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.

23 APRIL, 1918: NEVER MIND THE BALOCHS…

Back in the days when anyone with an eye on world power wanted to take down the British Empire – roughly speaking the days between Napoleon and Hitler – the idea that India was the key to Britain’s prosperity was something of a truism.  Napoleon had made a slightly bonkers attempt to attack the subcontinent via the Middle East at the start of the nineteenth century, but by 1914 Britain’s enemies possessed sufficient geographical awareness to rule out conquest as a viable approach. They also possessed sufficient political awareness to realise that, while external forces had little or no chance of loosening Britain’s physical and economic grip on India, internal opposition to imperial control was a growing problem for the British administration, and was being sharpened by the spread of modern European political ideas among literate Indians.

It’s not really accurate to talk about Indians as a national type during the First World War. The subcontinent may have formed a basic administrative unit for the British, but was in fact a tapestry of culturally and politically distinct regions, each with its own strong sense of identity, and each a tapestry of culturally and politically distinct districts or villages. To put a simple (maybe even simplistic) spin on a complex story, the national identity implied by British control was being learned by those strata of Indian society engaged in active cooperation with the Raj, and the lesson was nurturing aspirations for national and regional independence that might (and one day would) destabilise British rule.

At this point I could happily wander off into tales of the Indian Congress Party and Gandhi, but there’s a war on so I’ll stick to what passes for the point. Germany’s wartime attempts to sabotage the jewel in the British crown focused on sending agents into India to bribe and cajole disaffected elements into rebellion. On the whole, despite the local violence endemic to the subcontinent, they achieved very little, but in early 1918 they scored something of a result in the most volatile, violent and historically troublesome corner of the Raj – the wild, largely Moslem northwest.

Covering an area almost three times the size of England, the northwestern province of Balochistan bordered Afghanistan, Persia and the Straits of Hormuz, which gave access to the Persian Gulf, so it was what you might call a strategic hotspot in an age of empires with global ambitions. The sparsely populated province was governed, along with the storied North-West Frontier Province directly to the north, by the Indian Political Service, the quasi-military department of the Raj charged with control of potential trouble spots. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its martial nature, the regime was not popular with locals, and the province was targetted – along with the North-West Frontier – by German agents based in southeastern Persia, technically a neutral country but in practice a minor battleground for British, Russian and German elements.

Here it is – or rather was.

The Marri tribe of eastern Balochistan was regarded as particularly hostile by the British administration, but why it opted for armed uprising in 1918 is uncertain. German agents may have convinced tribal chiefs that the British were too stretched by the demands of war to fight back, or Marri representatives may have conspired with the leaders of other Baloch tribes during a 1917 visit of the British viceroy to the provincial capital, Quetta. The ceremonies surrounding Lord Chelmsford’s visit culminated in a demand for a levy of army recruits, which may have reinforced Marri confidence in British weakness, or may simply have angered a traditionally warlike tribe. Either way, the levy was accepted by every tribal leader except the Marri chieftain, who made it clear his people would not fight for their enemies and agreed to pay for exemption.

Something about that arrangement clearly didn’t wok, because at 11pm on 19 February 1918 several hundred tribesmen attacked the British military outpost at Fort Gumbaz. The British had been expecting trouble, and reinforcements had just raised the fort’s garrison to eighty men, more than enough firepower to repulse three assaults by attackers armed with little more than faith and swords.

Despite losing at least two hundred casualties at Gumbaz, the Marri were anything but daunted. They secured support from other Baloch tribes – principally the Khetran, but also the smaller Buzdar, Kaisrani and Bugti groups – and then embarked on a regional rampage. Attackers destroyed buildings around the British fort at Barkhan on 7 March, and around 3,000 men attacked the British garrison at Fort Munro on 15 March, occupying nearby buildings and high ground. That was the uprising’s high point, because despite the claims of tribal leaders the British were able to mount a military response, and it was about to catch up with the rebels.

Two brigades of Indian Army troops had begun arriving at bases in the towns of Duki and Dera Ghazi Khan in early March, and forward units of the 55th rifles (Frontier Force) reached Fort Munro from Dera Ghazi Khan before the end of the day, dispersing the attack with the loss of only four casualties.  More troops arrived next day, when Frontier Force moved on to the town of Rakhni and began a programme of systematic reprisals, destroying villages and crops, seizing livestock and imprisoning large numbers of suspected insurgents.

