16 AUGUST, 1915: Sea Change

Today in 1915, the German Navy launched the main thrust of a major operation against the Russian (now Latvian) port of Riga, one of the Russian Navy’s most important bases in the Baltic Sea.

The attack involved about half the German High Seas Fleet, which had so far been dedicated to giving the British something to worry about in the North Sea. It was intended to neutralise the much smaller Russian force stationed in the port, and so provide support for advances taking place on the Eastern Front. In practical terms, the German plan was to clear the minefields that had protected Riga since the autumn, bombard the city and destroy its principle warships, chief among them the pre-dreadnought battleship Slava, and then block the port with German mines. It didn’t work, and for the usual reasons.

While two old battleships kept the Slava busy and the rest of the German fleet waited offshore to discourage Russian naval reinforcement, minesweepers went to work on 8 August, but were unable to clear a passage before darkness fell and the attempt was suspended. Various German fleet units were then dispatched to bombard Russian positions on small islands in the vicinity, inflicting only minor damage, before a second, more ambitious attempt to clear a passage through the Gulf of Riga opened on 16 August.

Two dreadnoughts, three cruisers and 31 minesweepers had fought their way past Russian defences by the next day, damaging the Slava in the process. By 19 August Russian minefields had been cleared, and the German force entered the Gulf. So far, so good for the High Seas Fleet, but just as the big warships were poised to complete the kind of victory that might restore their damaged fighting reputation, they fell victim to caution.

Failure to make full use of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers was bad, but losing one or more of the hugely expensive things was much, much worse, so unconfirmed reports of British and Russian submarines in the area were enough to prompt a rapid withdrawal of the entire German force on the following day. Minor damage aside, the operation had cost the German Navy two destroyers and the Russians a single gunboat.  Riga would remain an operational Russian base until September 1917.

Apart from highlighting the switch in German emphasis to the Eastern Front in 1915, and once again demonstrating the Catch-22 that hobbled the great warships of the First World War, this ultimately insignificant naval battle also gives me a chance to mention another of the conflict’s forgotten fronts, the Baltic Sea.

The Baltic was the main theatre of operations for the Russian Navy, which fought a continuous battle against German units in the southern and eastern Baltic from August 1914. Russia’s main aim was to prevent German penetration of the Gulf of Finland, which led to Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was now known), but the navy was also charged with disrupting German trade to and from Scandinavia. Although redeployments from the North Sea occasionally gave German forces an advantage, they were generally outnumbered in the theatre, never had any intention of approaching Petrograd, and were primarily concerned with protecting their trade routes.

At the start of the War neither side felt confident of dominating the Baltic. The Russian fleet simply holed up in the Gulf of Finland behind a field of 4,000 mines and dared the Germans to come after them, while the Germans opted for a defensive approach and laid their own minefields. In September, having taken the measure of German naval weakness in the theatre, the Russians moved west, re-establishing bases in the Gulf of Riga and protecting them with more minefields.

This set a pattern. Major operations like that of August 1915 were the exceptions in a campaign that revolved around minelaying for the next three years. By the end of 1915, the Russians had laid about 4,000 more mines in the Baltic, including fields off the German coast, while a smaller number of German minelayers never stopped working, and both sides soon built up substantial minesweeping fleets. The main targets for mines were cargo vessels, with Russian fields in particular taking a steady toll of merchant shipping throughout the conflict.

Submarine warfare was another, albeit marginal feature of the Baltic campaign. German and Russian boats enjoyed almost no success in the theatre, but were used to some effect as minelayers. British submarines (five of them were in the Baltic by October 1915) fared better, inflicting sufficient damage on German merchantmen to prompt the transfer of several big ships from the North Sea to protect trade routes.

The unceasing battle between minelayers and minesweepers in the Baltic, with major warships watching from safe harbours, was as marginal to the War’s outcome as it was intense. It was eventually ended in late 1917 by the collapse of the Russian war effort, at which point the Russian Navy was ahead on points. Having sunk three times as much shipping as it had lost, it had escaped the eventual capture of Riga by German land forces and arrived without serious damage in the Gulf of Finland, where it lay idle when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended hostilities between Russia and Germany.

Like the ‘mosquito’ war fought in the northern Adriatic, the Baltic campaign evolved into an example of modern naval war, and as such was another slap in face for pre-War naval planners wedded to the nineteenth-century doctrine of fleet warfare… and now you know it happened.

5 AUGUST, 1915: No Silver Lining

A year in, and I’m going for a slight change of approach, partly because some of the tasks I’ve set myself turn out to be a bridge too far for someone with a life – Big Guns spring to mind – and partly because the initial impetus behind this extended rant is becoming less and less pertinent. I started blogging in an attempt to provide some small antidote to the crass, partial and tabloid reporting of the War provided by the British commemorative industry, but the heritage business has, in its market-driven way, moved on.

The Blessed BBC is still plugging away with a commemorative effort, and is at least managing some kind of global approach, albeit predicated on the modern idea that emotion and information are one and the same. The broadsheet newspapers are still providing the occasional discussion of events that changed the world a hundred years ago, and their very few readers can at least rely on a degree of expertise from correspondents. The tabloid press has lost interest in anything but ‘human interest’ horror stories, and the Anglophone Internet is still pouring out a torrent of bare facts, Top-Gear-style military talk for boys and patriotic jingoism for the benefit of those interested enough to go looking. Very little if any of it is having much impact on the public at large, and so there’s not much left to correct or criticise.

