31 OCTOBER, 2014: Sniping

Forget history, politics or understanding the world around us, we are obsessed with feelings and the media know it. It’s so much easier for audiences, auteurs and editors to identify with feelings than with ideas. Vicarious agony, joy and everything in between can be absorbed on instinct, no messy analysis or tricky doubts. We’re comfortable with feelings the way we once liked Hammer films – they shock us but don’t challenge us. That’s one reason why feelings, usually pure feelings with no discernible added nutrients, come gushing out of our screens, radios and print media.

You want evidence (apart from ‘reality’ TV)? How about the dumb question routinely asked by apparently intelligent reporters when interviewing victims or winners: how do you feel about losing a loved one, suffering some other disaster, winning Olympic gold, you name it?

“Losing the house to a hurricane? Loved it! Can’t wait for the next one.” Yeah, right, and the same applies to the tsunami of personal letters, diaries and other memoirs that makes up the vast majority of First World War commemorative material put together by the heritage industry.

We get the message. We honour the sufferers and admire their courage, but we get the message. We’d love to know about and sympathise with all their feelings during that terrible time, give each and every one of them the place in our memory they undoubtedly deserve, but maybe we could do that after you’ve had a go at telling us about the war itself.

I’m not going to pick on individual media organisations, not even the BBC, because pretty much all of them are contributing to the flood, and though personal memoirs often include fascinating insights into the social history of the day, most of the output makes sure to keep feelings to the fore. Check it out – count the editors and authors cashing in by providing a million shocking but comfortable versions of the journalist’s dumb question.

“So what was it like going through Hell during the War?” “It was like going through Hell, actually.”

Stop it! It’s poppycock!

29 OCTOBER, 1914: Self-basting Turkey

Remember the Goeben and the Breslau? Chased across the Mediterranean by the British right at the start of the War, the two German warships made it to Constantinople and were transferred to the then neutral Ottoman Navy, crews and all, as the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Medilli. The incident had been a clear indication that the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were winning the contest to bring the Ottoman Empire into the War as an ally. That contest eventually ended a hundred years ago today, when the German vessels and various Ottoman naval units attacked Russian Black Sea naval bases, committing the Empire to four years of war that would end in its ruin.

The attacks weren’t preceded by a declaration of war, but something like them wasn’t entirely unexpected. Germany had long been the most important European influence, economically and militarily, in Constantinople, and only some fairly blinkered optimism on the part of British and French diplomats had enabled the Ottoman regime to maintain an appearance of undecided neutrality during the first months of the War.

This isn’t the place to delve into the conspiracies and complexities of a crumbling Ottoman Empire (almost always referred to as Turkey by contemporary Europeans), but a powerful, militarist faction within a divided government had been pushing for war in alliance with Berlin, partly because it expected Germany to win the war but primarily with a view to reversing Russian expansion towards the Mediterranean via the Black Sea and the Balkans. Led by war minister Enver Pasha, interior minister Talaat Pasha and navy minister Djemal Pasha – and quietly supported by the elderly and politically impotent Sultan, Mohammed V – the war party had signed a secret defensive pact with Germany as early as July 1914. Enver, the faction’s driving force and a veritable paragon of reckless ambition, had since made an offer of alliance to Russia, but when it was ignored he pushed ahead with plans to engineer an incident in the Black Sea that would trigger war against Russia.

The captain of the ex-Goeben, now Admiral Souchon of the Ottoman Navy, had no intention of settling for a mere incident. Under instructions from Berlin and probably in collusion with Enver, but otherwise in secret, Souchon steamed his fearsome battlecruiser, the smaller but deadly ex-Breslau and a selection of relatively fast, light Ottoman gunboats all the way across the Black Sea to launch simultaneous surprise raids on Russian bases at Sevastopol, Theodosia, Novorossisk and Odessa.

All this geography calls for a map of the Ottoman Empire, borrowed as ever and removable on request, and the map calls for a bit of additional information. Theodosia (known by far too many other names to list) sits high on the eastern Black Sea coast of Crimea, while Novorossisk (ditto) is on the Russian Caucasian coast, east of Ekaterinodar (ditto).


