25 DECEMBER, 1914: Bah! Humbug!

Poppycock’s War is running a little late, but then it’s Christmas and everyone knows war stops for Christmas. At least, it did in 1914, or so last week’s heritage commemorations would have you believe.

It’s been hard to miss the centenary of that football truce on the Western Front, and it’s been heartwarming stuff. The spirit of Christmas soothes mankind’s savage breast, ordinary men default to goodwill and a kick-about when the chance arises, there’s a whiff of honourable conduct in the air… it’s all very Old World, very British, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Football Truce reflected the respectful politesse of a bygone age. Well maybe, but let’s balance the picture with a glance at what the Royal Navy was up to on Christmas Day 1914.

On the evening of 24 December, three converted cross-Channel steamers, HMS Engadine, HMS Empress and HMS Riviera, left Harwich for positions off the north German coast. Escorted by two light cruisers and ten destroyers, each steamer carried three Short seaplanes, which were lowered into the water some 70 miles from Germany early on Christmas morning. Replacing wheels with floats to create seaplanes was almost as old as flight itself, but taking off from anything but calm water was still a lottery and only seven of the aircraft managed the feat before flying on to celebrate the festive season by carrying out the world’s first naval air raid.

Their official mission was ‘air reconnaissance’ of German military installations in Heligoland, Cuxhaven and the major naval base at Wilhelmshaven, locations far beyond the range of any land-based Allied aircraft, but the Navy also hoped to bomb the coastal airfield at Nordholtz, just south of Cuxhaven, which housed the half dozen Zeppelins then being used as very effective support for German ground operations on the Western Front. The raid’s underlying purpose was a more strategically significant attempt to provoke the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet into leaving port, and ten British submarines had been stationed off the coast to ambush any warships coming out of Wilhelmshaven.

None of the above really worked. Gathering coastal mist prevented any of the seaplanes from finding Cuxhaven, let alone attacking Nordholtz, and they eventually dropped small bomb loads on Wilhelmshaven, inflicting minor damage on seaplane base, a cruiser and a submarine. Some valuable reconnaissance was carried out, and the bombing did provoke the battlecruiser Von Der Tann into evasive manoeuvres that ended in collision with a cruiser, but the High Seas Fleet wasn’t tempted out to sea. Meanwhile all seven Short seaplanes received hits from ground fire, and only two made it back to the British fleet, although all the aircrew involved came through the mission unscathed. The only two men not picked up by British ships were rescued by a Dutch trawler and interned in the Netherlands.

Though the Royal Navy’s Christmas present to Germany, known to posterity as the Cuxhaven Raid, failed in almost every practical respect, its long-term influence was both significant and malign. Trumpeted by the British as a technical triumph, it confirmed the potential of naval air power to both sides, prompting rapid improvements in coastal anti-aircraft defences and encouraging the development of genuine aircraft carriers during the next few years. The raid also encouraged advocates of long-range strategic bombing, adding weight to the theory that aerial attacks on civilian or infrastructural targets could bring an enemy to its knees, while the outrage it caused in Berlin has been credited with influencing the German High command’s decision to use Zeppelins against Allied cities in 1915.

So that was a Merry Christmas from the Royal Navy, scaring a lot of people and giving a mighty leg-up to the theory that would see civilians bombed into oblivion all over the world to no real strategic effect for the next thirty years. Then again, the Navy was merely adhering to Britain’s military policy of the day and demonstrating aggression, essentially for its own sake and in defiance of any seasonal lull in the fighting. The same thinking, designed to keep the nation in warlike mood and the enemy on his toes, lay behind the British Army’s continuous trench raids all along the Western Front that winter, and the military’s stern disapproval of pacifist episodes like the football match.

Did the War take a Christmas pause? Not really, and not if the British had anything to do with it.

18 DECEMBER, 1914: Sand Grab

A hundred years ago today the British Empire announced a formal protectorate over the Ottoman province of Egypt.  This came as no surprise to contemporary observers, given that the two empires were at war, that Constantinople was in no position to impose its will on Egypt and that the country was immensely valuable to Britain, not only as a central base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations, but also as the host nation of the Suez Canal.   What might have surprised them was the long-term impact of British rule on a nation edging towards independence from Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire’s control over Egypt had been a matter of form rather than substance at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleon led a French army (and a boatload of scholars) across the Mediterranean and occupied the country, only to be expelled by the British a few years later. The two nations had competed for influence over a virtually autonomous Egypt through much of the nineteenth century, but construction of the Suez Canal (aka the massive shortcut to India) had changed the stakes. Using endemic tribal warfare on Egypt’s southern and western frontiers as an excuse, Britain had placed the country under what amounted to military occupation in the 1880s.

