image as a modern, mechanised enterprise.  It’s an image that has refused to go away, and is still used by the heritage industry to give its mindless carnage thesis an unlikely sheen of glamour.

So the technology wasn’t fundamentally changed during the conflict, mass production was hastened but was coming anyway, and four-legged friends were still the basis for most military transportation – but at least the automobile’s four-year military adventure can claim to have permanently warped our view of the First World War.

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR