21 NOVEMBER, 1918: Hello Goodbye

I hope my last ramble made it clear that not everyone was dancing for joy on Armistice Day 1918, and that plenty of people around the world were too busy with wars and revolutions to celebrate peace.  I didn’t get round to mentioning another factor that complicated peace celebrations in some countries: military occupation.  A century ago today, the first Allied troops entered Luxembourg, which had been occupied by German forces at the very start of the conflict, and two days later the last German troops left Belgium, which had been suffering under a much harsher occupation since the first week of the War.

Token map – this was the big picture in northwestern Europe after the Armistice.

Let’s begin in Belgium.  The German occupation, which had been ruthless, exploitative and sometimes brutal (8 January, 1918: Remember Belgium), had begun to fall apart in mid-October, when officers and administrators, recognising that the end was nigh, began sending their families home, and roads east became clogged by thousands of troops retreating from the Western Front.  The outbreak of revolution in Germany saw the establishment of German soldiers’ councils all over Belgium and the effective end of the official occupying regime from 9 November, after which chaos hit the streets of the country’s towns and cities.  Loyal German troops, revolutionary German troops, Belgian political radicals, Belgian police and citizens with grudges to satisfy contributed to a week or more of high tension and sporadic violence that brought a dark dimension to the party when large numbers of Belgians and Germans took to the streets in celebration of Armistice Day.

The situation was exacerbated as garrison forces prepared to leave the country and tens of thousands of German troops passed through on their way home from the Western Front.  The retreat from France was in full flow from 16 November, and although some units travelled by train most were on foot, their slow, largely unmechanised withdrawal providing plenty of opportunities for desertion, civilian revenge and illicit trading between hungry troops and citizens interested in dirt cheap, second-hand military equipment.  The Belgian Army followed in their wake and gradually restored order wherever it arrived, imprisoning a few local political agitators and making token efforts to stem an outbreak of revenge violence against collaborators.

The final German train left Belgium on 21 November, and the last occupying troops crossed the border from Liège two days later.  In between, on 22 November, King Albert made his ceremonial entry into a packed Brussels at the head of his army and accompanied by contingents of US, French and British troops.  Once the party was over, the restored government embarked on a programme of economic reconstruction, rapid industrialisation and social reform, the latter focused on calming an immediate resumption of strife between the country’s Walloon population and its slightly larger Flemish contingent, and culminating in the first official recognition of the Flemish language in 1920.  Battered but not broken, brutalised but defiant, and lionised where before the War it had been a byword for colonial greed, ‘brave little Belgium’ was back.

Goodbye German Army…
… hello King Albert. His entry into Brussels marked the end of the War for Belgium.

Across the border in tiny Luxembourg, citizens had endured a somewhat peculiar world war.  Although technically neutral and primarily francophone, the economic life of the Grand Duchy’s quarter of a million people had been dominated since 1842 by a customs union with Germany, which had also taken control of the railways in 1872.  When the German Army occupied Luxembourg on 2 August 1914, it met formal protests from the government of constitutional ruler Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide but no resistance from the Duchy’s 300 troops.  After that, Luxembourg’s Great War was a relatively quiet affair.

The government retained control of internal affairs, and no attempt was made to impose the German language.  A few Luxembourgeois were conscripted into the German military, communications with the outside world were strictly controlled and economic exploitation for the German war effort brought mounting civilian hardship, but on the whole the population was largely left alone by an occupation force of about five thousand troops.

Political life continued along pre-War lines, with national sovereignty and supply shortages added to the issues dividing a majority alliance of liberals and socialists from their right-wing opponents.  Broadly speaking, conservatives supported the state’s farmers while liberals and socialists represented urban and industrial interests, and tensions between them rose steadily as the country’s economic condition worsened.  Four elections were held between February 1915 and September 1918, reflecting a tendency for liberals and socialists to diverge when in power but come back together in the face of a challenge from conservatives and their most high-profile supporter, the Grand Duchess.

Marie Adelaide, who had been in power since 1912 and had quickly made enemies by expressing her anti-liberal views, became a focus of popular and political controversy during the occupation.  Most internal criticism was aimed at her openly pro-German attitude, which also drew attacks from Allied propaganda that never stopped complaining about the Duchy’s close relations with Berlin.  They all had a point.  The Grand Duchess surrounded herself with German speakers, regularly consulted occupation authorities on matters of state and married her younger sister Antonia to Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria in August 1918, by which time her popularity had plummeted in line with the country’s economic condition.

Marie-Adelaide was 18 when she took power, abdicated at 24 and died of influenza at 30.  Short life, but feisty…

Most of Luxembourg’s industry, including its important iron and steel sector, was dedicated to the German war effort, but so were food supplies.  As shortages hit to the towns and prices rocketed, public health suffered and political tempers rose.  Starvation was never an issue in wartime Luxembourg, but malnutrition weakened resistance to diseases, particularly the influenza epidemic of 1918, and contributed to a significant rise in mortality rates, above all among the elderly.  The state was forced to impose food price controls and rationing from March 1915, but with shortages worsening and wages stagnating it could do nothing to stem a rise in worker protests, formation of the country’s first trades unions (in the mining industry, in 1916), attacks on profiteering traders or mounting antagonism between urban and rural communities.

As in many other European countries, conditions became much harsher after the bad harvest of 1916, but attempts to secure Allied aid through the scheme set up for the relief of Belgium fell foul of Luxembourg’s reputation as a German vassal state, with Britain insisting that supplies to the Duchy were Berlin’s responsibility. Berlin nevertheless refused to make specific plans for supplying Luxembourg, and instead took over the purchase of all its imports from November 1916, a move that helped cement Allied disapproval of Marie-Adelaide’s regime.

By 1918, British hostility to Luxembourg brought air raids. This was Luxembourg city in March, and an RAF raid in July killed ten civilians.

Allied opinions always mattered in the context of Luxembourg’s neutral self-image, but became critical as the War neared its end. Germany had planned to annex Luxembourg in the event of victory, but the Grand Duchy had come into existence in its present form (in 1839) after a long struggle to remain separate from Belgium, and the Belgians wanted it back.  They might well have got it back if the British and French had been the only arbiters of Luxembourg’s fate, but the influence of the USA and its commitment to self-determination proved too much for Belgian post-War ambitions.

German withdrawal from Luxembourg was announced on 6 November 1918, was complete on 22 November, and proceeded in a generally courteous and orderly fashion.  The same could be said about most of the Duchy’s relatively sober armistice celebrations, but the whiff of revolution wasn’t completely absent.  A socialist revolt in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second largest town, took place on Armistice Day but was quashed after a few hours, and the following day a motion demanding abolition of the monarchy, proposed by an alliance of liberals and socialists, was narrowly defeated in the Chamber of Deputies.  Marie-Adelaide was still in power on 21 November, when General Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force – which needed somewhere to liberate as a matter of protocol – into Luxembourg, but her days were numbered.

The Americans, who called themselves liberators and were treated as such by a population used to placating greater powers, set up a temporary joint administration with French occupying forces. Although the administration interfered as little as possible in local politics, the French government refused to cooperate with the ‘collaborator’ Marie-Adelaide, and republican unrest remained a problem until January 1919, when a revolt by a company of the Luxembourg Army, quickly put down by French troops, prompted Marie-Adelaide’s abdication in favour of another sister, Charlotte. Later that year, a referendum confirmed the population’s overwhelming desire to remain a monarchy under the new Grand Duchess and, having abandoned its customs union with Germany, Luxembourg joined a new union with Belgium in 1921.

Despite a period of political turmoil that encompassed five governments, a change of ruler, the rapid rise of radical socialism and economic separation from Germany, Luxembourg emerged from the First World War largely unchanged and undamaged.  In any sane world this would be considered a major achievement, but Luxembourg’s collective memory of the conflict has tended to echo the shame implied by Allied wartime propaganda.  Most years, Armistice Day is not a particularly big deal in Luxembourg, and the Great War has generated relatively little cultural output, most of it concentrated on the 3,000 or so Luxembourgeois who volunteered for service with the Allies.

Apart from that reminder that history’s winners invent our heritage, this has been another attempt to expand the absurdly one-dimensional take on the 1918 armistice provided by pretty much every media outlet you can think of.  I think I’m done with Armistice Day now – time to get on with war and peace.

11 NOVEMBER, 1918: Peace Off

I don’t suppose anyone in the world needs my help to remember that it was Armistice Day a century ago, because it’s been celebrated, loud and clear, across the world’s mass media during the last few days.  Fair enough on one level:  eleven o’clock on the eleventh was a big moment, especially for those fighting or focused on the Western Front, which was by then almost the last place still engaged in full-scale fighting between belligerent empires.  Citizens of France, Britain, Italy, their ‘white’ colonies, their allies and the USA partied in the streets, but these were the victors, celebrating the start of a more peaceful, settled future.  Elsewhere in the world, Armistice Day came and went in the middle of wild and dangerous chaos that felt like anything but peace.

Armistice Day.  In Philadelphia, they partied…
… in Cologne, they stood in the rain and accepted.

Civil war was spreading across vast swathes of the former Russian Empire, fought between ‘Red’ and ‘White’ forces, many of them using tactics and weapons from a pre-1914 age.  In northern Russia, the arrival of winter saw Red Army troops keeping a wary eye on the alliance of local insurgents and Allied units that had taken control of the area around Archangelsk, and fighting in Central Asia had died down with the failure of three British attempts to provide aid to anti-Bolshevik forces in Tashkent, Ashkhabad and Baku (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment).

In the southwest, Bolshevik forces had for now been cleared from the Ukraine, but had maintained control of the Kuban region until June 1918, when General Wrangel’s ‘Volunteer Army’ of some 9,000 men had launched an invasion.  After heavy fighting through the autumn, Wrangel’s capture of Stavropol on 1 November had marked the end of Bolshevik military resistance, and White forces spent the rest of the year extending their control over the whole of the northern Caucasus.

This is just one of the maps you’ll need to get a grip on the Russian Civil War in 1918. The rest, you go find.

With Allied backing and a lot of help from the Czech Legion, White forces in eastern Russia had cleared Siberia of Bolshevik enclaves by late June 1918.  They extended their control westward during the summer, and although a Bolshevik counteroffensive in September and October did drive White forces back from Kazan, the front had stabilised around Ufa and Orenburg by November.  At this stage the various White units in play, most of which were commanded by former imperial officers, generally enjoyed military superiority over ill-trained and unreliable Red Army forces, but command cohesion was harder to come by.  White forces at large included a People’s Army, a Siberian Army and various independent Cossack units only nominally under unified command, all theoretically controlled by a Provisional All-Russian Government, formed in September as an alliance of anti-Bolshevik authorities scattered around eastern Russia, and based in Omsk.

They arose, they squawked, they disappeared… states created during the Russian Civil War.

Essentially an arena for squabbling between tsarist and moderate socialist delegates, the provisional government didn’t last long.  As armistice was being proclaimed in the West, its war minister, former Imperial Navy officer Rear-Admiral Alexander Kolchak, was preparing the coup that put him in supreme command from 18 November.  Established in Omsk as ‘Supreme Leader and Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Land and Sea Forces’, Kolchak resumed the campaign against increasingly coherent Red Army forces in December, and White armies advanced to take Perm on Christmas Eve.  Kolchak would retain supreme command over the eastern wing of White resistance to the Bolsheviks, and remain the principal conduit for Allied aid to the cause, until his assassination in February 1920, but the fluctuating fortunes of his bid for regime change are a story for another day.

The republic based in Omsk had its own stamps: ‘For United Russia – Supreme leader of Russia, Kolchak.’

If most Russians could be forgiven a lack of enthusiasm for Armistice Day, so could most Germans.  The sombre reality of defeat obviously cut down on the street parties, but so did social and political breakdown across the nation.  What is known as the German Revolution, but is perhaps better described as a period of multiple, sometimes simultaneous German revolutions, national and regional, had been coming for a long time.  Predicted by observers of all political persuasions since before the War, it had finally been triggered by the decision of the extreme right-wing Third Supreme Command to walk away from the mess it had created and hand power to the Reichstag (8 October, 1918: What’s Going On?).

Ruthlessly marginalised by the military-industrial regime, and ultimately driven to abandon the political truce agreed in 1914, the Reichstag was dominated by liberal and socialist reformers.  When the Third Supreme Command’s choice to succeed Hertling as imperial chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, took office on 3 October he put moderate socialist Social Democratic Party (SDP) deputies at the heart of a new cross-party government.  While the soft left took power in the hope of a peaceful transition to full democracy in Germany, the far right withdrew to plan a counter-coup and ensure that the SDP took the blame for whatever peace emerged.

Both sides of this political equation had underestimated the depth of popular discontent across the country.  Ludendorff’s resignation did nothing to slow the nationwide escalation of food riots, strikes, peace protests and attendant violence, and the new government’s position was almost immediately called into question by a mass mutiny of the German High Seas Fleet at Kiel.

The mutiny was triggered by the decision of German Navy c-in-c Admiral Scheer and his senior commanders to launch a final suicide mission against the British Grand Fleet.  The sole purpose of the mission seems to have been restoration of the German surface fleet’s damaged reputation, and Scheer – very much the Third Supreme Command’s man – kept his plans secret from the von Baden’s government.  He couldn’t prevent rumours reaching crews aboard the High Seas Fleet’s ships at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, and when fleet commander Admiral Hipper ordered his ships to sea on 30 October he faced widespread failure to return from shore leave and mass refusal to work.  Hipper abandoned the mission and dispersed his ships, but when his Third Battle Squadron reached Kiel its crews went ashore, made contact with industrial workers in the port and began organising protests against their commanders.

No more war… German sailors of the High Seas Fleet refuse to fight.

During the next few days, protests escalated out of control. Mutineers overwhelmed the naval station, forcing its commander, Crown Prince Heinrich, to flee in disguise, and sailors joined with workers to form political councils.  The movement quickly spread south into Germany’s industrial heartland and beyond, and protesters’ demands expanded to include immediate peace and constitutional reform.  The German Navy was quick to blame the trouble on Bolshevik agitators, although inactivity, command insensitivity and increasingly harsh living conditions were at least partly responsible.  German newspapers, public and politicians, faced with the mind-boggling concept of mutiny within the world’s most disciplined military, swallowed the story whole, and the government in Berlin braced for a Russian-style revolution.

The government’s representative in Kiel, moderate socialist Gustav Noske, reported the situation there as out of control on 6 November, but a march on the port by naval ground forces under Admiral Schroder was halted by the cabinet on the grounds that it would provoke nationwide revolution.  Three days later, convinced the revolution had already started and well aware of Kerenski’s fate in Petrograd, the moderate reformers attempted to seize the day.

On 9 November Max von Baden accepted moderate socialist demands and resigned as chancellor, handing power to SDP leader Friedrich Ebert and announcing the abdication of the Kaiser, although he no legal authority to do either.  Against Ebert’s wishes, vice-chancellor Philipp Scheidemann then proclaimed a German Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag, prompting Kaiser Wilhelm’s flight to the Netherlands and leaving Ebert as head of a provisional government pending national elections.  On the same day, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, General Wilhelm Gröner, made a deal with Ebert that offered military support for the government in return for a promise not to subject the officer corps to radical reform.  The pact effectively guaranteed an unreformed military a role in Germany’s political future, and everyone knows where that led.

Ebert…
… and Gröner.  Between them they kept moustaches and the army at the heart of German politics.

Ebert and Gröner, an accomplished staff officer recalled from the Ukraine after Ludendorff’s resignation, recognised that the government and the military feared a Bolshevik-style soviet revolution more than they feared each other.  Although the level of civil disturbance in Germany abated somewhat as the fact of peace persuaded less committed or radical protesters back to work, this simply made everyone still protesting look like a Bolshevik to the authorities.  Gröner and Noske, now in Berlin as the cabinet’s military liaison, began organising the deployment of regular Army units – and, as they formed, irregular ‘Freikorps’ units largely comprised of demobbed war veterans – to maintain order and suppress the supposed threat of Bolsheviks.

A year of violent struggle followed, while an uneasy alliance of democrats and right-wing military or paramilitary groups extinguished the far left’s bid for national control.  On a regional scale, beyond Prussia, the states that had relatively recently come together to form Germany underwent their own revolutionary upheavals.  Most minor monarchs and dukes were swept away, and the biggest of the states, Bavaria, came under a communist dictatorship that lasted into 1920.  Again, these are stories for another day, as are the civil wars, revolutions, uprisings and imperial conquests in progress all over the world as the war in Western Europe came to a ceremonial end.

And that’s the point here.  Alongside revolutionary wars across the former Russian Empire and in Germany, people in Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Arab world, East Africa, Bulgaria, the states forming from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and China were still experiencing wild and dangerous times, and the list would be longer if I wasn’t out of gas and beyond even light research.  So however good the Last Post sounded, and still sounds, Armistice Day didn’t mean peace.

5 NOVEMBER, 1918: Midterm Matters

It’s fair to say that in early November 1918, for the first time in years, peace had replaced war as the world’s principle preoccupation.  Pretty much every literate person on the planet knew peace was imminent, and a large chunk of them knew that the ways peace was shaped and maintained were likely to define their future.

Reaching a state of peace was contingent on agreement between the Great War’s three long-term heavyweights:  Germany, Britain and France.  With Russia and Austria-Hungary effectively excluded from international diplomacy, and most other belligerent nations dependent upon the heavyweights, this was obvious to anyone paying attention.  In broad terms it was equally clear what each of the main empires, as well as almost all their allies and dependents, would want from the agreement that followed.

Germany and its surviving allies wanted to remain intact and rebuild, while Britain and France wanted to increase their imperial resources and security by any means feasible.  France was more interested in fleecing Germany through reparations, while Britain and most of the other allied states were primarily concerned with territorial expansion.  There were of course many other personal, social, philosophical or political visions of the future at play in the world of November 1918 – these were, after all, very interesting times – but the big picture smacked of all the same ambitions that had characterised ‘old world’ diplomacy and geopolitics before the ‘war to end wars’.

On the other hand there were two new players at the great game’s top table.  Both had become infinitely more influential since 1914 and both represented a threat to the status quo or, depending on your point of view, a chance to really change the world for the better.  Radical socialism, in charge but fighting for its life in the former Russian Empire, promised a new world order but generally frightened more people than it attracted, and the Bolshevik government was anyway unlikely to be involved in the peacemaking process.  Radical liberalism, as represented by the United States, was altogether more cuddly and definitely would have a voice at the peace talks.

Radical liberalism postulated a future of peaceful reform, of guaranteed civil liberties and of economic prosperity through trade, underpinned by the harmonious co-existence of peoples with sovereign control over their ‘natural’ domains.  The United Sates of America, founded on anti-imperialist principles and well on the way to becoming the world’s first military and economic superpower, was the one major belligerent espousing radical liberalism, and the creed was embodied in the person of its president, Woodrow Wilson.  As peace beckoned in late 1918, it was to Wilson and the Fourteen Points – his sketchy blueprint for future peace – that most of the war-torn world turned in hope or fear of real change.

Just about sums it up.

I’ve chatted around them before and this isn’t the day for a detailed analysis, but whatever the merits or failings of the Fourteen Points they were popular with and well known to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.  A rallying call for pacifists and a beacon of support for populations seeking independence or autonomy, they came across as a benevolent package of common sense sufficiently homespun for the tastes of moderate observers everywhere.  To a lot of people in a lot of countries, they marked out a road to the kind of future that might justify the horrors of the previous four years.

The power of the United States as a force for change on the Wilsonian model was more of a threat than a promise to anyone with a major stake in the status quo – and in national terms that meant the War’s winners.  In Britain, France and Italy in particular, public opinion was divided on the merits of the Fourteen Points and national leadership regarded the USA’s attitude as the principle obstacle to the spoils of war.  By November 1918 one of the few issues that united premiers Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando was a shared determination to secure the national interest (and national votes) by doing everything in their power to disarm and thwart Wilson’s radical agenda.

History records that they succeeded, or at least that the complexities and machinations surrounding the peacemaking process robbed Wilson’s vision of the consistency and clout needed for survival in subsequent decades.  In other words the Fourteen Points were paid lip service and the institutions they created left toothless, while Europe’s old-school imperialists built for one last hurrah.  For this, post-War European peacemakers have been often and roundly condemned, though as representative democrats they were in no position to lead their countries into Wilson’s paradise.

Blame has also been heaped on the Republican Party for blocking US ratification of the peace treaty and membership of its international police authority, the League of Nations.  Generally described as a retreat into isolationism by the US, and perceived as a conservative refusal to do the rest of the world any favours, the political reaction against Wilson in his home country is seen as the final nail in the coffin of radical liberalism as a world-changing force.

So the crafty, greedy imperialists and the self-centred, greedy isolationists killed off the idea of a world in self-regulating liberal harmony.  When the next world war gave international regulators another shot at the idea, in and after 1945, the presence of two military superpowers, one of them anything but liberal, ensured its stillbirth.  It hasn’t been seen since.

That thesis, which just about sums up the heritage take on the peace from a European perspective, largely ignores one of the principle reasons for Wilson’s failure – Wilson himself.  The president is conventionally described as naive in his dealings with wily old world politicians, note is taken of his personal stubbornness and inflexibility, and much is made of his ideals.  He is popularly portrayed as the man the world hoped he was in 1918:  the good guy. The US looks more closely at its presidents than we do, and Wilson’s reputation at home is closer to the truth, which is that he was an arrogant academic, a really lousy politician, and as much to blame as anybody for the failure of his peace plan on both sides of the Atlantic.

The President’s travails in Versailles are a story for another year, but on 5 November 1918, half way through his second term in the White House, the Democrats suffered a crucial defeat in the midterm elections to Congress, and it was largely Wilson’s fault.

World saver? Dangerous idealist? How about all mouth, no trousers?

The only elections held while the US was actually fighting the First World War, the midterms took place in the middle of the global flu epidemic – which had killed almost 200,00 Americans in October – and until just before the vote they were fought with kid gloves.

The flu epidemic, at its peak in the US during the autumn of 1918, would be prolonged by troops returning from Europe.

During eighteen months at war both main parties had shown restraint when it came to attacking the other, partly to bolster national unity and partly to be seen bolstering national unity.  It suited the national interest for Wilson to be considered above the dirt of party politics, a firm but bipartisan hand on the tiller during a storm.

Republicans were generally against the expansion of government functions to administer the war effort, and regarded proposals for a post-War League of Nations as the thin end of a very dangerous, interventionist wedge.  Slim Democrat majorities and the changes implied by an end to war had shortened the odds against them taking control in both houses of Congress, but the unspoken truce kept Wilson’s personal popularity out of the equation – until he put it up for grabs.

On 25 October, against all advice and without sparing the righteous indignation, Wilson lowered himself into the political bullring, issuing a call for voters to support the Democrats on the grounds of national security and throwing in a few attacks on the Republicans. The effect on voters was comparable with the impact made by the UK’s Prince Charles when he interferes in politics, in that Wilson’s popular stock fell and his message quickly stopped being the story. By losing his nerve and tossing away his electoral invulnerability Wilson dispelled the illusion of national unity, reignited the flames of party rivalry and let the politics of personality back into the fight for votes.

Wilson, who came across in public as the aloof academic he was, despised the politics of personality and was no good at them. Having come to power thanks to a split in the Republican Party and been re-elected as a familiar pair of hands at a time of global crisis, the decision to get personal against a re-united opposition just as the crisis was coming to an end was about as clumsy as clumsy gets.

Wilson intervention did him no good at the polls.  The Republicans gained six seats in the Senate and 25 in the House of Representatives, giving them a majority in both chambers and hobbling Wilson’s administration for the remaining two years of his (peacetime) presidency.  They took the White House in 1920 and held it for twelve years, during which three politically inert administrations presided over a rollback of federal regulation that ended in massive depression.  It’s no wonder American historians point to the 1918 midterms as a major watershed in US politics – but given that the same elections effectively doomed Wilson’s foreign policy, and by extension extinguished any hope of world peace based on his Fourteen Points, it does seem surprising that European historians largely ignore them.

30 OCTOBER, 1918: Job Done?

The other day, I mentioned that territorial ambition kept the British Empire on the attack in the Middle East when the Great War was effectively over.  This wasn’t quite the whole truth, because while General Allenby had been powering his way past Ottoman defences in Palestine and Syria, British imperial forces on the Mesopotamian Front had spent most of 1918 in a state of what their commanding officer called ‘astonishing inactivity’.  They were eventually sent into concerted action in late October, but this was no last-minute land grab.  The operation culminating in the Battle of Sharqat, which ended on 30 October 1918, was about securing the prize that had brought the British Empire to the Persian Gulf at the very start of the War: oil.

I last looked at Mesopotamia more than a year ago, a century after a small British motorised force had tried and failed to follow up a victory on the Euphrates at Ramadi with the capture of Hit (28 September, 1917: Wheels Come Off).  British c-in-c General Maude spent the next few weeks going after remaining Ottoman forces in the region.  Two divisions were sent up the River Diyala under General Marshall in mid-October, but Ali Ihsan Pasha’s XIII Corps retreated into the hills and the chase was called off.  Two more divisions advanced up the Tigris under General Cobbe, and continued the pursuit after Khalil Pasha’s forces withdrew from defensive lines around Samarrah.  They took Tikris on 2 November but the garrison, along with most of its supplies and equipment, escaped again.

Having failed to eliminate the possibility of an Ottoman counterattack, Maude died of cholera in mid-November.  His death signalled a reduction of British commitment to the campaign, and new c-in-c Marshall was ordered to scale back operations.  After another sortie up the Diyala had failed to trap Ali Ihsan, Marshall focused on reorganising his forces until early March 1918, when a small-scale advance up the Euphrates took Hit.  The town’s defenders had retreated before they were attacked and regrouped behind a new line at Khan Baghdadi, which was surrounded and taken by British forces at the end of the month.

Throughout the summer – when it was anyway too hot to fight, the Western Front was in crisis and Allenby was preparing big things in Palestine – Mesopotamia languished way down the list of British strategic priorities.  By autumn Allenby’s forces from Palestine had taken Aleppo, cutting off any full Ottoman retreat from Mesopotamia, and the Ottoman war effort was palpably on the point of final collapse.  The region housed no coherent Arab independence movement to contest future British control, and Marshall’s offensive options were restricted by a serious shortage of transport vehicles, many of which had been transferred to Dunsterforce (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment!).  Further fighting in Mesopotamia could hardly be described as a military necessity.

This was the legacy of the Mesopotamian campaign: the post-War British mandated territory of Iraq.

Ah, but having come much, much too far on what was originally conceived as a mission to protect the flow of oil supplies out to sea through Basra, the British found themselves just short of the oil fields around the Tigris city of Mosul, a prize that was both tempting and extremely vulnerable to sabotage.  It was also a prize that might prove difficult to secure after the War ended, when multilateral peace negotiations would inevitably be influenced by the liberal, essentially anti-imperialist stance of the USA and President Wilson.

British premier Lloyd George, acutely aware of an American attitude he considered naive and no slouch when it came bossing his generals around, duly ordered Marshall to advance up the Euphrates and the Tigris, clearing out remaining Ottoman forces in the region and taking the Mosul oilfields.  Marshall was able to convince his government that, amid a debilitating attack of influenza, he lacked the resources to attack on both fronts, and while he made preparations for an operation on the Tigris, British diplomacy set about making sure he could proceed without international interference.

The Young Turk government in Constantinople had resigned on 13 October, triggering a scramble for peace by the new grand vizier, Izzet Pasha.  He immediately sent a note to the US asking for peace talks, and emissaries were dispatched to Britain and France for the same purpose on 15 October.  The US administration declined to respond before hearing its allies’ views on the subject, and for reasons that remain unclear the French were slower on the uptake than the British, who seized upon the offer of negotiations delivered from Constantinople by long-term Ottoman prisoner General Townshend (5 April, 1916: Decline and Fall).

In anticipation of victory, the Allies had already agreed that whichever country received an armistice offer should lead negotiations, but the British chose to interpret this as permission to conduct talks alone and Ottoman authorities, again for reasons that can only be guessed, were content to keep things bilateral.  Talks began on 27 October aboard the British battleship Agamemnon, anchored in the Bay of Mudros (off the island of Lemnos), and both sides agreed to prevent French representatives from joining the negotiations.

I always like an old battleship picture, and this was the pre-Dreadnought HMS Agamemnon.

Marshal had meanwhile begun operations on 18 October by clearing the last of the defensive lines facing him on the Tigris at Fathah Gorge.  They were abandoned by defenders on 23 October, and on the same day two divisions and two brigades of cavalry, commanded by General Cobbe, left Baghdad in pursuit of Ismail Hakki Bey’s retreating forces.  Cobbe reached their hastily improvised defensive line at the Little Zab, a tributary of the Tigris, the following evening, but was forced to resume the  pursuit when Ismail Hakki Bey retreated another 100km north to Sharqat, where his remnant made its last stand.

Cobbe’s attack at Sharqat began on 29 October, and although it failed to break through Ottoman lines after one of his Anglo-Indian divisions arrived late on the scene, Ismail Hakki Bey was aware that negotiations off Mudros were making swift progress and chose to spare everyone further bloodshed.  Some 12,000 troops and fifty artillery pieces surrendered to Cobbe on 30 October, ending what proved to be the last action of the war on the Mesopotamian Front.

Ottoman troops surrender to an armoured car at Sharqat.

Negotiations aboard the Agamemnon were indeed proceeding with remarkable speed, both because the Ottoman government was desperate for immediate peace and because the British were in a hurry to end the fighting before international peace processes restricted their movements. The British made demands and the Ottomans accepted them without delay, so that an armistice was agreed on 30 October (and of course both sides later concluded that they could have driven a harder bargain).

Fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire ceased throughout the Middle East at noon on 1 November, by which time Marshall had sent a column under General Fanshawe from Tikrit to Mosul, where the remains Ali Ihsan’s XIII Corps surrendered without a fight.  British forces began occupying the city next day.

As far as the British Empire was concerned that was job done, and British control over Middle Eastern oil supplies became a fact of life for decades after the War.  On the other hand, and despite the booty it produced, nobody at the time thought the Mesopotamian campaign had been a good idea.  It had cost 97,579 (largely) Anglo-Indian casualties, including 31,109 dead, along with an unknown but presumably higher number of Ottoman casualties.  The Anglo-Indian invasion had suffered at various stages from maladministration, command ineptitude and strategic drift, and the report of a British commission of enquiry (set up in 1916) concluded that it had been an unnecessary waste of resources, given that the campaign in Palestine proved a far more efficient means of defeating the Ottoman Empire and securing oil supplies.

The same report also pinned much of the blame for the essentially casual carnage in Mesopotamia on the Indian administration and army, but that ignored London’s failure to exert imperial control over the adventure during its early stages and the British government’s dithering attitude throughout.  However you apportion the blame – and one way or another it comes down to British imperial ambition – the Battle of Sharqat and the Mudros armistice signalled a victory for greed that was hollow even by the standards of that terrible war… and the echo of its empty venality is still vibrating through the Middle East.