31 AUGUST, 1918: Flukey Spooks

A hundred years ago yesterday a disgruntled Russian socialist, Fanya ‘Dora’ Kaplan, tried and failed to assassinate Lenin in Moscow. She regarded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a betrayal of the ideals behind Russia’s latest revolution, and sought a change of direction through a change of leadership.  The attempt came shortly after the assassination in Petrograd of the city’s Cheka (secret police) commander, Moisei Uritsky, as an act of personal revenge.

Not looking at all well… Lenin after the shooting.

Neither of these gestures made much difference to the stability or otherwise of Russia’s fledgling Bolshevik government, although Lenin was critically ill for a time and spent the rest of his life with two bullets inside him, but between them they were to have an enormous effect on that government’s relations with Western Europe, and with Britain in particular.  I’ll try to explain, and because I’ve been AWOL for a while I’ll do it the long way.

The War for dominance of a fading imperial world was almost done, and the result, broadly speaking, was no longer in doubt.  France would survive and Britain abide.  The USA had arrived, Japan was on the rise, three empires – the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian – were already dead or terminally sick, and the German Empire’s fate would be decided, not by the men responsible for its brief, bombastic history, but by Allied armies, the furies of its own population or both.

The other result recognised by all but the most diehard conservatives among the world’s informed observers was that the age of simple imperial dominance had come to an end.  This was most obviously expressed to the world by US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were still being quoted as the basis for future peace six months after their creation, and which envisaged an international structure of sovereign states very different from that destroyed in 1914 (11 February, 1918: Daydream Believer).  Almost as obviously – at least to those with the luxury of viewing the world in geopolitical terms – the British Empire was busily, you might say nervously, planning the postwar security and extension of its massive global portfolio.

Hardly a day went by during the summer of 1918 without some indication of this from the British government.  The British parliament positively rang with vague promises to India and Ireland of future political reform, with reassurances to the ‘white dominions’ of tariff-free trade within the postwar Empire (a concept known as ‘imperial preference’, and one that is still being touted under various names by some Brexiteers), and with excuses for attempting to expand imperial control over the Middle East and parts of the Caucasus.  On a more regional scale, the Japanese government and military were engaged in the same kind of planning for postwar empire, while the political classes in Serbia and Italy – both destined for a place among the victors at the peace table – harboured visions of their own local empires.

Amid all this jostling for future clout at or near the top of the geopolitical food chain, and the clamour of smaller nations demanding their sovereignty, one piece of planning for the postwar world united pretty much everyone on the planet with anything much to lose.  Everybody running every other state agreed that the Bolshevik regime in Russia, the living epitome of everything ruling classes had ever feared about the pre-War rise of socialism, had to be stopped.

On one hand, no matter how much of the world desired it, bringing down the Soviet regime looked a very tricky proposition.  Russia is a big country.  Conquest was an obviously dangerous long shot, and even in the unlikely event that the world’s surviving military powers could agree to undertake such a vast enterprise in concert, there was no chance of selling the idea to war-weary populations.  In any case none of the Allied powers was at war with Russia, although the USA severed diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks on 15 August, and most of them were engaged in talks with Russian officials about maintaining economic and even military relations – so the legality of any full-scale invasion would be extremely dubious.

The Allies could agree to cooperate for minor operations, and propaganda could turn protection of northern Russian supplies or rescue of the Czech Legion into a reasonable case for action, at least as far as popular opinion and legality were concerned.  But expeditions to Archangelsk and Vladivostok were no more likely to force regime change in Moscow than were British squabbles with Bolsheviks in Baku or German clashes with would-be Bolshevik regimes in Eastern Europe.

It was also possible, though at times logistically difficult, to provide material and financial support for the varied and fluctuating collection of anti-Bolshevik, or ‘White’, forces at large all over Russia, but that was another very long shot.  Not only was it almost impossible for outside agencies to make intelligent choices about which forces to help, but none of those forces had so far shown much sign of efficiency, coherence or stability.

One option remained.  It had the advantages of being cheap, potentially effective, hidden from the public eye and deniable.  It involved employing an industry that had been growing steadily since the beginning of the twentieth century, had boomed during four years of world war and seemed likely to flourish amid the violent political volatility that followed the October Revolution of 1917.  It was espionage.

Most national intelligence agencies were a product of the late nineteenth century, and most were developed as military departments charged with coordinating and acting upon intelligence gathered.  Most soon sprouted useful connections and subdivisions within their national diplomatic and police services, reflecting their twin responsibilities for collecting intelligence about potential enemies and blocking foreign attempts to do the same on home territory, otherwise known as counterintelligence.  This sprouting of agencies created a nebulous working environment in which multiple right hands didn’t know what multiple left hands were doing, or why, a problem that plagued the espionage trade as the century grew old and has never quite gone away.

In general, the most that can be said for European espionage during the twenty years before 1914 was that it provided some information towards quantifying the capabilities of potential enemies – but you would have had a hard time convincing most ordinary citizens of that.  Popular fiction, newspaper sensationalism and an atmosphere of hostile suspicion towards foreign powers made it a well-known fact that, wherever you came from, foreign spies were everywhere, plotting to bring down society as you knew it.  Meanwhile your own security services, wherever you lived, were pitifully underfunded and understaffed, not to mention awash with cunningly concealed traitors.  A few well-placed traitors across the continent were indeed selling secrets, or at least information, to hostile powers, but otherwise the continent-wide explosion of spy mania was created out of thin air.

Spy mania did generate a little more government funding during the early twentieth century, and certainly contributed to the belated formation of a British secret service in 1909, but intelligence services in and before 1914 were not the big bureaucracies of Cold War spy movies, or Le Carré’s clever collectives of highly trained spooks.  They were tiny departments run by a handful of military or diplomatic appointees.  Their few agents were employed on an ad hoc, often temporary basis, usually because they offered their services to diplomats or military men in contact with intelligence agencies.  The work carried out by these essentially private agents was sporadic, banal and on the whole of marginal strategic significance, in that most of them hung around foreign ports, military areas and political centres picking up gossip or counting things.

I mention all of this because although the outbreak and continuation of world war brought a relative flood of funding to the spy trade, massively expanded its pool of potential agents and added enormously to the immediate importance of their work, its way of going about things didn’t really change much.  Intelligence flowed around the war from diplomatic sources, from various military sources and occasionally from spies infiltrated behind enemy lines, but the trade was still dominated by gossip across the War’s many frontlines.  Intelligence services were also charged with providing support for populations seeking freedom from military occupation or imperial control, and with promoting sabotage and other disruptive activities in enemy states or neutral countries suspected of aiding an enemy, but they were still basically tin-pot organisations, short of resources and specifically trained personnel, hampered by the ongoing plague of inter-agency vagueness.

Mata Hari wasn’t much of a spy, but she was typical of the gossip-mongers that dominated First World War espionage.

This was still essentially the case in 1918, when the British secret service (known as C after its first and wartime chief, naval Captain George Mansfield Cumming, as opposed to K, the counterintelligence service run by army officer Vernon Kell) responded in spectacularly vague fashion to its government’s perceived desire – not yet clearly stated – to promote regime change in Russia.

Much of the vagueness around the story that follows can be traced to a shortage of contemporary documentation, understandable where ‘secret’ organisations are concerned but also a reflection of the amateurish atmosphere around the wartime British service.  For the period between the October Revolution and the Armistice, only three written reports from inside Russia to Cumming’s department survive, and they amount to little more than casual observations from British citizens on the spot.  All the other evidence of British espionage activity during the period derives from memoirs, recorded gossip or propaganda, none of which can generally be regarded as reliable sources.  So…

It would seem that Cumming was making active efforts to recruit and finance a new network of agents inside Russia from the start of 1918.  At that point he had access to no more than a dozen sources of information about the new regime, most if not all of them reporting as a sideline to their day jobs, and none of them trained or organised for the business of political intrigue.  Those sources included a number of British embassy staff, left behind when Britain removed its diplomats from Russia at the start of the year, as well as military liaison officers forced to take refuge in the embassy after Russia withdrew from the War.  Their presence made the embassy a natural (and obvious) centre for future espionage activity, but none of them were directly employed or controlled by Cumming.

The nearest thing to a professional British spy in Russia in early 1918 was Bruce Lockhart, a young diplomat with five years’ experience of Russian conditions, who was sent to Moscow by the government in January, nominally as a special envoy to negotiate with Lenin’s regime in place of withdrawn diplomats, but with orders to stimulate and coordinate political opposition to the Bolsheviks. While considering appeals from exiled Tsarist officers and officials for employment as anti-Bolshevik agents in Russia, Cumming sent another Russian-speaking naval officer, Commander Ernest Boyce, to work with Lockhart and naval attaché Captain Francis Cromie (who had been in Petrograd since mid-1917), and to organise a network of anti-Bolshevik agents.

By March, these steps appeared to have achieved little or nothing beyond the recruitment of amateur agents in Moscow, Petrograd and Kiev.  Lockhart and Cromie were in contact with anti-Bolshevik officers from apparently disaffected Latvian units stationed in Moscow and Petrograd, and a coup d’état was discussed, but nothing more concrete than talk, rumours and evidence of mutual mistrust had yet emerged.

Encouraged by the one constant refrain discernible among the chaos of his intelligence sources – that the Bolshevik regime was fragile, perched atop a powder keg of popular discontent and could be overthrown with one well-timed push – Cumming meanwhile sent another half dozen or so selected agents into Russia, given a few hundred pounds (usually in cash or diamonds) and charged with doing whatever they could to bring down the regime.  By August these included the musician Paul Dukes and the timber merchant George Alexander Hill – both fairly well known figures in the early history of British state espionage – as well as the altogether bolder and rather more effective figure of Sidney George Reilly.

George Mansfield Cumming,, Britain’s first spymaster…
…and Sidney Reilly, the world’s first glamourous spy.








This is not the place to tell the full story of Reilly, ‘Ace of Spies’ – it’s been told, or perhaps invented, at great length and through various media – but a little background on the man seems in order.  Born Schlomo Rosenblum, at or near Odessa in the early 1870s, he had moved to England at the end of the nineteenth century, married an Irishwoman and changed his name.  Since then he had, in the words of Cumming, ‘been everywhere and done everything’, travelled the world as something between a con man and a businessman, lived in France, England, Russia and the USA, and specialised in intrigue wherever he went.  Acting on a recommendation from the US, Cumming employed Reilly for the first time in March 1918.  He shared the general view of Reilly as highly effective and very clever but utterly untrustworthy, but was convinced of his anti-Bolshevik sentiments and dispatched him, with £500 in cash, £750 in diamonds and orders to bring down Lenin, to northern Russia at the end of the month.

Arriving in Petrograd in mid-April, Reilly embarked on a much-storied adventure that may or may not have involved attempts to get close to Lenin and remove him from power in person, and may or may not have involved detailed plans for a coup with counter-revolutionaries in Moscow and Petrograd, to be spearheaded by the aforementioned Latvian units.  Reilly probably did recruit agents and use the homes of his several Russian lovers as safe houses, and was certainly in contact with Lockhart, Boyce and Cromie as they flailed around, vainly seeking some kind of consistent or coherent policy to pursue.  He also, none too surprisingly, came to the attention of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka.

The Bolshevik regime and its secret police had spent the summer of 1918 in a state of advanced paranoia concerning the actions of Russia’s former allies – and they were entitled to.  With the streets of Petrograd and Moscow apparently teeming with foreign agents and counter-revolutionary conspirators, the arrival of allied armed forces in Archangelsk and Vladivostok fuelled rumours of an imminent Allied invasion, to be timed to coincide with a coup d’état. There is some evidence, though most of it derives from the realms of self-serving memoir or literary speculation, that Reilly was on the point of triggering his plan for a coup in late August, and much more evidence that Bolshevik attitudes to the Allies, and the British in particular, had by then hardened to the point of undeclared war.

In the event, and whatever the truth about Reilly’s game-changing plans, Soviet attitudes were the key to what happened next.  On 31 August, the day after Kaplan’s attack and with Lenin still fighting for his life, Cheka agents raided the British embassy, shooting and killing Cromie when he resisted, while the Soviet press ran screaming headlines about a foiled ‘Anglo-French plot’ to overthrow the government by killing Lenin.  Lockhart was named as the chief conspirator and Reilly as his prime executive, although the former definitely and the latter almost certainly had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.

The British embassy in Petrograd… until 1918.

Lockhart was imprisoned (as were a couple of dozen minor British agents, including most of Reilly’s lovers), but was subsequently exchanged for Bolshevik envoy ML Litvinov, who had been arrested in London as a retaliatory measure.  Reilly meanwhile escaped Russia via Estonia and Finland, despite a dead-or-alive reward offered for his capture, and lived to spy another day.

British spies had failed in their scattergun, largely notional attempt to promote regime change in Russia, but the actions of Cumming, Reilly and their less focused colleagues did provoke, or at least provide an excuse to cement, the final breakdown of relations between Britain and the Bolshevik regime.  Until the storming of the British embassy, a century ago today, debate about the two states’ future relations was still possible, and was still in progress around the fringes of both governments.  From that day until its fall, despite a brief and uneasy period of alliance during the Second World War, the Soviet Union would regard Britain as an enemy, and the British, drawing on a folklore history of fear and suspicion where the mysterious power to the east was concerned, would justify Moscow’s view time and again.

I know that’s been a long ramble, but the story here seems worth telling.  The growth and eventual redefinition of international ‘political’ espionage was in some ways a byproduct of the First World War, albeit through a process of what amounted to blindfolded blundering on all sides.  Wartime outbreaks of political chaos all over the world provided the platforms and test beds for techniques, tactics and strategies that would become the standard blueprint for future spies, turning them into something resembling the dark forces portrayed by pre-War spy fiction.  The Russian Revolution, above all, provided intelligence communities in every other country with an unprecedented opportunity to make a real and almost universally popular difference to the world through political espionage, and the small but ambitious British Secret Service did what it could to seize the chance.

The British effort’s only ‘success’ lay in helping to trigger a long-term escalation of international spy wars, thus ensuring the importance and future funding of the espionage trade, but British spies reversed into even that dubious achievement, merely creating enough suspicion to provoke convincing allegations of conspiracy.  Those outcomes said something about the ecological difficulties attached to external regime management, and even more about the intrinsic value of political espionage, messages that are still being ignored, at great cost to all of us, by intelligence agencies around the world.

17 AUGUST, 1918: Systems Analysis

I’m having a busy time right now, and I’m brewing something fairly deep about spies for later in the month, so today I’m copping out of the hard stuff and taking it easy in the trenches.  I talked about the changes within the apparently static world of trench warfare a few weeks back (30 June, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere), and ran out of space before I’d covered a lot of basic stuff, not least the very basis of everyday life on the Western Front, the trench itself.

Digging holes in the ground was an accepted form of improvised defence long before 1914.  Earthworks were difficult to destroy from a distance, could absorb bullets and most contemporary artillery shells, and could be connected by passageways to give defenders freedom of manoeuvre.  Early wartime trenches were essentially a series of connected foxholes, often dug by troops without shovels or other tools of ‘position warfare’, and trenches remained relatively shallow, improvised and readily abandoned on those battlefronts with shifting frontlines.  On the virtually motionless Western Front they became steadily more sophisticated, and developments there influenced trench systems on other static fronts in Italy, Gallipoli, Salonika and, for a time, Palestine.

Early trenches were horrible – German infantry at the Aisne.

Posterity has bequeathed us a simple tale of two ‘trench lines’ facing each other along the Western Front, but from the spring of 1915 trench systems evolved as a linked series of segments, each extending back from ‘no-man’s land’ to a variety of depths and at various angles.  The basic design of each segment incorporated a frontline trench, usually zigzagged for maximum field of fire and dug deep enough to protect infantry from snipers and most shrapnel explosions, though deep enough depended on the height of defending troops.  Canadian troops, for instance, tended to be much taller than Europeans, and needed to do a lot of fast digging if they found themselves replacing a unit of British bantams, none of them taller than five foot two (155cm).

Behind the frontline trench, communications passages led back to a second-line or ‘support’ trench, usually of similar design, and a third ‘reserve’ trench was generally located further to the rear.   The ‘reserve’ trench idea was pioneered by the German Army during the autumn of 1915, as was the introduction of concrete fortifications for local strongpoints and deep underground shelters to protect troops from artillery bombardment.  As these innovations matured into the tactical concept of ‘defence in depth’ (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh*t), German trench systems developed a degree of uniformity, often situated 2–3km apart and linked by chains of concrete machine-gun posts.

A year later, when the new high command under Ludendorff and Hindenburg decided to adopt a defensive strategy in France for the first time, German trench systems along the northern and central sectors of the Western Front were elevated to a whole new level in terms of strength, cost and coherence.  Known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line, the German system wasn’t a line at all but a series of heavily fortified areas, extending back from the front to a depth of up to 15km, the links between them again protected by chains of machine-gun posts.

Each fortified position, or Stellung, contained its own system of mutually supporting strongpoints, each laced with trenches, festooned with barbed wire and bristling with firepower – and they each had names.  Wotan stretched from the coast to Cambrai, Siegfried (the first section built and the most complex) stretched some 65km to the St. Quentin area, Alberich stretched south to around Laon, Brunhilda covered the Champagne region and the fifth, least developed position, Kriemhilda, stretched behind the Argonne Forest as far as Metz.  The German Army withdrew to these new positions in the spring of 1917, a move that helped ruin the Allied Nivelle Offensive, and the Hindenburg Line loomed large in Allied offensive thinking until the Western Front’s final battles in the autumn of 1918.

All laid out in one handy diagram – a Hindenburg Line defence system.

German trenches were generally better maintained than their Allied counterparts on the Western Front, and the French Army fared better than the BEF.  Fighting on home soil, the French had early access to more than enough tools for trench building, and received more plentiful supplies than other armies throughout the conflict. The French Army also went to considerable lengths to make its trenches relatively comfortable from the start, so that by late 1914 they featured timber-lined walls, sandbags and habitable living quarters.

On the other hand the dominant orthodoxy among French field officers in 1914 insisted on offensive warfare at every opportunity, and during the first year of the War French Army trenches were designed exclusively as springboards for infantry attacks (or counterattacks), with horrible consequences for troops crowded into shallow forward positions.  Arguments for or against the orthodoxy raged within the French officer corps throughout the War, and local field commanders designed their trenches according to preference, so French sectors always included a bewildering variety of trench systems, and some commanders were still cramming infantry into forward trenches in 1918.

British trenches during the first year and more of the war on the Western Front were horrible, unhealthy mudbaths.  Dug into the rain-soaked Flanders lowlands, British infantry were required to sleep in caves carved out of the trench walls, and suffered a variety of health problems in cold, damp conditions.

The most notorious of these, trench foot, a fungal infection that could turn gangrenous and require amputation, was rampant in 1914 but the number of cases fell to a trickle once trench conditions improved a year or so later.  Because nobody bothered much with regular inspections of rank and file feet, commanders on both sides often viewed trench foot as a sign of poor personal morale (like having a finger shot off), but the other infamous Western Front disease, trench fever, brooked no such blindness.  Eventually identified, in 1918, as a disease transmitted by the excretions of body lice, which were everywhere in every trench, all the time, the fever displayed symptoms associated with influenza or typhoid, and although most victims recovered they generally spent several weeks in hospital.

By 1916 the BEF had worked out trench construction in Flanders – build up sandbags, don’t dig down into the mud.
And by 1918 they’d got the hang of foot inspections.

British trenches were generally up to French standards in all but supply by mid-1916, after which British trench systems generally conformed to the usual pattern, apart from a bespoke proliferation of ‘sap lines’ (listening posts) jutting out into no-man’s land.  They also conformed to pattern in development of peripheral furniture for trenches, using sandbags to protect infantry from bullets and barbed wire to discourage enemy infiltration.

Sandbags were nothing new, although they were actually filled with earth by auxiliaries employed full-time for the task, and they didn’t require wartime improvement.  Of little use against artillery fire, they could (according to British research) stop a rifle bullet if they were at least 15cm deep, and they offered some protection against shrapnel or fallout from nearby explosions – which was why they lined the front and back of trenches.

Barbed wire had been used before 1914 – in both the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese wars – and was used in the same way at the start of the war on the Western Front:  laid in thin strands with tin cans attached as an early warning system.  Once the static nature of the campaign became clear, both sides soon learned to deploy wire in strength and in depth, creating impassable fields that forced attacking infantry into killing zones, and turning barbed wire into one of the most iconic features of the Western Front landscape.

Lines of barbed wire became fields – German wire in 1918.

The landscape of rear areas, directly behind third-line trenches, also underwent a progressive transformation as the campaign wore on. Hitherto rural districts became transport and communications hubs, crisscrossed with spur roads and light railways for supply purposes, and underscored by field telephone lines, used everywhere because radio was so insecure at close quarters.   All these systems had to be installed and maintained at night, for obvious reasons, and for all their modern technology they tended to collapse as soon as an army moved more than a few yards back or forward – so human or animal messengers or carriers retained a crucial role whenever trench warfare produced a spasm of movement.

So while the frontlines remained static – and because they remained static – trenches first proliferated and then evolved into something altogether more sophisticated, expensive and permanent than anything the world had seen before.  Modern mass media prefers to ignore this and other realities that challenge its simplistic, sepia vision of a completely static Western Front, but that kind of history is just another form of fake news.

8 AUGUST, 1918: Match Report

There’s no getting away from it.  Much as a global take on human history insists otherwise, I’m going to have to talk about the Western Front today.  I should probably be focusing on the landings of British, American and Japanese forces in Siberia during early August 1918, which were helping create a divide destined to define the second half of the twentieth century.  Or we could be looking at the vague promises of future self-government made to India by Lord Montagu, the British colonial minister, during a much-publicised speech to parliament on 6 August, which were part of an imperial let-down that put a (so far) permanent curve into sub-continental politics.

Then again, I could make a case for keeping our minds on the ongoing British conquest of the Middle East, or the civil wars bubbling in the Caucasus, or the rapid changes to US culture being wrought by the gods of war, or the mushrooming confidence in an imperialist destiny among military and political leaders in Japan, the Great War’s only real winner.  But today, 8 August, is the centenary of what that arch-dissembler, Ludendorff, called ‘the black day of the German Army in the history of the War’, and he was kind of right, so the Western Front it is.

Standard histories on the Allied side refer to the battle that opened on 8 August as the Amiens Offensive, but like most major operations on the Western Front it was named by its perpetrators in fairly arbitrary fashion as a means of distinguishing it from all the previous Allied offensives in roughly the same place.  It can be more helpfully described as a renewed Allied attempt to advance either side of the River Somme, and as the first major Allied counterattack after the long and scary German Spring Offensive had ground to a halt at the Marne in mid-July.  As such, and with hindsight, it marked the opening of the Western Front’s final campaign, the one that ended with the Armistice in November.

Allied military leaders in France had been planning the operation, on and off, since May, when talks between BEF commander Haig and Western Front supremo Foch generated provisional arrangements for a surprise attack just south of the Somme, at the point where the French First Army under General Debeney met General Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army.  At that stage Allied planning was being conducted in reaction to a cascade of German offensives erupting along the front.  I’ve talked about the cascade’s opening – the Kaiserschlacht Offensive (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs) – and about its last phase at the Marne (12 July, 1918: The Way We Were), but until now I’ve done little more than refer to the big, important German offensives in between.  So here’s some context.

This should come in handy during the next few paragraphs.

Having survived the shock of Kaiserschlacht in March, the BEF bore the initial brunt of the next wave of German attacks, launched in Flanders on 9 April and known as the Lys Offensive or, in Germany, as Operation Georgette.  Ludendorff and the German Third Supreme Command had originally planned to open their spring campaign with an assault on Allied lines in Flanders, but fear of bad weather and its attendant mud had prompted a switch further south, to the Somme sector.  When the Kaiserschlacht operation faltered after early successes, and the weather to the north had held, a secondary operation in Flanders was quickly upgraded to become the main focus of the next phase.

Intended to force evacuation of the Allied salient that bulged east of Ypres, and to drive on to the Channel coast at Dunkirk, the Lys attack got off to a flying start.  Advancing through mist and across firm ground along a front between the town of Béthune and the Lille satellite of Armentières, and supported by a vast concentration of heavy artillery, the attackers broke through a fragile Portuguese corps around Levantie.  British units to either side of the breakthrough, many of them tired after their transfer from defence of the Somme sector, fell back some 5km on the first day and took heavy losses.

The attacks continued for another nineteen days, but never repeated the trick.  Pushing northward towards the Ypres area, and bringing relatively fresh Belgian Army troops into the fight alongside General Plumer’s British Second Army, German forces inched forward as the battle degenerated into a mess of tit-for-tat local skirmishes.  Meanwhile Haig found himself in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the second time in three weeks, and responded by appealing to Foch for release of reinforcements from French-held sectors further south.  Informed by French c-in-c Pétain that his exhausted forces expected an attack at any moment, Foch at first refused, but French reserves did eventually march north and joined the fight from 22 April.

By that time the Third Supreme Command – recognising that anything short of a strategic breakthrough in the sector amounted to failure – was already preparing an alternative line of approach if nothing more than local victories could be achieved.  The German offensive eventually got within 35km of Dunkirk, 18km beyond its starting point, and took the tactically important prize of Mount Kemmel from French forces on 25 April, but by then Allied defensive discipline had been fully restored.  With his forces close to exhaustion, and losses running at about 110,000 men on each side, Ludendorff suspended Operation Georgette on 29 April.

Haig and Foch hatched their counterattack plan during the lull that followed, intending to give French forces the lead role while the BEF recovered from its losses around the Lys – but Ludendorff’s third-phase offensive opened against French positions at the Aisne on 27 May, forcing the plan’s indefinite postponement.

Ludendorff was convinced that Germany’s only remaining hope of victory lay in driving the British out of Flanders, cutting their lines of supply across the Channel and forcing the BEF to evacuate northern France.  The attack launched on 27 May, generally called the Aisne Offensive of 1918 or the Third Battle of the Aisne, was intended as a gigantic feint to draw French reserves away from Flanders, but began so well for the German Army that it morphed into another pivotal push for total victory.

Unlike his counterparts further north, the French commander in the Aisne sector had no truck with the ‘defence in depth’ tactics that had been working pretty well on the Western Front for almost three years (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh•t).  A four-year Western Front veteran, General Louis Franchet d’Esperey was an energetic and rather cunning commander of the old school, which in French terms meant he was dogmatically committed to the power of all-out offence.  This was presumably his reason for ignoring advice from subordinates after intelligence reached them of a forthcoming attack, and cramming his troops into forward positions with the River Aisne at their backs.

One more for the moustache collection, and a particularly frisky donkey – General Louis Franchet d’Esperey in 1918.

After a preliminary bombardment by 4,000 heavy guns, the German advance began in the small hours of the morning on 27 May, hitting the French Sixth Army and four British divisions attached in support. Artillery decimated troops packed into forward trenches, gas attacks took out defending artillery and the defence crumbled, leaving 17 divisions of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Southern Army Group to advance through a 40km gap in the line towards the Chemin des Dames ridge, a position taken at enormous cost by French forces during the disastrous Anglo-French Nivelle Offensive of 1917.  Surviving defenders scrambled back beyond the Aisne without destroying bridges, and by evening the attackers were at the River Vesle, an advance of some 15km.

This time German offensive momentum lasted longer.  Attacking armies had captured 50,000 prisoners and 800 guns by 27 May, and by 3 June they had reached the Marne, although the line of advance had narrowed as they moved west.  By the time exhaustion, supply problems and Allied counterattacks combined to halt German attacks on 6 June, they had established a 15km front at the Marne.

The fighting at the Aisne had cost the French Army 98,000 casualties, shorn the BEF of around 26,000 men, and triggered a sense of crisis in France that saw Sixth Army commander General Duchêne dismissed, Franchet d’Esperey transferred to Salonika and a general hardening of the Clemenceau government’s attitude towards the caution displayed by French c-in-c Pétain.  It hadn’t drawn much French strength from the Flanders sector, and so Ludendorff chose to regroup for a fresh attempt at the Marne.

Foch and Haig meanwhile went back to planning their attack in Flanders, this time with the BEF scheduled to take the lead role, and added a secondary plan to attack the flank of the new German-held bulge at the Marne.  Ludendorff again moved before the Allies were ready to act, but the German attack at the Marne in mid-July was the work of a broken weapon and the abject nature of its failure finally freed the Allies to strike back.

Haig was given command of the operation around Amiens, and his preparations reflected lessons learned from successful Australian ‘peaceful penetration’ tactics (4 July, 1918: Little Big Stuff).  The strength of General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was doubled in strict and really quite effective secrecy, while advancing infantry was to be given protection from every mechanized device available, including 2070 artillery pieces, 800 aircraft, 342 Mark V heavy tanks and 72 ‘Whippet’ medium tanks.  Supporting French forces had no tanks, but they did have protection from almost 1,000 aircraft.  Facing a total of around 120,000 Allied troops along the 23km front slated for attack, General Marwitz could muster about 20,000 troops of the German Sixth Army, while the German Army Air Service could field only 365 aircraft across the entire sector.

Secure in the material superiority of his army, Rawlinson elected to do without the standard preliminary bombardment, and defenders were ill prepared when his infantry, massed behind the tanks, advanced on schedule at 4.20am on 8 August.  The central British advance met little infantry resistance during the morning, although many tank crews were reduced to delirium by the soaring heat, and both the Canadian and Australian corps had gained about 12km by early afternoon.  No less aware than Ludendorff of a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the Western Front, Allied commanders began talking in terms of imminent victory, but though well-planned and in places efficiently carried out, the day’s endeavours had hit a few familiar snags.

To the north, an attack to protect the flank of the main force had been stopped at Chilpilly Spur, and French troops had made only small, slow gains to the south, so although the offensive’s main objectives had already been reached the overall advance was more of a shaft than a wave.  Part of the problem was a rapid breakdown of coordination with supporting aircraft, which spent much of the day bombing bridges over the Somme after multiple communications cock-ups.  Meanwhile tanks had again demonstrated their fragility as much as their tactical value, with most out of action long before the first day ended, and the advance had triggered the same kind of supply problems suffered by every initially successful operation to date on the Western Front.

The Canadian corps did manage to gain another 5km on 9 August, but elsewhere on the attack front little progress was made and heavy losses suffered.  Attacks slowed over the next two days as fatigue set in and twelve German divisions arrived to bolster the defence.  By 12 August, with British tank strength was down to six, a new German defensive line had been established in front of Noyon, Ham and Péronne, and three days later Foch and Haig agreed to halt the operation, switching their attention to a new offensive a little further north, around Albert.

So this was Péronne, east of Amiens, in 1918, and I like this shot because it offers a balanced picture of what had happened to a town after four years on or around the front line. The usual wreckage can be seen, but this photo makes clear something heritage chooses to ignore – that the town was still alive.

Like the latter stages of a football game, when both teams are tired, the war on the Western Front had finally turned into an open game across the summer of 1918, but the first Allied attempt to exploit the theatre’s new defensive frailties had gone the way of the German Army’s best efforts.  And yet, with US forces about to join the campaign and the breakdown of Germany’s war effort suddenly clear for all to see, strategists on both sides knew the War was won and lost by the time fighting ended around Amiens on 8 August.

I can come up with two excuses for this extended plod through a relatively dramatic sequence of offensives and counteroffensives. One is to plug one of those information gaps left by the lazy sensationalism of the British heritage industry, which is busy celebrating the German Army’s ‘black day’ with some of the most hilariously ill-informed and embarrassingly inaccurate reportage even this war has managed to generate.  If you’re in any doubt about that, check out the spectacularly ignorant reports coming out of Amiens on Sky News.

My other aim is to spread a little opprobrium, because while Haig and Foch were obliged to continue the fight as long as the German Army remained at war, the German Third Supreme Command had only one reason for prolonging the horror on the Western Front after 8 August.  Before they finally gave up, walked away and left German politicians to sort out the mess, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and their elite gang of would-be dictators would force another three months of continuous bloodletting simply to preserve their own reputations and those of the classes they represented.  For all that heritage convention likes to rail at the ‘donkeys’ responsible for repeated tactical failures on the Western Front, the worst that could be said of the worst of them is that they were incompetent.  The men running in Germany in 1918, under the nominal leadership of an inert monarch paralysed by fear and despair, were war criminals.

30 JULY, 1918: The Butterfly Bomb

The great trading or migration routes of the ancient ‘civilised’ world, that’s Europe and Asia to you and me, developed certain characteristics that inform their modern incarnations.  They were corridors.  Great wealth passed through them and so did a wide variety of races, elements of which tended to settle en route as fortune and ambition dictated, leaving the corridors quilted with different and sometimes incompatible cultures, each seeking to flourish on its own terms.  They were also great prizes, attracting conquest by powerful outside forces seeking control over riches and rival traders.  All these elements added up to a recipe for political instability.

These were lands blighted by tribal conflicts over shared territories, conflicts between emerging regional states, wars against potential or actual conquerors, and wars (or proxy wars) fought between those conquerors.  They were a mess, and many of them still are.

The Middle East and the Balkans are the most obvious through routes that still boil with modern versions of the old tensions, but they are by no means the only examples.  The Baltic States have been a corridor of power-mongering since Roman times and they fear for their future stability with an eye on their past history, while the land corridors linking Europe to the plunder of southern Asia, notably modern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, have never known lasting peace.  The elephant in the room here, seldom mentioned in the same category as the other deadly corridors of human traffic, is the vast strip of land between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, the longest and most open frontier between Europe and the cultures to its east.

We call it Eastern Europe – for all that it contains elements of Slav and other cultures – and because it includes peoples familiar to our geopolitical history as Europeans, analysts in the West have tended to view the region component by component.  Standard Western histories are inclined to treat Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the overlapping problems of Lithuania and its neighbours, the Ukraine and, up to a point, Georgia as essentially separate stories, and they each make for a wild and gripping tale.  We don’t tend to notice, or at least to discuss, that the whole of Eastern Europe has been one gigantic corridor of instability throughout recorded history.

One reason for that has been a lack of anyone willing to tell the coherent story of Eastern Europe as a whole.  More than a millennium of attempts to push European culture eastwards, whether by Teutonic knights or Panzer generals, and several hundred years of Europeanised Russian culture trying push itself westwards, have bequeathed us a history of spheres of interest, of geographical subdivisions invented to accommodate external ambition.  In all that time, the region has only twice been under the effective control of a single source of analysis.

Eastern Europe was certainly homogenised during the seventy or so years of the USSR, but Soviet historical analysis had very little to do with history and could only describe the region as an expanding frontier of world revolution.  The other power to gain complete control over the expanded corridor of Eastern Europe was the German Empire in 1918.  The German experience was brief, spectacularly chaotic and spawned its own swathes of ridiculous propaganda – but it did at least generate some relatively honest attempts to analyse the overall nature of the beast.

Between March 1918, when Lenin signed away Russia’s imperial pretensions at Brest-Litovsk, and the Armistice in November, the German regime took and held control over all of Eastern Europe. Whether its control was formal or merely practical, Berlin took its new empire very seriously, dedicating more than a million troops to its policing and sending in armies of bureaucrats or technocrats to manage regional politics and organise economic exploitation on a massive scale.

Serious commitment to empire-building: German troops in Kiev, 1918.

As Germany’s prospects against the Western Allies and the USA began to look increasingly bleak, the dictatorship led by Ludendorff and, in theory, Hindenburg focused state propaganda on its successes in the east, so that by the time German plans on the Western Front had come off the rails, in the summer of 1918, the condition of Eastern Europe was a matter of constant and high-profile national debate.

Those German observers enduring first-hand experience of life in the new empire, analysts from top to bottom of the government and army, the German press and that section of public opinion not yet alienated into irrevocable hostility to the regime were all in basic agreement:  Eastern Europe was a savage wilderness to match the Balkans, filled with feral peoples in need of discipline and organisation.  The real debate concerned what could be done to stabilise the region, and whether its contagion of revolutionary ‘Russian conditions’ posed a threat to German society.

On 30 July 1918 the German military commander (and effective dictator) of the Ukraine and Crimea, Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn, was killed by a bomb thrown from a car in Kiev.  Coming just as news of the Tsar’s death was sending shivers of fear through Germany’s anti-Bolshevik majority, and not long after Bolsheviks had murdered the German ambassador Russia, Count Mirbach, the assassination propelled German debate about Eastern Europe to a new peak of intensity.

Eichhorn had been supervising the process of bleeding the Ukraine white to feed the Fatherland’s needs, while his troops were busy propping up a puppet Ukrainian regime against threats from revolutionary Bolsheviks, counter-revolutionary nationalists and everyone in between – but he wasn’t an especially deserving case for assassination.  There is no evidence that German occupation of the Ukraine was much more or less unpopular than its equally ruthless equivalents in other parts of Eastern Europe, and Eichhorn was by all accounts a cultured and generous-spirited soldier. Eichhorn was also, and remained, the most senior German officer to be killed during the First World War, and that added to the shock felt in Germany when it became clear that his murder had more to do with revolution than occupation.

The killer was one Boris Donskoy, a Russian member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party, one of several radical factions overtaken by the Bolsheviks in the race to power as the Kerenski regime collapsed.  The Left SRs had been allied with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution.  They had filled a number of senior government posts until opposition to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty prompted their resignation in March 1918, and had continued to support the Bolsheviks until earlier in July, when they had been expelled from the Fifth Congress of the Soviets.

News of the split was communicated swiftly across Eastern Europe to any place former Russian Army soldiers were active in fostering revolution, and the assassination seems to have been Donskoy’s way of trumpeting the doctrinal superiority of the Left SRs.  Its ultimate aim was to dissuade regional Bolsheviks from their temporary cooperation with German occupying forces against Ukrainian nationalists with counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Eichhorn’s death was headline news in Germany…

The sad futility of Donskoy’s gesture, which made absolutely no difference to the seething chaos of Ukrainian politics, was not lost on the German press, which turned fear and loathing of Bolshevism up to eleven, raising the spectre of imminent revolution across Europe and spreading alarmist rumours about the enormous number of Russian prisoners – 1.25 million of them – resident in Germany.

… and so was his funeral

The irony of this approach was that it helped cement the popular and official view that all of Eastern Europe was awash with a contagion that, unless suppressed, would sweep through Germany. At time when the German war effort was on the point of atrophy, that belief added urgency to the right’s need to destroy the left, or at least blame it for defeat, and added energy to the rising revolutionary tide uncorked by the failure.  Donskoy’s gesture may have done nothing to help his own cause, but it was one of the straws that broke the back of the German Empire and readied it for civil war.

This somewhat airy post does, believe it or not, have a small point to make.  There is a price for interference in, or attempts to control the world’s corridors of power-mongering, because cross-cultural influence is a two-way street and a region’s inherent instability can damage its would-be controllers.  Eastern Europe as a whole was one such corridor in 1918, when the military-industrial dictatorship running Germany paid the price in a hurry, and there’s no real doubt in anybody’s mind that it still is.  So while the world’s big hitters are locking horns, yet again, over the futures of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Georgia, we should maybe brace for impact.