8 DECEMBER, 1918: Britannia’s B Team

From a Western European perspective, orthodox history and current affairs make it very clear that the Mediterranean Sea has always been a hub for international competition.  Some people west of the Rhine are also aware that the Black Sea is, similarly, an arena in which those countries it touches compete for control and resources.  Enclosed seas have that effect, for reasons that are pretty obvious, and the Caspian Sea is no exception – but its geopolitics are a mystery to most modern Westerners, much as they were in 1918.

Given our general ignorance, it would seem hardly surprising that the formative battles being fought in and around the Caspian Sea in the months after the Armistice were largely ignored by the victorious Allies at the time, or that we ignore them now.  Ah, but today is the centenary of a minor battle that left the Royal Navy as undisputed master of the Caspian Sea during the winter of 1918–19, and was the first action of a strange, largely forgotten naval campaign in the region.  I’d best explain, in case no one else does.

The geopolitical melting pot of the Caspian Sea began to boil into chaos after the 1917 revolutions in Russia removed the region from imperial control.  North of Persia, the territories around the west, north and east of the sea could be broadly divided along ethnic lines into Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with the latter category including several related peoples to the north and east.  Along political lines they split between restoration Tsarists, various liberal, left-leaning or socialist groups united only by their opposition to Tsarist rule, and Bolsheviks loyal to the Moscow government.

Good maps of the Caspian Sea are (unsurprisingly) hard to steal, but if you can be bothered to look closely at this 1910 map, it does the business.

By mid-1918, the fluctuating, violent miasma of alliances and rebellions between relatively small armed forces representing all these factions and sub-factions had coalesced, superficially and north of Persia, into three independent republics – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – each with a fragile anti-Bolshevik regime in place.  If that sounds reasonably clear, it wasn’t.

Azerbaijan as a whole was strongly anti-Bolshevik but its capital, Baku, was under the control of Armenian and Russian Bolsheviks. Further east, in what is now Turkmanistan, resident Turkomans and Russians were largely anti-Bolshevik but the only useful port, Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenbaşy in Turkmanistan), was in Bolshevik hands until July 1918, when a non-Bolshevik socialist rebellion took control.  To the north, Bolshevik control of the of the coast was interrupted by a royalist Cossack enclave in the northeast, and to the south the Persian provinces close to the sea were feral badlands beyond central government control, with tribal warlords, ex-Imperial Russian troops and a small British contingent in tenuous charge of various enclaves.  Bolsheviks meanwhile controlled most remaining naval vessels of the Imperial Caspian Sea flotilla from a base at Astrakhan, about 100km from the sea.

The ill-fated advance into the region by ‘Dunsterforce’, a detachment from the British armies in Mesopotamia, was responsible for bringing the Royal Navy into the Caspian Sea (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!).  A small naval element arrived with Dunster’s infantry brigade to set up a base at Enzali and, in theory, work with the ‘Centro-Caspian’ flotilla, a few ex-Imperial gunboats supposedly under the command of the Baku government. The Baku regime had invited the British to intervene, but the soviet actually in charge of the flotilla refused to cooperate, so all the British were able to achieve was the hire of a few local merchant ships, which were fitted with 4-inch guns transported overland from the Mesopotamian Front, some 700 kilometres away.

When General Dunster’s expedition was forced to flee Baku in September 1918, the Royal Navy’s commandeered ships and their Russian or Azerbaijani crews remained at Enzali, charged with preventing Ottoman forces in the Caucasus from establishing a presence on the eastern coast.  By the end of October British flotilla commander Commodore Norris had converted five merchant ships and was awaiting overland transport of ammunition for their guns from Mesopotamia.

Unsatisfied with poor repair facilities at Enzali, Norris crossed to Krasnovodsk in the first ship armed, the small freighter (and subsequent flotilla flagship) SS Kruger, and moved his base there after accepting assurances of support from the social revolutionary local government then in place.  The Armistice changed his mind. Allied warships could now supply the Flotilla through the Black Sea, and on 17 November it steamed into Baku, where it was once again expected to cooperate with the Centro-Caspian flotilla and local ‘White’ ground forces.

Royal Navy forces in the Caspian Sea could have simply gone home after the Armistice – and only a few British personnel were anyway involved, for command, gunnery and radio duties – but imperial thinking kept them in place.  Given help and a modicum of collective organisation, anti-Bolshevik forces seemed to have a good chance of winning control over the region – as they did elsewhere in the former Russian Empire at that stage – and getting rid of Lenin’s regime was a high priority for all the world’s surviving major empires.  At the same time the British Empire was still very interested in securing oil supplies through Baku, and still determined to guard against any hostile exploitation of the Caspian ‘back door’ into India.

The principal duty of the combined RN and Centro-Caspian flotillas was to protect Baku from any attack by Bolsheviks to the north, with particular responsibility for the Bolshevik flotilla at Astrakhan, but it was also required to supply Cossack outposts to the northeast through the port of Guriev (now Atyrau in Kazakhstan).  In early December, while one RN ship performed the latter task another four went on patrol to the north, where the waters south of the Volga Delta were dangerously shallow, largely uncharted and frozen in winter.  The Centro-Caspian flotilla’s vessels again turned out to be allies in name only, and refused to take part.

The region’s rich intermingling of ethnic and political factions made any kind of secret difficult to keep, and the British were aware of Bolshevik plans to establish a warm-water naval base at the small port of Staro-Terechnaya, on the mainland near Chechen Island, at the southernmost limit of the winter freeze.  Two converted British ships, the Zoro-Aster and Alla Verdi, were waiting off Chechen Island when three Bolshevik armed merchantmen and three transports approached Staro-Terechnaya on 8 December.  The Bolshevik ships opened fire, and the British responded.  During the skirmish that followed the Zoro-Aster suffered minor damage and one Bolshevik ship caught fire before the rest withdrew, leaving the British short of ammunition but in undisputed control of ice-free Caspian waters for the winter.

The Bolsheviks made no further attempt to move south before northern waters froze in mid-January, when the RN Flotilla returned to Baku for repairs, leaving one ship to make occasional patrols just south of the ice.  While some very war-weary conscripts were finally sent home, additional British crews were transferred to the theatre from the Mediterranean and Home Fleets, and the facilities at Baku were upgraded.

Evidence that the Centro-Caspian flotilla and elements of the White ‘Volunteer Army’ in the city were (like much of the working population) in contact with Bolsheviks brought the pretence of cooperation to an end in March, when an Indian infantry division transferred from Mesopotamia expelled the Volunteer Army from Baku and Norris seized the Centro-Caspian flotilla.  From that point the RN flotilla underwent a significant growth spurt.

HMS Asia was typical of the local freighters requisitioned for the Caspian Flotilla.

Further British crews were transferred to the region, requisitioned ships were renamed ‘HMS’, the Zoro-Aster was designated a reserve vessel and the slow, unreliable Alla Verdi was paid off.  By late June the flotilla mustered eight frontline armed freighters, 12 coastal motor boats, a motor boat carrier, two seaplane carriers and four supporting transport ships, employing a total of about 1,100 RN officers and men along with more than 300 locally recruited personnel.  The RAF had also established a base on Chechen Island by late April, when the annual thaw enabled patrols to resume in the north.

RAF Airco DH4 bombers on the ground at Petrovosk. Royal Naval Air Service machines until the name change in 1918, they were used to bomb Bolshevik naval bases in and around the Volga Delta.

The Royal Navy would remain an important military presence in the Caspian Sea for much of that summer, and would fight what very nearly amounted to a battle against a much bigger Bolshevik force before its eventual withdrawal in early September.  I’ll give that moment of questionable glory its due when the centenary comes around, but for now this has been a nod to one of Britain’s least remembered military adventures and a reminder that, after all the lessons of the ‘war to end wars’, the British Empire was still acting as if Britannia ruled the waves.

30 NOVEMBER, 1918: Wh’appen?

I can’t help carping on about the worldwide turmoil in progress while the empires of the West were celebrating peace in November 1918, if only because nobody else seems to be mentioning it.  We seem to be living in wild and crazy times today, and no doubt expect them to be remembered as such, but try stripping away the sensationalism built into information overload and comparing modern madness with the everyday news hitting the streets a century ago.  With the grim exception of climate change, our apparently seismic social and political shifts can look pretty tame. Starting from where I left off in Germany, Russia, Belgium and Luxembourg, this is some more of what I mean.

On the day that Allied forces entered Luxembourg, 21 November, the German Navy surrendered to the Allies in the Firth of Forth, just off the Royal Navy base at Rosyth.  The surrender, and that of some 160 U-boats at Harwich (in batches through the second half of the month), put an end to the only threat to Great Britain’s home security since Napoleon, and was a hugely symbolic moment for the British, whose path to war had been mapped by the rapid rise of German sea power.  Given that the Kaiser hanging from a gibbet was off the menu, at least for now, the image of his feared warships tamed was most visible proof of victory available to the British public.  The nation rejoiced, but soon had other things on its collective mind.

HMS Cardiff leads the German High Seas Fleet to surrender in the Firth of Forth, 21 November 1918.  No known photograph can match this for pomp…

The following day saw the publication of election manifestos by the two main contenders in the British general election, the Coalition Liberals led by Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party.  Called within twenty-four hours of the Armistice and due to take place in mid-December, the election asked a greatly expanded franchise – including some women for the first time, and millions of men serving overseas – to choose a government fit to rebuild the nation and the world while the party political system in Britain was in a state of unprecedented flux.

Most Conservatives and the majority of Liberals committed to continuation of the wartime coalition stood as ‘Coupon’ candidates – because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s chosen candidate – and were opposed only by those against the coalition.  The latter included a large portion of the new force in British politics, the Labour Party, and a substantial rump of the Liberals, still led by former premier, Herbert Asquith.

Asquith had won the last general election, but that had been back in 1910 and since then his popular stock had fallen a long way, prompting predictions of electoral failure in 1918 from almost everyone but Asquith himself, whose campaign was already being described as complacent and lethargic.  Pundits assumed with equal certainty that the Labour Party, which produced its own manifesto on 27 November, would make substantial gains, not least because of the broader franchise, but how well it would do was anybody’s guess.  With the future shape and prosperity of the Empire manifestly in the balance, and given that I haven’t even mentioned that it was also an obviously pivotal moment for the future of Ireland, this was one of the most extraordinary and eagerly awaited public votes in British history… and I’ll get back to it.

This is William Adamson, the relatively unknown Scots trade unionist who was leader of the Labour Party in 1918, while more famous men like Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald waited in the wings.

While the British were all agog with triumph and trepidation, other victorious peoples were taking crucial steps towards nationhood or adherence to a chosen nation.  In Zagreb and Belgrade, late November saw urgent attempts to organise a united front of southern Slav peoples in time to make a bloc impact at the forthcoming peace negotiations.  The kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro had been unified in wartime, with the former far and away the more influential partner, but a separate National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs had been established during the War’s last year at Zagreb, where it had proclaimed a Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in March 1918.  On 23 November, after hasty negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere, the National Council proclaimed full unification of Serbia and Montenegro into a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (ah, the wording).

A compromise reached under deadline pressure, created by a body that was self-appointed rather than representative, the new Kingdom was headed by the elderly King Peter of Serbia and came into being when his heir Prince Alexander accepted the Council’s declaration on 1 December – but it pleased neither pan-Slavic nor nationalist elements within its constituent nations and was largely ignored by Britain, France and Italy.  Allied troops continued to occupy parts of the territory claimed by the Kingdom (KSCS), occasionally becoming entangled in skirmishes with ragged local defence forces, and although the KSCS went on to send a delegation to Versailles, so did the Kingdom of Serbia.  The Big Four (France, Britain, Italy and the US) chose to negotiate with the latter, though the US eventually recognised the KSCS in February 1919, while Britain and France gave it reluctant recognition at the end of the peace process.  This was the only means of getting the KSCS to sign the treaty, and of passing responsibility for ongoing disputes about its legitimacy back to the Slavs themselves.

The Prince Regent, he say yes… Alexander gives the KSCS his approval, Belgrade, 1 December 1918.

Despite its universal unpopularity and an almost continuous history of instability – including a coup in 1929 by which the then King Alexander established autocratic rule and Serbian dominance of a renamed Yugoslavia – the state would survive until the 1990s, when its tensions would finally explode into bloody civil war, an outcome that was predicted with some confidence by British newspapers and politicians in November 1918.

Meanwhile the disintegration of Germany was unfolding on a daily basis.  A workers’ republic of northern German states, with Hamburg as its capital, was proclaimed on 24 November.  Three days later the newly proclaimed People’s State of Bavaria, a social democrat regime filling a power vacuum since the flight of King Ludwig III on 7 November, severed relations with Berlin, and on 28 November the Kaiser signed the deed that turned his own flight to the Netherlands into a formal abdication.

Further east, the area that would one day be controlled by the USSR was in a state of dramatic, often dangerous flux, as civil war gathered pace in Russia and regions formerly dominated by the Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian Empires sought to establish their political identity and geographical borders.

The Bukovina region announced its intention to join Romania on 24 November, and a week later King Ferdinand reoccupied Bucharest at the head of his army.  In between, on 28 November, Romanian troops retook the much-disputed Dobrudja province from Bulgaria, a move that forced the resignation of liberal Bulgarian premier Malinov.  The new Bulgarian premier, Teodor Teodorov, took power the same day and was tasked with simultaneously making clear Bulgaria’s condemnation of its alliance with the Central Powers (a crucial position in the run-up to peace negotiations), maintaining Tsar Boris III in power and appeasing the demands of both nationalists on the right and revolutionaries on the left (principally the Agrarian Union and the Communist Party).  He would last until the following October, when revolutionary forces would take control of government without overthrowing the Tsar.

In Poland, the personal prestige of independence campaigner Josef Piludski had helped him form a generally accepted and stable government in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, but it had territorial ambitions.  The first skirmishes of the nine-month Polish-Ukrainian War for control of Galicia’s mixed population were already taking place in November 1918, just as a revolutionary socialist Directorate was taking power in Kiev, while Polish disputes with Lithuania and Russia about the Vilnius region and Belarus would sputter briefly into open warfare before Poland’s Baltic frontiers were set by the 1919 peace treaty.

Lviv, November 1918: the city at the heart of the Polish-Ukrainian war.

Poland also sent forces into the northern Czechoslovakian provinces of Spis and Orava during November, and helped foster uprising to support its claims in Silesia, which was eventually partitioned between Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia after a plebiscite imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.  Czechoslovakia was meanwhile engaged in border confrontations with Hungary that would spill over into warfare during 1919, and part of the Romanian Army had also entered Hungary in pursuit of territorial claims to Transylvania that culminated in the proclamation of a Romanian-Transylvanian union on 1 December.

This is a map of the situation in 1919, but it puts some shapes and places to the mess in Eastern Europe.

I could go on like this for hours, reeling off crisis reports from all corners of a confused world, and still leave out plenty of big news.  I won’t.  Instead I’ll make the small point that, as mass media commemoration of the Great War issues its last outraged squawks, an explosion of events with far more global significance than trench battles are passing their centenaries on a daily basis.  You won’t be hearing much about them from the mainstream, but they’re worth even this brief, partial examination, both as a perspective on the modern world and as a reassuring reminder that we have survived crazier times than these.

21 NOVEMBER, 1918: Hello Goodbye

I hope my last ramble made it clear that not everyone was dancing for joy on Armistice Day 1918, and that plenty of people around the world were too busy with wars and revolutions to celebrate peace.  I didn’t get round to mentioning another factor that complicated peace celebrations in some countries: military occupation.  A century ago today, the first Allied troops entered Luxembourg, which had been occupied by German forces at the very start of the conflict, and two days later the last German troops left Belgium, which had been suffering under a much harsher occupation since the first week of the War.

Token map – this was the big picture in northwestern Europe after the Armistice.

Let’s begin in Belgium.  The German occupation, which had been ruthless, exploitative and sometimes brutal (8 January, 1918: Remember Belgium), had begun to fall apart in mid-October, when officers and administrators, recognising that the end was nigh, began sending their families home, and roads east became clogged by thousands of troops retreating from the Western Front.  The outbreak of revolution in Germany saw the establishment of German soldiers’ councils all over Belgium and the effective end of the official occupying regime from 9 November, after which chaos hit the streets of the country’s towns and cities.  Loyal German troops, revolutionary German troops, Belgian political radicals, Belgian police and citizens with grudges to satisfy contributed to a week or more of high tension and sporadic violence that brought a dark dimension to the party when large numbers of Belgians and Germans took to the streets in celebration of Armistice Day.

