23 AUGUST, 1917: World Invades Spain!

No real reason for the date at the top, except that it matched the date I started writing this post – just before the laptop fried, a long way from home.  That’s my excuse for running late, and for what will almost certainly turn out to be a somewhat lightweight, top-of-the-head wander through the War.  So anyway…

A hundred years ago, Western Europe was engaged in an outburst of unseasonal fighting.  The Third Battle of Ypres was into the fury of its second phase, the Italian Army had just launched its eleventh assault on the Isonzo, and the French Army was two days into a minor offensive around Verdun.

None of these attacks was destined to achieve anything very significant.  We know what happened at Passchendaele, and the French operation –essentially a test-run of the Army’s military competence after the mutiny of the spring – achieved the recapture of one stubborn (if symbolic) German outpost on the hill known as Mort Homme on 20 August, and then stopped.  The Italians meanwhile made moderate initial gains with their latest, and last, attempt to dislodge weakening Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo, but progress halted when large-scale German reinforcements arrived from the dormant Eastern Front, leaving Italian forces in exposed positions pending an Austro-German counterattack.

Posterity may not make much of these battles but they certainly hogged the headlines at the time, leaving barely a paragraph for news of serious internal disturbances in one of Western Europe’s biggest countries.  Spain’s experience of the First World War gets even less treatment from today’s heritage industry, so here’s a look at why the country was under martial law in August 1917.  It should be a long, complicated look, in line with the subject’s complexities, but I haven’t got time to put in the kind of research I’d need to get the details right so you’ll have to make do with a bunch of sweeping generalisations.

Broadly speaking, Spain in 1914 was a mess, economically and politically backward after centuries of sociopolitical stasis under an aristocratic oligarchy that used colonial wealth to keep a modernising world at bay.  A restored Bourbon monarchy had been in power since the end of 1874, in theory constitutional and liberal, but in fact operating along lines that pre-dated the advent of mass, or even bourgeois political influence in more advanced states, so that national politics were controlled by and for an oligarchy of nobles and their clients.  Trade and industry were similarly marooned in the pre-industrial age, and Spain’s capacity for external military activity was generally and rightly regarded as non-existent, a condition confirmed by a disastrous war colonial against the USA at the end of the nineteenth century.

This one was originally captioned ‘life in Spain, 1917’, and I guess that sums it up.

Military uselessness meant nobody was very interested in triggering the government’s pre-War defensive alliances with Britain and France in 1914, but mere decrepitude was not in itself enough to keep Spain out of the War.  Other countries in southern Europe with essentially pre-industrial economies and little military clout spent the first three years of the War being bribed or bullied into the conflict by one side or the other, but unlike Bulgaria, Romania or Greece, Spain was in no geographical or political position to harbour territorial ambitions, and unlike Portugal it had no colonial possessions near other people’s war zones.

So Spain was spared extreme pressure from either side to join the fighting, and was able to remain neutral throughout the War, but as warfare went total the country became part of the global battle for supplies.

For some neutral countries this was no bad thing.  Those neutrals outside Europe, particularly in the Americas, could enjoy economic good times based on massively increased demand (though British control of long-range trade routes prevented large-scale business with the Central Powers), and had little to fear beyond the occasional loss of ships and lives to U-boats or saboteurs.

Neutral European states could more easily trade with both sides, especially if they had overland links to the Central Powers, but ran a much greater risk of interference from, or even invasion by the belligerent empires on their doorsteps.  Those that managed to maintain and even benefit from neutrality tended to be prosperous, politically stable countries, equipped with social structures capable of withstanding the pressures brought by wartime economic change and political uncertainty – northern European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, but not like Spain.

In Spain, as in other neutral countries, debate about whether to join one side or the other rapidly became a major political issue, fuelled by the activities of agents from both sides seeking a monopoly over Spanish exports.  Where in some states, Greece springs inevitably to mind, the debate boiled over into civil war, in Spain it woke up politics.  The limitations and uncertainties of the government’s vaguely pro-Entente stance provided a platform for dispute that effectively reignited a system hitherto controlled from above by a combination of rigged elections and institutionalised bureaucratic corruption, but above all maintained from below by the political apathy of most Spaniards.

At the same time the flood of work and money into Spain, as it strove to meet escalating demands for raw materials from both sides, swept in a storm of modern ideas and circumstances that the monarchy and aristocracy couldn’t begin to control.  Seasoned by a smattering of rapid industrialisation in the textile and iron industries, rampant inflation fuelled the social discontent that bred mass politicisation, while socialist ideas flourished under the yoke of profiteering employers, and the concentration of incoming wealth in the relatively developed north of Spain fed tensions between the centre and the provinces.

The ruling oligarchy was forced to turn for support to the newly rich merchant and landowning middle classes, and to an army much more interested in internal affairs than foreign adventures, but by 1917 it faced serious opposition from elements of both groups.  As pressure for Catalan independence mounted in Barcelona, and the Army began organising its own political institutions in the name of centrism, the monarchist government of Count Romanones was forced to resign in April 1917.  Romanones was replaced by a series of prime ministers increasingly sympathetic to the military, which gained further influence at the centre in direct proportion to the threat level posed by the regime’s third big problem – the socialist revolutionary forces that were gaining support in the wake of Russia’s world-shaking February Revolution.

Displaying the same, almost touching optimism that characterised some of the Russian Provisional Government’s behaviour, Spanish socialists made a bid for revolution in August 1917.  The Workers’ General Union (UGT), by far the biggest in Spain, reacted to the failure of a railway workers’ strike to halt traffic by announcing its expansion into a general strike on 14 August.  Called in conjunction with the anarchist National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and the small Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the strike’s stated aim was the downfall of the monarchy, but the end of apathy isn’t quite the same as revolutionary fervour.  Despite strong support in some cities (especially Barcelona) the strike was ignored by most workers, caused only temporary disruption and collapsed within a few days.

Troops attacking strikers in Madrid, August 1917. They had it much worse in Barcelona, where 70 were killed.

After a period of falling membership and squabbling between moderate union reformers, separatists, anarchists and socialist revolutionaries, mass, left-wing politics would return to the national stage with a second, far more successful general strike in 1919.  In the meantime the failed strike of 1917 gave the regime and the Army an excuse to impose martial law, and to use violence to suppress strikers wherever they took to the streets.

Military support would continue prop up the regime for the remainder of War, representing the strengthening right wing of an increasingly, irrevocably polarized political landscape.  The Army would eventually run out of patience with separatists, socialists and liberals in 1923, when a coup d’état saw Catalan General Miguel Primo de Rivera take power as dictator under the nominal leadership of King Alfonso XIII.  Alfonso was driven into exile less than a year after Primo de Rivera’s death in 1930, but all the divisions exposed by Spain’s hothouse exploitation during the First World War resurfaced under a Spanish Republic that presided over the nation’s slide to civil war in 1936.

So the links between world war and civil war in Spain are as definite as they are generally ignored, and history offers a fairly straight line from civil war via Franco to modern Spain.  Nobody’s pretending the old Bourbon monarchy would still be presiding over a semi-feudal sump of decadent corruption if the First World War hadn’t come along, but there’s no denying that, hundreds of kilometres behind the backs of Haig’s poor, mud-soaked Tommies, a fundamental strand of European culture was being painfully resuscitated to meet the conflict’s insatiable demands.

14 AUGUST, 1917: Cruise Control

The day before Haig launched the second phase of his Ypres offensive on the Western Front was another quiet day by the standards of the First World War.  China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, but that had been coming for some time and has been covered in an earlier post (14 March, 1917: Breaking China).  Spain declared martial law as part of an internal crisis I’ll be talking about quite soon, and the row about sending Labour Party delegates to the Stockholm Peace Conference rumbled on in Britain (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).

Otherwise I have no particularly interesting anniversaries to commemorate, so I think I’ll spend a couple of hours chatting about cruisers.  And why not?  Cruisers were relevant to every day of the War and in action all over the world – but what exactly was a cruiser, and why?

The British developed the first cruisers in the 1880s.  Smaller and faster than battleships, but still capable of ocean-going operations, they were originally designed for two main roles.  Heavy ‘armoured’ cruisers, generally displacing more than 10,000 tons, carrying powerful main armament and fitted with strong side armour, were intended to act as the fast scouting force alongside battleships in confrontations with other fleets.   Less expensive ‘protected’ cruisers (anything from 2,000 to 14,000 tons) were equipped only with deck armour, and were tasked with protection of trade routes, troopships or imperial outposts.  In the days of sailing navies, all these jobs had been carried out by frigates, which had ceased to exist long before 1914 and were to be reinvented during the Second World War as something completely different.

 

A British armoured, or heavy cruiser, designed for fleet actions but destined to spend the War anywhere but…
HMS Challenger:  a fairly typical British protected cruiser, completed in 1904 and brought out of retirement in 1914.

Much cheaper and more versatile than battleships, and able to dominate any naval situation that didn’t involve battleships, cruisers were particularly crucial to the sprawling operations of the British Royal Navy, which built 42 armoured and 101 protected cruisers between 1885 and 1907.   In much the same way as they would render all their existing battleships obsolete by inventing dreadnoughts, the British then made armoured cruisers redundant as fleet components by coming up with the first battlecruisers in 1908.

With the speed of a cruiser and the striking power of a battleship, battlecruisers resembled the latter but with one less turret, less armour protection, more powerful engines and a longer hull.  Used as fast screens for battleships in fleet actions, as well as for long-range commerce duties, they were also adopted by the Japanese Navy, which spent the early twentieth century learning to copy the best European naval practices, and the German Navy, which would go on the use them for fleet actions and as commerce raiders.

Battlecruisers were the brainchild of forceful pre-War British First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, who pushed their construction in the face of strong opposition from many naval professionals.  Half greyhound, half Rottweiler, they would go on to play a major role in most North Sea naval actions, and several German ships had a major impact in other theatres, but on the whole the critics were proved right.  Though in theory able to outrun anything they couldn’t outgun, their lack of armour made them vulnerable, not just to enemy battlecruisers but also to the mines, submarines and other torpedo craft that were coming into widespread use in the early twentieth century.   The last battlecruisers ordered by the wartime Royal Navy, lighter designs for use in the shallow Baltic Sea but in fact deployed on North Sea patrols, were converted into aircraft carriers after the War, marking the end of the experiment.

Lean, mean and really quite vulnerable – the battlecruiser HMS Tiger

Meanwhile cruiser development focused on speed, and two types of light cruiser.   The larger variety, first developed by the German Navy and copied by the British (as the Town Class), were quick, lightly armoured and heavily armed to operate on fleet approaches or trade routes.  The British also designed smaller Scout Class cruisers with very little armour protection, intended for scouting, for long-range screening and as lead ships for destroyer flotillas.

Longer, obviously, and again just one among several profiles of the type, Town Class cruiser HMS Bristol.
Scout Class cruisers came in many styles, but HMS Active is as good an example as any.

Once replaced by newer designs, old British cruisers were transferred from the main battle fleets or the most dangerous trade routes to perform all sorts of secondary tasks.  They led submarine flotillas, they protected dozens of relatively minor ports at home and across the Empire, and (given the dubious value of old, pre-dreadnought battleships) they generally provided the most effective naval support for army operations in secondary theatres.   They also patrolled trade routes as protection against surface raiders at the start of the War, along with passenger liners converted as ‘armed merchant cruisers’, and from mid-1917 they led convoy protection squadrons.

I’ve been concentrating on British cruisers, because the Royal Navy needed a lot more cruisers than anyone else and used them for a lot more tasks, but they were central to the wartime operations of most major navies.

The German Navy, as mentioned, used battlecruisers and cruisers as the warhorses of fleet and commerce operations, while Austro-Hungarian, Italian and most French naval activity was confined to the Mediterranean, where dreadnoughts feared to leave port and cruisers were crucial.  All three fleets deployed very fast, modern cruisers, light on armour but heavy on armament, as their main naval strike weapons, and they were at the heart of all the major naval actions in the Mediterranean, apart from the Anglo-French shambles at the Dardanelles in 1915.

Although the feeble Ottoman Navy possessed only a few old cruisers, and they were particularly decrepit, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau, both transferred from the German Navy, were by far its most important weapons in the war for control of the Black Sea (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships).  Meanwhile the Russian Navy possessed few modern cruisers but made extensive use of its older vessels in the Black Sea and the Baltic, outclassing its opposite numbers in the former (whenever the Goeben was out of action) and holding its own against relatively threadbare German naval forces in the latter.

That just left the USA, the world’s second biggest naval power in 1914 and the exception to the norm.  The US Navy possessed 12 armoured and 24 protected cruisers when war broke out, but then embarked on a massive naval expansion programme that completely ignored cruisers.  That may appear weird at first glance, but in fact it was wise.

Looking at (and supplying) the War from the outside until 1917, the USA was able to tailor its navy to its actual wartime requirements, where Europe’s navies had been built on pre-War predictions. Primarily concerned with protecting an expanding maritime trade network, and far from Europe, the USA had no expectation of needing cruisers for any kind of fleet battle, and once the British had removed any threat to merchant traffic from German surface raiders, cruisers were not the ideal weapon for coping with U-boats and minefields.  So although US yards did build six dreadnoughts – necessary statements of power at a time when even Brazil was investing in them – construction was otherwise dedicated to merchant ships, destroyers and other smaller craft.

This was the future.  Beginning with mines, submarines and aircraft, small but lethal long-range weapons were taking control of naval warfare by 1914, and though the cruiser would continue to serve fleets, protect trade and dominate small actions for decades to come, its day as a state-of-the-art weapon of war was done.

Unlike the conflict’s great white elephants – the costly, cosseted dreadnoughts – mere obsolescence didn’t leave cruisers watching from the sidelines.  Partly because years of total war demanded massive global commitment from navies, in particular the Royal Navy, and partly because older vessels were seen as relatively expendable, First World War cruisers were still enormously important, the basic currency of worldwide naval power in all but the most hotly contested patches of ocean.

That’s a small window on the panoramic impact of cruisers, and me out of time, so an equally nerdy look at another important new kid on the naval block since the 1880s – the destroyer – will have to wait for another quiet day.

6 AUGUST, 1917: Deep Breath, Shallow Victory

August’s reputation as a slow month, news wise, took a bit of a knock during the First World War, but in 1917 the conflict’s third birthday came and went in a relatively subdued atmosphere.  After a few months that had been militarily disappointing for pretty much everyone, and with very little fighting taking place on any of the major battlefronts, early August provided Europe at war with a brief breathing space – predictably filled by a flurry of political finger-pointing and manoeuvre on the home fronts.

In Russia, where the failure of July’s offensive on the Eastern Front had done nothing to stabilise political ferment at the centre, Alexandr Kerenski’s political career reached its summit on 6 August when he became prime minister, head of state in theory but in fact the head of a faction losing its fragile grip on authority in Petrograd. Further west, Italian politics appeared ready to collapse into chaos under the weight of extremism and social unrest in the wake of yet another military failure at the Isonzo, and the pressures of popular disappointment extended to the Belgian cabinet-in-exile at Le Havre, which had undergone a major reshuffle on 4 August.

Although the French Ribot government was still hanging onto power, it was under attack from all sides and fighting off scandals that would soon bring it down, and among the Allies in Europe only the British remained politically stable.  This was partly because the British were in middle of some serious fighting, though rain had stopped play around Ypres for the moment, and partly because the Lloyd George coalition’s shrewd combination of social awareness and organisational efficiency still enjoyed widespread popular support (despite a few outraged squawks at the recent return to the cabinet of disgraced former naval minister Winston Churchill).

Among the Central Powers, Bulgaria was starving while entrepreneurs made huge profits selling the harvest to Germany, fertile ground for socialism and republicanism to take root under the feet of a repressive royal regime, and the Habsburg Empire’s ongoing disintegration under separatist pressure claimed another political victim on 9 August, when Hungarian premier Count Esterhazy quit after less than two months in the job.  In the Anatolian heartlands of the Ottoman Empire, Enver Pasha remained the dominant figure in an authoritarian Young Turk regime, but the rest of the empire was falling apart, with Armenia descending into anarchy in the east, invasion and revolt overwhelming the south, and most surviving provinces operating as autonomous fiefdoms under regional governors.

Meanwhile Germany’s increasingly authoritarian Third Supreme Command was willing and able to ignore all opposition, but still paid lip service to a theoretically absolute monarch, hence the appointment, on 5 August, of the Kaiser-friendly Richard von Kühlmann to succeed Artur von Zimmermann as foreign minister.  A right-wing ex-diplomat who was intent on German territorial expansion, and would go on to preside over ruthless peace treaties with Russia and Romania, Kühlmann was less inclined to fantasy than the Ludendorff gang, and his efforts to dilute their madness through the ear of the monarch would make him a thorn in the Third Supreme Command’s side during a year in office.

Political headliners, August 1917: Count Esterhazy…
young Alex Kerenski…
old Alex Ribot…
and Richard von Kühlmann.

If most of Europe’s governments and generals were navel gazing, waiting for the weather to change or playing Canute against waves of rebellion , serious fighting was taking place on one front.  In Romania, on 6 August, the Battle of Marasesti got underway between the reconstituted Romanian Army and an international force under German command.  It was a relatively minor affair, and it had very little strategic impact, but it would carry on for almost a month and be the last major wartime action on Romanian soil, so it can be seen as more than excuse to take my first look at Romania in months.

Back in October 1916 two multinational armies, largely though not solely composed of Bulgarian and German troops, were poised to converge on Wallachia – the most economically useful Romanian region – while the Romanian royal government was cowering in Bucharest, planning its escape (29 October, 1916: Feeling Brave?). One army, led by former German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn, broke through into Wallacha from the Carpathian mountain passes in early November, and had reached the central plains to threaten Bucharest by the middle of the month. The other, led by German General Mackensen, made no attempt to advance north from its positions in the Dobrudja region, because a Russian army had arrived in the northeast of the country to block its path, but instead crossed the Danube into Wallachia on 23 November.  Brushing aside Romanian forces scattered in its way, it too moved on the capital.

Romanian c-in-c Averescu did make an attempt to fight back, gathering his remaining forces west of Bucharest for a counteroffensive on the River Arges at the start of December, but it barely slowed Falkenhayn down before collapsing.  About 70,000 surviving Romanian troops then retreated northeast into Moldovia, to be joined by the royal government, and Bucharest fell on 6 December, leaving German authorities free to begin the economic exploitation that had been the main reason for occupying Wallachia.

Agriculture was Wallachia’s principal economic activity, and the Central Powers were always on the lookout for food supplies, but as far as the German supreme command was concerned the Ploesti oilfields were the big economic prizes on offer.  That was because, while surface warships could get by on coal or kerosene, the planned all-out submarine campaign was going to need a lot of diesel fuel.

By the time the German ‘Economic Staff’ reached Romania at the end of 1916, German troops were already guarding the oilfields, but had found them heavily damaged by British agents. Their subsequent reduced output (along with falling output from diesel refineries in Habsburg Galicia) would leave the German Navy struggling for fuel to power the submarine war during the coming months, with severe implications for domestic diesel consumption (and therefore popular morale) in Romania, Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Mackensen had pursued the Romanian Army’s remnant into Moldovia in early December, but worsening weather and the arrival of Russian reinforcements persuaded him to abandon the effort late in the month, when the front stabilised along the River Sereth. Mackensen made two attempts to get across the river, but his attacks ceased after 20 January and fighting died down almost completely for the next five months.  During that time, King Ferdinand issued promises of post-War electoral and land reform that temporarily boosted his regime’s popular support in Moldovia, and with help from French aid it was able to partially rebuild the army.  By the summer, confidence was sufficiently high for the Romanian Army to be committed, along with Russian units, to an attack in support of the Russian July Offensive (1 July, 1917: The Last Straw).

The Russian-Romanian attack began, somewhat belatedly, on 22 July 1917, pushing southwest from Moldovia around the lower reaches of the Siret River.  After some early success, German and Austro-Hungarian reinforcements from the Galician front halted its progress, but although most Russian units quickly subsided into pacifist political activism the Romanian element maintained good order and held most of its ground until fighting died down on 1 August.

Mackensen launched the German Ninth Army into a renewed attack on Romanian positions around Marasesti from 6 August, but six days of heavy fighting failed to dislodge Romanian and remaining Russian units.  During the following week Romanian reinforcements helped hold off a series of German assaults that reached a climax on 19 August, while the Romanian Second Army restricted a subsidiary German advance to insignificant gains around the village of Oituz. Relatively minor German attacks, largely aimed at outflanking defenders, were contained during the next two weeks before Mackensen called off the offensive on 3 September.

You’ll be needing this – and a bit of time to work it out

Romanians view the Battle of Marasesti as the wartime Army’s finest hour.  It inflicted some 47,000 casualties on the Ninth Army at a cost of 27,000 Romanian losses (according to Romanian figures), and is seen as a victory that successfully defended the last vestiges of national integrity.  It was definitely the Romanian Army’s best performance of the War, a tribute to troops transformed from terrified peasants into disciplined defenders, but it was also its last performance and an ultimately pointless exercise .

The adventure that ended at Marasestri had left the Romanian Army and government more threatened than supported by the feral remains of Russian forces, so they now found themselves alone and surrounded by enemies.  Short of supplies and with political support slipping away, King Ferdinand’s government could only begin preparing the ground for an inevitable surrender to the Central Powers.  Mackensen had halted his attacks in September 1917, not because he was beaten, but because German forces had bigger fish to fry and could defeat Romania without wasting further resources.

That was the end of the fighting in Romania, but it was by no means the end of the country’s troubles.  I’ll be back there one day to talk about them, but in the meantime this has been a largely information-based, message-free post, and we can’t have that.  So how about we all remember that just because you’ve got your army together, and it looks in good shape, doesn’t always mean it’s smart to use it.  Got that, Kim?  Donald?

31 JULY, 1917: The Crying Game

This is one of those moments when I find myself thinking along the same lines as the British heritage industry. The lines in question divided the northern sector of the Western Front, and the event that has us both interested was the opening of the British-led summer offensive in Flanders on 31 July 1917. Known officially as the Third Battle of Ypres, but better remembered in Britain by the name of its final objective, Passchendaele, it went on until November and was a God-awful mess.

It was by no means the first disastrous offensive failure on the Western Front, but it would prove to be the last attempt to end the campaign, and indeed the War, using ‘breakthrough’ tactics. Intended to smash a hole in the enemy line by massing vast forces for an attack on a narrow front, breakthrough tactics had been discredited many times during the previous two years, and their latest spectacular failure had taken place only three months earlier. Haig’s willingness to persist with the orthodoxy long after it had again proved redundant, along with the loss of an estimated 310,000 BEF casualties (as well some 260,000 German casualties) for what amounted to trivial territorial gains, helps explain why Passchendaele has become the great emblem of First World War futility and incompetence in the British public mind – as does the fact that this disaster was an entirely British creation that couldn’t be blamed on the French.

Deplored across a century of British heritage history, popular history and military history, the battle has provided generations of commentators with ammunition for outrage and for condemnation of those deemed responsible for the failure. That is changing. As must be blindingly obvious to anyone in the path of Britain’s Passchendaele centenary tsunami, the battle now provides a prime outlet for ‘human interest’ disguised as history or, to put it another way, emotion in place of analysis.

