14 AUGUST, 1917: Cruise Control

The day before Haig launched the second phase of his Ypres offensive on the Western Front was another quiet day by the standards of the First World War.  China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, but that had been coming for some time and has been covered in an earlier post (14 March, 1917: Breaking China).  Spain declared martial law as part of an internal crisis I’ll be talking about quite soon, and the row about sending Labour Party delegates to the Stockholm Peace Conference rumbled on in Britain (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).

Otherwise I have no particularly interesting anniversaries to commemorate, so I think I’ll spend a couple of hours chatting about cruisers.  And why not?  Cruisers were relevant to every day of the War and in action all over the world – but what exactly was a cruiser, and why?

The British developed the first cruisers in the 1880s.  Smaller and faster than battleships, but still capable of ocean-going operations, they were originally designed for two main roles.  Heavy ‘armoured’ cruisers, generally displacing more than 10,000 tons, carrying powerful main armament and fitted with strong side armour, were intended to act as the fast scouting force alongside battleships in confrontations with other fleets.   Less expensive ‘protected’ cruisers (anything from 2,000 to 14,000 tons) were equipped only with deck armour, and were tasked with protection of trade routes, troopships or imperial outposts.  In the days of sailing navies, all these jobs had been carried out by frigates, which had ceased to exist long before 1914 and were to be reinvented during the Second World War as something completely different.

 

A British armoured, or heavy cruiser, designed for fleet actions but destined to spend the War anywhere but…
HMS Challenger:  a fairly typical British protected cruiser, completed in 1904 and brought out of retirement in 1914.

Much cheaper and more versatile than battleships, and able to dominate any naval situation that didn’t involve battleships, cruisers were particularly crucial to the sprawling operations of the British Royal Navy, which built 42 armoured and 101 protected cruisers between 1885 and 1907.   In much the same way as they would render all their existing battleships obsolete by inventing dreadnoughts, the British then made armoured cruisers redundant as fleet components by coming up with the first battlecruisers in 1908.

With the speed of a cruiser and the striking power of a battleship, battlecruisers resembled the latter but with one less turret, less armour protection, more powerful engines and a longer hull.  Used as fast screens for battleships in fleet actions, as well as for long-range commerce duties, they were also adopted by the Japanese Navy, which spent the early twentieth century learning to copy the best European naval practices, and the German Navy, which would go on the use them for fleet actions and as commerce raiders.

Battlecruisers were the brainchild of forceful pre-War British First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, who pushed their construction in the face of strong opposition from many naval professionals.  Half greyhound, half Rottweiler, they would go on to play a major role in most North Sea naval actions, and several German ships had a major impact in other theatres, but on the whole the critics were proved right.  Though in theory able to outrun anything they couldn’t outgun, their lack of armour made them vulnerable, not just to enemy battlecruisers but also to the mines, submarines and other torpedo craft that were coming into widespread use in the early twentieth century.   The last battlecruisers ordered by the wartime Royal Navy, lighter designs for use in the shallow Baltic Sea but in fact deployed on North Sea patrols, were converted into aircraft carriers after the War, marking the end of the experiment.

Lean, mean and really quite vulnerable – the battlecruiser HMS Tiger

Meanwhile cruiser development focused on speed, and two types of light cruiser.   The larger variety, first developed by the German Navy and copied by the British (as the Town Class), were quick, lightly armoured and heavily armed to operate on fleet approaches or trade routes.  The British also designed smaller Scout Class cruisers with very little armour protection, intended for scouting, for long-range screening and as lead ships for destroyer flotillas.

Longer, obviously, and again just one among several profiles of the type, Town Class cruiser HMS Bristol.
Scout Class cruisers came in many styles, but HMS Active is as good an example as any.

Once replaced by newer designs, old British cruisers were transferred from the main battle fleets or the most dangerous trade routes to perform all sorts of secondary tasks.  They led submarine flotillas, they protected dozens of relatively minor ports at home and across the Empire, and (given the dubious value of old, pre-dreadnought battleships) they generally provided the most effective naval support for army operations in secondary theatres.   They also patrolled trade routes as protection against surface raiders at the start of the War, along with passenger liners converted as ‘armed merchant cruisers’, and from mid-1917 they led convoy protection squadrons.

I’ve been concentrating on British cruisers, because the Royal Navy needed a lot more cruisers than anyone else and used them for a lot more tasks, but they were central to the wartime operations of most major navies.

The German Navy, as mentioned, used battlecruisers and cruisers as the warhorses of fleet and commerce operations, while Austro-Hungarian, Italian and most French naval activity was confined to the Mediterranean, where dreadnoughts feared to leave port and cruisers were crucial.  All three fleets deployed very fast, modern cruisers, light on armour but heavy on armament, as their main naval strike weapons, and they were at the heart of all the major naval actions in the Mediterranean, apart from the Anglo-French shambles at the Dardanelles in 1915.

Although the feeble Ottoman Navy possessed only a few old cruisers, and they were particularly decrepit, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau, both transferred from the German Navy, were by far its most important weapons in the war for control of the Black Sea (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships).  Meanwhile the Russian Navy possessed few modern cruisers but made extensive use of its older vessels in the Black Sea and the Baltic, outclassing its opposite numbers in the former (whenever the Goeben was out of action) and holding its own against relatively threadbare German naval forces in the latter.

That just left the USA, the world’s second biggest naval power in 1914 and the exception to the norm.  The US Navy possessed 12 armoured and 24 protected cruisers when war broke out, but then embarked on a massive naval expansion programme that completely ignored cruisers.  That may appear weird at first glance, but in fact it was wise.

Looking at (and supplying) the War from the outside until 1917, the USA was able to tailor its navy to its actual wartime requirements, where Europe’s navies had been built on pre-War predictions. Primarily concerned with protecting an expanding maritime trade network, and far from Europe, the USA had no expectation of needing cruisers for any kind of fleet battle, and once the British had removed any threat to merchant traffic from German surface raiders, cruisers were not the ideal weapon for coping with U-boats and minefields.  So although US yards did build six dreadnoughts – necessary statements of power at a time when even Brazil was investing in them – construction was otherwise dedicated to merchant ships, destroyers and other smaller craft.

This was the future.  Beginning with mines, submarines and aircraft, small but lethal long-range weapons were taking control of naval warfare by 1914, and though the cruiser would continue to serve fleets, protect trade and dominate small actions for decades to come, its day as a state-of-the-art weapon of war was done.

Unlike the conflict’s great white elephants – the costly, cosseted dreadnoughts – mere obsolescence didn’t leave cruisers watching from the sidelines.  Partly because years of total war demanded massive global commitment from navies, in particular the Royal Navy, and partly because older vessels were seen as relatively expendable, First World War cruisers were still enormously important, the basic currency of worldwide naval power in all but the most hotly contested patches of ocean.

That’s a small window on the panoramic impact of cruisers, and me out of time, so an equally nerdy look at another important new kid on the naval block since the 1880s – the destroyer – will have to wait for another quiet day.

6 AUGUST, 1917: Deep Breath, Shallow Victory

August’s reputation as a slow month, news wise, took a bit of a knock during the First World War, but in 1917 the conflict’s third birthday came and went in a relatively subdued atmosphere.  After a few months that had been militarily disappointing for pretty much everyone, and with very little fighting taking place on any of the major battlefronts, early August provided Europe at war with a brief breathing space – predictably filled by a flurry of political finger-pointing and manoeuvre on the home fronts.

