19 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Viva Vilnius!

Having rambled on at length about the Balkans and the First World War, it would be a shame to ignore the effects of the conflict on the Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania form another of Europe’s traditional trade conduits and, like the Balkans, have suffered the predations of bigger, more powerful nations as a consequence. All three states were provinces of the Russian Empire in 1914, but a hundred years ago today the German advance in the northern sector of the Eastern Front took Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The whole of modern Lithuania remained under German control for the rest of the War – and I’ll keep the focus there for now.

Part of the country had been under German occupation for some time. A strip near the frontier with East Prussia had been occupied in March 1915, and in April a German advance designed as a distraction from the main Eastern Front offensive further south had taken the whole of western Lithuania. The offensive that took Vilnius was also a secondary operation, a minor element of that summer’s German Triple Offensive.

Essentially a pursuit of the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ begun in late July, the northern wing of the German advance ran out of steam a few days later in the face of minor Russian counterattacks. When Germany officially halted offensive operations on 26 September, it controlled all of Lithuania and about half of Latvia, with the front line running south from the outskirts of Riga.  Despite occasional Russian attempts to push the line back beyond Vilnius, that’s pretty much where it remained until 1918.

Meanwhile, in Vilnius, German occupation breathed life into the long-suppressed cause of Lithuanian nationalism. While claims to independence by Lithuanian exiles eventually found focus with appeals to US President Wilson, nationalist politicians inside the country were encouraged by the German decision to create a Polish Republic (under a puppet government) in 1916.  Primarily concerned with milking Lithuania’s resources for the war effort, German authorities played it canny, making encouraging noises but postponing any decision about the nation’s future until after the War.  But the Germans changed their minds after the collapse of Russia in late 1917 and tried to set up a puppet state, triggering a decade of dangerous instability in the region.

A national assembly, the Taryba, was established under German auspices, and proclaimed a new Kingdom of Lithuania.  The crown was offered to a German princeling, Wilhelm of Urach, who became King Mindove II in July 1918.  Dependent on German support, the monarchy was overthrown in November, after which nationalist and Soviet regimes competed for control of the country during the upheavals of the Russian Civil War.

Lithuanian independence was formally achieved in 1920, but it took another three years to clear German elements from the west, and Polish forces (originally invited into the country to fight Red Army incursions) occupied parts of Vilnius until 1927. Thirteen turbulent years later, Lithuania would be annexed by the Soviet Union and, apart from three years under German control during the Second World War, it would remain a satellite of Moscow until the re-establishment of independence in 1990.

The point of this skim over the Baltic is two-pronged.  First, although the northern sector of the Eastern Front was always something of an afterthought for military planners, it is worth noticing that Lithuania and its neighbours were damaged and changed by the conflict.  Secondly, as modern Russia flexes its expansionist muscles and EU unity wobbles around multiple socioeconomic crises, I see no harm in a reminder of the vulnerability and volatility that always afflicts small states caught between competing empires.  So be nice to Lithuanians.  They’ve suffered.

6 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Caveat Emptor

A big war can absorb smaller conflicts.  The Balkan Wars were barely over, and almost certain to break out again, when the First World War swamped the geopolitical landscape and froze the Balkan situation for a time.  Serbia and Montenegro fought for their lives, and everyone else involved – Greece, Macedonia, Turkey, Romania, Croatia, Bulgaria et al – suspended Balkan arguments on a wait-and-see basis.  It was a hundred years ago, on 6 September 1915, that the kingdom of Bulgaria signed the Pless Convention with Germany, tossing the Balkan cats back in the bag for the next round, and turning the Balkan Wars into a subdivision of the First World War.

Lots to explain here, so we’ll start with a quick resumé of the Balkan Wars. Historically the great overland trading route between Europe and Asia, the multi-ethnic Balkans were a chronically unstable mix of regional antagonisms and Great Power politics in the early twentieth century. The independent nations of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia contested turbulent and fluctuating frontier zones with the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and with each other.

Areas of conflict included independent Albania (which was also being eyed by Italy) and Montenegro, the Austrian imperial provinces of Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and western Croatia, and the parts of Thrace and Macedonia recently vacated by the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile Romania was looking to expand in Greece and Bulgaria, Russia supported Slav independence because it prevented Austria-Hungary getting anywhere near the Dardanelles, and France was nurturing political ambitions in the Aegean.

This powder keg was eventually ignited by Ottoman political and military feebleness, which encouraged Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro to attack and defeat Turkish forces during the First Balkan War of 1912, pushing the Ottoman border east to the outskirts of Constantinople. The Second Balkan War followed next year when Bulgaria, unhappy with its share of the spoils from 1912, attacked Greek and Serbian forces, only to lose badly and suffer an immediate invasion by Romania. The peace that ended the conflict cost Bulgaria much of its northeastern territory, gave Greece control of almost all the Aegean coast and left Serbia almost double its pre-war size.

