31 JANUARY, 1918: Bring Them Down!

During the night of January 30/31, a century ago, two German bomber squadrons dropped fourteen tons of bombs on Paris, killing 49 civilians and injuring another couple of hundred. The raid was carried out in response to Anglo-French attacks on German cities, and illustrated how far the dark science of strategic bombing had come since the first single-seater machine had dropped the first small bombs on Paris at the end of August 1914 (30 August, 1914: The Bomb!). The attackers’ only loss over Paris was a reconnaissance machine, a DFV-CV, shot down by a French night fighter over the city’s eastern suburbs, and that was as good an illustration as any of how the science of anti-aircraft warfare had failed to keep up.

The most basic form of anti-aircraft fire was delivered by riflemen on the ground, who couldn’t help shooting at passing planes and occasionally brought one down, but systematic destruction of enemy machines had been considered a matter for artillery by all armed forces since the birth of military flight. Known to the British as ‘Archie’ or ‘ack ack’, and as ‘flak’ to the Germans, anti-aircraft guns were controlled by the artillery commands of armies or navies in every belligerent country except Germany, where they were run by the Army Air Service.

They didn’t amount to much between them when war broke out in 1914. A few German field guns had been modified to fire at the sky, the French Army possessed a total of two purpose-built anti-aircraft armoured cars carrying 75mm guns, and the BEF made do with a handful of mobile 3-inch guns on an enlarged mounting. This hardly mattered at first, given the small number of aircraft in use, their limited use in combat roles and a performance level that meant they could be pursued on the ground, but rapid development during 1915 forced all the major belligerents to come up with countermeasures.

At first, standard field guns were fitted with upward-firing mountings and set to work, and many of these mutants remained in service throughout the War. Purpose-designed AA guns were soon in production everywhere, but they were almost all minor adaptations of existing field gun designs. The Germans adapted 80mm and 75mm field pieces, and the French stuck with their ubiquitous ‘Soixante-Quinze’, while the British and US armies maintained their preference for 3-inch guns.

That was about it for wartime technological development in the field. Some shells were lightened but fired with the same charge (because that made them go higher), and 1918 saw the German Air Service introduce a rapid-firing 20mm cannon that became the basis for light anti-aircraft defence during the Second World War, but otherwise the guns themselves remained essentially unchanged.

On land, AA batteries were originally scattered around large areas in small groups (of at least two guns, so that a ranging shot could be followed up quickly), in the hope of catching slow-moving aircraft wherever they appeared. As it became clear that visual targetting of one aircraft’s three-dimensional movement almost never did the job, and as the numbers of aircraft and their attack potential mounted, guns were massed in large formations around anticipated targets such as military installations close to front lines, airfields, industrial centres, population centres and coastal installations. At sea, most major warships carried standard anti-aircraft guns by 1916, singly or in pairs, but nobody really expected them to hit anything.

Not too complex – just stick a field gun on wheels and give it room to point upwards – German AA gun, 1918.

Within this very basic framework, some advances were made in technique. Improving central command and control systems made massed AA operations steadily more efficient, as did use of telescopes to chart and anticipate a target’s course, while ‘barrage’ systems were employed to apply blanket coverage to a particular sector of airspace. As night attacks from the air became more common, searchlights and flares were employed to illuminate targets, and ‘barrage balloons’ sent up to force attackers into ‘barrage’ corridors. In case you were wondering about altitude settings for AA shells, they didn’t need much in the way of technical advance… the longer the fuse, the higher the explosion.

Most AA guns fired shrapnel, which stood by far the best chance of hitting something, but some battery commanders preferred to use high-explosive (HE) shells, which stood an outside chance of obliterating something. By 1918, HE shells had been superseded by incendiary shells, which offered gunners the best of both worlds. Originally designed by the British for use against German Zeppelins, they behaved like shrapnel but threw out balls of burning thermite.

Nobody could do without anti-aircraft guns to protect threatened areas, but they were responsible for only a small fraction of aviation losses, mostly on the busy Western Front, and it was generally recognised that they were no more than a token threat to rapidly improving aircraft designs. By 1918 they were seen as intrinsically deficient by most military planners, and post-war development concentrated on the use of fighter aircraft as the best defence against aerial bombing.

I mentioned balloons, and while I’m delving into the War’s smaller details I’ve got an excuse for a word about them. Barrage duties aside, hot-air and gas-filled balloons were a common sight throughout the War on static battlefields, where they performed observation duties for artillery commanders. Cheaper to run than aircraft, and a more stable viewing platform, they were winched by ground crew to various heights in groups of two or three, and their cross-referenced observations were transmitted to the ground by flag signals, or sometimes radio.

The two or three men crewing an observation balloon, ‘balloonatics’ to the British, were sitting ducks for any attacker, and on busy fronts they were attacked all the time, but the balloons themselves were notoriously difficult to destroy. Standard bullets generally passed straight through the fabric, forcing enemy aircraft into repeated, close-range attacks that risked entanglement in wires or cables, as well as the attention of any AA guns in the vicinity. Shooting down a balloon was generally credited as a full ‘kill’ by all air forces, and several ‘aces’ on both sides of the Western Front earned their name as ‘balloon busters’.

Up, up and a way to die… but at least they’ve got their parachutes.

Although some German balloons were equipped with powered winches by 1918, for rapid descent when under attack, crews’ survival chances had been further reduced by increased use of HE and incendiary bullets.  It was a tough job, and that was why balloon crews were, along with airship crews, were the only British airmen allowed to use parachutes.  And so to one of the War’s weird yet characteristic details, the parachute…

And this is how they used it.

Parachutes were well known in 1914, but the types used by wartime air services were strapped to the outside of the aircraft, and attached to the crewman by a long cord that automatically opened the chute when he jumped. Regular requests for the use of these from aircrew on both sides were refused on the grounds that they were too fragile for attachment to powered aircraft, and the fairly costly alternative of providing parachutes worn by the jumper was never considered, primarily on the grounds that the crew of an armed aircraft had no right to such protection. The German Air Service changed its mind in 1918, when it faced a critical shortage of aircrew, and a few pilots were given wearable models, but the British flying services in particular continued to regard requests for a parachute as tantamount to cowardice.  Wearable parachutes were used by espionage agencies on all sides for dropping agents behind enemy lines, but that’s another story.

There are no moral messages or world-changing historical threads here, just a quick glance at some of the less storied strangeness polluting Europe’s war-torn skies in 1918 – and a shred or two of evidence that the Great War featured more ways to die than heritage recalls.

24 JANUARY, 1918: All We Are Saying…

Fighting on the wartime Western and Italian Fronts never really stopped, and British imperial forces were keeping reasonably busy with minor operations against Ottoman garrisons in the Middle East, but broadly speaking the First World War’s guns were pretty quiet during January 1918.  As was the way during such interludes, preparations for future campaigns were in progress, but the absence of potentially world-changing military action also gave war-weary civilian populations a moment to consider their futures. This was particularly true for millions of socialists who had been on the cusp of significant political progress all over Europe before the War’s injection of nationalist fervour stifled their ambitions, and particularly incendiary in those belligerent empires under the most acute economic and social stress.

Though Ottoman Turkey was under acute stress, it was barely industrialised and had no socialist tradition to speak of, so its largely rural population remained disorganised, incapable of coherent protest while it suffered and starved.  Not so the politically sophisticated workers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian heartlands, who reacted to the bleak midwinter of early 1918 with an eruption of mass discontent that dwarfed any previous protest in either state.  It began in Austria-Hungary, and a hundred years ago today the winter’s first wave of mass strikes in Vienna was halted on the brink of all-out revolution.

Vienna was no stranger to wartime civil discontent. Food shortages had been a critical problem in the city since the brutal winter of 1916–17, when strikes had swept Vienna and spread south to the industrialised parts of Upper Styria.  News of the February Revolution in Russia sparked a further wave of unrest in the capital, culminating in a strike of more than 40,000 metal workers in May 1917.  They soon went back to work, but only after relatively moderate Social Democrat politicians had won important concessions from the government, including the relaxation of censorship, decriminalisation of public meetings and the recall of the Austrian parliament (Reichsrat), which had been dissolved in 1914.

Russia’s October Revolution had a similarly slow-burning but even more profound impact on workers in distant countries.  The subsequent return of PoWs to Austria-Hungary from the Eastern Front raised the number and intensity of socialist agitators within the empire, and the Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace raised hopes of an end to the conflict.  Meanwhile news of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a putative blueprint for peace based on liberal values and the principle of ethnic self-determination, encouraged popular expectations of fair post-War treatment from the Allies.

Hard times in Vienna, 1918, as painted by Josef Engelhart.

Anger at delays to the peace process at Brest-Litovsk, popularly blamed on the Central Powers’ demands for territorial annexations, was already fuelling calls for strike action when desperate urban food shortages forced the government to halve the bread and flour rations, on 14 January.  The dangerous brew of war-weariness, hope and frustration ignited into furious protest.   Workers at the Daimler factory in the industrial town of Wiener Neustadt, just south of Vienna, immediately struck for peace (rather than improved pay or conditions), and by 20 January some three-quarters of a million workers around the empire had joined them, amid a wave of peace protests and food riots.  Strikes hit the empire’s armaments, railway and metal industries, along with printing, retail and dozens of other domestic trades, and a few days later engulfed the industrially developed Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, once nationalist leaders had made it clear that Czech workers were acting independently from their Austrian counterparts.

For several days, as strikers organised themselves into workers’ councils (or soviets), the situation lurched out of control and revolution appeared imminent – but, as in May 1917, the Social Democrats played the role of intermediaries.  The largest party in the Reichsrat, and openly committed to ending the War since 1916, they were able to take control of the politically inexperienced soviets and negotiate with the (well-meaning but deeply reactionary) government of Emperor Karl to win further concessions, including the introduction of a minimum wage.  These were enough to convince a majority of workers’ groups to halt their action.  Strikers in Vienna began returning to their jobs on 21 January, and most strikes were officially called off three days later.

If revolution had been staved off for the moment, Austria-Hungary was hardly calm.  New strikes, demanding peace and an end to imperialist greed at Brest-Litovsk, broke out all over Austria, Bohemia and Moravia during the next ten days, and the government was forced to break up street protests using troops.  Though the Army gradually restored a fragile semblance of order during the first week of February – at least in Vienna – it had become dangerously unreliable as an instrument of state policy.   Troops from the empire’s non-German provinces frequently joined protesters, a pacifist mutiny broke out at the garrison town of Judenburg, which was also a major steel production centre, and the Navy put down a brief mutiny at the Adriatic naval base of Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro).

Vienna calmed down a little during the spring, but Austria-Hungary as whole remained in a volatile and precarious condition, wracked by civilian shortages, on the edge of disintegration into its ethnic components and crumbling from the ground up under revolutionary socialist pressure.  The next crisis would be along in the early summer, by which time the end of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire was near.

Bad moon rising… national groupings in the pre-War Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Vienna erupted in mid-January, the German Third Supreme Command had been considering annexation of its principal ally (an issue since the 1870s, when the rest of German-speaking central Europe united as one nation under Prussia), but by the end of the month Germany was facing its own socio-political crisis.

Food shortages no less acute than those in Austria-Hungary, the same angst around the Brest-Litovsk/Fourteen Points equation, and an opportunist desire to exploit the revolutionary atmosphere coming out of Vienna prompted a call to strike by Berlin union organisers.  It began on 28 January, and by the end of the day half a million workers had downed tools.  Revolutionary German socialists (of whom more another day) organised a central Action Committee that drew up a list of demands inspired by Bolshevik peace proposals at Brest-Litovsk – but while the government sent troops to break up factory meetings, and the far left demanded revolution on the spot, the protest was being hijacked by the moderate reformists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the smaller but more streetwise Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP).

Invited to join the Action Committee by the far left – by celebrity revolutionary theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg, to be precise – the SDP found allies in union organisers shocked by the scale of revolutionary activity they had unleashed.  Violent clashes between strikers and scab workers on 30 January cemented moderate left-wing determination to end the strike, and while the SDP orchestrated calls for negotiation, it’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, announced his support for further military intervention by the state. Thus encouraged, the government began arresting radical strike leaders on 31 January, and threatened to impose martial law in Berlin if the strikes were not called off by 4 February.

Berlin, 28 January 1918: strikers outside the trade union building… and an announcement in the 2 February issue of the SDP newspaper, ‘Vorwaerts’, that martial law was coming.

Union leaders in Berlin obliged with a day to spare, but unrest had meanwhile spread across the military/industrial heartlands of northern Germany, affecting (among other towns and cities) Kiel, Dusseldorf, Nuremburg, Augsburg, Hamburg and Cologne.  The military moved in hard and fast.  Mass arrests, the execution of 150 ringleaders, and the conscription some 50,000 strikers for service with occupation forces in Eastern Europe had brought organised strike action to an end by about 11 February.

Watched keenly by Allied and neutral observers at the time, the Austro-Hungarian and German strikes of early 1918 barely register with the modern commemorative industries.   Even big-picture historians generally give them no more than a passing mention as a preamble to the full-scale revolutions that followed military defeat. That may have been their status in Austria-Hungary, but the German strikes were in themselves an important turning point.

Radical elements behind the mass spread of industrial unrest in late January clearly failed to achieve their stated aim of immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, and failure sharpened the angry frustration of pacifists and revolutionaries in Germany – but the strikes did provide a shock to the ruling Third Supreme Command, and it reacted in typical fashion by doubling down.  Having gambled against the odds in search of military success by pinning everything on submarine warfare, and in search of economic salvation by attempting to run an empire in Eastern Europe, Ludendorff and his ultra-conservative cabal faced the rising tide of revolution the only way they had ever known how, with another desperate roll of the dice.

More than ever convinced that a crushing victory over the Allies, and only that, would frighten the unruly German population into long-term obedience, Germany’s leaders intensified pressure for annexations at Brest-Litovsk, clamped down ruthlessly on  popular dissent and pressed ahead with plans for a major spring offensive on the Western Front.  In other words they lit the blue touch paper, at home and abroad, and hoped for the best, a climactic moment of madness that seems well worth remembering.  My other, rather flimsy excuse for featuring the January strikes is their reminder of the enormous differences, in aims and methods, between social democrats and socialist revolutionaries in 1918, a distinction that remains relevant today, particularly but by no means only in the UK.

12 JANUARY, 1918: Port In A Storm (Part One)

Back in peacetime, when the Great War’s coming was a matter of dire prediction, orthodox geopolitical thinking had assumed that, if the massive effort required to sustain mechanised warfare went on for more than a few weeks, Europe’s empires would crumble under economic and associated social pressures. More than three years of total war in fact passed before the Russian Empire melted down to become something completely and aggressively new, but fear of collapse had never stopped haunting the continent’s governing elites.

Fed by evidence of socio-political fragility in every belligerent empire, even in the richest and most politically stable of them, elite fear translated into something approaching panic in the face of Bolshevism. The German regime was willing to let Russia have its revolution, at least until it had dealt with the existential threat from the west, while Austria-Hungary and Turkey were too far along the road to collapse to do anything but grasp at pickings from the Russian Empire’s carcase – but Allied governments fell over themselves to disrupt and (ideally) destroy what they saw as a harbinger of apocalypse.

There wasn’t all that much the Allies could do. They could cut off some maritime supply lines to Petrograd, and they could use existing supply lines (across Sweden or via the Arctic and Murmansk or Archangelsk) to provide counter-revolutionary forces with funds and equipment, even direct military support. The British could conceivably divert forces from the Middle East into southwestern Russia, though for the moment they were busy with another fight, but otherwise the Central Powers occupied Russia’s European frontiers. That left the back door.

The back door was Vladivostok, Russia’s major port in the Far East and it’s only warm-water port in the region since the loss of Port Arthur to the Japanese in 1905. Vladivostok wasn’t entirely ice-free, but could remain open for much of the winter and had become an important supply hub for the Russian war effort, increasingly so with the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway link to the west in 1916, and Russia’s alliance with a Pacific trading power, the United States, in 1917.

Get the picture?

The railway and the port were under Bolshevik control by late 1917, when the British, French and US governments began discussing joint action to support counter-revolutionary forces in Siberia. Japan, which had a longstanding strategic interest in its maritime frontier with Russia, was at first left out of the discussions, but in December 1917 obtained an invitation from its ally, Britain, to take part in any action. The only major Allied warship in Vladivostok during the chaotic weeks after the October Revolution, the US Navy light cruiser Brooklyn, had already left by late December. With diplomatic and commercial interests in the port in need of protection amid the street fighting and general anarchy, the British didn’t wait for discussions to reach a conclusion before doing what came naturally and sending a gunboat.

The British Admiralty ordered HMS Sussex, a cruiser stationed in Hong Kong, to Vladivostok. The Japanese government, ever alert to signs of European encroachment in eastern Asia (and to any diplomatic slight), reacted by ordering two old, pre-dreadnought battleships, the Iwami and the Asahi, to get there first. The Iwami won the race, arriving on 12 January, two days before the Suffolk and five days before the Asahi. Having made a show of force, and in Japan’s case made a statement about its right to a dominant role in the future of eastern Asia, the Allied warships then anchored offshore in the hope that their mere presence would encourage both anti-Bolshevik agitation and the restoration of order.

None too surprisingly with hindsight, these somewhat contradictory hopes failed to materialise, and as the situation in Vladivostok became ever more dangerous for foreign nationals, Allied intervention on the ground in Siberia appeared inevitable.  Tokyo wasted no time telling Britain and the US that any intervention should carried out by Japanese forces alone, but the proposition was officially turned down in mid-February, ostensibly because Japan’s unpopularity in Russia would drive the population into Bolshevik or even German hands. By that time the Japanese Army was drawing up plans for an invasion of eastern Siberia, with a view to setting up a nominally independent buffer state as protection against future interference in the Pacific by Russia.

The military dominated Japanese politics during the early 20th century, and prime minister Masatake was a former general.

A lengthy spell of inter-Allied dithering followed, while Japanese, British, French and US diplomats attempted to work out the details of a joint ground operation in Siberia. Although Tokyo was prepared to accept a joint intervention, and the European Allies considered the region’s future a matter for Japan and the US, progress was stymied because the Wilson administration refused to sanction the use of American ground troops. This was still the case in April, when a company of Japanese marines (hastily followed by a company of British marines) went ashore to police looting and rioting in Vladivostok. The Brooklyn had returned to the port in March, but no US Marines took part.

Russia’s southeastern tip – the port of Vladivostok in 1918.

This was the beginning of something weird and not altogether wonderful. Allied plans would eventually be forced into focus by the plight of some 40,000 Czech troops, trapped in Bolshevik Russia but still at war with Germany after the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front. Rescuing the Czechs became an Allied cause célèbre as they battled their way across Siberia towards evacuation from Vladivostok, and that provided Wilson with a way to change his mind in the name of liberal values.

International intervention would take the form of a multi-national invasion of eastern Siberia during the summer, featuring troops from Japan, the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and eventually even China. A long, strange campaign would follow, forming part of the Russian Civil War and extending into the early 1920s – but that’s another chapter of the story, as is the extraordinary tale of the aforementioned Czech Legion.

I’ll be getting back to both when the time feels right, but for now this has been a quick look at why Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace turned Siberia into a war zone, and at how the Allied empires lined up for the purpose. It’s also a quick reminder that Japanese aggression during the Second World War was not some sudden aberration, rather the catastrophic conclusion of a long, ultimately misguided attempt to imitate and match the great global empires of the nineteenth century – empires the First World War was in the process of consigning to history.

8 JANUARY, 1918: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Today’s the day, a century ago, that US President Woodrow Wilson revealed his Fourteen Points to the world.  The Fourteen Points were really big news, and the repercussions of Wilson’s grandiose exercise in liberal chutzpah cast a long, global shadow over the succeeding decades – but I’m not going to talk about them today. We’re this far into a world war that to all intents and purposes began there, and I’ve had very little to say about Belgium, so as an excuse for a skim through the First World War’s impact on the country no wartime Briton could name without the prefix ‘brave’, I’m going to give some context to the arrival in office, on 1 January, of new Belgian foreign minister Paul Hymans.

I guess most people are aware, however vaguely, that Great Britain went to war in 1914 in defence of Belgian neutrality, but this is usually reported without much interest in why the sanctity of Belgium mattered so much.  The basic answer is that Belgium had come into existence as a symbol of European peace in the aftermath of a long, painful series of wars that had ravaged the continent for 22 years between 1893 and 1815.

Fifteen years after the final defeat of Napoleon, in 1830, the largely Catholic southern provinces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands erupted into nationalist revolt.  After his attempts to restore order with troops had backfired, and the newly formed Belgian National Congress had declared independence, King William I of the Netherlands appealed to Europe’s Great Powers for arbitration – and didn’t get the result he wanted.

The 1830 London Conference of Europe’s major powers – Russia, France, Prussia (representing all the major German states), Austria-Hungary and Britain – recognised Belgian independence, and the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, took the throne in July 1831.  An immediate Dutch invasion was blocked by French military intervention, but the Netherlands didn’t fully accept Belgian independence until it signed the Treaty of London in 1839.

Signed by Belgium, the Netherlands and all five of the European Great Powers, the Treaty guaranteed Belgian territorial integrity and, at Britain’s insistence, its neutrality in any future war.  It also gave a large, economically rich portion of Luxembourg to Belgium, but that’s another story and didn’t trigger any world wars. Recognised at the time as a defining moment in Europe’s concerted attempt to create a lasting peace between competing empires, the treaty survived the test of Franco-Prussian war in 1870 (when the Prussian Army invaded France without passing through Belgium), and was still in effect in 1914.  That it was still seen as the linchpin of Europe’s geopolitical stability reflected Belgium’s strategic importance.

Uncomfortably placed between northern Germany, France and Britain, Belgium was a largely flat country full of wide-open spaces, and thus a natural battleground for any future war between the empires.  It was also a prosperous trading nation with major ports at Antwerp and Ostende, and well endowed with coalfields and iron ore (the latter thanks to very favourable special arrangements with Luxembourg).  By the early twentieth century it was among the world’s most industrially advanced economies, with a well-developed infrastructure that included some 9,000km of railways and 2,000km of busy canals, serving a population of 7.5 million (in 1910).  In other words, Belgium was a prize worth seizing in a very tempting location, and the most likely point of conflict if France and Germany went to war.

Tricky spot – Belgium in 1914.

A constitutional monarchy, under which the king held legislative powers and (in time of war) personal command of the armed forces, but was responsible to a two-tier parliament, Belgium had been ruled since late 1909 by King Albert I.  Only 34 when he took the throne, Albert’s military competence and vocational seriousness struck a marked and much-admired contrast to his uncle and predecessor, the spectacularly venal King Leopold II – notorious for his ruthless, fruitless attempts to make money out of his personally financed conquest of the Congo.  Well aware by 1914 that Germany planned an attack on France through Belgium, Albert was strongly in favour of expanding the Belgian Army and grouping it to face the threat, but military command rested with parliament in peacetime.

There’s a dashing young monarch for you… Albert I.

Elected by a complex system of universal male suffrage that gave two or three votes to the wealthy and educated, both parliamentary chambers were dominated by Baron de Broqueville’s Catholic Party in 1914, and it maintained the policy of strict, visible neutrality that had been Belgium’s diplomatic mantra since day one.  That was why the Belgian Army remained very small – some 43,000 men before reserves were mobilised – and was stationed in the centre of the country when the invasion came, a situation that has since excited much controversy but that made little practical difference against an exquisitely timed and planned advance by 750,000 German troops.

The German invasion was already unstoppable by 2 August, when a state of war allowed Albert to take command of his hopelessly outnumbered army and lead in retreat to the country’s northwestern corner.  The government was eventually relocated to Le Havre in France, from where it ruled the small patch of western Flanders not under German control after the front stabilised at the end of the year.  The rest of the country was governed from Brussels by German occupying authorities, which had by then acquired a global reputation for brutality that would haunt Berlin for the rest of the War.

I haven’t the time or space to go into details of the atrocities committed by invading German forces in Belgium during the War’s first months.  Always justified as reprisals for (real or imagined) resistance to the invasion, they involved mass executions and wanton destruction of Belgian national treasures, most notably the massacre of 612 civilians at Dinant and the destruction visited on the town of Louvain, both in August 1914.  They were a deliberate act of oppression on the part of the German Army, designed to encourage obedience among conquered populations and displayed openly to the world’s press by way of spreading the word.  Present throughout the occupation, neutral observers were in fact a propaganda gift to Germany’s enemies, giving widespread coverage to the views of Belgian pacifists and nationalists, spreading outrage all over the globe and helping create an enduring wave of international sympathy for all things Belgian.

German attitudes to neutral commentary highlighted a basic truth about the First World War that is often ignored.  Unlike Nazi Germany, the German Empire in 1914 saw itself as part of what you might call the normal world order.  As such it tried to behave within the constraints of international law (or at least to make the same attempts to appear legal as everyone else), and sought to present itself as the righteous beacon of civilisation it believed itself to be.  I realise I’m treating a nation like an individual, but I haven’t got time to go the long, semantically correct route – and I’ll stick to shortcuts by using the story of Cardinal Mercier to illustrate the schizophrenic results of trying to look like the good guy while adhering to brutal militarism as a form of social control.

And there’s a heroic old cardinal – Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

Mercier was the Roman Catholic primate of Belgium, and in the absence of the king he took on the role of national spokesman, issuing a series of open letters to his flock that received plenty of publicity overseas.  German authorities generally deported or executed dissident clerics, but although briefly arrested in early 1915 Mercier was generally left to get on with it.  A very senior figure, very well known in neutral countries and very popular among southern German Catholics, he was considered too propaganda sensitive to touch – and was therefore allowed to become a major Allied propaganda weapon.

Lurid? Yep.

Allied propaganda spent the rest of the War portraying the German occupation of Belgium as a lurid orgy of gratuitous violence, but once the initial frenzy of reprisals had abated it could better be described as very harsh.  Any hint of civil disobedience was met with routine execution of hostages, and the civilian population remained under martial law while the country’s economy was ruthlessly stripped for German use.  Plant, rolling stock, food and raw materials were transported back to Germany en masse, and remaining Belgian industry was turned over to German war production.

The Belgian population reacted to occupation, deprivation and exploitation with understandable hostility.  Most refused offers to work in German factories, preferring to face high levels of unemployment at home, and though the German Third Supreme Command instituted enforced deportation of Belgian workers in October 1916, it was abandoned as inefficient and diplomatically damaging the following February.  Most Belgians also ignored attempts to exploit tensions between the country’s two provinces (Flemish-speaking Wallachia and francophone Flanders), which were aimed at creating a separate Flemish state for future absorption by a German economic union.

Meanwhile, civilians were starving.  Poor harvests and the cold winter of 1916 had reduced Belgium’s urban populations to desperate dependence for food and fuel on a programme of international aid, coordinated with full German cooperation by neutral ambassadors in Brussels.  Charity was never enough, and malnutrition had helped double the pre-war mortality rate in Brussels by 1917.

More than a million Belgians had fled to the Netherlands, France or Britain in 1914, and although many refugees returned from the Netherlands after Germany guaranteed their safety, some 300,000 remained in Allied countries throughout the occupation. These, along with the population of ‘Free Belgium’, were subject to conscription into the Belgian Army, which took part in four years of bloodletting at the northern tip of the Western Front.

Thanks to King Albert’s refusal to commit Belgian forces to major Allied offensives (and thanks to Anglo-French weapons and equipment), the Army remained in relatively good shape into 1917 and maintained its strength at about 170,000 men until the Armistice, by which time it had played a significant role in the final offensives along the sector. Otherwise, small numbers of Belgian troops were occasionally loaned to other sectors in France, while colonial troops played a largely peripheral role in the East African campaign, and an armoured car company fought with the Russian Army on the Eastern Front. In total, 267,000 men fought for the wartime Belgian Army, of whom 54,000 were wounded and 14,000 killed, almost all of them on the Western Front.

Belgium possessed no naval forces, but the tiny Belgian Air Force, which mustered a dozen obsolete machines in 1914, was re-equipped by the British and French and grew steadily throughout the War. From 1917, when mushrooming production enabled the Allies to provide them with the most modern aircraft, Belgian aircrews more than held their own against German units in their sector, and the expanded service deployed around 140 machines in 11 squadrons by the end of the War.

The wartime Belgian Air Force started small… very small.

The coalition government-in-exile’s stated war aim was simple – the full restoration of Belgium to its pre-War status – but unity of purpose masked internal differences about how that might be achieved. Albert’s priority was his pastoral responsibilities, and the sharp worsening of civilian conditions in occupied Belgium by late 1917 led him to put pressure on de Broqueville, still serving as prime minister and foreign minister, to make a separate peace with Germany.  Despite strong cabinet opposition, de Broqueville approached the Central Powers in October 1917, a move that wrecked his political position and forced him to hand over the foreign ministry to Liberal Party leader Hymans.  With support from the rest of the cabinet, Hymans put an immediate and permanent stop to any deviation from Allied war aims, and De Broqueville went on to lose the premiership when his own Catholic Party voted him out of office in late May 1918.

So that was the state of play in Belgium as 1918 got going.  Civilians were starving, the army was getting by and the king – lionized by the Allies as the very spirit of indomitable resistance – was just back from the brink of going seriously off message.   Sorry that took so long, and I’ll get around to the Fourteen Points some other day.

30 DECEMBER, 1917: Let’s Drop The Mask

The Great War had just endured its fourth Christmas.  Popular history has reduced wartime seasons of goodwill to one heavily mythologised football match at the end of 1914, and so I’m always tempted to cry humbug at this time of year.  That’s because (in my opinion) the football match trope has come to exert an unfortunate influence on popular thinking about the First World War as a whole.

Sure, the story goes, the whole thing was ghastly, pointless, ill-led and an insult to the humanity of its victims – but at base we were still a more noble breed a century ago, somehow playing war by the rules of gentlemanly conduct. This echoes the kind of homespun machismo spouted across the social spectra in developed nations during the decade before 1914, when the idea that too much peace had diluted humanity’s will to progress helped nourish the political and popular militarism that propelled Europe towards war.  Both ideas are pure poppycock, like anything else based on the nobility of brutal violence, and so let’s commemorate Christmas 1917 with a nod to the First World War’s standard, none too gentlemanly response to the festive season.  That’s right, it’s time for another chat about civilian bombing.

Fighting went on all over the world throughout the Christmas period. Trench warfare persisted along the Western Front, particularly fierce in the areas around the BEF’s recent offensives, while Allenby’s invasion of Palestine engaged in mopping up operations after the capture of Jerusalem. The German guerilla war spat fire across East Africa, violent chaos engulfed Eastern Europe and the Caucasus in the wake of the Russian Empire’s collapse, and the global battle for control of the world’s oceans raged unabated. Many of these conflicts caused what we now call collateral damage, bringing suffering and death to civilian populations, but on one European battlefront civilians were being targeted for Christmas.

The war in northeastern Italy had taken a dramatic turn during the autumn.  Driven back in disarray by an Austro-German offensive, Italian forces were holding a line at the River Piave while Allied reinforcements of men and machines were rushed to the front (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  If Austro-Hungarian forces (along with the few German units still attached to the theatre) could break through at the Piave, the rich and heavily-populated plains of eastern Lombardy lay open to invasion, and the run-up to Christmas saw heavy fighting around, on and above the river.  Because the new frontline was so close to Venice and other large Italian towns, they became targets for aerial bombing.

Nice easy map – tricky position if you live near Venice.

Bombing of civilian targets had been a feature of Austro-Hungarian operations on the Italian Front since 1915, but it reached a crescendo as 1918 approached.  The lovely cities of Padua (Padova) and Treviso suffered the most.  Padua was attacked by air raids on the nights of 28, 29 and 30 December, and suffered six more raids in January and February, receiving a total of 718 bombs, while Treviso was attacked 16 times over the same period and took 517 hits. Vicenza, Venice and Ravenna were among the other venerable cities subject to attacks from the air, most of them carried out by the 4th Bomber Squadron of the German Air Force, which was transferred to the Italian Front in December and flew purpose-built Gotha bombers far superior to anything the Austrian air service possessed.

The numbers of bombs involved and their relatively small size highlight the difference in scale between civilian bombing in 1917/18 and its Second World War equivalent.  The early attacks by Austro-Hungarian aircraft had been carried out by small, single-engine machines that inflicted relative pinpricks, and the attacks on northern Italy over the Christmas period were no Blitz, but they were terrifying just the same and caused destruction on a scale that would be considered shocking today.  In total, air raids against Italian cities during the War killed 965 civilians and wounded 1,158, more than four-fifths of them in the regions immediately behind the front, as well as causing significant damage to ancient buildings, civic facilities and works of art.  They also provoked enormous outrage in Italy.

In many ways Italian fury was justified.  Civilian bombing was new and widely regarded as a barbarian practice, and though every air force claimed that its aircraft were aiming at militarily or economically legitimate targets, nobody expected them to be very accurate about it.  In other words collateral damage was inevitable, but the Italian government insisted (long, loud and into the 1920s) that German bombers were targeting non-military buildings on purpose.

This was of course denied, and couldn’t be proved either way, but there is no doubt that German air authorities, like those of every other country carrying out long-range bombing raids, regarded attacks on civilians and civilian culture as intrinsically valuable. Whether deliberate or accidental, the act of raining terror on unprotected populations was seen by strategic bombing theorists as a potentially war-winning tactic, likely to erode a nation’s will to fight and, according to the real enthusiasts on various air staffs, capable of doing so overnight.  Bottom line, and despite the heartfelt regrets expressed by German propaganda, bombers over Italy weren’t discouraged from scattering their loads onto the occasional Renaissance church or triptych, both as a contribution to the war effort and as a test of public reaction (among the victims and at home).

So while Allied propaganda made the most of every opportunity to illustrate enemy barbarism by lamenting its wanton disregard for irreplaceable cultural treasures (check out the film on YouTube), the outraged Italians had a point when they accused the German Air Service of war crimes – but both were fine examples of one-eyed hypocrisy.

Padua suffers…
…and Allied propaganda makes a fuss.

The Allies in general were every bit as excited as their enemies about the potential of massed strategic bombing, and no less comfortable experimenting with the effects of terror bombing on civilians. This was particularly true of the British, who had formed a strategic bombing group to carry out raids on the largest possible scale – but the only country more enthusiastic about strategic bombing than Britain or Germany was Italy.

An Italian air officer, Giulio Douhet, had been the first to propose the theory several years before the War.  He was still thundering its virtues in the Italian press as 1917 came to a close, but in the meantime he had done his best to promote Italian heavy bombing capability, encouraging the designer Gianni Caproni to build his three-engine CA heavy bombers, and then ordering them into large-scale production on his own authority.  Highly controversial at the time, and well above the pay grade of an Army major, Douhet’s initiative reflected the passionate turbulence of Italian military planning and, along with a series of scathing memos criticising his superiors, earned him a court-martial and a prison sentence in 1916. It also gave Italy an early lead in the field of strategic bombing.

Douhet: that moustache says fanatic, and wasn’t far wrong.

Douhet was pardoned thanks to the intervention of a man who was both the incarnation of Italian military passion and a near-fanatical proponent of strategic bombing, the poet and all-round human tornado Gabriele D’Annunzio. D’Annunzio is worth a paragraph or two of digression because he was, to put it mildly, a colourful character, and because he’ll crop up again as a very noisy wildcard amid the War’s last rites.  A writer by trade, and a fervent nationalist given to political agitation with an oratorical bent, he had quit Italy for France in 1910 to escape personal debt, but returned in May 1915 to add his voice and flair for publicity to the mounting chorus for intervention in the War.

D’Annunzio: that pose says narcissist, and wasn’t far wrong.

Once Italy was at war, D’Annunzio kept his profile high.  He’d turned 52 in March 1915, but gained permission to serve at various times as a cavalry officer, aboard a torpedo boat and as observer in command of a Caproni squadron.  His irrepressible ego and evident personal courage – highlighted by a wound in 1916 that cost him an eye but didn’t prevent him returning to action – had won him a lot of medals and made him an Italian national hero by 1917, with sufficient clout to secure the release of an air theorist he considered a visionary lighting the road to national glory.

Douhet would be rehabilitated as the head of the Italian Army’s Central Aeronautic Bureau in 1918, and would produce the first edition of his internationally influential blueprint for strategic civilian bombing (Il dominio dell’aria) in 1921, but his time in the wilderness had been about personal behaviour rather than his ideas.

Douhet was certainly considered a crank, if not a crackpot, by much of the Italian political and military establishment, but that was the lot of air enthusiasts in all the warring nations, especially those who made extravagant claims about bombers rendering the ground-warfare expertise of their superiors all but obsolete.  Douhet attracted extra opprobrium with his wartime demands for the immediate construction of 500 heavy bombers, a feat way beyond the capacity of Italy’s economy even if the government had been prepared to divert resources from the all-consuming ground campaign on its frontier.

And there’s the rub.  In Britain, France and Germany, desperation to find a way out of the ghastly stalemate meant cranks and crackpots were being given a chance to prove their ideas.  All three economies were capable of producing new aircraft designs for experimental purposes without diluting their efforts on the main battlefronts, and all three empires had plenty of use for heavy bombers, for attacks on both military installations close to the Western Front and the plethora of major civilian targets within range of their airfields.  The Italians not only needed everything they could produce, including ground-support aircraft, to maintain a front-line effort that became increasingly dependent on Allied reinforcement, but because the Alps and the range restrictions of contemporary heavy aircraft put most Austro-Hungarian towns of any size beyond attack from Italy, their heavy aircraft lacked targets for any serious civilian bombing experiment.

That’s enough rambling for one bleary day.  Aside from drip-feeding a bit of relatively obscure information, this particular ramble was aimed at the tendency, in Britain at least, to condemn strategic bombing as something designed and practiced by the bad guys, in our case Germany.  Just as the Blitz of the 1940s is shoved down our collective throats as the exemplar of evil, while the altogether more monstrous and massive bombing of Germany by the RAF is quietly downplayed, so Allied and Italian outrage at the festive bombing or northern Italy in 1917 masked their active desire to do exactly the same thing to their enemies on the grandest possible scale.  Gentlemanly?  Yeah, right…