24 MAY, 1918: Really Bad Tourists

It wasn’t exactly quiet across the world at war a hundred years ago, but the big picture was quieter than usual for late spring.  The Western and Italian Fronts were in skirmish mode for the moment, and the Eastern Front – though anything but quiet – was in the throes of what you might call internal chaos, with civil war brewing in Russia while nationalist ambitions in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus struggled to survive a power grab by victorious but resource-hungry German, Ottoman and (occasionally) Austro-Hungarian invaders.

Elsewhere, Allied armies were still loitering with unconvincing intent at Salonika, British imperial forces in Mesopotamia were into a long period of reorganisation after a limited advance up the Euphrates in March, and General Allenby’s invasion of Palestine was still in a state of suspension enforced by the emergency transfer of men and materiel to meet the German spring offensive in France. Not much for Allied propaganda machines to crow about there, for all that they made the most of any trench raid, air operation or naval action that could claim even a hint of success, but they did find apparently exciting news to report from the ruthlessly ridiculous campaign in eastern Africa.

It was a very big theatre of war…

The British press hadn’t had much to say about East Africa since early 1917, when the government had accepted the (self-serving) analysis of former theatre commander Jan Smuts and pronounced the campaign all over bar the mopping-up operations (13 March, 1916: Alien Invasion).  It wasn’t.  Despite covering and ‘occupying’ an enormous amount of ground, British armies had failed to stop, let alone defeat or capture the Schutztruppe, the small, infinitely pesky German colonial force rampaging around East Africa under the tactically brilliant command of Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

During the first half of 1917 Smuts’ successors – General Hosking and, from May 1917, South African General Deventer – rebuilt forces ravaged by disease for a renewed attack on the Schutztruppe, which had retreated into the largely untamed southeastern corner of German East Africa (modern Tanzania).  Heavily distracted by the antics of the maverick Wintgens-Naumann expedition (30 May, 1917: All Guts, No Glory), and burdened by imperial assumptions that his task was straightforward, Deventer eventually launched a major offensive in September.

By that time Deventer commanded some 35,000 troops of the King’s African Rifles, and he was able to detach two overwhelmingly strong columns south and southwest from the coastal bases at Kilwa and Lindi.  Hopelessly outnumbered, desperately short of supplies and facing an obvious pincer movement, the Schutztruppe made a stand at Mahiwa, about 80km inland, on 17-18 October.  Lettow-Vorbeck stationedhis last two field guns and 1,500 of his troops, more than half his remaining strength, in strong positions on a ridge, where they held off two simple frontal assaults by a tired Anglo-Nigerian brigade (4,900 men) before South African General Beves called off the attack.  Having inflicted some 2,700 casualties against 500 losses of his own, Lettow-Vorbeck withdrew south.

The battle at Mahiwa, which was both the bloodiest and the last major engagement of the campaign in East Africa, received scant attention from Allied propaganda but was big news in Germany and earned Lettow-Vorbeck promotion to the rank of major-general.  It didn’t solve the Schutztruppe‘s supply problems, so having broken free of the pincer and unwilling to risk further battle casualties, Lettow-Vorbeck marched his remaining 2,200 troops south and into Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique).

Crossing the Rovuma River into Portuguese East Africa in late November 1917, and chasing off a half-hearted attempt to confront the invasion by about a thousand native troops under Portuguese command, the Schutztruppe found plentiful supplies and easy pickings.  Able to loot colonial supply bases almost at will, it used some of the proceeds to trade with native villagers, who were used to being robbed with violence by Portuguese colonists and found Lettow-Vorbeck’s scrupulously honest dealing far more to their liking.  Meanwhile the British, having yet again let their prey slip away, could only rest their exhausted troops, open negotiations with Portuguese authorities to send a force into Mozambique, and wait for the winter rains to subside.

With permission granted, Deventer assembled a brigade known as PAMFORCE at Port Amelia (now Pemba) in December 1917.  Heavy rains restricted its operations to skirmishes with the small German rearguard in the hinterland until 7 April, when field commander General Edwards marched the entire force west.  While Lettow-Vorbeck responded by withdrawing deeper into Portuguese territory, his six companies of rearguard troops performed another exemplary tactical retreat, drawing British forces into skirmishes against good defensive positions before falling back on prepared supply dumps and water sources.  PAMFORCE marched doggedly in pursuit, its two columns struggling to remain in tactical contact through uncharted, hilly country while disease and supply problems rapidly reduced their fighting strength, until by mid-May they were close to exhaustion.

The tour of Portuguese East Africa, from a British perspective.

Finally, on 22 May, a detachment sent to aid PAMFORCE from Nyasaland stumbled upon the German rearguard near Mahua and attacked its baggage train – but the nearest of Edwards’ columns, though within earshot of the fight, was unable to cross rough terrain in time to join it, and most of the rearguard escaped to follow Lettow-Vorbeck south.  Further skirmishes took place next day, by which time PAMFORCE actions were being portrayed in the British press as the prelude to final victory in East Africa, but this particular false dawn was fleeting and optimism evaporated within 48 hours.

Another well-executed rearguard action on 24 May completed the Schutztruppe‘s escape, after which Edwards chose to preserve the lives of his sick, hungry and exhausted troops.  The hunt was called off, PAMFORCE limped back to Port Amelia and Edwards began developing a new base of operations further south at the port of Mozambique.  Lettow-Vorbeck meanwhile continued his fruitful tour of Portuguese East Africa without meeting serious resistance until 28 September 1918, when the Schutztruppe re-crossed the frontier into German territory.

The last chapter of the war in East Africa was still to come, and I’ll be back to take a look at it, but I make no apology for using this post as an update on the campaign.  That’s because it is either ignored by modern European commentators, or discussed purely as a prime example of a successful guerilla war against overwhelming force, and both positions reflect a shamefaced silence about the real tragedy of East Africa that set in immediately after the War.

Tens of thousands of soldiers, drawn from a bewildering array of nationalities spanning four continents, suffered illness, injury or death during the campaign (I’ll report the final tallies when it’s done), but the War’s negative impact on East African civilian life was on an altogether different scale.

Learning the European way – native askaris with the Schutztruppe.

As well as native troops, or Askaris, some 350,000 civilians were employed as bearers for European armies on the move, stripping a significant portion of the workforce from croplands and livestock herds that were anyway under pressure from military supply demands, the scorched earth policies adopted by retreating armies and the widespread destruction of local infrastructure.  The region known as the ‘breadbasket’ of Africa, arguably the continent’s most socioeconomically promising experiment in colonialism, suffered famine in 1917–18, was particularly vulnerable to the post-War influenza epidemic that killed perhaps 1.5 million of its people, and would never fully recover its potential for prosperity.

Askaris and civilian bearers enjoyed challenging work conditions…

That was only half the story, and a future story at that.  For those post-War British authorities aware of the campaign’s detailed course, the immediate debt to be ignored concerned the enormous wartime loss of civilian life in East Africa.  Nobody ever counted the campaign’s civilian casualties but some estimates range above a million dead, and informed British contemporaries saw no reason to tarnish the Empire’s post-War reputation with that kind of butcher’s bill.  So East Africa wasn’t talked about during the War’s aftermath, and while the ‘civilised’ world was struggling with the paradoxes of its own reconstruction, nobody who could be heard cared.  That’s the way the world was in 1918 and 1919, but there’s no real excuse for keeping quiet about it now.

15 MAY, 1918: Blamespotting

Almost four years in, and it’s getting harder to come up with centenaries that have anything new to say about the First World War, so here comes another rambling excursion into generic territory.  Back in the early twentieth century, the key to mounting a good excursion was the same as the key to fighting a huge, mechanised war – so let’s talk about trains.

For almost a century now, a great deal of thought, print and educational torture has been devoted to analysing and correlating the ’causes’ of the First World War.  For reasons that are pretty obvious (learning from mistakes, for instance), the roots and triggers that produce wars are always of interest to posterity, but no conflict in human history has provoked anything like the intensity and controversy of our search for the First World War’s true parentage. This is largely because, having turned out so much bigger, longer, more ghastly and less decisive than it was supposed to be, the First World War needs some serious explaining, but it also has something to do with the wide range of debatable, disputable and damnable explanations available for its outbreak.

You’ll be glad to know I’m not planning a tilt at that particular windmill today, but competitive, chauvinist nationalism has its place among a litany of ’causes’, and there are arguments pinning the blame on one or other of those competing nations, on failure of an outdated diplomatic system, on social and economic pressures within the same states, on the shape of European geopolitics in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, on Karl Marx… the beat goes on, and it’s still generating plenty of funky arguments among academics not otherwise inclined to a lot of dancing.

The bottom line is that generations of historians and less objective commentators have failed to come up with a consensus about the relative importance of those political, social and economic factors they all agree had something to do with starting the First World War.  This is understandable and, if you’re looking to trace the War back to its seeds, unavoidable, but approach the question from a more holistic perspective and answers come more easily.  Ask yourself what factors were fundamental to the War’s origin and continuation, what it could not have existed without rather than what gave it such distinctive features, and it becomes clear that trains caused the First World War.

I know I’m begging the question of what caused trains, but every search for causation involves gazing into infinite mirrors.  In any case, however much the very existence of HMS Dreadnought served to exacerbate the contemporary world’s geopolitical and socio-economic tensions, none of the other beacons of technological progress that symbolised, facilitated or shaped it can claim to have made the First World War possible.

Prompted by fear, ambition or revenge, the Great Powers of mainland Europe were all ready to fight each other for many years before 1914, but their carefully if optimistically laid plans for massed invasions and rapid conquests would have been inconceivable without the great infrastructural leap forward that had created comprehensive national rail networks during the later nineteenth century.  You couldn’t rapidly mobilise and deploy million-man armies, or even hundred-thousand-man armies, using horses – and it took the false certainties of train timetables to inspire military minds to create the Schlieffen Plan, Plan 17 or Plan 19 (the German, French and Russian invasion plans for the outbreak of war in the years leading up to 1914).

Europe’s railway networks in 1850…
… had definitely expanded by 1910.

Precise, minutely detailed schedules for the transport of troops by train were at the crux of French, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German war plans in August 1914.  As military authorities took more or less complete control of networks, hundreds of thousands of reserves were rushed from their homes to their assigned battle positions, and delivering them more quickly than the enemy was seen as a fundamental precondition to the rapid victory everybody expected to win.

The German railway network performed its task almost perfectly as the War began (giving rise to the never-ending trope about German trains running on time). The French railway system performed a far less arduous operation with reasonable efficiency, and Russian armies (though not many of their weapons) were transported to front lines in East Prussia, Poland and (modern) Ukraine far more quickly than anybody, including most Russian commanders, expected.

By contrast, the Austro-Hungarian railway experience in August 1914 was nothing short of calamitous, as strategic dithering at the top forced armies to reverse course the hard way, taking single-track railways all the way to the Serbian frontier in order to travel back to the southern stretches of the Eastern Front.  Chaos, breakdowns, bottlenecks and the occasional skirmish between rail workers followed, so that Austro-Hungarian armies arrived late and in bad condition to every important action during the War’s first months.

Once the European frontlines had stabilised, railways played a vital part in creating and maintaining stalemate.  Defenders in France, Italy and (to a lesser extent) Eastern Europe could call upon sophisticated rail networks to whisk troops, weapons and supplies to wherever they were needed at the front, while attackers lost all those advantages the moment they crossed into enemy-held territory.

Cheating, I realise – but it saves a couple of paragraphs.

Railways played a different but no less crucial role in extending land warfare across the globe.  Vital tools for colonial and imperial powers, they connected ports with remote inland population or resource centres all over the world, and made it possible for belligerent Europeans to fight mechanised wars at the fringes of their empires.  Connection often amounted to a single, narrow-gauge railway line, and during the First World War some of those lines – in the Arab lands, in East Africa and across Russia’s Asian hinterland to Vladivostok, for instance – became battlefronts themselves.

Railways were obvious military targets whenever and wherever they came within range of hostile weapons.  Blowing up bridges or important junctions, train-wrecking and other forms of sabotage were high priorities for all spies and resistance groups behind enemy lines.  They were also the principal tactics of the Arab Revolt during its difficult early stages, and as such achieved significant strategic impact by effectively isolating the Ottoman Empire from its Arabian provinces.  The whole of the sprawling Ottoman Empire was ‘railway poor’ in that most of its (largely foreign-owned) network was of the narrow-gauge, single-line variety.  The system never recovered from a chaotic attempt at mass mobilisation in late 1914 and ground to a virtual halt after the Russian navy cut off coal supplies from the Black Sea in 1916, but I digress…

Railway systems close to busy front lines were in particular danger from hostile artillery and aerial attacks, which began as sporadic light raids by small aircraft, singly or in groups of three or four, but became steadily more organised and heavier as aerial tactics and technology underwent rapid development.  By the later years of the War purpose-designed light bombers were targeting railways near all the main European fronts, and heavy, long-range bombing forces on both sides were attacking railway systems deep inside hostile territory.  The long-range bombers weren’t very accurate or effective, but they kept trying because – by way of underlining the trains-to-blame theory – the national commitments to ‘total war’ that made such a long conflict possible could only have been developed and could only be sustained through the arteries of a sophisticated railway system.

Left alone, properly maintained and efficiently run, contemporary railway systems were quite capable of keeping the Great War in motion, so wartime technological innovation was unnecessary, give or take experiments in transporting enormous guns or small aircraft. The War did trigger one rapid change in the global railway landscape as thousands of kilometres of light railway track, hitherto used for local services or transporting mine and factory goods to main lines, were torn up and transported to war zones.

Railways near any battlefront, but particularly near the crowded artillery of the main European fronts, tended to get blown to bits during major battles or overrun when the lines shifted.  They could hardly be rebuilt in their original form amid the (potentially deadly) crater-scape left by the big guns, but ground could be flattened for light railways.  They were slow, fragile and could only carry reduced loads over short distances, but light railways could and did maintain the defenders’ advantage in supply and manpower deployment wherever trench warfare took hold, most famously during the French defence of Verdun in 1916.

Useful yes, comfortable no – light railway in action.

Light railways were also extremely useful as supply lines for forces operating in remote or desolate regions without roads, navigable rivers or established rail lines.  As such they were responsible (along with shipping, obviously) for extending the global reach of the Great War and its consequences, as chillingly demonstrated by the long-term fallout from British establishment of a line across Sinai in preparation for the invasion of Palestine in 1917.

Much of the above is fact-free and quite a lot of it is incidental to this post’s small message – but stats about global railway systems and the Great War are available in spades online, and I’m allowed to ramble off the point during conversational excursions.  The small message is this.

There’s no denying the argument that trains were to blame for the First World War in all its misery, and it’s always worth reminding ourselves that history isn’t just about human decisions but can be shaped by the circumstances of humanity’s development.  Then again, that doesn’t mean railways were THE cause of the War.

History isn’t, or shouldn’t be about nailing down cause and effect. That’s what heritage and demagogues do.  History is about gathering up all the possible causes, causes of causes and influences to causes that can shine any light on the impossibly obscure big picture of the past.  History won’t ever show us the whole picture of anything and will always leave us guessing.  It won’t ever grant us understanding of its effects, of the present, and it won’t ever stop trapping the unwary into dangerous ‘eureka’ moments.  What it can do, looked at from enough angles, is help us to stay open-minded.

7 MAY, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy

A century ago today Romania signed the Treaty of Bucharest, a peace agreement with the Central Powers that represented the beginning of the end for something rather unpleasant and much overlooked by modern commentators.  I’m referring to the dishonesty, bribery and bullying employed by European diplomats – above all those of Britain, France and Germany ­– to persuade smaller nations to join their side during the first three years of the First World War.

Some smaller independent countries – Portugal springs to mind – were already little more than client states by 1914 and could to all intents and purposes be ordered into the War by their effective masters, but most needed bribing with promises of territorial acquisition, economic aid and diplomatic support.  These were particularly tempting carrots for ruling elites in small countries at a time when chauvinistic nationalism was a standard position, and they were generally as happy to accept and trust promises as their suitors were to make them.

Entering the War on the basis of promises by either side represented a gamble on two levels.  National leaders were betting on their chosen team winning the fight, and then on the promises being kept.  During the first two years of the War, possibly even the first three, the first bet was a reasonably straight fifty-fifty call, at least potentially worth the risk, but staking a nation’s fate on the promises made smacked of gambling addiction because, for all that great power diplomatic arrangements in wartime were secret, it took a lot of Nelsonian blindness to ignore the strong possibility that they were dishonest.

It really didn’t require hindsight to see, or at least to guess, that German promises could never satisfy both the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, each of which cherished ambitions against the other, or that the same problem made the Entente’s promises to Italy, Serbia and Greece impossible to keep.  Falling for the promises was a mug’s game, but if you didn’t join one side or the other you risked being left friendless after the War, out in the cold while the winners arranged what virtually every contemporary observer assumed would be a new world order.

So they fell for the promises, and on the whole paid a very high price in human and other resources – but from the lofty perspective of strategic statecraft these were acceptable, provided the pay-off came at the end.  The Treaty of Bucharest provided the first clear indication that the pay-off wasn’t going to satisfy any of the lesser powers, and that promises made by great powers at war were at best indications of what they would like to deliver, at worst not worth the paper they were written on.

Romania had gambled on a Russian victory in the east and trusted Anglo-French promises of support when it joined the War on the Allied side in 1916 (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…).  Bad move.  The Russian revival on the Eastern Front was a mirage, and quickly dissipated; the only realistic springboard for direct military support was the Allied force at Salonika, but it was hopeless; and the country’s economic resources, above all its oil, attracted a German-led invasion far more powerful than anything the Romanian Army could hope to stop.  By late 1917, with the war between the Central Powers and Russia effectively over, Romania had been reduced to an embattled rump, with three-quarters of the country occupied by German or Bulgarian forces and no hope of help from anywhere once the Russian Army had collapsed.

King Ferdinand of Romania: he gambled, lost, gambled again, won, and doomed his country to a strife-torn future.

The government of King Ferdinand signed an armistice on 9 December 1917, but was able to delay any serious progress towards a peace settlement as long as Russia carried on frustrating the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk.  Once those negotiations were complete, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin convinced Ferdinand that the German supreme command was ready to renew its invasion, and the King gave in.  A pro-German conservative, Alexandru Marghiloman, was installed as Romanian prime minister and a preliminary peace treaty was agreed only two days after the signing at Brest-Litovsk, on 5 March.  The preliminary treaty accepted Romania’s loss of the Dobrudja region and the immediate demobilisation of the Romanian Army’s small remnant… but at this point Germany’s wartime diplomacy came home to roost, because both Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire refused to accept the arrangement as a basis for formal peace.

Bulgaria demanded the full control over the Dobrudja it had been led to expect when it joined the Central Powers in 1915, and Ottoman Turkey wouldn’t settle unless it regained control over Central Thrace, which had been given to Bulgaria as an inducement to join.  It took another two months, but the Central Powers eventually cobbled together a somewhat shaky solution that kept them all happy enough to at least move on.

The formal treaty – as eventually signed at Buftea, a small town some 20km northwest of Bucharest, on 7 May – gave Bulgaria control over the southern part of the Dobrudja, but put the north under joint occupation by the Central Powers and left the Danube delta in Romanian hands (because it was too valuable a bargaining chip for anyone to win).  Austria-Hungary was meanwhile given control over the passes through the Carpathian Mountains as compensation for Germany’s wholesale appropriation of Romanian oil, grain, railways and financial systems.  The Treaty also recognised the union of Bessarabia, part of the Russian Empire in 1914, with Romania.

Blue to Bulgaria, purple to Austria-Hungary, green to the joint administration of the Central Powers and Bessarabia absorbed… Romania after Bucharest.

On the surface it appeared, and was intended to appear, that Romania had done pretty well out of the deal.  The country had, somewhat bizarrely, suffered catastrophic defeat but ended up bigger than it started, and it was spared the kind of client or protectorate status imposed on other nominally independent states within the reach of the German Army in Eastern Europe.  The true picture was a lot less benign, as German civil servants were appointed to every Romanian ministry, given the power to fire ministers or officials, and effectively took over national government. Although the King remained the nominal head of state, by way of keeping resistance to a minimum and making sure Romanians policed the arrangement, trade routes to the Black Sea and the country’s economic planning were fully geared to supply of the German war effort.

So the Treaty of Bucharest took Romania prisoner, broke promises made by Germany to Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, and forced Austria-Hungary to accept territory in place of the supplies it really needed.  It produced only one winner in Germany, which used its regional military superiority to ride roughshod over the promises of its diplomats, and it was a stark illustration of what other relatively minor belligerents could expect from the post-War pay-off, no matter which side they were on.  Oh, and it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

The Central Powers had won the war on the Eastern Front, but their long-term prospects on other fronts weren’t looking good, especially after the German Army’s spring offensive on the Western Front had run out of steam.  Well aware of this, King Ferdinand and his advisors, led by former prime minister Ion Bratianu, took the last gamble in town and stuck with Allies – but trod a lot more cautiously than they had done in 1916.  The King refused to ratify the Treaty of Bucharest in public, and Bratianu waited until 10 November, one day before the Armistice took effect, before denouncing the Treaty and again declaring war on the Central Powers.

Annulled by the terms of the Armistice, the Treaty of Bucharest would eventually be replaced by the Treaties of Neuilly and Trianon, which almost doubled the size of post-War ‘Greater Romania’ and more than tripled its 1914 population.  Products of the Paris Peace Conference (and worth more detailed attention on another day), the treaties were easy giveaways for the western Allies because Romania’s territorial claims were all against defeated enemies or the war-torn Soviet Union.

Romania in 1920 – and it’s huge!

Greater Romania temporarily fulfilled nationalist ambitions to unite all the ‘historic’ Romanian lands, so the country could count itself a winner when the swings and roundabouts of wartime diplomacy finally came to a halt. That didn’t make the diplomacy involved any less criminal or its results any less circumstantial, and from any perspective not warped by the poison of nationalism the price of territorial expansion was ridiculously high.

War and the hardships of occupation had killed an estimated 500,000 Romanian civilians, or more than 6% of the 1914 population, by late 1918, and although the economic effects of wartime occupation could be reversed, the regional tensions exacerbated by wartime and post-War diplomacy could not.  Those tensions would resurface when another war put an end to Greater Romania in 1940, and would be a blight on the country’s history for the rest of the century.  If this ramble has a point to make, it’s that small countries can never really be winners of wars run by bigger ones.

30 APRIL, 1918: Of Mass And Men

I’m in the mood for one of those generic, anniversary-free posts today, so here’s a general chat about ordinary automobiles during the First World War, specifically those in military use.  It’s a subject largely ignored outside the petrolhead bubble, it touches on several debates as yet unresolved, and it’s another small light on the differences between reality and the heritage history.

Arguments are still in progress about the First World War’s role in the rapid development of automobile technology, and about its part in the establishment of mass production.  Because they are based on individual interpretations of the same inconclusive information, the arguments will never be resolved, but here’s a skim through the majority view that works for me.

While the demands of war gave an undeniable boost to automobile research and development, the fundamentals were already in place by 1914 and wartime efforts were understandably focused on refining existing design than inventing anything new.  Mass production of motors was also getting started on both sides of the Atlantic before 1914, and plans were already in place for its expansion, but it grew on steroids in response to mushrooming demand and the increasing willingness of governments to provide massive levels of support.

By the end of the War this had created a huge industry with enormous production capacity.  Manufacturers everywhere, especially in the United States (and above all Ford), had already geared up for mass supply of a 1919 campaigning season that never happened, and European arms manufacturers like Citroen and BMW were converting themselves into automobile companies as means of finding something profitable to do with all those newly obsolete factories.  Both the refinement of existing automobile design and the sector’s forced growth into mass marketing laid the ground for a post-War sales surge that saw cars become humanity’s favourite toy, a situation the planet is still struggling to survive.

It was a world war, and a global auto-boom.

A third debate still in progress concerns the extent to which motor vehicles took over wartime military transport, communications and other auxiliary roles hitherto carried out by horses.  The question didn’t interest anyone much at the time (better things to be doing), so a lack of basic information means any answer will always be a matter of extrapolation and speculation, rendered uncertain by the vagaries of individual choice in a world still divided on the relative merits of horse and car.  But some relevant stats are available, along with plenty of more or less reliable memoir, and between them they tell a tale of horses over horsepower.

By the end of the War, modern armies were using plenty of motorised vehicles that weren’t armoured cars or tanks, in numbers that reflected their wartime economic status.  The British armed services led the way, as befitted the biggest industrialised nation with four years of war behind it and no blockade to beat.  At the Armistice, they employed 66,352 trucks, 48,175 motorbikes, 43,187 cars (including ambulances), 6,121 tractors and miscellaneous other vehicles, and (of course) 1,293 steam-powered wagons.  France is thought to have been in roughly the same league, while Italy mustered about 25,000 trucks and perhaps 12,000 other vehicles. By that time United States armed forces had brought about 20,000 vehicles to Europe, but had a quarter of a million more ready for shipment if needed in 1919.  As for the Russian Empire, nobody knows.

On the receiving end of the Allied naval blockade mass production of automobiles was undoubtedly more difficult, but the figures to prove it are hard to find.  It seems safe to assume that German armed forces had access to and used more motorised transport than any of their allies, but the German Army’s vehicular roster at the end of the War was relatively paltry, amounting to some 16,000 tractors, 25,000 trucks, 12,000 cars, 3,200 ambulances and 5,400 motorbikes.

Austria-Hungary did have a fairly successful pre-War automobile industry, with centres in Bohemia and Hungary, but expansion was hampered by material shortages and the refusal of some manufacturers to expand output beyond levels sustainable after the War.  No figures are available, but anecdotal evidence backs up the assumption that, although Imperial forces certainly used some trucks, cars and motorcycles, they were few and far between.  Most, if not all motorised vehicles used by wartime Ottoman and Bulgarian forces – generally trucks – were supplied by Germany or Austria-Hungary.

So the Allies held a growing advantage over the Central Powers in vehicle numbers as the economic world war progressed, a situation destined to be repeated for a different set of alliances during the Second World War.  At first glance the numbers look big and important, but they shrink in the context of millions mobilised (the British figures, for instance, take in every service all over the world), and they are only as important as the vehicles were useful.  In some circumstances and conditions they were immensely valuable, bringing increased speed, efficiency and capacity to a variety of transport, haulage and communications tasks.  In many more situations and for many reasons, they were either unused or useless.

The use of staff cars to whisk field commanders from place to place provides a good example of the differences between theory and practice in this branch of mechanised warfare.  Early in the War, many officers in the major western European armies remained suspicious of the new technology and preferred to get around on horseback, a prejudice that was eroded but never eliminated by wartime experience, and that persisted throughout the conflict in many of the less advanced forces.  Plenty more military men everywhere were automobile enthusiasts, but the most car-friendly officer with the most state-of-the-art vehicle might still have trouble putting it to good use.

The D-Type Vauxhall, very handsome, very popular with British bigwigs…

Fast, reliable automobiles were readily available by 1914, but they were still fragile by modern standards, so that the broken terrain around a battlefront – which was anyway difficult for an ordinary wheeled vehicle – frequently caused breakdowns and damage, as did the extremes of climate found in most theatres.  Cars of the period were also relatively difficult to maintain, and commanders in all the main armies complained of a shortage of mechanics.  Fuel and oil were often in short supply, particularly for German and Austro-Hungarian forces, but the Vienna administration’s failure to plan for any other supply needs in 1914 left many of its vehicles crippled during the War’s first months and highlighted another major issue, because large numbers of spare parts were also absolutely vital to field operations.  Another limitation on automobile use, for staff officers or anyone else, was a chronic shortage of qualified drivers in an age when driving was a relatively complex task and hardly a popular pastime.

All these obstacles served to limit the practical impact of all the other wartime applications for motorised vehicles except motorbikes, which were simpler, more rugged machines capable of delivering one man and a message (and later in the War, a radio) across most terrain.  None of them made any difference to the motor vehicle’s symbolic impact on perceptions about the First World War, then and ever since.

Automobiles of every kind were propaganda stars for every armed force in every belligerent country, and senior commanders used some of the finest models to add swagger to their profiles, particularly when photographs were involved.  The epitome of this tendency was a man who knew a thing or two about swagger and symbolism, General Joffre, French Army c-in-c for the first half of the war, who plucked famed racing driver Georges Boillot from the air service in 1914 to speed him up and down the Western Front – on good roads behind the lines, of course.

Joffre’s off to work – and the saviour of France gets a great, big car.

Boillot soon escaped his c-in-c’s clutches and took to the sky, becoming a much-decorated ‘air ace’ (in French terms, any pilot with five or more confirmed victories) before his death during a dogfight in 1916, but he’d done his bit for the conflict’s image as a modern, mechanised enterprise.  It’s an image that has refused to go away, and is still used by the heritage industry to give its mindless carnage thesis an unlikely sheen of glamour.

So the technology wasn’t fundamentally changed during the conflict, mass production was hastened but was coming anyway, and four-legged friends were still the basis for most military transportation – but at least the automobile’s four-year military adventure can claim to have permanently warped our view of the First World War.