A century ago today, while the world’s attention was fixed on the sudden mobility of war on the Western Front and on the emerging craziness of the Russian Civil War, something extraordinary was getting underway in northern Greece. After almost three years of failed or abandoned offensives, punctuated by long spells of disease-ridden inactivity or entanglement in the chaos of Greek politics, the Allied armies camped in Salonika finally achieved strategic significance. I haven’t been to Salonika in a while, so before I talk about the operation known as the Vardar Offensive I’d best bring us up to date.
Since the failure of Allied c-in-c Sarrail’s spring offensive in 1917 (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Pay Later), the ‘armed camp’ at Salonika had lived down to its reputation as ‘Germany’s biggest internment camp’, fuelling demands for its abandonment from those British and French ‘Westerners’ in favour of all-out commitment to the struggle in France. The universally unpopular Sarrail was removed at the end of the year and replaced by another Frenchman, the experienced and more offensively inclined General Guillaumat, but his plans for a major attack in the spring of 1918 were put on hold once the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front got underway. The ‘Army of the East’, still too sick to field more than a fraction of its official strength in battle, therefore remained passive while German units facing it were withdrawn en masse for Western Front operations. This was seen as an opportunity missed by Allied critics, and Guillaumat was transferred to command the defence of Paris in July.
Guillaumat’s replacement was the quintessentially aggressive General Franchet d’Esperey, last seen refusing to protect his troops with defensive tactics during the Third Battle of the Aisne in May (8 August, 1918: Match Report). Reinforced by 250,000 Greek Army troops, Franchet d’Esperey proceeded to put into action a carbon copy of Guillaumat’s plan for attacks all along the line, from the Aegean coast in the east to the Albanian frontier in the west. Stripped of its German contingent, the line’s defence amounted to some 200,000 dispirited Bulgarian troops commanded by General Zhekhov, and although widespread sickness meant that Franchet d’Esperey could only field a similar number of attackers, the Allies enjoyed enormous superiority in artillery, ammunition and supplies.
The Allied attack opened on 15 September, spearheaded by Marshal Misic’s Serbian Army, a force with a mission to re-conquer its homeland. Flanked by French units, the Serbs marched up the Vardar River along a 25km front, and disorganised Bulgarian defenders had retreated some 10km by the end of the day. This unprecedented success was matched by an Anglo-Greek attack around Lake Dorian that began on 18 September, and took positions within a day that had held out for almost three years, while Allied forces north of Monastir had crossed the River Crno to approach the town of Prilep by 19 September.
While Allied forces paused for breath, confident that the Bulgarian Army was effectively finished, the government in Sofia came to the same conclusion. Faced with mounting political crisis as popular socialist and republican movements threatened to topple the regime, prime minister Malinov finally got a reluctant Tsar Ferdinand’s permission to present the Allies with a proposal for an immediate ceasefire. Delivered on 25 September, it was turned down by Franchet d’Esperey, at which point the Bulgarian retreat degenerated into a rout and the streets of Sofia erupted into revolutionary chaos.
Veles fell to Serbian troops on the same day, British General Milne’s western flank took Strumica, inside Bulgaria, on 26 September, and the French entered Skopje three days later, by which time armistice talks had opened with the Bulgarian government. Almost 90,000 Bulgarian troops had been taken prisoner by 30 September, when Bulgaria surrendered and remaining Austro-Hungarian forces in the country retreated to protect the Empire’s southern frontier.
The war in the Balkans, a conflict that had been in progress since 1912, was effectively over. The British moved east towards Constantinople and Italian forces concentrated on the occupation of Albania, while Bulgaria and Serbia were cleared of remaining German units during October. After the Serbian Army finally reoccupied Belgrade on 1 November, Allied forces were drawn up along the Danube border, ready to attack into Austria-Hungary.
The most sideways of all the Great Wars sideshows had finally paid off, and the Vardar Offensive was duly hailed by Allied propaganda as triumphant justification for the three-year commitment to Salonika. Nobody was fooled. Contemporaries viewed the Vardar victory as a token success against a beaten foe, and saw Salonika as a colossal waste of Allied resources. Posterity agrees, and for once I’ve got no problem with the orthodox line.
More than a million Allied troops were committed to Salonika between October 1915 and the Armistice, and although they suffered fewer than 20,000 battle casualties they produced 1.3 million hospital cases, more than 450,000 of them invalided out with malaria. Until a final advance that was arguably irrelevant to the outcome of the War, this bloated, inert expedition achieved nothing of strategic value, unless you count its ‘success’ in stirring up political crisis and sponsoring regime change in Greece (27 June, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut). It performed no better in its passive role as a means of keeping enemy troops occupied, failing to prevent the Bulgarian Army from joining the successful invasion of Romania, and neglecting to exploit the withdrawal of German forces in early 1918, when an Allied advance north towards Austria-Hungary might have made a strategic difference.
I’m not, as anyone reading much of my stuff will know, an uncritical believer in the ‘lions led by donkeys’ explanation for the mess that was the First World War, but there’s no denying the absence of horse sense in play at Salonika, or that any old donkey could have organised the easy advances of the expedition’s endgame. Given the subsequent history of the Balkans, where peace is still a fragile, uncertain thing, it also seems worth mentioning that, in the long term, Allied commitment to Salonika did nothing but harm to the region’s peoples.
It has been said, often and on the whole wisely, that Allied insistence on making Germany pay for the First World War in cash, goods and assets was one of the worst of many world-historically bad things to come out of the peace process that followed the conflict. The payments were known as ‘reparations’. They were based on calculations made without consulting Germany, they were enormous, they proved impossible to collect in full (or anything like it), and they wreaked enough economic damage on a global scale to ensure that nobody, not even the payees, really benefitted from their imposition.
Of course, the German economy suffered the most immediate, comprehensive and dangerous damage from post-War reparations, which combined with political chaos to generate epic levels of hyperinflation in the country. Post-War German commentators (along with academic voices elsewhere) regarded reparations as a spiteful, essentially criminal act of revenge by the Allies, in particular by the prime movers behind the punishment, the French, and that view has passed into modern historical orthodoxy.
Fair enough, up to a point. Reparations were spiteful, stupid, counterproductive and dangerous, not to mention grossly unfair and imposed on Germany as the only major empire among the Central Powers still around to take punishment. On the other hand the heritage history of the twentieth century – born into world-war propaganda but these days committed to a polar opposite picture of the War as a pointless exercise in elite machismo, won by stupid people – has a tendency to suggest that the folly of reparations was responsible, or at least bore prime responsibility, for Germany’s subsequent lurch into National Socialism.
The implication that Germany was essentially a victim of Allied imperial greed would have pleased Ludendorff and other contemporary apologists for the appalling regime that actually deserves most of the blame, but any examination of German history during the previous fifty years exposes it as nonsense. I’ll leave you to confirm that.
The heritage view also allows the otherwise uninformed to assume that Allied imposition of reparations was a new idea, conjured up out of the collective need for a scapegoat at the end of a recognisably disastrous war, and that their scale was a gargantuan expression of the vitriolic looting carried out by victorious soldiers throughout recorded history. There was indeed a strong element of angry revenge in the air at Versailles, at least among the European victors, and it did influence proceedings by shouting down voices for moderation, but it wasn’t the inspiration for reparations. There was nothing new or unexpected about the presentation of a reparations bill to the losers of the First World War, and Germany had already made sure there was nothing unprecedented about its scale.
Before coming to power in Russia, the Bolsheviks had campaigned for immediate peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’, and that remained the position of Lenin’s government at the start of 1918. The phrase reflected contemporary geopolitical thinking about wars in general and the Great War in particular, in that they were fought for both territory and the extraction of resources. Losers were expected to sacrifice anything perceived as an economic advantage, and frequent statements of war aims by both sides since 1914 had emphasised the War’s rising cost in money, goods, industrial plant, merchant shipping and anything else that could be claimed as expenses. The new Bolshevik state got its peace in March 1918, when it finally signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, but was never going to get away without annexations and indemnities (3 March, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace).
Most of the annexations attached to Brest-Litovsk came disguised as regional independence movements (leaving aside the Ottoman Empire’s technical annexation of Russian territories in the Caucasus that were part of an ongoing civil war), but the indemnities were straight-up, open demands for reparations on a scale that set an example for the peacemakers at Versailles.
Negotiations about Russian reparations payments went on long after the signature of the treaty, but in August 1918 the Bolshevik government finally accepted an agreement to pay cash, gold and goods worth six billion German marks. That converted to around £214 million in 1918, but to put the figure into some kind of context there were only 13 billion marks in circulation just before the War, and only about 60 billion in circulation when it ended. We’re talking about an era when cash really counted, and at a particular moment in history when international banking transactions were only possible between established allies, so payment of the first Russian instalment on 7 September 1918, a century ago today, involved carting some 350 million marks’ worth of banknotes and gold to the frontier and handing them over.
Germany never received another payment from Bolshevik Russia, and the Bolsheviks never got their money back because they were neither invited to nor recognised the post-War peace agreement, but the fact remained that Germany had intended to bleed Russia of everything it could grab in the aftermath of victory on the Eastern Front. The German regime had turned the threat of reparations, voiced since the beginning of the War, into a reality. Motivated by greed, laced with desperation as the Hindenburg Programme sent the German economy hurtling to oblivion, rather than by revenge, the imposition of indemnities at Brest-Litovsk set the bar for everything that followed, and provided all the example the Allies needed to produce their own demands in 1919.
After last week’s epic ramble through the backwoods of espionage, a succinct opinion piece seemed appropriate, but much as I’d like to sneak away inside a thousand words, I feel compelled to add a brief note about the festival of triumphalism filling the pages of the British press in September 1918. Having spent the last four years finding ways to get triumphant about military defeats, bloody stalemates and minor tactical victories on the Western Front, British newspapers were almost forced to exaggerate the extent to which the tide had turned during the previous few weeks.
German battlefront morale was ‘crumbling’, the German leadership was issuing cries of despair and the advances of Allied armies in France, admittedly much faster and more significant than anything they had managed before, were described as ‘pursuits’ of fleeing enemies. Occasional mentions of stiff resistance by German units here and there, or of the fact that Allied forces had yet to reach, let alone overcome, the Hindenburg Line’s massed, carefully prepared defences, were rare scraps of journalism amid the festivities.
This didn’t exactly set British newspapers apart from their counterparts in other countries. Their relentless propaganda for what amounted to maintenance of the political status quo was mirrored in Germany and the USA, the former thanks to censorship, the latter reflecting the survival of revolutionary idealism in US civic thinking. French and Italian newspapers were far more inclined to promote radical political change, and more directly aggressive in their criticisms of home governments, but could match or exceed anything the British could print by way of sensationalism. What did distinguish the British press at this late stage of its long, loud War was its unintended effect on long-term public perception. By acting as if the German Army on the Western Front was all but beaten, press coverage encouraged expectations of an imminent end to the War, expectations that quickly morphed into familiar questions about why the end was taking so long to arrive.
It would have been difficult for the British fourth estate to adopt a more measured approach to the excitement of 1918. National interest had demanded press hyperbole for the preceding four years, and the country’s most powerful press barons, having just about reined in their political ambitions over the same period, were in no mood to stop shouting. Had they been, the final battles on the Western Front might have been a time of popular redemption for a British military leadership that had shouldered much of the blame for the War’s length and cost. Instead the great Allied victories of the autumn became yet another reason for damning British generals as donkeys.
An illustrative case study isn’t hard to find. French c-in-c Ferdinand Foch was a genuine national hero in the post-War era, and AEF commander Pershing remained a hugely respected and popular figure for the rest of his days in the US. They fought the same victorious battles as BEF c-in-c Haig, who received the military victor’s usual honours, money and gratitude from official sources, but was regarded with contempt by much of the British public during the immediate post-War years, and has been treated with (at best) disdain by popular history ever since.
You want a message? Independent mass communication is a wonderful expression of human culture’s ambition to create a workable society on a grand scale but – like those other great expressions of same, democracy and nuclear power – constitutes a force we can deploy and target, but neither control nor predict. Message ends.
A hundred years ago yesterday a disgruntled Russian socialist, Fanya ‘Dora’ Kaplan, tried and failed to assassinate Lenin in Moscow. She regarded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a betrayal of the ideals behind Russia’s latest revolution, and sought a change of direction through a change of leadership. The attempt came shortly after the assassination in Petrograd of the city’s Cheka (secret police) commander, Moisei Uritsky, as an act of personal revenge.
Neither of these gestures made much difference to the stability or otherwise of Russia’s fledgling Bolshevik government, although Lenin was critically ill for a time and spent the rest of his life with two bullets inside him, but between them they were to have an enormous effect on that government’s relations with Western Europe, and with Britain in particular. I’ll try to explain, and because I’ve been AWOL for a while I’ll do it the long way.
The War for dominance of a fading imperial world was almost done, and the result, broadly speaking, was no longer in doubt. France would survive and Britain abide. The USA had arrived, Japan was on the rise, three empires – the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian – were already dead or terminally sick, and the German Empire’s fate would be decided, not by the men responsible for its brief, bombastic history, but by Allied armies, the furies of its own population or both.
The other result recognised by all but the most diehard conservatives among the world’s informed observers was that the age of simple imperial dominance had come to an end. This was most obviously expressed to the world by US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were still being quoted as the basis for future peace six months after their creation, and which envisaged an international structure of sovereign states very different from that destroyed in 1914 (11 February, 1918: Daydream Believer). Almost as obviously – at least to those with the luxury of viewing the world in geopolitical terms – the British Empire was busily, you might say nervously, planning the postwar security and extension of its massive global portfolio.
Hardly a day went by during the summer of 1918 without some indication of this from the British government. The British parliament positively rang with vague promises to India and Ireland of future political reform, with reassurances to the ‘white dominions’ of tariff-free trade within the postwar Empire (a concept known as ‘imperial preference’, and one that is still being touted under various names by some Brexiteers), and with excuses for attempting to expand imperial control over the Middle East and parts of the Caucasus. On a more regional scale, the Japanese government and military were engaged in the same kind of planning for postwar empire, while the political classes in Serbia and Italy – both destined for a place among the victors at the peace table – harboured visions of their own local empires.
Amid all this jostling for future clout at or near the top of the geopolitical food chain, and the clamour of smaller nations demanding their sovereignty, one piece of planning for the postwar world united pretty much everyone on the planet with anything much to lose. Everybody running every other state agreed that the Bolshevik regime in Russia, the living epitome of everything ruling classes had ever feared about the pre-War rise of socialism, had to be stopped.
On one hand, no matter how much of the world desired it, bringing down the Soviet regime looked a very tricky proposition. Russia is a big country. Conquest was an obviously dangerous long shot, and even in the unlikely event that the world’s surviving military powers could agree to undertake such a vast enterprise in concert, there was no chance of selling the idea to war-weary populations. In any case none of the Allied powers was at war with Russia, although the USA severed diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks on 15 August, and most of them were engaged in talks with Russian officials about maintaining economic and even military relations – so the legality of any full-scale invasion would be extremely dubious.
The Allies could agree to cooperate for minor operations, and propaganda could turn protection of northern Russian supplies or rescue of the Czech Legion into a reasonable case for action, at least as far as popular opinion and legality were concerned. But expeditions to Archangelsk and Vladivostok were no more likely to force regime change in Moscow than were British squabbles with Bolsheviks in Baku or German clashes with would-be Bolshevik regimes in Eastern Europe.
It was also possible, though at times logistically difficult, to provide material and financial support for the varied and fluctuating collection of anti-Bolshevik, or ‘White’, forces at large all over Russia, but that was another very long shot. Not only was it almost impossible for outside agencies to make intelligent choices about which forces to help, but none of those forces had so far shown much sign of efficiency, coherence or stability.
One option remained. It had the advantages of being cheap, potentially effective, hidden from the public eye and deniable. It involved employing an industry that had been growing steadily since the beginning of the twentieth century, had boomed during four years of world war and seemed likely to flourish amid the violent political volatility that followed the October Revolution of 1917. It was espionage.
Most national intelligence agencies were a product of the late nineteenth century, and most were developed as military departments charged with coordinating and acting upon intelligence gathered. Most soon sprouted useful connections and subdivisions within their national diplomatic and police services, reflecting their twin responsibilities for collecting intelligence about potential enemies and blocking foreign attempts to do the same on home territory, otherwise known as counterintelligence. This sprouting of agencies created a nebulous working environment in which multiple right hands didn’t know what multiple left hands were doing, or why, a problem that plagued the espionage trade as the century grew old and has never quite gone away.
In general, the most that can be said for European espionage during the twenty years before 1914 was that it provided some information towards quantifying the capabilities of potential enemies – but you would have had a hard time convincing most ordinary citizens of that. Popular fiction, newspaper sensationalism and an atmosphere of hostile suspicion towards foreign powers made it a well-known fact that, wherever you came from, foreign spies were everywhere, plotting to bring down society as you knew it. Meanwhile your own security services, wherever you lived, were pitifully underfunded and understaffed, not to mention awash with cunningly concealed traitors. A few well-placed traitors across the continent were indeed selling secrets, or at least information, to hostile powers, but otherwise the continent-wide explosion of spy mania was created out of thin air.
Spy mania did generate a little more government funding during the early twentieth century, and certainly contributed to the belated formation of a British secret service in 1909, but intelligence services in and before 1914 were not the big bureaucracies of Cold War spy movies, or Le Carré’s clever collectives of highly trained spooks. They were tiny departments run by a handful of military or diplomatic appointees. Their few agents were employed on an ad hoc, often temporary basis, usually because they offered their services to diplomats or military men in contact with intelligence agencies. The work carried out by these essentially private agents was sporadic, banal and on the whole of marginal strategic significance, in that most of them hung around foreign ports, military areas and political centres picking up gossip or counting things.
I mention all of this because although the outbreak and continuation of world war brought a relative flood of funding to the spy trade, massively expanded its pool of potential agents and added enormously to the immediate importance of their work, its way of going about things didn’t really change much. Intelligence flowed around the war from diplomatic sources, from various military sources and occasionally from spies infiltrated behind enemy lines, but the trade was still dominated by gossip across the War’s many frontlines. Intelligence services were also charged with providing support for populations seeking freedom from military occupation or imperial control, and with promoting sabotage and other disruptive activities in enemy states or neutral countries suspected of aiding an enemy, but they were still basically tin-pot organisations, short of resources and specifically trained personnel, hampered by the ongoing plague of inter-agency vagueness.
This was still essentially the case in 1918, when the British secret service (known as C after its first and wartime chief, naval Captain George Mansfield Cumming, as opposed to K, the counterintelligence service run by army officer Vernon Kell) responded in spectacularly vague fashion to its government’s perceived desire – not yet clearly stated – to promote regime change in Russia.
Much of the vagueness around the story that follows can be traced to a shortage of contemporary documentation, understandable where ‘secret’ organisations are concerned but also a reflection of the amateurish atmosphere around the wartime British service. For the period between the October Revolution and the Armistice, only three written reports from inside Russia to Cumming’s department survive, and they amount to little more than casual observations from British citizens on the spot. All the other evidence of British espionage activity during the period derives from memoirs, recorded gossip or propaganda, none of which can generally be regarded as reliable sources. So…
It would seem that Cumming was making active efforts to recruit and finance a new network of agents inside Russia from the start of 1918. At that point he had access to no more than a dozen sources of information about the new regime, most if not all of them reporting as a sideline to their day jobs, and none of them trained or organised for the business of political intrigue. Those sources included a number of British embassy staff, left behind when Britain removed its diplomats from Russia at the start of the year, as well as military liaison officers forced to take refuge in the embassy after Russia withdrew from the War. Their presence made the embassy a natural (and obvious) centre for future espionage activity, but none of them were directly employed or controlled by Cumming.
The nearest thing to a professional British spy in Russia in early 1918 was Bruce Lockhart, a young diplomat with five years’ experience of Russian conditions, who was sent to Moscow by the government in January, nominally as a special envoy to negotiate with Lenin’s regime in place of withdrawn diplomats, but with orders to stimulate and coordinate political opposition to the Bolsheviks. While considering appeals from exiled Tsarist officers and officials for employment as anti-Bolshevik agents in Russia, Cumming sent another Russian-speaking naval officer, Commander Ernest Boyce, to work with Lockhart and naval attaché Captain Francis Cromie (who had been in Petrograd since mid-1917), and to organise a network of anti-Bolshevik agents.
By March, these steps appeared to have achieved little or nothing beyond the recruitment of amateur agents in Moscow, Petrograd and Kiev. Lockhart and Cromie were in contact with anti-Bolshevik officers from apparently disaffected Latvian units stationed in Moscow and Petrograd, and a coup d’état was discussed, but nothing more concrete than talk, rumours and evidence of mutual mistrust had yet emerged.
Encouraged by the one constant refrain discernible among the chaos of his intelligence sources – that the Bolshevik regime was fragile, perched atop a powder keg of popular discontent and could be overthrown with one well-timed push – Cumming meanwhile sent another half dozen or so selected agents into Russia, given a few hundred pounds (usually in cash or diamonds) and charged with doing whatever they could to bring down the regime. By August these included the musician Paul Dukes and the timber merchant George Alexander Hill – both fairly well known figures in the early history of British state espionage – as well as the altogether bolder and rather more effective figure of Sidney George Reilly.
This is not the place to tell the full story of Reilly, ‘Ace of Spies’ – it’s been told, or perhaps invented, at great length and through various media – but a little background on the man seems in order. Born Schlomo Rosenblum, at or near Odessa in the early 1870s, he had moved to England at the end of the nineteenth century, married an Irishwoman and changed his name. Since then he had, in the words of Cumming, ‘been everywhere and done everything’, travelled the world as something between a con man and a businessman, lived in France, England, Russia and the USA, and specialised in intrigue wherever he went. Acting on a recommendation from the US, Cumming employed Reilly for the first time in March 1918. He shared the general view of Reilly as highly effective and very clever but utterly untrustworthy, but was convinced of his anti-Bolshevik sentiments and dispatched him, with £500 in cash, £750 in diamonds and orders to bring down Lenin, to northern Russia at the end of the month.
Arriving in Petrograd in mid-April, Reilly embarked on a much-storied adventure that may or may not have involved attempts to get close to Lenin and remove him from power in person, and may or may not have involved detailed plans for a coup with counter-revolutionaries in Moscow and Petrograd, to be spearheaded by the aforementioned Latvian units. Reilly probably did recruit agents and use the homes of his several Russian lovers as safe houses, and was certainly in contact with Lockhart, Boyce and Cromie as they flailed around, vainly seeking some kind of consistent or coherent policy to pursue. He also, none too surprisingly, came to the attention of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka.
The Bolshevik regime and its secret police had spent the summer of 1918 in a state of advanced paranoia concerning the actions of Russia’s former allies – and they were entitled to. With the streets of Petrograd and Moscow apparently teeming with foreign agents and counter-revolutionary conspirators, the arrival of allied armed forces in Archangelsk and Vladivostok fuelled rumours of an imminent Allied invasion, to be timed to coincide with a coup d’état. There is some evidence, though most of it derives from the realms of self-serving memoir or literary speculation, that Reilly was on the point of triggering his plan for a coup in late August, and much more evidence that Bolshevik attitudes to the Allies, and the British in particular, had by then hardened to the point of undeclared war.
In the event, and whatever the truth about Reilly’s game-changing plans, Soviet attitudes were the key to what happened next. On 31 August, the day after Kaplan’s attack and with Lenin still fighting for his life, Cheka agents raided the British embassy, shooting and killing Cromie when he resisted, while the Soviet press ran screaming headlines about a foiled ‘Anglo-French plot’ to overthrow the government by killing Lenin. Lockhart was named as the chief conspirator and Reilly as his prime executive, although the former definitely and the latter almost certainly had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.
Lockhart was imprisoned (as were a couple of dozen minor British agents, including most of Reilly’s lovers), but was subsequently exchanged for Bolshevik envoy ML Litvinov, who had been arrested in London as a retaliatory measure. Reilly meanwhile escaped Russia via Estonia and Finland, despite a dead-or-alive reward offered for his capture, and lived to spy another day.
British spies had failed in their scattergun, largely notional attempt to promote regime change in Russia, but the actions of Cumming, Reilly and their less focused colleagues did provoke, or at least provide an excuse to cement, the final breakdown of relations between Britain and the Bolshevik regime. Until the storming of the British embassy, a century ago today, debate about the two states’ future relations was still possible, and was still in progress around the fringes of both governments. From that day until its fall, despite a brief and uneasy period of alliance during the Second World War, the Soviet Union would regard Britain as an enemy, and the British, drawing on a folklore history of fear and suspicion where the mysterious power to the east was concerned, would justify Moscow’s view time and again.
I know that’s been a long ramble, but the story here seems worth telling. The growth and eventual redefinition of international ‘political’ espionage was in some ways a byproduct of the First World War, albeit through a process of what amounted to blindfolded blundering on all sides. Wartime outbreaks of political chaos all over the world provided the platforms and test beds for techniques, tactics and strategies that would become the standard blueprint for future spies, turning them into something resembling the dark forces portrayed by pre-War spy fiction. The Russian Revolution, above all, provided intelligence communities in every other country with an unprecedented opportunity to make a real and almost universally popular difference to the world through political espionage, and the small but ambitious British Secret Service did what it could to seize the chance.
The British effort’s only ‘success’ lay in helping to trigger a long-term escalation of international spy wars, thus ensuring the importance and future funding of the espionage trade, but British spies reversed into even that dubious achievement, merely creating enough suspicion to provoke convincing allegations of conspiracy. Those outcomes said something about the ecological difficulties attached to external regime management, and even more about the intrinsic value of political espionage, messages that are still being ignored, at great cost to all of us, by intelligence agencies around the world.
I’m having a busy time right now, and I’m brewing something fairly deep about spies for later in the month, so today I’m copping out of the hard stuff and taking it easy in the trenches. I talked about the changes within the apparently static world of trench warfare a few weeks back (30 June, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere), and ran out of space before I’d covered a lot of basic stuff, not least the very basis of everyday life on the Western Front, the trench itself.
Digging holes in the ground was an accepted form of improvised defence long before 1914. Earthworks were difficult to destroy from a distance, could absorb bullets and most contemporary artillery shells, and could be connected by passageways to give defenders freedom of manoeuvre. Early wartime trenches were essentially a series of connected foxholes, often dug by troops without shovels or other tools of ‘position warfare’, and trenches remained relatively shallow, improvised and readily abandoned on those battlefronts with shifting frontlines. On the virtually motionless Western Front they became steadily more sophisticated, and developments there influenced trench systems on other static fronts in Italy, Gallipoli, Salonika and, for a time, Palestine.
Posterity has bequeathed us a simple tale of two ‘trench lines’ facing each other along the Western Front, but from the spring of 1915 trench systems evolved as a linked series of segments, each extending back from ‘no-man’s land’ to a variety of depths and at various angles. The basic design of each segment incorporated a frontline trench, usually zigzagged for maximum field of fire and dug deep enough to protect infantry from snipers and most shrapnel explosions, though deep enough depended on the height of defending troops. Canadian troops, for instance, tended to be much taller than Europeans, and needed to do a lot of fast digging if they found themselves replacing a unit of British bantams, none of them taller than five foot two (155cm).
Behind the frontline trench, communications passages led back to a second-line or ‘support’ trench, usually of similar design, and a third ‘reserve’ trench was generally located further to the rear. The ‘reserve’ trench idea was pioneered by the German Army during the autumn of 1915, as was the introduction of concrete fortifications for local strongpoints and deep underground shelters to protect troops from artillery bombardment. As these innovations matured into the tactical concept of ‘defence in depth’ (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh*t), German trench systems developed a degree of uniformity, often situated 2–3km apart and linked by chains of concrete machine-gun posts.
A year later, when the new high command under Ludendorff and Hindenburg decided to adopt a defensive strategy in France for the first time, German trench systems along the northern and central sectors of the Western Front were elevated to a whole new level in terms of strength, cost and coherence. Known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line, the German system wasn’t a line at all but a series of heavily fortified areas, extending back from the front to a depth of up to 15km, the links between them again protected by chains of machine-gun posts.
Each fortified position, or Stellung, contained its own system of mutually supporting strongpoints, each laced with trenches, festooned with barbed wire and bristling with firepower – and they each had names. Wotan stretched from the coast to Cambrai, Siegfried (the first section built and the most complex) stretched some 65km to the St. Quentin area, Alberich stretched south to around Laon, Brunhilda covered the Champagne region and the fifth, least developed position, Kriemhilda, stretched behind the Argonne Forest as far as Metz. The German Army withdrew to these new positions in the spring of 1917, a move that helped ruin the Allied Nivelle Offensive, and the Hindenburg Line loomed large in Allied offensive thinking until the Western Front’s final battles in the autumn of 1918.
German trenches were generally better maintained than their Allied counterparts on the Western Front, and the French Army fared better than the BEF. Fighting on home soil, the French had early access to more than enough tools for trench building, and received more plentiful supplies than other armies throughout the conflict. The French Army also went to considerable lengths to make its trenches relatively comfortable from the start, so that by late 1914 they featured timber-lined walls, sandbags and habitable living quarters.
On the other hand the dominant orthodoxy among French field officers in 1914 insisted on offensive warfare at every opportunity, and during the first year of the War French Army trenches were designed exclusively as springboards for infantry attacks (or counterattacks), with horrible consequences for troops crowded into shallow forward positions. Arguments for or against the orthodoxy raged within the French officer corps throughout the War, and local field commanders designed their trenches according to preference, so French sectors always included a bewildering variety of trench systems, and some commanders were still cramming infantry into forward trenches in 1918.
British trenches during the first year and more of the war on the Western Front were horrible, unhealthy mudbaths. Dug into the rain-soaked Flanders lowlands, British infantry were required to sleep in caves carved out of the trench walls, and suffered a variety of health problems in cold, damp conditions.
The most notorious of these, trench foot, a fungal infection that could turn gangrenous and require amputation, was rampant in 1914 but the number of cases fell to a trickle once trench conditions improved a year or so later. Because nobody bothered much with regular inspections of rank and file feet, commanders on both sides often viewed trench foot as a sign of poor personal morale (like having a finger shot off), but the other infamous Western Front disease, trench fever, brooked no such blindness. Eventually identified, in 1918, as a disease transmitted by the excretions of body lice, which were everywhere in every trench, all the time, the fever displayed symptoms associated with influenza or typhoid, and although most victims recovered they generally spent several weeks in hospital.
British trenches were generally up to French standards in all but supply by mid-1916, after which British trench systems generally conformed to the usual pattern, apart from a bespoke proliferation of ‘sap lines’ (listening posts) jutting out into no-man’s land. They also conformed to pattern in development of peripheral furniture for trenches, using sandbags to protect infantry from bullets and barbed wire to discourage enemy infiltration.
Sandbags were nothing new, although they were actually filled with earth by auxiliaries employed full-time for the task, and they didn’t require wartime improvement. Of little use against artillery fire, they could (according to British research) stop a rifle bullet if they were at least 15cm deep, and they offered some protection against shrapnel or fallout from nearby explosions – which was why they lined the front and back of trenches.
Barbed wire had been used before 1914 – in both the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese wars – and was used in the same way at the start of the war on the Western Front: laid in thin strands with tin cans attached as an early warning system. Once the static nature of the campaign became clear, both sides soon learned to deploy wire in strength and in depth, creating impassable fields that forced attacking infantry into killing zones, and turning barbed wire into one of the most iconic features of the Western Front landscape.
The landscape of rear areas, directly behind third-line trenches, also underwent a progressive transformation as the campaign wore on. Hitherto rural districts became transport and communications hubs, crisscrossed with spur roads and light railways for supply purposes, and underscored by field telephone lines, used everywhere because radio was so insecure at close quarters. All these systems had to be installed and maintained at night, for obvious reasons, and for all their modern technology they tended to collapse as soon as an army moved more than a few yards back or forward – so human or animal messengers or carriers retained a crucial role whenever trench warfare produced a spasm of movement.
So while the frontlines remained static – and because they remained static – trenches first proliferated and then evolved into something altogether more sophisticated, expensive and permanent than anything the world had seen before. Modern mass media prefers to ignore this and other realities that challenge its simplistic, sepia vision of a completely static Western Front, but that kind of history is just another form of fake news.
There’s no getting away from it. Much as a global take on human history insists otherwise, I’m going to have to talk about the Western Front today. I should probably be focusing on the landings of British, American and Japanese forces in Siberia during early August 1918, which were helping create a divide destined to define the second half of the twentieth century. Or we could be looking at the vague promises of future self-government made to India by Lord Montagu, the British colonial minister, during a much-publicised speech to parliament on 6 August, which were part of an imperial let-down that put a (so far) permanent curve into sub-continental politics.
Then again, I could make a case for keeping our minds on the ongoing British conquest of the Middle East, or the civil wars bubbling in the Caucasus, or the rapid changes to US culture being wrought by the gods of war, or the mushrooming confidence in an imperialist destiny among military and political leaders in Japan, the Great War’s only real winner. But today, 8 August, is the centenary of what that arch-dissembler, Ludendorff, called ‘the black day of the German Army in the history of the War’, and he was kind of right, so the Western Front it is.
Standard histories on the Allied side refer to the battle that opened on 8 August as the Amiens Offensive, but like most major operations on the Western Front it was named by its perpetrators in fairly arbitrary fashion as a means of distinguishing it from all the previous Allied offensives in roughly the same place. It can be more helpfully described as a renewed Allied attempt to advance either side of the River Somme, and as the first major Allied counterattack after the long and scary German Spring Offensive had ground to a halt at the Marne in mid-July. As such, and with hindsight, it marked the opening of the Western Front’s final campaign, the one that ended with the Armistice in November.
Allied military leaders in France had been planning the operation, on and off, since May, when talks between BEF commander Haig and Western Front supremo Foch generated provisional arrangements for a surprise attack just south of the Somme, at the point where the French First Army under General Debeney met General Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army. At that stage Allied planning was being conducted in reaction to a cascade of German offensives erupting along the front. I’ve talked about the cascade’s opening – the Kaiserschlacht Offensive (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs) – and about its last phase at the Marne (12 July, 1918: The Way We Were), but until now I’ve done little more than refer to the big, important German offensives in between. So here’s some context.
Having survived the shock of Kaiserschlacht in March, the BEF bore the initial brunt of the next wave of German attacks, launched in Flanders on 9 April and known as the Lys Offensive or, in Germany, as Operation Georgette. Ludendorff and the German Third Supreme Command had originally planned to open their spring campaign with an assault on Allied lines in Flanders, but fear of bad weather and its attendant mud had prompted a switch further south, to the Somme sector. When the Kaiserschlacht operation faltered after early successes, and the weather to the north had held, a secondary operation in Flanders was quickly upgraded to become the main focus of the next phase.
Intended to force evacuation of the Allied salient that bulged east of Ypres, and to drive on to the Channel coast at Dunkirk, the Lys attack got off to a flying start. Advancing through mist and across firm ground along a front between the town of Béthune and the Lille satellite of Armentières, and supported by a vast concentration of heavy artillery, the attackers broke through a fragile Portuguese corps around Levantie. British units to either side of the breakthrough, many of them tired after their transfer from defence of the Somme sector, fell back some 5km on the first day and took heavy losses.
The attacks continued for another nineteen days, but never repeated the trick. Pushing northward towards the Ypres area, and bringing relatively fresh Belgian Army troops into the fight alongside General Plumer’s British Second Army, German forces inched forward as the battle degenerated into a mess of tit-for-tat local skirmishes. Meanwhile Haig found himself in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the second time in three weeks, and responded by appealing to Foch for release of reinforcements from French-held sectors further south. Informed by French c-in-c Pétain that his exhausted forces expected an attack at any moment, Foch at first refused, but French reserves did eventually march north and joined the fight from 22 April.
By that time the Third Supreme Command – recognising that anything short of a strategic breakthrough in the sector amounted to failure – was already preparing an alternative line of approach if nothing more than local victories could be achieved. The German offensive eventually got within 35km of Dunkirk, 18km beyond its starting point, and took the tactically important prize of Mount Kemmel from French forces on 25 April, but by then Allied defensive discipline had been fully restored. With his forces close to exhaustion, and losses running at about 110,000 men on each side, Ludendorff suspended Operation Georgette on 29 April.
Haig and Foch hatched their counterattack plan during the lull that followed, intending to give French forces the lead role while the BEF recovered from its losses around the Lys – but Ludendorff’s third-phase offensive opened against French positions at the Aisne on 27 May, forcing the plan’s indefinite postponement.
Ludendorff was convinced that Germany’s only remaining hope of victory lay in driving the British out of Flanders, cutting their lines of supply across the Channel and forcing the BEF to evacuate northern France. The attack launched on 27 May, generally called the Aisne Offensive of 1918 or the Third Battle of the Aisne, was intended as a gigantic feint to draw French reserves away from Flanders, but began so well for the German Army that it morphed into another pivotal push for total victory.
Unlike his counterparts further north, the French commander in the Aisne sector had no truck with the ‘defence in depth’ tactics that had been working pretty well on the Western Front for almost three years (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh•t). A four-year Western Front veteran, General Louis Franchet d’Esperey was an energetic and rather cunning commander of the old school, which in French terms meant he was dogmatically committed to the power of all-out offence. This was presumably his reason for ignoring advice from subordinates after intelligence reached them of a forthcoming attack, and cramming his troops into forward positions with the River Aisne at their backs.
After a preliminary bombardment by 4,000 heavy guns, the German advance began in the small hours of the morning on 27 May, hitting the French Sixth Army and four British divisions attached in support. Artillery decimated troops packed into forward trenches, gas attacks took out defending artillery and the defence crumbled, leaving 17 divisions of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Southern Army Group to advance through a 40km gap in the line towards the Chemin des Dames ridge, a position taken at enormous cost by French forces during the disastrous Anglo-French Nivelle Offensive of 1917. Surviving defenders scrambled back beyond the Aisne without destroying bridges, and by evening the attackers were at the River Vesle, an advance of some 15km.
This time German offensive momentum lasted longer. Attacking armies had captured 50,000 prisoners and 800 guns by 27 May, and by 3 June they had reached the Marne, although the line of advance had narrowed as they moved west. By the time exhaustion, supply problems and Allied counterattacks combined to halt German attacks on 6 June, they had established a 15km front at the Marne.
The fighting at the Aisne had cost the French Army 98,000 casualties, shorn the BEF of around 26,000 men, and triggered a sense of crisis in France that saw Sixth Army commander General Duchêne dismissed, Franchet d’Esperey transferred to Salonika and a general hardening of the Clemenceau government’s attitude towards the caution displayed by French c-in-c Pétain. It hadn’t drawn much French strength from the Flanders sector, and so Ludendorff chose to regroup for a fresh attempt at the Marne.
Foch and Haig meanwhile went back to planning their attack in Flanders, this time with the BEF scheduled to take the lead role, and added a secondary plan to attack the flank of the new German-held bulge at the Marne. Ludendorff again moved before the Allies were ready to act, but the German attack at the Marne in mid-July was the work of a broken weapon and the abject nature of its failure finally freed the Allies to strike back.
Haig was given command of the operation around Amiens, and his preparations reflected lessons learned from successful Australian ‘peaceful penetration’ tactics (4 July, 1918: Little Big Stuff). The strength of General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was doubled in strict and really quite effective secrecy, while advancing infantry was to be given protection from every mechanized device available, including 2070 artillery pieces, 800 aircraft, 342 Mark V heavy tanks and 72 ‘Whippet’ medium tanks. Supporting French forces had no tanks, but they did have protection from almost 1,000 aircraft. Facing a total of around 120,000 Allied troops along the 23km front slated for attack, General Marwitz could muster about 20,000 troops of the German Sixth Army, while the German Army Air Service could field only 365 aircraft across the entire sector.
Secure in the material superiority of his army, Rawlinson elected to do without the standard preliminary bombardment, and defenders were ill prepared when his infantry, massed behind the tanks, advanced on schedule at 4.20am on 8 August. The central British advance met little infantry resistance during the morning, although many tank crews were reduced to delirium by the soaring heat, and both the Canadian and Australian corps had gained about 12km by early afternoon. No less aware than Ludendorff of a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the Western Front, Allied commanders began talking in terms of imminent victory, but though well-planned and in places efficiently carried out, the day’s endeavours had hit a few familiar snags.
To the north, an attack to protect the flank of the main force had been stopped at Chilpilly Spur, and French troops had made only small, slow gains to the south, so although the offensive’s main objectives had already been reached the overall advance was more of a shaft than a wave. Part of the problem was a rapid breakdown of coordination with supporting aircraft, which spent much of the day bombing bridges over the Somme after multiple communications cock-ups. Meanwhile tanks had again demonstrated their fragility as much as their tactical value, with most out of action long before the first day ended, and the advance had triggered the same kind of supply problems suffered by every initially successful operation to date on the Western Front.
The Canadian corps did manage to gain another 5km on 9 August, but elsewhere on the attack front little progress was made and heavy losses suffered. Attacks slowed over the next two days as fatigue set in and twelve German divisions arrived to bolster the defence. By 12 August, with British tank strength was down to six, a new German defensive line had been established in front of Noyon, Ham and Péronne, and three days later Foch and Haig agreed to halt the operation, switching their attention to a new offensive a little further north, around Albert.
Like the latter stages of a football game, when both teams are tired, the war on the Western Front had finally turned into an open game across the summer of 1918, but the first Allied attempt to exploit the theatre’s new defensive frailties had gone the way of the German Army’s best efforts. And yet, with US forces about to join the campaign and the breakdown of Germany’s war effort suddenly clear for all to see, strategists on both sides knew the War was won and lost by the time fighting ended around Amiens on 8 August.
I can come up with two excuses for this extended plod through a relatively dramatic sequence of offensives and counteroffensives. One is to plug one of those information gaps left by the lazy sensationalism of the British heritage industry, which is busy celebrating the German Army’s ‘black day’ with some of the most hilariously ill-informed and embarrassingly inaccurate reportage even this war has managed to generate. If you’re in any doubt about that, check out the spectacularly ignorant reports coming out of Amiens on Sky News.
My other aim is to spread a little opprobrium, because while Haig and Foch were obliged to continue the fight as long as the German Army remained at war, the German Third Supreme Command had only one reason for prolonging the horror on the Western Front after 8 August. Before they finally gave up, walked away and left German politicians to sort out the mess, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and their elite gang of would-be dictators would force another three months of continuous bloodletting simply to preserve their own reputations and those of the classes they represented. For all that heritage convention likes to rail at the ‘donkeys’ responsible for repeated tactical failures on the Western Front, the worst that could be said of the worst of them is that they were incompetent. The men running in Germany in 1918, under the nominal leadership of an inert monarch paralysed by fear and despair, were war criminals.
The great trading or migration routes of the ancient ‘civilised’ world, that’s Europe and Asia to you and me, developed certain characteristics that inform their modern incarnations. They were corridors. Great wealth passed through them and so did a wide variety of races, elements of which tended to settle en route as fortune and ambition dictated, leaving the corridors quilted with different and sometimes incompatible cultures, each seeking to flourish on its own terms. They were also great prizes, attracting conquest by powerful outside forces seeking control over riches and rival traders. All these elements added up to a recipe for political instability.
These were lands blighted by tribal conflicts over shared territories, conflicts between emerging regional states, wars against potential or actual conquerors, and wars (or proxy wars) fought between those conquerors. They were a mess, and many of them still are.
The Middle East and the Balkans are the most obvious through routes that still boil with modern versions of the old tensions, but they are by no means the only examples. The Baltic States have been a corridor of power-mongering since Roman times and they fear for their future stability with an eye on their past history, while the land corridors linking Europe to the plunder of southern Asia, notably modern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, have never known lasting peace. The elephant in the room here, seldom mentioned in the same category as the other deadly corridors of human traffic, is the vast strip of land between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, the longest and most open frontier between Europe and the cultures to its east.
We call it Eastern Europe – for all that it contains elements of Slav and other cultures – and because it includes peoples familiar to our geopolitical history as Europeans, analysts in the West have tended to view the region component by component. Standard Western histories are inclined to treat Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the overlapping problems of Lithuania and its neighbours, the Ukraine and, up to a point, Georgia as essentially separate stories, and they each make for a wild and gripping tale. We don’t tend to notice, or at least to discuss, that the whole of Eastern Europe has been one gigantic corridor of instability throughout recorded history.
One reason for that has been a lack of anyone willing to tell the coherent story of Eastern Europe as a whole. More than a millennium of attempts to push European culture eastwards, whether by Teutonic knights or Panzer generals, and several hundred years of Europeanised Russian culture trying push itself westwards, have bequeathed us a history of spheres of interest, of geographical subdivisions invented to accommodate external ambition. In all that time, the region has only twice been under the effective control of a single source of analysis.
Eastern Europe was certainly homogenised during the seventy or so years of the USSR, but Soviet historical analysis had very little to do with history and could only describe the region as an expanding frontier of world revolution. The other power to gain complete control over the expanded corridor of Eastern Europe was the German Empire in 1918. The German experience was brief, spectacularly chaotic and spawned its own swathes of ridiculous propaganda – but it did at least generate some relatively honest attempts to analyse the overall nature of the beast.
Between March 1918, when Lenin signed away Russia’s imperial pretensions at Brest-Litovsk, and the Armistice in November, the German regime took and held control over all of Eastern Europe. Whether its control was formal or merely practical, Berlin took its new empire very seriously, dedicating more than a million troops to its policing and sending in armies of bureaucrats or technocrats to manage regional politics and organise economic exploitation on a massive scale.
As Germany’s prospects against the Western Allies and the USA began to look increasingly bleak, the dictatorship led by Ludendorff and, in theory, Hindenburg focused state propaganda on its successes in the east, so that by the time German plans on the Western Front had come off the rails, in the summer of 1918, the condition of Eastern Europe was a matter of constant and high-profile national debate.
Those German observers enduring first-hand experience of life in the new empire, analysts from top to bottom of the government and army, the German press and that section of public opinion not yet alienated into irrevocable hostility to the regime were all in basic agreement: Eastern Europe was a savage wilderness to match the Balkans, filled with feral peoples in need of discipline and organisation. The real debate concerned what could be done to stabilise the region, and whether its contagion of revolutionary ‘Russian conditions’ posed a threat to German society.
On 30 July 1918 the German military commander (and effective dictator) of the Ukraine and Crimea, Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn, was killed by a bomb thrown from a car in Kiev. Coming just as news of the Tsar’s death was sending shivers of fear through Germany’s anti-Bolshevik majority, and not long after Bolsheviks had murdered the German ambassador Russia, Count Mirbach, the assassination propelled German debate about Eastern Europe to a new peak of intensity.
Eichhorn had been supervising the process of bleeding the Ukraine white to feed the Fatherland’s needs, while his troops were busy propping up a puppet Ukrainian regime against threats from revolutionary Bolsheviks, counter-revolutionary nationalists and everyone in between – but he wasn’t an especially deserving case for assassination. There is no evidence that German occupation of the Ukraine was much more or less unpopular than its equally ruthless equivalents in other parts of Eastern Europe, and Eichhorn was by all accounts a cultured and generous-spirited soldier. Eichhorn was also, and remained, the most senior German officer to be killed during the First World War, and that added to the shock felt in Germany when it became clear that his murder had more to do with revolution than occupation.
The killer was one Boris Donskoy, a Russian member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party, one of several radical factions overtaken by the Bolsheviks in the race to power as the Kerenski regime collapsed. The Left SRs had been allied with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. They had filled a number of senior government posts until opposition to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty prompted their resignation in March 1918, and had continued to support the Bolsheviks until earlier in July, when they had been expelled from the Fifth Congress of the Soviets.
News of the split was communicated swiftly across Eastern Europe to any place former Russian Army soldiers were active in fostering revolution, and the assassination seems to have been Donskoy’s way of trumpeting the doctrinal superiority of the Left SRs. Its ultimate aim was to dissuade regional Bolsheviks from their temporary cooperation with German occupying forces against Ukrainian nationalists with counter-revolutionary tendencies.
The sad futility of Donskoy’s gesture, which made absolutely no difference to the seething chaos of Ukrainian politics, was not lost on the German press, which turned fear and loathing of Bolshevism up to eleven, raising the spectre of imminent revolution across Europe and spreading alarmist rumours about the enormous number of Russian prisoners – 1.25 million of them – resident in Germany.
The irony of this approach was that it helped cement the popular and official view that all of Eastern Europe was awash with a contagion that, unless suppressed, would sweep through Germany. At time when the German war effort was on the point of atrophy, that belief added urgency to the right’s need to destroy the left, or at least blame it for defeat, and added energy to the rising revolutionary tide uncorked by the failure. Donskoy’s gesture may have done nothing to help his own cause, but it was one of the straws that broke the back of the German Empire and readied it for civil war.
This somewhat airy post does, believe it or not, have a small point to make. There is a price for interference in, or attempts to control the world’s corridors of power-mongering, because cross-cultural influence is a two-way street and a region’s inherent instability can damage its would-be controllers. Eastern Europe as a whole was one such corridor in 1918, when the military-industrial dictatorship running Germany paid the price in a hurry, and there’s no real doubt in anybody’s mind that it still is. So while the world’s big hitters are locking horns, yet again, over the futures of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Georgia, we should maybe brace for impact.
By July 1918 the War’s big picture was getting clearer and something resembling a logical conclusion was slowly coming into focus for most observers on both sides, informed or propagandised. So I’m going for slight change of approach today, aimed at providing a few snapshots, and ideally a flavour, of the Great War’s last summer.
The Second Battle of the Marne may have begun as a German attack on 15 July, but within five days it was clearly turning into an Allied victory. After four months of near-panic among the Allies, especially the British and French, as German offensives on the Western Front suddenly threatened to turn a fast tide against them, the battle was also emerging as the moment the world as a whole realised Germany wasn’t going to win.
No such clarity could be drawn from the other side of the big picture, the puzzling and potentially frightening spectacle of the Russian Empire collapsing into civil war. Would Lenin’s soviets triumph and form a completely new kind of state, or would the multi-faceted, multi-headed forces of counter-revolution restore something resembling the old order? Nobody, including Lenin and Trotsky, had much idea of the answers, and by no means everybody outside Russia was sure which side they wanted to win – but most of them were sure they wanted to see the Czech Legion get home.
By now a global cause célèbre and, with a total strength of around 100,000 troops, the single biggest coherent military force in the civil war zone, the Legion was strung out along the Siberian railway en route for Vladivostok. Advanced Czech and Slovak forces took Irkutsk on 13 July and, far to the west, rear elements took Kazan the following day. Both occupations were duly celebrated as victories in the Allied press, which also reported Japanese agreement, on 18 July, to US proposals for a joint intervention in Siberia, and the proclamation, five days later at Vladivostok, of a Siberian Government Council. But the big story coming out of Russia that week was the news that Bolsheviks had executed the Tsar and all his family at Ekaterinburg on 17 July, a measure apparently hurried through for fear that the Czech Legion was on its way.
One thing becoming clear about Russia’s meltdown was that it wasn’t going to end the War in a hurry. Fears that Bolshevik success would spark immediate popular revolution in Europe’s other great powers had faded, and the theory that release of German troops from the Eastern Front would turn the battle in the West had been proved false, though only just. By mid-1918 both sides also recognised that Germany’s submarine-led campaign against shipping lanes had failed to end the conflict, but that didn’t mean the global war on trade was over.
Adoption of convoy systems had reduced Allied merchant losses to manageable, sustainable levels, and U-boats had switched their priorities accordingly, targeting the ongoing transfer of US forces to Europe. Submarines sank five Allied transports between 15 and 19 July – at the cost of one submarine sunk by a British destroyer – and a British armed merchant cruiser on 23 July. The victims included the Cunard liner Carpathia, sent to the bottom on 17 July while sailing with an Atlantic convoy from Liverpool to Boston, and famous as the first rescuer on the scene after the Titanic went down in 1912.
The British meanwhile persisted with their own, more successful version of economic warfare, in place since the start of the War, which combined the Royal Navy’s blockade of enemy ports with some serious diplomatic bullying to prevent neutral countries from trading with the enemy. Nobody needed more bullying than Germany’s close neighbours, particularly Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and all three countries spent the war years juggling the threat of invasion across the German frontier, the threat of starvation or conquest by the British, and the benefits of an economic boom generated by trade with both.
The Dutch juggling act almost came to grief during the spring and summer of 1918. In March, just as the Allies were trying to requisition Dutch ships to address a critical shortage of transatlantic transports, Berlin demanded increased supplies of sand and gravel along the Rhine or the railway from Antwerp to the Ruhr. Agreements with the Allies allowed the Netherlands to export only certain, specifically non-military supplies along these routes, with some sand and gravel permitted for civilian road-building purposes, but German demands coincided with a need for materials to build new fortifications on the Western Front, and everybody knew it.
The German press responded to initial Dutch refusal with barely veiled threats of imminent invasion, and while the Dutch military braced for war the Allies considered a preemptive ‘friendly’ occupation of coastal provinces. Fortunately for a Dutch government that could not agree to either side’s demands and remain neutral, Ludendorff’s plan to invade Zeeland was rejected (for once) by the rest of the Third Supreme Command, and Germany’s massive commitment to the Western Front offensive soon rendered a full-scale invasion of the Netherlands impossible. The British, having already seized the Dutch ships in question (and paid compensation, of course), also needed every available body at the Western Front and advised the Hague to reach a compromise with Berlin, so the Dutch government accepted a reduced German sand and gravel demand, and agreement to restart trade was reached on 2 May.
Reaction from right-wing editors and politicians in Britain was noisy and predictable, denouncing what they saw as Dutch collusion with Germany and becoming increasingly hysterical as the crisis on the Western Front deepened. The British government finally responded to their outrage by issuing a formal protest about the sand and gravel arrangement on 15 July – just as the pivotal battle on the Marne was beginning – and the Dutch quickly agreed to talks aimed at arranging military cooperation in the event of German aggression. The talks began in August, proceeded in friendly, constructive fashion and continued until the Armistice, but by the time they got going much of the tension had gone out of diplomatic atmosphere in Europe because the German end of the neutrality tightrope had sagged.
Within few days of the British protest, the battle at the Marne had revealed the true weakness of Germany’s military position in France, and as Anglo-Dutch relations eased so did the sense of crisis that had gripped British and French society, military and civil, since the shocks of the spring. A generalised fear of impending defeat gave way to an equally broad belief that victory was assured once the US was fully in the fight. The change was both swift and obvious to contemporaries, as nicely illustrated by the immediate outbreak of labour trouble in Britain.
British trades union leaders had agreed to suspend industrial action for the duration in 1914, and the agreement had largely held. Strikes still took place throughout the War but were led by local union leaders or shop stewards, and usually concerned with local disputes over pay and conditions. Even these tended to abate in times of national crisis, and Britain experienced almost no significant strike action amid the manpower shortages and military disasters that blighted the first half of 1918. Victory at the Marne changed that.
On 23 July, as news of German withdrawal from the Marne was still coming in, engineering and munitions workers in Coventry took strike action, and their counterparts in Birmingham followed suit the next day. The strike was, typically, called in response to a perceived infringement of workers’ rights by the government, in this case the ’embargo’, an official ban on the employment of additional skilled labour by certain firms. It was also based on a misunderstanding, because the embargo was a far more trivial matter than shop stewards realised, and only applied to very few companies.
Munitions workers were crucial to the war effort and protected from conscription, so the strike came as a shock to the pubic and brought a punitive response from the government, which announced that all strikers would be liable to conscription if the action continued. It ended after a week, but the shift it reflected in the British national mood, from relatively obedient pessimism to increasingly militant expectation, was destined to outlast the War.
Major distractions have helped make this one of my clumsier efforts, but its vague purpose has been to commemorate a historical turning point that, if not exactly hidden, passed without the kind of totemic event that provides a passport to posterity. During the summer of 1918, sometime after the middle of July and before the start of August, the planet as a whole decided that the result of the Great War was no longer in doubt, and that predictions of its imminent end – fanfared at the beginning of every campaigning season since 1914 – could finally be taken seriously. After four years of fixation on survival, the minds of politicians, generals, ordinary fighters and civilians in every warring state could at last focus on the future peace and their places in it. The battles between states were almost over, and the battles within states were just beginning.
A crucial battle was about to erupt on the Western Front in mid-July 1918. Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it was a case of two offensives clashing. In Berlin, Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command planned one last attempt to turn the German Army’s great Spring Offensive, begun in March, into tangible strategic success (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs). Short of supplies and experienced troops, raddled with influenza and suffering an unprecedented crisis of morale, German forces on the Marne were almost ready to launch a two-pronged attack towards Reims, as a prelude to a bigger offensive further north, in Flanders.
Meanwhile, despite the manpower crisis that faced both Britain and France after the bloodletting of the spring – and ignoring French c-in-c Pétain’s insistence that his exhausted troops were incapable of major offensives until US forces were ready to join the fight – Allied supreme commander Foch planned an attack on the western flank of the German salient (that’s a bulge to you and me) at the Marne. Thanks to prisoners and deserters, each side was fully aware of the other’s plans.
The German attack began first, on 15 July, but had turned into an orderly withdrawal from the Marne positions by 20 July, and by the time it ended on 3 August French attacks (with some British and US support) had driven the line back beyond the Rivers Aisne and Vesle. The fighting was heavy and horrible, costing more than 95,000 French, 13,000 British and 12,000 US casualties on the Allied side, and an estimated 168,000 German losses. The battle finally put an end to the Third Supreme Command’s offensive ambitions on the Western Front, and ushered in a series of, ultimately decisive, Allied offensives during the autumn.
There’s a lot more to say about the Second Battle of the Marne, its turning points, tactical nuances and military-political fallout, but it’s a popular choice with the posterity industry and I’ve got something less stirring and triumphal to talk about. On 12 June 1918, the ‘Denaturalisation Bill’ passed through its first and second readings in the British House of Commons, on the way to receiving royal assent in early August and becoming law the following January.
Denaturalisation in this context meant the revocation of citizenship granted to those born in foreign countries but qualified as British through long-term residence. The bill itself (properly known as the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1918), its bumpy passage into law and the noisy public debate surrounding it shine some light on a social norm of the time that hit one of its wartime peaks in Britain during the summer of 1918. I’m referring to xenophobia, which was uncontroversially indivisible from patriotism for most Britons a century ago and has been making something of a comeback in the last couple of years.
Until 1914, the law concerning British nationality had been based on the 1870 Naturalisation Act, which allowed aliens to become citizens after five years of residence, but successive governments had come under press and political pressure to make it more difficult for hostile foreigners to pose as loyal Britons. Promoted by influential right-wing and ‘diehard’ imperialist elements, this xenophobic pressure mounted in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust towards other European powers and their subjects, especially Germans, in the years leading up the War. It bore fruit just as the conflict was erupting.
The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act received royal assent on 7 August and became law on 1 January 1915. It came in three parts. The first defined ‘natural’ British nationality as belonging to anyone born in the British Empire, anyone born with a British father (even a naturalised father) and anyone born on a British ship. The second section concerned naturalisation, which the Home Office (interior ministry) could grant to any applicant who had lived in Britain for five years and intended to stay there, was of ‘good character’ and spoke ‘adequate’ English. Candidates were required to take an oath of allegiance, and their status could be revoked if obtained by fraud.
The third part of the 1914 Act dealt with particulars, including the treatment of married women, who were deemed to hold the nationality of their husbands, so that a British-born widow (or ex-wife) of a foreigner was considered an alien and required to apply for naturalisation. The section also made clear that although naturalised foreigners could hold any property (except for a British ship) in the manner of natural citizens, they were barred from voting or holding any kind of local or national political office.
Confirmed as law just as national paranoia became government policy, the Act came under shrill attack even before it became active, with the popular press and the right wing of the Conservative Party demanding stronger powers to denaturalise aliens from hostile countries. Hysteria inevitably focused on some 6,000 naturalised former Germans living in Britain, who were portrayed as potential hostile agents, and critics decried the Act’s failure to require naturalised aliens to renounce their former nationality, raising the spectre of British citizens bound by loyalty to the Kaiser. In fact, under the German constitution, Germans choosing naturalisation elsewhere were automatically stripped of their original nationality, but a clause in the same constitution that allowed dual citizenship in certain, officially sanctioned circumstances was portrayed as a loophole through which Berlin intended to destabilise foreign societies.
Amid a tsunami of government propaganda based on the idea that Germans and German culture were intrinsically violent, militaristic, devious and bad, what now seems like hysterical paranoia found ready acceptance among many people at all levels of British society. It crystallised into a campaign in the press and in parliament for a legal means to denaturalise ‘hyphenated’ Anglo-Germans at the whim of the Home Office, and the demand soon became impossible for even a Liberal government to ignore.
The Home Office was considering an extension of revocation powers by early 1916, but civil servants considered it difficult to apply and the idea was still bouncing around committees when the Imperial War Conference of April 1917 was asked to approve a draft bill of amendments to the 1914 Act. This proposed giving the minister power to denaturalise anyone obviously disloyal, of obvious poor character, convicted of a serious crime or absent from the Empire for seven years. It also suggested extending the wartime ban on naturalisation of aliens from Germany or Austria for five years after the end of hostilities.
The Conference – representing British state departments along with representatives of the ‘white’ dominions (which had hyphenation issues of their own) and India – gave the draft bill its overall approval without stipulating any timescale for change. Spared the rod, the coalition government took its time before finally introducing such an intrinsically illiberal piece of legislation for its first parliamentary reading in May 1918. Meanwhile the increasingly furious impatience of the political right, the jingoist press and a considerable section of military opinion (including the Admiralty) were coalescing to turn fear of naturalised Germans into a major national issue.
Rampant anti-German sentiment was reaching a wartime peak by the time the new Act went through its second reading on 12 July. The anti-German ultras were already denouncing the new legislation as soft on aliens, and a proposal to strip citizenship from all Germans naturalised within the last thirty years (and their children, including many men in senior military and civil service positions) was being widely touted to general acclaim from the political right. In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the 1918 Act – essentially a reprise of the 1917 draft proposal – became a little tougher as it passed through parliament, adding contact with enemy states to the list of reasons for denaturalisation, and banning the children of naturalised citizens from public service jobs unless they were given exemption by a special loyalty tribunal.
The new Act still fell far short of the Draconian discrimination against anyone born outside the Empire demanded by the ‘radical’ right and a massively self-important Fleet Street barony, and as such it can be seen as a rescue success for the liberal values at the heart of the Lloyd George coalition. And because the War against Germany and Austria-Hungary had ended by the time it came into force at the start of 1919, momentum drained from the tide of populist xenophobia that had threatened to make the Act the thin end of a very nationalist wedge.
British public xenophobia would be back. An instinctive reaction to fear that feeds on ignorance to identify targetable threats, it is always likely to surface in times of popular panic, especially when encouraged by powerful voices with an eye for populist profit. Over the decades since 1918 it has only tended to come all the way out of the closet during major wars, but these days it’s flouncing around naked in peacetime. So the only point I’d make around the flood of race hatred that almost carried the day in post-Edwardian Britain is this: today’s demagogues of modern economic insecurity are tapping into a form of escapism that runs deep and dangerous in our collective psyche, so maybe we should work harder at coping with reality.
This exercise in vanity publishing has been largely inspired by a desire to shout about the First World War in all the ways popular sources don’t, but today I’m sticking to the populist script. US Independence Day marks the anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel, a small Allied victory on the Western Front that has long been celebrated as a highly significant indicator of the final victory to come. It was that and more, so here’s what happened and then I’ll talk about its extra dimensions.
The Allied attack around Le Hamel was originally conceived as an attempt to straighten a small westerly bulge (or salient) in the front line east of Amiens, opposite the British Fourth Army, and was never more than a minor operation in the context of major offensives being prepared on the Western Front. A succession of German spring offensives had taken the front back to where it had stood in the late summer of 1914 – threatening Paris at the River Marne – and both sides were planning attacks there for later in July. Erasing the Le Hamel salient would prevent German forces from launching flank attacks on the massed artillery support being gathered for the proposed Allied offensive.
The Le Hamel operation was planned by the new commander of the Australian Corps, General Monash, and executed by its 4th Division, with support from sixty heavy tanks and every machine gun unit that could be mobilised, along with four companies of US troops that had been attached to the Corps for training. Launched on 4 July, the attack was a complete success, sweeping the surprised and lightly entrenched defenders of the German Second Army out of the salient. Its limited objectives, the village of Le Hamel and the woods on either side, were achieved within an hour and some 1,500 prisoners were taken for the loss of about 1,000 Allied troops.
Leaving aside the coincidence of its date with one of the first major actions fought by US troops, the reasons this little success has been so well remembered across the decades are primarily tactical. The victory provided the most strategically significant demonstration of a new approach to the problems faced by attackers in the context of contemporary trench warfare. Refined and perfected during three years of trench fighting, and able to flourish once the Allies enjoyed significant numerical superiority in most forms of infantry support weaponry, it was given the oddly insouciant title of ‘peaceful penetration’. The man generally regarded as its leading pioneer was the aforementioned General Monash.
John Monash ended the War as Australia’s most famous soldier, and is still well known there, but these days he’s nobody’s idea of a big star anywhere else. That’s a shame, because he stands out as an example of excellence in a War dismissed by posterity as a command black hole. A reservist, called up to lead a brigade of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in September 1914, he led his troops at Gallipoli, where they suffered horribly and he learned some hard lessons. Given command of the Australian Third Division, which he trained and took to France, he soon gained a reputation for meticulous and efficient organisation, reflected in the division’s much-praised work at Messines and Passchendaele as part of General Plumer’s Second Army in 1917 (7 June, 1917: Listen and Learn). By the time he was promoted to lead the Australian Corps in France, in May 1918, Monash was ready to put his ideas into concerted action – and they made a difference at once.
The basis of peaceful penetration was the concept that infantry should be used to simply occupy territory, rather than expended attempting to reach it. In practical terms, that meant making maximum possible use of mechanised weapons – machine guns, tanks, artillery and aircraft – to devastate a limited quadrant of enemy territory. Ground troops, usually supplied from the air, would then move in to occupy and secure the ground taken, while other mechanised forces were concentrated to prevent counterattacks. Carefully planned coordination between the various battle arms, a speciality of Monash, was obviously vital to any success, but the key word here was ‘limited’, because the difference between peaceful penetration and everything the British and French had done before on the Western Front was that it sought no ‘breakthrough’ into undefended territory beyond enemy lines.
Strictly limited aims, tight secrecy, overwhelming mechanised force and pinpoint coordination had demonstrated their effectiveness during the early summer in a series of highly successful Australian raids across no man’s land, which quickly began to make a noticeable difference to the position of the frontline, albeit metre by metre. Mopping up forward German trenches and taking prisoners with only minor losses, the peaceful penetration raids exposed defenders’ vulnerability to the tactics and prompted the experiment in larger-scale action around Le Hamel.
The success on 4 July did the trick as far as the Allied high command was concerned, and Allied generals would go on to imitate peaceful penetration tactics with varying degrees of success during the offensives of the autumn. The other message received loud and clear by Allied leaders analysing Le Hamel was that the German Army was not the force it had been four years earlier.
The German Third Supreme Command had, characteristically enough, gambled everything on the success of its spring offensives on the Western Front, betting that it could achieve, if not total victory, at least a strong bargaining position from which to negotiate a compromise peace agreement. By the summer, with the front line moved but unbroken, the gamble was failing, and the loss of around a million troops since March could not be made up. If the British and French were already reduced to conscripting men in their fifties, German manpower shortages were far more acute, so that old men and boys now populated large swathes of the German trench system in France, while German economic atrophy was sharpening supply shortages that were already critical. These were recognised by contemporaries as the prime reasons for an evident decline in German Army morale and operational discipline by mid-1918, and that’s still the heritage industry’s line – but the most cursory use of hindsight reveals another important factor: the ‘flu.
The global influenza epidemic of 1918–19 (of which much more another day) is generally regarded as a post-War phenomenon. It certainly killed a lot of people in 1919, but its first wave had arrived in Western Europe by the summer of 1918 and in France it hit the German side of the trenches first. In other words, the victory at Le Hamel was in part the product of intelligent tactics, carefully planned, and partly an accident of nature. This basic, unplanned change in the military situation during the Western Front’s last months has tended to get left out of standard popular narratives written by the winners, and is still being ignored by most of today’s heritage peddlers. If you’re wondering why, I’m afraid you’re being naive about the enduring influence of nationalist triumphalism in a world that imagines itself more socially mature than the one that tore itself apart a century ago. World Cup, anyone…?
So the world as people know it is going to Hell in a handcart, and the pace of scary change is accelerating all the time. Some kind of big, global endgame is surely imminent, and local or regional endgames are already blowing away political certainties unchallenged in decades, even centuries. In case you’re in any doubt, I’m talking about the middle of 1918.
Tsarist Russia was gone, and the Habsburg Empire was all but gone. The Ottoman Empire had already lost most of its outlying provinces, and had finally given up its attempt to expand into the Caucasus when it made peace with Armenian nationalists in May. On 11 June, in a belated attempt to spark nationalist outrage at the Empire’s failure to gain more from the Treaty of Bucharest (7 May, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy), the Young Turk government in Constantinople gave up on the strict press censorship it had imposed throughout the War, releasing a torrent of internal criticism that would soon tear apart a corrupt and reckless regime.
Germany, the other major player destined for defeat, was screeching towards economic collapse and political revolution, while those big hitters with better immediate prospects – France, Britain and the USA – were in the throes of momentous (if often temporary) internal change, self-consciously on the brink of a victory they expected to create a new world order.
Wherever you lived in the world at war in June 1918, except possibly Japan, a peep over the local parapets meant a disquieting glimpse of a bigger picture in rapid flux. The old certainties were evaporating and the prospects kept shifting. In that context, and without providing much in the way of reassurance, trench warfare had become something of a constant by 1918, if only because it had been around for almost four years and didn’t seem to have changed. For ordinary people in major belligerent nations, the static horrors of trench warfare had become a relatively well-established fact of modern life. Reported and debated at enormous length and in great detail by press and politicians, war in the trenches had become the conflict’s principle and most consistent narrative strand, a status it has maintained ever since.
The wartime trench narrative was, of course, a mythic creation, a rolling propaganda tapestry of constant victories that made no difference to anything, side-lit by the ghastly, first-hand evidence of trench veterans. These days, the heritage industry’s core narrative still resides in the trenches and is still steeped in mythology, but presents an anti-propagandist picture of constant defeats amounting to nothing, heavily arc-lit by memoirs of personal suffering. Both pictures have conspired to turn our view of Western Front trench warfare into a collection of one-dimensional snapshots that stress lack of change during the course of four years. Fair enough on one level; the Western Front trenches were static in terms of geographical movement, and the human suffering they inflicted remained the same – but the snapshot obscures the basic truth that trench warfare itself went through plenty of changes.
Trench warfare wasn’t completely new in 1914 – it had, for instance, been a terrible feature of the American Civil War half a century earlier – but the world had never seen anything to compare with the long lines of opposing, massively defended trench systems, invulnerable to flank attack, that were established across northeastern France and western Belgium during the War’s first months. Although the Western Front was by no means the only theatre to experience trench warfare at its most gruesome, it was generally the test-bed for new weapons, defences and techniques, and after a brief phase of desperate improvisation both sides geared up for what they defined, quite understandably, as a gigantic form of siege warfare.
The first requirement of a siege, heavy artillery, was ranged behind the lines to destroy enemy earthworks, kill any troops in the open and take out enemy artillery, all tasks particularly suited to high-trajectory howitzers. As I’ve mentioned before, wartime developments in the use of big trench guns involved increasing their size, trying (with little success) to find ways of moving them around efficiently, and improving their support mechanisms with advances in ballistic science, ammunition technology and aviation techniques (12 April, 1916: Crater Makers).
At closer quarters, whether across the narrow strip of ‘no-man’s land’ or in direct combat, reliance on the rifle as the soldier’s basic weapon never changed, with refinements of existing designs again the main thrust of wartime development (31 August, 1917: It’s All About The Riflemen). More radical progress was made in the development of heavier anti-personnel weapons with greater killing potential, such as machine guns and mortars.
Universally pigeonholed as trench warfare’s great defensive weapon, the machine gun was a bulky, cumbersome, unreliable piece of kit in 1914. Guns weighed between 40kg and 60kg – not counting carriage, mounting, ammunition or (sometimes) an armoured shield – and required a crew of between three and six men. Generally mounted on a flat-trajectory tripod, they could fire 400-600 rounds of small-calibre ammunition per minute from a fabric belt or metal strip, but they were apt to overheat and needed cooling with air vents or a water bag to prevent buckling and jamming. Water bags often needed changing every couple of minutes but machine guns still jammed all the time, so they were usually deployed in sections of three or more for defensive purposes.
Even when put on wheels or broken down for haulage the machine guns of 1914 couldn’t keep up with advancing infantry, so they were of little use when attacking and most wartime development was concerned with finding ways to turn them into viable offensive weapons. They were attached to armoured cars for use on roads or in flat conditions, and eventually mounted on tanks for use in all ground conditions, at least in theory – but neither solution provided reliable direct support for advancing infantry on a regular basis, and the big change in wartime use of machine guns for trench conditions was a general shift to lighter weapons.
Light, portable machine guns existed in 1914 – a few Danish Masden models were in Russian service when war broke out – but were soon being churned out in large numbers by all the world’s arms manufacturers, and had become standard additions to all infantry units by 1918. Weighing between 9kg and 14kg, they could be carried by one man and fired at a rate comparable with heavy models. Ammunition still had to be carried on belts, drums or magazines, and was still heavy, but by late 1917 aircraft were being used to drop ammunition for attacking machine-gunners. The War’s last year saw the appearance in the trenches of automatic rifles and sub-machine guns that were even lighter but often carried only 10- or 20-shot magazines.
Light machine guns could also be fitted to aircraft, for use against ground troops (and other aircraft) when weather conditions permitted, and became standard after the German invention of interrupter gear in 1915 enabled pilots to shoot through their propellers. The mushrooming threat to trenches from the air meanwhile gave heavy machine guns a new role as high-trajectory anti-aircraft weapons, sometimes mounted on lorries.
No army enjoyed any great advantage over its rivals in the design and development of machine guns. Among the most commonly used heavy weapons, the British Vickers and the German Maschinengewehr 08 – both derivatives of the original machine gun design, the American Maxim, as was the Russian standard Pulemyot Maxima – were generally more reliable than the French Hotchkiss and fired more quickly than the Austro-Hungarian Schwarzlose.
The British Lewis and the German Maschinengewehr 08/15 were similarly well-matched light machine guns, although the former’s incompatibility with interrupter gear meant British planes mounted stripped down Vickers guns, but the most commonly used French light gun, the Chauchat, was notoriously unreliable. The United States produced some 57,000 Browning guns after April 1917, along with a slightly smaller number of Browning automatic rifles, but although both were reliable, rugged weapons they didn’t enter service until the autumn of 1918 and the AEF fought most of its battles using borrowed French guns.
When it came to mortars – portable high-trajectory artillery, designed to launch the heaviest possible projectile from its stubby barrel – the German Army began the War with an enormous head start. Mortars had been a feature of siege warfare in the 18th century, but had fallen out of use until the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, when they were deployed with some success by Japanese troops. This was ignored by most European armies but noticed in Germany, which had about 150 of its own Minenwerfer design in service by August 1914. Production was stepped up once trench warfare became established on the Western Front, and they served throughout the War in light (76mm), medium (170mm) and heavy (245mm) versions. Grouped in specialist engineering companies, they all had a maximum range of about 1,000 metres, and during the first year or more of trench warfare on the Western Front they made an important contribution to German tactical superiority.
By contrast, British and French forces entered the War with no modern trench artillery, and relied on antiquated siege weapons, improvised catapults or other crude projectors for a very long time. Allied forces could seldom deploy anything with an effective range of more than about 250 metres until the British Stokes mortar became widely available to trench fighters in early 1916. Probably the most successful Allied design, the Stokes was a very light weapon and easy to construct, but it was relatively inaccurate and its effective range was only 750 metres. By 1917 a full spectrum of French and Belgian mortars was also available, but though the Allies enjoyed an increasingly obvious numerical advantage during the War’s last year they never produced anything to match the Minenwerfer.
The arc of machine gun and mortar development was matched in almost every technical aspect of trench warfare between 1914 and 1918, and nobody seeing the entire Western front campaign from the inside could possibly have called it static. Barbed wire, grenades, camouflage, ammunition, communications and trench design spring to mind as undergoing important changes, but the list could be a lot longer with a bit more effort on my part and might get some proper attention another day. For now, this has been a small reminder that, no matter how often posterity freeze-frames them, the First World War’s trench fighters were experiencing the same tsunami of change that was sweeping the world beyond their shrunken horizons.