23 AUGUST, 1914:  Prowling Tiger

A century ago today, the BEF fought what British commentators like to call the Battle of Mons.  A minor action, much commemorated in these parts, Mons has plenty to tell historians about British Army tactics and expertise at the start of the War, but that’s no real excuse for ignoring an altogether more momentous event that took place on the same day, when the island empire of Japan declared war on Germany.

The very idea that Japan took part in the First World War, let alone against Germany, may seem a little weird to the modern mind weaned on Second World War premises, but in 1914 it came as no surprise to those with an eye on international relations.  Japan was on the way up, and was being extremely aggressive about it.

From a European perspective, Japan came into the War looking like a modern, industrial nation governed by mediaeval warlords.  Its current head of state, Emperor Yoshihoto, ruled through appointed dignitaries over a system that practiced complete religious tolerance, forbade any political activity by women and had no truck with democratic representation. Yoshihoto, father of the rather better known Hirohito, had come to the throne with a change of dynasty in 1912, and by that time his empire had spent decades in the throes of a lighting transformation from agricultural backwater to regional superpower.

The 45-year reign of Yoshihoto’s predecessor, Emperor Meiji ‘The Great’, had seen rapid industrial growth, population growth, urbanisation and trade expansion, so that Japan was far and away the most developed economy in the Far East by 1914.  Its armaments industry was particularly advanced, to the extent that it had no need for military imports and was developing one of the world’s most powerful navies, and this reflected the key and consistent element driving Japanese foreign policy before, during and after the First World War – expansion into the mainland empires of China and Russia.

The policy had been coming along nicely.  War with China in the 1890s had left Japan in control of Korea, Taiwan, some of Chinese Manchuria and a selection of Pacific islands.  A successful war against Russia in 1904–05, crowned by a crushing naval victory that sent shockwaves around the old world, had put an end to St. Petersburg’s hopes of expanding into the Pacific Rim.  In between, in 1902, Japanese diplomacy had achieved an equally earthshaking coup by concluding a full alliance with the British Empire, the first time that aloof and immense world power had deigned to deal on equal terms with a non-white nation.

As its population passed fifty million, Japan was surging towards a perceived destiny on a wave of national confidence and – from the Emperor down to the swollen ranks of the labouring classes – with an almost religious faith in its military prowess and leadership.  This was well known to the rest of the world.  Though Japan wasn’t yet a global economic or military power, it was seen as a potentially dangerous rival for Pacific trade by business interests in the US, and was treated with nervous caution by European empires with Far Eastern interests.

Caution had been the basic motive behind Britain’s decision to make an ally of Japan.  Given that the British had plenty of empire to defend in the Pacific and plenty of better things for the Royal Navy to do, while Japan won enormous international prestige and increased freedom to menace non-British interests, the bargain worked well for both sides.  The alliance was still useful to Britain once war broke out in Europe, providing valuable guarantees of quiet in the Pacific, but that was nothing compared to the lottery win it became for Japan.

Declaration of war on Germany, as required by the terms of the alliance, suited Japanese territorial ambitions.  Orders were issued ten days before the declaration for the conquest of German-held territories in the Pacific and on the Chinese mainland, which were completed by early November.  After that, Japan spent the War filling the voids left by preoccupied European powers, building profitable new trade links with Australia, India and the United States while securing its hold over regional conquests.  It did contribute a squadron of destroyers to allied operations in the Mediterranean, but with hindsight they are reckoned to have learned a lot more than they lost and can be seen as a metaphor for the entire Japanese war effort.

It’s not always easy to see beyond the historical monolith of the Second World War and appreciate its close, direct links to the First.  The way Japan exploited the First World War and the sweeping changes war brought to Pacific pecking orders, to learn military lessons and establish the foundations of its greater empire is a case in point.  The tragedy of Japanese over-ambition in the 1930s and 1940s couldn’t have happened without the First World War – and not a lot of people know that .