The situation was exacerbated as garrison forces prepared to leave the country and tens of thousands of German troops passed through on their way home from the Western Front.  The retreat from France was in full flow from 16 November, and although some units travelled by train most were on foot, their slow, largely unmechanised withdrawal providing plenty of opportunities for desertion, civilian revenge and illicit trading between hungry troops and citizens interested in dirt cheap, second-hand military equipment.  The Belgian Army followed in their wake and gradually restored order wherever it arrived, imprisoning a few local political agitators and making token efforts to stem an outbreak of revenge violence against collaborators.

The final German train left Belgium on 21 November, and the last occupying troops crossed the border from Liège two days later.  In between, on 22 November, King Albert made his ceremonial entry into a packed Brussels at the head of his army and accompanied by contingents of US, French and British troops.  Once the party was over, the restored government embarked on a programme of economic reconstruction, rapid industrialisation and social reform, the latter focused on calming an immediate resumption of strife between the country’s Walloon population and its slightly larger Flemish contingent, and culminating in the first official recognition of the Flemish language in 1920.  Battered but not broken, brutalised but defiant, and lionised where before the War it had been a byword for colonial greed, ‘brave little Belgium’ was back.

Goodbye German Army…
… hello King Albert. His entry into Brussels marked the end of the War for Belgium.

Across the border in tiny Luxembourg, citizens had endured a somewhat peculiar world war.  Although technically neutral and primarily francophone, the economic life of the Grand Duchy’s quarter of a million people had been dominated since 1842 by a customs union with Germany, which had also taken control of the railways in 1872.  When the German Army occupied Luxembourg on 2 August 1914, it met formal protests from the government of constitutional ruler Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide but no resistance from the Duchy’s 300 troops.  After that, Luxembourg’s Great War was a relatively quiet affair.

The government retained control of internal affairs, and no attempt was made to impose the German language.  A few Luxembourgeois were conscripted into the German military, communications with the outside world were strictly controlled and economic exploitation for the German war effort brought mounting civilian hardship, but on the whole the population was largely left alone by an occupation force of about five thousand troops.

Political life continued along pre-War lines, with national sovereignty and supply shortages added to the issues dividing a majority alliance of liberals and socialists from their right-wing opponents.  Broadly speaking, conservatives supported the state’s farmers while liberals and socialists represented urban and industrial interests, and tensions between them rose steadily as the country’s economic condition worsened.  Four elections were held between February 1915 and September 1918, reflecting a tendency for liberals and socialists to diverge when in power but come back together in the face of a challenge from conservatives and their most high-profile supporter, the Grand Duchess.

Marie Adelaide, who had been in power since 1912 and had quickly made enemies by expressing her anti-liberal views, became a focus of popular and political controversy during the occupation.  Most internal criticism was aimed at her openly pro-German attitude, which also drew attacks from Allied propaganda that never stopped complaining about the Duchy’s close relations with Berlin.  They all had a point.  The Grand Duchess surrounded herself with German speakers, regularly consulted occupation authorities on matters of state and married her younger sister Antonia to Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria in August 1918, by which time her popularity had plummeted in line with the country’s economic condition.

Marie-Adelaide was 18 when she took power, abdicated at 24 and died of influenza at 30.  Short life, but feisty…

Most of Luxembourg’s industry, including its important iron and steel sector, was dedicated to the German war effort, but so were food supplies.  As shortages hit to the towns and prices rocketed, public health suffered and political tempers rose.  Starvation was never an issue in wartime Luxembourg, but malnutrition weakened resistance to diseases, particularly the influenza epidemic of 1918, and contributed to a significant rise in mortality rates, above all among the elderly.  The state was forced to impose food price controls and rationing from March 1915, but with shortages worsening and wages stagnating it could do nothing to stem a rise in worker protests, formation of the country’s first trades unions (in the mining industry, in 1916), attacks on profiteering traders or mounting antagonism between urban and rural communities.

As in many other European countries, conditions became much harsher after the bad harvest of 1916, but attempts to secure Allied aid through the scheme set up for the relief of Belgium fell foul of Luxembourg’s reputation as a German vassal state, with Britain insisting that supplies to the Duchy were Berlin’s responsibility. Berlin nevertheless refused to make specific plans for supplying Luxembourg, and instead took over the purchase of all its imports from November 1916, a move that helped cement Allied disapproval of Marie-Adelaide’s regime.

By 1918, British hostility to Luxembourg brought air raids. This was Luxembourg city in March, and an RAF raid in July killed ten civilians.

Allied opinions always mattered in the context of Luxembourg’s neutral self-image, but became critical as the War neared its end. Germany had planned to annex Luxembourg in the event of victory, but the Grand Duchy had come into existence in its present form (in 1839) after a long struggle to remain separate from Belgium, and the Belgians wanted it back.  They might well have got it back if the British and French had been the only arbiters of Luxembourg’s fate, but the influence of the USA and its commitment to self-determination proved too much for Belgian post-War ambitions.

German withdrawal from Luxembourg was announced on 6 November 1918, was complete on 22 November, and proceeded in a generally courteous and orderly fashion.  The same could be said about most of the Duchy’s relatively sober armistice celebrations, but the whiff of revolution wasn’t completely absent.  A socialist revolt in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second largest town, took place on Armistice Day but was quashed after a few hours, and the following day a motion demanding abolition of the monarchy, proposed by an alliance of liberals and socialists, was narrowly defeated in the Chamber of Deputies.  Marie-Adelaide was still in power on 21 November, when General Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force – which needed somewhere to liberate as a matter of protocol – into Luxembourg, but her days were numbered.

The Americans, who called themselves liberators and were treated as such by a population used to placating greater powers, set up a temporary joint administration with French occupying forces. Although the administration interfered as little as possible in local politics, the French government refused to cooperate with the ‘collaborator’ Marie-Adelaide, and republican unrest remained a problem until January 1919, when a revolt by a company of the Luxembourg Army, quickly put down by French troops, prompted Marie-Adelaide’s abdication in favour of another sister, Charlotte. Later that year, a referendum confirmed the population’s overwhelming desire to remain a monarchy under the new Grand Duchess and, having abandoned its customs union with Germany, Luxembourg joined a new union with Belgium in 1921.

Despite a period of political turmoil that encompassed five governments, a change of ruler, the rapid rise of radical socialism and economic separation from Germany, Luxembourg emerged from the First World War largely unchanged and undamaged.  In any sane world this would be considered a major achievement, but Luxembourg’s collective memory of the conflict has tended to echo the shame implied by Allied wartime propaganda.  Most years, Armistice Day is not a particularly big deal in Luxembourg, and the Great War has generated relatively little cultural output, most of it concentrated on the 3,000 or so Luxembourgeois who volunteered for service with the Allies.

Apart from that reminder that history’s winners invent our heritage, this has been another attempt to expand the absurdly one-dimensional take on the 1918 armistice provided by pretty much every media outlet you can think of.  I think I’m done with Armistice Day now – time to get on with war and peace.

11 NOVEMBER, 1918: Peace Off

I don’t suppose anyone in the world needs my help to remember that it was Armistice Day a century ago, because it’s been celebrated, loud and clear, across the world’s mass media during the last few days.  Fair enough on one level:  eleven o’clock on the eleventh was a big moment, especially for those fighting or focused on the Western Front, which was by then almost the last place still engaged in full-scale fighting between belligerent empires.  Citizens of France, Britain, Italy, their ‘white’ colonies, their allies and the USA partied in the streets, but these were the victors, celebrating the start of a more peaceful, settled future.  Elsewhere in the world, Armistice Day came and went in the middle of wild and dangerous chaos that felt like anything but peace.

Armistice Day.  In Philadelphia, they partied…
… in Cologne, they stood in the rain and accepted.

Civil war was spreading across vast swathes of the former Russian Empire, fought between ‘Red’ and ‘White’ forces, many of them using tactics and weapons from a pre-1914 age.  In northern Russia, the arrival of winter saw Red Army troops keeping a wary eye on the alliance of local insurgents and Allied units that had taken control of the area around Archangelsk, and fighting in Central Asia had died down with the failure of three British attempts to provide aid to anti-Bolshevik forces in Tashkent, Ashkhabad and Baku (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment).

