22 JULY, 1915: Sounds Great…

These days, everybody knows it’s a bad idea to try and conquer Russia. Russia’s too big to invade properly in the few months when weather permits anything so frisky, and has the resources to recover from any known military disaster during the long, fallow months of winter. Napoleon and Hitler tried it, and ruined themselves in the failure. In the summer of 1915 General Ludendorff, already much maligned in these pages, wanted to try it, but was only allowed a limited version of his great invasion plan. The result was an apparently massive victory, won at relatively little cost, which stripped the Russian Empire of almost all its eastern European possessions. This was the (largely) German Triple Offensive that began in July 1915.

Without going into maps, the Triple Offensive was a series of attacks all along the Eastern Front. They were carried out with fewer men and weapons than Ludendorff (and, if he was awake, Hindenburg) wanted, but as many as German chief-of-staff Falkenhayn could spare, given his commitments on other fronts. The attacks found the Russian armies in their standard condition of overstretched, ill-organised unpreparedness, and the Russian high command (Stavka) reacted to initial German breakthroughs in the usual way, by sticking its head in the sand and simply ordering field commanders to hold firm. They couldn’t, and Stavka, facing the prospect of massive losses as armies were cut off by German forces advancing on their flanks, finally changed its mind on 22 July, when it played the trump card that has been saving Russia for the last two centuries. It ordered a ‘Great Retreat.’

History is full of ‘great’ retreats. A Russian Great Retreat had drawn Napoleon all the way to Moscow and left him broken, and a Soviet Great Retreat would one day lead Hitler along the same path, but the Russian retreat of 1915 wasn’t in the same league. It wasn’t even the greatest Great Retreat of that year, less desperate and dramatic than the Serbian version that would follow in November, and deserved the sobriquet only in that it stabilised the theatre by shifting the front line some 350km to the east. A lot of men and equipment were preserved to fight another day, some industrial plant was moved to safety, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy was implemented to deny supplies to the enemy – but the scorching was carried out on a patchy basis that allowed landowners of wealth and influence to negotiate exemptions, and on the whole the retreat was an improvised affair, barely controlled by Stavka and regarded as a shambles by contemporary Russian critics. If that makes you wonder how it joined the pantheon of Great Retreats, accepted as such by all sides of the argument, here’s an answer.

Simple propaganda explains why Russian authorities insisted that a narrow escape from catastrophic defeat constituted a brilliant exercise in defensive warfare, and why Russia’s allies were happy to support the myth – but the key to this retreat’s illusory greatness lies in German attitudes. As they pursued the retreat east, German forces missed the chance to encircle seven escaping Russian armies, a failure that left the balance of power on the Eastern Front essentially unchanged at the end of what had seemed a potentially decisive operation. Unwilling or unable to accept that rough terrain, poor communications and lengthening supply lines (in other words, the fighting conditions of the era) had been responsible for yet another disappointment, and anxious to avoid any personal blame, German commanders on the Front, from Ludendorff down, queued up to praise Russian brilliance.

The retreat ordered a hundred years ago today was undoubtedly significant. It repeated the militarily unpalatable lesson that, the way things stood in 1915, the mere fact of territorial gain turned any offensive into a laborious reinforcement of stalemate, and in so doing bought Russia time for the economic and military reorganisation that kept the stalemate going. It wasn’t great, and it became a Great Retreat simply because, like Dunkirk and a lot of other retreats (and for that matter like the War on Terror), the concept was convenient for both sets of leaders involved.

14 JULY, 1915: Bloody Idiots

Jut a small anniversary today:  the end of an attack by British Imperial forces towards Achi Baba, a 200-metre hill about twelve kilometres inland from the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsular. It wasn’t a very important attack, but it gets a mention for two reasons.

First of all, it’s an opportunity to check in with the shambles of the Allied assault on Gallipoli. In mid-March 1915, once it had become obvious that naval forces couldn’t get through the Dardanelles Strait without controlling at least one of its coasts, some 18,000 French colonial troops and 75,000 British imperial troops were committed to an invasion of Gallipoli. With all the better British generals busy elsewhere (and then some), command of the force was given to General Hamilton, who had previously commanded home front forces, backed by a distinctly second-rate selection of senior officers. Subsequent preparations were characterised by vagueness, command confusion, delays and over-confidence, giving Ottoman forces plenty of time to deploy some 84,000 troops at various points on the peninsula before Allied landings took place on 25 April.

