24 OCTOBER, 1917: This Plan Sucks

When the First World War got started everybody knew it couldn’t last long, because the social and economic effort required to fight a war with the massed armies simply couldn’t be sustained for more than a few weeks, even by the world’s richest and powerful empires. The only person of any military or political significance to doubt this blindingly obvious truth in the late summer of 1914 was British war minister Lord Kitchener, who insisted the war would last for years and cost millions of lives but never explained his views.  Given that Kitchener generally gave off an air of enigmatic mysticism, the more normal movers and shakers felt he could be safely ignored.

We know now that the normal people got it wrong.  Military stalemate spurred every nation at war, and in particular the great empires at the conflict’s heart, to previously unimagined levels of industrialisation and organisation that extended their military lifespan beyond anything thought possible in 1914.  The stresses created by their extraordinary responses to the demands of total war eventually helped destroy the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, permanently diminished the British and French, and wrecked Italy’s self-conscious attempt to join the ranks of what were, until 1914, known as the ‘great powers’.

The strategists guiding them were well aware that the War’s big European players were running their systems too hot, and the repeated failure of military efforts to conjure any kind of decisive victory during 1915 reduced them to the desperate resort of attrition.  Effectively a gamble that the enemy’s war effort would crumble first, war of attrition depended on the efforts of Europe’s two strongest and most industrial economies, Germany and Britain.

Although France was just about capable of surviving the hothouse into 1917, the bloodletting at Verdun had confirmed its inability to win a war of attrition against Germany on its own, while neither Russia nor Italy possessed the economic infrastructure to fight one with more than simple manpower.  All three relied on military and economic aid from Britain’s (once bottomless) well of money and goods, and on Britain to make attrition work.

By late 1916 Berlin’s principal allies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, were only able to fight at all because Germany’s astonishing economy was continuing to provide large-scale military and industrial support.  The Third Supreme Command had come to power well aware that a strategy of attrition depended entirely on Germany, and convinced it was doomed to failure.  From the moment the it chose to provoke US involvement by launching an all-out U-boat offensive, attrition was no longer an option for Germany, but it looked like a guaranteed winner for the Allies, albeit in the medium-to-long term and far too late save the Russian Empire, once the US had entered the War in April 1917.

During the summer of 1917 it became clear to both sides that submarines were not going to knock Britain out of the fight anytime soon.  While the British could choose to keep piling into the Western Front, this time around Ypres, in the knowledge that even if Haig’s big offensive failed attrition was on their side, Germany was now in desperate need of a new game-changer.  Ultimately, only a sweeping victory in France would do the trick, but the only hopes of that lay in distraction at least some Allied strength from the Western Front as a preamble to concentrating all German and Austro-Hungarian strength in the theatre.

The most likely theatre to attract large-scale military aid from Britain and France was the Italian Front.  Italy had been promised substantial Allied reinforcement in the event of a crisis, and after more than two years of almost continuous warfare – most of it unsuccessful, all of it attritional – the Italian war effort appeared volatile and fragile enough to collapse in the face of a major military setback.  Unfortunately from Germany’s point of view the Italian Army’s immediate opponent, the Austro-Hungarian Army, was in grave anger of collapse in its own right, in no condition to mount an offensive and only notionally in a position to plan one.

The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Baron Arz von Straussenberg, had replaced the appalling Conrad the previous March, but had little actual influence over the course of the War.  He functioned as a personal advisor to the earnest, reformist young Kaiser Karl, taking instructions rather than formulating policy, and had little say in the dispositions of Austro-Hungarian armies controlled from Berlin through German military advisors.  He kept himself strategically occupied wit proposals to Berlin for joint operations in Italy, and had no more success than his predecessor until mid-September.  Aware that Austrian positions on the Isonzo had barely survived Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s eleventh offensive in the sector – which was only just slowing to a halt – the Third Supreme Command finally said yes, and committed German forces to an attack on the Italian Front.

The attack was launched a century ago today, and is known as either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Caporetto Offensive.  Like so many efficiently conceived and executed German offensive operations in a war defined by victory’s mirage, this one began with a flourish and promised the Earth but couldn’t quite deliver.

The Austrians had proposed a repeat of their 1916 near miss in the Trentino valley, but were overruled by German planners, who prepared a limited offensive intended to buy the Austro-Hungarian Army a breathing space for reconstruction.  Nine Austrian divisions were reinforced by six German divisions drawn from General von Hutier’s highly successful army around Riga, to form the German Fourteenth Army.   Commanded by General Otto von Bülow – not the Karl von Bülow who messed up the invasion of France in 1914 –it concentrated against a lightly defended 25km stretch of the Italian line north of Gorizia, in front of the town of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) .

This one needs a map. Here’s a map.

Well informed of German movements by spies and deserters, Cadorna and the Italian high command reacted to the long-feared news that the Germans were finally coming to the theatre by suspending all offensive operations on the Isonzo – but no attempt was made to take up superior defensive positions in preparation for an attack.  Italian armies merely stopped where they were and adopted a generally defensive posture.

While history has never doubted that this was a mistake, explaining it has been harder.  Cadorna probably underestimated German strength and overestimated the fighting capability of his exhausted troops.  He also seems to have assumed that Italian numerical superiority over the whole front (41 divisions against 35) provided sufficient protection against attack, and ignored the fact that enemy concentration had left Italian forces heavily outnumbered in the Caporetto area.  Defensive preparations weren’t helped when the commander of the Caporetto sector, an inveterate maverick by the name of General Luigi Capello, ignored orders to withdraw his artillery to safe positions across the river and instead deployed his best units for an attack on Bülow’s east flank.

General Cadorna had a good view of the situation – but didn’t see it.

If the Italians were ill-prepared to meet attack, they certainly weren’t ready for General Hutier’s new ‘infiltration tactics’ (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  The main German advance in the centre of the position took Italian defenders by surprise on the morning of 24 October, broke through the lines almost immediately and had stormed forward some 25km by the end of day.  Secondary attacks on either flank were held off by defenders, as was an Austro-Hungarian attempt to push south from positions near the coast, but the collapse at the centre threatened to leave the majority of Capello’s army cut off at the River Tagliamento.

Capello wanted to retreat at the end of the first day, but Cadorna ordered counterattacks in the centre.  They lasted for another six days, and although they failed to block the central gap they did give most Italian troops time to get back across the Tagliamento. German attempts to take a bridgehead beyond the river began on 2 November, prompting Cadorna to order a further retreat to the fast-flowing River Piave, less than 30km north of Venice.

The Italian retreat from Caporetto, not quite headlong but very miserable…

By the time the retreat was complete, on 10 November, the shock of defeat had reverberated around Western Europe.  The somewhat inert liberal government of Paolo Boselli, in power in Italy since June 1916 and already under pressure as the economy lurched into crisis, was voted out of office on 25 October.  New premier Vittorio Orlando, the former interior minister, wasted no time appealing to Britain and France for emergency help, meeting British PM Lloyd George and French premier Painlevé at the north-west Italian port of Rapallo on 5 November.

In line with contingency plans laid out during the spring, Italy’s allies agreed to reverse the recall of heavy artillery lent from the Western Front for Cadorna’s last Italian offensive, and to provide substantial ground and air reinforcements to help stabilise the Italian line at the Piave.  Rapallo also saw the dismissal of Cadorna – on 7 November, at the insistence of the Allies – and creation of the Supreme War Council, originally comprising (as its military representatives) new Italian c-in-c General Diaz, French General Foch and British General Wilson.  Established as a means of curtailing the independence of Italian field commanders, and as such a classic case of shutting the stable door, the Council would eventually mature into a fully unified Allied military command, led by Foch.

Six French and five British divisions from the Western Front reached the Italian front line in early December, but by then the Austro-German offensive had run out of steam.  An attack by two Austrian armies in the Trentino area had opened on 12 November, but was short on reserves and made little progress.  Further east, attacks between the upper Piave and the River Brenta resumed on 13 November, but were held off during five days of heavy fighting.  The battle dragged on into late December, with attacks steadily diminishing in scale, before bad weather and the withdrawal of German units from the theatre halted major operations for the winter.

Although the German high command had orchestrated a stunning victory, it had lacked the resources to complete the job, and had exhausted the last offensive gasp of an enfeebled Austro-Hungarian Army, which would never again mount a successful offensive.  In strategic terms, the transfer of Allied troops from France could be called a minor German success, but in the end it made much less difference to the balance of power on the Western Front than it did on the Italian.

The Italian Army lost 300,000 men at Caporetto, all but 30,000 of them as prisoners, as well as most of its artillery, but it survived and would be strengthened from now on by Allied involvement in the theatre, which brought both a continuous stream of reinforcements and a major reorganisation programme.  What’s more the threat of invasion silenced the rising crescendo of popular pacifism in Italy, as public opinion reacted as it had done at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive in 1916, uniting behind the government and military in time of national crisis.  So the Third Supreme Command’s best-laid plans, intended to knock Italy out of the conflict, had instead breathed new life into a failing Italian war effort.

If there’s a point to this story it’s that even the most careful plans for war – about its size, its length or its strategic direction, not to mention its tactical details and aftermaths – are never much more than blind guesswork.  History, particularly heritage history, inevitably draws on the rationalisations of participants to give war a coherent narrative, to make its outcomes look planned, but war is always a time of chaos and none of the plans has ever worked.

10 OCTOBER, 1917: National Stereotypes

The big story in the British press a hundred years ago was still the Third Battle of Ypres, as it was then being called, which was in the throes of another British reboot, distinguished by contemporaries and posterity as the Battle of Poelcapelle.  This latest phase of the fighting achieved very little for the Allies at substantial cost for both sides, and although British newspapers were accentuating the positives for all they were worth, faithfully trumpeting every inch of ground gained and every German casualty, their tone had lately undergone an increasingly familiar shift of focus.

Although everyone was able to be relatively honest about their generally successful defensive operations, the press on the attacking side greeted any major wartime offensive with confident predictions of a great victory.  Haig’s latest offensives were no different, but as hopes of success floundered in Flanders mud readers were being let down gently with reports that spoke less about the strategic situation, more about the horror of the carnage and the bravery of the troops.

This quiet evasion of uncomfortable truths was characteristic of wartime internal propaganda produced by liberal democracies, and was more subtle than the big lies about the big picture perpetrated by German propagandists conditioned to regard the body politic as intrinsically hostile.  Though hardly convincing  to a public accustomed to reading between the lines after three years of war, it did make allowances for natural scepticism and trusted its target audience to respond positively to sugar coated bad news.  As such it spared populations the kind of visceral shock administered to Germany when the truth got out, as mentioned in my last post – but before we get too comfortable with liberal democracies it’s worth noting that all they shared a propensity for other, less inclusive forms of internal propaganda.

We’re the good guys, OK? The British government knew what its people wanted to hear.

When it came to persuading populations that they were on the side of the angels, that their government and armed forces were honourable reflections of the home culture’s intrinsically superior morality, nobody’s propaganda was willing to trust its audience.  By way of illustration, British newspapers on 10 October also carried a small story about four Swedish merchant ships seized in UK ports. According to the reports, the ships had been commandeered for their own good because, although they flew the Swedish flag, they were partly British-owned and therefore likely to be attacked anyway by German warships.

Leaving aside the assumption that German naval officers were extraordinarily well informed about the ownership details of neutral merchantmen, one elephant in the room here was the fact that losses to U-boats, though less than catastrophic since the establishment of a convoy system, still left the British desperate to use any excuse to grab any merchant shipping within reach. Informed readers may well have understood and forgiven this, but a second elephant was more carefully concealed.   A public conditioned to view Britain as the much-loved global policeman, protecting the world from aggressive militarism, wasn’t being told that the British regarded neutral Swedish shipping as fair game.

Of the northern European states known in Britain as the ‘adjacent neutrals’ – the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden – the constitutional monarchy of Sweden was by far the most pro-German.  The country enjoyed strong cultural and economic links with Germany and had long regarded Berlin as the natural counterweight to the enemy it most feared, expansionist Russia. Though quick to declare its neutrality in August 1914, Sweden had at the same time signed a secret agreement to maintain a ‘benevolent’ attitude towards Germany, an arrangement at least partly motivated by a desire to forestall any German aggression.

Like the other adjacent neutrals, Sweden faced a combination of bullying and indulgence from both sides as the War progressed, because while the regionally relevant belligerent powers – Germany, Britain and Russia – wanted to prevent Swedish trade with their enemies, they also needed Swedish cooperation.

Germany relied heavily on Sweden as one of the few places willing and able to maintain trade links during the British blockade, and above all as a major supplier of desperately needed horses.  Britain’s imports from Sweden included important iron ore and timber supplies, and British diplomats fretted about Sweden’s attitude towards Russia and the Eastern Front.  Early in the War, before the development of Murmansk as an ice-free port, Sweden was the only viable through-route for Allied supplies to Russia, but London and St. Petersburg were always aware that any signs of German victory in the east might persuade Sweden to join the Central Powers for a share of the spoils.

Sweden going to war was less likely than the Allies imagined. Though a noisy Activist Party lobbied consistently for an alliance with Berlin, winning support from significant minorities within all social groups and strong backing from the military, sound commercial instincts and the pacifist preference of the majority kept the Stockholm government committed to formal neutrality throughout the War.

The fact remained that Germany mattered more to Sweden than Britain.  Sweden was less dependent than its neutral neighbours on British imports, and found it could replace most them with German imports when the British flexed their blockade muscles by curtailing supplies, while Germany was both the enemy of Sweden’s Russian enemy and, if provoked, a potential invader .

Though the Swedish government was apt to make a show of reluctance, it bowed to a series of German demands during the first two years of the War.  It agreed to black out Swedish lighthouses and mined the strait between Sweden and Denmark, both by way of keeping British warships out of the Baltic, and it banned the overland passage of military equipment en route for Russia.  Sweden was also the only European neutral to back Germany in the propaganda war, with government and press supporting Berlin’s take on Belgian atrocities, submarine warfare and most other controversial issues.  This was all perfectly legal, and in response the British could only impound Swedish ships, blacklist Swedish businesses and attempt to negotiate guarantees from the Swedish government against the re-export of goods to Germany.

By the end of 1916 the negotiations had achieved nothing much in the face of intransigence from Swedish premier Hammerskjöld, who had headed an essentially pro-German cabinet of conservative and business interests since the beginning of the War.  Facing nationwide food shortages and high unemployment, byproducts of the British blockade, and under pressure from its right-wing supporters to prepare the military for war, Hammerskjöld’s government eventually fell in early 1917.  The new conservative cabinet reopened negotiations with Britain, but no practical progress had been made by September, when the Luxburg Affair broke.

The laugh out loud paragraph here is the one about London’s astonishment.

During the summer US intelligence had intercepted and deciphered a cable to Berlin from a German diplomat in Argentina, Count Luxburg, recommending the sinking of Argentine merchant ships. At London’s behest, Washington delayed exposure of the cable, and the fact that it had been sent via the Swedish consular service, until just before Swedish elections.  The scandal stressed but didn’t break the Argentine government’s generally good relations with Germany, but revelation of such a clear breach of neutrality regulations did help defeat the conservatives in Sweden.  Engineering a change of government didn’t do the British much good, because the liberal coalition that took power under premier Nils Éden proved no less amenable to German influence and hardly more interested in reaching agreement with the Allies, dragging out negotiations until a re-export accord was eventually signed in May 1918.

The internal stresses exacerbated by wartime neutrality did complicate the lives of Swedish people and encourage post-war political reform (which expanded the franchise and concentrated executive power in parliamentary hands), but Sweden’s was hardly the most significant or dramatic of the War’s many diplomatic tightrope acts.  It is one of the least the least well known, partly because heritage history – the stuff peddled to the public via mass media, and arguably a form of state propaganda in fancy dress – has had reasons to forget the troubled wartime relationship between Britain and Sweden.

Sweden had peace but no quiet – the war years saw a surge in popular protests demanding constitutional reform

The Swedish public hasn’t been encouraged to dwell on a situation that might tarnish its generally well-deserved reputation, in Britain as elsewhere, for non-aligned fair dealing through the violence and geopolitical duplicity of the twentieth century.  Meanwhile British heritage history likes to preserve the righteousness of its Victorian heyday, and seldom questions the orthodoxies of modern international relations.  Given that it ignores almost anything that doesn’t fit its Tommy-centred, liberal agenda, it’s hardly likely to spotlight a time when the British government treated Sweden as an enemy in all but name and seized the country’s ships as a form of profitable punishment.  So I’m giving it a mention.

9 OCTOBER, 1917: Home Truth

A century ago today, the German parliament – the Reichstag – debated an incident that had taken place more than two months earlier but been kept quiet by the government.  Conducted in public session, the debate shattered an illusion that was precious to the German people and vital to the German war effort.

The incident in question had taken place at the naval base of Wilhelmshaven on 2 August, when some 400 sailors of the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold mutinied. The Prinzregent Luitpold was one of the most modern dreadnoughts attached to the High Seas Fleet, but like other major German warships it had been largely inactive for a year, relegated to secondary status after the fleet’s perceived failure at Jutland had convinced the German high command to devote all possible resources to submarine warfare. Bored, on short rations and subject to iron discipline by officers on permanent alert for revolutionary tendencies, the sailors had marched into Wilhelmshaven demanding immediate peace and better working conditions. Quickly pacified by troops, they had soon returned to work, but 75 of them were imprisoned and two ringleaders were executed.

The Prinzregent Luitpold, because we like a handsome old battleship.  Shame it functioned as little more than a floating prison for miserable matelots…

The illusion in question was the belief, assiduously fostered by state propaganda, that the German military was not just the best in the world (which almost went without saying and was probably true) but was in fine fighting fettle and on the brink of great victories.  Made public because the end of the German political truce, or Burgfreiden, had freed opposition parties to expose government scandals (14 July, 1917, Stuck In The Middle), the almost unthinkable news of German servicemen refusing to fight, together with the deeply unsettling news that the government had been covering up the mutiny, delivered a massive shock to popular opinion.  Popular belief in victory and the regime would recover, at least among the middle classes, but faith in the Navy was permanently shaken by consequent revelations of crisis and dispute among its commanders. The debate has since been credited with opening the first cracks in the hitherto rock solid edifice of the German war effort.

The military-industrial dictatorship that had been running Germany since August 1916 – the Third Supreme Command – had founded its strategies on the false premise that the German war effort was anything but rock solid, and that only total military victory would restrain a body politic on the brink of revolution.  In fact, popular faith in a national system that had brought soaring wealth, quality of life and global influence during the previous decades had never really faltered during the first two years of the conflict, and dedicated commitment to the war effort was basic to most Germans until the Armistice.  Revolution was meanwhile far less likely in mid-1916 than it had seemed in the years before the War, and had been kept off the immediate political agenda by the parliamentary truce.

A year later the truce was dead in the water, while a paranoid regime’s coercive social and economic policies were in the process of fostering the very revolution it feared.  The government’s reaction to the August mutiny and its response to the October debate were both symptoms of this self-fulfilling paranoia.

As the Reichstag debate made fairly clear, and subsequent studies have confirmed, the Wilhelmshaven mutineers were strikers demanding better treatment.  The regime treated them as revolutionaries, leaving grievances unsatisfied and widespread resentment within the ranks, exacerbated by executions that were generally viewed as judicial murder.  This provided fertile ground for revolutionary agitation among the crews of the High Seas Fleet and, still without any significant military role to play, they would become thoroughly radicalised during the following months.  When, a year later, crews at Wilhelmshaven mutinied on a much larger scale, they would be calling for revolution.

The October debate brought a government response that managed to be paranoid, clumsy and counterproductive all at once.  Imperial Chancellor Georg Michaelis, the first commoner to hold the office, had been a compromise choice to succeed Bethmann-Hollweg during the summer.  Forced on the Third Supreme Command after the Kaiser rejected its first two candidates, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz, he was selected because he got on well with Wilhelm and because, although he had no kind of parliamentary power base, he was considered capable of managing the Reichstag.  Little more than a mouthpiece for the supreme command, Michaelis attempted to blame the relatively moderate parliamentary socialists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the August mutiny, a ridiculous claim that left him without a shred of credibility in an outraged Reichstag and triggered his resignation at the end of the month.

Georg Michaelis – a leader every bit as as inspiring as he looked.

The next chancellor, veteran Bavarian academic and politician Georg von Hertling, was a virtual nonentity in his mid-seventies, with neither the influence nor the energy to mediate between the Reichstag, the supreme command and the Kaiser.  That he remained in office until October 1918 reflected the end of the need for cooperation between them, as reformists in the Reichstag abandoned hope of state cooperation and turned to popular support, the Third Supreme Command abandoned the pretext of governance through consent, and the Kaiser sank into a royal torpor born of impotence in the face of what he now saw as his inevitable downfall.

The Allies had enough agents providing enough information about German life to recognise the political fires fuelled by the October debate, and Allied newspapers were full of speculation about the impending collapse of German national unity in its wake. Like most ‘big picture’ propaganda, designed to foster hopes of a quick and total victory, the stories were taken with a pinch of salt by most British or French readers, but three years of warfare had failed to generate the same level of healthy scepticism among German citizens.

German internal propaganda, state and private, was a much less flexible instrument than its British, French or American counterparts, shielding the public and most politicians from all bad news and leaving them with no inkling of Germany’s true position. The glimpse of the truth provided by the Reichstag debate on 9 October, and the palpable shock it applied to German civilian life, reflected the brittle nature of a society functioning under a shared illusion.  When the edifice was torn away, suddenly and completely, at the end of the War, German society collapsed into violent, anarchic revolution.

Harder than the rest… classic First World War propaganda for Germans.

I was about to sign off by calling the debate a straw in the wind of fundamental change, but it was more like a breeze block in a gale.  It delivered a blow to German society and leadership that left them functioning – still marching forward along an ever more fragile tightrope – but concussed and ready to collapse.  That’s what happens when truth escapes the smothering grasp of leaders peddling fake new:  the harder it comes, the harder they fall.

28 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Wheels Come Off

I’ve made the point before that the First World War was largely fought on foot and horseback, but is often defined for posterity by its mechanised elements, or rather by some of them. While aircraft, tanks, massive guns, big warships and submarines attract most of the modern world’s attention, pretty much in that order, the practical importance of less vaunted machines tends to be overlooked. Motorbikes and light railways spring to mind, but today marks the centenary of the Battle of Ramadi, an engagement that featured another prime example of unsung technology.

A strategically marginal but comprehensive Anglo-Indian victory on the Mesopotamian Front, Ramadi was the last success of General Maude’s tenure as theatre commander, and owed much to one of the most useful and least celebrated military vehicles of the day – the armoured car.

On the River Euphrates, 30km west of Falluja, the town of Ramadi was an important local irrigration point. In September 1917 it was also a centre for black market sales of food to Ottoman forces further north, and it housed the largest concentration of Ottoman troops in the vicinity of British-held Baghdad. In July, it had been the target of the only Anglo-Indian operation on the front during the summer, but an attack by a single motorised column had been repulsed by a thousand or so disciplined defenders. The attackers had lost 566 casualties, two-thirds of them to the sweltering heat.

Temperatures were slightly lower by late September, when the British made a second, more determined effort to take the town. On 28 September, a division moved up the east bank of the Euphrates towards Ramadi, where some 4,000 Ottoman regulars were deployed in expectation of an attack close to the bank of the river. By sending armoured cars and cavalry to circle behind Ramadi and cut the road north to Hit, British field commander General Brooking was able to surround the defenders once his infantry had stormed ridges overlooking the town. British cavalry picked off a few attempts to break out of the cordon overnight, and the garrison surrendered next morning.

Look carefully, you’ll find Ramadi, Falluja and Hit.  Mosul and its oilfields are easier to spot…

The armoured cars received great credit for the victory from the British press, and by the autumn of 1917 they had proved their worth time and again – when used in the right circumstances. They could reach distant targets quickly and provide infantry with rapid mobile support, like cavalry but with greater protection and firepower, but they needed relatively open terrain, ideally with roads or tracks to follow.

Armoured cars had evolved from the ordinary road vehicles used by European empires for colonial policing. By 1914 all the Entente armies were using standard production cars, armoured and carrying a machine-gun or light artillery piece. By the end of the year purpose-built cars were in service, and later models were fitted with a revolving central turret.

The Allies used a lot of these light armoured cars, basically civilian vehicles decked out with a bit of armour plate and machine-gun.

At the very beginning of the War the Belgian Army had been the first to deploy armoured cars in combat. The success of Belgian Minerva models in hit-and-run raids persuaded the German Army, which had previously only used armoured cars as anti-aircraft defences for observation balloons, to develop designs of its own. Not untypically, German designers ignored the improvised nature of other armies’ cars and came up with much bigger, heavier vehicles, heavily-armoured and powerfully armed, that proved prohibitively cumbersome on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Only a few dozen were built, most of them the Erhardt model that would go on to serve as a policing weapon into the 1930s, and the German Army was forced to use captured Allied vehicles when armoured cars were needed in numbers during the War’s last campaigns.

By way of contrast, the heavy German Ehrhardt car took armoured protection seriously.

As initially deployed with British, French and Belgian forces on the Western Front, armoured cars were used as mobile strongpoints for infantry support, but once trench warfare was established their tactical value was very limited, and they were anyway almost useless in the theatre’s heavily broken terrain. They came into their own in more open conditions, and though eventually important during of the final offensives on the Western Front they were generally most effective in the less confined spaces away from the main European battlefields. No surprise then, given its global commitments, that the British Empire made by far the most enthusiastic and widespread wartime use of armoured cars.

The first British vehicles in France and Belgium were crewed by Royal Navy and Royal Naval Air Service personnel.  Naval operatives continued to crew armoured cars deployed in African and other colonial outposts,  and a small Navy unit was sent, along with Belgian cars, to fight under Russian command during the latter stages of the campaign in Romania, but by 1915 armoured cars had otherwise been incorporated into the Army’s operational structure. As such they were initially deployed in units of four vehicles, either as Armoured Motor Batteries using heavy, purpose-built Rolls Royce machines (as pictured above the title), or as Light Armoured Car Batteries equipped with adapted British or US production models. By 1917 the types were being deployed together in eight-car Light Armoured Motor Batteries, or LAMBs, often crewed by imperial troops.

British armoured cars enjoyed their greatest successes in desert conditions, against the Senussi tribes of Libya (13 December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), during the conquest of Palestine in 1918, and above all as the spearhead of guerilla attacks on Ottoman supply lines during the Arab Revolt.  Their part in the victory at Ramadi was a rare case of opportunity and terrain combining to make the most of their tactical potential in less open spaces, and their luck didn’t last long.

British prisoners rescued from Senussi tribesmen by armoured cars in 1916. The cars were commanded by Major Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, just so you know.

Once Ramadi had fallen, Brooking made an immediate attempt to capture the town of Hit, which guarded the road linking Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates. A completely motorised force of 400 infantry in lorries, with ambulances and armoured cars in support, set out for Hit on 1 October, but a poor road proved too much for the vehicles and the attempt was abandoned next morning.

So yes, armoured cars were more useful and important to First World War fighters than posterity cares to notice, and there’s no real excuse for leaving them out of the picture, but overall they couldn’t be called a successful weapon. Like all the latest forms of motorised transport available to contemporary armed forces (everything but ships and trains), they were still in a relatively primitive stage of development, too fragile in battle conditions to fundamentally change a tactical and strategic picture that still, on the whole, belonged to men on foot and horseback.

There’s your problem.

21 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Tried Teamwork?

A century ago, Costa Rica severed diplomatic relations with Germany. This didn’t make a lot of difference to the First World War. Costa Rica didn’t actually declare war on Germany until the following May, its tiny army was still preparing for action when the War ended and becoming a belligerent made no substantial difference to the country’s economic position.  So why did Costa Rica bother to get involved?  The answers to that question are straightforward enough, but only when taken in the context of South American geopolitics during the early twentieth century – so here’s a slice of very general context.

Most former colonies of Spain and Portugal had gained their independence during the early nineteenth century.  Most had come into being because their former colonial administrators had broken ties with feeble European governments to seize control for themselves, and most had been involved in long, expensive wars of independence that left the new republics in a state of economic and political disarray.

For several decades, most Latin American ruling elites lived in fear of European re-conquest while seeking to develop transatlantic trading links.  As they found markets for raw materials and agricultural produce in Europe and the USA, increased prosperity brought rapid socio-economic development in and around the coastal areas that had served as colonial trading hubs.  This developmental spurt had relatively little impact across vast swathes of the interior, which remained poor, relatively lawless and politically ill-defined – fertile ground for rebellions and border disputes.  Development also came at an economic cost, encouraging large-scale loans and investment from Europe (and, as the century grew old, the US) that left most of the continent’s governments heavily in debt and left increasingly important export sectors dependent on the whims of European and US markets.

The trade boom fed the rich, inflation starved the poor… general strike in Sao Paulo, 1917.

From about the 1880s, the process of ‘Europeanisation’ accentuated the social divisions and tensions promoted along these fault lines of inequality.  When framing more stable and prosperous futures for their fledgling republics, ethnically European ruling elites turned naturally for inspiration towards Europe, and particularly towards the ‘socially successful’ liberal democracies of Britain and France.

Major cities, particularly in the southern republics, were self-consciously modelled on their European counterparts, maintaining strong cultural and communications links with the European world, and as part of a generalised tendency to compete aggressively with ethnic cultures considered inferior, Europeans were encouraged to follow the money and emigrate to the up and coming continent, the ‘new Europe’.  Millions took up the offer in the decades leading up the First World War, with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany providing the biggest immigrant populations.

Clued-in as they were when it came to the latest strands of European news and ideas, Latin America’s ruling oligarchies shared the view that the first years of the twentieth century were a time of rapidly approaching, world-shaking change.  Europe, it was felt, was heading for a conflagration that might threaten its place at the head of the world, and this prospect was generally viewed as an opportunity to advance their visions of modern, economically stable, independent states based on liberal (if racist) principles.  On the other hand, over and above the need to address social, political and economic instability, they also knew what the expected European war could do for the imperialist ambitions – overt and growing, economic and geopolitical – of the western hemisphere’s emerging, aggressive and potentially dominant great power, the United States.

When European war erupted, all the Latin American nations immediately declared neutrality for essentially the same reasons as the USA:  they had no formal obligations to the powers at war; they wanted to keep trading with both sides; and those with large European immigrant populations wanted to avoid trouble between them.

Maintaining neutrality was easier than coping with its effects.  The dramatic flight of European money from the continent after August 1914, along with consequent crises in the import and export sectors, seemed to presage an economic slump that would leave the door wide open for dollar dominance of regional economies.  By 1915 it was becoming clear that the opposite was true, as mushrooming demand for raw materials (Bolivian tin, Peruvian copper, Argentine meat and Chilean nitrates, to cite a few important examples) brought unprecedented wealth into Latin America – but the boom only pushed economies further into the grip of US interests, because rapidly expanding export sectors needed venture finance, and Wall Street was now its only available source.

Export boom and spiralling commodity prices meanwhile brought wealth to the powerful few and rapid inflation to everyone, creating hardship among the impoverished many across the continent. Poverty and hunger fuelled social tensions and socialist tendencies among the masses, fed the political instability that underlay the post-colonial republics, and prompted repressive reactions from many ruling oligarchies.

So neutral Latin American governments were juggling economic boom, a rising challenge from the masses and the looming juggernaut of US economic imperialism.  They also faced constant diplomatic and propaganda pressure from the Entente, which was determined to cut off all trade to the Central Powers, and from Germany, which spent the next three years dangling unlikely carrots to encourage behaviour that might distract Washington from European affairs.  Meanwhile a continuous chorus of demonstrations from European ethnic groups, for or against both sides, was increasingly trumped by more widespread popular demands for action, usually in response to attacks on Latin American shipping by German U-boats.

These were the parameters within which Latin American nations remained more or less solidly neutral until April 1917, when the US declaration of war against Germany, and Washington’s call for all American states to join the Allied side, forced them into some kind of repositioning.

You are here, 1917.

Of the four biggest Latin American economies, only Brazil reacted by joining the Allies, although it took loss of Brazilian lives to a U-boat attack and a consequent spike in popular anti-German sentiment to push the government beyond pro-Allied platitudes into a declaration of war in October 1917.  In Mexico, a nationalist, anti-US regime remained neutral throughout the conflict, taking German money and fostering pro-German sentiment while wrestling with revolutionary turmoil, supplying the British Royal Navy with oil and almost daring Washington to intervene further in its internal affairs.

The Argentine government of President Irigoyen was equally hostile to the US, deaf to the pro-Allied sentiments of its British, French and Italian citizens, and focused on extracting maximum profit from trade with both sides.  Irigoyen refused US requests for support after April 1917, and made an unsuccessful attempt to convene a conference of Latin American nations that would isolate Washington.  Argentina finally agreed to sell surplus crops to the Allies in May 1918, but the government’s overtly nationalist position left the country diplomatically isolated in the War’s aftermath, albeit in credit for the first time in its history.  Chile, the region’s other big player, pursued a similar line once it had satisfied Allied demands for use of German-owned nitrate output, and paid a high price for wartime profiteering when peace brought its boom to an end. Sudden mass poverty and unemployment fuelled a violent class struggle, and diplomatic isolation left it vulnerable to attacks from neighbours.

The neighbours in question were Bolivia and Peru.  Elements of both societies were already enjoying unprecedented prosperity though trade with the Allies, and both followed the US lead in breaking relations with Germany in 1917.  Partly motivated by popular outage at German submarine attacks, but largely by the (ultimately vain) hope that Washington would support their long-standing territorial claims on Chile.  Uruguay also chose solidarity with the US in 1917, partly because it cherished good relations with Brazil, but also because Germans living in southern Brazil had long threatened to colonise Uruguay for the Fatherland, making Germany particularly unpopular in Montevideo.

The rest of Central America and the Caribbean were, on the whole, too close to the USA to have much choice about their support for Washington, and some of them – Cuba, Panama, Haiti, the modern Dominican Republic and Nicaragua – were either officially or unofficially under US control by 1917.  Of those that remained fully independent, the government of Honduras eventually went to war in 1918, preferring US support to that of an influential German population that took its post-War revenge by sponsoring rebellion, while Guatemala’s dictatorial regime went to war as a means of grabbing massive German investments in the country for itself.

Further south, strict neutrality was a more a feasible option for small countries.  Although German provocation and diplomatic clumsiness eventually drove Ecuador to  declare war, Venezuela and Colombia maintained their neutrality until the end and traded with both sides, the latter in part motivated by lingering fury at US sponsorship of Panamanian independence.   Paraguay, poor landlocked and comfortably controlled by a small European elite, was able to virtually ignore the War, remaining uncontroversially neutral and merely stating its broad support for whatever the US was doing.

That just leaves my excuse for this self-indulgent ramble, Costa Rica. Costa Rica had entered the twentieth century as it would enter the twenty-first, as an example of tranquil stability.  It enjoyed a balanced economic relationship with Europe and the US, based on banana and coffee exports, and provided a calm, peaceful political environment for its 400,000 or so inhabitants – but it was undergoing an unusual period of political unrest during the First World War.

After a general election in 1913 had failed to produce an overall majority for any of the country’s three major parties, Alfredo Gonzales became president of the republic in May 1914.  A compromise candidate, he introduced a raft of popular reforms and is now regarded as a founding father of Costa Rican democracy, but as loss of European markets plunged the country’s economy into crisis he was overthrown by a military coup in January 1917.  The new regime of former war minister President Frederico Tinoco was anything but popular, and set about seeking support from the only nation in the world that could guarantee the survival of any Central American government, the USA.

Backed by the military, hated by everyone else, Tinoco didn’t last long.

It didn’t work, and Wilson’s administration refused to recognise Tinoco’s government.  A blatantly rigged election didn’t help, and Washington ignored an offer to station military forces in Costa Rica as extra protection for the Panama Canal, so Tinoco broke diplomatic relations with Germany on 21 September in the hope of changing Wilson’s mind.  That didn’t work either, but then again it didn’t do Costa Rica much harm, given that the country’s 600-strong standing army and its two naval gunboats saw no wartime action.

Costa Rica wasn’t invited to the post-War peace conference (and therefore didn’t sign the peace treaty, remaining technically at war with Germany until after the Second World War), and Washington supported the coup that overthrew Tinoco in August 1919.  The next president lasted two weeks, but subsequent leaders had restored peaceful, stable democracy to the country by the early 1920s.

The varied Latin American responses to Washington’s declaration of war had one thing in common – a failure to cooperate.  Apart from a fruitless joint meeting with US financial authorities in 1915, Latin American republics made no wartime attempt to meet geopolitical and economic pressures with a united front.  Nobody can say if solidarity, even among a few leading nations, could have curtailed US political and economic influence, controlled economic instability or addressed mounting social unrest.  It can be said that continent-wide pursuit of individual national interests – in many cases the very narrow interests of a ruling elite – exacerbated all of those problems, and that they all brought big trouble to Latin America for the rest of the twentieth century.