Poppycock

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

A hundred years ago today, German and Russian forces fought the first engagement of the Automatic War on the Eastern Front.  The fight took place at Stallupönen, a German village near the frontier between the two empires.  It wasn’t much of a battle, an unauthorised attack by a small cheap nba jerseys portion of the regionally-based German army against the southern flank of an invading Russian army that forced a division (about 10,000 men) of Russian troops to retreat and took some 3,000 prisoners – but it was the start of a long and vastly important campaign that changed the world, changed the War and is almost completely forgotten by the heritage version as seen from the West.

I’ll be checking into the Eastern Front on a regular basis during the next few years, but for now here’s the start-up picture of a theatre of war that raged for more than four years and ultimately stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Given that an alliance dating back to 1892 committed Russia to fighting in support of France, and that Germany was tied to Austria-Hungary by defensive alliance, a glance at a basic map of Europe in 1914 makes the opening battle lines fairly clear.  I’ve pinched the one below from the net, and I’ll be glad to remove it if anyone Christmas minds.

Europe1914

The Russian and German Empires faced each other along the borders of East Prussia to the north.  Austria-Hungary lined up along a disputed frontier with Russia further south, across the then Russian (now Ukrainian) province of Galicia, and all three empires were clustered hungrily round Poland, then ruled by Russia as a semi-autonomous and very turbulent province.  Still further south, the independent kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria remained neutral for now, but both were looking to expand and both would enter the fighting once they’d juggled inducements from both sides and decided which represented the man chance.

All three main protagonists had plans in place for the outbreak of war.  Germany had left an army on its eastern frontier as part of the wider Schlieffen Plan, expecting to have beaten France and sent reinforcements during the anticipated six-week delay while Russian forces got organised.  Austria-Hungary’s battle plan defied both logistical realities (like most plans conjured up in Vienna) and the demands of war against Serbia on its southern frontiers to call for an immediate invasion of Galicia.  The latest of many Russian plans, known as Plan 19, was equally ambitious and smacked of autocratic fantasy.  Originally conceived as a simple, massed attack against the relatively small German force defending East Prussia (the eastern spur of Germany stretching up to what became the Lithuanian border), it was repeatedly doctored to satisfy squabbling court factions until it encompassed a smaller attack on East Prussia, a major attack on Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia and the maintenance of strongly defended fortresses inside the frontiers.

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

From a German viewpoint, the big surprise was that two Russian armies invaded East Prussia as early as 15 August.  They didn’t get far, not least because although Russia possessed hordes of troops wholesale nba jerseys – perhaps 25 million men of military age to call upon – and had performed miracles to get men to battle so quickly, its retarded industrial condition meant that Les uniforms and equipment were an altogether different matter.  The preliminary battle at Stallupönen set a pattern of well-equipped and well-trained German forces routing their more numerous opponents, but that didn’t prevent a certain amount of initial panic in Berlin at this unexpectedly early development.  Reinforcements under the newly paired team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff were diverted from the west to meet the situation, a move that had momentous consequences for the Western Front and opened floodgates to a campaign that would absorb more and more German attention and resources during the next four years.  A comprehensive German victory against superior numbers at Tannenberg on 26 August then forced the Russians to fall back and reinforce, bringing the invasion to an end.

Russian attacks in Galicia took longer to get going but met greater success against 10 shambolic Austro-Hungarian forces that were neither up to strength nor ready for operations, but which were carrying out their own planned invasion anyway.  The Austrians won the first skirmish, and forced the Russians back across their frontier when the two armies, each about half a million strong, collided in late August along a line centred on the small (now Ukrainian) town of Komarov.  Austrian optimism, never remotely justified by the performance of its armies in 1914, SNIPING brought immediate attempts to push further east, but they collapsed against defensive positions and turned into a full-scale retreat, first to the city of Lvov and then into the sanctuary of the Carpathian Mountains.

As autumn began, the Germans were preparing an advance against the Russians in the north while the Russians planned an attack into the Carpathians, but deteriorating weather and the strength of defensive positions brought temporary stalemate to both fronts, and for the rest of the year all three empires focused their campaigns on the cherry in the middle, Poland.

That was just an outline sketch of the opening phase of the War on the Eastern Front.  Much, much more was to come.  For long periods, the Front achieved its own forms of gruesome stagnation, sometimes locked into trench warfare around strong defensive positions, sometimes involving huge advances by either side that moved the lines hundreds of miles across vast wildernesses without inflicting any sort of knockout blow.  Like the Western Front, the Eastern Front would see strategists and field commanders struggling and failing to find ways of making offensive land warfare actually work, and losing millions of lives in the process.

The total cheap nfl jerseys numbers killed in the theatre defy accurate calculation – Russian figures were often guesses and Austrian records Beta were lost when its empire collapsed, to name just two of the problems faced by historians – but estimates of military deaths start above three million, and in most of the regions involved nobody bothered counting invades civilian deaths after about 1915.  Even by the standards we understand from the Western Front, fighting conditions were unspeakably horrible, with whole units freezing to death overnight amid desperate shortages of basic equipment and medicines, especially on the Russian side but also among multiracial Austro-Hungarian forces.

Unlike the Western Front, the War in the east did have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the world at large.  Russian involvement ended with the collapse of the regime to Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution; Austria-Hungary’s unproductive effort drained and eventually helped destroy its empire; Germany filled the void, took control over great swathes of territory, and then propelled its overall war effort towards disaster by attempting to administer them and exploit their economies.  And although a host of newly independent states sprang into existence all across the theatre in the War’s aftermath, many of them still faced prolonged struggles for survival as revolutions and civil wars raged across the region.  One way or another every part of the Eastern Front remained at war until the 1920s.

Even slammed together in a few paragraphs the Eastern Front makes quite a story, worth remembering as a human tragedy in itself and because it gave birth to so much of modern Europe.  You won’t hear much about it from the heritage industries in the West, and that’s a shame, because attempting to tell the story of the First World War without it can only be…

Poppycock.

10 AUGUST, 1914: Playing Battleships

A hundred years ago today, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, put into port at Constantinople (Istanbul) and promptly enlisted, crews and all, in the Ottoman Turkish Navy.  That may seem an odd thing to do at the start of a war in which the Ottoman Empire was, at that point, ONDA neutral, and there’s quite a tale of derring-do, incompetence and naval warfare attached.

The Goeben was a big, dangerous ship, a modern battlecruiser designed 2014: for attacking prowess, heavy on armament, light on armour and quick for its size.  The Breslau was a light cruiser, a faster escort for attacks on smaller targets.  Both were in the Mediterranean, taking on fuel at the then neutral Italian port of Messina, when war with France broke out on 3 August, and they sailed south to interfere with French troop movements from its North African colonies.  On the way back the following day they passed close to Royal Navy warships, but war between Individual Britain and Germany Thomasnacht hadn’t yet been declared and no shots were fired.  War came a few hours later, and sent the German ships running east for their lives, hopelessly outnumbered and effectively surrounded by an enormous Royal Navy presence in the Mediterranean.

What followed was a wild ride for the German ships, but also a revealing snapshot of naval warfare in 1914.  Despite the presence of on board radio, communication over long distances remained shaky, and the German ships fled for Constantinople on the basis of a false rumour that Turkey had joined the War on Germany’s side.  Shadowed by smaller British warships, Goeben and Breslau dodged wholesale jerseys and wove their way east, successfully avoiding the three British forces in a position to intercept them.  They were helped by the risk-averse approach of British admirals, who found better things to wholesale jerseys do or defensive undertones in standing orders whenever the cheap nfl jerseys opportunity to fight arose, but they received no help wholesale nfl jerseys at all from the expensive but inert Austro-Hungarian Navy based in the Adriatic.