Hamilton’s multiple landings on Gallipoli’s southern coast did strike at the least defended part of the peninsula, but were ill equipped and ineptly led. Thrown back wherever they met serious resistance, they eventually occupied two small beachheads, at Helles on the peninsula’s southern tip, and further up the Aegean coast near Gaba Tepe, on a tiny warren of cliff-top ridges soon to be known as Anzac Cove.

At this point, Allied commanders still took the standard pre-War view that Ottoman troops weren’t up to much, but the complete failure of a clumsy first attempt to break out from the Helles beachhead soon put them right.  While Hamilton started making timid requests for reinforcements of men and equipment, the two beachheads settled into a pattern of close-quarters trench warfare grim enough to stand comparison with the greatest horrors of even this war.

During May and June, Ottoman forces were transferred from other fronts, giving the defenders considerable numerical superiority. Meanwhile, in London, navy minister (and prime mover behind the operation) Winston Churchill convinced British war minister Kitchener that a rapid decision was needed on Gallipoli, so Hamilton was sent three British Army infantry divisions for a major new offensive.  Planned for August, Hamilton’s offensive was an ambitious affair focused on Anzac Cove and new landings further north at Suvla Bay.  Nothing more than a feint was planned for the Helles sector, but its commander, British General Hunter-Weston, convinced Hamilton to authorise the separate attack on Achi Baba in late June.

And so to my second reason for mentioning this undistinguished affair:  Hunter-Weston’s enthusiasm for action was precisely the kind of thing that was making Australians and New Zealanders at Gallipoli so angry.

Carried out by predominantly Anzac troops, the Achi Baba attack began on 28 June with an advance along the Aegean coast that gained a kilometre, was halted by Ottoman trenches and counterattacks, and ran out of steam on 5 July.  Hunter-Weston then called up a division of reinforcements for a frontal assault on the hill, which opened on 12 July, met similarly stiff resistance and was called off two days later. The operation as whole cost Hunter-Weston about 12,000 battle casualties, and Ottoman losses were at least twice that.  Anzac officers believed that Hunter-Weston had greatly exaggerated the hill’s strategic importance when seeking permission for the attack, and saw it as essentially a vanity project, an unnecessary diversion of resources, sloppily handled, that was nothing more or less than a pointless waste of lives.  Historians agree with them.  Any view held by the British heritage industry has so far been difficult to discern.

7 JULY, 1915: Elephants and Mosquitoes

A hundred years ago today, the Italian Navy suffered its first significant wartime loss, when the large ‘armoured’ cruiser Amalfi went down in the northern Adriatic, killing about 150 of its 400-strong crew.

I mention this anniversary for two reasons. First of all, as I never tire of pointing out, big warships were the ultimate deterrent weapons of their day, and their failure to punch their weight was one of the great shocks to wartime military orthodoxy. It shouldn’t have been. Torpedoes and mines had been around for decades and were obviously a cheap, effective way of destroying even the most heavily armoured big ships – but as with (for instance) nuclear power in the 1970s and 1980s, there came a point at which so much money, prestige and propaganda had been invested in battleships and big cruisers that it was easier for those at the top to bury their heads in the sand than admit such a colossal mistake.

All the world’s big navies were riddled with internal disputes about how to protect big ships, how to deploy them and whether it was worth deploying them at all, and the Italian Navy was no exception. Its main components were five modern dreadnoughts completed since 1912, eight pre-Dreadnought battleships, three modern light cruisers and 18 older ‘armoured’ cruisers, of which the Amalfi and her Pisa-class sisters were among the best. When Italian Navy chief of staff Admiral Revel ordered four Pisa-class cruisers to Venice, close to the main Austrian Navy base at Pola (modern Pula), he overrode opposition from those who thought the move too risky, including battlefleet commander Admiral Abruzzi. Admiral Cagni, commanding the cruisers, evidently shared Revel’s head-in-the-sand approach, because he took his ships on patrol with only minimal protection from small ships capable of hunting submarines or deterring torpedo boats.

