26 DECEMBER, 1915: Boxing Clever

One reason I bang on about the First World War, possibly the only good reason, is because it’s crammed full of world-changing stuff that gets buried by posterity. Some of the world-changing stuff – the torrential flow of money from Europe to the USA springs to mind – was treated with great seriousness by contemporaries but is largely ignored by a modern commemorative industry fixated on social history, at home and in the trenches. Other wartime developments with serious, long-term global implications were seen as small matters at the time, at least relative to the collision of Europe’s Great Powers, and have been left in the corner ever since. Today’s anniversary is a cracking example of the latter, because on Boxing Day 1915 the British Empire signed the Treaty of Darin with Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud.

Ibn Sa’ud was the Arab head of the conservative, puritanical Wahabi sect, and tribal ruler of the isolated, central-Arabian Sultanate of Najd. Based in Riyadh and, like every Arab in the Middle East, loosely administered subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the Wahabi regarded most of the other Islamic tribes in Arabia as heretics, particularly the Sharifians of the Hejaz region, but their mortal enemies were the Shammar (or Rashidi) of southeastern Syria.

The Wahabi and the Rashidi had been fighting for control of central Arabia for almost 80 years by 1914. The advantage had swung back to the Sa’udi side since 1902, when the 21 year-old Ibn Sa’ud had led a small Bedouin force to recapture Riyadh from the Rashidi, ending more than a decade of exile. One of modern history’s more wily fundamentalists, Ibn Sa’ud had spent the next decade or so securing and expanding his restored emirate, so that by the time the British and Ottoman Empires faced each other at war across the Middle East in late 1914 he had become one of several important Arab leaders worth cultivating by both sides oxycontin high.

From the British point of view, the treaty was a small but locally important piece of a diplomatic jigsaw being put together in the Middle East.  The jigsaw’s twin aims were to foster a revolt of Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire and to protect vitally important oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.  Its principal architect was Sir Percy Cox, Britain’s chief political agent in the region and a man whose pivotal role in the creation of the modern Middle East deserves a blog of its own.

Cox had been wooing Ibn Sa’ud (and any other Arab leaders deemed likely to oppose Ottoman rule) since before the Ottoman Empire had entered the War in late 1914. The Wahabi were not expected to play a major military role in any future Arab revolt, but the Sultanate of Najd occupied a geographical position – between the Ottoman heartlands to the north and coastal sheikhdoms to the south and east that were already British protectorates – that could not be left unsecured.

Cox had already attached his agent, Captain William Shakespear, to Ibn Sa’ud’s retinue by January 1915, when a fresh outbreak of hostilities between the Wahabi and the (Ottoman-sponsored) Rashidi culminated in the Battle of Jarrab, a tribal skirmish that ended in a definite but inconclusive victory for Ibn Sa’ud. Shakespear’s death during the battle raised Britain’s stock with Ibn Sa’ud, and Cox was able to arrange a truce between the Wahabi and the Rashidi, essentially an acceptance of Sa’ud’s ascendancy and the basis for the Boxing Day treaty signed on the island of Darin (also known as Tarout).

The treaty reflected Arabia’s tribal culture and smacked of 19th-century colonial diplomacy. In making the house of Sa’ud a protectorate of the British Empire, to be defended if attacked, it was required to define the Emirate’s geographical boundaries for the first time, in effect planting the concept of European statehood in the region (a charge that can be levelled at British diplomacy across the Middle East during and after the First World War). Cox also agreed to pay Sa’ud a monthly stipend of £5,000 and, importantly as it turned out, to provide regular deliveries of surplus arms, ammunition and other supplies from Britain’s expanding Middle East Command.

In return, Sa’ud declared for the Allies – not too hard given that the Rashidi were sponsored by the Ottoman Empire – and agreed not to attack Kuwait, Qatar or other existing British Protectorates on what was known as the Pirate Coast. On the other hand, he made no guarantees of military involvement against the Turks, and refused to rule out an attack on the Sharif of Mecca, who was emerging as Britain’s most important ally in the region (and who will have his day in the sun when we get to Lawrence of Arabia).  Bottom line, though the treaty satisfied basic British strategic needs in a wartime context, and was as such an understandable undertaking, Ibn Sa’ud secured a fabulously good deal with implications extending far into the future.

A map seems like a good idea at this point, so here it is, shamelessly nicked from the Internet and removable at the drop of a complaint.

