16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

By way of an anniversary, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd a hundred years ago today.  I plan to talk about it in context rather than in detail, because although it confirmed the legitimacy of the Provisional Government that had, in the form of various coalitions, been trying to run Russia since the February Revolution (in March), it otherwise reflected the chaotic nature of its political environment.

Most of the thousand or so delegates, and most of the workers or soldiers they represented, simply wanted food and peace in a hurry, but debates were guided by the more political animals among them, representing a wide spectrum of liberal and socialist views. These politicians, some of them hardened opponents of the old regime at the climax of a decades-long struggle, bickered along the lines anyone with a working knowledge of socialism in the early twentieth century would expect.

The majority wanted controlled, relatively gradual change within something like the social, political and geopolitical norms of the day, while a substantial minority argued for immediate revolution and a completely new socio-political world order. For the moment, the political gradualists still held sway in Petrograd and Moscow (the only places that really mattered when it came to controlling Russian politics), but with every day that passed without peace or economic transformation the workers and soldiers became more impatient, their mood more in tune with the aims of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary political factions.

Messrs Skobelev, Chkheidze, Plekhanov and Tsereteli.  Members of the Provisional Government and executive committee members of the All-Russian Congress, these were the relatively moderate socialists trying to hold back the tide of revolutionary pacifism in Russia.

The Congress both reflected the wild state of flux that had characterised Russian politics since the beginning of the year (and that generally accompanies revolution on the streets wherever it takes place), and was one of its by-products. Worker’s and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, had been a feature of the half-cocked 1905 revolution in Russia, and had returned in force during 1917, springing up spontaneously or as the work of local agitators all over Pertrograd, Moscow and the armed forces. During the February Revolution, those in the capital had been loosely organised into a central Petrograd Soviet, which had since been acting as a form of volatile but extremely powerful parliament, allowing the new Provisional Government to remain in power at its pleasure and drawing it ever further to the left.

The Petrograd Soviet was meanwhile facing its own challenges from below. In an attempt to add some semblance of concrete to its essentially ad hoc authority, it had organised a meeting of all the soviets it could muster, convened on 3 June with the understandably grandiose title of the National Conference of Soviets. The main business of the Conference was to organise the systems of credentials and voting necessary to turn itself into a congress that could claim a national, democratic mandate for policy decisions.

After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik-controlled All-Russian Congress would go on to function as the supreme political authority in Russia (rather than the whole USSR) until 1936, but in June 1917 it was just another noisy institution flailing in the whirlwind of ongoing revolution. While its leaders jockeyed to fill power vacuums, its constituent soviets swung towards radicalism and their delegates waited to be replaced, its debates centred on the one shared aim that might, if achieved, bring relative calm and the prospect of real social progress: peace.

Everyone with anything to say inside revolutionary Russia talked about wanting peace, and Russia – with its army, economy and society in ruins – was obviously ripe for peace, but wanting peace wasn’t quite the same as being a pacifist or as simple as it sounds.

For Marxism-inspired revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky – important street politicians in the context of the Petrograd whirlwind, but at this stage hardly bookies’ favourites as Russia’s next leaders – peace was a simple matter. Unwavering pacifists, they had opposed the War since before it began, regarded the conflict as a grotesque example of elite classes getting underclasses to do their fighting for them, and simply demanded that Russia stop fighting at once, leaving the warring states to sort out any fallout for themselves. This view resonated nicely with the impatient masses, but not with the gradualist side of Russian socialism, and not with the Provisional Government.

Left-leaning, and lurching further that way to keep up with events, but still essentially attached to the principles of pre-War liberal Europe, the Provisional Government desperately wanted peace and a chance to calm the storms, but not at any price. It promoted the socialist slogan – ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ – that had already become a global buzz-phrase for pacifists, but it didn’t want to leave Russia at the mercy of a victorious German Army and it didn’t dare risk the loss of Allied economic aid by walking away from the fight. The government instead pinned its hopes on ending the War by bringing international socialism together for a peace conference – but by mid-June that wasn’t going so well.

In early June, the National Conference of Soviets (along with Dutch and Scandinavian socialist groups) had sent invitations to a conference in Stockholm to socialists from all the belligerent countries, but most belligerent governments were in no mood to grant passports to travelling pacifists and immediately banned delegates from travelling to Stockholm. Even more damagingly, a majority of Western European socialists at war, though in theory committed to seeking peace, remained patriots first and foremost, determined on a peace in line with their country’s needs and ambitions. The same catch had undermined international socialism’s stand against war in 1914, and pre-conference talks with international socialists already in Petrograd as observers quickly demonstrated that as yet, despite war-weariness and the rebirth of socialism as a revolutionary force in Russia, nobody else on either side was willing to abandon national interest for international brotherhood.

Displaying the kind of optimism it takes something like the overthrow of an emperor to generate, the Provisional Government clung to the belief that Stockholm represented a real chance of peace, pinning its hopes on the fact that the British government, alone among the major allies, had granted passports to pacifists. By the time the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened those hopes had been dashed, and the British government was in the process of changing its mind. Why and how the Lloyd George coalition dithered its way to disapproval pretty much summed up why mainstream socialism was, as diplomacy had been a few months earlier, incapable of delivering peace in 1917.

For obvious strategic reasons, the British government wanted the Provisional Government to survive and carry on fighting. With the Labour Party installed as part of the governing coalition, it was also less afraid of pacifists or revolutionaries than most European governments (and less hostile to socialism in general than the USA), so its first reaction to the Stockholm proposals was to give peace and the new Russian regime a chance. Passports were therefore granted to a small group of pacifists, led by Labour MP and future premier Ramsay Macdonald, but they were prevented from sailing from Aberdeen on 11 June by the Firemen’s and Seamen’s Union, which then organised a nationwide blockade of ports to stop them finding a another route out of the country.

The leader of Labour’s pacifist wing thwarted by a picket line? Cartoon gold in 1917.

The stated reason for this superficially bizarre behaviour was the seamen’s fury at public rejection by pacifists, and by MacDonald in particular, of their demands for reparations from Germany to compensate the victims of submarine warfare. MacDonald tried to defuse the situation by making a statement accepting the seamen’s view that reparations should be paid to both Allied and neutral victims, but it made no difference because the real issue behind the blockade was the union’s mistrust and resentment of pacifism itself.

The delegation gave up and went home on 15 June, by which time popular and press support for the union’s actions had made clear to the cabinet that, much as the government wanted to give peace without indemnities a chance, the nation as a whole wanted the pound of flesh propaganda had led most people to expect. The delegates’ passports were cancelled, any hope disappeared that the Stockholm conference would be more than another token gathering of powerless pacifists, albeit bolstered by the newly empowered pacifists of the Russian revolutionary left, and the government in Petrograd was left with the impossible task of satisfying bellicose allies and a pacifist population.

Peace was what everyone wanted, even in Britain, but pacifism was another matter altogether.

Just how badly that turned out is another part of the wider story. For now, this grossly simplified, largely fact-free amble through the muddy, swirling waters of socialist politics in June 1917 is a reminder of how quickly the solidarity of opposition can be turned into civil war by the expectations, dilemmas and compromises that come with power. It is also, like the fate of Austrian Emperor Karl I (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), a reminder that once you start breaking up a system you’d better go all the way, or someone else will do it for you. They can often seem like a good idea to people trying to balance a vested interest in stability against a conscience, but moderate revolutionaries are still an oxymoron trying to deliver the impossible… so watch your back, M le Président.

7 JUNE, 1917: Listen and Learn

This seems a good moment to take another look at the Western Front, because at ten past three in the morning on 7 June 1917 a massive explosion in Flanders, heard clearly in London, signalled the start of the limited British offensive known as the Battle of Messines.  Messines stands out as something rare indeed during the first three years of war in the theatre, a clear-cut victory for the BEF, and it marked a minor turning point in the War on the Western Front – but it gets my attention today because, with a little more creative thinking from the British high command, it might have been a major turning point.

The unarguable sense in which Messines was a turning point followed from the French Army’s mass mutiny at the end of the spring’s Nivelle Offensive (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front), which handed prime responsibility for further offensive action on the Western Front to the British.  British c-in-c Haig, who had been required to comply with the plans of successive French commanders since his appointment in December 1915, was finally free to run his own campaign, and the first thing he did was transfer the main thrust of British attacks north to Flanders.

The Messines Ridge, a natural strongpoint just south of Ypres, had been in German hands since 1914, forming a small salient (or bulge) in the Flanders front line. General Plumer, commanding the BEF’s Second Army in front of Messines, had been planning an attack on the Ridge for almost a year, and had devised a relatively cunning plan for the purpose. Making no attempt to achieve any kind of breakthrough, Plumer planned to make maximum use of mobile artillery, tanks and poison gas to protect advancing infantry. Heavy artillery would also support the attack with a creeping barrage, a tactic that had worked well during limited operations in the latter stages of the Verdun campaign but had failed miserably in support of full-scale breakthrough attempts (12 February 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear). Plumer’s plan also placed great reliance on one other surprise element: mines.

Anybody reading this probably doesn’t need telling about the nature of conventional land mines a century ago, but I’ll tell you anyway. Mines as we understand them today – essentially explosive booby-traps placed in the ground as anti-personnel devices – did exist in 1914. Primitive and largely ineffective, because they relied on the force of the explosion to cause any damage, they were regarded as barbaric by most regular armies and hardly used during the first three years of the War. Improvised anti-personnel mines had become a weapon of choice for guerilla fighters by 1917, most notably those of the Arab Revolt, who added shrapnel (stones, spent shells or anything hard that could be crammed inside the casing) to make them more dangerous, and underground mortars planted by the German Army as anti-tank weapons would become commonplace on the Western Front during 1918. In the meantime, mines on the War’s main battlefronts still meant tunnels dug beneath enemy positions.

Digging mines under the enemy had been a common extension of trench warfare, usually in siege conditions, since at least the sixteenth century. Used to hide infantry or filled with explosives and blown up, they were inevitably employed in great numbers by both sides of the static Western Front, and formed an almost private subterranean battlefront in its busiest sectors.


Wartime military mining was a tense and horrible job, whether in the crowded conditions of the Western Front or in the dangerous climates of other fronts. Specialist miners, usually drawn from coal-producing regions, worked under constant threat of discovery, often by enemy mines only a matter of yards away. Secrecy depended on silence, with ‘listening parties’ employed to detect enemy mines. Once discovered, mines were generally blown up (or ‘had their cover blown’), either by enemy ‘counterminers’ or by pre-emptive self-destruction, and sudden underground explosions were a routine occurrence around heavily contested hills and ridges.

Military buffs, then and now, get quite excited about Plumer’s mines.

Messines was one such ridge, and Plumer’s pre-match preparations counted as one of warfare’s great mining efforts. Starting in January 1917, his troops dug twenty mines under German positions, completing more than 8km of tunnels. Only one was discovered and blown, and the other nineteen were packed with 600 tons of explosives. Before the battle, an 18-day preliminary bombardment of German forward trenches by more than 2,300 big guns and 300 heavy mortars informed the defenders that an infantry attack was coming, but they weren’t expecting the mine explosions, which brought utter chaos, created a number of enormous craters and killed at least 10,000 men.

And I mean enormous…

Nine divisions of infantry advanced under a creeping barrage in the wake of the explosions, and took all their preliminary objectives within three hours. Reserves from the British Fifth Army and the French First Army had moved in to take their final objectives by mid-afternoon, and a German counterattack the following day failed badly, losing more ground than it recovered. Counterattacks continued for another six days but made no progress, and the BEF had occupied the entire Messines salient by the time they petered out on 14 June.

A tidy victory, and the first battle in the history of the Western Front to see defenders lose more casualties (25,000) than attackers (17,000), Messines provided a huge boost for Allied morale at a time when it was badly needed – but it could have been more. The enormous impact of Plumer’s mines, the knowledge that getting away with the same trick again would be very difficult, a sense that the Germans had been caught at an unusually weak moment, and the fact that mining was only really feasible under high ground all contributed to the operation being viewed by the high command as a one-off, when it was in many ways a blueprint for success in the context of trench warfare.

With the chimera of the knockout blow removed from the drawing board, Plumer’s success drew on the experience of front-line commanders fighting in conditions that made anything more than limited gains impossible – notably Australian veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, like General Monash, who had learned to focus everything on protection of initial infantry advances, and to settle for what they could get without losing that protection. As such, Messines foreshadowed the approach that would eventually bring Allied success during the last months of the war in France and Belgium, but in June 1917 it failed to change the thinking of the Western Front’s new head honcho.

To repeat one of my more routine tropes, there’s no justification for the idea that a collective failure of generalship was one of the fundamental reasons the First World War went so badly for everyone. Generals were needed in far greater numbers than ever before, so some pretty mediocre officers were inevitably given jobs they were barely fit to handle, but the real problem was the technology of the day, which rendered useless every form of attack known to military theory in 1914. Plumer was only one of many generals in many armies who found ways of overcoming or adapting to those terrible circumstances – but that doesn’t mean the First World War was distinguished by much in the way of great generalship at high command level, or that commanders you might class as competent didn’t have bad days or particular weaknesses.

I’ve always been inclined to classify Field Marshal Haig as a competent general, not special or exciting but on the whole sensible, and I like to rail against the ridicule he suffers at the hands of the heritage industry – but he wasn’t the man to spot a way forward in the details of Plumer’s attack, and you could call that a weakness, or at least as evidence that he wasn’t any kind of military genius.  Haig also had his bad days, and his subsequent decision to repeat the mistakes of his French predecessors and launch yet another massive breakthrough offensive, this time around Ypres, was definitely one of them. The decision propelled the BEF into the prolonged mess the British usually call Passchendaele, a disaster that has, for many of them, defined Haig ever since.

30 MAY, 1917: All Guts, No Glory

Offensive warfare can be seen as strategically desirable, as a means of overcoming opposition to getting what you want.  It can also be seen as psychologically necessary, a means of venting fear, anger, outrage, jealousy, simple hatred or any other negative emotion. Chuck in the simple need for self-protection that defines defensive warfare, and you have the motivations behind pretty much every military activity during the First World War – except the long fight for unchallenged possession of colonial East Africa.  That had become an example of war for war’s sake.

The East African campaign began as a standard case of strategically desirable offensive warfare, as the British Empire sought to expand its colonial interests in Africa at the expense of German colonies all over the continent.  By the time the Empire’s latest theatre c-in-c, South African general Jaap van Deventer, took up his new command on 30 May 1917, the campaign had become a saga.  That was because a small, brilliantly organised force of German and native troops, led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had been leading an ever-expanding British pursuit on an epic wild goose chase for almost three years.

Lettow-Vorbeck was still at large in the spring of 1917, still defying all attempts to capture, wipe out or even permanently subdue his elusive columns, and still performing military wonders for the sole purpose of keeping the fight going.  His justification for waging war for war’s sake was a desire to divert as many Allied resources as possible from fronts that had more strategic value, and the British high command had obliged by pouring men and machines into the theatre in ever-increasing numbers.

Sketchily, and without ever really getting across how Lettow-Vorbeck’s Robin Hood act made the British look like the Sheriff of Nottingham, I’ve already covered East Africa until the departure of Jan Smuts as British c-in-c in January 1917.  I’ve given a nod to at least some of its crazy-paving sideshows (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut), and I’ve banged on at length about the destructiveness of the whole pointless exercise.  It killed a lot of people, it permanently degraded a hitherto fertile, relatively comfortable part of Africa, it dragged third parties (like Portugal and the people of other African colonies) into a war they really didn’t need… and I’m not planning to repeat the long versions of all that.  I am planning to take the story a little further, and to follow it into another one of its weird backwaters.

Once he took over in January 1917, new British c-in-c General Hoskins spent the next four and a half months reorganising supply and communications systems, which had been left in a terrible mess by the autumn campaigns.  A particularly heavy rainy season, along with desperate food shortages and the loss of about 20 percent of his (largely African) strength to disease, prevented any kind of offensive action, and his requests for reinforcements quickly made him unpopular in London, where Smuts had fostered the illusion that the East African campaign was all but won (16 March, 1916: Alien Invasion).

After South African premier Botha had refused to send further reinforcements north, Hoskins was removed and Deventer, a veteran of the campaign and a trusted colleague of Smuts, returned to East Africa to become the tenth British c-in-c in the theatre since 1914.  South African reinforcements were duly supplied, and Deventer (who spoke no English and needed an interpreter to deal with most of his subordinates) took over the process of building up and organising imperial forces for a summer offensive aimed at finally defeating Lettow-Vorbeck, rather than at occupying territory and calling it a victory.

Another fine moustache… and is that Captain Darling to the right of General van Deventer?

Deventer did, however, face one immediate operational challenge. In a miniature mirror of the campaign as a whole, a single enemy unit was busy making a mockery of the claim that Smuts had reduced the theatre to ‘mopping up’ operations.

Lettow-Vorbeck had escaped Smuts the previous autumn by fleeing into the swamps of the Rufugi Delta, in the southeast of the old German colony, where his forces survived on improvised rations and supplies, completely cut off from contact with Germany but safe from faltering British efforts to trap them. They were still there on 6 February, when part of one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s columns – a force of about 700 native troops, or askaris, accompanied by a handful of German troops, several hundred bearers and three light field guns – broke away from the main body and marched north into British-held territory.

Their commander, Captain Max Wintgens, launched the expedition without official sanction from Lettow-Vorbeck, against the explicit orders of his immediate superior (who retreated further south at the same time), and for reasons that have never been made clear. He may have been responding to askari requests to fight closer to home, to an urgent need to find new food supplies or to a simple personal dislike of Lettow-Vorbeck, but his maverick moment turned out pretty well from the point of view of anyone waging war for war’s sake.

After conducting a few local skirmishes, Wintgenns led his force northwest towards the northern end of Lake Nyasa and the town of Tabala.  Meeting and defeating a combined South African and British colonial force on the way, it besieged Tabala from 18 February, but was driven off by a British relief column on 22 February. His strength down to 450 men, 11 machine guns and two field pieces, Wintgens made a series of feinting manoeuvres to escape pursuit, and had almost reached the relatively fertile and undamaged region around Lake Rukwa before the British re-established contact in mid-March.

An attack by one British battalion on 17 March threatened to trap Wintgens at the mission of St. Moritz, which was hemmed by swollen rivers on two sides, but a counterattack on 20 March saw the British camp surrounded. Though Wintgens abandoned the position after a British relief force arrived on 26 March, he used the delay forced on the British evacuate his entire force from St. Moritz, using improvised rafts to cross the rivers, by 3 April.

Too short of supplies to pursue, the British drafted extra troops into the region and requested the help of Belgian forces from the Congo, while Wintgens focused on finding food supplies and headed east, before turning north towards Kipembawe. His main force clashed with one of the reinforcing British battalions in late April, driving it back from Kitunda mission and occupying the town on 4 May. By this time Wintgens needed to pause for rest and recuperation, not least because he and many of his European contingent were suffering from typhus, but the arrival of Colonel Murray’s main British pursuit force compelled him to move north again within a week.

War was Hell in East Africa, and though the British sent machines to help, they weren’t much use in jungle conditions.

Wintgens had become seriously ill by 21 May, when he passed command to Naumann, and he surrendered to Belgian forces on 24 May. Naumann meanwhile had little choice but to keep running, and led his askaris northeast to cross the Central Railway at Mkalama, now pursued by imperial forces that amounted to some 4,000 men. By early June, Deventer was forced to recall Murrray’s regiment in preparation for the British summer offensive, and Belgian units, finally ready for action two months after they were mobilised, took over the hunt for Naumann, who reached the shores of Lake Victoria late that month.

Hampered by poor supplies and lack of reconnaissance aircraft, the Belgians eventually caught up with their prey on 29 June, but were defeated near the lake at Ikoma. Naumann escaped again, this time to the south, and made for Kondoa Irangi and the Central Railway. Once the Belgians had dealt with their severe losses, they spent the next month chasing in vain.

By late August Naumann had eluded or defeated all pursuers to reach the Kilimanjaro area, but the endgame was coming. With Belgian units being withdrawn to take part in the main Allied offensive, now in progress far to the south, the pursuit was again dominated British forces, and the dispatch of British reinforcements by rail compelled Naumann to run southeast.  This time, Deventer had attached mounted infantry to join the pursuit, and it made the difference.  Desperately short of supplies and unable to outrun the horses, the remnants of Naumann’s column were pinned down at Luita, north of the Central Railway, and surrendered on 2 September.   Even then a detachment remained at large, and it took another month before the British finally captured the last 14 Europeans, 150 askaris and 250 bearers.

Route map – German, so the names don’t quite match, but hard work will get you there.

During the course of a chase lasting almost nine months and covering some 3,000km, what is known as the Wintgens-Naumann Expedition had punched way above its weight when it came to influencing strategic dispositions in the theatre, not just because it attracted pursuit from thousands of troops but also because it forced British commanders to defend all the places it might attack. It had also laid waste to everything in its path that could be of use to the enemy, and had sparked a propaganda tantrum from the British. Faced with such shocking evidence that the East African campaign was not done and dusted, the British had devoted a lot of column inches to publicising tales of atrocities carried out on German orders, a response that forced them to charge Wintgens with murder after his capture – and then to release him for lack of evidence.

These were the achievements that made heroes of the Expedition’s leaders and provided the world with a tale of derring-do, improvisation and endurance that stands with the most stirring military adventures of modern times.  Looking back from 2017, and bearing in mind the matrices of pointlessness the Expedition inhabited, they don’t seem to me to amount to anything very positive, more an illustration of the nineteenth-century attitude to warfare – as an essentially ennobling exercise, character-building for individuals and societies – that helped propel the developed world into the catastrophe of 1914.

So why am I bothering to talk about this?  First, because it shines what seems to me an interesting light on the weirdness of warfare in East Africa a century ago, and secondly as a rambling but timely reminder that stirring military adventures, especially when carried out for no reason any sane person could possibly call good, inflict just as much death, misery and long-term destruction as the dull ones.