Only two Italian torpedo boats were screening the Amalfi when she was sunk by single torpedo from a German U-boat sent to the Adriatic in pieces and rebuilt as the Austrian U-26, and an outraged Italian press was quick to blame both Cagni and Revel for the disaster. Revel learned his lesson. The three surviving cruisers remained virtually inactive in Venice until April 1916, when they scampered back to the relative safety of the southern Adriatic, reduced, like so many of their counterparts in other European navies, to a role defined by self-protection.

The Amalfi sinking also gives me a chance to mention a naval theatre of war that was small, deadly, essentially trivial and destined to be largely forgotten by the Anglophone heritage industry.

The Mediterranean as a whole was a crowded hotchpotch of competing navies in 1915, overlain and dominated by the large Royal Navy presence in the region – but the Adriatic was a straight fight between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Since the early years of the twentieth century both sides had been building up their naval strength without knowing if they would be enemies or allies. If Italy stuck with its Triple Alliance partners, the two fleets could combine to threaten Anglo-French dominance of the Mediterranean, and if Italy sided with the Entente they would be needed to fight each other.

Italy duly declared the War against Austria-Hungary in May 1915, and from that point the Austrian Navy was effectively bottled up in the Adriatic. Its only big base was at Pola, pretty much opposite the biggest Italian base in the northern Adriatic, at Venice, and its secondary bases along the eastern Adriatic coast were equally vulnerable to Italian attack. The Italians meanwhile kept most of their modern warships at Taranto, at the Adriatic’s southern tip, and stationed just enough vessels across what was known as the Otranto Barrage to dissuade the Austrians from a breakout that might influence other Mediterranean theatres. Here’s a map, borrowed and removable on request:


Both sides opted for caution. The Austrians never attempted a breakout, despite German and Turkish requests for help in the Dardanelles and the Black Sea, and the Italians never attempted a major attack on any Austrian bases. Minefields prevented either side from committing major ships to direct support of troops on the Italian Front, and once the Amalfi‘s fate had illustrated the folly of boldness war in the northern Adriatic became a private affair between light naval forces.

Fought by light cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, minecraft, naval aircraft and submarines, including German U-boats operating under the Austrian flag out of Cattano (now the Montenegrin port of Kuta) because Italy and Germany were not officially at war, it was a ‘mosquito’ war of coastal raids and attacks on Entente supply lines to Serbia.  It would rage uninterrupted until late 1918, generating dash, derring-do and the destruction of several more big ships, providing both sides with plenty of colourful propaganda and making no strategic contribution to anything, except the parlous state of both wartime economies.  But it was still a war in what we now consider a relatively local holiday region, and it cost a lot of lives, so why ignore it?

26 JUNE, 1915: Hope and Hopelessness

After a short spell of personal chaos – wandering about hot places in a heatwave, mind reduced to steamy half measures, time and deadlines lost in the haze – thoughts turn naturally to the institutionalised chaos of the Russian Empire in 1915.   By late June of that year the Tsarist regime had been at war for almost eleven months, and had nothing positive to show for it.

On the Eastern Font, Russian forces had been swept back by German and Austrian attacks, had regained ground with a series of reactive counterattacks, had failed to get a confused, multi-headed offensive plan for the first half of 1915 off the ground, and were currently licking their wounds after another German-led offensive had driven them into a major retreat.  Galicia, Kurland, Lithuania, much of Belorussia and Poland, with its vital coal mines and heavy industries, had been lost.  The central high command, Stavka, had been exposed as a shambles of factional in-fighting and personal whim, manpower losses had been huge, and the only saving grace attached to an equally enormous sacrifice of equipment was that hardly any modern weaponry had so far made it to the battlefield.

Matters were proceeding more smoothly on the Caucasian Front, where a relatively tiny secondary force was guarding Russia’s long-term ambitions towards the Mediterranean and had repelled a poorly conceived, ill-managed Turkish offensive from Armenia.  At sea, a Russian Navy still recovering from the trauma of defeat by Japan a decade earlier was trading raids with Turkish forces in the Black Sea and doing nothing much in the Baltic.  All in all Russia’s War was going badly wrong, but thanks to the feebleness of Austrian and Turkish war efforts, and because even the best German efforts couldn’t overcome contemporary technology’s tendency to stalemate, it hadn’t quite become hopeless.

