31 JANUARY ,1915: GAS!

Here in Britain, populist history of the First World War paints a simple picture chemical warfare. Poison gas was a terrifying, volatile weapon that never lived up to its reputation as a game-changer and made no strategic difference to anything. Its use was a classic symptom of the modern brutality foisted upon the world by the Great War, and yet another example of the clumsy desperation displayed by contemporary commanders. Gas shouldn’t have been used, and might not have been if the dastardly Germans hadn’t broken international law to start the ball rolling.

This analysis contains plenty of truth, most of it obvious, but the overall picture contains more than a hint of poppycock. So on the centenary of the German Army’s first large-scale battlefield deployment of gas, at Bolimov in what is now Poland, here’s a brief but sober look at what chemical warfare actually meant in 1915.

It meant gas and flamethrowers. Flamethrowers were a German invention, developed since the turn of the century, regularly deployed by the middle of 1915 and eventually copied by the British for limited use in the latter stages of the War on the Western Front. Gas had been around a lot longer – the Chinese had used arsenic smoke as a weapon almost three thousand years earlier – and had become a matter of serious international concern with the growth of mass-producing chemicals industries during the nineteenth century. Although outlawed by the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907, agreements ratified by every major power except the USA, the use of poison gas was still a matter of live argument in 1914.

Washington’s official view, espoused by Admiral Mahan, its chief delegate at the Hague and an isolationist nation’s apostle of military preparedness, was that no international agreement should be allowed to restrict the USA’s technological or military enterprise, but the real debate centred on the morality of gas attacks.  The argument that poisonous gas was a  weapon too barbarous for use by civilised people won the day in peacetime, but every armed nation embraced a strand of opinion, usually though not always military, that saw no real difference between gassing people and shooting them or blowing them to bits.  Once war broke out they had their day.

Both sides on the Western Front attempted small-scale experiments with canisters of irritant gas during the autumn of 1914, as the defensive superiority of trench warfare became evident and forced a search for radical methods of attack, but discovered that small amounts of tear gas weren’t even noticed by troops on a modern battlefield. On 31 January 1915 the German Ninth Army on the Eastern Front repeated the experiment on a much larger scale, firing 18,000 shells containing canisters of tear gas (xyxyl bromide) at Russian troops defending Borimov.

The German attack, a preliminary to a major offensive around the Masurian Lakes, in the northern sector of the Eastern Front, was a total failure. Cold weather meant most of the gas fell harmlessly to the ground, changing winds sent some of the rest in the wrong direction and the small amounts that reached Russian forces had little effect. Tear gas was cheap and easy to mass produce, but after one more large-scale experiment in March at Nieuport, on the northern tip of the Western Front, the German High Command turned to lethal chlorine gas.

Germany’s first use of chlorine, against French colonial troops at Ypres in April, signalled the beginning of chemical warfare in earnest. The British began their own attacks in September, and by 1916 both sides on the Western Front were adding poison gases to artillery shells as a matter of course.

Gas always terrified those in its path and sometimes caused utter panic, but its strategic impact was very limited. Changeable weather always made its use a risky business, and when successful it delayed or prevented advance into affected areas. Countermeasures meanwhile improved rapidly to provide reasonably effective protection in the form of gas masks, but were heavily dependent on rapid detection and therefore less useful against another German innovation introduced near Riga in 1917 – mustard gas.

Of all the poisonous chemicals deployed by both sides, none was more effective as a shock weapon than mustard gas, which could be used in tiny, undetectable quantities and produced powerful but delayed effects. Its relative success has come to represent wartime gas attacks, the terror they caused and the suffering of their victims, for posterity, while sealing Germany’s popular reputation as the villain of the piece.

The Germans were quicker than the Entente powers to exploit the potential of chemical warfare, were perhaps more ready than their enemies to ignore international law in the process, and were arguably more ruthless in its execution.  None of that alters the fact that the British and French were more than willing to do the same thing, or erases the suspicion that the long-term effects of propaganda have something to do with our heritage history’s acceptance of German guilt.

Gas was and still is frightening. While other weapons initially deplored as barbarous and greeted with blind terror – aerial bombing, mines and torpedoes spring to mind – have passed into modern definitions of conventional warfare, chemical warfare has remained in the realm of nightmares, outlawed and despised the world over. Perhaps this twist of human psychology explains why the gas attacks presaged on the last day of January 1915 are treated by today’s heritage industries very much as they were by British propaganda at the time, as German-inspired barbarism, when they were in fact a symptom of the age, implemented with greater determination by the most efficient fighting nation of the age.