In the southwest, Bolshevik forces had for now been cleared from the Ukraine, but had maintained control of the Kuban region until June 1918, when General Wrangel’s ‘Volunteer Army’ of some 9,000 men had launched an invasion.  After heavy fighting through the autumn, Wrangel’s capture of Stavropol on 1 November had marked the end of Bolshevik military resistance, and White forces spent the rest of the year extending their control over the whole of the northern Caucasus.

This is just one of the maps you’ll need to get a grip on the Russian Civil War in 1918. The rest, you go find.

With Allied backing and a lot of help from the Czech Legion, White forces in eastern Russia had cleared Siberia of Bolshevik enclaves by late June 1918.  They extended their control westward during the summer, and although a Bolshevik counteroffensive in September and October did drive White forces back from Kazan, the front had stabilised around Ufa and Orenburg by November.  At this stage the various White units in play, most of which were commanded by former imperial officers, generally enjoyed military superiority over ill-trained and unreliable Red Army forces, but command cohesion was harder to come by.  White forces at large included a People’s Army, a Siberian Army and various independent Cossack units only nominally under unified command, all theoretically controlled by a Provisional All-Russian Government, formed in September as an alliance of anti-Bolshevik authorities scattered around eastern Russia, and based in Omsk.

They arose, they squawked, they disappeared… states created during the Russian Civil War.

Essentially an arena for squabbling between tsarist and moderate socialist delegates, the provisional government didn’t last long.  As armistice was being proclaimed in the West, its war minister, former Imperial Navy officer Rear-Admiral Alexander Kolchak, was preparing the coup that put him in supreme command from 18 November.  Established in Omsk as ‘Supreme Leader and Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Land and Sea Forces’, Kolchak resumed the campaign against increasingly coherent Red Army forces in December, and White armies advanced to take Perm on Christmas Eve.  Kolchak would retain supreme command over the eastern wing of White resistance to the Bolsheviks, and remain the principal conduit for Allied aid to the cause, until his assassination in February 1920, but the fluctuating fortunes of his bid for regime change are a story for another day.

The republic based in Omsk had its own stamps: ‘For United Russia – Supreme leader of Russia, Kolchak.’

If most Russians could be forgiven a lack of enthusiasm for Armistice Day, so could most Germans.  The sombre reality of defeat obviously cut down on the street parties, but so did social and political breakdown across the nation.  What is known as the German Revolution, but is perhaps better described as a period of multiple, sometimes simultaneous German revolutions, national and regional, had been coming for a long time.  Predicted by observers of all political persuasions since before the War, it had finally been triggered by the decision of the extreme right-wing Third Supreme Command to walk away from the mess it had created and hand power to the Reichstag (8 October, 1918: What’s Going On?).

Ruthlessly marginalised by the military-industrial regime, and ultimately driven to abandon the political truce agreed in 1914, the Reichstag was dominated by liberal and socialist reformers.  When the Third Supreme Command’s choice to succeed Hertling as imperial chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, took office on 3 October he put moderate socialist Social Democratic Party (SDP) deputies at the heart of a new cross-party government.  While the soft left took power in the hope of a peaceful transition to full democracy in Germany, the far right withdrew to plan a counter-coup and ensure that the SDP took the blame for whatever peace emerged.

Both sides of this political equation had underestimated the depth of popular discontent across the country.  Ludendorff’s resignation did nothing to slow the nationwide escalation of food riots, strikes, peace protests and attendant violence, and the new government’s position was almost immediately called into question by a mass mutiny of the German High Seas Fleet at Kiel.

The mutiny was triggered by the decision of German Navy c-in-c Admiral Scheer and his senior commanders to launch a final suicide mission against the British Grand Fleet.  The sole purpose of the mission seems to have been restoration of the German surface fleet’s damaged reputation, and Scheer – very much the Third Supreme Command’s man – kept his plans secret from the von Baden’s government.  He couldn’t prevent rumours reaching crews aboard the High Seas Fleet’s ships at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, and when fleet commander Admiral Hipper ordered his ships to sea on 30 October he faced widespread failure to return from shore leave and mass refusal to work.  Hipper abandoned the mission and dispersed his ships, but when his Third Battle Squadron reached Kiel its crews went ashore, made contact with industrial workers in the port and began organising protests against their commanders.

No more war… German sailors of the High Seas Fleet refuse to fight.

During the next few days, protests escalated out of control. Mutineers overwhelmed the naval station, forcing its commander, Crown Prince Heinrich, to flee in disguise, and sailors joined with workers to form political councils.  The movement quickly spread south into Germany’s industrial heartland and beyond, and protesters’ demands expanded to include immediate peace and constitutional reform.  The German Navy was quick to blame the trouble on Bolshevik agitators, although inactivity, command insensitivity and increasingly harsh living conditions were at least partly responsible.  German newspapers, public and politicians, faced with the mind-boggling concept of mutiny within the world’s most disciplined military, swallowed the story whole, and the government in Berlin braced for a Russian-style revolution.

The government’s representative in Kiel, moderate socialist Gustav Noske, reported the situation there as out of control on 6 November, but a march on the port by naval ground forces under Admiral Schroder was halted by the cabinet on the grounds that it would provoke nationwide revolution.  Three days later, convinced the revolution had already started and well aware of Kerenski’s fate in Petrograd, the moderate reformers attempted to seize the day.

On 9 November Max von Baden accepted moderate socialist demands and resigned as chancellor, handing power to SDP leader Friedrich Ebert and announcing the abdication of the Kaiser, although he no legal authority to do either.  Against Ebert’s wishes, vice-chancellor Philipp Scheidemann then proclaimed a German Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag, prompting Kaiser Wilhelm’s flight to the Netherlands and leaving Ebert as head of a provisional government pending national elections.  On the same day, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, General Wilhelm Gröner, made a deal with Ebert that offered military support for the government in return for a promise not to subject the officer corps to radical reform.  The pact effectively guaranteed an unreformed military a role in Germany’s political future, and everyone knows where that led.

Ebert…
… and Gröner.  Between them they kept moustaches and the army at the heart of German politics.

Ebert and Gröner, an accomplished staff officer recalled from the Ukraine after Ludendorff’s resignation, recognised that the government and the military feared a Bolshevik-style soviet revolution more than they feared each other.  Although the level of civil disturbance in Germany abated somewhat as the fact of peace persuaded less committed or radical protesters back to work, this simply made everyone still protesting look like a Bolshevik to the authorities.  Gröner and Noske, now in Berlin as the cabinet’s military liaison, began organising the deployment of regular Army units – and, as they formed, irregular ‘Freikorps’ units largely comprised of demobbed war veterans – to maintain order and suppress the supposed threat of Bolsheviks.

A year of violent struggle followed, while an uneasy alliance of democrats and right-wing military or paramilitary groups extinguished the far left’s bid for national control.  On a regional scale, beyond Prussia, the states that had relatively recently come together to form Germany underwent their own revolutionary upheavals.  Most minor monarchs and dukes were swept away, and the biggest of the states, Bavaria, came under a communist dictatorship that lasted into 1920.  Again, these are stories for another day, as are the civil wars, revolutions, uprisings and imperial conquests in progress all over the world as the war in Western Europe came to a ceremonial end.

And that’s the point here.  Alongside revolutionary wars across the former Russian Empire and in Germany, people in Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Arab world, East Africa, Bulgaria, the states forming from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and China were still experiencing wild and dangerous times, and the list would be longer if I wasn’t out of gas and beyond even light research.  So however good the Last Post sounded, and still sounds, Armistice Day didn’t mean peace.

5 NOVEMBER, 1918: Midterm Matters

It’s fair to say that in early November 1918, for the first time in years, peace had replaced war as the world’s principle preoccupation.  Pretty much every literate person on the planet knew peace was imminent, and a large chunk of them knew that the ways peace was shaped and maintained were likely to define their future.

Reaching a state of peace was contingent on agreement between the Great War’s three long-term heavyweights:  Germany, Britain and France.  With Russia and Austria-Hungary effectively excluded from international diplomacy, and most other belligerent nations dependent upon the heavyweights, this was obvious to anyone paying attention.  In broad terms it was equally clear what each of the main empires, as well as almost all their allies and dependents, would want from the agreement that followed.

