11 FEBRUARY, 1918: Daydream Believer

I’ve spent the last few years trying to shine a little light on those aspects of the First World War that get left out of most heritage history, but sometimes even those events it does commemorate get such superficial or inaccurate treatment that I feel compelled to give their windows a polish.  A couple of those are floating around our media ether at the moment.

I’m tempted to spend the day explaining why modern focus on Emmaline Pankhurst, the very definition of a self-serving opportunist, is a betrayal of the women who made real sacrifices in pursuit of female suffrage, but that will have to wait.  Right now I’m exercised about the superficial nod delivered by posterity to the Fourteen Points, US President Wilson’s quintessentially liberal recipe for a peaceful world.

Wilson’s recipe has since been almost universally dismissed as a naive failure, which would explain why it hasn’t garnered much in the way of centenary action.  It that has also been blamed – often by the same people – for much that went wrong with the peace process at the end of the First World War, and by extension for the League of Nations, the Second World War and almost everything we remember as bad about the rest of the twentieth century.  That view reflects its enormous contemporary impact on what you might call the global psyche, and makes virtually ignoring it a hundred years on look pretty ridiculous.  So here’s a briefing.

I’ll start with the anniversary, by way of clearing up a nomenclature issue.  Wilson originally announced his principles for creation of a lasting peace in Congress on 8 January 1918, and there were fourteen of them.  On 11 February he again addressed Congress, and added four more principles to the list, but by that time news of his original speech had spread as fast as wildfire could travel in 1918.  The Fourteen Points were famous – had in fact provoked so much popular excitement and political irritation all over the world that they are a small watershed moment in the emerging age of mass communication.  Nobody was about to start calling them the Eighteen Points just because it was accurate.

The Fourteen Points Are Ours… sentiments echoed by street protesters all over the world in 1918.

So what exactly were they?  Compiled by Wilson with help from his special advisor, Colonel House, and a team of political experts (Wilson was, of course, an academic), the original fourteen were a very sketchy peace programme delivered to Congress as a statement of US war aims.  The first of Wilson’s fourteen paragraphs renounced secret treaties, calling for ‘open covenants openly arrived at’, and the second demanded absolute freedom of the seas outside of territorial waters, rendering the kind of blockade tactics carried out by the British illegal.  The third point called for the removal of trade barriers wherever possible, the fourth for worldwide arms reduction and the fifth for impartial arbitration of all colonial disputes.

After that, Wilson got down to specifics.  Point six required an end to all occupation of Russian imperial territory by the Central Powers, a sop to the Bolsheviks locked into peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  Point seven demanded the complete restoration of Belgium, point eight accepted French claims to Alsace and Lorraine, both absorbed by Germany since 1871, and the ninth point recognised some but not all of Italy’s territorial claims.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire received relatively lenient treatment from the tenth point, which only called for ‘autonomous development’ of its separatist elements, but point eleven was more firm on the future of the Balkans, insisting on an end to the occupations of Romania, Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter to have access to the Adriatic coast.  Point twelve guaranteed Ottoman sovereignty of the empire’s Turkish heartlands, but granted autonomy to its subject peoples and declared the Dardanelles an open sea, while point thirteen recognised the existence of an independent Poland, and that it should have access to the sea.

Having passed principled judgment on the world’s most pressing international disputes in the space of a few minutes, Wilson went on, in point fourteen, to recommend the establishment of ‘a general association of nations’ as a means of keeping the peace.

The four points added on 11 February were less easily said, even more vague and even less easily done.  The first accepted that no general formula for peace could be applied to every post-War claim, and that each must be judged on its individual merits, while the second stated that peoples and provinces could not be bartered as diplomatic currency between empires.  The third declared the benefit of local populations to be the basis upon which all future territorial agreements should be made, and the fourth gave the world a get-out, stating that ‘well-defined national aspirations’ could only be satisfied if they didn’t introduce or perpetuate causes for war.

The man who saved the world – when he still believed the hype.

Faced with social injustice, socialists and liberals have always agreed about some short-term aims, and in 1918 Wilson’s prescription for peace agreed in many ways with the version presented by the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk.   I think I’ve already mentioned that Bolshevik peace proposals had an enormous impact on populations all over the world, and contributed directly to permanent political and social change for some of them, but the Fourteen Points made an even bigger splash thanks to a propaganda machine that really knew its business.

The man in charge of US wartime propaganda was George Creel, a committed social reformer and ‘muckraker’ journalist, well known for his exposés of commercial and political corruption.  Creel had been a strong supporter of Wilson during the 1912 and 1916 election campaigns, and was appointed to head the Committee of Public Information (CPI) in 1917.  Energetic and confident, though inclined to impulsive verbal outbursts, he turned what had been no more than a government news agency into a sprawling propaganda service.

George Creel in 1917. Doesn’t look forty, does he?

The wartime CPI expanded rapidly to include a Pictorial Publicity Division, employing the nation’s most celebrated painters, sculptors and cartoonists, and a Motion Picture Division.  It also employed an estimated 75,000 ‘Four-Minute Men’, trained public speakers who roamed the country giving short speeches in schools, churches and movie theatres, promoting food conservation, War Bonds or any other federal policy.  Each Four-Minute Man gave an average of more than a thousand wartime speeches, reaching a total audience of almost 315 million and proving a highly effective propaganda tool in a nation still thoroughly hooked on declamatory speechifying.

Speaks for itself…

Partly to promote peace, and partly to make sure the world knew why the US was going to war, Creel’s department was charged with selling the Fourteen Points abroad, and did a fabulous job, albeit working with audiences desperate to believe in any plan that promised a workable peace.  Wilson found himself lionized across six continents, his programme hailed as visionary genius by foreign populations, even those who stood to lose by its propositions, wherever they were able to express their views.  Governments were generally less impressed.

Without making any formal protest, Allied governments rejected the reduction of Italy’s territorial claims (as they were bound to do by the 1915 treaty that bribed Italy into the War) and the proposed ban on naval blockade tactics.  They also objected to Wilson’s complete silence on the subject of reparations, an issue turned into a political hot potato in Britain, France and Italy by their own propaganda, which consistently accused Germany and Austria-Hungary of forcing war on Europe.  On the other side of the lines, the governments of the Central Powers viewed the Fourteen Points as inimical to the survival of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and greeted them with predictable derision.

Given popular opinion’s relative lack of worldwide clout in 1918, even in countries dependent upon public support for survival at war or in the midst of populist revolution, rejection by belligerent governments on both sides could easily have consigned the Fourteen Points to history’s dustbin then and there.  That they avoided the fate of all the previous attempts to broker peace did have something to do with the sheer breadth of their popular appeal, and with a growing sense in all the belligerent states (encouraged by the collapse of Russia and the imminent involvement of US forces) that the War’s long stalemate was finally nearing breaking point.  Above all though, their continued currency during the months that followed was a reflection of the USA’s particular place in the world of early 1918.

The United States was the success story of the age, a model nation built on strict democratic principles that was entering the world stage as powerful economic, diplomatic and (potentially) military force.  It was already showing signs of losing its halo, on the back of military adventures inspired by greedy and corrupt corporate interests, but was still essentially admired around the world, carrying none of the world policeman’s baggage that has soiled its reputation ever since.  If any nation on Earth stood a chance of being trusted as an international peacemaker, and of bullying those incapable of trust, the USA was it.

A self-conscious guardian of the American halo and a president elected on a pacifist ticket, Wilson not only believed in the righteousness and practicability of his peace formula, he couldn’t afford to let it fade from the global agenda.  He needed his home constituents and the world at large to recognise that the US was going to war for noble, selfless reasons, in tune with the liberal ideals he and his supporters espoused.  So US propaganda and diplomacy kept up pressure for the Fourteen Points through the spring and summer of 1918, and were rewarded in the autumn.

Facing military defeat, the Central Powers demanded that Wilson’s programme form the basis for peace negotiations, primarily because it was far more lenient to defeated states than the punitive war aims of the European Allies.   Wilson publicly insisted on the same thing while making a few amendments to the Points as sops to Allied objections, leaving Britain and France, let alone Italy and the smaller Allied nations were, in no position to argue.  That put everyone concerned on a path to attempt the reconstruction of a shattered global civilisation using a blueprint nobody believed in, except the liberal wing of the US political class.   There will be more to say about the Fourteen Points, but in the meantime that’s your briefing.

31 JANUARY, 1918: Bring Them Down!

During the night of January 30/31, a century ago, two German bomber squadrons dropped fourteen tons of bombs on Paris, killing 49 civilians and injuring another couple of hundred. The raid was carried out in response to Anglo-French attacks on German cities, and illustrated how far the dark science of strategic bombing had come since the first single-seater machine had dropped the first small bombs on Paris at the end of August 1914 (30 August, 1914: The Bomb!). The attackers’ only loss over Paris was a reconnaissance machine, a DFV-CV, shot down by a French night fighter over the city’s eastern suburbs, and that was as good an illustration as any of how the science of anti-aircraft warfare had failed to keep up.

The most basic form of anti-aircraft fire was delivered by riflemen on the ground, who couldn’t help shooting at passing planes and occasionally brought one down, but systematic destruction of enemy machines had been considered a matter for artillery by all armed forces since the birth of military flight. Known to the British as ‘Archie’ or ‘ack ack’, and as ‘flak’ to the Germans, anti-aircraft guns were controlled by the artillery commands of armies or navies in every belligerent country except Germany, where they were run by the Army Air Service.

They didn’t amount to much between them when war broke out in 1914. A few German field guns had been modified to fire at the sky, the French Army possessed a total of two purpose-built anti-aircraft armoured cars carrying 75mm guns, and the BEF made do with a handful of mobile 3-inch guns on an enlarged mounting. This hardly mattered at first, given the small number of aircraft in use, their limited use in combat roles and a performance level that meant they could be pursued on the ground, but rapid development during 1915 forced all the major belligerents to come up with countermeasures.

At first, standard field guns were fitted with upward-firing mountings and set to work, and many of these mutants remained in service throughout the War. Purpose-designed AA guns were soon in production everywhere, but they were almost all minor adaptations of existing field gun designs. The Germans adapted 80mm and 75mm field pieces, and the French stuck with their ubiquitous ‘Soixante-Quinze’, while the British and US armies maintained their preference for 3-inch guns.

That was about it for wartime technological development in the field. Some shells were lightened but fired with the same charge (because that made them go higher), and 1918 saw the German Air Service introduce a rapid-firing 20mm cannon that became the basis for light anti-aircraft defence during the Second World War, but otherwise the guns themselves remained essentially unchanged.

On land, AA batteries were originally scattered around large areas in small groups (of at least two guns, so that a ranging shot could be followed up quickly), in the hope of catching slow-moving aircraft wherever they appeared. As it became clear that visual targetting of one aircraft’s three-dimensional movement almost never did the job, and as the numbers of aircraft and their attack potential mounted, guns were massed in large formations around anticipated targets such as military installations close to front lines, airfields, industrial centres, population centres and coastal installations. At sea, most major warships carried standard anti-aircraft guns by 1916, singly or in pairs, but nobody really expected them to hit anything.

Not too complex – just stick a field gun on wheels and give it room to point upwards – German AA gun, 1918.

Within this very basic framework, some advances were made in technique. Improving central command and control systems made massed AA operations steadily more efficient, as did use of telescopes to chart and anticipate a target’s course, while ‘barrage’ systems were employed to apply blanket coverage to a particular sector of airspace. As night attacks from the air became more common, searchlights and flares were employed to illuminate targets, and ‘barrage balloons’ sent up to force attackers into ‘barrage’ corridors. In case you were wondering about altitude settings for AA shells, they didn’t need much in the way of technical advance… the longer the fuse, the higher the explosion.

Most AA guns fired shrapnel, which stood by far the best chance of hitting something, but some battery commanders preferred to use high-explosive (HE) shells, which stood an outside chance of obliterating something. By 1918, HE shells had been superseded by incendiary shells, which offered gunners the best of both worlds. Originally designed by the British for use against German Zeppelins, they behaved like shrapnel but threw out balls of burning thermite.

Nobody could do without anti-aircraft guns to protect threatened areas, but they were responsible for only a small fraction of aviation losses, mostly on the busy Western Front, and it was generally recognised that they were no more than a token threat to rapidly improving aircraft designs. By 1918 they were seen as intrinsically deficient by most military planners, and post-war development concentrated on the use of fighter aircraft as the best defence against aerial bombing.

I mentioned balloons, and while I’m delving into the War’s smaller details I’ve got an excuse for a word about them. Barrage duties aside, hot-air and gas-filled balloons were a common sight throughout the War on static battlefields, where they performed observation duties for artillery commanders. Cheaper to run than aircraft, and a more stable viewing platform, they were winched by ground crew to various heights in groups of two or three, and their cross-referenced observations were transmitted to the ground by flag signals, or sometimes radio.

The two or three men crewing an observation balloon, ‘balloonatics’ to the British, were sitting ducks for any attacker, and on busy fronts they were attacked all the time, but the balloons themselves were notoriously difficult to destroy. Standard bullets generally passed straight through the fabric, forcing enemy aircraft into repeated, close-range attacks that risked entanglement in wires or cables, as well as the attention of any AA guns in the vicinity. Shooting down a balloon was generally credited as a full ‘kill’ by all air forces, and several ‘aces’ on both sides of the Western Front earned their name as ‘balloon busters’.

Up, up and a way to die… but at least they’ve got their parachutes.

Although some German balloons were equipped with powered winches by 1918, for rapid descent when under attack, crews’ survival chances had been further reduced by increased use of HE and incendiary bullets.  It was a tough job, and that was why balloon crews were, along with airship crews, were the only British airmen allowed to use parachutes.  And so to one of the War’s weird yet characteristic details, the parachute…

And this is how they used it.

Parachutes were well known in 1914, but the types used by wartime air services were strapped to the outside of the aircraft, and attached to the crewman by a long cord that automatically opened the chute when he jumped. Regular requests for the use of these from aircrew on both sides were refused on the grounds that they were too fragile for attachment to powered aircraft, and the fairly costly alternative of providing parachutes worn by the jumper was never considered, primarily on the grounds that the crew of an armed aircraft had no right to such protection. The German Air Service changed its mind in 1918, when it faced a critical shortage of aircrew, and a few pilots were given wearable models, but the British flying services in particular continued to regard requests for a parachute as tantamount to cowardice.  Wearable parachutes were used by espionage agencies on all sides for dropping agents behind enemy lines, but that’s another story.

There are no moral messages or world-changing historical threads here, just a quick glance at some of the less storied strangeness polluting Europe’s war-torn skies in 1918 – and a shred or two of evidence that the Great War featured more ways to die than heritage recalls.

24 JANUARY, 1918: All We Are Saying…

Fighting on the wartime Western and Italian Fronts never really stopped, and British imperial forces were keeping reasonably busy with minor operations against Ottoman garrisons in the Middle East, but broadly speaking the First World War’s guns were pretty quiet during January 1918.  As was the way during such interludes, preparations for future campaigns were in progress, but the absence of potentially world-changing military action also gave war-weary civilian populations a moment to consider their futures. This was particularly true for millions of socialists who had been on the cusp of significant political progress all over Europe before the War’s injection of nationalist fervour stifled their ambitions, and particularly incendiary in those belligerent empires under the most acute economic and social stress.

Though Ottoman Turkey was under acute stress, it was barely industrialised and had no socialist tradition to speak of, so its largely rural population remained disorganised, incapable of coherent protest while it suffered and starved.  Not so the politically sophisticated workers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian heartlands, who reacted to the bleak midwinter of early 1918 with an eruption of mass discontent that dwarfed any previous protest in either state.  It began in Austria-Hungary, and a hundred years ago today the winter’s first wave of mass strikes in Vienna was halted on the brink of all-out revolution.

Vienna was no stranger to wartime civil discontent. Food shortages had been a critical problem in the city since the brutal winter of 1916–17, when strikes had swept Vienna and spread south to the industrialised parts of Upper Styria.  News of the February Revolution in Russia sparked a further wave of unrest in the capital, culminating in a strike of more than 40,000 metal workers in May 1917.  They soon went back to work, but only after relatively moderate Social Democrat politicians had won important concessions from the government, including the relaxation of censorship, decriminalisation of public meetings and the recall of the Austrian parliament (Reichsrat), which had been dissolved in 1914.

Russia’s October Revolution had a similarly slow-burning but even more profound impact on workers in distant countries.  The subsequent return of PoWs to Austria-Hungary from the Eastern Front raised the number and intensity of socialist agitators within the empire, and the Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace raised hopes of an end to the conflict.  Meanwhile news of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a putative blueprint for peace based on liberal values and the principle of ethnic self-determination, encouraged popular expectations of fair post-War treatment from the Allies.

Hard times in Vienna, 1918, as painted by Josef Engelhart.

Anger at delays to the peace process at Brest-Litovsk, popularly blamed on the Central Powers’ demands for territorial annexations, was already fuelling calls for strike action when desperate urban food shortages forced the government to halve the bread and flour rations, on 14 January.  The dangerous brew of war-weariness, hope and frustration ignited into furious protest.   Workers at the Daimler factory in the industrial town of Wiener Neustadt, just south of Vienna, immediately struck for peace (rather than improved pay or conditions), and by 20 January some three-quarters of a million workers around the empire had joined them, amid a wave of peace protests and food riots.  Strikes hit the empire’s armaments, railway and metal industries, along with printing, retail and dozens of other domestic trades, and a few days later engulfed the industrially developed Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, once nationalist leaders had made it clear that Czech workers were acting independently from their Austrian counterparts.

For several days, as strikers organised themselves into workers’ councils (or soviets), the situation lurched out of control and revolution appeared imminent – but, as in May 1917, the Social Democrats played the role of intermediaries.  The largest party in the Reichsrat, and openly committed to ending the War since 1916, they were able to take control of the politically inexperienced soviets and negotiate with the (well-meaning but deeply reactionary) government of Emperor Karl to win further concessions, including the introduction of a minimum wage.  These were enough to convince a majority of workers’ groups to halt their action.  Strikers in Vienna began returning to their jobs on 21 January, and most strikes were officially called off three days later.

If revolution had been staved off for the moment, Austria-Hungary was hardly calm.  New strikes, demanding peace and an end to imperialist greed at Brest-Litovsk, broke out all over Austria, Bohemia and Moravia during the next ten days, and the government was forced to break up street protests using troops.  Though the Army gradually restored a fragile semblance of order during the first week of February – at least in Vienna – it had become dangerously unreliable as an instrument of state policy.   Troops from the empire’s non-German provinces frequently joined protesters, a pacifist mutiny broke out at the garrison town of Judenburg, which was also a major steel production centre, and the Navy put down a brief mutiny at the Adriatic naval base of Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro).

Vienna calmed down a little during the spring, but Austria-Hungary as whole remained in a volatile and precarious condition, wracked by civilian shortages, on the edge of disintegration into its ethnic components and crumbling from the ground up under revolutionary socialist pressure.  The next crisis would be along in the early summer, by which time the end of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire was near.

Bad moon rising… national groupings in the pre-War Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Vienna erupted in mid-January, the German Third Supreme Command had been considering annexation of its principal ally (an issue since the 1870s, when the rest of German-speaking central Europe united as one nation under Prussia), but by the end of the month Germany was facing its own socio-political crisis.

Food shortages no less acute than those in Austria-Hungary, the same angst around the Brest-Litovsk/Fourteen Points equation, and an opportunist desire to exploit the revolutionary atmosphere coming out of Vienna prompted a call to strike by Berlin union organisers.  It began on 28 January, and by the end of the day half a million workers had downed tools.  Revolutionary German socialists (of whom more another day) organised a central Action Committee that drew up a list of demands inspired by Bolshevik peace proposals at Brest-Litovsk – but while the government sent troops to break up factory meetings, and the far left demanded revolution on the spot, the protest was being hijacked by the moderate reformists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the smaller but more streetwise Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP).

Invited to join the Action Committee by the far left – by celebrity revolutionary theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg, to be precise – the SDP found allies in union organisers shocked by the scale of revolutionary activity they had unleashed.  Violent clashes between strikers and scab workers on 30 January cemented moderate left-wing determination to end the strike, and while the SDP orchestrated calls for negotiation, it’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, announced his support for further military intervention by the state. Thus encouraged, the government began arresting radical strike leaders on 31 January, and threatened to impose martial law in Berlin if the strikes were not called off by 4 February.

