27 FEBRUARY, 1917: Payback

A century ago today, in Mesopotamia, the series of actions known as the Second Battle of Kut came to an end, when British imperial forces halted their latest advance up the River Tigris, pausing for recuperation about 100km beyond Kut, at Aiziyeh.   Three days earlier they had recaptured Kut, the small town on a bend in the river that had been taken by Ottoman forces almost ten months earlier.

The surrender of General Townshend’s besieged army in Kut had been one of the most humiliating defeats in British imperial history, and the crowning blunder of an offensive campaign on the Mesopotamian Front that had been unnecessary, costly and largely carried out off the cuff by British colonial authorities based in India (5 April, 1916: Decline and Fall).  This was payback time.

Other than payback, more usually described as recovery of prestige, it’s difficult to see why the British Empire had bothered to resume its push up the Tigris and the Euphrates.  The whole point of the operation in Mesopotamia, as launched in August 1914, was to protect Basra, the main outlet for the Empire’s oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.  Basra hadn’t been even remotely threatened since the autumn of that year, but a string of British Indian Army commanders, vaguely backed by an inert colonial administration in India, had spent the next eighteen months finding reasons to go onto the attack.

Those reasons boiled down to opportunism and an underestimation of Ottoman defensive capabilities so comprehensive it can only be called arrogant.   Justified by a notional concern for the ‘forward defence’ of Basra, and underpinned by the inability of Indian officers and administrators to view the front as part of a global strategic picture, advances had been allowed by a British government preoccupied with carnage elsewhere and unwilling to commit first-line resources to the front – but the disaster at Kut had forced London to take direct control of the situation.

Reinforcement, re-equipment, reorganisation and replacement of commanders had seen a far more professional and much larger force under British Army General Maude conduct a very effective limited offensive in mid-December 1916, establishing the front-line less than 30km from Kut.  Impressed by Maude’s success, and moved by a growing interest in post-War control of the Arab world as a whole, the British high command ordered him to prepare a second, more ambitious offensive, aimed at taking Baghdad, for early 1917  (13 December, 1916: Prestige Fixture).

Unlike his Indian Army predecessors, Maude was more interested in steady, safe progress than gallops for glory.  After mining operations had brought his forces close to the fortified position of Khadairi Bend, on a loop in the Tigris directly north of Kut, he launched a preliminary thrust up the left bank of the river on 9 January. Preceded by the heaviest artillery bombardment yet seen in the theatre, and by two days of diversionary attacks elsewhere along the front, infantry attacks gradually forced back two lines of Ottoman trenches, repelling two counterattacks to take the Khadairi Bend position by 29 January.

By that time Maude had begun a separate attack, again preceded by a heavy bombardment and again strictly limited in its aims, which took the main Ottoman strongpoint south of Kut, a fordable stretch of river along the Shatt-al-Hai, before flooding prevented further operations on 16 February.   The following day, Maude tried an attack on drier ground around the front established in December at Sannaiyat.  Repelled by well-established trench defences and soon called off, it did have one interesting side effect, in that it persuaded regional Ottoman commander Khalil Pasha to abandon plans for an attack into Persia.

The eastern Mesopotamian frontier with Persia and had been a busy, if relatively small-scale theatre of war throughout 1916. Russian General Baratov had moved his 15,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry slowly west from Teheran since taking control of northern Persia in late 1915, and had crossed the frontier in March 1916, but his next advance, in June, had failed to dislodge Ottoman defenders at Khanaqin, on the River Diyala.  From that point the momentum had shifted to Khalil, who sent a corps to reinforce the Khanaqin position and, as British hopes of direct Russian support for the Mesopotamian campaign faded, began preparations for a swoop through Persia to get behind British positions (7 November, 1915: Russian Landings Menace Teheran).

This appears to be the first time I’ve posted a map of the Mesopotamian Front. Sorry.

The prospects for that particular ‘what if’ were already fading when Maude began his 1917 offensive, because Khalil was running short of manpower.  While the British could call on 75,000 front-line troops, Khalil’s front-line force had shrunk to about 10,000 men by mid-February, and only another 3,000 or so were stationed upriver for the defence of Baghdad.  Despite its failure, the attack at Sannaiyat demonstrated that the British were strong enough to mount separate operations on successive days, and triggered the recall of the corps near the Persian frontier– but the decision came far too late to make any immediate difference.

