28 MARCH, 1915: Spring Fever

The way European wars used to be conducted – by people, and outdoors – spring and autumn were the peak fighting seasons. These were the seasons when extreme weather was least likely to interfere with the process, and when it was easiest for armies to live off the land, so offensive military planning through the ages timed its opening gambits for when the ice had melted or the harvest had been gathered.

The innate optimism that comes with emergence from winter hibernation, and the fact that high summer is less of a dangerous overshoot than deep winter, probably explain why spring campaigns have tended to be more ambitious than their autumn counterparts, and more eagerly anticipated by those in the know. The spring campaigns of 1915, as planned by all the main European belligerents, were the most eagerly anticipated military actions in history, both because mass literacy meant more people than ever before were in the know, and because everyone in the know expected the year’s spring offensives to bring the greatest war ever seen to a final decision.

On the Eastern and Western Fronts, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, French and British armies were swelling, straining economies were producing more and bigger guns, and generals were plotting massed assaults that would surely, this time, overwhelm enemy resistance by their sheer scale. The Russians had started the seasonal ball rolling by finally capturing the besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl (and claiming 120,000 Habsburg prisoners) on 22 March, but this was the culmination of a long, painstaking campaign, essentially a leftover from 1914, and as the month drew to a close the mass-communicated world was braced for the hammer blows to come.

But while the Great Powers of Europe prepared to applaud the predicted sacrifice of lives by the hundred thousand, the wider world was getting worked up about a practice that occasionally killed a few hundred people. On 28 March, 80 kilometres off the coast of St. David’s Head in Wales, the German submarine U-28 torpedoed and sank the SS Falaba, a British passenger and cargo vessel bound for West Africa, killing 104 of the 240 people on board and igniting a powder keg of global outrage that had been waiting to blow since Germany’s introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare a couple of weeks before.

The modern public mind thinks of U-boats as a Second World War phenomenon, but though First World War submarines were relatively few in number – not to mention slow, unreliable, of limited range, able to carry only a few weapons and operated by crews working in cramped, hot, airless, sometimes poisonous conditions – they punched well above their weight and had a huge impact on contemporary public thinking.

Because submarines were new and terrifyingly sneaky by the standards of the day, they appalled the world at large and attracted condemnation as a barbaric weapon. And once the German Navy gave its U-boats licence to attack anything found leaving or approaching Britain, they became the most emotive wartime issue facing neutral states the world over, because civilians, neutral citizens and ultimately neutral ships were also put at risk. Risk became reality when the Falada went down.

The U-28 had surfaced and warned the Falada of its impending destruction, but given the casualty figures the world preferred to believe a British claim that the U-boat’s captain had opened fire a mere five minutes later, over German insistence that the Falada was given a full 23 minutes’ grace. Even more seriously for German diplomacy, the dead included neutrals, and although the demise of a substantial (though uncertain) number of Africans on board passed without comment at the time, the death of a single American mining engineer, Leon Thresher, did enormous damage to Germany’s reputation across the Atlantic. The incident dominated headlines in the United States, was denounced as ‘a massacre’, ‘murder’ and ‘an act of piracy’, and brought the first demands – ignored for now by the Wilson administration – for war against Germany.

On the bright side for the German Navy, which could never muster more than six of the floating death traps to patrol British waters at any given time, the practical effects of U-boats were almost as sensational as their diplomatic impact. By the end of March they had sunk some 85,000 tons of British shipping. They hadn’t come close to starving Britain, but they had certainly alarmed the world’s great sea trader and would continue to be a substantial thorn in the British Empire’s side during the next few months.  So, two weeks in and the economic war at sea is hotting up, but on balance it’s currently doing Germany a little more harm than good.

As a postscript, by way of illustrating the fragility of Great War submarines and because it’s a good story, it’s worth mentioning that Fate eventually got her own back on the U-28, which dispatched forty ships before being sunk on 2 September 1917. Official records merely state that the submarine was caught in the blast when its last victim, the British armed steamer Olive Branch, exploded – but another source claims that the exploding steamer sent a truck flying into the air, which landed on the U-boat and sank it.  The world of 1915 may have seen U-boat crews as arch-villains, but they suffered and died in conditions that ranked with most terrible thrown up by a terrible war.


19 MARCH, 1915: New Labour

A word about the British home front seems appropriate, because it’s been a hundred years since the government of the day and most of the principal trades unions came to an agreement that changed the face of the nation.  Known as the Treasury Agreement, it guaranteed the unions better pay and working conditions in return for accepting a non-strike agreement and ‘dilution’ of the workforce with unskilled labour.

The Agreement’s greatest significance lay not in the details, which you can look up if you need them, or even in the vital stimulus it gave to Britain’s wartime industrial capacity, but in formal recognition by the government that the unions were essential partners in the national war effort. Given that a considerable chunk of the pre-War political establishment regarded organised labour as a dangerous, potentially revolutionary force, bent on disrupting and capable of scuppering any war effort, this constituted a seismic shift in attitudes on both sides of the sociopolitical fence. It was also a permanent shift, redefining British industrial relations forever.

The catalysts for change were pretty basic. When war came, international socialism’s militant pacifism evaporated overnight, and ‘revolutionary’ workers in Britain (and all over Europe) were instantly transformed into fighting patriots. Once the War was fully underway, the government discovered that ‘business as usual’ – the slogan of the day that encapsulated its spectatorial attitude to the economy in 1914 – wasn’t anything like enough to supply a conflict lasting more than a few weeks.  The door was open for a new kind of dialogue.

The Liberal government had taken on wide emergency powers in early August 1914 under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), but in the spirit of laissez-faire it had been reluctant to use them for anything but absolute necessities, i.e. controlling the railways and the supply of (scarce) imported sugar.  By the end of the year this approach was failing badly, as a rush to enlistment inflicted random losses on the nation’s skilled workforces just as demand for their labour went through the roof.

This was true in all sectors relating to military supply, but the crisis was most acute in the vitally important munitions industry.  Ammunition production had met only five percent of War Ministry orders by the end of 1914, all other weapons output was behind schedule, many orders for allies had simply been ignored, and attempts to alleviate shortages by introducing unskilled, non-union labour, particularly women, had been thwarted by dogged resistance from the unions.

Although everyday public life in Britain had been relatively undisturbed by the first months of the War, with unemployment all but disappearing and rapid inflation being matched by wage rises, press and public opinion of the government had soured by the spring of 1915. High battle casualties, the prospect of a much longer war than expected and shocks like December’s German naval raid on the east coast  had all contributed to a general sense of administrative incompetence.  Something had to be done to maintain faith in the government’s ability to conduct a successful war, but nothing much could be done without acceptance of the need for state intervention on a previously unheard of scale and a radical change in the industrial landscape.

Hammered out under the canny and energetic supervision of Chancellor David Lloyd George, the Treasury Agreement did the trick.  Women and unskilled workers were integrated into the factory system for the rest of the War, and while unofficial strikes remained a problem, usually in protest against rising prices or unauthorised ‘dilution’, official stoppages dropped well below pre-War levels and remained relatively rare until a pre-victory surge in 1918, when more than a million man-hours were lost to strikes.

Britain’s industrial performance wasn’t transformed overnight.  A couple of months down the line a massive scandal over shell shortages would prompt a change of government, with Asquith presiding over a new coalition cabinet packed with competent bureaucrats and including one Labour member, but by the end of the year the nation’s economy had been effectively transformed into a mechanism capable of supplying a modern state at war. In the process the mould of nineteenth-century capitalism, unfettered by state involvement, had been broken, not by the dreaded revolution from below but by super-fast evolution instigated from above.

The result was an alliance between state, labour and capital that, though at best uneasy during the War years, set a precedent and a standard for British society in the later twentieth century. At the time it was called ‘war socialism’, as were comparable experiences in belligerent nations all over Europe, and the phrase is still bandied about today. It wasn’t socialism, or anything like it, but it was arguably the blueprint for the imperfect, fluctuating compromise we live by today and call social democracy.

This was just a quick skim of a big issue’s surface for those otherwise confined to the heritage industry’s commemorative effort, worth the trouble as a demonstration that the War on Britain’s home front wasn’t only about emotional upheaval or votes for women.

15 MARCH, 1915: It’s The Economy, Stupid…

In a world pregnant with the seed of modern propaganda techniques, the second week of March 1915 looked pretty good to the British public. On 10 March, the BEF launched the first independent British attack of any size on the Western Front, up in northeast France, just west of Lille, and after three days of heavy fighting a great triumph was declared. In fact, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle gained the BEF two square kilometres of territory (including what was left of the eponymous village) at a cost of 12,000 or so casualties on each side, and its tactical lessons – that initial gains, easily enough achieved with sufficient firepower, were impossible to exploit – remained unlearned.

More triumphalism followed the Royal Navy’s sinking of the SS Dresden, the last of the German Navy’s raiding cruisers to remain at sea, off the coast of neutral Chile on 14 March, though little was made of the routine and ruthless manner in which the helpless ship was pounded to destruction. The British press was meanwhile presenting Anglo-French attempts to force a passage through the Dardanelles as a string of small successes, when in fact they were a series of blundering failures, and making much of steady Russian gains against Austro-Hungarian forces defending the long-besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl, which were genuine enough but strategically irrelevant.

The week’s most strategically significant War story was held back until the following Monday, 15 March, when the British government announced its decision, made the previous Thursday, to extend the Royal Navy’s blockade against the Central Powers.  This was big news, in theory a major step on the road to defeating Germany, yet it  was given a relatively low-key reception by British propaganda. Why was that?

The new blockade rules declared an absolute embargo on all goods bound for the Central Powers, including for the first time food, and claimed any neutral vessel intercepted in the course of such trade as a British prize. They were recognised as retaliation for a German declaration, made on 4 February and put into practice from 22 February, that the waters around Britain and Ireland were a ‘war zone’, and that enemy merchant shipping would be sunk without warning by its submarines.

Both announcements were extremely important because ships were the one and only key to global trade. Without freedom to trade across the seas – without money from exports or access to imports of raw materials and food – the world’s most developed economies could not function and grow as capitalism intended, so any nation denied access to sea trade would, in theory, find it impossible to fight a major war for very long.

These factors applied wherever merchant shipping operated, underpinning wars fought by, among others, the Russian, French, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman navies, but they were of particular importance to the war efforts of Britain and Germany. Britain, the world’s naval superpower, devoted a lot of strategic thinking and resources to blockading German trade all over the world, in the confident belief, eventually almost justified, that this would win the War. Germany was meanwhile determined to stifle vital seaborne supplies to Britain, a nation that depended on imports to feed its population, and was ready by early 1915 to make maximum possible use of submarines for the job.

Both announcements also sparked anger and outrage in neutral states. German authorisation of unannounced submarine attacks was widely regarded as barbaric, and everybody recognised that the policy would put neutral vessels at risk. The British blockade had been making it difficult for neutral nations to carry on their usual business, let alone profit from the War, since August 1914, and this latest extension was seen as high-handed, greedy interference with legitimate trade.

Britain, its media and public were not too bothered about being thought high-handed, and identification with martial aggression was unlikely to damage the German regime’s self-image, so London and Berlin were happy enough to ride roughshod over international outrage, even at a time when neutrals of every size were being courted as possible allies… or would have been but for the one neutral power nobody wanted to upset, the United States.

Rich in raw materials and cash, and a maritime trading power rising to rival Britain, the United States was the one neutral certain to make a decisive difference if it joined either side at war.  Politically divided between strict neutrality and varying degrees of support for the Entente powers, the USA was already an important economic influence on the War, having sold goods worth more than 800 million dollars to the Entente by the end of 1914 and, thanks to the Royal Navy’s blockade, almost nothing to the Central Powers. This trend would continue, so that by the time the US entered the War in April 1917 Britain and France would have spent a staggering eight billion dollars on American goods, compared with 27 million dollars spent by the Central Powers – but by the spring of 1915 it was already quite clear that, if and when the USA abandoned neutrality, it would do so in support of its major creditors.

The reason Germany made minor concessions to international opinion before putting submarine warfare into effect, and the explanation for Britain’s relatively sheepish flexing of its blockade muscle, were two sides of the same coin. Germany was terrified of outraging US public opinion to the point of war, but hoped to starve Britain before that happened; Britain was equally afraid of souring American opinion to the point of delaying or debarring US alliance with the Entente, but wasn’t about to let go its death grip on the German economy.  As news of the economic world war’s latest escalation broke around the world on the Ides of March 1915, it remained to be seen if either submarines or blockades could end the War before US military involvement became a live issue.

Watch this space…

10 MARCH 2015: Sniping

Oh well, at least the BBC tries to commemorate the First World War beyond the Western Front – Poppycock just wishes it employed somebody with an informed overview to fact-check and coordinate the effort. Yesterday was Commonwealth Day and so, to its credit and my satisfaction, the Beeb’s main evening news rolled out a story about the very considerable part played by soldiers and labourers from the British Empire during the Great War. It was delivered in two parts – first a look at troops from British India fighting on the Western Front, and then an on-location report from Kenya about the role of South Asian troops in the long battle for control of what was then German East Africa. It was a lazy effort, and I’m afraid it needs shooting down.

Yes, Asian troops fighting in Europe make an interesting story, and servicemen from British India did perform much of the fighting in East Africa, but there is so much more to tell.  What about all the other fronts where Asian and other peoples from the modern Commonwealth fought and died? Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, stands out as an obvious and newsworthy example, but Imperial forces fought on literally every front contested by the British.

And what about all those Imperial troops that weren’t from British India? I can see why the Canadians and ANZACs, well covered by heritage commemorations of their own, don’t need the BBC to remind us of their participation, and remembering Irish soldiers can sit uneasy in an Imperial context – but this report made no mention at all of the thousands of Africans, West Indians and men from other Imperial outposts who were caught up in the world at war.

Maybe that’s because they don’t all sing to the happy, clappy Commonwealth tune, or project the same comforting acquiescence that characterises so many South Asian responses to the relative success of the Raj. Or maybe, as mass-media newscasters are wont to do, this team simply reported the easy story it was given on a plate and chose to let the audience assume it was the full story.

The tendency peaked in East Africa, where the estimable Reeta Chakrabarti managed a (very) loose description of the four-year campaign for the region, focused on Indian Army involvement, without even mentioning the many, many Africans who fought there for both of the empires at war. I happen to know people at the BBC who’ve heard of, for instance, the King’s African Rifles, and it’s a shame they don’t know Reeta.

So, once again, a pat on the back for the BBC for noticing anything but Tommies in French trenches, followed by a stern lecture for staying fixated on the Western Front and completely failing to join up a few very obvious dots.

Finally, and just before I pack away the rifle for the day, the East African report featured one contribution from an actual historian. I’ll spare him the namecheck, and it may be that editing took out any reference to non-Indian Army troops or auxilliaries, but he was allowed to get away with referring to the East African campaign as ‘our success’. Just for the record, the battle for East Africa was arguably the most successful German campaign of the entire War. A small German/African force was still running rings round a relatively massive British Empire contingent when the War ended, and ‘our success’ in the region was delivered by the post-War peace process. Poppycock thinks Reeta, or someone, could protect the public from casual misinformation by devoting a few valuable minutes to research.

6 MARCH, 1915: Side Effects?

However much tourism and the edifice of the EU may persuade us otherwise, modern Greece has always been a turbulent, unstable country, prone to revolution and civil war throughout its relatively short history as a sovereign state.

Part of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years until it gained independence in 1829, its first constitutional monarch was a Bavarian prince, King Otto I, elected to the job in 1832 and overthrown by a revolution thirty years later.  His Danish successor, King George I, oversaw the country’s steady territorial expansion, so that by the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 Greece controlled Crete and Lemnos, along with parts of Macedonia and Thrace – but George was assassinated at Salonika, the Macedonian capital, in March 1913.  At that point the crown passed to his son, King Constantine I, and Greece was plunged into a long, painful political crisis that came to the boil a hundred years ago today.

Greek politics in the early twentieth century revolved around the promise of territorial expansion and the threat of territorial loss. All parties agreed that Greek’s principal rival in this context was Ottoman Turkey, followed by the aggressive young kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria, each smarting from perceived injustice during the Balkan Wars. Russia, with its well-known designs on access to the Mediterranean, was also considered a permanent threat.  A map seems appropriate and here’s one, thieved from the net and removable at the drop of a hint.


From this position, as Europe divided into diplomatic power blocs, it followed that the big question for Greek political leaders was which side to take.  Constantine was strongly pro-German, as were most important and officers in the Greek Army, but Eleutherios Venizelos, by a distance the biggest wig in Greek politics and Prime Minister since 1910, led a cabinet that had, in close cooperation with King George, pursued a policy of cautious but consistent friendship with London and Paris.

Each side of this argument pursued separate negotiations when war broke out in 1914. Constantine and his chief military advisor, Colonel Metaxas, received a German offer of alliance in August, while negotiations were underway between the Venizelos government and the Entente – but neither suitor was prepared to jeopardise ongoing negotiations with Bulgaria and Turkey by providing the right territorial guarantees. Both sets of talks broke down, and Greece remained neutral through the War’s opening phases.

Unsatisfied greed wasn’t the only reason for Greece to stay neutral. Serbia and Russia were otherwise engaged, and therefore posed no immediate threat, but Bulgaria and Turkey were still sitting on the fence. Either might, it seemed from Athens, try to recover lost territories by attacking Greece while the rest of Europe was preoccupied elsewhere. With a largely peasant population of less than five million, little modern industry, less than 2,000km of railways, and armed forces in the throes of belated modernisation, Greece needed a period of peace and reform before it was capable of fighting back.

Recognition of this weakness was the basis for a period of uneasy political truce between Constantine and the Venizelos government, but it melted down after the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles pinned down Turkish resources and brought the War physically close to Greece.

The government proposed aid for the Entente and on 6 March, after the King had vetoed the move, Venizelos and his cabinet resigned. That point marked the end of all pretence at political unity in Greece. While Constantine reopened negotiations with Germany, Venizelos would return to power with a landslide election victory in June and immediately offer assistance to the Entente, most notably use of a base in Salonika. As stresses between crown and government matured into an undeclared civil war, the country was destined to simmer in a state of semi-neutral chaos until mid-1917, when Constantine’s removal from power would finally see Venizelos lead Greece into war on the Entente side.

Though Greek support enabled the Entente powers to open a new battlefront in Salonika, Greek entry into the War had very little direct effect on the conflict. The War nevertheless had a profound effect on Greece, exacerbating internal instabilities, provoking internal conflict into crisis, and creating divisions that would continue to plague the country deep into the twentieth century – and that still lie at the heart of a very fragile nation state.

Meanwhile on the Western Front… unabated slaughter, but nothing that changed anything.