24 FEBRUARY, 1918: The Snail That Roared

I feel like telling a simple tale today, so let’s raise a glass to the extraordinary voyage of the German commerce raider SMS Wolf. The Wolf made it home to Germany a hundred years ago today after some fifteen months at sea without putting into port, much of it spent playing cat and mouse with British naval forces, some of it spent taking the War to places other German warships couldn’t reach.

In service as an auxiliary cruiser, the Wolf had begun life as a commercial cargo ship, the Wachtfels, completed in 1913.  Although it was slow, with a maximum speed of only 11 knots, the ship was built for long voyages, with room for enough coal to give it a maximum range of almost 60,000km.  It was converted to carry six 15cm guns, three 5.2cm guns, four torpedo tubes and more than 400 mines, as well as removable false superstructure for disguise purposes, before being commissioned into the Imperial German Navy in May 1916.  Sometimes referred to as Wolf II because, somewhat confusingly and for no good reason I know about, the German Navy already had an auxiliary cruiser called Wolf, it was also one of very few auxiliaries equipped with a seaplane, a single-engine, two-seater Friedrichshafen FF33 reconnaissance biplane known as Wölfchen (wolf cub).

A propaganda shot of the Wölfchen at work.

The Wolf and its 348 strong crew sailed from Kiel on 30 November 1916.  A U-boat escort and foul weather helped it break through the British naval blockade to reach the open sea on 10 December.  Its first priority was mine laying, and it laid its first field off Dassen Island, some 80km north of Cape Town, on the night of 16/17 January.  Working its way east, it put down further minefields off Cape Agulhas, at South Africa’s southern tip, off Colombo and finally, on 19 February 1917, off Bombay, before switching to a hunt for Allied merchantmen.

The first Allied ship taken by the Wolf was its former sister ship with the civilian Hansa Line, since captured by the British and renamed the Turritella.  The manner of its taking illustrates the difference between the everyday realities of commerce warfare and the explosive stuff they like to show in movies.  A warning dropped from the seaplane about the Wolf’s guns was enough to persuade Turritella‘s captain out of fight or flight, and he accepted a boarding party from the German ship on 27 February.  In no position to deliver his victim to a German port,the Wolf‘s Captain Nerger put a prize crew aboard, renamed the captured vessel the Iltis, gave it a small 2-pounder gun and 25 mines, and sent it off to work for the German cause.  On 5 March, after laying its mines at the Red Sea port of Aden, the Iltis was scuttled when challenged by the Royal Navy sloop HMS Odin.

Nerger meanwhile steamed slowly for the Pacific, capturing three more ships during March and making a maintenance stop off Raoul Island, some 600km north of New Zealand, where the Wolf dropped anchor on 22 May and captured another passing merchantman on 1 June.  By late June the German raider had reached New Zealand, laying 25 mines off North Cape on 25 June and 35 more off Cape Farewell a couple of days later, before crossing the Tasman Sea to mine Gabo Island off the Australian coast.  Nerger then turned north, capturing three more Allied ships en route to another maintenance stop at the island of Waigeo, just off the northwest tip of Papua/New Guinea.

Captain Nerger: a good egg and still a national hero in Germany after the Second World War, which is why he died in a Soviet interment camp in 1947

Late August saw the Wolf steaming slowly west across the Pacific towards Singapore, where it laid the last of its mines on the night of 2/3 September.  That was mission accomplished.  With no more mines on board, and not enough fuel or supplies to reach Germany, the Wolf‘s obvious next move was to sail to a neutral port and accept internment.  Instead, the ship turned south into the Indian Ocean, and got lucky.

On 26 September Wolf captured a Japanese freighter, which carried a gun and put up a brief fight before surrendering, and on 29 September it hit the jackpot by intercepting a collier.  Hauling 5,500 tons of coal, the Igotz Mendi was Spanish and neutral, but under the circumstances the fact that it was headed for a British port – Colombo – made it at least arguably fair game.  With fuel supplies secured, Wolf and its latest prize steamed in tandem for the Atlantic and home.

Capturing coal wasn’t quite the same the same thing as using it, and the first attempt to transfer fuel to the Wolf, in rough seas on 26 December, left both ships damaged.  Once repairs at sea were completed they tried again, in even worse conditions on 10 January 1918, and after 21 hours of bumping and grinding enough coal had been redistributed for the two ships to proceed independently towards Germany.