Berlin, 28 January 1918: strikers outside the trade union building… and an announcement in the 2 February issue of the SDP newspaper, ‘Vorwaerts’, that martial law was coming.

Union leaders in Berlin obliged with a day to spare, but unrest had meanwhile spread across the military/industrial heartlands of northern Germany, affecting (among other towns and cities) Kiel, Dusseldorf, Nuremburg, Augsburg, Hamburg and Cologne.  The military moved in hard and fast.  Mass arrests, the execution of 150 ringleaders, and the conscription some 50,000 strikers for service with occupation forces in Eastern Europe had brought organised strike action to an end by about 11 February.

Watched keenly by Allied and neutral observers at the time, the Austro-Hungarian and German strikes of early 1918 barely register with the modern commemorative industries.   Even big-picture historians generally give them no more than a passing mention as a preamble to the full-scale revolutions that followed military defeat. That may have been their status in Austria-Hungary, but the German strikes were in themselves an important turning point.

Radical elements behind the mass spread of industrial unrest in late January clearly failed to achieve their stated aim of immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, and failure sharpened the angry frustration of pacifists and revolutionaries in Germany – but the strikes did provide a shock to the ruling Third Supreme Command, and it reacted in typical fashion by doubling down.  Having gambled against the odds in search of military success by pinning everything on submarine warfare, and in search of economic salvation by attempting to run an empire in Eastern Europe, Ludendorff and his ultra-conservative cabal faced the rising tide of revolution the only way they had ever known how, with another desperate roll of the dice.

More than ever convinced that a crushing victory over the Allies, and only that, would frighten the unruly German population into long-term obedience, Germany’s leaders intensified pressure for annexations at Brest-Litovsk, clamped down ruthlessly on  popular dissent and pressed ahead with plans for a major spring offensive on the Western Front.  In other words they lit the blue touch paper, at home and abroad, and hoped for the best, a climactic moment of madness that seems well worth remembering.  My other, rather flimsy excuse for featuring the January strikes is their reminder of the enormous differences, in aims and methods, between social democrats and socialist revolutionaries in 1918, a distinction that remains relevant today, particularly but by no means only in the UK.

12 JANUARY, 1918: Port In A Storm (Part One)

Back in peacetime, when the Great War’s coming was a matter of dire prediction, orthodox geopolitical thinking had assumed that, if the massive effort required to sustain mechanised warfare went on for more than a few weeks, Europe’s empires would crumble under economic and associated social pressures. More than three years of total war in fact passed before the Russian Empire melted down to become something completely and aggressively new, but fear of collapse had never stopped haunting the continent’s governing elites.

Fed by evidence of socio-political fragility in every belligerent empire, even in the richest and most politically stable of them, elite fear translated into something approaching panic in the face of Bolshevism. The German regime was willing to let Russia have its revolution, at least until it had dealt with the existential threat from the west, while Austria-Hungary and Turkey were too far along the road to collapse to do anything but grasp at pickings from the Russian Empire’s carcase – but Allied governments fell over themselves to disrupt and (ideally) destroy what they saw as a harbinger of apocalypse.

There wasn’t all that much the Allies could do. They could cut off some maritime supply lines to Petrograd, and they could use existing supply lines (across Sweden or via the Arctic and Murmansk or Archangelsk) to provide counter-revolutionary forces with funds and equipment, even direct military support. The British could conceivably divert forces from the Middle East into southwestern Russia, though for the moment they were busy with another fight, but otherwise the Central Powers occupied Russia’s European frontiers. That left the back door.

The back door was Vladivostok, Russia’s major port in the Far East and it’s only warm-water port in the region since the loss of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905. Vladivostok wasn’t entirely ice-free, but could remain open for much of the winter and had become an important supply hub for the Russian war effort, increasingly so with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway link to the west in 1916, and Russia’s alliance with a Pacific trading power, the United States, in 1917.

Get the picture?

The railway and the port were under Bolshevik control by late 1917, when the British, French and US governments began discussing joint action to support counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia. Japan, which had a longstanding strategic interest in its maritime frontier with Russia, was at first left out of the discussions, but in December 1917 obtained an invitation from its ally, Britain, to take part in any action. The only major Allied warship in Vladivostok during the chaotic weeks after the October Revolution, the US Navy light cruiser Brooklyn, had already left by late December. With diplomatic and commercial interests in the port in need of protection amid the street fighting and general anarchy, the British didn’t wait for discussions to reach a conclusion before doing what came naturally and sending a gunboat.

The British Admiralty ordered HMS Sussex, a cruiser stationed in Hong Kong, to Vladivostok. The Japanese government, ever alert to signs of European encroachment in eastern Asia (and to any diplomatic slight), reacted by ordering two old, pre-dreadnought battleships, the Iwami and the Asahi, to get there first. The Iwami won the race, arriving on 12 January, two days before the Suffolk and five days before the Asahi. Having made a show of force, and in Japan’s case made a statement about its right to a dominant role in the future of eastern Asia, the Allied warships then anchored offshore in the hope that their mere presence would encourage both anti-Bolshevik agitation and the restoration of order.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, these somewhat contradictory hopes failed to materialise, and as the situation in Vladivostok became ever more dangerous for foreign nationals, Allied intervention on the ground in Siberia appeared inevitable.  Tokyo wasted no time telling Britain and the US that any intervention should carried out by Japanese forces alone, but the proposition was officially turned down in mid-February, ostensibly because Japan’s unpopularity in Russia would drive the population into Bolshevik or even German hands. By that time the Japanese Army was drawing up plans for an invasion of eastern Siberia, with a view to setting up a nominally independent buffer state as protection against future interference in the Pacific by Russia.

The military dominated Japanese politics during the early 20th century, and prime minister Masatake was a former general.

A lengthy spell of inter-Allied dithering followed, while Japanese, British, French and US diplomats attempted to work out the details of a joint ground operation in Siberia. Although Tokyo was prepared to accept a joint intervention, and the European Allies considered the region’s future a matter for Japan and the US, progress was stymied because the Wilson administration refused to sanction the use of American ground troops. This was still the case in April, when a company of Japanese marines (hastily followed by a company of British marines) went ashore to police looting and rioting in Vladivostok. The Brooklyn had returned to the port in March, but no US Marines took part.

Russia’s southeastern tip – the port of Vladivostok in 1918.

This was the beginning of something weird and not altogether wonderful. Allied plans would eventually be forced into focus by the plight of some 40,000 Czech troops, trapped in Bolshevik Russia but still at war with Germany after the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front. Rescuing the Czechs became an Allied cause célèbre as they battled their way across Siberia towards evacuation from Vladivostok, and that provided Wilson with a way to change his mind in the name of liberal values.

International intervention would take the form of a multi-national invasion of eastern Siberia during the summer, featuring troops from Japan, the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and eventually even China. A long, strange campaign would follow, forming part of the Russian Civil War and extending into the early 1920s – but that’s another chapter of the story, as is the extraordinary tale of the aforementioned Czech Legion.

