All posts by poppycock

26 SEPTEMBER 2014: SNIPING

Just been for another look at the BBC’s I-Wonder feature on what it calls World War One, and in some ways it’s an impressive, informative exhibition. I particularly recommend the piece explaining the War’s effects on the Middle East as a well-presented, straightforward outline of events that were hugely important for the world we live in today but are largely forgotten.

Shame the rest of the site is so relentlessly Anglocentric and fixated on the Western Front. Buses, songs, poets, the post office… home front, trenches, home front, trenches, on and on it goes. It’s all good stuff and, as I’m bound to keep on saying, well worth the telling, but it’s also editorially timid. It offers an expanded, high-quality dose of what the public expects and what it’s getting elsewhere, and as such it’s an opportunity thrown away.

Given that my last sniping attack was on Radio 4, it might look as if I’m picking on the BBC, but they attract the bullets because they’re the best out there, providing more diversity and depth of commemoration than any other major media outlet I’ve found. But with its global reach and access to international expertise, the BBC should be ideally placed to remind us that this was a world war. Instead, deep in the Internet where tabloid values aren’t an economic requirement and the competition is pitiful, editorial decisions seem to have been made along standard commercial lines. Why offer up interesting, relevant, often eye-opening information about the wider war, when you can play it safe and pile up the poppycock? Over to you…

22 SEPTEMBER, 1914: Das Boot

Popular views of the First World War tend to be obscured by the monolith of the Second, in all its screen-friendly pomp. Submarine warfare, for example, is so thoroughly established as a Second World War story that a lot of well-educated people I meet have no idea it took place at all during the First. It did.

Conducted by men in slow, often experimental boats, operating in appallingly unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions, submarine warfare spread terror across the seas during the First World War, had globally important diplomatic and political effects, and threatened, as in the 1940s, to warp the War’s military course. It was also big news at the time, but although both submarines and their potential had been a fact of military life for some years when the War began, it took the events of 22 September to embed its underwater menace in the popular imagination.

Between six-twenty five and about eight in the morning, in an area of the North Sea off the Dutch coast known as the ‘Broad Fourteens’, the German submarine U-9 torpedoed and sank three Royal Navy cruisers, killing more than 1,400 crew. The action made global headlines and sparked outcry in the British press, focused on criticism of the Navy’s failure to prepare against the threat of submarines. The critics had a point.

The three patrolling cruisers had all been obsolete, slow and unable to carry out the relatively fast zigzag manoeuvres recommended as protection against surface attack. Known as the ‘livebait squadron’, they were largely crewed by cadets and reservists, operating without protection from faster destroyers, and should probably have been spared active service – but their commanders hadn’t even considered the possibility of submarine attack and had contrived to make the ships easy targets during the action.

To make matters worse, the U-9 was – as its number suggests – one of the German Navy’s first operational submarines, in service since 1910. In the context of rapid design advances it was hardly less obsolete than the cruisers it sank, and superior boats were already available to both the British and German services. The British public (not to mention British merchant fleets) trembled at the havoc they might cause, and British naval officers awoke from the collective denial that had been warping their responses to submarine technology for years.

At the very top of the Royal Navy, principally in the person of recently retired arch-reformer Admiral Sir John Fisher, the realities of submarine warfare had been understood for some time. The Navy had built plenty of submarines, among the best in the world, and though strategic priorities meant it saw little need for them as offensive weapons, the threat posed to all forms of surface shipping by invisible attackers with torpedoes was no secret. Here’s where it got a little weird. A large number of British naval officers, important figures from senior admirals down to combat level, simply refused to accept that submarines and torpedoes had changed the game for navies at war.

Surface fleets had ruled the waves for hundreds of years, and the British had long been the unchallenged masters of fleet warfare. Vast amounts of money and manpower had been invested in making the Royal Navy the mightiest weapon of naval warfare ever seen – but it all counted for nothing if cheap little submarines could destroy battleships and devastate trade routes. So they couldn’t.

Sneaky underwater attacks were immoral, ran the argument, against the rules of war and would never be carried out by any civilised nation. Better to carry on building Dreadnoughts and perfecting fleet operations, it went on, and despite decrees to the contrary from above this attitude extended to a neglect of anti-submarine tactics as war approached. The attitude came home to roost on 22 September.