With me so far? If you are, you’ll probably have worked out that, while it licked its wounds and listened to the siren songs of Great Power diplomats during the War’s first year, Bulgaria wanted payback.

Bulgaria had taken its first big step away from the Ottoman Empire in 1878, becoming an autonomous principality. In 1908 the Young Turk revolution in Turkey gave Prince Ferdinand the chance to establish an independent kingdom, and re-style himself Tsar Ferdinand.  Russian support, always available for enemies of Constantinople, sustained Bulgaria through this period, but even stronger Russian support for Serbia had chilled relations with Sofia by 1914.  By the time war broke out the Bulgarian regime was well on the way to exchanging St. Petersburg for Vienna and Berlin.

The Tsar was subject to a parliamentary veto but the largely rural nation’s parliament was dominated by conservative landowners, and generally at one with the monarchy’s expansionist policies. The pro-Austrian Radoslavov became prime minister in 1913, and elections in March 1914 increased parliamentary support for the Central Powers. Parliament did object to the terms of large-scale reconstruction loans from Austria-Hungary and Germany in June 1914 – which put railways and coal mines in foreign hands – but not for long. The Bulgarian economy was dependent on imported manufactured goods, metals and industrial raw materials, and more than half the country’s imports came from Austria-Hungary and Germany.

Bulgaria’s links to the Central Powers meant little in the frenzied diplomatic atmosphere of the War’s first year, and Ferdinand earned the nickname ‘fox of the Balkans’ while he juggled offers of Turkish territory from the Entente and of Serbian territory from the Central Powers. By the late summer of 1915, Russian defeats on the Eastern Front and Anglo-French failure at the Dardanelles had made up Ferdinand’s mind, and the Pless Convention followed right here.

The Convention – along with a mutual defence treaty signed with the Central Powers in Sofia on the same day – committed Bulgaria to joining an invasion of Serbia within thirty-five days (of which more another day), and to fighting Greece or Romania should either join the War on the Entente side. From a Bulgarian point of view these were not difficult commitments to make, especially when sweetened with promises of post-war control over parts of Macedonia, Greece and Romania – but there was a catch.

Germany spent the entire First World War struggling to maintain vital import supplies in the face of the Royal Navy’s blockade operation, and needed to strip every possible source of food and raw materials it could get its hands on. So the financial and military aid that was part of the Pless package came in return for priority claims on, among other things, Bulgarian exports of mineral ores and food, marking the beginning of a cycle of ruthless economic exploitation that worked out badly for both sides. Bulgarian entrepreneurs rushed to fulfil lucrative German orders, condemning Bulgarian civilians to a dour wartime struggle against starvation and deprivation, but the primitive nature of Bulgarian infrastructure and agriculture meant that export surpluses never came close to matching German expectations. By late 1917, when Bulgaria’s military contribution had dwindled to irrelevance, the alliance had become deeply unpopular in both countries, and by early the following year it had ceased to function in any meaningful way.

By mid-1918, popular socialism and republicanism had become a clear threat  to the Tsar’s regime.  As the Central Powers’ war effort fell apart in the autumn, Ferdinand’s abdication in favour of his son was followed by a period of revolutionary unrest and the establishment of a peasant-based republican government.  The republic was then forced to accept a punitive peace treaty that left the country smaller and poorer than it had been before Pless, and remained unstable either side of a coup that restored the monarchy in 1923.

Bulgaria’s participation in the First World War brought nothing but danger, doubt and discomfort to its people while destabilising its political system and draining its economy.   Though Bulgaria chose what was in the end the losing side, and so faced the additional burden of diplomatic isolation in the aftermath, its story is broadly typical of those smaller countries seduced into the wider conflict by the promise of local gains.   In the process of absorbing  smaller, pre-existing conflicts, the War tended to bleed their participants dry, wreck their internal stability and leave them for dead in the post-war era.  Why bother telling you this?  Because a continent full of small, essentially broken states, riddled with social, economic and political problems, was an ideal breeding ground for future wars.

5 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Sowing Seeds

This seems a good moment to settle down with a cup of tea and reflect on two very different yet connected events that took place on Sunday, 5 September 1915.  In Russia, Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of the high command, Stavka; and in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, international socialism made its first attempt at rebirth since the Second International’s effective collapse in August 1914.  I’ll start with Zimmerwald.

