24 MARCH, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip

Life’s a weave.  There’s never just one thing going on within any given timeframe, and life’s stories – collectively known as history – are inevitably edits, imposing the appearance of coherent narrative by selecting and prioritising from a mass of potentially relevant information. That’s one way of pointing out that all written, spoken or illustrated history is subjective, because editorial decisions come with the job.

I mention this obvious truth because I make a bunch of those editorial decisions every time I post, and I don’t want anybody thinking they amount to a coherent narrative. These are snapshots, intended to shine a bit of light on the First World War’s largely forgotten dimensions, and ideally to provoke a wide-angle view of the thing, in contrast to the Tommy-tight focus promoted by British popular media.

A century ago today, for instance, the British began an invasion of Palestine that (in my opinion) made an enormous difference to today’s world, so I plan to talk about it – but any number of other centenaries have passed during the last few days, a good few of them ripe with significance for the future.

On 16 March 1917, for example, Aristide Briand’s French government fell. It had been in place since October 1915 without ever looking or feeling secure, and the issue that brought it down was Briand’s support for French c-in-c Nivelle’s hugely controversial Western Front offensive. The successor chosen by President Poincaré, veteran centrist grandee Alexandre Ribot, went on to authorise the attack and was very much a stopgap premier. Elderly and in poor health, he lasted only six months in the job and had little impact on French strategic direction, though he was responsible for reversing the French government’s hitherto unshakable support for Greek King Constantine, a move that would help untie that particularly frustrating political knot.

Any wartime premier of any major belligerent, even France, deserves more than that shallow paragraph has to offer, and I’m about to give the same short shrift to the impact of food shortages throughout northern Europe in the early spring of 1917. I’ve mentioned the failure of the 1916 harvest recently (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and although its most potent long-term effects were felt in Germany, it was a major issue for, among others, the Low Countries and Great Britain.

In occupied Holland and Belgium, the effects of the poor harvest were exacerbated by German economic exploitation and caused widespread civilian hardship. In Britain, they were sharpened by losses to the German U-boat campaign, causing some discomfort along with a great deal of popular commentary – and in late March 1917 the British press was dominated by a severe national potato shortage. When Dutch civilians rioted over potato shortages in July 1917, they were fighting to stave off starvation, but although British outrage was primarily fuelled by addiction to chips it did reflect a popular sense that the War had come home to roost, brought into every home by a combination of mass casualties and basic shortages.

Oh well, you could still get tea.

In 1914 many Britons had regarded war as, at worst, a necessary evil, needed to sort out the geopolitical pecking order and to invigorate a nation grown idle with comfort. By the time British clocks went forward for only the second year, on 8 April 1917, nobody saw a good side to war any more.

There was, however, still a glimmer of dash and derring-do left in the conflict at large. While Lawrence was creating his own legend in Arabia, more conventional British officers were setting out on a parallel adventure in Palestine. On 26 March, British imperial forces led by General Murray attacked Ottoman lines blocking the only feasible route north from Sinai and the only viable way of establishing direct contact with the Arab Revolt.  The attack opened an invasion destined to stutter into life before maturing into a time bomb for the future disguised as a dramatic military success.

Based in Cairo, Murray had spent the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917 making methodical preparations for an advance into Palestine, establishing supply lines across Sinai and building up his fighting strength (5 August, 1916: Backwards to the Future). By early 1917 he could call on about 75,000 front-line troops, against German General von Kressenstein’s Ottoman force of some 18,000 men – a combination of tribal irregulars, depleted Turkish Army units and German specialist forces – based on Gaza and deployed along a fortified line running about 40km southwest to the town of Beersheba.

Here’s a map.

Murray had sent ANZAC cavalry units to clear Turkish forward positions in December and January, and had intended to invade shortly afterwards, but loss of troops to other theatres forced him to postpone further attacks until March, when he finally received permission from London for an attack on Gaza. By that time water pipelines to the front had reached El Arish, and Murray – assuming that defenders, outnumbered 2-to-1, would retreat when threatened ­– had organised 35,000 of his best troops to deliver an attack as the ‘Eastern Force’. Much as Kressenstein wanted to retreat, he was under orders from theatre commander Djemal Pasha to hold the position… but before I get into what became known as the First Battle of Gaza, it’s worth making a couple of points about desert warfare in 1917.

