28 MARCH, 1916: Infested Waters

A few weeks back, while chatting about a Russian offensive on the Caucasian Front (16 February, 1916: The Walrus in Winter), I mentioned operations along the Black Sea coast.  It occurred to me then that I hadn’t been giving the Black Sea the attention it deserved, given that it was a war zone from the autumn of 1914 until after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 – so I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back there, and here it is.

On 28 March 1916, Russian torpedo boats in the Black Sea destroyed a Turkish munitions depot and ten merchant ships (most of them sailing craft).  Though this was a bumper haul and received some publicity in the Allied press, it had no great significance for either the Black Sea or the War in general, but it does sum up the first 18 months of the campaign quite nicely.  I’ll try and do the same.

I’ll start with why the Black Sea was a war zone, and a map (stolen, and used before) makes it fairly obvious.

Ottoman-Empires-rail-system-1914-1024x890The Russian and Ottoman Empires had been competing for decades to control the Caucasus region, and Russia’s ultimate territorial fantasy had long been to break into the Mediterranean by seizing the Dardanelles Straits, so the Black Sea was a natural area of contest and both sides had plans for a naval campaign before 1914.

They were modest plans. The Turkish Navy had been undergoing rapid expansion, but was still desperately short of modern warships and could barely cover its commitments in the Mediterranean, while the bigger, more modern Russian Navy was primarily concerned with defending St. Petersburg from German warships in the Baltic. Both sides therefore envisaged an essentially defensive campaign in the secondary theatre of the Black Sea, focused on disrupting the other’s supply routes, and the Russians expected – with some justification – to dominate proceedings.

Russian prospects looked even better when, on the outbreak of war in August 1914, the British government decided to hold on to the two modern dreadnoughts it was building for Turkey – but a few days later the Turkish Navy suddenly acquired two modern German warships, the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau.  They weren’t as big, powerful or deterrent as dreadnoughts, but once renamed (as the Yaviz Sultan Selim and the Midilli) and deployed in the Black Sea they were the fastest ships in the theatre, and only Russia’s five slow, pre-dreadnought battleships could match the Goeben‘s firepower.

The captain of the Goeben, Wilhelm Souchon, was nominally under Turkish command but – like ‘military advisers’ as we know them today – was actually working for Berlin and committed to pursuing German strategic interests.  In control of what was, for now, the region’s ultimate deterrent, its big guns an obvious threat to Constantinople, he enjoyed considerable autonomy and exerted an understandably powerful influence on Ottoman naval policy.  Once Turkey was committed to joining the Central Powers, at the end of October 1914, Souchon’s priority was distraction of Russian forces from other fronts, and he secured navy minister Djemal Pasha’s agreement to announce Turkey’s belligerent status by leading a surprise raid on the Russian naval bases at Odessa and Sevastopol.

The attack failed to do any lasting damage to ships or facilities, but it did convince the Russians to deploy their old battleships as a defensive unit.  During the next few months they operated only as a group and, apart from an inconclusive, 14-minute skirmish in November, the threat of their combined guns was enough to keep Goeben at bay.   Major warships on the both sides undertook occasional sorties as coastal raiders or escorts, but avoided each other, and the campaign quickly developed a pattern similar to that emerging in the Baltic.  Largely fought by small craft, it centred on disruption of enemy supply lines with minefields, backed by nuisance attacks on enemy coastal installations or harbours.

With more ships, better ships and better crews (their training much improved since a lousy performance against Japan in 1904–05), the Russians held the advantage from the start.  They had already laid more than 4,000 mines in the Black Sea by Boxing Day 1914, when the Goeben hit two of them and suffered serious damage.  The Ottoman Empire didn’t have a shipyard big enough to handle the Goeben, so repairs took months rather than weeks.  Although able to limp out for brief escort missions in February and March, by way of keeping the Russian fleet cautious, the battlecruiser was not fully operational until May 1915, and by then nothing an increasingly frustrated Souchon could do was going to shake Russian dominance.

Most Russian minelaying and commerce raiding – by destroyers, submarines and torpedo boats – was concentrated on the port of Zonguldak, some 200km east of the Bosphorus and the sole entry point for vital Turkish coal imports.  By the middle of the year the Turks had lost dozens of colliers, and before its end coal supplies had been effectively throttled, creating fuel shortages all across an Ottoman war effort heavily distracted by the demands on land and sea of the Gallipoli campaign.

While Russian strength was steadily reinforced by new destroyers and submarines, and Russian raids on the Turkish coast were a regular occurrence throughout 1915, the Turkish Navy lost a cruiser during its only coastal raid of the year, in April, and lost the Breslau for seven months after it hit a mine off Constantinople in July.   The first of Russia’s new dreadnoughts, the Imperatrica Maria, reached the Black Sea at about the same time, and in theory its arrival cemented Russian dominance of the theatre – but in practice it made little difference at first.

Like its counterparts all over the world, the Russian Navy didn’t like taking risks with dreadnoughts, or for that matter with any other big, expensive ships.   Although Berlin ignored most of Souchon’s incessant calls for reinforcements in the Black Sea, two German U-boats had been sent there in the early summer, and the threat was enough to prompt a Russian ban on all offensive operations by major units from June.   With more U-boats expected (six had arrived by March 1916) the ban stayed in force until October, and when Russian offensive patrols resumed they took few risks.

The arrival of the second Russian dreadnought, Imperatrica Ekaterina II, in December didn’t immediately change anything.  With the blockade of Turkish coal supplies running smoothly, and the Ottoman Navy less and less of an offensive threat,  the campaign was still dominated by the ‘mosquito’ warfare of smaller craft into early 1916 – but by March the Russian Black Sea fleet was in the process of finding a new role.  On 4 March, Russian fleet units supported troop landings on the Black Sea coast at Atna, and in April they would perform the same task on a larger scale as General Yudenich took the major port city of Trabzon.

In a theatre complicated by Bulgaria’s alliance with Central Powers in late 1915 and Romania’s in mid-1916, the minelaying and raiding of commerce war would  continue and intensify, but from now on the Russian fleet would also perform an important army support role, transporting and landing thousands of troops during the next two years.  The turkey shoot enjoyed by Russian torpedo boats in late March was just a small propaganda event at the time, but with hindsight it was the firework display that marked the end of the campaign’s first phase.

I’ll finish with a tease of a ‘what if’.  In May 1915, just before fear of U-boats triggered a burst of caution, the Russian high command toyed with sending the Black Sea fleet into the Bosphorus to support the Anglo-French attack on the Dardanelles. The idea was soon dropped (as unlikely to make much difference to the disaster brewing on Gallipoli), but if imagining where we’d be with a different history floats your boat, have fun picturing the twentieth century with Russian warships all over the Mediterranean.

21 MARCH, 1916: Sealed In Mud

Today’s centenary marks the high water mark, or maybe I mean the high mud mark, of a Russian offensive that Allied propaganda, always committed to accentuating the positive, named the Battle of Lake Naroch.  The first offensive action of the year on the Eastern Front, it differed from the half-baked attack on Bessarabia with which the Russian Army had ended 1915 (1 January, 1916: Pantomime Time) in that it was forced on the Russian high command rather than a product of its chronic strategic hiccups.  This is why.

By the old-style calendar of warfare, the world was entering the War’s fourth fighting season in the early spring of 1916.  For the geographically linked Central Powers, close military cooperation had been a necessity since 1914 and the only real change had been in the degree to which their most organised member, Germany, dictated strategy.  For the Allies, this season was supposed to be a first attempt at strategic coordination, as agreed at their Chantilly summit meeting in December, and sure enough they were cooperating – but not as planned, because their strategy was also being dictated by Germany.

German concentration on the Eastern Front in 1915 had inflicted major, if ultimately indecisive, defeats on the Russians during the summer, but hadn’t persuaded Allied commanders on the Western Front to bring forward their plans for autumn offensives. Understandably of the view that they’d been left high and dry, Russian delegates at Chantilly had pushed through an agreement for all the Allies to launch offensives if one of them was attacked. The German offensive at Verdun in late February triggered the agreement, and French c-in-c Joffre wasted no time calling in the IOUs.

Nothing anyone could say or do was going to make the British rush into their planned Western Front offensive around the Somme, but Joffre had more success with the standard Allied practice of bullying the Italians.  Though Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s army was in no fit state to attack anything after the unproductive attrition of 1915,  he launched yet another offensive on the Isonzo front (the fifth since the summer) on 12 March.

Aimed at the usual target – Gorizia, on the plateau north of Trieste – the fifth Battle of the Isonzo had barely begun before bad weather intervened, and it ground to a halt on 17 March without achieving any territorial gains or in any way diluting German strength in France.  Conditions would prevent major operations on the Italian Front for the next two months, by which time the Austro-Hungarians would be ready to launch their own attack in the Trentino region.

That left the Russians, hoist on their own petard and obliged to answer the French call for help with an offensive of their own – but in superficially good shape to make a strategic difference.  Russia’s military supply system, reorganised since the summer by the War Industries Committee, was at last providing the army with the guns and ammunition to match its surfeit of manpower.  Meanwhile German withdrawals to other fronts had left the Central Powers defending the theatre with just over a million troops, against the Russian Army’s 1.5 million.

Russian chief of staff General Alexeyev chose to attack where the manpower disparity was greatest – at the northern end of the front, in Lithuania, from positions east of Vilnius.  Along with a secondary advance on Vilnius from the northeast by General Kuropatkin’s Northern Army Group, the main thrust of the offensive was planned from east of the city, where General Smirnov’s Second Army was built up to 350,000 men and 1,000 big guns, against the 75,000 men and 400 guns of General Eichhorn’s German Tenth Army.  So far, so promising, and the offensive eventually opened with a preliminary bombardment on 18 March… at which point Russia’s reformed armaments programme fell foul of all the other things wrong with the Empire’s war effort.

Russian transport and communications systems remained primitive, slow and unreliable, not merely delaying offensive preparations but rendering tactical flexibility during large-scale operations almost impossible.  The high command running such operations, Stavka, was still under the personal control of the Tsar and barely fit for purpose, and though Alexeyev was able to exert some restraining influence on courtly factionalism it was never enough to enable a coherent strategy.   Alexeyev, appointed when the Tsar had taken personal command of Stavka in September 1915, was also part of the problem, obsessed with detail, unwilling to delegate even the smallest task and hampered in his work by a serious heart condition.

But though infrastructural weakness and strategic inefficiency delayed the offensive towards Vilnius, its fate was sealed by tactical incompetence.

The arrival of a lot more guns and ammunition hadn’t made the Russian Army much better at using them.  The rank and file was still very poorly trained – as demonstrated by the spectacular inaccuracy of the battle’s opening bombardment – while commanders were still trying and failing to master the German ‘breakthrough’ tactics of 1915.  When the infantry attack east of Vilnius began later on 18 March, 100,000 Russian troops under General Pleshkov massed along a 2km front for a concerted hammer blow against German positions – but were sent in without reconnaissance, adequate supply systems or reserves ready to exploit any breakthrough achieved.  The result was horrible.

Forewarned, and with closely bunched infantry marching into their sights, German artillery inflicted some 15,000 casualties in the first few hours of the advance, and though sheer weight of numbers took Pleshkov’s attackers beyond the first line of German trenches, they were never given support and soon driven back by counterattacks from either flank. The breakthrough attempt was repeated next day, and again on 21 March, but with the spring thaw in full swing both efforts quickly collapsed in a murderous mudbath.

Kuropatkin’s advance from the northeast, around Riga, also began on 21 March, but was halted a day later with 10,000 losses, while a planned attack by the northern wing of Smirnov’s army failed to happen at all.  The only small Russian success came to the south of Smirnov’s front on the same day, when a force under General Baluyev advanced a few kilometres along the shores of Lake Naroch in thick fog.

Attempts to extend the gains failed over the next few days, as did a couple more stabs at breakthrough by Pleshkov’s cannon fodder, after which both sides settled into a pattern of artillery duels until late April, when German counterattacks retook all the lost ground. By that time the offensive had cost the Russian Army 110,000 men against 20,000 German casualties.  No territory was gained, and no German forces were diverted to the front from elsewhere.

Apart from providing a comment on the fruits of hasty summit diplomacy, and forcing Russian generals to belatedly rethink their approach to breakthrough tactics, there was nothing very special about the Battle of Lake Naroch – but I wanted to talk about it anyway.  With the UK commemorative industry gearing up to dwell long and hard on the horrors of Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front  (and presumably on the high-tech non-event of Jutland) it seems worth remembering that millions died in conditions every bit as gruesome, in battles every bit as pointless, on a massively important battlefront that is barely acknowledged by the confectioners of popular history.

Russian PoWs at Lake Naroch: the same stunned looks you see on survivors of France or Gallipoli, but cooler hats.

13 MARCH, 1916: Alien Invasion

A century ago, the big story dominating world news was the carnage around Verdun, where a second phase of the German offensive was underway.  The two-pronged attack had pushed south from positions northeast of the old town, advancing east of the Meuse from 6 March and west of the river two days later, by which time French sector commander Pétain had rushed every available man and artillery piece to the area.  On the one hand, this chimed perfectly with German chief of staff Falkenhayn’s plan to draw the French into attrition and ‘bleed the French Army white’; on the other hand it was enough to halt the German offensive in its tracks.

In short, the mincing machine was nicely set up for the next few months, but the tactical nuance, derring-do and disaster on the ground that followed aren’t really my business here, and are covered in soldierly detail by the heritage industry, so let’s head off to East Africa.

The strange war for control of colonial East Africa is largely forgotten today, and almost completely ignored by modern media, so you won’t be hearing too many centenary fanfares about the biggest single operation of the campaign, known to posterity as the Morogoro Offensive.  Launched by British Imperial forces in March 1916, it scored an early success, greeted as a major triumph by a British press desperate for some kind of victory to report, with the capture of Moshi, terminus of the main German East African railway, on 13 March


I sketched a background to the East African campaign, complete with the above stolen map, more than a year ago (2 January 1915, Colonial Carnage), but here’s the gist again. The British expected their colonial forces to mop up German East Africa with the same ease that they had disposed of other German colonies on the continent – but they’d reckoned without the resources available to the fertile jewel in the German colonial crown, and they’d reckoned without Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

In August 1914, colonial administrators in British and German East Africa preferred a resolution to their masters’ squabbles that would do the least possible damage to local societies, but military authorities were having none of it and both sides launched unsuccessful attacks during the autumn.  Quickly reinforced with 12,000 men from India, British colonial forces were much the stronger on paper, and Royal Navy control of the sea-lanes meant they could resupply at will.  The smaller German force, though effectively besieged in the colony, was better trained and led by a brilliant field commander in Lettow-Vorbeck, a leader who (in contrast to his British counterparts) trained, trusted and promoted his African troops as if they were Europeans.

Lettow-Vorbeck switched to a defensive campaign from early 1915, a hit-and-run affair designed to distract as many British resources as possible to East Africa from other fronts.  In a year that saw plenty of cross-border raiding by both sides, German guerilla activity had destroyed 32 trains and 9 bridges on the British Uganda Railway by March 1916.  Meanwhile the British Indian Expeditionary Force – cobbled together from British territorials, Askaris, Indian Army units and white colonial volunteers – attempted no major operations in 1915, though it did take (and loot) the small Lake Victoria port of Bukoba in late June in what seems to have been a morale building exercise.  More ambitious British border raids in July and September had barely begun before they collapsed in disarray.

By the end of the year Lettow-Vorbeck and colonial governor Schlee had performed several minor miracles.  Despite the British blockade they were keeping the colony reasonably well supplied, thanks to the efficiency of African farmers trained by German colonists and to erzatz production through a local chemical laboratory.  Salvaging everything possible from the Königsberg, a German cruiser trapped and hunted by down by British ships in the maze-like Rufugi Delta, had meanwhile helped Lettow-Vorbeck maintain ammunition supplies and added heavy guns to his armoury, and by finding volunteers among the colonial and African populations he had managed to almost triple the size of his army.  He entered 1916 at the head of some 14,500 combat troops, 3,000 of them European, deployed as northern and southern units, and controlled from his base at the central railway town of Tabora.

In London, the War as a whole was beginning to feel like a shambles by late 1915, and strategic thinking was dominated by gloom, the blame game and an urge for change.  Blame for the running sore of East Africa was placed squarely (and with some justification) on the fairly obvious limitations of Indian Army commanders on the spot. On 15 November, an experienced Western Front general, Horace Smith-Dorrien, was appointed theatre c-in-c with instructions to win a morale-boosting victory as soon as possible . Smith-Dorrien promptly fell ill, and by the time his replacement, the South African Jan Smuts, reached his post on 19 February the Indian Army command had confirmed its incompetence by launching 6,000 men into another chaotically unsuccessful border raid, this time towards the town of Tavita.

Smuts was one of the twentieth century’s noisiest all-rounders, a polymath whose influence helped shape half a century of the British Empire.  In 1916 he was a senior political figure in South Africa, an experienced veteran of two African wars – the Boer War and the previous year’s conquest of German Southwest Africa – and a lieutenant general (the British Empire’s youngest) in field command of the South African Army.  Reinforcements from South Africa and Rhodesia had brought British combat strength up to 27,000 men, 71 field guns and a squadron of RFC aircraft when Smuts launched his opening attack across the frontier in early March, and it had taken the small towns of the northern Kilimanjaro region, including Moshi, by the time rain and the ravages of disease forced him to call a halt on 13 March.

Despite fanfares in the British press, the attack failed to achieve its main objective – the destruction of Lettow-Vorbeck’s army.  The German force escaped intact, prompting Smuts to use a two-week break forced by bad weather to plan a multiple offensive that would surround his elusive enemy.

Secondary advances duly opened in early April from Northern Rhodesia, the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Mozambique (an impressive communications effort in colonial Africa), and at the same time Smuts launched a two-pronged offensive across the northern frontier.  General Deventer’s 4,000 men advanced south towards the German colony’s central railway, and Smuts led the rest east towards the coast along the secondary railway.

It was a good plan, well coordinated by a very competent general, but it was a slow, painful failure.  None of the diversionary attacks lasted very long or achieved anything, while Deventer spent a month getting halfway to the railway, chasing an exemplary German retreat that took or destroyed everything of use in its path.  He had lost half his men to sickness when German hit-and-run attacks on 9 and 10 May forced a long pause.  Smuts made slow progress eastwards but moved more rapidly from 22 May, taking the European settlement of Amani before turning south and marching for Morogoro, 185km west of Dar-es-Salaam on the Central Railway.  His advance ran out of steam and paused for recuperation in late June, although a detachment of Indian troops took the coastal town of Tanga without a fight on 3 July.

The two British columns eventually converged on the Central Railway in late August.  Morogoro was occupied on 26 August and Dar-es-Salaam on 3 September, but Lettow-Vorbeck and his army got clean away, escaping into the fertile Rufugi Delta region and leaving nothing of any value behind.  Smuts did his best to follow, and had marched his sick and exhausted forces some 200km north by late September, when he finally gave up and went back to Dar-es-Salaam.

Smuts had captured a lot of territory, in theory at least, and his long, arduous trek around German East Africa had taken the colony’s railways, along with every town anyone in Europe had heard of. From where the British press, public and political establishing were standing, watching 1916’s plans for the Western Front burning at Verdun, this was the great victory they so desperately needed. Smuts found himself lionised as a hero, his military reputation raised to the roof, but aware that he had in fact suffered an expensive, ultimately unnecessary defeat.

After invaliding out 12,000 sick troops, Smuts left the theatre in January 1917 to join the British War Cabinet in London, where he did nothing to dispel the prevailing view that the East African campaign was triumphantly done and dusted.  This was anything but true.   Lettow-Vorbeck, resupplied by a German blockade-runner, remained a dangerous enemy at large in a territory of his own, and his dwindling forces would continue to plague occupation efforts for the next two years, overcoming supply problems and keeping ever-increasing numbers of British imperial troops occupied.

How the saga ended is a story in itself, best saved for later, but this rambling visit should reinforce my basic point about the campaign. For all the old-fashioned and extreme military endeavour involved, and for all Lettow-Vorbeck’s heroically ingenious defence of imperial interests, its most significant effect was to comprehensively ruin German East Africa.  Armies ranged all across the colony for years, stripping it of resources, wrecking its institutions and destabilising its tribal societies by pitting them against each other as Askaris.  A fertile, peaceful region in 1914, developing into a model for colonial development under relatively enlightened German rule, that part of eastern Africa has never fully recovered and remains a horrible mess.  Well done, everyone.

9 MARCH, 1916: Pawn Sacrifice

Here’s something the English-speaking world tends to ignore: a century ago today Germany declared war on Portugal.  Taking part in the First World War went on to wreck Portugal, but though peace treaties and posterity have given Germany the blame, the real culprits were Portugal’s allies, especially the British.  Here’s why.

Portugal in 1916 was a turbulent republic with a population of around six million, a fragile economy and an unstable government. The monarchy had been overthrown in 1910, after it blundered into a dispute with Britain over Portugal’s African colonies, and by the time war broke out in August 1914 the republican government of President de Arriaga had survived royalist uprisings, military plots and serial changes of prime minister.

Portugal’s foreign policy was dominated by Britain, its ally since the fourteenth century and its regular protector against outside attack, and was largely motivated by the desire to hold on to its African colonies.  Apart from uprisings against notoriously harsh European administrations, the biggest danger facing those colonies – Portuguese East Africa (Angola) and West Africa (Mozambique) – was encroachment from neighbouring German colonies, so Portugal’s wartime sympathy for the Entente was never in doubt.

On the other hand, a small army of 33,000 ill-equipped and poorly trained troops, along with internal instability and economic disarray, meant Portugal was in no position to actually fight a war, so the government adopted what the British called ‘quasi-neutrality’.  This amounted to remaining technically neutral while obeying the instructions of Sir Lancelot Carnegie, the British minister in Lisbon, an attempt to have it both ways that eventually came home to roost.

If that sounds harsh on a struggling Portuguese government trapped by a Great Power conflict beyond its control, bear in mind that stricter neutrality might have been possible if Lisbon had been less determined to defend its colonial possessions.  When German border raids hit Mozambique in August 1914, and Angola later in the year, Portugal did manage to send some 1,500 troops to Mozambique.  Poorly supplied, ill-led and without clear orders, the expeditionary force had no real impact on German operations on or around the frontier with German East Africa.

Arriaga resigned the presidency when his term of office ended in 1915, and from August of that year Dr. Bernadino Marchada held a shaky grip on power in Lisbon.  By that time the British, still vexed by their inability to winkle the Germans out of East Africa, were losing patience with the situation in Mozambique.  After the dispatch of another 1,500 Portuguese troops to the colony in November 1915 had changed nothing on the ground, London decided that what little military value Portugal had to offer was worth extracting after all.

In return for a desperately needed loan, and a call from exiled ex-King Manoel to end royalist rebellion for the duration, the Marchada government agreed to Britain’s demand for the removal of all German shipping from Portuguese ports.  Rather than attempt negotiation with German ships in its ports, the Portuguese regime chose to seize them in a series of surprise raids during February, effectively guaranteeing that war would follow.  The rationale behind this sudden flush of aggression was simple:  by entering the War as an active ally, complete with ships seized for Allied use, Portugal could be sure of British protection from reprisal attacks.

Sure enough, Germany declared war on 9 March, followed a week later by Austria-Hungary, and the British set about making the most of Portugal’s belligerent status.  They began training Portuguese divisions for France at once, and the Portuguese Army mushroomed, eventually mustering 335 big guns and about 180,000 men, of whom about 100,000 saw active service on the Western Front or in Africa.  After final training in Britain, the first two Portuguese divisions – about 40,000 men – reached Flanders by mid-1917, and fought with the BEF until their withdrawal in the spring of 1918, while increasing numbers of troops blundered around the African colonies upsetting the natives but making no progress against German incursions.

In total the Portuguese Army suffered about 21,000 wartime casualties, almost 8,000 of them killed.  Meanwhile the small Portuguese Navy, headed by one venerable old pre-Dreadnought battleship, was too busy taking part in factional squabbles at home to make much contribution to the war effort, and though the tiny Portuguese Army Air Service did add a couple of old British machines to its collection of three obsolete biplanes, none of them saw active service.

So apart from providing a few small German ships and a smattering of strategically insignificant cannon fodder, Portugal’s War was a non-event – but the cost of token military involvement was enough to tear down the country’s society and economy.  Internal unrest worsened as severe shortages of basic foods and fuel hit the civilian population, and a military coup in December 1917 drove Macheda into exile.  Never comfortable around revolutionaries, Britain withdrew financial aid to Portugal a couple of weeks later, having provided £23 million since March 1916, and shortages had worsened by the Armistice.

Peace brought an immediate resumption of royalist agitation, and the assassination in December 1918 of the new president, Major Sidonio Paes, triggered a year of civil war and economic chaos that saw inflation reach 440% by the beginning of 1920.  Meanwhile, as a reward for a shabby African campaign that had killed an estimated 100,000 natives, Portugal qualified for a seat at the post-War Paris Peace Conference, got to keep its colonies and was allowed to add some 500 square kilometres of former German territory to Mozambique.

Portugal’s prize for ‘winning’ the War: Mozambique’s Kionga Triangle, under occupation.

I’ve got two more things to say about Portugal’s pointless and largely forgotten First World War.  First off, Portugal had little choice about being bullied into war as a notional aid to Britain’s failing East African campaign, a reminder of the enormous clout and willingness to use it that characterised Great Power relations with little countries in the early twentieth century, and of how desperately the greatest of the Great Powers needed any help it could grab by 1916.

Secondly, the fact that Portugal’s economy was ruined by the strain of adding a tiny pinprick to the Allied war effort highlights the vast difference in scale, shocking at the time, between the First World War and anything that had gone before.  This was (literally) war on an industrial scale, and only the most efficient societies could handle it.  To a greater or lesser extent every small European nation that mounted a War effort, and all the big ones except Britain and (arguably) France, suffered social and/or economic breakdown as a consequence.  Beyond Europe, it was possible to emerge from the War altered but essentially intact.  The United States and Japan managed it, along with most of the ‘white’ British colonies and those opportunist nations, like Brazil, that joined the Allies late on – but only because they were far from the imperial battlefields and engaged in less than what we now call total war.

6 MARCH, 1916: Able Baker

There’s an argument, and I’ve mentioned it before, that says the Great War’s most world-historically significant effect was the USA’s transformation from isolationist on the geopolitical sidelines to world policeman.  It’s only an argument – events in the Middle East, Russia and either side of the Rhine would have to come into the debate – but given that the US has been the world’s preeminent military, economic and cultural power ever since, it’s not a bad one.

The full story of why and how Uncle Sam became the Great Satan is a long, complex and fascinating tranche of history that has no business here – but we can try for a snapshot of the environment in which the modern, globally responsible USA was born. That’s my excuse for a look at President Wilson’s surprise appointment, on 6 March 1916, of confirmed pacifist Newton Baker as Secretary of State for War.

Pacifism in high office was hardly new in the USA.  Refusal to get involved in foreign wars was one of the nation’s fundamental founding principles, and was still taken very seriously by the American public and political establishment at the start of the twentieth century.  But the nation’s rapid economic growth had by then convinced a growing minority, generally but not always allied to businesses with big trade plans, that the principle was outdated, a denial of the USA’s manifest economic destiny and ripe for the breaking.

It had already been broken for self-interested purposes, amid heated and controversial public debate, when the US invaded the Philippines in 1898, and the same desire to protect and expand overseas markets (along with a clear-eyed recognition that war was pretty good for business at home) lay behind an influential lobby for direct involvement once European war erupted in 1914.

At that point the ‘interventionist’ lobby stood no chance.  Public opinion was solidly pacifist, as were Wilson and his allies on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which enjoyed a comfortable majority in Congress – but during the next eighteen months the situation changed.

For one thing the Central Powers lost the propaganda war hands down.  German diplomatic clumsiness, the expedient killing of civilians (especially American civilians) by German submarines and a series of economic sabotage attempts by German agents were all manna from Heaven to a largely anti-German US press, much of it in the same hands as those who, if not necessarily in favour of war per se, were doing stupendously well of trading with the Entente powers.  Long before the end of 1915 the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were accepted in the US as to blame for the war and as dangerous representatives of the old, imperialist ways the nation had been founded to oppose.

Alongside business acumen and sentiment, both important elements in the US political psyche, national strategic interest eroded pacifism at the top as the War progressed.  Supplying wartime Entente needs, a bias forced by Britain’s naval blockade of trade with the Central Powers, had created a massive economic boom in the US.  This helped Americans feel good about the Entente and, crucially, increased the country’s stake in the wider world.  With so much more in the way overseas markets and bases to protect in future, the US now needed a say in how the post-War world looked.  Wilson and his administration couldn’t fail to see that only participation in the War would guarantee influence at the peace table.

Wilson – a natural pacifist, representing a party that stood for pacifism against the perceived economic imperialism of the Republicans – responded to the changing tide reluctantly and cautiously.  In September 1915 he announced his support for ‘limited preparedness’ for the possibility of war, and December’s National Defense Act permitted limited expansion of the US Army, Navy and merchant marine, but these half-measures failed to satisfy either side of a polarising debate.

Republicans, led by the redoubtably interventionist Henry Cabot Lodge, demanded much greater increases in US military spending, while the liberal wing of the Democrats – the main source of Wilson’s personal support – maintained the absolute commitment to peace reflected in the party’s official line.  To add spice to the president’s discomfort, some of his own administration wanted much faster military expansion than planned in the legislation, and Secretary of War Lindley Garrison resigned over the issue in February 1916.

This was an election year in the US, so Wilson needed the support of liberals for his personal campaign as much as he needed their cooperation in Congress.   Expected to appoint a military specialist as Garrison’s replacement, he chose Cleveland mayor Newton Baker, a long-time supporter who had twice turned down the job of Secretary for the Interior since 1912.  A pacifist with impeccable liberal credentials, Baker’s pragmatic personality was acceptable to many Republicans and he was completely free of any prior connection to military matters.  Usefully, because the US War Department still administered the Philippines, he was also a very capable lawyer.

Baker proved a quick study and an adroit choice.  Almost his first duty in office was to order a punitive expedition into troubled Mexico, and he went on to supervise a steady, balanced build-up of US military resources during the next year of peace.  Best of all from Wilson’s perspective, he took the blame.  While Baker and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, another diehard liberal pacifist given military responsibility, bore the brunt of criticism from both sides, Wilson could get on with running his re-election campaign.

Narrowly re-elected in November on the party’s official slogan – ‘He Has Kept Us Out Of The War’ – and with Democrats guaranteed continued control of Congress until elections in early 1917, Wilson pursued the only possible alternative to entering the War – peace.   He issued a ‘Peace Note’ to the belligerent nations in December 1916, in a largely ignored attempt to achieve what he called ‘peace without victory’, and was still pushing that line publicly as late as January 1917, by which time Berlin’s all-in gamble on unrestricted submarine warfare and a crescendo of popular hostility to Germany had made US intervention all but inevitable.

But not for long...
But not for long…

We’ll get to that big moment when it arrives, but for now my point is that a hundred years ago, when President Wilson put a pacifist in charge of war, the USA’s future as a major player on the world stage was still a matter of considerable doubt.  A year later it wasn’t, and now we all have MTV.