Both navies were later accused of timidity, a charge regularly levelled at the commanders of big surface craft throughout the War, but their behaviour said less about their command capabilities, more about the massive cost and prestige attached to major warships at the time.  It took a very brave man to chase glory at the wholesale jerseys risk of losing something so valuable, especially when something as cheap as a torpedo or a mine could send it to the bottom.

Once the German ships reached Constantinople and found it neutral, they had only twenty-four hours’ Etiket grace before international law required them to put to sea.  By staying as part of the Turkish Navy – far and away the best part – they were spared almost certain destruction, scored an effective point in Berlin’s campaign for an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and survived as a thorn in the side of the Allies when that goal was achieved.  That said, and despite the undoubted propaganda victory the episode delivered for Berlin, Goeben and Breslau had minimal military impact on the rest of the War.  They did achieve some success against Russian shipping and coastal installations in the Black Sea, but only between long spells under repair after damage by mines.  When peace with Russia brought them back to the Mediterranean in 1918 they again fell foul of mines, which sank the Breslau and forced the Goeben to hole up in Constantinople, Essay reduced to the inactive deterrent role that was the lot of most big warships throughout the First World War.

9 AUGUST, 2014: SNIPING

This is bound to happen from time to time.  Every now and then a heritage story’s going to get plain daft, and I’ll feel the need for a flag on the play.  This morning, Saturday August 9, 7 Radio 4’s Today programme came up with a classic example of media inventing history for editorial purposes.  The First World War, Mishal Hussein suggested in her best Oxbridge trill, turned British women into drug abusers.

The death of a showgirl from a drug overdose in 1918 was игра quoted as evidence of the claim, and the authors of two books, one about wartime mental health issues, the other about the birth of the British drug underground, were wheeled in to discuss it.  Both authors began by pointing out that female drug abuse in wartime presupuesto Britain was extremely localised, meaning it was essentially restricted to cheap nfl jerseys women gros involved with various entertainment industries in the West End of London.  After that, both struggled bravely but in vain to find anything that cheap MLB jerseys supported the story’s main thrust.  It was desperate stuff, with the woman responsible for Shell Shocked Britain, the stress book, reduced to suggesting that civilian women took drugs because the noise of Zeppelins was freaking them out.

Ridiculous.  According to witnesses I’ve interviewed (years back, obviously) the scariest thing about a Zeppelin attack was the machines’ eerie silence, but that’s what happens when editorial imagination forces specialists to go off piste.  The real point here is that the whole story is fiction, cobbled together by some bright BBC spark in possession of three facts and no history.  The First World War did not turn British women into drug abusers.  Women in and around the show business enclaves of Soho and theatre land had been abusing various substances for centuries; working class women all wholesale NBA jerseys over industrial and urban Britain had been doing the same for at least as long, in gin palaces, through opiates and stimulants in patent medicines, any wholesale jerseys way they could find.  The War may have increased the need for escapism felt by some civilian women (and men), but I’m not sure the idea that raised stress levels encourage people to get off their face is particularly newsworthy.  No, the BBC wanted a war angle so it made one up.  After a series of embarrassing attempts to justify the story had failed, Mishal Hussein should have ended the piece by declaring the case unproven and unlikely.  Instead the show’s silly premise, a small piece of misleading, false history, was allowed to stand.

Invented angles on the First World War will be turning up all over the media for the next few years.  I’ll keep an eye open for them, because they’re…

Poppycock.

 

7 AUGUST 1914: France invades Germany

We are generally quite well informed about Germany’s attack on Luxembourg, Belgium and France in early August.  For the purposes of British heritage commemorations it serves as the act that triggered Europe’s plunge into war, and its adherence to the Schlieffen Plan – a precisely timetabled blueprint for a swift, knockout punch against France that dated back to the 1890s – is seen as evidence of Germany’s prime responsibility for the catastrophe.  The story has less Hello to say about French aggression.  France had been preparing an attack on Germany since ceding territory to a victorious Prussia in 1871.  It possessed its own plan to deliver a knockout blow, and it could hardly wait to get an invasion started.

