15 JUNE, 1915: ‘Do so, Mister Allnut…’

Schedules matter in time of war, as any warrior knows, so Poppycock owes the world an apology for losing the plot and arriving late with this. Fact is, I started back on 15 June and then embarked on a fairly long and complex voyage over land and sea that kept the logistics department far too occupied to bother about writing. Unforgivable, obviously, but also oddly appropriate, because on 15 June 1915 a small group of British servicemen set out on a very long, very complex journey that would end with them arriving rather late on the scene at one of the First World War’s more bizarre battlefields.

I refer to what was known as the Naval Africa Expedition, a British military adventure, part Boys’ Own and part bonkers, that attracted plenty of straight-faced public attention in its aftermath and provided indirect inspiration for one of Hollywood’s classic movies, but is largely forgotten today. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

This is a story about Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second largest lake. The Lake stretches 675km from north to south, but is only between 15 and 50km wide. In 1914, the Belgian Congo and German East Africa faced each other across this narrow strip of water, although a small portion of the southwestern shore belonged to British Northern Rhodesia. When war broke out in Europe, two armed German boats took control of the lake, sinking the only Belgian ship big enough to carry armament on 22 August and dispatching the Lake’s two small British boats later in the year.  Map, please…


The German boats and their guns – towed on a raft at a snail-like two knots – were now able to raid the western shoreline, threaten Allied trade and dominate relations with local tribes. By way of cementing control a much bigger German ship, the 1200-ton Goetzen, was dismantled and taken to Kigoma for reconstruction – a rugged enterprise involving 5,000 crates and a very difficult overland journey from Dar-Es-Salaam. The Goetzen was eventually launched on 9 June 1915, and later equipped with bigger guns from the cruiser Königsberg, which had been hunted down by British naval forces in the nearby Rufugi Delta. By that time Allied countermeasures were underway – but still a long way from making any difference.

Belgian authorities in the Congo had been demanding all sorts of military assistance since August 1914, but all a hard-pressed home government eventually managed was an old torpedo boat, without torpedoes, and a plan (eventually abandoned) to build a new, 800-ton ship at the Lake. The British Admiralty agreed to lend the Belgians four Short seaplanes, but they didn’t arrive near the Lake until the end of 1915. Meanwhile, in April 1915, a veteran hunter and ivory poacher named John Lee arrived in London from South Africa and pitched a plan to the Admiralty that would, he claimed, shorten the already vexing battle for German East Africa. According to details worked out in advance by Lee, transporting two modern, armed motorboats to the Lake would outclass the slow, old German vessels and quickly restore control to the Allies.

The British Admiralty, which possessed no accurate charts for the region, jumped at the challenge, citing the Navy’s duty to ‘fight the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship’, and assembled a volunteer force for the purpose. Three officers and 24 ratings were put under the command of the Navy’s oldest lieutenant commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson.  Lee (now commissioned as a lieutenant) went ahead with a small advance party to prepare the route, and the rest of the group waited for the boats before leaving London aboard the liner Llanstephen Castle, bound for Cape Town, on 15 June. The boats had meanwhile been named Mimi and Toutou by Spicer-Simson, after the Admiralty had vetoed his original choice of Cat and Dog.  If that looks like a sign of eccentricity to come, it was.

The 6,000-mile trip to Cape Town ended on 2 July, and a 2,600-mile railway journey saw the expedition arrive at Port Elizabeth, in the Belgian Congo, on 26 July. The hardest part of the odyssey – a 150-mile trek across mountainous country and 140 rivers or gorges, cutting through jungle much of the way – brought the boats to the town of Sankisia by the end of September, after which it was 15 miles by light railway to Bukama, another 400 miles floating down the Lualaba River to Kabalo and a final 175 miles by rail to the little Belgian Port of Lukuga, on the western shore of Lake Tanganikya. Spicer-Simson, already proving a paragon of energy, didn’t like the tactical position he found at Lukuga and built his own harbour facilities a little down the coast, finally getting the boats afloat on the Lake two days before Christmas.