Meanwhile the brigade based at Duki advanced to Gumbaz on 18 March and entered the Marri heartlands at Nurhan the following day. Ill-supplied and equipped by contemporary European standards, it nevertheless travelled with a battery of light artillery and was altogether too powerful for anything or anyone in its path. It could also call on air support from the nine RAF BE2c biplanes based in the region, some of which bombed the Marri capital of Kahan on 24 March, killing 14 men and spreading the kind of terror dreamed of by strategic bombing theorists in Europe.

Conducting punitive operations against local villages as it went, the ‘Duki column’ advanced through pouring rain until 4 April, when it met and overran a force of some 1,500 tribesmen blocking the road at Hadb, inflicting about 700 casualties before marching to Kahan, which was occupied without opposition on 18 April.  The rebellion was effectively over.  The Khetran tribe’s unconditional surrender was made public a hundred years ago today, and the Marri followed suit on 2 May, after which the tribe maintained a surly but non-violent approach to British rule for the rest of the War.

The British press in 1918 could make an exciting, imperially uplifting pictorial out of any victory, however cheap.

So a small, unfocused rebellion in an obscure corner of the British Empire came to a predictable and completely unsuccessful conclusion, an event reported in the British press as a victory for the Indian administration and a defeat for German attempts to destabilise the subcontinent.  That said, at a time of high drama on the main European fronts, operations in Balochistan were hardly headline news in Britain, begging the question of why I’m bothering to tell anyone about it.

Apart from my undisciplined delight in reporting events ignored by the heritage gurus but big enough to make headlines in any more peaceful era, the fate of the Marri is a reminder that – despite almost four years of state propaganda condemning its enemies for behaving like barbarians – Britain was still quite comfortable with treating at least some of its imperial subjects like animals. Troops of Asian origin may have carried out the vengeful destruction of Marri food supplies, livelihoods and domiciles, but the officers in charge and the policy they implemented were British.

The brief campaign of early 1918 also offers useful context for the idea that the Raj was an example of benevolent imperialism, a power arrangement that was good for both conquerer and conquered. Currently fashionable in middlebrow Britain, and often expressed as a reason for southern Asia to be grateful for European intervention, this rosy mirage has some substance when applied to some of the subcontinent’s population, some of the time, but bears no resemblance to the reality experienced by most.  With British mass media currently engaged in a noisy bout of Commonwealth tub-thumping to a Brexit backbeat, it seems worth remembering that wartime oppression gave one large and culturally distinct part of modern Pakistan no reason at all to be grateful for the British Empire.

14 APRIL, 1918: Big Foch

I’m often inclined to act the apologist for military commanders during the First World War.  Utterly stymied by the state of contemporary weapons and transport technology, they have been used by posterity as scapegoats for a war it regards as disastrous. For long-winded versions of the argument just put ‘donkey’ into the site search engine and read on, but for now I want to talk about a side-effect of posterity’s disdain: the Great War’s shortage of hero commanders.

The Black Prince, Napoleon, Marlborough, Grant, Cromwell, Eisenhower, Zhukov, Gustavus Adolphus, Wellington, Nelson, Giap… off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other major war that hasn’t bequeathed a few high-ranking military greats to posterity, but scan around the First World War’s major belligerent powers and who do you find?

You find Ataturk.  As father of the Turkey that emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk’s military and political exploits were raised by the new state’s propaganda to a status comparable with the great commanders of any war. Otherwise, the field is barren.  The USA wasn’t at war for long enough to give Pershing or anyone else a shot at demigod status, and Italy didn’t really have any victorious commanders, while the British Empire’s military leaders were quickly – and, it would seem, permanently – dismissed as donkeys.  Russian and Austro-Hungarian head honchos were damned to disgrace or obscurity by the inheritors of their fallen empires, and with the exception of Hindenburg, an inert figurehead never regarded as militarily relevant by any informed observer, Germany’s war leaders soon suffered the same fate.

