11 DECEMBER, 1917: Marquee Signing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 NOVEMBER, 1917: Active Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 November, 1917: Reputations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

15 NOVEMBER, 1917: Tiger Feats

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighters were heroes, pacifists pariahs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clemenceau – would you argue with him?

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

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

German poster of President Poincaré, with his Tiger.

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

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

8 NOVEMBER, 1917: World Shaken (Not Stirred)

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

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

Seizing the day, in a staged kind of way…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokyo in 1917 – modernising very nicely.

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

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

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

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

31 OCTOBER, 1917: Promised Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 OCTOBER, 1917: This Plan Sucks

When the First World War got started everybody knew it couldn’t last long, because the social and economic effort required to fight a war with the massed armies simply couldn’t be sustained for more than a few weeks, even by the world’s richest and powerful empires. The only person of any military or political significance to doubt this blindingly obvious truth in the late summer of 1914 was British war minister Lord Kitchener, who insisted the war would last for years and cost millions of lives but never explained his views.  Given that Kitchener generally gave off an air of enigmatic mysticism, the more normal movers and shakers felt he could be safely ignored.

We know now that the normal people got it wrong.  Military stalemate spurred every nation at war, and in particular the great empires at the conflict’s heart, to previously unimagined levels of industrialisation and organisation that extended their military lifespan beyond anything thought possible in 1914.  The stresses created by their extraordinary responses to the demands of total war eventually helped destroy the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, permanently diminished the British and French, and wrecked Italy’s self-conscious attempt to join the ranks of what were, until 1914, known as the ‘great powers’.

The strategists guiding them were well aware that the War’s big European players were running their systems too hot, and the repeated failure of military efforts to conjure any kind of decisive victory during 1915 reduced them to the desperate resort of attrition.  Effectively a gamble that the enemy’s war effort would crumble first, war of attrition depended on the efforts of Europe’s two strongest and most industrial economies, Germany and Britain.

Although France was just about capable of surviving the hothouse into 1917, the bloodletting at Verdun had confirmed its inability to win a war of attrition against Germany on its own, while neither Russia nor Italy possessed the economic infrastructure to fight one with more than simple manpower.  All three relied on military and economic aid from Britain’s (once bottomless) well of money and goods, and on Britain to make attrition work.

By late 1916 Berlin’s principal allies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, were only able to fight at all because Germany’s astonishing economy was continuing to provide large-scale military and industrial support.  The Third Supreme Command had come to power well aware that a strategy of attrition depended entirely on Germany, and convinced it was doomed to failure.  From the moment the it chose to provoke US involvement by launching an all-out U-boat offensive, attrition was no longer an option for Germany, but it looked like a guaranteed winner for the Allies, albeit in the medium-to-long term and far too late save the Russian Empire, once the US had entered the War in April 1917.

During the summer of 1917 it became clear to both sides that submarines were not going to knock Britain out of the fight anytime soon.  While the British could choose to keep piling into the Western Front, this time around Ypres, in the knowledge that even if Haig’s big offensive failed attrition was on their side, Germany was now in desperate need of a new game-changer.  Ultimately, only a sweeping victory in France would do the trick, but the only hopes of that lay in distraction at least some Allied strength from the Western Front as a preamble to concentrating all German and Austro-Hungarian strength in the theatre.

The most likely theatre to attract large-scale military aid from Britain and France was the Italian Front.  Italy had been promised substantial Allied reinforcement in the event of a crisis, and after more than two years of almost continuous warfare – most of it unsuccessful, all of it attritional – the Italian war effort appeared volatile and fragile enough to collapse in the face of a major military setback.  Unfortunately from Germany’s point of view the Italian Army’s immediate opponent, the Austro-Hungarian Army, was in grave anger of collapse in its own right, in no condition to mount an offensive and only notionally in a position to plan one.

The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Baron Arz von Straussenberg, had replaced the appalling Conrad the previous March, but had little actual influence over the course of the War.  He functioned as a personal advisor to the earnest, reformist young Kaiser Karl, taking instructions rather than formulating policy, and had little say in the dispositions of Austro-Hungarian armies controlled from Berlin through German military advisors.  He kept himself strategically occupied wit proposals to Berlin for joint operations in Italy, and had no more success than his predecessor until mid-September.  Aware that Austrian positions on the Isonzo had barely survived Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s eleventh offensive in the sector – which was only just slowing to a halt – the Third Supreme Command finally said yes, and committed German forces to an attack on the Italian Front.

The attack was launched a century ago today, and is known as either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Caporetto Offensive.  Like so many efficiently conceived and executed German offensive operations in a war defined by victory’s mirage, this one began with a flourish and promised the Earth but couldn’t quite deliver.

The Austrians had proposed a repeat of their 1916 near miss in the Trentino valley, but were overruled by German planners, who prepared a limited offensive intended to buy the Austro-Hungarian Army a breathing space for reconstruction.  Nine Austrian divisions were reinforced by six German divisions drawn from General von Hutier’s highly successful army around Riga, to form the German Fourteenth Army.   Commanded by General Otto von Bülow – not the Karl von Bülow who messed up the invasion of France in 1914 –it concentrated against a lightly defended 25km stretch of the Italian line north of Gorizia, in front of the town of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) .

This one needs a map. Here’s a map.

Well informed of German movements by spies and deserters, Cadorna and the Italian high command reacted to the long-feared news that the Germans were finally coming to the theatre by suspending all offensive operations on the Isonzo – but no attempt was made to take up superior defensive positions in preparation for an attack.  Italian armies merely stopped where they were and adopted a generally defensive posture.

While history has never doubted that this was a mistake, explaining it has been harder.  Cadorna probably underestimated German strength and overestimated the fighting capability of his exhausted troops.  He also seems to have assumed that Italian numerical superiority over the whole front (41 divisions against 35) provided sufficient protection against attack, and ignored the fact that enemy concentration had left Italian forces heavily outnumbered in the Caporetto area.  Defensive preparations weren’t helped when the commander of the Caporetto sector, an inveterate maverick by the name of General Luigi Capello, ignored orders to withdraw his artillery to safe positions across the river and instead deployed his best units for an attack on Bülow’s east flank.

General Cadorna had a good view of the situation – but didn’t see it.

If the Italians were ill-prepared to meet attack, they certainly weren’t ready for General Hutier’s new ‘infiltration tactics’ (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  The main German advance in the centre of the position took Italian defenders by surprise on the morning of 24 October, broke through the lines almost immediately and had stormed forward some 25km by the end of day.  Secondary attacks on either flank were held off by defenders, as was an Austro-Hungarian attempt to push south from positions near the coast, but the collapse at the centre threatened to leave the majority of Capello’s army cut off at the River Tagliamento.

Capello wanted to retreat at the end of the first day, but Cadorna ordered counterattacks in the centre.  They lasted for another six days, and although they failed to block the central gap they did give most Italian troops time to get back across the Tagliamento. German attempts to take a bridgehead beyond the river began on 2 November, prompting Cadorna to order a further retreat to the fast-flowing River Piave, less than 30km north of Venice.

The Italian retreat from Caporetto, not quite headlong but very miserable…

By the time the retreat was complete, on 10 November, the shock of defeat had reverberated around Western Europe.  The somewhat inert liberal government of Paolo Boselli, in power in Italy since June 1916 and already under pressure as the economy lurched into crisis, was voted out of office on 25 October.  New premier Vittorio Orlando, the former interior minister, wasted no time appealing to Britain and France for emergency help, meeting British PM Lloyd George and French premier Painlevé at the north-west Italian port of Rapallo on 5 November.

In line with contingency plans laid out during the spring, Italy’s allies agreed to reverse the recall of heavy artillery lent from the Western Front for Cadorna’s last Italian offensive, and to provide substantial ground and air reinforcements to help stabilise the Italian line at the Piave.  Rapallo also saw the dismissal of Cadorna – on 7 November, at the insistence of the Allies – and creation of the Supreme War Council, originally comprising (as its military representatives) new Italian c-in-c General Diaz, French General Foch and British General Wilson.  Established as a means of curtailing the independence of Italian field commanders, and as such a classic case of shutting the stable door, the Council would eventually mature into a fully unified Allied military command, led by Foch.

Six French and five British divisions from the Western Front reached the Italian front line in early December, but by then the Austro-German offensive had run out of steam.  An attack by two Austrian armies in the Trentino area had opened on 12 November, but was short on reserves and made little progress.  Further east, attacks between the upper Piave and the River Brenta resumed on 13 November, but were held off during five days of heavy fighting.  The battle dragged on into late December, with attacks steadily diminishing in scale, before bad weather and the withdrawal of German units from the theatre halted major operations for the winter.

Although the German high command had orchestrated a stunning victory, it had lacked the resources to complete the job, and had exhausted the last offensive gasp of an enfeebled Austro-Hungarian Army, which would never again mount a successful offensive.  In strategic terms, the transfer of Allied troops from France could be called a minor German success, but in the end it made much less difference to the balance of power on the Western Front than it did on the Italian.

The Italian Army lost 300,000 men at Caporetto, all but 30,000 of them as prisoners, as well as most of its artillery, but it survived and would be strengthened from now on by Allied involvement in the theatre, which brought both a continuous stream of reinforcements and a major reorganisation programme.  What’s more the threat of invasion silenced the rising crescendo of popular pacifism in Italy, as public opinion reacted as it had done at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive in 1916, uniting behind the government and military in time of national crisis.  So the Third Supreme Command’s best-laid plans, intended to knock Italy out of the conflict, had instead breathed new life into a failing Italian war effort.

If there’s a point to this story it’s that even the most careful plans for war – about its size, its length or its strategic direction, not to mention its tactical details and aftermaths – are never much more than blind guesswork.  History, particularly heritage history, inevitably draws on the rationalisations of participants to give war a coherent narrative, to make its outcomes look planned, but war is always a time of chaos and none of the plans has ever worked.

10 OCTOBER, 1917: National Stereotypes

The big story in the British press a hundred years ago was still the Third Battle of Ypres, as it was then being called, which was in the throes of another British reboot, distinguished by contemporaries and posterity as the Battle of Poelcapelle.  This latest phase of the fighting achieved very little for the Allies at substantial cost for both sides, and although British newspapers were accentuating the positives for all they were worth, faithfully trumpeting every inch of ground gained and every German casualty, their tone had lately undergone an increasingly familiar shift of focus.

Although everyone was able to be relatively honest about their generally successful defensive operations, the press on the attacking side greeted any major wartime offensive with confident predictions of a great victory.  Haig’s latest offensives were no different, but as hopes of success floundered in Flanders mud readers were being let down gently with reports that spoke less about the strategic situation, more about the horror of the carnage and the bravery of the troops.

This quiet evasion of uncomfortable truths was characteristic of wartime internal propaganda produced by liberal democracies, and was more subtle than the big lies about the big picture perpetrated by German propagandists conditioned to regard the body politic as intrinsically hostile.  Though hardly convincing  to a public accustomed to reading between the lines after three years of war, it did make allowances for natural scepticism and trusted its target audience to respond positively to sugar coated bad news.  As such it spared populations the kind of visceral shock administered to Germany when the truth got out, as mentioned in my last post – but before we get too comfortable with liberal democracies it’s worth noting that all they shared a propensity for other, less inclusive forms of internal propaganda.

We’re the good guys, OK? The British government knew what its people wanted to hear.