Mimi and Toutou went into action on Boxing Day 1915, attacking and capturing one German boat, which was renamed Fifi and added to Spicer-Simson’s strength. Communications around the Lake were sketchy at the time, to say the least, and the second small German craft didn’t come looking for its mate until 16 February, when it was chased, disabled and scuttled after a twelve-hour fight.

At this point Spicer-Simson knew nothing of the Goetzen‘s size or relatively huge armament, and the captain of the Goetzen still thought shore batteries were responsible for any damage suffered by the smaller boats. Next day, when the Goetzen came looking, both sides had their eyes opened. Spicer-Simson took one look at the Goetzen‘s armament, decided he needed a bigger ship, and suspended operations while he toured British East Africa in a vain for search of one. Captain Zimmer of the Goetzen discovered he had a new enemy on the Lake, but was almost immediately required to donate his guns to German land forces in East Africa and devote his energies to troop transport. With British forces keeping a low profile and unaware that the Goetzen‘s guns were now dummies, military stalemate set in until June.

By now, eccentricity was getting the better of Spicer-Simson, and he’d come over a bit Heart of Darkness. Wearing a grass skirt and showing off his impressive array of tattoos to awestruck local tribespeople, he became well known around the Lake and set himself up as form of deity-cum-magistrate, a policy that may have helped wean several tribes away from pro-German activities but certainly bewildered his subordinates.

Increasingly frustrated by lack of action, Spicer-Simson eventually took his flotilla south to aid Rhodesian forces in the siege of German-held Bismarckburg. The town fell on 8 June, but Spicer-Simson infuriated the Rhodesians by refusing to intervene and prevent the garrison from escaping. A few days later, after the aforementioned Belgian seaplanes had attacked the Goetzen to very limited effect, an emotional Spicer-Simson suddenly invalided himself home. His timing was good. A British offensive in German East Africa took the main Dar-Es-Salaam railway in mid-July, cutting off supplies to the Goetzen, which obeyed orders to scuttle on 27 July, an act that brought fighting on Lake Tanganyika to an end.

It wasn’t quite the end for Spicer-Simson, who returned to Britain with tales of heroic derring-do that were largely fiction but were lapped up by the popular press and earned him a spell in the spotlight as a war hero. The Royal Navy was careful not to burst the propaganda bubble, interviewed the rest of the party (all of whom returned alive), awarded everyone involved medals, promoted Spicer-Simson to Commander… and never gave him another active command.

9 JUNE, 1915: How Bad Can It Be?

Hindsight, the historian’s friend, tells me I’ve been sloppy about Italy in 1915.  On one hand, when discussing Italy’s passage from essentially pro-German neutrality to war against Austria-Hungary, I don’t think I made clear quite what a socioeconomic mess the country had become since the end of its war with Turkey in 1912. In 1915 the country was suffering supply shortages of everything from food to raw materials, beset by strikes and civil unrest, and experiencing falling living standards, particularly in the south and among the urban poor.

On the other hand, while stressing the loud enthusiasm for war of much Italian political and popular opinion, I didn’t give enough space to those opposed to it. Pacifist deputies had brought down the government in May, only to be overwhelmed by royal intervention, and once war had been declared opposition gathered around the Pope and a small but noisy group of socialist deputies in the Italian parliament.

Both points are worth making in the context of what was portrayed, a hundred years ago today, as Italy’s first important victory against Austro-Hungarian positions on its northeastern frontier – the capture of Monfalcone, a port near the mouth of the River Isonzo. The event’s apparent importance was propaganda nonsense, because the ‘victory’ had been a mere occupation, after the small Austrian garrison left to watch over the town had withdrawn in good order, and the small advance involved couldn’t be exploited further against more serious Austrian defences. Monfalcone was nevertheless a glimpse of things to come on the First World War’s latest battlefront, and an early indication that it would become yet another ghastly stalemate.

