28 NOVEMBER, 1916: First World Walkover

When it was created, 240 years ago, one of the fundamental differences between the revolutionary United States and the other nations of the western world was its refusal to indulge in overseas ambitions. The idea of empire, of subjugating or otherwise exploiting other nations without their consent, was anathema to the USA’s founding principles and its founding fathers.

To cut a complex story short, those noble intentions didn’t last long. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine, a presidential statement that the US would not tolerate further European interference in Central and South American affairs, made it clear that the US was ready in principle to exercise some kind of dominion, or at least protective supervision, over the western hemisphere in general. To cut a complex argument short, it didn’t last long because the largely coastal people of the United States quickly became hooked on the obvious benefits of foreign trade, and because they learned to build a new kind of empire that was free from the visible trappings of colonialism and was, crucially amid the idealistic rhetoric of US politics, deniable.  In other words, US businesses learned to create an economic empire, taking over another country’s wealth without appearing to take away its independence.

By 1914, the US had already extended this convenient concept, geographically and ideologically, to include conquest of the Philippines at the very end of the 19th century. A controversial enterprise that began as a trade war against the Spanish colonial regime, but ended with war against independence fighters and a full-blown military occupation, it raised the bar for what constituted acceptable intervention in the minds of the US body politic, and primed opinion for ruthless exploitation of the overseas trading opportunities opened up by the outbreak of war in Europe.

The most glaring wartime trade opportunities beckoned in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. South America in general had been a favourite destination for pre-War German investment, and the sudden flight of European money (and personnel) left a vacuum that US corporations were more than ready to fill. Even closer to home, Central America and those Caribbean islands not controlled by friendly European states (like Britain, France or the Netherlands) were also ripe for expanded US economic infiltration, and the US government was anyway anxious to increase its influence over those regions by way of protecting its huge investment in the Panama Canal, which had opened on 15 August 1914.

This must be the place

This must be the place…

So how did US adventures in economic imperialism work?  As luck would have it, proclamation of a US military government in the Dominican Republic took place a hundred years ago today, on 28 November 1916, and that unfortunate little country provided a good example of the way Washington and big business went about their back-door wartime conquests.

The Dominican Republic was a mess in 1914, and had been for some time.  Since the Spanish had finally given up trying to recolonise the place in 1865 – defeated by local insurrection, disease and the threat of intervention by the (post-civil war) US to enforce the Monroe Doctrine – the Republic had been ruled by corrupt governments that presided over almost constant political turmoil, economic crisis and social unrest.  They also profited from selling or leasing parts of the country to foreign interests, often as security for loans from overseas, a policy (if that’s the word for it) that came home to roost at the turn of the century.

The most powerful and durable Dominican politician of the late 19th century, the dictator Ulises Heureaux, was assassinated in November 1899 and replaced by an elected government under President Juan Isidro Jimines Pereyra.  Foreign creditors, led by the French, then started calling in the loans, and with no other resources to call upon the Jimines administration pledged 40% of its customs revenue to the repayment of foreign debt.  This upset the US-owned San Domingo Improvement Company, which had received a substantial percentage of customs revenue and the right to administer the country’s customs in return for loans to the Heureaux regime – and which now protested to the US State Department.

The protest fell on receptive ears.  On the grounds that European powers might convert debts into the right to build naval installations, menacing shipping lanes close to the planned Panama Canal, Washington chose to extend its influence over the Republic. Strongly encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt – US president for eight years from 1901, and a byword for interventionist enthusiasm – aggressive negotiations brought an agreement in 1905 by which the US government took over all Dominican debt and administration of its finances.

Freedom from debt provided by US administration enabled the Dominican regime of President Cáceres to instigate a series of political and socioeconomic reforms that soothed popular unrest but upset a lot of vested interests and quickly fell apart after the assassination of Cáceres in late 1911.  As the country descended into civil war and military spending brought renewed debt, the US government, now headed by President Taft, sent a mediating ‘commission’ to the Republic in September 1912.  Backed by 750 marines, the commission did impose two more changes of president in fifteen months, but the nearest it came to imposing any kind of order was a promise to supervise a free and fair election in 1914.  A general truce followed, but it collapsed after a flagrantly rigged poll returned the incumbent Dominican president, José Bordas Valdés, to power in June.

New US president Wilson responded by threatening to foist an appointed government on the Republic, and a comparatively fair rerun of the election took place in August – but the new president was the same Jimines elected in 1899, and he dived straight back into the factionalism from which he came.  Jimines clung to office until May 1916, when he resigned in the face of a determined bid for power by his war minister, Desidario Arias, at which point the United States government finally ran out patience with mediation.

The US was already in control of Haiti, which had endured a very similar history of internal corruption, political unrest and US strategic investment before its occupation in June 1915 (and which I think I forgot to talk about last year).  A week after Jimines left office, US naval units from Haiti drove Arias from the capital, Santo Domingo, by threatening to bombard the city.  Marines began going ashore three days later, on 16 May.  They met some resistance – most notably on 3 July near the town of Santiago , where marines overcame Dominican troops in a skirmish known as the Battle of Guayacanas that killed two marines and 27 Dominicans – but had taken effective control of the country by mid-July.   Concerned to avoid diplomatic controversy, even with much of the world at war elsewhere, Washington was careful to cement its control before making the announcement about the Republic’s future on 28 November.

US Marines doing what they were trained for in 1916 – invading places.

US Marines invading the Dominican Republic. Looks like fun…

US occupation undoubtedly did some good things for the Dominican Republic, bringing political and economic order, infrastructural development and rationalisation of the country’s chaotic armed forces.  On the other hand, although the new regime left most Dominican laws and institutions unchanged, they were now controlled by a military governor, and though his appointed cabinet was in theory filled with native politicians, it in fact included a number of American officers in the absence of Dominicans willing to serve.  Public speech, the press and radio broadcasts were meanwhile subject to censorship, and US administrators made little effort to cultivate affection from the population, ensuring that most Dominicans hated the occupation.  Opposition was strongest in the east of the country, where US marines and aircraft fought a nasty, four-year war against guerilla fighters known as gavilleros.

By the time the gavilleros had been ground into inaction, resurgent isolationism in the US had crystallised in the person of Warren Harding, Wilson’s successor as president.  A man who made Donald Trump look like Gandhi, Harding nevertheless kept his campaign promise to end the occupation of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, making a first offer of withdrawal in 1921.  It took another three years of negotiation to restrict the amount of US economic supervision (and the number of US personnel in the new National Guard) to levels a workable majority of Dominican politicians would accept, but elections eventually took place in March 1924 and the occupation was formally ended in July.

The means by which the US took control of the Dominican Republic, and the reasons behind them, were typical of a process taking place all over the southern part of the western hemisphere during the War.  It has been an easy process for posterity to condemn, made easier by how much most of the world hates the United States, and how convenient it has been to blame the age of the dollar for all our global screw-ups – but that’s all a bit lazy.

Sure, US business interests were a ruthless, profit-driven, baleful influence over the economic and political development of small nations in the Caribbean and Latin America during the decades before 1914, but that didn’t make them any different to their counterparts in most western European countries.  It was also generally the case that the economic and political landscapes infiltrated by the US had been left well and truly scrambled by their previous, European owners, and that US control provided more basic social benefits than most European colonial administrations oxycontin.

As for the US government, it was clearly prepared to back its business interests with political and military intervention at any time after the end of its own civil war, but again this had long been normal behaviour for European empires.  The Dominican story, right down to the recovery of its political sovereignty in 1924, also makes clear Washington’s preference for an economically pliant but independent client state, led by some kind of democratically elected government, over any traditional model of empire.

So yes, this was empire building by another name, and yes, the easy option of economic control without political responsibility was a blueprint for future geopolitics that proved globally divisive, not to mention unworkable without the dark machinations of bodies like the CIA and KGB – but that doesn’t mean the US created the mess we’re in today.  Expansion of markets and protection of the Panama Canal were exactly the kind of strategic motives most Europeans regard as perfectly reasonable for their own histories, and the opportunism behind US wartime intervention was no different to British seizure of German colonies after 1914 or the behaviour of any other contemporary empire.  History would have viewed failure to exploit such a clear invitation to score as some kind of saintly strangeness.

I realise this long rant hasn’t really been about the First World War, but it has been about one of the twentieth century’s definitive geopolitical developments.  Bottom line, the march of US capital couldn’t have taken its expressway shortcut towards world domination if the competition hadn’t been so busy destroying itself. Europe left the gate wide open and US capital walked through it, the way human institutions do, so responsibility for what happened next shouldn’t be laid solely at Washington’s door.

19 November, 1916: Fake News

History books and heritage agree that the Battle of the Somme ended a hundred years ago yesterday, on 18 November, with the abandonment of British attacks in the Flers-Courcelette sector that had begun a week earlier.  The end of the battle, or more accurately campaign, was all over British mass media in 2016 – but in 1916 it didn’t receive any of the fanfares or instant retrospectives we’d expect today.

At a time when propaganda reported the start of an attack and any good news about its progress, but left out any bad news and only reported successful endings, the conclusion of an offensive now seen as one of the most momentous events in British military history received no mention in the British press during the days that followed and was only really acknowledged with the beginning of new offensives in 1917.

In a sense, that was fair enough because the Somme Offensive didn’t so much end as fade away, and as fade-outs go it made Hey Jude or Heart Of Glass look succinct.  Its original purpose had faded away before it began, because the German Army’s offensive at Verdun had turned it into a supporting action for the French defence, and by the autumn signs of French success were the only stated justification for BEF commander Haig’s continued attacks around the Somme.  Come mid-November, it was clear that French victory – if you can call nine months of carnage to get back to where you started a victory – was no longer contingent on support from the BEF, and that German reinforcement at the Somme was making further British advance more rather than less difficult with time. Meanwhile manpower shortage had again become a problem for the battle-ravaged BEF, and by 18 November it was snowing in northern France.

Bad weather stopped play on the Somme from 18 November, and the season ended before the restart.
Bad weather stopped play on the Somme from 18 November, and the season ended before the restart.

Under those circumstances suspension of major operations until the spring was both orthodox and sensible, two of the adjectives most readily associated with Douglas Haig, and so the campaign subsided into the ‘permanent offensive’ of trench warfare as a matter of course rather than strategic decision.

I mention the end of the Somme Offensive, not because it’s been this week’s big heritage hit but because it’s being commemorated as if someone blew a final whistle, they all shook hands, the scores were checked and everyone went home.  That wasn’t what happened. Even the strategists at the top in late 1916 were only able to put a date on the thing once winter had set in, and planting the idea of a grandstand finish into the public mind seems ridiculous coming from an industry that otherwise sells the simplistic idea that the whole offensive was a gruesome exercise in indecisive meandering.

A hundred years ago today, the public mind wasn’t particularly focused on the Somme, partly because it was a Sunday and news travelled slowly at the weekend, and partly because Monday’s papers would be dominated by the more immediately exciting news that Allied forces had captured the major Serbian city of Monastir. Trumpeted as an important blow against enemy occupation of Serbia, and as a fatal blow to Bulgarian war aims, it was in fact an entirely token victory with few positive military, social or political consequences.  Though destined for the popular obscurity in Britain that went with any sort of failure, and not even close to a place in our modern heritage narrative, it was part of a crucial phase in the history of a region that is today as geopolitically important as it was in 1916, but is now much closer to home.  So let’s go there.

I last cast any kind of detailed eye over the Salonika Front in the late summer (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), at which point the division of Greek political society over which offer of alliance, if any, to accept had degenerated into virtual civil war.  Former prime minister Venizelos led a pro-Allied faction in the northwest of the country, based around Salonika itself, while King Constantine led a government in Athens that, though reputedly pro-German, worked to avoid fighting on either side for as along as possible.  Political volatility and disease – which had reduced Allied frontline strength in the theatre to 100,000 men (from a total force of 500,000) – had persuaded Allied c-in-c General Sarrail’s to abandon his half-hearted summer offensive from Salonika into southern Serbia, while at the same time German and Bulgarian forces had stirred the political pot by pushing unopposed into positions within Greek Macedonia.

The military strategy of the Central Powers was by now fully under German control and, despite Bulgaria’s ambitions in Macedonia, September found Berlin far more interested in exploitation of Romania than destabilisation of Greece.  With the forces ranged against him dwindling as they were transferred to Bulgaria’s northern frontier with Romania, Sarrail launched a second offensive in the middle of the month, though on a smaller scale than the first. Serbian forces, bolstered by French and Russian detachments, advanced east of Lake Prespa and the Albanian frontier from 13 September, and next day British units further east began moving forward either side of the River Struma.  You’ll be needing another look at the map to figure any of that out, so here it is.

salonika-map

The largely Serbian advance retook the recently occupied town of Florina on 18 September, but its subsequent attempt to push north up the River Crno towards Monastir became bogged down in hilly country against determined Bulgarian defenders.  Meanwhile the British contingent made little progress in similar conditions, and was still well short of Seres, its primary objective, at the end of the month.  Bulgarian forces launched counterattacks all along the line from 14 October, but they failed everywhere, and deadlock set in after the weather turned to rain and fog a week later.  Serbian forces did manage to make contact with Italian units in Albania, but were prevented from further progress towards Monastir by the arrival of German reinforcements, while the British advance dissolved into trench warfare on the Struma and around Lake Doiran.

That was the situation on 14 November, with the Allied advance up the Crno still 25km from Monastir, when exhausted Bulgarian forces began a general retreat.  Monastir was evacuated on 18 December and re-occupied without a fight the next day.  In the east, the British kept at it for another three weeks, but had made only minor advances when bad weather brought fighting in the theatre to a halt in mid-December, stabilising the front line north and east of Monastir, where it would remain unchanged until late 1918.

Monastir, the modern Macedonian city of Bitola, had been an important place in pre-War Serbia.  Annexed from the Ottoman Empire after the First Balkan War of 1912, it had been the country’s second largest city and a major regional trading centre, but its economy had atrophied since conquest by the Central Powers.  The Allies took possession a crowded, hungry, unhealthy town, its mountain valley climate ideal for the breeding of malaria-bearing mosquitoes – not much of a prize, and even its propaganda value quickly disappeared with the consequences of occupation.  Divided into French, Serbian, Russian and Italian sectors for the rest of the War, Monastir was now close enough to the front to attract almost constant air and artillery bombardment, suffering the kind of structural damage and civilian casualties generally associated with towns close to the Western Front.

Speaks for itself...
Speaks for itself…
The city's 60,000 population was swollen by refugees, and nobody ever counted the number of wartime civilian casualties.
The city’s 60,000 population was swollen by refugees, and nobody ever counted the number of wartime civilian casualties.

So the only practical values to the British war effort of the week’s big Allied success story were that it took people’s minds off the Somme, and that it satisfied the reconstructed Serbian Army’s need for a victory to establish its existence in the minds of an occupied population.  From a Macedonian point of view, Allied capture of Monastir merely exchanged one occupying force for another and put the city in the front line, and is remembered as a dark deed from some of the nation’s darkest days.  Whichever way you cut it, Monastir’s wartime fate and the stumbling military aggression that sealed it seem worth remembering.  As for yesterday’s artificially created anniversary, I’m not so sure.

11 NOVEMBER, 1916: War and Peeps

I’ve got no good reason for picking on this particular day, except that it’s been long enough since the last ramble, it’s a date destined to mark Armistice Day and in 1916 it was a Saturday. The last part gives me an excuse for a loose look back on a wartime week that was, in conflict terms, essentially humdrum – not dull or anything, just short of a commemorative moment that knocks on any doors to historical understanding I haven’t peeked through lately.  So here come a few morsels, newsletter style, rather than the usual stretched point.

The previous Tuesday had seen a US presidential election, but although it prompted media comment and speculation throughout the world, the battle for the White House was nothing like the global blockbuster of a story it is today. The obvious reason for that was a world war in progress, but another was the state of inter-continental communications in 1916. Telegraph meant news from the USA reached the rest of the world quickly, but it was still drawn from very limited sources and perspectives, rendering detailed, current analysis of slow-burning events like the election all but impossible for overseas media.

A third factor keeping the excitement down in Europe was that the re-election of Democrat incumbent Woodrow Wilson was seen as an essentially unremarkable and satisfactory result.

Wilson may have exasperated the British with his opposition to the Royal Navy’s idea of international law, and the Republican Party, represented by Supreme Court judge Charles Hughes, was certainly more likely to go to war against Germany than the current administration – but business between the USA and the Allies was proceeding smoothly, and US relations with Germany were worsening at a reasonably satisfactory pace.  Continuity also avoided the potentially dangerous hiatus of a complex transition process that in those days continued until an inauguration ceremony in early March (though Wilson had in fact addressed that problem in advance, making plans for an unprecedented immediate inauguration if he lost).  At the same time the Central Powers were less uncomfortable with Wilson, who had campaigned on the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out Of The War’ (despite his personal doubts that he’d be able to do so for much longer), than with a Republican platform built around military ‘preparedness’ for any unavoidable future entanglement in (European or Mexican) war.

Hi-tech, cutting-edge political campaigning...
Hi-tech, cutting-edge political campaigning…

From the American side of the Atlantic, Wilson’s victory by a razor-thin margin – the first successful tilt at a repeat term by a Democrat since 1832 – had been a lot more exciting. The final result had been so close that, with vital returns from California delayed by recounts, Hughes is reputed to have gone to bed on 7 November in the belief that he had won, and if the Republican Party had been less of a mess he might well have done.

The root of Republican disarray was, as in 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, who had returned to the fold from his breakaway Progressive Party, and had thrown his weight behind the respected but altogether less charismatic Hughes after his own bid for the nomination had failed. Roosevelt’s militarist, nationalist populism didn’t reflect the views of Hughes, who shared Wilson’s preference for caution, but was seen by many voters as the dominant theme of the Republican campaign.  Although the electorate’s preference for the Allies over Germany was clear, it was not ready to enthuse over entanglement in Europe’s war, and with hindsight many Republicans blamed Roosevelt’s noisy, bellicose contributions for Wilson’s victory.

Business interests in the US were understandably disappointed to miss out on the contracts bonanza implied by preparedness, and the result had sent Wall Street into a minor tumble by the time markets closed for the weekend, but it didn’t last. Wilson quickly calmed things down by announcing increased military spending, and within a few weeks Germany’s escalation of submarine warfare would render the election debate obsolete, freeing US industrialists to embark on a production boom that would cement their future dominance of world trade and, with government support, secure their complete victory over the nascent forces of US socialism.

A few days after the election, none of this was making much of a splash in the British press, which was crammed with all the usual optimistic reports from various battlefronts – dominated by highly detailed coverage of activity around the Somme (and, at this time of improving fortunes, around Verdun) – along with the usual long lists of casualties and medal winners.

The Arabia, a big target and just the kind of vessel the Allies used for transport.
The Arabia, a big target and just the kind of vessel the Allies used for troop transport.

The press also carried exhaustive lists of ships lost, and the previous week’s most high-profile maritime casualty had been the cruise ship Arabia, en route from Australia to Britain and carrying 439 civilian passengers, which was torpedoed without warning in the Mediterranean, about 100km off the southern tip of Greece, by the UB-43 on 6 November.  Eleven crewmen were killed, and although all the passengers were rescued the nature of the attack on a ship carrying 169 women and children provoked worldwide outrage, particularly in the USA, which delivered a formal protest about the sinking to the German government, and in Australia, where it triggered a temporary surge in the numbers volunteering for armed service.

While an American judge was being denied the presidency by voters’ preference for peace, and outrage was propelling young Australians to war, pacifism was enduring a bad weekend in Britain. On 11 November, a British tribunal delivered its judgment on a test case that confirmed the government’s policy of restricting the wages of conscientious objectors to the amount they would have earned as a private in the Army.  Understandable on one level, the state’s insistence that no individual gain financially from refusal to fight was also a labour relations issue, as was the government’s almost constant ‘combing out’ of men from reserved occupations for military service.  Yet despite all the turmoil and realignments on both sides needed to adapt to more than two years of ‘total war’, the big labour question in late 1916, central to a British socialist movement positioned on the far left of the political spectrum as we understand it today, was the same as it had been in August 1914: war or peace?

Often led by Labour MPs, meetings and demonstrations demanding an immediate negotiated peace took place in increasing numbers all over Britain as the slaughter in France gathered momentum through 1916. That they represented a minority view was confirmed on 11 November at one such meeting in Cardiff.  Organised by the South Wales miners, it was broken up by an angry citizen mob, which hurled mud and stones at participants as it chased them away, a street battle that both highlighted the depth of social divisions beneath the unifying mask of defiance to the enemy, and delighted a predominantly right-wing and universally jingoist national press.

Though none of the above episodes opens up any stunning new historical vistas, they do at least relate to a modern world experiencing President Trump, outrageous acts of terror against civilians and a British Labour Party led by a far-left pacifist.  As such they strike me as more interesting than the event generally commemorated on this day by the heritage industry (whenever it can see past the poppies):  the end of the grimly unremarkable, ten-day action – yet another attempt by the BEF to extend the tiny bulge in the Somme line it had created near Flers-Courcelette – known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights.

5 NOVEMBER, 1916: Pandora’s Puppets

Two years back, I spent a few hundred words exhorting us all to remember Poland’s grim First World War – and I’ve been virtually ignoring it ever since.  Today’s a good day to make up for that, because 5 November 1916 saw the proclamation of a new Kingdom of Poland by the Emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

As you might expect, this gesture by two of the three great powers dedicated to carving up Poland was not exactly a gift, and was in fact an act of ruthlessly exploitative self-interest designed in Berlin .  Yet it was welcomed by some Polish nationalists at the time, and is still seen by many Polish commentators as the first step on what would be a tortuous path to modern independent nationhood.  This says a lot about the condition of ethnically Polish territories in late 1916, which can be summed up as catastrophic but merits a more detailed commemoration.

I abandoned Poland at the end of 1914, after unsustainable German and Austro-Hungarian offensives along the central sector of the Eastern Front had been halted by the Russians, leaving the two sides locked in entrenched stalemate on a line east of Warsaw (11 November, 1914: Remember Poland?).  Poles everywhere had been conscripted by whichever side controlled their homeland, and had frequently ended up fighting each other, while the only part of modern Poland that had been spared battlefield devastation and pillage was the northwestern region then in Prussia.

This miserable period of stagnation had come to an end in the summer of 1915.  The huge territorial gains made by the Central Powers’ summer Triple Offensive, and the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ that re-established the frontline 350km further east, eased Poland’s situation in some respects.  For the time being at least, the Russians had been driven out of all but the country’s eastern fringes, and the brunt of the fighting was no longer taking place on Polish soil.

On the other hand, the retreating Russians took a substantial portion of Poland’s heavy industrial plant with them, and Poland was the one place where the Russian Army’s much-vaunted scorched earth policy was carried out with any real efficiency.  Meanwhile economic exploitation of the newly occupied territories by the Central Powers, very much led by Germany, was swift, wide-ranging and ruthless.  The overall effect on Polish life was devastating. Factory closure and unemployment were rife in the cities, despite mass deportations of workers deeper to Germany or Austria-Hungary, while fuel and food shortages, exacerbated by hyperinflation and enforced exports for the German war effort, brought widespread malnutrition and encouraged the spread of diseases.

Amid this chaos, Polish nationalist and independence movements struggled to find common focus.  As had been the case before the War, various political and military groupings adopted positions according to their regional priorities.  In the south, for instance, some Galician nationalists sided with the Russians to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian dominion, and others did the reverse, while nationalist groups further north accepted Russian or German sponsorship on the same basis, and they all raised armed forces to fight for their particular allies.  The most coherent and best known nationalist force, the Polish Legions, was formed in August 1914 as an independent unit of the Austro-Hungarian Army.  Its commanders included Josef Pilsudski, the most prominent anti-Russian agitator in pre-War Galicia and the main focal point for relations between Polish nationalists and the Central Powers.

Cavalry were the poster boys of minor First World War armies, including the Polish Legions.
Cavalry were the poster boys of minor First World War armies, including the Polish Legions.

Poland’s situation worsened from the summer of 1916. The Brusilov Offensive brought the Russians back into Polish Galicia, and economic exploitation by the Central Powers escalated dramatically under the Hindenburg Programme laid down by the new German supreme command.  In October, amid rising popular and industrial unrest in urban areas, Pilsudski resigned his commission in the Polish Legions after a dispute over the number of Polish officers. With the loss of its most influential nationalist figurehead, the German supreme command (and a completely subservient Austro-Hungarian command) felt it prudent to make a token concession to Polish nationalist sentiment.

The ‘Two Emperors’ Proclamation’ issued on 5 November was certainly token.  It declared the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Poland, a hereditary constitutional monarchy allied to the Central Powers and comprising all the ethnically Polish territories formerly under Russian control.  It failed to specify the monarch involved or how he would be chosen, postponing any decisions until after the War, and made no attempt to define the new kingdom’s actual boundaries. Nor was the new state provided with a government, let alone a governmental system, so at first the only tangible proofs of its existence were the immediate establishment of a national army, with Pilsudski as its commander, and a mass outbreak of the national flags, symbols and ceremonies now permitted by the occupying authorities.

Initial popular enthusiasm for the Proclamation was fleeting. January’s announcement of a government – or at least a Provisional Council of State made up of ten German and five Austrian appointees – did nothing to alter the general view of the Kingdom as a puppet state, and Pilsudski soon fell out with his German sponsors, losing his command in March after refusing to have his troops swear allegiance to the Central Powers.  By then, with deportations and forced exports to Germany rising all the time, revolutionary events in Russia were threatening to move the goalposts for Berlin and swamping any prospect of further wartime political development in Poland.

So the Kingdom of Poland remained in limbo, destined for history’s dustbin as soon as the War ended and meanwhile amounting to little more than a name and an idea, treated with contempt at the time by both its subjects and its sponsors. Yet sometimes the expression of an idea to the world at large can give the idea life, and many modern Poles view the Proclamation as a vital moment enabling the eventual establishment of a truly independent Poland.

In part, this refers to the reappearance and widespread adoption of Polish national symbols from November 1916, but the Proclamation is also credited with bringing the question of Polish independence into the international diplomatic arena, because it demanded a response from the western Allies.  What had been a debate conducted within three empires hostile to Polish ambitions now included Britain, France and Italy, and would soon include the United States.  By the time the War ended full Polish independence would be enshrined as one of US President Wilson’s prerequisites for peace, and the Treaty of Versailles would create an enlarged, independent Poland led by Pilsudski as head of state.

We may have forgotten Poland's First World War now, but we knew about it then.
We may have forgotten Poland’s First World War now, but we knew about it then.

The Proclamation of 5 November didn’t mark any kind of end to Poland’s wartime suffering, and the Poland it helped create was not long for this world, but for all its illusory nature the puppet Kingdom created in 1916 was a reminder of the power of ideas, even when the military overkill gets mind-boggling.  The German regime tried deploying an idea to douse the fire of Polish nationalism, and though the tactic failed the idea, released into the ether with a coating of official status, developed an indestructible life and will of its own… one of those small lessons from history worth remembering the next time someone floats a racial stereotype or a Mexican wall idea.

27 OCTOBER, 1916: Net Loss

There were many wars within the War taking place in 1916, and during the night of 26–27 October a relatively minor naval engagement took place, known as the Battle of Dover Strait, that shone a light on one of them – the four-year struggle for control of the English Channel.  To be more precise, this was Britain’s struggle to maintain the overwhelming dominance of its southern coastal waters that enabled it to protect the English shoreline, supply the Western Front and prevent passage of German warships, in particular submarines, to and from the Atlantic.

The Royal Navy had begun the job of blocking the Channel to enemy shipping on the outbreak of war in August 1914. It transferred a dozen fairly modern destroyers to reinforce the elderly destroyers normally stationed at Dover, and they formed the heart of what was known as the Dover Patrol. The Patrol remained in position throughout the War, its strength steadily mounting with the addition of old cruisers, monitors (floating gun platforms), minesweepers, aircraft, airships, torpedo boats, other motor boats and various armed yachts, but it began the War by laying substantial minefields across the Channel’s narrowest point, between Dover and the Belgian coast.