That just leaves France, where the relationship between posterity and First World War military superstars is a little more complicated.

Unlike the conflict’s other big players, France faced a fight for its very survival from the start of the War.  By that time French popular and political culture had been obsessed with the nation’s army for several decades, a reaction to past failures that amounted to a passionate, often critical expression of militarism, very different from but hardly less pervasive than that so routinely associated with Germany.  To put it mildly, both situations tended to encourage the creation of national heroes, and the permanent threat of the invader at the gates dealt most revered among them an extra trump against posterity’s revenge – because they became ‘saviours of the nation’.

The ‘saviour’ at the Marne in 1914, General Joffre, remained an untouchable hero for more than two years of repeated failure, carried out with spectacular arrogance, before he was replaced at the top in late 1916, by which time the ‘saviour’ of Verdun, General Pétain, had taken his place as the nation’s favourite hero commander.  Pétain cemented his status by ‘saving’ the French Army (and by extension the nation) when it mutinied on the Western Front in April 1917, but a year later his reputation was losing some of its gloss, though only in high places.

Pétain, hero commander and kindly grandfather… but not for long.

Pétain’s great acts of salvation had been defensive in nature – shoring up both Verdun and the Army – and since the mutiny he had been principally concerned with saving French lives, refusing to commit the Army to anything more than a minor supporting role in offensives on the Western Front.  Naturally enough, this attitude preserved his popularity among the troops and did no harm to his public reputation, but by the spring of 1918 Allied commanders and political leaders were desperate to be rid of him.

Haig, Pershing, Lloyd George and Pétain’s own prime minister, Clemenceau – all men whose hopes for their own legacies depended on winning the War as quickly as possible – were all convinced of the need for much more aggression from the French Army.  The saviour could not, of course, be sacked as its c-in-c – but they could bypass him.  On 14 April 1918, after several months of preparatory manoeuvres, they did just that, appointing French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of Allied armies on the Western Front, and in the process enshrining a rival ‘saviour of the nation’ in their own image.

Few observers of French military life, least of all the man himself, doubted that Foch was the aggressive general for the job.  Well into his sixty-seventh year in April 1918, he had been preparing for the role since the early years of the century, when his hugely influential works on military theory introduced the concept of ‘offensive spirit’ to French military thinking.

Regarded as stunningly original in contemporary France (though heavily influenced by the relatively little-known Clausewitz) and intended to reverse the defeats by Prussia in 1870, Foch’s ideas laid great stress on tactical flexibility and strong artillery support for attacking infantry.  His many supporters took them further, extending them into a call for attack at all costs, with disastrous consequences for Foch’s first attempt to save the nation but very positive effects on his reputation and career.

By August 1914, Foch was in command of the French Army’s elite XX Corps, part of General Castlenau’s army in position for the invasion of Germany through Lorraine.  While the invasion was collapsing around him, Foch put his ideas into action, conceiving and executing a counterattack that halted the German advance on Nancy.  He was rewarded with promotion (on 28 August 1914) to command a new Ninth Army at the Battle of the Marne, where he again counterattacked to prevent a German breakthrough.

Big cheeses on the Western Front:  French President Poincaré, Belgium’s King Albert, French War Minister  Alexandre Millerand, Western Front c-in-c Joffre… and, with his hand up for attention, Ferdinand Foch.

Now firmly established as a national hero, but inevitably in the shadow of Joffre the saviour, Foch took command of the Northern Group of French armies on the Western Front in October, and from the following January the appointment was extended to include British and Belgian forces in Flanders.  Never really able to tell British (or Belgian) commanders what to do, his authority hung on direct control of French reserves in the sector, and his reluctance to commit them (particularly at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915) earned him a reputation among BEF commanders for wasting lives.  At the same time he alienated successive French governments with his demands for greater aggression and his support for politicians prepared to display said aggression, notably Clemenceau.

Foch remained in the post until the end of 1916, when he was replaced in the wake of Joffre’s belated sacking, his fate sealed by opposition to what he called the ‘Verdun tactics’ of the new pretender to the saviour crown, General Nivelle.  After leading a mission to plan future Anglo-French cooperation on the Italian Front, he returned to the Western Front as chief of staff to the new c-in-c, Pétain (of course), after Nivelle’s dismissal in May 1917. Restoring his reputation took longer, but he cracked it during the autumn, impressing politicians and Allied commanders with his coordination of Anglo-French intervention in Italy after the Austro-German Caporetto Offensive had driven the Italian Army to the brink of collapse.