 

Arabia_1914

 

What became known as the Arab Revolt would get going in 1916 and would, for better or worse, have an enormous impact on both the War and the future Middle East – but the Wahabi kept their powder dry and restricted active participation to a few raids against Turkish forces to the north.  Meanwhile Ibn Sa’ud stockpiled his British money and supplies, concentrated on securing new frontiers the British had legitimised, attacked the Rashidi whenever possible and played a long game.

By the end of the War, the Wahabi were established as the major power in central Arabia, and Sa’ud, always careful to cultivate the continued support of his British allies, was ready to embark on a campaign of expansion.  He attacked the Rashidi in 1920, and had all but wiped them out by the time he  secured British agreement to the annexation of much of Kuwait in 1922.  In 1927 a new alliance with Britain,  the Treaty of Jennah, recognised Sa’ud’s claim to the Sharif of Mecca’s Hejaz region, and he had completed its conquest by 1931.  The following year his expanded kingdom, renamed Saudi Arabia, was recognised by the League of Nations, and the rest may one day be quite an important chunk of history…

Beyond apologising for any poor choices among the crazy mess of spelling and naming variations that plague any Anglophone writer dealing with Middle Eastern history, I don’t think this post needs much explanation.  Just mention it the next time someone tells you the First World War changed nothing.

19 DECEMBER, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes

A couple of centenaries today, both reminders that the greatest military power on Earth had stumbled into a bit of pickle as 1915 drew to a close.  In the Eastern Mediterranean, British imperial forces began their planned evacuation of Gallipoli’s bridgeheads from Hell, Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove.  On the same Sunday, General Sir Douglas Haig took formal command of the BEF on the Western Front.  In British military terms these were major events, divesting the Empire’s war effort of two disasters in Sir John French and the entire Dardanelles operation, and for public purposes they could be presented as a fresh start after a year of bleak disappointments on every front.

The British war effort was in need of a fresh start.  Popular and political discontent was gathering as military failures chipped away the veneer of permanent good news that patriotism (and government) demanded of the British press.  This was especially true of those newspapers controlled by Lord Northcliffe.

Owner of (among others) The Times and The Daily Mail, the self-appointed voice of ‘the classes and the people’ was arguably the most powerful press baron in British history.  Northcliffe’s orchestration of the Shell Scandal during the late spring had played a major role in forcing a change of government, and his basic position was always that Germany – a state he hated and feared with unbridled passion – wasn’t being attacked with sufficient vigour.  He was a committed ‘Westerner’, sure the War could only be won in France and noisily against the distraction of resources to other fronts – so on the face of it an end to the Gallipoli adventure and a change at the top in France looked like positive government responses to press criticism.

All quite convincing if you wanted to be convinced, but it had nothing much to do with the truth.

Take Gallipoli. Of all the land fronts contested by British forces, sub-Saharan Africa aside, only Gallipoli had been conceived as an offensive operation.  Britain was fighting to defend Belgium and France, to protect imperial interests in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and (in theory at least) to rescue Serbia via Salonika.  The Dardanelles operation had been a bold attempt to change the War’s focus by knocking out the Ottoman Empire with a single blow, and its long, costly, embarrassing failure dealt a terrible blow to those arguing for that kind of lateral thinking.  The plan’s chief architect and sponsor, Churchill, quit the government and joined his old regiment on the Western Front, while the rest of British strategic thinking went back into its shell.  Some British resources would be sent to Mesopotamia and Palestine for offensive purposes in 1916, but the vast majority would be thrown into the battle for France or committed to a defensive posture in Salonika.

So all change but no progress when it came Britain’s strategic approach in late 1915, and the same applied to the tactical change of command on the Western Front.

Field Marshal Sir John French had to go, that much was clear to anyone not completely susceptible to propaganda.  Appointed in 1914 to command a small expeditionary force, and a cavalry officer with a reputation for colonial dash, he had proved timid and uncertain in command of a mass army.  His leadership had been characterised by extremes of optimism and pessimism, a chronic inability to liaise effectively with French commanders and a preference for caution at all times.  He also struggled to cope with large-scale operations, culminating in an inept display during the autumn’s Artois-Loos Offensive that was considered partly responsible for its failure and sealed his fate.

Like many a commentator before me, I feel the need to come to the poor Field Marshal’s defence, perhaps pointing out that even very good generals might have struggled with the rapid transition from leading a few hundred horsemen against colonial natives to commanding of millions of men in trenches.  Unfortunately I’ve read his relentlessly self-serving and notoriously unreliable memoirs, written during his post-War spell as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so I’ll leave him to suffer posterity’s scorn and move on to Haig.

Haig does deserve more sympathy than the heritage industry can usually spare.  An intelligent and efficient staff officer, a good organiser with a solid record in command of the BEF’s First Corps, he was an urbane and orthodox figure, comfortable in political circles, on good personal terms with the King and generally admired by his peers.  This isn’t the time to discuss his future performance in detail, but broadly speaking it was a lot more competent than his popular reputation as a serial butcher suggests.

On the other hand, and this is my point, Haig’s command was no more innovative than could be expected from a man chosen precisely because he was a trusted executive of convention.  As the BEF’s senior field commander after French, Haig was the safe, predictable choice, approved by King George V on the grounds that he wasn’t ‘too clever’ and charged with carrying out more of the same, more effectively.  Of course Haig was a believer in the ‘breakthrough tactics’ of 1915, and of course he was a byword for the steady but unspectacular, instinctively attracted to tried and tested tactics, loyal to subordinates in the field and inclined to blame chance or staff errors for their failures.

In short, feel free to deplore Haig’s persistent faith in the horrific bloodletting on the Western Front during 1916 and 1917, and in the tactics and generals involved, but be aware that he was the walking incarnation of the British high command’s strategic paralysis.  Far from setting off on a fresh start at the end of 1915, British leaders were stalled at the crossroads, forced to take stock but unable to come up with any positive ideas about a change of direction.

13 DECEMBER, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge

I know a lot of people would rather spend more centenary time with the suffering on the Western Front, but when it comes to the long-term impacts of the First World War I’m an unrepentant ‘Easterner’. Looked at from 2015 (rather than, say, 1925 or 1965), a lot of the War’s secondary fronts turned out to be harbingers of momentous, long-term economic and geopolitical change.  The War’s effects on, for instance, Russia and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, post-colonial Africa or the Far East strike me as more in need of modern attention and understanding than frontier squabbles between western European states – and the same applies in spades to the Middle East. That’s my excuse for marking the end, exactly a century ago, of the Affair of the Wadi Senab.

It wasn’t a big battle, hence its contemporary dismissal as an ‘Affair’, and like most military clashes between industrialised armed forces and tribespeople, it wasn’t especially distinguished.  On the other hand it was something of a turning point in the process that culminated in British conquest of, and responsibility for, the Middle East.  Here’s how.

A year ago, I posted about the centenary of the formal British protectorate over Egypt (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab).  No point in repeating myself at length, so check back or take it from me that Egypt was important to the British Empire, partly as a base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations but principally as the location of the Suez Canal.  As the primary conduit between Britain and the wealth of India, Suez was inevitably a target for Ottoman attacks during 1915, but they had been on a small scale and British colonial forces had seen them off without much trouble.  By late in the year the Canal hadn’t come under serious direct threat, but Egypt’s skeleton British occupation force, drained by the demands of other fronts, was facing a mounting problem from the Senussi movement in Libya.

Loyal to the descendants of 19th-century Islamic reformist Sheikh es Senussi, the Senussi were based Cyrenaica, the region of modern Libya centred on Benghazi, and had been trained as fighters by Turkish Army officers during the Italo-Ottoman war of 1910-11. From late 1914 their leader, Sidi Ahmad es Sherif, accepted German and Ottoman support for small-scale operations against British Egypt and French Sahara.  After Italy entered the war in mid-1915, lack of supervision by Italian colonial authorities freed Sidi Ahmad to attempt something more serious.

Led by Ottoman and German officers, seven battalions of Senussi warriors (an estimated 5,000 fighters) invaded across Egypt’s western frontier in late November 1915.  Supported by border tribes and equipped with machine guns and light artillery, they had forced the British to abandon lightly defended coastal positions at Sidi Barrani and Sollum by the first week of December, at which point the British decided to fight back.

A Western Frontier Force was cobbled together from a horse artillery company, three British territorial battalions, one of Sikhs, a few units of Australians back from Gallipoli and some armoured cars borrowed from the Royal Naval Air Service.  Based on the coast at Mersa Matruh, and led by Major-General Wallace, the WFF was charged with eliminating the Senussi, and elements of the force attacked about 300 Senussi fighters at Wadi Senab, some 300km west of Alexandria, on 11 December.

After inflicting a few dozen casualties and driving the Senussi from the wadi (which is a river bed valley that often, as at Senab, forms an oasis), the British were prevented from further advance next day by a well-coordinated counterattack.  The counterattack was scattered by Australian artillery, but the exhausted British column gave up its half-hearted pursuit on 13 December and returned to Mersa Matruh.

The Affair had cost the British 25 dead and 82 wounded, against an estimated 300 Senussi killed, but although it could be counted a victory it hadn’t inflicted any lasting damage on the invaders.  Bad weather prevented further operations by the WFF until Christmas Day, when it attacked Senussi units near the coast at the Wadi Majid, just west of Mersa Matruh, but the result was essentially the same.  The Senussi suffered a few hundred casualties and lost a little local prestige, but again escaped to regroup.

Reinforced, the Western Frontier Force would drive Sidi Ahmad and his army far to the west during 1916, but the relatively tiny Senussi force would remain a thorn in the side of British Middle Eastern operations into early 1918, eventually keeping some 35,000 British imperial troops and 60,000 Italian colonial personnel occupied in snuffing out guerilla raids from French Saharan territory.

While this long, obscure and largely forgotten campaign in the Western Desert was getting fully underway, early in 1916, the British were going on the front foot elsewhere in Egypt.  Expecting a fresh Ottoman attack on Suez, theatre c-in-c General Maxwell took further steps to ensure the Canal’s security.  Temporarily reinforced by divisions transferred from Gallipoli, Maxwell sent advanced troops beyond the Canal’s east bank, establishing trench lines 10km into Sinai, and made major improvements to supply lines between Cairo and the front.

This was ‘forward defence’, the same tactic that had drawn British Indian forces deep into the mire on the Mesopotamian Front.  For now, Maxwell and Murray (who took over as theatre c-in-c in March 1916) were prevented from major advances by a steady reduction of strength, as the Gallipoli divisions moved on to other fronts – but by May British forces had occupied Romani, 30km east of Suez, and by the end of the year they had established a forward base at El Arish, a hundred kilometres into Sinai and menacing Turkish positions in Palestine.

The thin end of the wedge was in.  With hopes – soon to be realised in spectacular fashion – of igniting an Arab revolt throughout the Ottoman Empire’s Middle Eastern provinces, the British Empire was now poised to take a fateful step into what is generally known as the Palestinian Front.  The world is still trying and failing to deal with the consequences.

8 DECEMBER, 1915: Chat Lines

A hundred years ago today, after three days of talks between Entente military leaders designed to coordinate their strategic approach in the year to come, the Second Chantilly Conference came to an end.  Attended by representatives of the six Allied powers – Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia and Italy – the conference boasted one significant achievement.  After complaining about Anglo-French inaction on the Western Front during the summer’s Triple Offensive in the east, Russian delegate General Zhilinski secured agreement from every power that it would launch an attack whenever an ally was threatened.

The other major business conducted at Chantilly was a U-turn by French c-in-c Joffre.  In advance of the conference, on 4 December, he and French prime minister Briande had met with BEF chief of staff Roberston and British war minister Kitchener at Calais.  Joffre had accepted, albeit reluctantly, British demands for a withdrawal from Salonika, where a Franco-British expedition had missed the chance to help Serbia.  When the French public, kept in the dark about the fate of Serbia, reacted to the decision with predictable and intense outrage, Joffre changed his mind.  At Chantilly, he persuaded the Russian, Italian and Serbian delegates to support continuation of the Salonika operation.  The new British delegates – BEF commander Sir John French and Imperial chief of staff Sir Archibald Murray (both destined to lose their jobs before the end of the month) – chose to preserve the appearance of unity rather than argue, and their acceptance of further commitment in Salonika sealed the decision to put an end to the Gallipoli campaign.

All worth knowing, by way of joining up various dots, but perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chantilly Conference is how long it had taken the Allies to get around to it.  There had been a first conference in early July, also held at Joffre’s headquarters in Chantilly and attended by representatives of all six powers, but it can best be described as a false start. Proceedings had amounted to a long peroration by Joffre about the need for inter-allied cooperation, and no decisions had been reached or joint declarations made. Otherwise, it had taken sixteen months of all-out, escalating warfare on a global scale before the allies came together for serious joint discussions.  A hundred years on, after decades of summit diplomacy as the norm, the delay calls for an explanation.

The explanation is fairly obvious, but it is a useful perspective check. Before the age of long-range powered flight it took a lot of time and effort to get important people from various countries together in one place.  In the past it had been attempted only in peacetime, for the first time after the Napoleonic Wars when the victorious allies convened at the Congress of Vienna, and subsequently to make territorial and political arrangements designed to preserve peace. In the middle of a war, strategic positions might undergo major changes in the time it took for delegates to travel to and from a summit, especially when an alliance included far-distant Russia.  This was why the first Allied summit attempt took place in July, when European armies traditionally took a summer break from major operations, only to be rendered obsolete when the Germans ignored tradition and launched their Triple Offensive against the Russians a few days later.

Winter offered a more reliable break in European operations, but the War’s first winter had passed without much perceived need for inter-Allied strategic discussion.  Britain, France and Russia had long been accustomed to pursuing imperial ambitions as rivals rather than partners, and mutual suspicion was still a restraining influence, but above all they saw no need for strategic debate at the end of 1914 because they all knew exactly what to do.  Serbia and Belgium had only one strategic option, to lobby their more powerful allies for help with national survival.  The big boys meanwhile devoted the winter to massing lots more men and weapons at the front lines, confident that the mistakes of the autumn would be corrected and the enemy overcome by sheer force of numbers in 1915.

By the end of 1915, force of numbers, various strategic sideshows and the development of new ‘breakthrough’ tactics had quite clearly failed to overwhelm an enemy fighting on two major and several minor fronts.  The Central Powers had held firm against superior numbers on the Western Front, swept aside Russian defences in the east, proved far more obdurate than expected on the Ottoman fronts and were now in the process of conquering Serbia.  Home fronts were becoming less stable and enthusiastic for war, costs had spiralled far beyond any pre-war planner’s wildest nightmares and there was no sign at all of victory on the horizon.  It had been a very bad autumn for the Allies, and it had become clear that pursuit of separate imperial agendas by the main partners was at least partly to blame.  With British and French authorities anxious to show impatient populations that constructive change was in progress, a lull in European fighting once Serbia could no longer be saved meant the Allies were finally ready to take the first step towards behaving like a modern military coalition.

My point here is a variation on one of my regular tropes.  As I will keep telling anyone who’ll listen, it’s impossible to understand the modern world without knowing about the First World War – but Allied attempts at strategic coordination are a reminder that you’ll never get the hang of the thing if you judge it by modern standards.

Lesson over, so I’ll sign off with a couple of sidelights on that first summit.  First of all the sensible, overdue agreement reached at Chantilly would prove counterproductive in 1916.  Triggered when German forces attacked the French at Verdun in February, it prompted a hasty and ill-fated Russian offensive on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, and a British offensive at the Somme that, though anything but hasty, was hardly a success.

Secondly, and in case you’re wondering, the Central Powers didn’t really need strategic summits in 1915.  This was partly a matter of geography.  As their collective name suggested, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were all within relatively easy communication distance of each other, and the main German strategic justification for joining the invasion of Serbia was to open overland communications with the Ottoman Empire.  The other reason summits weren’t necessary was that Germany made all the decisions.  All Germany’s allies were dependent on military and/or economic support to keep them in the War, so inter-allied strategic debates were essentially cosmetic.

3 DECEMBER, 1915: Friendly Fires?

Today’s the day, a century ago, that relations between the United States and the German Empire hit a new low, as Washington announced the expulsion of German military attachés Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed.  This wasn’t a decisive moment in the process that would eventually bring the US into the War, and it had no direct bearing on the issue generally credited with doing the trick, German submarine warfare against commercial traffic.  On the other hand, the announcement did make global headlines at the time, as did anything to do with Washington’s diplomatic position in 1915, and its centenary is a useful opportunity to mention the sabotage campaign carried out by German agents in the wartime US.  Why bother?  Because the campaign played an important and often ignored role in bringing the Unites States to war.

Even in the context of the First World War’s giant jamboree bag of world-defining events, US entry into the European conflict stands out as arguably the defining event of the twentieth century.  Others were more dramatic, and you can make a case for revolutions, nuclear weapons or the day Hitler got really angry (to name just a few), but it’s hard beat the moment the United States abandoned one of its most basic constitutional tenets, got involved in somebody else’s war for the first time, and committed to becoming the world’s dominant diplomatic, military and economic superpower.  So it seems a shame the heritage industry on this side of the Atlantic isn’t too bothered about why it happened.

If the question does crop up, the heritage answer is usually nice and simple:  U-boats sank the Lusitania, as well as other dubious targets occupied by American citizens, and the USA’s outrage eventually trumped its pacifism.  You won’t be surprised to hear that the real picture was more complex.

Let’s start with a few broad brushstrokes.  A refusal to take part in overseas wars that were considered imperialist was a fundamental founding principle of the independent United States, enshrined in its constitution and strong in the public mind as the Great War got underway in Europe.  Then again, like so many of the grandest principles, national pacifism had never really stopped the USA from going to war when it suited the right vested interests.  Regular invasions of Canada and Mexico peppered the republic’s early history, and by the late nineteenth century the impulse to overseas trade was breeding a parallel (and standard) impulse to interference in foreign affairs.

It was by no means a universal impulse.  Vast swathes of ‘middle America’, along with traditionalists everywhere, regarded all dealings overseas as dangerous and undesirable, but manufacturing and maritime interests in the northeastern states, increasingly supported by their emergent counterparts on the Pacific coast, recognised a huge opportunity for world-class wealth when they saw one, and led the way in demanding that the USA behave like a world power.  Driven on by their noisiest champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, they had crossed a significant line at the very end of the nineteenth century, when economic imperatives had prompted invasion and conquest of the far distant Philippines. Fifteen years later, with the much less bullish Woodrow Wilson in the White House, US Marines moved in to help establish long-term economic dominance in various Latin American capitals once the new war had sucked European investments from the continent.

So the USA was no virgin when it came to overseas military adventure by 1914 – it was merely in denial the way, for instance, our modern media deny the strategic irrelevance of British military adventure.  The USA was also neutral, generally referred to as ‘the great neutral’, but again an element of denial was involved, particularly when it came to trade.

When war came to Europe, opportunity knocked louder than ever for US overseas trade.  All the biggest European governments were suddenly desperate for everything the USA could grow or build. American farmers, manufacturers and merchants responded in spades, making vast fortunes in the process, but with very few exceptions they responded only to the Entente powers, because the Royal Navy’s blockade strategy made delivery of goods to Germany, Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire almost impossible.

This huge imbalance played into wartime diplomatic rows between the US and Britain over blockade tactics (as discussed back in March), and into the mounting dispute over the submarine tactics used instead by Germany.  It also convinced many German observers that the US was neutral only in name, a belief that became the justification for German attempts to slow the flow of goods and arms to the Entente by sabotage.

During the War’s first year, US authorities had foiled attempts at sabotage in San Francisco, Hoboken and Seattle, and had uncovered a scheme to supply German agents with US passports bought from dock workers, but successful saboteurs were thought responsible for more than a dozen factory fires and fires aboard at least thirty ships. Reported with all due hysteria, these incidents left the American public in the grip of a spy craze that made every fire suspicious and every German-American a suspect.  For a time the Wilson administration chose to protect its neutrality by accepting German ambassador Bernstorff’s claims that misguided, independent associations or individuals were to blame, and that no official sabotage campaign existed – but by the middle of 1915 US authorities knew those claims to be false.

In February, a lone German agent had set off a suitcase full of dynamite on the railway bridge linking the US and Canada at Vanceboro, Maine. The bomb did only minor damage, the perpetrator was caught (not hard, given that he was wearing his old German Army uniform) and his orders were traced back to Bernstorff’s military attaché, Franz von Papen.  Further investigations linked von Papen to several other sabotage incidents, and also implicated Karl Boy-Ed, a Turkish-German with excellent connections among the New York social elite.  On 3 December, shortly after a fire at a munitions factory had raised popular spy mania to fever pitch, the US government finally expelled the two of them, and confiscated documents in Papen’s possession that detailed an ongoing nationwide campaign against railways, shipping and factories.

The German sabotage campaign in the USA didn’t end with the expulsions, but the minimal disruption it caused to Entente supply lines was far outweighed by the damage it did to German-American relations.  Coming at a time when keeping the United States out of the War was Germany’s overwhelming diplomatic priority, it was a classic example of the spectacular incompetence that characterised the Empire’s wartime diplomacy.

The decision to turn atrocities against Belgian civilians into an international publicity stunt, the clumsy attempts to interfere in Mexican affairs, the serial miscalculations of US opinion around submarine warfare…  all these helped underpin the American impulse towards war in the name of trade by cementing the German regime’s image in the States as a greedy, militarist danger to civilisation and something worth fighting.  None of them prepared the American people for overseas war more effectively than the outrage created by German saboteurs.