So hope persisted in Moscow and St. Petersburg – which housed pretty much everyone empowered or informed in Russia, along with most of the Empire’s industry, industrial workers and revolutionaries – and like everything else that happened in or to Russia, hope stirred up the political crisis that had been threatening for decades to tear the Empire apart .

This isn’t the place to embark on a political history of Russia, so I’ll take short cuts.  Until 1906 Tsar’ Nicholas II, not a particularly intelligent or firm-willed man, had ruled European Russia, Central Asia, large chunks of Transcaucasia and Poland as an autocrat, appointing chosen men to all important administrative posts, most of them from a bloated, spectacularly conservative aristocratic class.  While this was barely noticed by the vast, peasant majority of the country’s 166 million people (in 1914), most of them subsisting in essentially feudal conditions, the few million gathered in the two main cities were living in the modern world and ripe for uprising.

Revolution came in 1905, in the aftermath of military defeat by Japan, and forced Nicholas to accept constitutional government. A parliament, the Duma, was elected on a narrow franchise, and a collection of moderate liberals and acquiescent conservatives sat from the following year. The Tsar and his advisors quickly lapsed into complacent repression, ignoring the promises of 1905, and by 1912, when revolutionary industrial unrest erupted anew, the Duma had ceased to provide an effective focus for political opposition and street socialism had reclaimed the baton.  Almost half the entire industrial workforce was involved in strikes during the first half of 1914, and Soviet historians would later argue that only the outbreak of war prevented revolution that year.  Meanwhile the landed classes, conservatives in the Duma, industrial interests and court reactionaries went right on relying on repression as if nothing was changing.

Across almost the whole established political spectrum (the exception being the Duma’s 21-strong socialist group), the outbreak of war was greeted by righteous enthusiasm comparable with that elsewhere in Europe, leaving the Tsar’s regime free to blunder on in the usual way. And blunder it did, wiping out a third of its tax revenues by outlawing vodka on moral grounds, leaving military strategy to a collection of bickering aristocrats without firm supervision, and making no effort to reform an economic system that meant the government was simply a customer to profiteering industrialists. Political consensus survived the setbacks of 1914, but crumbled after the military disasters of spring and early summer 1915, when hope brought together the ambitions of liberal reformers in the Duma and pragmatic reformers among the ruling elite.

On 26 June one of the latter, General Alexei Polivanov, moved up from deputy to the post of war minister, after a successful defamation campaign against his particularly corrupt and debauched predecessor, General Sukhomlinov. Polivanov sponsored the immediate formation of a War Industries Committee, working closely with its new head, Aleksandr Guchkov, the Duma’s leading moderate liberal and a vital link between political and industrial interests. The Committee coordinated orders to big companies and their supply, and formed local committees to maximise exploitation of smaller industries. By the autumn it had established special councils for the supply of defence, food, fuel and transport, each including representatives of the government, the Duma, industry and the royal Council of State.

The plan worked. It may only have worked because efficient trading guaranteed enormous profits for Russia’s biggest industrial companies, but during the next year Russian military-industrial output mushroomed, so that by the time the Russian Army set out to recover lost ground in June 1916, it was relatively well-equipped.

Mere efficiency was never going to transform Russia into a modern state. The surge was funded from coal and iron reserves, and maintained by cutbacks to civilian requirements that stripped the agricultural sector, upset powerful landowners from western Russia and contributed to desperate food shortages in cities swollen by refugees from a depressed countryside. It couldn’t be sustained, and industrial output began to fall again in 1916.

Meanwhile the Tsar’s romantic commitment to old-school repressive autocracy, strongly encouraged by his wife, premier Goremykin and the rest of the unreconstructed old guard, hadn’t long tolerated the creeping tide of liberalism.  A very mild programme of political reform proposed by an alliance of centre-right Duma and Council of State members was rejected in late August, and in September the Duma, equally afraid of repression from above and revolution from below, meekly accepted its suspension and the removal of liberal ministers.

Polivanov himself would last until March 1916, by which time the pendulum would have swung all the way back to the ultra-conservatives… but that’s a story for another day, as are the shambles of the Tsar’s personal assumption of command at Stavka and the next phase of the Empire’s epic implosion.  For now my point is that, given a tiny widow of opportunity at a time of crisis, a few practical men managed, for good or ill, to keep Russia in the war to end wars, at least for a while.  An anniversary worth mentioning, and one you won’t be hearing about on television.