The attacks began before dawn on 29 October. The element of surprise was lost when torpedo boats struck Odessa before units were in position elsewhere, and although the raids sank a few small ships, bombarded ports and laid minefields they achieved nothing of strategic importance, leaving the Russian Black Sea fleet’s big warships untouched. They did achieve their political purpose, reducing opponents of war in Constantinople to outraged impotence when war against Russia and France was confirmed two days later.

The British, their diplomats apparently shocked by this ‘sudden’ turn of events, waited until 5 November before declaring war, but political reluctance masked a degree of military readiness. Well aware of oil’s importance to the war effort, the British had deployed Royal Navy warships on the approaches to Basra by late September and an Indian Army expeditionary force had put to sea in mid-October. Though the Ottoman Empire would indeed spend the next three years fighting Russia in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, Enver Pasha’s optimistic vision of war was already a mirage, and the bulk of Ottoman resources would be committed to fighting a long, losing war against the British in the Middle East.

So that was the Sick Man of Europe, as the Ottoman Empire was also known, leaping for oblivion with what little strength he could muster, and in the process throwing the Middle East open to redesign in its modern form. There’s a lot more to be said about the Ottoman experience of world war during the next few years, and about the Islamic experience, but for the moment I’ll sign off with another, slightly fainter echo connecting then and now.

The Empire was founded on the Islamic faith, and the Sultan’s declaration of war came with a jihad attached, summoning the world of Islam to all-out war against the empires of Russia, France and Britain. For all that it created some fear in Britain of revolt among the large Moslem population in northern India, the jihad turned out to be a non-event, serving mainly to illustrate the limits of the Sultanate’s influence among competing branches of Islam.  And if that sounds like a familiar story, it won’t be last time the Ottoman Empire’s Great War throws up striking and direct links with today’s geopolitics.

21 OCTOBER, 1914: Clear Heads?

Today’s the day the Russian government’s ban on the sale and manufacture of alcohol, originally imposed in August for the army’s mobilisation period, was extended for the duration of the War. Prohibition would be gradually relaxed to allow legal consumption of beer and wine during the War years, but a ban on vodka would remain in place until 1925. Although many observers at the time considered the ban an enlightened step, historians have generally regarded it as eccentric, bordering on the bonkers.

On the enlightened side, contemporary social studies claimed immediate benefits to the morale, work rate and health of Russia’s largely peasant population, accustomed as it was to binge-drinking vodka on a fairly regular basis. On the bonkers side, vast numbers of Russians took to making powerful and dangerous hooch, riots around bars and booze warehouses became a regular feature of wartime Russian life, troop morale could not be said to benefit from abstinence, and consumption of alternative substances, anything from nail varnish to heroin, rocketed off the scale. Oh, and the ban wiped out a third of the Russian government’s tax revenue at a stroke.

It remains quite impressive that Russia could enter a major war, let alone sustain one, while simultaneously hobbling its internal finances, but the largely forgotten experiment of wartime prohibition also serves as a useful reminder that in 1914 the world was already too complex for people running big countries to anticipate the full consequences of their actions.

There were of course leaders much more in touch with sociopolitical reality than the largely aristocratic, hopelessly insular Russian ruling class, of whom more at a later date, but the Tsarist regime’s well-meaning but daft decision in October 1914 was by no means the only wartime example of statesmanly folly, and even the most tuned-in political chiefs were trying to run the world on increasingly desperate guesswork.  As the War solidifies and politicians’ need for new ideas becomes more urgent, watch this space to keep up with statesmen making the kind of wacky blunders for which popular folklore so readily mocks the generals.

16 OCTOBER, 1914: Greed Kills

I think I’ve already mentioned this in an another context, and if I haven’t it’s time I did: once all the European nations known as ‘great powers’ had hastened to war in August 1914, and initial fighting on the three main fronts proved indecisive, strategists on both sides set about hunting for an edge by cultivating allies among the continent’s smaller powers.

In what was essentially a beauty contest, diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and Austria-Hungary (small countries generally knew better than to make alliances with Russia) worked to tempt neutral governments with promises to fulfil their territorial ambitions or to protect them from powerful enemies.  The biggest prizes on offer in 1914 were the Ottoman Empire, a former great power on the slide, and Italy, a would-be great power noisily and aggressively on the up. The Ottoman regime in Turkey was swiftly seduced into dependence on Berlin, but Italy played it canny during the War’s opening months and refused to be drawn into the conflict. The principal architect of Italy’s caution was a Sicilian nobleman, conservative foreign minister the Marquis di San Giuliano.  His death, a hundred years ago today, has been seen as a fatal turning point in the history of southern Europe.

Giuliano had been in his job since 1910, even then a very long time in Italian politics. He had inherited Italy’s diplomatic position as the partner of Germany and Austria in what was known as the Triple Alliance, and had overseen a policy of keeping Germany friendly while doing his best to obstruct all Austrian attempts at southward territorial expansion. Relations between Austria and Italy were extremely rocky by 1914, with both powers looking to gain influence in the Balkans and both claiming control over the hilly regions to the north of Venice.

It came as no real surprise to the rest of Europe when, on the outbreak of war in August, Giuliano refused to join the fighting alongside the Central Powers.  TheTriple Alliance only committed Italy to war in the event of an attack on its partners, and Guiliano had no trouble depicting the Austrian invasion of Serbia as an aggressive act. Increasingly sick, he spent the remaining weeks of his life playing diplomatic poker with the two belligerent power blocs, convincing them that Italy was biddable either way and securing promises of territorial gain from Berlin and London, while arguing at home that economic and military reform were needed before Italy was ready to fight a war.

Tug of world war...
Tug of world war…

And there’s the rub. Giuliano was cautious but fully committed to the idea of war, and as such he reflected the prevailing mood among contemporary Italians.

Italy was a young kingdom, fully unified as recently as 1870. Most of its ruling classes, most of its intellectual influences and most ordinary citizens shared the view that it belonged among the great powers of Europe. Expansion into Austria, the Balkans and North Africa was seen as essential to securing the country’s rightful status in terms of prestige and socioeconomic development. Better yet, it could be justified by Italy’s youthful vigour when compared to the crumbling, anachronistic empires that currently controlled those areas. Under these circumstances the outbreak of a general war in Europe, especially one that seemed likely to at least destabilise the Austro-Hungarian Empire, could only be seen as an opportunity. Broadly speaking, Italy’s governing classes were hell-bent on joining the War and profiting from it

Giuliano’s aims were no less warlike, but were founded on pragmatism. He worked to ensure that Italy joined the War when it was ready, joined when the fighting was easier, joined the winning side and received territorial rewards in the aftermath. After his death, passion, populism and greed gradually replaced his Realpolitik at the heart of Italian foreign policy, and the kingdom of Italy joined the War on the Allied side seven months later.

After a ghastly three-year campaign against the Austrians to the north. Italy did end up on the winning side and did gain territory at the end of the War, but at a material, socioeconomic and political cost that far exceeded anything the policy-makers of 1914 would have considered acceptable.  A little more of the restraint exercised by the smooth-talking, gout-ridden Sicilian in the summer and early autumn of 1914, and we might all have been spared the angry, volatile rogue Italy of the post-War era.

There you go; not a lot of people know that.

9 October, 1914: Roots of Apartheid

This was busy day of warfare in Europe. The northern Belgian port and fortress of Antwerp, bypassed by the invasion in August and a thorn in the rear of the German advance ever since, surrendered to a German detachment sent back from the Western Front. On the Eastern Front, the first German offensive against Russian forces in East Prussia was ending with everyone back where they started around the Masurian Lakes. Further south, in Polish Silesia, Austro-German forces were moving to meet a Russian invasion across the River Vistula, and the three-week engagement that followed, generally known as the Battle of Ivangorod, would be yet another exercise in mutually unproductive slaughter.

Important stuff, all of it, that helped shape the early phases of the War in Europe, but the most significant event of 9 October 1914 took place thousands of miles away, near the frontier between South Africa and what is now Namibia.  Here’s a very brief look at how and why.

Like the British Empire’s other ‘white’ dominions, South Africa responded to the outbreak of war in Europe with an immediate offer of practical assistance to Britain. London came back with a request for troops to take part in an invasion of what is now Namibia but was then the German colony of Southwest Africa. The South African government agreed and began raising troops for the task, but this wasn’t Canada, and the decision to fight for Britain sparked an internal crisis that would have momentous consequences for the country’s future.

The Union of South Africa under British imperial rule had only existed since 1910. Before that the British had governed two of the region’s four white colonies, Natal and Cape Colony, while the region’s original colonists, the Afrikaners (or Boers), controlled Transvaal and Orange Free State. Having fought a major war at the turn of the century, the British and moderate Afrikaners co-existed peacefully enough in 1914, and important government posts were filled by Boer leaders, including Louis Botha as head of the Union’s elected Executive Committee (effectively prime minister) and Jan Smuts as defence minister – but a sizable minority of Afrikaners was still firmly opposed to what they saw as British subjugation and was generally sympathetic to the German cause. The government’s decision to fight for Britain offered them a shot at busting free.

A number of senior Afrikaner military officers, some of them openly pro-German and all of them outraged, resigned their commissions at once and began raising anti-British militia in Transvaal and Orange Free State (then known as Orange River Colony). Afrikaner anger came to the boil in mid-September when, shortly after a stormy session of parliament had ratified deployment of the South African Defence Force in Southwest Africa, an Afrikaner hero of the Boer War, General Koos de la Rey, was killed by police in suspicious circumstances. By 18 September, when a force of 1,824 South African troops occupied the little Southwest African port of Lüderitzbucht (now Luderitz), Natal and Orange Free State were close to open rebellion against the Union.

The flames of revolt were ignited by Colonel ‘Manie’ Maritz, commanding a couple of thousand regular South African Defence Force troops, all of them Afrikaner, stationed near the border with Southwest Africa at Upington. Maritz took his men across the frontier to join German colonial forces and, a hundred years ago today, made the public proclamation of rebellion, incorporating a demand for Afrikaner independence, that is regarded as the start of the Boer Revolt.

The Revolt was short-lived. Operations in Southwest Africa were suspended while Botha led 6,000 mounted troops against Maritz (who had been joined by Christian de Wet, another prominent Boer War veteran), and the rebels were routed after a hard fight at Mushroom Valley, about 100km northeast of Bloemfontein, on 26 October. While Botha’s subsequent offers of amnesty to all rebels contributed to a general easing of tension elsewhere, separate rebel columns led by Generals Beyer and Kemp were defeated during the following weeks, and Southwest African operations were resumed in early December. The remnant of Kemp’s force joined Maritz inside German territory, but their final attack across the frontier against Upington failed on 15 January, and they surrendered on 3 February.

Casualties had been relatively light (540 rebels killed or wounded, along with 347 loyalists), the vast majority of combatants on both sides were Afrikaners, and the South African government continued to provide aid to Britain throughout the War – yet the Revolt put a curve into white South African politics from which it never recovered.

Afrikaner opposition didn’t go away, but instead gathered around the political banner of Walter Herzog’s right-wing National Party, a process that formalised the faultline running through white South African society and left the country in a state of acute political uncertainty when the War ended. Turmoil persisted until 1924, when Herzog’s party became part of the longstanding coalition that instituted the social and political exclusion of South Africa’s native peoples, a system known to the world as Apartheid.

This is merely a sketch, and there’s a lot more to be said about southern African history during the War years, but it is another reminder that, from its opening shots, the Great War sent ripples around the planet that triggered seismic change.

3 OCTOBER 1914: O, Canada…

A century ago today, the first contingent of Canadian troops sailed for Europe to defend the British Empire. They were on their way to a European war in transition, as the high drama of invasion and counter-invasion subsided into attrition.  All sides on the Eastern Front had paused to regroup and reconsider their initial offensive plans; in the south the beleaguered Serbian Army, having repelled two Austrian invasions, was licking its wounds and preparing to meet a third; and in the west, despite proclamations of imminent triumph by press and propaganda on both sides, the first Battle of Arras was turning out to be another in the series of actions that established stalemate all along the front line.

So this seems a good time to spare a moment for Canada, a nation that committed its small population to the War from the very start, and is generally dismissed by the British remembrance industry with faint praise and a mention of Vimy Ridge.  We’ll get to Vimy Ridge in 1916, and when we do we’ll be talking about propaganda, popular war-weariness and national identity, but most Canadians in 1914 had no need of spin-doctors to seduce them into supporting the mother country.

An essentially autonomous Dominion of the Empire, nominally ruled by the British King through an imperial governor-general, Canada was enthusiastically pro-British, despite murmurs of dissent among the French-speaking Quebecois that made up almost a quarter of the country’s population (7.2 million in 1911). The Dominion entered the War automatically with Britain, making no separate declaration, and as in so many belligerent countries the immediate upshot was an impressive display of national unity. Prime Minister Robert Borden’s strongly anglophile Conservative Party, in power since 1911, and the more American-minded Liberal opposition put aside their differences to grant the government sweeping emergency powers, and on 6 August it called for 25,000 volunteers to join a Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) to Europe.

At that point regular Canadian ground forces amounted to some 3,100 troops, mostly employed to garrison harbours, with lightly trained local militia companies as the only reserves, but 33,000 volunteers answered the government’s call, and the troops that sailed on 3 October were the first of almost 600,000 Canadians to enlist with the wartime Army. Of those, 418,000 saw service overseas, 210,000 were casualties and 56,500 were killed. Another 7,000 Canadians fought with British ground units, and 14,500 British citizens returned from residence in Canada to enlist.

Aside from the five divisions deployed on the front line in France, Canadian pilots were particularly successful in France –the 13,000 Canadians that fought with the British air services included several acknowledged ‘aces’.  And although the Canadian Navy was a tiny coastguard force that played no part in the wider War, the country’s shipyards built more than 900 (mostly small) ships for use by Allied forces.  Canadians also performed important work as lumberjacks in Scotland and France, as train drivers on battle-zone light railways and as steamer captains during the prolonged campaign in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).

The separate colony of Newfoundland, now a Canadian province, raised its own forces from a population of about 250,000. About 6,500 men served with the Newfoundland Regiment, and 2,000 of them were killed on the Western Front and at Gallipoli. Another 2,000 Newfoundlanders joined the Royal Navy, and a further five hundred crossed the Atlantic to work as foresters.

Civilian responses in Canada at the start of the War were similar to those in Britain. Amid general consensus that everything must be done to defeat Prussian militarism, women’s organisations, churches, civic bodies and charities performed voluntary work to aid recruitment, fundraising and collection of resources, while popular campaigns pressed for Germans and Austrians to be removed from their jobs and interned. As in Britain, popular disillusion with war would feed on disputes over conscription, scandals over CEF equipment, massive economic upheaval and spiralling national debt. Although most English speakers continued to accept, however unhappily, the need for a continually expanding war effort, French-Canadian opposition had solidified by 1917, feeding a resurgence of separatist sentiment that would threaten national unity throughout the 1920s.

Canada is not one of those places generally mentioned as having been transformed by the First World War, but change is relative. The country experienced a full five years of sociopolitical stresses and changes comparable with those in Britain, ran up massive wartime debts and underwent major changes to its industrial and trading patterns. It sent almost nine percent of its entire population across the ocean to take part in the conflict, and emerged with a strengthened sense of nationhood, in its own eyes and those of the world.

So as we wave off that first boatload of American troops, so big and strapping that they’d be dangerously tall in a trench dug by undernourished Europeans, remember that the USA isn’t the only state in North America.  Better yet, point it out next time someone tells you America came late to the War and gained more than it lost. Tell them they’re talking poppycock.