24 JANUARY, 1917: Trains and Boats and Brains

If they left it up to me, the Great War’s interesting moments would crop up once a week, no more or less – but you may have noticed it doesn’t work like that.  If I was doing this by date and looking at the end of the month, I’d probably have to talk about minor German attacks near Riga, aftermath actions further south in Polish Galicia and Romania, minor Western Front skirmishes or the developing British offensive in Mesopotamia, but none of that really cuts the mustard just now.

It’s tempting to edge forward a day and settle for the German naval bombardment of the Suffolk coast shortly before midnight on 25 January 1917, but there’s not a whole lot say about it.  Two nights after the new moon, German destroyers (and according to some reports a submarine) used the darkness to launch a drive-by shelling of Southwold and the nearby village of Wangford.  Some sixty shells were fired but most fell in fields or marshes, and although three buildings, including the local police station, were hit and damaged, nobody was hurt.  With carnage elsewhere at something of a premium, the incident made more of a propaganda splash than many of the similar raids that peppered the British east coast during the War years, decried as a dastardly attack on civilians by the British press, and lauded in Germany as a daring sortie against a ‘fortified place’.  Laughable yes, but a lot of propaganda was (and is), and not so far-fetched if you’ve ever attempted a frontal assault on the beach huts at Southwold.

Come friendly bombs…

Enough of this trivia, let’s get on to some derring-do, because on 24 January 1917 the legend of Lawrence of Arabia received its first kick start when the Arab Revolt captured the Red Sea port of Wejh.  This was a turning point in the Revolt’s fortunes, and therefore in the development of the modern Middle East, a process so warped by the First World War that I make no apology for returning so regularly to the scene of the crimes.

When I last left it alone, back in the autumn of 1916, the Arab Revolt had looked as if it was running out of steam (10 June, 1916: The Great Game).  Its four armies – a total of about 28,000 troops, many of them untrained, primitively armed youths or old men – were clustered within striking range of Ottoman-held Medina.  Ottoman forces had meanwhile reopened the railway further north and were being reinforced for an attack on the port of Yenbo, 230km southwest of Medina and defended by some 8,000 troops under the command of Prince Feisal, third son of the Revolt’s leader, Sherif Hussein Bin Ali.  Enter Thomas Edward Lawrence, an academically inclined junior British intelligence officer stationed in Cairo.

As part of a British liaison delegation sent to evaluate the Revolt’s progress, Lawrence arrived at Yenbo in October 1916, and took it upon himself to venture inland for meetings with Feisal, whose army was stationed some distance from the port.  The meetings went well, so well that Lawrence reappeared at Yenbo in early November as Feisal’s friend and official British advisor.  At this point, if you haven’t seen the movie, I should mention that Lawrence was one weird individual, and that nobody has ever been quite able to separate the facts of his military achievements from the myths created by Arab lore and his own, hugely successful memoir.  It can be said without risk of exaggeration that – for a man with no previous experience of or apparent inclination to field operations – he proved an energetic, daring, courageous, often inspiring and occasionally brilliant field commander.

Doesn’t look particularly heroic or weird, does he?

By mid-November, Feisal’s force had been provided with modern armament by the British, but Ottoman forces from Medina had outflanked Yenbo’s forward defences, leaving about 5,000 of Feisal’s troops holding a defensive line in front of the town.  Another flank manoeuvre scattered more than half of these in early December, and Feisal was forced to retreat into the town, but when all looked lost the Royal Navy came to the rescue.  A British monitor – essentially a big raft mounted with heavy artillery – and four smaller vessels took station just offshore, and trained their guns on a heavily search-lit area in front of Yenbo’s walls. The prospect of being pulverised was enough to persuade the attackers to withdraw, and a triumph proclaimed throughout the Arab world in typically heroic terms brought an upturn in recruitment to Feisal’s ranks.

Lawrence had played a lively part in the defence of Yenbo, credited with the rapid and effective reorganisation of its fortifications, and he seems to have been the moving force behind Feisal’s decision to spring a major tactical surprise in its aftermath.  So far, the Arab Revolt had been almost exclusively focused on Medina, the most important Islamic shrine after Mecca and the centre of Hussein Bin Ali’s authority, but on 3 January Feisal’s main force – now swollen to about 11,000 men, half of them mounted – began a march on the garrison town of Wejh, some 300km north of Yenbo.

This was a sophisticated operation, designed to demonstrate the breadth of the Arab Revolt’s appeal but again dependent on British support, as organised through Lawrence.  Feisal’s main army incorporated four distinct tribal groups, and was shadowed by a British troopship converted as a floating supply train.  Two more tribes were represented in a secondary force of a few hundred troops travelling by sea, escorted by four British gunships and a seaplane carrier, for an amphibious landing north of Wejh.  Feisal’s brother Ali meanwhile moved his forces up from positions southeast of Medina to keep the city’s Ottoman garrison occupied.

Given that Wejh held only 1,200 Turkish Army regulars, this was a pretty big sledgehammer for a very small nut.  The garrison at Wejh duly gave up the fight in a hurry, so that by the time Feisal’s force arrived on 24 January the town had already fallen to the amphibious operation, launched several hours earlier.

Not much of a battle and a very easy victory, but the capture of Wejh did wonders for Feisal and the Arab Revolt.  Feisal found his reputation as a warlord elevated to the kind of heights only societies with a tradition of dramatic oral networking can conceive, and maintained his headquarters at Wejh for the next six months.  He used the town as a base to spread the Revolt into northern Arabia with a series of raids against the Damascus railway, a guerrilla campaign that ran rings round Ottoman reserves sent from Medina and Damascus, won growing and faithful support from local populations, and transformed the Revolt from a regional uprising of uncertain importance into the acknowledged emblem of Arab independence.

I know that seems like a whole lot of impact for a few attacks on tracks, but railways really mattered in 1917, and they mattered even more in Arabia.  Without the Hejaz Railway running across hundreds of kilometres of desert, and with the sea lanes dominated by Allied warships, Ottoman troop movements and supply operations in Arabia became snail-like or impossible, leaving rebels free to target isolated and often poorly motivated garrisons.

The lifeline

For all their success in the Hejaz during the first half of 1917, Lawrence and Feisal were keenly aware that the Revolt risked stagnation if it lost momentum and that its hopes of northern expansion depended on British support.  Lawrence also recognised that British plans to invade Palestine threatened to downgrade the importance of the Revolt to the Allies, and that the lands north of Sinai stood little chance of securing independence unless Arab forces reached them before the British Army.  Still a restless and ambitious influence over Feisal, he planned to propel the Revolt forward with another surprise move in the summer.  It would come in the heat of July and it would be a doozer, so feel free to watch this space.

22 JANUARY, 1917: One Clanger, Two Bangers

It’s still January, the War is still quiet, and so I plan to spend the next hour or two telling three small tales about this week in 1917.   None of them are particularly obscure or neglected by posterity, but they’re all interesting in their way and there’s a dash of world-historical significance to spice things up.  They’re not really connected so let’s take them in chronological order, starting with the diplomatic black farce known as the Zimmermann Telegram or the Zimmermann Note.

Arthur Zimmermann was the German foreign minister in January 1917.  He had only been in the post since November, and in political terms he can be dismissed as a creature of the military-industrial dictatorship that controlled Germany as the Third Supreme Command (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint).  Zimmermann was thoroughly imbued with the gamblers’ optimism that characterised his masters, as demonstrated by his reaction to the decision, taken in mid-January, to adopt a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

For reasons often discussed in the past, the decision meant that war with the United States was all but inevitable, which in turn meant Germany either had to win the War before America’s vast resources made it to Europe or prevent the US Army from coming to Europe at all.  With the latter in mind, and encouraged by signs that collapse of the Russian war effort would release resources from the Eastern Front, Zimmermann wrote a note to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, instructing him to offer an alliance to the Mexican government whenever war between Germany and the US became certain.  In return for declaring war against the US, Mexico would receive generous funding and military support from Germany, along with the former Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, once victory was secured.  By way of encouragement, Zimmermann suggested that Japan might be persuaded to join the alliance, thus keeping the US occupied on two fronts, neither of them anywhere near Germany.

Reality was not heavily involved here.  Even if Mexico wanted a full-scale war with its northern neighbour, it was in midst of a very long series of revolutions and in no fit state to fight one, and Japan had shown no signs of wanting to abandon its very profitable and useful alliance with Britain, let alone being ready to fight a war against its powerful Pacific trade rival.  The message could, on the other hand, have very real diplomatic effects if its contents were to reach Washington while Germany was at peace with the US.  Berlin took precautions against this possibility, but they never stood a chance.

One of the Royal Navy’s first wartime jobs had been to cut Germany’s transatlantic cables, so Berlin had been communicating with its ambassadors in the western hemisphere using US cables, an arrangement accepted by the Wilson administration on the grounds that it might facilitate the progress of peace talks.  Berlin considered the US cable system secure, and had agreed not to use it for coded messages, but cited security concerns to persuade the US embassy to accept the Zimmermann message in code.  The message was delivered to the embassy on 16 January, and transmitted to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington.  Washington also thought its transatlantic cables were secure, but all traffic passed through a node near Land’s End, at the western tip of mainland Britain, where it was being tapped and passed on to the Royal Navy’s codebreaking centre, known as Room 40.

The Royal Navy’s Room 40 broke this code. Feel free to have a go.

Room 40 was in possession of German diplomatic ciphers and had cracked the gist of the message within a day or so, but the codebreakers sat on the information for the next three weeks while they thought up ways to use it without their wire-tapping activities causing outrage in Washington.  They eventually passed the telegram’s contents to the British foreign office on 5 February, five days after Germany’s public declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had effectively ended the diplomatic battle for American support.

Another two weeks passed before the first US official read a transcript, by which time the British had made up a couple of plausible alternative sources for the intelligence.  It was shown to the US ambassador in London on 20 February, reached Wilson in Washington a few days later, and was released to the American press on 28 February, giving a predictable and enormous boost to anti-German sentiment in the States at a very important time.

There isn’t much need to elaborate on the connections between our modern world and a document that helped get the USA involved in European affairs, except perhaps to paraphrase the incomparable Barbara Tuchmann by pointing out an unhappy consistency in the fruits of Prussian diplomacy, so I’ll move on to that week’s most disastrous by-product of the British class system.

Silvertown, a poverty-raddled East London suburb, had a nasty recent history as the capital’s industrial hellhole, a place where really noxious factories just outside the city’s regulatory reach were surrounded by the homes of their workforces.  Among many chemicals companies operating in the area in the 1900s, Brunner, Mond & Co (a future original component of ICI) produced soda crystal and caustic soda until production of the latter ended in 1912, leaving half of the plant idle.  In mid-1915, when the British Army was facing potentially critical shell shortages, the War Office requisitioned the spare half of the factory for production of high-grade, ‘purified’ TNT, despite protests that the process was too dangerous to be carried out in crowded areas, a view shared by the Brunner, Mond chemists who had invented the process.

Handling TNT was bad for workers, who suffered from a variety of side effects, including skin discolouration and nausea, but that kind of war wound could be described as unavoidable, whereas the British government could and did site many TNT factories in lightly populated, rural areas, where their well recognised tendency to explode was less of a hazard to life and property.  These considerations didn’t spare poor, crowded Silvertown, neglected for the benefit of capital as a matter of passive government policy for the previous seventy years, and TNT production began in September 1915.  On 19 January 1917, Silvertown paid the price, when fire broke out and, at 6.52pm, ignited 50 tonnes of stored TNT.

It was the biggest explosion in the history of London (though bigger TNT explosions took place in other wartime factories).  The TNT factory and a number of surrounding buildings were wiped out at once, while debris destroyed goods and damaged property for miles around, fires raged all over Silvertown (and in a Greenwich gasometer hit by flying debris), and the sound of the blast, which shook buildings all over London, was heard as far away as Norfolk and the south coast.  Had it not been evening, when most factory personnel were off work, the total of 73 dead and more than 400 injured would have been much higher, as would the £4 million paid out by the government in compensation to individuals and businesses affected by the explosion.  Just so you sort of know, my laptop says £4 million in 1917 is the equivalent of between – wait for it – about £200 million and about £1.75 billion today.  Could be that’s the main reason the British government stopped opening TNT factories in urban areas.

Bombing raid? Heavy artillery attack? Nope, just Silvertown after a wild Friday night in 1917.

Lastly, and by way of getting up to date, the night of 22 January saw a burst of lethal derring-do in the North Sea.  Cruisers from the Royal Navy’s Harwich Force – a collection of destroyers, light cruisers and smaller craft dedicated to patrolling eastern and south-eastern approaches to British home waters – intercepted the ten ships of a German Navy destroyer flotilla around the Schouwen Bank, about 30km off the Rhine Delta.  In a brief exchange of fire between the cruisers’ guns and the destroyers’ torpedoes, two German destroyers were heavily damaged before the rest escaped, only to run into a flotilla of British destroyers, which inflicted serious damage on a third destroyer but lost one of its own, HMS Simoom, torpedoed and sunk at a cost of 47 lives.  Again the actual combat was fleeting, though undertaken at what an eyewitness described as ‘pistol range’, before both sides ran for home.

The doomed Simoom… if anyone asks, a simoom is a desert wind occurring in Arabia and the Sahara.