Let’s start with the basics. Italy went to war against Austria-Hungary (and not, at this stage, Germany) for the ‘lost provinces’ east of Venice that were then under Vienna’s control and are now part of Slovenia. Nothing much else interested the Italian government or people, and Anglo-French appeals for Italian help at Gallipoli and elsewhere fell on deaf ears. The Italian high command’s sole focus in June 1915 was its Treaty of London promise to launch an attack across the frontier with Austria-Hungary as soon as possible. Planning for the offensive was well underway by early June, and was conducted in a spirit of optimism that, even by the self-delusional standards of 1915, bordered on the criminal.

On the plus side for Italy, Austro-Hungarian forces were along the frontier were outnumbered, and commitments on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts meant they were likely to stay that way. Everything else was on the minus side.

First, the frontier between Italy and Austria ran through the southern Alps, linking a series of inhospitable mountain passes and offering only two areas for large-scale military activity: in the Trentino region, where the frontier bulged south into flatter territory; and along the River Isonzo, where relatively open coastal areas led on to the lost provinces. An attack in either area called for a lot of complicated and slow-burning mountain warfare, but the Trentino was the more suited to mass infantry operations. Italian Chief of Staff Cadorna, sufficiently worried by pacifist opposition to keep his plans secret from politicians and public, plumped for the tougher Isonzo option in the hope of securing the optimists’ Holy Grail, aka the port of Trieste.

In case that hurt, here’s a map, nicked off the net and removed at the drop of a complaint.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915.  1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps.  3.  Isonzo Front.

Secondly, even if the high command had chosen the more practicable route of attack, the Italian economy and military were in no fit state to carry it out. Cadorna could raise men, and he was good at rapid concentration of large forces, but the Army was desperately short of food, uniforms, ammunition, modern rifles and machine-guns.  While defenders were equipped with plenty of modern artillery from Austria-Hungary’s well-developed arms industry, Italian attackers could muster a total of 700 artillery pieces, most of them antiquated relics from nineteenth-century wars. Italian air power was poorly developed, so that only its innovative Caproni heavy bomber was really fit for service in 1915, and though the well-equipped Italian Navy was modern and expensive, it never took more than a passive support role, harassing enemy supply lines and monitoring its Austrian counterpart in the Adriatic.

Finally, while the Austrian high command was content to defend the line against Italy until reinforcement was possible or German forces joined the battle, Cadorna was running on optimism, and his logistic capabilities were not matched by strategic or tactical gifts. Having a promised a quick attack, and despite the tactical warning posted when Italian troops tried and failed to move forward from Monfalcone, he prepared to confront well-equipped, dug in defenders on high ground with a half-baked version of the anyway disastrous ‘breakthrough’ tactics preferred by Joffre in France. Massed, concentrated infantry would assault Austrian positions on the Isonzo, but they’d have to do it without the benefit of an artillery bombardment.

With commendable dispatch, Cadorna would be ready to launch his attack on 23 June. It would fail, as would ten more offensives at the Isonzo before the autumn of 1917, when an Austro-German counterattack forced a temporary Italian collapse. Elsewhere the frontier soon settled into the pattern of stagnant, claustrophobic trench warfare already established on the Western and Gallipoli Fronts, punctuated in 1916 by a single, limited Austrian offensive in the Trentino.

In the end, a battlefront that was ill-suited to decisive military success, contested by one empire being bled to death on other fronts and one young nation that was economically, socially and psychologically ill-equipped for the fight, would cost both sides hundreds of thousands of men and do both a lot more harm than good. The fight was part of the process that killed off the Austrian Empire, and though Austrian disintegration eventually enabled Italy to seize the territories it craved, the country had by then been dragged to a level of civilian hardship, social unrest, regional separatism and political instability that left the door wide open for Mussolini’s tabloid solutions.

By way of justifying the existence of this catastrophic episode, it is often claimed that the campaign in Italy helped Britain and France by distracting enemy resources from the Western Front. Even that apology for an excuse doesn’t hold much water, given that Austria barely contributed to the war in France, that Germany didn’t commit troops to Italy until 1917 and that the War in the west went on for another three and a half years after the first Italian offensive. Whichever way look at it, the Italian Front was just one bad idea after another.

4 JUNE, 1915: This Time! Definitely.

The landscape of Eastern Europe is peppered with monuments and memorials that come as a surprise to many an educated Briton at large in Poland or Belarus, the Ukraine or Lithuania. These are not monuments to the vast battles and bloodletting of the Second World War, or even to the hubris of Napoleon, but to the sweeping, empty carnage of the First World War’s Eastern Front, a struggle largely ignored by Western historians and forgotten by the heritage industry.  A hundred years on from the day the Central Powers retook the symbolically significant fortress of Przemysl, which had fallen to the Russians in the autumn, the Eastern Front merits some attention.

The Eastern Front is generally described as another of the War’s great stalemates, and until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 it was. Unlike the death-grip immobility of the fronts in France, Gallipoli and Italy, the stalemate in the east was conducted over vast, often empty areas, so that armies could and did advance hundreds of kilometres without disturbing the overall strategic status quo.

All through the autumn of 1914 and the following spring, land had been won and lost all along the front, from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea. Long, long supply lines, the military inefficiency of Austrian and Russian forces, commitment of the best German forces to the Western Front, the difficulty of sustaining advanced forces in inhospitable, often baked or frozen wilderness – all these factors and more made every victory temporary, and every defeat reversible once a defensive line had been established. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the process in conditions that made the Western Front seem, if not benign, at least somewhere soldiers didn’t expect to starve or freeze to death.

In 1915, that year of unfounded optimism, the east’s stalemate of movement offered a mirage of total victory even more seductive than breakthrough in the West or backdoor triumph through a sideshow. Nothing so coherent as focused strategic optimism was coming out of Russia’s chaotic and fractious high command, Stavka, but in Conrad, the blinkered eminence of Vienna’s war effort, and Ludendorff, the influential egotist in charge of Germany’s eastern operations, the Central Powers were saddled with two of the War’s most dangerous dreamers.

The fall of Przemysl was a highlight of the German and Austrian clean-up operation after the spring’s highly successful but strategically irrelevant Gorlice-Tarnow offensive. By the end of the month the Central Powers had occupied all of Galicia, and operations paused for another round of fantasist lobbying by Conrad and Ludendorff. Their argument was, as ever, that if German chief of staff Falkenhayn would give priority to the east, Russia could be knocked out of the war with one great blow. Falkenhayn, caught between the seductive propaganda of his most apparently successful general and the need to stay strong in the west, once again refused the great gamble, and instead opted for a limited July offensive designed to pinch out the great bulge in the front line that was the Polish heartland.

To be fair to Ludendorff and Conrad – both high on my list of the Twentieth Century’s relatively unsung villains – the Russians looked ripe for the beating in June 1915. Having hemorrhaged men all spring, Russian forces were scattered along the front in shallow trenches, desperately short of equipment, training and competent commanders. Russia’s Entente allies were very afraid that a second enemy offensive, swiftly delivered, would force the Tsar into a separate peace with Germany, a fear that added urgency to their own efforts to achieve breakthrough in France.

So optimism about the attacker’s chances reigned supreme into the summer of 1915. The fact that Russian armies could triumph after retreating a very long way for a very long time had been well established since Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, and nothing about the Tsar’s regime suggested that the loss of a few hundred thousand subjects was likely to alter its strategic priorities – but as preparations for what would be called the Triple Offensive got underway the world at large held its breath in anticipation of news from a front that seemed on the point of decisive denouement.