The success saw Foch appointed, with strong British backing, as French Permanent Military Representative to the new Allied Supreme War Council, established in November 1917 as a means of exerting Anglo-French authority over the disputes and decisions of Italian field commanders.  In Western Front terms, the position saw Foch taking part in (and agreeing with) decisions made at the very top of the Allied command structure, but unable to impose them on his cautious superior in the field.  The Council finally lost patience with the situation once the German Spring Offensive of March 1918 made it imperative that the British and French on the Western Front were singing from the same hymnbook.  Promoted over Pétain’s head, Foch became the Western Front’s supreme commander on 14 April, and his jurisdiction was extended to include the Italian Front in June.

About sums him up…

The new saviour of France had been installed, and would go on to end the War in what amounted – by the standards of this conflict – to a blaze of glory.  Once the German Army’s advances in France had been halted, his enduring commitment to ‘offensive spirit’ would finally come into its own, chiming nicely with the needs of Haig, Lloyd George and Clemenceau, driving the Allied armies forward when it mattered most, and earning him universal admiration in the immediate post-War era as the architect of Allied victory.

So the French, in stark contrast to their allies, emerged from the War boasting two fully-fledged hero commanders (or saviours of the nation) in Pétain and Foch – but neither managed to hold onto the halo.  Pétain’s concern to save French lives took him over the line into infamy in 1940, when he agreed to become head of the Vichy regime, and Foch’s religious commitment to aggression against the nation’s enemies persisted into the 1920s, by which time his Draconian approach to punishing post-War Germany had seen him dismissed by all but the most right-wing opinion as a fanatical, anachronistic warmonger.  Ah well, Ataturk it is then…

I’ll just end this rambling, essentially pointless post with an apology for coming up with something so bland and taking so long about it. I’m afraid that’s what happens when the demands of exterior wood treatment reduce a body to one solvent-fuelled paragraph a day.   And they say trench warfare’s tough…

7 APRIL, 1918: Holy Smoke

I’ve been lurking around the trenches for a week or two, and it’s time to wander elsewhere, even though I’m going to need a particularly sketchy excuse for an anniversary to get there.  So a century ago today, forces attached to the Arab Revolt occupied the town of Kerak, just off the southeastern coast of the Dead Sea.  This wasn’t big news at the time, but as a minor component of the British Empire’s invasion of Transjordan, now part of modern Jordan, it feels a bit more important now – so here’s some context.

By early 1918, the British invasion of Palestine and the Arab Revolt’s northern progress were converging on the Ottoman-controlled Arab lands east of the River Jordan.  While British theatre commander Allenby planned his main offensive for the season on the Mediterranean coastal plains to the west, he sent his eastern flank into Transjordan for a diversionary attack towards the important railway junction of Dera.  Before launching the diversion towards Jericho and the northern Dead Sea, Allenby arranged for direct support from the Arab Revolt.

Nice, simple map, and it pretty much shows what you need…

The Arab Northern Army, based at the Red Sea port of Aqaba, was already conducting raids against Ottoman garrisons at Maan and Medina.  In mid-January, commander Prince Feisal sent a detachment led by his brother Zeid further north to the Dead Sea, charged with disrupting supply lines of grain and wood from central Arabia to Ottoman forces in the region.  Despite food shortages and poor coordination between its tribal groups (a problem that beset all but the most small-scale Arab Revolt operations), the advance quickly took the towns of Shobek and Tafila without much of a fight – but the threat to Dead Sea trade routes brought 1,000 Ottoman troops to the region, and they overwhelmed Zeid’s forward positions outside Tafila on 24 January.

