11 DECEMBER, 1917: Marquee Signing

As may well be obvious, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the ridiculous way posterity – another word for popular history – devalues the crucial role in our development played by the First World War.  Whenever that bee starts buzzing, and I feel the need to irritate some innocent interlocutor with a blockbuster example of why we should look back beyond Hitler’s war to find blueprints for the modern, the first words out of my mouth usually involve the Middle East.

I think it’s safe to call the modern Middle East a mess, and I never cease to be amazed by how little attention we pay to the fundamental links between what was done to the region during the Great War and how it stands today.  By way of illustration, and by a neat coincidence (I hesitate to call it happy), the eyes of the modern world are on exactly the same spot that dominated the news a century ago, because on 11 December 1917 the British Empire formally occupied Jerusalem.

In strictly military terms, Jerusalem was not the most important target for General Allenby’s British armies invading Palestine, because it could easily be bypassed on the way to the far more strategically valuable prizes of Baghdad or Damascus.  On the other hand, although the city wasn’t quite the symbolic powder keg it is today (no Israel, obviously), it was considered sacred by all the major biblical religions and it was central to the faltering religious prestige of the Ottoman Empire.  So Allenby, who had anyway taken command under orders from Prime Minister Lloyd George to capture Jerusalem by Christmas, had little choice about attacking the city, and Ottoman forces were bound to defend it.

Only as is important as you think it is – Jerusalem in 1917.

In the aftermath of defeat at Gaza in late October, the 15,000-strong remnant of the Ottoman Seventh Army had fallen back on positions southwest of Jerusalem to await reinforcement from the Germano-Turkish Yilderim Force, most of which was en route for the front under the command of regional c-in-c Falkenhayn.  Allenby meanwhile cut railway links between the two Ottoman armies, took up positions for an advance on Jerusalem and, from mid-November, paused to consolidate supplies and bring up his own reinforcements (31 October, 1917: Promised Land).

It’s a messy, complicated map, but if you look hard it’s all here.

Afraid that the arrival of Yilderim Force would be a game changer, the British didn’t pause for long.  Allenby launched an attack against the Seventh Army’s positions west of Jerusalem on 18 November, backed by a secondary advance up the coast to the River Auja. Hampered more by the winter rains than by Ottoman resistance, the main advance had almost reached Jerusalem when it turned north on 21 November.  The turn was intended to cut the road to Nablus, where Falkenhayn had set up his headquarters, and to surround Jerusalem – but it also reflected a prior (and indeed PR) arrangement made between Allenby and Falkenhayn to avoid fighting in or around the holy city if at all possible.  The plan was in any case thwarted by strong Ottoman defence of elevated positions to the west of the road, and the British advance came to a halt after two days of heavy, costly fighting.

Meanwhile the secondary coastal attack had degenerated into static warfare after making some progress but failing to cross the Auja, and the same fate subsequently befell two relatively minor Ottoman counterattacks – one against lightly defended positions just inland from the coast, the other from the east by the vanguard of Yilderim forces against the British rearguard north of the city, at Nabi Samweil.  By the end of November the whole front was stable, if busy, giving Allenby time to bring up his reinforcements and cement a considerable numerical advantage.

Allenby renewed his attacks in pouring rain on the night of 7/8 December, when infantry, supported by mobile artillery, advanced on the Jerusalem suburbs along the main road from the west, and a second force approached the city from the south, via Bethlehem. The main attack was launched without a preliminary bombardment and achieved complete surprise, driving defenders back some 7km by dawn and reaching positions south and east of Nabi Samweil by evening, when operations were temporarily suspended to allow the secondary advance to catch up.  Hopelessly outnumbered, demoralised and all but surrounded, surviving Ottoman units used the pause to escape, and by the morning of 9 December the entire force north of Jerusalem was in full retreat towards Jericho and Nablus.

Despite regular attacks by RFC aircraft, the remains of the Seventh Army got away, because heavy rain and thick mud made pursuit on the ground virtually impossible.  Meanwhile Jerusalem’s fate was sealed, and the city formally surrendered to the Allies on 10 December.  The surrender in fact took place three times, initially to the first British troops encountered by city authorities, then to the nearest divisional general and finally, when he arrived in Jerusalem on 11 December, to Allenby himself.

Along with the adventures of Lawrence, Allenby’s well-orchestrated acceptance of the surrender is the best-remembered aspect of Britain’s entire Middle Eastern campaign during the First World War.  Both the orchestration and its long-term impact reflect an enormous British propaganda effort at the time.

Lloyd George knew what he was doing when he demanded the capture of Jerusalem because, regardless of the city’s military importance, it was far and away the most famous prize taken by Allied forces during the War so far.  After a year of miserable disappointments on every European front – encompassing the Nivelle and Ypres offensives, near disaster in Italy and the collapse of Russia – the prime minister understood how badly a worried British public needed to revel in Allenby’s ‘Christmas present’.

For the record, and for that matter recorded by a small army of press photographers and a film camera, Allenby dismounted his horse at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate and entered the city on foot.  Coming from a man who had long cultivated a reputation for high moral standards, the gesture was generally accepted as the expression of humility it was intended to be, but it was also intended to strike an obvious contrast with the behaviour of Wilhelm II.  The Kaiser had generated almost as much publicity on his state visit of 1898, but had arrived on a white horse at the head of a big parade and been perceived in the Arab world as arrogant (perish the thought!).

When the fuss had died down, British forces by the coast finally crossed the Auja after a surprise attack on 20 December, and Allenby prepared to defend Jerusalem against the counterattack expected once the rest of Yilderim Force joined up with the Seventh Army.  The attack came during the night of 26/27 December, against the Khadase Ridge just north of Jerusalem, but Falkenhayn’s 20,000 combat troops made no progress against 33,000 defenders, and by 28 December it had turned into a retreat on Jericho.  A combination of bad weather and mutual exhaustion then forced suspension of major operations in the theatre until the spring, by which time the British high command had put further advances in Mesopotamia on hold and made preparations for a decisive offensive in Palestine.

British blanket coverage of Jerusalem’s fall was all about national glory…
… but the New York Herald’s coverage managed a scary,  21st-century feel.

Noisily though the fanfares blared in Britain for Allenby’s success, the Ottoman Empire’s loss of Jerusalem was much bigger and more important news to the Arab world in 1917. Imperial prestige, or lack of it, was a major factor determining the loyalty of tribal societies, and the Arab Revolt’s recruitment efforts benefitted accordingly. Meanwhile the Ottoman regime, no longer able to pin its hopes on the offensive potential of Yilderim Force, turned its back on the Empire’s evaporating southern territories.  Inspired by war minister Enver Pasha’s boundlessly optimistic ambition, it instead committed dwindling resources to an ill-judged and ultimately disastrous attempt to exploit Russian military collapse by expansion into the Caucasus.

In the longer term, British occupation of Jerusalem turned out to be big news for the whole world. The British remained in control of the city, one way or another, for thirty years, and had shaped most of the Middle East to suit their strategic priorities by the time they departed in 1947.  They left behind a set of arrangements that, whatever your viewpoint, are still dangerous for everyone, so dangerous that these days all it takes are a few ill-chosen words about Jerusalem to set the whole world on edge.  There you go: the First World War did that.

6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?

For more than three hundred years, ever since Peter the Great turned his empire’s expanding ambitions westward, life in the lands between Russia and the rest of Europe has been fraught with danger.  On the front line, Georgia, the Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic States have been subject to serial conquest or oppression from east and west, and regular devastation as the venues for wars between their powerful neighbours, while geopolitics has been almost equally unkind to a second line of frontier states in southeastern Europe – think Warsaw Pact.