Attacks on fortified positions in desert regions were dominated by artillery, machine guns and the other weapons associated with trench warfare on the Western Front model, but everything else – including exploitation of victories against trench lines – was about maintaining supplies, finding targets and making rapid movements across empty spaces to reach them. This meant that cavalry, whether mounted on horses or camels, was not the disastrous anachronism it proved on the main European fronts, but an absolutely vital reconnaissance and attack weapon, a fact worth remembering the next time some heritage pundit insists it was completely useless in a ‘mechanised’ war.

Aircraft were even better at reconnaissance, although they broke down too often in desert conditions to fully replace cavalry in the role, and were useful as ground attack weapons. Both sides deployed air units equipped with machines that were obsolete by Western Front standards in early 1917, but German Rumpler C-types and Halberstadt D-types could outperform the RFC’s sedate BE-2 fighters.  Murray could also call upon about a dozen wheeled seaplanes from four Royal Navy aircraft carriers stationed off the coast, but although aircraft carriers sound like a great leap forward with enormous implications, the floating airstrips of future wars were still in the development stage in 1917.  These were converted cross-Channel ferries, selected because they were fast enough to keep up with fleet units.  Each could only carry between three and seven seaplanes, which had to be winched in and out of the water for operations, and which weren’t enough to prevent Kressenstein’s pilots from holding their own in the air despite a numerical disadvantage.

HMS Ben-My-Chree off the coast of Palestine. This was Britain’s biggest aircraft carrier in 1917.

Eastern Force commander General Dobell spent two days massing the bulk of his troops near the coast about 8km short of Gaza, behind the Wadi Ghazi, before they crossed the wadi, undetected in dense fog, early on 26 March. Cavalry slipped through positions east and southeast of the town to cut off the Ottoman rear, but an infantry attack against the southeast approaches to Gaza failed in harsh conditions. Cavalry circled back in the afternoon to help the British take most of the high ground east of Gaza by evening, but darkness quickly reduced both sides to chaos.

Kressenstein thought the battle was lost so he cancelled a call for reinforcements, while Dobell thought the battle was about to be lost and recalled his cavalry from beyond Gaza. That left the two British divisions holding the high ground exposed to a counterattack, which arrived the following morning and – along with water shortages – persuaded Dobell to order a general retreat. The operation had cost about 4,000 British imperial casualties, against some 2,400 suffered by Kressenstein’s force, and could only be called a comprehensive failure.

General Sir Archibald Murray had been around a long time and, having served as chief of staff to original BEF c-in-c Sir John French, he knew a bit about self-serving propaganda. Unwilling to foist defeat on a British public laid low by spuds and the Somme, he simply tripled the number of Ottoman casualties in his reports and turned failure into substantial victory. Still sure Kressenstein would retreat given one more push, Murray wanted another crack at Gaza as soon as possible, and his creative use of fiction was enough to secure enthusiastic agreement from London.

Some generals deserved posterity’s scorn, and Murray was one of them.

Murray was wrong, and Dobell’s second attempt on Gaza in mid-April would be another expensive failure in the face of well-organised Ottoman defences. A summer of desultory trench warfare would follow, while both sides reinforced and the British brought a new command team to Palestine for a renewed offensive in the autumn. You might wonder why they’d bother, given that eastern Mediterranean deserts were never anyone’s idea of a game-changer in terms of winning the War. The answers lie, as usual, in the unstoppable combination of military momentum and imperial instinct.

Forward defence of Suez and reports from Arabia had convinced British generals that the Ottoman Empire was in trouble, and dangled the irresistible carrot of easy victories. Imperial strategists in London were never going to turn down an offer of post-War control over the oil-rich geopolitical axis that was the Middle East, and were keen to establish possession rights over the eastern Mediterranean seaboard before Arab rebels or international peace treaties could intervene. Of course the invasion of Palestine was a mere sideshow to the Great War, but it sat right in the mainstream of British imperial progress.

14 MARCH, 1917: Breaking China

One reason the First World War outside Western Europe has been consigned to obscurity by modern popular history is that the world order of the day dictated posterity’s priorities.  To clarify that deeply pompous preamble, most places outside the centres of global wealth and power in the early 20th century seemed relatively unimportant to contemporaries studying or writing about the War, the loudest and most numerous of whom came from the centres of global wealth and power. In other words, the West wrote the history and bequeathed its priorities of the day to future generations.

One reason I write this stuff is because a lot of those places that seemed relatively unimportant during the War – and in many cases for a long time afterwards – have become central to the way our world runs today. Africa, the Middle East, Japan, the USA, the outer reaches of Europe and the Caucasus, you name it, the First World War helped shape it and it really matters today. That brings me to the empire that was, in 1917, a strife-torn, crumbling, apparently decadent, politically feeble carcass ripe for dismemberment, and is now the world’s most formidable centre of wealth and power.

So how was the world war playing in China, and why did the Chinese government sever diplomatic relations with the Central Powers on 14 March 1917?   With apologies for my fairly random selections from the Chinese-to-English spelling multiverse, here’s some background.

The Chinese Empire was in very bad shape when the War broke out, and had been for some time. Politically isolated and industrially backward, its population of around 420 million (in 1911) was ruled, at least in theory, by the Manchu dynasty during the late nineteenth century, but the imperial government’s power was under republican pressure in Beijing and, with individual warlords in control of the provinces, barely extended beyond the region immediately around the city.

The 1890s had seen the Empire lose control of Taiwan and Korea after military defeat by an expansionist Japanese Empire, and concede economic control to European empires across large swathes of the southern coastal zone. Outrage at European penetration triggered the 1900 Boxer Rebellion by nationalist elements in Beijing, but its main effect was to give European powers an excuse to increase their military presence in China. Meanwhile, in northeast, the Japanese were establishing economic and political control over the vastness of Manchuria, a process hastened after Japan effectively eliminated the competition with victory over Russia in the war of 1904–05.

This prolonged series of imperial disasters came home to roost in October 1911, when republican revolution erupted in Beijing. Led by Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Alliance Society’, it forced the child emperor’s abdication the following February, but within a few days Sun Yat-sen lost power to Yuan Shi-kai, who became president of the new republic and reorganised the Alliance Society as the Kuomintang Party. Yuan remained in office until his death in June 1916, but only ever controlled an enclave around Beijing while a rival Kuomintang government sat at Canton, a Japanese client regime ran Manchuria and the rest of the provinces were ruled by independent warlords.

Sun Yat-sen was a major 20th-century figure, seen as the ‘father’ of post-imperial China… but his career amounted to a series of failures, and when a chance at success beckoned, in 1925, he died.  Check him out anyway.

The outbreak of war in Europe didn’t provide China with the economic boost felt by so many other neutral states, partly because rapid economic expansion was virtually impossible in a vast country with only some 13,000km of railways, and partly because almost all modern Chinese industry was in foreign hands. Cotton and opium remained the country’s principle exports throughout the period, and the War’s main effect was to distract European powers from restraining the ambitions of Japan, which wasted no time seizing the German enclave of Tsingtao in 1914 and forced major economic concessions from China under the threat of war in early 1915 (18 January, 1915: Statement of Intent).

The Chinese government did, on the other hand, experience the diplomatic pressure to join both sides that was common to most neutral states after August 1914. Yuan and his strongly pro-Allied prime minister, Tuan Chi-jui, favoured British over German advances because they promised an end to reparations owed since the Boxer Rebellion, but never came close to achieving a consensus among neutralist nationalists or warlords with better things to do. After Yuan’s death in June 1916, Tuan Chi-jui remained prime minister under his successor, Li Yuan-hung, and overrode opposition from both the president and the Kuomintang to pursue negotiations with the Allies.

Negotiations bore fruit in the diplomatic break with Germany and Austria-Hungary, voted into effect by Tuan’s cabinet on 14 March 1917 and followed by seizure of the half dozen German ships in Chinese ports. Having simply ignored opposition, Tuan was ready to go the whole way, but on the same day president Li and the Beijing parliament joined forces to block any declaration of war. Tuan reacted by moving his headquarters north of Beijing and building up military strength, while Li and parliament pursued their new and hitherto unlikely alliance by voting Tuan out of office in April.

At this point, Chinese politics melted down into a summer of warlord mayhem, with Tuan threatening to attack the capital, Li and the Kuomintang summoning warlord Chang Hsun to protect the city, and Chang instead seizing control as regent in the name of a restored emperor. The new emperor, Puyi, lasted a fortnight after his installation in the Forbidden City on 1 July, before Duan marched on Beijing in the name of the republic and Chang fled.

 

Beijing in 1917. Not industrialised.

In theory, the pro-Allied party had won the day. In practice the process of persuading China into the War, albeit carried out with less ferocity and urgency than the bullying directed at more strategically useful neutrals, put a wrecking ball through the fragile edifice of Chinese central government. Republican politicians forced from Beijing by Chang’s short-lived coup fled to Canton, which became the centre of mounting political and military opposition to new president Feng Kuo-chang, the former vice-president and an ally of Tuan, who replaced Li on 18 July. China would go on to declare war against the Central Powers in August, a move that made little or no strategic difference to the wider conflict and barely impinged on the sprawling, violent internal disorder that consumed the vast majority of Chinese energies and resources for the duration, and for decades after the War.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that the Chinese Republic would have prospered if European empires had left the place alone during the First World War. Its constituency of squabbling nationalists and old-school warlords was a civil war waiting to happen and showing no signs of immediate resolution, while white imperialists can’t really be blamed for Japan’s altogether more disruptive behaviour. Then again, the casual (and in this case primarily British) diplomatic vandalism that helped turn Beijing into a war zone for a few months in 1917 had no real strategic justification, and was yet another case of the imperial fever that accompanied the new concept of ‘total war’. As understood in 1917, total war was an all-consuming fight to the finish that threatened the losers with extinction, providing European empires with all the justification they needed for ruthless pursuit of every alliance, sphere of influence or resource base, however trivial.

Just as they did in Greece, in Portugal, in the Middle East and pretty much everywhere else in the world, European diplomats and strategists brought only trouble to China during the First World War. Memoirs suggest many of them were aware of the damage they were causing but considered it necessary for the protection of their own homelands. They had no reason to believe that their homelands might one day be materially altered, even threatened, by changes in what were then geopolitically unimportant, often distant countries. On the other hand they, and the generation of historians that came after them, had every reason to suppose that the Chinese Empire was doomed to disintegration and of little significance to the futures of their homelands – but they were wrong, and we know that now, so maybe posterity should re-jig its priorities and pay some attention to the ways we messed with China.

11 MARCH, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later

The main battlefronts in Europe were still relatively quiet, but 11 March 1917 was a lively Sunday for strategically dubious Allied adventures elsewhere.  In Mesopotamia, British imperial forces led by General Maude completed the capture of Baghdad, and near the frontline north of Salonika an Allied offensive met German-led resistance at what became known as the Battle of Lake Prespa.

Ottoman loss of Baghdad was no great surprise.  Maude had been poised to take the city since the recapture of Kut in February had left some 75,000 British troops only 70km downriver, and Ottoman front commander Khalil Pasha could muster only 10,000 troops for its defence.  Another two divisions – perhaps 20,000 men – were on their way from the Persian frontier but not expected to arrive in time to aid the defence, and Ottoman units in other theatres were too far away to be of any help (27 February, 1917: Payback).

Unwilling to retreat beyond the city, Khalil began preparations for a forward defence at Ctesiphon, where General Townshend’s army had come to grief in 1916, but then changed his mind and fell back on Baghdad itself.  He chose not to flood the land approaches from the south, and though fortifications were prepared to the southeast of the city, on the River Diyala, and on either side of the Tigris some 35km downriver, they were incomplete when British units reached the Diyala on 8 March.

The Diyala was 100 metres wide and in full flood, and immediate British attempts to cross it were repelled.  Although a small bridgehead had been established across the river by the following morning, Maude switched the focus of his attacks to the weaker Tel Aswad position on the west bank of the Tigris.  Khalil was informed of the manoeuvre by a squadron just arrived from the German Army Air Service, and duly moved most of his own troops to meet it, leaving only a single, depleted division to defend the Diyala.  This was overrun early on 10 March, prompting Khalil to abandon the Tel Aswad defence and retreat to protect the Berlin to Baghdad railway station, without which any reinforcement from the north was impossible.

Like all Ottoman field commanders by 1917, Khalil was beset by German advisors, but he resisted their demands for a counterattack and, after a sandstorm had ended fighting early for the day, ordered the evacuation of Baghdad that evening.  British forces marched in unopposed the next morning, cheered on by a local population accustomed to smiling for conquerors, and from that point Ottoman influence in Mesopotamia and Persia came to an effective end.  Now well placed to provide support for Russian operations on the Caucasian Front, or to threaten the Turkish heartlands, Maude began immediate preparations to secure his new position with further northward advances.

Baghdad greets its British conquerors in 1917. Looked better then than now…

Over in Salonika, French General Sarrail’s command of Allied forces on the front was formalised in January 1917, in line with the British government’s commitment to overriding its own generals in favour of the Western Front battle plan proposed by new French c-in-c Nivelle (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear).  Encouraged to divert German strength from France by mounting a spring offensive, and with little choice about the general location of an attack, he chose to mount a carefully coordinated repeat of the Monastir Offensive into Serbia that had failed the previous autumn (19 November, 1916: Fake News).

There was no reason to expect a better outcome for the Allies this time.  Rampant sickness in the Allied camp and the need to police the nascent civil war in Greece had left only about 100,000 of Sarrail’s 600,000 troops available for frontline duties.  Operational coordination between various national units remained shaky to say the least, and the Serbian element was in particularly bad shape, displaying clear signs of mutinous war-weariness.  Meanwhile the German and Bulgarian force occupying excellent defensive positions on high ground all along the front was healthier, slightly larger and – thanks to air reconnaissance – fully aware of Allied movements before Sarrail attacked on 11 March.

Sure enough, the offensive went horribly wrong in a hurry.  Franco-Serbian units advanced between Monastir and Lake Prespa, while at the other end of the front General Milne’s British force launched a supporting attack around Lake Doiran, but secondary assaults planned for multinational forces at the centre of the front failed to take place at the appointed time.  Efficient, air-assisted transfer of reserves enabled defenders to halt the Franco-Serbian advance within a week, by which time the Allies had gained a few hundred metres of land at the cost of 14,000 casualties to battle or sickness. By 19 March German counterattacks had driven the western end of the Allied line back onto Monastir, forcing Sarrail to abandon further attacks elsewhere, and fighting died down on 22 March with the Allies still occupying Monastir but in range of German artillery.

German cavalry in Macedonia, in case you thought sideshow wars were mechanised.

That was the last major action on the front during 1917.  A British attempt to resume attacks around Lake Doiran failed in late April, and early May saw more inconclusive fighting in the area, along with a small advance around Monastir by French and ‘Venizelist’ Greek troops.  By the middle of the month mutiny had broken out among Russian units at Salonika, and with discontent spreading to French and Serbian troops, Sarrail abandoned all offensive operations for the rest of the year.

So while the British capture of Baghdad at least offered the outside chance of striking deep into enemy territory, albeit secured at a ridiculously high cost, attempts to extract some strategic value from the bloated Allied commitment to Salonika had sunk to new depths of counter-productivity.  Instead of distracting German resources from the impending renewal of slaughter in France, they had left a large Allied force paralysed by disease, mutiny and the all-consuming turmoil of Greek politics, destined to remain an inactive blot on the military landscape until the War’s last weeks.  So why didn’t they just pack up and leave?

The immediate answer is that it was too late for the Allies to pull out. With Greece on the point of a civil conflict created by the question of which side to join at war, and with the Central Powers poised to invade the country from northern Macedonia, an Allied withdrawal would have been a betrayal of promises made to pro-Allied Greek leaders, a gift to the enemy and a propaganda disaster.

It would have been possible to give up on Salonika back in late 1915, when the pointlessness of trying to aid Serbia had been clear to most strategists, but British, Russian and Italian plans to do just that had been vetoed by the French.  The insistence by the French military and government on maintaining a force in Greece was in part a product of their own propaganda, which had transformed the defence of Serbia from an excuse for war against Germany into a sacred duty for the French people.  This had rebounded as noisy popular opposition to any withdrawal from Salonika – but behind the facade of public outrage, generating support for the project among the elite classes, lay hard-nosed imperial opportunism.

French strategists had long considered the eastern Mediterranean, encompassing pretty much everything from Serbia to the Lebanon, as their field of influence to the exclusion of other empires, and intended to fill any economic vacuum left in the region by an Ottoman Empire generally regarded as on its deathbed.  In that sense Salonika in 1917 was, no less than Baghdad, a beachhead for future expansion by a western European empire.

Like the British Empire in Mesopotamia, the French Republic had blundered into sacrificing thousands of lives and vital resources at Salonika, and was forced to carry on blundering by its greed for post-War power.  Given the heritage industry’s desperately old-school obsession with demonstrating the futility of the First World War, you’d think it would pay more attention to the conflict’s most spectacularly useless sideshow.

8 MARCH, 1917: False Start

A bit like damp inside a wall, the way in which information travels can be mysterious, counter-intuitive even.  Take today’s big, important centenary.  Thursday, 8 March 1917 was the first day of the uprising in Petrograd known to Western posterity as the February Revolution, and to most Russians as the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution – but the date isn’t as well known as it used to be, and that’s because of the Internet.  Here’s why.

Once upon a time, we picked up most of our history in books.  A lot of history books through the ages have been guilty of at least some political or academic bias, but even the most rabid, ridiculous propaganda needed to get basic stuff like dates right, by way of appearing sufficiently informed to compete in the arena of opinion. These days, the ‘right’ answer to anything is whatever’s most popular on the Internet, presumably on the grounds that going with the majority makes for best guesses, and whatever’s most popular tends to attract a lot of hits, increasing its apparent popularity and keeping it top of the chart.

Bad luck all round, then, that the oldest and best-established source for Internet facts about the First World War is the Times Chronology. A day-by-day diary of the War, written at the time and now out of copyright, it has a lot to recommend it – it’s nicely wide-ranging, for instance, and it translates into a very user-friendly website – but it is still the news as reported at the time, complete with all the Anglocentric bias, propaganda and (inevitable) ignorance that characterised the wartime British press.

The February Revolution came to the notice of The Times on 12 March 1917, when the uprising was on the point of proceeding to what we might call Stage Two, the overthrow of the Tsar and the formation of a new government.  That’s therefore the opening date of the Revolution as reported in the Chronology, and therefore the date quoted as fact by thousands of other sources (and presumably millions of schoolkids) all over the world.  Oops.

Popular history’s accidental loss of the February Revolution’s opening days flags up the need to root out and critique the sources of conflicting Net-facts, but there’s another point here that seems worth making.  Mass reinvention of memory isn’t a completely new phenomenon – I once blundered into redefining casualty figures for a Second World War battle by publishing an average of all the other figures quoted, and that was back in the 1980s – but the Net has been giving it some epidemic muscle.  The seeds of this year’s ‘post-truth’ have been germinating on our devices for some time, looking like innocent mistakes of no great consequence but training us all to accept the idea that the loudest, most persistent voice is probably the one to believe.

Then again, the seeds of post-truth in general have been around a lot longer. It can be argued that they go back to Napoleonic era propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry or even the Bible, but the blame for their full flowering in the modern era is often pinned on the Russian Revolution of 1917, which enshrined as doctrine the state’s right to invent truth for its own purposes.  That was of course the altogether more celebrated Bolshevik, or October Revolution, a highly effective coup d’état carried out by a few people with a plan. The February Revolution, on the other hand, didn’t come with a plan. The uprising that erupted in the streets of Petrograd on 8 March – that tore down centuries of Tsarist rule and still ended up as a footnote to history written by the winners – was an outbreak of unadulterated chaos.

I’m not going to repeat myself by going into the toxic mix of longstanding social tensions, rapid industrialisation confined to tiny hotspots, governmental repression and wartime pressures that had the Russian Empire’s economy, society and political system on the ropes.  A browse through the ‘Russia’ category should fill in at least some background to a wave of industrial unrest, fuelled by primitive pay and conditions amid a government-sponsored orgy of civilian shortages and elite profiteering, that was sweeping the industrialised cities of Petrograd and Moscow in early 1917.

In Petrograd, a mass strike call by socialist and workers’ groups was answered by 140,000 workers on 22 January (we’re sticking to the modern calendar here) and followed by the arrest of its leaders. Another mass strike brought out 85,000 Petrograd workers on 27 February, and from that point worker protests spun out of control. Wildcat strikes all over the city were joined by civilians of all kinds protesting at rumours of bread rationing (pretty much the ultimate disaster signal for an empire covered in wheat fields), and demonstrators congregated in the city centre from 8 March, demanding food, peace and – as their numbers grew over the following days – revolution.  If you’re reminded, weather conditions aside, of scenes in Cairo during the Arab Spring, you’re not far off the mark.

Russian spring, 1917

The Tsarist regime was by now quite used to turning its guns on protestors, but troops began refusing royal orders to fire on civilians on 11 March.  Most of the Petrograd garrison had joined the rebels by 13 March, and similar scenes had put Moscow in rebel hands by the next day.  Meanwhile, as the Army’s plans for a pro-monarchist advance on Petrograd fell apart for lack of reliable troops, the imperial cabinet had resigned en masse on 12 March and liberal deputies in the Duma had attempted to co-opt the uprising by forming a new government, proclaiming themselves a Temporary Committee on the same day and demanding the Tsar’s abdication.  In a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy as an institution, the Army’s supreme command, Stavka, supported the demand.

Nicholas II duly abdicated on 15 March, and later that day the Duma announced formation of a ‘Provisional Government’.  The new government’s nominal leader, Prince Lvov, was an experienced imperial politician with a history of representing landed interests, and was chosen in an attempt to unite urban and rural elements behind the Duma.  Inasmuch as this represented any kind of revolutionary plan, it was rapidly overwhelmed by events.

Stavka, reduced to grasping at anything that might calm the troops, announced its acceptance of the new regime, and on 16 March the monarchy disappeared when the ex-Tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, refused to accept the crown.  In terms of conventional politics, the Provisional Government now had the field to itself – but conventions were being overwhelmed by street politics.

Workers’ groups, socialists and unions in Petrograd had been forming into elected councils, or ‘soviets’, which had in turn elected representatives to a high council, the Petrograd Soviet.  The only organisation able to influence or exert any strategic control over the city’s rebel masses, the Soviet promoted socialist revolution and its ambitions had little or nothing in common with the Provisional Government’s broadly liberal agenda for a parliamentary democracy.  Forced to appease the Soviet as the only means of remaining in even nominal control, the Provisional Government was being dragged to the left from the moment of its creation, and effective leadership quickly passed to its only socialist member, justice minister Kerenski.

Workers’ revolution always sounds like a good idea…

For the next few months the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government functioned as an uneasy, volatile and patently unsustainable dual regime.  A series of coalition cabinets formed by Kerenski – a politician whose struggles deserve more attention than they get from posterity – could do nothing to slow the Soviet’s accelerating radicalism, and neither body exerted any real control over the countryside beyond Petrograd and Moscow.  Meanwhile, under intense pressure from the western Allies, this unstable, fragile new Russia was still attempting to fight the biggest war in human history.

A worried man… Alexander Kerenski.

I’ll get back to post-imperial Russia and the Provisional Government as their tragedy plays out during 1917, but for the moment let’s just tip a hat to Revolution itself.

For all the chaos surrounding its eruption, the contradictions built into its progress and its belittlement by posterity, the February Revolution as an event did change the world.  It provided a huge and much needed shot in the arm for international socialism, which had been crushed by the events of August 1914 but now began reorganising to promote peace and post-War revolution.  It also acted as a magnet for individual activists, not all of them Russians, exiled from their homelands and ready to toss their metaphorical matches into the powder keg.  At the same time, the Provisional Government’s liberal credentials freed the United States to enter a wartime alliance without condoning despotism, and a wave of sympathy for the Russian people among the western Allies breathed new life into liberal visions of a ‘peace without annexations’, visions that were destined to exert a powerful influence over the immediate post-War world.

So there’s no real excuse for treating the February Revolution as a footnote, let alone for allowing its opening phase to disappear from popular history, particularly since its other great contribution to the future was setting a modern precedent for violent regime change driven by popular protest.   I’ll leave you to decide if that counts as an achievement.