The scene was set for another chapter in the saga of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but I’ll try to describe it without exaggerating.  Taking command of the defence of Tafila, Lawrence deployed about 500 men along a narrow, five-kilometre front, flanked by rocky ridges and blocking a central road.  Once Ottoman forces had nullified a few machine-gun posts manned by town residents, they took what seemed the smart option and occupied the high ground on either side of the front – but were falling for a trap.  Unable to dig trenches in the rocky ground, and pinned down by fire from the central Arab line, they were outflanked on both sides by small Arab detachments and collapsed under pressure from coordinated charges.  Having suffered only 65 casualties, against some 300 Ottoman troops killed and another 250 captured, Arab forces continued their northward progress to the Dead Sea port of El Mezra, where the seven small craft of the German-Ottoman Dead Sea flotilla surrendered on 28 January.

In close touch with but never in control of Arab movements, Allenby sent his eastern flank towards Jericho on 19 February, but it took two days to struggle across twenty kilometres of difficult terrain, by which time Ottoman defenders had retreated beyond the Jordan to Es Salt and Amman.  While Allenby turned his attention back to the west, launching consolidating attacks along the Mediterranean coast from 9 March in preparation for his main offensive, he sent one infantry and one expanded cavalry division across the river with strong artillery and engineering support.

Commanded by General Shea, the detachment had orders to keep going towards Dera and cooperate with Arab forces coming up from the south, but bad weather made any advance impossible until 23 March, when it took the heights of Es Salt without a fight.  By that time General Liman von Sanders, the new commander of Yilderim Force (the elite German/Ottoman strike force intended to spearhead a counterattack against Jerusalem), had concentrated all his reserves on the town of Amman, 30km further east.  When another pause in the rains allowed further movement on 27 March, Shea sent the Anzac Mounted Division against Amman, but its three-pronged attack was halted by machine-guns in the town citadel and bombing attacks from German aircraft based in Dera, and was abandoned after civil unrest in Es Salt delayed the arrival of supporting infantry.

Liman von Sanders and Kemal Ataturk, coloured in and both concentrating on their pissing contest…

An Ottoman counterattack opened on 30 March and, with the rising waters of the Jordan threatening to cut off his retreat, Shea withdrew across the river, leaving only a bridgehead defended at Ghoraniye.  What became known as the Battle of Amman had cost Shea 1,200 casualties and could only be interpreted as an Ottoman victory, the first in the theatre for almost a year, but it did achieve its strategic aim by convincing Liman von Sanders to concentrate his forces for the defence of Transjordan.  He also withdrew troops from the garrison at Maan, where the majority of Feisal’s men were gathering.

The proposed siege of Maan had delayed any Arab support for Shea, as had a second Ottoman attack on Tafila that forced the Arab garrison to retake the town on 18 March, and although a column under Lawrence did eventually march north it turned back on news of the defeat at Amman.

Early April saw all sides in the three-cornered struggle for Transjordan positioning for a renewed fight.  Arab forces occupied Kerak on 7 April, and Liman von Sanders launched an unsuccessful attack on the British bridgehead on 11 April.  At the same time a feint towards Dera by the ANZAC Mounted Division convinced him that, despite simultaneous British attacks near the Mediterranean coast, Allenby’s main spring offensive would strike east of the Jordan.

In fact Allenby’s main spring offensive never came, postponed until the autumn while every available British resource was rushed to face the German offensive on the Western Front, but he did take one last tilt at Transjordan.  A second invasion force – two cavalry divisions, one of infantry and two Indian Army brigades, led by General Chauvel – crossed the river on 30 April and took the Ottoman Fourth Army HQ at Es Salt, but the success was short-lived.  Liman von Sanders had reinforced the sector in preparation for a limited advance of his own, support promised by local Arab tribesmen failed to materialise, and by the end of 1 May the British were surrounded.  Allowed to retreat because Liman von Sanders couldn’t afford any more casualties, Chauvel was back across the Jordan by 4 May.

Scots and Australians enter Es Salt… but they’d be chased off again next day.

The British invasion had failed, but that didn’t really matter.  Allenby had suffered about 1,600 casualties, but Liman von Sanders had lost 2,000 effectives he couldn’t replace and had been persuaded to leave almost a third of his entire force in Transjordan.  By way of keeping it there, Allenby left the four divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps to swelter in the Jordan valley, based on Bethlehem, through the rest of the spring and summer.  They held off one attack, by about 5,000 men on the night of 13-14 July, before sending half their strength west in September to join Allenby’s autumn offensive, and positioning 15,000 dummy horses to keep the manoeuvre hidden from German air reconnaissance.

