23 JUNE, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!

A hundred years ago today the first elements of an Allied invasion force landed at the port of Murmansk, in northwestern Russia.  Their arrival marked a significant uptick in a steadily expanding international campaign against Bolshevism in Russia, and its centenary gives me an excuse to talk about it.

What is usually known as the North Russian Intervention or the Northern Russia Expedition (or three or four other names, none of them any better known) was a complicated, messy and fairly crazy business, entwined with the equally complex and largely shapeless Russian Civil War.  It was geopolitically connected to anti-Bolshevik interventions from Japanese and US forces far to the southeast, around Vladivostok, and to the adventures of the relatively powerful Czech Legion as it marched across Russia in search of safe passage to Allied territory.  I’ve touched on Vladivostok (12 January, 1918: Port In A Storm, Pt.1) and the Czech Legion (31 May, 1918: Fame And Fortune) during the last few weeks, and I’ll be getting back to them sometime soon.  One day I’ll even attempt some kind of overview briefing about the Civil War as a whole, but for now let’s wonder why and how the British came to be invading Russia in mid-1918.

The roots of British military involvement inside Russia lay in the wartime battle for control of Arctic trade routes.  Like convoys and submarine warfare in general, fighting in the Arctic theatre is popularly associated with the Second World War but was an equally significant factor during the First – and for the same reasons.

Russia, like every other state fighting against the Central Powers, expected and received direct aid from its filthy rich ally, Britain. Given the virtual impossibility of Allied shipping reaching Russia via the Baltic, and the regular interruptions to overland trade traffic via neutral Sweden (10 October, 1917: National Stereotypes), supplies had to be shipped across the top of Scandinavia to the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and the smaller White Sea port of Archangelsk.

Nice, simple map – in case you weren’t sure.

Nobody had anticipated this before the War, and neither port was remotely fit for purpose in 1914, so all Russian activity in the region during the conflict’s first months was concerned with expanding their harbour and railway facilities for use as major supply centres for Allied coal and weapons.  The German Navy eventually decided to interfere with the process in June 1915, when an auxiliary cruiser laid 285 mines at the entrances to Archangelsk harbour, and that was enough to trigger an Allied response.

A makeshift minesweeping force, consisting of a few British armed trawlers and 18 Russian boats seconded from the Baltic Fleet, was cobbled together, and a miscellaneous collection of second-line warships was gathered from other theatres for patrol duties in the Arctic Sea.  By the end of 1915 these included two old British cruisers, a Russian submarine and a minelayer transferred from the Far East, while two coastal batteries were established and thirty old naval guns fitted to merchant ships.  German mines meanwhile sank a British minesweeper and twelve merchant ships.

Levels of Allied naval protection for Arctic shipping rose in line with a steady increase in traffic during 1916.  The Russian Navy formed an Arctic Flotilla in February, operating out a new ice-free base at Kola, and the Royal Navy began establishing a larger presence in the theatre during the summer.  The old, pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Glory was stationed in Murmansk from August, and a scratch force based around the light cruiser HMS Askold and a few old destroyers from the Far East was still being formed in the autumn, when six U-boats of the German High Seas Fleet spearheaded a brief but highly effective campaign against Arctic shipping.  In six weeks before winter ice prevented operations, they sank 25 Allied ships, captured two more and damaged several small Allied warships, losing one submarine in the process.

The biggest warship in the region – the old battleship HMS Glory.

In the wider context of a world at war, and in terms of its practical impact on the Eastern Front, the Arctic theatre was still very small beer, and British aid to Russia amounted to only about £20.5 million of war materials in 1916.  Even that was far more than northern Russian ports could handle, and half the year’s imports were still piled up at Archangelsk awaiting rail transport in early 1917.  By that time four British icebreakers and a few more auxiliary craft had reached northern Russian waters, bringing the combined strength of the Anglo-Russian naval presence up to about 40 vessels – but the German Navy had better things to do with its submarines in 1917 and only 21 more Allied ships were sunk in the Arctic before hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers ended in December.

Although the Arctic Flotilla’s Russian units continued to patrol alongside British ships until the Armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Arctic naval war to an effective end – but it also triggered the outbreak of land warfare in northern Russia.  British theatre commander Admiral Kemp was charged with maintaining Murmansk and Archangelsk, along with the territory in between and transport links to the Russian heartlands.  The vast area involved, along with the arrival of a German army in neighbouring Finland, threats of Finnish incursions across the Murmansk railway, and chronic uncertainty about whether local Bolsheviks were allies, enemies or neutrals fighting their own civil war, prompted Kemp to ask for reinforcement by the Army in April 1918.  Bad timing, what with the BEF’s desperate need for manpower against the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, and Kemp was told to make do with the marines aboard his ships.

In early May about a hundred marines, supported by Red Guards and naval units, were landed at the small port of Pechenga, about 50km along the coast from Murmansk, to hold off attacks from German-backed, anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ Finns.  Later that month a single German U-boat appeared off Pechenga and sank a few small craft before disappearing, never to return.  Both incidents served to convince strategists in the British Admiralty and War Office that a major German-Finnish attack on northern Russia was in preparation.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of agreements made with the Petrograd regime concerning the Czech Legion’s safe departure from Russia opened up the possibility that half its troops, some 50,000 men, would march to join any Allied forces in northern Russia.  With Petrograd pressurising the Murmansk soviet (more socialist than Bolshevik at this stage) to stop cooperating with the British, and threatening to send Red Army units to commandeer the trove of war materials lying around in Archangelsk, the British War Office finally approved the dispatch of ground troops to the region.

It didn’t approve much.  The Royal Navy sent an extra marine force of some 300 men to Murmansk, including a naval artillery battery and a machine-gun section, while the British Army managed to scrape two detachments together under the codenames ‘Syren’ and ‘Elope’.  Syren amounted to 600 troops, most of them fresh out of basic training, just released from PoW camps or invalided out of France.  Commanded by Major-General Maynard, an officer previously retired as unfit for duty, they were supposed to protect Murmansk.  The 500 men of Elope were British trainees, backed by a few companies of ANZAC and Canadian volunteers.  Under the command of Brigadier-General Finlayson, they were detailed to cross the White Sea from Murmansk to Archangelsk, and its supply mountain, once the winter ice melted.

Assembled in strict secrecy, because the Allies were not at war with Bolshevik Russia, Syren and Elope sailed from Newcastle on 18 June.  After a difficult journey, during which the emerging flu epidemic struck down the transport ship’s Moslem crew (many of whom were malnourished because they were serving during Ramadan in a region without sunsets), the detachments reached Murmansk on 23 June.  Their arrival brought total Allied ground strength in the new theatre up to around 2,500 (largely second-line) troops, including a few French and Serbian soldiers sent as token assistance by their hard-pressed governments.

Overall command of North Russian operations was given to another British officer, Major-General Poole, who had retired in 1914 but was serving as a military attaché in Petrograd, and who had arrived in Murmansk on 24 May.  Poole was expected to protect a very large stretch of land and its port facilities, to recruit and train local anti-Bolshevik or anti-German elements for their own defence, to absorb any Czech forces that happened to show up, and to use these forces to reopen the Eastern Front.

With hindsight, this was a pretty ridiculous fantasy, particularly given that Poole received hardly any funding for the task and that the entire Czech Legion had by then decided to march east towards Vladivostok – but there is an argument for letting British strategists off the hook.  Deep ignorance of the actual situation in Russia, the sheer scale of the crisis involved and Germany’s obvious desire for an eastern empire all conspired to encourage extravagant speculation, and extravagant strategies naturally followed.  On the other hand, there was no good excuse for General Poole’s extreme optimism about military prospects or his unshakable, seemingly authoritative belief that the Bolshevik regime was a shambles on the point of collapse, both of which exerted a powerful influence on Allied strategic thinking.

A cheery chap, very optimistic and good at despising Bolshies – General Poole, and friends.

The Supreme War Council had already agreed to recruit additional troops for northern Russia from other Allied nations, though most were at least as hard-pressed for manpower as Britain, and Poole’s insistence that, with another five thousand or so troops, he could work all the miracles required of him prompted a steady growth of Allied strength in the theatre.  The campaign that followed eventually occupied some 13,000 British imperial troops, 2,000 French (most of them from French colonies), a mixed group of about 1,000 Serbs and Poles, a battalion of former Russian troops recruited from the autonomously inclined Karelian province and, eventually, about 8,000 US troops.

Long before most of them arrived, and once the winter ice melted, Poole was committed to the occupation of Archanglesk and its supplies.  The port’s Bolshevik government was far less sympathetic to British intervention than the Murmansk authority, and Poole spent July organising a coup by local ‘White’ forces, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Elope force and strong naval support. By way of illustrating the disconnects within what is often mistaken for coherent strategic planning at national level, the coup also happened to coincide with the arrival from Petrograd of a British trade mission that had been instructed to seek friendly relations with Lenin’s regime.  Whatever London’s intentions, the success of the coup on 2 August sparked a state of open warfare between the Bolshevik regime and Allied forces in northern Russia, a breakdown cemented by Poole’s subsequent establishment of regional martial law under a puppet, avowedly ‘socialist’ government.

So now the North Russian Intervention really was an invasion.  Like Britain’s accidental advances through Mesopotamia to Baghdad and beyond, it was a product of strategic sloppiness that blurred the line between attack and defence, allowing feral local commanders to dictate imperial policy.  Never remotely capable of achieving the revival of war on the Eastern Front envisaged by Poole and his political supporters in London (including, inevitably, Winston Churchill), it was destined to expand in black comic, bloodstained fashion during the autumn… when I’ll come back to Russia’s Arctic coasts and point the way to its long, slow deflation, a process that lasted well into 1920.

This has been long and late, because I’ve been under heavy distraction, but the landings of Syren and Scope at Murmansk seem to me worth remembering, and not just as an illustration of the military clumsiness still at large within a British war effort down to its last barrel-scrapings.  Feeble, half-hearted examples of gesture strategy at its most absent-minded, those two little detachments – barely fit for manoeuvres let alone combat – turned out to be the straws that broke the hope, once and for all, of friendly relations between Britain and the new USSR.

15 JUNE, 1918: Pawn Sacrifice

A century ago today, one of the First World War’s architects launched his last, unlikely bid for military glory.  It went the way of most wartime plans laid by Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, the former chief of staff to the Austro-Hungarian Army and latterly in command of its forces on the Trentino sector of the Italian Front, and its failure ended the war on the Italian Front as a serious contest.

Conrad was only partly responsible for the shambles known to posterity as the Second Battle of the Piave River, and although it served as a fitting epitaph for one of modern history’s great forgotten villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy), it was also a stark illustration of Austria-Hungary’s reduced status as the pawn of a German imperial regime that was ready to sacrifice anything and anyone, on almost any off chance, to prevent its own extinction.

One last look at the forgotten arch-villain – Field Marshal Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf; one bad general.

There was nothing new about great powers trying to improve their wartime prospects by sacrificing smaller countries.  When the First World War began, land fighting erupted on three main battlefronts, known to posterity as the Western, Eastern and Southern (or Serbian) Fronts.  Expansion followed.  It began with imperial greed, otherwise known as seizing German colonial territories, but soon developed a more existential edge with the creation of ‘sideshows’.

Sideshows came in more than one form.  Some were the product of British and French lateral thinking, as the ghastly conditions on the European fronts encouraged some strategists in both countries to seek alternative routes to victory.  The disastrous attempt to attack the Ottoman Empire through the Dardanelles and the shambolic tilt at reaching Austria-Hungary from Salonika fell into this category. Others were essentially accidents.  The British invasion of Mesopotamia was in effect a forward defence of oil resources at Basra that got ridiculously out of hand, and the subsequent invasion of Palestine stemmed from a similarly inflated programme for defending Cairo and the Suez Canal, though by that time the British high command had found good strategic reasons for dominating the post-War Middle East.

Two theatres of war regarded by contemporaries as sideshows were genuine wars waiting to happen, conflicts between two would-be aggressors.  The war in the Caucasus was a frontier battle between the Russian Empire and the Central Powers.  As such it was in many ways an extension of the Eastern Front, but qualified as a sideshow on diplomatic and geographical grounds.  Its genesis lay in Germany’s recruitment of Ottoman Turkey as an ally in late 1914, and Germany’s use of that alliance to distract its enemies from other fronts, while the fighting took place in a region that was of secondary strategic importance to both empires involved.  The war on the Italian Front was a frontier battle between an increasingly arthritic Austro-Hungarian Empire and a young nation with imperial ambitions.  It was geographically central to the strategic interests of several powers, but it was otherwise a classic sideshow.

Once bribed into the War in pursuit of extravagant prizes promised by the Entente powers, Italy became a means of distracting the Central Powers from the main fronts, bullied by the British and French (and to a lesser extent the Russians) into attacking whenever it best suited their wider plans.  In the eyes of Anglo-French strategists, the purpose of the Italian Front was to keep Austro-Hungarian strength pinned down and force Germany into diverting forces from the Western Front.  So far, so sideshow – and although Italian ambitions were limited to the territories just north of the frontier, the standard sideshow dream ticket was also in play, with some Anglo-French optimists (and journalists) imagining an Italian victory so comprehensive that it knocked Austria-Hungary out of the War and threatened southern Germany.

Like all wartime Allied sideshows except the invasion of Palestine (which was conceived and executed with a thoroughness born of experience, in good fighting conditions against an enemy already close to collapse), the Italian campaign went horribly wrong before it went at all right, and by 1918 the it was looking like a very expensive Allied mistake.  An almost continuous series of Italian offensives, many of them ordered in support of Allied operations elsewhere, failed to achieve anything except massive expenditure of lives and resources.  Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian Army remained largely untroubled in its mountain strongholds, and brought Italy to the brink of defeat whenever it was given enough German support to mount an attack of its own.  By the end of 1917 the Allies were diverting resources from the Western Front to shore up Italian defences, while the Central Powers were on the brink of a breakthrough into the Italian heartlands.

Fast forward to the spring of 1918, and the situation has changed. The Italian line at the River Piave has held, thanks to the arrival of troops and equipment from France and Britain, along with a thorough reorganisation of an Italian Army under new command. The Austro-Hungarian Army has meanwhile lost its German reinforcements, withdrawn to fight on the Western Front, leaving it to hold forward positions with levels of manpower, supplies, equipment and morale that reflected the Empire’s crumbling chaos. In other words, the Allies had started taking the Italian Front seriously and Germany, which had followed Austria-Hungary into the War as a coalition ally, was treating it as a sideshow.

Italian soldiers at the Piave in 1918 – in much better shape now Allied supplies had arrived.

I’ve talked before about the extent to which Austria-Hungary’s war effort had come to depend on Germany (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), and about the Empire’s internal disintegration under wartime pressures (24 January, 1918: All We Are Saying…).  By the time its spring offensive on the Western Front was being prepared in early 1918, the German Third Supreme Command recognised that Austria-Hungary was probably doomed to extinction and certainly offered no positive help as an ally.  Its response, bang in character, was to treat Vienna as a chattel, and Austria-Hungary – like Greece, Portugal, Romania or any other country abused by belligerents as a sideshow chattel – soon found itself hung out to dry for the benefit of its masters.

The Third Supreme Command had been pushing for an Austro-Hungarian offensive in Italy since February 1918, in the hope of diverting Allied (and particularly arriving US) forces away from its planned spring offensive on the Western Front.  Austro-Hungarian Army chief of staff Arz von Straussenberg was well aware that apparent superiority in divisional numbers on the Italian front masked the shrunken condition of most units, and that the Italian Army was drawn up in good defensive positions at the Piave.  He might conceivably have refused to comply with German demands – because it was obviously the sensible thing to do – but that would have meant his certain dismissal in favour of someone more cooperative.  It would also have brought down the wrath of his own front commanders, Field Marshal Boroevic at the Piave and, commanding the Trentino sector to the west, Conrad.

Conrad, his enthusiasm undimmed for attack as the best form of everything, had been lobbying for reinforcements to mount an offensive ever since the previous autumn’s Caporetto Offensive had ground to a halt.  Boroevic, whose relationship with Conrad was rivalrous and hostile, was at first against any form of attacking strategy but seems to have changed his mind and demanded reinforcements for his own sector as a matter of personal honour. Arz von Straussenberg responded by agreeing to mount an attack, committing virtually every available soldier to the operation and dividing his strength for a two-pronged strike.  This was a fine idea given the necessary resources, as demonstrated by the early successes of the very similar German operation in France.  Given the actual condition of the attacking forces it was a form of dramatic suicide akin to the Franco-Spanish decision to send their battered old fleets out to face Nelson at Trafalgar.

Planned at the usual ponderous pace – slow, even by First World War standards – the Austro-Hungarian offensive was eventually ready to rumble in June.  By that time, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to exploit its early successes, the German Army’s hopes of a game-changing victory in France were fading, and with them the Third Supreme Command’s hopes of securing (at the very least) a negotiated, conditional end to hostilities.  Even the major Austro-Hungarian success envisaged by blinkered optimists like  Conrad, and to a lesser extent Arz von Straussenberg, wasn’t going to change that narrative.

And so, on 10 June, Boroevic sent his Fifth and Sixth Armies across the Paive near the coast.  They advanced a few kilometres before Italian counterattacks forced them into retreat on 19 June.  Conrad launched the second phase of the offensive in the Trentino on 15 June, but made no significant gains, became bogged down around the town of Asiago and lost 40,000 men in a week.  Meanwhile a botched attempt to re-cross the river exposed the Fifth and Sixth Armies to strong flank attacks, and their losses had passed 150,000 by the time they eventually reached relative safety on 22 June.

When fighting died down next day, the offensive had achieved none of its aims and had no discernible effect on Allied Western Front operations.  Its abject failure dealt another blow to Emperor Karl’s floundering attempt to hold his empire together, and from 23 June 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Army ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.  Desertions went unchecked, many commanders simply went home and the skeleton force facing well-equipped Allied units across the Piave wasn’t fooling anyone. Italian c-in-c Diaz simply had to decide when to brush it aside, and he decided to wait for the relative cool of the autumn.

Italian c-in-c Armando Diaz – more flexible about tactics than his predecessor, and luckier.

Pointless, doomed from the start and mounted at the behest of serial gamblers blind to even the longest odds… if you’re looking for donkeys to blame, or another good reason to revile the legacy of swivel-eyed militarists like Ludendorff and Conrad, look no further than the ritual sacrifice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s last military adventure.

6 JUNE, 1918: Satan’s Little Helpers

Of all the gaps in our general appreciation of the First World War, none gets me more worked up than the way Anglophone posterity ignores the wartime invention of aerial bombing and its evil offspring, long-range bombing of civilian targets.  So I’m going to talk about it again.

Maybe it’s the strong whiff of denial that upsets me.  Anglophone popular history has long been accustomed to blaming Germany for everything bad that happened during the first half of the twentieth century, and is comfortable with blaming the Luftwaffe for the cult of civilian bombing.  Ask many Brits how that started and they’ll cite the Blitz of 1940, showing scant regard for the suffering of civilians bombed during the previous decade in China, Spain and the Low Countries (to name the most obvious cases), and completely ignoring the First World War.  Even those relatively informed Anglophones who might mention Guernica, Zeppelins and Gotha raids are apt to leave it at that, simply backdating the assumption of German guilt.

To be sure, the German military was an enthusiastic early proponent and serial pioneer of what was known as ‘strategic bombing theory’ – but only as part of a story that also has roots in Italy, Russia and above all Britain (30 December, 1917: Let’s Drop the Mask).

An Italian, Giulio Douhet, developed the theory and the Russian Army developed the first aircraft big enough to make it potentially viable, while German armed forces made the first systematic attempts to put it into practice, with their Zeppelin fleets and then with their purpose-designed Gotha bombers.  The British were meanwhile open to the arguments of their own strategic bombing theorists.  Though never first on the plot during the War’s early years, the British Army and in particular the Royal Navy always kept up with the game, developing purpose-built bombers and using them in increasing numbers to carry out raids against militarily relevant targets ever deeper inside enemy territory.

Nobody’s efforts ever came close to fulfilling the war-winning potential ascribed to strategic bombing by its ‘air-minded’ European proponents, but then nobody thought the technology was yet ready for the job and in any case no European authority was willing or able to advocate the slaughter of countless civilians during an epoch that still considered warfare a civilised activity.  By 1918 it had become clear to all but the most ardent enthusiasts that, even if strategic bombing might be a game-changer, it wasn’t going to win this war anytime soon.

The Italians and Russians were anyway in no position to risk resources pursuing the theory further, and the German high command, having noted the limited impact of Gotha raids, had scaled down its interest in air power.  With the French never more than dabblers in long-range bombing, because they were primarily interested in aircraft as an adjunct to the ground war on the Western Front, and the US military effort entirely focused on the same campaign, the only major military power still chasing the dragon was Britain.

Relatively rich in resources and right at the forefront of contemporary aviation technology, Britain was home to a fervent group of strategic bombing believers within the RFC and the RNAS, led with bombastic commitment by the nation’s most persistent profit of air power, Hugh Trenchard, and backed by some very noisy armchair strategists running the popular press.

Trenchard in 1918 – moderate moustache, radical views.

An early fan of Douhet, Trenchard had joined the RFC in 1913 and taken command of its home training squadron in August 1914.  By general consent one of the least competent British pilots to have gained his flying certificate in peacetime, but equipped with a clear-eyed determination to prove the importance of air power to modern and future warfare, he was transferred to France in November of that year as commander of No.1 Wing and was promoted brigadier-general in August 1915, when he replaced General Henderson as the RFC’s field commander on the Western Front.

It was a fact of life that Allied aircraft were inferior to German machines in 1915, but Trenchard wasn’t a man to let the weapon of the future languish on the defensive.  He committed his squadrons in wholehearted support of the BEF’s aggressive policy of ‘permanent warfare’ in the trenches, sending large numbers of obsolete aircraft on constant raiding missions over enemy lines and accepting heavy losses more cheerfully than many of his field commanders.  During another period of German superiority in the spring of 1917, he flung everything the RFC could muster in support of the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive, and emerged from the carnage of Bloody April as a fully-fledged bête noir for many combat officers (7 May, 1917: Up In The Air).

