23 APRIL, 1918: NEVER MIND THE BALOCHS…

Back in the days when anyone with an eye on world power wanted to take down the British Empire – roughly speaking the days between Napoleon and Hitler – the idea that India was the key to Britain’s prosperity was something of a truism.  Napoleon had made a slightly bonkers attempt to attack the subcontinent via the Middle East at the start of the nineteenth century, but by 1914 Britain’s enemies possessed sufficient geographical awareness to rule out conquest as a viable approach. They also possessed sufficient political awareness to realise that, while external forces had little or no chance of loosening Britain’s physical and economic grip on India, internal opposition to imperial control was a growing problem for the British administration, and was being sharpened by the spread of modern European political ideas among literate Indians.

It’s not really accurate to talk about Indians as a national type during the First World War. The subcontinent may have formed a basic administrative unit for the British, but was in fact a tapestry of culturally and politically distinct regions, each with its own strong sense of identity, and each a tapestry of culturally and politically distinct districts or villages. To put a simple (maybe even simplistic) spin on a complex story, the national identity implied by British control was being learned by those strata of Indian society engaged in active cooperation with the Raj, and the lesson was nurturing aspirations for national and regional independence that might (and one day would) destabilise British rule.

At this point I could happily wander off into tales of the Indian Congress Party and Gandhi, but there’s a war on so I’ll stick to what passes for the point. Germany’s wartime attempts to sabotage the jewel in the British crown focused on sending agents into India to bribe and cajole disaffected elements into rebellion. On the whole, despite the local violence endemic to the subcontinent, they achieved very little, but in early 1918 they scored something of a result in the most volatile, violent and historically troublesome corner of the Raj – the wild, largely Moslem northwest.

Covering an area almost three times the size of England, the northwestern province of Balochistan bordered Afghanistan, Persia and the Straits of Hormuz, which gave access to the Persian Gulf, so it was what you might call a strategic hotspot in an age of empires with global ambitions. The sparsely populated province was governed, along with the storied North-West Frontier Province directly to the north, by the Indian Political Service, the quasi-military department of the Raj charged with control of potential trouble spots. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its martial nature, the regime was not popular with locals, and the province was targetted – along with the North-West Frontier – by German agents based in southeastern Persia, technically a neutral country but in practice a minor battleground for British, Russian and German elements.

Here it is – or rather was.

The Marri tribe of eastern Balochistan was regarded as particularly hostile by the British administration, but why it opted for armed uprising in 1918 is uncertain. German agents may have convinced tribal chiefs that the British were too stretched by the demands of war to fight back, or Marri representatives may have conspired with the leaders of other Baloch tribes during a 1917 visit of the British viceroy to the provincial capital, Quetta. The ceremonies surrounding Lord Chelmsford’s visit culminated in a demand for a levy of army recruits, which may have reinforced Marri confidence in British weakness, or may simply have angered a traditionally warlike tribe. Either way, the levy was accepted by every tribal leader except the Marri chieftain, who made it clear his people would not fight for their enemies and agreed to pay for exemption.

Something about that arrangement clearly didn’t wok, because at 11pm on 19 February 1918 several hundred tribesmen attacked the British military outpost at Fort Gumbaz. The British had been expecting trouble, and reinforcements had just raised the fort’s garrison to eighty men, more than enough firepower to repulse three assaults by attackers armed with little more than faith and swords.

Despite losing at least two hundred casualties at Gumbaz, the Marri were anything but daunted. They secured support from other Baloch tribes – principally the Khetran, but also the smaller Buzdar, Kaisrani and Bugti groups – and then embarked on a regional rampage. Attackers destroyed buildings around the British fort at Barkhan on 7 March, and around 3,000 men attacked the British garrison at Fort Munro on 15 March, occupying nearby buildings and high ground. That was the uprising’s high point, because despite the claims of tribal leaders the British were able to mount a military response, and it was about to catch up with the rebels.

Two brigades of Indian Army troops had begun arriving at bases in the towns of Duki and Dera Ghazi Khan in early March, and forward units of the 55th rifles (Frontier Force) reached Fort Munro from Dera Ghazi Khan before the end of the day, dispersing the attack with the loss of only four casualties.  More troops arrived next day, when Frontier Force moved on to the town of Rakhni and began a programme of systematic reprisals, destroying villages and crops, seizing livestock and imprisoning large numbers of suspected insurgents.

Meanwhile the brigade based at Duki advanced to Gumbaz on 18 March and entered the Marri heartlands at Nurhan the following day. Ill-supplied and equipped by contemporary European standards, it nevertheless travelled with a battery of light artillery and was altogether too powerful for anything or anyone in its path. It could also call on air support from the nine RAF BE2c biplanes based in the region, some of which bombed the Marri capital of Kahan on 24 March, killing 14 men and spreading the kind of terror dreamed of by strategic bombing theorists in Europe.

Conducting punitive operations against local villages as it went, the ‘Duki column’ advanced through pouring rain until 4 April, when it met and overran a force of some 1,500 tribesmen blocking the road at Hadb, inflicting about 700 casualties before marching to Kahan, which was occupied without opposition on 18 April.  The rebellion was effectively over.  The Khetran tribe’s unconditional surrender was made public a hundred years ago today, and the Marri followed suit on 2 May, after which the tribe maintained a surly but non-violent approach to British rule for the rest of the War.

The British press in 1918 could make an exciting, imperially uplifting pictorial out of any victory, however cheap.

So a small, unfocused rebellion in an obscure corner of the British Empire came to a predictable and completely unsuccessful conclusion, an event reported in the British press as a victory for the Indian administration and a defeat for German attempts to destabilise the subcontinent.  That said, at a time of high drama on the main European fronts, operations in Balochistan were hardly headline news in Britain, begging the question of why I’m bothering to tell anyone about it.

Apart from my undisciplined delight in reporting events ignored by the heritage gurus but big enough to make headlines in any more peaceful era, the fate of the Marri is a reminder that – despite almost four years of state propaganda condemning its enemies for behaving like barbarians – Britain was still quite comfortable with treating at least some of its imperial subjects like animals. Troops of Asian origin may have carried out the vengeful destruction of Marri food supplies, livelihoods and domiciles, but the officers in charge and the policy they implemented were British.

The brief campaign of early 1918 also offers useful context for the idea that the Raj was an example of benevolent imperialism, a power arrangement that was good for both conquerer and conquered. Currently fashionable in middlebrow Britain, and often expressed as a reason for southern Asia to be grateful for European intervention, this rosy mirage has some substance when applied to some of the subcontinent’s population, some of the time, but bears no resemblance to the reality experienced by most.  With British mass media currently engaged in a noisy bout of Commonwealth tub-thumping to a Brexit backbeat, it seems worth remembering that wartime oppression gave one large and culturally distinct part of modern Pakistan no reason at all to be grateful for the British Empire.

14 APRIL, 1918: Big Foch

I’m often inclined to act the apologist for military commanders during the First World War.  Utterly stymied by the state of contemporary weapons and transport technology, they have been used by posterity as scapegoats for a war it regards as disastrous. For long-winded versions of the argument just put ‘donkey’ into the site search engine and read on, but for now I want to talk about a side-effect of posterity’s disdain: the Great War’s shortage of hero commanders.

The Black Prince, Napoleon, Marlborough, Grant, Cromwell, Eisenhower, Zhukov, Gustavus Adolphus, Wellington, Nelson, Giap… off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other major war that hasn’t bequeathed a few high-ranking military greats to posterity, but scan around the First World War’s major belligerent powers and who do you find?

You find Ataturk.  As father of the Turkey that emerged from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk’s military and political exploits were raised by the new state’s propaganda to a status comparable with the great commanders of any war. Otherwise, the field is barren.  The USA wasn’t at war for long enough to give Pershing or anyone else a shot at demigod status, and Italy didn’t really have any victorious commanders, while the British Empire’s military leaders were quickly – and, it would seem, permanently – dismissed as donkeys.  Russian and Austro-Hungarian head honchos were damned to disgrace or obscurity by the inheritors of their fallen empires, and with the exception of Hindenburg, an inert figurehead never regarded as militarily relevant by any informed observer, Germany’s war leaders soon suffered the same fate.

That just leaves France, where the relationship between posterity and First World War military superstars is a little more complicated.

Unlike the conflict’s other big players, France faced a fight for its very survival from the start of the War.  By that time French popular and political culture had been obsessed with the nation’s army for several decades, a reaction to past failures that amounted to a passionate, often critical expression of militarism, very different from but hardly less pervasive than that so routinely associated with Germany.  To put it mildly, both situations tended to encourage the creation of national heroes, and the permanent threat of the invader at the gates dealt most revered among them an extra trump against posterity’s revenge – because they became ‘saviours of the nation’.

The ‘saviour’ at the Marne in 1914, General Joffre, remained an untouchable hero for more than two years of repeated failure, carried out with spectacular arrogance, before he was replaced at the top in late 1916, by which time the ‘saviour’ of Verdun, General Pétain, had taken his place as the nation’s favourite hero commander.  Pétain cemented his status by ‘saving’ the French Army (and by extension the nation) when it mutinied on the Western Front in April 1917, but a year later his reputation was losing some of its gloss, though only in high places.

Pétain, hero commander and kindly grandfather… but not for long.

Pétain’s great acts of salvation had been defensive in nature – shoring up both Verdun and the Army – and since the mutiny he had been principally concerned with saving French lives, refusing to commit the Army to anything more than a minor supporting role in offensives on the Western Front.  Naturally enough, this attitude preserved his popularity among the troops and did no harm to his public reputation, but by the spring of 1918 Allied commanders and political leaders were desperate to be rid of him.

Haig, Pershing, Lloyd George and Pétain’s own prime minister, Clemenceau – all men whose hopes for their own legacies depended on winning the War as quickly as possible – were all convinced of the need for much more aggression from the French Army.  The saviour could not, of course, be sacked as its c-in-c – but they could bypass him.  On 14 April 1918, after several months of preparatory manoeuvres, they did just that, appointing French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of Allied armies on the Western Front, and in the process enshrining a rival ‘saviour of the nation’ in their own image.

Few observers of French military life, least of all the man himself, doubted that Foch was the aggressive general for the job.  Well into his sixty-seventh year in April 1918, he had been preparing for the role since the early years of the century, when his hugely influential works on military theory introduced the concept of ‘offensive spirit’ to French military thinking.

Regarded as stunningly original in contemporary France (though heavily influenced by the relatively little-known Clausewitz) and intended to reverse the defeats by Prussia in 1870, Foch’s ideas laid great stress on tactical flexibility and strong artillery support for attacking infantry.  His many supporters took them further, extending them into a call for attack at all costs, with disastrous consequences for Foch’s first attempt to save the nation but very positive effects on his reputation and career.

By August 1914, Foch was in command of the French Army’s elite XX Corps, part of General Castlenau’s army in position for the invasion of Germany through Lorraine.  While the invasion was collapsing around him, Foch put his ideas into action, conceiving and executing a counterattack that halted the German advance on Nancy.  He was rewarded with promotion (on 28 August 1914) to command a new Ninth Army at the Battle of the Marne, where he again counterattacked to prevent a German breakthrough.

Big cheeses on the Western Front:  French President Poincaré, Belgium’s King Albert, French War Minister  Alexandre Millerand, Western Front c-in-c Joffre… and, with his hand up for attention, Ferdinand Foch.

Now firmly established as a national hero, but inevitably in the shadow of Joffre the saviour, Foch took command of the Northern Group of French armies on the Western Front in October, and from the following January the appointment was extended to include British and Belgian forces in Flanders.  Never really able to tell British (or Belgian) commanders what to do, his authority hung on direct control of French reserves in the sector, and his reluctance to commit them (particularly at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915) earned him a reputation among BEF commanders for wasting lives.  At the same time he alienated successive French governments with his demands for greater aggression and his support for politicians prepared to display said aggression, notably Clemenceau.

Foch remained in the post until the end of 1916, when he was replaced in the wake of Joffre’s belated sacking, his fate sealed by opposition to what he called the ‘Verdun tactics’ of the new pretender to the saviour crown, General Nivelle.  After leading a mission to plan future Anglo-French cooperation on the Italian Front, he returned to the Western Front as chief of staff to the new c-in-c, Pétain (of course), after Nivelle’s dismissal in May 1917. Restoring his reputation took longer, but he cracked it during the autumn, impressing politicians and Allied commanders with his coordination of Anglo-French intervention in Italy after the Austro-German Caporetto Offensive had driven the Italian Army to the brink of collapse.

The success saw Foch appointed, with strong British backing, as French Permanent Military Representative to the new Allied Supreme War Council, established in November 1917 as a means of exerting Anglo-French authority over the disputes and decisions of Italian field commanders.  In Western Front terms, the position saw Foch taking part in (and agreeing with) decisions made at the very top of the Allied command structure, but unable to impose them on his cautious superior in the field.  The Council finally lost patience with the situation once the German Spring Offensive of March 1918 made it imperative that the British and French on the Western Front were singing from the same hymnbook.  Promoted over Pétain’s head, Foch became the Western Front’s supreme commander on 14 April, and his jurisdiction was extended to include the Italian Front in June.

About sums him up…

The new saviour of France had been installed, and would go on to end the War in what amounted – by the standards of this conflict – to a blaze of glory.  Once the German Army’s advances in France had been halted, his enduring commitment to ‘offensive spirit’ would finally come into its own, chiming nicely with the needs of Haig, Lloyd George and Clemenceau, driving the Allied armies forward when it mattered most, and earning him universal admiration in the immediate post-War era as the architect of Allied victory.

So the French, in stark contrast to their allies, emerged from the War boasting two fully-fledged hero commanders (or saviours of the nation) in Pétain and Foch – but neither managed to hold onto the halo.  Pétain’s concern to save French lives took him over the line into infamy in 1940, when he agreed to become head of the Vichy regime, and Foch’s religious commitment to aggression against the nation’s enemies persisted into the 1920s, by which time his Draconian approach to punishing post-War Germany had seen him dismissed by all but the most right-wing opinion as a fanatical, anachronistic warmonger.  Ah well, Ataturk it is then…

I’ll just end this rambling, essentially pointless post with an apology for coming up with something so bland and taking so long about it. I’m afraid that’s what happens when the demands of exterior wood treatment reduce a body to one solvent-fuelled paragraph a day.   And they say trench warfare’s tough…

7 APRIL, 1918: Holy Smoke

I’ve been lurking around the trenches for a week or two, and it’s time to wander elsewhere, even though I’m going to need a particularly sketchy excuse for an anniversary to get there.  So a century ago today, forces attached to the Arab Revolt occupied the town of Kerak, just off the southeastern coast of the Dead Sea.  This wasn’t big news at the time, but as a minor component of the British Empire’s invasion of Transjordan, now part of modern Jordan, it feels a bit more important now – so here’s some context.

By early 1918, the British invasion of Palestine and the Arab Revolt’s northern progress were converging on the Ottoman-controlled Arab lands east of the River Jordan.  While British theatre commander Allenby planned his main offensive for the season on the Mediterranean coastal plains to the west, he sent his eastern flank into Transjordan for a diversionary attack towards the important railway junction of Dera.  Before launching the diversion towards Jericho and the northern Dead Sea, Allenby arranged for direct support from the Arab Revolt.

Nice, simple map, and it pretty much shows what you need…

The Arab Northern Army, based at the Red Sea port of Aqaba, was already conducting raids against Ottoman garrisons at Maan and Medina.  In mid-January, commander Prince Feisal sent a detachment led by his brother Zeid further north to the Dead Sea, charged with disrupting supply lines of grain and wood from central Arabia to Ottoman forces in the region.  Despite food shortages and poor coordination between its tribal groups (a problem that beset all but the most small-scale Arab Revolt operations), the advance quickly took the towns of Shobek and Tafila without much of a fight – but the threat to Dead Sea trade routes brought 1,000 Ottoman troops to the region, and they overwhelmed Zeid’s forward positions outside Tafila on 24 January.

The scene was set for another chapter in the saga of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but I’ll try to describe it without exaggerating.  Taking command of the defence of Tafila, Lawrence deployed about 500 men along a narrow, five-kilometre front, flanked by rocky ridges and blocking a central road.  Once Ottoman forces had nullified a few machine-gun posts manned by town residents, they took what seemed the smart option and occupied the high ground on either side of the front – but were falling for a trap.  Unable to dig trenches in the rocky ground, and pinned down by fire from the central Arab line, they were outflanked on both sides by small Arab detachments and collapsed under pressure from coordinated charges.  Having suffered only 65 casualties, against some 300 Ottoman troops killed and another 250 captured, Arab forces continued their northward progress to the Dead Sea port of El Mezra, where the seven small craft of the German-Ottoman Dead Sea flotilla surrendered on 28 January.

In close touch with but never in control of Arab movements, Allenby sent his eastern flank towards Jericho on 19 February, but it took two days to struggle across twenty kilometres of difficult terrain, by which time Ottoman defenders had retreated beyond the Jordan to Es Salt and Amman.  While Allenby turned his attention back to the west, launching consolidating attacks along the Mediterranean coast from 9 March in preparation for his main offensive, he sent one infantry and one expanded cavalry division across the river with strong artillery and engineering support.

Commanded by General Shea, the detachment had orders to keep going towards Dera and cooperate with Arab forces coming up from the south, but bad weather made any advance impossible until 23 March, when it took the heights of Es Salt without a fight.  By that time General Liman von Sanders, the new commander of Yilderim Force (the elite German/Ottoman strike force intended to spearhead a counterattack against Jerusalem), had concentrated all his reserves on the town of Amman, 30km further east.  When another pause in the rains allowed further movement on 27 March, Shea sent the Anzac Mounted Division against Amman, but its three-pronged attack was halted by machine-guns in the town citadel and bombing attacks from German aircraft based in Dera, and was abandoned after civil unrest in Es Salt delayed the arrival of supporting infantry.

Liman von Sanders and Kemal Ataturk, coloured in and both concentrating on their pissing contest…

An Ottoman counterattack opened on 30 March and, with the rising waters of the Jordan threatening to cut off his retreat, Shea withdrew across the river, leaving only a bridgehead defended at Ghoraniye.  What became known as the Battle of Amman had cost Shea 1,200 casualties and could only be interpreted as an Ottoman victory, the first in the theatre for almost a year, but it did achieve its strategic aim by convincing Liman von Sanders to concentrate his forces for the defence of Transjordan.  He also withdrew troops from the garrison at Maan, where the majority of Feisal’s men were gathering.

The proposed siege of Maan had delayed any Arab support for Shea, as had a second Ottoman attack on Tafila that forced the Arab garrison to retake the town on 18 March, and although a column under Lawrence did eventually march north it turned back on news of the defeat at Amman.

Early April saw all sides in the three-cornered struggle for Transjordan positioning for a renewed fight.  Arab forces occupied Kerak on 7 April, and Liman von Sanders launched an unsuccessful attack on the British bridgehead on 11 April.  At the same time a feint towards Dera by the ANZAC Mounted Division convinced him that, despite simultaneous British attacks near the Mediterranean coast, Allenby’s main spring offensive would strike east of the Jordan.

In fact Allenby’s main spring offensive never came, postponed until the autumn while every available British resource was rushed to face the German offensive on the Western Front, but he did take one last tilt at Transjordan.  A second invasion force – two cavalry divisions, one of infantry and two Indian Army brigades, led by General Chauvel – crossed the river on 30 April and took the Ottoman Fourth Army HQ at Es Salt, but the success was short-lived.  Liman von Sanders had reinforced the sector in preparation for a limited advance of his own, support promised by local Arab tribesmen failed to materialise, and by the end of 1 May the British were surrounded.  Allowed to retreat because Liman von Sanders couldn’t afford any more casualties, Chauvel was back across the Jordan by 4 May.

Scots and Australians enter Es Salt… but they’d be chased off again next day.

The British invasion had failed, but that didn’t really matter.  Allenby had suffered about 1,600 casualties, but Liman von Sanders had lost 2,000 effectives he couldn’t replace and had been persuaded to leave almost a third of his entire force in Transjordan.  By way of keeping it there, Allenby left the four divisions of the Desert Mounted Corps to swelter in the Jordan valley, based on Bethlehem, through the rest of the spring and summer.  They held off one attack, by about 5,000 men on the night of 13-14 July, before sending half their strength west in September to join Allenby’s autumn offensive, and positioning 15,000 dummy horses to keep the manoeuvre hidden from German air reconnaissance.

The Arab Revolt meanwhile divided into two essentially separate campaigns.  Rebel activity cooled in the south, where Feisal’s father and the Arab Revolt’s nominal leader, Ibn Hussein, had become suspicious of British intentions after hearing of the Sykes-Picot agreement (the proposed carve-up of the Middle East between British and French imperial interests).  Further north, where the Revolt’s strategic impact really mattered to the British, they supplied Feisal’s army with increased levels of air support, funding and supplies, especially of armoured cars and camels, while Lawrence provided reassurance of British commitment to future Arab independence.  After a summer spent reprising its successful guerilla campaign against Ottoman supplies and infrastructure, destroying 25 bridges in May alone, the Arab Northern Army would be prepared to do Allenby’s bidding in the autumn and drive towards Damascus alongside his next offensive.

This hasn’t been a big story, but if the heritage industry is too hung up on fêting the RAF to ignore mayhem on the Western Front it’s hardly likely to be commemorating Jordan’s brief career as a First World War battleground.  Even if nothing else was going on to keep them occupied, I struggle to imagine popular British media having much to say about a campaign based on promises of regional independence – for Transjordan as well as for its neighbours – that imperial authorities had no intention of keeping.

For the record, postwar Transjordan became a mandate of the British Empire, which took an indefinite ‘caretaker’ role until the territory was deemed fit for self-rule.  It eventually became the independent Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan in 1946, and was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan three years later.  The rest is very complicated modern history, but I’m here to tell you some of its roots lie in 1918.