The Arab Revolt meanwhile divided into two essentially separate campaigns.  Rebel activity cooled in the south, where Feisal’s father and the Arab Revolt’s nominal leader, Ibn Hussein, had become suspicious of British intentions after hearing of the Sykes-Picot agreement (the proposed carve-up of the Middle East between British and French imperial interests).  Further north, where the Revolt’s strategic impact really mattered to the British, they supplied Feisal’s army with increased levels of air support, funding and supplies, especially of armoured cars and camels, while Lawrence provided reassurance of British commitment to future Arab independence.  After a summer spent reprising its successful guerilla campaign against Ottoman supplies and infrastructure, destroying 25 bridges in May alone, the Arab Northern Army would be prepared to do Allenby’s bidding in the autumn and drive towards Damascus alongside his next offensive.

This hasn’t been a big story, but if the heritage industry is too hung up on fêting the RAF to ignore mayhem on the Western Front it’s hardly likely to be commemorating Jordan’s brief career as a First World War battleground.  Even if nothing else was going on to keep them occupied, I struggle to imagine popular British media having much to say about a campaign based on promises of regional independence – for Transjordan as well as for its neighbours – that imperial authorities had no intention of keeping.

For the record, postwar Transjordan became a mandate of the British Empire, which took an indefinite ‘caretaker’ role until the territory was deemed fit for self-rule.  It eventually became the independent Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in 1946, and was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan three years later.  The rest is very complicated modern history, but I’m here to tell you some of its roots lie in 1918.

29 MARCH, 1918: It Came Out Of The Sky

Though the First World War was fought in and around many of Europe’s capital cities, a good few of which spent time under occupation by enemy forces, none of the continent’s self-proclaimed ‘great powers’ ever found its capital on the front line.  Their capitals did all suffer serious social, economic and political upheaval during the War.  London was also bombed, Berlin suffered serious privation, and shortages bit amid rampant political turmoil in Vienna and Rome, while St. Petersburg was engulfed by revolution and fleetingly threatened by the subsequent German invasion.  Only Paris spent the war years close to the actual fighting.

Right at the beginning of the conflict, occupation of Paris had been the German Army’s primary aim.  It had been a close-run thing and, with memories of German occupation during 1870-71 still relatively fresh, the city had spent the autumn of 1914 in a state of high, sometimes frantic alert. The situation had of course stabilised during the next three years, but with the front line about 100km to the east the city was never more than one military failure from disaster, a fact driven home by repeated German bombing raids.

Fear for Paris was in the forefront of French popular, military and political thinking with every subsequent crisis on the Western Front, so when the German spring offensives of 1918 brought fighting back to within 65km of Paris it was like 1914 all over again.  Martial law, evacuation of the Louvre, sandbags around monuments and blackout after dark – the city braced for an intensification of air raids and it came, but so did the Paris Guns.

The German Army had made use of giant ‘Big Bertha’ railway guns at the very start of the War, initially to attack fortresses on the way to France and then to attempt long-range bombardment of French civilian targets.  They had hardly been used since, but in the meantime the Krupps munitions company had been developing an even bigger adaptation.  Known in Germany as the Pariser Kanonen (Paris Gun) – or the Wilhelmrohr or the Wilhelm Geschütz (inevitably, William’s Barrel and William’s Gun) – it was technically the 380mm Max E Railway Gun and was specifically designed to attack Paris from previously impossible distances.

Three Pariser Kanonen were constructed, each with a 210mm barrel, lined to allow firing of a 120kg shell.  By shooting the shell into the stratosphere, where wind resistance was minimal, the guns could attack targets from a distance of about 130km.  Sounds impressive, and this was the ultimate in railway gun design, but it came with some severe operational drawbacks.