Submarine warfare would prove persistently difficult to carry out in pursuit of any organised, strategic goal, and anti-submarine measures would quickly develop the capacity to limit its impact, inflicting terrible casualties on submarine fleets. That story goes for both world wars, but nobody knew it in September 1914. What the whole world did know, and never forgot, in the aftermath of U-9’s exploits was that something invisible and deadly had been added to the terrors of modern warfare.

Like other new weapons of the time, submarines weren’t war-winners.  Their direct military impact was peripheral but, like the heavy bombers foreshadowed by raids on Paris, they would cast a long shadow over the decades to come. Nuclear-armed, they still stalk the oceans today.

There you go: important, direct consequences for the future of humanity, ideally with a little craziness thrown in; that’s the First World War I’m talking about.

18 SEPTEMBER, 1914: History suspended

A hundred years ago most British eyes were on the Western Front, where the Battle of the Aisne subsided into stalemate after days of attack and counter had convinced both sides that frontal assaults on installed defensive positions were suicide in the machine-gun age.  Outflanking the opposition was now the name of the game, and would remain so until the front line ran out of flank at the Channel to the north and the mountainous Swiss frontier to the south.

On the same day, exactly a century before today’s Scottish independence referendum, the British parliament was imposing its own stalemate on the ambitions of Welsh and Irish populations.

The Welsh Church Act, creating a Church of Wales that freed Welsh nonconformists from paying taxes to the English church, was finally given royal assent on 18 September, after Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government had ridden popular controversy and used legislation to override opposition in the House of Lords.  The same method enabled passage of the even more controversial Government of Ireland Act on the same day.  Otherwise known as the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland, it provided for devolved Irish government within the United Kingdom and was supposed to bring an end to three decades of violent social and political strife.

The Welsh bill was the first applied separately to Wales, rather than to the entity of England and Wales, and the Irish act was the first concession to devolution made by any UK administration.  Both should have been significant successes for the government’s peacetime reform programme – but the War had changed everything.  The really momentous legislation given royal assent on 18 September 1914 was a third bill, the Suspensory Act, which postponed implementation the first two, initially for a year but effectively for the duration of the War.

Wales eventually got its church in 1920, but home rule never came to Dublin.  The Act of 1914 had brought the predominantly Protestant and pro-British northern province of Ulster close to civil war, and during the next four years southern Ireland’s evident determination to secure immediate independence rendered home rule redundant.  We’ll never know what difference a devolved parliament in 1914 might have made to Ireland’s twentieth-century history, but without it the country went on to suffer decades of uprising, suppression, partition and inter-communal violence.

The Suspensory Act was a small but significant side effect of the First World War’s outbreak that is easy to miss amid the remembrance.  Today, when the possible effects of Scottish independence loom large in British thinking, feels like a good time to mention it.

 

 

11 SEPTEMBER 1914:  Bad Day for the Bad Guy

These were momentous times on the Western Front a century ago, and there’s no denying that events in France and Belgium were the War’s big stories in mid-September.  The Marne was ending and military focus shifting to the River Aisne as Allied and German forces sought to outflank each other, but Poppycock knows you can get all you need elsewhere about the Battle of the Aisne and the series of similarly inconclusive actions that followed.  Instead, let’s talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which officially called off its invasion of Russia on 11 September, and about the man responsible for Vienna’s spectacularly creaky war machine.

Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, generally known as Conrad, became the Austro-Hungarian Army’s chief of staff and effective commander in 1906.  Apart from a hiatus in 1911–12, he held the job until 1917.  Like any historical event great or small, the First World War emerged from a swathe of interconnected dynamics and circumstances, and no single person or cause can be held responsible for its outbreak – but if you were looking for a single bad guy to blame for the catastrophic collapse of European diplomacy, then Conrad might be your man.

The hawkish epitome of pre-War European militarism, Conrad was convinced that aggressive expansion was the cure for his multiracial Empire’s economic problems and mounting internal tensions.  For years he had argued strongly but in vain for surprise attacks on disputed territories in Italy and Russia, and he was responsible for Vienna’s aggressive response to the Serbian crisis of 1914.  He did everything in his power to ensure Germany’s support for the Austrian invasion across the Danube that followed, and when general war broke out he launched a second invasion, across the Empire’s eastern frontier into Russian Galicia.

Conrad was also a military optimist to the point of fantasy, and as such a byword for folly among contemporary commanders.  He had been responsible for some modernisation of the Army, particularly its antiquated artillery arm, but it was still largely dependent on obsolete equipment, guided by outdated tactics and hamstrung by tensions (and language barriers) between its component nationalities.  Conrad nevertheless expected this Army to knock out Serbia at a stroke, redeploy a thousand kilometres to the northeast and invade Galicia before the Russians were ready.

In fact, Serbia held firm against tactically naive Austrian attacks in August, while Russia took nothing like the expected six weeks to bring troops to the front.  Conrad reacted by halting reinforcements en route for Serbia and sending them to Galicia instead, an idea based on a fantastically optimistic view of the Imperial railway system, which was largely single-tracked and collapsed into utter chaos trying to turn all the trains around.

With half the invasion force and much of its equipment stranded on the railways, and available units still in the process of basic organisation, Conrad launched the attack into Galicia anyway.  Committed to offensives at every opportunity but never remotely fit to carry them out, the invasion quickly disintegrated in the face of Russian counter-pressure and had been driven back into the Carpathian Mountains by the time Conrad called an official halt on 11 September.

Meanwhile, Austro-Hungarian forces in the south were launching a second invasion of Serbia, but simple frontal attacks on strong defensive positions met the same fate as before, this time at the River Drina.  That invasion was suspended on 15 September, leaving Conrad’s grand scheme in tatters and Vienna saddled with expensive, dangerous stalemate on two fronts.

Close to the royal family and with no credible rival among an anaemic officer corps, Conrad held onto his job and went right on launching his troops into hopelessly optimistic offensives against Russia, Serbia and Italy for the next two years, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives in pursuit of a crushing, decisive victory that never came.  His influence waned in the second half of 1916 as Austro-Hungarian command effectively passed under German control, and the new emperor, Karl, eventually dismissed him in March 1917.

The importance of Austria-Hungary in 1914 is largely overlooked by heritage commemoration, not least because the Empire had ceased to exist by the time the War ended and escaped the contemporary bad press heaped upon Germany.  This tends to let Conrad off posterity’s hook, but amid all the exposure of Prussian militarism his disastrous contributions to the bloodletting shouldn’t be forgotten.  While the British leadership went reluctantly into battle, the French righteously and the Russian blindly, while even the Kaiser abandoned peace with dread in his heart, Conrad’s Austria-Hungary marched greedily to war and sought advantage in its extension across Europe.

 

6 SEPTEMBER, 1914: THEY SPEAK FRENCH NOW…

In northeastern France, the Battle of the Marne is getting fully underway.  For all the vast scale and cost of later battles on the Western Front, the Marne can claim to be the theatre’s one decisive action, in that it ended German hopes of a rapid victory and effectively condemned both sides to the long haul.  It was quite a fight, four days of thrust and counterthrust, error and opportunism – but you don’t need me to tell you about it.  Instead, let’s talk about another battle on this day in 1914, much smaller and altogether less significant, unless you happen to come from Cameroon.

To begin at the beginning, Germany had established a sprinkling of colonies in Africa during the late-nineteenth century.  The best developed by far was German East Africa, comprising modern Ruanda, Burundi and mainland Tanzania, while the western colony of Togoland was well-established and economically self-sufficient, but Southwest Africa (modern Namibia) and Cameroon were still little more than expanded trading posts when war broke out in Europe. Cameroon, for example, covered an area bigger than Britain and France combined but contained no more than 2,000 European personnel in 1914.  Here’s today’s borrowed map.

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The Allies, and Britain in particular, didn’t waste much time before attempting to replace German authorities in Africa, and a joint Anglo-French expedition to Cameroon was agreed on 22 August, aimed at capturing the strategically useful radio station at the capital, Douala. That force took almost a month to arrive from Europe, and meanwhile a separate, three-pronged invasion across the northern border was launched on 24 August by British forces in Nigeria.

On 30 August some two hundred British troops took and occupied the village outpost of Nsanakong, a few kilometres inside the frontier, but they were surrounded and attacked by four times as many Germans on 6 September.  It was a rout.  Half the British force was killed, against forty German dead, and more died as the invasion was driven back into Nigeria.

