25 NOVEMBER, 1915: The Hard Way

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, European military history is littered with ‘great’ retreats. Some, like the great retreat from Russia that wrecked Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the ‘Great Retreat’ that took Entente armies back to the Marne in August 1914, were great in the sense that they were decisive. Other spectacular withdrawals – like the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ in the early autumn of 1915 or (whisper it) the BEF at Dunkirk – were only as great as the propaganda surrounding them, and some, Sir John Moore’s 1809 retreat to Coruna springs to mind, have picked up the sobriquet because they took place in particularly harsh conditions.

The Serbian Great Retreat of late 1915 is less celebrated than any of the above. Just getting underway a hundred years ago, it had no decisive effect on the outcome of the First World War, and its propaganda career has been largely confined to the Balkans. Yet in a dark and terrible way it may be the greatest of Europe’s great retreats, both for the epic nature of its concept and execution, and for its heroic persistence through nightmare conditions.

I could have picked various dates to commemorate the start of the Serbian retreat. Everything between 17 and 30 November has been cited, and even the day on which the formal order to retreat was issued is variously given as 23, 24 and 25 November. Unless you’re planning a Serbian Great Retreat Opening Day Commemoration party, this isn’t important, so let’s move on to context.

Last time we went to the Balkans, back in early October, an exhausted Serbia stood no chance of defeating the joint Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian invasion it knew was coming. When it came, from the north and the east, the invasion quickly pushed Serbian and Montenegrin forces back. French-led attempts to provide support from Salonika were cut off, and defenders had retreated into the plateau lands of Kosovo by the time heavy snow slowed operations by both sides from 17 November. During the next few days all roads out of Kosovo were closed by Bulgarian forces to the east and Austro-German forces to the north and west, leaving Serbian leaders with three options. Their battered army could stand and fight a vastly superior force, they could surrender, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains into Montenegro and Albania. On 25 November (or thereabouts) Serbian chief of staff Putnik gave the order to head into the mountains.

Here’s a map of the campaign, stolen from the net and removable the moment anyone minds.


The decision to retreat was not made lightly. The 200,000 men of the Serbian Army, most of them old men and boys, were desperately short of warm clothing and rations, but they were better off than some 20,000 prisoners of war travelling in tow, or than many of perhaps another 200,000 civilian refugees that joined the exodus (though all these figures vary enormously, as befit guesses made about chaotic conditions in primitive areas). In total this amounted to about a tenth of an expanded prewar Serbia’s population and – given that the weather was freezing and the treacherous mountain passes could provide little food, most of it jealously guarded by tribal peoples harbouring a bitter hatred of all things Serbian – large-scale loss of life was inevitable. Weighed against the perceived need to preserve some kind of independent Serbian force for future re-conquest of the country, the sacrifice was deemed worthwhile.

While their Montenegrin allies made their way home, the Serbs set off in four columns and blizzard conditions, accompanied by the royal family, the government, the high command and most of the country’s civil dignitaries. You can read eyewitness accounts of the nightmare journey that followed by looking online, and I won’t attempt the deathless prose it would take to do it justice, but estimates of the number of deaths along the way rise to about 200,000, roughly a third of them military personnel, the rest civilians. Half-hearted pursuit by the invaders didn’t have much to do with the death rate, and most were victims of typhus, cold, starvation or predatory local tribes.

The first survivors began reaching the Albanian coast during the first week of December, but most arrived late in the month or in early January, and stragglers were still staggering in until the middle of February. Albania could hardly be called a safe haven for Serbs, and the Italian, French and British navies mounted a joint operation to evacuate them. It took a while to get underway, delayed by the need to secure Albanian ports against Austro-Hungarian naval attacks and the Italian Navy’s reluctance to risk its warships as escorts, but proceeded without serious interruption from late December until mid-January.

Most of the refugees, an estimated 155,000 people, were taken to the Greek island of Corfu, which was occupied for the purpose by French Navy units. Smaller numbers were shipped to French Tunisia or resettled inside France, and those with identifiable diseases were treated on the small Greek island of Vido, to reduce the risk of epidemic. The measure wasn’t entirely successful, and uncounted thousands more died during the next few weeks on Corfu.

Those military personnel fit to resume service were redeployed during the autumn to the fortified Allied enclave at Salonika. From there, they would eventually, and in a fairly minor way, fulfil the national mission by playing a small part in the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but it’s still hard to argue with history’s majority verdict that the Serbian Great retreat was a tragically bad idea. For all the heroism and indomitable spirit it embodies, and despite its epic qualities, it might have been better all round to go the usual route and simply send king and government into exile before surrendering.

That’s not intended as a judgment, because this was in the Balkans in 1915. If the stubborn, stoic sense of sacred nation that motivated the Serbian command seems a little mediaeval to you, hold that thought, because apart from a few modern weapons and a few gadgets for grandees, life in the Balkans had barely reached nineteenth-century levels of development, let alone twentieth-century. In other words, the Serbian retreat is yet another First World War catastrophe that, while easily dismissed as tragically bonkers, is best viewed with an understanding of its technological and psychological environment.

22 NOVEMBER, 1915: Whoops, Apocalypse!

These days, most of us have worked out that invading Iraq can be more complicated than it looks.  Just when you think you’ve got the job done, everything goes pear-shaped and it turns out you haven’t conquered anything.  It’s fair to say that Britain was just one of a number of nations to learn this lesson the hard way during the twenty-first century’s opening decade – but in Britain’s case it was a lesson relearned.

A century ago, British imperial troops were invading what is now Iraq and was then the province of the Ottoman Empire known as Mesopotamia.  They were approaching Baghdad up the rivers from Basra and their commanders were confident that the enemy was all but beaten – but they were wrong, and on 22 November 1915 the penny began to drop.

This may sound ridiculous, but the British attempt to take Baghdad was essentially an accident.  A plan to protect Royal Navy oil supplies by occupying Basra had clicked into action the moment Ottoman Turkey entered the War in the autumn of 1914, but that had been the limit of British imperial ambitions in the region.  The operation’s expansion into an invasion stemmed from London’s inability either to control the actions of General Nixon, the Indian Army officer in command of the front, or to divert forces it could control from other fronts.  Before you start scoffing, I should point out that this sort of long-range strategic drift was not uncommon at a time when international (let alone intercontinental) communications were clumsy and unreliable, so the British high command’s failure to keep its eye on the ball in Mesopotamia can be seen as understandable, if reprehensible.  It’s a lot harder to understand what General Nixon was up to.

Operating through a command chain that took in the Viceroy of India en route for the Colonial Office and the cabinet in London, Nixon seems to have decided at an early stage that his poorly equipped colonial force was more than a match for any defence the Ottoman Empire could muster.  His view seems to have been cemented by early encounters with defenders, many of them Arab tribesmen fighting as irregulars, who were in the habit of retreating to regroup whenever the going got rough – and at some point it seems to have occurred to him that Baghdad, glory and possibly a major influence on the wider War were well within his grasp.

If this all sounds a little vague, it’s because Nixon kept things that way.  Every advance he ordered from Basra up the rivers Tigris and Euphrates was sold to London as a form of ‘forward defence’, a necessary step to secure oil supplies against Ottoman counterattacks.  The British government and high command, their attention elsewhere and their authority filtered through colonial agencies, found it most expedient to simply acquiesce.  Given that appalling suffering and loss of life in pursuit of mere tactical advantage were about par for the wartime course, London’s willingness to let Nixon play soldiers comes as no great surprise – and in the autumn of 1915 the British seemed to be getting away with it.

On 6 October the latest advance by British forces had taken the fortified town of Kut, on the Tigris about 120km from Baghdad, and Ottoman defences had again melted away upriver.  Nixon’s field commander, Major-General Townshend, was an ambitious veteran of several colonial campaigns, and experienced enough to recognise the danger of long, fragile supply lines from Basra.  Townshend wanted to halt his tired troops and consolidate at Kut, but Nixon stayed true to form and ordered a further advance on Baghdad.

This could hardly be presented as forward defence, and the British cabinet vetoed the plan at first, but the Indian government, echoing Nixon’s confident predictions from Basra, persuaded London into a change of heart.  The cabinet authorised the advance on 24 October, added the proviso that it was to halt if it met any serious opposition, and repaid Nixon’s confidence with a promise of two Indian Army divisions from the Western Front as garrison troops for Baghdad. Nixon on the other hand, repaid Townshend’s pleas for caution by turning down his request for extra transports and trench warfare weapons.

The advance did meet serious resistance, at Ctesiphon, a small, riverside settlement only 40km from Baghdad that had once been a much more important town, and was now the main Ottoman position for the forward defence of Baghdad.  Some 18,000 Turkish Army troops, the majority veterans of earlier campaigns, were drawn up in double lines of solid trenches on either side of the Tigris, with artillery protecting them on each bank and mines protecting the river itself.

Townshend reached Ctesiphon with about 11,000 men, supported by a monitor (that’s a very basic warship for river work, a slow, floating platform for a heavy naval gun) and a gunboat.   Aware that he was too weak to attack simultaneously on both sides of the river, but hardly less confident than Nixon that the enemy would wilt in the face of fierce fighting, Townshend chose to carry on advancing.   On 22 November he launched attacks at three points along the eastern wing of the Turkish front and, repeating a tactic that had won an audacious victory downriver at Es Sinn in late September, he opened the operation with a surprise night attack against the Turkish left flank.

The flank operation failed to surprise anyone because the attackers got lost in the dark, and although the main attacks took the first line of Turkish trenches, the second line was defended much more fiercely than any British field commander had imagined possible. The Turkish second line held through the first day’s heavy fighting, and the British just about maintained their grip on the first line against two Turkish counterattacks next day.  That night, with Townshend’s active strength down to less than 4,500 men and Turkish casualties approaching 10,000, rumours of British reinforcements on their way persuaded local Ottoman commander Nur-Ud-Din to order a retreat – but the rumour was false and Townshend’s moment of triumph was to be short-lived.

Once convinced that British reinforcements were a mirage, Nur-Ud-Din reversed the retreat, a change of heart spotted and reported to Townshend on 25 November by the lone British aircraft operating in the area.  With supplies running out and wounded in desperate need of medicines, Townshend had little choice but to order a withdrawal of his own.

Pursued all the way in terrible conditions, Indian Army forces staggered back into Kut on 3 December, by which time they had lost their two warships and buried hundreds of wounded, condemned by lack of medical supplies and facilities.  Unlike thousands before them in Mesopotamia, their grim, avoidable deaths at least made some difference to something, because scrutiny of the defeat at Ctesiphon forced London to address a shocking lack of proper arrangements for casualties in the theatre.

Townshend might have attempted to retreat further, but he decided to spare his surviving troops further punishment and fortify Kut while awaiting reinforcements.  Turkish resistance at Ctesiphon had shocked the British and Indian governments into finally seeing the folly of Nixon’s ways, and they began a rapid build up of strength on the Mesopotamian Front with the initial aim of relieving Townshend – but in the meantime Turkish forces established a siege of Kut that would end in one of the British Army’s most ignominious wartime defeats.

I’ll get back to you on the siege of Kut, but for now Ctesiphon seems worth a shout from posterity.  The battle was a turning point in the Mesopotamian campaign, the moment at which the British government began to take seriously the strategic implications of conquest in the Gulf.  As such, it was the foundation for postwar British occupation of Baghdad, and that was the seed from which the British cultivated and shaped the modern state of Iraq.   So I think it’s fair to say that the accidental invasion of 1915 turned out a lot more complicated than expected.  Shame it turned out to be forgettable.

14 NOVEMBER, 1915: Low Profile

I’ve talked about submarine warfare before. Submarines were important, or at least widely used, in the First World War, and their story has been largely lost to a public mind hooked on iconic Second World War images. It was a good story: a tale of extraordinary bravery and endurance by submariners in machines that were unwieldy, unreliable, uncomfortable and distinctly unsafe; and a strategic saga of fearsome potential never quite realised that would be mirrored by its Second World War sequel.

In both wars, a U-boat campaign against Allied shipping in the Atlantic formed the centrepiece of the submarine story, and the First World War version tends to hog what little modern limelight is available to its submariners. In 1915, on the other hand, the exploits of submarines anywhere were headline news, sensational stuff featuring one of the wonders of the age – and a hundred years ago today, a dismayed British public opened its newspapers to discover that the Royal Navy submarine E20 had been sent to the bottom of the Sea of Marmora.  So this seems a good moment to look beyond the U-boats and doff a hat to the wartime exploits of the British submarine service.

The E20, one of the newest British boats, had met its fate on the afternoon of 6 November, and had been a victim of bad luck. The French Navy submarine Turquoise had run aground in the Dardanelles on 30 October, right under the barrels of Turkish shore batteries, and been captured with its orders and codes intact, including details of a planned rendezvous with the E20. The British boat kept the appointment, but was met by the German U-boat UB14 and sunk by a direct hit from a single torpedo. Of the submarine’s crew of thirty, 21 were killed, the rest rescued and taken prisoner.

The British press was predictably scandalised by the sinking, one of seven British submarine losses during the Dardanelles/Gallipoli campaign, and quick to point the finger at the Admiralty for poor operating practices. Then again, like other British authorities at a time of mounting popular disillusion, the Admiralty couldn’t really win with the press. For much of the previous six months the same papers had been praising the submarines as a success story and panning the Navy for not sending more of them to the theatre.

Despite the losses ­– only six boats survived the campaign – British submarines were a success in the Dardanelles. Four boats were lost attempting to pass through the Straits, a difficult and dangerous feat given the technical limitations of contemporary submarines, but between them the other nine sank two battleships, a destroyer, 5 gunboats, 9 transports, 35, steamers, 7 supply ships and 188 smaller vessels, causing persistent disruption to Turkish supply lines at the front. After a succession of failures to impress the British public, these excellent results came at a very good time for the Royal Navy, and by late 1915 the submarine service had become something of a public relations star turn.

It was about time, given that the British began the War with the best submarine fleet in the world. It wasn’t the biggest fleet in the world, but the Royal Navy’s 40 old boats for coastal defensive work and 17 modern, longer-range D- and E-Type boats outnumbered the German Navy’s ten long-range and 18 coastal craft in 1914, and the much larger French fleet possessed few boats fit for any kind of active service. I’m resisting the temptation to get technical, so take my word for it that the E-Type boat, in service since 1913 and destined to be the mainstay of British wartime production, was the safest, most efficient submarine available to any navy, and comprehensively outperformed contemporary U-boat designs.

From a PR point of view, all these advantages had counted for little during the first months of the War. British submarines were held in a defensive posture, quiet on the margins of public perception as they clustered around home ports for fear of a German naval breakout. All that changed when a handful of E-Types sent to the Baltic began registering successes against German merchant ships in the spring of 1915, and the performance of the Dardanelles flotilla during the rest of the year cemented the position of British submariners, and particularly submarine commanders, as popular heroes in the same mould as flying aces.

Once the Gallipoli campaign had ended, so did the turkey shoot provided by Ottoman shipping around in the Dardanelles. British submariners never again had it so good, but the service expanded steadily and performed with relative success for the rest of the War. Coastal defence and commerce warfare remained their core duties, but British submarines were also occasionally adapted as minelayers and quite frequently deployed in anti-submarine operations.  The latter bring this tiny tour d’horizon full circle.

Wartime British submarines sank a total of seventeen U-boats, and most were trapped using the same subterfuge that did for the E20:  waiting in ambush at a prearranged enemy rendezvous point and dishing out a torpedo at close range. British boats could perform the trick so often because, beginning in December 1914, the Admiralty’s secret Room 40 had been deciphering German Navy radio traffic, a vital advantage that was yet another harbinger of the next war, and is another story I plan to mention one day.

07 NOVEMBER, 1915: Russian Landings Menace Teheran

There’s no need to saddle this post with a clever title. A simple rendition of the headline does a perfectly good job of grabbing the modern reader’s attention. Back in early November 1915, on the other hand, the arrival of a Russian invasion force on what was then Persian soil caused relatively little international stir, not least because very little information about the place reached the west quickly, if at all. Partly for the same reason, and partly because it doesn’t fit easily into a sepia-tinted commemoration package, you could hardly say modern Iran’s involvement in the First World War is well known now. Well I’m no expert, but I’ve done a little research into the subject in my time, so just in case the modern history of Iran ever becomes relevant to the wider world, here’s a sketch.

Persia in 1915 formed an independent, but economically undeveloped and internally unstable buffer between two empires, Russia and British India. An Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 had arbitrarily divided the country into spheres of influence, giving Britain a free economic hand in the south and Russia the same in the north. While the British maintained prewar control over oil supplies from the southwest of the country through a network of financial and military support for local authorities, the Russians ensured order in the north by stationing thousands of troops in the region, and a central, neutral zone became an arena of intense competition between Russian, British and German agents.

The outbreak of war gave German elements in Persia a chance to undermine Anglo-Russian dominance by gaining the support of the 18 year-old Shah Ahmed Mirza and tribal leaders in the regions. British operations in southwest Persia in support of Mesopotamian Front forces – which included occupation of the port of Bushire in October 1914, and of the inland pumping station at Ahwaz the following spring – provided German ambassador Prince Heinrich of Reus with plenty of ammunition for a propaganda campaign that was backed by lavish spending on arms and pensions. By autumn 1915, British influence in the south was restricted to a few garrison enclaves, and Germany controlled 15 of the 17 Persian banks, and in early November, when the Swedish-officered Persian gendarmerie agreed to operate under German control, Persia seemed on the brink of an alliance with the Central Powers.

Enter the Russians, as always able to spare a few thousand men for a bit of imperial business. An expeditionary force from the Caucasus of 6,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, all under the command of a General Baratov, sailed across the Caspian Sea in a ramshackle armada of small ships and landed at the northern Persian port of Phalevi (then called Enzeli) on 7 November. According to contemporary Russian sources another 5,000 troops had already arrived, but this has never been confirmed and anyway makes no difference to the fact that no other force in the region could begin to match Baratov’s army as it began a slow westward advance.

The Shah, who had been careful to remain on good personal terms with all sides, promptly cooled relations with the Germans. He declined a German offer of protection, and remained in the capital while the chief German agent, Wassmuss, coordinated small actions by the gendarmerie and other irregulars intended to delay the Russian advance.

General Baratov didn’t need much encouragement to delay. Although he soon pushed Wassmuss and his forces west to the Mesopotamia border, his vastly superior force was held there until the following March, when he crossed the frontier to reach Karind, some 200km from Baghdad. His next advance, in June 1916, was halted by Ottoman forces and driven back into Persia, but by then the British South Persia Rifles had begun restoring order in the south of the country and any danger of an alliance with Germany had evaporated.

The South Persia Rifles was a force of native troops raised by the British with the Shah’s permission and organised along the lines of the British Indian Army. By the end of 1916, SPR commander Sir Percy Sykes could call on almost 4,000 troops in five brigades, including 450 cavalry, and had quelled most opposition in the British sphere. With the Russians in passive control of the north, Persia remained relatively stable until late 1917, when fallout from October Revolution ushered in a fresh period of unrest in the country, of which more another day.

I mention this small part of a small campaign as another reminder of how much of the modern Middle East was shaped by the actions and ambitions of the Great Powers during the First World War.  Lest we forget…

03 NOVEMBER, 1915: Plain Dumb

By late 1915, the military and political orthodoxies behind the War’s genesis were dead in the water, and nothing workable had been found to take their place.  For the major belligerents, strategic horizons were being widened and tactical systems sharpened… but one major European army was still living in the past, marching to the doomed drum of 1914 and suffering accordingly.  Today marks the centenary of a brief pause in the midst of that suffering, the day the Italian Army called a halt to what has been dignified as the Third Battle of the Isonzo.

I’m the first to remind people that the story of the First World War is more about the disastrous coincidence of global conflict and a particular moment in the history of technology, than it is about a worldwide epidemic of command stupidity.  But that’s not to deny that – as in every war, everywhere – some commanders were pretty dumb.

In some cases the very nature of the War could be held up as an excuse. General Hamilton in Gallipoli and General Nixon in Mesopotamia spring to mind as British examples of men raised far above their capabilities by the sheer scale of a conflict that forced armies to find literally hundreds of new generals.

In other cases – Joffre or Sir John French on the Western Front fit the bill – those considered the best in the trade turned out to be one-eyed, stubborn, incompetent or all three when faced with the new problems of modern warfare.  The man responsible for the Third Battle of the Isonzo, Italian Army chief of staff General Luigi Cadorna, falls into this category.

I’ve been over the bare essentials of the war on the Italian Front, so I’ll just repeat a couple of strictly relevant points. Italian forces had gone to war with a commitment to attack Austro-Hungarian positions in the alpine regions along Italy’s northeastern frontier. The only areas spacious enough to mount a large-scale attack were the valleys of the Trentino and Isonzo rivers, and neither offered promising conditions for an offensive.  Both were overlooked by well-established Austro-Hungarian defensive positions in the mountains, and the marshy, broken terrain of the Isonzo valley was particularly unsuitable for heavy equipment.

Unfortunately for the young men of Italy, the more easterly Isonzo was also the gateway to Trieste, the prize that put the gleam into Italian nationalist eyes in 1915. Given the optimism and confidence running rampant through Italian war preparations, Cadorna’s decision to focus his offensive operations on the coastal plain east of the Isonzo valley was understandable.  How he went about them was not.

The first two Italian attacks at the Isonzo, launched during the summer, had been excellent examples of Cadorna’s organisational skill, in that he got his armies into position and ready to attack with impressive speed, but also of his tactical limitations. As if a year of warfare in France had changed nothing, Italian infantry was committed to massed frontal attacks along a broad front with limited artillery support – and was cut down by well-prepared defenders, given a grandstand view of the preparations for every Italian move.

By the time he was ready to launch the third Isonzo offensive, in mid-October, Cadorna had learned to imitate the ‘breakthrough’ tactics of his Western Front counterparts, but only up to a point. With his usual logistic efficiency, he did concentrate about 1,200 big guns to support an attack towards Gorizia, some thirty kilometres northeast of Trieste, but he didn’t mass his troops against the single point intended for the breakthrough.  Instead, the main offensive was diluted by half a dozen secondary attacks elsewhere along the line, often against virtually impregnable positions.

Again able to watch Italian preparations from the high ground and deploy accordingly, Austro-Hungarian defenders inflicted heavy casualties and had lost no ground when Cadorna called off the offensive on 3 November.

Everybody can make mistakes, but Cadorna generally liked to make his twice. He waited only seven days before launching the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo, a slightly prolonged repeat of the Third that gained only a few kilometres of ground during three more weeks of gruelling combat. At that point Cadorna, having sacrificed around 115,000 troops on the altar of his blindness to well-known tactical realities, suspended major operations for the winter.

It almost goes without saying that, like Joffre in France, Cadorna compensated for blindness in one eye by fixing the other on the illusion of imminent victory, and that come the spring he would launch yet another doomed assault on the plain of the Isonzo, followed by another, and another…

To be fairer than the Italian high command deserves, the battles of autumn 1915 did cost the Austro-Hungarian Army more than 70,000 casualties it could ill-afford, prompting Vienna to ask for German help on the Italian Front.  Berlin agreed, and in theory this fulfilled one of Cadorna’s strategic aims: the diversion of German forces from other fronts. In practice even that small saving grace proved illusory.  The German high command didn’t actually send any help to the front until 1917, and when reinforcements finally arrived they very nearly knocked Italy out of the War.

Before I turn away from General Cadorna’s ghastly game of tactical catch-up, conceding that the War’s popular reputation does apply to at least  some high-profile donkeys, a trivial footnote:  the Third and Fourth Battles of the Isonzo are often (and quite understandably) lumped together as one, and that’s why sources disagree about the overall number of Isonzo battles.

22 OCTOBER, 1915: Derby Day


Broadly speaking, the autumn of 1915 was a terrible time for the great powers at war. For the second time in a year, all their apparently infallible plans to bring the conflict to a victorious end had failed.

Superior Allied manpower and material strength had made absolutely no difference to the position on the Western Front, and the vast swathes of territory taken by advancing German and Austro-Hungarian forces had simply moved the stalemate on the Eastern Front some 350 kilometres to the east. Attempts to approach the War from other angles – whether prompted by broad strategic considerations, by the greed or desperation of smaller belligerents, or by the belief that victory could be achieved through the side door – were all turning into pocket nightmares. Campaigns taking place in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, the Caucasus, Serbia and Italy all fell into this category one way or another, and none of them offered any real hope of a happy ending any time soon.

Meanwhile the cost of the War – in manpower, money and resources – was escalating out of control and showing no sign of a slowdown.  To meet it, all the major players in Europe were being compelled to warp their social and economic systems to create  war machines.  On top of mounting carnage and repeated military disappointment, this enforced combination of rapid social change and relative deprivation was steadily eroding popular enthusiasm for the War.

Popular discontent was mounting in all the main belligerent countries, but in most of them it hardly mattered.  In Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, for instance, governments could and did expect workforces to do as they were told and conscripts to take up arms when ordered. Any misbehaviour could simply be suppressed, such was the weakness of their democratic structures. In France, where popular democracy did hold genuine power to influence strategy, the invader at the gate ensured that, no matter how fractious the sociopolitical landscape, continued commitment to the fight at an individual level was never in doubt. In Britain, things were different.

The British war effort depended on the consent and cooperation of the population as a whole, albeit heavily filtered through the mechanisms of representative democracy. And in 1915, Britain still depended on volunteers to do the fighting, so signs of war weariness were a potentially fatal problem for the government.

In the relatively optimistic days of the spring, British volunteer recruitment to the armed forces had been running at 100,000 men per month. This was barely enough to meet military requirements, and no matter what the military prognosis nobody thought it could be sustained. In May 1915 the age limit for volunteers was raised from 38 to 40, and in July the government began the very public process of compiling a national register of able-bodied civilian males between the ages of 15 and 65, in the vain hope that it would stimulate recruitment.  When the register was complete in mid-September it showed that almost five million men of military age were still civilians. About 1.6 million of them worked in reserved occupations and were exempt from service, but something had to be done to get the rest into uniform.

The obvious answer was conscription, but unlike their neighbours the British had never been subject to conscription, and it remained a dirty, politically dangerous word. Instead, the coalition government went for a half measure. Lord Derby, known for his successful drumming up of volunteers for the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, was appointed Director-General of Recruiting, and a hundred years ago today his response to the challenge, officially called the Group Scheme but known to one and all as the Derby Scheme, was announced to the nation in a blaze of publicity.

The scheme’s main purpose was to create a reserve of men who had agreed to fight, but only if and when needed. Men were invited to ‘attest’ in return for a day’s pay and an armband showing the world their intentions, with the added incentive that married men were promised no call up until the supply of single men was exhausted.

The Derby Scheme failed miserably, persuading only 350,000 men to attest before it was abandoned in December, and accurately reflecting an increasingly pessimistic popular mood. On the other hand it was a resounding success as a test of whether or not Britain could fight on with a volunteer army, and clinched the argument for those few senior politicians bold enough to openly advocate conscription.

So 22 October 1915 marked the last, convoluted attempt by a British government to hold off the reality of modern, total warfare by attempting to fight a global conflict as a volunteer nation. I just thought you should know.