23 OCTOBER, 1916: Feeling Brave?

Today was the day, a century ago, that German and Bulgarian forces occupied Constanta, Romania’s most important Black Sea port and its principal trading link with the rest of the world. The capture came two days after Field Marshal Mackensen launched his renewed German-Bulgarian offensive from the south into the eastern Romanian region of Dobrudja, and the fact that the port was taken intact was a measure of how completely the attack had blown away Romanian defences. Romanian units simply fled, leaving Mackensen free to move northeast towards Moldavia and the Russian frontier, and threatening to cut off the capital, Bucharest, from the sea.

At this point, I recommend a quick look back at my last Romanian ramble (10 September, 1916: Fights Of Fancy), which left the campaign in mid-September. By that time the Romanian Army had spent three weeks attacking north into Transylvania and preparing an attack south into Bulgaria, but had achieved only the loss of its inflated fighting reputation and the chaotic scattering of its units. Meanwhile the Central Powers had manoeuvred multinational forces, under German control and using plenty of German equipment, into position for major counteroffensives on both fronts. Here’s the same old map, by way of giving that some context.

One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.
One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.

Mackensen’s army on the Bulgarian border couldn’t advance until the threat of a Romanian attack across the Danube had been eliminated, so General Falkenhayn’s northern force of some 200,000 men struck first. Its advance against outnumbered Romanian units strung out along the mountainous Transylvanian frontier region began on September 18, and the offensive got fully underway on 27 September with an attack in the centre of the 300km front, around the town of Hermannstadt.  Hermannstadt fell on 29 September, and surviving defenders fled for the hills, as did those driven back by the secondary attacks of another German army further east and an Austro-Hungarian army to the northeast.  By 14 October, all that was left of the Romanian invasion had retreated beyond the frontier where, joined by a few belated reinforcements sent from the south, they mounted delaying actions in an attempt to keep to Falkenhayn and Mackensen apart.

Once Mackensen’s army had captured Constanta with barely a fight, the Russians finally got serious about the potential threat it posed to their frontier and their Back Sea operations.  Russian naval units bombarded the port and, with the Brusilov Offensive finally at its ragged end, Stavka diverted an impressive 36 infantry and 11 cavalry divisions to a new ‘Army of the Danube’ on the Romanian front.  Transport problems meant most of them didn’t arrive until December, but the declaration of intent was enough to dissuade Mackensen from any serious incursion into Moldovia.

Russian manoeuvres (or anything the other Allies might attempt) couldn’t do anything much to stop the two armies converging on Bucharest and that part of the country most useful to Germany, the fertile Wallachian heartlands and the Ploesti oilfields. As October ended, Mackensen was poised for the kill, and the only thing preventing Falkenhayn from breaking through to the lowlands was the Romanian Army’s token resistance in the Carpathian Mountains.  For now Romanian King Ferdinand, his court and government – the architects of their country’s disastrous gamble on war – remained in the capital, well-dressed rats in a trap, but plans were already being laid for their flight to Iasi, safely behind Russian lines in Moldovia.

That was just an update, and I’ll come back to Romania for the next phase of its demise sometime in the next few weeks, but the ease with which Romanian forces were brushed aside in October 1916 does raise one general point worth making. We’re used to the idea that the developed powers of the early twentieth century enjoyed even greater technological superiority than they do today over what tends to be called the third world, but it’s easy to forget that in 1916 the third world started much closer to our doorstep.

Men from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Russia, southern Italy, in fact from anywhere except those few wealthy countries or regions with largely literate populations, lived and fought in conditions and with assumptions closer to the 18th than the 20th century. These were conscripts or volunteers who, like the Romanians facing German units, had never before seen heavy artillery, gas, mortars and other state-of-the-art field weaponry, let alone fought against them.  Anyone tempted to look down from posterity’s smug heights on those who ran away, or to draw odious comparisons between the First World War’s brave and apparently not so brave, could do worse than wonder how modern conscripts of any nationality might behave against weapons from the Starship Enterprise.

Romanian troops in training – the kind of training that wasn't much use against heavy artillery.
Romanian troops in training – not the kind of training likely to be  much use against heavy artillery.

21 OCTOBER, 1916: Snapshot

Austria and Hungary tend to escape the discredit they deserve for their roles in the First World War.  This is largely because they have since become modest, periodically oppressed nations with no pretensions to global clout.  While Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Italy all remained important actors in the post-War geopolitical narrative, and the Ottoman Empire retained at least a semblance of religious coherence after its collapse in 1918, imperial disintegration instantly transformed Austria and Hungary from world powers into small-time bystanders.  At the same time, the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire entailed mass destruction of its institutional records, and that encouraged a generalised denial of responsibility for its actions among its various populations.  In other words, circumstances and the self-interest of survivors combined to promote the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s quiet erasure from modern popular history.

That’s a shame, both because the Empire is central to the developmental history of modern Europe, and because Austria-Hungary’s wartime story was wild and crazy stuff.  Today marks the centenary of the assassination of Austrian premier Count von Stürgkh by Friedrich Adler, the son of Austrian socialist leader Viktor Adler, an event that summed up the Empire’s condition quite nicely.

Karl Count von Stürgkh had just turned fifty-two, and had made his name as a trenchant conservative during two years as Austrian education minister, when he was appointed Austrian minister-president in November 1911.  He had since dedicated himself to maintenance of the Empire under autocratic, Germanic government, and his policies had provoked persistent opposition from socialists and separatist nationalists, above all from Czechs.  His response had been to suspend the Austrian parliament in March 1914, after which he ruled by royal decree, a move that had the predictable effect of driving opposition away from institutions and onto the streets.

Wartime Czech nationalism was a well-organised, politically sophisticated movement that made its presence felt all over Europe.
Wartime Czech nationalism was a well-organised, politically sophisticated movement that made its presence felt all over Europe.

Once war broke out, Stürgkh introduced rigid press censorship and restriction of public assembly rights, while allowing the military to infiltrate civil bureaucracy and policing.  His approach drove opposition closer to open revolt but was seen as insufficiently forceful by extreme militarists, a powerful influence at the Emperor’s court and a group that could have given the Russian nobility lessons in rabid conservatism.  He had therefore become thoroughly unpopular on all sides, but was still rigidly attached to policies that promoted exactly the imperial break-up he was determined to avoid, when he was shot and killed by Friedrich Adler in the dining room of a Viennese hotel.

Three shots killed Graf von Stürgkh, as seen here.
Three shots killed Stürgkh, as seen here.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family, Friedrich Adler had been a physicist and mathematician, a close friend of Albert Einstein at the University of Zurich, before abandoning academic life in 1911 and moving to Vienna to work as a journalist in the cause of socialist revolution.  His father, Victor Adler, was Vienna’s best-known social democrat, a major figure in the Second International and an advocate of federalism and autonomy for the peoples of the Empire.

Adler Senior’s passionate commitment to unification of the Empire’s various socialist groups had fallen foul of Czech refusal to operate as anything other than a national movement, and of his own position in support of Austria-Hungary’s war effort. While Victor Adler saw the War as a struggle against the greater evil of imperial Russian expansionism, Friedrich and the left wing held to the pre-War socialist view of international conflict as combat between oppressors fought by the oppressed. The two squabbled loud and often over the matter, and at thirty-seven Friedrich evidently retained a teenager’s love for angry drama – or so some Viennese commentators concluded when unable to find a better explanation for his extraordinary resort to murder on 21 October 1916.

If the younger Adler expected Stürgkh’s violent death to spark any change in the government’s rigidly conservative position, let alone any kind of revolution, he was naive, pretty much out on his own and destined to be disappointed.  Stürgkh was replaced by the more moderate Körber, while political and separatist agitation continued to escalate all over the Empire, but contemporaries recognised that the real agents of change in Austria-Hungary that autumn were a bad harvest and the death, in November, of the elderly Emperor Franz Josef.

Critical food shortages multiplied the problems facing a government already coping with extreme military over-extension, attacks on its eastern frontiers, the collapse of most non-military industry and strident bids for autonomy from all its component nations.  Under these circumstances the vaguely liberal instincts of the new Emperor, Karl I – which did bring a shift in the monarchy’s stance, from diehard to dithering – did nothing to prolong the regime’s survival.  Amid this tidal wave of change swamping the political landscape, the sensational killing of an unpopular premier created no more than a ripple so brief and insignificant that it didn’t even do serious damage to the career of either Adler.

Friedrich was found guilty of the murder in 1917, after toying with an insanity defence, but Emperor Karl avoided creation of a martyr by commuting the death sentence to eighteen years in prison.  Like other politically connected prisoners, Friedrich was released just before the Armistice, and he emerged as a committed social democrat, going on to play a significant role in the creation of post-War Austria.  His father meanwhile continued to work within the existing political system, rejected calls for a Bolshevik-style revolution in Austria, and became foreign minister of a provisional, post-imperial Austrian government in October 1918.  By then he was one of the most influential voices calling for post-War ‘re-unification’ of Austria and Germany (subsequently vetoed by the victorious Allies), but he had long been a sick man and died on Armistice Day, 1918.

Stürgkh and the two Adlers were all major players in the political maelstrom at the centre of the wartime Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like those of the military in general, the Emperor and his courtiers, their various actions and ideas proved completely powerless against the entropy unleashed once political and economic norms had broken down across the Empire as a whole. I’m bothering to commemorate their shared moment in the headlines of October 1916, and its failure to change anything much, because they offer a snapshot of the extremes to which Austro-Hungarian politics had fled in time of crisis, and because they shine a little light on a time and place that were important to the history of South-Eastern, Eastern and Central Europe, but have been largely ignored by English-speaking posterity. Oh, and because anything that reminds anyone how extreme politics generally fail to resolve crises, and frequently exacerbate them, seems worth talking about in October 2016.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

4 OCTOBER, 1916: Sun, Sea and Subs

I’ve mentioned before that European warfare’s big offensive actions had traditionally, and for good reasons, been concentrated on the spring and the early autumn (15 March 1915: Spring Fever).  Broadly speaking, this pattern had been retained through 1915, and it had characterised planning for the spring of 1916 until the early opening of Germany’s Verdun offensive altered the timing of Allied attacks on both main fronts.

Come the autumn of 1916, Verdun, the Somme and the Brusilov Offensive were all still in progress, albeit grinding towards exhausted termination.  With plenty of demands on their stretched resources from secondary fronts in Italy, central Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus (to name only the headliners), the protagonists on the Eastern and Western Fronts were in no position to plan big new offensives.

So while you could hardly call the beginning of October 1916 a quiet time, it wasn’t infused with the grand schemes and rampant optimism that came with a new set of plans designed to end the War. Granted, the ongoing battle for Romania was generating plenty of excitement, and the Italian high command was keeping things lively with repeated, failed attacks around the River Isonzo (the seventh Isonzo Offensive had graced three days in mid-September, the eighth would begin in a week), but broadly speaking the War entered its third autumn in business as usual mode.

That makes this is a good moment to talk about one of those theatres of war that went about its bad business without ever quite generating a narrative for posterity.  The First World War entailed a fair few of those, partly thanks to posterity’s tunnel vision, but on this occasion I’m referring to the Mediterranean Sea.  On 4 October 1916, German submarines sank two large, Allied ships in the Mediterranean, so I’ll use their fates as a starting point.

The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Franconia was a modern Cunard liner, operated on the North Atlantic run since 1911 and converted as a troop ship in early 1915.  She was some 300km east of Malta on 4 October, en route for Salonika, when sunk by a torpedo from the German submarine UB-47 (UB was the designation given to Germany’s small, coastal attack submarines).  No troops were aboard, but twelve of her 314-strong crew were killed.

The Franconia…

The SS Gallia was a new French liner, built in 1913, and had worked the South Atlantic crossing before her conversion as a troop ship. Also on her way to Salonika (from Toulon) on 4 October, she was packed with 2,000 troops and 350 crewmen  when, halfway between Sardinia and Tunisia, a torpedo from the U-35 sent her to the bottom.  Hundreds drowned before help reached the wreck, though no precise casualty figures were ever compiled.

… and the doomed but splendid Gallia.

These losses make a small point about the roles played by big passenger ships, which performed auxiliary naval tasks all over the world throughout the War, but also sum up the general pattern of Mediterranean warfare. The Allies dominated the theatre, and needed to because use of the Mediterranean was absolutely vital to their war efforts, while the Central Powers did their best to disrupt the constant flow of Allied troops and supplies, both to battlefronts all across the region and to home fronts.  A quick look at regional geopolitics should explain why.

The Central Powers didn’t have much going on in the Med.  The Ottoman Empire’s relatively ramshackle and elderly navy operated in the east, bolstered by the addition of two modern German ships in August 1914 (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships), but was also heavily committed to operations against Russian forces in the Black Sea (28 March, 1916: Infested Waters).  The Austro-Hungarian Navy, smaller but equipped with modern dreadnoughts, destroyers and cruisers, meanwhile operated out of its only major port, Pola (now Pula, in Croatia), in the northern Adriatic.  Its ships couldn’t reach the wider Mediterranean without a long trip down the coast of Italy, and were essentially trapped from the moment Italy failed to go to war alongside its original diplomatic partners, the Central Powers, in 1914.

On the Allied side, the large, modern, well-equipped French Navy had been able to concentrate almost all its resources on the Mediterranean since reaching agreements with the British in 1912, and the Italian Navy had been through a rapid expansion, building fast, modern warships as part of a naval arms race with Austria-Hungary.  Both forces were deployed to keep the Austro-Hungarian Navy bottled up in the Adriatic, to protect vital trade through their many Mediterranean ports, and to maintain links with North African colonies.  Though the British Royal Navy had restricted its Mediterranean commitments since 1912, to concentrate on protecting home waters from the German Navy, it still maintained substantial (albeit largely second-line) forces in various bases throughout the theatre, and their first duty was to protect trade flowing to Britain through the Suez Canal.

This isn’t the place to roll out yards of figures detailing the relative strengths of the Mediterranean navies, but we’re talking a massive advantage for the Allies.  Understandably enough, with the Ottoman fleet out of reach beyond the Dardanelles, it was widely assumed that the Allied fleets would at some point combine to knock the Austrian Navy out of the War – but at a time when major warships were seen by their commanders as too valuable to be risked in any kind of bold action, the anticipated battleship confrontation never came.

The Austrians stayed put behind the optimistically named Otranto Barrage, a permanent patrol of Allied (largely Italian) warships theoretically blockading the Straits of Otranto, while the Italian Navy’s big ships remained on watch in case they changed their minds. The French Navy’s dreadnoughts did the same, once they had protected initial troop movements from North Africa to Europe and taken part in 1915’s attempt to force the Dardanelles Straits.  The Royal Navy kept more busy – enduring the lion’s share of the Dardanelles shambles and otherwise protecting or facilitating mass troop transfers around campaigns in Gallipoli, the Middle East and Salonika – but also did its best to keep major warships out of potential trouble.

In place of full-scale battles, a four-year war of raid and ambush by smaller surface craft took place wherever opposing powers existed in close proximity.  Italians fought Austrians in the Adriatic, British and Ottoman forces competed in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and these ‘mosquito’ battles extended to wherever Allied warships were engaged in troop support duties.  But for all the coastal fighting in support of ground troops, for all the sporadic dash and derring-do of minelayers, torpedo boats, destroyers and sometimes even cruisers, and for all their occasional victories over major fleet units, commerce war was the big, strategic story of the Mediterranean’s First World War – and that only got fully underway once German submarines began arriving in the theatre.

The first long-range U-boats reached Austrian service in February 1915, and were soon followed by smaller, coastal craft.  Based at the relatively small Adriatic port of Cattaro, and flying the Austro-Hungarian flag until Italy and Germany were officially at war in August 1916, they inflicted enormous damage on busy Allied trade routes.  They were helped by the Mediterranean’s shallow, generally calm waters, which made life much easier for relatively primitive submarines, and by the long-term inefficiency of Allied anti-submarine measures.

The Allied Mediterranean fleets, generally under the (nominal) overall command of a French admiral, divided responsibility for protection of shipping into national spheres of influence.  They deployed their own submarines (which had precious little non-military traffic to attack) for the needle-in-a-haystack task of hunting U-boats, sent merchant and troop ships out individually or in small groups, and only assigned warships to protect particularly important cargoes.  This system, which left most Allied shipping with no protection at all, was a miserable failure.  That it was still failing in October 1916 is evidenced by the fact that the Gallia‘s precious cargo of troops didn’t merit warship escort.

The Mediterranean commerce war was in some ways more intense and more dangerous than its better-known Atlantic counterpart. Although loss of life was generally lower in the relatively hospitable Mediterranean, Allied merchant shipping was much more likely to be attacked on Mediterranean routes.

These survivors were lucky – most life rafts aboard the SS Gallia capsized when she went down.
These survivors were lucky – most life rafts aboard the SS Gallia capsized when she went down.

Mediterranean U-boats also came much closer to achieving strategic success with their trade campaign (though without the same fatal effects on American opinion), and would come close to completely paralysing the Italian economy by the time the Allies finally adopted the protection used against surface riders in Napoleonic times, the convoy system, in the spring of 1918.

This has rambled, it’s been short on detail and it’s left a bunch of interesting subplots for another day, but I hope it’s provided some perspective on a sprawling, highly active and strategically significant theatre of naval warfare that heritage tends to treat as a mere adjunct to the many land campaigns it serviced or otherwise affected.