Khalil Pasha: pretty good field commander, bad taste in wallpaper…

At dawn on 23 February, Maude launched a carefully prepared thrust across the river north of Kut, intended to cut off Khalil’s line of retreat.  Dummy preparations all along the line distracted Ottoman reserves, and RFC aircraft denied Khalil the benefit of aerial reconnaissance, enabling British engineers to complete a pontoon without being detected.  Once British troops were across the river their surprise attack effectively decided the battle, but skilled Ottoman rearguard actions held the attackers short of Kut itself, and by the time the town fell the next day Khalil’s army had slipped the trap.

Khalil retreated on Baghdad and Maude pursued, but British cavalry was unable to dislodge Ottoman machine gun posts along the Baghdad road until slower armoured cars – used for the first time in the theatre – arrived and broke through.  Three Royal Navy gunboats meanwhile overtook British ground forces, a fact they discovered on 26 February when they were attacked by four Ottoman ships, including the captured British monitor Firefly, at Nahr-al-Kalek, on the Tigris about 30km beyond Kut.  A gunnery duel followed and the British won hands down, sinking three ships, recapturing the Firefly intact and going ashore to take several hundred ground troops prisoner.  The action delayed Khalil’s retreat, as did the predatory attentions of the region’s independent Marsh Arabs, but Maude never came close to catching up and abandoned the pursuit at Aiziyeh on 27 February.

A little obscure, I grant you, but this is the best map of the battle I could find.

The Second Battle of Kut (the First was the failed British attempt to relieve the siege in April 1916) was a British success, and forms part of what amounted to the final conquest of Mesopotamia under Maude’s command – but the problem that had vexed his Indian Army predecessors remained unsolved.  Great gains had been made and prestige restored, but the Ottoman army remained essentially intact and able to regroup.  The difference this time, as Khalil waited at Baghdad for his reserves from Persia, was that the British possessed the reserve strength, equipment, supply system and command professionalism to keep up the pressure without becoming vulnerable to a counteroffensive.

For General Maude, Baghdad beckoned, but although the imperial strategists guiding his efforts were enthusiastic about the city’s possible capture, they were still unsure about why it was necessary and what good it might do for the bigger picture.  Sound familiar? Well yes, and history has every right to condemn Britain’s default imperial expansion for its long-term effects on regional stability,  but when it came to weighing the pros and cons of conquest there was one big difference between the early 20th century and the early 21st.  When they contemplated seizing Baghdad in 1917, powerful men in London had no need to consider what Baghdad might do to them in return.

20 FEBRUARY, 1917: Ask Don’t Get

A hundred years ago today, the Petrograd Conference broke up. Called for the purpose of assessing and improving Russia’s contribution to the Allied war effort, and Allied contributions to the Russian war effort, it had lasted 20 days and achieved very little.   All the same, the fact that it took place at all and the ways in which it failed do add up to an interesting glimpse at what an alliance between Britain, France and Russia really meant in 1917, as well as providing a snapshot of Russian imperial government immediately before it collapsed.

In any war you care to consider, at any time in history, coalitions mean conferences, whether called to coordinate the efforts of allies during a war or to share out the spoils at its end.  These days, international conferences at any level can take place without participants leaving their screens, and pre-industrial conferences among military allies ended to take place in the tent next to the battlefield.  In between, international conferences involved a lot of overseas travel.

The First World War took place just before technology took the sting out of overseas travel.  Conferences between widely separated allies remained arduous and potentially dangerous undertakings, usually conducted during the military quiet periods of mid-winter or high summer to reduce the risk of some major strategic change during the slow process of convening the delegates.

This basic logistic problem was one reason why it took the Allies until the end of 1915 to organise a major conference in France (8 December, 1915: Chat Lines), and the main reason why it was difficult to arrange any kind of conference between the Allies and Russia.  If getting a few Russian delegates to France represented an achievement, nobody wanted to ship boatloads of Allied delegates to Russia for a conference unless absolutely necessary.  By the middle of 1916, from both sides of the alliance, it was beginning to seem absolutely necessary.

 

Petrograd, as it was called between 1914 and 1924, was further from western Europe than this looks.

From a Russian perspective (as if perspective was a factor in imperial Russian government), the alliance wasn’t providing anything like enough military, supply or financial support.  Officials in Petrograd regarded the war on the Eastern Front as vital to the future of the Western Front, and believed that the Allies – and particularly Russia’s prime supplier, Britain – were holding back supplies because they failed to appreciate this fact.  Russian diplomats had meanwhile been unable to soften Britain’s hostility to unilateral trade between Russia and the USA, an attitude Petrograd put down to jealousy.

From an Allied point of view, the real problem with supplying the Russians was the Russian regime.  Shiploads of supplies were known to be rotting in dockyards that were simply not equipped to deal with the amount of traffic being sent from the West, let alone with the hundred percent increase the Russians were demanding.  The western Allies also doubted that military aid was being used properly when it did arrive, and the same applied to the financial credit being extended to Russia.  As for unilateral transatlantic trade, the British in fact feared that Russian business methods, considered cavalier and untrustworthy, could destabilise Allied relations with the USA.

Behind all these concerns lay a deep Allied mistrust of the Russian political and bureaucratic systems, and a mounting belief that the only way to sort them out was to go to Russia, find out what was really happening there and arrange support accordingly.  This was the main reason for Lord Kitchener’s trip to Russia in July 1916, which followed the failure of a London conference on Russian affairs, but his death en route postponed matters.  During the autumn, as Russian demands for loans beyond the scope of current agreements sparked another round of fruitless discussions with diplomats, plans were finalised for a major conference at Petrograd in early 1917.

Led by cabinet ministers and senior generals, British, French and Italian delegations finally reached Petrograd at the end of January, and after a few days of fractious preliminary meetings the conference opened officially on 1 February.  It quickly became clear that a full plenary session would be so crowded that any serious progress would be impossible, so the conference was split into committees to deal separately with military, political, financial and supply issues.  Even then, to the particular annoyance of British delegates, proceedings were slowed because a lot of senior Russian delegates were new to their jobs, such was the rate of ministerial turnover in the Tsar’s crumbling government, and by squabbling between rival Russian ministries.

The political committee had the easiest task, largely confined to confirming present arrangements and ensuring that all parties were aware of the others’ intentions.  The military committee was essentially in the same position, although the western Allies were obliged to repeat their rejection, confirmed at the Rome Conference a few weeks earlier (7 January, 1917: Back Door Man), of Russian demands that Greece be compelled to join the War on the Allied side, using military force if necessary.  Discussions about finance centred on Russia’s attempts to stop Britain demanding gold payments for loans made the previous year, and to secure unlimited credit for the duration of the War. They got nowhere, with Lord Milner, the head of the British delegation, eventually ending the debate by insisting on the need for further study.

Lord Milner’s worth a post of his own, and was a shadowy, influential figure among the British political elite. He was also a hard-core nationalist, imperialist kind of a guy…

The most important discussions and heated arguments were reserved for the knotty question of supplying Russia with military aid and trade. The Russians wanted more weapons from the western Allies, especially artillery, machine guns and rifles, but their negotiating technique reflected the regime they spoke for – inclined to fantasy, comfortable with fiction and naturally uncompromising – so they simply demanded huge numbers of everything.  The British and French (Italy was asking, not giving) wanted realistic assessments of Russia’s actual needs and of how much Russian docks could actually handle.  Supply would then depend on Allied estimates of what would constitute bang for buck on the field of battle.  These were not compatible positions, and they hadn’t got much more compatible by the time the conference broke up.

The Petrograd Conference failed to instigate any real changes in policy or process, failed to elicit any signs of reasonable compromise from the Russian administration, and was quickly rendered null and void by revolution in Russia – but it did provide one or two small benefits to the Allied war effort.  The Allies had learned to address all their issues with Russia as a coordinated whole, and their willingness to send important delegates such a long way had confirmed (to themselves and to Russians) the seriousness of their commitment to the alliance.   This helped smooth relations with the new Provisional Government in Petrograd, and some of the more useful organisational reforms discussed at the Conference did survive to improve the flow of supplies in the months that followed.

Petrograd also gave us a last, damning glimpse of imperial Russian bureaucracy and government at work before the February Revolution (which took place in March by the western calendar) consigned them to history.  The British, the French and the new Russian government were all quick to point the finger at the old regime when analysing the failings of the Conference, and I’m no apologist for the last Tsar’s catastrophic performance, but there is another side to that part of the story.

No matter how loudly they blamed Russian inefficiency, corruption and intransigence, the British had come to Petrograd with no intention of shifting their own position on supply and finance, or of admitting their own weakness in those matters.  By early 1917, all Allied loan and credit arrangements were dependent on US agreement, and a Wilson administration desperate to find grounds for peace was in no mood to make generous arrangements with belligerent autocracies.  Any major increase in supplies to Russia would also depend on US industry, which was already working to full capacity for its preferred Anglo-French clients, and anyway the rapid increase in losses to German submarines meant the British couldn’t spare any shipping to deliver more supplies.  Nothing about any of this was going to change in Petrograd, and the British knew it.

So although it wasn’t the first, the last or anything like the most significant example of the practice, the Petrograd Conference was a reminder of how easily and often the presence of a convincing scapegoat can be used to distract history’s attention from the full picture.

 

14 February, 2017: Stupid Hacker

Oi you, hacker.

Why are you bothering to put your illiterate, pointless mark all over my modest little blog?

This is a quiet hobby, and I take a few hours out of my life every few days to dilute a century of misinformation and nationalist propaganda.  Almost nobody reads it, and it’s not going to help you sell whatever cheap, black market drug you’re peddling.  As it is I’m having to spend a while every day removing and replacing your childish graffiti, and in the end your only achievement will be to stop me bothering.

Given that you appear to have Middle Eastern connections, you might try reading some of it instead, maybe get to know a bit of your own history and develop some intellectual self-respect.

Of course, you may well be a robot, in which case there’s nothing much I can do except trawl through all my security protocols, update them and hope for the best – but if you’re a human, do yourself a favour and stop wasting both our time.

Oh and, FYI, you might find the sales pitch goes better if you learn to write the kind of English people can understand.  I happen to run a small but very efficient editing and proofreading service, and I’m sure we can work out a reasonable price – in a currency of your choice – for me to turn your embarrassing gibberish into solid commercial copy.  Feel free to contact me about that, but try doing it through the comments section…

12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear

February can be a cold, cold month, and in 1917 the first half of February was the coldest spell of the harshest winter in living memory for western, northern and central Europe. The effects of the freeze on troops fighting in France, in Italy and on the Eastern Front varied from uncomfortable and unhealthy in the west, to lethal in Italy and the east, while civilians all over the continent found fuel and food in relatively short supply, a situation exacerbated by poor autumn harvests and either the Allied blockade or the German U-boat campaign (or for neutral countries, both). In Germany, where the winter of 1916–17 is known as the ‘turnip winter’, severe food shortages that saw even serving troops receiving short rations are seen as a turning point in the process that culminated, two years down the line, in the collapse of popular morale and the outbreak of revolution.

All this was big news at the time and is very well documented these days, the kind of emotional Great War commemoration tailor-made for the modern consumer and all over the output of heritage peddlers like the (increasingly irritating) Imperial War Museum. So I plan to talk about something else induced by the cold weather and the general state of the War in February 1917 – French planning.

The dreadful carnage of the Verdun and Somme offensives, universally recognised at command level as terrible failures, brought a whiff of much-needed change to French conduct of the war on the Western Front. After more than two years under the dictatorial, strategically stubborn control of Joffre, a new man had taken over as French Army c-in-c in December 1916, and General Robert Nivelle came to the job claiming to have cracked the problem of Western Front deadlock.

A regimental colonel at the start of the War, Nivelle was a competent enough tactician who benefitted from the rapid turnover of French generals to reach corps command by late 1915 and command of the First Army the following April. He made his wider name in command of the Verdun campaign during its latter stages, and his successful counteroffensives east of the Meuse in October and December made him a national hero. Observers (and Nivelle himself) saw his adoption of ‘creeping barrage’ tactics as key to the victories, and his claim that large-scale use of the same tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours clinched his appointment as Joffre’s replacement.

That’s the jaunty look of a man telling you he can end a world war in 48 hours.

Creeping barrage was not a completely new tactic. British forces had developed it during the Somme campaign, and by late 1916 its value was widely recognised among Allied commanders in France and Belgium. Most of them also recognised the limitations of a tactic that amounted to a refinement rather than a revolution. The preliminary artillery bombardments that preceded attacks had conventionally stopped as soon as infantry went over the top, with the big guns redirected to secondary targets. Creeping barrage moved artillery fire forward in stages to match the infantry’s advance. By the autumn of 1916 a ‘creep’ of 50m per minute had been established as standard, but although the method proved a big help to infantry with limited objectives, it did nothing to solve the crippling problems that still faced any army advancing beyond the limits of immediate support.

Nivelle’s confident prediction of total victory didn’t convince his own or the BEF’s senior generals, but it went down a storm with the French public and with politicians on both sides of the Channel. Though careful to avoid the autocratic control given to Joffre, the Briand government overrode the generals to back Nivelle’s plan for a massive joint offensive around the River Aisne, scheduled for the spring, while British premier Lloyd George dealt with opposition to the plan from Haig by putting the entire BEF under temporary French command from late February.

And so the British and French Armies began another round of preparations for another supposedly decisive offensive. Things didn’t go quickly, partly because both the BEF and the French Army were in desperate need of rest and reinforcement, partly because of the military and political disputes that surrounded the preparations, and partly because the cold slowed everything down. I’ll go into detail about the operation known as the Nivelle Offensive another day, probably when the fighting starts in April, but for now I’m going to swerve into the margins, because Nivelle may have been confident about his own plans, but he was worried about what the German might be up to.

When Nivelle had taken charge in December, a German spring offensive in the west had seemed probable, begging the question of where it might take place. Future c-in-c General Foch, dismissed from his post in command of the Western Front’s northern sector when Nivelle took over, was given the task of analysing the three most probable lines of German attack. On the assumption that the main battlefields of 1916 would be left alone this time, these were: the Alsace-Lorraine sector, the Italian frontier and, as a possible preamble to any attack on the latter or into southern France, Switzerland. Foch would spend time in temporary command of armies in Alsace and Lorraine, and would visit Italy to liaise with Italian c-in-c Cadorna, but in early 1917 he focused his thinking on the danger of a German attack into Switzerland.

Switzerland was of course neutral during the First World War, and although the wartime breakdown of normal trade patterns created (relatively minor) civilian shortages, the nation as a whole did quite well out of the conflict, supplying the belligerents with a highly profitable range of chocolates and financial services. This didn’t mean the Swiss were comfortable at any time during the War, because the country was not only surrounded by warring nations – Germany and Austria to the east, France to the west and Italy to the south – but its population was divided along the same lines.

Although nobody expected modern armies to waste themselves trying to conquer Switzerland’s mountainous heart, the prospect of invasion by one side or the other to force a passage through the lowlands was always in play, and like other similarly vulnerable neutral governments the Swiss spent a lot of time assuring belligerents that they needed a peaceful, neutral Switzerland, both as a trading partner and as a handily placed peace broker. The fact remained that the German-Swiss majority in the east of the country was understandably pro-German, and unlikely to oppose any military incursion, while the Italian speakers of the south and the French-speaking westerners were equally committed to their own ethnic causes. That was why the French command feared a German attack through Switzerland, and that was why Foch and leaders of the French-Swiss cantons drew up Plan H, a blueprint for a French invasion of the country.

The tiny Swiss Army was backed by 250,000 civilian militia, all handy with a hunter’s rifle. When asked what they could do against half a million invading troops, the answer was ‘shoot twice and go home’.

The final plan was submitted on 7 February and enthusiastically accepted by Nivelle a century ago today. It entailed detailed cooperation with Swiss military personnel and railway authorities to move a French army of thirty to forty divisions, led by Foch, across Switzerland. Contingent upon a German attack and a request for help from the Swiss federal government, this was hardly an act of imperial expansion, and as it happened it was never needed.

The collapse of the Russian war effort in March was seen by Germany’s Third Supreme Command, not as a chance to reinforce for attacks in the west, but as an as an opportunity to assure the occupation and economic exploitation of Eastern Europe. The simultaneous withdrawal of the German Army to formidable defensive positions at the Hindenburg Line, which took the Allies by surprise and forced Nivelle to modify his offensive plans, proved an accurate indicator of Berlin’s intentions on the Western Front, and major offensive operations in the theatre would be left to the Allies for the rest of the year.

So why bother mentioning Plan H at all? My main excuse is that nothing much else was going on at this point in the War, but there’s also an argument for undermining the assumptions that can accompany historical thinking. Looking back, we know how the story panned out and it’s very easy to forget that the protagonists didn’t. Allied commanders had to plan for German attacks that never came, and trampling over a small country’s neutrality in 1917 was nothing like the shocking response of last resort it seems today.

The only other place this branch line excursion takes us is the wonderful world of ‘what if’. What if Germany had decided to make one more attempt at a decisive move in the west? What if the Third Supreme Command had chosen to radically expand the Western Front instead of funnelling resources into U-boats and an eastern empire? With Switzerland and southern France as part of a front line stretching from the Channel to Venice, with German and Austrian armies from the Eastern Front committed to the west for one last, giant push before the Americans arrived, I’ll leave you to wonder where the world might have travelled in the wake of a very different 1917…

1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets

Poor old Kaiser Bill. All he ever wanted was to be adored, to make an enormous impact on world history and to lead Germany towards its manifest destiny without interference from below. Things had looked so promising back in the 1890s, when he’d been a young monarch and Germany had been the economic and technological sensation of the age. Even through the first decade of the new century, despite distinct signs that Germany’s destiny was boiling down to expansion, revolution or decline, Wilhelm II dreamed grand dreams of naval power, colonial empire and European dominance.

The man who signed the order sending Germany to war in August 1914 was an altogether more nervous figure, desperately uncertain about the forces he was unleashing and in need of serious persuasion by his advisors. By that time, Wilhelm’s political strategists were clear that only war could prevent the nation’s surging dynamism from imploding and destroying the regime, and his generals were clear that, with Germany’s neighbours becoming ever stronger, war could only be won by striking quickly.

By early 1917, the strategic situation had worsened. Mired in a military deadlock that could only be maintained by stretching social cohesion beyond known limits, Germany now needed a quick victory as an alternative to inevitable defeat by economically superior enemies. Entirely dependent for his crown’s survival on the industrialists that kept the resources flowing, and on the military that deployed those resources, Wilhelm had become little more than a puppet emperor, without the will to seriously oppose the demands of a military-industrial dictatorship.

It was therefore in a spirit of resignation, his fear and uncertainty now closing in on utter despair, that the Kaiser signed the order, on 7 January 1917, authorising unrestricted submarine warfare by the German Navy. That order came into force a century ago today, the day after European newspapers reported that Constantinople’s Stamboul University (or to be precise its literary and legal faculties) had suggested Kaiser Wilhelm II for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Poor old Kaiser Bill…

The latter gesture was part of the ongoing propaganda battle over December’s peace offers, and the university’s citation of Wilhelm as the ‘forefighter for the peace idea’ has prompted predictable mirth ever since. On the other hand it can be argued that the Kaiser’s authorisation of unrestricted submarine warfare did make a considerable contribution to what would these days be called the peace process, because it was the first wartime act by either side that unpicked rather than tightened the deadlock. As such the first day of the new submarine campaign, 1 February 1917, has as good a claim as any single date to be remembered as the beginning of the end of the First World War.

Before I attempt to justify that punch line, a few words about unrestricted submarine warfare, starting with a definition. Under the prize rules that governed restricted submarine warfare, boats were required to surface, search the suspect vessel, issue a warning and allow time for those on board to escape before attacking non-military or neutral targets. The new policy allowed German submarines to attack without warning any vessel, including neutral civilian ships, found in any waters considered a war zone (as defined by the German Navy, and was a global game-changer on two levels.

First, it was bound to outrage neutrals, was equally likely to kill quite a lot of them, and was all but certain to bring the ‘great neutral’, the United States, into the War on the Allied side. US participation would be a disaster for Germany, turning a clear Allied advantage in available resources into an imbalance so vast it was sure to mean defeat for the Central Powers. Then again, and secondly, unleashing submarines gave Germany a chance of winning the War before the United States could mobilise its resources in Europe. History knows this as the gamble that sealed German defeat, and rightly sees it as a very long shot, but posterity knows a lot more about the limitations of submarine warfare, and how to defeat it, than anyone knew in January 1917. Without hindsight, both sides thought it might just work.

Under prize rules, crews were given time to escape before merchant ships were sent to the bottom.

In Germany, High Seas Fleet commander Admiral Scheer had been lobbying aggressively for a policy of all-out Handelskrieg, or trade warfare, since his appointment a year earlier (15 January, 1916: Beneath The Surface). After the failure of his surface ships at Jutland the previous summer, he had refused to detach U-boats from the High Seas Fleet for Atlantic patrols under prize rules, and he had been the driving force behind their switch, in October 1916, from operations with the surface fleet to a restricted campaign against British home waters (and the Bay of Biscay), and behind the Third Supreme Command’s simultaneous order for the construction of 89 new submarines.

The British campaign was a success, with Scheer’s U-boats sinking about 300,000 tons of shipping per month through the autumn, while a smaller force in the Mediterranean was also providing grounds for German optimism, sinking more than 660,000 tons of registered shipping (256 ships) during the second half of 1916. All this had been achieved with a total active force that had risen to 88 U-boats by the end of the year, and to 111 by 1 February (including 53 with the High Seas Fleet, 33 stationed on the Belgian coast to attack Western Front supply lines and 18 based in the Adriatic), of which about 40 could be active at any given time. New boats with superior range and speed were pouring out of the dockyards, and 80 were expected into service during 1917, while minimal losses suggested the Allies had no answer to the threat. Given the existential desperation that underpinned German strategic thinking, the idea that all-out submarine warfare could force the British (and thus the rest of the Allies) into ending the War within six months seemed both plausible and irresistible.

The idea certainly convinced the Third Supreme Command, which ordered a defensive posture on the Western Front to preserve resources for the Navy, and it went down a storm with the German public, providing the kind of boost to morale that Ludendorff and his backers hoped would counteract the slackness they perceived in the national war effort. It also scared the Allies.

In Britain, the losses of the autumn had caused genuine alarm and ignited a national debate about the best way to combat underwater trade warfare. Things got a lot worse after 1 February. Though the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany two days later, no immediate declaration of war followed, and meanwhile Allied losses soared. U-boats sank 230 registered vessels that month, fifty of them in Mediterranean, amounting to almost 465,000 tons of shipping, and another 300 neutral vessels refused to sail. March figures passed 500,000 tons, and as the weather improved another 400,000 tons were sunk in the first two weeks of April, forcing the British government to make plans for food shortages and forcing a decision on the convoy issue.

This was the turning point for Handelskrieg. March had seen the collapse of Russia’s Tsarist regime and the USA had finally entered the War on 6 April. Both events were vital to deconstruction of the deadlock, and they’ll both get a fair share of my attention another day, but their immediate effects on the war at sea were to distract the Third Supreme Command into ambitious plans for the Eastern Front, and to confirm that only a few months remained before American forces would tip the balance on the Western Front. These factors lengthened the odds against victory through U-boats, but convoys were the clincher.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had discovered that grouping merchant shipping into convoys and providing warship escorts provided protection against attacks on seaborne commerce – but by 1914 the British Admiralty had found several apparently good reasons to reject convoys as protection against submarine attacks.

Most convincingly, a service stretched to the limit by the demands of global multi-tasking couldn’t spare the destroyers and smaller craft needed to protect convoys, which were seen as requiring about one warship for every three merchantmen. Secondly, the Admiralty considered merchant crews incapable of maintaining convoy formations with any efficiency, and thirdly it believed that a convoy’s need to travel at the speed of its slowest vessel increased its vulnerability to attack. Both the latter arguments proved false, as did the widely held belief underpinning them that offensive patrols and barrages like those at Dover and Otranto were the best ways to end the threat from U-boats. In an echo of the land war in Europe, convoys were reinstated only when this offensive dogma had failed repeatedly and on almost every conceivable level, but once they arrived they transformed the battle.

Explains itself.

After a highly successful trial with cross-Channel traffic had seen all but nine of 4,000 ships reach their destinations in February, March and April 1917, the first long-range convoys set sail from Gibraltar and the US at the end of April. At that point, the Allies were losing one merchant ship of every four that sailed, but adoption of convoys for almost all transatlantic and most Mediterranean traffic had reduced losses to one percent by the end of the year. By then it was game over for Handelskrieg, and the deadlock of the European land war was finally unravelling. The magic bullet of convoy protection had done its job, and would maintain its dominance over submarines for the rest of the War, only to be forgotten again twenty years later… but that really is another story.