I mention this essentially insignificant scrap because I’ve been inclined to focus on the timidity with which expensive, prestigious major warships were used during the First World War.  The Schouwen Bank action is a reminder that battleships weren’t the only warships out there, and that the rather pointless war fought by the dreadnoughts doesn’t reflect either the experience of most serving warships or the (non-existent) generalised failure of wartime naval operations that is such a favourite heritage headline.  What’s more, timidity had very little to do with rapid retreat from a night action, which was a deadly, terrifying game of cat and mouse played almost blind, with every shadowy ship in the darkness a potential friend or enemy, and every manoeuvre in crowded areas a collision waiting to happen.  When enemy ships ran away in the dark, chasing around to find them in a crowded, active naval theatre was not a smart move before radar changed the game.

16 JANUARY, 1916: Peace and Quiet?

As world wars go, this one was pretty quiet at the start of 1917.  The Western Front had reverted to its particular version of inactivity, the patchwork violence of trench raids and minor attacks defined by the very British concept of ‘permanent offensive’, and on the Eastern Front – inevitably quiet during Eastern Europe’s ferocious midwinter – the last rites of the Central Powers’ attack into Romania were the only substantial military activity.

Elsewhere, the Italian, Caucasian and Salonika fronts were quiet, and an uneasy standoff existed in East Africa, with German forces confined to the south of the colony and the British still busy replacing European and Indian troops with as many African soldiers as they could mobilise. The slow, steady preparation for British operations in Palestine, from forward defence of the Suez Canal to invasion, was approaching completion, and a limited British offensive was taking place in Mesopotamia.  The latter was making fast progress towards Baghdad, but we’ve been to Mesopotamia lately and we’ll be back there soon, so I’ll give the preliminary battles their due then.

This relative lack of carnage, which had encouraged talk of a compromise peace during December, encourages me to talk about peaceful things – like Denmark.

On 16 January 1917, US president Woodrow Wilson ratified the purchase from Denmark of what had been the Danish West Indies and subsequently became the US Virgin Islands. This was a rare moment in the headlines for wartime Denmark, and most Danes tend to see the First World War as little more than a passing nuisance, not central to the country’s twentieth-century development. With all due respect to anyone Danish, this is only half true.

A constitutional monarchy since the mid-19th century, Denmark had lost its southern provinces and 150,000 of its people to Germany after the Second Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864, and was one of Europe’s smallest states in 1914, with a population of less than three million. Though its industrial and urban development had kept pace with the most advanced European countries, it retained a predominantly agricultural economy that had made a highly successful switch from grain to pork and dairy production since the 1870s, and that sustained Europe’s most prosperous farmers.

Agricultural products accounted for 90 percent of Denmark’s exports and, underpinned by a thriving merchant navy, much of the nation’s wealth.  This was reflected in the country’s political development, which embraced contemporary socialism (especially in modern, industrialised Copenhagen) but centred on liberal and social democratic attempts to curb the power of major landowners by opening up the country’s narrow electoral franchise.

Since the country was also dependent on imports for food, energy and manufacturing raw materials, international trade was obviously very important to Denmark, and its two main trading partners in 1914 were Germany and Great Britain.  When war broke out between them, Denmark could only choose neutrality, but the fact that it shared a long, scary frontier with Germany, and couldn’t hope to defend it, soon forced the Danish government to play favourites.

Denmark’s only strategic importance to the belligerent powers lay in a geographical position that controlled access to the Baltic Sea, and in August 1914, at Berlin’s request and in spite of a promise to Britain, the Danish Navy began laying minefields across the narrow straits separating Denmark from Sweden. The Navy spent the rest of the War tending the minefields, while the 58,000-strong Danish Army remained clustered around Copenhagen, the only part of the country considered defensible if the Germans decided to march in and take over.

Danish naval squadrons spent four years protecting the minefields that guarded the Baltic.

Invasion from the south remained a possibility throughout the War. It seemed most likely at the start of the conflict, when collective insecurity triggered a run on gold deposits in Danish banks. With the country’s political parties committed to a cooperative truce for the duration, a coalition government responded by suspending convertibility of the national currency, the Krøne, into gold, and followed up with a raft of emergency laws that gave it control over prices, food supplies and exports.  These measures were primarily designed to ensure fair distribution of resources in the face of inevitable shortages, but control of exports also added to the government’s bargaining power with warring powers desperate for supplies.

With wartime inflation running close to 20%, subsequent measures provided (and later increased) welfare provision for poorer citizens, introduced government subsidies to keep down prices of fuel and essential foodstuffs, and responded to housing shortages by regulating rents and offering tax exemptions to housing developers. Progressive taxation was also introduced to counter both the strain on public finances – partly caused by keeping the armed forces mobilised throughout the conflict – and excessive profiteering.

All this interventionism, new to Denmark and similar in nature to governmental developments in belligerent European states, worked reasonably well, as did the diplomatic balancing act performed by a government that spent its time convincing both sides that trade with an independent, neutral Denmark was to their advantage. Once the uncertainty of the War’s opening phase had passed, Danish society and economy adjusted to its requirements in relative comfort… for a couple of years.

By the summer of 1916, a change at the top in Germany appeared imminent, and the prospect revived fears of an invasion aimed at breaking (or at least stretching) the Allied naval blockade by occupying Norwegian and Danish ports. Nervousness in Denmark was echoed by worsening relations with equally worried Allied countries, and by alarm in the United States, which saw the Danish West Indies (the Caribbean islands of St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas) as part of the western gateway to the Panama Canal, and was determined to take control of them before Germany could invade.

Here they are…

The Danish government had no good reason to keep the islands, which were economically depressed and expensive to run, and had agreed to sell them to the US twice before, in 1867 and 1902. The US Senate had rejected the first treaty of sale, essentially to spite unpopular Secretary of State Seward, and the Danish upper house had rejected the second, largely because of fears that a US administration would mistreat the islands’ predominantly black population. The same fears were expressed when Danish authorities rejected a fresh offer of purchase in October 1915, but Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, kept on asking, eventually making it clear that the US would seize the islands rather than let them fall into German hands. Menaced by Germany and under pressure from Britain, Denmark could ill afford to make an enemy of the US, which was likely to impose selective restrictions on neutral trade from its shores if and when it joined the Allies, and the Danish ambassador signed a preliminary treaty of sale in New York on 4 August 1916.

The treaty did not secure rights of US citizenships for the islands’ residents, nor did it grant them a say in the matter, but by December it had passed through both Danish houses of parliament and a national plebiscite. The US Senate ratified the treaty in September, but Wilson delayed his own signature until 16 January 1917, by which time all hope of imposing peace on the world had faded and US relations with Germany had virtually collapsed. The formal transfer of power took place on 31 March, at which point the US paid Denmark $25 million in gold and the US Navy took administrative control of the islands. Island natives eventually received full citizenship rights in 1932, but that’s another story, as is the considerably less prosperous neutrality endured by the Danes after the US entered the War.

Like it or not, here’s Uncle Sam.

It’s easy to see why the First World War is no big deal in Denmark, where commemoration is largely focused on the 35,000 Danes from German-controlled Schleswig-Holstein who were conscripted to fight for Germany and the 6,000 of them who died, along with the three hundred or so Danish merchant ships sunk during the conflict and some 800 sailors who lost their lives. Otherwise, the post-War return of northern Schleswig to Danish control is recognised as a turning point in the country’s modern history, but much of the state’s wartime legislation was dismantled in the early 1920s and is largely forgotten, while the country’s economy quickly returned to something like its pre-War condition. A new constitution was introduced in 1915, widening the franchise and allowing women to vote for the first time, but it was the product of pre-War political dynamics and not influenced by the course of the conflict.

On the other hand, as they did in so many other developed European countries, wartime organisational needs forced an enormous, lasting growth in the reach and power of Danish unions and employers’ associations. They also spawned a political truce that propelled the country’s emerging social democrats to governmental responsibility and laid the foundations for an alliance with the liberal left that went on to shape Danish society for the next forty-five years. Perhaps most significantly, the country’s geopolitical position was fatefully altered by its years of neutrality, because experience of Allied blockade tactics during the First World War convinced German planners to occupy Denmark during the Second.

Just so you know, Danes serving in the German Army fought and died on the Western Front.

This has been a long, flimsy piece of journalism, and aside from telling another small tale of big people bullying little people, it has only one, small point to make – that the First World War changed the lives of almost every citizen in the developed world, even those that think it passed them by.

7 JANUARY, 1917: Back Door Man

If you thought 2016 was bad – and let’s face it most people did – cheer yourself up by imagining how ghastly the world looked at the end of 1916.  Feeling better?  Good, now get past the heritage notion that everyone running the world a century ago was stupid, and think about how a smart person like you, equipped with a hundred years of hindsight, might have changed things at the start of 1917.

It’s a tricky one.  You could take an extreme pacifist position and walk away at all costs, forcing peace for its own sake, but only by betraying every clarion call and sacrifice since 1914, and only by leaving the enmities of 1914 unresolved, primed to start another war.  This was morally and politically impossible for anyone in a position of power in any of the main belligerent nations.

Perhaps you could parley for peace, persuade the warring empires to swap compromises in the face of escalating slaughter and socio-economic mayhem – but both the German Chancellor and the President of the United States had just tried that, only to discover that neither side was ready or willing to give an inch.  Given that the Allies had framed their entire case for war as an outraged mission to save civilisation, and that only total victory could save the regime directing the Central Powers, you might as well forget about the spirit of compromise.

So you’re going to have to keep fighting this war, and aiming for final victory, but surely an intelligent, open-minded leader can find a quicker and less costly route to goal than the hideous attrition of the Western Front, or for that matter the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Well, the British and French have tried this before, only to land in trouble at Gallipoli and strategic quicksand at Salonika.  Meanwhile the British Empire, the only Allied state with any resources to spare elsewhere, is already busy fighting sideshow wars in the Middle East, in Africa and across the world’s oceans, and any day now the German Third Supreme Command is going to bet its collective shirt on the almighty short-cut of all-out submarine warfare.  In other words, you’ll struggle to find any viable new route to victory, let alone one you can get past the combined scepticism of military and political forces still fixated on the main European fronts.

Generations of intelligently applied hindsight have failed come up with a convincing alternative to the ‘keep marching to the light’ approach adopted by leadership on both sides during the second half of the War, so it’s no wonder that even the most creative British statesperson of modern times couldn’t crack the problem.  Newly installed as British Prime Minister, at the very peak of his political power and influence, David Lloyd George gave it a characteristically bold try, but by the time the Rome Conference of Allied leaders ended on 7 January 1917, he knew he had failed.

I’m a big fan of Lloyd George. I’m not planning to go into details here, but few people with his energy, pragmatism, vision, boldness and cunning get to achieve much in modern politics while keeping their ideals on the side of the angels. Despite a list of personal flaws to match his gifts, Lloyd George entered office on the back of a brilliant record as both a reformer of British society and its prime organiser for total war. Though the War years burned him out politically, and his career never fully recovered from association with the universally unloved post-War peace settlement, he was a fearless and confident figure throughout the conflict, and at the end of 1916 he was determined to force it to a swift, victorious conclusion.

Ruthlessly effective at streamlining government and bureaucracy to meet wartime needs, Lloyd George was equally adept at shaping press and popular opinion – but though his work on the home front established a platform upon which victory could be built, persuading the military to complete the task his way presented an altogether more formidable challenge.  Broadly speaking the Army, led by Chief of Staff Robertson and BEF commander Haig, was absolutely committed to maintaining maximum focus on the Western Front, and sure the War would be won or lost in France, while Lloyd George was equally sure that victory could be achieved more quickly and less painfully by attacking the Central Powers through a back door.

The trouble was, as mentioned earlier, most of the back doors had been tried and found locked, or at least extremely difficult to open, and though the prospect of an attack on the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire still beckoned in the Middle East, nobody expected it to defeat Germany.  Given the abject performance of Allied forces in Salonika, it was clear that nothing the British Army could do was likely to have much effect on the Eastern Front’s overall picture, and that left Lloyd George with few new options for lateral thinking except the unlikely scenario he came up with: an attack into the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Italy.

In military terms, it wasn’t a great idea. Lloyd George wasn’t far wrong in thinking that Vienna’s empire was ripe for collapse, but the Italian Army was going to need a lot of reinforcement and the Italian Alps were still a blood-soaked nightmare for offensive operations. That didn’t stop Lloyd George suggesting the transfer of British and French heavy artillery to Italy within a week of taking office, and he took the idea further at a meeting of Anglo-French leaders on Boxing Day, when delegates accepted his proposal for a summit between the British, French and Italian high commands to discuss overall strategic priorities. Robertson and Haig were unimpressed, and were placing obstacles and objections in the path of any serious military aid to Italy within a matter of days. This was to be expected, but might be overcome if the combined weight of French and Italian opinion could be convinced to swing behind Lloyd George.

The summit convened as the Rome Conference on 5 January. Lloyd George asked delegates to consider increasing military aid to Russia and increasing the strength of Allied forces in Salonika. He also urged the development of joint offensive strategies on the Italian Front, supported by the transfer of Anglo-French artillery and infantry to the theatre. The Italian high command had no problem with the latter idea, and Italian Army c-in-c Cadorna agreed to mount a major offensive provided the Allies added at least 300 heavy guns to his artillery. At first the British and French military commands, neither of which had any official advance warning of the proposal, made it clear they had no guns or troops to spare for the Italian Front, but under pressure they agreed to loan the Italian Army some heavy artillery – only for the French to qualify the offer by insisting on the return of the guns by April. Cadorna pointed out, quite rightly, that Italy couldn’t possibly mount an offensive in the Alps before April, and the conference broke up on 7 January without any firm arrangements on the table, let alone agreed.

When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.
When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.

Lloyd George had been thwarted by the military on both sides of the Channel, had received no substantial support from the French government and, with a characteristic disregard for military realities, declared himself let down by Cadorna’s refusal of a bad offer. His battle against Robertson and Haig was far from over, and the rest of the year would see him manoeuvring to curb their control over strategic direction, but the cross-Channel military solidarity displayed at the Rome Conference set a pattern that precluded any fundamental change in military priorities. From the other perspective, Italian delegates at the Conference came away confirmed in their view that Britain and France were serious about wanting a major offensive into southern Austria-Hungary, but weren’t prepared to pay for it.

The Rome Conference was a failure, but is worth remembering as a nod to the largely forgotten efforts of those trying to alter the character of the First World War at what seemed its hour of deepest gloom. It also merits commemoration as the start of something, because despite Italian scepticism the Conference forced Anglo-French military leaders to at least examine the position on the Italian Front. New French c-in-c Nivelle visited the front in February; Robertson followed in March. What they saw convinced them that the Italian Army, operating far less sophisticated defence systems than those in use on the Western Front, might well need reinforcement, if not for an offensive then for credible defence against any major attack by Austrian or German forces. British and French commanders began formulating plans for the rapid transfer of guns and troops to Italy in the event of a crisis, and these would prove extremely valuable when crisis came the following autumn.

30 DECEMBER, 1916: About Time

One of the problems us humans have with 20th-century history in general, and with the world wars in particular, concerns the power of pictures.  There’s something intrinsically convincing about photographs and film from the age before Photoshop, probably because we’re instinctively trained to trust the image seen with our own eyes over any of the, often far more comprehensive pictures conjured up in speech or writing.  During and since the Second World War, for instance, propaganda or entertainment priorities have required film-makers and photographers to focus on the machines it spawned, and so most people consider that war the epitome of mechanisation, despite the fact that it is often and accurately described by historians as largely horse-drawn.

Film has meanwhile defined the First World War as a battle of machine guns, artillery, biplanes and heavy industry.  Up to a point, even allowing for the exaggerations of propaganda, it was – but only in those few places at the forefront of global socioeconomic and technological development.  What all those sepia photographs of trenches, tanks and Sopwith Camels fail to get across is that most of the world at war was living in much less sophisticated times.

This was obviously the case in what we now think of as the Third World – everywhere except Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, with Japan coming up fast on the rails – and the difference defined much wartime imperial interference in Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus.  Less obviously, big chunks of Europe were also way off the pace set by the most developed nations.  Small, independent countries like Serbia, Romania or Portugal, as well as large swathes of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, lived in conditions closer to feudalism than to the social norms in Germany, Britain or France.

Nowhere was the clash of modern warfare and mediaeval mysticism more pronounced or more important to the future than inside Russia, and nothing illustrates that more than the life and death of Grigor Rasputin, the Mad Monk to end all mad monks, who was murdered in St. Petersburg a century ago today.

Rasputin has made a couple of previous appearances in this prolonged folly, as the eccentric and massively influential personal advisor to the Tsarina, Alexandra.  His road to power and how he behaved when he got it provide a snapshot of contemporary life that should dispel any lingering sense that pre-revolutionary Russia was living in the twentieth century.

Best estimates, largely based on his own claims and those of unreliable associates, have Rasputin born in 1869 to a modestly prosperous peasant family in the rural semi-wilderness of western Siberia.  He grew into a young man possessed of strange (if unspecified) gifts, without schooling or social ties but with a village reputation for drunken violence and lechery.  He appears to have married at 19 and sired three children, before undergoing an intense religious conversion about a decade later and leaving his family for the life of an ascetic religious wanderer in about 1900.  Sources suggest his religious commitment was part-time at this point, and that he returned home to help with the harvest each year.

If this all sounds a little vague, that’s the way things were in the Dark Ages, and plenty of equally uncertain tales surround Rasputin’s transformation from village weirdo to imperial influence.  Sometime after the turn of the century he seems to have walked 3,000 kilometres to visit a monastery in Kiev, where his intense, undoubtedly compelling preaching and personality attracted attention from senior clergy.  Armed with introductions to religious leaders in St. Petersburg, he probably arrived in the capital during 1904, and is said to have made contact with the royal family through Princess Milica of Montenegro, the spiritually inclined wife of the Tsar’s cousin, Grand Duke Peter, himself a dabbler in the occult and at the time a major influence at court.

First presented to the Tsar and his family in November 1905, Rasputin clearly made a strong impression.  Amid the civil unrest and political turmoil that followed that year’s parliamentary revolution in Russia, and that accompanied the Tsar’s subsequent efforts to ignore it, he was invited back to provide the Romanovs with prayers and spiritual consultation in 1906 – but his magic moment came in April 1907, when he was called in to pray for the Tsar’s heir and only son, two year-old Tsarevich Alexei.  Once Rasputin’s presence (or maybe his prayers, or his healing superpower, or even a decision to stop giving him aspirin) had calmed the boy and stopped his painful bleeding – later diagnosed as a rare form of haemophilia – Alexandra decided he was her son’s indispensable saviour.

It was a faith she never lost, though as one of a wide range of spiritual or religious gurus consulted by superstitious courtiers Rasputin did fall out of immediate favour from 1910, when a press campaign against him coincided with widespread distaste among elite courtiers for his loud and libidinous ways.  Alexandra got her man back after October 1912, when legend has it Rasputin brought the injured Alexei back from his deathbed by sending her a reassuring telegram.  A constant stream of theories and arguments surround this legend, most of them aiming to show that Rasputin was either a charlatan, very lucky or both, but for the next three years Alexandra defied repeated attempts by politicians, church leaders, the press and (at times) the Tsar to remove the mad monk from the centre of power.

Quite what Rasputin got up to in his pomp is hard to pin down. Scandal and rumour had him living the full sex, drugs and rock’n’roll fantasy, with plenty of conspiracy, murder and devil-worship thrown in, but all that can be said for certain is that he was often drunk, had a lecherous side and exerted a baleful influence over the career of any courtier or politician that attracted his mystically induced displeasure.

So far, and give or take a telegram, Rasputin’s rise might easily have been set sometime before 1066, yet this was a time when modern industry and mass politics were well established as fundamental to life in other European empires.  The same influences were well on the way to shaping the socio-politics of St. Petersburg, Moscow and Kiev, the three enclaves of industrial and technological modernity within the Tsar’s fiefdoms, but the tiny aristocratic elite that made all the Empire’s big decisions was still living in the same, pre-scientific age as Rasputin’s home village.

Once this bizarre perspective is taken as fact, all the useless, dithering, illogical and emotional decisions taken by the wartime Tsarist regime – at home, diplomatically and in the field – look less like the work of morons than the blundering of confused time-travellers, reduced to superstition and internal bickering in the face of dynamics they couldn’t possibly understand.

Here's the Tsar blessing his troops in 1916... and everyone concerned is living in the past.
Here’s the Tsar blessing his troops in 1916.  Everyone concerned is living in the past.

That wasn’t really a good excuse.  The Tsarist regime had time and again chosen to live in the past when offered pathways towards modernity, and it steadfastly refused to abandon mediaeval government during the War years.  When the Tsar, behaving just like a nervous Plantagenet, took personal command of the armies on the Eastern Front in September 1915, he left his wife in effective command of the home front.  The rigidly ultra-conservative policy pursued by Alexandra was divisive, unproductive, dangerous and carried out amid constant consultations with Rasputin, and though history has no way of knowing quite how and to what extent he directed events – self-consciously or unwittingly – his power over the Tsarina became the nation’s favourite scandal.

As had once been the case in most mediaeval European countries, discontent under a royal regime was directed against the ruler’s closest advisors, and during the months that followed Rasputin was accused of every conceivable sin, including spying for the Germans, by the press, the church, the police and his enemies at court.  He was of course no kind of innocent victim, but most of the accusations were false, and he was meanwhile fulfilling the time-honoured role of barrier between the monarchy and its critics.

In that context, Rasputin’s assassination on the night of 29/30 December (17/18 December by the Russian calendar of the day) was an unconscious act of class betrayal by the distinctly motley collection of minor aristocrats and courtiers responsible.  It was also an almost unbelievably clumsy and incompetent act, involving almost as many myths as the victim’s life.  The murder may or may not have involved Rasputin surviving poison and a number of major gunshot wounds before his (probably dead) corpse was dumped in the Moika, one of St Petersburg’s central rivers, where it was found two days later.

Though hailed by almost everyone except Alexandra as a blow against bad government, Rasputin’s death made absolutely no difference to the political situation in Russia, but merely stripped away one of the Tsar’s protective barriers at a time when the opposition to the regime was coming to the boil.  Royal embarrassment was avoided, and future myths guaranteed, by sending the only two conspirators punished for the murder into permanent exile, and the Tsar ignored all pressure to restrict Alexandra’s control over government until the following March, when revolution did the job for him.

My point here is that Rasputin’s life and death were compelling copy, then as now, but that he was a symptom rather than the cause of the royal family’s wilful anachronism.  Choosing to live in the past with the peasantry, rather than with the modern world exploding around them, was the fatal error that doomed the Russian imperial elite to destruction, informing every false step along the way.  A hundred years on, when our ruling elites are clinging to the wrong century and conjuring up political demons all over the place, remembering Rasputin’s wild contribution to the Tsar’s downfall feels like a good idea.