As everyone ought to know, international socialism was generally accepted as a major force in world politics before 1914.  The leaders of industrialised nations feared, and many socialist leaders believed, that the pacifist declaration made by the Second International at Basel in 1912 would persuade some or all of its nine million members to refuse to fight against other workers if and when war came. That wasn’t how things worked out. Deprived of its most respected voice on the eve of war by the assassination of the Frenchman, Jean Jaurès – and half way through a year marked by popular anti-war demonstrations all over Western Europe – socialist pacifism failed to make any impact whatsoever on the war fever of 1914.  Its collapse was a shock from which the Second International never recovered, and the organisation had ceased to function long before it was officially disbanded in 1916.

Socialist parties in all the belligerent countries except Russia and Serbia reacted to pacifism’s sudden fall from grace by picking up a rifle and marching to a patriotic tune, but by 1915 at least some of their leaders were ready to take part in attempts to revive international socialism.  These centred on neutral Switzerland, the preferred place of exile for the more revolutionary European socialists, and culminated in September’s Zimmerwald Conference.

The Conference didn’t go particularly well, or achieve much more than an agreement to hold a second conference the following year. That failed too, but Zimmerwald’s real significance lies in those failures.

Debate proceeded along lines well established since the turn of the century. A minority of revolutionaries, with Lenin among their most outspoken leaders, sought the overthrow of governments, while a majority of more moderate ‘gradualists’ believed in improving the world by working within their states’ political and legal frameworks.

The two sides were no more inclined to agreement than they had ever been, so at the end of the conference the gradualists went back to the war, and could hardly prioritise socialist progress while the conflict raged on (and on).  Meanwhile the revolutionaries stayed in exile and reaped the benefits of the stresses and upheaval placed on belligerent states by the great carnage.  When those stresses overwhelmed a major belligerent state, Russia, and were exploited by Lenin’s Bolshevik coup, the nexus of international socialism shifted from Western Europe to the east, and stayed there.  At the end of the First World War most gradualists returned to mainstream national politics, while revolution remained the name of international socialism’s game for the next few decades.

While Zimmerwald was, by default, setting the table for future revolution, the Russian Tsar was taking a big step towards serving his empire up on a plate.  The disastrous decision to take personal command of Stavka was, unlike much in the life of Nicholas II, pretty much all his own work.

Nobody doubted that Stavka was in need of change, but as long as the Tsar’s appointees held command they could be, and were, held responsible for its failures.  For vast swathes of the Russian population, including many men and women rich and educated enough to know better, the Tsar remained a god-like figure, above the petty failings of his subjects, immune from blame or retribution.

Sadly court life – opinionated, deeply conservative and careful to stress the perfection of all the Tsar’s actions – could lead an autocrat into a dangerous belief in his own gifts.  The same environment gave those closest to the Tsar plenty of opportunity to exert influence over a monarch who can charitably be described as impressionable.

The Tsar’s decision to take over Stavka, and put himself in the firing line for any future setbacks, was bolstered by determined support from an ultra-conservative court party led by the Tsarina Alexandra and, in her shadow, the bizarre figure of Gregor Rasputin.  Wiser heads concerned for the survival of the monarchy did everything short of assassinate Nicholas to dissuade him from an act they rightly considered a triumph of symbolism over intelligence, but their conspiracies and petitions came to nothing. Always stubborn if challenged, Nicholas formally took command at Stavka on 5 September.  As history records, and I will no doubt mention in future, the move didn’t pay off for the Romanovs.

Both events were noted at the time, but they took place on a Sunday and were less exciting than all fluid, sensational news coming from the battlefronts.   Anzacs were throwing themselves hopelessly against Turkish defences at Gallipoli.  Italian and Austrian troops were getting used to trench warfare in the mountains.  If the Western Front was rumbling with little more than heavy skirmishes, dramatic German advances were still sending Russian armies tumbling east from Poland.  Greece and Bulgaria were pulsing with political crisis, as was Persia.  Turks, Armenians and Russians were squabbling over the same ground in the Caucasus, and Anglo-Indian generals in Mesopotamia were squabbling about whether to advance towards Baghdad.  Action was taking place all over the world, but for my money (though not, obviously, for the heritage industry’s) the two seeds of revolution sown in Zimmerwald and Petrograd are a shoo-in as world-changers of the week.

31 AUGUST, 1915: Peace in the Valley

On August 31 1915, a strike by some 32,000 miners in South Wales came to a formal end, bringing to a close a summer of discontent in the region’s collieries that had shaken the nation to its core.

Back in March, the Asquith government had finalised the Treasury Agreement with a significant majority of British unions, a move that helped mobilise the economy for modern warfare and transformed the nation’s industrial relations. While it calmed controversy over ‘diluted’ labour, the Agreement still left room for pay disputes – and in particular for a long-running dispute between miners and employers in South Wales.

