29 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Carry On Crushing

It was all about the Western Front by September 1918, as British, French, Belgian and US forces drove German defenders back beyond the Hindenburg Line, recapturing small villages and landmarks that had become dark icons for the carnage of the previous four years.  Under the circumstances, no surprise that the Western press paid precious little attention to the appointment of a new Japanese prime minister on 29 September 1918, or that today’s Western heritage industry shows no sings of commemorating Hara Takashi’s arrival in office.  Understandable enough, and anyway it’s not as if Japan’s political future made much difference to the rest of us… oh, wait.

Most of my references to the Land of the Rising Sun during the last four years have concerned Japan’s aggressive territorial and economic expansionism on the back of its alliance with Britain, and by extension the Entente powers (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger). Japan’s expansionism during the First World War, particularly in its relations with China, clearly foreshadowed and in many ways shaped the country’s aggressive imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s.  Most historians with any interest in the Great War beyond the French trenches regard Japan’s peripheral participation in the conflict as a learning experience, a rehearsal for future conquests, but you don’t hear much about Japan itself, about what turned the place into such an untamed tiger.  It would take a book to do that subject any kind of justice, and it wouldn’t be my book, but at the risk of annoying proper scholars here’s a skeleton outline.

Japan’s storming industrial, economic and military progress through the late nineteenth century had produced a nationalist culture that had a lot in common with contemporary Germany.  An authoritarian monarchy presided over a regime that had no time for popular politics.  Wealth and political power were controlled by aristocrats, industrial oligarchs and a highly influential military elite, while the country’s large population remained essentially powerless, kept quiet with bread and circuses, the latter in the forms of imperial pageant, quasi-religious social codes and nationalist triumphalism. As in Germany, these circumstances generated enormous pressure for territorial and economic expansionism, as ruling elites sought to provide resources and challenges that would keep the fast-rising population away from the revolutionary politics of discontent, and open avenues for further growth of their own mushrooming military and industrial enterprises.

Let’s not go too far with the German analogy.  Japan wasn’t a new country, and its militaristic, authoritarian character was rooted in martial traditions that had been central to social behaviour and development for centuries.  It wasn’t burdened with a bipolar, autocratic man-child for a monarch, or with a population educated in the ideas and ambitions of mass politics, and it had no reason to fear imminent invasion by powerful neighbours or revolution.  And while the horrific catastrophe of the First World War forced Germany’s ruling elites into the shadows, unleashing a storm of socio-political chaos that shaped Germany’s destiny for decades to come, Japan’s far more positive payoff from the same conflict merely provided its rulers with the money, expertise and confidence to go right on planning their imperial futures.

Imperial roll… Japan was on one.

Army and naval influence in Japanese politics had been on a roll since the early twentieth century, boosted by the prestige attached to a military alliance with Great Britain in 1902 and, above all, to a comprehensive victory over Russia during the war of 1904–05. After a brief backlash during the short-lived Katsura administration of 1912–13, the military had recaptured control of key ministries with the appointment of Marquis Okuma Shigenobu as Prime Minister in April 1914.  Okuma lasted until October 1916, when a hostile genro (senate) engineered his resignation in favour of the more aggressively expansionist General Terauchi Masatake, giving the military-industrial complex licence for unfettered pursuit of its territorial ambitions.

While military strategists focused on expansion into Manchuria and (after Russia’s October Revolution) Siberia, the global economic shifts created by world war were changing Japan from the inside. Sky-high transportation costs (and risks) reduced trade with Europe, but business with the USA and China multiplied and new markets opened up, especially for textiles and other manufactured goods in India and Australia.  Diversification of output brought a lightning increase in Japan’s factory workforce – from 1.2 million in 1914 to 2 million in 1918 – but the country’s labour surplus meant that industrial wages remained relatively low and the only real winners were factory owners, while agricultural wages climbed even more slowly.

Japan wasn’t spared the curse of overheated wartime economies everywhere, and rapid inflation – with rice prices jumping by 400 percent during the conflict – combined with low wages to spark civil disturbance.  Rural food riots broke out in July 1918, becoming steadily more serious until by September they were affecting thirty provinces.  The ‘Rice Riots’ – which also involved industrial strikes, armed clashes, and bomb attacks on government buildings – remain the most violent and widespread civil disorders in modern Japanese history, and failure to keep the peace was the final straw for Matasake.  Already coming under attack in the genro for its apparently uncertain handling of Japan’s Siberian adventure (12 January, 1918: Port in a Storm, Pt.1), his cabinet was forced to resign on 29 September.

August 1918, Kobe, Japan – a factory burnt out by rice rioters.

The new prime minister, Hara Takashi, appeared at first glance to be something new in Japanese politics.  He was the first commoner to hold the office and the first Christian, and this was the first time the elected leader of the country’s biggest political party had actually been given the job.  He was no friend to the military, which generally regarded him as a despicable upstart, and could talk the talk when it came to liberal reform of economy and constitution.  But although his government did seek to maintain good diplomatic relations with other world powers, and tried to maintain a broadly conciliatory attitude towards colonial populations in Korea and Taiwan, it was never willing or able to restrain military ambition, and definitely failed to walk the walk when it came to reform.  Instead, demands for representation by rioters and workers were met with simple repression, and order was restored with a wave of more than 20,000 arrests and a (disputed) number of executions.

The Takasho administration never escaped the uninhabitable middle ground of Japanese politics.  It was still considered too liberal by the military and regarded as its tool by would-be reformers when Takasho’s assassination by a lone right-wing malcontent brought its fall in November 1921, after which aristocrats and soldiers held the premiership for two decades.  Its achievements are generally dismissed as negligible in the greater scheme of things, and from a reformist perspective there’s no arguing with that assessment, but its negative impact on the wider picture shouldn’t be ignored.

Takashi – very important in Japan, and a civilian!

The Takasho regime’s ruthless burial of popular discontent in 1918 enabled Japan’s military-industrial complex to motor serenely into the post-War era.  Well on the way to establishing complete control over the Manchurian economy, firmly established as world power to be reckoned with and laden with cash from wartime trading surpluses, the oligarchs, the army and the navy could proceed with their expansion plans untroubled by any real need to address the issues raised by popular politics.  Thanks in no small part to Takasho’s diplomatic efforts, they were also free from any real fear of interference by other world powers.

In a geopolitical environment shaped by condemnation of military-industrial expansionism, but fixated on the political instabilities of European populations, its society’s superficial calm helped Japan look like part of the solution rather than the problem.   Although the excess cash was destined to evaporate during a depression in the early 1920s, and military attacks on China would raise occasional squawks of disapproval from the Western powers, Japan’s acceptance into the supposedly pacifist world of post-War diplomacy would not be seriously challenged until long after its withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933.  Bit of a mistake really, and one that seems worth remembering…

19 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Armageddon!

Everyday parlance generally dates the First World War between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918.  That was the lifespan of the conflict between Britain and Germany, the two belligerent countries that were genuine contenders (along with the untouchably distant USA) for the title of Top Nation during the early twentieth century. Historians tend to expand the dates to cover those other conflicts that helped fuel, were fuelled by or were triggered by the First World War.  Some commentators cite the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05 or the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 as the world war’s start point.  More extend its life beyond 1918 to include the Russian Civil War, the Japanese war for control of China and myriad other conflicts – revolutions, as well as civil, local or regional wars – that festered on into the 1920s.

I’m with the latter approach, partly on the grounds that, before the Internet age, the pace of world history varied enormously across the globe, but mostly because it’s pretty ridiculous to describe the early 1920s as ‘peace’ unless you’re viewing everything about the twentieth century through the prism of the Western Front trenches.  That said, there’s no denying that a lot of big, world-historically important battles were reaching their endgame during the early autumn of 1918.

On 19 September, four days after Allied forces from Salonika began the walk in the park that would the knock Bulgaria out of the War and advance to the Austrian frontier, British General Allenby launched the offensive that would drive the Ottoman Empire out of the Middle East and to the brink of destruction.  The offensive opened with the action known in Europe as the Battle of Megiddo, but known to Arab historians by a name that, given the region’s subsequent history, seems chillingly appropriate:  the Battle of Armageddon.

Having occupied and secured Jerusalem in late 1917 (11 December, 1917: Marquee Signing), Allenby had intended to deliver a ‘decisive’ blow against the Ottoman Empire the following spring.  The arrival of two divisions from Mesopotamia and a cavalry division from France brought his fighting strength up to some 112,000 men, the army’s command structure and supply systems were streamlined in preparation for the attack, and stocks of ammunition, artillery, livestock and lorries were expanded.

Meanwhile the RFC’s establishment of complete air superiority in the theatre effectively denied Germano-Ottoman forces in the theatre the use of aerial reconnaissance, and Allenby exploited the advantage.  He opened the campaigning season in 1918 with a secondary advance into Jordan, to the east of the front, and minor, probing attacks along the rest of the line.  These confirmed his decision to launch his main attack along the flat, cavalry-friendly coastal plains to the west, but their principal aim was to suggest that the British assault would come in the east, towards the vital communications centre of Dera.

German General Liman Von Sanders, who had taken overall command of the theatre on 1 March, could call upon about 39,000 Ottoman troops defending a 100km line north of Jerusalem. Another 80,000 or so troops scattered around the Middle East offered potential support, along with 10–15,000 more besieged in Medina by Arab Revolt forces, but Liman von Sanders was not given command of either the army protecting Aleppo to his rear or most Ottoman forces in Arabia.  His overall control was further weakened by Ottoman leader Enver Pasha’s decision to send 50,000 troops, including some German units from the frontline Yilderim Force in Palestine, to the Caucasian Front.

Numbers were just one of the problems facing Liman von Sanders. Ottoman regional administration had all but collapsed, with government contracts unpaid from 1917, the railway system falling apart and most economic activity being diverted for British use by Arab smugglers.  Mounting Arab hostility to the Constantinople regime was becoming a major problem within the Army, and morale was being further eroded by resentment of German influence, cancellation of summer leave and severe shortages of almost everything, including coal, wood, clothing, food and ammunition.

All in all, Allenby had every right to expect a game-changing victory as reward for careful planning in the spring of 1918… but like every British imperial operation outside France, the Palestine project was put on hold by the early successes of the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front.  Although Indian reinforcements arrived during the summer and his cavalry strength was largely untouched, some 60,000 of Allenby’s best infantry were transferred to France between March and August 1918, forcing him to reschedule his attack until the autumn.  The only significant British operation of the summer was a rerun of Allenby’s spring preparations, another feint to the east that persuaded Liman von Sanders to leave a third of his forces in Transjordan (7 April, 1918: Holy Smoke).

The delay did Allenby’s chances no harm at all.  In the month before mid-September, Ottoman forces in the theatre had lost 1,100 men to desertion, while supply shortages had worsened.  Most potential reinforcements had been diverted to the Caucasian Front, leaving the Yilderim Force holding the frontline with only 29,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 400 artillery pieces, all of them short of basic equipment.  The British could meanwhile deploy 57,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and 540 guns for the attack, with 30,000 troops in immediate reserve, all technically and qualitatively superior to their Ottoman equivalents and becoming more so all the time.

The same was true of the battle for control of local airspace. German Army Air Service strength in Palestine had fallen from 56 aircraft in October 1917 to only five the following September, by which time the RAF’s Palestine Brigade comprised 105 machines.  Superior British SE-5s and Bristol Fighters were able to carry out important reconnaissance, ground-support and bombing operations almost unopposed before and during the Megiddo operation, and continued to block German reconnaissance that might have uncovered the deception behind apparent British moves towards Dera and Amman. The deception was important because the timing of Allenby’s main attack was broadly predetermined – after the summer heat and well before the onset of the late-autumn rainy season – and the success of his planned cavalry attacks depended on at least some element of surprise.

Airco DH-9
SE-5

 

 

 

 

After a short preliminary bombardment and a series of raids by Airco DH-9 bombers against communications points all along the Turkish line, the offensive finally opened on 19 September.  With support from mobile artillery, aircraft and destroyers off the coast, four infantry divisions under General Buffin (along with a token French colonial unit as a nod to French regional ambitions) attacked the Turkish Eighth Army, which was protecting the coastal plains from positions on the north bank of the Nahr el Auja River. The first two lines of Ottoman trenches fell almost immediately, and two cavalry divisions charged into the gap created.  Crossing the coastal plains of Sharon and Armageddon, they had captured the Turkish Eighth Army’s headquarters at Tel Karm, 25km behind the lines, by late afternoon.

Further east, two divisions under General Chetwode launched a secondary attack north of Jerusalem at noon the same day, inflicting heavy casualties on the Turkish Seventh Army (led by Mustapha Kemal) and driving it back on its base at Nablus, so that by the following morning it was level with the remains of the Eighth Army. Even the east of the line suffered amid the confusion enveloping Ottoman commanders, as two cavalry divisions launched a raid into Transjordan and 5,000 Arab rebels led by Lawrence surrounded the Turkish Fourth Army’s base at Dera.

Allenby wasted no time driving forward in search of complete victory.  By the afternoon of 20 September, British cavalry (with support from light armoured cars) had cleared defenders from the coast and sped on to occupy railway stations at El Affule and Beisan, about 70km and 100km beyond the original lines.  A raid on Liman von Sanders’ headquarters at Nazareth meanwhile forced its evacuation and an infantry brigade blocked Ottoman retreat lines through the Dothan Pass, capturing 6,000 prisoners in the process.

Ottoman PoWs being marched through Nablus on 24 September. Most retreating troops suffered this fate…
…but retreating Ottoman forces also suffered plenty of casualties, like this Yilderim Force column bombed to destruction on the road to Beisan.

Ottoman escape routes were being pinched off, and although a force of some 2,000, mostly German, troops fought their way east towards the Jordan on 21 September, few others escaped.  Nablus and Nazareth had both fallen by that afternoon, while bombing raids inflicted heavy casualties on forces trying to retreat via the passes and river fords leading to Transjordan.  British cavalry took the supply ports of Acre and Haifa next day, before sweeping inland to block the only eastward route not occupied by British ground forces, a 40km gap between Beisan and units holding Transjordan.  By sunset on 24 September all escape routes had been closed and some 40,000 troops captured.

Denied reinforcements from Damascus, Liman von Sanders tried to set up a new defensive line along the River Jordan, south of the Sea of Galilee, but had only deployed a few hundred troops there when Australian cavalry brushed them aside on 25 September.  Arab Revolt forces meanwhile broke a stand at Dera by remnants of the Turkish Fourth and Seventh Armies, and by 26 September Allenby’s cavalry was in pursuit of a general Ottoman retreat on Damascus.

You’ll be needing this.

Allenby hadn’t yet knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the War, but he wasn’t far off.  Despite the opposition’s patent feebleness, his victory at Megiddo is generally regarded as a rare example of British command excellence during the First World War, and as a lesson in the effective use of cavalry in the machine age.  All true, given that you can only massacre what’s in front of you, but British commentators have tended to ignore the political mess Allenby was creating as he went, albeit under strict orders from his masters in London.   I refer, inevitably, to his barefaced betrayal of the Arab Revolt (6 July, 1917: Image Bank Raided).

The presence of Arab Revolt forces at Dera, far to the north of their previous hunting grounds, reflected both a wave of popular support for the rebellion and the close cooperation with British plans agreed by its de facto leader, Prince Feisal.  Cooperation was predicated on British promises of post-War independence, and was strongly supported by Lawrence, who may or may not have already realised that the British had no intention of keeping their promises.  Fostered by Turkish propaganda that revealed details of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, suspicion of British intentions was certainly in the air – as evidenced by Feisal’s insistence on installing Arab administration of captured territory before British officials could arrive – and as Ottoman defence crumbled the Anglo-Arab advance towards Damascus became a race for post-War control.

Except it wasn’t really a race, because the British Empire had long since decided to take control of the Middle East (while allowing the French their trading outlets).  The British had carefully positioned themselves to play on rivalries between Arab tribes and factions, and knew they wielded more than enough military, diplomatic and economic clout to override Arab ambitions with impunity.   They were wrong.  It took a few decades and a few more betrayals before the Arab world was free to make its own geopolitical mark, but these days it takes a lot of heritage triumphalism to mask the fact that Britain is still being punished for its greed in the aftermath of Armageddon.

15 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Walkover

A century ago today, while the world’s attention was fixed on the sudden mobility of war on the Western Front and on the emerging craziness of the Russian Civil War, something extraordinary was getting underway in northern Greece.  After almost three years of failed or abandoned offensives, punctuated by long spells of disease-ridden inactivity or entanglement in the chaos of Greek politics, the Allied armies camped in Salonika finally achieved strategic significance.  I haven’t been to Salonika in a while, so before I talk about the operation known as the Vardar Offensive I’d best bring us up to date.

Since the failure of Allied c-in-c Sarrail’s spring offensive in 1917 (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Pay Later), the ‘armed camp’ at Salonika had lived down to its reputation as ‘Germany’s biggest internment camp’, fuelling demands for its abandonment from those British and French ‘Westerners’ in favour of all-out commitment to the struggle in France.  The universally unpopular Sarrail was removed at the end of the year and replaced by another Frenchman, the experienced and more offensively inclined General Guillaumat, but his plans for a major attack in the spring of 1918 were put on hold once the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front got underway.  The ‘Army of the East’, still too sick to field more than a fraction of its official strength in battle, therefore remained passive while German units facing it were withdrawn en masse for Western Front operations.  This was seen as an opportunity missed by Allied critics, and Guillaumat was transferred to command the defence of Paris in July.

Guillaumat’s replacement was the quintessentially aggressive General Franchet d’Esperey, last seen refusing to protect his troops with defensive tactics during the Third Battle of the Aisne in May (8 August, 1918: Match Report).  Reinforced by 250,000 Greek Army troops, Franchet d’Esperey proceeded to put into action a carbon copy of Guillaumat’s plan for attacks all along the line, from the Aegean coast in the east to the Albanian frontier in the west. Stripped of its German contingent, the line’s defence amounted to some 200,000 dispirited Bulgarian troops commanded by General Zhekhov, and although widespread sickness meant that Franchet d’Esperey could only field a similar number of attackers, the Allies enjoyed enormous superiority in artillery, ammunition and supplies.

The Allied attack opened on 15 September, spearheaded by Marshal Misic’s Serbian Army, a force with a mission to re-conquer its homeland.  Flanked by French units, the Serbs marched up the Vardar River along a 25km front, and disorganised Bulgarian defenders had retreated some 10km by the end of the day.  This unprecedented success was matched by an Anglo-Greek attack around Lake Dorian that began on 18 September, and took positions within a day that had held out for almost three years, while Allied forces north of Monastir had crossed the River Crno to approach the town of Prilep by 19 September.

Nice, simple map… that’s what you need.

While Allied forces paused for breath, confident that the Bulgarian Army was effectively finished, the government in Sofia came to the same conclusion.  Faced with mounting political crisis as popular socialist and republican movements threatened to topple the regime, prime minister Malinov finally got a reluctant Tsar Ferdinand’s permission to present the Allies with a proposal for an immediate ceasefire.  Delivered on 25 September, it was turned down by Franchet d’Esperey, at which point the Bulgarian retreat degenerated into a rout and the streets of Sofia erupted into revolutionary chaos.

Veles fell to Serbian troops on the same day, British General Milne’s western flank took Strumica, inside Bulgaria, on 26 September, and the French entered Skopje three days later, by which time armistice talks had opened with the Bulgarian government.  Almost 90,000 Bulgarian troops had been taken prisoner by 30 September, when Bulgaria surrendered and remaining Austro-Hungarian forces in the country retreated to protect the Empire’s southern frontier.

Bye-bye Balkans… German troops bathing in the Crno weren’t ever coming back.

The war in the Balkans, a conflict that had been in progress since 1912, was effectively over.  The British moved east towards Constantinople and Italian forces concentrated on the occupation of Albania, while Bulgaria and Serbia were cleared of remaining German units during October.  After the Serbian Army finally reoccupied Belgrade on 1 November, Allied forces were drawn up along the Danube border, ready to attack into Austria-Hungary.

European capital city meant teeming metropolis, right? Not in the Balkans:  Sofia in 1918.

The most sideways of all the Great Wars sideshows had finally paid off, and the Vardar Offensive was duly hailed by Allied propaganda as triumphant justification for the three-year commitment to Salonika.  Nobody was fooled.  Contemporaries viewed the Vardar victory as a token success against a beaten foe, and saw Salonika as a colossal waste of Allied resources.  Posterity agrees, and for once I’ve got no problem with the orthodox line.

More than a million Allied troops were committed to Salonika between October 1915 and the Armistice, and although they suffered fewer than 20,000 battle casualties they produced 1.3 million hospital cases, more than 450,000 of them invalided out with malaria.  Until a final advance that was arguably irrelevant to the outcome of the War, this bloated, inert expedition achieved nothing of strategic value, unless you count its ‘success’ in stirring up political crisis and sponsoring regime change in Greece (27 June, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut).  It performed no better in its passive role as a means of keeping enemy troops occupied, failing to prevent the Bulgarian Army from joining the successful invasion of Romania, and neglecting to exploit the withdrawal of German forces in early 1918, when an Allied advance north towards Austria-Hungary might have made a strategic difference.

I’m not, as anyone reading much of my stuff will know, an uncritical believer in the ‘lions led by donkeys’ explanation for the mess that was the First World War, but there’s no denying the absence of horse sense in play at Salonika, or that any old donkey could have organised the easy advances of the expedition’s endgame.   Given the subsequent history of the Balkans, where peace is still a fragile, uncertain thing, it also seems worth mentioning that, in the long term, Allied commitment to Salonika did nothing but harm to the region’s peoples.

7 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Talk Is Cheap… Or Not.

It has been said, often and on the whole wisely, that Allied insistence on making Germany pay for the First World War in cash, goods and assets was one of the worst of many world-historically bad things to come out of the peace process that followed the conflict. The payments were known as ‘reparations’. They were based on calculations made without consulting Germany, they were enormous, they proved impossible to collect in full (or anything like it), and they wreaked enough economic damage on a global scale to ensure that nobody, not even the payees, really benefitted from their imposition.

Of course, the German economy suffered the most immediate, comprehensive and dangerous damage from post-War reparations, which combined with political chaos to generate epic levels of hyperinflation in the country.  Post-War German commentators (along with academic voices elsewhere) regarded reparations as a spiteful, essentially criminal act of revenge by the Allies, in particular by the prime movers behind the punishment, the French, and that view has passed into modern historical orthodoxy.

Fair enough, up to a point.  Reparations were spiteful, stupid, counterproductive and dangerous, not to mention grossly unfair and imposed on Germany as the only major empire among the Central Powers still around to take punishment.  On the other hand the heritage history of the twentieth century – born into world-war propaganda but these days committed to a polar opposite picture of the War as a pointless exercise in elite machismo, won by stupid people – has a tendency to suggest that the folly of reparations was responsible, or at least bore prime responsibility, for Germany’s subsequent lurch into National Socialism.

The implication that Germany was essentially a victim of Allied imperial greed would have pleased Ludendorff and other contemporary apologists for the appalling regime that actually deserves most of the blame, but any examination of German history during the previous fifty years exposes it as nonsense.  I’ll leave you to confirm that.

The heritage view also allows the otherwise uninformed to assume that Allied imposition of reparations was a new idea, conjured up out of the collective need for a scapegoat at the end of a recognisably disastrous war, and that their scale was a gargantuan expression of the vitriolic looting carried out by victorious soldiers throughout recorded history.  There was indeed a strong element of angry revenge in the air at Versailles, at least among the European victors, and it did influence proceedings by shouting down voices for moderation, but it wasn’t the inspiration for reparations.  There was nothing new or unexpected about the presentation of a reparations bill to the losers of the First World War, and Germany had already made sure there was nothing unprecedented about its scale.

Before coming to power in Russia, the Bolsheviks had campaigned for immediate peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’, and that remained the position of Lenin’s government at the start of 1918. The phrase reflected contemporary geopolitical thinking about wars in general and the Great War in particular, in that they were fought for both territory and the extraction of resources.  Losers were expected to sacrifice anything perceived as an economic advantage, and frequent statements of war aims by both sides since 1914 had emphasised the War’s rising cost in money, goods, industrial plant, merchant shipping and anything else that could be claimed as expenses.  The new Bolshevik state got its peace in March 1918, when it finally signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, but was never going to get away without annexations and indemnities (3 March, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace).

Most of the annexations attached to Brest-Litovsk came disguised as regional independence movements (leaving aside the Ottoman Empire’s technical annexation of Russian territories in the Caucasus that were part of an ongoing civil war), but the indemnities were straight-up, open demands for reparations on a scale that set an example for the peacemakers at Versailles.

Negotiations about Russian reparations payments went on long after the signature of the treaty, but in August 1918 the Bolshevik government finally accepted an agreement to pay cash, gold and goods worth six billion German marks.  That converted to around £214 million in 1918, but to put the figure into some kind of context there were only 13 billion marks in circulation just before the War, and only about 60 billion in circulation when it ended.  We’re talking about an era when cash really counted, and at a particular moment in history when international banking transactions were only possible between established allies, so payment of the first Russian instalment on 7 September 1918, a century ago today, involved carting some 350 million marks’ worth of banknotes and gold to the frontier and handing them over.

And here it is… cash and gold from Russia arriving in Berlin.

Germany never received another payment from Bolshevik Russia, and the Bolsheviks never got their money back because they were neither invited to nor recognised the post-War peace agreement, but the fact remained that Germany had intended to bleed Russia of everything it could grab in the aftermath of victory on the Eastern Front.  The German regime had turned the threat of reparations, voiced since the beginning of the War, into a reality.  Motivated by greed, laced with desperation as the Hindenburg Programme sent the German economy hurtling to oblivion, rather than by revenge, the imposition of indemnities at Brest-Litovsk set the bar for everything that followed, and provided all the example the Allies needed to produce their own demands in 1919.

After last week’s epic ramble through the backwoods of espionage, a succinct opinion piece seemed appropriate, but much as I’d like to sneak away inside a thousand words, I feel compelled to add a brief note about the festival of triumphalism filling the pages of the British press in September 1918.  Having spent the last four years finding ways to get triumphant about military defeats, bloody stalemates and minor tactical victories on the Western Front, British newspapers were almost forced to exaggerate the extent to which the tide had turned during the previous few weeks.

German battlefront morale was ‘crumbling’, the German leadership was issuing cries of despair and the advances of Allied armies in France, admittedly much faster and more significant than anything they had managed before, were described as ‘pursuits’ of fleeing enemies.  Occasional mentions of stiff resistance by German units here and there, or of the fact that Allied forces had yet to reach, let alone overcome, the Hindenburg Line’s massed, carefully prepared defences, were rare scraps of journalism amid the festivities.

This didn’t exactly set British newspapers apart from their counterparts in other countries.  Their relentless propaganda for what amounted to maintenance of the political status quo was mirrored in Germany and the USA, the former thanks to censorship, the latter reflecting the survival of revolutionary idealism in US civic thinking.  French and Italian newspapers were far more inclined to promote radical political change, and more directly aggressive in their criticisms of home governments, but could match or exceed anything the British could print by way of sensationalism.  What did distinguish the British press at this late stage of its long, loud War was its unintended effect on long-term public perception.  By acting as if the German Army on the Western Front was all but beaten, press coverage encouraged expectations of an imminent end to the War, expectations that quickly morphed into familiar questions about why the end was taking so long to arrive.

OK, so I could only find a Canadian picture to steal, but it’s British imperial and it makes my point.

It would have been difficult for the British fourth estate to adopt a more measured approach to the excitement of 1918.  National interest had demanded press hyperbole for the preceding four years, and the country’s most powerful press barons, having just about reined in their political ambitions over the same period, were in no mood to stop shouting.  Had they been, the final battles on the Western Front might have been a time of popular redemption for a British military leadership that had shouldered much of the blame for the War’s length and cost.  Instead the great Allied victories of the autumn became yet another reason for damning British generals as donkeys.

An illustrative case study isn’t hard to find.  French c-in-c Ferdinand Foch was a genuine national hero in the post-War era, and AEF commander Pershing remained a hugely respected and popular figure for the rest of his days in the US.  They fought the same victorious battles as BEF c-in-c Haig, who received the military victor’s usual honours, money and gratitude from official sources, but was regarded with contempt by much of the British public during the immediate post-War years, and has been treated with (at best) disdain by popular history ever since.

You want a message?  Independent mass communication is a wonderful expression of human culture’s ambition to create a workable society on a grand scale but – like those other great expressions of same, democracy and nuclear power – constitutes a force we can deploy and target, but neither control nor predict. Message ends.