In Russia, where the failure of July’s offensive on the Eastern Front had done nothing to stabilise political ferment at the centre, Alexandr Kerenski’s political career reached its summit on 6 August when he became prime minister, head of state in theory but in fact the head of a faction losing its fragile grip on authority in Petrograd. Further west, Italian politics appeared ready to collapse into chaos under the weight of extremism and social unrest in the wake of yet another military failure at the Isonzo, and the pressures of popular disappointment extended to the Belgian cabinet-in-exile at Le Havre, which had undergone a major reshuffle on 4 August.

Although the French Ribot government was still hanging onto power, it was under attack from all sides and fighting off scandals that would soon bring it down, and among the Allies in Europe only the British remained politically stable.  This was partly because the British were in middle of some serious fighting, though rain had stopped play around Ypres for the moment, and partly because the Lloyd George coalition’s shrewd combination of social awareness and organisational efficiency still enjoyed widespread popular support (despite a few outraged squawks at the recent return to the cabinet of disgraced former naval minister Winston Churchill).

Among the Central Powers, Bulgaria was starving while entrepreneurs made huge profits selling the harvest to Germany, fertile ground for socialism and republicanism to take root under the feet of a repressive royal regime, and the Habsburg Empire’s ongoing disintegration under separatist pressure claimed another political victim on 9 August, when Hungarian premier Count Esterhazy quit after less than two months in the job.  In the Anatolian heartlands of the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha remained the dominant figure in an authoritarian Young Turk regime, but the rest of the empire was falling apart, with Armenia descending into anarchy in the east, invasion and revolt overwhelming the south, and most surviving provinces operating as autonomous fiefdoms under regional governors.

Meanwhile Germany’s increasingly authoritarian Third Supreme Command was willing and able to ignore all opposition, but still paid lip service to a theoretically absolute monarch, hence the appointment, on 5 August, of the Kaiser-friendly Richard von Kühlmann to succeed Artur von Zimmermann as foreign minister.  A right-wing ex-diplomat who was intent on German territorial expansion, and would go on to preside over ruthless peace treaties with Russia and Romania, Kühlmann was less inclined to fantasy than the Ludendorff gang, and his efforts to dilute their madness through the ear of the monarch would make him a thorn in the Third Supreme Command’s side during a year in office.

Political headliners, August 1917: Count Esterhazy…
young Alex Kerenski…
old Alex Ribot…
and Richard von Kühlmann.

If most of Europe’s governments and generals were navel gazing, waiting for the weather to change or playing Canute against waves of rebellion , serious fighting was taking place on one front.  In Romania, on 6 August, the Battle of Marasesti got underway between the reconstituted Romanian Army and an international force under German command.  It was a relatively minor affair, and it had very little strategic impact, but it would carry on for almost a month and be the last major wartime action on Romanian soil, so it can be seen as more than excuse to take my first look at Romania in months.

Back in October 1916 two multinational armies, largely though not solely composed of Bulgarian and German troops, were poised to converge on Wallachia – the most economically useful Romanian region – while the Romanian royal government was cowering in Bucharest, planning its escape (29 October, 1916: Feeling Brave?). One army, led by former German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn, broke through into Wallacha from the Carpathian mountain passes in early November, and had reached the central plains to threaten Bucharest by the middle of the month. The other, led by German General Mackensen, made no attempt to advance north from its positions in the Dobrudja region, because a Russian army had arrived in the northeast of the country to block its path, but instead crossed the Danube into Wallachia on 23 November.  Brushing aside Romanian forces scattered in its way, it too moved on the capital.

Romanian c-in-c Averescu did make an attempt to fight back, gathering his remaining forces west of Bucharest for a counteroffensive on the River Arges at the start of December, but it barely slowed Falkenhayn down before collapsing.  About 70,000 surviving Romanian troops then retreated northeast into Moldovia, to be joined by the royal government, and Bucharest fell on 6 December, leaving German authorities free to begin the economic exploitation that had been the main reason for occupying Wallachia.

Agriculture was Wallachia’s principal economic activity, and the Central Powers were always on the lookout for food supplies, but as far as the German supreme command was concerned the Ploesti oilfields were the big economic prizes on offer.  That was because, while surface warships could get by on coal or kerosene, the planned all-out submarine campaign was going to need a lot of diesel fuel.

By the time the German ‘Economic Staff’ reached Romania at the end of 1916, German troops were already guarding the oilfields, but had found them heavily damaged by British agents. Their subsequent reduced output (along with falling output from diesel refineries in Habsburg Galicia) would leave the German Navy struggling for fuel to power the submarine war during the coming months, with severe implications for domestic diesel consumption (and therefore popular morale) in Romania, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Mackensen had pursued the Romanian Army’s remnant into Moldovia in early December, but worsening weather and the arrival of Russian reinforcements persuaded him to abandon the effort late in the month, when the front stabilised along the River Sereth. Mackensen made two attempts to get across the river, but his attacks ceased after 20 January and fighting died down almost completely for the next five months.  During that time, King Ferdinand issued promises of post-War electoral and land reform that temporarily boosted his regime’s popular support in Moldovia, and with help from French aid it was able to partially rebuild the army.  By the summer, confidence was sufficiently high for the Romanian Army to be committed, along with Russian units, to an attack in support of the Russian July Offensive (1 July, 1917: The Last Straw).

The Russian-Romanian attack began, somewhat belatedly, on 22 July 1917, pushing southwest from Moldovia around the lower reaches of the Siret River.  After some early success, German and Austro-Hungarian reinforcements from the Galician front halted its progress, but although most Russian units quickly subsided into pacifist political activism the Romanian element maintained good order and held most of its ground until fighting died down on 1 August.

Mackensen launched the German Ninth Army into a renewed attack on Romanian positions around Marasesti from 6 August, but six days of heavy fighting failed to dislodge Romanian and remaining Russian units.  During the following week Romanian reinforcements helped hold off a series of German assaults that reached a climax on 19 August, while the Romanian Second Army restricted a subsidiary German advance to insignificant gains around the village of Oituz. Relatively minor German attacks, largely aimed at outflanking defenders, were contained during the next two weeks before Mackensen called off the offensive on 3 September.

You’ll be needing this – and a bit of time to work it out

Romanians view the Battle of Marasesti as the wartime Army’s finest hour.  It inflicted some 47,000 casualties on the Ninth Army at a cost of 27,000 Romanian losses (according to Romanian figures), and is seen as a victory that successfully defended the last vestiges of national integrity.  It was definitely the Romanian Army’s best performance of the War, a tribute to troops transformed from terrified peasants into disciplined defenders, but it was also its last performance and an ultimately pointless exercise .

The adventure that ended at Marasestri had left the Romanian Army and government more threatened than supported by the feral remains of Russian forces, so they now found themselves alone and surrounded by enemies.  Short of supplies and with political support slipping away, King Ferdinand’s government could only begin preparing the ground for an inevitable surrender to the Central Powers.  Mackensen had halted his attacks in September 1917, not because he was beaten, but because German forces had bigger fish to fry and could defeat Romania without wasting further resources.

That was the end of the fighting in Romania, but it was by no means the end of the country’s troubles.  I’ll be back there one day to talk about them, but in the meantime this has been a largely information-based, message-free post, and we can’t have that.  So how about we all remember that just because you’ve got your army together, and it looks in good shape, doesn’t always mean it’s smart to use it.  Got that, Kim?  Donald?