Trenchard’s approach was, understandably enough, a lot more popular with the British Army’s high command, and he made that count.  Always convinced that the offensive potential of aerial warfare lay in strategic bombing, he lobbied insistently for development of a mass bomber fleet, and eventually got one.  The creation of an independent RAF was in part a reflection of his views (not least because it enabled the grouping of army and naval heavy aircraft), and his preliminary appointment as its chief of staff in January 1918 was a demonstration of government commitment to the concept of strategic bombing.

The appointment was also fraught with political intrigue, centred on the machinations of Lord Rothermere, Britain’s new air minister and the contemporary definition, along with his brother Lord Northcliffe, of a press baron.  Rothermere’s principal aims can be summed up as a desire to get rid of Haig and his like, and to end the horror of the trenches by concentrating all available resources on winning the War through strategic bombing.  As such he led a political faction supporting a far more radical swerve to heavy bombing strategy than anything advocated by Trenchard, who never lost sight of the need for aircraft to respond to immediate tactical priorities on the ground, and was anyway a friend and supporter of Haig.  On discovering that Rothermere was simultaneously promising the Royal Navy a massive fleet of anti-submarine aircraft – a move that would effectively starve the Western Front of air power – Trenchard resigned in March, although his resignation was not officially accepted until 11 April.

Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere: check him out, he was nasty.

Now a major-general, Trenchard was instead offered command of the RAF’s planned strategic bombing force, the very embodiment of his ideas.  After trying and failing to add overall control of RAF offensive operations to the job description, he accepted the offer in May, and the new Independent Air Force  (IAF) came into being on 6 June 1918.

The IAF was specifically tasked with carrying out its own strategy for long-range, heavy bombing attacks on any target deemed militarily relevant, without reference to British Army or Royal Navy priorities.  Other powers had imagined it, and Germany had taken the first, relatively half-hearted steps towards putting it into practice, but the British were the first to follow strategic bombing theory all the way and create a weapon designed to win wars by inflicting mass carnage on an enemy’s homeland.

Like every other massed bombing fleet in history, the Independent Air Force was a failure.  Stationed at various airfields in eastern France, it dropped around 350,000 tons of bombs during the course of 162 raids that were rarely accurate and made little strategic difference to the course of the War.  Long-range raiders faced vastly improved anti-aircraft defences by mid-1918, and casualties were high.  In total, 153 IAF pilots and 194 other aircrew were killed before the Armistice, although those figures include losses during the final Allied offensives on the Western Front, when the IAF made a more conventional contribution, co-operating with other formations in support of ground operations.

Faced with disappointing results, Trenchard behaved like every other believer in strategic bombing theory in deciding that success was just a matter of deploying bigger fleets of bigger bombers.  The IAF grew in size throughout its short life.  By August it comprised four squadrons of day bombers and five of night bombers; it expanded constantly during the next four months; and plans to add Italian, Belgian and US units to Trenchard’s strength were interrupted by the Armistice.

State of the dark art: the Handley Page 0-400 was standard equipment for IAF squadrons in the summer of 1918.

Trenchard and his followers (including a rising star in Major Arthur Harris and a full battery of popular press barons) also typified true believers by exaggerating, or at least optimising, the impact of bombing raids on enemy production and morale.  Their excuse was the conviction that technological progress would make failure to develop a strategic bombing force a recipe for total defeat in any future war.  Their tragedy, in an epoch enthralled by the world-changing potential of new technologies, was to be believed.

Trenchard went on serve as RAF chief of staff from 1919 until 1930, and guided development of the service as a strategic bombing force while other powers opted for a more mixed approach to aerial warfare.  Though he had government support, he was never remotely likely to receive funding for the kind of fleet he envisaged in a political atmosphere dominated by disarmament and pacifism, and when war came the RAF’s bombers again proved too small and few in number to deliver on strategic bombing theory.

Belief was still strong – in 1938 official British government figures predicted the death toll from one major raid on London at around 600,000 – and so the Second World War’s heavy bombing story was essentially a repeat of the First.  Germany tried to bomb Britain into submission with what turned out to be insufficient force, and the British led the Allies in once more upping the game, pounding Germany (and Japan) with massive bombing raids, exaggerating their impact to secure the further expansion that would surely bring results, and failing consistently until 1945 revealed the grim truth about strategic bombing’s destiny.

Winning wars with huge fleets of big bombers had after all been a hideous chimera, leading humanity to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the gateway to Hell.  The false, dark vision was foisted on humanity during and after the First Word War by misguided militarists from many countries, but the British tried harder than anyone to make it a reality.

31 MAY, 1918: Fame and Fortune

Today marks the centenary of the Pittsburgh Agreement, sometimes called the Accord or Pact.  Signed by representatives of Slovak-Americans and Czech-Americans resident in the US, and presided over by the visiting (half-Czech, half-Slovak) nationalist leader Tomas Masaryk, the Agreement declared the participants’ intention to form an independent Czechoslovak state from ethnic lands within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and committed the new state to a democratic constitutional framework.  It was discussed and signed in Pittsburgh because the Pennsylvania mining industry had become a centre for Slovak immigrants, and talks were timed to coincide with what was then Memorial Day in the US (30 May) so that Czech immigrants from other regions could attend.

The Agreement made a big global splash at the time, at least in those countries drawing on Allied propaganda for their world news, but today’s Anglophone Great War showreel seems to have forgotten about it.  That’s a shame, because it shines a light on the Czech and Slovak campaign for national status – a struggle that pre-dated the First World War and was one of the very few with a happy ending, at least in the short term – and demonstrates the transformative power of mass communication in the propaganda-fuelled, proto-populist world of 1918.  And it gives me an excuse to talk about both.

In 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire housed some 6.5 million Czechs, concentrated in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, who were among the most literate and urbanised peoples of Eastern Europe.  Officially classified as Austrians, they played an active role in imperial government and administration, while the 2 million Slovaks were officially Hungarian citizens and, though ethnically self-aware, largely excluded from that kingdom’s political life.  Both shared homelands with about four million linguistically distinct Ruthenes (85 percent of them in greater Austria) who were among the least developed rural elements of imperial society.

Czechoslovakia, as imagined in 1918 and pretty much as it came into the world.

Czech nationalism had been a pre-War political force in Vienna, with two parties (the radical Young Czech Party and the more moderate Realist Party) well represented in the imperial parliament (Reichsrat), and future wartime leaders Masaryk and Eduard Benes well established as prominent campaigners for independence. Slovak nationalist ambitions were already dependent upon and largely intertwined with Czech political activity, and would remain so throughout the War.

Masaryk and Benes – good friends and a brilliant political team.

Czechs, like other ethnic groups within the Habsburg Empire, faced mass conscription into the Austro-Hungarian Army from July 1914. Although large numbers of them went to war with the same, essentially patriotic enthusiasm seen elsewhere in Europe, some dissent and anti-imperial agitation affected Czech units from the start.  During the first years of the War this was less damaging to Army efficiency than many of the largely German-speaking officer corps believed (and liked to claim as an excuse for failures), but desertion, mass surrender and refusal to fight became more common among Czech troops as both military and civilian conditions worsened.

With parliamentary activity suspended at home, the wartime political campaign for Czech independence was mostly conducted by exiles, and inevitably looked to the Allies for support.  Russia was seen as a possible liberator until mid-1915 – by which time Russian military victory seemed unlikely and St. Petersburg was (somewhat discouragingly) floating the idea of annexing Slovakia – after which nationalists focused on winning support from western Allied leaders through the Czechoslovak National Council, based in Paris and led by Benes.

As long as they held out hopes of a separate peace with Austria-Hungary, the British and French governments were unwilling to promote its future partition, but the diplomatic tide was turning by February 1916, when French premier Briand declared his support for an independent Czechoslovakia.  The real breakthrough for Czech nationalists came in 1917, with general Allied recognition that Vienna could no longer separate its fate from that of Germany, and the introduction of two very positive new elements into Czechoslovakia’s popular and political international profile.

President Wilson’s declaration of war gave a huge boost to the Czech and Slovak cause in the US.  A romantic attachment to national self-determination built into the US political psyche, stimulated in early 1918 by a commitment to Czechoslovak independence in Wilson’s popularly acclaimed Fourteen Points, generated rapid growth in popular and political support for nationalist representatives of the country’s large ‘hyphenated’ Czech and Slovak populations.  Given Washington’s global diplomatic clout in 1918, and the acquiescence of the European Allies (confirmed by Italy’s recognition of the Paris Council as a government-in-exile in April 1918), the question at issue by the time those populations came together on a public holiday in Pittsburgh was not whether there would be an independent Czechoslovakia, but which peoples it would include and how it would be run.

Before I get down with the planning of a nation in Pennsylvania, another element in the Czech wartime story demands a mention, because massive global interest and sympathy made the desperate adventures of the unit known as the Czech Legion the great emblem around which international support for independence gathered.

A number of specifically ‘Czech’ formations fought with the Russian Army against the Central Powers at various times during the war on the Eastern Front.  The first, formed in 1914 from among the 100,000 or so Czechs and Slovaks living inside the Russian Empire’s Ukrainian provinces, was disbanded and distributed among Russian units after the military disasters of 1915.  A Czechoslovak Rifle Regiment was established in December of that year, and was expanded to become a Rifle Brigade during the spring and summer of 1916, by which time it mustered about 2,500 men – but the brigade’s units were scattered among various Russian armies on the central and southern sectors of the Eastern Front, because the Tsarist government had no desire to foster nationalist movements on its western frontiers.

That problem appeared to have gone away after the February Revolution of 1917.  The new Provisional Government, always keen to display its liberal credentials to the western Allies, quickly established good relations with the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris.  In mid-May Masaryk visited St. Petersburg, securing formal recognition of the Council by Czechs and Slovaks inside Russia and lobbying for creation of a unified Czech Legion that could fight for the Allies as a national force.  Russian military leaders remained suspicious of the idea, but their doubts about reliability and counter-revolutionary tendencies were silenced by the much-praised performance of Czech troops at the start of the July Offensive (1 July, 1917: The Last Straw), and orders were issued in early August to expand the Czech brigade into a full army corps

The new army’s formation in the Ukraine was delayed while Masaryk, unwilling to stake the great symbol of Czechoslovak nationhood on survival of the Provisional Government, negotiated successfully for the Legion to be formally identified as part of the French Army (under the aegis of the government-in-exile) and for some 30,000 Czech and Slovak prisoners of war to be sent from Russia to fight on the Western Front.  The corps finally came into being on 9 October – under Russian command because there were no experienced Czech officers in Russia – but was barely ready for action when the Bolshevik Revolution changed everything.

After initially declaring its support for the Provisional Government (against Masaryk’s instructions to maintain strict political neutrality) and taking part in skirmishes against Bolshevik forces in Kiev, the Legion remained virtually inactive on the southern section of the Eastern Front.  Meanwhile it attracted large numbers of deserters from the failing Austro-Hungarian Army, so that its strength had risen to about 100,000 men by the time the Brest-Litovsk treaty brought a formal end to hostilities in March 1918. The Legion’s global fame had grown even faster, because the British, the French, the Americans and the national council in Paris had all worked out that an anti-Bolshevik, implacably anti-German force, surrounded by enemies, fighting for a small nation’s right to liberty based on representative democracy was pure propaganda gold.

As a French Army unit, the Legion took its orders from the Allied Supreme War Council, which toyed with the idea of sending it north to protect Allied interests in Murmansk (of which more one day soon) but eventually instructed it to return to France… via Vladivostok, almost 10,000 kilometres to the east.  I’ll save the details of the Legion’s extraordinary long march for another space – or you can look them up pretty easily online – but by May it was engaged in heavy fighting with Bolshevik forces along the trans-Siberian railway, its every movement tracked and reported in heroic terms by the world’s press.

It’s 9,700km from Kiev to Vladivostok, so the Czech Legion took the trans-Siberian railway – and the ‘democratic’  world cheered it on.

When US Secretary of State Robert Lansing accompanied Masaryk to Pittsburgh on 30 May 1918, he addressed welcoming Memorial Day crowds with what became known as the Lansing Declaration.  In expressing his ‘earnest sympathy for the nationalistic aspirations of the Czecho-Slovaks and Yugo-Slavs to freedom’ he demonstrated that the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia was now as fundamental to Allied war aims as the restoration of Serbian and Montenegrin independence, the conflict’s original cause.

Czechoslovakia’s status as an Allied cause célèbre in 1918 reflected more than just the power of propaganda.  It owed a great deal to the capabilities, conduct and political unity of thousands of Czech and Slovak exiles, emigrants, soldiers and civilians – and a great deal to Tomas Masaryk, who would go on to become his country’s first and most revered president.  Masaryk’s work to shape the euphoria surrounding Lansing’s speech into the Pittsburgh Agreement typified his unifying influence, generating a written, very public guarantee that Slovaks would enjoy equal political status under a democratic constitution in the new state.  The formalities would take a few months longer, but the nature of future Czechoslovakia ­– a swathe of Eastern Europe that has since been a beacon for liberal values whenever left to its own devices – was fixed for all the world to see, in Pittsburgh, on 31 May 1918.