All posts by poppycock

17 AUGUST, 1918: Systems Analysis

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

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

Early trenches were horrible – German infantry at the Aisne.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 AUGUST, 1918: Match Report

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

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

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

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

This should come in handy during the next few paragraphs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 JULY, 1918: The Butterfly Bomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eichhorn’s death was headline news in Germany…

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

… and so was his funeral

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

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

23 JULY, 1918: Tipping Points

By July 1918 the War’s big picture was getting clearer and something resembling a logical conclusion was slowly coming into focus for most observers on both sides, informed or propagandised. So I’m going for slight change of approach today, aimed at providing a few snapshots, and ideally a flavour, of the Great War’s last summer.

The Second Battle of the Marne may have begun as a German attack on 15 July, but within five days it was clearly turning into an Allied victory.  After four months of near-panic among the Allies, especially the British and French, as German offensives on the Western Front suddenly threatened to turn a fast tide against them, the battle was also emerging as the moment the world as a whole realised Germany wasn’t going to win.

No such clarity could be drawn from the other side of the big picture, the puzzling and potentially frightening spectacle of the Russian Empire collapsing into civil war.  Would Lenin’s soviets triumph and form a completely new kind of state, or would the multi-faceted, multi-headed forces of counter-revolution restore something resembling the old order?  Nobody, including Lenin and Trotsky, had much idea of the answers, and by no means everybody outside Russia was sure which side they wanted to win – but most of them were sure they wanted to see the Czech Legion get home.

By now a global cause célèbre and, with a total strength of around 100,000 troops, the single biggest coherent military force in the civil war zone, the Legion was strung out along the Siberian railway en route for Vladivostok.  Advanced Czech and Slovak forces took Irkutsk on 13 July and, far to the west, rear elements took Kazan the following day.   Both occupations were duly celebrated as victories in the Allied press, which also reported Japanese agreement, on 18 July, to US proposals for a joint intervention in Siberia, and the proclamation, five days later at Vladivostok, of a Siberian Government Council.  But the big story coming out of Russia that week was the news that Bolsheviks had executed the Tsar and all his family at Ekaterinburg on 17 July, a measure apparently hurried through for fear that the Czech Legion was on its way.

There are more accurate images concerning the Tsar’s death – but this one has the best eye rolls.

One thing becoming clear about Russia’s meltdown was that it wasn’t going to end the War in a hurry.   Fears that Bolshevik success would spark immediate popular revolution in Europe’s other great powers had faded, and the theory that release of German troops from the Eastern Front would turn the battle in the West had been proved false, though only just.  By mid-1918 both sides also recognised that Germany’s submarine-led campaign against shipping lanes had failed to end the conflict, but that didn’t mean the global war on trade was over.

Adoption of convoy systems had reduced Allied merchant losses to manageable, sustainable levels, and U-boats had switched their priorities accordingly, targeting the ongoing transfer of US forces to Europe.  Submarines sank five Allied transports between 15 and 19 July – at the cost of one submarine sunk by a British destroyer – and a British armed merchant cruiser on 23 July.  The victims included the Cunard liner Carpathia, sent to the bottom on 17 July while sailing with an Atlantic convoy from Liverpool to Boston, and famous as the first rescuer on the scene after the Titanic went down in 1912.

The British meanwhile persisted with their own, more successful version of economic warfare, in place since the start of the War, which combined the Royal Navy’s blockade of enemy ports with some serious diplomatic bullying to prevent neutral countries from trading with the enemy.  Nobody needed more bullying than Germany’s close neighbours, particularly Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and all three countries spent the war years juggling the threat of invasion across the German frontier, the threat of starvation or conquest by the British, and the benefits of an economic boom generated by trade with both.

The Dutch juggling act almost came to grief during the spring and summer of 1918.  In March, just as the Allies were trying to requisition Dutch ships to address a critical shortage of transatlantic transports, Berlin demanded increased supplies of sand and gravel along the Rhine or the railway from Antwerp to the Ruhr. Agreements with the Allies allowed the Netherlands to export only certain, specifically non-military supplies along these routes, with some sand and gravel permitted for civilian road-building purposes, but German demands coincided with a need for materials to build new fortifications on the Western Front, and everybody knew it.

The German press responded to initial Dutch refusal with barely veiled threats of imminent invasion, and while the Dutch military braced for war the Allies considered a preemptive ‘friendly’ occupation of coastal provinces.  Fortunately for a Dutch government that could not agree to either side’s demands and remain neutral, Ludendorff’s plan to invade Zeeland was rejected (for once) by the rest of the Third Supreme Command, and Germany’s massive commitment to the Western Front offensive soon rendered a full-scale invasion of the Netherlands impossible.  The British, having already seized the Dutch ships in question (and paid compensation, of course), also needed every available body at the Western Front and advised the Hague to reach a compromise with Berlin, so the Dutch government accepted a reduced German sand and gravel demand, and agreement to restart trade was reached on 2 May.

Quite a lot harder than this made it look…

Reaction from right-wing editors and politicians in Britain was noisy and predictable, denouncing what they saw as Dutch collusion with Germany and becoming increasingly hysterical as the crisis on the Western Front deepened.  The British government finally responded to their outrage by issuing a formal protest about the sand and gravel arrangement on 15 July – just as the pivotal battle on the Marne was beginning – and the Dutch quickly agreed to talks aimed at arranging military cooperation in the event of German aggression. The talks began in August, proceeded in friendly, constructive fashion and continued until the Armistice, but by the time they got going much of the tension had gone out of diplomatic atmosphere in Europe because the German end of the neutrality tightrope had sagged.

Within few days of the British protest, the battle at the Marne had revealed the true weakness of Germany’s military position in France, and as Anglo-Dutch relations eased so did the sense of crisis that had gripped British and French society, military and civil, since the shocks of the spring.  A generalised fear of impending defeat gave way to an equally broad belief that victory was assured once the US was fully in the fight.  The change was both swift and obvious to contemporaries, as nicely illustrated by the immediate outbreak of labour trouble in Britain.

British trades union leaders had agreed to suspend industrial action for the duration in 1914, and the agreement had largely held. Strikes still took place throughout the War but were led by local union leaders or shop stewards, and usually concerned with local disputes over pay and conditions.  Even these tended to abate in times of national crisis, and Britain experienced almost no significant strike action amid the manpower shortages and military disasters that blighted the first half of 1918.  Victory at the Marne changed that.

On 23 July, as news of German withdrawal from the Marne was still coming in, engineering and munitions workers in Coventry took strike action, and their counterparts in Birmingham followed suit the next day.  The strike was, typically, called in response to a perceived infringement of workers’ rights by the government, in this case the ’embargo’, an official ban on the employment of additional skilled labour by certain firms.  It was also based on a misunderstanding, because the embargo was a far more trivial matter than shop stewards realised, and only applied to very few companies.

Munitions workers were crucial to the war effort and protected from conscription, so the strike came as a shock to the pubic and brought a punitive response from the government, which announced that all strikers would be liable to conscription if the action continued.  It ended after a week, but the shift it reflected in the British national mood, from relatively obedient pessimism to increasingly militant expectation, was destined to outlast the War.

Striking munitions workers didn’t get much sympathy from Punch magazine…

Major distractions have helped make this one of my clumsier efforts, but its vague purpose has been to commemorate a historical turning point that, if not exactly hidden, passed without the kind of totemic event that provides a passport to posterity.   During the summer of 1918, sometime after the middle of July and before the start of August, the planet as a whole decided that the result of the Great War was no longer in doubt, and that predictions of its imminent end – fanfared at the beginning of every campaigning season since 1914 – could finally be taken seriously.   After four years of fixation on survival, the minds of politicians, generals, ordinary fighters and civilians in every warring state could at last focus on the future peace and their places in it.  The battles between states were almost over, and the battles within states were just beginning.

12 JULY, 1918: The Way We Were

A crucial battle was about to erupt on the Western Front in mid-July 1918.  Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it was a case of two offensives clashing.  In Berlin, Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command planned one last attempt to turn the German Army’s great Spring Offensive, begun in March, into tangible strategic success (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs).  Short of supplies and experienced troops, raddled with influenza and suffering an unprecedented crisis of morale, German forces on the Marne were almost ready to launch a two-pronged attack towards Reims, as a prelude to a bigger offensive further north, in Flanders.

Meanwhile, despite the manpower crisis that faced both Britain and France after the bloodletting of the spring – and ignoring French c-in-c Pétain’s insistence that his exhausted troops were incapable of major offensives until US forces were ready to join the fight – Allied supreme commander Foch planned an attack on the western flank of the German salient (that’s a bulge to you and me) at the Marne. Thanks to prisoners and deserters, each side was fully aware of the other’s plans.

Not the world’s most useful map, but it was the best I could do…

The German attack began first, on 15 July, but had turned into an orderly withdrawal from the Marne positions by 20 July, and by the time it ended on 3 August French attacks (with some British and US support) had driven the line back beyond the Rivers Aisne and Vesle. The fighting was heavy and horrible, costing more than 95,000 French, 13,000 British and 12,000 US casualties on the Allied side, and an estimated 168,000 German losses.  The battle finally put an end to the Third Supreme Command’s offensive ambitions on the Western Front, and ushered in a series of, ultimately decisive, Allied offensives during the autumn.

There’s a lot more to say about the Second Battle of the Marne, its turning points, tactical nuances and military-political fallout, but it’s a popular choice with the posterity industry and I’ve got something less stirring and triumphal to talk about.  On 12 June 1918, the ‘Denaturalisation Bill’ passed through its first and second readings in the British House of Commons, on the way to receiving royal assent in early August and becoming law the following January.

Denaturalisation in this context meant the revocation of citizenship granted to those born in foreign countries but qualified as British through long-term residence.  The bill itself (properly known as the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1918), its bumpy passage into law and the noisy public debate surrounding it shine some light on a social norm of the time that hit one of its wartime peaks in Britain during the summer of 1918.  I’m referring to xenophobia, which was uncontroversially indivisible from patriotism for most Britons a century ago and has been making something of a comeback in the last couple of years.

Until 1914, the law concerning British nationality had been based on the 1870 Naturalisation Act, which allowed aliens to become citizens after five years of residence, but successive governments had come under press and political pressure to make it more difficult for hostile foreigners to pose as loyal Britons.  Promoted by influential right-wing and ‘diehard’ imperialist elements, this xenophobic pressure mounted in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust towards other European powers and their subjects, especially Germans, in the years leading up the War.  It bore fruit just as the conflict was erupting.

The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act received royal assent on 7 August and became law on 1 January 1915.  It came in three parts. The first defined ‘natural’ British nationality as belonging to anyone born in the British Empire, anyone born with a British father (even a naturalised father) and anyone born on a British ship.  The second section concerned naturalisation, which the Home Office (interior ministry) could grant to any applicant who had lived in Britain for five years and intended to stay there, was of ‘good character’ and spoke ‘adequate’ English.  Candidates were required to take an oath of allegiance, and their status could be revoked if obtained by fraud.

The third part of the 1914 Act dealt with particulars, including the treatment of married women, who were deemed to hold the nationality of their husbands, so that a British-born widow (or ex-wife) of a foreigner was considered an alien and required to apply for naturalisation.  The section also made clear that although naturalised foreigners could hold any property (except for a British ship) in the manner of natural citizens, they were barred from voting or holding any kind of local or national political office.

Confirmed as law just as national paranoia became government policy, the Act came under shrill attack even before it became active, with the popular press and the right wing of the Conservative Party demanding stronger powers to denaturalise aliens from hostile countries.  Hysteria inevitably focused on some 6,000 naturalised former Germans living in Britain, who were portrayed as potential hostile agents, and critics decried the Act’s failure to require naturalised aliens to renounce their former nationality, raising the spectre of British citizens bound by loyalty to the Kaiser.  In fact, under the German constitution, Germans choosing naturalisation elsewhere were automatically stripped of their original nationality, but a clause in the same constitution that allowed dual citizenship in certain, officially sanctioned circumstances was portrayed as a loophole through which Berlin intended to destabilise foreign societies.

This one from 1915 – they got more virulent as the War went on.

Amid a tsunami of government propaganda based on the idea that Germans and German culture were intrinsically violent, militaristic, devious and bad, what now seems like hysterical paranoia found ready acceptance among many people at all levels of British society. It crystallised into a campaign in the press and in parliament for a legal means to denaturalise ‘hyphenated’ Anglo-Germans at the whim of the Home Office, and the demand soon became impossible for even a Liberal government to ignore.

The Home Office was considering an extension of revocation powers by early 1916, but civil servants considered it difficult to apply and the idea was still bouncing around committees when the Imperial War Conference of April 1917 was asked to approve a draft bill of amendments to the 1914 Act.  This proposed giving the minister power to denaturalise anyone obviously disloyal, of obvious poor character, convicted of a serious crime or absent from the Empire for seven years.  It also suggested extending the wartime ban on naturalisation of aliens from Germany or Austria for five years after the end of hostilities.

The Conference – representing British state departments along with representatives of the ‘white’ dominions (which had hyphenation issues of their own) and India – gave the draft bill its overall approval without stipulating any timescale for change.  Spared the rod, the coalition government took its time before finally introducing such an intrinsically illiberal piece of legislation for its first parliamentary reading in May 1918.  Meanwhile the increasingly furious impatience of the political right, the jingoist press and a considerable section of military opinion (including the Admiralty) were coalescing to turn fear of naturalised Germans into a major national issue.

Rampant anti-German sentiment was reaching a wartime peak by the time the new Act went through its second reading on 12 July. The anti-German ultras were already denouncing the new legislation as soft on aliens, and a proposal to strip citizenship from all Germans naturalised within the last thirty years (and their children, including many men in senior military and civil service positions) was being widely touted to general acclaim from the political right.  In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the 1918 Act – essentially a reprise of the 1917 draft proposal – became a little tougher as it passed through parliament, adding contact with enemy states to the list of reasons for denaturalisation, and banning the children of naturalised citizens from public service jobs unless they were given exemption by a special loyalty tribunal.

Some politicians get to be important but forgotten. This is wartime British home secretary George Cave, the (rather vexed) face of the 1918 Nationality Act.

The new Act still fell far short of the Draconian discrimination against anyone born outside the Empire demanded by the ‘radical’ right and a massively self-important Fleet Street barony, and as such it can be seen as a rescue success for the liberal values at the heart of the Lloyd George coalition.  And because the War against Germany and Austria-Hungary had ended by the time it came into force at the start of 1919, momentum drained from the tide of populist xenophobia that had threatened to make the Act the thin end of a very nationalist wedge.

British public xenophobia would be back.  An instinctive reaction to fear that feeds on ignorance to identify targetable threats, it is always likely to surface in times of popular panic, especially when encouraged by powerful voices with an eye for populist profit.  Over the decades since 1918 it has only tended to come all the way out of the closet during major wars, but these days it’s flouncing around naked in peacetime.  So the only point I’d make around the flood of race hatred that almost carried the day in post-Edwardian Britain is this:  today’s demagogues of modern economic insecurity are tapping into a form of escapism that runs deep and dangerous in our collective psyche, so maybe we should work harder at coping with reality.

4 JULY, 1918: Little Big Stuff

This exercise in vanity publishing has been largely inspired by a desire to shout about the First World War in all the ways popular sources don’t, but today I’m sticking to the populist script.   US Independence Day marks the anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel, a small Allied victory on the Western Front that has long been celebrated as a highly significant indicator of the final victory to come.  It was that and more, so here’s what happened and then I’ll talk about its extra dimensions.

The Allied attack around Le Hamel was originally conceived as an attempt to straighten a small westerly bulge (or salient) in the front line east of Amiens, opposite the British Fourth Army, and was never more than a minor operation in the context of major offensives being prepared on the Western Front.  A succession of German spring offensives had taken the front back to where it had stood in the late summer of 1914 – threatening Paris at the River Marne – and both sides were planning attacks there for later in July. Erasing the Le Hamel salient would prevent German forces from launching flank attacks on the massed artillery support being gathered for the proposed Allied offensive.

I like this map. It includes Hamel and gives a nice, easy picture of the flux on the Western Front in 1918.

The Le Hamel operation was planned by the new commander of the Australian Corps, General Monash, and executed by its 4th Division, with support from sixty heavy tanks and every machine gun unit that could be mobilised, along with four companies of US troops that had been attached to the Corps for training.  Launched on 4 July, the attack was a complete success, sweeping the surprised and lightly entrenched defenders of the German Second Army out of the salient.  Its limited objectives, the village of Le Hamel and the woods on either side, were achieved within an hour and some 1,500 prisoners were taken for the loss of about 1,000 Allied troops.

Australians and Americans sharing a trench for the first time in history…

Leaving aside the coincidence of its date with one of the first major actions fought by US troops, the reasons this little success has been so well remembered across the decades are primarily tactical.  The victory provided the most strategically significant demonstration of a new approach to the problems faced by attackers in the context of contemporary trench warfare.   Refined and perfected during three years of trench fighting, and able to flourish once the Allies enjoyed significant numerical superiority in most forms of infantry support weaponry, it was given the oddly insouciant title of ‘peaceful penetration’.  The man generally regarded as its leading pioneer was the aforementioned General Monash.

General John Monash – tip your hat to this guy, because he was as good as it got.

John Monash ended the War as Australia’s most famous soldier, and is still well known there, but these days he’s nobody’s idea of a big star anywhere else.  That’s a shame, because he stands out as an example of excellence in a War dismissed by posterity as a command black hole.  A reservist, called up to lead a brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in September 1914, he led his troops at Gallipoli, where they suffered horribly and he learned some hard lessons.  Given command of the Australian Third Division, which he trained and took to France, he soon gained a reputation for meticulous and efficient organisation, reflected in the division’s much-praised work at Messines and Passchendaele as part of General Plumer’s Second Army in 1917 (7 June, 1917: Listen and Learn).  By the time he was promoted to lead the Australian Corps in France, in May 1918, Monash was ready to put his ideas into concerted action – and they made a difference at once.

The basis of peaceful penetration was the concept that infantry should be used to simply occupy territory, rather than expended attempting to reach it.  In practical terms, that meant making maximum possible use of mechanised weapons – machine guns, tanks, artillery and aircraft – to devastate a limited quadrant of enemy territory.  Ground troops, usually supplied from the air, would then move in to occupy and secure the ground taken, while other mechanised forces were concentrated to prevent counterattacks. Carefully planned coordination between the various battle arms, a speciality of Monash, was obviously vital to any success, but the key word here was ‘limited’, because the difference between peaceful penetration and everything the British and French had done before on the Western Front was that it sought no ‘breakthrough’ into undefended territory beyond enemy lines.

Strictly limited aims, tight secrecy, overwhelming mechanised force and pinpoint coordination had demonstrated their effectiveness during the early summer in a series of highly successful Australian raids across no man’s land, which quickly began to make a noticeable difference to the position of the frontline, albeit metre by metre. Mopping up forward German trenches and taking prisoners with only minor losses, the peaceful penetration raids exposed defenders’ vulnerability to the tactics and prompted the experiment in larger-scale action around Le Hamel.

The success on 4 July did the trick as far as the Allied high command was concerned, and Allied generals would go on to imitate peaceful penetration tactics with varying degrees of success during the offensives of the autumn.  The other message received loud and clear by Allied leaders analysing Le Hamel was that the German Army was not the force it had been four years earlier.

The German Third Supreme Command had, characteristically enough, gambled everything on the success of its spring offensives on the Western Front, betting that it could achieve, if not total victory, at least a strong bargaining position from which to negotiate a compromise peace agreement.  By the summer, with the front line moved but unbroken, the gamble was failing, and the loss of around a million troops since March could not be made up.  If the British and French were already reduced to conscripting men in their fifties, German manpower shortages were far more acute, so that old men and boys now populated large swathes of the German trench system in France, while German economic atrophy was sharpening supply shortages that were already critical.  These were recognised by contemporaries as the prime reasons for an evident decline in German Army morale and operational discipline by mid-1918, and that’s still the heritage industry’s line – but the most cursory use of hindsight reveals another important factor:  the ‘flu.

It’s in Europe, and it’s coming here – Washington DC gets ready for the ‘flu epidemic.

The global influenza epidemic of 1918–19 (of which much more another day) is generally regarded as a post-War phenomenon.  It certainly killed a lot of people in 1919, but its first wave had arrived in Western Europe by the summer of 1918 and in France it hit the German side of the trenches first.  In other words, the victory at Le Hamel was in part the product of intelligent tactics, carefully planned, and partly an accident of nature.  This basic, unplanned change in the military situation during the Western Front’s last months has tended to get left out of standard popular narratives written by the winners, and is still being ignored by most of today’s heritage peddlers.  If you’re wondering why, I’m afraid you’re being naive about the enduring influence of nationalist triumphalism in a world that imagines itself more socially mature than the one that tore itself apart a century ago.  World Cup, anyone…?

30 JUNE, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere

So the world as people know it is going to Hell in a handcart, and the pace of scary change is accelerating all the time.  Some kind of big, global endgame is surely imminent, and local or regional endgames are already blowing away political certainties unchallenged in decades, even centuries.  In case you’re in any doubt, I’m talking about the middle of 1918.

Tsarist Russia was gone, and the Habsburg Empire was all but gone. The Ottoman Empire had already lost most of its outlying provinces, and had finally given up its attempt to expand into the Caucasus when it made peace with Armenian nationalists in May.  On 11 June, in a belated attempt to spark nationalist outrage at the Empire’s failure to gain more from the Treaty of Bucharest (7 May, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy), the Young Turk government in Constantinople gave up on the strict press censorship it had imposed throughout the War, releasing a torrent of internal criticism that would soon tear apart a corrupt and reckless regime.

Any excuse for a shot of Constantinople in 1918…

Germany, the other major player destined for defeat, was screeching towards economic collapse and political revolution, while those big hitters with better immediate prospects – France, Britain and the USA – were in the throes of momentous (if often temporary) internal change, self-consciously on the brink of a victory they expected to create a new world order.

Wherever you lived in the world at war in June 1918, except possibly Japan, a peep over the local parapets meant a disquieting glimpse of a bigger picture in rapid flux.  The old certainties were evaporating and the prospects kept shifting.  In that context, and without providing much in the way of reassurance, trench warfare had become something of a constant by 1918, if only because it had been around for almost four years and didn’t seem to have changed. For ordinary people in major belligerent nations, the static horrors of trench warfare had become a relatively well-established fact of modern life.  Reported and debated at enormous length and in great detail by press and politicians, war in the trenches had become the conflict’s principle and most consistent narrative strand, a status it has maintained ever since.

The wartime trench narrative was, of course, a mythic creation, a rolling propaganda tapestry of constant victories that made no difference to anything, side-lit by the ghastly, first-hand evidence of trench veterans.  These days, the heritage industry’s core narrative still resides in the trenches and is still steeped in mythology, but presents an anti-propagandist picture of constant defeats amounting to nothing, heavily arc-lit by memoirs of personal suffering.  Both pictures have conspired to turn our view of Western Front trench warfare into a collection of one-dimensional snapshots that stress lack of change during the course of four years.  Fair enough on one level; the Western Front trenches were static in terms of geographical movement, and the human suffering they inflicted remained the same – but the snapshot obscures the basic truth that trench warfare itself went through plenty of changes.

Trench warfare wasn’t completely new in 1914 – it had, for instance, been a terrible feature of the American Civil War half a century earlier – but the world had never seen anything to compare with the long lines of opposing, massively defended trench systems, invulnerable to flank attack, that were established across northeastern France and western Belgium during the War’s first months.  Although the Western Front was by no means the only theatre to experience trench warfare at its most gruesome, it was generally the test-bed for new weapons, defences and techniques, and after a brief phase of desperate improvisation both sides geared up for what they defined, quite understandably, as a gigantic form of siege warfare.

The first requirement of a siege, heavy artillery, was ranged behind the lines to destroy enemy earthworks, kill any troops in the open and take out enemy artillery, all tasks particularly suited to high-trajectory howitzers.  As I’ve mentioned before, wartime developments in the use of big trench guns involved increasing their size, trying (with little success) to find ways of moving them around efficiently, and improving their support mechanisms with advances in ballistic science, ammunition technology and aviation techniques (12 April, 1916: Crater Makers).

At closer quarters, whether across the narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’ or in direct combat, reliance on the rifle as the soldier’s basic weapon never changed, with refinements of existing designs again the main thrust of wartime development (31 August, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen).  More radical progress was made in the development of heavier anti-personnel weapons with greater killing potential, such as machine guns and mortars.

Universally pigeonholed as trench warfare’s great defensive weapon, the machine gun was a bulky, cumbersome, unreliable piece of kit in 1914.  Guns weighed between 40kg and 60kg – not counting carriage, mounting, ammunition or (sometimes) an armoured shield – and required a crew of between three and six men.  Generally mounted on a flat-trajectory tripod, they could fire 400-600 rounds of small-calibre ammunition per minute from a fabric belt or metal strip, but they were apt to overheat and needed cooling with air vents or a water bag to prevent buckling and jamming.  Water bags often needed changing every couple of minutes but machine guns still jammed all the time, so they were usually deployed in sections of three or more for defensive purposes.

Even when put on wheels or broken down for haulage the machine guns of 1914 couldn’t keep up with advancing infantry, so they were of little use when attacking and most wartime development was concerned with finding ways to turn them into viable offensive weapons.  They were attached to armoured cars for use on roads or in flat conditions, and eventually mounted on tanks for use in all ground conditions, at least in theory – but neither solution provided reliable direct support for advancing infantry on a regular basis, and the big change in wartime use of machine guns for trench conditions was a general shift to lighter weapons.

Light, portable machine guns existed in 1914 – a few Danish Masden models were in Russian service when war broke out – but were soon being churned out in large numbers by all the world’s arms manufacturers, and had become standard additions to all infantry units by 1918.  Weighing between 9kg and 14kg, they could be carried by one man and fired at a rate comparable with heavy models.  Ammunition still had to be carried on belts, drums or magazines, and was still heavy, but by late 1917 aircraft were being used to drop ammunition for attacking machine-gunners.  The War’s last year saw the appearance in the trenches of automatic rifles and sub-machine guns that were even lighter but often carried only 10- or 20-shot magazines.

Light machine guns could also be fitted to aircraft, for use against ground troops (and other aircraft) when weather conditions permitted, and became standard after the German invention of interrupter gear in 1915 enabled pilots to shoot through their propellers.  The mushrooming threat to trenches from the air meanwhile gave heavy machine guns a new role as high-trajectory anti-aircraft weapons, sometimes mounted on lorries.

No army enjoyed any great advantage over its rivals in the design and development of machine guns.  Among the most commonly used heavy weapons, the British Vickers and the German Maschinengewehr 08 – both derivatives of the original machine gun design, the American Maxim, as was the Russian standard Pulemyot Maxima – were generally more reliable than the French Hotchkiss and fired more quickly than the Austro-Hungarian Schwarzlose.

Maschinengewehr 08 – your standard German heavy machine gun.

The British Lewis and the German Maschinengewehr 08/15 were similarly well-matched light machine guns, although the former’s incompatibility with interrupter gear meant British planes mounted stripped down Vickers guns, but the most commonly used French light gun, the Chauchat, was notoriously unreliable.  The United States produced some 57,000 Browning guns after April 1917, along with a slightly smaller number of Browning automatic rifles, but although both were reliable, rugged weapons they didn’t enter service until the autumn of 1918 and the AEF fought most of its battles using borrowed French guns.

When it came to mortars – portable high-trajectory artillery, designed to launch the heaviest possible projectile from its stubby barrel – the German Army began the War with an enormous head start.  Mortars had been a feature of siege warfare in the 18th century, but had fallen out of use until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when they were deployed with some success by Japanese troops. This was ignored by most European armies but noticed in Germany, which had about 150 of its own Minenwerfer design in service by August 1914.  Production was stepped up once trench warfare became established on the Western Front, and they served throughout the War in light (76mm), medium (170mm) and heavy (245mm) versions.  Grouped in specialist engineering companies, they all had a maximum range of about 1,000 metres, and during the first year or more of trench warfare on the Western Front they made an important contribution to German tactical superiority.

By contrast, British and French forces entered the War with no modern trench artillery, and relied on antiquated siege weapons, improvised catapults or other crude projectors for a very long time. Allied forces could seldom deploy anything with an effective range of more than about 250 metres until the British Stokes mortar became widely available to trench fighters in early 1916.  Probably the most successful Allied design, the Stokes was a very light weapon and easy to construct, but it was relatively inaccurate and its effective range was only 750 metres.  By 1917 a full spectrum of French and Belgian mortars was also available, but though the Allies enjoyed an increasingly obvious numerical advantage during the War’s last year they never produced anything to match the Minenwerfer.

The Stokes mortar – second-rate but solid.

The arc of machine gun and mortar development was matched in almost every technical aspect of trench warfare between 1914 and 1918, and nobody seeing the entire Western front campaign from the inside could possibly have called it static.  Barbed wire, grenades, camouflage, ammunition, communications and trench design spring to mind as undergoing important changes, but the list could be a lot longer with a bit more effort on my part and might get some proper attention another day.  For now, this has been a small reminder that, no matter how often posterity freeze-frames them, the First World War’s trench fighters were experiencing the same tsunami of change that was sweeping the world beyond their shrunken horizons.

23 JUNE, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!

A hundred years ago today the first elements of an Allied invasion force landed at the port of Murmansk, in northwestern Russia.  Their arrival marked a significant uptick in a steadily expanding international campaign against Bolshevism in Russia, and its centenary gives me an excuse to talk about it.

What is usually known as the North Russian Intervention or the Northern Russia Expedition (or three or four other names, none of them any better known) was a complicated, messy and fairly crazy business, entwined with the equally complex and largely shapeless Russian Civil War.  It was geopolitically connected to anti-Bolshevik interventions from Japanese and US forces far to the southeast, around Vladivostok, and to the adventures of the relatively powerful Czech Legion as it marched across Russia in search of safe passage to Allied territory.  I’ve touched on Vladivostok (12 January, 1918: Port In A Storm, Pt.1) and the Czech Legion (31 May, 1918: Fame And Fortune) during the last few weeks, and I’ll be getting back to them sometime soon.  One day I’ll even attempt some kind of overview briefing about the Civil War as a whole, but for now let’s wonder why and how the British came to be invading Russia in mid-1918.

The roots of British military involvement inside Russia lay in the wartime battle for control of Arctic trade routes.  Like convoys and submarine warfare in general, fighting in the Arctic theatre is popularly associated with the Second World War but was an equally significant factor during the First – and for the same reasons.

Russia, like every other state fighting against the Central Powers, expected and received direct aid from its filthy rich ally, Britain. Given the virtual impossibility of Allied shipping reaching Russia via the Baltic, and the regular interruptions to overland trade traffic via neutral Sweden (10 October, 1917: National Stereotypes), supplies had to be shipped across the top of Scandinavia to the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and the smaller White Sea port of Archangelsk.

Nice, simple map – in case you weren’t sure.

Nobody had anticipated this before the War, and neither port was remotely fit for purpose in 1914, so all Russian activity in the region during the conflict’s first months was concerned with expanding their harbour and railway facilities for use as major supply centres for Allied coal and weapons.  The German Navy eventually decided to interfere with the process in June 1915, when an auxiliary cruiser laid 285 mines at the entrances to Archangelsk harbour, and that was enough to trigger an Allied response.

A makeshift minesweeping force, consisting of a few British armed trawlers and 18 Russian boats seconded from the Baltic Fleet, was cobbled together, and a miscellaneous collection of second-line warships was gathered from other theatres for patrol duties in the Arctic Sea.  By the end of 1915 these included two old British cruisers, a Russian submarine and a minelayer transferred from the Far East, while two coastal batteries were established and thirty old naval guns fitted to merchant ships.  German mines meanwhile sank a British minesweeper and twelve merchant ships.

Levels of Allied naval protection for Arctic shipping rose in line with a steady increase in traffic during 1916.  The Russian Navy formed an Arctic Flotilla in February, operating out a new ice-free base at Kola, and the Royal Navy began establishing a larger presence in the theatre during the summer.  The old, pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Glory was stationed in Murmansk from August, and a scratch force based around the light cruiser HMS Askold and a few old destroyers from the Far East was still being formed in the autumn, when six U-boats of the German High Seas Fleet spearheaded a brief but highly effective campaign against Arctic shipping.  In six weeks before winter ice prevented operations, they sank 25 Allied ships, captured two more and damaged several small Allied warships, losing one submarine in the process.

The biggest warship in the region – the old battleship HMS Glory.

In the wider context of a world at war, and in terms of its practical impact on the Eastern Front, the Arctic theatre was still very small beer, and British aid to Russia amounted to only about £20.5 million of war materials in 1916.  Even that was far more than northern Russian ports could handle, and half the year’s imports were still piled up at Archangelsk awaiting rail transport in early 1917.  By that time four British icebreakers and a few more auxiliary craft had reached northern Russian waters, bringing the combined strength of the Anglo-Russian naval presence up to about 40 vessels – but the German Navy had better things to do with its submarines in 1917 and only 21 more Allied ships were sunk in the Arctic before hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers ended in December.

Although the Arctic Flotilla’s Russian units continued to patrol alongside British ships until the Armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Arctic naval war to an effective end – but it also triggered the outbreak of land warfare in northern Russia.  British theatre commander Admiral Kemp was charged with maintaining Murmansk and Archangelsk, along with the territory in between and transport links to the Russian heartlands.  The vast area involved, along with the arrival of a German army in neighbouring Finland, threats of Finnish incursions across the Murmansk railway, and chronic uncertainty about whether local Bolsheviks were allies, enemies or neutrals fighting their own civil war, prompted Kemp to ask for reinforcement by the Army in April 1918.  Bad timing, what with the BEF’s desperate need for manpower against the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, and Kemp was told to make do with the marines aboard his ships.

In early May about a hundred marines, supported by Red Guards and naval units, were landed at the small port of Pechenga, about 50km along the coast from Murmansk, to hold off attacks from German-backed, anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ Finns.  Later that month a single German U-boat appeared off Pechenga and sank a few small craft before disappearing, never to return.  Both incidents served to convince strategists in the British Admiralty and War Office that a major German-Finnish attack on northern Russia was in preparation.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of agreements made with the Petrograd regime concerning the Czech Legion’s safe departure from Russia opened up the possibility that half its troops, some 50,000 men, would march to join any Allied forces in northern Russia.  With Petrograd pressurising the Murmansk soviet (more socialist than Bolshevik at this stage) to stop cooperating with the British, and threatening to send Red Army units to commandeer the trove of war materials lying around in Archangelsk, the British War Office finally approved the dispatch of ground troops to the region.

It didn’t approve much.  The Royal Navy sent an extra marine force of some 300 men to Murmansk, including a naval artillery battery and a machine-gun section, while the British Army managed to scrape two detachments together under the codenames ‘Syren’ and ‘Elope’.  Syren amounted to 600 troops, most of them fresh out of basic training, just released from PoW camps or invalided out of France.  Commanded by Major-General Maynard, an officer previously retired as unfit for duty, they were supposed to protect Murmansk.  The 500 men of Elope were British trainees, backed by a few companies of ANZAC and Canadian volunteers.  Under the command of Brigadier-General Finlayson, they were detailed to cross the White Sea from Murmansk to Archangelsk, and its supply mountain, once the winter ice melted.

Assembled in strict secrecy, because the Allies were not at war with Bolshevik Russia, Syren and Elope sailed from Newcastle on 18 June.  After a difficult journey, during which the emerging flu epidemic struck down the transport ship’s Moslem crew (many of whom were malnourished because they were serving during Ramadan in a region without sunsets), the detachments reached Murmansk on 23 June.  Their arrival brought total Allied ground strength in the new theatre up to around 2,500 (largely second-line) troops, including a few French and Serbian soldiers sent as token assistance by their hard-pressed governments.

Overall command of North Russian operations was given to another British officer, Major-General Poole, who had retired in 1914 but was serving as a military attaché in Petrograd, and who had arrived in Murmansk on 24 May.  Poole was expected to protect a very large stretch of land and its port facilities, to recruit and train local anti-Bolshevik or anti-German elements for their own defence, to absorb any Czech forces that happened to show up, and to use these forces to reopen the Eastern Front.

With hindsight, this was a pretty ridiculous fantasy, particularly given that Poole received hardly any funding for the task and that the entire Czech Legion had by then decided to march east towards Vladivostok – but there is an argument for letting British strategists off the hook.  Deep ignorance of the actual situation in Russia, the sheer scale of the crisis involved and Germany’s obvious desire for an eastern empire all conspired to encourage extravagant speculation, and extravagant strategies naturally followed.  On the other hand, there was no good excuse for General Poole’s extreme optimism about military prospects or his unshakable, seemingly authoritative belief that the Bolshevik regime was a shambles on the point of collapse, both of which exerted a powerful influence on Allied strategic thinking.

A cheery chap, very optimistic and good at despising Bolshies – General Poole, and friends.

The Supreme War Council had already agreed to recruit additional troops for northern Russia from other Allied nations, though most were at least as hard-pressed for manpower as Britain, and Poole’s insistence that, with another five thousand or so troops, he could work all the miracles required of him prompted a steady growth of Allied strength in the theatre.  The campaign that followed eventually occupied some 13,000 British imperial troops, 2,000 French (most of them from French colonies), a mixed group of about 1,000 Serbs and Poles, a battalion of former Russian troops recruited from the autonomously inclined Karelian province and, eventually, about 8,000 US troops.

Long before most of them arrived, and once the winter ice melted, Poole was committed to the occupation of Archanglesk and its supplies.  The port’s Bolshevik government was far less sympathetic to British intervention than the Murmansk authority, and Poole spent July organising a coup by local ‘White’ forces, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Elope force and strong naval support. By way of illustrating the disconnects within what is often mistaken for coherent strategic planning at national level, the coup also happened to coincide with the arrival from Petrograd of a British trade mission that had been instructed to seek friendly relations with Lenin’s regime.  Whatever London’s intentions, the success of the coup on 2 August sparked a state of open warfare between the Bolshevik regime and Allied forces in northern Russia, a breakdown cemented by Poole’s subsequent establishment of regional martial law under a puppet, avowedly ‘socialist’ government.

So now the North Russian Intervention really was an invasion.  Like Britain’s accidental advances through Mesopotamia to Baghdad and beyond, it was a product of strategic sloppiness that blurred the line between attack and defence, allowing feral local commanders to dictate imperial policy.  Never remotely capable of achieving the revival of war on the Eastern Front envisaged by Poole and his political supporters in London (including, inevitably, Winston Churchill), it was destined to expand in black comic, bloodstained fashion during the autumn… when I’ll come back to Russia’s Arctic coasts and point the way to its long, slow deflation, a process that lasted well into 1920.

This has been long and late, because I’ve been under heavy distraction, but the landings of Syren and Scope at Murmansk seem to me worth remembering, and not just as an illustration of the military clumsiness still at large within a British war effort down to its last barrel-scrapings.  Feeble, half-hearted examples of gesture strategy at its most absent-minded, those two little detachments – barely fit for manoeuvres let alone combat – turned out to be the straws that broke the hope, once and for all, of friendly relations between Britain and the new USSR.

15 JUNE, 1918: Pawn Sacrifice

A century ago today, one of the First World War’s architects launched his last, unlikely bid for military glory.  It went the way of most wartime plans laid by Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, the former chief of staff to the Austro-Hungarian Army and latterly in command of its forces on the Trentino sector of the Italian Front, and its failure ended the war on the Italian Front as a serious contest.

Conrad was only partly responsible for the shambles known to posterity as the Second Battle of the Piave River, and although it served as a fitting epitaph for one of modern history’s great forgotten villains (11 September, 1914: Bad Day For The Bad Guy), it was also a stark illustration of Austria-Hungary’s reduced status as the pawn of a German imperial regime that was ready to sacrifice anything and anyone, on almost any off chance, to prevent its own extinction.

One last look at the forgotten arch-villain – Field Marshal Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf; one bad general.

There was nothing new about great powers trying to improve their wartime prospects by sacrificing smaller countries.  When the First World War began, land fighting erupted on three main battlefronts, known to posterity as the Western, Eastern and Southern (or Serbian) Fronts.  Expansion followed.  It began with imperial greed, otherwise known as seizing German colonial territories, but soon developed a more existential edge with the creation of ‘sideshows’.

Sideshows came in more than one form.  Some were the product of British and French lateral thinking, as the ghastly conditions on the European fronts encouraged some strategists in both countries to seek alternative routes to victory.  The disastrous attempt to attack the Ottoman Empire through the Dardanelles and the shambolic tilt at reaching Austria-Hungary from Salonika fell into this category. Others were essentially accidents.  The British invasion of Mesopotamia was in effect a forward defence of oil resources at Basra that got ridiculously out of hand, and the subsequent invasion of Palestine stemmed from a similarly inflated programme for defending Cairo and the Suez Canal, though by that time the British high command had found good strategic reasons for dominating the post-War Middle East.

Two theatres of war regarded by contemporaries as sideshows were genuine wars waiting to happen, conflicts between two would-be aggressors.  The war in the Caucasus was a frontier battle between the Russian Empire and the Central Powers.  As such it was in many ways an extension of the Eastern Front, but qualified as a sideshow on diplomatic and geographical grounds.  Its genesis lay in Germany’s recruitment of Ottoman Turkey as an ally in late 1914, and Germany’s use of that alliance to distract its enemies from other fronts, while the fighting took place in a region that was of secondary strategic importance to both empires involved.  The war on the Italian Front was a frontier battle between an increasingly arthritic Austro-Hungarian Empire and a young nation with imperial ambitions.  It was geographically central to the strategic interests of several powers, but it was otherwise a classic sideshow.

Once bribed into the War in pursuit of extravagant prizes promised by the Entente powers, Italy became a means of distracting the Central Powers from the main fronts, bullied by the British and French (and to a lesser extent the Russians) into attacking whenever it best suited their wider plans.  In the eyes of Anglo-French strategists, the purpose of the Italian Front was to keep Austro-Hungarian strength pinned down and force Germany into diverting forces from the Western Front.  So far, so sideshow – and although Italian ambitions were limited to the territories just north of the frontier, the standard sideshow dream ticket was also in play, with some Anglo-French optimists (and journalists) imagining an Italian victory so comprehensive that it knocked Austria-Hungary out of the War and threatened southern Germany.

Like all wartime Allied sideshows except the invasion of Palestine (which was conceived and executed with a thoroughness born of experience, in good fighting conditions against an enemy already close to collapse), the Italian campaign went horribly wrong before it went at all right, and by 1918 the it was looking like a very expensive Allied mistake.  An almost continuous series of Italian offensives, many of them ordered in support of Allied operations elsewhere, failed to achieve anything except massive expenditure of lives and resources.  Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian Army remained largely untroubled in its mountain strongholds, and brought Italy to the brink of defeat whenever it was given enough German support to mount an attack of its own.  By the end of 1917 the Allies were diverting resources from the Western Front to shore up Italian defences, while the Central Powers were on the brink of a breakthrough into the Italian heartlands.

Fast forward to the spring of 1918, and the situation has changed. The Italian line at the River Piave has held, thanks to the arrival of troops and equipment from France and Britain, along with a thorough reorganisation of an Italian Army under new command. The Austro-Hungarian Army has meanwhile lost its German reinforcements, withdrawn to fight on the Western Front, leaving it to hold forward positions with levels of manpower, supplies, equipment and morale that reflected the Empire’s crumbling chaos. In other words, the Allies had started taking the Italian Front seriously and Germany, which had followed Austria-Hungary into the War as a coalition ally, was treating it as a sideshow.

Italian soldiers at the Piave in 1918 – in much better shape now Allied supplies had arrived.

I’ve talked before about the extent to which Austria-Hungary’s war effort had come to depend on Germany (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), and about the Empire’s internal disintegration under wartime pressures (24 January, 1918: All We Are Saying…).  By the time its spring offensive on the Western Front was being prepared in early 1918, the German Third Supreme Command recognised that Austria-Hungary was probably doomed to extinction and certainly offered no positive help as an ally.  Its response, bang in character, was to treat Vienna as a chattel, and Austria-Hungary – like Greece, Portugal, Romania or any other country abused by belligerents as a sideshow chattel – soon found itself hung out to dry for the benefit of its masters.

The Third Supreme Command had been pushing for an Austro-Hungarian offensive in Italy since February 1918, in the hope of diverting Allied (and particularly arriving US) forces away from its planned spring offensive on the Western Front.  Austro-Hungarian Army chief of staff Arz von Straussenberg was well aware that apparent superiority in divisional numbers on the Italian front masked the shrunken condition of most units, and that the Italian Army was drawn up in good defensive positions at the Piave.  He might conceivably have refused to comply with German demands – because it was obviously the sensible thing to do – but that would have meant his certain dismissal in favour of someone more cooperative.  It would also have brought down the wrath of his own front commanders, Field Marshal Boroevic at the Piave and, commanding the Trentino sector to the west, Conrad.

Conrad, his enthusiasm undimmed for attack as the best form of everything, had been lobbying for reinforcements to mount an offensive ever since the previous autumn’s Caporetto Offensive had ground to a halt.  Boroevic, whose relationship with Conrad was rivalrous and hostile, was at first against any form of attacking strategy but seems to have changed his mind and demanded reinforcements for his own sector as a matter of personal honour. Arz von Straussenberg responded by agreeing to mount an attack, committing virtually every available soldier to the operation and dividing his strength for a two-pronged strike.  This was a fine idea given the necessary resources, as demonstrated by the early successes of the very similar German operation in France.  Given the actual condition of the attacking forces it was a form of dramatic suicide akin to the Franco-Spanish decision to send their battered old fleets out to face Nelson at Trafalgar.

Planned at the usual ponderous pace – slow, even by First World War standards – the Austro-Hungarian offensive was eventually ready to rumble in June.  By that time, despite repeated and ongoing attempts to exploit its early successes, the German Army’s hopes of a game-changing victory in France were fading, and with them the Third Supreme Command’s hopes of securing (at the very least) a negotiated, conditional end to hostilities.  Even the major Austro-Hungarian success envisaged by blinkered optimists like  Conrad, and to a lesser extent Arz von Straussenberg, wasn’t going to change that narrative.

And so, on 10 June, Boroevic sent his Fifth and Sixth Armies across the Paive near the coast.  They advanced a few kilometres before Italian counterattacks forced them into retreat on 19 June.  Conrad launched the second phase of the offensive in the Trentino on 15 June, but made no significant gains, became bogged down around the town of Asiago and lost 40,000 men in a week.  Meanwhile a botched attempt to re-cross the river exposed the Fifth and Sixth Armies to strong flank attacks, and their losses had passed 150,000 by the time they eventually reached relative safety on 22 June.

When fighting died down next day, the offensive had achieved none of its aims and had no discernible effect on Allied Western Front operations.  Its abject failure dealt another blow to Emperor Karl’s floundering attempt to hold his empire together, and from 23 June 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Army ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.  Desertions went unchecked, many commanders simply went home and the skeleton force facing well-equipped Allied units across the Piave wasn’t fooling anyone. Italian c-in-c Diaz simply had to decide when to brush it aside, and he decided to wait for the relative cool of the autumn.

Italian c-in-c Armando Diaz – more flexible about tactics than his predecessor, and luckier.

Pointless, doomed from the start and mounted at the behest of serial gamblers blind to even the longest odds… if you’re looking for donkeys to blame, or another good reason to revile the legacy of swivel-eyed militarists like Ludendorff and Conrad, look no further than the ritual sacrifice of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s last military adventure.

6 JUNE, 1918: Satan’s Little Helpers

Of all the gaps in our general appreciation of the First World War, none gets me more worked up than the way Anglophone posterity ignores the wartime invention of aerial bombing and its evil offspring, long-range bombing of civilian targets.  So I’m going to talk about it again.

Maybe it’s the strong whiff of denial that upsets me.  Anglophone popular history has long been accustomed to blaming Germany for everything bad that happened during the first half of the twentieth century, and is comfortable with blaming the Luftwaffe for the cult of civilian bombing.  Ask many Brits how that started and they’ll cite the Blitz of 1940, showing scant regard for the suffering of civilians bombed during the previous decade in China, Spain and the Low Countries (to name the most obvious cases), and completely ignoring the First World War.  Even those relatively informed Anglophones who might mention Guernica, Zeppelins and Gotha raids are apt to leave it at that, simply backdating the assumption of German guilt.

To be sure, the German military was an enthusiastic early proponent and serial pioneer of what was known as ‘strategic bombing theory’ – but only as part of a story that also has roots in Italy, Russia and above all Britain (30 December, 1917: Let’s Drop the Mask).

An Italian, Giulio Douhet, developed the theory and the Russian Army developed the first aircraft big enough to make it potentially viable, while German armed forces made the first systematic attempts to put it into practice, with their Zeppelin fleets and then with their purpose-designed Gotha bombers.  The British were meanwhile open to the arguments of their own strategic bombing theorists.  Though never first on the plot during the War’s early years, the British Army and in particular the Royal Navy always kept up with the game, developing purpose-built bombers and using them in increasing numbers to carry out raids against militarily relevant targets ever deeper inside enemy territory.

Nobody’s efforts ever came close to fulfilling the war-winning potential ascribed to strategic bombing by its ‘air-minded’ European proponents, but then nobody thought the technology was yet ready for the job and in any case no European authority was willing or able to advocate the slaughter of countless civilians during an epoch that still considered warfare a civilised activity.  By 1918 it had become clear to all but the most ardent enthusiasts that, even if strategic bombing might be a game-changer, it wasn’t going to win this war anytime soon.

The Italians and Russians were anyway in no position to risk resources pursuing the theory further, and the German high command, having noted the limited impact of Gotha raids, had scaled down its interest in air power.  With the French never more than dabblers in long-range bombing, because they were primarily interested in aircraft as an adjunct to the ground war on the Western Front, and the US military effort entirely focused on the same campaign, the only major military power still chasing the dragon was Britain.

Relatively rich in resources and right at the forefront of contemporary aviation technology, Britain was home to a fervent group of strategic bombing believers within the RFC and the RNAS, led with bombastic commitment by the nation’s most persistent profit of air power, Hugh Trenchard, and backed by some very noisy armchair strategists running the popular press.

Trenchard in 1918 – moderate moustache, radical views.

An early fan of Douhet, Trenchard had joined the RFC in 1913 and taken command of its home training squadron in August 1914.  By general consent one of the least competent British pilots to have gained his flying certificate in peacetime, but equipped with a clear-eyed determination to prove the importance of air power to modern and future warfare, he was transferred to France in November of that year as commander of No.1 Wing and was promoted brigadier-general in August 1915, when he replaced General Henderson as the RFC’s field commander on the Western Front.

It was a fact of life that Allied aircraft were inferior to German machines in 1915, but Trenchard wasn’t a man to let the weapon of the future languish on the defensive.  He committed his squadrons in wholehearted support of the BEF’s aggressive policy of ‘permanent warfare’ in the trenches, sending large numbers of obsolete aircraft on constant raiding missions over enemy lines and accepting heavy losses more cheerfully than many of his field commanders.  During another period of German superiority in the spring of 1917, he flung everything the RFC could muster in support of the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive, and emerged from the carnage of Bloody April as a fully-fledged bête noir for many combat officers (7 May, 1917: Up In The Air).

Trenchard’s approach was, understandably enough, a lot more popular with the British Army’s high command, and he made that count.  Always convinced that the offensive potential of aerial warfare lay in strategic bombing, he lobbied insistently for development of a mass bomber fleet, and eventually got one.  The creation of an independent RAF was in part a reflection of his views (not least because it enabled the grouping of army and naval heavy aircraft), and his preliminary appointment as its chief of staff in January 1918 was a demonstration of government commitment to the concept of strategic bombing.

The appointment was also fraught with political intrigue, centred on the machinations of Lord Rothermere, Britain’s new air minister and the contemporary definition, along with his brother Lord Northcliffe, of a press baron.  Rothermere’s principal aims can be summed up as a desire to get rid of Haig and his like, and to end the horror of the trenches by concentrating all available resources on winning the War through strategic bombing.  As such he led a political faction supporting a far more radical swerve to heavy bombing strategy than anything advocated by Trenchard, who never lost sight of the need for aircraft to respond to immediate tactical priorities on the ground, and was anyway a friend and supporter of Haig.  On discovering that Rothermere was simultaneously promising the Royal Navy a massive fleet of anti-submarine aircraft – a move that would effectively starve the Western Front of air power – Trenchard resigned in March, although his resignation was not officially accepted until 11 April.

Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere: check him out, he was nasty.

Now a major-general, Trenchard was instead offered command of the RAF’s planned strategic bombing force, the very embodiment of his ideas.  After trying and failing to add overall control of RAF offensive operations to the job description, he accepted the offer in May, and the new Independent Air Force  (IAF) came into being on 6 June 1918.

The IAF was specifically tasked with carrying out its own strategy for long-range, heavy bombing attacks on any target deemed militarily relevant, without reference to British Army or Royal Navy priorities.  Other powers had imagined it, and Germany had taken the first, relatively half-hearted steps towards putting it into practice, but the British were the first to follow strategic bombing theory all the way and create a weapon designed to win wars by inflicting mass carnage on an enemy’s homeland.

Like every other massed bombing fleet in history, the Independent Air Force was a failure.  Stationed at various airfields in eastern France, it dropped around 350,000 tons of bombs during the course of 162 raids that were rarely accurate and made little strategic difference to the course of the War.  Long-range raiders faced vastly improved anti-aircraft defences by mid-1918, and casualties were high.  In total, 153 IAF pilots and 194 other aircrew were killed before the Armistice, although those figures include losses during the final Allied offensives on the Western Front, when the IAF made a more conventional contribution, co-operating with other formations in support of ground operations.

Faced with disappointing results, Trenchard behaved like every other believer in strategic bombing theory in deciding that success was just a matter of deploying bigger fleets of bigger bombers.  The IAF grew in size throughout its short life.  By August it comprised four squadrons of day bombers and five of night bombers; it expanded constantly during the next four months; and plans to add Italian, Belgian and US units to Trenchard’s strength were interrupted by the Armistice.

State of the dark art: the Handley Page 0-400 was standard equipment for IAF squadrons in the summer of 1918.

Trenchard and his followers (including a rising star in Major Arthur Harris and a full battery of popular press barons) also typified true believers by exaggerating, or at least optimising, the impact of bombing raids on enemy production and morale.  Their excuse was the conviction that technological progress would make failure to develop a strategic bombing force a recipe for total defeat in any future war.  Their tragedy, in an epoch enthralled by the world-changing potential of new technologies, was to be believed.

Trenchard went on serve as RAF chief of staff from 1919 until 1930, and guided development of the service as a strategic bombing force while other powers opted for a more mixed approach to aerial warfare.  Though he had government support, he was never remotely likely to receive funding for the kind of fleet he envisaged in a political atmosphere dominated by disarmament and pacifism, and when war came the RAF’s bombers again proved too small and few in number to deliver on strategic bombing theory.

Belief was still strong – in 1938 official British government figures predicted the death toll from one major raid on London at around 600,000 – and so the Second World War’s heavy bombing story was essentially a repeat of the First.  Germany tried to bomb Britain into submission with what turned out to be insufficient force, and the British led the Allies in once more upping the game, pounding Germany (and Japan) with massive bombing raids, exaggerating their impact to secure the further expansion that would surely bring results, and failing consistently until 1945 revealed the grim truth about strategic bombing’s destiny.

Winning wars with huge fleets of big bombers had after all been a hideous chimera, leading humanity to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the gateway to Hell.  The false, dark vision was foisted on humanity during and after the First Word War by misguided militarists from many countries, but the British tried harder than anyone to make it a reality.