31 JULY, 1917: The Crying Game

This is one of those moments when I find myself thinking along the same lines as the British heritage industry. The lines in question divided the northern sector of the Western Front, and the event that has us both interested was the opening of the British-led summer offensive in Flanders on 31 July 1917. Known officially as the Third Battle of Ypres, but better remembered in Britain by the name of its final objective, Passchendaele, it went on until November and was a God-awful mess.

It was by no means the first disastrous offensive failure on the Western Front, but it would prove to be the last attempt to end the campaign, and indeed the War, using ‘breakthrough’ tactics. Intended to smash a hole in the enemy line by massing vast forces for an attack on a narrow front, breakthrough tactics had been discredited many times during the previous two years, and their latest spectacular failure had taken place only three months earlier. Haig’s willingness to persist with the orthodoxy long after it had again proved redundant, along with the loss of an estimated 310,000 BEF casualties (as well some 260,000 German casualties) for what amounted to trivial territorial gains, helps explain why Passchendaele has become the great emblem of First World War futility and incompetence in the British public mind – as does the fact that this disaster was an entirely British creation that couldn’t be blamed on the French.

Deplored across a century of British heritage history, popular history and military history, the battle has provided generations of commentators with ammunition for outrage and for condemnation of those deemed responsible for the failure. That is changing. As must be blindingly obvious to anyone in the path of Britain’s Passchendaele centenary tsunami, the battle now provides a prime outlet for ‘human interest’ disguised as history or, to put it another way, emotion in place of analysis.

In the press, on the radio, on television, in Parliament and all over the Internet, the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Anglo-Belgian style, has been about the suffering and death of the soldiers involved. Fair enough, there was a lot of death and suffering, but if history is about illuminating to past to inform the present what kind of information is that giving us? War is bad, its horrors are horrible… and that’s about all.

We have heard this before. It’s the same message we were given a hundred years after the Somme Offensive of 1916, and (for those Anglophones paying careful attention) a century after all the other ghastly, failed French, German, British, Russian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman offensives that took place between the spring of 1915 and July 1917. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the message, but there is something wrong with ignoring any and all of Passchendaele’s other messages to the future. By way of putting all that emotionally draining mass slaughter into some sort of context, diluting our righteous indignation with a little understanding, and exploring those other messages, here’s a very basic rundown of the battle’s genesis and outcome.

The roots of the Third Battle of Ypres can be traced pretty clearly to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. Haig had been in his post since December 1915, but had been required to support the plans of French commanders until May 1917, when the collapse of the French Army as an attacking force finally passed responsibility for strategic initiative on the Western Front to the BEF (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Haig responded by planning yet another breakthrough offensive but shifting the focus of attacks north, to the British-run sector in Flanders. With hindsight this was without doubt a mistake, but at the time there was something to be said for Haig’s reasoning.

Like most Western Front commanders, Haig still believed that breakthrough tactics represented the best hope of a significant victory, a belief reinforced by the commonly held view that conscript mass armies with only basic training would subside into chaos if asked to do anything more sophisticated. He also subscribed to the widely held view that the German war effort was close to collapse, and that a demoralised German Army on the Western Front was ready to crumble. General Plumer’s victory at Messines in early June didn’t change Haig’s mind on either score (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn), but at that stage, with the usual costly, clumsy preparations for the main offensive already well underway, it would have taken a major leap of faith to prompt any significant alterations to the battle plan.

Once settled on another breakthrough attempt, Haig’s choice of Flanders as his main target couldn’t really be faulted. The region’s broad, flat plains seemed to offer the best chance for an attacking army to successfully exploit any breakthrough, and breakthrough tactics hadn’t been tried there before (although they had failed in wide open spaces on the Eastern Front). Any breakthrough in Flanders would also offer the BEF a chance to attack German U-boat pens on the Belgian coast, a prospect that appealed strongly to a British high command still very worried about the effects of submarine warfare.

So take away the hindsight, add in the perceived need to keep attacking in the west before Russia’s ongoing collapse freed German reinforcements from the east, and the offensive plan dismissed as futile and/or blinkered by the heritage industry (before it gave up on commentary altogether) makes a broadly acceptable kind of sense in the crazy context of 1917.

It only takes one big mistake to ruin a plan, and for all the talk of rain and mud during the battle that followed, the mistake that counted at Ypres in 1917 was the British command’s gross underestimation of the German Army’s power to resist. The weaknesses visible at Messines had been addressed, and the huge ten-day bombardment that preceded the attack on 31 July (3,000 guns firing a total of 4.25 million shells) found defenders in prepared, shellproof positions ready to meet advancing British and Empire forces. Led by General Gough’s Fifth Army, flanked by a corps of Plumer’s Second Army to its south and a corps of General Anthoine’s French first Army to its north, the attack was launched along an 18km front and made only insignificant, expensive gains before grinding to a halt. At this very early stage, Haig’s plan had failed.

It was the same old story, so why not end it there? For plenty of reasons, none of which satisfied generations of post-War critics but all of which had something going for them from a contemporary command viewpoint.

First, giving up on a big plan after one false start was inconceivable to everyone involved, including the civilian public, so of course there had to be a second try. Secondly, Haig and many other observers were victims of what you might call the ‘one-last-push’ illusion, unable to let go of the (essentially sensible) idea that nations couldn’t sustain this type of warfare for long, and that the other side was one firm push away from collapse. This had been at the heart of Allied thinking on the Western Front since the start of 1915, and the longer reality outstripped socio-economic logic to keep the enemy in the fight, the more certain it seemed that the next push would do the trick. Thirdly, and perhaps more culpably, Haig’s refusal to recognise failure smacked of political desperation. These were uncertain times for Europe’s ruling elites, and British leaders were in no hurry to present a war-weary population (civilian and military) with yet another disappointment at a moment when the very fabric of conventional society was being tested by fallout from the revolution in Russia.

You couldn’t go telling ordinary people the appalling truth…

So failure was postponed and the attack resumed, but only after a fortnight’s delay for unseasonal, torrential rain, which combined with bomb craters and further bombardments to produce the almost impassable morass of mud that has since become synonymous with the battle. Under those conditions, the launch of a second attack on 16 August was an exercise in extreme optimism, and the four days of heavy fighting known as the Battle of Langemarck produced miniscule Allied gains in return for heavy casualties.

Still in no position to declare a failure, Haig at last gave up on breakthrough. He switched the focus of his next wave of operations to the north, put Plumer in effective field command and pursued the policy of limited offensive operations foreshadowed at Messines. Plumer launched three tightly focused attacks around the Menin Road at the centre of the front between 20 September and 4 October, each of which succeeded in its very limited objectives but paid a high price in casualties. With the rain still teeming down and conditions for attackers worsening all the time, Haig was at last in a position to call a halt and claim a victory – but Plumer’s efforts had revived the ‘one-more-push’ orthodoxy. Once more convinced that the German Army was all but spent, and grasping one last time at the mirage of sweeping victory, Haig decided to continue the offensive with attacks towards Passchendaele Ridge, some 10km east of Ypres.