In February 1915, the minefields were augmented with ‘indicator nets’ – light steel nets dropped from small fishing boats (drifters), which remained on watch for anything that became entangled – and with Dover Patrol ships assigned as support the whole operation became known as the ‘Dover Barrage’.

Unlike its big brother in the Adriatic, the Otranto Barrage, the Dover version appeared to succeed at first, largely because it was almost immediately responsible for sinking the submarine U-8, which went down after getting tangled in the nets on 4 March. The German Navy reacted by restricting its submarines to the northern route round Britain for Atlantic operations, the British began building and installing bigger nets, and for the next year or so both British and German authorities were inclined ascribe any unexplained losses to the Barrage.

In fact the Barrage was far from impenetrable.  British mines were hopelessly unreliable (and would stay that way until late 1917), even the bigger nets installed by October 1916 left large gaps, and insufficient support craft were deployed to monitor them.  Its weakness eventually became clear to the German Navy, which reinstated the Channel route for small U-boats from Ostend and Zeebrugge in April 1916, and by the autumn submarines were passing through at will, usually travelling on the surface at night.

Submarines aside, the Dover Patrol’s various craft had been fighting a continuous ‘mosquito’ war against raids by torpedo boats from the German Flanders Flotilla, which made regular attempts to slip past the Barrage at night for attacks on Allied merchant and supply shipping.  The Flanders Flotilla had been quiet throughout the summer of 1916, but in October it was reinforced with torpedo boats from the High Seas Fleet, and on the night of 26 October all 23 of its active boats attacked the Dover Barrage in five separate groups.

The British were expecting a night raid but had done little to prepare for it. The drifters watching the Barrage, each armed with precisely one rifle for defence purposes, were protected only by the elderly destroyer HMS Flirt, a naval trawler and an armed yacht.  Taken completely by surprise when the German boats attacked in five groups, the British lost six drifters during the night, and three more were damaged, while the naval trawler suffered heavy damage, an empty transport vessel was sunk in passing, and the Flirt went to the bottom after its captain failed to recognise the Flotilla’s boats as enemy craft and blundered into their torpedoes.

Six of the modern, Tribal Class destroyers from Dover were called up to track down the raiders, but the first on the scene of the Flirt‘s sinking, HMS Nubian, also failed to recognise the German boats as enemies and was left dead in the water after a torpedo took off its bow.  The rest of the British destroyer force caught up with some of the raiding groups, but came off worse, failing to sink any German boats while HMS Amazon and HMS Mohawk both suffered significant damage.  By the time further Royal Navy reinforcements arrived from Dunkirk, the Flanders Flotilla had escaped for home.

HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage
HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage

At the end of a shambolic night for the Royal Navy the British had lost eight ships sunk, seven more damaged, 45 dead, four wounded and ten prisoners, while the German Navy suffered no casualties and only minor damage to a single torpedo boat.

Small craft in the English Channel were constantly engaged in this kind of skirmish, as they were in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Baltic, the Black Sea and every other tightly contested naval theatre, but the first Battle of Dover Strait (a smaller action would be named as the second in 1917) was both bigger and more strategically significant than most.  Their undoubted victory encouraged German planners to dismiss the Dover Barrage as useless, so the Flanders Flotilla’s reinforcements were transferred back to the High Seas Fleet in November and large U-boats given permission to pass through the Channel in December, a decision that facilitated the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and as such helped draw the USA into the War.

The failure of October 1916, and the subsequent inability of the Barrage to stop big, commerce-raiding U-boats, also acted as a wake-up call for the British.  In late 1917 the Barrage was moved onto a line between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez, and by the end of the year it had been equipped with new, more efficient mines. Minefields and numbers of support craft were steadily expanded, a new Barrage Committee established a system of night patrols using flares and searchlights, and by 1918 the Barrage was performing effectively enough to sink at least 12 U-boats before they stopped trying to breach it in August.

A good map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker
A good, uncomplicated map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker…

This was just a glimpse of yet another busy battlefront that was deadly by any standards less gruesome than those of the First World War, strategically important to both the Western and Atlantic Fronts, continuously in action for more than four years, and destined to be almost completely ignored by the modern heritage industry.   I mention it here by way of commemoration.