All posts by poppycock

11 NOVEMBER, 1918: Peace Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 NOVEMBER, 1918: Midterm Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Just about sums it up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 OCTOBER, 1918: Job Done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ottoman troops surrender to an armoured car at Sharqat.

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

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

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

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

23 OCTOBER, 1918: War And Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 OCTOBER, 1918: With A Whimper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

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

29 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Carry On Crushing

It was all about the Western Front by September 1918, as British, French, Belgian and US forces drove German defenders back beyond the Hindenburg Line, recapturing small villages and landmarks that had become dark icons for the carnage of the previous four years.  Under the circumstances, no surprise that the Western press paid precious little attention to the appointment of a new Japanese prime minister on 29 September 1918, or that today’s Western heritage industry shows no sings of commemorating Hara Takashi’s arrival in office.  Understandable enough, and anyway it’s not as if Japan’s political future made much difference to the rest of us… oh, wait.

Most of my references to the Land of the Rising Sun during the last four years have concerned Japan’s aggressive territorial and economic expansionism on the back of its alliance with Britain, and by extension the Entente powers (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger). Japan’s expansionism during the First World War, particularly in its relations with China, clearly foreshadowed and in many ways shaped the country’s aggressive imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s.  Most historians with any interest in the Great War beyond the French trenches regard Japan’s peripheral participation in the conflict as a learning experience, a rehearsal for future conquests, but you don’t hear much about Japan itself, about what turned the place into such an untamed tiger.  It would take a book to do that subject any kind of justice, and it wouldn’t be my book, but at the risk of annoying proper scholars here’s a skeleton outline.

Japan’s storming industrial, economic and military progress through the late nineteenth century had produced a nationalist culture that had a lot in common with contemporary Germany.  An authoritarian monarchy presided over a regime that had no time for popular politics.  Wealth and political power were controlled by aristocrats, industrial oligarchs and a highly influential military elite, while the country’s large population remained essentially powerless, kept quiet with bread and circuses, the latter in the forms of imperial pageant, quasi-religious social codes and nationalist triumphalism. As in Germany, these circumstances generated enormous pressure for territorial and economic expansionism, as ruling elites sought to provide resources and challenges that would keep the fast-rising population away from the revolutionary politics of discontent, and open avenues for further growth of their own mushrooming military and industrial enterprises.

Let’s not go too far with the German analogy.  Japan wasn’t a new country, and its militaristic, authoritarian character was rooted in martial traditions that had been central to social behaviour and development for centuries.  It wasn’t burdened with a bipolar, autocratic man-child for a monarch, or with a population educated in the ideas and ambitions of mass politics, and it had no reason to fear imminent invasion by powerful neighbours or revolution.  And while the horrific catastrophe of the First World War forced Germany’s ruling elites into the shadows, unleashing a storm of socio-political chaos that shaped Germany’s destiny for decades to come, Japan’s far more positive payoff from the same conflict merely provided its rulers with the money, expertise and confidence to go right on planning their imperial futures.

Imperial roll… Japan was on one.

Army and naval influence in Japanese politics had been on a roll since the early twentieth century, boosted by the prestige attached to a military alliance with Great Britain in 1902 and, above all, to a comprehensive victory over Russia during the war of 1904–05. After a brief backlash during the short-lived Katsura administration of 1912–13, the military had recaptured control of key ministries with the appointment of Marquis Okuma Shigenobu as Prime Minister in April 1914.  Okuma lasted until October 1916, when a hostile genro (senate) engineered his resignation in favour of the more aggressively expansionist General Terauchi Masatake, giving the military-industrial complex licence for unfettered pursuit of its territorial ambitions.

While military strategists focused on expansion into Manchuria and (after Russia’s October Revolution) Siberia, the global economic shifts created by world war were changing Japan from the inside. Sky-high transportation costs (and risks) reduced trade with Europe, but business with the USA and China multiplied and new markets opened up, especially for textiles and other manufactured goods in India and Australia.  Diversification of output brought a lightning increase in Japan’s factory workforce – from 1.2 million in 1914 to 2 million in 1918 – but the country’s labour surplus meant that industrial wages remained relatively low and the only real winners were factory owners, while agricultural wages climbed even more slowly.

Japan wasn’t spared the curse of overheated wartime economies everywhere, and rapid inflation – with rice prices jumping by 400 percent during the conflict – combined with low wages to spark civil disturbance.  Rural food riots broke out in July 1918, becoming steadily more serious until by September they were affecting thirty provinces.  The ‘Rice Riots’ – which also involved industrial strikes, armed clashes, and bomb attacks on government buildings – remain the most violent and widespread civil disorders in modern Japanese history, and failure to keep the peace was the final straw for Matasake.  Already coming under attack in the genro for its apparently uncertain handling of Japan’s Siberian adventure (12 January, 1918: Port in a Storm, Pt.1), his cabinet was forced to resign on 29 September.

August 1918, Kobe, Japan – a factory burnt out by rice rioters.

The new prime minister, Hara Takashi, appeared at first glance to be something new in Japanese politics.  He was the first commoner to hold the office and the first Christian, and this was the first time the elected leader of the country’s biggest political party had actually been given the job.  He was no friend to the military, which generally regarded him as a despicable upstart, and could talk the talk when it came to liberal reform of economy and constitution.  But although his government did seek to maintain good diplomatic relations with other world powers, and tried to maintain a broadly conciliatory attitude towards colonial populations in Korea and Taiwan, it was never willing or able to restrain military ambition, and definitely failed to walk the walk when it came to reform.  Instead, demands for representation by rioters and workers were met with simple repression, and order was restored with a wave of more than 20,000 arrests and a (disputed) number of executions.

The Takasho administration never escaped the uninhabitable middle ground of Japanese politics.  It was still considered too liberal by the military and regarded as its tool by would-be reformers when Takasho’s assassination by a lone right-wing malcontent brought its fall in November 1921, after which aristocrats and soldiers held the premiership for two decades.  Its achievements are generally dismissed as negligible in the greater scheme of things, and from a reformist perspective there’s no arguing with that assessment, but its negative impact on the wider picture shouldn’t be ignored.

Takashi – very important in Japan, and a civilian!

The Takasho regime’s ruthless burial of popular discontent in 1918 enabled Japan’s military-industrial complex to motor serenely into the post-War era.  Well on the way to establishing complete control over the Manchurian economy, firmly established as world power to be reckoned with and laden with cash from wartime trading surpluses, the oligarchs, the army and the navy could proceed with their expansion plans untroubled by any real need to address the issues raised by popular politics.  Thanks in no small part to Takasho’s diplomatic efforts, they were also free from any real fear of interference by other world powers.

In a geopolitical environment shaped by condemnation of military-industrial expansionism, but fixated on the political instabilities of European populations, its society’s superficial calm helped Japan look like part of the solution rather than the problem.   Although the excess cash was destined to evaporate during a depression in the early 1920s, and military attacks on China would raise occasional squawks of disapproval from the Western powers, Japan’s acceptance into the supposedly pacifist world of post-War diplomacy would not be seriously challenged until long after its withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933.  Bit of a mistake really, and one that seems worth remembering…

19 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Armageddon!

Everyday parlance generally dates the First World War between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918.  That was the lifespan of the conflict between Britain and Germany, the two belligerent countries that were genuine contenders (along with the untouchably distant USA) for the title of Top Nation during the early twentieth century. Historians tend to expand the dates to cover those other conflicts that helped fuel, were fuelled by or were triggered by the First World War.  Some commentators cite the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05 or the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 as the world war’s start point.  More extend its life beyond 1918 to include the Russian Civil War, the Japanese war for control of China and myriad other conflicts – revolutions, as well as civil, local or regional wars – that festered on into the 1920s.

I’m with the latter approach, partly on the grounds that, before the Internet age, the pace of world history varied enormously across the globe, but mostly because it’s pretty ridiculous to describe the early 1920s as ‘peace’ unless you’re viewing everything about the twentieth century through the prism of the Western Front trenches.  That said, there’s no denying that a lot of big, world-historically important battles were reaching their endgame during the early autumn of 1918.

On 19 September, four days after Allied forces from Salonika began the walk in the park that would the knock Bulgaria out of the War and advance to the Austrian frontier, British General Allenby launched the offensive that would drive the Ottoman Empire out of the Middle East and to the brink of destruction.  The offensive opened with the action known in Europe as the Battle of Megiddo, but known to Arab historians by a name that, given the region’s subsequent history, seems chillingly appropriate:  the Battle of Armageddon.

Having occupied and secured Jerusalem in late 1917 (11 December, 1917: Marquee Signing), Allenby had intended to deliver a ‘decisive’ blow against the Ottoman Empire the following spring.  The arrival of two divisions from Mesopotamia and a cavalry division from France brought his fighting strength up to some 112,000 men, the army’s command structure and supply systems were streamlined in preparation for the attack, and stocks of ammunition, artillery, livestock and lorries were expanded.

Meanwhile the RFC’s establishment of complete air superiority in the theatre effectively denied Germano-Ottoman forces in the theatre the use of aerial reconnaissance, and Allenby exploited the advantage.  He opened the campaigning season in 1918 with a secondary advance into Jordan, to the east of the front, and minor, probing attacks along the rest of the line.  These confirmed his decision to launch his main attack along the flat, cavalry-friendly coastal plains to the west, but their principal aim was to suggest that the British assault would come in the east, towards the vital communications centre of Dera.

German General Liman Von Sanders, who had taken overall command of the theatre on 1 March, could call upon about 39,000 Ottoman troops defending a 100km line north of Jerusalem. Another 80,000 or so troops scattered around the Middle East offered potential support, along with 10–15,000 more besieged in Medina by Arab Revolt forces, but Liman von Sanders was not given command of either the army protecting Aleppo to his rear or most Ottoman forces in Arabia.  His overall control was further weakened by Ottoman leader Enver Pasha’s decision to send 50,000 troops, including some German units from the frontline Yilderim Force in Palestine, to the Caucasian Front.

Numbers were just one of the problems facing Liman von Sanders. Ottoman regional administration had all but collapsed, with government contracts unpaid from 1917, the railway system falling apart and most economic activity being diverted for British use by Arab smugglers.  Mounting Arab hostility to the Constantinople regime was becoming a major problem within the Army, and morale was being further eroded by resentment of German influence, cancellation of summer leave and severe shortages of almost everything, including coal, wood, clothing, food and ammunition.

All in all, Allenby had every right to expect a game-changing victory as reward for careful planning in the spring of 1918… but like every British imperial operation outside France, the Palestine project was put on hold by the early successes of the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front.  Although Indian reinforcements arrived during the summer and his cavalry strength was largely untouched, some 60,000 of Allenby’s best infantry were transferred to France between March and August 1918, forcing him to reschedule his attack until the autumn.  The only significant British operation of the summer was a rerun of Allenby’s spring preparations, another feint to the east that persuaded Liman von Sanders to leave a third of his forces in Transjordan (7 April, 1918: Holy Smoke).

The delay did Allenby’s chances no harm at all.  In the month before mid-September, Ottoman forces in the theatre had lost 1,100 men to desertion, while supply shortages had worsened.  Most potential reinforcements had been diverted to the Caucasian Front, leaving the Yilderim Force holding the frontline with only 29,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 400 artillery pieces, all of them short of basic equipment.  The British could meanwhile deploy 57,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and 540 guns for the attack, with 30,000 troops in immediate reserve, all technically and qualitatively superior to their Ottoman equivalents and becoming more so all the time.

The same was true of the battle for control of local airspace. German Army Air Service strength in Palestine had fallen from 56 aircraft in October 1917 to only five the following September, by which time the RAF’s Palestine Brigade comprised 105 machines.  Superior British SE-5s and Bristol Fighters were able to carry out important reconnaissance, ground-support and bombing operations almost unopposed before and during the Megiddo operation, and continued to block German reconnaissance that might have uncovered the deception behind apparent British moves towards Dera and Amman. The deception was important because the timing of Allenby’s main attack was broadly predetermined – after the summer heat and well before the onset of the late-autumn rainy season – and the success of his planned cavalry attacks depended on at least some element of surprise.

Airco DH-9
SE-5

 

 

 

 

After a short preliminary bombardment and a series of raids by Airco DH-9 bombers against communications points all along the Turkish line, the offensive finally opened on 19 September.  With support from mobile artillery, aircraft and destroyers off the coast, four infantry divisions under General Buffin (along with a token French colonial unit as a nod to French regional ambitions) attacked the Turkish Eighth Army, which was protecting the coastal plains from positions on the north bank of the Nahr el Auja River. The first two lines of Ottoman trenches fell almost immediately, and two cavalry divisions charged into the gap created.  Crossing the coastal plains of Sharon and Armageddon, they had captured the Turkish Eighth Army’s headquarters at Tel Karm, 25km behind the lines, by late afternoon.

Further east, two divisions under General Chetwode launched a secondary attack north of Jerusalem at noon the same day, inflicting heavy casualties on the Turkish Seventh Army (led by Mustapha Kemal) and driving it back on its base at Nablus, so that by the following morning it was level with the remains of the Eighth Army. Even the east of the line suffered amid the confusion enveloping Ottoman commanders, as two cavalry divisions launched a raid into Transjordan and 5,000 Arab rebels led by Lawrence surrounded the Turkish Fourth Army’s base at Dera.

Allenby wasted no time driving forward in search of complete victory.  By the afternoon of 20 September, British cavalry (with support from light armoured cars) had cleared defenders from the coast and sped on to occupy railway stations at El Affule and Beisan, about 70km and 100km beyond the original lines.  A raid on Liman von Sanders’ headquarters at Nazareth meanwhile forced its evacuation and an infantry brigade blocked Ottoman retreat lines through the Dothan Pass, capturing 6,000 prisoners in the process.

Ottoman PoWs being marched through Nablus on 24 September. Most retreating troops suffered this fate…
…but retreating Ottoman forces also suffered plenty of casualties, like this Yilderim Force column bombed to destruction on the road to Beisan.

Ottoman escape routes were being pinched off, and although a force of some 2,000, mostly German, troops fought their way east towards the Jordan on 21 September, few others escaped.  Nablus and Nazareth had both fallen by that afternoon, while bombing raids inflicted heavy casualties on forces trying to retreat via the passes and river fords leading to Transjordan.  British cavalry took the supply ports of Acre and Haifa next day, before sweeping inland to block the only eastward route not occupied by British ground forces, a 40km gap between Beisan and units holding Transjordan.  By sunset on 24 September all escape routes had been closed and some 40,000 troops captured.

Denied reinforcements from Damascus, Liman von Sanders tried to set up a new defensive line along the River Jordan, south of the Sea of Galilee, but had only deployed a few hundred troops there when Australian cavalry brushed them aside on 25 September.  Arab Revolt forces meanwhile broke a stand at Dera by remnants of the Turkish Fourth and Seventh Armies, and by 26 September Allenby’s cavalry was in pursuit of a general Ottoman retreat on Damascus.

You’ll be needing this.

Allenby hadn’t yet knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the War, but he wasn’t far off.  Despite the opposition’s patent feebleness, his victory at Megiddo is generally regarded as a rare example of British command excellence during the First World War, and as a lesson in the effective use of cavalry in the machine age.  All true, given that you can only massacre what’s in front of you, but British commentators have tended to ignore the political mess Allenby was creating as he went, albeit under strict orders from his masters in London.   I refer, inevitably, to his barefaced betrayal of the Arab Revolt (6 July, 1917: Image Bank Raided).

The presence of Arab Revolt forces at Dera, far to the north of their previous hunting grounds, reflected both a wave of popular support for the rebellion and the close cooperation with British plans agreed by its de facto leader, Prince Feisal.  Cooperation was predicated on British promises of post-War independence, and was strongly supported by Lawrence, who may or may not have already realised that the British had no intention of keeping their promises.  Fostered by Turkish propaganda that revealed details of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, suspicion of British intentions was certainly in the air – as evidenced by Feisal’s insistence on installing Arab administration of captured territory before British officials could arrive – and as Ottoman defence crumbled the Anglo-Arab advance towards Damascus became a race for post-War control.

Except it wasn’t really a race, because the British Empire had long since decided to take control of the Middle East (while allowing the French their trading outlets).  The British had carefully positioned themselves to play on rivalries between Arab tribes and factions, and knew they wielded more than enough military, diplomatic and economic clout to override Arab ambitions with impunity.   They were wrong.  It took a few decades and a few more betrayals before the Arab world was free to make its own geopolitical mark, but these days it takes a lot of heritage triumphalism to mask the fact that Britain is still being punished for its greed in the aftermath of Armageddon.

15 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Walkover

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.

Nice, simple map… that’s what you need.

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.

Bye-bye Balkans… German troops bathing in the Crno weren’t ever coming back.

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.

European capital city meant teeming metropolis, right? Not in the Balkans:  Sofia in 1918.

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.

7 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Talk Is Cheap… Or Not.

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.

And here it is… cash and gold from Russia arriving in Berlin.

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.

OK, so I could only find a Canadian picture to steal, but it’s British imperial and it makes my point.

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.