Germany and its surviving allies wanted to remain intact and rebuild, while Britain and France wanted to increase their imperial resources and security by any means feasible.  France was more interested in fleecing Germany through reparations, while Britain and most of the other allied states were primarily concerned with territorial expansion.  There were of course many other personal, social, philosophical or political visions of the future at play in the world of November 1918 – these were, after all, very interesting times – but the big picture smacked of all the same ambitions that had characterised ‘old world’ diplomacy and geopolitics before the ‘war to end wars’.

On the other hand there were two new players at the great game’s top table.  Both had become infinitely more influential since 1914 and both represented a threat to the status quo or, depending on your point of view, a chance to really change the world for the better.  Radical socialism, in charge but fighting for its life in the former Russian Empire, promised a new world order but generally frightened more people than it attracted, and the Bolshevik government was anyway unlikely to be involved in the peacemaking process.  Radical liberalism, as represented by the United States, was altogether more cuddly and definitely would have a voice at the peace talks.

Radical liberalism postulated a future of peaceful reform, of guaranteed civil liberties and of economic prosperity through trade, underpinned by the harmonious co-existence of peoples with sovereign control over their ‘natural’ domains.  The United Sates of America, founded on anti-imperialist principles and well on the way to becoming the world’s first military and economic superpower, was the one major belligerent espousing radical liberalism, and the creed was embodied in the person of its president, Woodrow Wilson.  As peace beckoned in late 1918, it was to Wilson and the Fourteen Points – his sketchy blueprint for future peace – that most of the war-torn world turned in hope or fear of real change.

Just about sums it up.

I’ve chatted around them before and this isn’t the day for a detailed analysis, but whatever the merits or failings of the Fourteen Points they were popular with and well known to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.  A rallying call for pacifists and a beacon of support for populations seeking independence or autonomy, they came across as a benevolent package of common sense sufficiently homespun for the tastes of moderate observers everywhere.  To a lot of people in a lot of countries, they marked out a road to the kind of future that might justify the horrors of the previous four years.

The power of the United States as a force for change on the Wilsonian model was more of a threat than a promise to anyone with a major stake in the status quo – and in national terms that meant the War’s winners.  In Britain, France and Italy in particular, public opinion was divided on the merits of the Fourteen Points and national leadership regarded the USA’s attitude as the principle obstacle to the spoils of war.  By November 1918 one of the few issues that united premiers Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando was a shared determination to secure the national interest (and national votes) by doing everything in their power to disarm and thwart Wilson’s radical agenda.

History records that they succeeded, or at least that the complexities and machinations surrounding the peacemaking process robbed Wilson’s vision of the consistency and clout needed for survival in subsequent decades.  In other words the Fourteen Points were paid lip service and the institutions they created left toothless, while Europe’s old-school imperialists built for one last hurrah.  For this, post-War European peacemakers have been often and roundly condemned, though as representative democrats they were in no position to lead their countries into Wilson’s paradise.

Blame has also been heaped on the Republican Party for blocking US ratification of the peace treaty and membership of its international police authority, the League of Nations.  Generally described as a retreat into isolationism by the US, and perceived as a conservative refusal to do the rest of the world any favours, the political reaction against Wilson in his home country is seen as the final nail in the coffin of radical liberalism as a world-changing force.

So the crafty, greedy imperialists and the self-centred, greedy isolationists killed off the idea of a world in self-regulating liberal harmony.  When the next world war gave international regulators another shot at the idea, in and after 1945, the presence of two military superpowers, one of them anything but liberal, ensured its stillbirth.  It hasn’t been seen since.

That thesis, which just about sums up the heritage take on the peace from a European perspective, largely ignores one of the principle reasons for Wilson’s failure – Wilson himself.  The president is conventionally described as naive in his dealings with wily old world politicians, note is taken of his personal stubbornness and inflexibility, and much is made of his ideals.  He is popularly portrayed as the man the world hoped he was in 1918:  the good guy. The US looks more closely at its presidents than we do, and Wilson’s reputation at home is closer to the truth, which is that he was an arrogant academic, a really lousy politician, and as much to blame as anybody for the failure of his peace plan on both sides of the Atlantic.

The President’s travails in Versailles are a story for another year, but on 5 November 1918, half way through his second term in the White House, the Democrats suffered a crucial defeat in the midterm elections to Congress, and it was largely Wilson’s fault.

World saver? Dangerous idealist? How about all mouth, no trousers?

The only elections held while the US was actually fighting the First World War, the midterms took place in the middle of the global flu epidemic – which had killed almost 200,00 Americans in October – and until just before the vote they were fought with kid gloves.

The flu epidemic, at its peak in the US during the autumn of 1918, would be prolonged by troops returning from Europe.

During eighteen months at war both main parties had shown restraint when it came to attacking the other, partly to bolster national unity and partly to be seen bolstering national unity.  It suited the national interest for Wilson to be considered above the dirt of party politics, a firm but bipartisan hand on the tiller during a storm.

Republicans were generally against the expansion of government functions to administer the war effort, and regarded proposals for a post-War League of Nations as the thin end of a very dangerous, interventionist wedge.  Slim Democrat majorities and the changes implied by an end to war had shortened the odds against them taking control in both houses of Congress, but the unspoken truce kept Wilson’s personal popularity out of the equation – until he put it up for grabs.

On 25 October, against all advice and without sparing the righteous indignation, Wilson lowered himself into the political bullring, issuing a call for voters to support the Democrats on the grounds of national security and throwing in a few attacks on the Republicans. The effect on voters was comparable with the impact made by the UK’s Prince Charles when he interferes in politics, in that Wilson’s popular stock fell and his message quickly stopped being the story. By losing his nerve and tossing away his electoral invulnerability Wilson dispelled the illusion of national unity, reignited the flames of party rivalry and let the politics of personality back into the fight for votes.

Wilson, who came across in public as the aloof academic he was, despised the politics of personality and was no good at them. Having come to power thanks to a split in the Republican Party and been re-elected as a familiar pair of hands at a time of global crisis, the decision to get personal against a re-united opposition just as the crisis was coming to an end was about as clumsy as clumsy gets.

Wilson intervention did him no good at the polls.  The Republicans gained six seats in the Senate and 25 in the House of Representatives, giving them a majority in both chambers and hobbling Wilson’s administration for the remaining two years of his (peacetime) presidency.  They took the White House in 1920 and held it for twelve years, during which three politically inert administrations presided over a rollback of federal regulation that ended in massive depression.  It’s no wonder American historians point to the 1918 midterms as a major watershed in US politics – but given that the same elections effectively doomed Wilson’s foreign policy, and by extension extinguished any hope of world peace based on his Fourteen Points, it does seem surprising that European historians largely ignore them.

30 OCTOBER, 1918: Job Done?

The other day, I mentioned that territorial ambition kept the British Empire on the attack in the Middle East when the Great War was effectively over.  This wasn’t quite the whole truth, because while General Allenby had been powering his way past Ottoman defences in Palestine and Syria, British imperial forces on the Mesopotamian Front had spent most of 1918 in a state of what their commanding officer called ‘astonishing inactivity’.  They were eventually sent into concerted action in late October, but this was no last-minute land grab.  The operation culminating in the Battle of Sharqat, which ended on 30 October 1918, was about securing the prize that had brought the British Empire to the Persian Gulf at the very start of the War: oil.

I last looked at Mesopotamia more than a year ago, a century after a small British motorised force had tried and failed to follow up a victory on the Euphrates at Ramadi with the capture of Hit (28 September, 1917: Wheels Come Off).  British c-in-c General Maude spent the next few weeks going after remaining Ottoman forces in the region.  Two divisions were sent up the River Diyala under General Marshall in mid-October, but Ali Ihsan Pasha’s XIII Corps retreated into the hills and the chase was called off.  Two more divisions advanced up the Tigris under General Cobbe, and continued the pursuit after Khalil Pasha’s forces withdrew from defensive lines around Samarrah.  They took Tikris on 2 November but the garrison, along with most of its supplies and equipment, escaped again.

Having failed to eliminate the possibility of an Ottoman counterattack, Maude died of cholera in mid-November.  His death signalled a reduction of British commitment to the campaign, and new c-in-c Marshall was ordered to scale back operations.  After another sortie up the Diyala had failed to trap Ali Ihsan, Marshall focused on reorganising his forces until early March 1918, when a small-scale advance up the Euphrates took Hit.  The town’s defenders had retreated before they were attacked and regrouped behind a new line at Khan Baghdadi, which was surrounded and taken by British forces at the end of the month.