This small German victory set the tone for a campaign that lasted until the spring of 1916.  The Allied attack on Douala succeeded comfortably enough because German forces retreated into the hinterland, but attempts to secure the colony as a whole (from Douala, Nigeria and French Equatorial Africa) were repeatedly thwarted by rearguard actions, skilled retreats and difficult conditions, particularly in the rainy south of the country.  The majority of the surviving German population completed a fighting retreat to the neutral Spanish coastal enclave of Rio Muni in January 1916, and 832 survivors were eventually evacuated to internment in Spain.  Allied forces couldn’t take the last German outpost of Mora, and its 388 survivors surrendered on generous terms before Britain and France officially partitioned Cameroon on 4 March.

In total, the campaign employed some 18,000 British and French imperial troops, of whom 4,235 were killed, mostly by disease, along with unknown numbers of German personnel and native bearers.  Not much in the context of the killing fields elsewhere, and you may still be wondering why I bothered.  I can think of three reasons.

First, a lot of people have no idea there was a war in Africa.  Togoland, barely defended, was in Allied hands by the end of August 1914, and the conquest of Southwest Africa by forces from the newly independent South Africa was completed in the summer of 1915, but an epic struggle for German East Africa was still in progress some time after the Armistice of 1918.  I’ll discuss the latter campaigns at a later date, but take my word for now that both had side effects with great significance for the future of the continent.   This is worth knowing.

Secondly, it seems important to mention that, despite Allied propaganda to the contrary, Germany was in many ways the most enlightened of the European powers in Africa.   Though German forces were still struggling for control of Southwest Africa against hostile local tribes, regimes in East Africa and Togoland were pursuing programmes for self-sustaining social and economic development that put other colonial powers to shame.  The future of those countries was drastically altered, arguably for the worse, when they passed into British and French hands, and the same may well be true of Cameroon, which was still in a very early stage of colonial development in 1914.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of men fighting in Cameroon, on both sides, were imperial troops recruited from West African colonies, known to Europeans as Askaris, and many more local people served as guides, bearers or other auxiliaries.  Though they sometimes changed sides or went home if mistreated by their white masters, Askaris were generally loyal, reliable and by far the most effective fighters in African conditions, not least because they were less susceptible to sickness than Europeans.  The best European commanders learned to trust Askaris as they would first-class European troops, and their contribution to momentous changes wrought by the First World War shouldn’t be forgotten.

I’m not suggesting the Battle of Nsanakong was more important than the Marne, or than actions taking place on the Eastern and Serbian fronts at the same time, but it was a significant moment in the history of a very large African country that our heritage war chooses to ignore.

 

30 AUGUST, 1914: THE BOMB!

During its early phases, the war in France generally stopped for lunch, a national habit personified by Army c-in-c Joffre, who always insisted on a full, uninterrupted midday meal wherever he happened to be on the Western Front.  Today in 1914, Sunday lunch was well underway all over Paris when, at 12.45, a lone German aircraft flew over the city.

The aircraft was a Taube , a little reconnaissance monoplane, already in service for four years and appropriately slow, that was known for its stable flight and therefore considered ideal for bombing experiments.  Parisians, who at this stage called any German aircraft a Taube, watched as it circled the city centre and tossed five small objects over the side

Four were bombs, small four-pounders designed for anti-personnel use, and the fifth was a propaganda message to Parisians, advising surrender in the face of the impending German Army onslaught.  The bombs killed two people, injuring two more, and the propaganda had no discernible effect, but both were global firsts with long-term implications.

There’s never been the slightest proof that dropping propaganda leaflets on enemy civilians has any effect on anything, but air forces still do it today.  Nor, nuclear madness aside, has there ever been any evidence that large-scale bombing of civilian targets can deliver a knockout blow to an enemy, or even significantly shorten a major war – but the bombs dropped on Paris a century ago were the first, small expression of a theory that went on to blight the twentieth century in defiance of logic.

The theory that massed fleets of aircraft could bomb cities and nations into submission, even instant submission, was popular with a few military theorists and many more fiction writers even before powered flight had been achieved.  Informed observers at the start of the War were well aware that aircraft technology couldn’t yet deliver this ‘war-winning weapon’, but experiments began nonetheless and development of heavier, long-range machines soon followed.