I’ll be getting back to both when the time feels right, but for now this has been a quick look at why Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace turned Siberia into a war zone, and at how the Allied empires lined up for the purpose. It’s also a quick reminder that Japanese aggression during the Second World War was not some sudden aberration, rather the catastrophic conclusion of a long, ultimately misguided attempt to imitate and match the great global empires of the nineteenth century – empires the First World War was in the process of consigning to history.

8 JANUARY, 1918: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Today’s the day, a century ago, that US President Woodrow Wilson revealed his Fourteen Points to the world.  The Fourteen Points were really big news, and the repercussions of Wilson’s grandiose exercise in liberal chutzpah cast a long, global shadow over the succeeding decades – but I’m not going to talk about them today. We’re this far into a world war that to all intents and purposes began there, and I’ve had very little to say about Belgium, so as an excuse for a skim through the First World War’s impact on the country no wartime Briton could name without the prefix ‘brave’, I’m going to give some context to the arrival in office, on 1 January, of new Belgian foreign minister Paul Hymans.

I guess most people are aware, however vaguely, that Great Britain went to war in 1914 in defence of Belgian neutrality, but this is usually reported without much interest in why the sanctity of Belgium mattered so much.  The basic answer is that Belgium had come into existence as a symbol of European peace in the aftermath of a long, painful series of wars that had ravaged the continent for 22 years between 1893 and 1815.

Fifteen years after the final defeat of Napoleon, in 1830, the largely Catholic southern provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands erupted into nationalist revolt.  After his attempts to restore order with troops had backfired, and the newly formed Belgian National Congress had declared independence, King William I of the Netherlands appealed to Europe’s Great Powers for arbitration – and didn’t get the result he wanted.

The 1830 London Conference of Europe’s major powers – Russia, France, Prussia (representing all the major German states), Austria-Hungary and Britain – recognised Belgian independence, and the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, took the throne in July 1831.  An immediate Dutch invasion was blocked by French military intervention, but the Netherlands didn’t fully accept Belgian independence until it signed the Treaty of London in 1839.

Signed by Belgium, the Netherlands and all five of the European Great Powers, the Treaty guaranteed Belgian territorial integrity and, at Britain’s insistence, its neutrality in any future war.  It also gave a large, economically rich portion of Luxembourg to Belgium, but that’s another story and didn’t trigger any world wars. Recognised at the time as a defining moment in Europe’s concerted attempt to create a lasting peace between competing empires, the treaty survived the test of Franco-Prussian war in 1870 (when the Prussian Army invaded France without passing through Belgium), and was still in effect in 1914.  That it was still seen as the linchpin of Europe’s geopolitical stability reflected Belgium’s strategic importance.

Uncomfortably placed between northern Germany, France and Britain, Belgium was a largely flat country full of wide-open spaces, and thus a natural battleground for any future war between the empires.  It was also a prosperous trading nation with major ports at Antwerp and Ostende, and well endowed with coalfields and iron ore (the latter thanks to very favourable special arrangements with Luxembourg).  By the early twentieth century it was among the world’s most industrially advanced economies, with a well-developed infrastructure that included some 9,000km of railways and 2,000km of busy canals, serving a population of 7.5 million (in 1910).  In other words, Belgium was a prize worth seizing in a very tempting location, and the most likely point of conflict if France and Germany went to war.

Tricky spot – Belgium in 1914.

A constitutional monarchy, under which the king held legislative powers and (in time of war) personal command of the armed forces, but was responsible to a two-tier parliament, Belgium had been ruled since late 1909 by King Albert I.  Only 34 when he took the throne, Albert’s military competence and vocational seriousness struck a marked and much-admired contrast to his uncle and predecessor, the spectacularly venal King Leopold II – notorious for his ruthless, fruitless attempts to make money out of his personally financed conquest of the Congo.  Well aware by 1914 that Germany planned an attack on France through Belgium, Albert was strongly in favour of expanding the Belgian Army and grouping it to face the threat, but military command rested with parliament in peacetime.

There’s a dashing young monarch for you… Albert I.

Elected by a complex system of universal male suffrage that gave two or three votes to the wealthy and educated, both parliamentary chambers were dominated by Baron de Broqueville’s Catholic Party in 1914, and it maintained the policy of strict, visible neutrality that had been Belgium’s diplomatic mantra since day one.  That was why the Belgian Army remained very small – some 43,000 men before reserves were mobilised – and was stationed in the centre of the country when the invasion came, a situation that has since excited much controversy but that made little practical difference against an exquisitely timed and planned advance by 750,000 German troops.

The German invasion was already unstoppable by 2 August, when a state of war allowed Albert to take command of his hopelessly outnumbered army and lead in retreat to the country’s northwestern corner.  The government was eventually relocated to Le Havre in France, from where it ruled the small patch of western Flanders not under German control after the front stabilised at the end of the year.  The rest of the country was governed from Brussels by German occupying authorities, which had by then acquired a global reputation for brutality that would haunt Berlin for the rest of the War.

I haven’t the time or space to go into details of the atrocities committed by invading German forces in Belgium during the War’s first months.  Always justified as reprisals for (real or imagined) resistance to the invasion, they involved mass executions and wanton destruction of Belgian national treasures, most notably the massacre of 612 civilians at Dinant and the destruction visited on the town of Louvain, both in August 1914.  They were a deliberate act of oppression on the part of the German Army, designed to encourage obedience among conquered populations and displayed openly to the world’s press by way of spreading the word.  Present throughout the occupation, neutral observers were in fact a propaganda gift to Germany’s enemies, giving widespread coverage to the views of Belgian pacifists and nationalists, spreading outrage all over the globe and helping create an enduring wave of international sympathy for all things Belgian.

German attitudes to neutral commentary highlighted a basic truth about the First World War that is often ignored.  Unlike Nazi Germany, the German Empire in 1914 saw itself as part of what you might call the normal world order.  As such it tried to behave within the constraints of international law (or at least to make the same attempts to appear legal as everyone else), and sought to present itself as the righteous beacon of civilisation it believed itself to be.  I realise I’m treating a nation like an individual, but I haven’t got time to go the long, semantically correct route – and I’ll stick to shortcuts by using the story of Cardinal Mercier to illustrate the schizophrenic results of trying to look like the good guy while adhering to brutal militarism as a form of social control.

And there’s a heroic old cardinal – Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

Mercier was the Roman Catholic primate of Belgium, and in the absence of the king he took on the role of national spokesman, issuing a series of open letters to his flock that received plenty of publicity overseas.  German authorities generally deported or executed dissident clerics, but although briefly arrested in early 1915 Mercier was generally left to get on with it.  A very senior figure, very well known in neutral countries and very popular among southern German Catholics, he was considered too propaganda sensitive to touch – and was therefore allowed to become a major Allied propaganda weapon.