Throughout the summer – when it was anyway too hot to fight, the Western Front was in crisis and Allenby was preparing big things in Palestine – Mesopotamia languished way down the list of British strategic priorities.  By autumn Allenby’s forces from Palestine had taken Aleppo, cutting off any full Ottoman retreat from Mesopotamia, and the Ottoman war effort was palpably on the point of final collapse.  The region housed no coherent Arab independence movement to contest future British control, and Marshall’s offensive options were restricted by a serious shortage of transport vehicles, many of which had been transferred to Dunsterforce (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment!).  Further fighting in Mesopotamia could hardly be described as a military necessity.

This was the legacy of the Mesopotamian campaign: the post-War British mandated territory of Iraq.

Ah, but having come much, much too far on what was originally conceived as a mission to protect the flow of oil supplies out to sea through Basra, the British found themselves just short of the oil fields around the Tigris city of Mosul, a prize that was both tempting and extremely vulnerable to sabotage.  It was also a prize that might prove difficult to secure after the War ended, when multilateral peace negotiations would inevitably be influenced by the liberal, essentially anti-imperialist stance of the USA and President Wilson.

British premier Lloyd George, acutely aware of an American attitude he considered naive and no slouch when it came bossing his generals around, duly ordered Marshall to advance up the Euphrates and the Tigris, clearing out remaining Ottoman forces in the region and taking the Mosul oilfields.  Marshall was able to convince his government that, amid a debilitating attack of influenza, he lacked the resources to attack on both fronts, and while he made preparations for an operation on the Tigris, British diplomacy set about making sure he could proceed without international interference.

The Young Turk government in Constantinople had resigned on 13 October, triggering a scramble for peace by the new grand vizier, Izzet Pasha.  He immediately sent a note to the US asking for peace talks, and emissaries were dispatched to Britain and France for the same purpose on 15 October.  The US administration declined to respond before hearing its allies’ views on the subject, and for reasons that remain unclear the French were slower on the uptake than the British, who seized upon the offer of negotiations delivered from Constantinople by long-term Ottoman prisoner General Townshend (5 April, 1916: Decline and Fall).

In anticipation of victory, the Allies had already agreed that whichever country received an armistice offer should lead negotiations, but the British chose to interpret this as permission to conduct talks alone and Ottoman authorities, again for reasons that can only be guessed, were content to keep things bilateral.  Talks began on 27 October aboard the British battleship Agamemnon, anchored in the Bay of Mudros (off the island of Lemnos), and both sides agreed to prevent French representatives from joining the negotiations.

I always like an old battleship picture, and this was the pre-Dreadnought HMS Agamemnon.

Marshal had meanwhile begun operations on 18 October by clearing the last of the defensive lines facing him on the Tigris at Fathah Gorge.  They were abandoned by defenders on 23 October, and on the same day two divisions and two brigades of cavalry, commanded by General Cobbe, left Baghdad in pursuit of Ismail Hakki Bey’s retreating forces.  Cobbe reached their hastily improvised defensive line at the Little Zab, a tributary of the Tigris, the following evening, but was forced to resume the  pursuit when Ismail Hakki Bey retreated another 100km north to Sharqat, where his remnant made its last stand.

Cobbe’s attack at Sharqat began on 29 October, and although it failed to break through Ottoman lines after one of his Anglo-Indian divisions arrived late on the scene, Ismail Hakki Bey was aware that negotiations off Mudros were making swift progress and chose to spare everyone further bloodshed.  Some 12,000 troops and fifty artillery pieces surrendered to Cobbe on 30 October, ending what proved to be the last action of the war on the Mesopotamian Front.

Ottoman troops surrender to an armoured car at Sharqat.

Negotiations aboard the Agamemnon were indeed proceeding with remarkable speed, both because the Ottoman government was desperate for immediate peace and because the British were in a hurry to end the fighting before international peace processes restricted their movements. The British made demands and the Ottomans accepted them without delay, so that an armistice was agreed on 30 October (and of course both sides later concluded that they could have driven a harder bargain).

Fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire ceased throughout the Middle East at noon on 1 November, by which time Marshall had sent a column under General Fanshawe from Tikrit to Mosul, where the remains Ali Ihsan’s XIII Corps surrendered without a fight.  British forces began occupying the city next day.

As far as the British Empire was concerned that was job done, and British control over Middle Eastern oil supplies became a fact of life for decades after the War.  On the other hand, and despite the booty it produced, nobody at the time thought the Mesopotamian campaign had been a good idea.  It had cost 97,579 (largely) Anglo-Indian casualties, including 31,109 dead, along with an unknown but presumably higher number of Ottoman casualties.  The Anglo-Indian invasion had suffered at various stages from maladministration, command ineptitude and strategic drift, and the report of a British commission of enquiry (set up in 1916) concluded that it had been an unnecessary waste of resources, given that the campaign in Palestine proved a far more efficient means of defeating the Ottoman Empire and securing oil supplies.

The same report also pinned much of the blame for the essentially casual carnage in Mesopotamia on the Indian administration and army, but that ignored London’s failure to exert imperial control over the adventure during its early stages and the British government’s dithering attitude throughout.  However you apportion the blame – and one way or another it comes down to British imperial ambition – the Battle of Sharqat and the Mudros armistice signalled a victory for greed that was hollow even by the standards of that terrible war… and the echo of its empty venality is still vibrating through the Middle East.

23 OCTOBER, 1918: War And Peace

The War was almost done, everybody knew that, so why keep fighting?  Why not just stop it now and cut to the peace conference? It was a good question, and by late October 1918 it had been relevant for weeks, but convincing answers weren’t too hard to find.

Granted, any logic that had once inspired the war for East Africa was by now a distant memory, and both sides kept on fighting for fighting’s sake, but on the Western Front the Americans were only just getting fully involved and in no mood to stop until they’d won their spurs, while their leaders shared the view of British, French and German strategists that every yard gained or lost affected the dynamic of future peace talks.  The same imperative guided the continuation of naval and airborne operations at an intense level until the War’s last moment.

In Russia, revolution and counter-revolution made good causes for battle, as did the Western democracies’ fear of Bolshevism and Japan’s thirst for territorial expansion, an appetite that also spurred the British into continued action in the Middle East, faced as they were by competition for future control from their Arab Revolt allies. On the other hand, Allied armies from the Salonika Front had no real reason to keep fighting.  A disintegrating Austria-Hungary’s position around the peace process was irrelevant, and the territories it still controlled weren’t available for acquisition by predatory empires, so Allied armies on the Austrian frontier indulged in an informal and sensible truce while they awaited Vienna’s next move and cleared the last enemy troops from areas already overrun.

In theory, the same applied the Italian Front.  Some of the Italian Army was busy occupying Albania in the aftermath of the advance from Salonika, but most of it had spent the autumn stationed, exhausted and demoralised, opposite even less coherent Austro-Hungarian forces in positions along Italy’s northern frontier.  With no danger of any aggressive move from the Austro-Hungarian remnant, and no likelihood of any future territorial gains as a result of last-minute military shifts, Italian c-in-c General Diaz saw no reason to sacrifice more lives, regarded his positions as sustainable only as long as no German forces returned to the theatre and feared his exhausted, demoralised troops would anyway refuse to fight.  So why, on 23 October 1918, did Diaz launch the full-scale attack that came to be known as the Vittorio Veneto Offensive?

Diaz was certainly under pressure from France, Britain and the US to mount an operation in support of their Western Front offensives, but Allied demands for action had been a constant chorus for more than three years and Italian leaders were good at resisting them. What Diaz couldn’t resist, though he held out for most of October, was the Italian government’s insistence on an offensive, a position that reflected both its own weakness and the shambolic state of the nation.

Italian foreign minister Sidney Sonnino…
… and prime minister Vittorio Orlando were the prime movers forcing the Italian Army into one last offensive.

A young society still excited by its recent unification, Italy had entered the First World War in May 1915 on a wave of nationalist opportunism.  Led by political and popular elements bent on establishing the nation among the great imperial powers, many Italians had clamoured for a chance to share in the spoils that would surely fall to the winners of what was seen as a gigantic European reshuffle.  Things hadn’t gone well.  Locked into a ghastly military stalemate on the northern frontier, the country was close to social, economic and political breakdown by 1918.

