21 JULY, 1916: Money Talks… And Can Be Dumb

A century ago today, Britain and France confirmed a loan of about £800,000 to the Greek government, backing up a loan of £1,600,000 made the previous November.  In itself, this was nothing too special.  Loaning large sums (and the economic effect of a million pounds in 1916 was equivalent to more than £500 million today) to minor powers either at war or likely to join the War was standard practice for the major belligerents.  On the other hand, the position of Greece in July 1916 was quite special, though not in a good way, and this is a good time to catch up with that country’s unfolding chaos.

As previously discussed (6 March, 1915: Side Effects?), the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 had left an expanded Greece with a lot of new territory, a multi-ethnic population, some major administrative challenges and a bunch of jealous neighbours – including Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Turkey and Bulgaria – bent on (literally) cutting it down to size. Given that most of those regional rivals were committed to the War from quite an early stage, Greek participation was almost inevitable at some point, if only because neutrality was unlikely to protect its new frontiers from whichever side won.

King Constantine, in charge since the assassination of his father in 1913, nevertheless clung to neutrality for all he was worth during the first two years of the War. Though he was married to Kaiser Wilhelm’s sister – and many of his ministers and senior military officers (especially in the navy) were explicitly pro-German – Constantine was not exactly an enemy of the Allies, more a friend unwilling to do anything that might upset his other friends. On the other hand the dominant Greek political figure of the day, serial prime minister and unapologetic expansionist Eleftherios Venizelos, was all for making a deal with the Allies as soon as possible, partly because he regarded British and French democracies as the way forward for a developing Greek society, but largely because their support represented the best chance of maintaining the country’s bloated status in a post-War world.

Venizelos overlooks the Greater Greece of his dreams... as briefly realised in 1919.
Venizelos overlooks the Greater Greece of his dreams… as briefly realised in 1919.

An uneasy truce between the two sides had held together until the autumn of 1915, when Venizelos, having been frustrated in his attempts to aid the Anglo-French effort at Gallipoli, had invited the Allies to land troops in Salonika.  He was promptly removed from power, leaving a major Allied force high and dry in an armed camp, hemmed in by potentially hostile Greek government forces and susceptible to connivance with the ‘Venizelist’ opposition.

Since then, the Central Powers and their newest ally, Bulgaria, had conquered Serbia and moved troops close to the northern frontier of Macedonia – a region occupied by Greece since 1913 but popular with planners in both Vienna and Sofia – and to complete the picture of circling sharks, the French Navy had taken control of two Greek islands during the first half of 1916: Corfu to provide a home for Serbian refugees, and Kefalonia to provide a useful base against Austrian or Turkish naval adventures.

In May 1916, after Constantine’s troops allowed Bulgarian and German forces to occupy Fort Roupel, on the northern Macedonian border, without a shot being fired, the royal regime’s shaky grip on power began to melt away.  Seen by the King as genuinely neutral, the gesture was portrayed by Venizelists as a pro-German betrayal of the national interest, a position that struck a chord with a population and army weaned on aggressive nationalism.  During the early summer, Venizelos and his supporters established dominance over the north of the country, close to the Allied camp at Salonika, and began plotting with local Allied authorities to engineer regime change and a Greek declaration of war against the Central Powers. By July, Greece was effectively, though not officially, two states, and some kind of Venizelist move against the royal regime in Athens appeared imminent – but though Venizelos was much admired by the Allies, and particularly by the French, the British weren’t quite ready to abandon Constantine.

The reasons for this were largely social, in that the King was personally well known to a number of senior British figures (including the late war minister, Kitchener) and regarded as a good chap with his heart in the right place.  Ridiculous though that sounds today, it was a genuine reflection of the way European diplomacy had worked before the War and still worked in 1916.  The continent’s elite classes, largely though not entirely aristocratic, still had more in common with each other than with the rest of the people they represented, and were inclined to reach diplomatic decisions on the basis of personal relationships at the highest level. So it was that British diplomats remained in touch with Constantine, listened to his muddled (though probably honest) plan to join the Allies one day, when all attempts at neutrality had failed, and approved the £800,000 bribe confirmed on 21 July.

King Constantine. A good chap, but inclined to muddled thinking.
King Constantine. A good chap, but inclined to muddled thinking.

So Greece remained teetering on the brink of both civil war and world war, a mess of rocks and hard places, just one of the many European societies being wrecked in passing by the warring Great Powers. Within a few weeks an invasion of Macedonia by the Central Powers would push the country over the edge, and I’ll wander back for another look then. In the meantime, there is another aspect of the Allied loan that opens up a can of worms so big and smelly all I can possibly do here is point at it from a distance. Given the undeniable fact that the War was in the process of draining all the wealth accumulated by Britain and France during a century of imperial looting, what were they doing handing out money to a longshot like King Constantine?

It’s a big question, especially when you consider that Britain alone shelled out more than £20 million in gifts, loans and credit to Greece during the War, and if you want an answer you’ll need to read a bunch of academic tracts on wartime economics and then see which guess you like the most. What can be said is that, then as now, a big economy (and Britain’s economy was still the biggest in the world in 1914) could expect to reap rewards in the aftermath of any crisis that required reconstruction, and that dominance of emerging markets was part of British and French financial thinking as they imagined the post-War world. One day, in theory quite soon, everybody everywhere would be rebuilding, big economies would control the process, loans would start to look like investments and the vast wartime accumulation of global debt would pay off in their favour. This is simplistic stuff, and economic historians wouldn’t say anything so black, white or all embracing, but I’ll risk their wrath to point out two things.

First, the big European economies never did get their mojos back. Russia fell apart in 1917, Austria-Hungary in 1918, and the German economy screamed to self-destruction as it tried to fight the cancer of blockade with a super-heated internal production binge. France and above all Britain ended up owing a lot more money than they’d bargained for, and losing much of their grip over imperial infrastructure to the upstart United States, which ran a pretty much perfect economic war, growing its economy for three years before joining the winning side and profiting from the reconstruction boom from a position of unparalleled financial strength.

Secondly, capital forces from rich countries all over the world are currently doing roughly the same thing – pouring money they haven’t got into global crises they hope will turn into paydays.  They are of course operating on the basis of informed guesses about the timescales and final results of various crises, so maybe they should all take a look at what went wrong for their predecessors a century ago.


14 JULY , 1916: Virtual Realities

Anyone interested has probably noticed that I haven’t had much to say about the Western Front lately.  At the risk of repeating myself, that’s because everyone else is doing it for me, but today is Bastille Day, I’m sat here in France, and 14 July 1916 marked a watershed for both the gigantic battles taking place in France – so I’ve found something to say that’s at least vaguely concerned with Verdun and the Somme.

Just northeast of Verdun, the latest big German attack had ground to a halt on 12 July, within sight of the town itself but with little prospect of getting any further article source.  It would prove to be the limit of German progress.  On the Somme, the British made one more effort to match limited French successes to their south on 14 July, before calling a temporary halt to attacks and bringing the battle’s opening phase to an end.  By the end of the day a pause for breath was in progress along the front, albeit more apparent to posterity than to contemporary eyes.

Posterity can also identify the full horror of the military situation in France by mid-July 1916, and has no trouble pointing the finger of outrage at massed armies locked into a mechanised, virtually motionless, apparently unending and unendingly expensive death struggle – but spotting this basic truth was a little more difficult at the time.

Despite noisy pockets of dissent and anger – from socialists, pacifists and fringe religious groups, among others – Western Europe’s civilian populations generally accepted the disastrous state of the War in 1916 without significant protest.  This was largely thanks to the power of propaganda, a dark art thoroughly mastered by modern states during the increasingly literate century after the Napoleonic Wars.  Citizens were told a pack of lies and part-truths, coupled with diagnoses and speculation that went way beyond the bounds of optimism into fantasy, and on the whole they believed them.  Even when time – sometimes, as in the case of the Somme Offensive, a mere few days – exposed something close to the real truth (maps showing no territorial gain after days of ‘success’ tended to do the trick), propaganda providers in Western European democracies could get away with the kind of retrospective rationalisation that makes their audience look stupid now.

A captured wood or hill possessed enormous, if hitherto unmentioned, strategic value… the enemy had been softened up for the ‘big push’, as planned all along… the enemy had been forced to throw vast resources into desperate defence or counterattack, cancelling out reported successes but crucially weakening his strength on other sectors or fronts… and, more stridently in 1916 than ever before, the enemy was being worn down by attrition and couldn’t take much more of it.

Attrition was a buzzword in 1916, and not quite the byword for failure it is today.  It was used by German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn to justify the attack on Verdun (at least in concept, though his exact wording is open to questions of translation), and the idea that an enemy could be bled to surrender by simply killing enough of its troops soon caught on among British and French generals, if not as a preferred plan of action then as a way of making deadlock look like some kind of positive progress.

And there’s the rub.  Falkenhayn, shrewd desk general that he was, is widely suspected by historians of having hedged his bets around Verdun. Bleeding the French Army white wasn’t what he or any other senior commander wanted.  Like their Allied counterparts, German commanders wanted to smash through enemy lines, march on enemy capitals and end the War in glory – but though the Allied failures of 1915 hadn’t by any means dispelled the illusion of breakthrough, they had taught politicians and military leaders on all sides that they might need an excuse if glorious victory failed to materialise.

Dangling a prospect of final triumph through attrition, describing failure as part of a planned long game, meant that simply winning the body count (or claiming to win it, or claiming that your casualties mattered less, in percentage terms, than the enemy’s) offered a chance to declare a victory.  So by the summer of 1916 attrition – good for military careers and, crucially, seen as good for public morale on the home front ­– was being presented to the the folks back home as a form of success.

Go on! It's great over there...

Go on! It’s great over there…

It’s not hard to see why civilians in 1916 were willing to be convinced by attrition, endless unproductive successes, demonisation of the enemy and all the other illusions peddled by the press, and by the armies of writers, film-makers and intellectuals hired by their governments.  The instinct to grasp at hope in time of trouble was (and clearly still is) fundamental to mass psychology (and therefore politics), while human capacity for faith in the improbable has always started high and been inflated by the wheezings winds of ignorance – and by our standards most British, German and French citizens were stranded in ignorance during the First World War.

Rapid long-distance communication – by telegraph or telephone – was still the province of what we’ll call the officer classes in 1914, and international travel was about as likely as a trip to the moon for ordinary Europeans not living near land frontiers.  India, Mesopotamia and Belgium were all almost equally exotic in the British public mind, and so it went for most French and German civilians. That left them completely reliant for information on government-sponsored output, rumour and, above all, mass-circulation newspapers.  And mainstream newspapers, while perfectly willing and able to cut loose with the political criticism, stuck firmly to the morale-boosting, upbeat, illusory official line in all matters pertaining to the actual course of the War.

Major newspapers, their editors and owners nurtured propagandist fictions because – in an age of culturally separate nation states, when patriotism was a more basic, less controversial emotion – they accepted maintenance of popular morale as their duty.  The need for massive national commitment to the supply of total war had made home front morale seem an ever more important priority, and so journalistic propaganda was genuinely regarded as helpful to front-line fighters.

This orthodoxy was so well established that journalists embedded with front-line troops, faced with the reality of warfare and living with its victims, didn’t on the whole even test their editors by attempting to report the truth.  This wasn’t because they were all happy to peddle fiction – front-line reporters from all three countries would later describe the self-disgust involved – but because shattering the illusion would be letting down the troops. One of the Western Front’s small, sad ironies is that reporters’ propaganda, intended to sustain fighting men in the field, helped create a morale paradox that contributed to the psychological problems suffered by so many troops away from the front.

As the one social group that was never going to fall for propaganda’s upbeat take on their misery, front-line troops found themselves in an information vacuum whenever they returned to civilian life. Burdened, angered and often maimed by their grotesque experiences, but surrounded by people incapable of acknowledging the horror, many veterans became sceptical about and isolated from the societies they had served, a situation that stored up a mess of personal suffering and social unrest for the post-War period – and that isn’t entirely unfamiliar today.

Which brings me to the point.  This has been a very generalised chat about propaganda at a time of extreme societal stress.  I’ve done scant justice to those moments – like the British Shell scandal, or Keith Murdoch’s exposé of conditions in Gallipoli – when journalistic patriotism overtrumped propaganda.  Worse,  I’ve  glossed over or ignored a wealth of important differences between the home front experiences of British, French and German citizens – but I’ve done it to highlight something we all have in common today:  a tendency to assume that the lessons delivered so painfully by the First World War have been well and truly learned.

Modern transport and communications have made the Middle East (for instance) feel as close to home, if not closer, than the Western Front felt to most British people in 1916, yet for all our iPhones, Internet and analysis, who among us has the faintest idea of the real military situation in Iraq or Syria?  So it could be we’re no less vulnerable to the illusions and social divisiveness of propaganda than we were a century ago – and that’s seems worth mentioning while we look back at the carnage of 1916 in the comforting belief that we couldn’t possibly make the same mistakes again.



1916:  a brilliant year…
... but

… because we say so.

4 JULY, 1916: Just Say No

A century ago, on US Independence Day 1916, President Venustiano Carranza of Mexico wrote a letter to his US counterpart, Woodrow Wilson. The letter effectively begged Wilson not to declare war on Mexico. Although it made mild protest at the presence of American troops on Mexican soil, it agreed to pretty much every condition that could possibly encourage US friendship, and what had seemed a strong possibility of war vanished from the moment it was received by the Wilson administration.

At first glance that’s nice work, and perhaps an example of peacekeeping that Europe, or at least those militarily minor European nations drawn into the First World War by nationalist ambition, might have done well to emulate – but let’s not get carried away. War between states isn’t so hard to avoid when both parties have something more important to be doing, and while the USA was far more interested in taking control of the world economy in the absence of European competition, Carranza was primarily concerned with establishing control over a long, bloody and chaotic revolution that would eventually shape Mexico into the globally significant shambles it is today.

So while millions are fighting and dying to little immediate strategic effect on the First World War’s main battlefronts, here’s a quick look at the first decade or so of a revolution that had killed an estimated 1,300,000 Mexicans (and a handful of US citizens) by the time its most violent phase came to an end in 1920 – and at why the US was messing with it in 1916.

Independent since 1821, after an 11-year war against Spanish colonial rule, Mexico remained a mess of internal turbulence and international interference until the 1870s. It emerged as a relatively coherent federal republic under the ruthless control of General Porfirio Díaz, who became president in 1876, served for all but four of the next 35 years, and can be broadly summed up as good for business and bad for civil liberties. When lack of clarity about the succession opened the door for his overthrow in 1911, by which time Díaz was over eighty, Mexico was a sprawling nation of some 15 million people, dependent on the USA for 75% of its overseas trade (and almost all its exports of gold, lead, silver and copper), plagued by popular unrest and fractured along political, regional and social fault lines.

Something like civil war broke out almost at once. New president Francisco Modero was murdered in early in 1913, and his successor, Victoriano Huerta, was forced to resign in July 1914 after his internment of US Navy personnel prompted the occupation of Veracruz by US Marines. Meanwhile (by way of locating the revolution’s most famous names), a peasant revolt led by Emilio Zapata had swept through the central southern part of the country since the fall of Díaz, and flamboyant self-publicist Pancho Villa had proclaimed a rebel government in the resource-rich northern province of Chihuahua.

Regular troops against rebels, peasants against rich landowners and businesses, liberals against conservatives… with armies roaming all over the country and inflicting carnage wherever they went, it was maintenance of US trade that eventually imposed a modicum of order in Mexico.  Once American mining and metals interests identified Carranza as an apparently liberal force for socioeconomic laissez-faire, their financial support enabled him to establish a regime that, though never anything like secure, was recognised by Washington in October 1915.

By this time Mexican affairs had become a hot topic in the United States, largely thanks to US interventionist and Allied propaganda that claimed both Huerta and Villa were in the pay of the German Empire. When Villa, his army reduced to a bandit remnant after a major defeat by Carranza, launched a cross-border raid against the US town of Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916 (aimed at punishing US mining executives in the town for their support of Carranza), popular outrage meant the new Secretary of State for War, Newton Baker, had little choice but to react.

Excitement was the dominant emotion when US newspapers contemplated war against Mexico.
Excitement was the dominant emotion when US newspapers contemplated war against Mexico.

A US Army force of some 10,000 men, led by General John J. Pershing (later to command US forces in France, and even later reincarnated as a tank), crossed into Mexico on 15 March, charged with hunting down Villa. It failed, and instead toured Chihuahua province dealing with local hostility wherever it went, culminating in a skirmish with regular forces that sent Carranza – who had given permission for the incursion but then changed his mind – scurrying to open conciliatory talks with the Wilson administration.

Talks between US Army chief of staff General Scott and Carranza’s representative (and future president) General Obregon had achieved nothing substantial when Villa upped the stakes by launching another raid, this time against the town of Glenn Springs, Texas. Pershing’s force was promptly reinforced, but still couldn’t pin down Villa, and full-scale war became a genuine prospect when, on 21 June, a detachment of about 100 American troops (most of them Afro-American or ‘Buffalo’ soldiers) followed up a report that Villa was in the Chihuahua town of Carrizal, but instead ran into a force of 400 Mexican regulars, or Carrancistas. When the US troops refused to withdraw a battle broke out, and by the time it spluttered to an indecisive halt 24 Mexicans were dead and 43 wounded, against eleven US fatalities and 23 taken prisoner.

The buffalo soldiers at Carrizal lost their commander, Charles T Boyd, and this was his funeral procession.

A furious Pershing was characteristically keen to launch a full-scale reprisal attack against the main Carrancista garrison in Chihuahua, and public opinion on both sides of the border was loudly in favour of the war such an attack would no doubt have provoked. Wilson, at the start of a re-election campaign that portrayed him as the protector of peace, forbade further action, instead making US outrage clear by mobilising more than 100,000 National Guard troops along the frontier. Carranza’s response was the letter of 4 July, which contained a fulsome apology, along with an offer to open negotiations and a promise to meet American demands for reform of his regime.

The negotiations began in early September and produced a joint statement on Christmas Eve that promised a new, more liberal constitution for Mexico, and gave US forces permission to remain in Mexico for as long as Washington felt necessary on security grounds. Pershing’s force eventually withdrew back into the US in early February 1917, by which time war between the US and Germany appeared imminent. Mexico’s mining and emerging oil industries then enjoyed a temporary war boom on the back of increased US demand, helping Carranza stay in power throughout the War, despite permanent, violent internal unrest and persistent US suspicion that he was colluding with the Central Powers (of which more another day).

After failing to fix the election of a civilian successor, Carranza was murdered in 1920 (a fate that befell pretty much every leader involved in the Mexican Revolution, including Zapata in 1919 and Villa in 1923). His death signalled another three years of civil war, and Mexico would remain in a state of revolutionary turmoil, punctuated by coups d’état and armed conflicts, until the late 1930s, when critical food shortages for a growing population compelled cooperation between landed interests, peasant leaders and the church, ushering in decades of relative political stability in the face of endemic economic fragility.

No big message comes with this post. It’s just a nod to more than a million dead, to the contemporary power and importance of American business interests, and to a protracted struggle to determine a vast country’s destiny that is largely ignored outside Mexico and the USA. Meanwhile, in northern France, heavy thunderstorms didn’t stop French and British forces involved in the Somme Offensive capturing a village and a couple of woods on 4 July… but everyone knows that.

1 JULY, 1916: Sniping

Not so much sniping, more a case of opening up with the machine gun and spraying everything in sight – because the Battle of the Somme began a hundred years ago today.

I don’t plan to talk about the battle itself, at least not at this stage, because there’s no need. This is one the UK’s great wartime heritage moments, a dramatic day of apparently senseless (and fabulously well-documented) national sacrifice so attractive to mass media – and so symbolic of its chosen narrative – that you’ll be getting all the Somme you can handle during the next few months. As far as I can tell at this stage, media interest in the failed Anglo-French offensive on the Somme even stretches beyond the ‘doomed lions, damned donkeys’ horizon to include some big-picture history, not all of it military – and that’s a good thing, so why have I come over all trigger happy?

Because, in much the way popular focus on the Second World War blots out the First (most of the time), our national obsession with the Somme tends to obscure anything else going during the second half of 1916.  For that matter, our national preference for sentiment over deep thought, as expressed in the standard heritage obsession with personal suffering around the Somme, goes quite some way towards rendering the wider history of the age irrelevant to modern thought.

A century ago, the old order was melting down or self-immolating all over the world.  It was an accelerating process, affecting the modern shape of every continent, and by the second half of 1916 the pillars were crumbling fast.  European empires were disintegrating, the US was changing forever, Asia was discovering nationalism for good and ill, fundamental changes were sweeping through South Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Ireland, Italy… I haven’t got time today to make the list comprehensive, but you get the drift. Media focus on the Somme as a sepia soap about Tommy tragedies isn’t history; it’s a tiny, partial glimpse of the past that helps keep us ignorant and vulnerable to myth.

That’s all. I got into writing Poppycock because that particular link between heritage pulp and fantasy history makes me mad, and on 1 July it makes me madder than usual – so I’m pumping lead into everything about heritage history, the televised stuff, the poncy middle-class poetry fetish, the flag-waving press, all of it.  You stink, and these days you’re dangerous.