This is where the horrors of war so carefully reported by modern heritage commentators get tangled up with the command failures so noisily deplored by their predecessors. The mud was worse than ever while the German Army, far from exhausted, was being rapidly replenished by reinforcements from the east. It had also been supplied with copious amounts of mustard gas, and this took a terrible toll on the first two attacks towards Passchendaele on 9 and 12 October. Both were grotesque failures, gaining tiny amounts of ground at enormous cost, and dispelled any lingering idea that the enemy was crumbling. Haig nevertheless decided to hurl exhausted troops into three more attacks in late October, and to continue the offensive until British and Canadian troops finally took the village of Passchendaele on 6 November.

What Haig did.  Not much really.

This last phase of the battle has been regarded ever since as an unforgivable waste of lives, and the sentiment still occasionally gets an airing amid today’s mawkish memorabilia. Much as I prefer understanding to outrage, it is hard to disagree. Any strategic point to the offensive had vanished well before mid-October, and the only substantial excuse for carrying on regardless seems to have been maintenance of national prestige, not to mention that of the BEF and its commanders.

In the short term, strictly from a British high command perspective, Haig’s prolongation of the agony kind of worked. The British Army didn’t mutiny or collapse, and the British people didn’t give up on the war effort or fall to revolution. Despite lot of criticism from press and politicians – not least from Prime Minister Lloyd George, an ‘Easterner’ who had long been at odds with the Western Front command and had opposed the battle plan from the start – Haig kept his job and went on to plan a few more shots at glory.  In the longer term, Passchendaele has always been the definitive blot on Haig’s reputation and, along with the opening phase of the Somme Offensive in 1916, the principal piece of evidence that British Empire troops on the Western Front were lions led by donkeys.

A hundred years on, controversy around Haig seems to be all but ignored in the popular media, and not because the basic lessons to be learned from his darkest hour have ceased to be relevant. Modern British society may have grown out of treating ordinary soldiers as cannon fodder, but we still need reminding about the dangers of fatally underestimating a foe, and we definitely need to remember that when orthodox methods repeatedly fail to win a battle (against guerilla fighters, terrorists, drug addiction, you name it), it’s time to question the orthodoxy.  Then again, why bother with what actually happened around Ypres in 1917 when you can fill so much consumer space with easy exploitation of humanitarian outrage?

25 JULY, 1917: Green Shoots

Today marks the centenary of the first session of the Irish Convention, an attempt to resolve what the British persisted in calling the Irish Question that failed completely, reflected badly on its creators and participants, and helped polarise Irish politics through the decades of civil violence that followed.  Despite taking place slap in the middle of a crucial phase in the modern political development of a country hooked on history, you can see why the Convention has been largely ignored by posterity.

That doesn’t make it right, and forgetting about the Convention is a classic case of history being written by the winners.  While the subsequent successes of militant Irish republicanism have rendered glorious a failure like the Easter Rising, they have tended to obscure the failures of history’s losers, in this case those trying to negotiate for Irish autonomy within the British Empire.  You miss things that way.

I sketched a few paragraphs of Anglo-Irish history into my post about the Easter Rising (24 April, 1916: Heroes and Villains), so here I’ll just remind us all that autonomy within the British Empire, known as Home Rule, had been a raging political issue on both sides of the Irish Sea since the 1880s. Furiously opposed by the right wing of British politics (and the British Army occupying Ireland) and by the unswervingly pro-British Protestant population of Ireland’s industrially developed northeast, Home Rule was also despised as a half-measure by those Irish nationalists seeking full independence, whether or not they accepted violent struggle as an acceptable means to that end.

Home Rule was the aim of the moderate nationalists that made up the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the smaller All-For-Ireland League (AFIL), and it had the theoretical a support of the British Liberal Party.  The Liberals in government were never strong or brave enough to actually enact Home Rule until the second general election of 1910 left them as a minority government.  Dependent for survival on the support of 42 Labour MPs and 84 IPP/AFIL members, the Asquith government had no choice but to force Home Rule through a hostile House of Lords, but an attempt to introduce it in 1914 collapsed under the threat of rebellion in pro-British Ulster, and the War gave the Westminster government an opportunity to put the process on hold for the duration.

For most Irish people, as for most Europeans in 1914, political issues were trumped by war in all its emotive (and illusory) glory.  For almost two years the British were able to get away with yet another relapse into dithering inaction in Ireland, but the actions of relatively small cohorts of militant nationalists – gathered around organisations like the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and the more politically focused Sinn Fein – had already shaken British confidence by the spring of 1916, when the Easter Rising convinced Asquith’s coalition to throw the Irish a bone.

A month after the Rising, Asquith announced that he was sending war minister Lloyd George to Ireland to discuss the implementation of Home Rule with IPP leaders John Redmond and John Dillon. Given that Home Rule for a united Ireland was still fundamental to IPP aims and still anathema to Ulster Unionists, the talks stood no chance of success, but they did boost popular hopes of peaceful change at an important time.

Lloyd George – who held simultaneous but separate discussions with Unionists – made enough hopeful noises to both sides to keep the discussions dragging on until late July, when they finally collapsed, leaving the IPP leadership with nothing to show for its trouble except a very public humiliation.

The sense of crisis that pervaded Britain during and after the Somme Offensive extended to Ireland, and it wasn’t until 1917 that the extent of damage to the moderate cause became clear.  On becoming prime minister in December 1916, Lloyd George had responded to IPP requests for action on Home Rule with another piece of gesture politics, granting a Christmas amnesty to Irish internees in Britain.  The gesture merely released committed republicans back into Irish politics, which did the IPP no good at all, and in an atmosphere of rising popular support for an immediate ‘Irish Settlement’ Sinn Fein won its first two by-election victories in April and May 1917.  Well aware of the need to appease the strongly pro-Irish sentiment of Britain’s newest and most important ally, the USA, Lloyd George tried again.

Joseph McGuinness won Sinn Fein’s second ever seat in parliament, at South Longford in May 1917. He was in prison at the time, and didn’t take up his seat when he got out.

On 16 May Lloyd George made the Irish parliamentarians an offer of home rule for the 26 counties of southern Ireland, excluding the six counties of Ulster.  If this was unacceptable, he offered to call a conference of all parties in Ireland for the purpose of hammering out a system of self-government.  Faithful to their long, public commitment to all-Irish autonomy, the moderates chose the latter option, and in the process lost their last vestiges of political credibility in Ireland.

Sinn Fein refused to attend the Convention, as did the small AFIL delegation, both preferring to focus their efforts on winning electoral support, but 95 delegates representing a fairly broad cross-section of Irish life and political opinion were present for the opening session on 25 July.  That was as good as it got, because it quickly became clear that, no matter what the British had led them to believe, neither side had any intention of budging an inch.

The majority, led by IPP delegates, remained committed to autonomy within the Empire for all Ireland, while the northern unionist minority refused to include Ulster in any devolution process.  The small group of southern unionist delegates did put forward a compromise proposal, known as the Midleton Scheme, for an all-Irish parliament hedged by guarantees of Ulster’s separate identity.  It prompted weeks of highly detailed debate, and gave increasingly desperate moderates an opportunity to express a lot of unwarranted optimism, but had changed nothing by the time the Convention spluttered to a halt in late March 1918.  Its final report in early April amounted to little more than separate statements of both sides’ unchanged aims.

Members of the Irish Convention outside Trinity college, Dublin, in 1917 – a cross-section of moderate, middle-aged, white Irish men.

The Convention’s prolonged and much-derided failures did permanent damage to the IPP, to the cause of moderate Irish reformers in general and to the popular credibility of Home Rule in Ireland.  Lloyd George wasted no time finishing them off.

Although the Convention’s majority report in no way amounted to the ‘substantial agreement’ stipulated by the British government as a condition for implementing Home Rule, Lloyd George agreed to begin the process of implementation on the IPP’s terms, but only in return for the extension of conscription to Ireland.  Deemed necessary in the light of a sudden manpower crisis created by the German spring offensive on the Western Front, this bundling of Home Rule and the spectre of compulsory service effectively guaranteed the former’s popular rejection in Ireland.

The tortuous death of Home Rule pushed the Irish political agenda firmly and irretrievably towards republicanism, and the most obvious political consequence of the Convention was the irresistible rise of its most trenchant critics.  Sinn Fein had made a breakthrough in 1917 by winning its first four by-elections, and went on to win two more in 1918 before adding another 67 at that December’s general election.  The same election saw the IPP’s vote collapse, leaving it with only six parliamentary seats, and signalled the ‘War of Independence’ that finally secured southern Ireland’s freedom from the British Empire – but that’s another story.

The Convention was hardly Irish nationalism’s finest or most important hour, but looked at dispassionately it seems worth remembering for a few reasons.  In itself, it was the long, loud anticlimax that exposed the futility of seeking Home Rule within the Empire for all of Ireland, and conclusively confirmed the refusal of Ulster’s unionists to countenance any degree of separation from Great Britain.  Meanwhile the well-meaning, all-absorbing and circuitous efforts of the IPP,  some northern unionists and a small group of southern unionists to achieve an unlikely agreement left moderates in the south politically paralysed, stuck in wait-and-see mode while republicans galvanised popular opinion with demands for immediate change.

From a British perspective – the one I’m stuck with – everything about the Convention and its outcomes is a reminder of something our heritage view of the First World War tends to bypass altogether. By the time war broke out, it was probably impossible for Ulster and the rest of Ireland to develop as one nation, but the British routinely peddled false hope to both sides as a means of neutralising any distraction from the war effort, and casually shattered that hope when the same war effort had more need of Irish soldiers than Irish approval.

In 1917 Great Britain was fighting for its life or, if you prefer to take a social-historical view, British ruling elites were fighting for their fiefdoms.  Either way, the struggle entailed the ruthless exploitation of allied and occupied countries in ways that often left them poor, unstable, vulnerable to conquest or all three.  Germany tends to attract most of the opprobrium for that kind of behaviour during the Great War, and it’s not hard to see why, but if we forget what the British got up to we might end up with a warped worldview based on the idea that the rest of the world thinks we’re the good guys. Where that might lead, Gove only knows…

14 JULY, 1917: Stuck In The Middle

A hundred years ago today, after exactly eight years in office, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg resigned as Germany’s Imperial Chancellor.  On the same day, far to the northeast, the first Provisional Assembly of Estonia opened its first session.  Neither centenary is likely to make much of a splash in British heritage terms, but both signalled big changes in the modern history of their own countries.  I’ll start, like you do during world wars, with Germany.

Bethmann Hollweg’s departure had been coming.  The advent of the Third Supreme Command, a lurch towards totalitarian control over an all-out war effort by a military-industrial oligarchy, had condemned Germany’s wartime political truce, or Burgfrieden, to a slow death, leaving the Chancellor adrift in the space between polarising political extremes.

I won’t repeat my enthusiastic condemnation of the Third Supreme Command’s dictatorship (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint), except to point out that its attempt to harness every aspect of German economic life to the pursuit of total victory deliberately rode roughshod over political opposition.  Liberal or moderate left-wing elements, both within the labour movement and in the Reichstag (parliament), were by then accustomed to being consulted, and even occasionally listened to, in line with the Burgfrieden, and reacted by stiffening their opposition.  As the exceptionally harsh winter of 1916–17 brought severe civilian shortages and faltering popular morale, political opposition focused on the Supreme Command’s refusal to consider any peace built on less than total victory, while industrial opposition took the form of strikes and street protests.

Bethmann Hollweg could only weave between the lines and hope to find some route back to national unity, but he never really stood a chance.  Although he retained the support of the Kaiser – who was, in his one-eyed, bewildered way, equally desperate to keep the nation together – the Chancellor was regarded as part of the problem by both the Reichstag and the Supreme Command.  His attempts to broker a negotiated peace were as hopeless as they were half-hearted (18 December, 1916: Peace?  No Chance), and though he hoped to appease the Reichstag by prising a promise of post-War constitutional reform from the Kaiser in March, it was too little too late.

April saw the US enter the War, while a wave of strikes hit industrial production in northern Germany and the political debate about war aims became entangled with demands for immediate constitutional reform.  All this helped undermine a hitherto solid popular faith in the Supreme Command’s promises of imminent victory, and with no sign that the regime intended to listen to, let alone meet any of its demands, rising public discontent encouraged the Reichstag’s main opposition parties to come together and formally demolish the Burgfrieden.

All pomp and bad circumstances… the Reichstag in July 1917.

On 7 July 1917 the centre and socialist parties tabled a joint declaration in the Reichstag demanding an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities.  Known as the Peace Resolution, it was proposed by Max Erzberger, a leading member of the conservative Catholic Centre Party who generally regarded socialists as Satan’s little helpers, and it was passed by 212 votes to 126 on 12 July.  A direct affront to the Supreme Command’s ambitious plans for expansion into Eastern Europe, the Resolution left Bethmann Hollweg high and dry, unable to support either its proponents or its right-wing opponents.  Liberal leaders in the Reichstag, the Supreme Command’s phalanx of right-wing deputies and senior military officers were all sufficiently dissatisfied with the Chancellor’s dithering response to form an unlikely (and very temporary) alliance that forced his resignation on Bastille Day.

Appropriately enough, Bethmann Hollweg’s fall marked the start of a new phase in Germany’s accelerating collapse to revolution.  Faced with the firm parliamentary expression of public opposition, and with something less than full support from the civilian head of government, the Supreme Command simply sidelined the Reichstag and the office of chancellor.  Bethmann Hollweg’s replacement, Georg Michaelis (appointed after the Kaiser refused to accept the Supreme Command’s first two choices, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz) was a puppet of the Ludendorff regime with no personal support in the Reichstag.  That didn’t matter to the Supreme Command because it had stopped listening to the Reichstag, which did manage to remove Michaelis in October – only to be saddled with another puppet, the elderly Bavarian right-winger Georg von Hertling – but otherwise exerted no significant influence on policy for the rest of the War.

In response to its loss of parliamentary legitimacy, and by way of providing a semblance of popular mandate for its pursuit of the Hindenburg Programme’s crazy targets, the Supreme Command put funds into a new political pressure group, the Fatherland Party.  Led by Tirpitz, and loudly in favour of all the Supreme Command’s expansionist visions, it was launched in the autumn of 1917 and did eventually boast more than a million members, but most came from the conservative agrarian or military communities, and it had no impact on the gathering storm of disempowered opposition from practically every other sector of German society.

The emblem of the Fatherland Party, 1917-18.

While Germany was being plunged into a deadly experiment in totalitarian post-democracy, a nation with rather less hubris when it came to world-changing destiny was taking its first, albeit faltering step towards a future as a sovereign democracy.

Until the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917, modern Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, divided between the province of Estonia to the north and the northern, Estonian-speaking part of Livonia to the south. The region was effectively ruled by an oligarchy of semi-feudal landowners, many of them German-speaking, but Russification during the nineteenth century had reduced the influence of the German language on popular culture. Nationalist and Estonian language groups had sprung up during the early twentieth century, particularly during and after the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and had become well established without achieving anything much by 1917, when the February Revolution changed everything.

You are here…

In line with its revolutionary principles, the new Provisional Government in Petrograd issued a decree on 12 April 1917, unifying the regions of Estonia and northern Livonia as an autonomous Governate of Estonia, and calling for elections to a national assembly. Using a system of two-tier suffrage designed to ensure the influence of reliably socialist soldiers and industrial workers, the elections were a political battleground on the Russian model, with Bolshevik and other revolutionary agitators competing for popular support with more moderate socialists, liberals and nationalists. The 62-seat Provisional Land Assembly (known locally as the Maapäev) that met on 14 July at Toompea Castle, the traditional seat of power in Estonia and the country’s current parliament building, reflected all those interests across seven fairly evenly matched party groupings.

While nationalist and moderate elements coexisted with revolutionaries for whom independence and liberal parliamentary institutions were merely steps on the way to a new world order, autonomy left Estonia open to the free passage of Russian agitators and ideas. Far from producing the basis for unified progress towards sovereign status, the arrival of democracy plunged Estonia into the same kind of chaotic factional warfare that was undermining the Provisional Government in Russia.

Months of instability culminated in a failed Bolshevik coup d’état in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution, prompting a declaration of full independence by the Assembly in November 1917. Revolutionary parties fared poorly in new elections held the following January, but Russian-funded Bolsheviks responded with a second, more serious attempt to seize power, and that persuaded the newly independent nation to ask for German protection.

Russian war minister Kerensky addresses sailors in Revel (Tallinn). The port was a major Russian naval base and a hotbed of revolutionary activism.

Estonia got German protection in spades. After expelling revolutionary forces from the port of Revel (Tallinn to you and me) in February 1918, the German Army put the country under military occupation, inevitably coupled with economic exploitation. The small Estonian Army created by the Assembly was disbanded in April, which left the country virtually defenceless when the German withdrew after the Armistice, a situation immediately exploited by a Red Army invasion.  The Soviet force (ostensibly made up of Estonian revolutionaries) was eventually prevented from retaking Tallinn by Royal Navy warships in the Baltic, and driven back into Russia by a reconstituted Estonian army the following January. Fighting inside Russia continued for most of 1919, and Russia’s Bolshevik regime officially recognised Estonia’s full independence by a peace treaty signed in February 1920.

So while a defiant expression of German liberal democracy left it helpless in the face of right-wing dictatorship, the first expression of Estonian liberal democracy plunged a country so far untouched by three years of fighting into virtual civil war as it fought off left-wing dictatorship.  In both cases, the existence of democracy depended on the goodwill of authorities that were anything but liberal, and in both cases it would take a long, painful process to establish liberal democracy as genuine political force.   If there’s a lesson for the future to be drawn from these vaguely linked events, I guess it’s that anything stuck in the middle of the political road – be it Bethmann Hollweg, Estonian nationalism or liberal democracy – is a fragile thing in extreme times.  Oh, and that democracy handed out to populations by powerful third parties – be they kings, empires or multinational coalitions – can always be taken away again.

6 JULY, 1917: Image Bank Raided!

A best-selling memoir and a brilliant biopic can do wonders for a person’s place in posterity, and the stirring legend of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia to you – definitely owes something to the fictions perpetrated by both. This is generally accepted by modern historians, and has prompted an understandable tendency to play down both the influence Lawrence exerted on the Arab Revolt and the value of his military exploits.

Fair enough, and if all memoirs were treated with the same scepticism we’d be a happier human race, but revisionism (like revolution) has an innate tendency to overshoot.  It is true that Arab leaders deserve more credit for their successes than Lawrence himself gave them, and that other British figures at large in the Arab world played important roles in encouraging, fostering and arranging support for the Arab Revolt – but Lawrence was at least partly responsible for some pretty amazing stuff, and shouldn’t be downplayed out of sight.

I mention this because today marks the centenary of the Battle of Aqaba, an engagement that was raised to such improbable glory by memoir and movie that it can be (and sometimes is) dismissed as mythology.  To be sure, it wasn’t quite the heroic, crucial victory against massive odds portrayed by David Lean, and Lawrence wasn’t its sole or necessarily its major architect, but it was a very important moment in Arab Revolt’s development as a strategically significant movement, and Lawrence certainly played a resourceful part in making it happen.  Before I attempt a moderate, unbiased account of the thing, a little context wouldn’t go amiss.

When I was last there, the Arab Revolt was on the up.  From a position of embattled defence against numerically superior Ottoman forces, the Revolt’s principal army had successfully defended the port of Yenbo at the end of 1916, captured the small but important garrison town of Wejh in January and conducted an effective guerilla campaign against Ottoman supply lines to southern Arabia (24 January, 1917: Trains And Boats And Brains).

At this point the Revolt’s two main priorities were maintaining momentum and securing supplies from Britain.  Momentum and the high reputation that came with victories were vitally important recruitment tools in a land of war bands whose willingness to fight depended on essentially mediaeval principles of personal loyalty to particular warlords.  Military defeat, or even relative inactivity, was always likely to deprive the Revolt’s ‘Sherifian’ leaders of troops and sympathetic help from local populations.  Without the help of British weapons, British military advisors and Royal Navy units in the eastern Mediterranean, numbers of troops would hardly matter, because they would be fighting the relatively modern Turkish Army with nothing but swords, spears and the occasional musket.

The extent to which Lawrence was responsible for field commander Prince Feisal’s decision to make a surprise attack on Aqaba remains a matter of opinion, but he certainly played some part in planning a bold enterprise that addressed both priorities.  A little-used port at the junction of the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia (and now part of Jordan), Aqaba offered a supply route to British bases in both Egypt and Palestine, and could be a base for future Arab Revolt operations in northern Arabia.  On the other hand it was well protected from attack by sea, and its desert overland approaches were generally regarded as impassable for attackers, so taking it would be a major boost for the Revolt’s all-important fighting reputation.

You’ll be wanting another map. Won’t you?

Lawrence was among the leaders of a war band that left Wejh on 9 May 1917, at the start of a thousand-kilometre trek to seek approval and assistance for the attack.  He helped secure the support of Auda abu Tayi, known (by the British) as the ‘Robin Hood of Arabia’ and the region’s most storied warrior, whose presence helped swell the group’s numbers by about 500 men, most of them mounted.  Lawrence also led a diversionary raid into southern Syria – blowing up a bridge in what is now the Lebanon by way of distracting 3,000 Turkish Army regulars stationed at Maan, east of Aqaba – and seems to have been responsible for the decision to attempt the attack on Aqaba by the overland route.

Auda led the party, by now some 5,000 strong, across the desert to Aqaba, and that was the hard part, not least because only about 1,000 Ottoman troops were stationed in or around Aqaba and most of their heavy weaponry was positioned against an attack from the sea.  An Arab assault on a fort outside the port on 2 July killed or took prisoner about two-thirds of the garrison, and Auda led a camel charge that overran the port’s sparsely populated inland defences on 6 July.  The 300 or so Turkish troops left in Aqaba surrendered without a fight next day.  The battle had apparently cost the attackers two casualties, a claim that can never be verified because all Arab manpower figures derive from some kind of guesswork, and the folklore brownie points that came with the victory added around 2,000 more troops to the Revolt’s cause.

Aqaba – more important than it looks.

Exhausted and hungry after its epic desert sortie, the Arab army was likely to evaporate if it wasn’t supplied in a hurry, and although Lawrence didn’t play much part in the actual fighting around Aqaba he did set off overland for British headquarters in Cairo immediately after the battle.  His effort was rewarded by a very positive reception from British c-in-c Allenby, and a rapid supply operation that kept the Arab army intact.  Allenby agreed to establish Aqaba as the centre for logistic support of the Revolt’s operations in northern Arabia, and Feisal moved his headquarters there in August.

Always worth a picture of a quality First World War general, and Allenby knew his stuff.

More importantly from an Arab (or at least a Sherifian) perspective, news of the victory, routinely exaggerated in the telling, boosted support on the ground for the Revolt’s spread into northern Arabia. From now on, a pan-Arabian post-War state seemed within reach to the Revolt’s leaders, as did the more immediate prospect of driving the Ottoman Empire out of the Arab world altogether by sweeping the Revolt into Syria and seizing the main hub of Constantinople’s power in the Middle East, Damascus.

Beyond the Technicolor legend and our national obsession with Lawrence, Aqaba was a watershed in the history of modern Arab independence, and should be celebrated as that… but it was also a fateful turning point in the relationship between modern Arab independence and the British Empire.

As well as supplying the Revolt, Aqaba would soon serve as the eastern base for British advances through Palestine and into Syria, and the British (as well as the French) were very interested in the post-War economic benefits of controlling Damascus.  British strategists were happy enough to make promises to Arab leaders about pan-Arabic independence – as they were happy to promise almost anything to any ally or potential ally during this war – but they had no intention of relinquishing their economic ambitions in the region.  They were confident that possession of Damascus would secure those ambitions at the post-War conference table, provided they could get to the city ahead of the Arab Revolt.

So capturing Aqaba didn’t just ignite the Revolt in northern Arabia and cement the alliance between its leadership and the British Empire; it turned the unequal allies into unequal rivals.  In the short-term, that set up a race to Damascus between Allenby and the Revolt, and once the War was over it inspired a post-War betrayal of the Sherifian cause that, while routine to the great white powers responsible, would have fateful consequences for the future of the world.  Important stuff, and for my money well worth a high-concept blockbuster – but I guess it’s short on domestic ‘human interest’ for the heritage market, and it’s way less audience friendly than Anthony Quinn on a camel.

1 JULY, 1917: The Last Straw

The second half of June 1917 was, in some ways, a bustling interlude for Europe at war.  The great Allied offensive in France had failed, the German attempt to end the war with submarines was failing and the overthrow of the Russian tsar hadn’t brought the end of civilisation as great power strategists knew it – but there was plenty of tidying up and polishing of tarnished images to do before the next wave of fighting, scheduled for early July.

The first division of US Army troops landed at the French port of St. Nazaire on 25 June, a moment that brought a proud tear to the eye of their watching c-in-c, General John J. Pershing, but had no immediate military significance.  The First Division – some 14,500 men, many of them raw recruits – was in for a long spell of training by French officers and a longer wait for any action, but the enormous Allied fanfare that greeted its arrival was all about boosting popular morale after another disappointing spring.

The French were meanwhile taking the opportunity to tidy up the mess they’d helped make in Greece, as discussed the other day, and the British firmed up for a renewed invasion of Palestine by appointing General Allenby, a seasoned, senior general, to command the theatre (24 March, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip).  The German High Command, having learned more from the Battle of Messines than the victorious British, was busy toughening up its defences on the Western Front, and preparing for the offensive Haig was quite obviously planning in Flanders by transferring troops there from the dormant Eastern Front (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn).

The German Army could afford to do this because Russian armed forces were still far too busy with revolution to perform any coherent military function.  This was old news by late June, recognised on all sides as a fact of life and emphasised when the Russian Black Sea fleet mutinied at the Crimean base of Sevastopol on 21 June.  It’s a measure of the Russian Provisional Government’s desperation to establish some sort of control over the revolution’s cascading chaos that, when the brief European interlude came to a crashing end on 1 July , it was shattered by the launch of a major Russian Army offensive.

Known as the Kerensky Offensive or the July Offensive, the attack was planned by the Provisional Government’s effective leader, war minister Kerensky, and the Russian Army’s new c-in-c, General Brusilov.  Both recognised that it represented an enormous gamble on the Army’s willingness to fight, and both knew the odds were heavily against success.

The collapse of the Provisional Government’s fantasy that an outburst of international pacifism would end the War left Kerensky with little option but to hope that a ‘liberty offensive’ against the ‘imperialist’ Central Powers, and ideally a victory, would unite popular opinion in defence of the revolution while encouraging Russia’s allies to maintain vital economic support (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).  Brusilov, the architect of Russia’s only notable military success on the Eastern Front, had been on the point of dismissal before the new government promoted him, and regarded the Army as doomed unless it could be revived by the patriotic unity that only a fighting victory over a hated enemy could inspire.  Between them they set up a repeat of the 1916 offensive in Galicia, at the southern end of the Eastern Front, that had made Brusilov’s name (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…).

Whereas the first Galician offensive had attacked along the whole Galician sector, lack of reliable manpower restricted the second to two main thrusts.  Brusilov took command of the northern attack, by the combined remains of the 7th and 11th Armies (31 divisions, now renamed the ‘Red Army’) along a 65km front around the town of Brody.  Launched on 1 July, it went very well at first, taking 10,000 prisoners on the first day and driving German General Bothmer’s largely Austro-Hungarian Südarmee back towards Lvov – but it soon lost momentum as low morale, chaotic supply lines and the arrival of German reinforcements (sent from the Western Front once Brusilov’s preparations had made his intentions clear) reduced its advance to a crawl.  Aware that his forces were falling apart, Brusilov called off offensive operations around Brody on 16 July.

There’s your map. You’ll be needing it.

Meanwhile, in the Bukovina region to the southwest, General Kornilov’s Russian Eighth Army had opened its attack along a 100km front south of the River Dneister on 6 July.  Facing Austro-Hungarian forces that were barely fit to fight, it too enjoyed early success, breaking through the lines west of Stanislau on 8 July and advancing some 30km by the time the attack ran out of steam on 12 July.  With troops refusing to fight and supplies running short, Russian forces were static or withdrawing all along the Galician front when Bothmer’s reinforced Südarmee launched a major counterattack on 19 July.

Preceded by a 7-hour preliminary bombardment and led by German Army units, the counterattack’s main thrust was aimed at Brody, and it blew away the right wing of Brusilov’s force, gaining 15km in the first day – at which point the Red Army disintegrated, with most troops simply giving up and going home.  Austro-German forces then advanced into empty space, retaking Stanislau on 24 July, reaching Czernowitz on 3 August and crossing the Galician frontier either side of the Dneister by the time new c-in-c Kornilov – who replaced Brusilov on 1 August – had stabilised the front.

The Russian Army was just about capable of an attack in July 1917… but ran away when it was attacked.

A supporting offensive by Russian and Romanian forces based in Moldovia was eventually launched on 22 July, and met a similar fate. After making initial gains, it was halted when German General Mackensen’s multinational army in Romania counterattacked on 6 August.  By 9 August Mackensen’s troops had won a battle around the town of Foscani to threaten the Allied rear, but although one Russian division disintegrated of its own accord the Romanian Army, drastically reorganised since the debacle of its 1916 campaign, regained some of its former reputation by refusing to buckle.  The Allied line was still holding at the end of August, when the German High Command switched its attention to other fronts.

