13 OCTOBER, 1915: La Différence

A hundred years ago today Théophile Delcassé, the French foreign minister, resigned. The architect of prewar French diplomacy as foreign minister from 1898 until 1905, and a former navy minister, Delcassé had been recalled to the foreign office by the new Viviani government in August 1914, and was one of its most prestigious figures, particularly on the international stage. A firm supporter of complete strategic focus on the Western Front, his departure came in protest at Anglo-French commitment of resources to Salonika, and was the substantial straw that broke the fragile back of the French government. Within a fortnight, the Viviani regime would be gone, and this seems a good time to dispel any easy assumptions that French democratic government bore much resemblance to its British counterpart in 1915.

In Britain, the elected government controlled the armed forces. In France, the armed forces controlled the elected government. I could just leave it at that, point simply made, but the difference made a difference to the big picture, so it merits a bit of explanation.

Where the British system of government was enshrined in tradition and had developed since the seventeenth century through reform rather than revolution, French democracy was a volatile beast, with a lively history of upheaval and overthrow since its birth in revolution. The assumptions, broadly speaking basic to the British political psyche, that patterns of power and the comfortable prestige of those wielding it were fixed, didn’t apply to politicians in France. They did apply to the French Army.

Like the Royal Navy in Britain, the French Army basked in the glories of its Napoleonic past, and was generally viewed as the foundation and spirit of the nation. But where the Royal Navy was part of, and committed to, the political status quo, the French Army (again broadly speaking) regarded democracy in general and the Republic’s constitution in particular with what can at best be described as suspicious tolerance. Meanwhile a substantial majority of the body politic regarded the Army as the nation’s sole credible authority in time of struggle – in particular, ever since the catastrophic defeat by Germany in the war of 1870–71 – and saw politicians as collectively to blame for any setbacks along the way, a point of view assiduously encouraged by the more politically inclined among the military.

The semi-permanent struggle in France between a strong military and a weak political establishment took a major turn in the summer of 1914. The outbreak of war inevitably strengthened the Army’s position, and while President Poincaré was no mere figurehead, the crisis found a novice premier, Viviani, at the helm of government. Viviani was serving his first stint in a job that most of the big hitters in French politics had occupied more than once. A compromise leader and nobody’s strong man, he could exert no more than marginal influence on the military juggernaut let loose in August, and the government’s only real role in the military disasters that followed was to take the blame.

Circumstances weakened the government’s position still further during the first months of the War. At the height of the invasion crisis, with Paris under threat, it had moved to Bordeaux. When it returned the nation was under martial law and the capital had been included in the ‘Zone of the Armies’, making it effectively part of the front line and subjecting the cabinet to military authority. It didn’t help that the ultimate authority was Joffre, whose contempt for all things political knew no bounds and whose word could not be challenged after his victory at the Marne.

By the autumn of 1915, the government had survived a year as the Army’s supply dogsbody, struggling to mobilise a nation that was industrially backward by Anglo-German standards and had lost its most productive region – including two-thirds of iron and steel capacity, forty percent of coal output and a sixth of the industrial workforce – to German occupation. As military demands mushroomed and the military failures piled up, Viviani’s cabinet absorbed blame from the military, the press and the populace, while Viviani himself stood accused of failure to control the Army on one hand, and failure to meet its needs on the other. With no obvious successor champing to receive the poisoned chalice of government, cabinet survival depended on an appearance of unity and the continued support of senior political figures. Obviously divided over strategic priorities and deprived of Delcassé, government authority dwindled beyond repair.

Very little changed when Viviani resigned in late October. His government was replaced by another coalition under the more prestigious figure of moderate socialist leader Aristide Briand, whose third term (of six) as premier would last for eighteen months. The military continued to dominate political authority in France, and although Joffre would eventually be out-manoeuvred and removed at the end of 1916, the repeated failure of his offensive tactics and the defensive carnage he supervised at Verdun had much more to do with his fall from grace than any strengthening of civilian authority.

A hundred years on, popular views of the First World War tend to assume that Britain and France – neighbours, democracies and allies – were cut from the same, essentially parliamentary, sociopolitical cloth. They weren’t then, and nobody with an eye on history thought they were. They aren’t now, but we’re not so good at history these days.

6 OCTOBER, 1915: Big Hammer, Small Nut

Now here’s a rarity for this stage in the War:  a plan that worked.  A hundred years ago today, as mentioned only yesterday, German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces invaded Serbia on two fronts. Within two months, the country had been conquered and most of the invasion’s limited objectives achieved, at which point the invaders secured their gains and redeployed resources back to other fronts. The attack’s only failure lay in allowing the remains of the Serbian Army to retreat into Albania, but chasing it across the mountains would have risked heavy casualties in a largely symbolic cause, and it would be a long time before Serbian forces troubled the Central Powers again.  So what was the secret of the year’s only complete offensive success?

The answer is that there was no secret.  For once, the offensive tactics and technology of 1915, efficiently used, found circumstances ideal for their success.  The offensive method in question, breakthrough tactics, has been described before, and amounted to massive concentration of men and firepower against a single point of the enemy defence.  Breakthrough tactics had failed against well-prepared German defences on the Western Front and, after achieving initial successes during German offensives on the Eastern Front, they had fallen foul of extended supply lines and failed again.  Serbia was different.

First of all, Serbia was barely able to defend itself.  After the campaigns of 1914 had left its citizen army decimated, exhausted and short of every conceivable supply need, the country had been promised major reinforcement by Britain and France – but squabbles between the two had delayed help beyond usefulness. Serbian leaders had known for months that the invasion was coming, and that Bulgaria would take part, but Britain and France had also vetoed a Serbian plan for a preemptive summer strike against Bulgaria, which was still considered a potential ally in London and Paris.  So the Serbian Army – some 200,000 typhus-ridden, hungry troops, all desperately short of ammunition and artillery support – could only take up its positions and wait for the hammer to fall.

It was a big hammer, deployed for generally sound strategic reasons. Austria-Hungary wanted to finish the job so poorly begun in 1914, and Bulgaria wanted territory it had failed to secure at the end of the Balkan Wars, but German military involvement took a wider perspective.  German chief of staff Falkenhayn saw the removal of Serbia as a means to open up land communications with the Ottoman Empire and with its new Bulgarian allies.  Once the Pless Convention had committed Bulgaria to the attack, Falkenhayn overruled the inevitable protests from Ludendorff and transferred forces from the Eastern Front to the Balkans.  Come October, Serbia’s ragged defenders faced 300,000 efficiently concentrated, well-equipped and supported attackers, commanded by German Field Marshal Mackensen, star of the year’s Eastern Front offensives and the acknowledged master of breakthrough tactics.

When the hammer fell, with Austro-German attacks from the north and Bulgarian from the southeast, Serbian resistance crumbled very quickly.  Once the government realised that Allied help wasn’t going to arrive, and even before the failure of General Sarrail’s unconvincing attempt to intercept the Bulgarians from Salonika, the campaign as a whole became a matter of retreat and pursuit.  With no second line defences to overcome, and no problems with supply lines, the combined invasion force could deliver, within the limits of a relatively small theatre, the Holy Grail that had tormented Joffre and eluded Ludendorff – total victory through the shock and awe of breakthrough tactics.

The Serbian campaign of late 1915 makes a grimly fascinating story, and I’ll be having a word about it in weeks to come, but for now just an academic point: it took a small war within the War, in which defenders effectively fought with one hand tied behind their backs, for one of the period’s most efficient commanders to achieve the only clear-cut victory in Europe throughout 1915.  So today marks the centenary of the exception that proved the rule.

5 OCTOBER, 1915: Carry On Camping

Today was the day the first Anglo-French forces landed at Salonika, the port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia now known as Thessaloniki. If you’ve been getting your perspective on the First World War through the heritage window, don’t feel bad if this development seems a little puzzling. The three-year Salonika campaign was one of history’s head-scratchers, the kind of half-mad, half-sane enterprise that can give war leaders a bad name. I’ll try to let you to decide if they deserve a bad name, and aim for a dispassionate briefing on a campaign that involved some 600,000 Allied troops at its peak, yet somehow manages to justify the sobriquet ‘little known’.

Let’s start with the why. The French were obsessively piling up the manpower on the Western Front; the British were doing the same while committing substantial land forces at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Why would they choose to open another front in the southern Balkans?

The first and stated reason was to come to the aid of their ally, Serbia. It was no secret that, once Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers, payback was coming to Serbia, which had barely survived the Austro-Hungarian invasion attempts of 1914, and had never received anything like the support necessary to promote a real recovery in the meantime. An invasion was imminent, Serbia’s prospects looked grim, and something had to be done – or at least seen to be done.

A second reason, also stated, was to provide support for pro-Allied factions in divided, still neutral Greece. Greece had taken that part of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary harboured undisguised ambitions in the region. Partly as protection against their predations, and partly as a tactic in his ongoing power struggle with the pro-German monarch, King Constantine, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited the Entente to send forces to Salonika – and failure to respond risked the unthinkable diplomatic crime of upsetting a potential ally,

Another reason – not stated at the time but much discussed since – was strategic confusion. The autumn’s big plan to smash through reduced German strength on the Western Front had manifestly failed, and Churchill’s big plan to win the war by coming through the back door of Constantinople was melting down into an epic shambles. Britain’s essentially accidental invasion of modern Iraq was making rapid, if incoherent progress towards Baghdad, but nobody expected it to win the war anytime soon. In Paris and above all in London, where ‘Easterners’ demanding an alternative strategy to the carnage in France remained an important political force, national morale at every level needed a rabbit out of a hat.

If you looked at it from that perspective, and squinted to avoid seeing the obstacles, Salonika might just be the place to provide one. This very simple map (nicked from the Net and removable at the drop of a complaint) goes most of the way to showing why Salonika seemed a good jumping off point for a new front. All that’s missing is the cherry on the cake, just beyond the northern borders of Serbia and Bulgaria – the prospect of striking at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


So much for the best-case scenario, but the conjuring trick went horribly wrong almost from the moment four French divisions and one British division arrived at Salonika on 5 October. The operation had been launched on the assumption that Greece was about to join the War on the Allied side, but Greek political squabbles were far from over. Venizelos resigned on the day the troops arrived, and French General Sarrail, c-in-c of the new ‘Army of the East’, began his preparations for an offensive in an atmosphere of mounting local mistrust. By the time Sarrail was able to send substantial forces north to its aid, the Serbian Army was in full retreat towards Albania, and by early November Sarrail was retreating back to his base. Threatened by both local hostility and hostile armies on the frontier, he turned Salonika into a massive fortified camp and waited for reinforcements.

Once the Gallipoli campaign was over, in early 1916, reinforcements duly arrived, with British forces under General Milne bringing total Allied strength up to around 160,000 men and the Royal Navy chipping in with a squadron of second-line warships. Sarrail, still in overall command, now considered his force under siege, cutting rail links with Constantinople, forcing the surrender of Greek artillery overlooking the harbour approaches, fortifying his small fiefdom to Western Front standards, and on the whole staying safely inside it. By the spring of 1916, a campaign that depended on swift exploitation of Salonika’s strategic location had found its own particular route to stalemate.

There would be further attempts to move north and achieve some sort of strategic impact from Salonika, but broadly speaking an ever-expanding Army of the East stayed holed up in its swampy, overcrowded encampments until the last weeks of the War – long after Greece had finally joined the Allies and when the enemy ahead of it was disintegrating. In the meantime, while Sarrail became embroiled in the equally swampy battleground of Greek politics, a total Allied commitment of more than a million troops over three years would suffer a relatively light 20,000 battle casualties – but disease would cause no less than 1.5 million hospital cases in Salonika, and almost 450,000 men would be invalided out of the theatre with malaria alone.

Hopeless strategic and tactical incompetence, or yet another example of the way offensive warfare simply didn’t work in 1915? Opinions differ, and I anticipate having a word or two about it later in the War, but the sickness rate at Salonika, like the horrifying deaths suffered by so many troops in Mesopotamia, is a reminder of another important factor often overlooked by the mocking voices of heritage commentators. Medical science, like so much contemporary human culture, simply wasn’t ready to fight efficiently on a global, or even continental scale during the First World War.

25 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Deep Sh*t

It’s been relatively quiet for a while on the Western Front, while German efforts have been focused on the Eastern Front, and Anglo-French strategists have been regrouping and reflecting after the ghastly failures of the spring.  A hundred years ago today, with plenty of advance warning and full orchestration provided by a four-day artillery bombardment of forward German positions, mayhem recommenced as French c-in-c Joffre launched his giant, two-pronged autumn offensive.

As I’ve mentioned before, Joffre believed in ‘breakthrough’, the theory that the way to beat modern trenches was to concentrate a vast weight of artillery and infantry against one point and punch a decisive hole in the front line.  The complete failure of breakthrough tactics during spring offensives in Champagne and Artois hadn’t shaken his belief, merely convinced him that he’d underestimated the amount of manpower and ordnance needed for the job.

Happily for Joffre’s faith, if sadly for posterity, both the French and British armies on the Western Front had received large-scale reinforcement during the summer, backed by rapid improvements in arms output as economic mobilisation for war gathered pace in both countries visite site.  Meanwhile the German Army’s focus on the Eastern Front had reduced its strength in France and Belgium.  Convinced his conditions for success had at last been met, and unwilling to try anything too complicated with armies full of raw recruits, Joffre went for the sledgehammer again in the autumn.

At the end of painstaking preparatory operations that made their intentions abundantly clear, French forces in Champagne and Anglo-French armies further north – in the sector now designated Artois-Loos – launched simultaneous massed infantry assaults on 25 September.  Both were complete failures.

In Champagne, where German defenders were outnumbered 3-to-1, French forces gained about 3km of ground and lost 145,000 casualties before the attacks were halted on 28 September, by which time German reinforcements had arrived from the Eastern Front.  French attacks were resumed on 6 October but gained only a few yards during five days of heavy fighting before being stopped by counterattacks.  The two sides battled on indecisively until the offensive was officially called off on 6 November, having inflicted about 50,000 German casualties, half of them as prisoners.

The picture was hardly less bleak for the attackers further north, where the offensive’s secondary thrust was divided into French and British operations.  French forces pushed towards the high ground of Vimy Ridge, in the Artois area, but struggled to make any progress against well-prepared German defensive positions.  They did secure a tiny foothold on the Ridge for a while, but repeated attacks made no lasting gains before exhaustion and foul weather forced a halt to the operation in early November.

The British northern wing under First Army commander Haig – a general far more sceptical about breakthrough tactics than heritage history would have you believe – advanced towards Loos, and did achieve some initial success.  Despite rough terrain, a continuing shell shortage and the wind-induced failure of a first British attempt to use poison gas, massive numerical superiority saw British troops through Loos and approaching Lens by the end of the first day.  At this point BEF c-in-c Sir John French, nervous caution personified, forced Haig to halt by denying him immediate reinforcements, and next day a strong German counterattack forced the British back. When Haig was able to try again, on 13 October, his attack was repulsed with heavy losses, after which bad weather made further large-scale operations impossible.

German defenders in the Artois-Loos sector inflicted 50,000 British and about 48,000 French casualties, losing less than half that number in the process.  Between them, the autumn offensives cost the Entente around 320,000 casualties, almost half as many again as had been lost during the spring offensives.  Why?  The autumn campaign did involve more Entente troops, with less training, and all the defence-friendly conditions that characterised contemporary trench warfare still applied, but another element had come into play. The German Army was developing new defensive tactics.  Largely ignored by the offensive’s planners, they were working.

The British came to call it Defence in Depth, and with hindsight it was hardly rocket science.  Instead of packing troops in forward trenches, where they suffered from preliminary bombardment before meeting the first enemy assault, German defenders learned to deploy relatively light first-line defences, and to give ground by withdrawing to strong, pre-prepared secondary positions, out of immediate bombardment range.  Counterattacks would then be launched  before the enemy could bring up artillery support.

This basic blueprint for defence rapidly became more sophisticated, with multiple layers of bombardment-proof fortifications designed to draw attackers forward into a kind of massive ambush.  Perfected by the German Army, Defence in Depth was adopted by most British commanders in 1916, but many French generals continued to cram front-line trenches well into 1917, trusting in weight of numbers to hold the line and avoid the chaos of headlong flight into hastily-built second-line defences.

Defence in Depth can be seen as one of the first Western Front tactics that actually worked… but it was in the nature of the theatre’s first years for everything to look as if it might work, for many things to look as if they were working, and for nothing to do much good.  Designed to save lives, or at least defenders’ lives, the system worked well enough unless both sides were using it.  Once both sets of infantry were being drawn into empty space for an artillery ambush, the most intense fighting tended to take place on ground covered by both artillery arms, ensuring a much higher casualty rate.

In one sense, the ghastly non-event of the Entente’s autumn offensive in 1915 stands as a metaphor for the Western Front as a whole until 1918.  You couldn’t win anything big if you were inflexible and stubborn; you couldn’t win anything big and lasting if you were flexible and intelligent; and you couldn’t lose if you stayed on the defensive.  It would be some time before commanders were ready to address the problem of the Western Front in those terms – and a hundred years later plenty of voices are still loudly blaming them for the carnage, as if their failure to solve the techno-military riddle of the age was the problem, rather than a symptom.