All posts by poppycock

14 AUGUST, 1919: Is It Catching?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

21 JUNE, 1919: Shallow and Meaningless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 JUNE, 1919: Deep and Meaningless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 MAY, 1919: Bad Deal Or No Deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1914
1919

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clemenceau, Wilson and Lloyd George… oh wait!

13 APRIL, 1919: Dear Mr. Francois…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaks for itself…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one.

5 APRIL, 1919: Fog Warning

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

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

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

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

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

Yudenich – how could anyone not follow that moustache?

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

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

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

Denikin – another case of facial hair making the man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 MARCH, 1919: Words And Deeds

I’m sticking with this month’s theme today, forgetting about anniversaries and talking about a country that seems much more important now than it did during or after the War.  Korea fits the bill nicely, and although it played no part in the First World War it was changed by the conflict in ways that resonated down the twentieth century.

Korea’s modern history before 1914 had, like that of Poland or Afghanistan, been dominated by its geographical position between powerful empires.  Though hardly touched by European and American incursions during the late nineteenth century, when the long-term political and economic dominance of an enfeebled Chinese Empire was on the wane, Korea had been subject to strong Japanese influence since the mid-1890s.  Increasing economic and military involvement by the neighbouring Russian Empire came to an end with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05, which transformed the regional balance of power and left the Japanese free to pursue long-held colonial ambitions in Korea.  Japanese forces occupied the Korean peninsula in 1904, established an effective protectorate in 1905, deposed the monarchy two years later and unilaterally annexed the country in 1910.

Surrounded… and from 1904 Korea was under Japanese military occupation.

The Japanese regime treated Korea much as the most brutal European powers treated their African colonies, imposing modernisation to suit Japan’s economic requirements, provoking famine by exporting food crops and forced labour to Japan, and exercising ruthless, often brutal socio-political control over the native population.  It was not, needless to say, a popular regime, and occasional governmental attempts to mollify public opinion were generally undermined by an aggressively nationalist military.  But although a small Korean National Association, based in Hawaii and given support when possible by Chinese authorities, was formed in 1909 to make the case for Korean independence, any organised internal resistance to the occupation existed only in the vacuum created by Japanese oppression and censorship.  That changed in 1919.

Korea had not been spared the viral popular optimism spread across the world by US President Wilson’s sketchy outline of liberal principles for world peace, the Fourteen Points.  Like so many others in search of independence and perceived freedoms, Korean nationalists clearly believed that Wilson’s programme was both believable and practicable, because by the end of 1918 activists were starting to come out of the woodwork.

Korean students in Tokyo published a manifesto demanding independence from Japan in December 1918, and launched a series of protests in the Japanese capital.  The biggest rally, on 8 February 1919, was accompanied by a declaration of Korean independence, and although police quickly dispersed protesters, the gesture convinced nationalists inside Korea to plan something similar on a larger scale.

The decision was encouraged by an atmosphere of national grief and outrage surrounding the sudden death on 22 January of the last Korean monarch, Emperor Gojong.  A consistent thorn in the side of the occupation since his removal from the throne in 1907, Gojong’s demise was attributed to natural causes by Japanese authorities, but most Koreans believed he had been poisoned.  As the last of a Confucian dynasty that had ruled Korea since 1392, Gojong was a perfect symbol for national loss and became an instant martyr. Protests were planned to exploit the mood, timed for a Saturday, 1 March, two days before the start of the late Emperor’s funeral, a period of deep national mourning.

Posters, leaflets and copies of an independence manifesto were printed at secret presses and distributed in advance of what organisers expected to be a small and non-violent protest in Seoul on 1 March.  On the day, a large crowd took to the streets and marched into a violent confrontation with Japanese police, while the original organisers signed a proclamation of Korean independence, made sure it was delivered to the Japanese governor-general and then gave themselves up for arrest.  Similar proclamations were announced in towns and cities across Korea, with similar immediate results.

Japanese authorities were ready for protests on March 1 1919, very ready…

The First of March Movement had been born, and protests spread across the country during the next few days.  The demonstrations were largely peaceful in urban areas under tight Japanese control, but the country’s peasant majority was more inclined to violence, as were the occupying authorities.  Military units joined police in suppressing protests, and while Japanese records admit to 553 civilian deaths and some 12,000 arrests during the month, Korean figures of about 7,500 dead, 16,000 injured and almost 50,000 arrests are generally accepted as more reliable.

Christian, Buddhist and Confucian town-dwellers were generally non-violent in occupied Korea. Country folk weren’t.

Protests had died down by the beginning of April, and had never remotely threatened Japanese control, but they had announced Korea’s case for independence to the world.  That seems to have been the organisers’ basic aim, as a platform for an appeal to the Paris Peace Conference, where they hoped to claim independence on the basis of the Fourteen Points.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the First World War’s ‘winners’ were mired in the business of diluting hope.  Thanks to the diplomatic clout of the ‘great powers’, and to a global outbreak of bandwagon jumping once the defeat of the Central Powers appeared likely, the winners’ enclosure included representatives of thirty-two nations or peoples with claims on national status – but every major decision around the peace process was arrived at by arrangement between the ‘Big Five’ of France, Britain, the United States, Italy and Japan.

In practice, the small Japanese delegation’s functions were to protect Japan’s considerable territorial and economic ambitions, to formally endorse the decisions of its allies, and to seal Japan’s acceptance as a major and reliable diplomatic force in the post-War world.  As such it played little active part in the process, and most people referred to the decision-makers at Paris as the Big Four. Nobody mentioned it to Italian delegates – because international prestige mattered to the men running the young and troubled ’empire’ of Italy – but everyone knew that the Big Four was really the Big Three.  France, Britain and the United States were all richer and more powerful than Italy, had all spent money and materiel bailing out Italy’s failing war effort, and all treated Italy as a junior partner to whom terms could be dictated.

Predictably and understandably, the three big players were using the peace conference to pursue their own agendas.  Conventional wisdom has the French and British chasing old-school imperial ambitions, while the US was concerned with creating a world it could safely leave alone while becoming its economic master – but all three were also anxious to please outside audiences.

World opinion mattered to the Big Three, as it had never done before.  This reflected the growth spurt in global communications promoted by new technologies (and hot-housed during the War), and the victorious allies’ desire to save face around the ruthless use they had made of global communications to present their enemies as devils and themselves as paragons of liberal virtue.  But the Big Three’s big reason for caring about how the world viewed them was fear that the new creed of bolshevism, a contagion that evidently thrived on the fruits of mass communication, was about to spread around the planet and, from their point of view, wreck everything.

The same fear lay just beneath the surface of the Big Three’s concern to keep their home populations happy with the First World War’s final score.  In France and Britain in particular, but also in the United States, ruling elites were braced for popular socialist uprising in 1919, and the power-brokers gathered in Paris were acutely aware of a need to show the existing geopolitical system in a positive light.  Bottom line, they all needed to give their voters at least the illusion of what they wanted.

The liberal values sketched out in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points ran contrary to Anglo-French imperial ambitions and offended a potent strand of US isolationism (at least where the League of Nations was concerned), but they were world record holders when it came to global mass approval.  At the same time, the British government was coming off a general election in which the voting population had made perfectly clear its desire for revenge on the defeated Central Powers, and the French government stood firmly in line with its constituency’s overwhelming determination to both punish and cripple Germany.  In other words, like many a Brexiteer today, British and French voters wanted to have their cake and eat it, a state of affairs that forced the peace negotiators into some very convoluted compromises.

A compromising attitude to liberal values was easy enough to slide past the watching world when applied to defeated enemies, so they could be fleeced dry to satisfy popular demands for revenge.  Their former territories, along with those of the fallen Russian Empire, could meanwhile be parcelled out to independent authorities in line with popular Wilsonian principles.  For the men making decisions in Paris, the latter process proved to be time-consuming, fiendishly complex and inclined to open up local cans of worms.  It was also a nuisance to be ignored whenever it messed with Anglo-French imperial ambitions.

For all that French strategists glorified and protected their empire, the British were the world’s great imperialists in 1919.  In some ways, albeit expensive ones, the War seemed to have been good for the British Empire, strengthening its cohesion through the bonds of shared struggle and offering opportunities for expansion into valuable territories.  A tsunami of troubles rooted in the changes wrought by world war was on its way, but for now British imperial strategists were all about the war dividend, and although they were happy enough to hold onto a few former German colonies in Africa and the Far East, the big payoff was control of that oil-rich global hub, the Middle East.

The mandate system – by which the British (and their fellow travellers in the region, the French) took control of the Middle East, trampled on the well-developed aspirations of native peoples and still contrived to pay lip service to liberal values – matched any of the self-serving diplomatic and semantic contortions performed by the Paris negotiators for barefaced doublespeak.  It also left the British and the French, a working majority in Big Three terms, in no position to publicly oppose any other empire’s pursuit of post-War security or expansion.

This wasn’t a problem in relation to most other empires.  The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had ceased to exist, the United States was still pretending not to be empire and not openly interested in fighting like one, and Italy’s persistent demands for imperial expansion could be safely ignored on the grounds that debtors couldn’t be choosers.  Only one empire in the world fell outside the Big Three’s control.  Healthy, wealthy, powerful, aggressive and on the winning side – not to mention a very long way from Paris – Japan could do what it liked in 1919.

So it was that, while the Japanese prevented a nationalist delegation from leaving Korea, the Korean National Association set up a provisional independent government in Shanghai and sent a three-man delegation to Paris.  When it arrived it met with instant and unambiguous rejection from the Big Three on the grounds that Korean affairs were Japan’s business.  It left without achieving anything more than recognition that Wilson’s promise of ‘impartial adjustment’ of colonial claims according to popular wishes applied only to the colonies of defeated empires.

The small Japanese delegation at the Paris conference was made up of retired grandees – but the big Three let them punch above their weight.

The sudden, noisy eruption of the First of March Movement has been credited with helping Korea emerge from the cultural isolation promoted by five centuries of Confucian rule, and with igniting a torch of organised, nationalist agitation that was never extinguished.  It also persuaded post-War governments to relax some of Japan’s more Draconian control measures in Korea, but they were tightened again after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1930 and the country would remain under strict colonial rule until the end of the Second World War.

By that time, with Japan finally out of the empire business and replaced in the region by a rather different US imperial model, the Chinese and Russian Empires were ready to resume their interests in Korea, albeit under different names.  The various strands of Korean nationalism, germinated in 1919 but left to grow untended amid the compromises of Paris, had by then hardened into mutually hostile factions, each taking support from different imperial sponsors, and we’re still living with the legacy of their differences today.

6 MARCH, 1919: Dangerous Liaisons

You’ll notice I’ve slowed the pace with Poppycock, scaling down from about once a week to about twice a month.  This is partly because I’m busy with other things, partly because the world is less crammed with easy-hit centenaries than it was during the previous four years, and partly because I feel the need to ease down, use the advent of relative peace and quiet to reflect a little on the big picture, and identify some of those details that may have been overlooked amid the Great War’s information overload.

A century ago in Versailles, peace negotiations between the victors were approaching their first fruition, and they’ll merit a rant or two in the near future, as will the global panoply of wars, revolutions and geopolitical shake-ups I’ve been referencing during the last few months.  Not today though, because I want to talk about Afghanistan.

One of the world’s most high-profile modern trouble spots, Afghanistan has long been a victim of geographical misfortune because, like Poland, it has sat on the frontiers of powerful, competing empires.  Its existence as a political entity, though not as a sovereign state, dates from the late nineteenth century.  The British Empire, anxious to prevent the neighbouring Russian Empire from approaching India’s Northwest Frontier, had invaded the territory of Afghanistan in 1839 and did so again in 1878, leaving occupying forces in place until 1880, when they withdrew and left a puppet ruler in charge.

Emir Abdul Rahman Kahn ruled from Kabul and performed the role required of him by the British, relinquishing control over foreign affairs in return for an annual subsidy of 1.2 million rupees (roughly £150,000).  Given a fifty percent raise for good behaviour from 1893 (when he agreed a new frontier with what was then part of  India, known as the Durand Line), and technically an absolute ruler, he silenced or exiled any and all opposition to his regime, refused offers of foreign investment in Afghanistan and did little, beyond the construction of a few roads and boys’ schools, to upset the country’s traditional way of life.

After Abdul Rahman’s death in 1901 his eldest son, Habibullah Kahn, became Emir and maintained arrangements with the British, but made important modifications to his father’s internal policies. Though he remained aloof from foreign investment, he relaxed border regulations to encourage regional trade, he allowed some criticism from within his extended family and tribal grouping, and he let some of those exiled by his father come home.  They included committed modernizer Mahmud Tarzi, who returned from Damascus in 1902 to found Afghanistan’s first newspaper, which became a focus for like-minded opposition to the regime’s cautious policies.

Rising tension in Europe generated an Anglo-Russian agreement in 1907 to leave Afghanistan under British influence, but during the next few years Tarzi and an emerging ‘Young Afghan’ movement won the support of the Emir’s oldest son, Inayatullah Kahn, and several other high-rankng family members.  The movement generated some mistrust among British officials, but its influence was largely restricted to the region around Kabul and even there it had little impact on the largely traditional concerns of the tribal council that formed Habibullah’s consultative base.  Secular nationalism had almost no impact on the country as a whole, most of which was still a tribal wilderness by 1914, with no real sense of national identity, few common cultural denominators and minimal connection, infrastructural or emotional, with the central regime.

The broadest unifying influence across Afghanistan was religion. Sunni Muslims formed by far the largest religious group, and by 1914 it included a high-profile strand of support for the pan-Islamic ambitions of the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk regime.  As soon as war in Europe broke out, Sunni leaders and conservative tribal chiefs – led by the Emir’s brother and prime minister, Prince Nasrullah – joined modernizers in demanding Afghan allegiance to the Central Powers.  British money and solid support from his military and political allies enabled Habibullah to hold his line for neutrality, on the reasonable grounds that declaring war on Britain and Russia would, one way or another, bring invasion and swift conquest.

Emir Habibullah Kahn played nice with the British, but you couldn’t say he enjoyed it.

The Emir probably expected that his fidelity would bring reward from the British, and may have hoped for a post-War grant of full independence, but he had to work to earn either.  Nasrullah retained close contacts with tribal groups near the Indian frontier, and from early 1915 he encouraged regular cross-border raids in conjunction with various anti-British groups, some (like the Muhajidin) sponsored by Indian Moslems.  Although the Emir’s frequent attempts to control local officials did have some effect, and the attacks became less frequent in 1916, sporadic anti-British activity around the frontier would continue in some form throughout the War.

In Kabul, Nasrullah was a major player in conspiracies to turn border raids into a full-scale anti-British uprising, an aim shared by a German diplomatic mission that reached the capital in October 1915.  Though it received a cool reception from the Emir, for which he was rewarded with a £25,000 rise in the subsidy and a letter of thanks from King George V, the mission was in regular contact with anti-British elements.  That no major uprising took place reflected rivalries between the tribes on the frontier, power-struggles among their chieftains and the loyalty of the Afridi people, masters of the strategically important Khyber Pass, to their British paymasters – but the Emir’s political efforts to discredit and divide anti-British elements in and around the capital were also important.

Aware that the Central Powers could not promise direct military support for an alliance, but as anxious as any neutral to avoid antagonising either side, Habibullah played a canny game with the German mission.  He listened to its offers of money and arms, accepted its immediate help with military training and kept up the appearance of indecision.  While stringing the mission along with talks that consistently hinted at the possibility of an alliance, he made it clear in private meetings with British officials that he had no intention of abandoning neutrality.

The balancing act was helped by a letter from the mission to the German minister in Persia, intercepted by Russian forces and passed to Habibullah by the British, that suggested the possibility of a coup d’état in Kabul as prelude to an invasion of British India.  The reveal both undermined Nasrullah’s credibility with anti-British traditionalists, and gave the Emir an excuse to summon a permanent council of tribal leaders to Kabul, where he could keep an eye on them.

The Emir’s position eased during the spring of 1916.  Russian successes on the Caucasian Front in February removed any immediate prospect of Ottoman military intervention in Afghanistan, for or against the regime, and in April a new British viceroy in India, Lord Chelmsford, agreed to an immediate loyalty payment of around half a million pounds, with the same again to follow if Afghanistan was still neutral at the end of the War.  Talks with the German mission then cut to the chase, with Habibullah demanding military support on a scale he knew was impossible.  Not convinced or tempted by offers from both Nasrullah’s traditionalists and modernizers to seize power and invade India, the mission left Kabul on 21 May.

The German mission’s sole aim in Afghanistan, and the basic point Germany’s entire Middle Eastern policy, was to divert British forces from Europe to the defence of India.  As such it failed (although London did transfer four divisions of second-line infantry, a drop in the ocean, to the subcontinent in late 1915), but it still had profound if unintentional effects on Afghanistan’s future.  Apart from providing focus, resources and encouragement for anti-British, and by extension pro-independence elements, its presence and arguments demonstrated to the Afghani ruling elite that the country could function on the world stage without British or Russian sanction, a vital step along the path to its unhappy recent history.

The Emir’s problems were by no means over.  Raids into India by frontier tribes continued, anti-British opposition in Kabul was still demanding allegiance to the Central Powers (on religious grounds or as a step towards independence), and Habibullah faced the constant threat of overthrow.  His position was weakened by the rising price and increasing scarcity of some foods, which was popularly attributed to his inner circle’s undoubted profiteering, and by the Russian revolutions of 1917, which removed the only real possibility of Allied military intervention in Afghanistan and so ruined his best excuse for refusing alliance with the Central Powers.

Tribal raiders, probably armed by Indian independence activists, getting frisky near the frontier of what is now Pakistan but was then British India.

Publication of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in January 1918 produced a fresh clamour for independence in Kabul, as did the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March, the wording of which guaranteed Afghanistan’s security as an independent state.  The latter also encouraged a belief in Kabul that the Central Powers could still win the War, and created a (theoretically) clear path for Ottoman forces to intervene in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile a fall in the value of the rouble and turbulence along Afghanistan’s former Russian frontiers had contributed to a spike in supply problems and inflation, so that factional and popular opposition to Habibullah were at new peaks by July, when he survived one of several assassination attempts.

The Emir’s regime remained on a knife-edge until armistice put an end to the neutrality debate, and to the opposition alliance between modernizers and religiously inspired traditionalists, but he struggled to regain popularity in its immediate aftermath.  He was hardly helped by continued economic problems or the effects of the influenza pandemic, but his biggest problem was failure to secure a political pay-off that would justify his wartime commitment to the Allies.  It can be argued that Habibullah deserved substantial reward for his four-year tightrope walk on Britain’s behalf, but the only prize that mattered was a shot at independence, and his goose was effectively cooked once the British, as they had done during the War, rejected his demand for Afghan representation at the Paris Peace Conference.

The Emir was assassinated on 20 February 1919, and in the power struggle that followed Prince Nasrullah’s traditionalists lost out to the modernizers, led by Habibullah’s third son, Amanullah Kahn. Amanullah set about attempting to force the British into granting independence by resuming attacks across the Indian frontier in May 1919, but a British bombing raid on Kabul encouraged an armistice in early June, and a peace treaty followed that ended the subsidy but gave Afghanistan control over its foreign policy.

Kabul’s first experience of modern airfare was one of these, an RAF Handley Page v/1500 heavy bomber. On 26 May 1919, the plane – which had just completed a record-breaking direct flight from Britain to India – attacked the Emir’s palace, and a week later the terrified Afghan regime agreed to end its war with Britain.

Treaties with foreign powers followed – including a mutual non-interference pact with the Soviet Union in 1921 and a friendship treaty with Germany in 1926 – and foreign investment was encouraged into the country for the first time, enabling the new Emir to proceed with a radical and rapid programme of infrastructural, industrial and educational modernization.  In a society built on deep religious and cultural traditionalism, this amounted to extremism, and its polarizing effects drove Afghanistan to civil war in 1928, a conflict ended by Amanullah’s abdication in January 1929.  His more gradualist successor, Nadir Kahn, was assassinated in 1933, and although the reign of Nadir’s son, Zahir Kahn, lasted for forty years it can be summed up as a continuous, unresolved struggle between mildly secular reformers and diehard traditionalists.

Emir Amanullah – can you spot his modernising tendency?

Although even I can’t blame the First World War for modern problems that form part of a country’s DNA, there are grounds for guessing that Afghanistan’s future might have turned out better without it.  The crisis in relations with Britain and Russia brought about by the sudden importance of Afghan neutrality in 1914 put the country’s longstanding cultural fault lines on steroids.  The dose was intensified by the presence and promises of the German diplomatic mission, and by clandestine contacts with the Young Turk regime in Constantinople, both of which gave modernizers an irresistible taste of what a developed, secularized economy could produce.  By the time the modernizers seized power in 1919 they had been hot-housed to missionary zeal, a condition history tells us seldom ends well.

Of course Amanullah’s radicals might never had taken power, and Afghanistan might have had a shot at healing its wounds under the moderate, cautious Habibullah, if the British Empire’s DNA had allowed it to grant independence in 1919.  Ah, but that was a very big if, never remotely on the cards, and just another small way in which the nature of the world in 1919 is still stinking up the place today.

20 FEBRUARY, 1919: Coughs And Sneezes…

This has nothing to do with any particular anniversary, and I’ve got nothing particularly eye opening to say about it, but it really is time I talked about the flu.  The global influenza pandemic of 1918–19 is often referenced by popular history, but usually in the most general terms.  The estimated worldwide death toll of at least fifty million people, about one in ten of those infected, is bandied about anywhere you care to look, and the effects of the pandemic on developed civilian societies receive plenty of coverage.  As is the case concerning most major issues a century ago, the picture presented by our heritage history is far from complete, focusing on home populations and ignoring vast swathes of the planet, so some basic 101 on the subject seems to fit my brief.  Here we go.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918–19, which came in three waves, killed more people than any single outbreak of disease in human history to date, reducing the global population by between three and four percent.  Contrary to much popular thinking at the time, and to anyone on the Internet still peddling the idea, the arrival of the sickness had nothing to do with the four years of world warfare in progress when it arrived, though its rapid spread across the planet would not have been possible without the unprecedented crowding together of belligerent populations (in trenches, factories, mass protests, etc.) or the simultaneous surge in long-range transportation of humans.

Relatively minor outbreaks of a flu virus had taken place all over the world during 1915 and 1916.  It is now generally accepted that a mutated version of the same virus was responsible for outbreaks of what is seen (with hindsight) as a milder precursor of ‘Spanish Flu’ in military camps at Étaples in France and Aldershot in England between late 1916 and the following March.  Neither of the latter spread further, but a similar, much more infectious virus struck in the US state of Kansas a year later.  It quickly spread through military camps all over the country, crossed the Atlantic aboard ships and had become an epidemic across much of Europe by the early summer of 1918.

This first epidemic was no killer and most people recovered within a month, though it often left victims tired and lethargic for weeks afterwards.  It was also very big news, but in the midst of a global propaganda war the news was distinctly partial.  Highly disruptive wherever it struck, influenza’s effects on the fighting strength of belligerent armies were, for instance, concealed from public view at the time and have received little attention since – but modern historians generally agree that the sick condition of the German Army, which was struck by the disease after it passed through the Allied trenches, was an important contributor to the failure of its spring offensives on the Western Front.

Meanwhile a relative flood of news about disruption in neutral Spain, which had an uncensored press, was creating the false impression (promoted by the world’s press) that the virus was Spanish in origin.  And so the outbreak of early 1918 became ‘Spanish Flu’, for posterity and for millions at the time, but not for everyone.  The Spanish called it Italian, black South Africans called it ‘white man’s sickness’, white South Africans called it ‘black man’s disease’, Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, and dozens of other names, not all of them politically inspired, were used by contemporaries to describe a mysterious, apparently unstoppable affliction that was about to turn very nasty.

In Spain they called it the ‘Neapolitan Soldier’, and it killed.

According to modern medical orthodoxy, epidemic conditions produced rapid adaption in a virus that had mutated several times during the previous three years.  From August 1918, a new strain emerged that attacked the human lungs quickly and with potentially lethal ferocity, leaving many victims prey to bacterial pneumonia and proving particularly dangerous to vigorous young adults, whose strong immune systems over-reacted to cause viral pneumonia and respiratory crisis.

Arriving at a time of unprecedented human traffic as the Great War reached its climax, the new killer made its first appearances in three busy ports during late August.  It quickly hitchhiked around the world in the populations of ships and penetrated inland trade routes. From Boston it spread rapidly through the Americas, from Brest through Europe and from Freetown in Sierra Leone to western and southern Africa.  This second wave was by far the most destructive, infecting an estimated 500–600 million people during the autumn and winter of 1918 and responsible for the great majority of deaths. Just as the pandemic seemed to be abating, in early 1919, a third wave struck and a fresh mutation of the virus swept across the world, killing another 3–4 million people before it finally subsided in mid-summer.

The killer virus wasn’t understood in 1918, but people knew something about how to avoid it. US public medical advice, late 1918.

The pattern of influenza deaths was by no means regular, but was broadly explicable.  Generally speaking, Europe and North America suffered the least, while the worst hit areas were sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, southern and eastern Asia, and the islands of the Pacific – in other words the world’s poorest and least medically aware societies.  Death rates could also vary dramatically between regions or even localities in the same country.  These apparently inexplicable anomalies encouraged a wide spectrum of homespun superstitions surrounding the disease, everything from intervention for wartime sins by a divinity of choice to the idea that a source of death with ‘germ’ in its profile must be a German secret weapon.  There were, again with hindsight, more rational explanations.  The imposition and success, or otherwise, of quarantine regulations was often a local matter, as was the prevalence or otherwise of the crowds that spread the disease like lightning.  There is also evidence that those places most affected by the first wave of influenza had developed some degree of immunity to the second.

Most photographic records of the pandemic come from the United Sates – but this was a Maori hospital in New Zealand.

The disease killed more males than females, a difference attributed to social mores that encouraged men to keep on fighting or working when the most effective treatment was complete rest, but the flu also proved particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and controversy has bubbled ever since about whether to add unborn or stillborn babies to the overall death toll.  Some surviving children born to infected mothers are thought to have suffered developmental damage in the womb, and a large (though incalculable) number of adult survivors were left with permanently damaged respiratory systems.  Overall, the pandemic’s long-term physical effects on human society are difficult to quantify, not least because vast swathes of the infected world were bureaucratically challenged in 1919.

The psychological effects of such a massive global catastrophe on the heels of such a terrible war are equally impossible to pin down, but it does seem to fair to say that grief, fear, bitterness, pessimism and partying like there was no tomorrow were all significant influences on human history during following decades, and were all promoted by the pandemic experience of 1918–19.  On the positive side, the evident failure of contemporary medicine to understand or combat influenza prompted a frenzy of analysis and research in its aftermath.  Along with a transformation of first-world attitudes to disease prevention through quarantine and sanitation, a worldwide effort eventually produced decisive breakthroughs in the field of virology, enabling final identification of the virus responsible for the pandemic in 1933.

Apart from the usual reminders about first-world perspectives on relatively recent history, the enduring power of wartime propaganda and the links between the First World War and pretty much everything since, all I’ve been trying to do here is wrap some context around a well-known catastrophe.  Apologies if there’s nothing new on offer, but it always seems a good idea for us white folks from rich countries to season our unsalted heritage with a little context.