Paris, within easy reach of German forces at the front line, bore witness to the wartime escalation this entailed.  The raids by single Taube machines continued in 1914, arriving at about five o’clock each evening and killing a few civilians but occasioning more curiosity than panic.  Zeppelin raids would follow, spreading greater destruction and fear but remaining no more than a minor nuisance to the city, and as the War grew old fleets of German heavy bombers – the Gothas – would deliver smaller loads in greater numbers and with more destructive power.  By the end of the War German bombs had killed 275 Parisians, injured more than six hundred and achieved nothing of military value.

The story was the same elsewhere.  German raids on other cities and countries (including Britain), Allied reprisal raids on more distant German targets and, ultimately, a major British experiment in massed bombing, all failed on a number of levels.  Lumbering bombers were easy meat in daylight for improving defence systems, night raids were hopelessly inaccurate, and even when targets were hit civilian populations showed no sign of the morale meltdown predicted by strategists.  At the end of the War, their case still unproven, the disciples of ‘strategic bombing’ in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere went right on believing that all they needed to win future wars at a stroke were aircraft that were big enough, fast enough and numerous enough.

History records that they were given their chance to prove it and that, until Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the rules, they kept on trying in the face of repeated and ghastly failure.  Even now, conventional bombing of civilians is used to create ‘shock and awe’ on the grounds that raining death on people makes them stop wanting to fight.  As Parisians gathered each evening to watch the daily Taube in 1914 they surely knew something new had come into the world.  They couldn’t know they were witnessing the birth of the twentieth century’s most monstrous chimera.

We can know, even should know, but somehow our commemorative obsession with the Western Front manages to bypass some of its most far-reaching consequences.  The heritage story sees the air war over France as a support act for the futility of trench warfare.  In many ways it was, and air forces did get tangled up in their own private war, well documented and essentially pointless.  History can show us there’s more to it, stretching the story across time to reveal hidden punchlines and make direct connections with our modern experience.  Strategic bombing is a huge story, casting a giant shadow across the last hundred years and worth a lot more than a few hundred words.  Any version of the War that ignores its first chapter is sadly incomplete.

23 AUGUST, 1914:  Prowling Tiger

A century ago today, the BEF fought what British commentators like to call the Battle of Mons.  A minor action, much commemorated in these parts, Mons has plenty to tell historians about British Army tactics and expertise at the start of the War, but that’s no real excuse for ignoring an altogether more momentous event that took place on the same day, when the island empire of Japan declared war on Germany.

The very idea that Japan took part in the First World War, let alone against Germany, may seem a little weird to the modern mind weaned on Second World War premises, but in 1914 it came as no surprise to those with an eye on international relations.  Japan was on the way up, and was being extremely aggressive about it.

From a European perspective, Japan came into the War looking like a modern, industrial nation governed by mediaeval warlords.  Its current head of state, Emperor Yoshihoto, ruled through appointed dignitaries over a system that practiced complete religious tolerance, forbade any political activity by women and had no truck with democratic representation. Yoshihoto, father of the rather better known Hirohito, had come to the throne with a change of dynasty in 1912, and by that time his empire had spent decades in the throes of a lightning transformation from agricultural backwater to regional superpower.

The 45-year reign of Yoshihoto’s predecessor, Emperor Meiji ‘The Great’, had seen rapid industrial growth, population growth, urbanisation and trade expansion, so that Japan was far and away the most developed economy in the Far East by 1914.  Its armaments industry was particularly advanced, to the extent that it had no need for military imports and was developing one of the world’s most powerful navies, and this reflected the key and consistent element driving Japanese foreign policy before, during and after the First World War – expansion into the mainland empires of China and Russia.

The policy had been coming along nicely.  War with China in the 1890s had left Japan in control of Korea, Taiwan, some of Chinese Manchuria and a selection of Pacific islands.  A successful war against Russia in 1904–05, crowned by a crushing naval victory that sent shockwaves around the old world, had put an end to St. Petersburg’s hopes of expanding into the Pacific Rim.  In between, in 1902, Japanese diplomacy had achieved an equally earthshaking coup by concluding a full alliance with the British Empire, the first time that aloof and immense world power had deigned to deal on equal terms with a non-white nation.