This was still the situation in 1914. Though Egypt was nominally ruled by a hereditary Khedive under the auspices of the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive and his council of ministers took orders on all military, foreign and economic affairs from the British consul-general. That post, held by Lord Kitchener from 1911 until he became British War Minister in August 1914, came with its fair share of problems. Libya and the Sudan remained chronically unstable, requiring periodic military intervention to quell uprisings, while nationalist movements were gaining strength within Egypt. The Legislative Assembly, a quasi-representative body established in 1913, was virulently anti-British, as was the devoutly pro-Ottoman Khedive, Abbas Himli.

Egypt’s strategic importance as a military base and a trade route was instantly multiplied by the outbreak of war.  The British government would have liked nothing better than an immediate takeover and the ruthless suppression of dissident elements, but for the first few months of the conflict it was unwilling to do anything that might provoke the Ottoman Empire into siding with the Central Powers. The result was chaos in Cairo, as Turkish neutrality prevented the deportation of some 70,000 Germans and Austrians resident in Egypt and the country became a seething hotbed of international intrigue.

As soon as Turkey entered the war in early November, British forces were free to impose martial law and dissolve the Assembly.  On 19 December, one day after the country’s effective annexation,Abbas Himli was deposed and replaced as Khedive by his pro-British uncle, Husein Kemal.  Egypt remained firmly in British hands, governed by a High Commissioner appointed in London, for the rest of the War.

Nationalist agitation still simmered in Egypt but with little practical effect before 1918, and the largely native Egyptian Army spent most of the War dealing with tribal unrest on the frontiers. Meanwhile the Royal Navy made use of Alexandria as a port, and imperial ground forces came and went en route for campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Though Egyptian forces never fought overseas for the British, in line with a promise made at the start of the Protectorate, a volunteer Egyptian Labour Corps provided 120,000 men for support services on the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts, and the country’s agricultural resources suffered heavy exploitation.

Four years of war as a British possession did nothing to encourage political stability in Egypt, but did establish the Wafd Party as the political voice of nationalist opposition. Wafd objections to British control of the Canal Zone were the main stumbling block to dissolution of the Protectorate after 1918, and though formal independence was eventually granted in 1922 it was little more than a facade disguising continued military occupation. Even after the occupation was ended by treaty in 1936 the British maintained occupying forces around the Canal, and they remained in place until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Whichever way you look at it, Britain’s annexation of Egypt in December 1914 had serious, long-term warping effects on that country’s social, economic and political future, with momentous consequences that are still being felt by the world as a whole. So while we mull over the Football Truce, or consider the continuous, costly and futile attacks still taking place all along the Western Front, let’s spare a seasonal thought for the geopolitical havoc being brewed by the British in the Middle East.

10 DECEMBER, 1914: Fame, Faith and Failure

A week or two back, I mentioned that winter warfare in Europe was restricted by weather conditions, an obvious fact illustrated by the entrenched stalemate that had infested both the Western and Eastern Fronts by mid-December 1914. There were many good reasons for this – weather-related transport problems, the battlefield chaos caused by mud and shortage of daylight hours, to name just a few – but one man was determined to ignore them all. That man was Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French Army’s Chief of Staff and de facto field commander, and he chose 10 December 1914 as the opening day of the biggest Allied offensive of the War to date.

Generally known as the First Champagne Offensive (two more were to follow in 1915 and 1918), it began around the town of Perthes but eventually spread all along the northern and central sections of the Western Front. Intended to remove two German-held bulges (or salients) from the front line, the campaign achieved absolutely nothing during four months of attrition, and cost the French army some 90,000 men. It did provide conclusive evidence that well-constructed defensive positions held an unbeatable advantage in the contemporary technological climate, a fact already quite clear to many observers, but Joffre went on to mount similar offensives with grimly similar results all through 1915.  Why?

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Warfare could get slow in the snow…

On the whole I don’t subscribe to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ school of remembrance. Most generals on the Western Front and elsewhere were not brilliant but nor were they stupid. Commanders on both sides were dealing with unprecedentedly huge conscript armies in unprecedented conditions that demanded attack, when the state of military and infrastructural technology made defence the only sustainable option. On the other hand, and particularly during the War’s early stages, some important commanders can be accused of blind faith in military theory, of refusal to accept its manifest failure and of autocratic deafness to alternatives. Nobody fits this unfortunate bill more completely than Joffre.

An engineer with an unspectacular career in colonial warfare behind him, Joffre was a consensus choice as Chief of Staff in 1911. Already approaching sixty, he proved a true, arguably fanatical believer in the French Army’s sacred role as the sword of national redemption, and in its prevailing military doctrine of attack, attack and attack. A stern, magisterial presence, armoured by an utter contempt for politicians and politics, he lobbied aggressively for increased military budgets, purged the Army of ‘defensively minded’ officers and developed an unshakeable faith in the prospects of the Army’s offensive strategy for the inevitable war against Germany, Plan Seventeen.

A natural offspring of fanatically attack-minded strategists, Plan Seventeen assumed that all-out, passionate offensive spirit was the key to victory, and came a spectacular cropper in the early weeks of August 1914. True to his faith, Joffre kept driving his generals forward into Germany, convinced that sweeping conquest was only a sufficiently dashing attack away, until the German invasion of France had all but succeeded to his rear. Luck and German mistakes, along with his attack-minded opportunism and that of senior subordinates, enabled Joffre to save Paris and his job at the Marne in September, a victory for which he took full credit and the mantle of national hero.

After the Marne Joffre was untouchable, and knew it. He dropped any pretext at consulting civilian authorities, deliberately kept politicians and the public uninformed about the military position or his own plans, and took complete control of the French struggle on the Western Front. Charging up and down the front line in his high-powered automobile, swooping on individual units without warning (and often staying for a full, two-hour lunch), he was an autocrat unfettered – and he still believed that total victory was just a matter of attacking the enemy with sufficient verve and audacity. The French term for this was élan, and through the succession of failed attacks that saw fixed trench lines established from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier, Joffre remained convinced that a little more of it would do the trick next time. This was still his view in December.

There can come a point when belief in a theory is no longer a matter of choice, because the consequences of disproving the theory are too terrible to contemplate. It may well be that, having already sacrificed so many lives, Joffre was psychologically incapable of writing them off as a mistake, and it was certainly the case that nobody in Paris or the Army possessed the authority to prevent the Saviour of France from a policy of semi-permanent, all-out offensive warfare.  Joffre would fling his troops at German defences again and again, winning nothing and learning nothing, until he was eventually replaced in late 1916, after the ghastly, ten-month carnage of Verdun had exposed his neglect of defensive preparations.  Even then his public popularity required the government to promote him to the largely honorific post of Marshal of France.

So yes, the generals deserve at least some of the blame they’ve been taking from posterity, but men like Joffre were a type of officer found at the start of every major conflict: commanders unable to forget lessons from the last war. Their infamy has been compounded by the facts that the previous major war had been forty years ago, that technology had transformed the battlefield in the meantime, and that sociopolitical changes had drastically raised the numbers of potential casualties involved. Even the big difference between Joffre and his peers at the Great War’s command posts – his absolute power to apply the wrong lessons on a stupendously grand scale – was as much a product of peculiarities in French society as of one man’s personal failings.

3 DECEMBER, 1914: Disastrous Victories

The Battle of the Kolubara River began a hundred years ago today, a six-day carnage in northern Serbia that ended the third and final Austro-Hungarian invasion of the country in 1914. So let’s talk about Serbia and its war to date.

Serbia was yet another of Europe’s new countries, having gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Its twentieth-century character had been defined by a coup d’état in 1903, when King Alexander was assassinated and the Karadjordjevic dynasty, in the person of King Peter I, was installed in its place. The King ruled through an appointed cabinet that answered to a National Assembly (Skuptshina) directly elected by all male taxpayers and dominated by moderate liberals.

The regime’s home policies broadly reflected this political preference but its foreign policy, heavily influenced by the military, was aggressively expansionist and committed to the establishment of a pan-Slav state. In practical terms this meant seeking access to the Adriatic through Albania, and control over the rest of what would one day be Yugoslavia through absorption or federation. Tiny, independent Montenegro aside, all these places were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires in 1914, and this fact alone pretty much guaranteed diplomatic support for Serbia from Russia.

Russian support had been crucial to Serbian success in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. While St. Petersburg’s guarantees kept other European powers from intervening, Serbia almost doubled it size and raised its population to around 4.5 million. You couldn’t call these secure or stable gains, given that the entire region – including Bulgaria, Greece and Rumania – was soon gearing up for another territorial merry-go-round, but Serbia made an alliance with Greece to counterbalance the threat of Bulgarian dissatisfaction with the 1913 peace, and went right on trying to expand.

A nice, simple regional map of the  Balkan mess in 1914.
A nice, simple regional map of the Balkan mess in 1914.

Belgrade had been encouraging pan-Slav separatist movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia since 1903. Both were semi-autonomous states within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until the latter seized full control of Bosnia in 1908, after which rising tension between Vienna and Belgrade found red hot focus in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. By June 1914 Sarajevo was ready to blow, and the assassination of visiting Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, an act so famous you don’t need me to describe it, lit the touch paper.  Some controversy still hangs around the question of whether or not the Serbian government planned the killing. It didn’t, as evidenced by its desperate attempt to stave off war in answering Vienna’s subsequent ultimatum, but the Black Hand did.

The Black Hand was a hard-line nationalist organisation with strong military links and fingers in every other important Serbian pie, essentially a state within a state. It had engineered a political crisis that forced King Peter to pass executive power to his son, Alexander, on 14 June, and an election to legitimise the change was underway when the Archduke died. The killing was in line with Black Hand ambitions to goad Vienna into an aggressive act that would bring Russia to war, allowing Serbia to profit from a wider conflict’s fallout, and this pragmatic policy reflected the basic fact that Serbia couldn’t hope to win a war against an industrial power.

An overwhelmingly rural society, landlocked and essentially tribal in its outlying regions, Serbia possessed few mineral or other industrial resources.  A mere 10,000 Serbs were engaged in industrial manufacture, almost all of them in Belgrade (itself a primitive backwater compared to major European capitals), and the economy was largely dependent on exports of food and hides to Germany, Austria and Turkey. All Serbia’s fuel, arms and other military necessities were imported overland, using the navigable Danube, poor roads or the country’s only two railway lines, which linked Belgrade with Sofia and Constantinople. Meanwhile its army could muster a maximum of some 350,000 men, most of them ill equipped and overage, and was hardly the instrument to fulfil the leadership’s grandiose ambitions.

So Serbia was relying on outside help, and despite the government’s initial fears the Black Hand felt pretty confident about getting it . Meanwhile the Serbian population, fuelled by years of racially based propaganda (as were Austrians on the other side of the frontier), rushed to battle with the same confident enthusiasm displayed in Berlin, London and Paris when war came at the end of July.  Disaster beckoned.

Help didn’t arrive. As the diplomatic dominoes crumbled and massed armies collided all over Europe, none of Serbia’s allies against the Central Powers could spare the resources to provide significant support, and Serbia (along with Montenegro) was forced to face Austro-Hungarian invasion alone. What followed was a brilliant series of defensive campaigns, under the skilled command of General Putnik and carried out by troops familiar with the mountainous terrain.

By the time he launched a counterattack against Austrian positions at the Kolubara, Putnik had repelled two ineptly executed invasions in August and September, and made a tactical retreat before a third in November, giving up Belgrade to enemy occupation on 2 December.   The counterattack struck at fatigued troops, and after two days of heavy fighting Austrian forces began retreating back towards the frontier. Serbian forces recaptured the nearby town of Valyevo on 6 December, and the invaders re-crossed the frontier at the Drina three days later, at which point Putnik’s exhausted army gave up the pursuit.

Serbian troops crossing the Kolubara River. It took a while.

The third invasion had cost the Austrians more than 225,000 troops, but the drain on victorious Serbian forces was more significant. The country had acted as a nation in arms, sparking reprisals by Austrian occupiers no less gruesome than those inflicted on Belgium by occupying German armies, and losses of some 180,000 men during the year could not be replaced. Still denied any material support by the Allies (although Britain did provide money for the purchase of supplies), the battered, exhausted rump of the Serbian Army could only spend the winter huddled in its fastnesses, desperately short of food, medicines and all other military necessities, while typhus spread through the ranks.

Driven by soaring ambition at the heart of its body politic, Serbia had gambled on war and lost, but seemed to have got away with it at the end of 1914. The year to come would bring a terrible reckoning.