All posts by poppycock

11 NOVEMBER, 1919: What’s Our Excuse?

Today is the anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting on the main European battlefronts, and the centenary of the first anniversary.  That first anniversary was marked in various ways in various countries, and associated events drew large crowds in the victorious nations, but the British monarchy is generally accepted as providing the blueprint for subsequent official ceremonies all over the world.   British King George V had issued an appeal to the population to observe a two-minute silence at eleven in the morning on 11 November, and the silence formed part of a ceremony on that morning in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, attended by the King and French President Poincaré.   Armistice Day was celebrated on 11 November until the Second World War, when official events were moved (as an aid to production) to the Sunday nearest that date, a day subsequently known as Remembrance Day (in the British Empire and France) or Veterans’ Day (in the US).

London, 11 November 1919. That’s a pretty good turnout.

Use of the poppy as a remembrance symbol took inspiration from the flower’s battlefield growth in Flanders, as depicted in a 1915 poem by Canadian physician John McCrae.  Facing early competition from a number of alternatives, notably the white daisy preferred by many US groups in the immediate post-War period, the poppy has only ever been fully established as a national emblem in Britain (which instituted the first official Poppy Day in 1921), Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  Some organisations and groups in the US, France and former British imperial outposts wear poppies, but they have never been used by any of the nations defeated or destroyed during the First World War.

That’s it for the anniversary of the day, because I want to jump forward a couple of weeks to late November and the long-term condition of one of those defeated nations, Bulgaria.

I’ve been thinking about racism more than usual during the last few months, and about my approach to racism.  The realisation that I’d kept far too quiet on the subject during a five-year rant about the First World War has something to do with that, as has the obvious need to address its relevance to current political debates in Britain, where I live most of the time.  Racism has also returned to front and centre in another place I inhabit, body and soul, and that’s the football field.

I play and watch what is without doubt the most popular sport in the world, and I’ve been doing both for more than half a century, so I’ve seen the tide of racism in British football rise, fall and mutate on the pitch and on the terraces.  I’m a white Brit, so I’ve only seen it from a distance, and only really been viscerally involved when the battle got in my face – usually when someone nearby was suffering racist abuse.  For a boy living in one of the rich, developed democracies of the West – through an era characterised by steady but slow progress towards genuine racial equality, and by a constant chorus of white, middle-class self-congratulation – that has been a pretty comfortable option.  It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally clear that it’s been much too comfortable.

Footballers have been saying it, and my (few) black friends have always been sure of it:  not being a racist isn’t enough, because racism is a disease lodged so deep inside modern humanity’s learned psychology that only active anti-racism can hope to defeat it.  This is an important lesson for all us nice, white, liberal people.  We need to take a look at the racism that lurks all around everyone, take a good look at how we’ve been tolerating it, stop patting ourselves on the back and start getting into the fight.  All of which brings me back to Bulgaria.

Football is currently a focus for one of Britain’s periodic national debates about racism, and Bulgaria has been firmly in its spotlight following manifest racist abuse of black English players in Sofia.  For all that we were being told by our non-white populations that we had a lot of work to do before we got righteous, the British reacted to Sofia with a festival of finger-pointing at the naked racism displayed in Bulgaria and several other Eastern European societies.  Well, yes, naked racism is deplorable and action against it is necessary – but we’ll never beat it without understanding it.  Treating Bulgarian racism, for instance, as something separate from our own traditions and practices amounts to simple denial, of both our true condition and our shared responsibilities for the condition of others.

I realise that may sound like gobbledygook, poppycock even, but I’ll try to explain myself and even throw in some history.   As for our traditions and practices in Britain, it’s really not so long ago that the kind of racist behaviour seen in Bulgaria was public and commonplace on British streets and in British homes.  It may be less commonplace now, but it’s definitely still there, as the tones of our Brexit angst, not to mention a far right fed by the Internet’s dead-eyed PR, are demonstrating on a daily basis.   As for shared responsibilities, 27 November marks the centenary of the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the document by which Britain, France and the United States shaped – or failed to shape – the future of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria was by no means a haven of liberal values before, during or after the First World War.  Born from a nationalist revolution against Ottoman control in 1878, it was ruled by a constitutional monarch, a self-styled Tsar from 1908, but although the country’s parliament could exercise a veto over royal legislation, it was permanently dominated by a landowning class that supported the Tsar all the way, all the time.

Said landowning class was very nationalist, very ambitious, very right-wing and very militarist, its ambitions dominated by a visceral desire to absorb Macedonia into the Bulgarian nation.  Macedonia remained the focus of Bulgarian nationalist ambitions through the Balkan and First World Wars, but by late 1918 the gamble on alliance with the Central Powers had left Bulgaria a helpless wreck at the mercy of the victors .

Sofia in 1919 – just so you know what it looked like.

Tsar Ferdinand I, who had presided over the gamble, abdicated in on 4 October 1918, leaving his son, Boris III, to cope with an eruption of revolutionary activity from Russian-sponsored and peasant-lead socialists.  Boris kept his traditional power base happy by appointing Teodor Teodorov, a staunchly pro-Entente figure seen as the best hope of a fair deal from the peace process, as premier in late November 1918.  Meanwhile,  the new Tsar staved off revolution by cooperating with Alexandar Stamboliiski (spellings vary, a lot), leader of the agrarian rebels, who was released from prison almost at once and joined the coalition government in January 1919.  Stamboliiski  became premier of an agrarian-socialist coalition in October, after the unavoidable realities of the peace process had forced Teodorov’s resignation… and then came the peace treaty.

Tsar Boris III was only 25 when he took the throne, and still in charge when he died in 1943.

The Treaty of Neuilly blew away any faint hopes – and they were always faint – that the Paris Peace Conference would treat Bulgaria in accordance with the liberal principles outlined in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  Official Bulgarian delegates had been refused any kind of access to the conference, and nobody in Paris paid any attention to a welter of delegations sent by Bulgarian political, cultural or regional groupings.  When the full-formed Treaty emerged from the rumour mill it was something of a botch job – cobbled together by diplomats in a hurry, from the blueprint of the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany – but was no less brutal for that.

Farmer’s son Aleksandar Stamboliiski could hardly have looked more like a peasant revolutionary leader.

Bulgaria lost all the territory claimed by its neighbours, ceding Thrace to Greece, the Dobrudja region to Romania and its share of Macedonia to the new Yugoslav state.  This could have been worse, had not the Entente powers been making a feeble effort to promote balance of power in the Balkans, but it was accompanied by a massive reparations bill, including cash amounting to about £100 million (of which only about 8% was ever paid) and vast stocks of raw materials, mostly coal and cattle.  Bulgaria was also required to maintain occupying troops for the duration, and to cut its armed forces to the bone, keeping 20,000 troops, 10,000 gendarmes and 3,000 border guards, but no aircraft, warships or heavy artillery.

Most maps showing Bulgaria’s territorial losses in 1919 are complicated and incomprehensible to Anglophones. This one’s very simple and easy to understand.

Needless to say, the treaty prompted outrage in Bulgaria, but Stamboliiski was required to sign it anyway, cementing his demon status among right-wing and nationalist elements.  His Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU) party still won the next election, in March 1920, convincingly enough to govern without a coalition, and for the next three years the regime promoted socialist experiment, while its nationalist opponents, including most of the country’s military and cultural elite, promoted popular fury at the ‘diktat of Neuilly’.   Though the monarchy stayed in place, it was in no way the dominant force it had been before the War, and was powerless to control a political landscape that was being radicalised and polarised amid social and economic crises, worsened by a steady influx of refugees from the lost territories.

Stamboliiski was assassinated in June 1923, bringing to an end Bulgaria’s post-War flirtation with socialism and ushering in a long period of increasingly nationalist, authoritarian government.  In ever closer diplomatic and economic harmony with Germany, the only other extant victim of the vindictiveness and destabilisation delivered by the Paris Peace Conference, Bulgaria would go on to pick the wrong side in the Second World War, and for fifty years after that its economic, social and cultural development would be dictated by the Soviet Union.

In other words, most Bulgarians have, throughout the nation’s history, been denied access to the liberal pathways that enabled most Western Europeans to overcome, albeit slowly and never completely, the ignorance and fear that feed prejudice and propel it to violence.  The one, fleeting window of opportunity for Bulgarians to change the narrative came amid the chaos after the First World War, when genuinely popular politics had their day in the sun.  The casually punitive nature of the treaty imposed at Neuilly discredited the much-vaunted liberal values of the victorious democracies, encouraged the survival and resurgence of aggressive nationalism in Bulgaria and cut the economic ground from under reformists.

It would be ridiculous to blame the western Allies for Bulgaria’s gloomy political history – the country’s social and political elites laid the groundwork and the Soviet Union made sure the lights stayed off – but that’s no excuse for ignoring our part in the story.  We still have a major problem with racism after more than a century of relatively free access to liberal ideas and systems, but Bulgaria’s journey to what we consider civilised values only began in the 1990s and the delay was partly our fault.  Condemn racism in all its forms and, even better, act against it as a matter of course – but point the finger, portray the problem as something intrinsic to a people and scream for sanctions, you’re an outraged British hypocrite.  Bulgarians are in a process of education that calls for time, tolerance and understanding.  What’s our excuse?

15 OCTOBER, 1919: The War To End (White Male) Wars

Rambling through five years of humanity’s darkest hours, focused on the details, I’ve contrived to ignore or virtually ignore certain broader areas.  They haven’t all needed input from me.  I make no apology, for instance, for leaving the heritage industry to shine a ‘human interest’ spotlight on the Western Front, poets and all, or for paying only passing attention to most acts of carnage and derring-do.

On the other hand, I have pretty much left alone some heritage orthodoxies that need challenging, usually because I’ve been too lazy for extra research or because I haven’t felt qualified to pontificate.  On the latter tip, take racism.  Racism (the comprehensive kind that heritage history pretends began with the Nazis) informed every white nation involved in the Great War, and the world is still living with the consequences of its practice and impacts – but I’ve been a bit shy about shouting that out because I’m a white, middle-class Brit.  I am also male and that’s about my only excuse for saying so little about another big wartime ‘ism’.

From a British heritage perspective, the story of feminism during the First World War is simple and uplifting.  Women were brought into the industrial workforce as never before, and they were enfranchised.  You might find discussion of the way they were summarily removed from the workforce to make way for returning veterans after the War, and recognition that only some women were given the vote – but you’d have to play close attention to notice that the feminist struggle for representation predated and was largely inhibited by the War.

For that matter, you’d have to go read a book to realise that the Pankhurst family, while undoubtedly the struggle’s most effective lobbyists, were by no means its only or most convincing heroes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, still the poster girl for most modern commentators, can be best described as a self-serving opportunist who used feminism as a platform for personal improvement, and her daughter Christabel was a spoiled version of the same.  Only Sylvia, Emmeline’s other daughter and as much a socialist as a feminist, gets my vote as a dedicated campaigner worth posterity’s acclaim, but of course her work for two causes has encouraged both to understate her legacy.

From a popular British viewpoint, pre-war and wartime suffragism (and feminism in general) tend to be seen from an Anglo-American perspective.  Because I can do it without extra research or political risk, a quick look around the feminist world at war seems a useful idea – but I will take the well-documented, much-vaunted US and British experiences as starting points.

Feminism was a strong force in the pre-War United States.  Four states had enfranchised women during the 1890s, and the first congresswoman took her seat in 1914.  The war years had some effect on the northeast of the country, where 30,000 women entered industrial jobs, but had little political impact on women in other regions, and the enfranchisement of women across the USA in 1920 was the product of decades of well-organised, middle-class agitation rather than the First World War.

The same was essentially true in Britain, where the fight for female suffrage was in full swing, principally in its many large towns and cities, when war broke out in 1914.  Emmeline Pankhurst, whose enthusiasm for the war dominated her behaviour for the next four years, helped organise an informal truce for the duration, but by then the British government was anyway close to sanctioning female suffrage, so that hunger strikes, fence chaining and other dramatic individual gestures soon lost their cachet in the circumstances of ‘total war’.

By August 1916 the British war economy was employing around 1.1 million full-time women workers, two-thirds of them in jobs previously performed by men, and by the spring of 1918 another quarter of a million were doing agricultural work with the Land Army.  The obvious importance of working women to the war effort, and the fact that they were paid on average 30 percent less than men for the same work, made wage discrimination the main focus of wartime feminist protest, although demonstrations also took place for the ‘right to serve’, a demand fulfilled by the formation of non-combat female armed forces in 1917.

Speaks for itself…

Propertied women over 30 were duly given the vote in December 1918, but the majority of employed women were put out of work over the next couple of years, as men returned to their jobs and war industries closed.  Like many other social developments hot-housed in Britain by the demands of total war, female emancipation was kicked into reverse by the post-War reset, but the seed of change had been planted all the same.  Thanks to Britain’s desperate wartime need for industrial workers, to its urbanised, relatively close-knit infrastructure and to the Land Army, it had been planted across the nation.

French society was structured rather differently.  Although the conflict forced rapid industrial expansion, France remained overwhelmingly rural in 1919.   The vast majority of French women had spent the War labouring in fields without their menfolk for no financial, political or social reward – and with little sense of change.  The experience of women in French industrialised cities was broadly similar to that of their British counterparts – plenty of work in jobs previously reserved for men, gross inequality in the workplace, and mass post-War redundancy – but feminism had accumulated much less political traction when the War began.

A Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes (UFSF) had been founded in 1909 and had grown rapidly, but it could only muster some 12,000 members by 1914, tended to avoid militant action and declared a formal truce when war broke out.  Spared anything but small-scale feminist pressure for the duration, and understandably preoccupied with the enemy at the gates, the French government left women in political stasis.  Women were never allowed to serve in the armed forces during wartime, and although the lower parliamentary house did pass a bill enfranchising females in 1919, it was blocked in the upper house, the Senate, which repeated the trick throughout the inter-war period, finally giving women the right to vote in 1944.

‘Heroic women of France, hitched to the plough, cultivating the soil…’ Heroic, and unrewarded.

In Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, feminist progress was stymied by the same broad cultural divide.  While a small minority of politically aware, politically impatient urban women in northern Italy, parts of Austria and future Czechoslovakia moved into previously male-dominated employment, an infrastructurally isolated rural majority was far too busy toiling in the fields to broaden its horizons.  Women were permitted to vote in Austria and Czechoslovakia from 1918, and given limited voting rights in largely rural, landowner-controlled Hungary from 1920, but restrictions on female educational opportunities were imposed shortly afterwards in Hungary, and Hungarian women would not receive full voting rights until 1945.  The same was true for Italian women, who were eventually given the right to vote in local elections by the Mussolini regime in 1925 but had to wait another twenty years for full voting rights.

Women in post-Imperial Austria voted for the first time in 1919. Looks tentative, doesn’t she?

The Ottoman Empire was predominantly rural, embraced lands governed by strict Islamic traditions and, on the whole, left reform well alone throughout the War – but the aggressively secular Young Turk regime ensured that things were very different in Constantinople.  From the moment the Empire entered the War, liberal (male) intellectuals in Constantinople began criticising the veiling and seclusion of women as a waste of resources, and the next three years saw women working in the city’s offices, hospitals and schools for the first time.  Women were also employed in various menial jobs, including street cleaning, while the number of girls’ schools in the city mushroomed during the War and lynching of ‘fallen women’ all but stopped.  The Ottoman Army – another bastion of secular thinking – organised a female labour exchange at the start of the War and formed its first female battalion in February 1918, although Ottoman women’s greatest military contribution to the war effort came on the Caucasian Front, where they played a vital role as ammunition carriers.

Young Turk reforms, carried out against a constant backdrop of criticism from religious conservatives, weren’t feminist in origin, but were part of the all-male political struggle between religious and secular authorities that characterised Constantinople during the Empire’s last years.  The same would be true of the more comprehensive reforms enacted by the Ataturk regime in Turkey, which gave equal rights to women in all but suffrage in 1926 and eventually granted full voting rights to Turkish women in 1934.

In Germany, women’s attitudes towards feminism reflected the country’s stark political division between right and left.  By 1914, some 175,000 women were members of the moderate socialist SDP, but an equal number belonged to the conservative, traditionalist German Women’s League, which had the support of the nationalist, expansionist forces – military, industrial and political – that were running the country.  Women flocked to work in wartime factories and public services, and they received official encouragement once Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command took control in the second half of 1916 – but they were (broadly speaking) motivated by patriotism and financial need rather than feminist politics.  Demands for the enfranchisement of women were the province of small feminist pressure groups and the far left, both of which were easily and completely ignored by policy makers.

The collapse of the regime in late 1918, and the German revolutions that followed, transformed the situation.  Women received the right to vote on the day after the Armistice – a victory generally described as a ‘gift’ of the revolutions by left-wing commentators, but reclaimed by modern feminists as, at least in part, the product of persistent lobbying by their predecessors.  The 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic went much further, establishing equal opportunity for women in education and the civil service, along with equal pay in the professions.  This put German women in a far stronger position than women in the US or Britain, let alone France.  By 1926, thirty-five women formed 6.7% of Reichstag membership, against the thirteen women that constituted about 2% of the British House of Commons, but feminism’s relatively rapid progress was reversed after the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933.

‘Women:  Same Rights; Same Responsibilities.’  A Social Democratic Party poster making a promise it could keep… for a while.

Although New Zealand had given women full voting rights in 1893, and several Scandinavian countries were well ahead of the contemporary curve when the War broke out, nothing in the developed world could match the freedoms given to women in the Soviet Union during the First World War – in theory.  The Russian Empire (which had authorised voting for women in the semi-autonomous province of Finland in 1906) was forced to employ women in its industrial centres during the War, in increasing numbers and in very bad conditions.  Industry was concentrated around St. Petersburg and Moscow, as was political power, and radicalised women workers in both cities played a prominent role in the February Revolution of 1917.  The subsequent triumph of the radical left, which had always preached complete gender equality, saw women promised full and unconditional equality in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution.  The USSR was as good as its word, and Soviet women enjoyed equal pay and opportunities in every walk of Russian life, including the military, along with full civil and political rights.  All good, except that equal rights in the Soviet Union soon amounted to equality of oppression.

In Japan – industrialised, urbanised and involved in the fighting – women were thoroughly oppressed throughout the War.  They had been banned from all political activity in 1900, and what little agitation existed on their behalf virtually disappeared after the suppression of Japanese socialists in 1910.  Japanese feminism was reborn a decade later with the New Women’s Movement, which won the right to hold political meetings in 1922, but the right to vote would be denied until after the Second World War.

In many ways, the experience of Japanese women is more typical of the world in 1919 than that of British or North American women.  Though the First World War is often trumpeted as a watershed in the socio-political history of women, its effects made a real difference in very few places.  In Germany, Russia and some of the central European states emerging from the wreck of Austria-Hungary, collapse of restrictive regimes gave an enormous boost to the feminist cause, but the experience of war merely hastened the processes of emancipation already underway in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia (but not South Africa, which eventually gave women the vote in 1930).  Italian and French women made only minor gains in the aftermath of the War and, like those in most future Warsaw Pact countries, would not achieve real freedoms until after the Second World War.

Elsewhere, women in Turkey saw the first cracks in the traditions that still keep them socio-politically separate from men in Islamic countries, but nothing much changed for the vast majority of women in the vast majority of other countries.  Many of them found their lives altered by economic fluctuations, the removal of menfolk or both, but the War had no important effects on their social, political or constitutional emancipation.  So, let’s whoop and cheer for those few women released into the political world during the first years of peace, but let’s be aware that we’re celebrating something essentially Anglophone, and that some of the icons we commemorate were middle-class experts in self-promotion.  I’m middle-class and British, so I think I’m allowed to say that.

25 SEPTEMBER, 1919: Reset!

It is easy to read history as a series of hindsight headlines, and the hindsight headlines for the early autumn of 1919 have a compelling ring about them.  The Great War had been parleyed into a peace that, despite its propaganda claims to have recast the world anew, has been obsessing us ever since with its failure to do so.  A massive influenza pandemic, more deadly than anything seen before or since, had cut a swathe through the world and remains headline news to modern commentators (20 February, 1919: Coughs and Sneezes).  Wars, revolutions and mass movements were flaring and scaring all over the world, some of them still headlining today as crucial to our development through the century that followed.

All these things were important in 1919.  They shouldn’t be forgotten, and on the whole haven’t been, but we don’t pay much attention to another headline of the time that was every bit as important to people from many lands and all walks of life in 1919.  I’m talking about the personally involving, socially defining and endlessly controversial process of demobilisation, which began with the Armistice in November 1918, was still in progress as the autumn of 1919 set in, and was, for some people and institutions, destined to continue well into the 1920s­.

Demobilisation wasn’t just a matter of turning soldiers into civilians and standing down vast amounts of military materiel, although these alone created enormous logistic problems.  National economies and their workforce demographics had been radically reshaped to meet the demands of total war, and governments faced the relatively long-term challenge of either restoring old systems or fashioning new structures designed to satisfy popular expectations transformed by the experience of war.  Political and cultural shifts – some immediately apparent, others more gradual – underpinned these processes.  All these forms of socio-economic demobilisation were more or less managed by authorities with an accepted duty to provide millions of veterans with reward, re-integration, rescue or all three, and in many cases to reconstruct civilian lives shattered by the conflict.

There’s a big book in the full story of demobilisation after the First World War, and I’m not about to write it, so for now I’ll take a look at the strictly military side of the process.

In theory, the states that had called armies into being were responsible for their demobilisation, but defeated armies tended to demobilise themselves, melting away before their national administrations could catch up.  The Austro-Hungarian Army, for instance, had no state left to manage its break-up, and had anyway all but fallen apart after its defeat at Vittorio Veneto in the autumn of 1918.  By November, most of its 2 million or so troops were concentrated on or near the Italian Front (with another half million or so held prisoner by the Italians), and about 450,000 of those simply walked home as deserters.  The rest were transported back to their garrisons by a chaotic train service and then became the responsibility of the new or rump nations emerging from the Empire’s wreckage.  As such they melded into the cultural and social demobilisations of those nations.  Many went on to fight as left-wing, right-wing or simply nationalist troops in the conflicts that marked post-War Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine, while others went on to defend Austria or Czechoslovakia against the fallout from those conflicts, and many more were left to fend for themselves amid the economic, social and political upheaval that wracked central Europe through the early 1920s.

The Ottoman Army, by contrast, remained a disciplined force under central control in late 1918, and it was able to demobilise accordingly.  Under British supervision and according to a timetable dictated by the British, garrisons in Anatolia had discharged about 280,000 troops stationed in the Middle East in age order (beginning with the oldest) by the end of January 1919.  Forces occupying the Caucasus began coming home in February, and almost 380,000 of them had been discharged by the end of March, leaving about 61,000 officers and men to form the basis of a new Ottoman Army.  This relatively tiny force left a lot of trained men, along with a cache of some 800,000 rifles and almost 1,000 artillery pieces, available to the new nationalist army that would defend Anatolia against invasion by Greece.

The German Army had lost a million men to desertion in the weeks before the Armistice, but despite widespread political chaos the remaining six million troops were all back inside the country’s frontiers and ‘demobbed’ – often without much supervision – by the spring of 1919.  Most German communities made a point of welcoming them home with parades designed to perpetuate the idea that they had returned ‘undefeated’, a fiction propagated by right-wing commentators concerned to blame the War’s outcome on Jews and Communists, but also adopted by the moderate Weimar government in the hope of raising national morale.  Instead, this exercise in myth creation – along with the shock of harsh economic conditions and the national humiliation emerging from the peace process – encouraged national anger and the involvement of ex-soldiers, thousands of whom had taken weapons home with them, in the domestic battles to come.

German troops from the Eastern Front marching through Berlin as undefeated heroes.

On the other hand, the Weimar regime and regional German authorities did work with labour organisations to create jobs for veterans, and for the 3 million workers discarded by a redundant arms industry, conceding union demands over working conditions (including the key demand for an eight-hour working day) and investing heavily with money they didn’t have.  This produced a steady fall in unemployment for a couple of years from mid-1919, and undoubtedly helped the Weimar Republic survive the threat of overthrow by left or right, but also contributed to the country’s economic collapse in the mid-1920s.

Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman service personnel all came home to turbulent domestic environments, and one way or another became a factor influencing those environments.  Soldiers, sailors and airmen returning to their homes in France, the United States, Italy and Great Britain re-entered societies that were still in one piece but changed and scarred by war.  For their respective regimes, still in charge but acutely aware that winds of political change were sweeping through the world, the enormous logistic challenge of demobilising armed forces, economies and societies was sharpened by fear that the process could trigger the kind of existential crisis faced by ruling elites in defeated states.

Demobilising troops was easiest in France and Italy, where the vast majority of service personnel were fighting on or near home soil.  Some 2.1 million Italians were serving in the field at the Armistice, and half a million had been sent home by the end of the year, but the process was a bureaucratic mess, leaving many discharged troops without pension papers, creating anger by sending home officers with important jobs first, and becoming chaotically entangled with the simultaneous discharge of reserve troops.  Suspended for reorganisation in January 1919, and eventually resumed in June, Italian demobilisation then proceeded in an ordered but painfully slow fashion, finally coming to an end in 1921.  By that time, a combination of Italy’s miserable experience during wartime, and the varying degrees of outrage created by a ‘mutilated peace’ seen as a betrayal of Italy’s ambitions, had fuelled the country’s political polarisation to the point of revolution, and veterans played a prominent role in the paramilitary activities bolstering Mussolini’s bid for power.

An Italian Fascist Action Squad in 1922 – spot the military legacy of the First World War.

French demobilisation was a sombre, steady business.  Most troops were discharged according to length of service in two waves.  Some 2.5 million men were sent home between November 1918 and the following April, with another 2 million discharged between July and September 1919, leaving about half a million still in uniform.  These were gradually demobilised during the next eighteen months, as the possibility of further military action to enforce the peace treaty receded and French involvement in Salonika came to an end.  Government attempts to turn a nation at war into a stable peacetime workforce were not entirely successful, despite a law guaranteeing service personnel their old jobs back and acceptance of union demands for an eight-hour day.  As the cost of reconstruction forced up taxes and prices, industrial unrest became a serious problem in the early 1920s, but the veterans of an exhausted nation showed little enthusiasm for post-war expressions of militarism.

Something similar can be said of US forces.  The United States had put some 4.4 million men in uniform by the time of the Armistice, and about 2 million of them were already in Europe.  The main obstacle to their rapid return was lack of shipping capacity across the Atlantic, so although personnel stationed in Britain or Italy sailed home with relatively little delay, the majority of men serving on the Western Front spent months waiting for a ride in crowded debarkation camps near French Atlantic ports.  The protests and outbursts of disobedience that marked their stay fed into domestic press and political criticism of the demobilisation process, which found a focus in the furore surrounding what became known as the ‘million-dollar fire’.  According to eyewitnesses, the US Army Air Force had burned at least 100 aircraft (along with an unnamed quantity of trucks and other auxiliary equipment) at the French airfield of Colombes-les-Belles in May 1919, a claim denied by the Army but backed by a congressional investigation in July.

European scandals were never more than a side issue in a nation firmly focused on domestic affairs.  While labour and race relations dominated the political agenda, along with the influenza pandemic, the last US combat troops left France on 1 September 1919, the last service personnel went home on 2 January 1920 and the US contingent in northern Russia followed three months later.  Most returning troops came home to parades, their old jobs, a pension and a society superficially very similar to the one they had left.  Apart from occasional campaigns to improve welfare provisions for veterans, they merged back into that society without expressing a collective political identity.

This is a small town in Pennsylvania on 25 September 1919 – small American towns could give big parades.

I’ve talked before about some of the problems surrounding demobilisation of British forces, which centred on the amount of time taken to discharge long-serving men under a system that sent recent recruits home by prioritising those from economically important ‘reserved occupations’ (4 January, 1919: The Revolution Will Not Be…).  A change of government after the general election of December 1918 brought a change of system, and from early 1919 troops were demobilised, broadly speaking, according to length of service.  That was enough to quieten protests, and by the end of the year almost 2 million British service personnel had returned to civilian life.  Helped back into work by employment policies that favoured veterans (and removed most women from the workplace) – and given some protection against soaring unemployment by the introduction of benefits – they showed few signs of the addiction to militarism or commitment to socialism feared by their leaders.

Britain and France had used their overseas empires as an important source of wartime manpower – and demobilisation of colonial troops and labourers brought its own set of logistic, political and cultural challenges.  French colonials, most from North or West Africa, had been recruited for the duration of the war plus six months, and so remained an important component of those French forces still in the field into 1920, while although most British imperial personnel serving outside Europe were discharged and processed quickly, shipping shortages meant those stationed in Europe faced the same frustrations as their US counterparts.  The last of some 300,000 Canadians in Europe, for instance, finally got home in September 1919 – but at least they returned to a land of plenty and political stability, while troops from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa went home to countries rendered more cohesive and politically stable by the shared experience of war.  Generally speaking, veterans from these ‘white dominions’ of the British Empire settled back into white cultures on a roll, their confidence high, their economies enlarged, and their energies focused on nation-building.  Non-white cultures (and the Irish) didn’t have it so good.

The troopship HMAT Dunluce Castle, bringing Australian troops home to Adelaide in September 1919, ten months after the Armistice.

There’s no way I can even begin to cover the spectrum of imperial/colonial fallout from the First World War in those places run as fiefdoms by the British and French Empires – and if I could every word would be shrouded in controversy.  Volunteer or conscript, soldier or labourer, men who had gone to war for Britain or France came home to African and Caribbean countries that were still being economically and politically exploited along nineteenth-century lines.  They came home to Ireland on the brink of republican revolution, or to an Indian subcontinent that was organising itself an independent political voice.  Some of them came home to use their military experience as part of the colonial policing forces still needed by Britain and France, but how much their wartime experiences and altered attitudes fed into the futures of those countries is still a matter of extreme divisions between scholars.  All I’m going to say is that, to some extent, in one way or another, they did – and I can match that piece of empty rhetoric with similar vagueness about all the other people being stood down or plunged into new wars in the splintered lands of  the former Ottoman and Russian Empires, the Balkans and the Middle East.

That may seem a little unsatisfying, but this blog has only skimmed the surface at the best of times, and all I’m trying to do here is flag up a few points generally left out of our heritage histories.  The point of this extended ramble, and the reason I’ve bothered to double my usual word count, is that the end of the First World War was merely the beginning of a mass human transfer that was enormously significant for contemporaries and for the futures of the nations involved.  We are all quite familiar with the demobilisation and displacements that followed the Second World War, but our collective obsession with 1919’s diplomatic disasters, diseases and violent aftermaths has all but blotted out the mass migration that followed the First.  No, I don’t know how much and in precisely what ways it informed a world in flux, but I do know the logistically challenging return of militarised multitudes after 1918 was fundamental to its fabric and should be remembered as such.

14 AUGUST, 1919: Is It Catching?

A century ago, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned many times before, the rise of Communism was one of the world’s defining geopolitical mood influencers.   In the late summer of 1919, events that were relatively minor in global terms, in least when compared to the tectonic shifts going on around them, changed the mood in subtle but hugely significant ways.  Those events are generally treated as footnotes by modern commentators without an axe to grind for or against Communism,  so I thought I’d give them a mention.

Socialism had been a growing political force wherever mass literacy had flourished during the nineteenth century, nurturing an unprecedented outbreak of hope for change among those now capable of considering themselves oppressed, politically or economically.  The basic principles of this new, egalitarian ideology really messed with the collective mood of the elite classes running those countries, who were busy fleecing the world dry for what at least some of them perceived as the benefit of humanity, and whose take on mass politics was informed by the relatively recent memory of the French Revolution, with all the chaos and violence it entailed.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Communism was recognisably the sharp end of socialism – promising (or threatening) overthrow of the established political order followed by a complete transformation of the economic order.  That said, it remained a relatively marginal influence, opposed by millions of more moderate socialists, strongest where liberal institutions were particularly weak, and hardly the bookies’ favourite to take over the future.  Lenin changed that.

The success of the Bolshevik coup d’état in the autumn of 1917 came as a massive shock to leaders of what, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call the First World, as did the new regime’s survival in the face of (admittedly and obviously) flawed attempts to tear it down.  By the beginning of 1919, with Bolshevik forces competing for control of states on the southern and western margins of the former Russian Empire, and much of central Europe engulfed by economic chaos, political turmoil or both, Communist predictions of worldwide revolution, spontaneous and inevitable, seemed scarily convincing to those likely to lose most by it.

And yet, by the summer of 1919, the spectre seemed to be receding as quickly as it had arisen.  Spontaneous Communist revolution, as opposed to revolution sponsored directly by the Soviet Union on its frontiers, had succeeded in only two places that First World movers and shakers considered important, or at least close to home – Bavaria and Hungary.

A socialist government had taken control in Bavaria, the largest and most distinct of the German states ruled from Prussia, in November 1918, but it collapsed after its leader, Kurt Eisner, was assassinated in February 1919.  Amid the political chaos that followed, Bavarian Communists established a regime on the Soviet model on 7 April.  Declaring independence from the newly proclaimed Weimar Republic, they attempted to govern from Munich as the Bavarian Socialist Republic.

Kurt Eisner; his murder on 21 February 1919 by a right-wing activist triggered chaos and a Communist coup in Bavaria.

Communist rule didn’t last long.  Facing critical food shortages and inevitable hostility from the Weimar government, Communist leaders also had to deal with a rival regime, the People’s State of Bavaria, based in Bamberg and led by Eisner’s successor, Johannes Hoffman.

Some 8,000 men fighting for Hoffman clashed with 30,000 hastily assembled men of the Bavarian Red Army around Dachau on 18 April.  Although force of numbers gave the Communists an initial victory, Hoffman reacted by coming to an arrangement with elements of the Freikorps, the militia that employed former German Army personnel to impose right-wing solutions on German revolutionary problems.  The ramshackle Bavarian Red Army was no match for 20,000 well-trained and well-equipped Freikorps troops, who took Dachau, surrounded Munich and broke through into the city on 1 May.  After several days of street fighting that claimed some 600 lives, half of them civilians, Freikorps commander General von Oven declared the city under his control on 6 May, a point he emphasised by executing at least 700 communists and anarchists.

That was the end of Communist Bavaria, and the effective end of independent Bavaria.  A new constitution, known as the Bamberg Constitution and essentially a copy of the Weimar Republic’s constitution, was voted into place by a right-leaning parliament-in-exile and came into force from 14 August 1919.  The ‘Free State of Bavaria’ rejoined the rest of Germany, and although Hoffman was installed as Minister-President, he was ousted the following March and replaced by Gustav von Kahr, a wartime leader of the right-wing Bavarian People’s Party.

No ragtag bunch of revolutionary volunteers was going to stop this lot: Freikorps troops in Bavaria, 1919.

Bavaria had once been independent, and was an important component of a unified Germany, but it felt a lot less geopolitically significant than the other European nation under Communist rule during the spring of 1919.  Hungary had been a sovereign state for a very long time, and it had shared dominion over the sprawling Habsburg Empire.  It had been an integral part of Europe’s Great Power structure.  It mattered.

I’ve talked before about the foundation and failure of Hungary’s first post-imperial incarnation, the Hungarian People’s Republic (31 January, 1919: Dream Ticket).  Amid a popular, press and political storm of outrage at the recently revealed and predictably harsh peace terms offered by the Allies, the Republic’s essentially liberal government fell on 20 March 1919, and president Mihály Károlyi asked the socialist but relatively moderate Social Democrat party to form a new government.

The Social Democrats were the most popular politicians in the country’s major urban centres, but they felt unable to govern without support from the Communist Party.  Founded in Moscow during November 1918, the Communist Party had quickly become an important and growing influence.  Able in theory to call on support from Lenin’s Bolsheviks, it could also bring a Red Army of perhaps 30,000 fighters into the field at a time when Hungary faced trouble on all its frontiers and near-anarchy on its city streets.  Though Communist leader Béla Kun and his principle allies had been jailed after protests in Budapest had turned violent on 20 February, they were able to continue their political work from prison.  It included negotiation with the Social Democrats, who released the Communists as soon as they took power and proposed a coalition, to which Béla Kun agreed.

The two parties merged as the Hungarian Socialist Party, while Károlyi, a committed opponent of Communism, was dismissed and arrested on 21 March (though he later escaped into exile).  The coalition lasted three days.  Dominated by Social Democrats, the new Revolutionary Governing Council just about had time to proclaim a Hungarian Soviet Republic before Kun and the Communists seized power, apparently under instructions from Moscow, on 24 March.  Social Democrat Sándor Garbai remained head of the government but he was effectively powerless, and Kun, nominally in charge of foreign affairs, took actual control.

The new regime proceeded with a sweeping Communist agenda, nationalising much of the country’s industry, trade, infrastructure, cultural outlets and private property, and abolishing anything aristocratic.  All these measures were effectively notional, because the regime’s writ hardly extended beyond Budapest, and even among the urban population its support largely depended upon promises to improve the terms of the peace treaty and, if necessary, restore lost frontiers by force.  Restrictions were meanwhile put on free speech and the right of assembly, and Red Guard detachments (as well as a small ‘hit squad’ militia known as the Lenin Boys) were used to requisition food from the countryside or suppress protest.

The Lenin Boys: a band of some 200 enforcers with a taste for homicide, patrolling Budapest for the Communist Party.

The new regime did try to open channels of communication with the Allies, but in April Kun refused offers of cooperation from Allied representative Jan Smuts, and the end of negotiations was followed by Allied demands for further territorial concessions, delivered to Budapest in May.  Kun responded by keeping his promise to restore Hungary’s borders by force, and the Hungarian Red Army attacked eastern Czechoslovakia in June.

Bolstered by Hungarian nationalists, many of them professional soldiers, the Red Army achieved some success against the Czechs, but Kun’s decision to proclaim a Slovak Soviet Republic and withdraw from captured territory marked a turning point.  Kun’s willingness to give internationalist doctrine precedence over Hungarian affairs cost his Army the support of its non-Communist elements, and it had all but disintegrated by the time he launched its rump against Romanian forces further east, along the line of the Tizsa River, in mid-July.

Control of Budapest was meanwhile slipping away from the Communists as nationalist support dwindled.  A coup attempt by the Social Democrats failed on 24 June, triggering a swathe of arrests and executions that became known, predictably enough, as the ‘Red Terror’.  As Kun lost the working-class loyalty that had kept him in power, the failure of Hungarian attacks across the Tizsa River – culminating in a successful Romanian Army counterattack that broke through Hungarian lines on 30 July – was the final straw.

With a national anti-revolutionary army under Admiral Miklós Horthy gathering around the southern town of Szeged, French and Serbian forces mustering to support the Romanians with an attack into Hungary, and the Romanians pursuing the Hungarian Army as it retreated on Budapest, Kun and most of his senior colleagues fled to Vienna on 1 August.  The Communist regime in Hungary came to a formal end when a new government, led by Social Democrat Gyula Peidl, took office on 4 August, and socialist government ended two days later, when the bulk of the Romanian Army arrived to take political control of Budapest.

The Romanian Army parades through Budapest – and would stay for eight months.

Romanian forces occupied Hungary until early 1920, exacting reparations wherever they went, and then handed power to Horthy’s right-wing regime, which had already begun a ‘White Terror’ aimed at Communists and Jews (routinely and inaccurately denounced as Communist sympathisers by right-wing elements).  Horthy became head of the government on 1 March 1920, and would hold power until October 1944, while Béla Kun reached the Soviet Union, where he pursued a high-profile political career until purged and executed by Stalin in 1938.  Hungary was meanwhile reduced to a third of its pre-war size and lost a third of its Hungarian speakers to foreign control by the Treaty of Trianon, signed on 4 June 1920.  It is generally accepted that the fleeting experience of Communist rule in 1919, and its association with the hard times that followed, informed the country’s political complexion up to and beyond the doomed uprising against Soviet control in 1956.

A defeated enemy with a Communist government… yep, Hungary was well and truly punished for its sins by the Treaty of Trianon.

So, August 1919 can be seen as a defining moment in the global history of Communism.  A doctrine that preached the inevitability of worldwide revolution once the capitalist dominoes started falling had seemed on the point of fulfilling that destiny, and the powers that be had trembled, providing support for the enemies of Communist Hungary, scene of the most alarming outbreak, and preparing their own invasion of the place at a time when military adventures represented a massive political risk.  By the middle of August both the Bavarian and Hungarian Communist regimes had collapsed, broken by a combination of the socio-economic chaos that had enabled them to take power and the political consequences of their doctrinaire governance.

The moment had passed.  Far from sweeping the world like some airborne virus of political logic, state Communism would remain penned inside the Soviet Union, struggling to expand its frontiers, until released by the global trauma of another world war.  Even during the decades after 1945, Communism’s spread was spotty rather than pandemic, and though some apparently Communist regimes exist in 2019, it can be argued that few if any of them retain more than a nominal adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles.  If you’d told Lloyd George or Clemenceau that in the spring of 1919, they would have been very, very pleased and relieved to hear it.  Worth noting, I’d say.

21 JUNE, 1919: Shallow and Meaningless

I realise I’m going backwards in time, but I’ve been stuck in a hiatus for a few weeks and I’ve come back in the mood to do what I want.  It may be the middle of July, but I wanted to talk about the scuttling of the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet in Scapa Flow on 21 June 1919, so I’m going to.  I’ll start with some background.

The Imperial German Navy had seemed immensely important in 1914.  The Kaiser’s mighty maritime sword, built at high speed and vast expense in the decades before the War, had been a major factor driving the global naval arms race before 1914, igniting rising tensions between Britain and Germany during the early twentieth century and as such taking a portion of blame for the outbreak of the Great War.  Its centrepiece was the High Seas Fleet, based in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea coast, and apparently capable of challenging the hitherto unquestioned dominance of the British Royal Navy in northern European waters.

Back when ruling the waves still meant ruling the world, the High Seas Fleet came across as the ultimate super-weapon, wielded by an unashamedly ambitious and aggressive superpower.  As such it scared the sense out of the rest of the world’s great powers, and really messed with the British Empire’s sense of security, triggering levels of fear and paranoia not seen in Britain since the Napoleonic Wars.

Major surface warships failed to live up to their billing as decisive weapons during the First World War, functioning for the most part as highly expensive deterrents or as adjuncts to the global battle of blockade and trade.  Though  this was at least partially acceptable to the British, for whom protection of trade and maintenance of blockade were strategic imperatives, it left the High Seas Fleet with very little to do beyond glowering across the North Sea at the even more massive force put in place to keep it quiet, the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet.

Apart from a few raids on British coastal targets and the occasional skirmish between minor surface ships, none of them strategically important, the High Seas Fleet only once threatened to engage its stated enemy, at Jutland in the middle of 1916.  Despite all the propaganda surrounding that battle, nobody on either side doubted that a low-scoring draw left the strategic situation in the North Sea essentially unchanged, which was fine by the Royal Navy but represented failure for the High Seas Fleet.  Even before the German Third Supreme Command chose to put all its naval eggs in a different basket and devote every possible resource to submarine warfare, the German Navy’s state-of-the-art surface warships – finished as long-range commerce raiders and now all clustered with the High Seas Fleet – were recognisably redundant.

Through the last two years of the War, give or take one or two secondary operations in the Baltic, the High Seas Fleet was starved of resources and action, and by the autumn of 1918 it was a crippled shell, its crews politicised and mutinous, its ships confined to harbour.  By November 1918, it was a military irrelevance – but for the British its very existence remained a powerful symbol of the forces that had dragged them into a European war, while the Royal Navy needed any triumph it could parade as a counter mounting domestic criticism of its wartime endeavours.  No surprise, then, that surrender of the High Seas Fleet was among the terms of the Armistice on 11 November.

Good PR for the Royal Navy, just when impending disarmament threatened it most.

Seventy German warships duly arrived off the Firth of Forth on 21 November, and then weighed anchor at Rosyth under the guns of British ships ready to respond to any hostile action.  None came, and the ships were soon moved north to Scapa Flow, where they remained (along with four more ships rounded up during the next few weeks), interned and manned by skeleton German crews, while the world decided what to do with them.

Like most post-War issues discussed in Paris, the fate of the High Seas Fleet prompted arguments between the major powers involved.  While Britain and the United States were both quite happy to see it destroyed, both Italy and France could think of very good reasons to keep and use their share of its ships.  The argument was still unresolved in June 1919, by which time most of the German crews had been sent home and only a couple of thousand remained in Scapa Flow, but with the Treaty of Versailles ready for signature, the British had made plans to seize control of the fleet on 23 June.

Confined to their ships, fed on rations brought over from Germany and condemned to uncomfortable idleness, the interned crews were finally released from their purgatory on 21 June, when fleet commander Rear Admiral von Reuter gave the order to scuttle.  Designed to salvage the German Navy’s honour by preventing British seizure, the operation was carefully planned, so that all the ships scuttled simultaneously and sank as quickly as possible – and it took the Royal Navy by surprise.

When the few British ships still watching over the prizes attempted to save some ships and ground others in the shallows, they were opposed by the crews, and the nine German sailors killed during the ensuing fighting were the last official fatalities of the First World War.  British efforts prevented 22 ships from sinking but 52 went down, a tally that satisfied German honour while saving a quietly grateful Royal Navy the trouble of further arguments with the French and Italians.

This is how the battlecruiser Seydlitz ended 21 June 1919…
… and this is how she came ashore in 1934. Hitler was in power by then in Germany, and the German tug on the right was one of the first ships to fly the swastika in British waters.

Of the ships saved, the few kept afloat were eventually distributed among Allied navies, while those beached were left to the assiduous attentions of local looters.  The fate of the sunken ships has meanwhile depended on private enterprise.  The first destroyer was sold by the Admiralty and raised for scrap in 1922, and between 1926 and 1934 scrap dealer Ernest Cox raised 32 wrecks, most of them destroyers but including a battleship and a battlecruiser.  Cox made an overall loss on his work at Scapa Flow, but scrap companies were able to make substantial profits by salvaging some of the Fleet’s biggest ships during the later 1930s, and operations have continued sporadically ever since.

A century on, only seven ships of the High Seas Fleet remain beneath Scapa Flow, and in July 2019 four of those were sold by the Admiralty on eBay, with three battleships going for a knock-down £25,000 each and the cruiser Karslruhe fetching a mere £8,500.   So much for Royal Navy’s supposed glory in defeating the world’s second most feared armed force, so much for the eternal honour of the Imperial German Navy, and so much for the much-vaunted glamour of old-school fleet warfare, a concept designed to deliver remote attacks by the most lethal weaponry known to contemporary technology against distant targets all around the globe.

No, the Admiralty didn’t get its asking price.

Back in 1914, most military planners in most major states regarded a powerful battlefleet as the ultimate weapon, or at least the ultimate deterrent.  Meanwhile their diplomats, politicians and press barons saw it as a weapon too dangerous to ignore, frightening to the point at which it became a cause for war.  Today, one of the handsome, frightening ships of the High Seas Fleet can be bought for less than the price of a new family car, so let’s roll our eyes at the enormous cost in money and lives of planning the next war with the weapons of the last – and let’s hope we’ll all be buying rusty, redundant nukes for peanuts on eBay a few decades from now.

28 JUNE, 1919: Deep and Meaningless

A century ago – even longer ago than my last post – most of the First World War came to an official end.  The bulk of the fighting had ended in November 1918, and leftover shrapnel would keep on damaging the world for another four years (or another hundred, if you’re taking the wider view), but the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919 terminated the war between Germany and the various Allies ranged against it.  War between the same Allies and their other former enemies – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire – would be formally terminated by a series of separate treaties, the last of them signed in August 1920, but as far as most people in Allied countries were concerned, modern civilisation’s most disastrous breakdown was finally over.

This was hardly a cause for much celebration at the time, because long before it was signed the Treaty of Versailles had become very, very unpopular.  Universally hated by the people it sought to punish, it was decried as insufficiently rewarding by those among the victors reliant on emotion or propaganda for their opinions.  Among the informed elites of most victorious countries, it was meanwhile condemned as doomed to fail in its basic aim of securing a peaceful, stable future for the ‘civilised’ world, although quite why and how it was expected fail depended on the national identity and political persuasion of the beholder.

Hyping it up in the Palace of Versailles… but fooling hardly anyone.

I’ve already talked about the nuts, bolts and punitive nature of the Treaty (7 May, 1919: Bad Deal or No Deal?), and right now I’m in no position to deliver a properly researched information piece, so I plan to spend today riffing on the epic propaganda failure behind its unpopularity with contemporaries, on how that has influenced its enduring reputation, and on the flaws in our adjusted, apparently post-propaganda views about the First World War.

So why couldn’t the world’s most advanced propagandists in May and June 1919 – the clever peddlers of British, US and French official worldviews through 51 months of war – sell the Treaty of Versailles to anyone, let alone everyone?  The simple answer is that it was an impossibly hard sell, for reasons Brexit is teaching the British to understand.

The banner of peace with Germany covered a multitude of ideas about what peace actually meant, and subsequent attempts to find compromises merely emphasised the differences between them, driving negotiators and observers towards more extreme positions.  By the time a treaty emerged from the wrangling to be placed before the German government on 7 May 1919, it was clear that it satisfied nobody – and equally obvious that its signature would leave plenty of questions still unanswered, that the hard yards were still to come.  Like Theresa May in 2018, the peacemakers and their propagandists could only hope that cosmetic sops to domestic opponents would smooth enough ground for a compromise to somehow pass muster as a success – and like today’s failed British premier, they blew it.

Handing the treaty to the German government for comment was essentially one such PR exercise, a lick of liberal paint to cover what was hardly a liberal settlement, and it backfired.  Given three weeks to respond to a treaty negotiated without their participation, German leaders came back with a long list of complaints, most of them centred on the treaty’s harshness and its betrayal of the liberal principles embodied by US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  As such, their comments chimed with the views of some British strategists, who expected a crippled Germany to generate continent-wide economic and political instability, and with those of many Allied liberals, who had shared the presumption, never quite denied by Allied leaders before the negotiations started, that the Fourteen Points would form the basis for peace.  A few details aside, German complaints were ignored, and all the publicity stunt actually provided was a seven-week hiatus in the peace process, giving critics time and ammunition to damn the treaty in advance of its signature, at the Palace of Versailles, on 28 June.

As signed, the treaty opened with the League of Nations Covenant, another exercise in public relations, this time designed to disguise the fact that US President Wilson’s quixotic vision of a liberal future had failed to survive the peace negotiations.  The League of Nations, a congress of powerful but disarmed states able to moderate global geopolitics, was Wilson’s Big Idea, but the British had little enthusiasm for an institution they (rightly) considered intrinsically impotent, and the French were much more interested in an armed alliance against German resurgence.  Forced to fight for its existence, Wilson had made concessions over other issues to ensure the League’s star billing at the top of the Treaty, but his hope that this apparent success would silence his domestic critics proved spectacularly optimistic.  The US Congress eventually refused to ratify the Covenant, which had anyway excluded all the defeated nations and the Soviet Union, and the League limped into its 20-year life on a worldwide wave of popular and political scepticism.

Cartoonists loved the Versailles treaty and the League of Nations… easy targets.

It had been in every Allied government’s best interest to get a political and popular pat on the back for a the signature of a peace treaty , but all their best PR efforts could generate was a cacophony of condemnation from all sides that has lasted a century so far and shows no sign of letting up in the near future.  Given that the task facing the peacemakers was effectively impossible without input from the kind of clairvoyant visionary modern history has yet to witness, and that completing any kind of working compromise was a testament to their considerable statecraft, our modern view of the Treaty of Versailles is based on a reaction to failed propaganda, or what you might call anti-propaganda.  That makes it as essentially accidental heritage myth – and one that has, at first glance, lasted a lot longer than most myths deliberately created by wartime propaganda.

Though often (but not always) accepted at the time, the official versions of the First World War presented by contemporary governments were debunked en masse during the post-War years.  They are still treated with righteous disdain by today’s heritage industries, which operate on the tacit assumption that we have seen through wartime propaganda to find a world of objective truth.  We haven’t.  We think we know all about century-old propaganda, but the most successful propaganda is by definition undetectable, and our uncritical acceptance of Versailles as a train wreck – of anti-propaganda – is the tip of an iceberg.  Beneath the surface of British society, and for my money of every society touched by the First World War, lie great swathes of propaganda-induced assumptions and interpretations that still influence the ways in which we think and behave.

Some of those assumptions are close enough to the surface to be quite visible once you look beyond the glare of heritage culture.  We are still inclined to celebrate some defeats, or at best insignificant victories, as major triumphs – the tank action at Cambrai springs to mind – while our enduring faith in the myth that British tanks won the war on the Western Front is another reminder of our willingness to accept propaganda as truth when it suits our amour-propre.

By way of an illustration – and nothing to do with the First World War – I offer an incident from around 2002, when I found myself at dinner with my late parents, both of whom had been in London during the early years of the Second World War.  Sometime into the evening, with plenty of wine down our necks, we fell to chatting about that war and I mentioned the fact – absolutely verified if never much publicized – that the first Luftwaffe attacks on East London had provoked panic and that the British Army had been called in to halt a civilian exodus towards Essex.  Mild-mannered by nature, and generally apt to defer to me on matters historical, the folks hit the roof, refused to believe a word of it and boiled up angry to the point of violence.  The propaganda myths around East End stoicism remained deeply embedded and hugely important to them, a mere 60-odd years after the event.

So, a hundred years after its last embers, what are the fake folk memories bequeathed to the British by the First World War?  On one level it’s an impossible question, because everything about our collective memory of the First World War was formed by propaganda or our reaction to its exposure.  From our carefully curated view of how Tommies in the trenches lived, thought and died, through our carefully edited views on wartime political leadership and home front reactions, down to our simplistic take on international strategy, tactics and diplomacy, it’s all either a product of fabrication or rationalisation.

In the end, you can’t go far wrong by simply assuming that every image or idea in your head about the Great War is a product of propaganda.  Some can be cleaned up by researching sources not polluted by mass media (you know, books), but some propaganda-induced prejudices are buried too deep for easy access.  With a helping hand from historian David Olusoga and the BBC, one of those is finally starting to reveal itself to the British.  We’re talking racial stereotyping.

Racial stereotyping, established as a human habit since the beginning of recorded history, was being applied to outsiders by the British long before the First World War.  Imperial expansion since Tudor times had encouraged simplistic categorisation of other races, either as a form of demonization to encourage war against them, or as a convenient means of classifying them for exploitative purposes.

Before the nineteenth century, the first of those imperatives had generated negative images of French and Spanish culture in particular, but also of Irish, Jewish, native American, Polynesian and numerous other cultures considered worth fearing.  After the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, subjugation and exploitation of native races became an economic and geopolitical imperative for expanding European empires, which found pragmatic reasons to employ more nuanced (though similarly arbitrary) systems of racial classification.

Based on a combination of anecdotal evidence and homespun eugenics, races were classified as docile or warlike, lazy or hardworking, loyal or fickle, principled or purchasable.  These classifications were essentially informal guides for use by imperial administrators, but the same administrators were happy enough to have them fed into public consciousness at a time of mushrooming popular literacy and media consumption.  When the world of Victorian empires faced its terminal crisis, let’s say between 1914 and 1919, pragmatism and propaganda combined to promote this institutional and popular racism as never before.

We have since had plenty of opportunity to see through the stories made up about our European wartime enemies, and at least some of us have grown beyond them, but the many non-European races we took on board as ‘friends’ during the First World War – whether as independent allies or exploited colonial peoples – were used, abused and heavily publicised according to a pumped-up version of the old imperial, racist system of classification.

So, while some Indian peoples were, for example, regarded as too peaceful, addicted to warm weather or untrustworthy for the horrors of the Western Front, those deemed loyal and martial were repeatedly fed into the mincer.  The same arbitrary nonsense was applied to Africans, Chinese and every other non-white race recruited into the maelstrom by the British, French or Belgians, while German and Austro-Hungarian propagandists reacted to the presence of non-white combatants by depicting them as terrifying savages with no place in ‘civilised’ European warfare.

Sikhs were classified as a warrior people – so they fought on the Western Front…
… while the British Empire’s classification of the Chinese – seen here arriving at Plymouth in 1917 – meant they were only used as labourers.

Whether we recognise it or not, we are still living with those classifications.  If, like me, you’re British, white and unattached to any other ethnic group, you can test that statement with some simple (and honest) self-examination.  Cast your mind around ethnic groupings familiar to British thinking – there are plenty of them – and ask yourself which you feel are hardworking or lazy, which peaceful, which warlike, which love Britain, which are surly… you can add anything else you like, from dancing ability to gullibility, and there’s no need to pin down details, just go with your feelings.  If you don’t come up with any such feelings, you’re either deluding yourself or an exception to prove a rule that, in my experience, works for every class and age group among the white and self-consciously British – and if you do, ask yourself where you got them.  They may have come via family life, intellectual life or social life, but look deeper and you’ll find most of them originate in the pragmatic prejudices of Victorian bean counters – as cemented into our collective subconscious by the professional propagandists of the First World War.

15 MAY, 1919: Izmir Is Or Izmir Ain’t…?

I’ve mentioned this once or twice before but historians, like history, never mind repeating themselves, so I’ll say it again:  the outbreak of the First World War cut across and influenced, one way or another, a number of regional wars that were brewing or in progress by 1914.  The most powerful states in South America were, for instance, already engaged in an arms race that was broadly aimed at resolving economic rivalries between Brazil, Argentina and Chile, a process barely interrupted by a smouldering civil war inside Brazil, while the Far East was becoming a war zone in response to the wealthy, militarist Japanese Empire’s aggressive expansionism – but the real hotspots in 1914 were the fringes of the failing Ottoman Empire.

The Italian government, bent on establishing an empire, had fought Ottoman forces for control of Libya in 1911–12, and the First Balkan War had pitched the Ottoman Empire against Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro, each a former province of the Empire and each seeking to expand its independent territories.  A Second Balkan War in 1913 had seen the big winner of the first, Bulgaria, taken down a few pegs by an alliance of the Ottomans, Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Romania – but a lot of regional business was still unfinished when the summer of 1914 plunged the Great Powers into war.

The Great War and its aftermath resolved much of the unfinished business in the Balkans, because the victors were free to reward their Serbian, Romanian and Greek allies by taking territory from the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria.  By the spring of 1919 only two major running sores remained open, both centred on important port cities near disputed frontiers, and both looking likely to turn nasty.

The Adriatic port of Fiume (Rijeka) was one outstanding hotspot.  Formerly part of Austria-Hungary, it had been promised to both the new ‘Yugoslav’ state and Italy.  The decision in favour of Belgrade by the ‘Big Three’ in Paris, and the failure of Italian premier Orlando’s attempted protest, had unleashed popular and political fury in Italy that was approaching revolutionary levels and rising by May 1919.  The other port in a storm was Smyrna, otherwise known as Izmir, and on 15 May the storm broke.

Smyrna had long been one of many bones of contention between the Ottoman Empire and Greece, which had won independence from the Empire in 1829 and had been expanding into Greek-speaking Ottoman territories ever since.  Strategically well placed on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, and therefore part of the Empire’s Turkish heartland, Smyrna housed the kind of ethnically and religiously mixed population typical of Ottoman cities, but ethnic Greeks probably made up the largest contingent, followed by Turks, and possession of the port was a long-standing ambition among a powerful group of aggressive nationalists within Greece.  This blog has documented the tortuous path taken by Greece towards finally joining the Allies in 1917, but the eventual agreement included an informal British promise to pro-Allied premier Eleutherios Venizelos of control over post-War Smyrna (27 June, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut).  Like most wartime promises by big players to prospective allies, this one wasn’t to be trusted.

It’s altogether too much map, and not really the right map, but it was the best I could steal.

For a start, the Anglo-French carve-up of the future Middle East, aka the Sykes-Picot agreement, had allocated control over the Anatolian region to Italy in 1916.  This meant Italy was also laying claim to Smyrna in 1919, an embarrassment that encouraged the French and some British leaders to support the idea that Anatolia should remain in the hands of a post-Ottoman Turkish state.  This idea chimed nicely with President Wilson’s high-profile views on national self-determination, and was of course very popular in Turkey, where nationalist calls for a secular, post-Ottoman state were getting louder all the time.  It was no wonder the Greek government, led again by Venizelos, felt the need for some heavy lobbying in Paris.

Venizelos, who headed the Greek delegation in Paris, didn’t just pester British and French delegates for some kind of commitment to a future Greek Smyrna, he did his best to force the issue on the ground.  Alongside a major propaganda campaign that claimed Christian Greeks in the Smyrna region needed protection from systematic Islamic attacks, Venizelos dispatched a diplomatic mission to the city in late February 1919, charged with firing up local Greeks in anticipation of an occupation.

The suggestion of religious persecution worked, at least on British premier Lloyd George, who began openly planning for a future Greek administration in Smyrna during February 1919 despite objections from his own foreign office, the French and the Italians.  An Italian response wasn’t long coming.  On 12 March an Italian warship sailed into the southern Anatolian port of Antalya, and on 28 March Italian troops occupied the town, ostensibly to provide security against reported banditry in the surrounding countryside.  Using the same pretext, occupation forces began moving north towards Smyrna in early April – but Orlando’s walkout from the Paris conference on 21 April gave the Big Three a chance to break the diplomatic deadlock in his absence.

Uneasy about Italian ambitions in Anatolia, and willing to accept the Venizelos line that Christians in the Smyrna region needed protection, Clemenceau and Wilson joined Lloyd George in authorising a Greek occupation of Smyrna.  Planning was well advanced by the time the Italian delegation returned to Paris on 7 May, so Orlando had little choice about accepting the fait accompli and believing assurances that the emergency occupation did not necessarily imply post-War Greek control of the region.

One problem around the future of Smyrna had been solved, thanks to the usual combination of Big Three compromise and rapid wheeler-dealing, but as was so often the case in Paris, the bigger, underlying problem between Greece and Turkey had been left to solve itself.  An Allied fleet under British command was assembled in the Aegean to support the Greek occupation, and on 14 May the Greek mission in Smyrna that Greek forces would be arriving next day.  From that moment the city was a noisy, violent powder keg, doomed to resolve its problem the hard way.

Smyrna’s Greeks came out in force to welcome 20,000 troops when they arrived on 15 May, while the city’s Turkish population began organising political and physical resistance.  For reasons that are disputed, and hardly important given the mood on both sides, shooting broke out between Greek and Ottoman troops as the former passed a garrison fort en route for the city, and the landing turned into an orgy of looting and violence by soldiers and civilians on both sides.  Several hundred people were killed on the first day, and although casualty figures are also a matter of wide-ranging academic dispute it’s safe to say that about threequarters of the dead were Turks.

Greek troops arrive in Smyrna on 15 May 1919… things were about to turn nasty.

Aristide Stergiadis, a close friend of Venizelos and official head of the Greek mission in Smyrna, arrived in the city on 19 May and quickly set up an administration that did its best to stem the incipient civil war, or at least convince the powers in Paris of its fitness for permanent control – but rampant inter-ethnic violence accompanied Greek attempts to secure and expand their zone of control into western Anatolia during the following months.  Mustafa Kemal – the former Ottoman general, future Ataturk and already a major player in the Turkish nationalist movement – also landed in Anatolia on 19 May, at the northern port of Samsun, as the Greek occupation provided a rallying point for nationalist groups all over Turkey to organise mass protests and armed resistance.

Mustafa Kemal was a famous wartime general in the Ottoman Army, but he preferred civvies as a post-war nationalist.

Meanwhile the sponsors of the mess looked on in increasing horror and did what little they could do tidy it up.  An inter-Allied commission, sent to Smyrna in August to apportion blame and limit future conflict, concluded that Greek aggression was responsible for much of the violence, that Turkish armed resistance would keep growing as long as the occupation continued, and that future clashes were likely between Greek and Italian forces in southwestern Anatolia. By October, when the commission reported back to Paris, the latter problem was already being addressed, and later that month the Greeks agreed to respect a frontier, the Milne Line, restricting their movements to the Smyrna region.

Once again, the Paris peacemakers had found a way to keep Italy quiet but failed to solve the bigger problem of Greek and Turkish claims to Anatolia – a failure that would come back to haunt them during the summer of 1920.  By that time Turkish nationalism based on a provisional government at Ankara had become a strong enough force to unite the British and Ottoman governments in support of Greek claims, and so British forces provided support on the ground for further Greek expansion in Anatolia.  The Greek advance beyond the Milne Line in June, though initially very successful, ignited a full-scale war against the nationalists that would rage on in spite of the final peace treaty signed by the Ottoman Empire (at Sèvres in August), and eventually end with Greek withdrawal in October 1922.

The rise of Ataturk and the war that created his new Turkey are stories for another day.  This story has been a reminder that a war almost forgotten outside Greece and Turkey was at least partly created by the clumsy machinations of British, French and Italian imperialists.  Last week I devoted a couple of thousand words to giving the same Paris peacemakers a break, so this has also been a reminder that, for all their good intentions and laudable pragmatism, they managed to break almost everything they touched.

7 MAY, 1919: Bad Deal Or No Deal?

Negotiations are all the rage in Britain at the moment, so this seems a good time to take another look at the negotiations going on in Paris a century ago.  More than three months into its active life, the Paris Peace Conference was still busy trying to design a new world to replace the old.  Its proceedings so far had been mired in a swamp of high-profile chaos and deadlock that even Brexit can’t match, but on 7 May 1919 it delivered proof that the stalemate had been broken.

Proof took the form of a draft peace settlement delivered to the German government, a document that went on to form the basis of the treaty signed by Germany in June 1919, and that has been despised ever since by everyone, everywhere.  I’m not about to defend the peace cobbled together in Paris – no one does that – but I would like to offer a little more sympathy for its principle negotiators than modern orthodoxy tends to allow.

Despite its name, the Paris conference was about dividing up prizes among the winners rather than negotiating peace.  Beaten, broken and at the mercy of their former enemies, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria – the Central Powers – played no part in the talks, and although dozens of other nations were in Paris, thirty-two of them with accredited delegates at the conference, all important decisions were made by the ‘Big Three’ of Britain, the USA and France, with Japan and Italy as their most favoured subordinates.

While the leaders of the Big Three were pursuing their separate and frequently incompatible national/imperial agendas, they faced constant distraction on multiple fronts.  The important business of bickering among themselves was interrupted every day by delegations from all over the world petitioning for crumbs from the top table, and almost as often by proof that the old world, though mortally wounded by fifty-one months of the Great War, was refusing to lay down and die.  All over Europe in particular (but not exclusively), revolutions, civil wars and invasions were in progress, as was pretty much every other conceivable form of sociopolitical instability.

By way of muddying even those choppy waters, discussions in Paris were being conducted with no formal agenda or guidelines fixed in advance, and the whole shebang was taking place in the biggest blaze of global publicity ever seen.  With popular audiences more numerous and politically powerful than ever before, every important delegate at the peace conference needed his home audience to be satisfied by the outcomes.  I’ve talked about this before and taken the narrative, such as it is, as far as President Wilson’s return to the USA on 14 February (18 January, 1919: Showtime!), so let’s move on from there.

Wilson’s departure was followed by that of British premier Lloyd George, who remained in the UK to address domestic issues – above all mounting labour unrest – until 8 March.  On 19 February, French premier Clemenceau survived an assassination attempt on the Champs Elysées, when one of seven shots fired into his car by an angry anarchist pierced his chest but just missed vital organs.  As rugged as his reputation, Clemenceau was back at the conference table on 1 March, still carrying the bullet but more secure than ever in his role as the man fighting hardest for French interests.  Wilson eventually returned to Paris on 14 March, but in the meantime things had changed.

In the absence of the leaders their understudies – US Secretary of State House, British foreign minister Balfour and his French counterpart, Stephen Pichon – had been trying to speed up the peace process.  Balfour secured agreement from the Council of Ten that the various commissions set up to investigate particular issues would report by 8 March, and promised that their reports would be acted upon quickly.  By that time broad agreements had been reached on enough issues to raise hopes that they could be incorporated into some kind of partial and preliminary draft treaty that would demonstrate progress to the world.

Some commentators have since described this period as an attempt by almost everyone else of importance in Paris to slip a treaty past Wilson, who had always insisted that no agreement be signed without including a League of Nations covenant.  The theory, based on guesswork, deduction and the conflicting claims of memoirs rather than evidence, may or may not be accurate – but is anyway redundant.  Wilson simply repeated his terms as soon as he was back in France, while Clemenceau still refused to consider the League of Nations until the peace itself had been agreed.  The conference was therefore required to face the vexed questions of, among others, German reparations, Italian claims to Fiume (Rijeka in modern Croatia), Anglo-French ambitions in the Middle East and German frontiers before any treaty could be signed.

With one eye on the ever-terrifying and massively exaggerated threat of a Bolshevik surge to the Rhine, the reconvened Big Three agreed that matters pertaining to Germany and Austria-Hungary needed to be settled first and quickly.  They and Italian Prime Minister Orlando, who returned to the conference after his own spring break on 24 March, also recognized the obvious fact that the cumbersome Council of Ten was incapable of reaching any decisions, let alone quick ones.  Informal meetings between House, Lloyd George and Clemenceau had been going on since early March, as part of the speeding-up process, and by the end of the month they had become regularised as what became known as the Council of Four.  From 9 April, British cabinet secretary Sir Maurice Sankey was employed as secretary to the new council, providing the professional organisation needed to turn an unguided talking shop into a body capable of finalising decisions.  By the latter part of that month, things were actually starting to get done.

That’s not the same as saying they were being done well.  Like its predecessor, the Council of Four faced a chaotic agenda, dealing with delegations from all over the world on an essentially ad hoc basis, and took or rejected advice from experts at the whim of its members.  When free to debate among themselves the four members tended, according to most witnesses, to squabble from fixed positions and waste a lot of valuable time exercising their egos.  It is from this period and those witnesses – most notably the economist JM Keynes – that popular history has taken its stock, unflattering images of the main participants.  Lloyd George was the silver-tongued schemer, sly and untrustworthy; Clemenceau the granite avenger, unmoving and impervious to argument; Wilson the feckless idealist, unwilling to accept the realities around him; and Orlando, barely able to follow the English used by the others, was effectively powerless and ignored accordingly.

Orlando’s marginal status became crystal clear after he stormed out of the conference on 21 April, in protest at Wilson’s refusal to grant Italy control over Fiume, only to come back on 7 May with nothing but embarrassment to show for his gesture.  In the meantime, the other three leaders – abetted by the Council of Five, which comprised the foreign ministers of Britain, France, the USA, Italy and Japan, and dealt with myriad issues seen as peripheral to the big questions – did manage to find compromises.  Leaving everything else until later (in particular the fate of the former Ottoman Empire), the Big Three found ways round problems that, while satisfying nobody and causing affront almost everywhere, at least allowed them to get out of Dodge with a line worth spinning to their constituents at home.

Feeling good about themselves? Best enjoy it while it lasts…

I could spend another couple of thousand words describing territorial arrangements made in Paris that redesigned central and eastern Europe from Greece and the Balkans to the Baltic coast – but ‘before and after’ maps will have to do because this piece is primarily about how the big boys found a way to mix their various ambitions and the needs of a watching world.

1914
1919

Italy, of course, had the mix largely thrust upon it, but even Orlando wasn’t left empty handed in territorial terms.  His main aim was to extract what he could from the wreckage of the Treaty of London, which had brought Italy in the War in 1915 by promising the impossible (26 April, 1915: Secrets and Lies), and Italy gained the South Tyrol from Austria-Hungary (putting a quarter of a million native German speakers under Italian rule in spite of Wilson’s commitment to national self-determination) along with territories in Trentino and Dalmatia.  Italy also took over the port of Trieste, but Wilson wouldn’t budge in his opposition to Italian control of Fiume, and Orlando’s temporary walkout in April merely scotched Italian hopes of taking over the Turkish port of Smyrna (Izmir).  A Japanese threat to do the same carried more weight, convincing Wilson to compromise his principles by accepting Japan’s possession of former German colonies in China, a position that satisfied the minimum requirements of an empire bent on conquests in mainland Asia with or without international sanction.

If you were an Italian imperialist – and plenty were – adding Fiume to the enlarged nation made obvious sense.

French territorial demands presented a major problem, not least because they had nothing to do with fairness or liberal values and everything to do with crippling Germany to guarantee future security.  What Clemenceau wanted was to give as much as possible of eastern Germany to other countries, and to take as much as possible of western Germany for France, including not just the ‘lost’ provinces of Alsace and Lorraine but the entire Rhineland and (coal-rich) Saar regions.  Add in a reparations bill that would prevent German military recovery for the foreseeable future, along with a League of Nations army ready to enforce the peace, and Clemenceau would be satisfied.

What he got was Alsace and Lorraine, an Anglo-American guarantee of military support if Germany attacked France, and the right to occupy the Rhineland for fifteen years, after which it would be permanently demilitarized.  France could take control of the Saar coalmines, but the League of Nations would administer the region for fifteen years, after which it would vote to remain German or become French.  Germany was also to lose the provinces of Malmedy and Eupen to Belgium, Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark, Posen and part of Upper Silesia to Poland (along with a ‘corridor’ of territory diving West and East Prussia that connected Poland to the sea), and the port of Danzig (Gdansk) as a free city under League of Nations control.

These were the key compromises, along with Anglo-American agreement that Germany and its allies should pay reparations in full for the war they were deemed to have started.   What ‘in full’ actually meant, and the price it carried, remained to be argued, but acceptance of the principle represented a major compromise for Wilson (the kind that has seen him dismissed as spineless ever since), and a significant if much smaller shift for Lloyd George, whose fears of future European economic destabilisation were already being eroded by the clamour for revenge coming from British newspapers and politicians.  Nobody needed to compromise much around stripping Germany of its military equipment and prohibiting its rearmament, around forbidding any union between Germany and the relatively tiny rump state that was now Austria, or around sharing former German colonies among the victors.  Meanwhile, the new idea that Germany should submit ‘war criminals’ for future trial was accepted with less fuss than its future impact deserved.

These were the essentials agreed by the Council of Four and communicated to Germany as a draft treaty on 7 May.  During the following two decades, many of the diplomats involved in drafting the details fell over themselves trying to explain that the treaty’s clauses were written as first bids in a negotiation, and therefore excessively harsh for tactical reasons.  That excuse only works if they really thought Germany would be allowed to negotiate.  They didn’t.  Nobody did.  Germany was given no chance to negotiate and some six weeks later, threatened with a resumption of the war, it was forced to accept the draft treaty without significant changes.

Plenty of commentators at the time regarded the treaty imposed on Germany – not to be confused with all the other, equally important treaties subsequently arranged at Paris to deal with the rest of the world – as a recipe for political and economic disaster across Europe.  History wasted no time proving them right, and the brunt of the posterity’s blame has fallen on Clemenceau, Lloyd George and above all Wilson.  Their efforts in Paris have been subject to withering condemnation by every kind of historical commentator, and there is no doubt that they arrived at a bad deal – but they did at least make a deal, and it’s hard to see how they could have found a better one.

Short of some kind of simultaneous epiphany that turned all three men into radical free thinkers with no responsibility to the peoples they represented, long-term deadlock was the only real alternative to a muddy compromise that persecuted Germany.  Deadlock was unthinkable, both because the world desperately needed someone to push the restart button and because, from their perspective, it was the gateway to a communist future.  Faced with the Devil, they reluctantly dived for the deep blue sea, somehow managing to do so promptly and together.  Next time you hear their names drenched in infamy, it might be worth considering how Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or any European leader you care to mention would react under those kind of circumstances.

Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George… oh wait!

13 APRIL, 1919: Dear Mr. Francois…

It’s long time since I talked about India (15 February 1915: Negative Thinking) and long past time me, you and the British Empire paid it some serious attention – because change was afoot in the Raj and the end of the First World War had sharpened its edge.  Today marks the centenary of one of British rule in India’s darkest and most deadly days – the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, usually known in Britain as the Amritsar Massacre –and of a fundamental sea change in the nature of India’s battle for independence.

The massacre is infamous across the Asian subcontinent.  It is understood as a signal of changing Anglo-Indian relations, as a trigger for the acceleration of that change and as a symbol of the long struggle for Indian political independence.   Above all, it is recognised as a damning exposure of the British Empire’s repressive, greedy, arrogant, ungrateful and clumsy response to a subject population’s hard-earned and reasonable hopes for political representation.  The event is also reasonably well known to the British, for whom it is routinely presented as a regrettable imperial error, but seldom discussed, let alone taught, in depth or from anything other than an Anglocentric perspective –so it seems to me some context is in order.

British imperial authorities had spent the war years showering their Indian subjects with praise and positive propaganda, as well they might.  More than 1.3 million Indians had fought for the Empire during the First World War, of whom 72,000 were killed, and they had fought well, generally displaying loyalty and tenacity despite appalling conditions, occasional communal disputes between Indians of different faiths or cultures and some maltreatment at the hands of officers inexperienced in Asian affairs.

War-related problems with British internal administration of colonial India had, understandably enough, been kept as quiet as possible – but they reflected a significant seam of native discontent across the Raj.  With German help, militant Indian nationalists, some of them imported from the British Empire and the USA, had fomented trouble in various corners of the sprawling Raj, with particular effect in Punjab and Bengal, and attempted to stir up rebellion in the Indian Army.  In March 1915, shortly after foiling an attempt by one militant organisation, the Ghadar group, to coordinate a major Indian Army mutiny, the British vice-regal government introduced the Defence of India Act.  Aimed at revolutionary militants but used at the whim of regional authorities against anyone deemed a nuisance, the Act gave the administration sweeping powers to imprison any Indian citizen without trial or verified evidence.

Militant nationalist agitation, regardless of religious or provincial background, existed side by side with the blossoming of Indian mass politics, centred on the Indian Congress.  Formed in 1885 as a largely powerless national forum for airing high-caste Hindu concerns, Congress had evolved into a broader arena for nationalist debate and a nationally recognised symbol of Indian identity.  More or less tolerated but never encouraged by the British, it had encompassed broad, overlapping divisions between moderates seeking gradual social reform and activists chasing more radical change, as had the parallel All-India Muslim League, formed in 1906.  Hindu and Muslim politicians generally squabbled with each other as much as with the colonial administration, but vague British promises of political reform as a reward for wartime loyalty had brought them closer to unity than ever before.

Gandhi and Jinnah at Lucknow, finding unity in the face of a paranoid, arrogant and often dishonest common enemy.

In December 1916 the Lucknow Pact temporarily committed Hindu and Moslem groups, with the support of all their internal factions, to the presentation of joint demands for specific reforms to Viceroy Lord Chelmsford.  This is not the place for a discussion of the details, but when the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms arrived in 1918 Indian politicians of all persuasions were united in regarding them as paltry reward for years of military service, political repression and economic hardship.  A consequent upsurge in political protest – in particular the rapid spread of MK Gandhi’s innovative, popular, pacifist nationalism – helped harden attitudes towards India once the British were free to administer their empire without the constraints of total war.

In Britain and among its enemies, few questioned the India’s position as the Empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’, in both economic and prestige terms, and so British governments had long been accustomed to a defensive attitude towards internal change or foreign involvement in their prize possession.  With civil protest spreading fast, post-War British policy in India was dominated by memories of the Ghadar conspiracy and the German mission to Afghanistan (6 March, 1919: Dangerous Liaisons), by fear of the new revolutionary threat of Bolshevism from nearby Russia, and by nervousness around continuing, apparently revolutionary unrest in the Punjab and Bengal.  The result, presaged by the appointment in 1917 of a Sedition Committee to investigate the various threats to the Raj, was the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi on 10 March 1919.

Also known as the Rowlatt Act (after the chair of the Sedition Committee, Sir Sidney Rowlatt), but generally called the Black Act by those it governed, this was an indefinite extension of the Defence of India Act, with all its powers to detain and imprison without trial. Designed to douse the fires of protest, it had precisely the opposite effect, inflaming Indian public and political opinion, provoking a hartal (essentially a general strike) in Delhi that formed part of Gandhi’s mushrooming civil disobedience movement, convincing many politicians (including Gandhi and Jinnah, the future leader of Pakistan) that cooperation with the British would never bring significant reform, and sparking an upsurge in civil unrest, much of it scarred by violence, across the subcontinent.

Speaks for itself…

In Punjab, (typically racist) British assumptions about ‘martial’ Indian peoples, a wartime history of violent unrest, evidence of German infiltration and geographical proximity to the former Russian Empire had already convinced many colonial authorities that the province was on the verge of revolution.  Now things got a lot worse.  In the wake of the Act massed protests in Lahore, against a background of strikes and infrastructural sabotage throughout Punjab, prompted British arrest of two popular Punjabi politicians who had campaigned for Indian independence and supported Gandhi’s satyagraha (non-violent protest) movement.  Their arrest brought protests onto the streets of the Punjab city of Amritsar on 10 April, during which troops opened fire, killing several protesters.  Riots followed, along with attacks on public buildings and British property, before the city fell temporarily calm on 11 April.

The city of Amritsar looked set for a big day on 13 April.  The Sikh festival of Baisakhi always attracted thousands to its spring harvest fair, and local nationalist leaders had organised a large protest movement for the afternoon, to be held in the Jallianwala Bagh, the public garden of the building known as either the Harmandir, Sri Harmandir or Darbar Sahib (but usually called the ‘Golden Temple’ by Europeans).  The acting British regional commander (Acting) Brigadier-General Dyer, spent the morning announcing the imposition of martial law in the city, with a curfew and a ban on all meetings of more than four people – though his tour of the streets seems to have been ignored or missed by the population in general – but news of the protest persuaded him to abandon the effort and focus on events at Jallianwala Bagh.

The meeting had been called for 16.30 in the afternoon, but by 15.30 a crowd of at least 6.000 (Dyer’s estimate, based on aerial reconnaissance) was packed into the six-acre garden.  Subsequent enquiries suggested that the crowd was much larger – between 15,000 and 20,000 – boosted by festival-goers who had left the Baisakhi livestock fair after Dyer had it closed at 14.00.  Rather than attempt to enforce martial law and/or disperse the crowd, Dyer and his political chief, Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving, did nothing for the next couple of hours, before arriving at the garden with 90 Indian Army troops and two armoured cars at around 17.30.

The Jallianwala Bagh was an ideal spot for a massacre.  Surrounded by high buildings, it could be accessed by one main entrance or a number of narrow alleys, most of which were kept locked.  With the armoured cars (which were too wide to enter the garden) and troops blocking the main entrance, the protesters were effectively trapped when Dyer, without issuing any form of warning, ordered his men to open fire on the densest sections of the crowd.  The troops duly loosed off more than 1,600 rounds in the next ten minutes or so, killing indiscriminately and triggering a stampede that killed many more.  Many protesters jumped down the garden’s well to escape the shooting, and reports claim some 120 bodies were later recovered from the well, while British imposition of curfew meant that wounded could not be moved from the garden during the evening or night, and many more died before morning.

The well at Jallialwara Bagh – bullets couldn’t get in but people couldn’t get out.

British reactions to what can only be called a disaster said plenty about the attitudes that caused it.  Dyer reported his action as necessary in the face of a ‘revolutionary army’, and was supported by his immediate superiors, while the British lieutenant governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, asked for and got permission to impose martial law in Amritsar and other Punjabi hotspots.

Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer – a brutal mass murderer and proud of it.

Immediate Indian reactions can be summed up as outrage.  The most violent reaction took place on 15 April, in the Punjab city of Gujranwala, where local British commanders suppressed a full-scale riot by bombing and strafing from the air – which dispersed crowds rapidly while killing 12 and injuring 27 – and although the British tried to suppress news of the massacre elsewhere in India, the Indian population was quite capable of spreading news on its own and less violent protests took place in cities across the subcontinent. The massacre’s effect on Indian political leaders of all faiths was as anyone would expect, in that it multiplied mistrust of British political intentions and exposed the fear of imminent revolution lurking beneath the propaganda facade of unalloyed gratitude for the Indian people’s wartime contribution.   As such it struck a massive, arguably fatal blow to increasingly fragile hopes on either side for India’s gradual, peaceful transition to self-government within the Empire.

Meanwhile, an initial British report estimated casualties at 200 dead and approximately 1,000 injured, and although subsequent British investigations revised the casualty figures (accepting 379 deaths) they never matched the estimate by an Indian Congress investigation that posited at least 1,000 dead, possibly as many as 1,500, and at least 1,500 injured.  In November 1919, during a more formal Anglo-Indian inquiry carried out by the Hunter Committee, Dyer made it perfectly clear that he had gone to Jallianwala Bagh intending to open fire on any crowd he found there, by way of teaching the natives a lesson and of course avoiding personal (and by extension imperial) humiliation.  He was also clear that he would have used the armoured cars to fire their machine guns into the crowd had he been able to deploy them inside the garden.

British attitudes broadened somewhat in the face of such breathtakingly brutal realpolitik.  While the Hunter Committee was preparing its report, in December 1919, news of the massacre finally reached London, where Dyer’s actions and excuses were condemned by much of the national press and many British MPs during the following months.  When the Committee’s report was released, in May 1920, it concluded that Dyer had been wrong about the prospect of revolution and had acted with unnecessary harshness, but that the immediate support of Dyer’s superiors at the time made his prosecution politically impossible.  He had nevertheless been removed from his post in March of that year, after which he was denied his promotion and effectively retired.

The Hunter Committee’s report (which dealt with disturbances all over the Punjab province) was almost universally regarded as half-baked.  It provoked scorn and outrage in the British parliament, where Churchill was among those most strident in demanding more comprehensive condemnation of the massacre, and is still seen as an insult by many Indians.  Although various British leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II during the 1990s and Theresa May last week, have expressed their regret and sorrow at the events of 13 April 1919, no formal apology has ever been made.  The only real consolation available to those Indian politicians and cultural figures still demanding such an apology is that, despite the loss of life, the ultimate outcome of the massacre was Britain’s complete and irrevocable loss of political and economic control over India.

That was a long, late, rambling piece – but I’ve not been well and, like most Tottenham fans, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on real life for the last ten days.  As far as I can tell its only raison d’être is to provide a timely reality check to British readers, especially to those parts of the British population which have developed a taste for facile, noisily expressed jingoism, infused with the (essentially Nazi) idea of national exceptionalism.  If you know anyone with opinions along those lines, remind him or her that we’re no different to other bullies.

Here’s one.

5 APRIL, 1919: Fog Warning

We refer to it as the Russian Civil War, but that’s because human beings like to fall back on a simple, blanket description for anything beyond their ken.  I’m not sure it’s possible for any modern observer to fully understand the multi-layered, propaganda-stained collection of armed conflicts that ranged across the former Russian Empire between late 1917 and the middle of 1921.  I’ve talked about some its details during the last eighteen months, and made an attempt to give those details regional as well as global context – but I wouldn’t call it a fully committed or entirely successful attempt, and that’s not really good enough.

For one thing, this stuff matters.  The giant political shake-up across Eastern Europe and much of Asia made a real difference to the futures of Russia and all the states around it, and the emergence of an established Soviet Union at its conclusion has shaped global geopolitics ever since.  Secondly, this stuff has been propagandized up the wazoo for a hundred years.  The conflict’s actual course and consequences have been redesigned over and again to suit whatever agenda the USSR, China, the West or any of the interest groups under their umbrellas happened to be pursuing at any given moment.  The fog of this particular war, largely impenetrable at the time, has been thickening rather than dissipating.  If you want a third good reason for some basic overview, consider how even a modicum of relevant information, dispassionately presented, can help expose the unwitting prejudices long-term exposure to propaganda creates in all of us.  So here goes.

In broad military terms, the Russian Civil War is portrayed as the conflict between ‘Reds’, supporters of the Bolshevik regime in Moscow (which replaced Petrograd as the capital on 5 March, 1918), and ‘Whites’, a disparate collection of forces and interests united only in opposition to the new regime.  Various Red forces under the strategic command of Lenin’s government – though often tactically autonomous, primarily committed to regional goals or both – fought conventional military campaigns against White forces that ranged from regional militias concerned with local issues or nationalist causes to large, essentially Russian armies committed to restoring traditional power structures across the entire former Russian Empire.

The latter received varying levels of military and economic support from foreign powers opposed to Bolshevism, but those powers also intervened directly in the conflict.  Britain sent a small army to the to the far northwest of the Russian Empire (23 June, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!) and a smaller force to its Black Sea coasts (8 December, 1918: Britannia’s B-Team), while Japanese and US troops were landed in the far east (12, January, 1918: Port in a Storm [Pt.1]).  The ‘Czech Legion’, a more or less coherent force of up to 100,000 Eastern Front veterans spread out along the trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, was also under French military control, at least formally, and constituted a major threat to the Soviet regime in the months immediately after the October Revolution (31 May, 1918: Fame and Fortune).

The conventional, big-picture war between Lenin’s state and White counter-revolutionaries was fought on three main battlefronts: in the northwest, southwest and east of the former empire.  In the northwest, General Yudenich (best known for his wartime successes against the Ottoman Empire on the Caucasian Front), emerged from hiding to take command of White Russian forces in early 1919.  Based in Helsinki (where Finnish White forces, with German help, had won their civil war against Red forces by the summer of 1918), he met with Allied officials at Stockholm in March 1919 and obtained limited support for formation of a volunteer army to attack into Russia.  By September, after consolidating White elements in Finland and Estonia, he had raised some 17,000 troops and 53 guns as the Northwestern Army for an attack towards Petrograd (along with six tanks provided by the British and crewed by British volunteers, the only Allied ground troops involved in the campaign).

Yudenich – how could anyone not follow that moustache?

The attack opened in early October 1919, and reached the lightly defended Petrograd suburbs by 19 October, but its failure to secure the railway to Moscow allowed the Bolsheviks to send large-scale reinforcements west, and Yudenich was forced back into Estonia by the end of November.

Estonian nationalist forces had successfully quashed a Red Army invasion the previous February, and the country’s Constituent Assembly was already in negotiations with Moscow to secure formal independence from Russia.  Though Yudenich himself appears to have been in favour of independence for the former Russian Empire’s northwestern satellites, official White Army policy was against it, so the Estonian regime disarmed and interned the Northwestern Army, effectively ending the campaign.  Estonia concluded an armistice with the Bolsheviks on 3 January 1920, and Yudenich was arrested in the act of fleeing the country on 28 January.

Further south, in the northern Caucasus, a White Russian ‘Volunteer Army’ had been formed in November 1917 under General Kornilov, who had fled there after the failure of his revolt in Petrograd (14 September, 1917: You And Whose Army?).  Allied with regional Cossack leaders – purely on the basis of shared opposition to Bolshevism – Kornilov responded to Red Army occupation of Rostov by advancing south into the newly created (and very temporary) North Caucasian Soviet Republic.  He attacked its capital, Ekaterinadar (modern Krasnadar) in April 1918, but the attack failed and he was killed.  The advance of Red forces from the north compelled the Volunteer Army’s new commander, General Denikin, to lead a gruelling northeasterly retreat, known as the Ice March, that took it back to the Cossack heartland around the Don and brought what is known as the First Kuban Campaign to an end.

Denikin – another case of facial hair making the man?

Denikin’s 9,000 troops and some 3,000 Cossack horsemen launched the Second Kuban Campaign in June 1918, and by November they had taken nominal control of the entire region between the Black and Caspian seas, enabling support from the French through the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.  Expansion followed, so that a combination of volunteer recruitment and forced conscription brought the Volunteer Army’s overall strength up to around 100,000 troops by the end of 1918.  By that time General Plyakov’s Army of the Don – a secondary White force formed in April 1918 to face any Bolshevik threat from the north – mustered about 10,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry.  This amounted to an enormous numerical advantage over Bolshevik forces in southern Russia, which were scattered across the region and preoccupied with establishing control over civilian populations.

The future looked very promising for Denikin’s armies during the first half of 1919.  In January, the various armed groups fighting Bolshevism in the region – including smaller armies in the Crimea, the Caucasus and Turkestan – were theoretically placed under his command as the Armed Forces of South Russia (AFSR), and during the spring his main force advanced north almost unopposed.  By the start of July, the AFSR’s total strength was estimated at more than 100,000 infantry and 55,000 cavalry, supported by 19 aircraft (and by Black Sea naval units), and it had reached a line some 250km north of Rostov.

On 3 July, in Tsaritsyn (since renamed Stalingrad and Volgograd), Denikin officially proclaimed the AFSR’s advance on Moscow, and for the next four weeks it made patchy progress towards the target, slowed and in places stopped by Red Army reinforcements that reached to the front during the second half of the month.  By early August, Soviet counterattacks had halted White armies on the eastern half of the front, but the Volunteer Army continued to advance north and west against relatively feeble opposition.

Denikin’s positions in July 1919, and his plan for an advance on Moscow – by way of saving myself a thousand words or so.

Denikin accepted immediate failure in the east on 11 August, when he redirected the Volunteer Army into an attack towards Kiev, intending to straighten his line and open links with anti-Bolshevik forces in Poland before resuming the march on Moscow.  The strength of the Red Army’s southern front, commanded by General Yegoryev, had meanwhile risen to around 150,000 infantry and 24,000 cavalry, and it launched a major counterattack against the AFSR’s eastern positions on 14 August – but the numbers masked severe operational instability.  To the west, the entire Red Army position in the Ukraine collapsed on 18 August, and the eastern offensive had turned into retreat by mid-September.

Denikin’s plans for Moscow had been delayed, but as his armies converged on Moscow during late September, taking Kursk on 21 September, he looked set to reach the capital sooner rather than later, a view shared by Lenin’s government, which made preparations to go underground.  But the AFSR’s lines were becoming stretched beyond practical limits.  Forced to divert part of his army to counter an uprising in the Ukraine by an anarchist army which, like the Estonians further north, preferred Bolshevik promises of independence to White armies best on restoration of the Empire, Denikin was left with little more than a poorly-supplied skeleton force to cover a broad front.  The Bolsheviks meanwhile signed an armistice with similarly anti-imperial Polish nationalists, freeing troops to defend Moscow, and the re-mobilised, reinforced Red Army Southern Front launched a much more effective counteroffensive in the area around Orel and Kursk on 11 October.

Denikin was still advancing slowly towards Moscow, and took Orel on 13 November, but the Red Army attack had struck to his west and was diverted against his flank.  After a week of fierce, often chaotic fighting, Red forces recaptured Orel on 20 October, and spent the next three weeks successfully blocking or repelling AFSR attempts to advance all along the line.  By mid-November, exhausted White troops were retreating everywhere, and Kursk was recaptured on 18 November.

That was the turning point for Denikin.  While the Bolsheviks renounced their agreement with the Ukrainian anarchists and retook the country, the Volunteer Army spent the following winter in retreat all the way to the Black Sea, its last units leaving Novorossiysk for the Crimea on 20 March 1920.  Denikin resigned in April, and command passed to Crimean c-in-c General Wrangel, but the military war in southern Russia came to an effective end when dwindling popular and Allied support persuaded Wrangel to evacuate the Crimea in November.

The third major front of the Russian Civil War was contested in the east.  A combination of local White forces, the Czech Legion and Allied troops landed at Vladivostok had all but wiped out Bolshevik influence in the Russian far east and Siberia by June 1918.  At that point the Czech Legion was in control of the trans-Siberian railway and local risings had overthrown Bolshevik authorities in Omsk, where an All-Russian Provisional Government was formed in September in an attempt to unite left- and right-wing elements opposed to the Bolsheviks.  Never able to agree on anything, it was  replaced in November by a coup that installed Rear-Admiral Kolchak – a much-admired Black Sea naval commander brought to Omsk and sponsored by the British – as the regime’s leader with dictatorial powers .

Apparently a reluctant dictator, Kolchak was eventually accepted on all fronts as supreme commander of White forces – not least because his regime enjoyed widespread foreign recognition and smooth supply lines, especially for Japanese and US aid through Vladivostok.  Taking the title Supreme Ruler and promoting himself to full admiral, he allowed extreme right-wing elements to pass laws persecuting anyone remotely liberal or left-wing within his fiefdom, was noisily opposed to all independence movements and, as a lifelong seaman, left most of the ground campaign that followed to military advisors.  His politics alienated potential allies on the ground, most notably the Czech Legion, which ceased hostilities against the Bolsheviks from October 1918 – but he was nevertheless generally recognised as the figurehead of the anti-Bolshevik cause in Russia.

Kolchak, just before his death – clean-shaven, so no wonder he failed.

Kolchak’s collection of anti-Bolshevik forces had moved west as far as Perm by the end of 1918 (11 November, 1918: Peace Off), and his armies launched a major westward offensive in March 1919, at which point he was regarded in Moscow as the main threat to the regime’s survival.  Red armies fell back, so that White forces had moved a further 200km west by mid-April, but as manpower and supplies dwindled with over-extension of their lines they were losing momentum all the time.

A Soviet counteroffensive, commanded by rising star General Tuchachevsky, began in mid-April and gradually halted the White advance.  With reinforcements reaching the front all the time, the Red Army outnumbered White forces by July, retook Ekaterinburg on 15 July and won a key battle at Chelyabinsk ten days later, forcing Kolchak to withdraw east beyond the River Tobol.  A White counteroffensive at the Tobol failed in September, and the next Russian offensive, launched on 14 October, drove Kolchak’s armies into full and permanent retreat.

The Red Army retook Omsk on 14 November, and chased retreating forces along the trans-Siberian railway.  After thousands of White soldiers and camp followers had died of exposure, the remnant of Kolchak’s armies found refuge east of Irkutsk, in territory being policed by the Japanese Army, and the Red Army was ordered not to risk conflict with Japan by continuing the pursuit.  Kolchak himself was taken by members of the Czech Legion while travelling to Irkutsk by train, and handed over on 14 January 1920 to the left-wing regime that had taken power in the city.  A Bolshevik military committee took control of Irkutsk six days later, and Kolchak was executed on 7 February, though his death wasn’t announced until the Red Army finally arrived a month later.

Command of remaining White troops east of Irkutsk passed to General Semonyev, but after Japanese withdrawal from the region his small Far Eastern Army fled to China in November 1920.  Full Japanese withdrawal from Russia was a slow, reluctant process, and the last White stronghold in Russia didn’t fall until October 1922, when the Red Army’s capture of Vladivostok completed Soviet reclamation of the Russian far east.

So that was an outline of the strictly military dimension to the Russian Civil War, a chaotic but in many ways old-fashioned series of campaigns that ended once and for all the prospect of imperial revival across the Tsar’s former territories.  I haven’t the space or time to discuss the conflict’s other dimensions in detail – and I’m not sure it can be done with less than book – but they are fundamental to any understanding of the Soviet Union’s birth pangs and subsequent development.

Broadly speaking (of course), Lenin’s regime and the Red Army were dealing, not only with White counter-revolutionaries and their overseas supporters, but with a plethora of nationalist movements for independence or autonomy, many of them armed and receiving foreign backing.  Soviet authorities also fought a chaotic and constant plague of peasant uprisings throughout the former empire, involving outbreaks of violence by ‘Green’ forces (or sometimes mobs) one way or another opposed to Bolshevik taxes and/or institutions, and that struggle continued until the middle of 1921.  Both were wars in themselves, but intricately linked at the centre by the strategic and tactical imperatives driving Soviet military strategy and dispositions, as guided by Leon Trotsky.

I hope to give Trotsky his due, one way and another, during the next few months, but it is fair to say that Bolshevik survival under those circumstances was a fairly astonishing triumph, albeit one achieved at the cost of institutionalising terror as a government tool, devaluing international law to the point of irrelevance and turning propaganda into the basic language of state.  The other apparent cost to the infant Soviet Union at the end of the Civil War was the loss of Russia’s former satellites to independence, but most were recaptured, in defiance of signed treaties, once their overseas support dwindled with post-War pacifism and economic stresses in Britain, France and the USA.

Through the haze created by a century of heavy propaganda, it seems fairly clear that Bolshevik triumph owed a lot to Given the half-baked nature of overseas support and the widespread unpopularity of their leaders’ aims, the defeat of White forces on all three main battlefronts seems far less surprising, and it almost goes without saying that peasant uprisings were never in any way sufficiently organised or supplied to do more than short-term, local damage to central government ambitions.  I realise this has been a bit of an old-school history slog, but like I said earlier this stuff matters and is largely lost in the mist of heritage ignorance.  Knowing some basic details can’t do anyone any harm.