Lurid? Yep.

Allied propaganda spent the rest of the War portraying the German occupation of Belgium as a lurid orgy of gratuitous violence, but once the initial frenzy of reprisals had abated it could better be described as very harsh.  Any hint of civil disobedience was met with routine execution of hostages, and the civilian population remained under martial law while the country’s economy was ruthlessly stripped for German use.  Plant, rolling stock, food and raw materials were transported back to Germany en masse, and remaining Belgian industry was turned over to German war production.

The Belgian population reacted to occupation, deprivation and exploitation with understandable hostility.  Most refused offers to work in German factories, preferring to face high levels of unemployment at home, and though the German Third Supreme Command instituted enforced deportation of Belgian workers in October 1916, it was abandoned as inefficient and diplomatically damaging the following February.  Most Belgians also ignored attempts to exploit tensions between the country’s two provinces (Flemish-speaking Wallachia and francophone Flanders), which were aimed at creating a separate Flemish state for future absorption by a German economic union.

Meanwhile, civilians were starving.  Poor harvests and the cold winter of 1916 had reduced Belgium’s urban populations to desperate dependence for food and fuel on a programme of international aid, coordinated with full German cooperation by neutral ambassadors in Brussels.  Charity was never enough, and malnutrition had helped double the pre-war mortality rate in Brussels by 1917.

More than a million Belgians had fled to the Netherlands, France or Britain in 1914, and although many refugees returned from the Netherlands after Germany guaranteed their safety, some 300,000 remained in Allied countries throughout the occupation. These, along with the population of ‘Free Belgium’, were subject to conscription into the Belgian Army, which took part in four years of bloodletting at the northern tip of the Western Front.

Thanks to King Albert’s refusal to commit Belgian forces to major Allied offensives (and thanks to Anglo-French weapons and equipment), the Army remained in relatively good shape into 1917 and maintained its strength at about 170,000 men until the Armistice, by which time it had played a significant role in the final offensives along the sector. Otherwise, small numbers of Belgian troops were occasionally loaned to other sectors in France, while colonial troops played a largely peripheral role in the East African campaign, and an armoured car company fought with the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. In total, 267,000 men fought for the wartime Belgian Army, of whom 54,000 were wounded and 14,000 killed, almost all of them on the Western Front.

Belgium possessed no naval forces, but the tiny Belgian Air Force, which mustered a dozen obsolete machines in 1914, was re-equipped by the British and French and grew steadily throughout the War. From 1917, when mushrooming production enabled the Allies to provide them with the most modern aircraft, Belgian aircrews more than held their own against German units in their sector, and the expanded service deployed around 140 machines in 11 squadrons by the end of the War.

The wartime Belgian Air Force started small… very small.

The coalition government-in-exile’s stated war aim was simple – the full restoration of Belgium to its pre-War status – but unity of purpose masked internal differences about how that might be achieved. Albert’s priority was his pastoral responsibilities, and the sharp worsening of civilian conditions in occupied Belgium by late 1917 led him to put pressure on de Broqueville, still serving as prime minister and foreign minister, to make a separate peace with Germany.  Despite strong cabinet opposition, de Broqueville approached the Central Powers in October 1917, a move that wrecked his political position and forced him to hand over the foreign ministry to Liberal Party leader Hymans.  With support from the rest of the cabinet, Hymans put an immediate and permanent stop to any deviation from Allied war aims, and De Broqueville went on to lose the premiership when his own Catholic Party voted him out of office in late May 1918.

So that was the state of play in Belgium as 1918 got going.  Civilians were starving, the army was getting by and the king – lionized by the Allies as the very spirit of indomitable resistance – was just back from the brink of going seriously off message.   Sorry that took so long, and I’ll get around to the Fourteen Points some other day.

30 DECEMBER, 1917: Let’s Drop The Mask

The Great War had just endured its fourth Christmas.  Popular history has reduced wartime seasons of goodwill to one heavily mythologised football match at the end of 1914, and so I’m always tempted to cry humbug at this time of year.  That’s because (in my opinion) the football match trope has come to exert an unfortunate influence on popular thinking about the First World War as a whole.

Sure, the story goes, the whole thing was ghastly, pointless, ill-led and an insult to the humanity of its victims – but at base we were still a more noble breed a century ago, somehow playing war by the rules of gentlemanly conduct. This echoes the kind of homespun machismo spouted across the social spectra in developed nations during the decade before 1914, when the idea that too much peace had diluted humanity’s will to progress helped nourish the political and popular militarism that propelled Europe towards war.  Both ideas are pure poppycock, like anything else based on the nobility of brutal violence, and so let’s commemorate Christmas 1917 with a nod to the First World War’s standard, none too gentlemanly response to the festive season.  That’s right, it’s time for another chat about civilian bombing.

Fighting went on all over the world throughout the Christmas period. Trench warfare persisted along the Western Front, particularly fierce in the areas around the BEF’s recent offensives, while Allenby’s invasion of Palestine engaged in mopping up operations after the capture of Jerusalem. The German guerilla war spat fire across East Africa, violent chaos engulfed Eastern Europe and the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Empire’s collapse, and the global battle for control of the world’s oceans raged unabated. Many of these conflicts caused what we now call collateral damage, bringing suffering and death to civilian populations, but on one European battlefront civilians were being targeted for Christmas.

The war in northeastern Italy had taken a dramatic turn during the autumn.  Driven back in disarray by an Austro-German offensive, Italian forces were holding a line at the River Piave while Allied reinforcements of men and machines were rushed to the front (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  If Austro-Hungarian forces (along with the few German units still attached to the theatre) could break through at the Piave, the rich and heavily-populated plains of eastern Lombardy lay open to invasion, and the run-up to Christmas saw heavy fighting around, on and above the river.  Because the new frontline was so close to Venice and other large Italian towns, they became targets for aerial bombing.

Nice easy map – tricky position if you live near Venice.

Bombing of civilian targets had been a feature of Austro-Hungarian operations on the Italian Front since 1915, but it reached a crescendo as 1918 approached.  The lovely cities of Padua (Padova) and Treviso suffered the most.  Padua was attacked by air raids on the nights of 28, 29 and 30 December, and suffered six more raids in January and February, receiving a total of 718 bombs, while Treviso was attacked 16 times over the same period and took 517 hits. Vicenza, Venice and Ravenna were among the other venerable cities subject to attacks from the air, most of them carried out by the 4th Bomber Squadron of the German Air Force, which was transferred to the Italian Front in December and flew purpose-built Gotha bombers far superior to anything the Austrian air service possessed.

The numbers of bombs involved and their relatively small size highlight the difference in scale between civilian bombing in 1917/18 and its Second World War equivalent.  The early attacks by Austro-Hungarian aircraft had been carried out by small, single-engine machines that inflicted relative pinpricks, and the attacks on northern Italy over the Christmas period were no Blitz, but they were terrifying just the same and caused destruction on a scale that would be considered shocking today.  In total, air raids against Italian cities during the War killed 965 civilians and wounded 1,158, more than four-fifths of them in the regions immediately behind the front, as well as causing significant damage to ancient buildings, civic facilities and works of art.  They also provoked enormous outrage in Italy.

In many ways Italian fury was justified.  Civilian bombing was new and widely regarded as a barbarian practice, and though every air force claimed that its aircraft were aiming at militarily or economically legitimate targets, nobody expected them to be very accurate about it.  In other words collateral damage was inevitable, but the Italian government insisted (long, loud and into the 1920s) that German bombers were targeting non-military buildings on purpose.

This was of course denied, and couldn’t be proved either way, but there is no doubt that German air authorities, like those of every other country carrying out long-range bombing raids, regarded attacks on civilians and civilian culture as intrinsically valuable. Whether deliberate or accidental, the act of raining terror on unprotected populations was seen by strategic bombing theorists as a potentially war-winning tactic, likely to erode a nation’s will to fight and, according to the real enthusiasts on various air staffs, capable of doing so overnight.  Bottom line, and despite the heartfelt regrets expressed by German propaganda, bombers over Italy weren’t discouraged from scattering their loads onto the occasional Renaissance church or triptych, both as a contribution to the war effort and as a test of public reaction (among the victims and at home).

So while Allied propaganda made the most of every opportunity to illustrate enemy barbarism by lamenting its wanton disregard for irreplaceable cultural treasures (check out the film on YouTube), the outraged Italians had a point when they accused the German Air Service of war crimes – but both were fine examples of one-eyed hypocrisy.

Padua suffers…
…and Allied propaganda makes a fuss.

The Allies in general were every bit as excited as their enemies about the potential of massed strategic bombing, and no less comfortable experimenting with the effects of terror bombing on civilians. This was particularly true of the British, who had formed a strategic bombing group to carry out raids on the largest possible scale – but the only country more enthusiastic about strategic bombing than Britain or Germany was Italy.

An Italian air officer, Giulio Douhet, had been the first to propose the theory several years before the War.  He was still thundering its virtues in the Italian press as 1917 came to a close, but in the meantime he had done his best to promote Italian heavy bombing capability, encouraging the designer Gianni Caproni to build his three-engine CA heavy bombers, and then ordering them into large-scale production on his own authority.  Highly controversial at the time, and well above the pay grade of an Army major, Douhet’s initiative reflected the passionate turbulence of Italian military planning and, along with a series of scathing memos criticising his superiors, earned him a court-martial and a prison sentence in 1916. It also gave Italy an early lead in the field of strategic bombing.

Douhet: that moustache says fanatic, and wasn’t far wrong.

Douhet was pardoned thanks to the intervention of a man who was both the incarnation of Italian military passion and a near-fanatical proponent of strategic bombing, the poet and all-round human tornado Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio is worth a paragraph or two of digression because he was, to put it mildly, a colourful character, and because he’ll crop up again as a very noisy wildcard amid the War’s last rites.  A writer by trade, and a fervent nationalist given to political agitation with an oratorical bent, he had quit Italy for France in 1910 to escape personal debt, but returned in May 1915 to add his voice and flair for publicity to the mounting chorus for intervention in the War.

D’Annunzio: that pose says narcissist, and wasn’t far wrong.

Once Italy was at war, D’Annunzio kept his profile high.  He’d turned 52 in March 1915, but gained permission to serve at various times as a cavalry officer, aboard a torpedo boat and as observer in command of a Caproni squadron.  His irrepressible ego and evident personal courage – highlighted by a wound in 1916 that cost him an eye but didn’t prevent him returning to action – had won him a lot of medals and made him an Italian national hero by 1917, with sufficient clout to secure the release of an air theorist he considered a visionary lighting the road to national glory.

Douhet would be rehabilitated as the head of the Italian Army’s Central Aeronautic Bureau in 1918, and would produce the first edition of his internationally influential blueprint for strategic civilian bombing (Il dominio dell’aria) in 1921, but his time in the wilderness had been about personal behaviour rather than his ideas.

Douhet was certainly considered a crank, if not a crackpot, by much of the Italian political and military establishment, but that was the lot of air enthusiasts in all the warring nations, especially those who made extravagant claims about bombers rendering the ground-warfare expertise of their superiors all but obsolete.  Douhet attracted extra opprobrium with his wartime demands for the immediate construction of 500 heavy bombers, a feat way beyond the capacity of Italy’s economy even if the government had been prepared to divert resources from the all-consuming ground campaign on its frontier.

And there’s the rub.  In Britain, France and Germany, desperation to find a way out of the ghastly stalemate meant cranks and crackpots were being given a chance to prove their ideas.  All three economies were capable of producing new aircraft designs for experimental purposes without diluting their efforts on the main battlefronts, and all three empires had plenty of use for heavy bombers, for attacks on both military installations close to the Western Front and the plethora of major civilian targets within range of their airfields.  The Italians not only needed everything they could produce, including ground-support aircraft, to maintain a front-line effort that became increasingly dependent on Allied reinforcement, but because the Alps and the range restrictions of contemporary heavy aircraft put most Austro-Hungarian towns of any size beyond attack from Italy, their heavy aircraft lacked targets for any serious civilian bombing experiment.

That’s enough rambling for one bleary day.  Aside from drip-feeding a bit of relatively obscure information, this particular ramble was aimed at the tendency, in Britain at least, to condemn strategic bombing as something designed and practiced by the bad guys, in our case Germany.  Just as the Blitz of the 1940s is shoved down our collective throats as the exemplar of evil, while the altogether more monstrous and massive bombing of Germany by the RAF is quietly downplayed, so Allied and Italian outrage at the festive bombing or northern Italy in 1917 masked their active desire to do exactly the same thing to their enemies on the grandest possible scale.  Gentlemanly?  Yeah, right…

22 DECEMBER, 1917: Loose Talks

Brest-Litovsk is now Brest, a regional capital of some 340,000 people in Belarus, close to the border with Poland.  For much of the last three centuries this has not been a peaceful part of the world, one of those unhappy regions stuck between the ambitions of competing empires that I mentioned a couple of weeks back (6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?).  During the First World War, the town stood in the path of three imperial armies on the Eastern Front, and was reduced to a burned, battered wreck by the Russian Army as part of its ‘Great Retreat’ in 1915. By late 1917, when the front line had shifted some 150km to the east, what remained of Brest-Litovsk was serving as the German Army’s regional headquarters, and on 22 December 1917 it played host to the first formal peace talks between Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria on one side, and Bolshevik Russia on the other.

When posterity ponders peace treaties and the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles loom large. Fair enough, because nobody should try and wrap their head around modern geopolitical history without appreciating the mess made at Paris and the principles behind it – but you can’t do that without context, and you can’t really put Versailles into context without some understanding of the various wartime treaties that preceded it. By blotting out the sun when it comes to looking at other treaties, the heritage industry’s obsession with the tournament-style pomp of Paris actually makes understanding it more difficult – and of all those other treaties Brest-Litovsk was the big one.

Brest-Litovsk, as left behind by the Russians in 1915.

I’m not giving away any secrets (or I shouldn’t be) by saying that the negotiations begun on 22 December produced a treaty of enormous significance, in terms of both immediate impact and historical reach. It triggered a breathtakingly ambitious (if not bonkers) German attempt to establish an instant eastern empire, and was a pivotal step in the painful birth process of the Soviet Union – but it wasn’t destined to be signed for another three months, so for now I want to talk about the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.

A combination of hindsight and a worm’s eye view makes it very easy for us to invest history’s chaos with coherence, and to assume that great historical events, in particular great staged events, came with the kind of trappings and organisation we associate with a modern summit meeting or World Cup. This tendency can turn blind blunders into plans of action and make stumblebums look like statesmen, or it can make the results look stupid because the circumstances look sensible.

For example, punitive Allied attitudes towards Germany during the postwar peace process are much discussed and deplored as fundamental to the ruin that followed. They can’t really be explained if, like much of the heritage industry, you ignore the agreements signed at Brest-Litovsk, which can’t be understood without an appreciation of the improvised, occasionally farcical process by which they were reached.  So let’s have a look.

Pretty much the moment it took power in Petrograd, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia had declared peace. The government in fact declared peace between all the warring nations, on the grounds (not seen as altogether fanciful by many reputable foreign observers) that Western European war efforts were anyway about to be overwhelmed by socialist revolution. Given that ‘bread and peace’ had been the Bolshevik call to revolution in Russia, it was necessary to deliver peace in advance of world revolution, and so three Russian emissaries had crossed German lines under white flags on 26 November 1917, empowered to discuss the terms of an armistice between Russia and the Central Powers. A general ceasefire was agreed with the Germans on 4 December, signed at Brest-Litovsk by representatives of all the Central Powers on 5 December, and came into official force next day.

Talks towards a full armistice then began, also at Brest-Litovsk, at which point things got a little slapstick. On the Russian side the recently appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, sent a 28-strong delegation that expressed Bolshevik disdain for old world diplomacy. Led by an old revolutionary ally, Adolf Joffe, aided by a couple of veteran revolutionaries in Lev Kamenev and Lev Karakhan, it included soldiers, sailors and factory workers as representatives of the revolution’s core support, along with a female representative (Anastasia Bizenko, notorious as the assassin of an imperial official). Legend claims the delegation completed the set by picking up a passing peasant en route for the railway station.

Lev Kamenev arriving at Brest-Litovsk for the armistice talks.

The Russians arrived at Brest-Litovsk to face old world diplomacy in full effect, as organised by General Max Hoffmann. Hoffmann was an interesting figure, a staff officer who had taken much of the credit for the campaigns that had made the names of Hindenburg and Ludendorff during 1914 and 1915, and who had been theatre chief of staff since Prince Leopold, the King of Bavaria’s younger brother, had taken command of the Eastern Front in August 1916. A born fixer, energetic, imaginative and equipped with the kind of vaunting ambition appreciated by his former chiefs at the Third Supreme Command, Hoffmann effectively controlled subsequent German strategy in the east. He organised the return of revolutionary leaders (like Lenin) to Russia, and suspended offensive operations after the attack on Riga in September 1917 to avoid the risk of igniting Russian patriotism at a revolutionary moment. Perhaps with one eye on a wider world scared of Bolsheviks, he now assembled a negotiating team of old school, elite diplomats.

Max Hoffmann… almost as scary as he looks.

Five Germans, four Austro-Hungarian representatives, three Ottoman and two Bulgarian treated the Russians – housed in wooden huts within the, largely intact, Brest-Litovsk fortress – to the wining, dining and conversation in French that came with the territory, and by all accounts the days that followed were an exercise in mutual bewilderment and contempt. Bad vibes made little or no immediate difference to the process. The Russians had no bargaining chips remotely comparable to the German Army, while the Central Powers, especially Germany, were in a hurry to get on with formal peace negotiations and associated annexations, so a 28-day armistice was arranged in three days.

A delay followed because Joffe had been instructed to sign an armistice for every battlefront, including those contested exclusively by Russia’s allies, and had to go home for new orders. Demanding world peace may seem as ridiculous to modern eyes as it did to many contemporary observers, but it followed from the genuine conviction among Bolsheviks that the workers of other countries were about to seize power. The same belief made any delay to the negotiating process a good thing from Petrograd’s point of view, because it bought time for world revolution to gestate. The Russian delegation eventually returned to Brest-Litovsk a week later, and a 30-day armistice was signed on 15 December.

The Central Powers brought their big diplomatic guns to Brest-Litovsk for the actual peace negotiations, including German foreign minister von Kühlmann and his Austrian counterpart Count Czernin. The Russian delegation was strengthened by the addition of a professional historian and, as military advisor, a former Tsarist general, but was stripped of its symbolic revolutionary representatives (although Anastasia Bizenko kept her place at the table). The banquets seem to have passed off rather more convivially as a result, and in more languages, but the negotiations themselves collapsed into almost instant confusion.

Joffe began proceedings by presenting Bolshevik peace demands, which amounted to the established slogan of peace ‘without indemnities or annexations’, and the German delegates agreed to this in principle, provided it was also accepted by all the other belligerent nations. Joffe was delighted at what the Bolsheviks thought was an agreement not to carve up the old Russian Empire, but had to reverse his optimistic reports home when, a day later, Germany’s position was explained in more careful detail. In accordance with the principle of national self-determination, as espoused by the Bolsheviks, territories under German occupation would be granted their independence… and then treated as German puppet states.

Protest as they might, and did, the Russian delegation had no way of preventing the Germans from doing whatever they liked, whenever they liked, because the one force on any Russian front that was still an effective instrument of state policy, the German Army, had remained in potentially offensive positions for the duration of the armistice. The only tactic left to the new Russian regime was to delay agreement for as long as possible, and hope revolution reached Western Europe before a treaty reached the statute books. Under strict instructions from Trotsky – who would later lead Russian negotiations in person – Joffe and his team responded to the certainty of a punitive settlement by doing just that.

And so it went; an elaborate dance between two mutually hostile worldviews seeking peace but refusing compromise. The German Empire and its virtually powerless allies were desperate to get their hands on the resources of Eastern Europe before the wider war was lost, but stepped lightly to exploit a rare shot at looking like the good guys, or at least more acceptable than the Bolsheviks, to their prospective new subjects. The Russians, equally determined to incorporate those same resources into their new world order, stepped nimbly because every day wasted at the negotiating table brought the downfall of their former enemies a little closer. When the music finally stopped, in March 1918, the two sides would be left with a treaty that lasted no more than a few months but changed the world forever – and is another story.

11 DECEMBER, 1917: Marquee Signing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 NOVEMBER, 1917: Active Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR