26 NOVEMBER, 1914: A World Policeman’s Lot…

Late November, winter is settling in all over Europe and the 1914 fighting season is drawing to a close. Trench warfare in Belgium and northeastern France, while hardly quiet, will be defined by defensive successes during the next few months, and operations around Poland in the east are coagulating into a long winter stalemate. In the south, where the weather stays warmer, the battered but unbeaten Serbian army is regrouping for one last effort to repel a third planned Austrian invasion, while over in Armenia and Georgia the first Ottoman offensive is grinding to a halt in foul conditions. Even in the Middle East, where winter is more battle-friendly than summer, British imperial forces are resting on their laurels after taking Basra on 23 November, waiting until spring to begin a reckless advance up the rivers towards Baghdad.

A hundred years on, relative calm on the battlefronts gives me a chance to focus on a tragedy that was relatively insignificant, though only in the context of mass carnage. On 26 November 1914 the British battleship HMS Bulwark exploded while moored at Sheerness in the River Medway, so this seems a good day to talk about the everyday dangers of serving aboard a major warship in 1914, and about the everyday wartime importance of Britain’s massive, hugely expensive Royal Navy.

The Bulwark had been completed in 1902, only to be rendered obsolete as a front-line weapon four years later, when the arrival of HMS Dreadnought signalled a fundamental upgrade in battleship technology. After service in the Mediterranean, Channel and Home Fleets, Bulwark was reduced to reserve status in 1910, but as naval rivalry with Germany heated up she was refitted and returned to Channel service in 1912. When war broke out she performed patrol duties in the Channel, based at Portland, tasked with protecting the southern English coast from the predations of German minelayers, submarines and torpedo boats, from attack by major German warships and from the possibility, taken seriously at the time, of a full-scale German invasion.

Protection of Britain’s long coastline was just part of an enormous workload that meant few serviceable Royal Navy ships could malinger in reserve once war broke out. The Navy’s other basic responsibilities included protecting colonies and trade routes all over the world, imposing blockades on enemy ports and maintaining a battle fleet bigger than any likely combination of opposing fleets put together.

It’s often said that the First World War’s massive battle fleets were outdated by the time the war began and served little practical purpose. True enough, hugely expensive dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had become fatally vulnerable to cheap, easily deployed mines and torpedoes, and contemporary fleets served primarily as deterrents, but the populist idea that the Royal Navy therefore failed to pull its weight in the Great War could hardly be further from the truth.

The Navy’s maintenance of trade routes was vital to Britain’s wartime survival, as was the connected battle against enemy submarines, and denying imports to Germany was one of the War’s slow-burning strategic successes.  The service also acquitted itself more than adequately throughout the four-year battle for control of the Channel that was an (often forgotten) adjunct to nearby fighting on the Western Front, and acted as vital support to coastal and supply operations on all the other Allied fronts.

There were major failures, and heritage commemoration’s fascination with them – particularly the ill-conceived Dardanelles operation in 1915 and the inert performance at Jutland the following year – tends to preserve the myth of naval irrelevance.  There were also plenty of individual screw-ups to write home about, some of them grimly entertaining, but these were inevitable when such a gigantic organisation was stretched to the limit and relying on emergency staff. The high-profile failures weren’t the whole story, and they shouldn’t replace the Navy’s vital contribution to survival and victory in the modern public mind.

All of which brings me meandering back to HMS Bulwark. She served a short stint in early November as host to the court martial of Admiral Troubridge (in charge of shambolic attempts to intercept the Goeben back in August), and was then transferred from Portland to Sheerness, in the Medway estuary, as part of the battle group on watch for German attacks across the North Sea.

On 26 November the battle group was at anchor off Sheerness, having completed a set of North Sea exercises, and at ten to eight in the morning most of the Bulwark‘s crew were having breakfast while the ship took on coal and a marine band played on deck – when the ship exploded. The blast tore the ship to pieces, shook buildings in Southend, nine kilometres away, and scattered personal items belonging to the crew all over northern Kent. All 51 officers and all but fourteen of the 759 crewmen on board were killed at the scene, and five of the survivors later died of their wounds.


Saboteurs, mines and U-boats were immediately installed as chief suspects by much of the British press, encouraged by persistent rumours of suspicious foreigners around the docks, but the Navy inquest that followed decided the disaster had been a tragic accident. The same public paranoia followed explosions that destroyed HMS Natal in 1915 and HMS Vanguard in 1917, but contemporary warships, crammed full of oil or coal, explosive devices and relatively primitive electrical equipment (not to mention hundreds of smokers), were always likely to explode if flame found the wrong feeding ground. That’s all that happened on the Bulwark, but it was enough to cause instant, total destruction, and it was a stark reminder of another fundamental fact of naval warfare often overlooked, then and now:  an armed warship was a very dangerous place to work.

18 NOVEMBER, 1914: The Forgotten Front

A hundred years ago today, an Ottoman army began advancing eastward from the Anatolian city of Erzurum.  This was the opening move of a six-year war on what is known as the Caucasian Front, initially fought between the Ottoman and Russian Empires for control of the region.

Unless you’ve studied the First World War in some detail, or spent time in the area now covered by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, you may not have heard of the Caucasian Front.  And I’m guessing the British heritage media aren’t planning to make it a big part of the commemoration extravaganza, so here’s a beginners’ guide to where it was and why it was a war zone.

The area known as the Caucasus is the strip of land, south and west of the Caucasian Mountains, that separates the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea.  Some 400 kilometres across, it has obvious strategic value as a trade route and is rich in natural resources, particularly oil. Like that other great international through-route, the Balkans, the Caucasus began the twentieth century as a patchwork of ethnic groupings and would-be independent states under the control of wider empires, in this case the Russian Empire to the north and east, the Ottoman to the south and west.  In 1914 this frontier zone represented the least complicated opportunity for either empire to indulge in territorial expansion.  Here’s a map, not perfect but the best I could steal at short notice and, of course, removable on request.


From a Russian perspective, control of the Caucasus was a necessary first step towards the Empire’s ultimate aim of controlling the Dardanelles Straits and entering the Mediterranean.  Since Russia’s defeat by Japan in the war of 1904–05, expansion into western Europe had been the watchword in St. Petersburg.  Although strategic thinking was principally focused on the prospect of war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, and care was taken to maintain reasonably good relations with Constantinople, plans had been laid by 1914 for a land invasion of the Caucasus in conjunction with a naval offensive in the Black Sea.  Advanced army bases on the frontier had been established at Kars and Ardahan, while Russian agents were busy across the border, equipping Armenian nationalists for revolt against Ottoman rule.

In Constantinople, the ambitious, militarist Young Turk government had been in power since 1909, promoting a pan-Turkish movement that demanded territorial expansion.  This was hardly feasible in the Balkans or the Middle East, where the Ottoman Empire was crumbling rather than growing, and that just left the land south of the Caucasian Mountains.  By 1914 pan-Turkish expansionism had found expression in a rising tide of hostility towards Armenians and a wealth of contacts with ethnic Turkish groups living inside the Russian Empire.

The outbreak of war between the empires in late October 1914 triggered border skirmishes during the following days, but Turkish frontline troops soon retreated into the hills while war minister Enver Pasha prepared an ‘Eastern Army’ for a major offensive from Erzurum, a task slowed by the lack of a railway system in the region. Russian forces, smaller and denied major reinforcement by the demands of the Polish campaign further north, restricted offensive operations to providing support for an Armenian rebel division that crossed the frontier in mid-November.  As the Turkish invasion force began its advance on 18 November, under Enver’s personal command, the rebel division exploited the lack of troops left behind to embark on a campaign of raids against non-Armenians and slaughter an estimated 120,000 civilians during the months that followed.

The Turkish invasion, aimed at Kars and Ardahan, achieved its initial objective by forcing the Russians to come out of and fight, but that was all.  In worsening weather conditions, compelled to use predetermined routes through passable valleys, short of ammunition and supplies (most of which were delivered by peasant women on foot), and distracted by rebel activities to their rear, Enver’s two armies inched forward.  The force attacking Ardahan became hopelessly bogged down and never reached its target, and although the southern wing was approaching Kars by Christmas it was routed by defenders around the eastern Anatolian town of Sarikamish and forced into retreat.  The Russians, still too weak to mount a serious counter-invasion, edged their way into forward positions across the frontier, and the Caucasian Front’s opening campaign petered out into stalemate.

Offensives and counter-offensives would crisscross the region until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, and rebel activity inside Turkish Armenia would be answered by genocidal Ottoman countermeasures known to the world as the Armenian Massacres. After 1917, a power vacuum would leave the region in turmoil, as Armenian, Georgian and Azerbiajani nationalists sought to establish an independent republic of Transcaucasia, only to descend into border disputes of their own.  Fighting continued to plague the front as post-War Turkish and Soviet regimes continued to press their claims, and finally came to a stop in 1920, when they partitioned the region between them.

So, millions died and a geopolitical hotspot was devastated, violently reshuffled in ways that still trouble us today.  The Caucasian Front may be forgotten by most westerners and ignored by their commemorative industries, but it mattered and made a real difference, not just to the peoples it scarred at the time but to the wider world we live in now.  Let’s keep an eye on it for the next few years.

11 NOVEMBER, 1914: Remember Poland?

It’s Armistice Day, 2014, and something with a Last Post atmosphere seems appropriate.  In 1914, 11 November marked the beginning of a German offensive against Russian positions around the Polish city of Łódź, so today let’s spare a little commemoration for Poland’s suffering during the First World War.

During the last 250 years or so, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a European country more mistreated by war than Poland, or a people more martially abused than the Poles. Since the latter part of the seventeenth century – at which point it was a reasonably successful sovereign state, joined to neighbouring Lithuania by a shared monarchy – Poland has been a prime battleground of choice for anyone going to war in central or Eastern Europe. Time and again the armies of empires have invaded, fought over, occupied and partitioned Poland. Time and again the Poles have been conquered, annexed, suppressed and slaughtered.

There’s a long, sad story to be told about the decline of Poland in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I’ll try to keep it brief.  The country was partitioned three times between 1772 and 1795 as Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia got into the habit of invading, putting down nationalist uprisings as they went, and coming to mutual agreement about which parts to keep for themselves. The last of these partitions removed independent Poland from the map altogether, with mineral-rich Silesia in the northwest becoming part of Prussia, the southern region around Krakow falling under Austro-Hungarian rule and the rest becoming part of the Russian Tsar’s empire.

This was roughly the situation in 1914, despite Napoleon’s temporary occupation of the region early in the nineteenth century and further territorial adjustments in the 1803s, 1840s and 1860s, when the usual suspects intervened to put down nationalist or political uprisings. Here’s a map, lifted from net as ever and instantly removable if anyone minds.


The First World War conformed to the pattern of modern warfare by devastating Poland.  By late in 1914 the country had become the main focus of fighting between Russia and the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, and an estimated 3.5 million Poles were conscripted into the armed forces of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary during the next four years. A few Poles also fought with the French army as an independent unit, and hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians died as collateral damage. Though accurate casualty figures are impossible to establish, estimates of Polish deaths during the First World War vary between about 700,000 and one million.

The German offensive around the Silesian city of Łódź in mid-November enjoyed initial success against ill-prepared Russian forces and inflicted serious casualties, but was halted once the Russians abandoned their own plans to attack into Silesia and concentrated for defence. Heavily outnumbered, but committed to repeated attacks by front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the German Ninth Army did eventually take Łódź after a Russian withdrawal on 6 December, but despite Hindenburg’s claims of a great strategic victory no decisive breakthrough was achieved. German attempts to push further east slackened after 13 December, by which time both sides had lost around 100,000 men, leaving the central sector of the Eastern Front in a state of entrenched stalemate west of Warsaw by the end of the year. Poland’s suffering was just beginning.

This has been a sketchy post, delivered late. My apologies to anyone reading the blog in real time, but every now and then real life takes over and prevents me from playing historian for a few days. Never mind, the point I’m trying to make is fairly simple: the First World War wasn’t only, or even largely about Britain. Ask any Pole.


Heroic, blood-soaked and… er… what else does British heritage commemoration have to say about France in 1914?  Not a lot.  In the heritage story France is a mere sidekick, a sometimes clumsy, often pathos-laden second banana in Britain’s First Big War Against Germany.  The French heritage industry – a lot like ours in most ways – takes a mirror-image view of Britain in 1914, as a minor co-star in the story of the Second-Last Big French War Against Germany. If any French people are reading this, I realise that fighting on home soil is a pretty good excuse and I’ll get around to talking about Britain one of these days, but for today here’s a quick sketch of France at the beginning of the Great War.

France today is the Fifth Republic, founded after De Gaulle’s coup d’état of 1958. France in 1914 was the Third Republic, founded in 1870 after the country’s crushing military defeat by Prussia and the overthrow of its last monarch, Napoleon III.  Well equipped with railways, canals and shipping, it was one of the world’s most successful trading nations but lagged far behind Germany and Britain in industrial development. The vast majority of the population (40 million in 1911) depended on agriculture for a living, making the country self-sufficient in food, but the heavy industries concentrated in the northeast were relatively small and inefficient, and most manufacturing still took place at workshop level.

Unlike Germany, France was a genuine representative democracy, or at least what passed for one in the early twentieth century. A two-tier National Assembly controlled legislation and most adult males were entitled to vote in direct elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, but the upper house, the Senate, was indirectly elected. The Assembly as a whole elected a president as head of state every seven years, and the president nominated a prime minister, who in turn occupied a ministry in the 12-man cabinet and selected the other eleven ministers. Before the election of moderate conservative Raymond Poincaré in 1912, the presidency had been a largely honorific office, but Poincaré took a much more active role in internal politics and was the guiding force in French conduct of foreign affairs.

The constitution was intended to provide France with a stable political base, something lacking since the Revolution of 1789 had inaugurated a century of serial regime change, and destined to prove elusive into the late 20th. It was working in 1914, but only just, and the broader political picture in France was hardly less polarised than in Germany.

At one end of the political and intellectual spectrum, French socialism was an important force at home and abroad. Though the country’s industrial workforce was smaller and less volatile than its German counterpart, French representatives formed the moderate heart of the global socialist organisation, the Second International, and socialists always mustered a substantial group in the Assembly. As pacifists and committed republicans, constantly alert to the possibility of a royalist revival, socialists provided rugged, sometimes bitter opposition to the other great extra-parliamentary political force in France – the Army.

Well-endowed with overt royalists and, inasmuch as its officers paid any attention to political opinion, the predominantly right-wing Army was hugely important to the Third Republic as the instrument of its manifest destiny: the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, the rich eastern provinces ceded to the new Germany after the defeat of 1870. Another war between the two countries was regarded as inevitable by most informed opinion everywhere, and the question of how to create an army capable of winning it was the big issue in French politics before the War. It is hard to overstate the levels of mistrust between the Army and all but the right-wing of the political establishment (though a look at the long-running Dreyfus affair gives a flavour), and in the years before 1914 mutual antipathy crystallised around the question of conscription.

Conscription of all eligible males for a period of national service, as practiced in most mainland European countries of the day, went without saying, but Germany’s bigger manpower base left France at a disadvantage. Attempts by the Army and its political supporters to compensate by extending the term of conscription faced bitter socialist opposition, but finally bore fruit when the Three Year Law was passed in 1913. This apparent success soon backfired by persuading Berlin to fight sooner rather than later, but in the meantime it left many observers, military and otherwise, convinced that the political left would refuse to fight when war came.

Alsace and Lorraine were the defining aims of French foreign policy, and arguably of French society as a whole, but as a major colonial and trading power France did have other irons in foreign fires. Security of trade with colonies in Africa and Indo-China called for maintenance of a strong naval force in the Mediterranean, which brought potential conflict with Britain, Italy and Austria-Hungary, the other major powers with fleets in the theatre. And growing French commercial ambitions in the Middle East, as well as strong French ties with Serbia (an Ottoman province until l903), were straining historically good relations with the Turkey.

The obvious diplomatic move for France was sealed in 1892 by alliance with Russia, which could menace Germany from the east and was as yet no threat to the Mediterranean. The dream move from a French perspective, alliance with Britain as the ultimate protection against German dominance of mainland Europe, was never quite sealed before war broke out.

Informal arrangements had brought France much closer to her old enemy in the first years of the new century, culminating in a naval agreement that took pressure off both parties in northern and Mediterranean waters from 1912, while British agreements with Russia in 1907 had created a ‘Triple Entente’ to counterbalance the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. But try as they might, and they did try, successive French governments could not persuade Britain into a formal alliance.

This was the one dampener on French enthusiasm for an attack on Germany when the Austro-Serbian crisis of July 1914 brought war into prospect. The Army couldn’t wait to get started, the French government was ready to fight and the attack-minded optimism of the Army’s Plan 17 convinced both that a quick victory over Germany was all but guaranteed – but Poincaré and his inexperienced prime minister, Viviani, delayed in the hope of concrete British support.

When the shit hit the fan at the end of the month both men were in St. Petersburg, giving fateful guarantees of military support to Russia. They were able to hold off Army demands for immediate mobilisation, and on 30 July ordered a withdrawal of forces from the German frontier in an attempt to convince the British of their peaceful intentions. The following day, in a Paris café, a French nationalist who regarded pacifism as treason assassinated Jean Jaurès, far and away the most illustrious face and voice of French socialism. The government, afraid that the great man’s death would trigger a surge of pacifist dissent, or even a full-scale revolution, dared wait no longer.

French armed forces were mobilised on 1 August, with government and Army ready to conduct mass arrests of dissidents, only for the country’s internal problems to vanish the moment war was certain. The same thing happened in other belligerent countries, but nowhere was the surge of patriotic chauvinism triggered by war more pronounced or dramatic than in France. Pacifist opposition disappeared, instantly and completely, and the Assembly voted for an immediate political truce (the Union Sacrée). Within a few weeks some 2.5 million Frenchmen had answered the call-up, most with joy in their hearts, and the government was coping with manpower crises in crucial industrial and infrastructural sectors. After half a century of increasingly rabid internal division and uncertain legitimacy, the Third Republic was finally united, marching to war in confident pursuit of its lost provinces.

Shame about Plan 17.

9 November, 2014: Sniping

Actually, I’ve put down my sniper rifle so I can spend a moment giving thanks and praise where it’s due.  There I was, armed and ready, one eye glued to the sniperscope, when a target in BBC uniform wandered into view and I got set to mark up another victim.  Fortunately, and like any sniper with a conscience, I’m apt to take an interest in the face and personality of anything I plan to shoot, and this time it was worth it.  I took a good look, and realised this particular documentary series didn’t deserve a bullet.  It’s the Beeb, it’s the right stuff, and it’s called World War One: Beyond the Trenches.

Because Poppycock is by nature British and a pedant, I have a small issue with ‘World War One’ as a title (that’s American; it’s called the First World War), and at five minutes a shot it’s ridiculously short, but otherwise the series is a marvellous look at those heritage-obscured ways and places in which the big, wide world was transformed by the conflict.  Sure, it suffers a little from television history’s usual need to fit narrative to available pictures, but it doesn’t rely for a thesis on some art-schooled director with no history, it puts out some basic facts to go with its vignettes, and it’s full of amazing stuff that’s hard to find elsewhere. Do yourself a favour and watch some.  Do the BBC a favour and tell it you want more.  Thank you.

5 NOVEMBER, 1914: Regional Redesign, Part 1

As mentioned in what I can’t help calling my last post, Britain and the Ottoman Empire went to war a hundred years ago today.  During the four years of hard fighting that followed, this particular conflict was regarded as a ‘sideshow’ in Britain, seen by many as an unwarranted distraction from the war in Europe.  Popular British history has been treating it the same way ever since.

Big mistake.

British heritage and remembrance don’t completely ignore the Anglo-Turkish war, but they are only really interested in the Gallipoli campaign and Lawrence of Arabia.  Gallipoli was a bona fide military disaster, a classic example of lions being led by donkeys, a horror story for the troops that made much of the fighting in France look tame, and an exercise that did little or nothing to shorten the wider war.  For all its well-used dramatic potential, the campaign’s greatest importance lies elsewhere, in its enormous effects on national self-consciousness in Australia and New Zealand, whose men did much of the fighting, and in its galvanising effects on the career of Kemal Ataturk, the overwhelmingly dominant figure in modern Turkish history.

Meanwhile Lawrence provides an amazing story, and the Arab Revolt he helped lead played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, but the tale is usually referenced with little regard for context.  By context I mean the British Empire’s conquest, often slow and painful, of pretty much the entire Middle East.

On what we usually call the First World War’s Palestinian and Mesopotamian Fronts, British imperial armies fought their way north from Egypt towards Turkey, and northeast from Basra, up the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates to Baghdad.  In the process and in the aftermath, they provoked and then controlled a comprehensive geopolitical redesign of the region to suit British and French strategic requirements, effectively creating the Middle East we know today.

You’d think, given how much trouble it’s been causing ever since, that this uncontroversial truth would be well known to all of us, but I keep surprising literate, generally well-informed people with the news.  On current form I can’t see the heritage re-run having much to say about it, so I will.

Fighting on the Palestinian Front didn’t get going until 1915, and I’ll get to it in detail then, but a British attack on Mesopotamia was primed and ready to go by the time war with Ottoman Turkey broke out.  With naval units already patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates), and five thousand troops from India waiting to go ashore, the operation was intended to be a limited affair.  Its sole stated aim was to protect vital oil supplies from Abadan, on the Persian bank, by seizing the Ottoman port of Basra on the opposite bank.

General Barrett, in command of the Indian Army force and under direct orders from the British Indian government, had been instructed to take Basra as a form of ‘forward defence’, in other words as a preventive strike against a likely base for future Turkish aggression.  This concept, arguably mirrored in US foreign policy since 1945, turned out to be a recipe for deeper entanglement, while London’s willingness to leave the theatre under Indian government control for eighteen months, using only limited Indian Army resources, turned out to be a recipe for disaster.

Basra was taken without much trouble on 23 November, and forward defence prompted an advance upriver to take Qurna, at the junction of the two rivers, in early December.  These easy victories, along with the defeat of a counterattack by Ottoman regulars and Arab tribesmen the following April, blew forward defence out of the water as far as new commander General Nixon and the Raj government were concerned.  By mid-July Nixon had pushed on another hundred or so kilometres up both rivers to take a couple of lightly-defended Turkish bases, at which point he decided that Baghdad, 400 kilometres further on, was a feasible target.  Assured by Nixon that his force was equipped for the job, Indian Viceroy Lord Hardinge backed the idea, and though the London government wouldn’t provide Nixon with non-Indian resources, it closed its eyes and let the offensive go ahead in early September 1915.

Nixon’s force, led in the field by General Townshend, was anything but equipped for the job.  It lacked sufficient artillery, modern weapons, medicines and modern transport, while the absence of railways or usable roads in the hinterland left it completely dependent on supplies sent by boat from Basra, a port far too small and primitive for the amount of traffic required.  Hampered by a chronic shortage of boats and by failure to reform a chaotic logistic system, repeatedly ordered forward by a blindly optimistic Nixon (who spent most of his time in Basra), advancing Indian Army troops faced regular Turkish forces, the guerilla warfare of local ‘Marsh Arabs’, searing heat, floods, disease and mirage as their supply lines lengthened.  Ghastly failure beckoned.

Townshend’s force met no serious resistance until late November, but by then it was desperately short of everything.  Arms, ammunition, mules, engineering equipment and medicines were all running out, and manpower was dwindling in a warzone where casualties could only be treated by sending them back to Basra in a boat, so that most wounds were a death sentence.  When Turkish forces made a determined stand at Ctesiphon, just forty kilometres from Baghdad, Townshend could only retreat to the fortress of Kut, where survivors were soon surrounded and besieged by four divisions of Turkish regulars.

The siege of Kut, which ended with Townshend’s surrender the following April, was a resounding propaganda success for the Ottoman Empire that forced London to get properly involved in the Mesopotamian campaign.  By the end of the summer break in operations (nobody fought in temperatures above fifty Celsius) British Army officers were in charge of some 150,000 men in the theatre, modern equipment was arriving , Basra was being rebuilt and sweeping reforms were transforming the supply system.  The opening phase of the war in what is now Iraq had ended.  The British were no longer blundering into conquest as a form of forward defence gone mad.  They had a plan.  It was a big, ambitious plan, and it’s a story for another day.