When it came to persuading populations that they were on the side of the angels, that their government and armed forces were honourable reflections of the home culture’s intrinsically superior morality, nobody’s propaganda was willing to trust its audience.  By way of illustration, British newspapers on 10 October also carried a small story about four Swedish merchant ships seized in UK ports. According to the reports, the ships had been commandeered for their own good because, although they flew the Swedish flag, they were partly British-owned and therefore likely to be attacked anyway by German warships.

Leaving aside the assumption that German naval officers were extraordinarily well informed about the ownership details of neutral merchantmen, one elephant in the room here was the fact that losses to U-boats, though less than catastrophic since the establishment of a convoy system, still left the British desperate to use any excuse to grab any merchant shipping within reach. Informed readers may well have understood and forgiven this, but a second elephant was more carefully concealed.   A public conditioned to view Britain as the much-loved global policeman, protecting the world from aggressive militarism, wasn’t being told that the British regarded neutral Swedish shipping as fair game.

Of the northern European states known in Britain as the ‘adjacent neutrals’ – the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden – the constitutional monarchy of Sweden was by far the most pro-German.  The country enjoyed strong cultural and economic links with Germany and had long regarded Berlin as the natural counterweight to the enemy it most feared, expansionist Russia. Though quick to declare its neutrality in August 1914, Sweden had at the same time signed a secret agreement to maintain a ‘benevolent’ attitude towards Germany, an arrangement at least partly motivated by a desire to forestall any German aggression.

Like the other adjacent neutrals, Sweden faced a combination of bullying and indulgence from both sides as the War progressed, because while the regionally relevant belligerent powers – Germany, Britain and Russia – wanted to prevent Swedish trade with their enemies, they also needed Swedish cooperation.

Germany relied heavily on Sweden as one of the few places willing and able to maintain trade links during the British blockade, and above all as a major supplier of desperately needed horses.  Britain’s imports from Sweden included important iron ore and timber supplies, and British diplomats fretted about Sweden’s attitude towards Russia and the Eastern Front.  Early in the War, before the development of Murmansk as an ice-free port, Sweden was the only viable through-route for Allied supplies to Russia, but London and St. Petersburg were always aware that any signs of German victory in the east might persuade Sweden to join the Central Powers for a share of the spoils.

Sweden going to war was less likely than the Allies imagined. Though a noisy Activist Party lobbied consistently for an alliance with Berlin, winning support from significant minorities within all social groups and strong backing from the military, sound commercial instincts and the pacifist preference of the majority kept the Stockholm government committed to formal neutrality throughout the War.

The fact remained that Germany mattered more to Sweden than Britain.  Sweden was less dependent than its neutral neighbours on British imports, and found it could replace most them with German imports when the British flexed their blockade muscles by curtailing supplies, while Germany was both the enemy of Sweden’s Russian enemy and, if provoked, a potential invader .

Though the Swedish government was apt to make a show of reluctance, it bowed to a series of German demands during the first two years of the War.  It agreed to black out Swedish lighthouses and mined the strait between Sweden and Denmark, both by way of keeping British warships out of the Baltic, and it banned the overland passage of military equipment en route for Russia.  Sweden was also the only European neutral to back Germany in the propaganda war, with government and press supporting Berlin’s take on Belgian atrocities, submarine warfare and most other controversial issues.  This was all perfectly legal, and in response the British could only impound Swedish ships, blacklist Swedish businesses and attempt to negotiate guarantees from the Swedish government against the re-export of goods to Germany.

By the end of 1916 the negotiations had achieved nothing much in the face of intransigence from Swedish premier Hammerskjöld, who had headed an essentially pro-German cabinet of conservative and business interests since the beginning of the War.  Facing nationwide food shortages and high unemployment, byproducts of the British blockade, and under pressure from its right-wing supporters to prepare the military for war, Hammerskjöld’s government eventually fell in early 1917.  The new conservative cabinet reopened negotiations with Britain, but no practical progress had been made by September, when the Luxburg Affair broke.

The laugh out loud paragraph here is the one about London’s astonishment.

During the summer US intelligence had intercepted and deciphered a cable to Berlin from a German diplomat in Argentina, Count Luxburg, recommending the sinking of Argentine merchant ships. At London’s behest, Washington delayed exposure of the cable, and the fact that it had been sent via the Swedish consular service, until just before Swedish elections.  The scandal stressed but didn’t break the Argentine government’s generally good relations with Germany, but revelation of such a clear breach of neutrality regulations did help defeat the conservatives in Sweden.  Engineering a change of government didn’t do the British much good, because the liberal coalition that took power under premier Nils Éden proved no less amenable to German influence and hardly more interested in reaching agreement with the Allies, dragging out negotiations until a re-export accord was eventually signed in May 1918.

The internal stresses exacerbated by wartime neutrality did complicate the lives of Swedish people and encourage post-war political reform (which expanded the franchise and concentrated executive power in parliamentary hands), but Sweden’s was hardly the most significant or dramatic of the War’s many diplomatic tightrope acts.  It is one of the least the least well known, partly because heritage history – the stuff peddled to the public via mass media, and arguably a form of state propaganda in fancy dress – has had reasons to forget the troubled wartime relationship between Britain and Sweden.

Sweden had peace but no quiet – the war years saw a surge in popular protests demanding constitutional reform

The Swedish public hasn’t been encouraged to dwell on a situation that might tarnish its generally well-deserved reputation, in Britain as elsewhere, for non-aligned fair dealing through the violence and geopolitical duplicity of the twentieth century.  Meanwhile British heritage history likes to preserve the righteousness of its Victorian heyday, and seldom questions the orthodoxies of modern international relations.  Given that it ignores almost anything that doesn’t fit its Tommy-centred, liberal agenda, it’s hardly likely to spotlight a time when the British government treated Sweden as an enemy in all but name and seized the country’s ships as a form of profitable punishment.  So I’m giving it a mention.

9 OCTOBER, 1917: Home Truth

A century ago today, the German parliament – the Reichstag – debated an incident that had taken place more than two months earlier but been kept quiet by the government.  Conducted in public session, the debate shattered an illusion that was precious to the German people and vital to the German war effort.

The incident in question had taken place at the naval base of Wilhelmshaven on 2 August, when some 400 sailors of the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold mutinied. The Prinzregent Luitpold was one of the most modern dreadnoughts attached to the High Seas Fleet, but like other major German warships it had been largely inactive for a year, relegated to secondary status after the fleet’s perceived failure at Jutland had convinced the German high command to devote all possible resources to submarine warfare. Bored, on short rations and subject to iron discipline by officers on permanent alert for revolutionary tendencies, the sailors had marched into Wilhelmshaven demanding immediate peace and better working conditions. Quickly pacified by troops, they had soon returned to work, but 75 of them were imprisoned and two ringleaders were executed.

The Prinzregent Luitpold, because we like a handsome old battleship.  Shame it functioned as little more than a floating prison for miserable matelots…

The illusion in question was the belief, assiduously fostered by state propaganda, that the German military was not just the best in the world (which almost went without saying and was probably true) but was in fine fighting fettle and on the brink of great victories.  Made public because the end of the German political truce, or Burgfreiden, had freed opposition parties to expose government scandals (14 July, 1917, Stuck In The Middle), the almost unthinkable news of German servicemen refusing to fight, together with the deeply unsettling news that the government had been covering up the mutiny, delivered a massive shock to popular opinion.  Popular belief in victory and the regime would recover, at least among the middle classes, but faith in the Navy was permanently shaken by consequent revelations of crisis and dispute among its commanders. The debate has since been credited with opening the first cracks in the hitherto rock solid edifice of the German war effort.

The military-industrial dictatorship that had been running Germany since August 1916 – the Third Supreme Command – had founded its strategies on the false premise that the German war effort was anything but rock solid, and that only total military victory would restrain a body politic on the brink of revolution.  In fact, popular faith in a national system that had brought soaring wealth, quality of life and global influence during the previous decades had never really faltered during the first two years of the conflict, and dedicated commitment to the war effort was basic to most Germans until the Armistice.  Revolution was meanwhile far less likely in mid-1916 than it had seemed in the years before the War, and had been kept off the immediate political agenda by the parliamentary truce.

A year later the truce was dead in the water, while a paranoid regime’s coercive social and economic policies were in the process of fostering the very revolution it feared.  The government’s reaction to the August mutiny and its response to the October debate were both symptoms of this self-fulfilling paranoia.

As the Reichstag debate made fairly clear, and subsequent studies have confirmed, the Wilhelmshaven mutineers were strikers demanding better treatment.  The regime treated them as revolutionaries, leaving grievances unsatisfied and widespread resentment within the ranks, exacerbated by executions that were generally viewed as judicial murder.  This provided fertile ground for revolutionary agitation among the crews of the High Seas Fleet and, still without any significant military role to play, they would become thoroughly radicalised during the following months.  When, a year later, crews at Wilhelmshaven mutinied on a much larger scale, they would be calling for revolution.

The October debate brought a government response that managed to be paranoid, clumsy and counterproductive all at once.  Imperial Chancellor Georg Michaelis, the first commoner to hold the office, had been a compromise choice to succeed Bethmann-Hollweg during the summer.  Forced on the Third Supreme Command after the Kaiser rejected its first two candidates, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz, he was selected because he got on well with Wilhelm and because, although he had no kind of parliamentary power base, he was considered capable of managing the Reichstag.  Little more than a mouthpiece for the supreme command, Michaelis attempted to blame the relatively moderate parliamentary socialists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the August mutiny, a ridiculous claim that left him without a shred of credibility in an outraged Reichstag and triggered his resignation at the end of the month.

Georg Michaelis – a leader every bit as as inspiring as he looked.

The next chancellor, veteran Bavarian academic and politician Georg von Hertling, was a virtual nonentity in his mid-seventies, with neither the influence nor the energy to mediate between the Reichstag, the supreme command and the Kaiser.  That he remained in office until October 1918 reflected the end of the need for cooperation between them, as reformists in the Reichstag abandoned hope of state cooperation and turned to popular support, the Third Supreme Command abandoned the pretext of governance through consent, and the Kaiser sank into a royal torpor born of impotence in the face of what he now saw as his inevitable downfall.

The Allies had enough agents providing enough information about German life to recognise the political fires fuelled by the October debate, and Allied newspapers were full of speculation about the impending collapse of German national unity in its wake. Like most ‘big picture’ propaganda, designed to foster hopes of a quick and total victory, the stories were taken with a pinch of salt by most British or French readers, but three years of warfare had failed to generate the same level of healthy scepticism among German citizens.

German internal propaganda, state and private, was a much less flexible instrument than its British, French or American counterparts, shielding the public and most politicians from all bad news and leaving them with no inkling of Germany’s true position. The glimpse of the truth provided by the Reichstag debate on 9 October, and the palpable shock it applied to German civilian life, reflected the brittle nature of a society functioning under a shared illusion.  When the edifice was torn away, suddenly and completely, at the end of the War, German society collapsed into violent, anarchic revolution.

Harder than the rest… classic First World War propaganda for Germans.

I was about to sign off by calling the debate a straw in the wind of fundamental change, but it was more like a breeze block in a gale.  It delivered a blow to German society and leadership that left them functioning – still marching forward along an ever more fragile tightrope – but concussed and ready to collapse.  That’s what happens when truth escapes the smothering grasp of leaders peddling fake new:  the harder it comes, the harder they fall.

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR