Category Archives: Diplomacy

8 NOVEMBER, 1917: World Shaken (Not Stirred)

After three days of uprising on the streets of Petrograd, capital of the crumbling Russian Empire, a coup d’état brought the militant pacifist Bolshevik Party to power on the morning of 8 November 1917. Because November had not yet arrived according to the Russian Julian calendar, the coup was named the October Revolution, as distinct from the February Revolution that had overthrown the Tsarist regime earlier in the year. Anglophones tend to call it the Bolshevik Revolution or simply the Russian Revolution, but however you name it the arrival of Lenin’s new regime in Russia was one of the defining moments in twentieth-century world history.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, posterity treated the October Revolution that way. Its anniversary was celebrated with big fanfares and military parades throughout the Soviet bloc, where it was hailed by the ruling system as a kind of Big Bang that gave birth to all things good. Elsewhere, especially in the liberal West, it attracted intense study and a sort of horrified reverence as the source of a global force that was huge, mysterious and potentially anything from catastrophic to messianic, depending on your viewpoint. Now that the USSR has proved to be neither, at least according to the apocalyptic terms of reference that were commonplace before the 1990s, posterity has found reasons to downgrade the Bolsheviks’ great moment.

Seizing the day, in a staged kind of way…

It’s not hard to see why modern Russia chooses to give the Revolution’s centenary no more than perfunctory recognition. Unable to muster the totalitarian control exerted by the Soviet system, the current regime is not remotely interested in endorsing revolutionary activities, but much more interested in discouraging any popular nostalgia for the perceived efficiency of the Soviet machine.

Mainstream western media are meanwhile trotting out commemorative material that, if British press and TV are anything to go by, is light on political analysis and big on the all-action dramas of those wild days in 1917. When the BBC News devotes a memorial piece to the bullet holes still visible at the Winter Palace, it reminds me of the way popular Anglophone history packages the French Revolution, reducing it to the storming of the Bastille and a bunch of stylish decapitations, fixed images that tell us we don’t need to think too hard about something quaint and no longer relevant.

The Bolshevik Revolution is still relevant. Its shadow still blots out a lot of sun in Russia and other former Soviet states, and it still informs the military-industrial matrix around which the West’s defiantly capitalist response to the Soviet system has been built. That said, I’m not going to run through it in any detail, partly because the job has been well and truly done by a lot of other people, some of them brilliant, and partly because it would take at least a book to do it justice. I’m old school, still infused by shock and awe at what the Revolution did to the world, and that makes giving it the usual skim treatment a bit tricky – so I’m going to cop out, suggest you start any reading with Ten Days That Shook The World, and talk about other stuff.

Even by its own crowded standards, the First World War was having a particularly busy week in early November 1917. The Balfour Declaration of 2 November had sparked global headlines and debate about the future of Palestine and the Jewish people, but was soon superseded by news from the Western Front. The capture of Passchendaele by Canadian troops on 6 November was celebrated by the British, British imperial, US and French press with far more fanfare than its negligible strategic significance deserved – but the orthodoxies of contemporary (and subsequent) propaganda insisted that nobody could end a major offensive without claiming a victory, and this one allowed Haig to finally give up on the long, painful Third Battle of Ypres.

Elsewhere, General Allenby’s capture of Gaza was a genuine victory for the British, though it was more important to the future of the Middle East than to the outcome of the War, and the same could be said of General Maude’s continuing advance into Mesopotamia. Less positively from an Allied point of view, the Italian Army was still falling back in disarray before the Austro-German offensive at Caporetto, and suffering losses that couldn’t be disguised as anything but signs of defeat. With the very real possibility that Italy’s war effort was on the point of collapse, an Allied summit at Rapallo was in session for three days from 6 November.

By the time agreement had been reached and the conference closed, Italian positions were stabilising and (largely) Austrian advances were losing momentum – but as the leaders of France and Britain left the picturesque Italian port on 9 November, with the Italian Front shored up and three-way cooperation assured, they knew that chaos in Petrograd had crystallised into the worst possible result for the Allies. Russia’s Provisional Government hadn’t seemed effective, stable or particularly friendly to strategists in London and Paris, but it had been open to diplomacy as they understood it, and it had remained committed to the War. Now the Allies had to face the news that the dreaded Bolsheviks were establishing a hold on political power and had announced ‘an immediate democratic peace’ as their first priority. The war for control of Eastern Europe was over.

Most of the above has been covered in recent posts, but the moment at which Lenin and Trotsky seized the day to change the world forever seems a good time for a brief state-of-the-War recap, if only as a reminder that it’s almost impossible to sort geopolitical events into any kind of cause-and-effect classification without the benefit of hindsight. Wartime Allied newspapers more interested in Passchendaele than Petrograd summed up the effects of political pressures and partial perspectives on contemporary analyses of world affairs, and the future will undoubtedly prove that today’s orthodox worldviews had their eyes off the ball.

Future shocks can’t be helped of course, but watching for the relatively quiet developments in world affairs can provide at least some preparation and a shot at responding with the right manoeuvres. In that spirit, one of the smaller international stories of early November 1917, the signing of the Lansing-Ishii Agreement on 2 November, is worth a mention.

Robert Lansing was a lawyer specialising in intergovernmental legislation when he was appointed advisor to the US federal State Department (or foreign ministry) in April 1914, and he became US secretary of state in June 1915. Whatever else Lansing was – and I might one day get the chance to lament his role at the postwar peace conference – he was a man for the long view.

Convinced at an early stage that the US would eventually join the Entente at war against the Central Powers, and as such not especially forceful in his many official protests about the British naval blockade, Lansing pressured President Wilson into tacitly allowing major bank loans to the Entente powers, and pushed for peace with Mexico as preparation for war elsewhere.  Once the US was at war his efforts were focused on its aftermath.  By the spring of 1918 he would be instructing the ‘Inquiry’ – a secret global strategy think tank of some 125 researchers and experts, headed by respected journalist Walter Lippmann – to focus on the future of South America, but in late 1917 he was addressing the other main object of US economic ambitions, the Pacific.

In possession of Hawaii, in effective control of the Philippines and equipped with all the requirements for successful maritime trade from its west coast, the US was already established as a major Pacific economic player by 1914. As in Latin America, the subsequent shrinking of European wealth and influence in the region offered the US an opportunity to infiltrate new markets. With India already taken and jealously guarded by the British, the big prize was China, which was politically fragile and ripe for economic penetration, but had only been nibbled at by the European powers, and hardly approached by the US, in the decades before the War.

Tokyo in 1917 – modernising very nicely.

The US wasn’t the only rising economic star in the Pacific. Japan had been undergoing rapid industrialisation and pursuing aggressive, expansionist economic policies backed by a strong military. China was the prime focus of Japan’s aggression, and it had made no secret of its intent to seize control of the vast Manchurian territory, so although Japanese and US interests had not yet clashed directly, future rivalry was accepted as almost inevitable by both sides. Once the US was at war in 1917, Japan was in effect an ally, and that gave Lansing a diplomatic platform to seek a mutual understanding over their interests in China.

In the exchange of notes between Lansing and special Japanese envoy Ishii Kikujiro, announced on 2 November, both sides agreed that Japan held a position of special economic influence in China. They also confirmed Chinese territorial integrity and mutual adherence to the ‘open door’ policy, which theoretically guaranteed equal trading and commercial opportunities to all foreign powers in China.

Lansing and Count Ishii have come to an Agreement – I’ll let you guess which one’s which.

Both sides declared themselves pleased to have avoided any future misunderstandings – but in fact the Agreement had just the opposite effect. Japan interpreted it as sanctioning both economic and political interference in Manchuria, and provoked nothing but resentment in the US by proceeding with its effective conquest of the region. By the time the Agreement was abandoned in 1923, economic rivalry between Japan and the US was solidifying into suspicion and hostility against the background of a naval arms race. We all know how that panned out, but to end on some semblance of a point, who in November 1917 could have guessed that, among all the blockbuster stories dominating the week’s news, this one would end with an A-bomb on Nagasaki?

10 OCTOBER, 1917: National Stereotypes

The big story in the British press a hundred years ago was still the Third Battle of Ypres, as it was then being called, which was in the throes of another British reboot, distinguished by contemporaries and posterity as the Battle of Poelcapelle.  This latest phase of the fighting achieved very little for the Allies at substantial cost for both sides, and although British newspapers were accentuating the positives for all they were worth, faithfully trumpeting every inch of ground gained and every German casualty, their tone had lately undergone an increasingly familiar shift of focus.

Although everyone was able to be relatively honest about their generally successful defensive operations, the press on the attacking side greeted any major wartime offensive with confident predictions of a great victory.  Haig’s latest offensives were no different, but as hopes of success floundered in Flanders mud readers were being let down gently with reports that spoke less about the strategic situation, more about the horror of the carnage and the bravery of the troops.

This quiet evasion of uncomfortable truths was characteristic of wartime internal propaganda produced by liberal democracies, and was more subtle than the big lies about the big picture perpetrated by German propagandists conditioned to regard the body politic as intrinsically hostile.  Though hardly convincing  to a public accustomed to reading between the lines after three years of war, it did make allowances for natural scepticism and trusted its target audience to respond positively to sugar coated bad news.  As such it spared populations the kind of visceral shock administered to Germany when the truth got out, as mentioned in my last post – but before we get too comfortable with liberal democracies it’s worth noting that all they shared a propensity for other, less inclusive forms of internal propaganda.

We’re the good guys, OK? The British government knew what its people wanted to hear.

When it came to persuading populations that they were on the side of the angels, that their government and armed forces were honourable reflections of the home culture’s intrinsically superior morality, nobody’s propaganda was willing to trust its audience.  By way of illustration, British newspapers on 10 October also carried a small story about four Swedish merchant ships seized in UK ports. According to the reports, the ships had been commandeered for their own good because, although they flew the Swedish flag, they were partly British-owned and therefore likely to be attacked anyway by German warships.

Leaving aside the assumption that German naval officers were extraordinarily well informed about the ownership details of neutral merchantmen, one elephant in the room here was the fact that losses to U-boats, though less than catastrophic since the establishment of a convoy system, still left the British desperate to use any excuse to grab any merchant shipping within reach. Informed readers may well have understood and forgiven this, but a second elephant was more carefully concealed.   A public conditioned to view Britain as the much-loved global policeman, protecting the world from aggressive militarism, wasn’t being told that the British regarded neutral Swedish shipping as fair game.

Of the northern European states known in Britain as the ‘adjacent neutrals’ – the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden – the constitutional monarchy of Sweden was by far the most pro-German.  The country enjoyed strong cultural and economic links with Germany and had long regarded Berlin as the natural counterweight to the enemy it most feared, expansionist Russia. Though quick to declare its neutrality in August 1914, Sweden had at the same time signed a secret agreement to maintain a ‘benevolent’ attitude towards Germany, an arrangement at least partly motivated by a desire to forestall any German aggression.

Like the other adjacent neutrals, Sweden faced a combination of bullying and indulgence from both sides as the War progressed, because while the regionally relevant belligerent powers – Germany, Britain and Russia – wanted to prevent Swedish trade with their enemies, they also needed Swedish cooperation.

Germany relied heavily on Sweden as one of the few places willing and able to maintain trade links during the British blockade, and above all as a major supplier of desperately needed horses.  Britain’s imports from Sweden included important iron ore and timber supplies, and British diplomats fretted about Sweden’s attitude towards Russia and the Eastern Front.  Early in the War, before the development of Murmansk as an ice-free port, Sweden was the only viable through-route for Allied supplies to Russia, but London and St. Petersburg were always aware that any signs of German victory in the east might persuade Sweden to join the Central Powers for a share of the spoils.

Sweden going to war was less likely than the Allies imagined. Though a noisy Activist Party lobbied consistently for an alliance with Berlin, winning support from significant minorities within all social groups and strong backing from the military, sound commercial instincts and the pacifist preference of the majority kept the Stockholm government committed to formal neutrality throughout the War.

The fact remained that Germany mattered more to Sweden than Britain.  Sweden was less dependent than its neutral neighbours on British imports, and found it could replace most them with German imports when the British flexed their blockade muscles by curtailing supplies, while Germany was both the enemy of Sweden’s Russian enemy and, if provoked, a potential invader .

Though the Swedish government was apt to make a show of reluctance, it bowed to a series of German demands during the first two years of the War.  It agreed to black out Swedish lighthouses and mined the strait between Sweden and Denmark, both by way of keeping British warships out of the Baltic, and it banned the overland passage of military equipment en route for Russia.  Sweden was also the only European neutral to back Germany in the propaganda war, with government and press supporting Berlin’s take on Belgian atrocities, submarine warfare and most other controversial issues.  This was all perfectly legal, and in response the British could only impound Swedish ships, blacklist Swedish businesses and attempt to negotiate guarantees from the Swedish government against the re-export of goods to Germany.

By the end of 1916 the negotiations had achieved nothing much in the face of intransigence from Swedish premier Hammerskjöld, who had headed an essentially pro-German cabinet of conservative and business interests since the beginning of the War.  Facing nationwide food shortages and high unemployment, byproducts of the British blockade, and under pressure from its right-wing supporters to prepare the military for war, Hammerskjöld’s government eventually fell in early 1917.  The new conservative cabinet reopened negotiations with Britain, but no practical progress had been made by September, when the Luxburg Affair broke.

The laugh out loud paragraph here is the one about London’s astonishment.

During the summer US intelligence had intercepted and deciphered a cable to Berlin from a German diplomat in Argentina, Count Luxburg, recommending the sinking of Argentine merchant ships. At London’s behest, Washington delayed exposure of the cable, and the fact that it had been sent via the Swedish consular service, until just before Swedish elections.  The scandal stressed but didn’t break the Argentine government’s generally good relations with Germany, but revelation of such a clear breach of neutrality regulations did help defeat the conservatives in Sweden.  Engineering a change of government didn’t do the British much good, because the liberal coalition that took power under premier Nils Éden proved no less amenable to German influence and hardly more interested in reaching agreement with the Allies, dragging out negotiations until a re-export accord was eventually signed in May 1918.

The internal stresses exacerbated by wartime neutrality did complicate the lives of Swedish people and encourage post-war political reform (which expanded the franchise and concentrated executive power in parliamentary hands), but Sweden’s was hardly the most significant or dramatic of the War’s many diplomatic tightrope acts.  It is one of the least the least well known, partly because heritage history – the stuff peddled to the public via mass media, and arguably a form of state propaganda in fancy dress – has had reasons to forget the troubled wartime relationship between Britain and Sweden.

Sweden had peace but no quiet – the war years saw a surge in popular protests demanding constitutional reform

The Swedish public hasn’t been encouraged to dwell on a situation that might tarnish its generally well-deserved reputation, in Britain as elsewhere, for non-aligned fair dealing through the violence and geopolitical duplicity of the twentieth century.  Meanwhile British heritage history likes to preserve the righteousness of its Victorian heyday, and seldom questions the orthodoxies of modern international relations.  Given that it ignores almost anything that doesn’t fit its Tommy-centred, liberal agenda, it’s hardly likely to spotlight a time when the British government treated Sweden as an enemy in all but name and seized the country’s ships as a form of profitable punishment.  So I’m giving it a mention.

16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 MARCH, 1917: The Right Charlie

A century ago today, a secret proposal for peace talks reached the French president in the form of a letter from the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Karl I.  The diplomatic grapevine had been alive with whispers of Vienna’s willingness to negotiate since Karl’s coronation as King of Hungary at the end of 1916, when he had confirmed his reputation as a peace-loving moderate by promising to seek a settlement. Though evidently well intentioned, the peace proposal was a clumsy, half-baked and naive attempt to end a conflict that was patently wrecking the Austro-Hungarian Empire beyond salvation, and achieved nothing positive.  That rather summed up poor old Karl’s brief reign.

To be fair, few modern monarchs have come to their thrones in more difficult circumstances.  Karl’s great-uncle, the Emperor Franz-Josef, had been occupying the imperial throne for 68 years when he died in November 1916, so a sense of major change came with the territory. Karl, who was a cavalry officer when he became heir presumptive on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, spent about nine months at court between the summer of 1915 and May 1916, but was otherwise attached to field units and came to power with little training for the job.  He inherited an empire in almost every kind of trouble, mired in ghastly military deadlock on two fronts, well on the way to economic collapse and hurtling towards social breakdown – but while his brand of tentative liberalism was enough to alienate conservatives, and to provide encouragement for the many forces demanding change, it never came close to satisfying anyone.

Karl’s reform attempts kept pouring water on oil fires.  He appointed a series of reformist prime ministers in Austria, beginning with agriculture minister Heinrich Clam-Martinic in December 1916, and pursued the same line in Hungary after the removal of the stubbornly nationalist Count Tisza the following May, but none of them impressed separatist or republican opinion and none lasted long.  Karl’s recall of the imperial parliament, the Reichsrat, merely confirmed the paralysing depth of national and political divisions within the Empire, while his decision to release the Empire’s most high-profile political prisoners served only to strengthen his opponents.

The new regime did try to rationalise an economy that was manifestly failing to meet the challenge of total war, but development of an elaborate new bureaucratic structure during 1917 achieved nothing in practice, and arms production for 1918 fell below 1914 levels.  The King-Emperor also increased his influence over the military by putting an end to Conrad’s catastrophic tenure as Army chief of staff (14 May, 1916: Bad Hand? All In!), and treating his replacement, the altogether more pliant General Arz von Straussenberg, as a glorified personal advisor.  That backfired when Karl went on to ban duels, flogging, bombing of civilian targets and most use of poison gas, a set of highly commendable reforms that outraged most senior Army commanders.

Allied blockade, German demands and Hungarian hoarding meant food shortages were a big problem in Vienna by 1917.

Despite the obvious onset of imperial entropy, Karl still saw some small chance that the monarchy could survive, at the head of what he envisioned as a multinational federation, if he could succeed in bringing peace to the Empire and claiming the credit.  The idea chimed with the strongly pro-Allied views of his influential French-Italian wife, Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, and Karl’s first attempt to save the world, the proposal for negotiations received by President Poincaré on 31 March 1917, was delivered through her family.  It destined to go horribly wrong, of course.

What became known as the Sixtus Affair began in late March as preliminary talks between French officials and Princess Zita’s brothers, Belgian Army officers Sixtus and Xavier Bourbon-Parma. Apparently sanctioned by Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin, a figure generally known for his clear pro-German views, talks were sufficiently encouraging to prompt the more formal approach to Poincaré, but from that moment Austrian hopes faded fast.  With no sign that Vienna could exert the slightest influence over German determination to fight on, or that Austria-Hungary was ready to risk a unilateral arrangement, the letter to Poincaré was simply ignored by Allied leaders.

Sixtus, Xavier and their French mother. The Swiss-born princes were considered too noble to be allowed into a French Army still very big on the revolutionary principles of the 1790s, so they fought for Belgium.

