After more than four years of centenary showbiz, the modern heritage industry is still pumping out its trench-based, worm’s-eye view of the First World War, but it does occasionally peep over the sandbags and notice that empires were falling or rising.
Hunt around a little and it’s not so hard to find popular accounts discussing the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the USSR, or the fall of the upstart Hohenzollerns and its impact on Germany’s future. The rise of the USA and Japan to imperial status, albeit in rather different ways, has some resonance for modern media, particularly in those two countries but also across a world alert to the roots of the Second World War, while the state of twenty-first century geopolitics (and the outrage of Armenians) has meant that even the Ottoman Empire’s disappearance attracts a hint of heritage profile.
The common selling point that earns these empires, whether waxing or waning, at least a modicum of recognition by posterity is their direct connection to the most sensationally earth-shaking stories of the last hundred years. The same can’t really be said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was in the process of a more complete disappearance and has been largely ignored by the rest of the world ever since. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to highlight the many ways in which the First World War shaped the future, our present, but today marks the centenary of a last, doomed attempt to preserve an empire, and with it a dynasty, that had helped shape Europe’s centuries-long transition from mediaeval to modern.
This isn’t the place for a potted history of the Habsburgs, and the map below is worth a thousand words, but the dynasty had ruled over vast tracts of Europe for hundreds of years, preserving and extending its power by the traditional (if ultimately unhealthy) method of marrying cousins to create kings. The decline of the Holy Roman Empire as a geopolitical force, along with the loss of its possessions in Spain and the Low Countries, had significantly reduced the family’s power base by 1914, but the Austro-Hungarian monarchy still held sway over a globally significant chunk of central and eastern Europe. By October 1918, with its economy atrophied, its politics in a state of revolutionary turmoil and powerful enemies at the gates, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on life support, and on 16 October the last Habsburg emperor made a last, desperate bid to transform the wreckage into something sustainable.
The young Emperor, Karl I, had taken the throne in November 1916, too late for his moderate reformism to satisfy separatist elements already bent on full independence. With no other course of action available, short of handing control of the Empire to Germany, Karl had clung to his reformist principles throughout the next two years, and in July 1917 he had appointed a prime minister with similar views.
Baron Max Hussarek von Heinlein – let’s just call him Hussarek – was a law professor who had served as minister of education under successive governments since 1911. Committed to finding a constitutional means of reconciling Czech, Slav and Polish ambitions within a monarchic framework, Hussarek came up with a plan that earned royal approval and formed the basis of an imperial declaration released on 16 October. Known as the October Manifesto, the declaration proposed turning the Empire into a federation of small autonomous states, each given its own representative parliament, with the exception that Hungary was to remain a unitary kingdom. The sop to Hungary was in effect an offer to spare that country the political consequences of defeat, at least in the short term, but while the Manifesto was never radical enough for separatist groups it was far too radical for the conservative elite still running Hungary.
Hungarian premier Alexander Wekerle, an elderly conservative appointed to protect the interests of the dominant Hungarian landed class, had been no friend to Vienna since taking office in August 1917. Forced by Karl (in his capacity as King of Hungary) to present some degree of constitutional reform to the Hungarian parliament – which rejected the proposals in late 1917 – Wekerle had retaliated by pushing demands for Hungarian control over half the Imperial army and by giving support to the increasingly popular republican movement inside Hungary. He reacted to the October Manifesto by rejecting it and threatening an embargo on vital food exports to Austria if Karl pursued it further.
That was that for the October Manifesto, dead in the water after about two days – but although the failure came as no surprise to anyone, it did function as a signal for the Empire’s final disintegration. Wekerle declared an independent Hungary on 19 October but, having neglected to abolish the monarchy, he was dismissed by Karl four days later and retired into private life, leaving Hungary prey to revolutionary forces that would define the country’s immediate future. Hussarek also abandoned politics after his own resignation on 27 October, and his federal mirage evaporated with proclamations of independence by Czechoslovak and Yugoslav nationalists on 28 and 29 October respectively.
Without the means to force political control, because any remaining loyal troops were defending the Danube frontier or the Italian Front, Karl had no cards left to play. He would agree an armistice with the Allies on 3 November, and abdicate on 11 November, but both were gestures after the fact. His empire had already ceased to exist.
When the Austro-Hungarian Empire died, it left little to remember it by. Imperial records are scarce, most having been destroyed by incoming regimes or outgoing officials, while central European historians have tended, understandably enough, to focus on histories of their own nations rather than that of the perceived oppressor dynasty. They have a point. Taken across several hundred years of almost unparalleled power in Europe, the Habsburgs hardly stand out as a boon to the societies they dominated. Relentlessly inbred and almost exclusively concerned with the family’s status, Habsburg rulers sponsored some interesting art and plenty of exploration, but otherwise tended to feature as major obstacles to pretty much everything the modern world sees as progress.
It seems fitting enough that when this testament to blood as the arbiter of human affairs finally left the stage during the second half of October 1918, it went out with the October Manifesto, which definitely qualified as a whimper. I’m less convinced that its destruction, a moment of belated triumph for modern values extracted from the disaster of the First World War, should be ignored a century later.
I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.
So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.
Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.
So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.
The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.
On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.
If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.
The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.
Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.
Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.
Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.
In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.
Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.
The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.
Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia. The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania. Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply. Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action. Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days. A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.
Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.
It was all about the Western Front by September 1918, as British, French, Belgian and US forces drove German defenders back beyond the Hindenburg Line, recapturing small villages and landmarks that had become dark icons for the carnage of the previous four years. Under the circumstances, no surprise that the Western press paid precious little attention to the appointment of a new Japanese prime minister on 29 September 1918, or that today’s Western heritage industry shows no sings of commemorating Hara Takashi’s arrival in office. Understandable enough, and anyway it’s not as if Japan’s political future made much difference to the rest of us… oh, wait.
Most of my references to the Land of the Rising Sun during the last four years have concerned Japan’s aggressive territorial and economic expansionism on the back of its alliance with Britain, and by extension the Entente powers (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger). Japan’s expansionism during the First World War, particularly in its relations with China, clearly foreshadowed and in many ways shaped the country’s aggressive imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s. Most historians with any interest in the Great War beyond the French trenches regard Japan’s peripheral participation in the conflict as a learning experience, a rehearsal for future conquests, but you don’t hear much about Japan itself, about what turned the place into such an untamed tiger. It would take a book to do that subject any kind of justice, and it wouldn’t be my book, but at the risk of annoying proper scholars here’s a skeleton outline.
Japan’s storming industrial, economic and military progress through the late nineteenth century had produced a nationalist culture that had a lot in common with contemporary Germany. An authoritarian monarchy presided over a regime that had no time for popular politics. Wealth and political power were controlled by aristocrats, industrial oligarchs and a highly influential military elite, while the country’s large population remained essentially powerless, kept quiet with bread and circuses, the latter in the forms of imperial pageant, quasi-religious social codes and nationalist triumphalism. As in Germany, these circumstances generated enormous pressure for territorial and economic expansionism, as ruling elites sought to provide resources and challenges that would keep the fast-rising population away from the revolutionary politics of discontent, and open avenues for further growth of their own mushrooming military and industrial enterprises.
Let’s not go too far with the German analogy. Japan wasn’t a new country, and its militaristic, authoritarian character was rooted in martial traditions that had been central to social behaviour and development for centuries. It wasn’t burdened with a bipolar, autocratic man-child for a monarch, or with a population educated in the ideas and ambitions of mass politics, and it had no reason to fear imminent invasion by powerful neighbours or revolution. And while the horrific catastrophe of the First World War forced Germany’s ruling elites into the shadows, unleashing a storm of socio-political chaos that shaped Germany’s destiny for decades to come, Japan’s far more positive payoff from the same conflict merely provided its rulers with the money, expertise and confidence to go right on planning their imperial futures.
Army and naval influence in Japanese politics had been on a roll since the early twentieth century, boosted by the prestige attached to a military alliance with Great Britain in 1902 and, above all, to a comprehensive victory over Russia during the war of 1904–05. After a brief backlash during the short-lived Katsura administration of 1912–13, the military had recaptured control of key ministries with the appointment of Marquis Okuma Shigenobu as Prime Minister in April 1914. Okuma lasted until October 1916, when a hostile genro (senate) engineered his resignation in favour of the more aggressively expansionist General Terauchi Masatake, giving the military-industrial complex licence for unfettered pursuit of its territorial ambitions.
While military strategists focused on expansion into Manchuria and (after Russia’s October Revolution) Siberia, the global economic shifts created by world war were changing Japan from the inside. Sky-high transportation costs (and risks) reduced trade with Europe, but business with the USA and China multiplied and new markets opened up, especially for textiles and other manufactured goods in India and Australia. Diversification of output brought a lightning increase in Japan’s factory workforce – from 1.2 million in 1914 to 2 million in 1918 – but the country’s labour surplus meant that industrial wages remained relatively low and the only real winners were factory owners, while agricultural wages climbed even more slowly.
Japan wasn’t spared the curse of overheated wartime economies everywhere, and rapid inflation – with rice prices jumping by 400 percent during the conflict – combined with low wages to spark civil disturbance. Rural food riots broke out in July 1918, becoming steadily more serious until by September they were affecting thirty provinces. The ‘Rice Riots’ – which also involved industrial strikes, armed clashes, and bomb attacks on government buildings – remain the most violent and widespread civil disorders in modern Japanese history, and failure to keep the peace was the final straw for Matasake. Already coming under attack in the genro for its apparently uncertain handling of Japan’s Siberian adventure (12 January, 1918: Port in a Storm, Pt.1), his cabinet was forced to resign on 29 September.
The new prime minister, Hara Takashi, appeared at first glance to be something new in Japanese politics. He was the first commoner to hold the office and the first Christian, and this was the first time the elected leader of the country’s biggest political party had actually been given the job. He was no friend to the military, which generally regarded him as a despicable upstart, and could talk the talk when it came to liberal reform of economy and constitution. But although his government did seek to maintain good diplomatic relations with other world powers, and tried to maintain a broadly conciliatory attitude towards colonial populations in Korea and Taiwan, it was never willing or able to restrain military ambition, and definitely failed to walk the walk when it came to reform. Instead, demands for representation by rioters and workers were met with simple repression, and order was restored with a wave of more than 20,000 arrests and a (disputed) number of executions.
The Takasho administration never escaped the uninhabitable middle ground of Japanese politics. It was still considered too liberal by the military and regarded as its tool by would-be reformers when Takasho’s assassination by a lone right-wing malcontent brought its fall in November 1921, after which aristocrats and soldiers held the premiership for two decades. Its achievements are generally dismissed as negligible in the greater scheme of things, and from a reformist perspective there’s no arguing with that assessment, but its negative impact on the wider picture shouldn’t be ignored.
The Takasho regime’s ruthless burial of popular discontent in 1918 enabled Japan’s military-industrial complex to motor serenely into the post-War era. Well on the way to establishing complete control over the Manchurian economy, firmly established as world power to be reckoned with and laden with cash from wartime trading surpluses, the oligarchs, the army and the navy could proceed with their expansion plans untroubled by any real need to address the issues raised by popular politics. Thanks in no small part to Takasho’s diplomatic efforts, they were also free from any real fear of interference by other world powers.
In a geopolitical environment shaped by condemnation of military-industrial expansionism, but fixated on the political instabilities of European populations, its society’s superficial calm helped Japan look like part of the solution rather than the problem. Although the excess cash was destined to evaporate during a depression in the early 1920s, and military attacks on China would raise occasional squawks of disapproval from the Western powers, Japan’s acceptance into the supposedly pacifist world of post-War diplomacy would not be seriously challenged until long after its withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933. Bit of a mistake really, and one that seems worth remembering…
Everyday parlance generally dates the First World War between 4 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. That was the lifespan of the conflict between Britain and Germany, the two belligerent countries that were genuine contenders (along with the untouchably distant USA) for the title of Top Nation during the early twentieth century. Historians tend to expand the dates to cover those other conflicts that helped fuel, were fuelled by or were triggered by the First World War. Some commentators cite the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–05 or the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 as the world war’s start point. More extend its life beyond 1918 to include the Russian Civil War, the Japanese war for control of China and myriad other conflicts – revolutions, as well as civil, local or regional wars – that festered on into the 1920s.
I’m with the latter approach, partly on the grounds that, before the Internet age, the pace of world history varied enormously across the globe, but mostly because it’s pretty ridiculous to describe the early 1920s as ‘peace’ unless you’re viewing everything about the twentieth century through the prism of the Western Front trenches. That said, there’s no denying that a lot of big, world-historically important battles were reaching their endgame during the early autumn of 1918.
On 19 September, four days after Allied forces from Salonika began the walk in the park that would the knock Bulgaria out of the War and advance to the Austrian frontier, British General Allenby launched the offensive that would drive the Ottoman Empire out of the Middle East and to the brink of destruction. The offensive opened with the action known in Europe as the Battle of Megiddo, but known to Arab historians by a name that, given the region’s subsequent history, seems chillingly appropriate: the Battle of Armageddon.
Having occupied and secured Jerusalem in late 1917 (11 December, 1917: Marquee Signing), Allenby had intended to deliver a ‘decisive’ blow against the Ottoman Empire the following spring. The arrival of two divisions from Mesopotamia and a cavalry division from France brought his fighting strength up to some 112,000 men, the army’s command structure and supply systems were streamlined in preparation for the attack, and stocks of ammunition, artillery, livestock and lorries were expanded.
Meanwhile the RFC’s establishment of complete air superiority in the theatre effectively denied Germano-Ottoman forces in the theatre the use of aerial reconnaissance, and Allenby exploited the advantage. He opened the campaigning season in 1918 with a secondary advance into Jordan, to the east of the front, and minor, probing attacks along the rest of the line. These confirmed his decision to launch his main attack along the flat, cavalry-friendly coastal plains to the west, but their principal aim was to suggest that the British assault would come in the east, towards the vital communications centre of Dera.
German General Liman Von Sanders, who had taken overall command of the theatre on 1 March, could call upon about 39,000 Ottoman troops defending a 100km line north of Jerusalem. Another 80,000 or so troops scattered around the Middle East offered potential support, along with 10–15,000 more besieged in Medina by Arab Revolt forces, but Liman von Sanders was not given command of either the army protecting Aleppo to his rear or most Ottoman forces in Arabia. His overall control was further weakened by Ottoman leader Enver Pasha’s decision to send 50,000 troops, including some German units from the frontline Yilderim Force in Palestine, to the Caucasian Front.
Numbers were just one of the problems facing Liman von Sanders. Ottoman regional administration had all but collapsed, with government contracts unpaid from 1917, the railway system falling apart and most economic activity being diverted for British use by Arab smugglers. Mounting Arab hostility to the Constantinople regime was becoming a major problem within the Army, and morale was being further eroded by resentment of German influence, cancellation of summer leave and severe shortages of almost everything, including coal, wood, clothing, food and ammunition.
All in all, Allenby had every right to expect a game-changing victory as reward for careful planning in the spring of 1918… but like every British imperial operation outside France, the Palestine project was put on hold by the early successes of the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front. Although Indian reinforcements arrived during the summer and his cavalry strength was largely untouched, some 60,000 of Allenby’s best infantry were transferred to France between March and August 1918, forcing him to reschedule his attack until the autumn. The only significant British operation of the summer was a rerun of Allenby’s spring preparations, another feint to the east that persuaded Liman von Sanders to leave a third of his forces in Transjordan (7 April, 1918: Holy Smoke).
The delay did Allenby’s chances no harm at all. In the month before mid-September, Ottoman forces in the theatre had lost 1,100 men to desertion, while supply shortages had worsened. Most potential reinforcements had been diverted to the Caucasian Front, leaving the Yilderim Force holding the frontline with only 29,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 400 artillery pieces, all of them short of basic equipment. The British could meanwhile deploy 57,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and 540 guns for the attack, with 30,000 troops in immediate reserve, all technically and qualitatively superior to their Ottoman equivalents and becoming more so all the time.
The same was true of the battle for control of local airspace. German Army Air Service strength in Palestine had fallen from 56 aircraft in October 1917 to only five the following September, by which time the RAF’s Palestine Brigade comprised 105 machines. Superior British SE-5s and Bristol Fighters were able to carry out important reconnaissance, ground-support and bombing operations almost unopposed before and during the Megiddo operation, and continued to block German reconnaissance that might have uncovered the deception behind apparent British moves towards Dera and Amman. The deception was important because the timing of Allenby’s main attack was broadly predetermined – after the summer heat and well before the onset of the late-autumn rainy season – and the success of his planned cavalry attacks depended on at least some element of surprise.
After a short preliminary bombardment and a series of raids by Airco DH-9 bombers against communications points all along the Turkish line, the offensive finally opened on 19 September. With support from mobile artillery, aircraft and destroyers off the coast, four infantry divisions under General Buffin (along with a token French colonial unit as a nod to French regional ambitions) attacked the Turkish Eighth Army, which was protecting the coastal plains from positions on the north bank of the Nahr el Auja River. The first two lines of Ottoman trenches fell almost immediately, and two cavalry divisions charged into the gap created. Crossing the coastal plains of Sharon and Armageddon, they had captured the Turkish Eighth Army’s headquarters at Tel Karm, 25km behind the lines, by late afternoon.
Further east, two divisions under General Chetwode launched a secondary attack north of Jerusalem at noon the same day, inflicting heavy casualties on the Turkish Seventh Army (led by Mustapha Kemal) and driving it back on its base at Nablus, so that by the following morning it was level with the remains of the Eighth Army. Even the east of the line suffered amid the confusion enveloping Ottoman commanders, as two cavalry divisions launched a raid into Transjordan and 5,000 Arab rebels led by Lawrence surrounded the Turkish Fourth Army’s base at Dera.