The year had begun with the Italian Army in terrible condition, pinned back behind the River Piave and reliant on support from its allies – but no longer threatened with the comprehensive defeat that had seemed likely the previous autumn (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  Opponents of Italian participation, having lost a very loud public argument in 1915 and been a thorn in the government’s side whenever the country wasn’t in immediate jeopardy, resumed their attacks on the government with renewed force.  They found plenty to complain about.

While critical manpower shortages were forcing the Army to deploy raw eighteen year-olds at the front, and the Navy was all but paralysed by lack of fuel, the Russian Provisional Government’s revelation of secret Allied treaties made public the fact that Italy had gone to war on the basis of promises that could never be kept. At the same time another poor harvest saw serious famine in Italian cities far from the front – notably Naples, Palermo and Messina – and it became evident that the bulk of aid from the USA, desperately needed in a country dependent on imports for fuel and industrial raw materials, was being given to Britain and France.

Amid galloping inflation, the government had attempted to mobilise resources by establishing a National Exchange Commission, with control over exports and power to requisition and redistribute supplies.  The Commission was never able to square the circle of endemic shortages and made itself very unpopular in the process, so that by the middle of the year day-to-day economic survival was dependent on Allied food aid and credits obtained by treasury minister and economic supremo Francesco Nitti.

The enduring popularity of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points programme among Italian peasants and working classes put the relatively moderate political class as a whole under further pressure. Wilson specifically forbade the imperial expansionism that had been Italy’s principal reason for entering the War, and remained the government’s guiding ambition, its best hope for post-War political stability and its only hope for short- or medium-term political survival.

Hope was looking very fragile in a stormy political landscape that was becoming increasingly radicalised to both left and right – until, in June, the Austro-Hungarian Army’s manifest disintegration in the aftermath of failure at the Paive parted the clouds (15 June, 1918: Pawn Sacrifice).  If the government could force Diaz to exploit the opportunity, it might at last bask in the glory of a decisive victory, while silencing the pacifists and appeasing the imperialists by occupying great swathes of former Austrian territory.  Ministers were not naive enough to believe that the Allies would allow Italy to keep anything like enough territory to satisfy public demand (or indeed treaty obligations), but the government was savvy enough to exploit the naivety of a spectacularly volatile body politic.

By the time Diaz eventually succumbed to political pressure, he could put 57 divisions in the field, including two British and three French, against a nominal 51 Austro-Hungarian divisions, along with some 7,700 artillery pieces, all of which added up to overwhelming superiority of force.  His battle plan opened with a diversionary attack northwest into the Monte Grappa sector, at the join between the two Austro-Hungarian army groups.  This convinced Austrian commanders Archduke Josef and Field Marshal Boroevic to transfer the few defensive reserves available away from the main Italian attack, an advance by four armies across the Piave towards the town of Vittorio Veneto, about halfway to the River Tagliamento.

In Italian, but it’s the least confusing map I could find.

Attackers met some resistance while crossing the river, but it soon dwindled and operation turned into another walkover.  The Italian armies took Vittorio Veneto on 30 October, after which Austro-Hungarian defence disintegrated completely and the offensive became a triumphant procession.  It had reached the Tagliamento in the east and Trento in the west when a ceasefire was agreed on 4 November, by which time the Italian Army had captured 300,000 prisoners in ten days and suffered 38,000 casualties of its own.

Italian forces march through Trento, 3 November 1918… not looking too triumphant, are they?

They were of course pointless casualties, unless a short-term boost for the incumbent Italian government and a shot in the arm for Italian public morale amount to valid points, because their significance to the wider picture – by which I mean the geopolitical fallout from the War as arranged in Paris – was a mirage.  The mirage would soon evaporate, and Italy would emerge from the War a lot less inflated than its self-image, leaving the government high and dry, the Italian public in a fever of nationalist outrage and the Italian political system ready to explode.

More on the explosion another day, but for now this has been a salute to the one great Italian victory of the First World War, and a much less respectful gesture to the men who forced it to happen. Cynical, self-interested exploitation of naive nationalism is nothing new.

16 OCTOBER, 1918: With A Whimper

After more than four years of centenary showbiz, the modern heritage industry is still pumping out its trench-based, worm’s-eye view of the First World War, but it does occasionally peep over the sandbags and notice that empires were falling or rising.

Hunt around a little and it’s not so hard to find popular accounts discussing the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the USSR, or the fall of the upstart Hohenzollerns and its impact on Germany’s future.  The rise of the USA and Japan to imperial status, albeit in rather different ways, has some resonance for modern media, particularly in those two countries but also across a world alert to the roots of the Second World War, while the state of twenty-first century geopolitics (and the outrage of Armenians) has meant that even the Ottoman Empire’s disappearance attracts a hint of heritage profile.

The common selling point that earns these empires, whether waxing or waning, at least a modicum of recognition by posterity is their direct connection to the most sensationally earth-shaking stories of the last hundred years.  The same can’t really be said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was in the process of a more complete disappearance and has been largely ignored by the rest of the world ever since.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to highlight the many ways in which the First World War shaped the future, our present, but today marks the centenary of a last, doomed attempt to preserve an empire, and with it a dynasty, that had helped shape Europe’s centuries-long transition from mediaeval to modern.

This isn’t the place for a potted history of the Habsburgs, and the map below is worth a thousand words, but the dynasty had ruled over vast tracts of Europe for hundreds of years, preserving and extending its power by the traditional (if ultimately unhealthy) method of marrying cousins to create kings.  The decline of the Holy Roman Empire as a geopolitical force, along with the loss of its possessions in Spain and the Low Countries, had significantly reduced the family’s power base by 1914, but the Austro-Hungarian monarchy still held sway over a globally significant chunk of central and eastern Europe.  By October 1918, with its economy atrophied, its politics in a state of revolutionary turmoil and powerful enemies at the gates, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on life support, and on 16 October the last Habsburg emperor made a last, desperate bid to transform the wreckage into something sustainable.

There you go… ‘Habsburgia’ in all its glories.

The young Emperor, Karl I, had taken the throne in November 1916, too late for his moderate reformism to satisfy separatist elements already bent on full independence.  With no other course of action available, short of handing control of the Empire to Germany, Karl had clung to his reformist principles throughout the next two years, and in July 1917 he had appointed a prime minister with similar views.

Baron Max Hussarek von Heinlein – let’s just call him Hussarek – was a law professor who had served as minister of education under successive governments since 1911.  Committed to finding a constitutional means of reconciling Czech, Slav and Polish ambitions within a monarchic framework, Hussarek came up with a plan that earned royal approval and formed the basis of an imperial declaration released  on 16 October.  Known as the October Manifesto, the declaration proposed turning the Empire into a federation of small autonomous states, each given its own representative parliament, with the exception that Hungary was to remain a unitary kingdom.  The sop to Hungary was in effect an offer to spare that country the political consequences of defeat, at least in the short term, but while the Manifesto was never radical enough for separatist groups it was far too radical for the conservative elite still running Hungary.

 

This is Max Hussarek, the moderate reformer who tried to save an empire…
… and this is Sándor Wekerle, the diehard conservative who made sure it couldn’t be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hungarian premier Alexander Wekerle, an elderly conservative appointed to protect the interests of the dominant Hungarian landed class, had been no friend to Vienna since taking office in August 1917.  Forced by Karl (in his capacity as King of Hungary) to present some degree of constitutional reform to the Hungarian parliament – which rejected the proposals in late 1917 – Wekerle had retaliated by pushing demands for Hungarian control over half the Imperial army and by giving support to the increasingly popular republican movement inside Hungary.  He reacted to the October Manifesto by rejecting it and threatening an embargo on vital food exports to Austria if Karl pursued it further.

That was that for the October Manifesto, dead in the water after about two days – but although the failure came as no surprise to anyone, it did function as a signal for the Empire’s final disintegration.  Wekerle declared an independent Hungary on 19 October but, having neglected to abolish the monarchy, he was dismissed by Karl four days later and retired into private life, leaving Hungary prey to revolutionary forces that would define the country’s immediate future.  Hussarek also abandoned politics after his own resignation on 27 October, and his federal mirage evaporated with proclamations of independence by Czechoslovak and Yugoslav nationalists on 28 and 29 October respectively.

Proclaiming a Hungarian republic may have been premature, but it was popular – Budapest, 19 October 1918.