Plan 17, the French strategic blueprint for war, was the brainchild of Ferdinand Foch, the general destined to end the war as commander-in-chief of allied forces on the Western Front.  Adopted in 1913 by the then c-in-c of French forces, Joffre, it cheap nfl jerseys was more flexible (and a lot less precise) than the Schlieffen Plan, and reflected the French Army’s dogmatic ROTO commitment to cheap jerseys offensive warfare as the key to military success.  A radical departure from previous plans, which had been focused on defence of the Belgian frontier in response to a German attack, it called for French forces to retake Alsace and Lorraine, the eastern provinces lost in 1871, and then to push further east into Germany through the Ardennes forests.

With hindsight, the greatest weakness of Plan 17 was that it was based on a giant miscalculation.  French leaders had spent a decade trying and failing to get a British commitment to defending France if Germany attacked.  Joffre and most of his senior commanders refused to believe that Germany would force Britain off the fence by invading Belgium, and steadfastly ignored the possibility that Berlin might interpret Britain’s deeply opaque diplomatic fudging as licence to get away with just that.

Plan 17 did allow for a turn north to protect Belgium and Luxembourg, but this was an afterthought and treated as such, so that even an ominous build-up of German forces around the Belgian frontier in the summer of 1914 was interpreted as good news because it weakened defences in Alsace and Lorraine.  With or without hindsight, the fact that well-trained German reserve forces could be brought up to plug any gaps in Alsace and Lorraine might have worried French commanders, but they weren’t the first or last powerful men to see the world as they wanted it to be.

After a delay Slack to be sure the British saw France as victim rather than aggressor, Plan 17 swept into action with a preliminary attack into Alsace on 7 August, its planners confident that an invasion carried out with sufficient élan (by which they meant attack-minded verve and flair) would carry all before it.

It didn’t.  German forces withdrew from Alsace to await reinforcements, and although France erupted with joy as the major town of Mulhouse was ‘liberated’ without a fight (and with most of its German-speaking wholesale nfl jerseys citizens notably absent), a German counter-attack arrived two days later and drove the French slowly back.  A change of commander and belated reinforcement did enable the French to regain Mulhouse later in the month, but by that time part two of Plan 17, a full-scale attack into Lorraine, had run into serious trouble.

It was the kind of trouble soon to become familiar on the Western Front.  Two French armies advanced into Lorraine from the north cheap mlb jerseys on 14 August and attacked the towns of Sarrebourg and Morhange, coming up against the German Sixth Army, a largely Bavarian force deployed along a line protecting the towns.  French infantry charges were easy meat for entrenched troops armed with machine guns and artillery, and attack-minded French forces had no trenches of their own in place when German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht (the heir to the Bavarian throne) launched a counterattack on 20 August.

Within two days French forces had been driven back to a line of fortified bases on high ground east of Nancy.  Two days after that, on 24 August, the invasion of Germany was officially called off, by which time French, British and Belgian forces were manifestly on the defensive all along the northwestern frontiers of France.  On the same day Rupprecht, having persuaded his High Command to divert strength from the drive on Paris further north, launched a major offensive against the French line, only for roles to be reversed as three days of German assaults failed against well-prepared trenches.  The sector then subsided into armed stalemate for most of the next four fans years.

Heritage has pretty much forgotten about the French invasion of 1914, and that means its inadvertent contribution to the defeat of Germany’s invasion is also left out of the story.  If the French attack on Lorraine hadn’t failed badly enough to give Prince Rupprecht visions of glory and massive reinforcement to carry them out, the German thrust further north towards Paris would have been considerably, perhaps decisively stronger.  That’s history for you – everything connected up in ways heritage, with its perceived need for simple straight lines, finds inconvenient.

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