Allenby wasted no time driving forward in search of complete victory. By the afternoon of 20 September, British cavalry (with support from light armoured cars) had cleared defenders from the coast and sped on to occupy railway stations at El Affule and Beisan, about 70km and 100km beyond the original lines. A raid on Liman von Sanders’ headquarters at Nazareth meanwhile forced its evacuation and an infantry brigade blocked Ottoman retreat lines through the Dothan Pass, capturing 6,000 prisoners in the process.
Ottoman escape routes were being pinched off, and although a force of some 2,000, mostly German, troops fought their way east towards the Jordan on 21 September, few others escaped. Nablus and Nazareth had both fallen by that afternoon, while bombing raids inflicted heavy casualties on forces trying to retreat via the passes and river fords leading to Transjordan. British cavalry took the supply ports of Acre and Haifa next day, before sweeping inland to block the only eastward route not occupied by British ground forces, a 40km gap between Beisan and units holding Transjordan. By sunset on 24 September all escape routes had been closed and some 40,000 troops captured.
Denied reinforcements from Damascus, Liman von Sanders tried to set up a new defensive line along the River Jordan, south of the Sea of Galilee, but had only deployed a few hundred troops there when Australian cavalry brushed them aside on 25 September. Arab Revolt forces meanwhile broke a stand at Dera by remnants of the Turkish Fourth and Seventh Armies, and by 26 September Allenby’s cavalry was in pursuit of a general Ottoman retreat on Damascus.
Allenby hadn’t yet knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the War, but he wasn’t far off. Despite the opposition’s patent feebleness, his victory at Megiddo is generally regarded as a rare example of British command excellence during the First World War, and as a lesson in the effective use of cavalry in the machine age. All true, given that you can only massacre what’s in front of you, but British commentators have tended to ignore the political mess Allenby was creating as he went, albeit under strict orders from his masters in London. I refer, inevitably, to his barefaced betrayal of the Arab Revolt (6 July, 1917: Image Bank Raided).
The presence of Arab Revolt forces at Dera, far to the north of their previous hunting grounds, reflected both a wave of popular support for the rebellion and the close cooperation with British plans agreed by its de facto leader, Prince Feisal. Cooperation was predicated on British promises of post-War independence, and was strongly supported by Lawrence, who may or may not have already realised that the British had no intention of keeping their promises. Fostered by Turkish propaganda that revealed details of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, suspicion of British intentions was certainly in the air – as evidenced by Feisal’s insistence on installing Arab administration of captured territory before British officials could arrive – and as Ottoman defence crumbled the Anglo-Arab advance towards Damascus became a race for post-War control.
Except it wasn’t really a race, because the British Empire had long since decided to take control of the Middle East (while allowing the French their trading outlets). The British had carefully positioned themselves to play on rivalries between Arab tribes and factions, and knew they wielded more than enough military, diplomatic and economic clout to override Arab ambitions with impunity. They were wrong. It took a few decades and a few more betrayals before the Arab world was free to make its own geopolitical mark, but these days it takes a lot of heritage triumphalism to mask the fact that Britain is still being punished for its greed in the aftermath of Armageddon.
A century ago today, while the world’s attention was fixed on the sudden mobility of war on the Western Front and on the emerging craziness of the Russian Civil War, something extraordinary was getting underway in northern Greece. After almost three years of failed or abandoned offensives, punctuated by long spells of disease-ridden inactivity or entanglement in the chaos of Greek politics, the Allied armies camped in Salonika finally achieved strategic significance. I haven’t been to Salonika in a while, so before I talk about the operation known as the Vardar Offensive I’d best bring us up to date.
Since the failure of Allied c-in-c Sarrail’s spring offensive in 1917 (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Pay Later), the ‘armed camp’ at Salonika had lived down to its reputation as ‘Germany’s biggest internment camp’, fuelling demands for its abandonment from those British and French ‘Westerners’ in favour of all-out commitment to the struggle in France. The universally unpopular Sarrail was removed at the end of the year and replaced by another Frenchman, the experienced and more offensively inclined General Guillaumat, but his plans for a major attack in the spring of 1918 were put on hold once the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front got underway. The ‘Army of the East’, still too sick to field more than a fraction of its official strength in battle, therefore remained passive while German units facing it were withdrawn en masse for Western Front operations. This was seen as an opportunity missed by Allied critics, and Guillaumat was transferred to command the defence of Paris in July.
Guillaumat’s replacement was the quintessentially aggressive General Franchet d’Esperey, last seen refusing to protect his troops with defensive tactics during the Third Battle of the Aisne in May (8 August, 1918: Match Report). Reinforced by 250,000 Greek Army troops, Franchet d’Esperey proceeded to put into action a carbon copy of Guillaumat’s plan for attacks all along the line, from the Aegean coast in the east to the Albanian frontier in the west. Stripped of its German contingent, the line’s defence amounted to some 200,000 dispirited Bulgarian troops commanded by General Zhekhov, and although widespread sickness meant that Franchet d’Esperey could only field a similar number of attackers, the Allies enjoyed enormous superiority in artillery, ammunition and supplies.
The Allied attack opened on 15 September, spearheaded by Marshal Misic’s Serbian Army, a force with a mission to re-conquer its homeland. Flanked by French units, the Serbs marched up the Vardar River along a 25km front, and disorganised Bulgarian defenders had retreated some 10km by the end of the day. This unprecedented success was matched by an Anglo-Greek attack around Lake Dorian that began on 18 September, and took positions within a day that had held out for almost three years, while Allied forces north of Monastir had crossed the River Crno to approach the town of Prilep by 19 September.
While Allied forces paused for breath, confident that the Bulgarian Army was effectively finished, the government in Sofia came to the same conclusion. Faced with mounting political crisis as popular socialist and republican movements threatened to topple the regime, prime minister Malinov finally got a reluctant Tsar Ferdinand’s permission to present the Allies with a proposal for an immediate ceasefire. Delivered on 25 September, it was turned down by Franchet d’Esperey, at which point the Bulgarian retreat degenerated into a rout and the streets of Sofia erupted into revolutionary chaos.
Veles fell to Serbian troops on the same day, British General Milne’s western flank took Strumica, inside Bulgaria, on 26 September, and the French entered Skopje three days later, by which time armistice talks had opened with the Bulgarian government. Almost 90,000 Bulgarian troops had been taken prisoner by 30 September, when Bulgaria surrendered and remaining Austro-Hungarian forces in the country retreated to protect the Empire’s southern frontier.
The war in the Balkans, a conflict that had been in progress since 1912, was effectively over. The British moved east towards Constantinople and Italian forces concentrated on the occupation of Albania, while Bulgaria and Serbia were cleared of remaining German units during October. After the Serbian Army finally reoccupied Belgrade on 1 November, Allied forces were drawn up along the Danube border, ready to attack into Austria-Hungary.
The most sideways of all the Great Wars sideshows had finally paid off, and the Vardar Offensive was duly hailed by Allied propaganda as triumphant justification for the three-year commitment to Salonika. Nobody was fooled. Contemporaries viewed the Vardar victory as a token success against a beaten foe, and saw Salonika as a colossal waste of Allied resources. Posterity agrees, and for once I’ve got no problem with the orthodox line.
More than a million Allied troops were committed to Salonika between October 1915 and the Armistice, and although they suffered fewer than 20,000 battle casualties they produced 1.3 million hospital cases, more than 450,000 of them invalided out with malaria. Until a final advance that was arguably irrelevant to the outcome of the War, this bloated, inert expedition achieved nothing of strategic value, unless you count its ‘success’ in stirring up political crisis and sponsoring regime change in Greece (27 June, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut). It performed no better in its passive role as a means of keeping enemy troops occupied, failing to prevent the Bulgarian Army from joining the successful invasion of Romania, and neglecting to exploit the withdrawal of German forces in early 1918, when an Allied advance north towards Austria-Hungary might have made a strategic difference.
I’m not, as anyone reading much of my stuff will know, an uncritical believer in the ‘lions led by donkeys’ explanation for the mess that was the First World War, but there’s no denying the absence of horse sense in play at Salonika, or that any old donkey could have organised the easy advances of the expedition’s endgame. Given the subsequent history of the Balkans, where peace is still a fragile, uncertain thing, it also seems worth mentioning that, in the long term, Allied commitment to Salonika did nothing but harm to the region’s peoples.
It has been said, often and on the whole wisely, that Allied insistence on making Germany pay for the First World War in cash, goods and assets was one of the worst of many world-historically bad things to come out of the peace process that followed the conflict. The payments were known as ‘reparations’. They were based on calculations made without consulting Germany, they were enormous, they proved impossible to collect in full (or anything like it), and they wreaked enough economic damage on a global scale to ensure that nobody, not even the payees, really benefitted from their imposition.
Of course, the German economy suffered the most immediate, comprehensive and dangerous damage from post-War reparations, which combined with political chaos to generate epic levels of hyperinflation in the country. Post-War German commentators (along with academic voices elsewhere) regarded reparations as a spiteful, essentially criminal act of revenge by the Allies, in particular by the prime movers behind the punishment, the French, and that view has passed into modern historical orthodoxy.
Fair enough, up to a point. Reparations were spiteful, stupid, counterproductive and dangerous, not to mention grossly unfair and imposed on Germany as the only major empire among the Central Powers still around to take punishment. On the other hand the heritage history of the twentieth century – born into world-war propaganda but these days committed to a polar opposite picture of the War as a pointless exercise in elite machismo, won by stupid people – has a tendency to suggest that the folly of reparations was responsible, or at least bore prime responsibility, for Germany’s subsequent lurch into National Socialism.
The implication that Germany was essentially a victim of Allied imperial greed would have pleased Ludendorff and other contemporary apologists for the appalling regime that actually deserves most of the blame, but any examination of German history during the previous fifty years exposes it as nonsense. I’ll leave you to confirm that.
The heritage view also allows the otherwise uninformed to assume that Allied imposition of reparations was a new idea, conjured up out of the collective need for a scapegoat at the end of a recognisably disastrous war, and that their scale was a gargantuan expression of the vitriolic looting carried out by victorious soldiers throughout recorded history. There was indeed a strong element of angry revenge in the air at Versailles, at least among the European victors, and it did influence proceedings by shouting down voices for moderation, but it wasn’t the inspiration for reparations. There was nothing new or unexpected about the presentation of a reparations bill to the losers of the First World War, and Germany had already made sure there was nothing unprecedented about its scale.
Before coming to power in Russia, the Bolsheviks had campaigned for immediate peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’, and that remained the position of Lenin’s government at the start of 1918. The phrase reflected contemporary geopolitical thinking about wars in general and the Great War in particular, in that they were fought for both territory and the extraction of resources. Losers were expected to sacrifice anything perceived as an economic advantage, and frequent statements of war aims by both sides since 1914 had emphasised the War’s rising cost in money, goods, industrial plant, merchant shipping and anything else that could be claimed as expenses. The new Bolshevik state got its peace in March 1918, when it finally signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, but was never going to get away without annexations and indemnities (3 March, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace).
Most of the annexations attached to Brest-Litovsk came disguised as regional independence movements (leaving aside the Ottoman Empire’s technical annexation of Russian territories in the Caucasus that were part of an ongoing civil war), but the indemnities were straight-up, open demands for reparations on a scale that set an example for the peacemakers at Versailles.
Negotiations about Russian reparations payments went on long after the signature of the treaty, but in August 1918 the Bolshevik government finally accepted an agreement to pay cash, gold and goods worth six billion German marks. That converted to around £214 million in 1918, but to put the figure into some kind of context there were only 13 billion marks in circulation just before the War, and only about 60 billion in circulation when it ended. We’re talking about an era when cash really counted, and at a particular moment in history when international banking transactions were only possible between established allies, so payment of the first Russian instalment on 7 September 1918, a century ago today, involved carting some 350 million marks’ worth of banknotes and gold to the frontier and handing them over.
Germany never received another payment from Bolshevik Russia, and the Bolsheviks never got their money back because they were neither invited to nor recognised the post-War peace agreement, but the fact remained that Germany had intended to bleed Russia of everything it could grab in the aftermath of victory on the Eastern Front. The German regime had turned the threat of reparations, voiced since the beginning of the War, into a reality. Motivated by greed, laced with desperation as the Hindenburg Programme sent the German economy hurtling to oblivion, rather than by revenge, the imposition of indemnities at Brest-Litovsk set the bar for everything that followed, and provided all the example the Allies needed to produce their own demands in 1919.
After last week’s epic ramble through the backwoods of espionage, a succinct opinion piece seemed appropriate, but much as I’d like to sneak away inside a thousand words, I feel compelled to add a brief note about the festival of triumphalism filling the pages of the British press in September 1918. Having spent the last four years finding ways to get triumphant about military defeats, bloody stalemates and minor tactical victories on the Western Front, British newspapers were almost forced to exaggerate the extent to which the tide had turned during the previous few weeks.
German battlefront morale was ‘crumbling’, the German leadership was issuing cries of despair and the advances of Allied armies in France, admittedly much faster and more significant than anything they had managed before, were described as ‘pursuits’ of fleeing enemies. Occasional mentions of stiff resistance by German units here and there, or of the fact that Allied forces had yet to reach, let alone overcome, the Hindenburg Line’s massed, carefully prepared defences, were rare scraps of journalism amid the festivities.
This didn’t exactly set British newspapers apart from their counterparts in other countries. Their relentless propaganda for what amounted to maintenance of the political status quo was mirrored in Germany and the USA, the former thanks to censorship, the latter reflecting the survival of revolutionary idealism in US civic thinking. French and Italian newspapers were far more inclined to promote radical political change, and more directly aggressive in their criticisms of home governments, but could match or exceed anything the British could print by way of sensationalism. What did distinguish the British press at this late stage of its long, loud War was its unintended effect on long-term public perception. By acting as if the German Army on the Western Front was all but beaten, press coverage encouraged expectations of an imminent end to the War, expectations that quickly morphed into familiar questions about why the end was taking so long to arrive.
It would have been difficult for the British fourth estate to adopt a more measured approach to the excitement of 1918. National interest had demanded press hyperbole for the preceding four years, and the country’s most powerful press barons, having just about reined in their political ambitions over the same period, were in no mood to stop shouting. Had they been, the final battles on the Western Front might have been a time of popular redemption for a British military leadership that had shouldered much of the blame for the War’s length and cost. Instead the great Allied victories of the autumn became yet another reason for damning British generals as donkeys.
An illustrative case study isn’t hard to find. French c-in-c Ferdinand Foch was a genuine national hero in the post-War era, and AEF commander Pershing remained a hugely respected and popular figure for the rest of his days in the US. They fought the same victorious battles as BEF c-in-c Haig, who received the military victor’s usual honours, money and gratitude from official sources, but was regarded with contempt by much of the British public during the immediate post-War years, and has been treated with (at best) disdain by popular history ever since.
You want a message? Independent mass communication is a wonderful expression of human culture’s ambition to create a workable society on a grand scale but – like those other great expressions of same, democracy and nuclear power – constitutes a force we can deploy and target, but neither control nor predict. Message ends.
A hundred years ago yesterday a disgruntled Russian socialist, Fanya ‘Dora’ Kaplan, tried and failed to assassinate Lenin in Moscow. She regarded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk as a betrayal of the ideals behind Russia’s latest revolution, and sought a change of direction through a change of leadership. The attempt came shortly after the assassination in Petrograd of the city’s Cheka (secret police) commander, Moisei Uritsky, as an act of personal revenge.
Neither of these gestures made much difference to the stability or otherwise of Russia’s fledgling Bolshevik government, although Lenin was critically ill for a time and spent the rest of his life with two bullets inside him, but between them they were to have an enormous effect on that government’s relations with Western Europe, and with Britain in particular. I’ll try to explain, and because I’ve been AWOL for a while I’ll do it the long way.
The War for dominance of a fading imperial world was almost done, and the result, broadly speaking, was no longer in doubt. France would survive and Britain abide. The USA had arrived, Japan was on the rise, three empires – the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian – were already dead or terminally sick, and the German Empire’s fate would be decided, not by the men responsible for its brief, bombastic history, but by Allied armies, the furies of its own population or both.
The other result recognised by all but the most diehard conservatives among the world’s informed observers was that the age of simple imperial dominance had come to an end. This was most obviously expressed to the world by US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which were still being quoted as the basis for future peace six months after their creation, and which envisaged an international structure of sovereign states very different from that destroyed in 1914 (11 February, 1918: Daydream Believer). Almost as obviously – at least to those with the luxury of viewing the world in geopolitical terms – the British Empire was busily, you might say nervously, planning the postwar security and extension of its massive global portfolio.
Hardly a day went by during the summer of 1918 without some indication of this from the British government. The British parliament positively rang with vague promises to India and Ireland of future political reform, with reassurances to the ‘white dominions’ of tariff-free trade within the postwar Empire (a concept known as ‘imperial preference’, and one that is still being touted under various names by some Brexiteers), and with excuses for attempting to expand imperial control over the Middle East and parts of the Caucasus. On a more regional scale, the Japanese government and military were engaged in the same kind of planning for postwar empire, while the political classes in Serbia and Italy – both destined for a place among the victors at the peace table – harboured visions of their own local empires.
Amid all this jostling for future clout at or near the top of the geopolitical food chain, and the clamour of smaller nations demanding their sovereignty, one piece of planning for the postwar world united pretty much everyone on the planet with anything much to lose. Everybody running every other state agreed that the Bolshevik regime in Russia, the living epitome of everything ruling classes had ever feared about the pre-War rise of socialism, had to be stopped.
On one hand, no matter how much of the world desired it, bringing down the Soviet regime looked a very tricky proposition. Russia is a big country. Conquest was an obviously dangerous long shot, and even in the unlikely event that the world’s surviving military powers could agree to undertake such a vast enterprise in concert, there was no chance of selling the idea to war-weary populations. In any case none of the Allied powers was at war with Russia, although the USA severed diplomatic relations with the Bolsheviks on 15 August, and most of them were engaged in talks with Russian officials about maintaining economic and even military relations – so the legality of any full-scale invasion would be extremely dubious.
The Allies could agree to cooperate for minor operations, and propaganda could turn protection of northern Russian supplies or rescue of the Czech Legion into a reasonable case for action, at least as far as popular opinion and legality were concerned. But expeditions to Archangelsk and Vladivostok were no more likely to force regime change in Moscow than were British squabbles with Bolsheviks in Baku or German clashes with would-be Bolshevik regimes in Eastern Europe.
It was also possible, though at times logistically difficult, to provide material and financial support for the varied and fluctuating collection of anti-Bolshevik, or ‘White’, forces at large all over Russia, but that was another very long shot. Not only was it almost impossible for outside agencies to make intelligent choices about which forces to help, but none of those forces had so far shown much sign of efficiency, coherence or stability.
One option remained. It had the advantages of being cheap, potentially effective, hidden from the public eye and deniable. It involved employing an industry that had been growing steadily since the beginning of the twentieth century, had boomed during four years of world war and seemed likely to flourish amid the violent political volatility that followed the October Revolution of 1917. It was espionage.
Most national intelligence agencies were a product of the late nineteenth century, and most were developed as military departments charged with coordinating and acting upon intelligence gathered. Most soon sprouted useful connections and subdivisions within their national diplomatic and police services, reflecting their twin responsibilities for collecting intelligence about potential enemies and blocking foreign attempts to do the same on home territory, otherwise known as counterintelligence. This sprouting of agencies created a nebulous working environment in which multiple right hands didn’t know what multiple left hands were doing, or why, a problem that plagued the espionage trade as the century grew old and has never quite gone away.
In general, the most that can be said for European espionage during the twenty years before 1914 was that it provided some information towards quantifying the capabilities of potential enemies – but you would have had a hard time convincing most ordinary citizens of that. Popular fiction, newspaper sensationalism and an atmosphere of hostile suspicion towards foreign powers made it a well-known fact that, wherever you came from, foreign spies were everywhere, plotting to bring down society as you knew it. Meanwhile your own security services, wherever you lived, were pitifully underfunded and understaffed, not to mention awash with cunningly concealed traitors. A few well-placed traitors across the continent were indeed selling secrets, or at least information, to hostile powers, but otherwise the continent-wide explosion of spy mania was created out of thin air.
Spy mania did generate a little more government funding during the early twentieth century, and certainly contributed to the belated formation of a British secret service in 1909, but intelligence services in and before 1914 were not the big bureaucracies of Cold War spy movies, or Le Carré’s clever collectives of highly trained spooks. They were tiny departments run by a handful of military or diplomatic appointees. Their few agents were employed on an ad hoc, often temporary basis, usually because they offered their services to diplomats or military men in contact with intelligence agencies. The work carried out by these essentially private agents was sporadic, banal and on the whole of marginal strategic significance, in that most of them hung around foreign ports, military areas and political centres picking up gossip or counting things.
I mention all of this because although the outbreak and continuation of world war brought a relative flood of funding to the spy trade, massively expanded its pool of potential agents and added enormously to the immediate importance of their work, its way of going about things didn’t really change much. Intelligence flowed around the war from diplomatic sources, from various military sources and occasionally from spies infiltrated behind enemy lines, but the trade was still dominated by gossip across the War’s many frontlines. Intelligence services were also charged with providing support for populations seeking freedom from military occupation or imperial control, and with promoting sabotage and other disruptive activities in enemy states or neutral countries suspected of aiding an enemy, but they were still basically tin-pot organisations, short of resources and specifically trained personnel, hampered by the ongoing plague of inter-agency vagueness.
This was still essentially the case in 1918, when the British secret service (known as C after its first and wartime chief, naval Captain George Mansfield Cumming, as opposed to K, the counterintelligence service run by army officer Vernon Kell) responded in spectacularly vague fashion to its government’s perceived desire – not yet clearly stated – to promote regime change in Russia.
Much of the vagueness around the story that follows can be traced to a shortage of contemporary documentation, understandable where ‘secret’ organisations are concerned but also a reflection of the amateurish atmosphere around the wartime British service. For the period between the October Revolution and the Armistice, only three written reports from inside Russia to Cumming’s department survive, and they amount to little more than casual observations from British citizens on the spot. All the other evidence of British espionage activity during the period derives from memoirs, recorded gossip or propaganda, none of which can generally be regarded as reliable sources. So…
It would seem that Cumming was making active efforts to recruit and finance a new network of agents inside Russia from the start of 1918. At that point he had access to no more than a dozen sources of information about the new regime, most if not all of them reporting as a sideline to their day jobs, and none of them trained or organised for the business of political intrigue. Those sources included a number of British embassy staff, left behind when Britain removed its diplomats from Russia at the start of the year, as well as military liaison officers forced to take refuge in the embassy after Russia withdrew from the War. Their presence made the embassy a natural (and obvious) centre for future espionage activity, but none of them were directly employed or controlled by Cumming.
The nearest thing to a professional British spy in Russia in early 1918 was Bruce Lockhart, a young diplomat with five years’ experience of Russian conditions, who was sent to Moscow by the government in January, nominally as a special envoy to negotiate with Lenin’s regime in place of withdrawn diplomats, but with orders to stimulate and coordinate political opposition to the Bolsheviks. While considering appeals from exiled Tsarist officers and officials for employment as anti-Bolshevik agents in Russia, Cumming sent another Russian-speaking naval officer, Commander Ernest Boyce, to work with Lockhart and naval attaché Captain Francis Cromie (who had been in Petrograd since mid-1917), and to organise a network of anti-Bolshevik agents.
By March, these steps appeared to have achieved little or nothing beyond the recruitment of amateur agents in Moscow, Petrograd and Kiev. Lockhart and Cromie were in contact with anti-Bolshevik officers from apparently disaffected Latvian units stationed in Moscow and Petrograd, and a coup d’état was discussed, but nothing more concrete than talk, rumours and evidence of mutual mistrust had yet emerged.
Encouraged by the one constant refrain discernible among the chaos of his intelligence sources – that the Bolshevik regime was fragile, perched atop a powder keg of popular discontent and could be overthrown with one well-timed push – Cumming meanwhile sent another half dozen or so selected agents into Russia, given a few hundred pounds (usually in cash or diamonds) and charged with doing whatever they could to bring down the regime. By August these included the musician Paul Dukes and the timber merchant George Alexander Hill – both fairly well known figures in the early history of British state espionage – as well as the altogether bolder and rather more effective figure of Sidney George Reilly.
This is not the place to tell the full story of Reilly, ‘Ace of Spies’ – it’s been told, or perhaps invented, at great length and through various media – but a little background on the man seems in order. Born Schlomo Rosenblum, at or near Odessa in the early 1870s, he had moved to England at the end of the nineteenth century, married an Irishwoman and changed his name. Since then he had, in the words of Cumming, ‘been everywhere and done everything’, travelled the world as something between a con man and a businessman, lived in France, England, Russia and the USA, and specialised in intrigue wherever he went. Acting on a recommendation from the US, Cumming employed Reilly for the first time in March 1918. He shared the general view of Reilly as highly effective and very clever but utterly untrustworthy, but was convinced of his anti-Bolshevik sentiments and dispatched him, with £500 in cash, £750 in diamonds and orders to bring down Lenin, to northern Russia at the end of the month.
Arriving in Petrograd in mid-April, Reilly embarked on a much-storied adventure that may or may not have involved attempts to get close to Lenin and remove him from power in person, and may or may not have involved detailed plans for a coup with counter-revolutionaries in Moscow and Petrograd, to be spearheaded by the aforementioned Latvian units. Reilly probably did recruit agents and use the homes of his several Russian lovers as safe houses, and was certainly in contact with Lockhart, Boyce and Cromie as they flailed around, vainly seeking some kind of consistent or coherent policy to pursue. He also, none too surprisingly, came to the attention of the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka.
The Bolshevik regime and its secret police had spent the summer of 1918 in a state of advanced paranoia concerning the actions of Russia’s former allies – and they were entitled to. With the streets of Petrograd and Moscow apparently teeming with foreign agents and counter-revolutionary conspirators, the arrival of allied armed forces in Archangelsk and Vladivostok fuelled rumours of an imminent Allied invasion, to be timed to coincide with a coup d’état. There is some evidence, though most of it derives from the realms of self-serving memoir or literary speculation, that Reilly was on the point of triggering his plan for a coup in late August, and much more evidence that Bolshevik attitudes to the Allies, and the British in particular, had by then hardened to the point of undeclared war.
In the event, and whatever the truth about Reilly’s game-changing plans, Soviet attitudes were the key to what happened next. On 31 August, the day after Kaplan’s attack and with Lenin still fighting for his life, Cheka agents raided the British embassy, shooting and killing Cromie when he resisted, while the Soviet press ran screaming headlines about a foiled ‘Anglo-French plot’ to overthrow the government by killing Lenin. Lockhart was named as the chief conspirator and Reilly as his prime executive, although the former definitely and the latter almost certainly had nothing to do with the assassination attempt.
Lockhart was imprisoned (as were a couple of dozen minor British agents, including most of Reilly’s lovers), but was subsequently exchanged for Bolshevik envoy ML Litvinov, who had been arrested in London as a retaliatory measure. Reilly meanwhile escaped Russia via Estonia and Finland, despite a dead-or-alive reward offered for his capture, and lived to spy another day.
British spies had failed in their scattergun, largely notional attempt to promote regime change in Russia, but the actions of Cumming, Reilly and their less focused colleagues did provoke, or at least provide an excuse to cement, the final breakdown of relations between Britain and the Bolshevik regime. Until the storming of the British embassy, a century ago today, debate about the two states’ future relations was still possible, and was still in progress around the fringes of both governments. From that day until its fall, despite a brief and uneasy period of alliance during the Second World War, the Soviet Union would regard Britain as an enemy, and the British, drawing on a folklore history of fear and suspicion where the mysterious power to the east was concerned, would justify Moscow’s view time and again.
I know that’s been a long ramble, but the story here seems worth telling. The growth and eventual redefinition of international ‘political’ espionage was in some ways a byproduct of the First World War, albeit through a process of what amounted to blindfolded blundering on all sides. Wartime outbreaks of political chaos all over the world provided the platforms and test beds for techniques, tactics and strategies that would become the standard blueprint for future spies, turning them into something resembling the dark forces portrayed by pre-War spy fiction. The Russian Revolution, above all, provided intelligence communities in every other country with an unprecedented opportunity to make a real and almost universally popular difference to the world through political espionage, and the small but ambitious British Secret Service did what it could to seize the chance.
The British effort’s only ‘success’ lay in helping to trigger a long-term escalation of international spy wars, thus ensuring the importance and future funding of the espionage trade, but British spies reversed into even that dubious achievement, merely creating enough suspicion to provoke convincing allegations of conspiracy. Those outcomes said something about the ecological difficulties attached to external regime management, and even more about the intrinsic value of political espionage, messages that are still being ignored, at great cost to all of us, by intelligence agencies around the world.
I’m having a busy time right now, and I’m brewing something fairly deep about spies for later in the month, so today I’m copping out of the hard stuff and taking it easy in the trenches. I talked about the changes within the apparently static world of trench warfare a few weeks back (30 June, 1918: Busy Going Nowhere), and ran out of space before I’d covered a lot of basic stuff, not least the very basis of everyday life on the Western Front, the trench itself.
Digging holes in the ground was an accepted form of improvised defence long before 1914. Earthworks were difficult to destroy from a distance, could absorb bullets and most contemporary artillery shells, and could be connected by passageways to give defenders freedom of manoeuvre. Early wartime trenches were essentially a series of connected foxholes, often dug by troops without shovels or other tools of ‘position warfare’, and trenches remained relatively shallow, improvised and readily abandoned on those battlefronts with shifting frontlines. On the virtually motionless Western Front they became steadily more sophisticated, and developments there influenced trench systems on other static fronts in Italy, Gallipoli, Salonika and, for a time, Palestine.
Posterity has bequeathed us a simple tale of two ‘trench lines’ facing each other along the Western Front, but from the spring of 1915 trench systems evolved as a linked series of segments, each extending back from ‘no-man’s land’ to a variety of depths and at various angles. The basic design of each segment incorporated a frontline trench, usually zigzagged for maximum field of fire and dug deep enough to protect infantry from snipers and most shrapnel explosions, though deep enough depended on the height of defending troops. Canadian troops, for instance, tended to be much taller than Europeans, and needed to do a lot of fast digging if they found themselves replacing a unit of British bantams, none of them taller than five foot two (155cm).
Behind the frontline trench, communications passages led back to a second-line or ‘support’ trench, usually of similar design, and a third ‘reserve’ trench was generally located further to the rear. The ‘reserve’ trench idea was pioneered by the German Army during the autumn of 1915, as was the introduction of concrete fortifications for local strongpoints and deep underground shelters to protect troops from artillery bombardment. As these innovations matured into the tactical concept of ‘defence in depth’ (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh*t), German trench systems developed a degree of uniformity, often situated 2–3km apart and linked by chains of concrete machine-gun posts.
A year later, when the new high command under Ludendorff and Hindenburg decided to adopt a defensive strategy in France for the first time, German trench systems along the northern and central sectors of the Western Front were elevated to a whole new level in terms of strength, cost and coherence. Known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line, the German system wasn’t a line at all but a series of heavily fortified areas, extending back from the front to a depth of up to 15km, the links between them again protected by chains of machine-gun posts.
Each fortified position, or Stellung, contained its own system of mutually supporting strongpoints, each laced with trenches, festooned with barbed wire and bristling with firepower – and they each had names. Wotan stretched from the coast to Cambrai, Siegfried (the first section built and the most complex) stretched some 65km to the St. Quentin area, Alberich stretched south to around Laon, Brunhilda covered the Champagne region and the fifth, least developed position, Kriemhilda, stretched behind the Argonne Forest as far as Metz. The German Army withdrew to these new positions in the spring of 1917, a move that helped ruin the Allied Nivelle Offensive, and the Hindenburg Line loomed large in Allied offensive thinking until the Western Front’s final battles in the autumn of 1918.
German trenches were generally better maintained than their Allied counterparts on the Western Front, and the French Army fared better than the BEF. Fighting on home soil, the French had early access to more than enough tools for trench building, and received more plentiful supplies than other armies throughout the conflict. The French Army also went to considerable lengths to make its trenches relatively comfortable from the start, so that by late 1914 they featured timber-lined walls, sandbags and habitable living quarters.
On the other hand the dominant orthodoxy among French field officers in 1914 insisted on offensive warfare at every opportunity, and during the first year of the War French Army trenches were designed exclusively as springboards for infantry attacks (or counterattacks), with horrible consequences for troops crowded into shallow forward positions. Arguments for or against the orthodoxy raged within the French officer corps throughout the War, and local field commanders designed their trenches according to preference, so French sectors always included a bewildering variety of trench systems, and some commanders were still cramming infantry into forward trenches in 1918.
British trenches during the first year and more of the war on the Western Front were horrible, unhealthy mudbaths. Dug into the rain-soaked Flanders lowlands, British infantry were required to sleep in caves carved out of the trench walls, and suffered a variety of health problems in cold, damp conditions.
The most notorious of these, trench foot, a fungal infection that could turn gangrenous and require amputation, was rampant in 1914 but the number of cases fell to a trickle once trench conditions improved a year or so later. Because nobody bothered much with regular inspections of rank and file feet, commanders on both sides often viewed trench foot as a sign of poor personal morale (like having a finger shot off), but the other infamous Western Front disease, trench fever, brooked no such blindness. Eventually identified, in 1918, as a disease transmitted by the excretions of body lice, which were everywhere in every trench, all the time, the fever displayed symptoms associated with influenza or typhoid, and although most victims recovered they generally spent several weeks in hospital.
British trenches were generally up to French standards in all but supply by mid-1916, after which British trench systems generally conformed to the usual pattern, apart from a bespoke proliferation of ‘sap lines’ (listening posts) jutting out into no-man’s land. They also conformed to pattern in development of peripheral furniture for trenches, using sandbags to protect infantry from bullets and barbed wire to discourage enemy infiltration.
Sandbags were nothing new, although they were actually filled with earth by auxiliaries employed full-time for the task, and they didn’t require wartime improvement. Of little use against artillery fire, they could (according to British research) stop a rifle bullet if they were at least 15cm deep, and they offered some protection against shrapnel or fallout from nearby explosions – which was why they lined the front and back of trenches.
Barbed wire had been used before 1914 – in both the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese wars – and was used in the same way at the start of the war on the Western Front: laid in thin strands with tin cans attached as an early warning system. Once the static nature of the campaign became clear, both sides soon learned to deploy wire in strength and in depth, creating impassable fields that forced attacking infantry into killing zones, and turning barbed wire into one of the most iconic features of the Western Front landscape.
The landscape of rear areas, directly behind third-line trenches, also underwent a progressive transformation as the campaign wore on. Hitherto rural districts became transport and communications hubs, crisscrossed with spur roads and light railways for supply purposes, and underscored by field telephone lines, used everywhere because radio was so insecure at close quarters. All these systems had to be installed and maintained at night, for obvious reasons, and for all their modern technology they tended to collapse as soon as an army moved more than a few yards back or forward – so human or animal messengers or carriers retained a crucial role whenever trench warfare produced a spasm of movement.
So while the frontlines remained static – and because they remained static – trenches first proliferated and then evolved into something altogether more sophisticated, expensive and permanent than anything the world had seen before. Modern mass media prefers to ignore this and other realities that challenge its simplistic, sepia vision of a completely static Western Front, but that kind of history is just another form of fake news.
There’s no getting away from it. Much as a global take on human history insists otherwise, I’m going to have to talk about the Western Front today. I should probably be focusing on the landings of British, American and Japanese forces in Siberia during early August 1918, which were helping create a divide destined to define the second half of the twentieth century. Or we could be looking at the vague promises of future self-government made to India by Lord Montagu, the British colonial minister, during a much-publicised speech to parliament on 6 August, which were part of an imperial let-down that put a (so far) permanent curve into sub-continental politics.
Then again, I could make a case for keeping our minds on the ongoing British conquest of the Middle East, or the civil wars bubbling in the Caucasus, or the rapid changes to US culture being wrought by the gods of war, or the mushrooming confidence in an imperialist destiny among military and political leaders in Japan, the Great War’s only real winner. But today, 8 August, is the centenary of what that arch-dissembler, Ludendorff, called ‘the black day of the German Army in the history of the War’, and he was kind of right, so the Western Front it is.
Standard histories on the Allied side refer to the battle that opened on 8 August as the Amiens Offensive, but like most major operations on the Western Front it was named by its perpetrators in fairly arbitrary fashion as a means of distinguishing it from all the previous Allied offensives in roughly the same place. It can be more helpfully described as a renewed Allied attempt to advance either side of the River Somme, and as the first major Allied counterattack after the long and scary German Spring Offensive had ground to a halt at the Marne in mid-July. As such, and with hindsight, it marked the opening of the Western Front’s final campaign, the one that ended with the Armistice in November.
Allied military leaders in France had been planning the operation, on and off, since May, when talks between BEF commander Haig and Western Front supremo Foch generated provisional arrangements for a surprise attack just south of the Somme, at the point where the French First Army under General Debeney met General Rawlinson’s British Fourth Army. At that stage Allied planning was being conducted in reaction to a cascade of German offensives erupting along the front. I’ve talked about the cascade’s opening – the Kaiserschlacht Offensive (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs) – and about its last phase at the Marne (12 July, 1918: The Way We Were), but until now I’ve done little more than refer to the big, important German offensives in between. So here’s some context.
Having survived the shock of Kaiserschlacht in March, the BEF bore the initial brunt of the next wave of German attacks, launched in Flanders on 9 April and known as the Lys Offensive or, in Germany, as Operation Georgette. Ludendorff and the German Third Supreme Command had originally planned to open their spring campaign with an assault on Allied lines in Flanders, but fear of bad weather and its attendant mud had prompted a switch further south, to the Somme sector. When the Kaiserschlacht operation faltered after early successes, and the weather to the north had held, a secondary operation in Flanders was quickly upgraded to become the main focus of the next phase.
Intended to force evacuation of the Allied salient that bulged east of Ypres, and to drive on to the Channel coast at Dunkirk, the Lys attack got off to a flying start. Advancing through mist and across firm ground along a front between the town of Béthune and the Lille satellite of Armentières, and supported by a vast concentration of heavy artillery, the attackers broke through a fragile Portuguese corps around Levantie. British units to either side of the breakthrough, many of them tired after their transfer from defence of the Somme sector, fell back some 5km on the first day and took heavy losses.
The attacks continued for another nineteen days, but never repeated the trick. Pushing northward towards the Ypres area, and bringing relatively fresh Belgian Army troops into the fight alongside General Plumer’s British Second Army, German forces inched forward as the battle degenerated into a mess of tit-for-tat local skirmishes. Meanwhile Haig found himself in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory for the second time in three weeks, and responded by appealing to Foch for release of reinforcements from French-held sectors further south. Informed by French c-in-c Pétain that his exhausted forces expected an attack at any moment, Foch at first refused, but French reserves did eventually march north and joined the fight from 22 April.
By that time the Third Supreme Command – recognising that anything short of a strategic breakthrough in the sector amounted to failure – was already preparing an alternative line of approach if nothing more than local victories could be achieved. The German offensive eventually got within 35km of Dunkirk, 18km beyond its starting point, and took the tactically important prize of Mount Kemmel from French forces on 25 April, but by then Allied defensive discipline had been fully restored. With his forces close to exhaustion, and losses running at about 110,000 men on each side, Ludendorff suspended Operation Georgette on 29 April.
Haig and Foch hatched their counterattack plan during the lull that followed, intending to give French forces the lead role while the BEF recovered from its losses around the Lys – but Ludendorff’s third-phase offensive opened against French positions at the Aisne on 27 May, forcing the plan’s indefinite postponement.
Ludendorff was convinced that Germany’s only remaining hope of victory lay in driving the British out of Flanders, cutting their lines of supply across the Channel and forcing the BEF to evacuate northern France. The attack launched on 27 May, generally called the Aisne Offensive of 1918 or the Third Battle of the Aisne, was intended as a gigantic feint to draw French reserves away from Flanders, but began so well for the German Army that it morphed into another pivotal push for total victory.
Unlike his counterparts further north, the French commander in the Aisne sector had no truck with the ‘defence in depth’ tactics that had been working pretty well on the Western Front for almost three years (25 September, 1915: Deep Sh•t). A four-year Western Front veteran, General Louis Franchet d’Esperey was an energetic and rather cunning commander of the old school, which in French terms meant he was dogmatically committed to the power of all-out offence. This was presumably his reason for ignoring advice from subordinates after intelligence reached them of a forthcoming attack, and cramming his troops into forward positions with the River Aisne at their backs.
After a preliminary bombardment by 4,000 heavy guns, the German advance began in the small hours of the morning on 27 May, hitting the French Sixth Army and four British divisions attached in support. Artillery decimated troops packed into forward trenches, gas attacks took out defending artillery and the defence crumbled, leaving 17 divisions of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Southern Army Group to advance through a 40km gap in the line towards the Chemin des Dames ridge, a position taken at enormous cost by French forces during the disastrous Anglo-French Nivelle Offensive of 1917. Surviving defenders scrambled back beyond the Aisne without destroying bridges, and by evening the attackers were at the River Vesle, an advance of some 15km.
This time German offensive momentum lasted longer. Attacking armies had captured 50,000 prisoners and 800 guns by 27 May, and by 3 June they had reached the Marne, although the line of advance had narrowed as they moved west. By the time exhaustion, supply problems and Allied counterattacks combined to halt German attacks on 6 June, they had established a 15km front at the Marne.
The fighting at the Aisne had cost the French Army 98,000 casualties, shorn the BEF of around 26,000 men, and triggered a sense of crisis in France that saw Sixth Army commander General Duchêne dismissed, Franchet d’Esperey transferred to Salonika and a general hardening of the Clemenceau government’s attitude towards the caution displayed by French c-in-c Pétain. It hadn’t drawn much French strength from the Flanders sector, and so Ludendorff chose to regroup for a fresh attempt at the Marne.
Foch and Haig meanwhile went back to planning their attack in Flanders, this time with the BEF scheduled to take the lead role, and added a secondary plan to attack the flank of the new German-held bulge at the Marne. Ludendorff again moved before the Allies were ready to act, but the German attack at the Marne in mid-July was the work of a broken weapon and the abject nature of its failure finally freed the Allies to strike back.
Haig was given command of the operation around Amiens, and his preparations reflected lessons learned from successful Australian ‘peaceful penetration’ tactics (4 July, 1918: Little Big Stuff). The strength of General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was doubled in strict and really quite effective secrecy, while advancing infantry was to be given protection from every mechanized device available, including 2070 artillery pieces, 800 aircraft, 342 Mark V heavy tanks and 72 ‘Whippet’ medium tanks. Supporting French forces had no tanks, but they did have protection from almost 1,000 aircraft. Facing a total of around 120,000 Allied troops along the 23km front slated for attack, General Marwitz could muster about 20,000 troops of the German Sixth Army, while the German Army Air Service could field only 365 aircraft across the entire sector.
Secure in the material superiority of his army, Rawlinson elected to do without the standard preliminary bombardment, and defenders were ill prepared when his infantry, massed behind the tanks, advanced on schedule at 4.20am on 8 August. The central British advance met little infantry resistance during the morning, although many tank crews were reduced to delirium by the soaring heat, and both the Canadian and Australian corps had gained about 12km by early afternoon. No less aware than Ludendorff of a fundamental shift in the balance of power on the Western Front, Allied commanders began talking in terms of imminent victory, but though well-planned and in places efficiently carried out, the day’s endeavours had hit a few familiar snags.
To the north, an attack to protect the flank of the main force had been stopped at Chilpilly Spur, and French troops had made only small, slow gains to the south, so although the offensive’s main objectives had already been reached the overall advance was more of a shaft than a wave. Part of the problem was a rapid breakdown of coordination with supporting aircraft, which spent much of the day bombing bridges over the Somme after multiple communications cock-ups. Meanwhile tanks had again demonstrated their fragility as much as their tactical value, with most out of action long before the first day ended, and the advance had triggered the same kind of supply problems suffered by every initially successful operation to date on the Western Front.
The Canadian corps did manage to gain another 5km on 9 August, but elsewhere on the attack front little progress was made and heavy losses suffered. Attacks slowed over the next two days as fatigue set in and twelve German divisions arrived to bolster the defence. By 12 August, with British tank strength was down to six, a new German defensive line had been established in front of Noyon, Ham and Péronne, and three days later Foch and Haig agreed to halt the operation, switching their attention to a new offensive a little further north, around Albert.
Like the latter stages of a football game, when both teams are tired, the war on the Western Front had finally turned into an open game across the summer of 1918, but the first Allied attempt to exploit the theatre’s new defensive frailties had gone the way of the German Army’s best efforts. And yet, with US forces about to join the campaign and the breakdown of Germany’s war effort suddenly clear for all to see, strategists on both sides knew the War was won and lost by the time fighting ended around Amiens on 8 August.
I can come up with two excuses for this extended plod through a relatively dramatic sequence of offensives and counteroffensives. One is to plug one of those information gaps left by the lazy sensationalism of the British heritage industry, which is busy celebrating the German Army’s ‘black day’ with some of the most hilariously ill-informed and embarrassingly inaccurate reportage even this war has managed to generate. If you’re in any doubt about that, check out the spectacularly ignorant reports coming out of Amiens on Sky News.
My other aim is to spread a little opprobrium, because while Haig and Foch were obliged to continue the fight as long as the German Army remained at war, the German Third Supreme Command had only one reason for prolonging the horror on the Western Front after 8 August. Before they finally gave up, walked away and left German politicians to sort out the mess, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and their elite gang of would-be dictators would force another three months of continuous bloodletting simply to preserve their own reputations and those of the classes they represented. For all that heritage convention likes to rail at the ‘donkeys’ responsible for repeated tactical failures on the Western Front, the worst that could be said of the worst of them is that they were incompetent. The men running in Germany in 1918, under the nominal leadership of an inert monarch paralysed by fear and despair, were war criminals.
The great trading or migration routes of the ancient ‘civilised’ world, that’s Europe and Asia to you and me, developed certain characteristics that inform their modern incarnations. They were corridors. Great wealth passed through them and so did a wide variety of races, elements of which tended to settle en route as fortune and ambition dictated, leaving the corridors quilted with different and sometimes incompatible cultures, each seeking to flourish on its own terms. They were also great prizes, attracting conquest by powerful outside forces seeking control over riches and rival traders. All these elements added up to a recipe for political instability.
These were lands blighted by tribal conflicts over shared territories, conflicts between emerging regional states, wars against potential or actual conquerors, and wars (or proxy wars) fought between those conquerors. They were a mess, and many of them still are.
The Middle East and the Balkans are the most obvious through routes that still boil with modern versions of the old tensions, but they are by no means the only examples. The Baltic States have been a corridor of power-mongering since Roman times and they fear for their future stability with an eye on their past history, while the land corridors linking Europe to the plunder of southern Asia, notably modern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, have never known lasting peace. The elephant in the room here, seldom mentioned in the same category as the other deadly corridors of human traffic, is the vast strip of land between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, the longest and most open frontier between Europe and the cultures to its east.
We call it Eastern Europe – for all that it contains elements of Slav and other cultures – and because it includes peoples familiar to our geopolitical history as Europeans, analysts in the West have tended to view the region component by component. Standard Western histories are inclined to treat Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the overlapping problems of Lithuania and its neighbours, the Ukraine and, up to a point, Georgia as essentially separate stories, and they each make for a wild and gripping tale. We don’t tend to notice, or at least to discuss, that the whole of Eastern Europe has been one gigantic corridor of instability throughout recorded history.
One reason for that has been a lack of anyone willing to tell the coherent story of Eastern Europe as a whole. More than a millennium of attempts to push European culture eastwards, whether by Teutonic knights or Panzer generals, and several hundred years of Europeanised Russian culture trying push itself westwards, have bequeathed us a history of spheres of interest, of geographical subdivisions invented to accommodate external ambition. In all that time, the region has only twice been under the effective control of a single source of analysis.
Eastern Europe was certainly homogenised during the seventy or so years of the USSR, but Soviet historical analysis had very little to do with history and could only describe the region as an expanding frontier of world revolution. The other power to gain complete control over the expanded corridor of Eastern Europe was the German Empire in 1918. The German experience was brief, spectacularly chaotic and spawned its own swathes of ridiculous propaganda – but it did at least generate some relatively honest attempts to analyse the overall nature of the beast.
Between March 1918, when Lenin signed away Russia’s imperial pretensions at Brest-Litovsk, and the Armistice in November, the German regime took and held control over all of Eastern Europe. Whether its control was formal or merely practical, Berlin took its new empire very seriously, dedicating more than a million troops to its policing and sending in armies of bureaucrats or technocrats to manage regional politics and organise economic exploitation on a massive scale.
As Germany’s prospects against the Western Allies and the USA began to look increasingly bleak, the dictatorship led by Ludendorff and, in theory, Hindenburg focused state propaganda on its successes in the east, so that by the time German plans on the Western Front had come off the rails, in the summer of 1918, the condition of Eastern Europe was a matter of constant and high-profile national debate.
Those German observers enduring first-hand experience of life in the new empire, analysts from top to bottom of the government and army, the German press and that section of public opinion not yet alienated into irrevocable hostility to the regime were all in basic agreement: Eastern Europe was a savage wilderness to match the Balkans, filled with feral peoples in need of discipline and organisation. The real debate concerned what could be done to stabilise the region, and whether its contagion of revolutionary ‘Russian conditions’ posed a threat to German society.
On 30 July 1918 the German military commander (and effective dictator) of the Ukraine and Crimea, Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn, was killed by a bomb thrown from a car in Kiev. Coming just as news of the Tsar’s death was sending shivers of fear through Germany’s anti-Bolshevik majority, and not long after Bolsheviks had murdered the German ambassador Russia, Count Mirbach, the assassination propelled German debate about Eastern Europe to a new peak of intensity.
Eichhorn had been supervising the process of bleeding the Ukraine white to feed the Fatherland’s needs, while his troops were busy propping up a puppet Ukrainian regime against threats from revolutionary Bolsheviks, counter-revolutionary nationalists and everyone in between – but he wasn’t an especially deserving case for assassination. There is no evidence that German occupation of the Ukraine was much more or less unpopular than its equally ruthless equivalents in other parts of Eastern Europe, and Eichhorn was by all accounts a cultured and generous-spirited soldier. Eichhorn was also, and remained, the most senior German officer to be killed during the First World War, and that added to the shock felt in Germany when it became clear that his murder had more to do with revolution than occupation.
The killer was one Boris Donskoy, a Russian member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party, one of several radical factions overtaken by the Bolsheviks in the race to power as the Kerenski regime collapsed. The Left SRs had been allied with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. They had filled a number of senior government posts until opposition to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty prompted their resignation in March 1918, and had continued to support the Bolsheviks until earlier in July, when they had been expelled from the Fifth Congress of the Soviets.
News of the split was communicated swiftly across Eastern Europe to any place former Russian Army soldiers were active in fostering revolution, and the assassination seems to have been Donskoy’s way of trumpeting the doctrinal superiority of the Left SRs. Its ultimate aim was to dissuade regional Bolsheviks from their temporary cooperation with German occupying forces against Ukrainian nationalists with counter-revolutionary tendencies.
The sad futility of Donskoy’s gesture, which made absolutely no difference to the seething chaos of Ukrainian politics, was not lost on the German press, which turned fear and loathing of Bolshevism up to eleven, raising the spectre of imminent revolution across Europe and spreading alarmist rumours about the enormous number of Russian prisoners – 1.25 million of them – resident in Germany.
The irony of this approach was that it helped cement the popular and official view that all of Eastern Europe was awash with a contagion that, unless suppressed, would sweep through Germany. At time when the German war effort was on the point of atrophy, that belief added urgency to the right’s need to destroy the left, or at least blame it for defeat, and added energy to the rising revolutionary tide uncorked by the failure. Donskoy’s gesture may have done nothing to help his own cause, but it was one of the straws that broke the back of the German Empire and readied it for civil war.
This somewhat airy post does, believe it or not, have a small point to make. There is a price for interference in, or attempts to control the world’s corridors of power-mongering, because cross-cultural influence is a two-way street and a region’s inherent instability can damage its would-be controllers. Eastern Europe as a whole was one such corridor in 1918, when the military-industrial dictatorship running Germany paid the price in a hurry, and there’s no real doubt in anybody’s mind that it still is. So while the world’s big hitters are locking horns, yet again, over the futures of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Georgia, we should maybe brace for impact.