Category Archives: Asia

20 MARCH, 1919: Words And Deeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 MARCH, 1919: Dangerous Liaisons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emir Amanullah – can you spot his modernising tendency?

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

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

17 FEBRUARY, 1918: Follow That Figment!

Thanks to happy accidents of history and geography, I’ve never had to fight in a war or survive as one goes on around me, but I have it on a number of good authorities that both can play tricks on the imagination.  This is obviously true of individuals but can also be the case for groups, particularly in hierarchical systems that grant certain individuals a lot of power to influence groups.

The First World War was a very big, very complicated war, fought between fundamentally hierarchical systems, and arguably fought in an attempt to preserve those systems in a changing socio-political environment.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at how often – even by the standards of comparably enormous conflicts – the command elites of First World War empires let their collective imaginations run out of control.

Imagined threats and imagined glories, not to mention a few imagined maps, generated a lot of wild, crazy and generally pointless action throughout the War.  The French invasion of Germany in 1914, the Dardanelles expedition in 1915, almost everything to do with British extension of the Mesopotamian Front, Italian involvement in the War, Romanian foreign policy, the whole basis of German war strategy after Ludendorff and the Third Supreme Command took power in 1916… the war years were in some ways defined by these and many other strategic responses to gigantic chimeras.

Wild flights of imagination, laced with optimism or desperation, also gave life to some of the War’s smaller but crazy operations – the British Naval Africa Expedition springs inevitably to mind (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut) – and today marks the centenary of a staging post in one such folly’s story.  I’m talking about the adventures of what came to be known as ‘Dunsterforce’, a British detachment that reached what was then the town of Enzeli in northwest Persia, and is now the Iranian town of Bandar-e Anzali, on 17 February 1918.

Nicknamed after its commanding officer, Russian-speaking British Indian Army General Lionel Dunsterville, Dunsterforce was a composite detachment of about 1,000 British, ANZAC and Canadian troops hand-picked from the Western and Mesopotamian Fronts.  It was assembled in December 1917 at the western Persian town of Hamadan, halfway between the Mesopotamian frontier and Teheran, and supplied by a fleet of 750 lorries across 500km of rough terrain from Baghdad.

Dunsterville: as dashing as he looks, and the inspiration for Kipling’s Stalky.

All this logistic effort was the product of some fairly wild imaginings on the part of British strategists.  They imagined a plan to invade India through Persia by Ottoman and German forces, and imagined that a thousand men could march across modern Iraq and Iran to prevent it.  They also imagined that the same men could march on into what was then known as Transcaucasia, where they could prop up the newly established, anti-Ottoman Transcaucasian Republic and ideally gain access to the regional oil industry centred on Baku.

The idea of aiding Transcaucasia did at least have a basis in reality. The strip of land between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea had formed the only land frontier between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1914, and comprised the Russian provinces of Azerbaijan and Georgia, along with the vaguely defined Armenian homelands either side of the border.  All three formed legislative assemblies with nationalist pretensions in the wake of the February Revolution in Russia, and after a joint meeting at Tbilisi in August 1917 they agreed to merge for mutual protection as the Transcaucasian Republic, which came into formal existence on 17 September.

It didn’t last long.  The dominant partner, Georgia, was interested in promoting its economic development as a client of Germany, while Azerbailjan favoured close relations with a Central Asian assembly based in Tashkent, and after years of genocidal violence Armenians were primarily concerned with reaching some kind of settlement with their Turkish neighbours.  By the time Dunsterforce was assembling, all three partners were behaving as if the Republic didn’t exist, and all three were bracing for attacks by Red Army forces as soon as a peace agreed at Brest-Litovsk left the Bolsheviks free to focus on internal affairs.

While I’m on this detour, I should correct a bad miss on my part some eighteen months back, a failure to mention one of the War’s almost completely forgotten horrors. In July 1916, native peoples of the region known as Central Asia – modern Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (eat your heart out, Borat) – rose up against the Russian Empire, which had expanded to control the region in the late nineteenth century.

Russia had left Central Asia’s tribal and nomadic societies virtually untouched, but had exploited their cotton output and used the land to seed colonists, who made up some forty percent of the population by 1914. War provided an outlet for longstanding tensions between natives and colonists because the Empire needed manpower, and the rebellion exploded into life after a government decree conscripted hitherto exempt native males for military labour service. Thousands of Russian settlers were murdered before the Russian Army moved in to join colonists in executing savage reprisals, and estimates of the number killed before order was restored vary up to about 500,000.

Even in this idealised form the Central Asian rebels of 1916 were easy meat for Russian Army guns.

Perhaps if the revolt had been a crusade for or precursor to some kind of nationalist movement, rather than a spontaneous expression of popular anger of a kind generally known as peasants’ revolt in the West, it would still be commemorated as part of some nation’s creation story. As it is, the slaughter in Central Asia has never been subject to propaganda exposure by anyone. Virtually unknown to contemporaries in Europe, it has been pretty much ignored ever since. It’s a fair guess that Western posterity would be all over any remotely comparable catastrophe if it had happened somewhere less remote from the concerns of history’s winners, and that justifies the swerve so I’ll move on.

Dunsterforce headed north to undertake its improbable twin mission on 27 January 1918, accompanied by an armoured car unit, and had covered the 350km to Enzeli by 17 February. Reality then reared its inconvenient head, because 3,000 revolutionary Russian troops were already there, and Dunsterville was forced to march back to Hamadan.

Tough country… Dunsterforce country.

During the following weeks a German division occupied Tbilisi, an Ottoman force moved to threaten Baku and Red Army forces quit Enzeli to retreat beyond Baku.  Dunsterforce armoured cars, this time accompanied by a British imperial regiment from the Mesopotamian Front and a force of some 3,000 anti-revolutionary Russian troops, duly struggled north again.  They occupied Enzeli in June, but didn’t stay long.  In response to an appeal for help from moderate socialists who had overthrown the Bolsheviks controlling Baku during July, Dunsterforce crossed the western Caspian Sea to join the city’s defence.

About 1,000 Dunsterforce troops had joined a garrison of some 10,000 local volunteers in Baku by late August, but they left again during the night of 14 September as 14,000 Ottoman troops prepared to attack the city.   Baku fell next day, but most of Dunsterville’s troops escaped and returned to Enzeli along with large numbers of Armenian refugees.  When Ottoman forces left Baku in line with the armistice agreement, Dunsterville led his troops back to occupy the port without a fight.  Having finally achieved this small, belated and temporary strategic success, he was ordered back to Britain.

He received rather less of a hero’s welcome than he might have expected for bringing his force through a considerable logistic and command challenge in far-flung and dangerous territory.  With the War effectively over and propaganda losing its hold over public debate, his mission was subject to severe criticism as part of a wider (and permanent) backlash against the perceived strategic failings that had prolonged the conflict. Dunsterforce was generally dismissed as either a reckless and pointless adventure or a strategic coup let down by pitifully inadequate investment of resources.  A century on, it’s hard to argue with that assessment – but equally hard to claim we don’t still fall for wartime tricks on our imagination.

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.