All posts by poppycock

25 JULY, 1917: Green Shoots

Today marks the centenary of the first session of the Irish Convention, an attempt to resolve what the British persisted in calling the Irish Question that failed completely, reflected badly on its creators and participants, and helped polarise Irish politics through the decades of civil violence that followed.  Despite taking place slap in the middle of a crucial phase in the modern political development of a country hooked on history, you can see why the Convention has been largely ignored by posterity.

That doesn’t make it right, and forgetting about the Convention is a classic case of history being written by the winners.  While the subsequent successes of militant Irish republicanism have rendered glorious a failure like the Easter Rising, they have tended to obscure the failures of history’s losers, in this case those trying to negotiate for Irish autonomy within the British Empire.  You miss things that way.

I sketched a few paragraphs of Anglo-Irish history into my post about the Easter Rising (24 April, 1916: Heroes and Villains), so here I’ll just remind us all that autonomy within the British Empire, known as Home Rule, had been a raging political issue on both sides of the Irish Sea since the 1880s. Furiously opposed by the right wing of British politics (and the British Army occupying Ireland) and by the unswervingly pro-British Protestant population of Ireland’s industrially developed northeast, Home Rule was also despised as a half-measure by those Irish nationalists seeking full independence, whether or not they accepted violent struggle as an acceptable means to that end.

Home Rule was the aim of the moderate nationalists that made up the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the smaller All-For-Ireland League (AFIL), and it had the theoretical a support of the British Liberal Party.  The Liberals in government were never strong or brave enough to actually enact Home Rule until the second general election of 1910 left them as a minority government.  Dependent for survival on the support of 42 Labour MPs and 84 IPP/AFIL members, the Asquith government had no choice but to force Home Rule through a hostile House of Lords, but an attempt to introduce it in 1914 collapsed under the threat of rebellion in pro-British Ulster, and the War gave the Westminster government an opportunity to put the process on hold for the duration.

For most Irish people, as for most Europeans in 1914, political issues were trumped by war in all its emotive (and illusory) glory.  For almost two years the British were able to get away with yet another relapse into dithering inaction in Ireland, but the actions of relatively small cohorts of militant nationalists – gathered around organisations like the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and the more politically focused Sinn Fein – had already shaken British confidence by the spring of 1916, when the Easter Rising convinced Asquith’s coalition to throw the Irish a bone.

A month after the Rising, Asquith announced that he was sending war minister Lloyd George to Ireland to discuss the implementation of Home Rule with IPP leaders John Redmond and John Dillon. Given that Home Rule for a united Ireland was still fundamental to IPP aims and still anathema to Ulster Unionists, the talks stood no chance of success, but they did boost popular hopes of peaceful change at an important time.

Lloyd George – who held simultaneous but separate discussions with Unionists – made enough hopeful noises to both sides to keep the discussions dragging on until late July, when they finally collapsed, leaving the IPP leadership with nothing to show for its trouble except a very public humiliation.

The sense of crisis that pervaded Britain during and after the Somme Offensive extended to Ireland, and it wasn’t until 1917 that the extent of damage to the moderate cause became clear.  On becoming prime minister in December 1916, Lloyd George had responded to IPP requests for action on Home Rule with another piece of gesture politics, granting a Christmas amnesty to Irish internees in Britain.  The gesture merely released committed republicans back into Irish politics, which did the IPP no good at all, and in an atmosphere of rising popular support for an immediate ‘Irish Settlement’ Sinn Fein won its first two by-election victories in April and May 1917.  Well aware of the need to appease the strongly pro-Irish sentiment of Britain’s newest and most important ally, the USA, Lloyd George tried again.

Joseph McGuinness won Sinn Fein’s second ever seat in parliament, at South Longford in May 1917. He was in prison at the time, and didn’t take up his seat when he got out.

On 16 May Lloyd George made the Irish parliamentarians an offer of home rule for the 26 counties of southern Ireland, excluding the six counties of Ulster.  If this was unacceptable, he offered to call a conference of all parties in Ireland for the purpose of hammering out a system of self-government.  Faithful to their long, public commitment to all-Irish autonomy, the moderates chose the latter option, and in the process lost their last vestiges of political credibility in Ireland.

Sinn Fein refused to attend the Convention, as did the small AFIL delegation, both preferring to focus their efforts on winning electoral support, but 95 delegates representing a fairly broad cross-section of Irish life and political opinion were present for the opening session on 25 July.  That was as good as it got, because it quickly became clear that, no matter what the British had led them to believe, neither side had any intention of budging an inch.

The majority, led by IPP delegates, remained committed to autonomy within the Empire for all Ireland, while the northern unionist minority refused to include Ulster in any devolution process.  The small group of southern unionist delegates did put forward a compromise proposal, known as the Midleton Scheme, for an all-Irish parliament hedged by guarantees of Ulster’s separate identity.  It prompted weeks of highly detailed debate, and gave increasingly desperate moderates an opportunity to express a lot of unwarranted optimism, but had changed nothing by the time the Convention spluttered to a halt in late March 1918.  Its final report in early April amounted to little more than separate statements of both sides’ unchanged aims.

Members of the Irish Convention outside Trinity college, Dublin, in 1917 – a cross-section of moderate, middle-aged, white Irish men.

The Convention’s prolonged and much-derided failures did permanent damage to the IPP, to the cause of moderate Irish reformers in general and to the popular credibility of Home Rule in Ireland.  Lloyd George wasted no time finishing them off.

Although the Convention’s majority report in no way amounted to the ‘substantial agreement’ stipulated by the British government as a condition for implementing Home Rule, Lloyd George agreed to begin the process of implementation on the IPP’s terms, but only in return for the extension of conscription to Ireland.  Deemed necessary in the light of a sudden manpower crisis created by the German spring offensive on the Western Front, this bundling of Home Rule and the spectre of compulsory service effectively guaranteed the former’s popular rejection in Ireland.

The tortuous death of Home Rule pushed the Irish political agenda firmly and irretrievably towards republicanism, and the most obvious political consequence of the Convention was the irresistible rise of its most trenchant critics.  Sinn Fein had made a breakthrough in 1917 by winning its first four by-elections, and went on to win two more in 1918 before adding another 67 at that December’s general election.  The same election saw the IPP’s vote collapse, leaving it with only six parliamentary seats, and signalled the ‘War of Independence’ that finally secured southern Ireland’s freedom from the British Empire – but that’s another story.

The Convention was hardly Irish nationalism’s finest or most important hour, but looked at dispassionately it seems worth remembering for a few reasons.  In itself, it was the long, loud anticlimax that exposed the futility of seeking Home Rule within the Empire for all of Ireland, and conclusively confirmed the refusal of Ulster’s unionists to countenance any degree of separation from Great Britain.  Meanwhile the well-meaning, all-absorbing and circuitous efforts of the IPP,  some northern unionists and a small group of southern unionists to achieve an unlikely agreement left moderates in the south politically paralysed, stuck in wait-and-see mode while republicans galvanised popular opinion with demands for immediate change.

From a British perspective – the one I’m stuck with – everything about the Convention and its outcomes is a reminder of something our heritage view of the First World War tends to bypass altogether. By the time war broke out, it was probably impossible for Ulster and the rest of Ireland to develop as one nation, but the British routinely peddled false hope to both sides as a means of neutralising any distraction from the war effort, and casually shattered that hope when the same war effort had more need of Irish soldiers than Irish approval.

In 1917 Great Britain was fighting for its life or, if you prefer to take a social-historical view, British ruling elites were fighting for their fiefdoms.  Either way, the struggle entailed the ruthless exploitation of allied and occupied countries in ways that often left them poor, unstable, vulnerable to conquest or all three.  Germany tends to attract most of the opprobrium for that kind of behaviour during the Great War, and it’s not hard to see why, but if we forget what the British got up to we might end up with a warped worldview based on the idea that the rest of the world thinks we’re the good guys. Where that might lead, Gove only knows…

14 JULY, 1917: Stuck In The Middle

A hundred years ago today, after exactly eight years in office, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg resigned as Germany’s Imperial Chancellor.  On the same day, far to the northeast, the first Provisional Assembly of Estonia opened its first session.  Neither centenary is likely to make much of a splash in British heritage terms, but both signalled big changes in the modern history of their own countries.  I’ll start, like you do during world wars, with Germany.

Bethmann Hollweg’s departure had been coming.  The advent of the Third Supreme Command, a lurch towards totalitarian control over an all-out war effort by a military-industrial oligarchy, had condemned Germany’s wartime political truce, or Burgfrieden, to a slow death, leaving the Chancellor adrift in the space between polarising political extremes.