24 JANUARY, 1915: Ruling The Waves… Quietly

I was going to talk about the United States today, a hundred years on from Secretary of State Bryan’s letter refuting claims by the Central Powers that Washington was favouring the Entente. Then again, better opportunities to discuss the USA are going to crop up later, so I’ll make one small point and move on. This is it.

The Royal Navy had effectively prevented trade between the US and the Central Powers since the start of the War, while transatlantic business with the Entente powers was undergoing a prolonged and massive boom. Under the circumstances American traders either looked a world-historical gift horse in the mouth, or they favoured the only customers available. Bryan’s protestations may have been politically accurate – the US was neutral and on the whole committed to taking that position seriously – but British sea power rendered them meaningless in practical terms.

A reminder of the Royal Navy’s importance seems appropriate, because 24 January 1915 also produced that rare First World War phenomenon, a sea battle.

Fought in the middle of the North Sea, the Battle of the Dogger Bank wasn’t much of a battle, but then neither of the forces concerned – the Royal Navy’s home fleets and the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet – was remotely interested in fighting a major action unless they were quite sure of winning. In fact this extended skirmish bore the hallmarks of a publicity stunt, in that it was indirectly promoted by the need for hugely expensive navies to look as if they were doing something.

It looks unfair with hindsight, given that the Royal Navy was performing vital war work all over the world, but the Admiralty was getting a lot of stick from British politicians, press and public by the end of 1914. Its biggest and best warships, widely regarded as invincible before the War, had spent most of the last few months sitting quietly in home ports, and when daring to venture out had suffered a number of high-profile losses to mines and torpedoes. For all its enormous and controversial cost, the Navy had not apparently hastened the War to an early conclusion and, most damning of all in the public mind, it hadn’t even neutralised the manifest (and massively hyped) threat of the German High Seas Fleet, itself largely confined to brooding in its bases. When Admiral Hipper’s squadron of five fast, modern battlecruisers came out of Germany in December 1914, bombarded the English east coast and escaped scot free, popular disappointment in the Royal Navy turned to outrage.

The Navy, thus far reasonably content for its home fleets to act as successful deterrents, decided it had better do something. Five equally quick British battlecuisers under Admiral Beatty were moved south from Cromarty in northern Scotland to Rosyth.  Here’s a map, nicked form the Net and removable on request, by way of making the geography clear.


When the Navy’s secret decoding unit, known as Room 40, reported that four of Hipper’s squadron (one had been put temporarily out of action by Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas Day) were to mount a second raid, Beatty’s force steamed out to ambush it on the evening of 23 January. Accompanied by six light cruisers, and later joined by cruisers and destroyers from Harwich, they made first contact with light forces screening Hipper’s battlecruisers at 7.20 next morning. In the belief that he was facing dreadnoughts, slower but with bigger guns, Hipper ran for home, but the miscalculation allowed Beatty’s ships to get within firing range by nine o’clock, and the two forces began exchanging gunfire in parallel lines half an hour later.

Despite some confusion in their signalling, the British drew first blood, damaging the Seydlitz and bringing the older Blücher to a virtual standstill, but concentrated German fire had brought Beatty’s flagship, the Lion, to a stop by eleven o’clock. At this point a phantom submarine sighting and fear of a possible minefield persuaded Beatty to withdraw his main force, and an attempt to send his most powerful ships in further pursuit of Hipper’s out-gunned squadron was thwarted by another bout of bad signalling, which sent them instead to gather round and finish off the Blücher. With the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet – ordered to sea from Scapa Flow as something of an afterthought – still more than 200 kilometres to the north, the chance of a major victory was lost, and Hipper got home without further interruption.

Both sides trumpeted the battle as a victory – and reacted as if beaten. High Seas Fleet commander Ingelhohl, blamed for not providing Hipper with direct support, was replaced in February, and Beatty’s second-in-command was transferrred to the Canary Islands. And although British propaganda gave a narrow points victory enough lustre to assuage public opinion in the immediate aftermath, the engagement later became part of popular history’s case against the wartime Royal Navy for bumbling incompetence and reluctance to fight.

There is something to be said for the argument. British signalling had been poor, and would remain a problem because the lessons of the January North Sea were not learned, but charges of reluctance to fight, unlike those levelled at Navy commanders chasing the Goeben back in August, are unjustified.

For all that Beatty, Hipper and their superiors would take a major naval victory, they were also aware that pursuit of one risked something much more strategically valuable.

For the British, maintaining deterrent status around home waters was enough, so long as the Navy was carrying out its role guarding trade and blockading enemy ports. Losing that status would be a disaster. For the High Seas Fleet, its mere existence kept a disproportionally enormous weight of British sea power occupied, and a major defeat might unleash all those dreadnoughts into the wider War. When the stakes are thousands of lives, ships so expensive they dominated national economies and the strategic balance of power in the war to end wars, perhaps posterity should forgive a little caution.

18 JANUARY, 1915: Statements of Intent

A century ago, out on the eastern edge of England and under cover of darkness, low-flying German Zeppelins dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn, killing one or two residents in each and raising the curtain on a means of waging war that would blight much of the twentieth century.

You probably won’t hear much about the curse of ‘strategic’ or ‘area’ bombing from the heritage industry, or about the mounting enthusiasm for air attacks on civilian targets among military strategists all over Europe, and especially in Britain. Media consumers will, however, be seeing and hearing plenty about the raids themselves, the towns affected and the feelings of those involved, as reported by subsequent generations, so I’ll leave the eastern edge of England for now and turn instead to the eastern edge of the world.

I mentioned back in August that Japan, governed by a militarist, expansionist regime, treated the First World War as an opportunity to learn modern methods of warfare and to get in a little empire building while Europe’s big guns were busy elsewhere. Though in theory on the side of its European ally, Great Britain, and therefore able to seize the German enclave of Tsingtao on the Chinese coast, Japan’s interest in the wider war was purely notional. Like most relatively marginal belligerents, it had joined the conflict for gain – and the thing Japan most wanted to gain was control over China.

China was a mess. A nationalist regime had deposed the child emperor in 1912, but with warlords or rival parties in control of most provinces the new government’s writ never ran far beyond the area around Peking (as Beijing was then known to Europeans). Meanwhile the Empire’s vast territories were being chipped away by the incursions of major European powers, all of which had established well-defended coastal enclaves for trading purposes during the nineteenth century, and by Japan.

A victorious war in the mid-1890s had enabled Japan to detach Korea and the island of Formosa (Taiwan) from Chinese control, and to establish a dominant economic presence in the sprawling northeastern province of Manchuria. Once any danger of Russian rivalry had been eliminated by naval victory in 1904, Japan made no secret of its ambition to gobble up more of China, and was ready to act by the end of 1914.  On 18 January 1915, the Japanese government presented its Chinese counterpart with a list of grievances, known to history as the Twenty-One Demands, to be settled immediately on pain of war.

The Demands required China to stop leasing coastal enclaves to European powers, to give up effective control of both Manchuria and Shantung (Shandong) provinces, to permit Japanese part-ownership of Chinese heavy industries, and to accept Japanese ‘advisors’ at almost every level of government.  Barely surviving amid what amounted to internal chaos, the nationalist Chinese government could only accept the terms, although negotiations dragged on until May and British intervention prevented the appointment of Japanese advisors.

The Twenty-One Demands created a worldwide sensation at the time, and were generally viewed as a naked power grab. As anticipated in Tokyo, the major European states were too busy to do more than express disapproval, but the Demands did significantly heighten suspicion of Japan among politicians, soldiers and businessmen in the neutral United States. As such, they contributed to the momentous build up of naval and economic competition in the Pacific that would explode into warfare in 1941, but from a Chinese perspective they were merely a stage in a fifty-year war with Japan that would continue with barely a pause until 1945.

This was important stuff, helping shape the geopolitical landscape of the Second World War, and warping the economic and political development of China in ways that are still being played out. There is an argument that the entire first half of the twentieth century was one long world war, in which case China’s prolonged struggle for efficient self-determination could be seen as its defining tumult. Maybe not, but for all the long-term significance of bombs over Yarmouth, the world’s big story this time last century was the Twenty-One Demands.

11 JANUARY, 1915: A Small Great War

What with the January blues, the occasional misery that comes with supporting Tottenham and a cold that kept me out of the best Sunday league game this season, Poppycock hasn’t got the units to get overly creative with one of the First World War’s duller weeks. Instead, and as a change from stressing the War’s essential modernity, let’s give a passing mention to the action known as the Battle of Muscat, which reached its climax on 11 January 1915. A sideshow within a sideshow, fought for the security of a tiny Persian Gulf state, it was a very small battle and a reminder that, outside Europe, a whole lot of warfare was taking place in nineteenth-century conditions.

The port of Muscat is now the capital of Oman and the main city of the governate of Muscat, a coastal enclave that behaved like a separate state in the years before the War. Its ruler since 1913, Sultan Taimur, presided over a mediaeval system of government and was the fourth successive Sultan of Muscat to prosper as a client of the British. Control over Muscat was strategically important to the British Empire, first and foremost as a vital source of oil for British machines, but also as the centre of a trade in small arms that linked India with East Africa and had once put rifles in the hands of many a rebel against British rule. So the Royal Navy kept a watchful eye on Muscat, a British political agent was positioned close to the Sultan, a small garrison of British Indian Army troops protected the port, and plenty of money was provided to pay the Sultan’s expenses.

Speaks for itself…

Even before the outbreak of war in Europe, Muscat’s wealth had provoked angry resentment in Imam Salin bin Rashid al Kharusi, ruler of poverty-stricken Oman, theoretical overlord of Muscat and, when it suited him, loyal servant of the Ottoman Empire. By late 1914, the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with the Central Powers, a jihad against the British issued from Constantinople, and German financial assistance had persuaded the Imam to mount an attack.

The key to defending Muscat from inland attack was the fort at Bait Al Falaj, which lay about a mile from the coast and guarded the river and valley leading to the port. The Sultan’s small tribal army was stationed there, along with a detachment of Indian Army regulars. After this combined force repelled a preliminary attack in October 1914, six companies of infantry and two machine guns were sent from India as reinforcements, most of them Sikh troops, so that British strength in Muscat was up to 1,000 men by the time the Imam made his bid for conquest in January.

During 10 January, in a scene straight out of a Fifties colonial movie, large (if indeterminate) numbers of Omani warriors gathered a mile or so from the fort. Variously armed with swords and rifles, protected by shields made of East African hippopotamus hide and working up a noisy collective fervour for jihad, they attacked at two the following morning, charging the fort’s outposts and seizing a piquet to its northwest side.  British and sultanate forces launched a counterattack at dawn, and by noon they had systematically driven the Omanis back into the hinterland.

British Indian troops would go on fighting their mini-campaign in defence of Muscat throughout the War, but the victory at Bait Al Falaj kept things quiet for a time. The loss of some 300 dead, against a handful of casualties among the defenders, forced the Imam to rethink his tactics and weaponry options on twentieth century lines before contributing further to the ongoing Ottoman campaign, sponsored by Berlin, to disrupt British interests in the Middle East.

What should have been called the Battle of Bait Al Falaj was renamed the Battle of Muscat so the British public – far more informed about the world’s physical geography than modern audiences – would know roughly where it had taken place.  Even in 1915 it was seen as a relatively quaint example of the colonial upheaval triggered all over the world by Europe’s Great War, and as a suitably old-fashioned affair. On the other hand it was also a product of Britain’s, and in particular the Royal Navy’s, determination to secure oil supplies, and the modern world has been living with that particular strategic novelty ever since.

2 JANUARY, 1915: Colonial Carnage

Into 1915 we go, and although the main European belligerents are busy preparing major assaults on fortified positions in Belgium, France and Galicia, none is destined to amount to much more than pointless slaughter. Meanwhile, in Africa, the majority of colonial business is done and dusted, with German possessions in Togoland, Cameroon and Southwest Africa either in Allied hands or on their last legs. There was, however, one theatre of war in sub-Saharan Africa just building into one of the most extraordinary campaigns in military history, a struggle that would still be in progress when the War ended in 1918 and that was already developing some very curious characteristics.

I’m talking about the campaign in German East Africa, a four-year catalogue of military brilliance, doughty defence and escalating madness that makes most fictional adventures look tame by comparison. My excuse for beginning the story at this particular moment – apart from the obvious truth that nothing much was going on elsewhere at the time – is that on 2 January 1915 two elderly British warships, the battleship HMS Goliath and the cruiser HMS Fox, bombarded Dar-Es-Salaam for the second time in a matter of weeks. Putting that event in context should provide a background briefing to the campaign as a whole, and free up the brain for regular trips to the region during the next few years.

Covering modern Burundi, Rwanda and mainland Tanzania – about a million square kilometres – East Africa was far and away the most successful German colony in 1914. A liberal development policy had provided some 7.65 million Africans (divided into more than 100 tribes) with levels of education and health care that were the envy of the continent, while a highly successful agricultural programme meant the colony was known as the ‘breadbasket of Africa’. The German regime, led by about 5,350 Europeans with the help of some 11,000 Asian immigrants, all concentrated in the north of the country, had also built two important railways leading from the coast to the interior.

War in Europe threatened to ruin the colony, which was surrounded by territories and offshore islands in Allied hands, and particularly menaced by British East Africa to the north. A map seems in order, so here’s one I borrowed earlier (and will remove on request). It doesn’t include the second railway, leading inland from Tanga, which had only just been completed when the War began.


The German army in East Africa was about the same size as the British force to the north, but in better shape. Its 2,472 African troops (known to Europeans as ‘Askaris’) were led by 260 Europeans, supported by 31 obsolete artillery pieces and backed by a predominantly African gendarmerie of some 2.200 men. They were better trained and paid than the 2,300 men of the King’s African Rifles in British East African service, and they were concentrated in the north of the country while British forces (mustering only 62 European personnel) were scattered around in small clumps, with only 150 men stationed at Nairobi. The British nevertheless possessed one enormous tactical advantage in the Royal Navy’s complete dominance of offshore waters, which meant they could reinforce and resupply at will while denying the same to German forces. Under the circumstances, it was no real surprise that governor Schlee of German East Africa preferred peace in 1914.

Schlee and governor Belfield of British East Africa, both more concerned with colonial wellbeing than imperial strategy, agreed in August to a policy of mutual neutrality, and a passing British cruiser arranged a non-aggression pact with German authorities at Tanga and Dar-es-Salaam. The pact was promptly denounced by the Royal Navy, while the German military commander in East Africa, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, simply ignored Schlee’s wishes and went straight onto the attack.

Lettow-Vorbeck armed a German steamer to take control of Lake Tanganyika, before invading north towards Mombasa with 500 men in late September, and taking the town of Tavita before superior defensive numbers forced a retreat. Two attempts to move south into British Northern Rhodesia, in September and November, also failed, but Lettow-Vorbeck’s wider aim of distracting as many Allied resources as possible from other theatres met with immediate success.

Encouraged by an easy West African victory in Togoland, London authorised the conquest of German East Africa in August, and had sent 12,000 troops from India to Mombasa by mid-October. Their commander, General Aitken, launched his ill-equipped reservists into attacks across the border and against the port of Tanga in early November, but both failed, and later in the month a desultory naval bombardment of Dar-es-Salaam achieved little more than a fatal weakening of Schlee’s pacifist arguments against Lettow-Vorbeck.

After another, equally unproductive bombardment of Dar-es-Salaam on 2 January, Lettow-Vorbeck mounted one last attack – a hard-fought engagement on 18–19 January around the coastal border town of Jassin – before deciding to concentrate on defence. Expanding his forces with reserves and volunteers, dividing them into highly mobile southern and northern sections, salvaging heavy artillery and pretty much everything else from the Königsberg (a modern German cruiser trapped in the nearby Rufugi Delta that will make for a tale of its own at a later date), and organising the country’s food supplies to cope with blockade, he embarked on a guerilla campaign that would keep increasing numbers of British troops and warships occupied until after the Armistice in 1918.

During the next few years I’ll be returning to the genius of Lettow-Vorbeck from time to time, to the extraordinary durability of the German colony, and to the ever-expanding, increasingly frustrated and sometimes downright eccentric British efforts to establish control over eastern Africa. It’s quite a story, and it’s unlikely to gather many headlines from the commemorative industry – but while reviving memories of dash and derring-do let’s not forget that this was an unnecessary campaign, fought for marginal European interests in defiance of African needs, that effectively wrecked a nation and caused tens of thousands of casualties.  Colonial mission?  Yeah, right…