In the press, on the radio, on television, in Parliament and all over the Internet, the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, Anglo-Belgian style, has been about the suffering and death of the soldiers involved. Fair enough, there was a lot of death and suffering, but if history is about illuminating to past to inform the present what kind of information is that giving us? War is bad, its horrors are horrible… and that’s about all.

We have heard this before. It’s the same message we were given a hundred years after the Somme Offensive of 1916, and (for those Anglophones paying careful attention) a century after all the other ghastly, failed French, German, British, Russian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman offensives that took place between the spring of 1915 and July 1917. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the message, but there is something wrong with ignoring any and all of Passchendaele’s other messages to the future. By way of putting all that emotionally draining mass slaughter into some sort of context, diluting our righteous indignation with a little understanding, and exploring those other messages, here’s a very basic rundown of the battle’s genesis and outcome.

The roots of the Third Battle of Ypres can be traced pretty clearly to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. Haig had been in his post since December 1915, but had been required to support the plans of French commanders until May 1917, when the collapse of the French Army as an attacking force finally passed responsibility for strategic initiative on the Western Front to the BEF (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front). Haig responded by planning yet another breakthrough offensive but shifting the focus of attacks north, to the British-run sector in Flanders. With hindsight this was without doubt a mistake, but at the time there was something to be said for Haig’s reasoning.

Like most Western Front commanders, Haig still believed that breakthrough tactics represented the best hope of a significant victory, a belief reinforced by the commonly held view that conscript mass armies with only basic training would subside into chaos if asked to do anything more sophisticated. He also subscribed to the widely held view that the German war effort was close to collapse, and that a demoralised German Army on the Western Front was ready to crumble. General Plumer’s victory at Messines in early June didn’t change Haig’s mind on either score (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn), but at that stage, with the usual costly, clumsy preparations for the main offensive already well underway, it would have taken a major leap of faith to prompt any significant alterations to the battle plan.

Once settled on another breakthrough attempt, Haig’s choice of Flanders as his main target couldn’t really be faulted. The region’s broad, flat plains seemed to offer the best chance for an attacking army to successfully exploit any breakthrough, and breakthrough tactics hadn’t been tried there before (although they had failed in wide open spaces on the Eastern Front). Any breakthrough in Flanders would also offer the BEF a chance to attack German U-boat pens on the Belgian coast, a prospect that appealed strongly to a British high command still very worried about the effects of submarine warfare.

So take away the hindsight, add in the perceived need to keep attacking in the west before Russia’s ongoing collapse freed German reinforcements from the east, and the offensive plan dismissed as futile and/or blinkered by the heritage industry (before it gave up on commentary altogether) makes a broadly acceptable kind of sense in the crazy context of 1917.

It only takes one big mistake to ruin a plan, and for all the talk of rain and mud during the battle that followed, the mistake that counted at Ypres in 1917 was the British command’s gross underestimation of the German Army’s power to resist. The weaknesses visible at Messines had been addressed, and the huge ten-day bombardment that preceded the attack on 31 July (3,000 guns firing a total of 4.25 million shells) found defenders in prepared, shellproof positions ready to meet advancing British and Empire forces. Led by General Gough’s Fifth Army, flanked by a corps of Plumer’s Second Army to its south and a corps of General Anthoine’s French first Army to its north, the attack was launched along an 18km front and made only insignificant, expensive gains before grinding to a halt. At this very early stage, Haig’s plan had failed.

It was the same old story, so why not end it there? For plenty of reasons, none of which satisfied generations of post-War critics but all of which had something going for them from a contemporary command viewpoint.

First, giving up on a big plan after one false start was inconceivable to everyone involved, including the civilian public, so of course there had to be a second try. Secondly, Haig and many other observers were victims of what you might call the ‘one-last-push’ illusion, unable to let go of the (essentially sensible) idea that nations couldn’t sustain this type of warfare for long, and that the other side was one firm push away from collapse. This had been at the heart of Allied thinking on the Western Front since the start of 1915, and the longer reality outstripped socio-economic logic to keep the enemy in the fight, the more certain it seemed that the next push would do the trick. Thirdly, and perhaps more culpably, Haig’s refusal to recognise failure smacked of political desperation. These were uncertain times for Europe’s ruling elites, and British leaders were in no hurry to present a war-weary population (civilian and military) with yet another disappointment at a moment when the very fabric of conventional society was being tested by fallout from the revolution in Russia.

You couldn’t go telling ordinary people the appalling truth…

So failure was postponed and the attack resumed, but only after a fortnight’s delay for unseasonal, torrential rain, which combined with bomb craters and further bombardments to produce the almost impassable morass of mud that has since become synonymous with the battle. Under those conditions, the launch of a second attack on 16 August was an exercise in extreme optimism, and the four days of heavy fighting known as the Battle of Langemarck produced miniscule Allied gains in return for heavy casualties.

Still in no position to declare a failure, Haig at last gave up on breakthrough. He switched the focus of his next wave of operations to the north, put Plumer in effective field command and pursued the policy of limited offensive operations foreshadowed at Messines. Plumer launched three tightly focused attacks around the Menin Road at the centre of the front between 20 September and 4 October, each of which succeeded in its very limited objectives but paid a high price in casualties. With the rain still teeming down and conditions for attackers worsening all the time, Haig was at last in a position to call a halt and claim a victory – but Plumer’s efforts had revived the ‘one-more-push’ orthodoxy. Once more convinced that the German Army was all but spent, and grasping one last time at the mirage of sweeping victory, Haig decided to continue the offensive with attacks towards Passchendaele Ridge, some 10km east of Ypres.

This is where the horrors of war so carefully reported by modern heritage commentators get tangled up with the command failures so noisily deplored by their predecessors. The mud was worse than ever while the German Army, far from exhausted, was being rapidly replenished by reinforcements from the east. It had also been supplied with copious amounts of mustard gas, and this took a terrible toll on the first two attacks towards Passchendaele on 9 and 12 October. Both were grotesque failures, gaining tiny amounts of ground at enormous cost, and dispelled any lingering idea that the enemy was crumbling. Haig nevertheless decided to hurl exhausted troops into three more attacks in late October, and to continue the offensive until British and Canadian troops finally took the village of Passchendaele on 6 November.

What Haig did.  Not much really.

This last phase of the battle has been regarded ever since as an unforgivable waste of lives, and the sentiment still occasionally gets an airing amid today’s mawkish memorabilia. Much as I prefer understanding to outrage, it is hard to disagree. Any strategic point to the offensive had vanished well before mid-October, and the only substantial excuse for carrying on regardless seems to have been maintenance of national prestige, not to mention that of the BEF and its commanders.

In the short term, strictly from a British high command perspective, Haig’s prolongation of the agony kind of worked. The British Army didn’t mutiny or collapse, and the British people didn’t give up on the war effort or fall to revolution. Despite lot of criticism from press and politicians – not least from Prime Minister Lloyd George, an ‘Easterner’ who had long been at odds with the Western Front command and had opposed the battle plan from the start – Haig kept his job and went on to plan a few more shots at glory.  In the longer term, Passchendaele has always been the definitive blot on Haig’s reputation and, along with the opening phase of the Somme Offensive in 1916, the principal piece of evidence that British Empire troops on the Western Front were lions led by donkeys.

A hundred years on, controversy around Haig seems to be all but ignored in the popular media, and not because the basic lessons to be learned from his darkest hour have ceased to be relevant. Modern British society may have grown out of treating ordinary soldiers as cannon fodder, but we still need reminding about the dangers of fatally underestimating a foe, and we definitely need to remember that when orthodox methods repeatedly fail to win a battle (against guerilla fighters, terrorists, drug addiction, you name it), it’s time to question the orthodoxy.  Then again, why bother with what actually happened around Ypres in 1917 when you can fill so much consumer space with easy exploitation of humanitarian outrage?