As its population passed fifty million, Japan was surging towards a perceived destiny on a wave of national confidence and – from the Emperor down to the swollen ranks of the labouring classes – with an almost religious faith in its military prowess and leadership.  This was well known to the rest of the world.  Though Japan wasn’t yet a global economic or military power, it was seen as a potentially dangerous rival for Pacific trade by business interests in the US, and was treated with nervous caution by European empires with Far Eastern interests.

Caution had been the basic motive behind Britain’s decision to make an ally of Japan.  Given that the British had plenty of empire to defend in the Pacific and plenty of better things for the Royal Navy to do, while Japan won enormous international prestige and increased freedom to menace non-British interests, the bargain worked well for both sides.  The alliance was still useful to Britain once war broke out in Europe, providing valuable guarantees of quiet in the Pacific, but that was nothing compared to the lottery win it became for Japan.

Declaration of war on Germany, as required by the terms of the alliance, suited Japanese territorial ambitions.  Orders were issued ten days before the declaration for the conquest of German-held territories in the Pacific and on the Chinese mainland, which were completed by early November.  After that, Japan spent the War filling the voids left by preoccupied European powers, building profitable new trade links with Australia, India and the United States while securing its hold over regional conquests.  It did contribute a squadron of destroyers to allied operations in the Mediterranean, but with hindsight they are reckoned to have learned a lot more than they lost and can be seen as a metaphor for the entire Japanese war effort.

It’s not always easy to see beyond the historical monolith of the Second World War and appreciate its close, direct links to the First.  The way Japan exploited the First World War and the sweeping changes war brought to Pacific pecking orders, to learn military lessons and establish the foundations of its greater empire is a case in point.  The tragedy of Japanese over-ambition in the 1930s and 1940s couldn’t have happened without the First World War – and not a lot of people know that.

 

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

A hundred years ago today, German and Russian forces fought the first engagement of the War on the Eastern Front.  The fight took place at Stallupönen, a German village near the frontier between the two empires.  It wasn’t much of a battle, an unauthorised attack by a small portion of the regionally-based German army against the southern flank of an invading Russian army that forced a division (about 10,000 men) of Russian troops to retreat and took some 3,000 prisoners – but it was the start of a long and vastly important campaign that changed the world, changed the War and is almost completely forgotten by the heritage version as seen from the West.

I’ll be checking into the Eastern Front on a regular basis during the next few years, but for now here’s the start-up picture of a theatre of war that raged for more than four years and ultimately stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Given that an alliance dating back to 1892 committed Russia to fighting in support of France, and that Germany was tied to Austria-Hungary by defensive alliance, a glance at a basic map of Europe in 1914 makes the opening battle lines fairly clear.  I’ve pinched the one below from the net, and I’ll be glad to remove it if anyone minds.

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The Russian and German Empires faced each other along the borders of East Prussia to the north.  Austria-Hungary lined up along a disputed frontier with Russia further south, across the then Russian (now Ukrainian) province of Galicia, and all three empires were clustered hungrily round Poland, then ruled by Russia as a semi-autonomous and very turbulent province.  Still further south, the independent kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria remained neutral for now, but both were looking to expand and both would enter the fighting once they’d juggled inducements from both sides and decided which represented the man chance.

All three main protagonists had plans in place for the outbreak of war.  Germany had left an army on its eastern frontier as part of the wider Schlieffen Plan, expecting to have beaten France and sent reinforcements during the anticipated six-week delay while Russian forces got organised.  Austria-Hungary’s battle plan defied both logistical realities (like most plans conjured up in Vienna) and the demands of war against Serbia on its southern frontiers to call for an immediate invasion of Galicia.  The latest of many Russian plans, known as Plan 19, was equally ambitious and smacked of autocratic fantasy.  Originally conceived as a simple, massed attack against the relatively small German force defending East Prussia (the eastern spur of Germany stretching up to what became the Lithuanian border), it was repeatedly doctored to satisfy squabbling court factions until it encompassed a smaller attack on East Prussia, a major attack on Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia and the maintenance of strongly defended fortresses inside the frontiers.