The Kerensky Offensive is not part of our First World War heritage showreel, and on one level that’s fair enough.  Like so many other wartime offensives it was a miserable failure that achieved none of its aims and wasted thousands of lives.  On the other hand, and unlike any of its better-remembered predecessors, it was decisive.

After the offensive’s failure, the Russian Army effectively ceased to exist and, apart from an experimental German attack around Riga in September, serious fighting on the Eastern Front came to an end. The Provisional Government in Petrograd never recovered from the stigma of sending Russians back into battle, and had no more big cards to play as the revolution passed irrevocably into the angry control of the streets and the soviets.  The German High Command, recognising that it could leave Russia to fall apart on its own, was able to redistribute its forces for fighting on other fronts and the exploitation of occupied eastern European territories.  Given the momentous consequences of these changes – in the short term for other battlefronts and for the German war effort; in the long term for the history of Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the superpower world – the Kerensky Offensive stands as one of modern history’s great military turning points.

So while you’re applauding 150 years of Canada’s benign consumerism, and just before the heritage industry swamps you with remembrance of Passchendaele’s hapless horrors, raise a glass of something very cold to Kerensky’s doomed last throw of the dice. The July Offensive may have been the worst kind of First World War battle, a grotesque waste of lives in a cause its perpetrators knew to be all but hopeless, but at least this batch of dead soldiers changed the world.

27 JUNE, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut

Today was the day, a century ago, that the politics of Greece sorted itself out, at least for the moment.  The monarchy, if not pro-German then at least unwilling to upset Germany, had been driven from Athens, and a Provisional Government – based in the northwest of the country, led by veteran statesman Eleftherios Venizelos and protected by the huge Allied army camped at Salonika – finally took formal control over the state as a whole.

So what had happened to untie the political and diplomatic knot that had condemned Greece to almost two years of virtual civil war?  It hardly needs saying, this being the imperial world war, that the big European empires had something to do with it, and if you’ve checked into any of my earlier rambles through Greece you won’t be surprised to find that the French were the prime movers.

Most of the French government, the French armed forces and the French population had been united in coercing the Allies into parking an international army at Salonika, and keeping it there, by way of appearing to defend Serbia.  Government and armed forces were less united when it came to dealing with Greek King Constantine and his apparently pro-German regime.  The French government kept faith with diplomatic efforts to persuade Constantine into the Allied ranks, a cause made plausible by the monarch’s affable, courteous assurances that he was almost ready to agree.  Meanwhile the French Army and Navy, which dominated Allied operations in the theatre, encouraged the breakaway, pro-Allied movement led by Venizelos and plotted the King’s overthrow.

This destructive echo of the divisions in elite French society reached a crisis at the end of 1916, when the military found excuses to send French ground forces into Athens, and royalist Greek troops used extreme force to drive them away (1 December, 1916: Gunboat Diplomacy).  At this point, the French political establishment and population lost patience with Constantine, but for a lot of very good reasons they were in no position to do anything about it for a few months.

Once the French war effort had gone through a change of government, the disastrous Nivelle Offensive and the Army’s mass mutiny; once the world and all its battlefronts had taken a deep, shocked breath in the cosmically uncertain aftermath of revolution in Russia; and once the vast, multinational collection of diseased, demoralised or potentially mutinous troops at Salonika could be trusted to at least look menacing – the French got rid of King Constantine.

It wasn’t a difficult job.  On 11 June, French forces seized strategic points in southern Greece and presented an ultimatum demanding Constantine’s removal from power.  Constantine left the country next day, abdicating in favour of his second son, Alexander, leaving the way clear for the resignation of the royalist government, the appointment of Venizelos as premier and, on 27 June, his arrival in Athens.

King Alexander of Greece  caused a scandal by marrying a commoner – that’s colonel’s daughter Aspasia Manos at his side – and died after being bitten by a monkey.  That’s about all you need to know.

The Provisional Government had declared war against Germany in November 1916, and the declaration became effective for all of Greece on 29 June, while a ‘state of war’ was declared against Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  What had been the Provisional Government’s 60,000-strong Army of National Defence became the basis for a reconstituted Greek national army, which joined Allied forces on the Salonika front in July, and Greek ships seized during the previous year’s quarrels were returned to join Allied anti-submarine forces in the Mediterranean.

The first Greek troops head for the Salonika front… expensive, late and not about to make much difference.

So the Allies had finally brought Greece into the War after almost three years of tying themselves in knots trying.  History backs the impression held by contemporary critics, that the success added almost no strategic value to the Allied cause and had cost far more than it was worth – but the same can be said of almost all the bribes offered to entice smaller countries into the conflict.  More resonantly from a modern perspective, the French had overridden mild objections from the British and Italians to institute regime change in Greece.  To liberal opinion worldwide, and despite reservations about the means involved, this at least seemed cause for some satisfaction, because Venizelos espoused liberal values and boasted a solid record as a supporter of representative democracy. After decades of turbulence and war, surely the people of Greece could at last look forward to a more stable and peaceful future.

Well, no…

Venizelos was indeed inclined to follow democratic process, but he was above all a nationalist.  He went on to prove it by demanding full satisfaction of his territorial ambitions at the post-War peace conference and, when he didn’t get it, ordering the military occupation of the region around Smyrna (Izmir) in western Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnically Greek portion of its population. As Turkish resistance matured into war, and the war went badly for Greece, the illusion of stability evaporated.

Venizelos was a nationalist with expansionist ambitions… but then so was every Greek leader for more than a century.

The sudden death of King Alexander in October 1920, immediately followed by a landslide electoral defeat for Venizelos and his Liberal Party, brought Constantine back to the throne, but he abdicated again in September 1922 after the final defeat of Greek forces in Turkey.  His successor (and eldest son), George II, lasted eighteen months before he was overthrown and a republic proclaimed… and so it went, on and on into the twenty-first century.

I think we know by now that war can make for strange bedfellows – the British and Ibn Sa’ud spring to mind, while Roosevelt and Stalin make the point in spades – and it’s easy to assume such arrangements are the product of clear-eyed realpolitik on both sides. The Greek denouement of June 1917 wasn’t at all like that.  Some Allied authorities on the ground understood Venizelos in the context of his political environment, but by 1917 their masters were set on a happy path laid out by their own relentless propaganda.

Years of propaganda had portrayed Venizelos as the good guy, the political moderniser who would bring coherence, stability and a grateful attitude towards western democracies.  Meanwhile Constantine, a complex character who was no more willing to join the Central Powers than the Allies, who was liked and trusted by the network of European aristocrats who knew him personally, and who could be described as a peaceful man with the best interests of his people at heart, was publicly dismissed in Allied circles as the greedy partner to tyrants.  By 1917 all that propaganda had convinced its creators to invest energy, resources and extravagant promises in a new regime that paid back nothing but the same old trouble – and the trouble has never really gone away.

Like so many other places reshaped by the needs of great powers during the Great War, Greece offered some fairly obvious lessons for future exporters of regime change, especially the one about accepting your own propaganda view of the candidate you’re backing.  Lesson learned?

16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 JUNE, 1917: Listen and Learn

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

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

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

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

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

Shhhhh…..!

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

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

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

And I mean enormous…

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

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

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

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

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

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR