26 APRIL, 1915: Secrets and Lies

I think we’re all aware that the Gallipoli land campaign kicked off a century ago, and it would be hard not to notice the human sacrifice involved. On the whole, the heritage story is also doing a pretty good job of pointing out the campaign’s international significance, giving great weight to ANZAC matters, managing to mention that much of the ground force committed came from various outposts of the British and French Empires, and even giving a nod to the impact of a hard-won Ottoman victory on the future of an independent Turkey. On the other hand, from a British perspective, you’d have to say the commemorative industry could be doing a whole lot better.

You can hunt down a documentary or dig deep in the broadsheet press, but if you stick to the mass-consumption side of the media you might not even notice that the entire campaign was a fiasco from start to finish. Perhaps national love for Winnie explains populist reluctance to roundly condemn Churchill’s bombastic role as the plan’s principal political promoter. Perhaps unwillingness to remind us of Churchill’s reckless streak has contributed to tabloid reticence when it comes to mentioning the strategic optimism, shoddy planning and command ineptitude that characterised Britain’s part in the campaign, or to laying much stress on the outrage provoked in contemporary Australia by those failings. Of course, this is the centenary of the first landings on the peninsular, and despite the abject failure of naval efforts against the Dardanelles defences the Gallipoli campaign wasn’t yet a disaster – but it was suffering from poor planning and execution from the first day, and that isn’t part of the news packages I’m seeing.

Ah well, let’s hope Gallipoli hasn’t dropped off the news map when the time comes to commemorate the really shambolic stuff.

One other problem with the pomp and ceremony surrounding Gallipoli is the way commemoration can warp history. The commitment of troops to a sideshow in the eastern Mediterranean wasn’t by any means the only, or even the most significant event of that weekend in 1915. Negotiations to bring Italy into the War on the side of the Triple Entente were reaching the end of a long road, and on Monday 26 April the Treaty of London was signed.

The Treaty guaranteed that Italy, by a distance the biggest European economy not yet committed to the War, would join the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. In early 1915, a time when strategic thinking on both sides assumed that one more push in the right place would bring this unsustainable conflict to an end, it was seen by many in authority as a potentially war-winning diplomatic triumph. It was not, however, a propaganda triumph, because it was kept secret, and it was kept secret because it was arguably one of the grubbiest agreements ever made between nations, a stark reflection of naked greed, high-handedness and desperation that left even some of its makers appalled and talking of international blackmail.

By the spring of 1915 Italian politicians, press and public were clamouring for war in the just causes of national expansion and national glory. Given that orthodox pre-war thinking all over Europe had assumed the approaching conflict, long overdue, would create a new world order dominated by the winners, this was not the outrageous chauvinism it appears today. The Ottoman Empire, Greece, Brazil, Bulgaria, Romania and almost every other country with foreign policy issues needed to be on the winning side and was open to bribery in return for joining it.

Italy had a young nation’s restless thirst for international status to go with foreign policy issues in spades, the most emotive of them centred on territorial disputes with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vienna’s refusal to make concessions in the region around Italy’s northeast frontier had scuppered any prospect of Rome going to war in 1914 alongside Austro-Hungary and Germany, its partners in the Triple Alliance, and gave the Entente powers a key advantage in what soon became an auction for Italian allegiance.

A charitable view would be that the auction got out of hand, though it might be more accurate to say it reflected the madness of a world at war. Either way, the winning Entente bid made promises it either couldn’t keep, could only keep by breaking promises made to other countries, or had no intention trying to keep. On the Italian side, Entente promises were accepted eyes wide shut for fear that the breakthrough everyone expected would end the War before Italy could claim its share of the jamboree. Check out those promises and lies.

Italy was promised substantial military and economic aid, starting with an immediate loan from Britain of £50 million (a vast sum in 1915), as well as substantial reparations after victory was achieved and the fulfilment of almost all its many territorial ambitions. Italy was to be given the Trentino (South Tyrol) and Trieste regions to the north of the country, both then ruled by Vienna, and despite promises already made to Serbia it would control both the Dalmatian and Adriatic coastlines with the sole exception of the port of Fiume (Rijeka), which was withheld as a sop to Russian support for Slav interests. Italy was also to be given formal possession of the Dodecanese archipelago (which it had annexed in 1912 but which the Entente was also promising to Greece) and the Adalia region on the Turkish coast nearest to the islands, along with an expanded area of influence in Libya.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, the Treaty of London did nobody much good. Allied aid never began to match Italian expectations, and the new battlefront that opened up in the mountain passes around the frontiers with Austria-Hungary became another ghastly stalemate that was still in progress when the Bolsheviks took over Russia and released details of all the Entente’s secret treaties.

Details of the London treaty began appearing the Western press at the end of 1917, provoking understandable anger in Serbia and Greece, but also sparking pubic outrage in Italy over a particularly embarrassing clause that prohibited any Entente response to peace proposals by the Pope. At the end of the War an exhausted and turbulent Italy received precious little of its territorial bounty at the Paris Peace Conference, as the Treaty became a byword for the failings of ‘old world diplomacy’ and the claims of smaller Balkan states took precedence. Within another three years, Italian dissatisfaction would find expression in the noisy nationalism of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party.

I don’t know, all that seems worth a mention to me, or at least a commemorative tip of the hat – but I guess hard-nosed diplomacy and treaty clauses get low billing in a media circus that’s all about feelings.

14 APRIL, 1915: Birth and Deaths

A hundred years ago today, on opposite sides of the world, two political statements set the table for the birth of Australia as we know it today.  In London, Colonial Secretary Harcourt announced that the Dominions of the British Empire – that’s to say the essentially self-governing ‘white’ colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa – would be consulted about any peace signed at the War’s end. On the same day Australian Prime Minister Fisher declared that his government would send every available fighting man to support the mother country in her hour of need.

In April 1915, the Empire needed Australians and New Zealanders in the eastern Mediterranean, and both statements were made in the context of ANZAC commitment to the upcoming battle against Ottoman defences on the Gallipoli peninsular.  The grim course of that campaign would transform the self-image, international status and economic fortunes of Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand, and consign to history the uncomplicated parent/child relationship expressed in the announcements of 14 April.  I’ll talk about New Zealand another time, but for now here’s a brief glimpse of the forgotten Australia that marched to Gallipoli that spring.

When war broke out in Europe, Australia was in trouble. Its separate states had been formally inaugurated as a self-governing federation in 1901, but they remained a quarrelsome bunch burdened by a stagnant economy and competing to attract a dwindling flow of immigrants from Britain. Apart from an estimated 200,000 (largely ignored) native Australians living in the interior, a sparse European population of about five million (virtually all of British descent) was concentrated on the coasts.

The outbreak of war in Europe, coming immediately after election of the new Labour-led federal government, sparked the first major display of national unity in Australia’s history, as the conflict was greeted with a wave of public enthusiasm comparable with that in Britain.

Relatively humble loyalty to Britain and almost universal public approval of the War were still in full effect after eight months of fighting, not least because the conflict was bringing a steady improvement in economic conditions. Though Australian industry was not sufficiently developed to enable a wartime boom on the scale of, for instance, the USA or Japan, pressure from Europe to produce manufactured goods, and weapons in particular, was laying the groundwork for rapid post-war industrialisation. Meanwhile exports of meat and metals to Europe were mushrooming, helped along by a healthy budget, excellent port facilities and good railways, and the collapse of exports from Europe was opening doors to important trading contacts with the USA and Japan.

Economic growth would be maintained, and Australia’s share of world trade would rise by 25 percent during the War, but unadulterated national enthusiasm for the imperial fight would disappear forever in the ghastly trenches of Gallipoli.

It wasn’t that the perceived British blunders and slights at Gallipoli, along with the huge and undeniable cost in lives, made Australians unwilling to fight.  Though resistant to conscription, Australians poured into British theatres throughout the War, often serving with particular distinction, and the country’s relatively tiny population eventually contributed about 322,000 men to wartime service. These suffered more than 280,000 casualties (including 60,000 dead), the highest rate of attrition experienced by any wartime national army.  The difference after the horrors and scandals that accompanied Australia’s terrible introduction to modern warfare was that Australians no longer fought as obedient, uncritical servants of Empire.  They learned to fight as Australians, rather than as British ex-patriots or state residents, and to fight for Australia, if necessary in defiance of imperial edicts.

This wasn’t true at once, or true of all Australians.  After Fisher’s resignation later in 1915 (another by-product of the Gallipoli campaign), the government of William Hughes, first as Labour leader and later at the head of a Liberal coalition, pursued a firmly pro-British policy throughout the War – but it was never able to introduce conscription in the face of political opposition, and earned widespread mistrust amid consistent popular and press disapproval of British war management.

A hundred years on, Australia still recognises the British monarch as head of state, and is still nominally ruled by a governor-general, but in practice nobody has told Australians what to do since Gallipoli.

8 APRIL, 1915: Wars Within War

In a world riddled with national, ethnic and religious divisions, big wars can serve as a convenient cover story for smaller ones. That was as true in 1915 as it is in 2015. A few months into what we call the First World War (and off the top of my head), the merry-go-round of the Balkan Wars was still spinning, Japan was still pursuing its war of conquest with China and the Boers of South Africa were still fighting the British Empire. Meanwhile the diplomatic desperation of warring European powers was stoking warlike rivalries all across the globe – from Greek territorial disputes with Turkey to the naval arms race among South American republics – and the distractions of their masters were encouraging ethnic, national or religious have-nots to rise for their causes within empires great and small.

For one particular set of rebellious have-nots, the Armenians of the Caucasian region in northeastern Turkey, 8 April 1915 marked the beginning of a terrible end. On that day, the Ottoman Army and government began enforced deportations of Armenians from the Caucasus, officially inaugurating a series of measures that have been variously and controversially described as genocide or simple resettlement, but are generally known in Western Europe as the Armenian Massacres.

According to neutral estimates, between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians were living in Ottoman Turkey at the start of the War, and another million or so were living across the frontier with Russia. Unlike their traditional enemies, the Kurds, and other large ethnic minorities inside the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had no recognised homeland, but the majority were scattered near the Russian border. The Russian Empire had been encouraging a surge in Armenian nationalism since the turn of the century, arming and supplying a number of minor revolts before 1914, and trouble erupted in the region after the Ottoman government refused demands for an Armenian national congress in October 1914.

Most moderate Armenian leaders fled to Bulgaria at this point, but the more extreme nationalists crossed the frontier and formed a rebel division using Russian equipment. This force invaded in December, and killed an estimated 120,000 non-Armenians in an extended rampage around the northeastern Caucasus while Ottoman forces were busy preparing and carrying out their own offensive into Russia. As the campaigning season of 1915 got underway on the Caucasian Front, armed Armenian rebels were still at large in the frontier zones and the Ottoman government in Constantinople, with some justification, regarded the region’s Armenians in general as solidly pro-Russian. The deportations that began on April 8 were intended to clear the battlefront of hostile elements.

Armenians in the Russian Army, fighting the mutual enemy.

Whether or not the government intended this as the beginning of an attempt at genocide – a matter of searing controversy to this day, and not something I’m fit to judge – that’s essentially what happened. By June all non-Muslim civilians were required by law to take up ‘duties’ near the Empire’s battlefronts, but this was doublespeak for relocation to areas under firm military supervision, and exemptions effectively restricted the order to Orthodox and Protestant Armenians in the Caucasus. Deportations continued until late 1916, and deportees were often appallingly treated. Many were given only hours to prepare for long journeys without transport or protection to resettlement regions that were usually infertile or poorly supplied. Thousands of Armenians died of starvation or exposure, thousands more were killed by hostile (usually Kurdish) tribesmen, and there is no doubt that at least some Ottoman officials colluded in the slaughter in search of a ‘final solution’ to the Armenian question.

At least some Ottoman soldiers were quite happy to pose with their victims.

This particular small and nasty war swiftly became part of the wider War as news of the deportations was released through Armenian contacts with the Western press, especially strong in the USA. Entente propaganda went on to claim that the ‘massacres’ had killed a million Armenians, while the Ottoman regime blamed supply and transport shortages for 300,000 deaths. Modern estimates put the figure at around 600,000, but are essentially a matter of educated guesswork. The same is true of the numbers killed in subsequent ethnic warfare around a fluctuating Caucasian Front, which resumed in 1917 and continued into 1918, and of the thousands more who died trying to return to their homes after an exhausted Ottoman regime and a new Armenian Republic signed the Treaty of Batum on 24 May 1918.

The Massacres were big news in the States, and still are.

The Armenian Massacres, or whatever you want to call them, are hardly forgotten history, ongoing controversy about numbers and motives has seen to that.  But if you’re inclined to dismiss the catastrophe as a footnote to the First World War, it’s probably worth remembering that overall Armenian casualties in this nasty war within a war were on a very similar scale to those suffered by the entire British Empire.