Check out my rod! Paris Gun in action, aiming for the stratosphere…

The gun was anything but accurate (although Paris is hard to miss), and it lacked the weight of projectile to cause serious damage when it did hit something.  It was also difficult and costly to use, because firing caused such severe erosion of the barrel that each shell had to be wider than the last and the propellant charge altered accordingly, until the barrel’s width reached about 240mm, after about twenty shots, and it had to be replaced.  None of this really mattered because the job of the Pariser Kanonen, like that of Europe’s growing heavy bomber fleets, was to test the theory that civilian morale would crumble under assault from the sky.

Ready for operation by the spring of 1918, and manoeuvred into position with the greatest secrecy during the opening phase of the Kaiserschlacht Offensive, the three Paris Guns fired their opening shots at Paris on 23 March.  The first shell struck the Place de la République at 7.20 in the morning, and by the end of the day the shelling had killed sixteen people and injured another 29.

Not quite lead story at the height of the German offensive, but close..

The immediate effects of the strike were everything German military planners could have wished for.  Even amid all that shocking news from the front, the Paris Guns caused an absolute sensation in Paris and across the Allied world, prompting fears of urban devastation to match that inflicted on battlefields by heavy artillery. Fear and outraged reached a crescendo, as did popular anxiety in Paris, on the afternoon of 29 March, Good Friday, when a shell collapsed the roof of the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, just east of city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and exploded in the nave.  Though casualty figures vary, such is the nature of wartime propaganda, I’m going with 91 people killed, including a number of prominent figures, and another 68 injured, but the shock administered to Paris, and to France as a whole, went beyond details.

It came through the roof, obviously – St.-Gervais-Saint-Protais after the attack.

In all – and again figures vary, largely because German records of the operation were later destroyed – the Paris Guns fired about 350 shells in four distinct phases between March and August 1918.  The first phase ended on 1 May, the second ran for two weeks from 27 May, the third for two days in July and the last from 5 to 9 August, after which the guns were moved away from the front as Allied counteroffensives threatened their positions.  The attacks killed a total of 256 Parisians and wounded another 625, but they never again provoked the hint of mass panic that had greeted their first week of operations.

The Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais disaster’s main long-term effect was to discourage Parisians from gathering in crowds.  Casualties diminished accordingly, and the city adapted to the threat in much the same way as cities attacked from the air have been doing ever since.  In one way that’s not really a fair comparison, because by 1918 aircraft were already subjecting cities to much heavier damage, more accurately delivered, than anything the Pariser Kanonen could inflict.  Then again, supporters of the theory always considered the impact of strategic bombing and its offshoots to be primarily psychological, and from that perspective the Paris Guns were yet further evidence that the theory was nonsense, or was until we all went nuclear.

The giant railway guns were never used again after August 1918, and although victorious forces made strenuous efforts to find them after the War, they and the relevant records were presumably destroyed to keep them out of Allied hands.  Despite their limited usefulness, they were not yet fully discredited as a strategic weapon, and the Hitler regime made unsuccessful efforts to revive the type during the Second World War.  Of course National Socialism was always impressed by the gigantic and thoroughly hooked on psychological warfare, excuses for its stupidity that can also be attached to the Luftwaffe’s civilian bombing campaigns during the Spanish Civil War and the Second Word War.   I’m not sure I can come up with any kind of excuses, revenge aside, for the thousand bomber raids carried out in the 1940s by the RAF, which replaced the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service on Easter Monday 1918.

As a postscript, and a curtain raiser to something grimly momentous, I should mention that while Parisians were scanning the sky during the spring shelling in 1918, a much more dangerous killer was flourishing under their noses.  The massive and deadly influenza crisis of the period is well known, but is generally placed in 1919 and 1920, the years of its peak power (especially in Britain and the USA), but the first of two overlapping epidemics had already begun, in Kansas, and was reaching France along with US troops.  The earliest cases attracted public notice in Paris during April 1918, and the flu would be a mounting problem in France for the rest of the year, killing more than 1,300 Parisians in October alone.  After a second strain of influenza struck from the east, reaching Germany later in 1918, the combined epidemic would erupt to kill at least 70 million people across the globe in the immediate postwar period – but that, as I keep saying, is another story.

21 MARCH, 1918: Stalemate Ends (Posterity Shrugs)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice going – and by Western Front standards, astonishing.

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

Paris in its sights… railway guns were about to make a comeback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR