24 September, 1916: Who Let The Dogs Out?

Warplane – 1914 version.
The all-purpose warplane, August 1914

 

Back in 1914, the German Army had announced the arrival of aerial warfare by sending a lone aircraft to drop very small bombs on Paris (August 30, 1914: The Bomb).  A little more than two years later, and a hundred years ago today, two French airmen completed a daring long-range trip to the German industrial city of Essen, where they dropped a dozen or so bombs on or around the Krupps armament works. Although part of the works was slightly disrupted for two days after the attack, and German sources claimed the a bomb had killed a child, Captain de Beauchamp and Lieutenant Daucourt didn’t achieve much more than a minor propaganda coup – but I’m bothering to commemorate their fifteen minutes of fame because it serves as a convenient and appropriate signpost for the end of aerial warfare’s first phase.

History can’t (and really shouldn’t keep trying to) put exact dates on its processes, so there was no precise moment when aircraft stopped being tactical adjuncts to more traditional methods of fighting and became the practical focus of strategic thinking, or when they moved beyond the experimental stage to become established, trusted weapons of war in their own right. Generally speaking, these things happened across the middle of 1916, and by late September the kind of demonstration missions typified by the Essen raid – essentially experiments to test the capacity and impact of warplanes – were no longer seen as the most aircraft could achieve on their own.

That tortuous set of statements calls for some context, so here’s a potted look at aerial warfare during the first two years of its existence.

Aircraft were still very new in 1914. The global impact of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 had been delayed by wrangles over licensing agreements, and the first aircraft had finally reached military service (with the French Army) in 1911. When the War began in 1914, the French Aeronautique Militaire possessed 132 frontline machines, and as many again in reserve, while the German Army had responded to French expansion by providing its Air Service with even more aircraft, though the designs were generally inferior and trained pilots were in short supply. The British Royal Flying Corps was smaller than either, but well equipped and organised, while the Russian Army possessed a sprawling collection of aircraft that weren’t really organised at all. All four empires were also experimenting with naval aircraft by 1914, but no other state possessed more than a few imported machines.

War arrived before aircraft were ready for it, and technical limitations dictated their performance during the first months of the conflict. Fragile, skeletal and terrifyingly unreliable, they were too feeble to lift more than a token bomb load or any kind of weapon, they struggled to make any kind of forward progress against headwinds, and they could be destroyed on the ground in large numbers by a heavy storm. Ramming was the only effective combat tactic against other aircraft, and the vast majority of early operational casualties were caused by accidents. Formation flying was rightly considered dangerous and not attempted, while night flying only ever happened by accident.

Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that aircraft were restricted to unarmed liaison, reconnaissance and artillery spotting duties in 1914, or that what armies were looking for in aircraft was a stable flying platform, ideally with easy packaging for transport with mobile armies. That changed when mobile warfare on the Western Front (always the place to find the majority of First World War aircraft) turned into static trench warfare, at which point aircraft became far more important to armies, needed for long-range reconnaissance behind enemy lines, short-range photo-reconnaissance, a lot more artillery spotting and, as more powerful designs became available, short-range bombing of enemy lines and installations. At the same time, all belligerents developed countermeasures against enemy aircraft, modifying guns for anti-aircraft purposes and deploying some of its own aircraft as air-to-air ‘fighters’.

During 1914 and 1915, technological development was hindered by the widespread belief that the War would be ended by the next wave of offensives. This discouraged innovation, promoting modification and adaptation of existing designs, which grew steadily more reliable and mounted more powerful engines, so that they could soon drop something heavier than a grenade and carry machine guns.

Guns were obviously key to effective development of fighters, but finding ways to fire them accurately took a while longer. The first fighters were two-seaters, carrying a rear gunner, but performance needs called for faster, more maneouvrable single-seaters. Experiments with high-mounted guns, and with steel ‘deflector’ plates on propellers to enable pilots to shoot directly forwards, had limited success, and it was not until the autumn of 1915 that the German air service introduced ‘interrupter gear’, which synchronised gun and propeller to allow forward firing. It took the British and French a few months to produce shells reliable enough to work with interrupter gear, but by the middle of 1916 everyone was using it.

With optimism about the end of the War fading fast, entirely new designs finally began reaching combat units in numbers during 1916. Along with improved machines for all the tasks already allotted to aircraft, these included a new generation of fighters, designed for and capable of the dogfights that only then became the defining motif of aerial warfare on the Western Front. Most Western Front dogfights, incidentally, took place over German positions, thanks to prevailing winds and the same Allied doctrine of ‘permanent offensive’ that got so many trench soldiers killed for nothing much.

Bigger aircraft also began to make their presence felt from 1916. Along with the relative failure of the German airship programme, a few minor successes for Russian Sikorsky and Italian Caproni multi-engine bombers during 1914 and 1915 had encouraged the belief – popular among some theorists since the initial spread of powered flight – that wars could be won by strategic bombing of enemy territory.  Britain, France and Germany all introduced relatively long-range, heavy bomber aircraft during 1916, and all embarked on bombing programmes that grew more ambitious through the rest of the War.  They would achieve very little in strategic terms, but would do enough to convince theorists that, given technological progress, they would one day be capable of winning wars at a stroke.

The other major tactical development made possible by improved performance criteria was the fighter-bomber, as aircraft designed for direct support of ground troops came to be known. When first used by the British in support of their new ‘tanks’ during the summer of 1916, ground support aircraft lacked specialised equipment or organised tactics, but armoured and even cannon-armed machines would appear in numbers during the next two years, and by 1918 ‘trench fighting’ would be the aircraft’s principal combat role on the Western Front.

So the autumn fighting season in 1916 marked the aircraft’s arrival as an effective weapon purpose-designed for defined tactical and strategic combat roles. It also coincided with great leaps forward in the production capacity behind the British, French and German air arms, making possible a huge proliferation in the numbers and variety of aircraft available for combat duties. Numbers were further increased by the export of aircraft technology to other belligerent countries, notably Italy, which rapidly developed an indigenous industry producing good quality original designs, and the United States, which built aircraft for the Allies under licence before it joined the war in April 1917, and had 750 combat aircraft of its own by the Armistice. In this context it’s worth remembering that First World War aircraft were relatively cheap and easy to build, as evidenced by the US Army’s post-War decision to burn its entire air fleet in a French field rather than foot the bill for transporting it home.

... to this in September 1916.
The purpose-designed fighter, September 1916.

That was a very generalised snapshot of aerial warfare at one of its watershed moments, but it was only meant to set the table for the deadly derring-do of dogfight heroics, which really got going around a century ago, and to mark another stage in the prolonged experiment that was strategic bombing. In the first instance, I reckon you can rely on the heritage industry to provide all the detail you need, and though mass media may prove a little more reticent when it comes to the ultimately catastrophic choices made around bombing theory, you can rely on me to come back to that before too long.

One last point worth making is that, although warplanes performed in every theatre, including naval theatres, any discussion of contemporary aerial warfare’s cutting edge is obliged to focus on the Western Front, which saw almost exclusive deployment of the latest technology and was the only theatre to experience busy air traffic at all times.

15 September, 1916: False Start

I’m inclined to bang on about the First World War’s impact on the future, and though I tend to stress its momentous economic, political and social effects, there’s no getting away from the weapons.

Any major war is a hothouse for weapons development, but posterity tends to focus on the Second World War as the twentieth century’s big moment in this respect.  Fair enough on one level, in that coming up with missiles and nuclear weapons counts for a lot of posterity points, but even the horror perpetrated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the ultimate expression of an idea – strategic bombing – conceived and first attempted during the Great War. Most of the other major weapons associated with Hitler’s war, including submarines, chemical weapons and all the other ways of using aircraft, were direct products of First World War development that would go on to blight the next hundred years – and that brings me to tanks.

Today, as anyone watching, hearing or reading Anglophone news media probably knows, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, a subsidiary action within the long and horrible Somme Offensive that saw the first large-scale combat use of what were then called ‘landships’ and are now known as tanks. Heritage history being what it is, you don’t need me to talk about how it felt inside a landship or about details of the operation. What’s more, the populist grapevine makes it reasonably clear that tank warfare’s first day out wasn’t a great success, and very clear that tanks would go on to play an important part in future warfare.  On the other hand, possibly because it’s primarily concerned with celebrating tanks as a great British invention, mass media tends go a little easy on both subjects, so here’s a take on some of that stuff with the flag-waving filtered out.

First of all, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was yet another of the BEF’s increasingly desperate attempts to gain something positive (and, more to the point after 77 days of fighting, popular) from the Somme debacle. It was a relatively minor foray, involving 12 divisions of General Rawlinson’s 4th Army, which advanced northeast along a 12km front on 15 September, intending to extend the small salient (that’s a bulge in everyday English) it had established in the opposing line.  Beyond the use of all 49 available landships, and of aircraft to provide them with direct ground support, the attack was bereft of innovation and failed accordingly. After making initial gains of about 2km, British units were halted by bad weather and German reinforcements, and the operation was called off on 18 September.

Secondly, the tanks were a complete failure and didn’t scare the German high command.  They did cause a certain amount of local disruption, and terrified German troops at first sight, but were too few to make any major tactical contribution.  Most of them broke down or were destroyed, and German observers were of the opinion that they could be beaten and weren’t worth copying.

The British felt very differently about tanks in 1916, and despite the credit given to him by later propagandists (and his own memoirs), Churchill didn’t have all that much to do with it.  The general idea of an armoured trench-buster had been under discussion inside both the British Army and the Royal Navy (which was already using armoured cars in Flanders) since the autumn of 1914.  As the sitting naval minister, Churchill’s contribution was to read reports of naval ideas – along with a memo about army ideas from Colonel Hankey, secretary to the Committee for Imperial Defence (Britain’s central strategic command) – and secure the formation of a Landships Committee for technical research and development in February 1915.  By September, the Committee had built a working prototype on the chassis of an American tractor, and its trials impressed BEF commander Haig so much he ordered 40 more in advance.

Haig’s enthusiasm reflected high hopes among British strategists and newspaper editors that the landships could finally break the deadlock on the Western Front. War Minister Lloyd George gave the project his approval in February 1916, and Mark 1 Heavy Tanks (ultimately named after their transit code name of ‘water tanks’) went into full production in April.  In June, the first Mark 1’s entered front line service with the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps, promptly renamed the Tank Corps.

Senior British commanders, by now very excited about tanks, could hardly wait to let the new monsters loose on the enemy and win the War, but official military doctrine regarded them as infantry support weapons, and the relatively junior officers charged with actually operating the things agreed, quickly deciding they were best used in small numbers to aid attacks on specific targets.  Haig’s decision to ignore their advice and deploy the all tanks as a single, concentrated force at Flers-Courcelette, using every half-trained crewman and every half-tested machine, was controversial at the time, and the operation’s failure left some senior officers convinced tanks should only be used for direct infantry support (like a machine-gun unit, one for each company, or even each platoon if sufficient numbers became available).  Not Haig, who ordered another massed tank attack in the same sector on 25 September, and reacted to a second abject failure by ordering 1,000 more tanks – and not the British press, which went right on assuring its readers that tanks were unstoppable war-winners.

The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.
The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.

Tank warfare had arrived, but for a time it hardly set the world alight. The French Army was soon developing its own chars d’assaut, and like British tanks they would see plenty of combat in France, Italy and Russia, but the USA was the only other Allied power to build tanks in wartime (though only two machined reached France before the Armistice).  Wartime tank development among the Central Powers was confined to Germany, which built a few (generally enormous) machines for trench support during the next couple of years, but never prioritised their development.  With hindsight, and bearing in mind the other pressures on German industry, that was probably a smart move.  Though their armour would be improved, their weight would be reduced to aid mobility and they would become marginally more reliable, British and French tanks would still be all potential and very little end product when the War ended.

Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers... but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.
Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers… but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.

Post-War technological progress would change that, opening up alternative possibilities for deployment of tanks.  British theorists were the first to argue for use of tanks – in large numbers, with air support – as long-range strike weapons, but they were ignored by the British and French armies, which carried on developing big, lumbering machines for the support of infantry attacks.  German planners, on the other hand, paid careful attention to British theories, and built Panzers to carry out a refined version known to posterity as Blitzkrieg.

So while giving a cheer for yet another groundbreaking product of British invention and enterprise, and accepting that the tank went on to become one of the 20th century’s defining weapons, let’s remember that First World War tanks never really worked in the only role they were capable of fulfilling, and were the blueprints for a strategic blind alley taken by the British and French that would be utterly discredited at the start of the next war.  In other words, the British invented the wrong tanks for the wrong reason. The result was a huge waste of time, lives and money that ultimately provided a research and development platform for the very army it was intended to defeat.

10 SEPTEMBER, 1916: Fights Of Fancy

Broadly speaking, the historical impact of the First World War didn’t have much to with armies and battles.  For all that fighting killed a lot of people, wrecked a lot of terrain and occasionally captured swathes of territory for one side or the other, its principal effect between 1914 and 1920 (and I’m being conservative about the dates) was to prolong and expand the conflict. That meant the extension and spread of ‘total war’, a new and terrible phenomenon that transformed and tested Europe’s biggest economies and societies – and only a fool, a liar or a media professional would even try to deny that total war was the prime catalyst for the profound changes wrought upon the planet by the First World War.

The economic, political and social stresses of total war would defeat Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Germany before their failures were confirmed on the battlefield. Ability to survive the same stresses (and the radical, permanent changes they provoked) would enable Britain and France to end the War with battlefield victories, while the USA’s grand success would have little to do with military prowess and everything to do with industrial, socioeconomic and political adaptability, along with a transformed take on the world. Italy achieved almost nothing on the battlefields, was lucky to survive three years of total war as a functioning state, and fell apart almost as soon as the conflict was over.

But that’s the big picture of the big hitters. The First World War also wrapped its wider identity around plenty of smaller affairs, local conflicts that were continued or begun under the umbrella of the great alliances, and some of them were all about the fighting. Various colonial struggles involving the British Empire spring to mind, as does the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in late 1915, and today marks the centenary of a pivotal moment in another. The moment in question was the fall of Silistra, a port city on the Danube, to German and Bulgarian forces on 10 September 1916, a blow that shaped the brief but lively war between Romania and the Central Powers.

I talked about Romania’s decision to go to war against the Central Powers a couple of weeks back (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…). It was a calculated, greedy choice, and it quickly translated into military action because some strategists on all sides saw it as a potential turning point in the War on the Eastern Front.

On the Allied side, most (though not all) analysts expected Romania’s army to make a major regional contribution, distracting the Bulgarian and German forces deployed in front of Salonika, and posing a direct threat through Transylvania to Austria-Hungary (at the time still defending its heartlands against the last efforts of the Brusilov Offensive further north). This rosy viewpoint ignored several important factors. First, Romania was difficult to defend, menaced as it was by Bulgarian or Austro-Hungarian enemies on two sides. Secondly, the summer of 1916 had seen Germany assume effective strategic control over its enfeebled allies, increasing the likelihood of a coordinated attack on Romania from both sides; and thirdly the Romanian Army, its reputation sky high after a successful Second Balkan War, was in fact rubbish.

Limited peacetime conscription meant Romania’s army was big by regional standards, 860,000-strong after mobilisation in 1916, but rapid expansion had left it pitifully short of modern weapons. Half its 1,300 artillery pieces were obsolete, most were housed in fortresses, hardly any machine guns were available and some units were 40% short of rifles that were anyway of nineteenth-century vintage, as were the brightly-coloured uniforms worn by troops. Decked out as targets and ill-equipped, the same troops went into action with little training or competent leadership, thanks to an officer corps that was good at dressing up, getting wasted and duelling, but a hopeless shambles in military terms.

Military reality made little difference to an atmosphere of one-eyed, expansionist ambition in Bucharest. Dividing its forces into four armies – and ignoring British advice to attack south through Bulgaria, towards Salonika – the royal high command left one army to defend the Bulgarian frontier and sent the other three north, through difficult Carpathian Mountain passes, to invade Hungarian Transylvania. Some 400,000 Romanian troops crossed the Hungarian border along a 300km front on 28 August, a day after the declaration of war, and advanced into southeast Transylvania unopposed by 35,000 Austro-Hungarian defenders, but crippling supply problems and command ineptitude had halted progress by 10 September.

Meanwhile, as might have been expected by any Allied strategist not high on optimism, Germany had organised and launched an invasion of Romania by the Central Powers. One of the Eastern Front’s most experienced and successful commanders, General Mackensen, was put in charge of a Danube Army, made up of German, Austrian, Bulgarian and Ottoman units, to attack north into the Dobrudja, an ethnically Bulgarian region seized by Romania during the Balkan Wars and including all the country’s coastline. A diversionary attack struck the fortress of Tatrakan on 2 September, and took it four days later, while the main force advanced further east towards Silistra, only about 150km from Bucharest. When Silistra fell on 10 September, the entire Dobrudja region was opened up to Mackensen’s army.

<img class="wp-image-1050 size-medium" src="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg" alt="I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you'll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest. " width="300" height="244" srcset="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg 300w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-768×624.jpg 768w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-1024×832.jpg 1024w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949 have a peek at this website.jpg 1099w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px” />

I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you’ll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest.

Romania suddenly needed help, but its new allies were better at making promises than keeping them.

Any hope of direct Anglo-French support had evaporated with the failure of General Sarrail’s earlier attempt to move north from Salonika (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), and though Sarrail’s multinational force did launch an even less ambitious attack into southern Serbia on 13 September, German and Bulgarian delaying tactics were enough to prevent any significant progress before November and it had no impact on events in the Dobrudja. Meanwhile the Russian high command, still busy pouring resources into breakthrough attempts in Galicia (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), would only spare a token 50,000 men to provide limited support for the 70,000 or so Romanian troops facing Mackensen’s advance.

Having learned the true value of its alliances, the Romanian high command dithered for a few days before abandoning the invasion of Transylvania and, from 15 September, transferring more than half its northern force to the Bulgarian front, as the Army Group South, for an attack across the Danube.  The Romanian pause for thought in Transylvania had meanwhile given enemy reinforcements time to reach the sector, in the form of the German Ninth Army and its new commander, none other than former Chief of Staff, General Falkenhayn.  His combined German and Austrian force of around 200,000 men now outnumbered remaining Romanian units strung out along the Carpathians, and he launched a counteroffensive on 18 September.

So three weeks into a war that the Romanian government and most Allied strategists believed would break the deadlock on the Eastern Front, scattered Romanian armies had failed in one offensive and were in the process of regrouping for an attack into Bulgaria – but faced powerful invasions on two fronts with dangerously inferior numbers.  Not stalemate, then, or attrition, but a war of rapid movement, pitting 20th-century German equipment, tactical nous and organisational skill against strictly19th-century Romanian forces led by a naive, effete elite.

Old-school stuff, all dash, derring-do and dunces – and worth a mention, partly as a reminder that not all First World War fighting conformed to the trench-bound heritage stereotype, and partly as a commemorative nod to a historically important campaign that is largely forgotten where I live.  Oh, and as a set-up for another instalment in a few weeks, when Romania’s hubris really hits the fan.

29 AUGUST, 1916: The Blueprint

This is one of those rare days when me and the heritage industry want to commemorate the same big news, because a hundred years ago the man running the German Army, Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, resigned after almost two years in the job. His replacement was the overall commander on the Eastern Front, Field Marshal Paul von Beneckendorf und von Hindenburg (we’ll just call him Hindenburg from now on), and his long-time number two, General Ludendorff, remained at his side as Quartermaster-General.

Approaching seventy, Hindenburg was a puppet. An essentially inert figure, he had been called out of retirement in 1914 to a command in East Prussia on the Eastern Front (with Ludendorff as his chief of staff), and he’d been striking lucky ever since.  He had little to do with the initial German victory at Tannenberg, but Ludendorff conspired with the supreme command to make him its victor for propaganda purposes, and from that point Hindenburg became Germany’s equivalent of Lord Kitchener, a popular hero whose impressive features – martial but reassuring – made him the perfect front for Ludendorff.

Hindenburg in 1916 – who wouldn't follow a face like that to national oblivion?
Hindenburg in 1916 – who wouldn’t follow a face like that to national oblivion?

While Ludendorff (who wasn’t so pretty) ran the Eastern Front, exaggerated his successes, and plotted with right-wing military and industrial contacts to bend overall German strategy to his ambitions, Hindenburg took the popular credit. For the next two years, Ludendorff pressed for military concentration on the Eastern Front, lobbied for his fantastic vision of Germany’s eastern empire, and generally undermined Falkenhayn’s authority whenever possible, while his military and industrial supporters took effective control of the war effort by establishing a firm grip on its supply system (1 May, 1916: Stomping On Thin Ice). By the time Falkenhayn resigned, his position fatally weakened by the exhaustion of German offensive efforts at Verdun and the Somme, the figurehead hero of the east was the inevitable choice as his successor.

I’ve poured bile over Ludendorff in the past (7 February 1915: Breaking Bad), so I won’t go into detail here about his first-class organisational abilities, both military and administrative, or about his self-important, power-hungry, fanatically nationalist, anti-semitic, stubborn and militarily deluded character. Both had helped define the Eastern Front’s peculiar form of mobile stalemate, and during the next two years both would help shape Germany as the modern world’s first military-industrial, totalitarian dictatorship.

Ludendorff in 1916: you'd be right not to follow this ugly bastard anywhere.
Ludendorff in 1916: you’d be right not to follow this ugly bastard anywhere.

The new Third Supreme Command (Möltke led the First, Falkenhayn the Second) sought to counter increased Allied production output by fully mobilising the German people for the war effort, in pursuit of absolute military victory and massive territorial annexations. On 31 August, just two days after Falkenhayn’s resignation, the regime put forward a plan to take central control over almost every aspect of national life.  The Kaiser, by now a cowed and acquiescent figure, passed the measures under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave the crown far-reaching powers in time of national emergency.

The plan was known as the Hindenburg Programme. It demanded massive increases in military output, including tripled machine gun production, doubled ammunition production and similar leaps in production of mortars, artillery, aircraft and trench warfare equipment. Every suitable factory was turned over to war work, and those found to be inefficient were closed down by a new Integration of Factories Committee. In December 1916, all able bodied males not already in uniform were conscripted as war labour, while attempts were made to conscript women for the same purpose, and deportation programmes brought in forced labour from occupied Belgium and Poland. None of these unpopular measures made much difference to a labour force already stretched to the limit.

Meanwhile a Supreme War Bureau, headed by General Gröner, took over the functions of both the War Materials Department (KRA) and the arms procurement office.  Effectively a branch of the Supreme Command, it proceeded to redraw Germany as an industrial magnate’s fantasy, pouring funds into the development of heavy industry and planning a series of lavish infrastructural projects without regard for feasibility.

The whole Programme was based on the assumption that the German people as a whole had been slacking – a view that was completely in tune with elite, right-wing thinking in contemporary Germany but had no basis in reality – and its immediate effect was to put an enormous spanner in the works of the German economy. Failure to find untapped labour resources meant 1.2 million men had to be transferred from the Army to civilian war work in September, while the strain of industrial reorganisation and a new campaign in Romania brought the railway system to a virtual standstill in October, causing widespread coal shortages, and unusually cold weather added urban starvation to the mix during the winter.

By the spring of 1917 none of the Programme’s production targets had been met, or even approached, and its only major achievement had been to unleash a storm of opposition, killing off the faltering political truce and raising the spectre of revolution that had haunted Germany’s pre-War ruling classes.

The occasional shaft of pragmatism did improve matters slightly during 1917. February’s decision to cut back on investment projects enabled the Programme to meet some of its targets by the autumn, including machine gun and light artillery quotas, but the industrial magnates behind the Third Supreme Command would not be denied their earthly paradise.  Gröner was dismissed when he tried to curtail their profits in mid-1917, and a year later even Ludendorff was unable to force through similar measures.  Meanwhile Germany’s economy and society screamed towards the buffers, its supercharged industries clearly unable to meet requirements or sustain the effort, its angry population ever closer to exhaustion, and its politics lurching into extremism.

German military strategies during the last two years of the War – from unrestricted submarine warfare to the occupation of Eastern Europe and the last battles in France – would display the same kind of reckless aggression as the Hindenburg Programme, and at first glance it’s hard to see the Third Supreme Command’s tenure as anything but a form of madness. To make any sense of the national harakiri presided over by Ludendorff and his backers you have to take on board the mindset of Germany’s elite rulers during the early twentieth century.

Germany had come into the War under internal political pressures the ruling classes could only see as revolutionary, and that terrible vision still dominated their thinking in 1916. They were fighting the British, French and Russians for Germany’s place in the world, but the struggle that really mattered to them had less to do with national ambitions than with class war. When the War seemed to be going against them, they preferred a colossal (and repeated) gamble on the ever more remote possibility of total victory to what they saw as the certainty of revolution without it.

History can’t be sure if revolution in a defeated Germany was inevitable, or if the chaos unleashed on post-War Germany was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy.  It can record that the Third Supreme Command operated in ways and in conditions that made the gamble’s failure all but inevitable, and that it trampled all over civil liberties in pursuit of state aims defined by and for of a powerful minority.  In other words, the military-industrial oligarchy that took power in August 1916 created both a blueprint for future totalitarian dictatorships, and made Germany the fertile ground in which the twentieth century’s most ghastly example could flourish. A century on, that seems worth a commemorative mention.