27, FEBRUARY, 1916: Small, Fried…

Nationalism can be very bad for the hindsight. In Britain, for instance, there are individuals, national newspapers and political organisations inclined to the view that no people suffered the burdens of twentieth-century global madness more completely than the British. In fact, despite the heavy casualties, bombing raids and social disruptions of two world wars, the British had a relatively easy twentieth century by European standards.

Before you get outraged on behalf of your ancestors and report me to the Heritage Denial authorities, think about where in Europe you’d rather have been. Once you eliminate all those countries invaded, occupied, blighted by dictatorship, scarred by revolution, slaughtered, wiped out or all of the above, you’re left with Sweden, Switzerland and maybe Iceland – and if that’s not enough to convince you, try taking a look at those European countries dealt really bad hands.

Poland springs instantly to mind – invaded, ravaged, partitioned and oppressed over and over again – but the same could be said of many other nations, especially those on the frontiers of ambitious empires or would-be empires. Albania is one of those nations, and the context surrounding events on 27 February 1916, when Austro-Hungarian forces captured the Adriatic port of Durazzo (now called Durrës), gives me an excuse to sketch out the early years of one European country’s rotten twentieth century.

Part of the southern Balkans, nestling between mountains and the Adriatic coast, Albania reached the twentieth century as an ethnically mixed, essentially tribal society, governed as a province of the Ottoman Empire. Like many of the more far-flung territories nominally ruled by the Sultan in Constantinople, it was basically autonomous, and in July 1913, after Turkey’s defeat in the Second Balkan War, it was given formal status as an autonomous principality. Sounds good, but removal of the theoretical protection offered by Ottoman ownership left Albania’s expansionist neighbours free to include it in the territorial carve-up surrounding the Balkan Wars.

I put together some background to the mysteries of the Balkan Wars in a previous post (6 September, 1915: Caveat Emptor), but from an Albanian perspective they left Greece, Serbia and Italy ready and anxious to control some or all of the country.  While Italian influence dominated the ‘independent’ centre of the country, Greek incursions to the south and Serbian to the north meant that three separate Albanian governments were claiming international recognition by early 1914.  Europe’s great powers, united in exasperation at the dangerous chaos of Balkan politics, responded with the old-school expedient of appointing a monarch to sort out the mess.

Prince Wilhelm of Wied, a German princeling with strong links to Vienna, took the throne in March 1914.  He sought a semblance of legitimacy by appointing Essad Pasha, the region’s last Ottoman governor and its only internationally recognised authority, as his war minister – but Essad made his own bid for power almost immediately, and was gaining some measure of control over Albania’s largely lawless central region when the outbreak of general war in Europe moved the goalposts in his favour.  Prince Wilhelm’s brief flirtation with international significance ended when he fled the country in September, and for the next year Albania remained divided, with Serbian and Greek armies of occupation remaining static in the regions to the north and south of Essad’s central fiefdom.

This unhealthy balance was upset by the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in the autumn of 1915, which ended Serbian occupation of the north but also put Austro-Hungarian forces in what passed for control of central Albania by the end of the year, forcing Essad’s flight to Salonika. The Italian Navy had meanwhile captured the Albanian port of Valona (Vlorë) as part of the operation to evacuate the retreating remnant of Serbia’s army to Corfu, but though Italian warships bombarded Durazzo and set parts of the town ablaze, no serious attempt was made to prevent the port’s capture. Remaining in Austro-Hungarian hands , it formed part of the Adriatic naval front line until late 1918.

Albania spent the rest of the War in a state of chaos.  While Austro-Hungarian authorities struggled in vain the control the northern, central and coastal regions, the Bulgarian Army took over part of eastern Albania until 1917. The Greeks, chronically unable to decide which side of the War they were on, withdrew from southern Albania in the autumn of 1916, but were replaced by Italian and a few French troops. Though a major burden on Albania’s primitive economy, these occupying forces were little more than targets for the local warlords who actually controlled most of the country, and who were generally happy to take money from one side to undertake guerilla activities against another.  Here a map, stolen of course and removable on demand, of Albania’s theoretical divisions in late 1916.

 

320px-1914_albania_en.svg

Green for Italian, pink for French, muddy green for Austria-Hungary… and this map ignores the Bulgarians to the northeast.

 

No credible political authority had emerged in Albania by the time a collapsing Austria-Hungary withdrew from the Balkans in September 1918, and Italian forces remained to occupy the country after the Armistice.  Now the sole targets for guerilla attacks (by warlords, independence fighters or bandits, depending on your viewpoint), the Italians quit the country in 1920, and later that year local warlords fought off an attack through the northern mountains by forces from the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later known as Yugoslavia).  Albania’s existence as an independent nation was finally settled in 1921, with Italian, Greek and Yugoslav agreement to appoint a ‘regency council’ as its governing body, but a century of troubles had barely begun.

Factional struggles amounting to clan warfare prevented even a modicum of political stability during the 1920s, and to cut a long story short Albania went through serial regime changes before becoming a republic, a monarchy under King Zog, a possession of Mussolini’s Italy, a Nazi-occupied state and, for almost fifty years from 1944, a Communist state under the truly bizarre dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.  These days Albania is trying to join the EU, and anyone who thinks the country doesn’t deserve peaceful integration with the rest of Europe has been reading the wrong newspapers, but internal factionalism, widespread corruption and communal division remain serious obstacles to progress, and the Balkans are still a very volatile place oxycontin 10mg.

So the First World War was tough on every European participant, Britain included, but for Albanians it was terrible every day, a story of danger and deprivation for all, and a mere chapter in the chronicle of more or less violent oppression that was to be their lot for the rest of the century.  Just thought you should know…

21 FEBRUARY, 1916: Blood Equity

What was the First World War’s defining event?  It’s a tricky question, and it invites a variety of answers in almost every country involved.

For relatively small countries embroiled in the conflict, along with colonies drawn in by imperial ties and the newly independent nations born from the ruins of wartime empires, the answer might be one of the great battles or might be a matter of strictly national perspective.  In Serbia, for instance, the Great Retreat of late 1915 stands as an emblem for national survival, while Australians and New Zealanders look to Gallipoli as the birthplace of modern national identity.

For most of the great empires at war, an answer is even more difficult to pin down.  For most inhabitants of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, the War was probably defined by the collapse that ended it rather than any event within it, and you can argue that entering the War was its defining moment for the United States.

That leaves Britain and France, the two great European empires that survived the struggle from start to finish and might be said to enjoy an uninterrupted historical view.  If you’re British, eyes permanently fixed on the nearest and most costly theatre, the Western Front, the Somme or Ypres is probably the name that defines the War in all its ghastliness, but it’s still a matter of opinion and the title’s still up for grabs.  If you’re French, there’s no argument.  For France, the event that defines the First World War was the German attack on Verdun, and it began a hundred years ago today.

I shouldn’t have to give you the basic facts about this particular centenary, but the British heritage industry isn’t paying much attention to Verdun, partly because the First World War went off the radar and is back to being subsumed by the Second, partly because the British weren’t involved.  So at the risk of boring anyone well informed or French, here’s the deal.

The battle for Verdun was fought from 21 February until 18 December 1916.  It was the longest battle of the War and the most costly in terms of casualties.  Verdun was a fortified garrison town on the River Meuse, some 200km east of Paris, surrounded by rings of forts and considered the strongest defensive position in France. An important strategic point for French defence during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s and the war against Prussia in 1870, the Verdun fortress network was seen by French strategists, politicians and public as the key – or at least the symbolic key – to national security against threats from the east.

Since 1914 the fortified area around Verdun had jutted into German lines as a bulge, or salient, and was an obvious target for a limited German offensive.  Despite a growing consensus among French field commanders that defending fortresses was an anachronistic waste of resources, it was considered vital to popular morale by military and political leaders constantly afraid that a traditionally turbulent public would succumb to pacifism or rebellion.  So why did the German high command pick on such a tough nut as the target for its big spring offensive on the Western Front?

German Chief of the General Staff Falkenhayn had spent 1915 fighting his corner against the noisy ambitions of Eastern Front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, merely able to hold positions in France and Belgium while resources flowed east.  By the end of the year, with Eastern Front operations on hold and the distraction of Serbia out of the way, he was ready to concentrate on the West.  Compared to Moltke and Hindenburg, his predecessor and successor in overall command, Falkenhayn often gets a fairly easy ride from posterity, but that doesn’t make him lovable, and the calculation behind his decision to attack Verdun is a fairly breathtaking example of cold pragmatism.

Reasoning that nothing he could do would knock either Great Britain or Russia out of the War, Falkenhayn identified France as only enemy Germany could beat in 1916.  Experience had taught him that simply breaking through the trench lines, an approach attempted by everyone everywhere since late 1914, was an unlikely route to victory, so he chose to try grinding France to defeat by attacking where they would feel compelled to defend to the death. The offensive’s stated intention was to ‘bleed the French Army white’ by inflicting as many casualties as possible over a sustained period.  I know that looks like a very bad idea, and it was, but in the context of early 1916 it was also a reflection of the desperation felt by commanders everywhere to do something, anything to bring an end to the stalemate – and at least Falkenhayn’s timing was good.

A massive build-up of German artillery and ammunition in the Verdun sector had begun in the New Year, at a time when the French Army was in the process of dismantling and reorganising the fortress defences.  Field commanders of the French Second Army, drawn up in trenches some 5km in front of the outer fortresses, could hardly fail to notice that trouble was coming and sent repeated warning to the high command, but French c-in-c Joffre was busy planning his own offensive around the Somme and paid only belated attention.  In late January a few French reinforcements did reached Verdun, along with some of the artillery stripped from the fortresses for front line use, but by late February, when a million troops of the German Fifth Army were ready to attack, only 200,000 men were defending the sector.

After a 21-hour preliminary bombardment had dropped more than a million tons of shells onto the area around Verdun’s eastern and northern forts, German troops advanced along a 12km front late on the afternoon of 21 February.  They met more resistance than expected from surviving defenders, but had driven them back to their second line of trenches by the next day.  On 24 February, the French Fifth Army withdrew to a third line of trenches, 8km from Verdun itself, and this exposed the prestigious but barely garrisoned fortress of Douaumont.

By that time French reinforcements were being rushed to the battle, but they were too late to prevent German capture of Douaumont on 25 February – and that triggered exactly the reaction Falkenhayn had been hoping for, in spades.  French national outrage exploded into fervent popular determination to hold Verdun at all costs, to an extent that surprised even Falkenhayn, and from that moment any French withdrawal became a political and moral impossibility for the Briande government.  So far so good for Falkenhayn, but not for long.

On 24 February command of the Verdun defence had been given to General Pétain.  An experienced field commander who had long argued against fortress defence, Pétain responded to Joffre’s order forbidding any kind of withdrawal by rushing every artillery piece to the front from reserve areas and concentrating all his guns on the attacking German infantry.  This brought the German advance to a halt by 28 February, when mutual ammunition shortage forced a lull in the fighting for a week.  Having saved an apparently hopeless situation, Pétain used the breathing space to complete a thorough reorganisation of his lines , enabling rapid reinforcement and constant supply of French forces for a long battle.

Here’s a map of the battlefield, dull and stolen but efficient and self-explanatory, by way of adding some scale and context to what solidified into one of humanity’s great horror stories.

 

Battle_of_Verdun_map

 

For now the pattern was set.   Pétain had been established as a French military hero for the next 24 years or so, and Falkenhayn’s big plan was working as advertised – but as attrition set in at Verdun the big question begged by the offensive was yet to be answered. Could the French Army be bled into submission?

Nine months later, the answer would be no, delivered at a cost of about 434,000 German and 550,000 French casualties, half of them killed.  The German Army had gained a few kilometres of ground, a few villages had been obliterated, most survivors had been scarred for life by the experience and the French nation scarred for all time.

Those are just the bare bones, and I’ll try to add flesh to the horror story during the next few months.  Beyond simple information the only real purpose of this post is to make the point that, as usual during the Great War, a really terrible idea destined to go horribly wrong had its root, not in the mental deficiencies of its creators, but in the impossible dilemma of needing total victory in a world designed for anything but.

16 FEBRUARY, 1916: The Walrus In Winter

A month ago I mentioned that European weather in January 1916 was weirdly warm, but that exploiting it with any serious offensive action was beyond the military technology and orthodoxies of the day.  By mid-February, northern and western Europe were well into an almost equally extraordinary spell of wet weather, destined to last another week or so before a fall in temperatures signalled an unusually cold, wet March.  On the Western Front, where major offensives by both sides were still in preparation, weather conditions presented no more than a logistic nuisance – but soggy ground, mud and freezing cold were about to have their day in France and Belgium… and how.

So spare a small, forgiving thought for contemporary leaders when, amid the appalling carnage that took place on the Western Front in 1916,  the heritage lines get clogged with contemptuous dismissals of their idiocy.  Bad ideas, badly executed by bad generals were a problem by 1916, but commanders were not only dealing with a form of mechanised warfare that was still in the experimental stages, and working with unprecedented numbers of lightly trained, inexperienced troops, they were doing it under conditions created by one of the strangest winters in European history.

A little further south, on the alpine front between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, the weather was essentially normal for the time of year, that’s to say wintry, unpredictable and unsuited to fighting.  Both sides were still in recovery from the four fruitless offensives launched by the Italians in the Isonzo valley during 1915, but while Austro-Hungarian forces were being reinforced for a future attack on positions further west, in the Trentino region, Italian commander Cadorna was preparing his battered troops for yet another Isonzo assault.

Nobody has much good to say about General Cadorna’s long, ugly campaign on the Italian Front, and quite right too, but in February 1916 even he deserved some sympathy.  Italy had entered the War bent on territorial gain but in no economic condition to fight it, and was dependent from the start on Allied promises of military and economic aid.  Nine months on, with public and press criticism of the military campaign mounting and urban food shortages becoming serious, Allied aid had become critical to national survival but was delivered only on the condition that the Italian government did exactly as Britain and France asked.  In December 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, Italy had of course agreed that any Allied offensive should be supported by attacks on other fronts, so once Haig and Joffre had finalised their plans for offensives on the Western Front, Cadorna had no choice about mounting an attack. Given the requirement to do so quickly, he had little practical choice about its general location.

Elsewhere, the Eastern Front was still paralysed by winter, Salonika was inert, British plans for an advance into Palestine were still brewing, and the Mesopotamian campaign was locked around the siege of General Townshend’s troops in Kut.  In Africa, German Cameroon had just reached the end of the line, and in German East Africa a new South African commander, Jan Smuts, was preparing a major British offensive against General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s resolute defence.  In other words, the First World War was under starters orders for the year… unless you were in Armenia.

When I last gave the Caucasian Front its due (15 August, 1915: No Silver Lining), it lay fallow while both sides were busy elsewhere – Ottoman armies at Gallipoli, Russian coping with German advances on the Eastern Front.  West of the front line, remaining Ottoman authorities then spent the latter part of 1915 attempting to wipe out the Armenian people, while on the eastern side Russian General Yudenich could only hold his positions until the high command provided sufficient reinforcements for an attack.  The vast improvement in Russian industrial output, as discussed back in June, meant that by the end of the year Yudenich had built up a force of some 300,000 troops, including reserves.  This outnumbered Ottoman forces at the front by at least three to one and Yudenich, aware that reinforcements were on their way from Gallipoli, chose to launch an offensive before they arrived.

On 10 January, in deep snow, Yudenich launched his advance into Armenia with preliminary attacks all along the front. Ottoman forces, most of them still in winter camp, were taken by surprise, and a week later the Russians broke through the lines at Köprukoy, inflicting some 25,000 casualties but failing to surround the rest of the Turkish Third Army, which retreated into the reputedly impregnable fortress city of Erzurum.

By the end of the month Russian forces had besieged Erzurum, and a century ago today, on 16 February 1916, the garrison surrendered, giving up some 13,000 prisoners and 350 (largely obsolete) artillery pieces.  Two days later, a secondary advance to the south took the town of Mus.  All this deserves a map, but as I’ve mentioned before the Internet is a little short on remotely comprehensible maps of the Caucasian Front, so this is the best I can do:

400px-Russian-Caucas-Front-1916
You’ll just have to work this one out for yourselves…

The fall of Erzurum and Mus ended the first phase of a genuinely successful campaign. Alone among senior Russian commanders at the time, Yudenich understood the concentration and reserve strength needed to achieve a breakthrough, knew how to take enemies by surprise and was open to innovation. Crucially, he also recognised the inherent dangers of over-extension that had been ruining grand offensive plans since 1914, and pursued strictly limited objectives. Better yet, because regional commander Grand Duke Nikolai was busy with factional intrigue in far off Tbilisi, Yudenich was left to get on with being a good general without interference from Stavka.

Having caught the Turks unawares and under strength, and broken through their lines, Yudenich made no attempt to exploit the victory by sweeping onward into the heart of Turkey, as the likes of Ludendorff would surely have done (and as British commanders in Palestine were hoping).  Instead he sprung another surprise by turning his armies northwest from 22 February, and using naval landings to occupy Black Sea coastal positions before taking Trabzon in April.

In the summer, Yudenich expanded his area of control with an attack west of Erzurum, advancing the front line some 150km and taking the town of Erzincan in late July.  The advance nipped most of a planned Turkish offensive in the bud, and although the Ottoman Second Army did advance at the southern end of the front to take Bitlis in August, Russian counterattacks had recovered all the lost ground by the end of the month.  At that point, aware that the theatre was of secondary importance to Stavka and unlikely to be heavily reinforced, Yudenich cashed in his chips and spent the rest of the year consolidating his gains.

The long-term strategic importance of the Erzurum Offensive is debatable, given that the collapse of both competing empires made it irrelevant to the political future of Armenia, but in the short term it did protect at least some of the region’s population from the further predations of genocide-inclined Ottoman officials.  Its main claim to fame, or at least to my interest, is that (with the qualification that it benefitted from some very poor defending by ill-equipped Ottoman forces) it can honestly be called efficient and successful, which is more than you can say for anything else attempted by the major powers since the autumn of 1914.

Yudenich was not the only general to have begun solving the offensive conundrum posed by the state of the military-technological world in early 1916.  Australian General Monash had, for instance, been learning similar lessons on a smaller scale in the cauldron of Gallipoli.  For now though, they were voices in the wilderness, drowned out by the sweeping strategies of leaders desperate to end the agony with one killer blow.  It would be another two years before the pragmatic good sense of their step-by-step approach to victory would find much general acceptance, and that, as history’s grim statistics record, was a terrible shame.

8 FEBRUARY, 1916: No Cigar

It’s been eighteen months coming, but I’ve finally reached a week short on centenaries to get excited about.  True, 8 February 1916 was the day on which the British government made a formal request on  to its Far Eastern ally, Japan, for naval aid, but that didn’t get exciting for a couple of decades.  As I’ve mentioned before (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger), the squadron of Japanese destroyers that eventually arrived to join Allied Mediterranean patrols in April 1917 did nothing of any military significance, but did learn plenty about the latest naval techniques and equipment.

The last rites of the Central Powers’ invasion of the Balkans were also in progress, with Bulgarian and Austrian forces mopping up in Albania and Montenegro respectively, while the remnants of the Serbian Army were still being evacuated to Corfu, where a government in exile was established on 9 February.  Again, I’ve been there and done that (25 November, 1915: The Hard Way), and the same is true of the increasingly bonkers British Naval Africa Expedition, which was busy with its gunboat war for control of Lake Tanganyika (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut…).

Early February also saw the usual trickle of naval losses, most notably the Amiral Charner, an old French cruiser stationed off the Syrian coast.  Part of the naval blockade of the Ottoman Empire, she was torpedoed by the U-21 on 8 February and went down with only one survivor.  Three days later, the British lost a much more modern light cruiser, the Arethusa, when it struck a mine off Felixstowe, a disaster that cost only ten lives but, so close to home, fuelled the pathological caution of British naval commanders in the North Sea.

Otherwise, on all the main battlefronts, the weather was being watched while offensives were being prepared.  Russian forces in the Caucasus were almost ready to begin a push into Armenia towards Erzurum; in northern Italy, yet another Izonso offensive was grinding towards action; and the German Army, after a year with its focus firmly to the east, was about to start punching its increased weight on the Western Front.  This was the quiet before the storm and everybody in the belligerent countries knew it.

That didn’t mean everybody was talking about it.  Offensives being of a necessarily secret nature, this was a good time for the official and unofficial press (and thus popular opinion) to focus on issues at home.  That, along with the sensational nature of the subject and the existence of some excellent illustrations, explains why newspapers and magazines in Britain and France were still full of news about Zeppelins.  It also gives me an excuse to go back a few days to an anniversary I skipped.

The source of most press coverage had been two Zeppelin raids at the end of January.  During the misty night of 29/30 January a single airship, the LZ77, bombed Paris, killing 29 civilians and injuring thirty.  This would turn out to be the last Zeppelin raid on Paris, and a turning point in German bombing strategy.

Two nights later, a fleet of nine German Navy Zeppelins set out from bases in northern Germany to bomb the British mainland, with instructions to fly right across the country and demonstrate their long-range power by attacking the vitally important port of Liverpool.  Nothing so bold had ever been attempted before, by Zeppelins or winged aircraft, and though the raid’s main purpose was to frighten the enemy, it was also an experiment to test the viability of very long-range bombing.

At this stage in the development of powered flight, Zeppelins were the only weapons available to those who advocated, and would later practice, the monstrosity of strategic bombing theory. That’s the theory, popularly associated with Göring and Harris but tried out by many others during and since the First World War, that bombing the Hell out of civilian targets can win wars on its own.  By 1914 the theory, first proposed by the Italian air theorist Douhet as early as 1911, had advocates in all the major belligerent states, but they all faced the problem that aircraft technology couldn’t deliver machines with the range or payload to make massed bombing of distant enemy targets feasible.

Up to a point, Zeppelins solved the problem.  Designed by German nobleman Graf (Count) von Zeppelin, and first flown in 1900, they were accepted into German Army service from 1909.  By August 1914, the German Army was using ten Zeppelins and the German Navy one, all attached to the high command for strategic operations.

Little use as frontline reconnaissance craft, because they took so long to get into the air, Zeppelins announced themselves as bombers at the very start of the War, when the Z6 successfully attacked Liège on the night of 6/7 August.  But the Z6 had to be withdrawn from service after ground fire forced it to crash land, and that set a pattern for Zeppelin operations: they could deliver long-range bombing raids, but were extremely vulnerable to attack and bad weather why not try this out.

By the spring of 1915, with eight new airships commissioned and six lost, the German Army fleet was concentrated in Belgium for bombing missions over Flanders, France and England. Paris suffered regular small-scale attacks, and the first raid on London took place on 31 May.  Despite the introduction of new, bigger Zeppelins, with their trademark extendable observation cars slung beneath the ship, a bomb load of 1,200Kg and the ability to attack from above clouds, losses remained high throughout the year, even after bombing operations were restricted to moonless nights.

By the start of 1916 only six German Army Zeppelins were operational.  Still too slow and fragile for effective frontline operations, as would be confirmed by a final deployment at Verdun that saw three of four ships destroyed almost at once, their bombing role was being undermined by improvements in air defence technology.  That the gathering of naval Zeppelins for the raid on Liverpool was essentially a propaganda operation reflected the German high command’s fading faith in their ability to deliver a strategic blow.

On one level the raid failed miserably.  Mechanical problems and poor navigation in difficult conditions meant that the Zeppelins got hopelessly lost, scattering bombs around various towns and factories in the English Midlands.  Around 70 civilians were killed and about 115 injured (exact figures vary), making it the second most lethal wartime attack on Britain, but it failed to inflict any serious infrastructural damage.  On the other hand the Zeppelins suffered only one loss, when the L19 was shot down and crashed in the Channel, proving that very long-range attacks were possible, and they fulfilled their propaganda role by causing a genuine sensation. With new, higher-altitude models about to come into service, the airships had earned one last chance to prove their strategic value.

Le-Petit-Journal-27-2-1916

The L19 was lost with all hands after Dutch ground fire brought it down in the Channel… and the Allied press loved it.

They did well.  Attacks on England by flotillas of four and five ships were carried out without loss in April 1916 and, as numbers of operational ships grew, the next few months saw the climax of their career as long-range bombers. Britain suffered twenty more raids during the year, five German Army airships performed well on the Eastern Front, suffering just one loss, and three more were deployed in the Balkans, though with less success. Yet just as the Zeppelins were starting to deliver as promised, aircraft technology was finally passing the tipping point that ended the argument about their strategic value.

By late 1916, modern fighter aircraft could reach and destroy the highest airship, and heavier, multi-engine aircraft could deliver bigger, more efficient strategic bombing attacks.  A reorganised German Army Air Service lost interest in airships, preferring to concentrate on its heavy aircraft programmes, and ceased Zeppelin operations altogether from June 1917.  German Navy Zeppelins continued in service until the end of the War, carrying out small raids and occasional supply missions, but they were never more than a marginal nuisance.  The day of the military airship had passed.

In some ways the raid that shocked the Midlands during the last night of January 1916 was the Zeppelins’ finest hour.  The sheer distance they travelled and the surprise they caused took strategic bombing to a new level, and foreshadowed massed raids to come, as did the incidental fact that the attack caused only civilian casualties. In other ways it was their last hurrah, bigger than any operation subsequently attempted with airships, and the last time they carried the baton for strategic bombing theory before it passed to the ancestors of the B-52.

1 FEBRUARY 1916: Alex in Wonderland

The early part of 1916 wasn’t a good time for imperial leadership in Europe. The British government was dithering in search of strategic inspiration, and French political authorities were struggling to maintain credibility with an increasingly war-weary population. The pressures of total war under blockade conditions were forcing German society and economy into dangerous overdrive, and were destroying the socioeconomic unity of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.

In London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Constantinople, authorities were sharply aware that keeping the body politic onside and committed to victory was vital to national survival, so that even the Kaiser’s conservative and autocratically inclined regime tried to at least present military and sociopolitical changes as ultimately beneficial to Germans in general.

Over in St. Petersburg, none of that stuff bothered the Romanovs.

A century ago today, Boris Stürmer replaced Ivan Goremykin as Russian prime minister.  Unlike other changes at the top around Europe during the winter of 1915–16, the appointment had nothing to do with keeping opposition politicians, the national workforce or anyone else onside – and everything to do with keeping Tsar Nicholas and his wife happy.

It’s not that getting rid of Goremykin was an unpopular move. The veteran lawyer and bureaucrat, well into his seventies and in semi-retirement when appointed prime minister in early 1914, got the job because his ultra conservative views and ingrained subservience to the crown chimed nicely the Tsar’s preferences. For two years he’d performed as advertised, maintaining a complete disregard for popular opinion and a mutually hostile relationship with the Duma, Russia’s half-baked parliament.  To no one’s surprise, he had been the only civilian minister to support the Tsar’s decision to take personal charge of the high command, Stavka, in September 1915, and that display of automatic loyalty eventually cost him his job.

In the Tsar’s absence, court affairs fell under the control of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, a woman who combined strength, stupidity and a penchant for scheming to dangerous effect.  With liberal deputies in the Duma clamouring for the prime minister’s removal as the military situation went from bad to stagnant, she and Gregor Rasputin – the mad, monkish mystic behind most of her thinking – engineered Goremykin’s replacement by one of their trusted protégés, a man guaranteed to antagonise all but the most rigidly conservative royalists.

Another seasoned bureaucrat and courtier, Stürmer was a surprise choice, not one of the usual royalist suspects for high office, but in every other respect he was anything but a fresh start.  No less unbendingly conservative than his predecessor, and eight years younger, he was chosen because the Tsarina and Nicholas believed that unpatriotic opposition, its roar reduced to a murmur inside the blackout blanket of court life, could be silenced if the Duma was confronted by a more vigorous defender of royal privilege.  That Stürmer was a sick man, distinctly short on vigour, seems to have mattered less than his guaranteed obedience to Alexandra.

Stürmer lasted as prime minister for almost nine months, during which he did nothing whatsoever to sustain the regime he served.  Ill health interfered with his workload from the start, but that didn’t stop him adding the interior ministry to his portfolio in March and switching it for foreign affairs in July.  His general performance, reminiscent of the dilettante politicians of the Napoleonic era, attracted contempt from all sides, and his unpopularity on the streets ran a close second to that of the much more energetic (and genuinely loathsome) interior minister, Aleksandr Protopopov.

Detested by the Duma and many of his cabinet colleagues, Stürmer ignored accusations of incompetence and (false) rumours that he was German agent, and relied on the favour of the Tsarina to keep him in his jobs.  His policy, such as it was, amounted to ignoring dissent in the name of stability, and was dictated to him by the Tsarina.  Meanwhile, furious protests went unanswered amid economic chaos at a time of desperate national dependence on a cooperative workforce, and demands for his removal grew ever louder.  By November 1916, with opposition in the Duma coming to the boil, the Tsar and Tsarina were ready, albeit reluctantly, to dispense with his services.

The Tsar, who regarded any kind of parliament as an affront to the crown, had reconvened the Duma in July 1915 to provide fundraising for the government at a time of national crisis.  Now he, his wife and Rasputin wanted rid of it, but simply dismissing it risked turning opposition into open revolt, a dangerous prospect when so much power was so concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Instead, calls for Stürmer’s removal were answered in late November and the relatively moderate Trepov installed in his place. Though the hated Protopopov remained in office, the gesture appeased the Duma just enough for Trepov to secure its peaceful adjournment in late December, at which point he was fired.

Having secured a hollow victory by silencing the only legitimate voice of opposition, effectively putting their fingers in their ears, Nicholas and Alexandra then appointed a complete nonentity, Prince Golitsyn, as prime minister and carried on as autocrats, but not for long…

All of the above is a very sketchy, partial picture of a very complex pre-revolutionary situation in Russia – so don’t go mistaking it for anything like the full story.  All I’m trying to do emphasise an essential difference between Russia and the states of Western Europe, then and now.

Russia in 1916 was a mediaeval empire, with twentieth-century technology, ideas and political pressures grafted onto very few, highly concentrated hotspots.  The Romanovs, surrounded by mediaeval courtiers obedient to their godlike whim, existed in a bubble within a bubble.  Royals and courtiers were in turn surrounded by the seething, revolutionary modernity of the cities that housed their palaces, but quite rightly believed that beyond the cities lay a vast nation loyal to the old ways.

Under those circumstances, revolution was probably coming to Russia anyway.  The blinkered, factional behaviour of the Russian royal family, so often blamed for its fall and nicely illustrated by the prime ministerial change of January 1916 , was as much a symptom as a cause of revolutionary conditions.  The same peculiar preconditions mean that, much as I like to make connections between then and now, claims that the 1917 revolution was ’caused’ by the First World War are equally simplistic.

On the other hand, the crashing impact of total, industrialised warfare did speed the arrival and shape the character of a revolution that drove the political development of 1917’s vast, mediaeval nation up an isolated blind alley for the next three-quarters of a century.  From that perspective it’s not so hard to spot the direct link between the Great War and a modern Russia that, a century after Stürmer’s appointment, is being run by a would-be autocrat with a puppet prime minister.