I won’t repeat my enthusiastic condemnation of the Third Supreme Command’s dictatorship (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint), except to point out that its attempt to harness every aspect of German economic life to the pursuit of total victory deliberately rode roughshod over political opposition.  Liberal or moderate left-wing elements, both within the labour movement and in the Reichstag (parliament), were by then accustomed to being consulted, and even occasionally listened to, in line with the Burgfrieden, and reacted by stiffening their opposition.  As the exceptionally harsh winter of 1916–17 brought severe civilian shortages and faltering popular morale, political opposition focused on the Supreme Command’s refusal to consider any peace built on less than total victory, while industrial opposition took the form of strikes and street protests.

Bethmann Hollweg could only weave between the lines and hope to find some route back to national unity, but he never really stood a chance.  Although he retained the support of the Kaiser – who was, in his one-eyed, bewildered way, equally desperate to keep the nation together – the Chancellor was regarded as part of the problem by both the Reichstag and the Supreme Command.  His attempts to broker a negotiated peace were as hopeless as they were half-hearted (18 December, 1916: Peace?  No Chance), and though he hoped to appease the Reichstag by prising a promise of post-War constitutional reform from the Kaiser in March, it was too little too late.

April saw the US enter the War, while a wave of strikes hit industrial production in northern Germany and the political debate about war aims became entangled with demands for immediate constitutional reform.  All this helped undermine a hitherto solid popular faith in the Supreme Command’s promises of imminent victory, and with no sign that the regime intended to listen to, let alone meet any of its demands, rising public discontent encouraged the Reichstag’s main opposition parties to come together and formally demolish the Burgfrieden.

All pomp and bad circumstances… the Reichstag in July 1917.

On 7 July 1917 the centre and socialist parties tabled a joint declaration in the Reichstag demanding an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities.  Known as the Peace Resolution, it was proposed by Max Erzberger, a leading member of the conservative Catholic Centre Party who generally regarded socialists as Satan’s little helpers, and it was passed by 212 votes to 126 on 12 July.  A direct affront to the Supreme Command’s ambitious plans for expansion into Eastern Europe, the Resolution left Bethmann Hollweg high and dry, unable to support either its proponents or its right-wing opponents.  Liberal leaders in the Reichstag, the Supreme Command’s phalanx of right-wing deputies and senior military officers were all sufficiently dissatisfied with the Chancellor’s dithering response to form an unlikely (and very temporary) alliance that forced his resignation on Bastille Day.

Appropriately enough, Bethmann Hollweg’s fall marked the start of a new phase in Germany’s accelerating collapse to revolution.  Faced with the firm parliamentary expression of public opposition, and with something less than full support from the civilian head of government, the Supreme Command simply sidelined the Reichstag and the office of chancellor.  Bethmann Hollweg’s replacement, Georg Michaelis (appointed after the Kaiser refused to accept the Supreme Command’s first two choices, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz) was a puppet of the Ludendorff regime with no personal support in the Reichstag.  That didn’t matter to the Supreme Command because it had stopped listening to the Reichstag, which did manage to remove Michaelis in October – only to be saddled with another puppet, the elderly Bavarian right-winger Georg von Hertling – but otherwise exerted no significant influence on policy for the rest of the War.

In response to its loss of parliamentary legitimacy, and by way of providing a semblance of popular mandate for its pursuit of the Hindenburg Programme’s crazy targets, the Supreme Command put funds into a new political pressure group, the Fatherland Party.  Led by Tirpitz, and loudly in favour of all the Supreme Command’s expansionist visions, it was launched in the autumn of 1917 and did eventually boast more than a million members, but most came from the conservative agrarian or military communities, and it had no impact on the gathering storm of disempowered opposition from practically every other sector of German society.

The emblem of the Fatherland Party, 1917-18.

While Germany was being plunged into a deadly experiment in totalitarian post-democracy, a nation with rather less hubris when it came to world-changing destiny was taking its first, albeit faltering step towards a future as a sovereign democracy.

Until the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917, modern Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, divided between the province of Estonia to the north and the northern, Estonian-speaking part of Livonia to the south. The region was effectively ruled by an oligarchy of semi-feudal landowners, many of them German-speaking, but Russification during the nineteenth century had reduced the influence of the German language on popular culture. Nationalist and Estonian language groups had sprung up during the early twentieth century, particularly during and after the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and had become well established without achieving anything much by 1917, when the February Revolution changed everything.

You are here…

In line with its revolutionary principles, the new Provisional Government in Petrograd issued a decree on 12 April 1917, unifying the regions of Estonia and northern Livonia as an autonomous Governate of Estonia, and calling for elections to a national assembly. Using a system of two-tier suffrage designed to ensure the influence of reliably socialist soldiers and industrial workers, the elections were a political battleground on the Russian model, with Bolshevik and other revolutionary agitators competing for popular support with more moderate socialists, liberals and nationalists. The 62-seat Provisional Land Assembly (known locally as the Maapäev) that met on 14 July at Toompea Castle, the traditional seat of power in Estonia and the country’s current parliament building, reflected all those interests across seven fairly evenly matched party groupings.

While nationalist and moderate elements coexisted with revolutionaries for whom independence and liberal parliamentary institutions were merely steps on the way to a new world order, autonomy left Estonia open to the free passage of Russian agitators and ideas. Far from producing the basis for unified progress towards sovereign status, the arrival of democracy plunged Estonia into the same kind of chaotic factional warfare that was undermining the Provisional Government in Russia.

Months of instability culminated in a failed Bolshevik coup d’état in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution, prompting a declaration of full independence by the Assembly in November 1917. Revolutionary parties fared poorly in new elections held the following January, but Russian-funded Bolsheviks responded with a second, more serious attempt to seize power, and that persuaded the newly independent nation to ask for German protection.

Russian war minister Kerensky addresses sailors in Revel (Tallinn). The port was a major Russian naval base and a hotbed of revolutionary activism.

Estonia got German protection in spades. After expelling revolutionary forces from the port of Revel (Tallinn to you and me) in February 1918, the German Army put the country under military occupation, inevitably coupled with economic exploitation. The small Estonian Army created by the Assembly was disbanded in April, which left the country virtually defenceless when the German withdrew after the Armistice, a situation immediately exploited by a Red Army invasion.  The Soviet force (ostensibly made up of Estonian revolutionaries) was eventually prevented from retaking Tallinn by Royal Navy warships in the Baltic, and driven back into Russia by a reconstituted Estonian army the following January. Fighting inside Russia continued for most of 1919, and Russia’s Bolshevik regime officially recognised Estonia’s full independence by a peace treaty signed in February 1920.

So while a defiant expression of German liberal democracy left it helpless in the face of right-wing dictatorship, the first expression of Estonian liberal democracy plunged a country so far untouched by three years of fighting into virtual civil war as it fought off left-wing dictatorship.  In both cases, the existence of democracy depended on the goodwill of authorities that were anything but liberal, and in both cases it would take a long, painful process to establish liberal democracy as genuine political force.   If there’s a lesson for the future to be drawn from these vaguely linked events, I guess it’s that anything stuck in the middle of the political road – be it Bethmann Hollweg, Estonian nationalism or liberal democracy – is a fragile thing in extreme times.  Oh, and that democracy handed out to populations by powerful third parties – be they kings, empires or multinational coalitions – can always be taken away again.

6 JULY, 1917: Image Bank Raided!

A best-selling memoir and a brilliant biopic can do wonders for a person’s place in posterity, and the stirring legend of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia to you – definitely owes something to the fictions perpetrated by both. This is generally accepted by modern historians, and has prompted an understandable tendency to play down both the influence Lawrence exerted on the Arab Revolt and the value of his military exploits.

Fair enough, and if all memoirs were treated with the same scepticism we’d be a happier human race, but revisionism (like revolution) has an innate tendency to overshoot.  It is true that Arab leaders deserve more credit for their successes than Lawrence himself gave them, and that other British figures at large in the Arab world played important roles in encouraging, fostering and arranging support for the Arab Revolt – but Lawrence was at least partly responsible for some pretty amazing stuff, and shouldn’t be downplayed out of sight.

I mention this because today marks the centenary of the Battle of Aqaba, an engagement that was raised to such improbable glory by memoir and movie that it can be (and sometimes is) dismissed as mythology.  To be sure, it wasn’t quite the heroic, crucial victory against massive odds portrayed by David Lean, and Lawrence wasn’t its sole or necessarily its major architect, but it was a very important moment in Arab Revolt’s development as a strategically significant movement, and Lawrence certainly played a resourceful part in making it happen.  Before I attempt a moderate, unbiased account of the thing, a little context wouldn’t go amiss.

When I was last there, the Arab Revolt was on the up.  From a position of embattled defence against numerically superior Ottoman forces, the Revolt’s principal army had successfully defended the port of Yenbo at the end of 1916, captured the small but important garrison town of Wejh in January and conducted an effective guerilla campaign against Ottoman supply lines to southern Arabia (24 January, 1917: Trains And Boats And Brains).

At this point the Revolt’s two main priorities were maintaining momentum and securing supplies from Britain.  Momentum and the high reputation that came with victories were vitally important recruitment tools in a land of war bands whose willingness to fight depended on essentially mediaeval principles of personal loyalty to particular warlords.  Military defeat, or even relative inactivity, was always likely to deprive the Revolt’s ‘Sherifian’ leaders of troops and sympathetic help from local populations.  Without the help of British weapons, British military advisors and Royal Navy units in the eastern Mediterranean, numbers of troops would hardly matter, because they would be fighting the relatively modern Turkish Army with nothing but swords, spears and the occasional musket.

The extent to which Lawrence was responsible for field commander Prince Feisal’s decision to make a surprise attack on Aqaba remains a matter of opinion, but he certainly played some part in planning a bold enterprise that addressed both priorities.  A little-used port at the junction of the Sinai Peninsula and Arabia (and now part of Jordan), Aqaba offered a supply route to British bases in both Egypt and Palestine, and could be a base for future Arab Revolt operations in northern Arabia.  On the other hand it was well protected from attack by sea, and its desert overland approaches were generally regarded as impassable for attackers, so taking it would be a major boost for the Revolt’s all-important fighting reputation.

You’ll be wanting another map. Won’t you?

Lawrence was among the leaders of a war band that left Wejh on 9 May 1917, at the start of a thousand-kilometre trek to seek approval and assistance for the attack.  He helped secure the support of Auda abu Tayi, known (by the British) as the ‘Robin Hood of Arabia’ and the region’s most storied warrior, whose presence helped swell the group’s numbers by about 500 men, most of them mounted.  Lawrence also led a diversionary raid into southern Syria – blowing up a bridge in what is now the Lebanon by way of distracting 3,000 Turkish Army regulars stationed at Maan, east of Aqaba – and seems to have been responsible for the decision to attempt the attack on Aqaba by the overland route.

Auda led the party, by now some 5,000 strong, across the desert to Aqaba, and that was the hard part, not least because only about 1,000 Ottoman troops were stationed in or around Aqaba and most of their heavy weaponry was positioned against an attack from the sea.  An Arab assault on a fort outside the port on 2 July killed or took prisoner about two-thirds of the garrison, and Auda led a camel charge that overran the port’s sparsely populated inland defences on 6 July.  The 300 or so Turkish troops left in Aqaba surrendered without a fight next day.  The battle had apparently cost the attackers two casualties, a claim that can never be verified because all Arab manpower figures derive from some kind of guesswork, and the folklore brownie points that came with the victory added around 2,000 more troops to the Revolt’s cause.

Aqaba – more important than it looks.

Exhausted and hungry after its epic desert sortie, the Arab army was likely to evaporate if it wasn’t supplied in a hurry, and although Lawrence didn’t play much part in the actual fighting around Aqaba he did set off overland for British headquarters in Cairo immediately after the battle.  His effort was rewarded by a very positive reception from British c-in-c Allenby, and a rapid supply operation that kept the Arab army intact.  Allenby agreed to establish Aqaba as the centre for logistic support of the Revolt’s operations in northern Arabia, and Feisal moved his headquarters there in August.

Always worth a picture of a quality First World War general, and Allenby knew his stuff.

More importantly from an Arab (or at least a Sherifian) perspective, news of the victory, routinely exaggerated in the telling, boosted support on the ground for the Revolt’s spread into northern Arabia. From now on, a pan-Arabian post-War state seemed within reach to the Revolt’s leaders, as did the more immediate prospect of driving the Ottoman Empire out of the Arab world altogether by sweeping the Revolt into Syria and seizing the main hub of Constantinople’s power in the Middle East, Damascus.

Beyond the Technicolor legend and our national obsession with Lawrence, Aqaba was a watershed in the history of modern Arab independence, and should be celebrated as that… but it was also a fateful turning point in the relationship between modern Arab independence and the British Empire.

As well as supplying the Revolt, Aqaba would soon serve as the eastern base for British advances through Palestine and into Syria, and the British (as well as the French) were very interested in the post-War economic benefits of controlling Damascus.  British strategists were happy enough to make promises to Arab leaders about pan-Arabic independence – as they were happy to promise almost anything to any ally or potential ally during this war – but they had no intention of relinquishing their economic ambitions in the region.  They were confident that possession of Damascus would secure those ambitions at the post-War conference table, provided they could get to the city ahead of the Arab Revolt.

So capturing Aqaba didn’t just ignite the Revolt in northern Arabia and cement the alliance between its leadership and the British Empire; it turned the unequal allies into unequal rivals.  In the short-term, that set up a race to Damascus between Allenby and the Revolt, and once the War was over it inspired a post-War betrayal of the Sherifian cause that, while routine to the great white powers responsible, would have fateful consequences for the future of the world.  Important stuff, and for my money well worth a high-concept blockbuster – but I guess it’s short on domestic ‘human interest’ for the heritage market, and it’s way less audience friendly than Anthony Quinn on a camel.

1 JULY, 1917: The Last Straw

The second half of June 1917 was, in some ways, a bustling interlude for Europe at war.  The great Allied offensive in France had failed, the German attempt to end the war with submarines was failing and the overthrow of the Russian tsar hadn’t brought the end of civilisation as great power strategists knew it – but there was plenty of tidying up and polishing of tarnished images to do before the next wave of fighting, scheduled for early July.

The first division of US Army troops landed at the French port of St. Nazaire on 25 June, a moment that brought a proud tear to the eye of their watching c-in-c, General John J. Pershing, but had no immediate military significance.  The First Division – some 14,500 men, many of them raw recruits – was in for a long spell of training by French officers and a longer wait for any action, but the enormous Allied fanfare that greeted its arrival was all about boosting popular morale after another disappointing spring.

The French were meanwhile taking the opportunity to tidy up the mess they’d helped make in Greece, as discussed the other day, and the British firmed up for a renewed invasion of Palestine by appointing General Allenby, a seasoned, senior general, to command the theatre (24 March, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip).  The German High Command, having learned more from the Battle of Messines than the victorious British, was busy toughening up its defences on the Western Front, and preparing for the offensive Haig was quite obviously planning in Flanders by transferring troops there from the dormant Eastern Front (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn).

The German Army could afford to do this because Russian armed forces were still far too busy with revolution to perform any coherent military function.  This was old news by late June, recognised on all sides as a fact of life and emphasised when the Russian Black Sea fleet mutinied at the Crimean base of Sevastopol on 21 June.  It’s a measure of the Russian Provisional Government’s desperation to establish some sort of control over the revolution’s cascading chaos that, when the brief European interlude came to a crashing end on 1 July , it was shattered by the launch of a major Russian Army offensive.

Known as the Kerensky Offensive or the July Offensive, the attack was planned by the Provisional Government’s effective leader, war minister Kerensky, and the Russian Army’s new c-in-c, General Brusilov.  Both recognised that it represented an enormous gamble on the Army’s willingness to fight, and both knew the odds were heavily against success.

The collapse of the Provisional Government’s fantasy that an outburst of international pacifism would end the War left Kerensky with little option but to hope that a ‘liberty offensive’ against the ‘imperialist’ Central Powers, and ideally a victory, would unite popular opinion in defence of the revolution while encouraging Russia’s allies to maintain vital economic support (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).  Brusilov, the architect of Russia’s only notable military success on the Eastern Front, had been on the point of dismissal before the new government promoted him, and regarded the Army as doomed unless it could be revived by the patriotic unity that only a fighting victory over a hated enemy could inspire.  Between them they set up a repeat of the 1916 offensive in Galicia, at the southern end of the Eastern Front, that had made Brusilov’s name (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…).

Whereas the first Galician offensive had attacked along the whole Galician sector, lack of reliable manpower restricted the second to two main thrusts.  Brusilov took command of the northern attack, by the combined remains of the 7th and 11th Armies (31 divisions, now renamed the ‘Red Army’) along a 65km front around the town of Brody.  Launched on 1 July, it went very well at first, taking 10,000 prisoners on the first day and driving German General Bothmer’s largely Austro-Hungarian Südarmee back towards Lvov – but it soon lost momentum as low morale, chaotic supply lines and the arrival of German reinforcements (sent from the Western Front once Brusilov’s preparations had made his intentions clear) reduced its advance to a crawl.  Aware that his forces were falling apart, Brusilov called off offensive operations around Brody on 16 July.

There’s your map. You’ll be needing it.

Meanwhile, in the Bukovina region to the southwest, General Kornilov’s Russian Eighth Army had opened its attack along a 100km front south of the River Dneister on 6 July.  Facing Austro-Hungarian forces that were barely fit to fight, it too enjoyed early success, breaking through the lines west of Stanislau on 8 July and advancing some 30km by the time the attack ran out of steam on 12 July.  With troops refusing to fight and supplies running short, Russian forces were static or withdrawing all along the Galician front when Bothmer’s reinforced Südarmee launched a major counterattack on 19 July.

Preceded by a 7-hour preliminary bombardment and led by German Army units, the counterattack’s main thrust was aimed at Brody, and it blew away the right wing of Brusilov’s force, gaining 15km in the first day – at which point the Red Army disintegrated, with most troops simply giving up and going home.  Austro-German forces then advanced into empty space, retaking Stanislau on 24 July, reaching Czernowitz on 3 August and crossing the Galician frontier either side of the Dneister by the time new c-in-c Kornilov – who replaced Brusilov on 1 August – had stabilised the front.

The Russian Army was just about capable of an attack in July 1917… but ran away when it was attacked.

A supporting offensive by Russian and Romanian forces based in Moldovia was eventually launched on 22 July, and met a similar fate. After making initial gains, it was halted when German General Mackensen’s multinational army in Romania counterattacked on 6 August.  By 9 August Mackensen’s troops had won a battle around the town of Foscani to threaten the Allied rear, but although one Russian division disintegrated of its own accord the Romanian Army, drastically reorganised since the debacle of its 1916 campaign, regained some of its former reputation by refusing to buckle.  The Allied line was still holding at the end of August, when the German High Command switched its attention to other fronts.

The Kerensky Offensive is not part of our First World War heritage showreel, and on one level that’s fair enough.  Like so many other wartime offensives it was a miserable failure that achieved none of its aims and wasted thousands of lives.  On the other hand, and unlike any of its better-remembered predecessors, it was decisive.

After the offensive’s failure, the Russian Army effectively ceased to exist and, apart from an experimental German attack around Riga in September, serious fighting on the Eastern Front came to an end. The Provisional Government in Petrograd never recovered from the stigma of sending Russians back into battle, and had no more big cards to play as the revolution passed irrevocably into the angry control of the streets and the soviets.  The German High Command, recognising that it could leave Russia to fall apart on its own, was able to redistribute its forces for fighting on other fronts and the exploitation of occupied eastern European territories.  Given the momentous consequences of these changes – in the short term for other battlefronts and for the German war effort; in the long term for the history of Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the superpower world – the Kerensky Offensive stands as one of modern history’s great military turning points.

So while you’re applauding 150 years of Canada’s benign consumerism, and just before the heritage industry swamps you with remembrance of Passchendaele’s hapless horrors, raise a glass of something very cold to Kerensky’s doomed last throw of the dice. The July Offensive may have been the worst kind of First World War battle, a grotesque waste of lives in a cause its perpetrators knew to be all but hopeless, but at least this batch of dead soldiers changed the world.

27 JUNE, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut

Today was the day, a century ago, that the politics of Greece sorted itself out, at least for the moment.  The monarchy, if not pro-German then at least unwilling to upset Germany, had been driven from Athens, and a Provisional Government – based in the northwest of the country, led by veteran statesman Eleftherios Venizelos and protected by the huge Allied army camped at Salonika – finally took formal control over the state as a whole.

So what had happened to untie the political and diplomatic knot that had condemned Greece to almost two years of virtual civil war?  It hardly needs saying, this being the imperial world war, that the big European empires had something to do with it, and if you’ve checked into any of my earlier rambles through Greece you won’t be surprised to find that the French were the prime movers.

Most of the French government, the French armed forces and the French population had been united in coercing the Allies into parking an international army at Salonika, and keeping it there, by way of appearing to defend Serbia.  Government and armed forces were less united when it came to dealing with Greek King Constantine and his apparently pro-German regime.  The French government kept faith with diplomatic efforts to persuade Constantine into the Allied ranks, a cause made plausible by the monarch’s affable, courteous assurances that he was almost ready to agree.  Meanwhile the French Army and Navy, which dominated Allied operations in the theatre, encouraged the breakaway, pro-Allied movement led by Venizelos and plotted the King’s overthrow.

This destructive echo of the divisions in elite French society reached a crisis at the end of 1916, when the military found excuses to send French ground forces into Athens, and royalist Greek troops used extreme force to drive them away (1 December, 1916: Gunboat Diplomacy).  At this point, the French political establishment and population lost patience with Constantine, but for a lot of very good reasons they were in no position to do anything about it for a few months.

Once the French war effort had gone through a change of government, the disastrous Nivelle Offensive and the Army’s mass mutiny; once the world and all its battlefronts had taken a deep, shocked breath in the cosmically uncertain aftermath of revolution in Russia; and once the vast, multinational collection of diseased, demoralised or potentially mutinous troops at Salonika could be trusted to at least look menacing – the French got rid of King Constantine.

It wasn’t a difficult job.  On 11 June, French forces seized strategic points in southern Greece and presented an ultimatum demanding Constantine’s removal from power.  Constantine left the country next day, abdicating in favour of his second son, Alexander, leaving the way clear for the resignation of the royalist government, the appointment of Venizelos as premier and, on 27 June, his arrival in Athens.

King Alexander of Greece  caused a scandal by marrying a commoner – that’s colonel’s daughter Aspasia Manos at his side – and died after being bitten by a monkey.  That’s about all you need to know.

The Provisional Government had declared war against Germany in November 1916, and the declaration became effective for all of Greece on 29 June, while a ‘state of war’ was declared against Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  What had been the Provisional Government’s 60,000-strong Army of National Defence became the basis for a reconstituted Greek national army, which joined Allied forces on the Salonika front in July, and Greek ships seized during the previous year’s quarrels were returned to join Allied anti-submarine forces in the Mediterranean.

The first Greek troops head for the Salonika front… expensive, late and not about to make much difference.

So the Allies had finally brought Greece into the War after almost three years of tying themselves in knots trying.  History backs the impression held by contemporary critics, that the success added almost no strategic value to the Allied cause and had cost far more than it was worth – but the same can be said of almost all the bribes offered to entice smaller countries into the conflict.  More resonantly from a modern perspective, the French had overridden mild objections from the British and Italians to institute regime change in Greece.  To liberal opinion worldwide, and despite reservations about the means involved, this at least seemed cause for some satisfaction, because Venizelos espoused liberal values and boasted a solid record as a supporter of representative democracy. After decades of turbulence and war, surely the people of Greece could at last look forward to a more stable and peaceful future.

Well, no…

Venizelos was indeed inclined to follow democratic process, but he was above all a nationalist.  He went on to prove it by demanding full satisfaction of his territorial ambitions at the post-War peace conference and, when he didn’t get it, ordering the military occupation of the region around Smyrna (Izmir) in western Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnically Greek portion of its population. As Turkish resistance matured into war, and the war went badly for Greece, the illusion of stability evaporated.

Venizelos was a nationalist with expansionist ambitions… but then so was every Greek leader for more than a century.

The sudden death of King Alexander in October 1920, immediately followed by a landslide electoral defeat for Venizelos and his Liberal Party, brought Constantine back to the throne, but he abdicated again in September 1922 after the final defeat of Greek forces in Turkey.  His successor (and eldest son), George II, lasted eighteen months before he was overthrown and a republic proclaimed… and so it went, on and on into the twenty-first century.

I think we know by now that war can make for strange bedfellows – the British and Ibn Sa’ud spring to mind, while Roosevelt and Stalin make the point in spades – and it’s easy to assume such arrangements are the product of clear-eyed realpolitik on both sides. The Greek denouement of June 1917 wasn’t at all like that.  Some Allied authorities on the ground understood Venizelos in the context of his political environment, but by 1917 their masters were set on a happy path laid out by their own relentless propaganda.

Years of propaganda had portrayed Venizelos as the good guy, the political moderniser who would bring coherence, stability and a grateful attitude towards western democracies.  Meanwhile Constantine, a complex character who was no more willing to join the Central Powers than the Allies, who was liked and trusted by the network of European aristocrats who knew him personally, and who could be described as a peaceful man with the best interests of his people at heart, was publicly dismissed in Allied circles as the greedy partner to tyrants.  By 1917 all that propaganda had convinced its creators to invest energy, resources and extravagant promises in a new regime that paid back nothing but the same old trouble – and the trouble has never really gone away.

Like so many other places reshaped by the needs of great powers during the Great War, Greece offered some fairly obvious lessons for future exporters of regime change, especially the one about accepting your own propaganda view of the candidate you’re backing.  Lesson learned?

16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

By way of an anniversary, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd a hundred years ago today.  I plan to talk about it in context rather than in detail, because although it confirmed the legitimacy of the Provisional Government that had, in the form of various coalitions, been trying to run Russia since the February Revolution (in March), it otherwise reflected the chaotic nature of its political environment.

Most of the thousand or so delegates, and most of the workers or soldiers they represented, simply wanted food and peace in a hurry, but debates were guided by the more political animals among them, representing a wide spectrum of liberal and socialist views. These politicians, some of them hardened opponents of the old regime at the climax of a decades-long struggle, bickered along the lines anyone with a working knowledge of socialism in the early twentieth century would expect.

The majority wanted controlled, relatively gradual change within something like the social, political and geopolitical norms of the day, while a substantial minority argued for immediate revolution and a completely new socio-political world order. For the moment, the political gradualists still held sway in Petrograd and Moscow (the only places that really mattered when it came to controlling Russian politics), but with every day that passed without peace or economic transformation the workers and soldiers became more impatient, their mood more in tune with the aims of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary political factions.

Messrs Skobelev, Chkheidze, Plekhanov and Tsereteli.  Members of the Provisional Government and executive committee members of the All-Russian Congress, these were the relatively moderate socialists trying to hold back the tide of revolutionary pacifism in Russia.

The Congress both reflected the wild state of flux that had characterised Russian politics since the beginning of the year (and that generally accompanies revolution on the streets wherever it takes place), and was one of its by-products. Worker’s and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, had been a feature of the half-cocked 1905 revolution in Russia, and had returned in force during 1917, springing up spontaneously or as the work of local agitators all over Pertrograd, Moscow and the armed forces. During the February Revolution, those in the capital had been loosely organised into a central Petrograd Soviet, which had since been acting as a form of volatile but extremely powerful parliament, allowing the new Provisional Government to remain in power at its pleasure and drawing it ever further to the left.

The Petrograd Soviet was meanwhile facing its own challenges from below. In an attempt to add some semblance of concrete to its essentially ad hoc authority, it had organised a meeting of all the soviets it could muster, convened on 3 June with the understandably grandiose title of the National Conference of Soviets. The main business of the Conference was to organise the systems of credentials and voting necessary to turn itself into a congress that could claim a national, democratic mandate for policy decisions.

After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik-controlled All-Russian Congress would go on to function as the supreme political authority in Russia (rather than the whole USSR) until 1936, but in June 1917 it was just another noisy institution flailing in the whirlwind of ongoing revolution. While its leaders jockeyed to fill power vacuums, its constituent soviets swung towards radicalism and their delegates waited to be replaced, its debates centred on the one shared aim that might, if achieved, bring relative calm and the prospect of real social progress: peace.

Everyone with anything to say inside revolutionary Russia talked about wanting peace, and Russia – with its army, economy and society in ruins – was obviously ripe for peace, but wanting peace wasn’t quite the same as being a pacifist or as simple as it sounds.

For Marxism-inspired revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky – important street politicians in the context of the Petrograd whirlwind, but at this stage hardly bookies’ favourites as Russia’s next leaders – peace was a simple matter. Unwavering pacifists, they had opposed the War since before it began, regarded the conflict as a grotesque example of elite classes getting underclasses to do their fighting for them, and simply demanded that Russia stop fighting at once, leaving the warring states to sort out any fallout for themselves. This view resonated nicely with the impatient masses, but not with the gradualist side of Russian socialism, and not with the Provisional Government.

Left-leaning, and lurching further that way to keep up with events, but still essentially attached to the principles of pre-War liberal Europe, the Provisional Government desperately wanted peace and a chance to calm the storms, but not at any price. It promoted the socialist slogan – ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ – that had already become a global buzz-phrase for pacifists, but it didn’t want to leave Russia at the mercy of a victorious German Army and it didn’t dare risk the loss of Allied economic aid by walking away from the fight. The government instead pinned its hopes on ending the War by bringing international socialism together for a peace conference – but by mid-June that wasn’t going so well.

In early June, the National Conference of Soviets (along with Dutch and Scandinavian socialist groups) had sent invitations to a conference in Stockholm to socialists from all the belligerent countries, but most belligerent governments were in no mood to grant passports to travelling pacifists and immediately banned delegates from travelling to Stockholm. Even more damagingly, a majority of Western European socialists at war, though in theory committed to seeking peace, remained patriots first and foremost, determined on a peace in line with their country’s needs and ambitions. The same catch had undermined international socialism’s stand against war in 1914, and pre-conference talks with international socialists already in Petrograd as observers quickly demonstrated that as yet, despite war-weariness and the rebirth of socialism as a revolutionary force in Russia, nobody else on either side was willing to abandon national interest for international brotherhood.

Displaying the kind of optimism it takes something like the overthrow of an emperor to generate, the Provisional Government clung to the belief that Stockholm represented a real chance of peace, pinning its hopes on the fact that the British government, alone among the major allies, had granted passports to pacifists. By the time the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened those hopes had been dashed, and the British government was in the process of changing its mind. Why and how the Lloyd George coalition dithered its way to disapproval pretty much summed up why mainstream socialism was, as diplomacy had been a few months earlier, incapable of delivering peace in 1917.

For obvious strategic reasons, the British government wanted the Provisional Government to survive and carry on fighting. With the Labour Party installed as part of the governing coalition, it was also less afraid of pacifists or revolutionaries than most European governments (and less hostile to socialism in general than the USA), so its first reaction to the Stockholm proposals was to give peace and the new Russian regime a chance. Passports were therefore granted to a small group of pacifists, led by Labour MP and future premier Ramsay Macdonald, but they were prevented from sailing from Aberdeen on 11 June by the Firemen’s and Seamen’s Union, which then organised a nationwide blockade of ports to stop them finding a another route out of the country.

The leader of Labour’s pacifist wing thwarted by a picket line? Cartoon gold in 1917.

The stated reason for this superficially bizarre behaviour was the seamen’s fury at public rejection by pacifists, and by MacDonald in particular, of their demands for reparations from Germany to compensate the victims of submarine warfare. MacDonald tried to defuse the situation by making a statement accepting the seamen’s view that reparations should be paid to both Allied and neutral victims, but it made no difference because the real issue behind the blockade was the union’s mistrust and resentment of pacifism itself.

The delegation gave up and went home on 15 June, by which time popular and press support for the union’s actions had made clear to the cabinet that, much as the government wanted to give peace without indemnities a chance, the nation as a whole wanted the pound of flesh propaganda had led most people to expect. The delegates’ passports were cancelled, any hope disappeared that the Stockholm conference would be more than another token gathering of powerless pacifists, albeit bolstered by the newly empowered pacifists of the Russian revolutionary left, and the government in Petrograd was left with the impossible task of satisfying bellicose allies and a pacifist population.

Peace was what everyone wanted, even in Britain, but pacifism was another matter altogether.

Just how badly that turned out is another part of the wider story. For now, this grossly simplified, largely fact-free amble through the muddy, swirling waters of socialist politics in June 1917 is a reminder of how quickly the solidarity of opposition can be turned into civil war by the expectations, dilemmas and compromises that come with power. It is also, like the fate of Austrian Emperor Karl I (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), a reminder that once you start breaking up a system you’d better go all the way, or someone else will do it for you. They can often seem like a good idea to people trying to balance a vested interest in stability against a conscience, but moderate revolutionaries are still an oxymoron trying to deliver the impossible… so watch your back, M le Président.

7 JUNE, 1917: Listen and Learn

This seems a good moment to take another look at the Western Front, because at ten past three in the morning on 7 June 1917 a massive explosion in Flanders, heard clearly in London, signalled the start of the limited British offensive known as the Battle of Messines.  Messines stands out as something rare indeed during the first three years of war in the theatre, a clear-cut victory for the BEF, and it marked a minor turning point in the War on the Western Front – but it gets my attention today because, with a little more creative thinking from the British high command, it might have been a major turning point.

The unarguable sense in which Messines was a turning point followed from the French Army’s mass mutiny at the end of the spring’s Nivelle Offensive (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front), which handed prime responsibility for further offensive action on the Western Front to the British.  British c-in-c Haig, who had been required to comply with the plans of successive French commanders since his appointment in December 1915, was finally free to run his own campaign, and the first thing he did was transfer the main thrust of British attacks north to Flanders.

The Messines Ridge, a natural strongpoint just south of Ypres, had been in German hands since 1914, forming a small salient (or bulge) in the Flanders front line. General Plumer, commanding the BEF’s Second Army in front of Messines, had been planning an attack on the Ridge for almost a year, and had devised a relatively cunning plan for the purpose. Making no attempt to achieve any kind of breakthrough, Plumer planned to make maximum use of mobile artillery, tanks and poison gas to protect advancing infantry. Heavy artillery would also support the attack with a creeping barrage, a tactic that had worked well during limited operations in the latter stages of the Verdun campaign but had failed miserably in support of full-scale breakthrough attempts (12 February 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear). Plumer’s plan also placed great reliance on one other surprise element: mines.

Anybody reading this probably doesn’t need telling about the nature of conventional land mines a century ago, but I’ll tell you anyway. Mines as we understand them today – essentially explosive booby-traps placed in the ground as anti-personnel devices – did exist in 1914. Primitive and largely ineffective, because they relied on the force of the explosion to cause any damage, they were regarded as barbaric by most regular armies and hardly used during the first three years of the War. Improvised anti-personnel mines had become a weapon of choice for guerilla fighters by 1917, most notably those of the Arab Revolt, who added shrapnel (stones, spent shells or anything hard that could be crammed inside the casing) to make them more dangerous, and underground mortars planted by the German Army as anti-tank weapons would become commonplace on the Western Front during 1918. In the meantime, mines on the War’s main battlefronts still meant tunnels dug beneath enemy positions.

Digging mines under the enemy had been a common extension of trench warfare, usually in siege conditions, since at least the sixteenth century. Used to hide infantry or filled with explosives and blown up, they were inevitably employed in great numbers by both sides of the static Western Front, and formed an almost private subterranean battlefront in its busiest sectors.

Shhhhh…..!

Wartime military mining was a tense and horrible job, whether in the crowded conditions of the Western Front or in the dangerous climates of other fronts. Specialist miners, usually drawn from coal-producing regions, worked under constant threat of discovery, often by enemy mines only a matter of yards away. Secrecy depended on silence, with ‘listening parties’ employed to detect enemy mines. Once discovered, mines were generally blown up (or ‘had their cover blown’), either by enemy ‘counterminers’ or by pre-emptive self-destruction, and sudden underground explosions were a routine occurrence around heavily contested hills and ridges.

Military buffs, then and now, get quite excited about Plumer’s mines.

Messines was one such ridge, and Plumer’s pre-match preparations counted as one of warfare’s great mining efforts. Starting in January 1917, his troops dug twenty mines under German positions, completing more than 8km of tunnels. Only one was discovered and blown, and the other nineteen were packed with 600 tons of explosives. Before the battle, an 18-day preliminary bombardment of German forward trenches by more than 2,300 big guns and 300 heavy mortars informed the defenders that an infantry attack was coming, but they weren’t expecting the mine explosions, which brought utter chaos, created a number of enormous craters and killed at least 10,000 men.

And I mean enormous…

Nine divisions of infantry advanced under a creeping barrage in the wake of the explosions, and took all their preliminary objectives within three hours. Reserves from the British Fifth Army and the French First Army had moved in to take their final objectives by mid-afternoon, and a German counterattack the following day failed badly, losing more ground than it recovered. Counterattacks continued for another six days but made no progress, and the BEF had occupied the entire Messines salient by the time they petered out on 14 June.

A tidy victory, and the first battle in the history of the Western Front to see defenders lose more casualties (25,000) than attackers (17,000), Messines provided a huge boost for Allied morale at a time when it was badly needed – but it could have been more. The enormous impact of Plumer’s mines, the knowledge that getting away with the same trick again would be very difficult, a sense that the Germans had been caught at an unusually weak moment, and the fact that mining was only really feasible under high ground all contributed to the operation being viewed by the high command as a one-off, when it was in many ways a blueprint for success in the context of trench warfare.

With the chimera of the knockout blow removed from the drawing board, Plumer’s success drew on the experience of front-line commanders fighting in conditions that made anything more than limited gains impossible – notably Australian veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, like General Monash, who had learned to focus everything on protection of initial infantry advances, and to settle for what they could get without losing that protection. As such, Messines foreshadowed the approach that would eventually bring Allied success during the last months of the war in France and Belgium, but in June 1917 it failed to change the thinking of the Western Front’s new head honcho.

To repeat one of my more routine tropes, there’s no justification for the idea that a collective failure of generalship was one of the fundamental reasons the First World War went so badly for everyone. Generals were needed in far greater numbers than ever before, so some pretty mediocre officers were inevitably given jobs they were barely fit to handle, but the real problem was the technology of the day, which rendered useless every form of attack known to military theory in 1914. Plumer was only one of many generals in many armies who found ways of overcoming or adapting to those terrible circumstances – but that doesn’t mean the First World War was distinguished by much in the way of great generalship at high command level, or that commanders you might class as competent didn’t have bad days or particular weaknesses.

I’ve always been inclined to classify Field Marshal Haig as a competent general, not special or exciting but on the whole sensible, and I like to rail against the ridicule he suffers at the hands of the heritage industry – but he wasn’t the man to spot a way forward in the details of Plumer’s attack, and you could call that a weakness, or at least as evidence that he wasn’t any kind of military genius.  Haig also had his bad days, and his subsequent decision to repeat the mistakes of his French predecessors and launch yet another massive breakthrough offensive, this time around Ypres, was definitely one of them. The decision propelled the BEF into the prolonged mess the British usually call Passchendaele, a disaster that has, for many of them, defined Haig ever since.

30 MAY, 1917: All Guts, No Glory

Offensive warfare can be seen as strategically desirable, as a means of overcoming opposition to getting what you want.  It can also be seen as psychologically necessary, a means of venting fear, anger, outrage, jealousy, simple hatred or any other negative emotion. Chuck in the simple need for self-protection that defines defensive warfare, and you have the motivations behind pretty much every military activity during the First World War – except the long fight for unchallenged possession of colonial East Africa.  That had become an example of war for war’s sake.

The East African campaign began as a standard case of strategically desirable offensive warfare, as the British Empire sought to expand its colonial interests in Africa at the expense of German colonies all over the continent.  By the time the Empire’s latest theatre c-in-c, South African general Jaap van Deventer, took up his new command on 30 May 1917, the campaign had become a saga.  That was because a small, brilliantly organised force of German and native troops, led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had been leading an ever-expanding British pursuit on an epic wild goose chase for almost three years.

Lettow-Vorbeck was still at large in the spring of 1917, still defying all attempts to capture, wipe out or even permanently subdue his elusive columns, and still performing military wonders for the sole purpose of keeping the fight going.  His justification for waging war for war’s sake was a desire to divert as many Allied resources as possible from fronts that had more strategic value, and the British high command had obliged by pouring men and machines into the theatre in ever-increasing numbers.

Sketchily, and without ever really getting across how Lettow-Vorbeck’s Robin Hood act made the British look like the Sheriff of Nottingham, I’ve already covered East Africa until the departure of Jan Smuts as British c-in-c in January 1917.  I’ve given a nod to at least some of its crazy-paving sideshows (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut), and I’ve banged on at length about the destructiveness of the whole pointless exercise.  It killed a lot of people, it permanently degraded a hitherto fertile, relatively comfortable part of Africa, it dragged third parties (like Portugal and the people of other African colonies) into a war they really didn’t need… and I’m not planning to repeat the long versions of all that.  I am planning to take the story a little further, and to follow it into another one of its weird backwaters.

Once he took over in January 1917, new British c-in-c General Hoskins spent the next four and a half months reorganising supply and communications systems, which had been left in a terrible mess by the autumn campaigns.  A particularly heavy rainy season, along with desperate food shortages and the loss of about 20 percent of his (largely African) strength to disease, prevented any kind of offensive action, and his requests for reinforcements quickly made him unpopular in London, where Smuts had fostered the illusion that the East African campaign was all but won (16 March, 1916: Alien Invasion).

After South African premier Botha had refused to send further reinforcements north, Hoskins was removed and Deventer, a veteran of the campaign and a trusted colleague of Smuts, returned to East Africa to become the tenth British c-in-c in the theatre since 1914.  South African reinforcements were duly supplied, and Deventer (who spoke no English and needed an interpreter to deal with most of his subordinates) took over the process of building up and organising imperial forces for a summer offensive aimed at finally defeating Lettow-Vorbeck, rather than at occupying territory and calling it a victory.

Another fine moustache… and is that Captain Darling to the right of General van Deventer?

Deventer did, however, face one immediate operational challenge. In a miniature mirror of the campaign as a whole, a single enemy unit was busy making a mockery of the claim that Smuts had reduced the theatre to ‘mopping up’ operations.

Lettow-Vorbeck had escaped Smuts the previous autumn by fleeing into the swamps of the Rufugi Delta, in the southeast of the old German colony, where his forces survived on improvised rations and supplies, completely cut off from contact with Germany but safe from faltering British efforts to trap them. They were still there on 6 February, when part of one of Lettow-Vorbeck’s columns – a force of about 700 native troops, or askaris, accompanied by a handful of German troops, several hundred bearers and three light field guns – broke away from the main body and marched north into British-held territory.

Their commander, Captain Max Wintgens, launched the expedition without official sanction from Lettow-Vorbeck, against the explicit orders of his immediate superior (who retreated further south at the same time), and for reasons that have never been made clear. He may have been responding to askari requests to fight closer to home, to an urgent need to find new food supplies or to a simple personal dislike of Lettow-Vorbeck, but his maverick moment turned out pretty well from the point of view of anyone waging war for war’s sake.

After conducting a few local skirmishes, Wintgenns led his force northwest towards the northern end of Lake Nyasa and the town of Tabala.  Meeting and defeating a combined South African and British colonial force on the way, it besieged Tabala from 18 February, but was driven off by a British relief column on 22 February. His strength down to 450 men, 11 machine guns and two field pieces, Wintgens made a series of feinting manoeuvres to escape pursuit, and had almost reached the relatively fertile and undamaged region around Lake Rukwa before the British re-established contact in mid-March.

An attack by one British battalion on 17 March threatened to trap Wintgens at the mission of St. Moritz, which was hemmed by swollen rivers on two sides, but a counterattack on 20 March saw the British camp surrounded. Though Wintgens abandoned the position after a British relief force arrived on 26 March, he used the delay forced on the British evacuate his entire force from St. Moritz, using improvised rafts to cross the rivers, by 3 April.

Too short of supplies to pursue, the British drafted extra troops into the region and requested the help of Belgian forces from the Congo, while Wintgens focused on finding food supplies and headed east, before turning north towards Kipembawe. His main force clashed with one of the reinforcing British battalions in late April, driving it back from Kitunda mission and occupying the town on 4 May. By this time Wintgens needed to pause for rest and recuperation, not least because he and many of his European contingent were suffering from typhus, but the arrival of Colonel Murray’s main British pursuit force compelled him to move north again within a week.

War was Hell in East Africa, and though the British sent machines to help, they weren’t much use in jungle conditions.

Wintgens had become seriously ill by 21 May, when he passed command to Naumann, and he surrendered to Belgian forces on 24 May. Naumann meanwhile had little choice but to keep running, and led his askaris northeast to cross the Central Railway at Mkalama, now pursued by imperial forces that amounted to some 4,000 men. By early June, Deventer was forced to recall Murrray’s regiment in preparation for the British summer offensive, and Belgian units, finally ready for action two months after they were mobilised, took over the hunt for Naumann, who reached the shores of Lake Victoria late that month.

Hampered by poor supplies and lack of reconnaissance aircraft, the Belgians eventually caught up with their prey on 29 June, but were defeated near the lake at Ikoma. Naumann escaped again, this time to the south, and made for Kondoa Irangi and the Central Railway. Once the Belgians had dealt with their severe losses, they spent the next month chasing in vain.

By late August Naumann had eluded or defeated all pursuers to reach the Kilimanjaro area, but the endgame was coming. With Belgian units being withdrawn to take part in the main Allied offensive, now in progress far to the south, the pursuit was again dominated British forces, and the dispatch of British reinforcements by rail compelled Naumann to run southeast.  This time, Deventer had attached mounted infantry to join the pursuit, and it made the difference.  Desperately short of supplies and unable to outrun the horses, the remnants of Naumann’s column were pinned down at Luita, north of the Central Railway, and surrendered on 2 September.   Even then a detachment remained at large, and it took another month before the British finally captured the last 14 Europeans, 150 askaris and 250 bearers.

Route map – German, so the names don’t quite match, but hard work will get you there.

During the course of a chase lasting almost nine months and covering some 3,000km, what is known as the Wintgens-Naumann Expedition had punched way above its weight when it came to influencing strategic dispositions in the theatre, not just because it attracted pursuit from thousands of troops but also because it forced British commanders to defend all the places it might attack. It had also laid waste to everything in its path that could be of use to the enemy, and had sparked a propaganda tantrum from the British. Faced with such shocking evidence that the East African campaign was not done and dusted, the British had devoted a lot of column inches to publicising tales of atrocities carried out on German orders, a response that forced them to charge Wintgens with murder after his capture – and then to release him for lack of evidence.

These were the achievements that made heroes of the Expedition’s leaders and provided the world with a tale of derring-do, improvisation and endurance that stands with the most stirring military adventures of modern times.  Looking back from 2017, and bearing in mind the matrices of pointlessness the Expedition inhabited, they don’t seem to me to amount to anything very positive, more an illustration of the nineteenth-century attitude to warfare – as an essentially ennobling exercise, character-building for individuals and societies – that helped propel the developed world into the catastrophe of 1914.

So why am I bothering to talk about this?  First, because it shines what seems to me an interesting light on the weirdness of warfare in East Africa a century ago, and secondly as a rambling but timely reminder that stirring military adventures, especially when carried out for no reason any sane person could possibly call good, inflict just as much death, misery and long-term destruction as the dull ones.

18 MAY, 1917: Lottery Winners

Since the United States had entered the War, at the start of April 1917, the impact of its decision had been felt on every battlefront and in every belligerent country, or at least in those that could be considered strategically self-propelled (6 April, 1917: Woodrow Who?).

Belligerents on both sides knew the clock was ticking on a decisive shift in the War’s balance, and that had everyone on the hurry-up, including Allied strategists anxious to limit US influence over the shape and character of the post-War world. On the other hand, the USA wasn’t going to make much practical difference to the conflict in the short term, because it would take at least a few months to bring its enormous military and economic potential to bear on the battlefields, so at this stage the decision’s impact on the War was almost entirely psychological.

The same couldn’t be said of war’s impact on the United States.  A century ago today, the US Congress passed the Selective Service Act into law, introducing conscription to the nation for the first time, so this seems a good moment to take a look at what joining the First World War did to a vast democracy founded on pacifism.

Three years of neutrality had hardly left the USA untouched. European wartime needs for armaments and raw materials had fuelled a massive manufacturing and trade boom. Because the Central Powers had been blockaded off the trading map, trade was focused almost exclusively on supplying the Allies, which had quickly exhausted their cash and saleable US assets before taking loans from US banks to the tune of $2.6 billion by April 1917 (out of a total spend of about $7 billion, compared to a German debt of only $27 million).

The boom altered the dynamics of American politics. The sudden rise to global economic status of the ‘great neutral’ shifted the balance of a long conflict between the non-interventionist, liberal values upon which the US was founded, and outward-looking, socially conservative elements seeking to establish a global economic empire through the unfettered expansion of big business. Weighed down with orders, politically ironclad as purveyors of the new prosperity, with money to burn and free to exploit all those markets (in Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific) left open by the flight of European money, big business couldn’t lose.

Although a steady improvement in US workers’ rights and conditions during the early 20th century continued after 1914, wartime political clout enabled businesses to maintain the restrictions on union action imposed by ‘antitrust’ laws. At the same time, the boom brought 40,000 women into the US workforce for the first time, adding strength to calls for female suffrage, and encouraged the migration of southern black workers to northern factories, creating new racial tensions in the north-eastern US and encouraging some southern communities to pass laws banning the departure of workers.

Conservative businessmen, who had literally billions of vested interests in an Allied victory, meanwhile used their wealth and influence to erode isolationist sentiment and promote intervention in world affairs through the Preparedness Movement. Funded and supported by business leaders, fronted by ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and ex-US Army Chief of Staff General Wood, the Movement dominated an ongoing public debate about neutrality. Comprehensively outgunning organisations promoting pacifism, it focused on demands for greatly increased military capability, in particular for ‘universal military training and service’ (UMT&S), which was essentially a euphemism for conscription.

By 1916 the Movement had gained widespread support among conservatives of all kinds, and had the backing of moderate unions, which were fighting their own battles for influence against left-wing organisations, but it was still seen by a majority of Americans as the extremist voice of big business. That was certainly the view of the Wilson administration, which represented the liberal, non-interventionist side of the great American argument.

Pacifist by inclination, and seeking re-election as ‘the man who kept us out of the War’, Wilson was ready and willing to intervene in Europe if the deadlock couldn’t be broken or peace brokered, but on strictly liberal terms that had nothing in common with the ambitious chauvinism of business interests.  Safely back in office by the time the crunch came, he was careful to avoid any hint of imperialist aggression by declaring war against the German government for its specific crimes, rather than against the Central Powers or Germany – but he had no choice about announcing his intention to raise a ‘National Army’ for the fight.  As the US public reacted to war with, broadly speaking, a muted version of the patriotic fervour that swept Europe in 1914, the fact of military expansion offered the business lobby an enormous opportunity to pursue its political agenda in the national interest.

The Preparedness Movement seized the chance with both hands, calling for the immediate dispatch of a volunteer army to Europe, to be led by an authentic (if rusty) military hero in Teddy Roosevelt. The campaign quickly recruited a corps of 25,000 men for the job, prompting Republican calls for it to be incorporated into the proposed National Army.  The White House fought back with the Selective Service Act, which had been prepared the previous autumn with the aim of limiting flow of skilled workers into uniform, and which would have been opposed by many southern and western Democrats had Roosevelt not made conscription a party-political issue.

Bully.

As it was, Wilson’s party rallied round to pass a bill that required all males between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft by 5 June, but that exempted all government officials at any level, clergymen, convicted criminals, aliens and mine workers. The Act also prohibited any volunteers from joining the National Army, though volunteers could still join the National Guard militia or the regular US Army, and all service in the US Navy remained voluntary. Conscription was later expanded to include men aged between 18 and 45, while exemptions were widened to include shipyard workers, pacifist sects and (a mere 4,000) conscientious objectors.

A total of 6,373,414 men were eventually conscripted into the wartime army, and it would be fair to say that the Act was a success, in that it re-established government control over the size and composition of the wartime army and did so without causing serious political disruption.  Then again, racial discrimination in local draft boards meant that conscription had less impact on registered white males, of whom only 25% were deemed fit for service, than on registered Afro-Americans (36%), while pacifist and socialist opposition to US involvement in the War refused to go away.  Its subsequent repression by the state demonstrated that compulsory military service was not the only big change in American life to sneak in via the war door.

Lottery losers… black US conscripts in 1917.

The Espionage Act (June 1917) and the Sedition Act (May 1918) gave the federal government power to arrest dissenters for a wide range of ‘disloyal’ activities – and most of the 1,600 people imprisoned were charged with spoken offences – while the Trading With The Enemy Act (October 1917) allowed the administration to censor the foreign press, and federal control of the mail system enabled suppression of undesirable publications.  American socialism, which had been a globally significant force before 1914, was particularly targeted, with Eugene Debs, leader of the resolutely pacifist Socialist Party of America, receiving a 20-year prison sentence for unpatriotic speeches after the October Revolution in Russia had sparked a nationwide ‘Reds scare’.

Nice thought – but US socialism was being crushed by the state in 1917.

While the government was busy quelling opposition, it was also forming an ad hoc alliance with the same big business interests it had spent the neutrality years trying to restrain.  The War Industries Board, established in July 1917 along with Food, Labor, Trade and Finance Boards, brought together industrialists and military authorities to control the production and supply of all war-related goods and materials.  The Boards did an efficient and largely harmonious job of driving the US economy through the War, a process that happened to concentrate orders and profits in the hands of their co-opted tycoons, and that helped establish the dominance of big business over American politics through the 1920s.

This hasn’t been any kind of overall picture of the US at war, and wasn’t meant to be.  I’m just picking out a few details from the big, popular picture of Uncle Sam’s world-historical march to superpower status, details offering yet another reminder that, a century ago, total war wreaked social havoc wherever it was practiced. Like every other belligerent, the USA was changed forever by the experience, but while the European empires were refashioned, mortally wounded or destroyed by the Great War, the Great Democracy learned to behave like an exuberant version of their nineteenth-century predecessors.

14 MAY, 1917: One Track, Two Minds…

I seem to be running a little late – often a problem with world wars – so this may be a brief trip to northern Italy.  A hundred years ago, as the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo got underway, no trip to northern Italy could have been brief enough, because conditions for troops on the Italian front were at least as bad, and in many ways worse, than those on the Western Front.

All the familiar horrors of trench warfare were in place, replete with hideous ways to be killed, maimed or driven to madness, but the armies involved were poorly fed and equipped by Western Front standards. They were also required to fight in a less hospitable climate, sweltering through hot summers and freezing through Alpine winters, and if anything they were even more familiar with the role of cannon fodder than their Western Front counterparts.

Posterity’s classic image of warfare on the Western Front? Welcome to northern Italy, May 1917…

Through nine previous Italian assaults on Austro-Hungarian positions northwest of Venice, around the River Isonzo, and one major Austro-Hungarian offensive in the Trentino region, the only other part of the front line geographically suited to large-scale infantry attacks, nothing significant had been gained by either side in the theatre since the outbreak of hostilities two years earlier. Hundreds of thousands of lives had meanwhile been lost, and the launch of yet another Isonzo offensive on 14 May 1917 begs two obvious questions. Why hadn’t the leaders of Italy and Austria-Hungary bowed to the stalemate and ended the fight? And why hadn’t the Italian or Austro-Hungarian armies behaved like the Russian or French armies, and simply refused to fight?

The leadership question has some straightforward answers. The government and military leadership of Austria-Hungary did whatever the Germans wanted, or faced economic, military and political collapse, in that order and in short order. Germany wanted the Allies kept as busy as possible on as many fronts as possible while the Third Supreme Command pursued more creative ways to win the War, so the Austro-Hungarian Army remained in position on the north Italian frontier, diminished and dug in for defence but ready to fight any Italian advance.

The Italian position was little more complex, but not much. Italy had joined the War for gain, hoping to acquire the lands it was invading to the north and pick up a number of bonus territories promised by the Allies in return for joining their side in 1915.  Gain was still on the table if the Central Powers could be beaten, and with the USA due to shift the balance of military power some time relatively soon this was no time to let the Allies off the hook.  At the same time Italy couldn’t hope to maintain its military campaign, or indeed its socio-political stability, without Allied military and economic aid, so the Italian leadership generally tried to do whatever the British and French wanted. Most of Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s offensives so far had been conceived and timed in support of Allied attacks on the Western Front, and the latest was no exception, designed to draw German forces away from the Allied Nivelle Offensive in France.

The Nivelle Offensive was already grinding down to failure by the time Cadorna launched his attack, but you couldn’t really call off a major offensive during the First World War. Preparations had taken weeks if not months, such was the weight of manpower and equipment needed for 1917 conditions, and they could hardly take place in secret. With a lot of eggs in one very visible basket, sending them all back where they came from without a battle to show for it would be an invitation to the enemy to exploit yet more weeks of logistic upheaval.

It would also be a propaganda disaster, a major blow to the morale of civilians and troops that might destabilise a nation’s entire war effort. Fear of social and political breakdown, of mass refusal to fight and potential revolution, had been a factor in every European government’s approach to warfare since long before 1914. Almost three years of unproductive mass slaughter had only sharpened the fear, and by May 1917 the revolution in Russia had the fear digging into the psyche of every member of the elite classes in every belligerent country.

So cancelling the offensive at the last minute would have risked sending a potentially fatal shockwave through the Italian political system, but not just because Italian civilians or troops were sick of the slaughter (of course they were). Italian unity and morale were still being sustained by a fervent national desire for victory through military aggression. Since the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive a year earlier, which had briefly threatened to turn into a successful invasion of northern Italy, the young nation’s relatively simple greed for territory and glory had been overtaken by fear, anger and a desire for revenge on the battlefield that was obvious to anyone reading the Italian press. Even if the latest longshot on the Isonzo could have been called off, few people in Italy wanted it cancelled.

That pretty much deals with why Italian soldiers were still ready to fight, despite being prey to all the same socialist and pacifist agitation available to French or Russian troops. As for the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Italian Front, German influence and attachés undoubtedly played some part in keeping discipline fairly intact, but so did circumstances. When your troops are dug into secure and superior defensive positions, able to pick off attackers from height and distance, and in no danger of being ordered into an offensive of their own, they can probably think of better times to mutiny.

Austro-Hungarian troops, nicely perched on the high ground.

Fourteen Austro-Hungarian divisions were in position along the whole front in mid-May, but they were heavily outnumbered. Cadorna, always a master of logistics, had dug deep into dwindling Italian manpower reserves to muster 38 divisions and concentrate most of them for a breakthrough attempt along a 40km front running west from the coast. After a two-day preliminary bombardment of enemy lines, the infantry attack began on 14 May and at first swept all before it, driving the line back to within 15km of Trieste by the end of the month.

Just so you know…

The unfamiliar scent of victory soon faded away. Like so many breakthrough attempts on the Western and Eastern Fronts, this one couldn’t sustain momentum once it outstripped immediate contact with supply lines and supporting artillery. Austro-Hungarian forces concentrated for a counter-attack on 3 June that quickly pushed the stalled Italian offensive back to where it had started, and virtually all the ground gained had been lost by the time Cadorna called off the operation on 8 June.

The offensive had gained nothing at a cost of more than 150,000 Italian casualties (against about half as many Austro-Hungarian), and its failure triggered exactly the kind of reaction that its cancellation might have provoked. Disappointment fuelled a surge of popular fury at the government and high command, and the national unity promoted by fear of invasion began to fall apart.

Food and fuel had been in desperately short supply since the start of the year, particularly in major cities, while pacifist and socialist agitation had been feeding on Russian revolution and the winter’s failed peace initiatives. Now the bread queues began to riot and strikes began to mushroom out of control, reaching a climax in August when a worker’s uprising in Turin had to be put down by the Army. With Cadorna already scraping the manpower barrel in preparation for yet another attack on the Isonzo – intended to finish off the Austro-Hungarians while the Eastern Front was still keeping potential German reinforcements occupied – there was a logic to conscripting the uprising’s ringleaders, but the punishment’s most significant effect was to plant experienced agitators in military units already showing alarming signs of disaffection.

The tenth Isonzo offensive and its fallout offer a snapshot of how Italy was permanently maimed by the First World War. The nation’s pre-War thirst for adventure and glory may have been dangerously teenage (geopolitically speaking), but for good or ill it was sure of itself. During its first two years at war, failure in attacking an enemy, followed by the spectre of invasion and an another, even greater attacking failure, all accompanied by hunger, weariness, bereavement and fear, split what I’ll risk calling the Italian political personality.

Italian society had learned to turn on itself and play the blame game. It had rediscovered a swaggering unity in the face of shared danger, but had tumbled back into introversion after this latest failure. It would flip again before the end of the year; it would keep flipping in the aftermath of the War; and it’s fair to say that, pace Il Duce, it has been flipping ever since. Italy would somehow stumble through to the Armistice in one piece, but by 1917 it had already been permanently damaged, infected by a strain of War-induced volatility that still hasn’t gone away.