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

From a German viewpoint, the big surprise was that two Russian armies invaded East Prussia as early as 15 August.  They didn’t get far, not least because although Russia possessed hordes of troops – perhaps 25 million men of military age to call upon – and had performed miracles to get men to battle so quickly, its retarded industrial condition meant that uniforms and equipment were an altogether different matter.  The preliminary battle at Stallupönen set a pattern of well-equipped and well-trained German forces routing their more numerous opponents, but that didn’t prevent a certain amount of initial panic in Berlin at this unexpectedly early development.  Reinforcements under the newly paired team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff were diverted from the west to meet the situation, a move that had momentous consequences for the Western Front and opened floodgates to a campaign that would absorb more and more German attention and resources during the next four years.  A comprehensive German victory against superior numbers at Tannenberg on 26 August then forced the Russians to fall back and reinforce, bringing the invasion to an end.

Russian attacks in Galicia took longer to get going but met greater success against 10 shambolic Austro-Hungarian forces that were neither up to strength nor ready for operations, but which were carrying out their own planned invasion anyway.  The Austrians won the first skirmish, and forced the Russians back across their frontier when the two armies, each about half a million strong, collided in late August along a line centred on the small (now Ukrainian) town of Komarov.  Austrian optimism, never remotely justified by the performance of its armies in 1914, brought immediate attempts to push further east, but they collapsed against defensive positions and turned into a full-scale retreat, first to the city of Lvov and then into the sanctuary of the Carpathian Mountains.

As autumn began, the Germans were preparing an advance against the Russians in the north while the Russians planned an attack into the Carpathians, but deteriorating weather and the strength of defensive positions brought temporary stalemate to both fronts, and for the rest of the year all three empires focused their campaigns on the cherry in the middle, Poland.

That was just an outline sketch of the opening phase of the War on the Eastern Front.  Much, much more was to come.  For long periods, the Front achieved its own forms of gruesome stagnation, sometimes locked into trench warfare around strong defensive positions, sometimes involving huge advances by either side that moved the lines hundreds of miles across vast wildernesses without inflicting any sort of knockout blow.  Like the Western Front, the Eastern Front would see strategists and field commanders struggling and failing to find ways of making offensive land warfare actually work, and losing millions of lives in the process.

The total numbers killed in the theatre defy accurate calculation – Russian figures were often guesses and Austrian records were lost when its empire collapsed, to name just two of the problems faced by historians – but estimates of military deaths start above three million, and in most of the regions involved nobody bothered counting civilian deaths after about 1915.  Even by the standards we understand from the Western Front, fighting conditions were unspeakably horrible, with whole units freezing to death overnight amid desperate shortages of basic equipment and medicines, especially on the Russian side but also among multiracial Austro-Hungarian forces.

Unlike the Western Front, the War in the east did have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the world at large.  Russian involvement ended with the collapse of the regime to Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution; Austria-Hungary’s unproductive effort drained and eventually helped destroy its empire; Germany filled the void, took control over great swathes of territory, and then propelled its overall war effort towards disaster by attempting to administer them and exploit their economies.  And although a host of newly independent states sprang into existence all across the theatre in the War’s aftermath, many of them still faced prolonged struggles for survival as revolutions and civil wars raged across the region.  One way or another every part of the Eastern Front remained at war until the 1920s.

Even slammed together in a few paragraphs the Eastern Front makes quite a story, worth remembering as a human tragedy in itself and because it gave birth to so much of modern Europe.  You won’t hear much about it from the heritage industries in the West, and that’s a shame, because attempting to tell the story of the First World War without it can only be poppycock.

10 AUGUST, 1914: Playing Battleships

A hundred years ago today, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, put into port at Constantinople (Istanbul) and promptly enlisted, crews and all, in the Ottoman Turkish Navy.  That may seem an odd thing to do at the start of a war in which the Ottoman Empire was, at that point, neutral, and there’s quite a tale of derring-do, incompetence and naval warfare attached.

The Goeben was a big, dangerous ship, a modern battlecruiser designed for attacking prowess, heavy on armament, light on armour and quick for its size.  The Breslau was a light cruiser, a faster escort for attacks on smaller targets.  Both were in the Mediterranean, taking on fuel at the then neutral Italian port of Messina, when war with France broke out on 3 August, and they sailed south to interfere with French troop movements from its North African colonies.  On the way back the following day they passed close to Royal Navy warships, but war between Britain and Germany hadn’t yet been declared and no shots were fired.  War came a few hours later, and sent the German ships running east for their lives, hopelessly outnumbered and effectively surrounded by an enormous Royal Navy presence in the Mediterranean.

What followed was a wild ride for the German ships, but also a revealing snapshot of naval warfare in 1914.  Despite the presence of on board radio, communication over long distances remained shaky, and the German ships fled for Constantinople on the basis of a false rumour that Turkey had joined the War on Germany’s side.  Shadowed by smaller British warships, Goeben and Breslau dodged and wove their way east, successfully avoiding the three British forces in a position to intercept them.  They were helped by the risk-averse approach of British admirals, who found better things to do or defensive undertones in standing orders whenever the opportunity to fight arose, but they received no help at all from the expensive but inert Austro-Hungarian Navy based in the Adriatic.

Both navies were later accused of timidity, a charge regularly levelled at the commanders of big surface craft throughout the War, but their behaviour said less about their command capabilities, more about the massive cost and prestige attached to major warships at the time.  It took a very brave man to chase glory at the risk of losing something so valuable, especially when something as cheap as a torpedo or a mine could send it to the bottom.

Once the German ships reached Constantinople and found it neutral, they had only twenty-four hours’ grace before international law required them to put to sea.  By staying as part of the Turkish Navy – far and away the best part – they were spared almost certain destruction, scored an effective point in Berlin’s campaign for an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and survived as a thorn in the side of the Allies when that goal was achieved.  That said, and despite the undoubted propaganda victory the episode delivered for Berlin, Goeben and Breslau had minimal military impact on the rest of the War.  They did achieve some success against Russian shipping and coastal installations in the Black Sea, but only between long spells under repair after damage by mines.  When peace with Russia brought them back to the Mediterranean in 1918 they again fell foul of mines, which sank the Breslau and forced the Goeben to hole up in Constantinople, reduced to the inactive deterrent role that was the lot of most big warships throughout the First World War.

9 AUGUST, 2014: Sniping

This is bound to happen from time to time.  Every now and then a heritage story’s going to get plain daft, and I’ll feel the need for a flag on the play.  This morning, Saturday August 9, Radio 4’s Today programme came up with a classic example of media inventing history for editorial purposes.  The First World War, Mishal Hussein suggested in her best Oxbridge trill, turned British women into drug abusers.

The death of a showgirl from a drug overdose in 1918 was quoted as evidence of the claim, and the authors of two books, one about wartime mental health issues, the other about the birth of the British drug underground, were wheeled in to discuss it.  Both authors began by pointing out that female drug abuse in wartime Britain was extremely localised, meaning it was essentially restricted to women involved with various entertainment industries in the West End of London.  After that, both struggled bravely but in vain to find anything that supported the story’s main thrust.  It was desperate stuff, with the woman responsible for Shell Shocked Britain, the stress book, reduced to suggesting that civilian women took drugs because the noise of Zeppelins was freaking them out.

Ridiculous.  According to witnesses I’ve interviewed (years back, obviously) the scariest thing about a Zeppelin attack was the machines’ eerie silence, but that’s what happens when editorial imagination forces specialists to go off piste.  The real point here is that the whole story is fiction, cobbled together by some bright BBC spark in possession of three facts and no history.  The First World War did not turn British women into drug abusers.  Women in and around the show business enclaves of Soho and theatre land had been abusing various substances for centuries; working class women all over industrial and urban Britain had been doing the same for at least as long, in gin palaces, through opiates and stimulants in patent medicines, any way they could find.  The War may have increased the need for escapism felt by some civilian women (and men), but I’m not sure the idea that raised stress levels encourage people to get off their face is particularly newsworthy.  No, the BBC wanted a war angle so it made one up.  After a series of embarrassing attempts to justify the story had failed, Mishal Hussein should have ended the piece by declaring the case unproven and unlikely.  Instead the show’s silly premise, a small piece of misleading, false history, was allowed to stand.

Invented angles on the First World War will be turning up all over the media for the next few years.  I’ll keep an eye open for them, because they’re poppycock.