One way or another, whether as provinces of collapsing empires or as sovereign nations, all these states suffered appallingly during both world wars, but for most of the First World War one such frontier zone, very much on the front line between Russia and Europe, was left in peace by both sides.  I’m talking about Finland, which announced what amounted to its debut on the wartime front pages by declaring national independence on 6 December 1917.   So how did Finland get so lucky?

Finland had formed the eastern third of Sweden until the early 19th century, when Swedish involvement in the Napoleonic wars left it vulnerable to invasion.  Diplomatically isolated after Napoleon’s French Empire agreed a (short-lived) peace with the Russian Empire in 1807, and already in dispute with Denmark about control over Norway, Sweden faced war on two fronts when Russian forces entered Finland in 1808, and ceded the province to Russia as part of the treaty that ended the war the following year.

Finland remained an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire until 1917, with the Tsar holding the title of Grand Duke, but its national identity developed in the meantime.  By 1914 the Finnish language, as spoken by the peasant majority of the country’s three million people, had become established as a legitimate alternative to the official Swedish still spoken by the wealthy and bureaucratic classes (some 15 percent of the population), and in spite of an aggressive programme of linguistic and cultural Russification imposed by St. Petersburg since the turn of the twentieth century.

You can see why Finland worried about Russian expansion. Vaasa is on the Bothnian coast, about halfway between Turku and Oulu.

The Finnish Party, formed during the 1860s, represented pure political nationalism in Finland when the War began.  The Swedish-speaking elite meanwhile dominated the politics of liberal reform, which tended inevitably towards independence, and pro-Russian groups provided noisy, well-funded opposition to nationalist politics. Recent industrialisation around Helsinki, and conscription into the Russian Army (begun in 1901 as part of the Russification programme), had encouraged the spread of socialism among an active minority of workers and intellectuals, but they were split into internationalist and pro-nationalist groups.  During the next two and half years, the impact of pan-European war on this potentially lively political admixture was relatively muted and generally positive.

Though some of Finland’s intellectual movers and shakers reflected Swedish cultural links with Germany, and regarded a German victory as the most likely route to independence, the region’s industrial and trading interests were strongly pro-Russian.  The biggest pre-War markets for Finnish exports of timber and raw materials, Germany and Great Britain, were no longer accessible, but trade with Russia had been growing throughout the Russification period and now took over.  Led by exports of raw materials for the manufacture of metals in St. Petersburg, business with Russia gifted the Finnish economy the kind of boom enjoyed by many neutrals trading with warring empires.

Despite being part of Russia, and hosting most of the Russian Baltic fleet at Helsinki, Finland was effectively neutral.  The Russian government never instituted formal wartime conscription in Finland, and although a few thousand Finns fought for the Russians as volunteers, they were matched by numbers of volunteers for the German Army.  Finland had no army of its own, and though some 50,000 Russian troops were garrisoned in the country against the possibility of German invasion from the south, the war on the Eastern Front was still a long way away when the February Revolution overthrew the Russian Tsar in 1917.

Russian warships waiting out the winter at Helsinki – despite their permanent presence, Finland managed to behave like a neutral country.

Like many small, neutral countries, Finland experienced political fallout from its sudden economic upsurge, which triggered rapid inflation and lowered the real value of wages.  At the same time, inability to trade across the Baltic left Finland dependent on Russia for the import of food supplies, and consequent shortages, especially of cereals, fuelled popular discontent and support for change.  Revolution in Russia gave these elements, as well as liberal and socialist politicians, a sudden and galvanising dose of optimism, fortified when the new Provisional Government in Petrograd granted restoration of the Finnish constitution as one of its first acts in power.

Finland already had a parliament, the single-chamber Eduskunta. Established after the 1905 revolution in Russia, and elected on a form of universal suffrage that was the first in Europe to enfranchise women but that allocated votes according to taxes paid, it had been effectively powerless under the Tsar, who ran Finland through appointed imperial officials.  Elections in 1916 had given a small overall majority to the Social Democrats – socialists, but not at this stage necessarily revolutionary socialists –and in March 1917 the Provisional Government re-designated the Eduskunta as a senate, governed by a coalition cabinet based on those results. Social Democrat leader Oskari Tokoi became prime minister in a spirit of cooperation with the new Russian regime, but it didn’t last for long.

Social Democrats began making plans for immediate full independence, and were supported inside Russia by the Bolsheviks, but liberal and conservative elements in parliament refused to support the socialists, preferring to trust the Provisional Government’s promises of good intentions.  When Petrograd sent additional troops into Finland and, on 18 July, dissolved the new Senate, socialists demanded a complete break from Russia – but non-socialist politicians accepted the dissolution in anticipation of success in new elections, and went on to win an overall majority when they were held in October.

At this point, with violence escalating between socialist groups centred on the relatively industrialised south of the country and conservative elements in control of the rural north, Finnish politics was turned on its head by the Bolshevik Revolution.  While Finland’s socialists gradually came to regard Bolshevik Russia as their most reliable protector against a conservative or bourgeois state, liberal and conservative interests suddenly wanted nothing to do with Russia and sought full independence at once.

On 15 November, hours after the Bolsheviks’ announcement of self-determination for ‘the peoples of Russia’, the Senate declared itself in temporary control of Finland, and it voted for full independence on 6 December.  The Bolsheviks recognised Finland’s independence at the end of the month, and were swiftly followed by Germany, but these were hardly benevolent acts.  The German high command had its eye firmly fixed on an empire in Eastern Europe that might include Finland, and the Bolsheviks played nice because they confidently expected a socialist uprising in Finland.

The Social Democrats and other socialist groups in Finland had indeed formed a Red Guard, and they staged a coup in Helsinki on 28 January 1918.  The Senate government fled to the town of Vaasa, on the west coast, where it waited for help from the ‘White Guard’, an anti-socialist force gathering under the command of former Russian Army General Mannerheim.  This was civil war, but it was at least destined to be brief.

The key to Finland’s independent survival in 1918 – General Mannerheim inspects German-Finnish White Guard forces at Vaasa.

Reinforced by the German Army’s Baltic Division – a unit largely staffed by volunteers from the Baltic region – Mannerheim won a conclusive victory over Red forces near the southeastern frontier at the Battle of Viborg on 29 April.  The remnants of the Red Guard surrendered in early May, while its leadership fled to Russia.  No longer threatened by socialist uprising, and spared any serious attempt at German occupation before the Armistice put an end to the threat (and to conservative plans to establish a constitutional monarchy under a German prince), Finland proceeded into the post-War world as an independent democratic republic.

In many ways, as I hope this superficial skim illustrates, the centenary of Finland’s independence commemorates one of the First World War’s very few winners.  The country enjoyed several years of peace and relative prosperity while undergoing accelerated political development before 1917.  Relatively conservative nationalist leaders were then able to exploit the chaos surrounding the Russian revolutions to establish independence, and to maintain it using German help without becoming clients of Berlin.  Despite perennial menace from the Soviet Union, involving two wars (and dangerously close relations with Nazi Germany) between 1939 and 1945, Finland has retained its independent, democratic status ever since, becoming a prosperous and peaceful state with a longstanding commitment to neutrality in geopolitical disputes.

On the other hand, let’s not get too carried away with the good news.  Glad as I am to remind British heritage consumers that, beyond Tommies and trenches, the First World War did have some positive long-term effects, it says something very grim about the way of the world in 1917 when a country that lost 37,000 lives in a four-month civil war gets to count as lucky.

30 NOVEMBER, 1917: Active Service

There was plenty going on in the world at war a hundred years ago. Heavy fighting southwest of Cambrai on the Western Front, where the German Army was launching a counteroffensive; total chaos on the Eastern Front, where the Russian Army had quit the War; action in the Middle East, where British General Allenby was securing the approaches to Jerusalem; and important action on the Italian Front, where Austro-German forces menaced the outnumbered remnant of the Italian Army across the River Piave.

I’ve talked about all these places lately, and gateway anniversaries from more obscure areas are in short supply this week, so it’s back to basics.  On 30 November 1917, a Royal Navy monitor destroyed a floating bridge made of small boats at Passarella, on the Piave, about 8km upriver.  I’m not doing deep research today so that’s all I can tell you about the event itself, but it does offer me a way into naval matters I’ve been meaning to mention, and I’ll start with monitors.

A lot of warships performed a lot of operations in direct support of ground forces all through and all over the First World War, but the work doesn’t get a lot of attention from posterity.  This is understandable.  There was always a land campaign in progress to hog any limelight, and support work for ground troops was a fairly mechanical business, seldom offering much in the way of derring-do for a sensation-seeking heritage industry.

All the same, providing mobile artillery to back up troop landings, advances or defences was among the most tactically significant tasks allotted to warships throughout the conflict.  Coastal actions may have added little more than a few extra guns to the cacophony of artillery at the northern end of the Western Front, but they had a greater impact on the overall picture at the eastern edge of the Italian Front, were pivotal to some of the most important fighting in the Middle East and the Caucasus, and played a part in many other actions fought near coasts or around navigable rivers.

Bombardment operations of this kind were usually given to the biggest available surface ships that were considered expendable, so modern dreadnoughts and battlecruisers were kept at a safe distance while pre-dreadnought battleships and older cruisers got on with the support work.  Even these amounted to a very expensive way of bringing big guns to bear on a battlefield, and so the British Royal Navy – which was responsible for the vast majority of the world’s naval support actions during the War – revived an old idea to come up with something cheaper.

Monitors were light, shallow-draft warships, essentially gigantic rafts that provided stable platforms for naval artillery.  They had been used extensively for river work and coastal bombardment by colonial powers during the nineteenth century, and had played a significant role in the American Civil War (when the first of the type, the Monitor had made its appearance), but by the early twentieth most major navies had replaced them with faster, less heavily armed warships.  The exception was the Austro-Hungarian Navy, which had to deal with less sea and more river frontiers than the services of other European empires.  It used monitors with its flotillas on the Drina and the Danube, and to guard the Austro-Hungarian Army’s retreat from the Kolubara River in December 1914, by which time the British had rediscovered the type.

This shot of HMS Humber, a monitor originally intended for Brazil, shows off its raft-like quality.

Three light monitors under construction in British shipyards for the Brazilian Navy – then engaged in a regional naval arms race with Chile and Argentina – were requisitioned in the autumn of 1914 by the Royal Navy, which went on to order 35 new monitors before production was stopped in 1916.  Nineteen were light monitors, numbered M-15 to M-33 and mounting 9.2-inch guns or smaller, and the sixteen heavy monitors carried 12- to 15-inch guns otherwise used by battleships – but they were all relatively cheap and easy to build, while most were armed with weapons from captured or redundant warships.

Monitors generally carried a single, two-gun turret, along with smaller weapons against attack from land or air, and were bigger than you’d expect.  The heavy monitor Erebus, for instance, displaced 8,000 tons, was almost 130 metres in length and 27 wide, required a crew of 223 and could raise a sedate top speed of 12 knots.  Monitor production was briefly revived in 1918, when two Norwegian coastal defence ships were converted for Royal Navy use, and three new Lord Clive Class ships were equipped with modern 18-inch guns.

The Erebus: the outsize turret, too big for its ship, was typical of monitor design.

Royal Navy monitors saw plenty of wartime action, bombarding coastal positions on the Western Front, protecting British ports, and taking part in the Italian, East African and Middle Eastern campaigns.  Although five were lost to enemy action, and another was sunk by accident in Dover harbour, it would be fair to call them a success – and bearing in mind that even the most expensive cost around £350,000 to build and equip, they certainly gave the British better value for money than dreadnoughts at ten times the price.

So that’s a quick look at a type of warship revived to meet the requirements of war in artillery’s heyday, and largely forgotten today.  I’ll follow up with an equally brief examination of a type designed to meet the changing requirements of late nineteenth-century naval warfare, produced in unprecedented numbers during the First World War and lodged firmly in the public mind ever since.

There’s no great mystery about the destroyer’s enduringly high popular profile.  Destroyers were and are versatile, fast and useful for almost any kind of naval warfare, including crowd-pleasers like fleet actions, battles between swarms of destroyers and anti-submarine operations.  Many of the destroyers churned out by the dozen during both world wars, above all by US and British shipyards, were surplus to immediate requirements in peacetime – but they had a longer shelf life than most other weapons in a similar position and were more expensive to replace.

Most old tanks and aircraft, for instance, could be and were scrapped after both world wars, but destroyers were worth keeping, either in mothballs for future emergencies or as general-purpose warships, so they hung around for decades.  Like the only twentieth-century aircraft to outlast its wartime application by any distance, the Douglas Dakota, they were therefore available to reprise their crowd-pleasing adventures for movie audiences.  Add in the sexy name and the fact that, despite seismic changes in the nature of naval warfare, destroyers are still being built today, and it’s no wonder they’re a celebrity class among warships.

Although their ubiquitous involvement in the First World War made destroyers famous, they had been introduced to major navies in the late nineteenth century to protect battle fleets from the new threat of light, fast torpedo craft.  Originally known as Torpedo Boat Destroyers, and at first designed as long-range torpedo boats, they became steadily bigger and more seaworthy during the century’s last decades.  By 1914 modern examples carried between four and 12 torpedoes for use against larger warships, along with sufficient surface or anti-aircraft armament to deter anything smaller, and generally displaced between 500 and 800 tons – still small enough to be built in quantity by major powers, and cheap enough to form the backbone of minor navies.

At the beginning of the War most destroyers were rugged vessels designed for ocean-going work, with speed sacrificed for structural durability and armoured protection against encounters with larger fleet units.  Those modern navies centred on Mediterranean operations – the Italian, the Austro-Hungarian and to a lesser extent the French – took a different line, stripping down armour to produce fast, light destroyers designed for short-range raiding in calm waters.

Both breeds were generally deployed in flotillas, which typically comprised between four and eight ships, but sometime as many as twenty, and were usually led by a light cruiser or a large ‘leader’ destroyer.  Fleet flotillas functioned as fast scouts, and as strike weapons sent en masse to deflect enemy fleets, but were principally intended as a screen around battleships and battlecruisers, masking them from torpedo attack wherever they went.  No ship larger or slower than a light cruiser was considered safe without a destroyer screen, but protecting the big boys was just the tip of their operational iceberg.

Destroyers played an active part in most surface actions and coastal support operations, functioned as fast-response coastal protection craft, worked as fast minelayers and led flotillas of smaller craft. They also became more and more crucial to the protection of trade routes from submarines, so that Allied naval commanders (especially in the Mediterranean) were engaged in a constant internal scramble for destroyers, above all the large modern ships capable of long-range convoy protection.  The importance of long-range work was reflected in wartime destroyer design, which saw the ships become steadily larger, stronger, more heavily armed and more expensive, so that new vessels displaced more than 1,100 tons by 1918.

HMS Swift and HMS Broke – British destroyers on the Dover Patrol.

By the time the War ended, the Royal Navy had used almost 450 destroyers during the conflict, the German Navy more than 230, and the US Navy more than a hundred.  Russia managed to build 58 news destroyers during the War, Japan embarked on a production programme that would expand into the 1940s, and even the beleaguered wartime shipyards of France and Italy produced a few. This outpouring left the post-War world was awash with destroyers, and left a so far indelible mark on naval warfare.  Modern destroyers may be hunting missiles rather than torpedo boats or submarines, and they look very different to the ‘battleships in miniature’ of a pre-electronic age, but they are still a basic unit of worldwide naval currency– and I hope that’s given you an idea of where they came from.

A modern British Daring Class destroyer weighs in at around 8,000 tons and only shoots at the sky.