Without the means to force political control, because any remaining loyal troops were defending the Danube frontier or the Italian Front, Karl had no cards left to play.  He would agree an armistice with the Allies on 3 November, and abdicate on 11 November, but both were gestures after the fact.  His empire had already ceased to exist.

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire died, it left little to remember it by.  Imperial records are scarce, most having been destroyed by incoming regimes or outgoing officials, while central European historians have tended, understandably enough, to focus on histories of their own nations rather than that of the perceived oppressor dynasty.  They have a point.  Taken across several hundred years of almost unparalleled power in Europe, the Habsburgs hardly stand out as a boon to the societies they dominated.  Relentlessly inbred and almost exclusively concerned with the family’s status, Habsburg rulers sponsored some interesting art and plenty of exploration, but otherwise tended to feature as major obstacles to pretty much everything the modern world sees as progress.

It seems fitting enough that when this testament to blood as the arbiter of human affairs finally left the stage during the second half of October 1918, it went out with the October Manifesto, which definitely qualified as a whimper.  I’m less convinced that its destruction, a moment of belated triumph for modern values extracted from the disaster of the First World War, should be ignored a century later.

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.

So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.

Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.

So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.

Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria – quick to sue for peace and destined for a turbulent, 25-year reign.

On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.

Takes a bit of study, but this pretty much nails what was happening on the Western Front.

If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.

The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.

Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.

Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.

The more self-important British newspapers in 1918 didn’t really do headlines. Americans did.

Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.

In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.

Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.

Once a place is conquered, you march through it in triumph, so that’s what the British did in Damascus on 2 October, 1918.

The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.

Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia.  The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania.  Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply.  Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action.  Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days.  A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.

29 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Carry On Crushing

It was all about the Western Front by September 1918, as British, French, Belgian and US forces drove German defenders back beyond the Hindenburg Line, recapturing small villages and landmarks that had become dark icons for the carnage of the previous four years.  Under the circumstances, no surprise that the Western press paid precious little attention to the appointment of a new Japanese prime minister on 29 September 1918, or that today’s Western heritage industry shows no sings of commemorating Hara Takashi’s arrival in office.  Understandable enough, and anyway it’s not as if Japan’s political future made much difference to the rest of us… oh, wait.

Most of my references to the Land of the Rising Sun during the last four years have concerned Japan’s aggressive territorial and economic expansionism on the back of its alliance with Britain, and by extension the Entente powers (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger). Japan’s expansionism during the First World War, particularly in its relations with China, clearly foreshadowed and in many ways shaped the country’s aggressive imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s.  Most historians with any interest in the Great War beyond the French trenches regard Japan’s peripheral participation in the conflict as a learning experience, a rehearsal for future conquests, but you don’t hear much about Japan itself, about what turned the place into such an untamed tiger.  It would take a book to do that subject any kind of justice, and it wouldn’t be my book, but at the risk of annoying proper scholars here’s a skeleton outline.

Japan’s storming industrial, economic and military progress through the late nineteenth century had produced a nationalist culture that had a lot in common with contemporary Germany.  An authoritarian monarchy presided over a regime that had no time for popular politics.  Wealth and political power were controlled by aristocrats, industrial oligarchs and a highly influential military elite, while the country’s large population remained essentially powerless, kept quiet with bread and circuses, the latter in the forms of imperial pageant, quasi-religious social codes and nationalist triumphalism. As in Germany, these circumstances generated enormous pressure for territorial and economic expansionism, as ruling elites sought to provide resources and challenges that would keep the fast-rising population away from the revolutionary politics of discontent, and open avenues for further growth of their own mushrooming military and industrial enterprises.

Let’s not go too far with the German analogy.  Japan wasn’t a new country, and its militaristic, authoritarian character was rooted in martial traditions that had been central to social behaviour and development for centuries.  It wasn’t burdened with a bipolar, autocratic man-child for a monarch, or with a population educated in the ideas and ambitions of mass politics, and it had no reason to fear imminent invasion by powerful neighbours or revolution.  And while the horrific catastrophe of the First World War forced Germany’s ruling elites into the shadows, unleashing a storm of socio-political chaos that shaped Germany’s destiny for decades to come, Japan’s far more positive payoff from the same conflict merely provided its rulers with the money, expertise and confidence to go right on planning their imperial futures.

Imperial roll… Japan was on one.

Army and naval influence in Japanese politics had been on a roll since the early twentieth century, boosted by the prestige attached to a military alliance with Great Britain in 1902 and, above all, to a comprehensive victory over Russia during the war of 1904–05. After a brief backlash during the short-lived Katsura administration of 1912–13, the military had recaptured control of key ministries with the appointment of Marquis Okuma Shigenobu as Prime Minister in April 1914.  Okuma lasted until October 1916, when a hostile genro (senate) engineered his resignation in favour of the more aggressively expansionist General Terauchi Masatake, giving the military-industrial complex licence for unfettered pursuit of its territorial ambitions.

While military strategists focused on expansion into Manchuria and (after Russia’s October Revolution) Siberia, the global economic shifts created by world war were changing Japan from the inside. Sky-high transportation costs (and risks) reduced trade with Europe, but business with the USA and China multiplied and new markets opened up, especially for textiles and other manufactured goods in India and Australia.  Diversification of output brought a lightning increase in Japan’s factory workforce – from 1.2 million in 1914 to 2 million in 1918 – but the country’s labour surplus meant that industrial wages remained relatively low and the only real winners were factory owners, while agricultural wages climbed even more slowly.

Japan wasn’t spared the curse of overheated wartime economies everywhere, and rapid inflation – with rice prices jumping by 400 percent during the conflict – combined with low wages to spark civil disturbance.  Rural food riots broke out in July 1918, becoming steadily more serious until by September they were affecting thirty provinces.  The ‘Rice Riots’ – which also involved industrial strikes, armed clashes, and bomb attacks on government buildings – remain the most violent and widespread civil disorders in modern Japanese history, and failure to keep the peace was the final straw for Matasake.  Already coming under attack in the genro for its apparently uncertain handling of Japan’s Siberian adventure (12 January, 1918: Port in a Storm, Pt.1), his cabinet was forced to resign on 29 September.

August 1918, Kobe, Japan – a factory burnt out by rice rioters.

The new prime minister, Hara Takashi, appeared at first glance to be something new in Japanese politics.  He was the first commoner to hold the office and the first Christian, and this was the first time the elected leader of the country’s biggest political party had actually been given the job.  He was no friend to the military, which generally regarded him as a despicable upstart, and could talk the talk when it came to liberal reform of economy and constitution.  But although his government did seek to maintain good diplomatic relations with other world powers, and tried to maintain a broadly conciliatory attitude towards colonial populations in Korea and Taiwan, it was never willing or able to restrain military ambition, and definitely failed to walk the walk when it came to reform.  Instead, demands for representation by rioters and workers were met with simple repression, and order was restored with a wave of more than 20,000 arrests and a (disputed) number of executions.

The Takasho administration never escaped the uninhabitable middle ground of Japanese politics.  It was still considered too liberal by the military and regarded as its tool by would-be reformers when Takasho’s assassination by a lone right-wing malcontent brought its fall in November 1921, after which aristocrats and soldiers held the premiership for two decades.  Its achievements are generally dismissed as negligible in the greater scheme of things, and from a reformist perspective there’s no arguing with that assessment, but its negative impact on the wider picture shouldn’t be ignored.

Takashi – very important in Japan, and a civilian!

The Takasho regime’s ruthless burial of popular discontent in 1918 enabled Japan’s military-industrial complex to motor serenely into the post-War era.  Well on the way to establishing complete control over the Manchurian economy, firmly established as world power to be reckoned with and laden with cash from wartime trading surpluses, the oligarchs, the army and the navy could proceed with their expansion plans untroubled by any real need to address the issues raised by popular politics.  Thanks in no small part to Takasho’s diplomatic efforts, they were also free from any real fear of interference by other world powers.

In a geopolitical environment shaped by condemnation of military-industrial expansionism, but fixated on the political instabilities of European populations, its society’s superficial calm helped Japan look like part of the solution rather than the problem.   Although the excess cash was destined to evaporate during a depression in the early 1920s, and military attacks on China would raise occasional squawks of disapproval from the Western powers, Japan’s acceptance into the supposedly pacifist world of post-War diplomacy would not be seriously challenged until long after its withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933.  Bit of a mistake really, and one that seems worth remembering…

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR