It had been coming for some time, but a hundred years ago today the Kingdom of Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary, triggering a counter declaration from Germany. Going to war would turn out to be very bad idea for Romania in the short term, and was arguably a mistake that has shaped the country’s subsequent history, so this seems a good moment to loose off a preliminary briefing about Romania’s First World War.
Formed from the former Ottoman provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia, Romania had existed as an independent nation since 1878. In 1914, it was a constitutional monarchy along German (rather than British) lines, with an indirectly elected National Assembly that exerted little actual control over a Crown Council appointed by King Carol I, who was a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The country’s participation in the Second Balkan War (6 September 1915: Caveat Emptor) had increased its size to almost 140,000 square kilometres, including the Dobrudja region taken from Bulgaria, and swollen its population to more than 7.5 million.
The Romanian economy was predominantly agricultural – though the Ploesti oilfields to the north of the country were becoming increasingly important – and largely dependent on commerce and capital investment from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Tied to both empires by a secret treaty of 1883, Romania enjoyed excellent relations with Germany, which had financed construction of some 5,000km of state railways by 1914, but Vienna was viewed as a hated enemy, accused of maltreating 3 million Romanians in Habsburg Transylvania.
The Transylvanian issue was King Carol’s excuse for ignoring the treaty and declaring Romania’s neutrality in August 1914. The country’s geographically pivotal position (in Eastern Front terms), and its inflated military reputation since the victory of 1913, meant it was considered a prize potential ally, but though both belligerent power blocs made offers of military and economic aid, only the Allies could offer Transylvania. Popular pressure to join the Allies weakened the position of King Carol, whose personal preference for the Central Powers was never in doubt, and by the time he died in October he was losing influence to the prime minister, liberal Francophile Ion Bratianu.
The new king, Ferdinand I, took a more balanced view – as befitted a Germanic monarch with a British wife – and allowed Bratianu to pursue a deniable pro-Allied policy, aimed at extracting maximum territorial gain from prolonged negotiations. By the summer of 1916, both Ferdinand and Bratianu were sufficiently impressed by the nearby successes of Russia’s Brusilov Offensive to agree that an Allied victory was just around the corner, and Romania duly declared war against the Central Powers on 27 August.
During the next two years Romania would become a battleground. Two-thirds of the country would be stripped of resources and infrastructure under enemy occupation, more than 200,000 Romanian soldiers would die, and an estimated 500,000 civilians would be killed by invasion, occupation or starvation. In short, the First World War wrecked Romania, and it made little difference that the country emerged from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with its size almost doubled since 1914. The calculated gamble on war that sprang from the bad seed of aggressive nationalism, and its obsession with territorial gain, had blasted a young nation from the path to sustained socioeconomic development, and it would be a very long time before Romania got back on the road.
I realise this has been so brief it’s almost terse, but I can’t spare the time for anything more detailed just now, because over in Germany there’s a totalitarian dictatorship brewing and it’s going to take some explaining. I will come back to the sad story of the Romanian campaign as it unfolds, but in the meantime log Romania as yet another victim of belief in war as a legitimate act of statecraft, a faith that had sustained empires for a century or more, but that has led nation after nation down the path to self-destruction in the mechanised age.
I’ve been giving first world trade war plenty of post space lately, mostly because economic warfare was of enormous, long-term importance and the commemorative industry isn’t talking about it much. The same applies to the principal strategic weapons used to curtail enemy trade during the First World War: the long-established practice of naval blockade; and the offensive deployment of submarines.
With hindsight, we know that the British-led blockade of the Central Powers made a major, if slow-burning contribution to the final Allied victory, an outcome that would have not surprised contemporary observers well schooled in the theory and practice of economic warfare. We also know that submarines would never fulfil their potential to cripple the seagoing trade of an enemy – but in 1916 (or for that matter in 1941) nobody could be sure about the limitations of submarine warfare.
Submarines were still virtually untried weapons. A technological wonder of the age, they were already part (along with mines and torpedo boats) of a revolution in naval warfare that was bringing down the curtain on centuries of battleship supremacy, and they were in the process of rapid wartime development by 1916. They were obviously a menace to surface shipping, capable of seriously disrupting merchant traffic, but what they might become, and whether they were capable of winning wars on their own, were still matters of urgent professional and public debate.
As I’ve mentioned before (14 November, 1915: Low Profile), submarines prompted the same kind of apocalyptic speculation that surrounded the contemporary development of aircraft, and successful submariners were subject to the same kind of hero-worship that surrounded flying aces. Both weapons were exciting – in a devilish, deadly and dashing way – and fearful fascination is one reason why the first voyage of the German submarine Deutschland, which ended on 24 August 1916 with a triumphant return to the port of Bremerhaven, created headlines all over the world.
There were other reasons. For a start, the Deutschland was a new kind of submarine. It was huge by the standards of the day, not much longer than a conventional U-boat but far broader across the beam, displacing more than twice the weight and capable of a relatively fast 12.5 knots when travelling on the surface. As such it was a symbol of the advances in submarine technology since 1914, and it attracted global attention accordingly.
Secondly, the Deutschland was an unarmed merchant ship. The first of seven cargo submarines built in Bremen, privately funded and operated by the North German Lloyd Line, it represented an alternative, potentially blockade-proof future for seagoing trade. This was an intriguing possibility, enough to guarantee the interest of any state involved in trade (pretty much every sovereign state in 1916), and more than enough to seriously alarm the British.
The third sensational aspect of the Deutschland‘s maiden cruise was its destination. After leaving Bremen on 23 June, the submarine arrived in the US port of Baltimore on 10 July, a demonstration of blockade busting that chimed with mounting anti-British sentiment on the American East Coast and generated enormous levels of publicity.
Crowds flocked to witness the boat’s arrival, and the American press turned merchant captain Paul König, his three officers and 25 crewmen into celebrities, lapping up König’s insouciant claim that the voyage had been a breeze, untroubled by the British blockade. As the Black List crisis triggered a surge of anti-British sentiment in the US (28 July, 1916: Special Relationship?), the press seized every opportunity to rub the Royal Navy’s nose in it, highlighting the value of the Deutschland‘s cargo and its relatively rapid crossing, which involved less than 200km of submerged travel and took only a little longer than standard surface voyage.
Having sold on its load – 625 tons of medicinal products and 125 tons of immensely valuable, patented coal-dyes – the Deutschland left Baltimore on 2 August, carrying almost 800 tons of nickel, tin and rubber, a cargo the press on both sides of the Atlantic was quick to value at $17.5 million. The Royal Navy tried to intercept the return journey but failed –predictably enough given the chances of finding a single submarine in the North Atlantic in an age before radar or long-range flight – and all London could manage by way of retaliation was a note of protest to Washington.
Characteristically high-handed, the note demanded that the US (and other neutral countries) expel submarines from their harbours on the shaky grounds that all submarines, whatever their apparent purpose, were inherently warlike. The note also included a veiled threat to sink merchant submarines, and needless to say it went down like a lead balloon in Washington. The Wilson administration eventually replied with a note of its own on 31 August, asserting in no uncertain terms that international law applied to submarines in exactly the same way as it did to surface ships, and making clear that Britain would be held responsible for any ‘accidental’ sinkings.
In propaganda and diplomatic terms, the Deutschland cruise had been a ringing success, and the boat went on to undertake a second trip across the Atlantic , visiting New London, Connecticut, in November with a cargo of gems and medicinal products, before again returning safely. In strategic terms, on the other hand, giant cargo submarines turned out to be a pretty small flash in the pan, partly because replacing surface traffic with submarines was a slow and hugely expensive process, partly because submarines still carried much smaller loads than surface ships, partly because some bulky or volatile cargoes could only be carried by surface freighters – and partly because the War quickly outpaced development in the field.
A third Deutschland cruise planned for January 1917 was cancelled because the issue of military submarines had dragged relations between Germany and the USA to an all-time low. On 10 February, when Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare consigned transatlantic diplomacy to the dustbin, the experiment was abandoned. The Deutschland was converted for military use as a ‘submarine cruiser’, served out the rest of the War as the U-155 and had sunk 36 ships when it was surrendered to the Allies.
Apart from the Bremen, which disappeared at the start of her first cruise in September 1916, and was probably sunk by a mine off the Orkneys, the rest of the boats ordered as freighters entered service in militarised form (numbered between U-151 and U-157). Though the U-154 was sunk in the Atlantic by a British torpedo in May 1918, and the U-156 fell victim to a North Sea mine in September 1918, they performed adequately as long-range attack boats, offering greater range (and much more comfortable conditions for the 76-man crew) than a conventional U-boat. Then again, they proved desperately clumsy in the water, tending to roll out of control, wallow in mid-manoeuvre and get stuck on the surface when attempting to dive, so the class as a whole was never considered worth long-term development as a weapon.
The Deutschland‘s first homecoming in August 1916 signalled a small but significant false dawn, a moment when giant submarines might have been the future of modern warfare. For me, the real significance of the moment lies in the fact that it passed before the military world proceeded too far along the blind alley, that pragmatism overrode optimism as soon as operational results proved disappointing. Perhaps that was because the strategies and tactics around naval warfare were so well known and understood by professionals in the field, an argument that may shed light on why so many enthusiasts for the completely new field of aerial warfare persisted for decades with the other false dawn rising in 1916 – the altogether more dangerous idea that wars could be won by massed bombing of civilian targets.
This war has been running for a little more than two years, and Europe is still teetering on the brink of self-destruction. Ask yourself how long ago the last World Cup final feels, and that’s how long Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Belgium, Russia, Britain and their various empires had been at war by August 1916. Two years can feel like the blink of an eye, but it’s safe to say that to citizens of those countries – or at least the literate ones – the heady, bellicose, optimistic days of August 1914 felt like a very long time ago.
In Britain, despite a warm start to the month, citizens were marking the anniversary by going to the pictures. Twenty million people – almost half the population – were flocking to cinemas to watch the Battle of the Somme, the propaganda film that gave civilians their first even remotely accurate images of modern industrialised warfare. The movie didn’t do much to lift mounting popular war weariness or soothe increasing exasperation with the Asquith government. Nor did it silence the rumbles of unrest bubbling under the surface of a society that, though outperforming its rivals in terms of finding a sustainable model for ‘total war’, was storing up sociopolitical tensions for the future. On the other hand the film’s convincing realism did reinforce rock-solid popular support for the troops themselves, and recognition that millions of ordinary people in uniform depended on it was still the key to public obedience in Britain.
The same was true in the only remotely comparable democracy fighting since 1914, France. The grumbling, turbulent waters of French politics had been calmed by the vast loss of men and materials during a six-month struggle for Verdun. The initial German attack in February had damaged both the authority of French Army c-in-c Joffre, who was blamed for the depleted state of Verdun’s defences, and the popularity of the government, which was blamed for not telling Joffre what to do. French recovery on the battlefield had since improved the government’s popular reputation, and turned the defence of Verdun into a national crusade, replete with attendant mythology (most of which, hero-worship of Pétain aside, still informs French heritage commemoration). For now at least, a combination of grief, outrage and patriotism was keeping war weariness at bay France.
Given that both were under occupation by the Central Powers, popular opinion and war weariness in Belgium or Serbia didn’t really amount to a hill of beans, and the same can be said of Austria-Hungary. People were suffering and weary all across the central European swathes still controlled by the Habsburg dynasty, but all significant strategic and constitutional activity took place in the refined, strictly eighteenth-century bubble of imperial Vienna, where the Emperor and his court were fiddling with fantasy warfare while the provinces seethed with separatism. As for Russia, its ruling autocracy defined anything outside the immediate royal entourage as ‘popular’, regarded politicians, businessmen and industrialists as enemies to be ignored, and never considered the mass of its subjects capable of a sophisticated sensation like weariness.
Politically, as geographically, Germany stood somewhere between the autocratic east and the democratic west, a would-be autocracy atop a modern, literate population or, to put it another way, a powder keg perched on a red hot economy. The psychedelic patriotism of August 1914 had brought an unprecedented political truce across the young nation, but two years later it was showing signs of cracking. Bad harvests, shrinking supplies of imported goods, high casualties and now, after months of military disappointment on land and sea, an underlying pessimism about the chances of overall victory were all contributing to change of atmosphere. Strikes had broken out in Berlin and the Ruhr, and the Reichstag (Germany’s largely powerless parliament) had resumed its peacetime habit of demanding constitutional reform.
The military, industrial and aristocratic interests that ran the Empire for an increasingly tame monarchy were aware that Germany was losing the industrial and economic battle, and that German society, though still deeply committed to the national cause, was incapable of the military-industrial focus that might reverse the situation. By August 1916, they were preparing a revolution that would change Germany forever… and we’ll get to that one day soon.
If civilians with two years of war behind them were feeling the strain, many of the troops they were supporting had been reduced to virtual inactivity by sheer exhaustion. On the Western Front around Verdun, almost six months into the battle, the vast casualties suffered by both sides (as well as the need for French and German forces to be shifted to the Somme) had reduced fighting to inconclusive and largely incoherent skirmishing on a relatively small scale, and the sector would not come to the boil again before the autumn. On the front line around the Somme, the battle begun at the start of July had developed an extra-strategic momentum of its own, with both sides fighting on in the belief that the other was on the point of exhausted collapse – but August was a period of recuperative quiet (just localised trench warfare for its own sake) while British generals planned a renewed push for September.
On the Eastern Front, Russia’s astonishingly successful Brusilov Offensive was still in progress, but had ground into a stalemate of its own. As I’ve mentioned before (4 June 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), Brusilov had driven the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of Galicia during the summer, and inflicted crippling losses in the process, but the offensive had left advanced German positions in the northern and central sectors of the Front essentially unchanged. In July the Russian high command (Stavka), obsessed with pecking orders and imprisoned by orthodoxies, had taken overall command away from Brusilov and abandoned his successful tactics, so that ongoing Russian attempts to drive on into the Austro-Hungarian heartlands were employing standard ‘breakthrough tactics’ – and failing accordingly.
Russia’s other successful field commander – General Yudenich on the Caucasian Front – was meanwhile in position to drive west towards the Ottoman Empire’s heartlands, but was aware that no significant reinforcements were coming his way as long as the Eastern Front remained active and never considered the idea. Instead he spent the late summer and autumn consolidating his army’s gains in Armenia.
Neither exhaustion nor manpower shortage stood in the way of Allied offensive operations from the Salonika Front that summer. French General Sarrail’s multinational force of British and French imperial troops had been augmented by the remnant of the Serbian Army that had survived the previous winter’s brutal retreat (25 November 1915: The Hard Way), and now amounted to some 200,000 troops. They were not comfortable in Salonika, hemmed in by the volatile chaos of Greek politics, and their governments were uncomfortable with their inactivity, so Sarrail had been planning a major offensive against the mixed Bulgarian, Austro-Hungarian and German force currently occupying the Serbian frontier with Macedonia.
Intended to drive north, deep into Serbia, the Allied offensive got underway with an artillery bombardment in the centre of the allied position, around Lake Dorian, on 10 August, but had produced only trivial gains by French forces when, on 17 August, some 120,000 German and Bulgarian troops opened an offensive further west. The attack, agreed by Berlin to keep its relatively new Bulgarian allies happy, focused on the town of Florina, where Allied positions were held by Serbian forces, and the town fell on the same day. The Serbs had been driven back to the Lake Ostrovo region by 18 August and, after a failed counterattack next day, they held a line east of Florina, around the Crno River.
Meanwhile, to the east of the Allied attack, Bulgarian forces crossed the frontier to take the town of Seres on 25 August and advanced to the coastal fortress of Kavalla, meeting no resistance from Greek Army forces and brushing off a half-hearted coastal barrage by Royal Navy warships .
The invasion of Macedonia went no further. Inspired by Bulgaria’s desire to modify the results of the Second Balkan War, and dependent on German support, it was halted as soon as Romania joined the Allies on 27 August. Bulgarian attention then switched to its northern frontier – and the new threat from a neighbour with its own grudges left over from the Balkan Wars – but Bulgarian forces retained control of their conquests in eastern Macedonia. This didn’t matter much to the inhabitants of a region that had been changing hands on a regular basis for years, but it did upset Greek nationalists, triggering rebellion against the Greek monarchy by the pro-Allied ‘Venizelist’ faction, which set up an alternate state based on Salonika (21 July 1916: Money Talks… And Can Be Dumb). General Sarrail’s offensive was meanwhile quietly called off, and a less ambitious operation rescheduled for September.
The slow death of Brusilov’s offensive the Ukraine and the spasm of military action around Salonika weren’t the only military adventures taking place during August. Italy had spent little more than a year at war, but the attack on the River Isonzo launched by c-in-c Cadorna on 4 August was already the Italian Army’s sixth offensive in the sector. Unlike the five before it or the five more that followed, this one was very nearly a success.
Cadorna’s penchant for attacking on the Isonzo generally needed little encouragement – in fact he never attempted an attack anywhere else – but the sixth offensive was essentially forced upon him by the national passion for instant revenge that followed the shock of invasion by Austro-Hungarian forces around the Trentino valley (15 June, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug). Cadorna did his usual good job of exploiting northern Italy’s excellent railway network to deploy his forces quickly and efficiently for the attack, and for the first time the Austro-Hungarian Army, reduced to a skeleton by the needs and losses around the Trentino and Brusilov Offensives, wasn’t ready and waiting to pick off the attackers in the valleys below their positions.
By 8 August the Italian Army had surpassed anything achieved by the first five offensives, establishing its first bridgehead across the Isonzo and taking the town of Gorizia. Having secured these two longstanding objectives, it went on to achieve a relatively huge advance of some 5km along a 20km front by 12 August, when the arrival of Austro-Hungarian reinforcements brought progress to a halt. Cadorna called off the attack five days later, cutting his losses (already above 50,000 men, against some 40,000 Austrian troops killed, wounded or taken prisoner) and accepting the laurels for a limited victory.
Sometimes dignified as the Battle of Gorizia, the offensive provided a beleaguered Italian government with some breathing space and boosted national morale to keep popular enthusiasm for the War at an unfashionable high. It also provided the only sliver of genuinely good military news, for either side, coming out of Europe during that summer’s sombre pause for breath.
As they started out their third year of all-out warfare on an unprecedented scale, Gorizia didn’t amount to much in the way of consolation for literate civilian observers from Britain or France, but their prospects were on the whole far better than those of everyday people from other European states at war. They couldn’t be expected know that in 1916 – but we can, and adding some European context to Britain’s endlessly documented home front struggles is my only excuse for subjecting you to this very long, very rambling, spectacularly generalised tour of the continent’s ramparts.
A small battle ended a century ago today, around Romani, in Egypt, east of the Suez Canal. Fought between British imperial forces occupying Egypt and an Ottoman detachment under the command of German colonel von Kressenstein, it ended as a small victory for the British and was subsequently claimed as a much larger success by propaganda on both sides. Though not a particularly big story, then or now, the Battle of Romani marked the last time during the War that the Suez Canal came under direct military threat, and as such it was a significant turning point in the modern history of the Middle East.
The Suez Canal was hugely important in 1916, and had been since its completion in 1869. In an age when long-distance, intercontinental transport depended on the sea, it provided an enormous short-cut for economic and strategic communication between Europe, southern Asia and the Far East, which was otherwise obliged to undertake the long, arduous journey down the west coast of Africa and round the Cape of Good Hope. Above all, in the geopolitical atmosphere of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Suez provided a fast way for the British Empire to stay in touch with its most important possession, the vastly profitable jewel in the crown, India.
All this is basic stuff, and was known to every schoolboy in Europe (let alone every military strategist) in the decades before 1914, as was the fact that any British involvement in a European war would be motivated by a desire to maintain or expand its global empire. So it came as no surprise to anyone that the moment war broke out, and in spite of the fact that the only direct military threat to Suez – the Ottoman Empire – remained neutral, British control over Egypt was strengthened with defence of the Canal in mind.
A few months later, when the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, the British responded by turning military occupation of Egypt into a formal protectorate (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab). Although the sudden, shocking escalation of manpower requirements in other theatres kept British military presence in Egypt well below the desired level, while troubles in Libya and the Sudan kept most of the few available troops away from Suez, the Canal faced little serious threat in 1915. Germany and Austria-Hungary faced similar pressure on manpower supplies, and had no secure land route for providing support to the Ottoman Empire, which anyway spent most of the year piling every possible resource into the defence of Gallipoli and made no serious effort to attack the Canal zone after the failure of a raid in February 1915.
By the middle of 1916 the situation had changed. The fall of Serbia had opened up a land route for German support to Constantinople and beyond, and by early 1916 the British were hurriedly strengthening their Suez defences in the belief that the Turks were massing an army of some 250,000 men in Palestine for an attack on the Canal. That Palestine was in no way capable of supporting an army of that size, in terms of available food, water and facilities, seems to have been ignored by British planners, a measure both of the all-round geographical ignorance that still characterised imperial adventures a century ago, and of the pessimistic tendency to over-estimate German capabilities that had taken hold of Allied commanders by 1916.
Not to worry, the release of troops from Gallipoli meant new Egyptian c-in-c General Murray (previously chief of staff to Sir John French on the Western Front) was able to muster 14 divisions of troops when he took command in March 1916… except that most of them were quickly transferred on to France, so that by the summer his strength was down to four divisions, or about 50,000 men. By way of counteracting this imagined numerical disadvantage, he had extended the British position into the northern, coastal part of the Sinai Peninsula, constructing roads and light railways to three new trench lines some 30km beyond the Canal’s east bank, thus blocking the most direct route of attack from Palestine. In line with the standard doctrine of ‘forward defence’, Murray also sent detachments further up the coast towards Palestine, where they destroyed water stations, built their own roads and pipelines and fought off Turkish raids, before eventually establishing a base at Katia.
In fact, Colonel Kressenstein’s ‘Desert Force’, some 3,600 men in 1915, had grown to a force of about 16,000 Turkish Army and Arab fighters by the following spring. His plan was to stop traffic through Suez by attacking and occupying its east bank, and by June 1916 his troops were drawn up along the Sinai-Palestine border, waiting for German reinforcements. German machine-gun and anti-aircraft units, along with12 modern aircraft, had arrived by the end of June, and Kressenstein moved forward in early July, reaching the main British position in northern Sinai – some 18,000 men deployed either side of the town of Romani – by the middle of the month. There he paused, and for a couple of weeks the two armies faced each other, British field commanders bemused by the inactivity and considering an attack on the attackers, Kressenstein waiting for the last component of his German reinforcement package, heavy artillery.
The British were still wondering quite what to do next when, before dawn on 4 August, Kressenstein outwitted cavalry patrols to launch a surprise attack on lines south of Romani, taking part of the position before becoming bogged down. British counterattacks, led by ANZAC forces, were gradually retaking the line on the morning of 5 August, when water shortages forced Kressenstein to withdraw towards El Arish, and attempts by mounted British units to cut off his retreat were thwarted by a sandstorm. By the end of the day the Desert Force had suffered an estimated 4,000 casualties and lost the same number of prisoners, against 1,100 British losses.
Though a mere skirmish by Western Front standards, Romani signalled a fundamental shift in the military position around Egypt. While Kressenstein remained at El Arish through the autumn, the British at last recognised the relative weakness of any Ottoman threat to Suez and pursued their forward defence policy with increasing confidence.
Shortly after Romani, Murray received permission to make a steady, if cautious, advance along the northern Sinai coast. By the end of the year he had forced Kressenstein back into Palestine and taken El Arish without a fight, and by early 1917 a supply route had been established all across the Sinai Peninsula, including 350km of new roads, 575km of railway and about 500km of water pipes from reservoirs in Egypt. By the New Year, with Kressenstein based on Gaza and Murray able to call on about 75,000 men for operations on the Sinai frontier, the stage was set for an invasion of Palestine that would, along with the invasion of Iraq and involvement in the Arab Revolt, provide the foundation for British redesign of the post-War Middle East.
On that basis alone – and like anything that adds, however slightly, to anyone’s understanding of why the modern Middle East ended up in such a mess – the Battle of Romani seems worth posterity’s attention, but the battle’s location and aftermath also say something about the nature of great power imperialism a century ago. It’s fair enough to accuse the British Empire of greedy self-interest in its wartime treatment of the Middle East, but it’s too easy to see the invasions of Palestine and Iraq as parts of grand design aimed, depending on your point of view, at extending Britain’s control over the world or ensuring the long-term servitude of indigenous peoples.
Like almost every major actor in every great shift of every kind throughout human history, the British reversed into their invasion of Palestine. Just as in Mesopotamia, their forces in Egypt were so desperately concerned with protecting perceived necessities (oil in Iraq; India through Suez) that they kept extending their defensive perimeters until they found themselves on the attack. From then on their efforts, successful and otherwise, can be called opportunistic and greedy, but they were never part of a premeditated masterplan.
For months now, the First World War has been locked into a second full year of wholesale military carnage on the main European land fronts. Major offensives have erupted at Verdun and the Somme in the west, in the Trentino Valley and on the Isonzo River in the south, across Galicia and Poland in the east – but none has yet brought decisive results or opened up any clear path to victory.
The same could be said of the various secondary fronts dotted around the planet. Although some offered avenues for the post-War ambitions of the empires concerned, the strictly colonial struggle for East Africa, the regional dispute between the Russian and the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, the multi-pronged British invasion of Middle East and the crazy chaos around Salonika were all marginal to the search for overall victory by the Allies or the Central Powers. In short the military struggle on land was, as the heritage industry loves to point out, locked in stalemate.
The heritage boys and girls are also quite happy to remind us that the First World War was a ‘total war’, by which they mean whole societies and their economies were committed to (and crucial to) its prosecution… but they generally avoid following that argument to a logical conclusion that messes with their simplistic, confectionary narrative.
With whole societies involved – and in technological conditions that made decisive military victory at best unlikely – it stood to reason that the richest, most developed, organised and cohesive societies would eventually exhaust the socioeconomic resources of their enemies and claim victory. In other words, the fact of total war made military stalemate and unbreakable trench lines less fundamentally important (and less open to ridicule) than heritage history wants us to believe, because there was another way to win the War.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that contemporary generals, politicians and propagandists were well aware of economic warfare’s importance as an alternate, apparently certain route to glory, and used it frame the miserable excuse for a strategy that was attrition (14 July, 1916: Virtual Realities). Last week, I pointed up the long-term economic perspective taken by all the major belligerents. Today marks the centenary of a formal protest by the United States against the British Empire’s macro-economic policies, a low point in Anglo-American relations that brings together the two biggest questions surrounding economic warfare in 1916.
The first question, a live issue since 1914 and still being asked two years on, concerned the Allied blockade of sea trade to the Central Powers, led by the enormous Royal Navy. Would blockade bring total victory, as promised by British strategists and contemporary economists, and if so when? Or could German submarine warfare against Allied trade be expanded and refined to even up an economic balance of power that had, from the moment a quick military victory failed to materialise in 1914, been heavily weighted against the Central Powers?
The second question cut across the first and had the potential to render it all but irrelevant to the War’s final outcome. Would the United States, by far the world’s biggest and most important neutral economy, enter the War to slew the economic balance irrevocably in the Allies’ favour, and if so when?
Economists have been analysing the impact of the First World War on their particular field of interest ever since it ended, and the best they’ve managed so far is the unsurprising conclusion that US entry on the Allied side condemned the Central Powers – which were anyway fighting at a massive economic disadvantage in terms of available human and material resources – to certain defeat. This would hardly have shocked informed observers in 1916, but the modern tendency to assume that US alliance with Britain and France was inevitable, simply a matter of time, would have raised a few eyebrows.
There was no real danger of the USA joining the Central Powers. Germany’s motives for and conduct of the War were generally deplored in the US, a mood defined by the German Army’s deliberate terror tactics against civilians in Belgium, and lately reinforced by the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians (many of whom fled to the US and spread tales of genocidal atrocity). But that didn’t mean the United States wanted to side with Britain.
The great republic’s sympathies tended to lie with countries directly under the hammer of war – Belgium, Italy and France, for instance. Britain was seen in Washington (as it was in Berlin) as the main protagonist on the Allied side, and as an arrogant, greedy bully, fighting to squash any challenge to its long-term dominance of the global economy. The War as a whole was perceived by many in the US as a battle for supremacy between Europe’s two greatest economies, with the rest of the continent suffering in support roles, and nothing reinforced that view more powerfully than the ongoing Anglo-German struggle for control of the sea lanes.
Hatred of German submarine warfare and British blockade tactics informed the whole US political spectrum, from traditional isolationists who loathed and disdained European imperialism, to business interests determined to create their own sea-trading economic empire. And while the threat to life and property posed by U-boats was always likely to overtrump the Royal Navy’s aggressive but relatively civilised policing when it came to popular outrage, political and business interests were if anything more appalled by the systemic denial of their long-term economic destiny built into Britain’s blockade strategy. Viewed with anything like historical dispassion, this was a reasonable point of view.
Not that the British saw it that way. Seen from London, blockade was doing a good job of grinding down the enemy war effort, but doing it too slowly to guarantee the long-term prosperity of a British Empire haemorrhaging men, materials and money. Constant efforts were being made to tighten the blockade for greater efficiency, usually by assuming ever-greater powers to stop, search and seize neutral vessels suspected of trading with the enemy. The fact that neutral powers were legally entitled to trade with anyone they liked was seen as irrelevant during a fight that claimed to be between good and evil.
The British press in 1916 had no doubt that trading with the enemy was a heinous crime against civilisation, and its shrill outrage helped elevate the practice into something seen by many in Britain as a major obstruction to victory through blockade. It wasn’t, but every Brexit victim knows how attractive an easy fix for complex problems can be in times of crisis, so few British voices were raised in doubt when, on July 18 1916, the government issued a ‘Black List’ of 87 US-based companies accused or suspected of trading with the enemy, making it a criminal offence for any British company to trade or even correspond with them.
To the surprise of British interests without American experience (and nobody else), the list triggered a furious reaction in the US, bringing scathing rebukes from editors coast to coast, and helping cement continued pacifism (exactly the thing Britain didn’t want from the US) as the dominant theme of that year’s presidential election campaign. It also provoked the formal note of protest from Wilson’s government, delivered by the US Ambassador to London, Walter Hines Page, on 28 July.
The note marked a major crisis in Anglo-American relations. Though aware that it had made a mistake and anxious to defuse the situation, an increasingly shaky Asquith government didn’t dare climb down in the face of a British press and parliament roaring their outraged indignation at American reactions, and didn’t want to encourage similar protests from other neutral governments. Foreign minister Edward Grey therefore issued a statement refusing to retract the list, and although repeated negotiations over the following months produced a series of quiet reductions in the list’s scope, along with reversal of an initial threat to expand it, the British would not renounce their claim to impose trade restrictions on neutral states as a matter of right.
This was inevitable, given Britain’s need to maintain control over other neutral traders, but it went to the crux of US emotional and economic antipathy towards the old colonial foe, so by late 1916 the Black List controversy had contrived to make Britain even more unpopular than Germany with many Americans, and in particular with Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson had reacted to initial publication of the Black List with undisguised anger. He admitted to aides that he was ‘about at the end of my patience with Britain and the Allies’, and told his closest advisor, Colonel House, that he planned to consider restrictions on loans and exports to the Allies. As the row rumbled on through the autumn, and once he had been returned to office for a second term, Wilson made good his threat, putting federal pressure on US bank JP Morgan – which functioned as the British government’s wartime financial agent in the US – to limit the loans promised to Britain at the end of 1916, a move that threatened major disruption to Allied plans for offensives in 1917.
The British had painted themselves into a bad corner, and if Germany hadn’t managed to repair relations between London and Washington by taking submarine warfare beyond the point of US tolerance, the Black List might now be remembered as one of the War’s most calamitous diplomatic screw-ups. As it is, the controversy seems worth commemorating as a reminder that US friendship with Britain was a fragile and, in many eyes, unlikely state of affairs in 1916, and as proof that, although imperial Germany has quite rightly become a by-word for diplomatic incompetence (see for instance 3 December, 1915: Friendly Fires?), the insular, often unconscious arrogance of wartime British diplomacy could run it a good second.