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.