23 OCTOBER, 1918: War And Peace

The War was almost done, everybody knew that, so why keep fighting?  Why not just stop it now and cut to the peace conference? It was a good question, and by late October 1918 it had been relevant for weeks, but convincing answers weren’t too hard to find.

Granted, any logic that had once inspired the war for East Africa was by now a distant memory, and both sides kept on fighting for fighting’s sake, but on the Western Front the Americans were only just getting fully involved and in no mood to stop until they’d won their spurs, while their leaders shared the view of British, French and German strategists that every yard gained or lost affected the dynamic of future peace talks.  The same imperative guided the continuation of naval and airborne operations at an intense level until the War’s last moment.

In Russia, revolution and counter-revolution made good causes for battle, as did the Western democracies’ fear of Bolshevism and Japan’s thirst for territorial expansion, an appetite that also spurred the British into continued action in the Middle East, faced as they were by competition for future control from their Arab Revolt allies. On the other hand, Allied armies from the Salonika Front had no real reason to keep fighting.  A disintegrating Austria-Hungary’s position around the peace process was irrelevant, and the territories it still controlled weren’t available for acquisition by predatory empires, so Allied armies on the Austrian frontier indulged in an informal and sensible truce while they awaited Vienna’s next move and cleared the last enemy troops from areas already overrun.

In theory, the same applied the Italian Front.  Some of the Italian Army was busy occupying Albania in the aftermath of the advance from Salonika, but most of it had spent the autumn stationed, exhausted and demoralised, opposite even less coherent Austro-Hungarian forces in positions along Italy’s northern frontier.  With no danger of any aggressive move from the Austro-Hungarian remnant, and no likelihood of any future territorial gains as a result of last-minute military shifts, Italian c-in-c General Diaz saw no reason to sacrifice more lives, regarded his positions as sustainable only as long as no German forces returned to the theatre and feared his exhausted, demoralised troops would anyway refuse to fight.  So why, on 23 October 1918, did Diaz launch the full-scale attack that came to be known as the Vittorio Veneto Offensive?

Diaz was certainly under pressure from France, Britain and the US to mount an operation in support of their Western Front offensives, but Allied demands for action had been a constant chorus for more than three years and Italian leaders were good at resisting them. What Diaz couldn’t resist, though he held out for most of October, was the Italian government’s insistence on an offensive, a position that reflected both its own weakness and the shambolic state of the nation.

Italian foreign minister Sidney Sonnino…
… and prime minister Vittorio Orlando were the prime movers forcing the Italian Army into one last offensive.

A young society still excited by its recent unification, Italy had entered the First World War in May 1915 on a wave of nationalist opportunism.  Led by political and popular elements bent on establishing the nation among the great imperial powers, many Italians had clamoured for a chance to share in the spoils that would surely fall to the winners of what was seen as a gigantic European reshuffle.  Things hadn’t gone well.  Locked into a ghastly military stalemate on the northern frontier, the country was close to social, economic and political breakdown by 1918.

The year had begun with the Italian Army in terrible condition, pinned back behind the River Piave and reliant on support from its allies – but no longer threatened with the comprehensive defeat that had seemed likely the previous autumn (24 October, 1917: This Plan Sucks).  Opponents of Italian participation, having lost a very loud public argument in 1915 and been a thorn in the government’s side whenever the country wasn’t in immediate jeopardy, resumed their attacks on the government with renewed force.  They found plenty to complain about.

While critical manpower shortages were forcing the Army to deploy raw eighteen year-olds at the front, and the Navy was all but paralysed by lack of fuel, the Russian Provisional Government’s revelation of secret Allied treaties made public the fact that Italy had gone to war on the basis of promises that could never be kept. At the same time another poor harvest saw serious famine in Italian cities far from the front – notably Naples, Palermo and Messina – and it became evident that the bulk of aid from the USA, desperately needed in a country dependent on imports for fuel and industrial raw materials, was being given to Britain and France.

Amid galloping inflation, the government had attempted to mobilise resources by establishing a National Exchange Commission, with control over exports and power to requisition and redistribute supplies.  The Commission was never able to square the circle of endemic shortages and made itself very unpopular in the process, so that by the middle of the year day-to-day economic survival was dependent on Allied food aid and credits obtained by treasury minister and economic supremo Francesco Nitti.

The enduring popularity of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points programme among Italian peasants and working classes put the relatively moderate political class as a whole under further pressure. Wilson specifically forbade the imperial expansionism that had been Italy’s principal reason for entering the War, and remained the government’s guiding ambition, its best hope for post-War political stability and its only hope for short- or medium-term political survival.

Hope was looking very fragile in a stormy political landscape that was becoming increasingly radicalised to both left and right – until, in June, the Austro-Hungarian Army’s manifest disintegration in the aftermath of failure at the Paive parted the clouds (15 June, 1918: Pawn Sacrifice).  If the government could force Diaz to exploit the opportunity, it might at last bask in the glory of a decisive victory, while silencing the pacifists and appeasing the imperialists by occupying great swathes of former Austrian territory.  Ministers were not naive enough to believe that the Allies would allow Italy to keep anything like enough territory to satisfy public demand (or indeed treaty obligations), but the government was savvy enough to exploit the naivety of a spectacularly volatile body politic.

By the time Diaz eventually succumbed to political pressure, he could put 57 divisions in the field, including two British and three French, against a nominal 51 Austro-Hungarian divisions, along with some 7,700 artillery pieces, all of which added up to overwhelming superiority of force.  His battle plan opened with a diversionary attack northwest into the Monte Grappa sector, at the join between the two Austro-Hungarian army groups.  This convinced Austrian commanders Archduke Josef and Field Marshal Boroevic to transfer the few defensive reserves available away from the main Italian attack, an advance by four armies across the Piave towards the town of Vittorio Veneto, about halfway to the River Tagliamento.

In Italian, but it’s the least confusing map I could find.

Attackers met some resistance while crossing the river, but it soon dwindled and operation turned into another walkover.  The Italian armies took Vittorio Veneto on 30 October, after which Austro-Hungarian defence disintegrated completely and the offensive became a triumphant procession.  It had reached the Tagliamento in the east and Trento in the west when a ceasefire was agreed on 4 November, by which time the Italian Army had captured 300,000 prisoners in ten days and suffered 38,000 casualties of its own.

Italian forces march through Trento, 3 November 1918… not looking too triumphant, are they?

They were of course pointless casualties, unless a short-term boost for the incumbent Italian government and a shot in the arm for Italian public morale amount to valid points, because their significance to the wider picture – by which I mean the geopolitical fallout from the War as arranged in Paris – was a mirage.  The mirage would soon evaporate, and Italy would emerge from the War a lot less inflated than its self-image, leaving the government high and dry, the Italian public in a fever of nationalist outrage and the Italian political system ready to explode.

More on the explosion another day, but for now this has been a salute to the one great Italian victory of the First World War, and a much less respectful gesture to the men who forced it to happen. Cynical, self-interested exploitation of naive nationalism is nothing new.

16 OCTOBER, 1918: With A Whimper

After more than four years of centenary showbiz, the modern heritage industry is still pumping out its trench-based, worm’s-eye view of the First World War, but it does occasionally peep over the sandbags and notice that empires were falling or rising.

Hunt around a little and it’s not so hard to find popular accounts discussing the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the USSR, or the fall of the upstart Hohenzollerns and its impact on Germany’s future.  The rise of the USA and Japan to imperial status, albeit in rather different ways, has some resonance for modern media, particularly in those two countries but also across a world alert to the roots of the Second World War, while the state of twenty-first century geopolitics (and the outrage of Armenians) has meant that even the Ottoman Empire’s disappearance attracts a hint of heritage profile.

The common selling point that earns these empires, whether waxing or waning, at least a modicum of recognition by posterity is their direct connection to the most sensationally earth-shaking stories of the last hundred years.  The same can’t really be said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was in the process of a more complete disappearance and has been largely ignored by the rest of the world ever since.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to highlight the many ways in which the First World War shaped the future, our present, but today marks the centenary of a last, doomed attempt to preserve an empire, and with it a dynasty, that had helped shape Europe’s centuries-long transition from mediaeval to modern.

This isn’t the place for a potted history of the Habsburgs, and the map below is worth a thousand words, but the dynasty had ruled over vast tracts of Europe for hundreds of years, preserving and extending its power by the traditional (if ultimately unhealthy) method of marrying cousins to create kings.  The decline of the Holy Roman Empire as a geopolitical force, along with the loss of its possessions in Spain and the Low Countries, had significantly reduced the family’s power base by 1914, but the Austro-Hungarian monarchy still held sway over a globally significant chunk of central and eastern Europe.  By October 1918, with its economy atrophied, its politics in a state of revolutionary turmoil and powerful enemies at the gates, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on life support, and on 16 October the last Habsburg emperor made a last, desperate bid to transform the wreckage into something sustainable.

There you go… ‘Habsburgia’ in all its glories.

The young Emperor, Karl I, had taken the throne in November 1916, too late for his moderate reformism to satisfy separatist elements already bent on full independence.  With no other course of action available, short of handing control of the Empire to Germany, Karl had clung to his reformist principles throughout the next two years, and in July 1917 he had appointed a prime minister with similar views.

Baron Max Hussarek von Heinlein – let’s just call him Hussarek – was a law professor who had served as minister of education under successive governments since 1911.  Committed to finding a constitutional means of reconciling Czech, Slav and Polish ambitions within a monarchic framework, Hussarek came up with a plan that earned royal approval and formed the basis of an imperial declaration released  on 16 October.  Known as the October Manifesto, the declaration proposed turning the Empire into a federation of small autonomous states, each given its own representative parliament, with the exception that Hungary was to remain a unitary kingdom.  The sop to Hungary was in effect an offer to spare that country the political consequences of defeat, at least in the short term, but while the Manifesto was never radical enough for separatist groups it was far too radical for the conservative elite still running Hungary.

 

This is Max Hussarek, the moderate reformer who tried to save an empire…
… and this is Sándor Wekerle, the diehard conservative who made sure it couldn’t be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hungarian premier Alexander Wekerle, an elderly conservative appointed to protect the interests of the dominant Hungarian landed class, had been no friend to Vienna since taking office in August 1917.  Forced by Karl (in his capacity as King of Hungary) to present some degree of constitutional reform to the Hungarian parliament – which rejected the proposals in late 1917 – Wekerle had retaliated by pushing demands for Hungarian control over half the Imperial army and by giving support to the increasingly popular republican movement inside Hungary.  He reacted to the October Manifesto by rejecting it and threatening an embargo on vital food exports to Austria if Karl pursued it further.

That was that for the October Manifesto, dead in the water after about two days – but although the failure came as no surprise to anyone, it did function as a signal for the Empire’s final disintegration.  Wekerle declared an independent Hungary on 19 October but, having neglected to abolish the monarchy, he was dismissed by Karl four days later and retired into private life, leaving Hungary prey to revolutionary forces that would define the country’s immediate future.  Hussarek also abandoned politics after his own resignation on 27 October, and his federal mirage evaporated with proclamations of independence by Czechoslovak and Yugoslav nationalists on 28 and 29 October respectively.

Proclaiming a Hungarian republic may have been premature, but it was popular – Budapest, 19 October 1918.

Without the means to force political control, because any remaining loyal troops were defending the Danube frontier or the Italian Front, Karl had no cards left to play.  He would agree an armistice with the Allies on 3 November, and abdicate on 11 November, but both were gestures after the fact.  His empire had already ceased to exist.

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire died, it left little to remember it by.  Imperial records are scarce, most having been destroyed by incoming regimes or outgoing officials, while central European historians have tended, understandably enough, to focus on histories of their own nations rather than that of the perceived oppressor dynasty.  They have a point.  Taken across several hundred years of almost unparalleled power in Europe, the Habsburgs hardly stand out as a boon to the societies they dominated.  Relentlessly inbred and almost exclusively concerned with the family’s status, Habsburg rulers sponsored some interesting art and plenty of exploration, but otherwise tended to feature as major obstacles to pretty much everything the modern world sees as progress.

It seems fitting enough that when this testament to blood as the arbiter of human affairs finally left the stage during the second half of October 1918, it went out with the October Manifesto, which definitely qualified as a whimper.  I’m less convinced that its destruction, a moment of belated triumph for modern values extracted from the disaster of the First World War, should be ignored a century later.

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.

So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.

Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.

So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.

Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria – quick to sue for peace and destined for a turbulent, 25-year reign.

On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.

Takes a bit of study, but this pretty much nails what was happening on the Western Front.

If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.

The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.

Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.

Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.

The more self-important British newspapers in 1918 didn’t really do headlines. Americans did.

Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.

In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.

Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.

Once a place is conquered, you march through it in triumph, so that’s what the British did in Damascus on 2 October, 1918.

The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.

Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia.  The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania.  Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply.  Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action.  Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days.  A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.