Instead I plan to concentrate on making the one big point nobody else seems much concerned to emphasise: that the modern world was shaped by First World War, and that no single event in human history, including the Second World War, can match its power to explain how we live today. That should, in theory, mean less military detail and more sweeping generalisations, less justification of my opinions and more accessible one-liners by way of expression. So here’s a quick look at the Battle of Malazgirt, an action that means nothing to most British people, but that helped define the future of the vast, near-eastern region known as the Caucasus.

A hundred years ago today, Russian General Yudenich, a commander making a solid reputation for efficient defensive warfare using very limited resources, launched a counterattack intended to halt a limited Turkish offensive on the Caucasian Front. The offensive had been ordered by Turkey’s disastrously ambitious war minister, Enver Pasha, to clear Ottoman Armenia of Russian forces.

The advance had begun on 10 July. Despite interference from Armenian nationalists and a lack of manpower made more acute by diversion of troops to the Gallipoli Front, it had made some progress, forcing Russian forces around Lake Van to retreat to the north and east. Ottoman units took the town of Mus on 27 July, with grim consequences for its Armenian population, and were ordered into further advance, in spite of problems caused by long, feeble supply lines, but in line with the optimism and opportunism that characterised Enver’s approach to warfare.

Yudenich drew the attackers forward and gathered what reserves he had before counterattacking on 5 August, directing his main thrust against the Ottoman northern flank at the Plain of Malazgirt and backing it with secondary attacks all along the line. The Turkish offensive collapsed into headlong and costly retreat, but Yudenich was losing troops to a simultaneous crisis on the Eastern Front and in no position to exploit the victory. By late August the front had stabilised along a sparse and broken line east of Rize, Erzerum and Bitlis.  I realise this would be clearer with a map, or at least with transliterations of the place names involved, but there are no decent maps to be had and far too many transliterations, so anyone that interested should consider it a research challenge.

So what? So that was the end of Enver Pasha’s offensive ambitions in the Caucasus for a year, and the Russians were in no position to launch another offensive in the area until early 1916. The breathing space enabled those Turkish forces still occupying the bulk of modern Armenia to continue and expand the attempted genocide known as the Armenian Massacres, and that consequence of renewed stalemate on the Caucasian Front is still a live, dangerous issue in the region.

30 JULY, 1915: A Voice from the Past

A century ago today, the papacy made one of its periodic efforts to change the course of history, when Pope Benedict XV sent a letter to the heads of all belligerent states appealing for peace and outlining the principles upon which it should be based. In truth this was a token gesture because nobody, including the Vatican, expected it to have any effect at all. It was duly ignored, subsequent efforts would meet the same fate, and it’s fair to say the papacy has been a powerless footnote in the face of warfare ever since.

So why bother mentioning the letter of 30 July 1915? Well, unaccustomed as I am to being nice about organised religion, it seems to me the papacy has been given a bit of a bad press by heritage commentators – or rather no press at all, so that its reputation around modern warfare rests on the much-deplored performance of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. Without for one moment suggesting that the Vatican was much use to a world engulfed by the ego-driven madness of secular states, its First World War incarnation does merit some sympathy and a pat on the back for trying.

The War had started badly for the papacy. The incumbent pontiff, Pius X, died on 20 August 1914, throwing the Vatican into the turmoil of a hasty selection process that saw Giacomo della Chiesa elected as Benedict XV on 3 September. A cardinal for only four months but regarded as an able diplomat, Benedict’s first attempt to act as a conduit for peace was a proposal for a general truce at Christmas 1914. Delivered at a moment when a direct appeal from God would probably have fallen on deaf ears, it met with predictable silence from all sides, and from early the following year the Vatican’s international influence was drastically undermined by its unavoidable attachment to Italy.

As pro-War factions took the ascendancy, papal peace mongering was viewed with increasing suspicion by the political class in Italy, and attitudes were hardened by Benedict’s role in promoting talks between Rome and Vienna aimed at avoiding war. When signing up to enter the War on the side of the Entente powers, the Italian government persuaded its new allies to agree, by a clause in the secret Treaty of London, to ignore any future peace proposals from the Vatican. Meanwhile in Germany, and above all in Protestant Prussia, the Pope was being denounced as a pawn of the Entente, his diplomatic approaches to Vienna dismissed as a cunning plan to weaken Germany’s alliance structure.

While repeatedly announcing its strict neutrality in the face of accusations from both sides, the Vatican could only perform minor charitable works for victims of the War, and make a show of fulfilling its global obligations to the faithful in the face of utter disdain from the Christian states at war. The letter of July 1915 functioned primarily as a reminder to neutral audiences that the Pope still wanted peace, and that the Vatican still refused to fall into either warring camp.

Two years down the line, with war-weariness on his side, Benedict would make a second, more concerted attempt to broker peace, but his proposals would again be brushed aside by European powers, and dismissed by US President Wilson as an endorsement of the pre-War status quo. Despite the Vatican’s claim to a major role in the post-War peace process the Pope would not receive an invitation to the Paris Conference of 1919, and Benedict would go on to issue several denunciations of the punitive Versailles Treaty in the years before his death in 1922.

So the big story about the Papacy during the First World War is that it never managed to become a big story, and the sub-plot tells us that, for once, failure to exert any significant influence over the dogs of war wasn’t the Vatican’s fault. Like so much else we dismiss as evidence of human and institutional culpability during the First World War, the papacy was trapped into impotence by the circumstances of the times.