Details aren’t my business here. They can be looked up, as can opinions stating that the miners were greedy and arguments that the employers were greedy. My view is that the miners, working to archaic pay agreements and hard hit by spiralling living costs, were quite justified in demanding incremental pay increases, and that mine owners were unlikely to suffer much hardship as a consequence – but that’s just emotion talking and beside the point. The point is that 250,000 miners in South Wales went on strike in mid-July, defying an ill-judged government attempt to apply the Munitions Act, which rendered the strike illegal and the miners liable to arrest.

Because South Wales was the chief supplier of coal to the Navy, political mayhem erupted when the strike began on 14 July, and for the same reason the government didn’t let it last long. A high-powered delegation led by Lloyd George, without question the minister most qualified and able to parley with socialist-leaning Welsh miners on a mission, caved in to most of the miners’ demands in Cardiff on 19 July, and work resumed next day. The strike had cost an estimated million tons of coal output, outraged right-wing opinion and taught the government the limits of its power to dictate labour relations… or almost.

A few weeks later, the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman – no political ally of Lloyd George – sparked a second, smaller strike over his interpretation of the July agreement. Some 32,000 miners struck, and the government was again obliged to concede to their demands before the strike ended on the last day of the month.

That return to work did mark the sea change in industrial relations that the government had hoped would take place in March. For the rest of the year strikes in Britain were uniformly small affairs, and the overall number days lost to strikes in 1915 came out lower than at any time since 1910. The downward trend would continue through 1916, and not rise again until the last year of the war.

So yes, as the heritage story goes, the British government and labour force did get together to create a modern war economy during the Great War – but it wasn’t just a matter of mutual wisdom and patriotic handshakes all round. To make mutual compromise between employers and workers equitable and sustainable, some British citizens had to fight for their share and hold the nation to ransom.

AUGUST 20, 1915: Harbinger

Just a quick note to remind anybody not paying attention that, a hundred years ago today, Russian aircraft bombed the Topkaneh arsenal in Constantinople. So what? So the Russian Army Air Service performed most of the tasks carried out by First World War air forces with borrowed or inferior aircraft, and was generally more characterised by bravery that effectiveness, but it was way ahead of the rest of the world in one, dark aspect of aerial warfare. I’m talking about strategic heavy bombing, possibly the most gruesome of all the terrible legacies left us by the First World War, and a hideous blight on human history ever since.

While the western pioneers of powered flight were scrambling to design faster, more manoeuvrable single- or two-seaters for interception and ground support work, and while the theorists of heavy bombing as a war-winning strategy awaited machines capable of the task, one Russian engineer was producing bombers of the future by the time the War broke out. By 1915 the Russian Air Force was using them as fleets to deliver heavy, long-range attacks on enemy targets, setting an example to be followed by strategic bombing believers all the way to Hiroshima and ‘Shock and Awe’.

The designer in question was Igor Sikorski. A genius destined to become the greatest name in Russian aviation, he had built the world’s first four-engined aircraft, ‘Le Grand’, in 1913, and by the following February his improved ‘Ilya Mourometz’ model entered service as a passenger aircraft. Named after a mythical Russian hero, the IM was an astonishingly advanced machine, featuring twin tailfins and an enclosed cockpit, and when war broke out the Russian Army began ordering the ‘flying ships’ as bombers.

Before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution halted production, a total of 73 IMs were built for the Russian Air Service, and they carried out more than four hundred heavy bombing missions, most of them against targets along the Eastern Front, in Germany or in Austria-Hungary. Heavily armed and reliable, they were steadily refined during the course of the War, so that later models could carry bomb loads of up to 700kg and featured a machine-gun turret in the tail. Thanks to their deadly array of well-positioned guns and because interceptors couldn’t fly through the backdraft from their four big engines, they proved almost impossible to shoot down. Only one IM was lost to enemy attack, along with two to mechanical failure, and they went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War.

The raid on the Turkish arsenal was, like all Russian heavy bomber attacks, conducted on a relatively small scale using primitive bombs. It came on the same day that Italy belatedly declared war against the Ottoman Empire, a useful coincidence because you can’t talk about the early days of heavy bombing without mentioning Italy.

The theory that massed heavy bombing of its homeland would bring an enemy to its knees was pioneered by an Italian theorist, Douhet, and was well known throughout the West by 1914, but nobody had a Sikorski. By the later years of the War, two-and four-engined German, British, Italian and French designs would be able to deliver long-range attacks, using purpose-designed aerial bombs capable of causing serious damage to buildings and installations – but they were never available in sufficient numbers to carry out the kind of devastating attacks envisaged by strategic bombing theorists.

In any case, the theorists were never going to get their way.  Despite the enthusiasm of men like RFC commander Trenchard and his protégé, Harris, the barbaric practice of attacking civilians with vast amounts of ordnance was never seriously considered in the relatively civilised atmosphere of the First World War. That gruesome, doomed experiment would get fully underway in its aftermath.