The last stage of Wolf‘s epic tour of duty was the most arduous, partly because of major storms in late January but principally because it faced danger from both the British blockade and German defences, which could not be informed of the disguised ship’s true identity without breaking radio silence.  Reaching the coast of Norway on 14 February, it succeeded in entering the Baltic on 17 February and was then able to contact Kiel, only to be told to wait offshore while preparations were made for a gala welcome.  Replete with speeches and medal ceremonies, the welcome took place on 24 February, the same day that the less fortunate prize crew of the Igotz Mendi ran aground on the Skaw spit, at the top of Jutland, and was captured by a (neutral) Danish gunboat.

A very long journey on a very slow ship

The fate of the Wolf and its equally well-known seaplane had been the subject of worldwide rumour and speculation for months, although British authorities had suppressed evidence of that the ‘Black Raider’ had reached Australasia because they had no minesweepers in the region.  The ship’s safe return was therefore a gift to German propagandists, and to be fair they had plenty to brag about.

The Wolf had made the longest single voyage of any warship during the conflict, and had sunk or captured 27 Allied or neutral vessels, including two warships and, representing the farthest reach of the German Navy’s trade war, two ships sunk by mines laid off New Zealand.  The ship had arrived home not just intact, but carrying a lot of booty, including rubber, copper, zinc, brass, silk, copra and cocoa, all of it very valuable to Germany’s starved economy.

The Australian cargo steamer Wimmera, seen here at Wellington harbour, was sunk by a mine from the Wolf off Auckland on 26 June 1918. Twenty-six of 151 on board were killed.

Captain Nerger seems to have been a good egg.  Thanks to his determination to protect civilians, a total of 467 prisoners captured from Allied merchant ships were also on board when the ship arrived at Kiel.  According to the many accounts written by survivors of the voyage, the prisoners were both a cause of universal hardship during the latter stages of the journey and, because they included crew from dozens of countries, an extraordinary and at the time unprecedented social experiment.  It seems to have passed in remarkably harmonious style, considering the history of inter-racial relations ever since, but then threats to basic survival do have a tendency to put human prejudice in its place.

The rest of the Wolf’s story was more prosaic.  It ended the War back in service, in the Baltic with a new captain and crew, but became a French ship, the Antinous, as a tiny part of the massive bill charged to Germany by the post-War peace treaty.  It ended its career in its original role as a commercial cargo vessel, and was finally scrapped in 1931.

If you’re looking for a message from this particular post, you’ll struggle.  The Wolf‘s propaganda value was fleeting and its strategic impact on the War as a whole was minimal, though it has been argued that its mines did more than anything else to bring the concept of global war home to the people of New Zealand.  Its story does offer glimpses of the realities behind the concept of trade warfare, one of the First World War’s most important and unsung battlegrounds, but is essentially a family-friendly tale with moderate violence.  In the end my only excuses for making both of you read it are a personal weakness for naval derring-do, and the fact that it’s a German wartime epic, inevitably left out of posterity showreels written by the winners.

17 FEBRUARY, 1918: Follow That Figment!

Thanks to happy accidents of history and geography, I’ve never had to fight in a war or survive as one goes on around me, but I have it on a number of good authorities that both can play tricks on the imagination.  This is obviously true of individuals but can also be the case for groups, particularly in hierarchical systems that grant certain individuals a lot of power to influence groups.

The First World War was a very big, very complicated war, fought between fundamentally hierarchical systems, and arguably fought in an attempt to preserve those systems in a changing socio-political environment.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at how often – even by the standards of comparably enormous conflicts – the command elites of First World War empires let their collective imaginations run out of control.

Imagined threats and imagined glories, not to mention a few imagined maps, generated a lot of wild, crazy and generally pointless action throughout the War.  The French invasion of Germany in 1914, the Dardanelles expedition in 1915, almost everything to do with British extension of the Mesopotamian Front, Italian involvement in the War, Romanian foreign policy, the whole basis of German war strategy after Ludendorff and the Third Supreme Command took power in 1916… the war years were in some ways defined by these and many other strategic responses to gigantic chimeras.

Wild flights of imagination, laced with optimism or desperation, also gave life to some of the War’s smaller but crazy operations – the British Naval Africa Expedition springs inevitably to mind (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut) – and today marks the centenary of a staging post in one such folly’s story.  I’m talking about the adventures of what came to be known as ‘Dunsterforce’, a British detachment that reached what was then the town of Enzeli in northwest Persia, and is now the Iranian town of Bandar-e Anzali, on 17 February 1918.

Nicknamed after its commanding officer, Russian-speaking British Indian Army General Lionel Dunsterville, Dunsterforce was a composite detachment of about 1,000 British, ANZAC and Canadian troops hand-picked from the Western and Mesopotamian Fronts.  It was assembled in December 1917 at the western Persian town of Hamadan, halfway between the Mesopotamian frontier and Teheran, and supplied by a fleet of 750 lorries across 500km of rough terrain from Baghdad.

Dunsterville: as dashing as he looks, and the inspiration for Kipling’s Stalky.

All this logistic effort was the product of some fairly wild imaginings on the part of British strategists.  They imagined a plan to invade India through Persia by Ottoman and German forces, and imagined that a thousand men could march across modern Iraq and Iran to prevent it.  They also imagined that the same men could march on into what was then known as Transcaucasia, where they could prop up the newly established, anti-Ottoman Transcaucasian Republic and ideally gain access to the regional oil industry centred on Baku.

The idea of aiding Transcaucasia did at least have a basis in reality. The strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea had formed the only land frontier between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1914, and comprised the Russian provinces of Azerbaijan and Georgia, along with the vaguely defined Armenian homelands either side of the border.  All three formed legislative assemblies with nationalist pretensions in the wake of the February Revolution in Russia, and after a joint meeting at Tbilisi in August 1917 they agreed to merge for mutual protection as the Transcaucasian Republic, which came into formal existence on 17 September.

It didn’t last long.  The dominant partner, Georgia, was interested in promoting its economic development as a client of Germany, while Azerbailjan favoured close relations with a Central Asian assembly based in Tashkent, and after years of genocidal violence Armenians were primarily concerned with reaching some kind of settlement with their Turkish neighbours.  By the time Dunsterforce was assembling, all three partners were behaving as if the Republic didn’t exist, and all three were bracing for attacks by Red Army forces as soon as a peace agreed at Brest-Litovsk left the Bolsheviks free to focus on internal affairs.

While I’m on this detour, I should correct a bad miss on my part some eighteen months back, a failure to mention one of the War’s almost completely forgotten horrors. In July 1916, native peoples of the region known as Central Asia – modern Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (eat your heart out, Borat) – rose up against the Russian Empire, which had expanded to control the region in the late nineteenth century.

Russia had left Central Asia’s tribal and nomadic societies virtually untouched, but had exploited their cotton output and used the land to seed colonists, who made up some forty percent of the population by 1914. War provided an outlet for longstanding tensions between natives and colonists because the Empire needed manpower, and the rebellion exploded into life after a government decree conscripted hitherto exempt native males for military labour service. Thousands of Russian settlers were murdered before the Russian Army moved in to join colonists in executing savage reprisals, and estimates of the number killed before order was restored vary up to about 500,000.

Even in this idealised form the Central Asian rebels of 1916 were easy meat for Russian Army guns.

Perhaps if the revolt had been a crusade for or precursor to some kind of nationalist movement, rather than a spontaneous expression of popular anger of a kind generally known as peasants’ revolt in the West, it would still be commemorated as part of some nation’s creation story. As it is, the slaughter in Central Asia has never been subject to propaganda exposure by anyone. Virtually unknown to contemporaries in Europe, it has been pretty much ignored ever since. It’s a fair guess that Western posterity would be all over any remotely comparable catastrophe if it had happened somewhere less remote from the concerns of history’s winners, and that justifies the swerve so I’ll move on.

Dunsterforce headed north to undertake its improbable twin mission on 27 January 1918, accompanied by an armoured car unit, and had covered the 350km to Enzeli by 17 February. Reality then reared its inconvenient head, because 3,000 revolutionary Russian troops were already there, and Dunsterville was forced to march back to Hamadan.

Tough country… Dunsterforce country.

During the following weeks a German division occupied Tbilisi, an Ottoman force moved to threaten Baku and Red Army forces quit Enzeli to retreat beyond Baku.  Dunsterforce armoured cars, this time accompanied by a British imperial regiment from the Mesopotamian Front and a force of some 3,000 anti-revolutionary Russian troops, duly struggled north again.  They occupied Enzeli in June, but didn’t stay long.  In response to an appeal for help from moderate socialists who had overthrown the Bolsheviks controlling Baku during July, Dunsterforce crossed the western Caspian Sea to join the city’s defence.

About 1,000 Dunsterforce troops had joined a garrison of some 10,000 local volunteers in Baku by late August, but they left again during the night of 14 September as 14,000 Ottoman troops prepared to attack the city.   Baku fell next day, but most of Dunsterville’s troops escaped and returned to Enzeli along with large numbers of Armenian refugees.  When Ottoman forces left Baku in line with the armistice agreement, Dunsterville led his troops back to occupy the port without a fight.  Having finally achieved this small, belated and temporary strategic success, he was ordered back to Britain.

He received rather less of a hero’s welcome than he might have expected for bringing his force through a considerable logistic and command challenge in far-flung and dangerous territory.  With the War effectively over and propaganda losing its hold over public debate, his mission was subject to severe criticism as part of a wider (and permanent) backlash against the perceived strategic failings that had prolonged the conflict. Dunsterforce was generally dismissed as either a reckless and pointless adventure or a strategic coup let down by pitifully inadequate investment of resources.  A century on, it’s hard to argue with that assessment – but equally hard to claim we don’t still fall for wartime tricks on our imagination.

11 FEBRUARY, 1918: Daydream Believer

I’ve spent the last few years trying to shine a little light on those aspects of the First World War that get left out of most heritage history, but sometimes even those events it does commemorate get such superficial or inaccurate treatment that I feel compelled to give their windows a polish.  A couple of those are floating around our media ether at the moment.

I’m tempted to spend the day explaining why modern focus on Emmaline Pankhurst, the very definition of a self-serving opportunist, is a betrayal of the women who made real sacrifices in pursuit of female suffrage, but that will have to wait.  Right now I’m exercised about the superficial nod delivered by posterity to the Fourteen Points, US President Wilson’s quintessentially liberal recipe for a peaceful world.

Wilson’s recipe has since been almost universally dismissed as a naive failure, which would explain why it hasn’t garnered much in the way of centenary action.  It that has also been blamed – often by the same people – for much that went wrong with the peace process at the end of the First World War, and by extension for the League of Nations, the Second World War and almost everything we remember as bad about the rest of the twentieth century.  That view reflects its enormous contemporary impact on what you might call the global psyche, and makes virtually ignoring it a hundred years on look pretty ridiculous.  So here’s a briefing.

I’ll start with the anniversary, by way of clearing up a nomenclature issue.  Wilson originally announced his principles for creation of a lasting peace in Congress on 8 January 1918, and there were fourteen of them.  On 11 February he again addressed Congress, and added four more principles to the list, but by that time news of his original speech had spread as fast as wildfire could travel in 1918.  The Fourteen Points were famous – had in fact provoked so much popular excitement and political irritation all over the world that they are a small watershed moment in the emerging age of mass communication.  Nobody was about to start calling them the Eighteen Points just because it was accurate.

The Fourteen Points Are Ours… sentiments echoed by street protesters all over the world in 1918.

So what exactly were they?  Compiled by Wilson with help from his special advisor, Colonel House, and a team of political experts (Wilson was, of course, an academic), the original fourteen were a very sketchy peace programme delivered to Congress as a statement of US war aims.  The first of Wilson’s fourteen paragraphs renounced secret treaties, calling for ‘open covenants openly arrived at’, and the second demanded absolute freedom of the seas outside of territorial waters, rendering the kind of blockade tactics carried out by the British illegal.  The third point called for the removal of trade barriers wherever possible, the fourth for worldwide arms reduction and the fifth for impartial arbitration of all colonial disputes.

After that, Wilson got down to specifics.  Point six required an end to all occupation of Russian imperial territory by the Central Powers, a sop to the Bolsheviks locked into peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  Point seven demanded the complete restoration of Belgium, point eight accepted French claims to Alsace and Lorraine, both absorbed by Germany since 1871, and the ninth point recognised some but not all of Italy’s territorial claims.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire received relatively lenient treatment from the tenth point, which only called for ‘autonomous development’ of its separatist elements, but point eleven was more firm on the future of the Balkans, insisting on an end to the occupations of Romania, Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter to have access to the Adriatic coast.  Point twelve guaranteed Ottoman sovereignty of the empire’s Turkish heartlands, but granted autonomy to its subject peoples and declared the Dardanelles an open sea, while point thirteen recognised the existence of an independent Poland, and that it should have access to the sea.

Having passed principled judgment on the world’s most pressing international disputes in the space of a few minutes, Wilson went on, in point fourteen, to recommend the establishment of ‘a general association of nations’ as a means of keeping the peace.

The four points added on 11 February were less easily said, even more vague and even less easily done.  The first accepted that no general formula for peace could be applied to every post-War claim, and that each must be judged on its individual merits, while the second stated that peoples and provinces could not be bartered as diplomatic currency between empires.  The third declared the benefit of local populations to be the basis upon which all future territorial agreements should be made, and the fourth gave the world a get-out, stating that ‘well-defined national aspirations’ could only be satisfied if they didn’t introduce or perpetuate causes for war.

The man who saved the world – when he still believed the hype.

Faced with social injustice, socialists and liberals have always agreed about some short-term aims, and in 1918 Wilson’s prescription for peace agreed in many ways with the version presented by the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk.   I think I’ve already mentioned that Bolshevik peace proposals had an enormous impact on populations all over the world, and contributed directly to permanent political and social change for some of them, but the Fourteen Points made an even bigger splash thanks to a propaganda machine that really knew its business.

The man in charge of US wartime propaganda was George Creel, a committed social reformer and ‘muckraker’ journalist, well known for his exposés of commercial and political corruption.  Creel had been a strong supporter of Wilson during the 1912 and 1916 election campaigns, and was appointed to head the Committee of Public Information (CPI) in 1917.  Energetic and confident, though inclined to impulsive verbal outbursts, he turned what had been no more than a government news agency into a sprawling propaganda service.

George Creel in 1917. Doesn’t look forty, does he?

The wartime CPI expanded rapidly to include a Pictorial Publicity Division, employing the nation’s most celebrated painters, sculptors and cartoonists, and a Motion Picture Division.  It also employed an estimated 75,000 ‘Four-Minute Men’, trained public speakers who roamed the country giving short speeches in schools, churches and movie theatres, promoting food conservation, War Bonds or any other federal policy.  Each Four-Minute Man gave an average of more than a thousand wartime speeches, reaching a total audience of almost 315 million and proving a highly effective propaganda tool in a nation still thoroughly hooked on declamatory speechifying.

Speaks for itself…

Partly to promote peace, and partly to make sure the world knew why the US was going to war, Creel’s department was charged with selling the Fourteen Points abroad, and did a fabulous job, albeit working with audiences desperate to believe in any plan that promised a workable peace.  Wilson found himself lionized across six continents, his programme hailed as visionary genius by foreign populations, even those who stood to lose by its propositions, wherever they were able to express their views.  Governments were generally less impressed.

Without making any formal protest, Allied governments rejected the reduction of Italy’s territorial claims (as they were bound to do by the 1915 treaty that bribed Italy into the War) and the proposed ban on naval blockade tactics.  They also objected to Wilson’s complete silence on the subject of reparations, an issue turned into a political hot potato in Britain, France and Italy by their own propaganda, which consistently accused Germany and Austria-Hungary of forcing war on Europe.  On the other side of the lines, the governments of the Central Powers viewed the Fourteen Points as inimical to the survival of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and greeted them with predictable derision.

Given popular opinion’s relative lack of worldwide clout in 1918, even in countries dependent upon public support for survival at war or in the midst of populist revolution, rejection by belligerent governments on both sides could easily have consigned the Fourteen Points to history’s dustbin then and there.  That they avoided the fate of all the previous attempts to broker peace did have something to do with the sheer breadth of their popular appeal, and with a growing sense in all the belligerent states (encouraged by the collapse of Russia and the imminent involvement of US forces) that the War’s long stalemate was finally nearing breaking point.  Above all though, their continued currency during the months that followed was a reflection of the USA’s particular place in the world of early 1918.

The United States was the success story of the age, a model nation built on strict democratic principles that was entering the world stage as powerful economic, diplomatic and (potentially) military force.  It was already showing signs of losing its halo, on the back of military adventures inspired by greedy and corrupt corporate interests, but was still essentially admired around the world, carrying none of the world policeman’s baggage that has soiled its reputation ever since.  If any nation on Earth stood a chance of being trusted as an international peacemaker, and of bullying those incapable of trust, the USA was it.

A self-conscious guardian of the American halo and a president elected on a pacifist ticket, Wilson not only believed in the righteousness and practicability of his peace formula, he couldn’t afford to let it fade from the global agenda.  He needed his home constituents and the world at large to recognise that the US was going to war for noble, selfless reasons, in tune with the liberal ideals he and his supporters espoused.  So US propaganda and diplomacy kept up pressure for the Fourteen Points through the spring and summer of 1918, and were rewarded in the autumn.

Facing military defeat, the Central Powers demanded that Wilson’s programme form the basis for peace negotiations, primarily because it was far more lenient to defeated states than the punitive war aims of the European Allies.   Wilson publicly insisted on the same thing while making a few amendments to the Points as sops to Allied objections, leaving Britain and France, let alone Italy and the smaller Allied nations were, in no position to argue.  That put everyone concerned on a path to attempt the reconstruction of a shattered global civilisation using a blueprint nobody believed in, except the liberal wing of the US political class.   There will be more to say about the Fourteen Points, but in the meantime that’s your briefing.