They were right, and Karl knew it.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was by now dependent for survival on German military and economic support.  If the German Third Supreme Command, already eying his regime with acute suspicion, were to catch him feeding at the peace trough, support was sure to be withdrawn or expanded to the point of conquest, either of which meant curtains for the Empire. Suitably cowed, Karl made no further attempts to make peace with the Allies before the early summer of 1918, by which time it was far too late because the Sixtus Affair had come back to bite him.

Sending a secret document to the enemy without telling your allies is a pretty obvious hostage to fortune, and the peace bid of March 1917 gifted the Allies an opportunity to disrupt relations between Berlin and Vienna at a time of their choosing.  French premier Georges Clemenceau, the wily, aggressive nationalist who took office in November 1917 on a platform of war to the finish (and of whom plenty more another day), chose the spring of 1918 to reveal records of the Sixtus proposals, and achieved just the effect he was looking for.  The German Third Supreme Command reacted by forcing Czernin’s dismissal and imposing formal economic and military union between Germany and Austria-Hungary in May, at which point Karl lost any hope of significantly influencing, let alone controlling the collapse of his Empire.  The rest is a history of small central European countries dominated by powerful German and Russian neighbours.

Whatever Karl I tried to achieve, and no matter how enlightened his earnest pursuit of peaceful power sharing may appear to modern eyes, in 1917 he appeared weak-willed and volatile to everyone except other moderate liberals.  Despised by the right and the left, by diehard imperialists and committed nationalists, and with no Habsburg institutions left to defend his reputation after an early death – from pneumonia on 1 April 1922, while in exile on the island of Madeira – he was an easy target for central European commentators heavily influenced by the political extremes of the mid-twentieth century.

Popular anglophone history hasn’t really moved on from there. It still generally dismisses the last Habsburg emperor as a dithering weakling (and calls him Charles I), but in doing so reveals its blindness to perspective.  While it would be ridiculous to portray Karl’s short reign as any kind of success (despite the longstanding campaign by some Austrian Catholics to have him canonised), it might be more appropriate to commemorate him with reference to Mikhail Gorbachev – the last ruler of another empire, a man who met similar problems with similar responses, and a figure consistently glorified by the same heritage salesmen.

Who? Me?

14 MARCH, 1917: Breaking China

One reason the First World War outside Western Europe has been consigned to obscurity by modern popular history is that the world order of the day dictated posterity’s priorities.  To clarify that deeply pompous preamble, most places outside the centres of global wealth and power in the early 20th century seemed relatively unimportant to contemporaries studying or writing about the War, the loudest and most numerous of whom came from the centres of global wealth and power. In other words, the West wrote the history and bequeathed its priorities of the day to future generations.

One reason I write this stuff is because a lot of those places that seemed relatively unimportant during the War – and in many cases for a long time afterwards – have become central to the way our world runs today. Africa, the Middle East, Japan, the USA, the outer reaches of Europe and the Caucasus, you name it, the First World War helped shape it and it really matters today. That brings me to the empire that was, in 1917, a strife-torn, crumbling, apparently decadent, politically feeble carcass ripe for dismemberment, and is now the world’s most formidable centre of wealth and power.

So how was the world war playing in China, and why did the Chinese government sever diplomatic relations with the Central Powers on 14 March 1917?   With apologies for my fairly random selections from the Chinese-to-English spelling multiverse, here’s some background.

The Chinese Empire was in very bad shape when the War broke out, and had been for some time. Politically isolated and industrially backward, its population of around 420 million (in 1911) was ruled, at least in theory, by the Manchu dynasty during the late nineteenth century, but the imperial government’s power was under republican pressure in Beijing and, with individual warlords in control of the provinces, barely extended beyond the region immediately around the city.

The 1890s had seen the Empire lose control of Taiwan and Korea after military defeat by an expansionist Japanese Empire, and concede economic control to European empires across large swathes of the southern coastal zone. Outrage at European penetration triggered the 1900 Boxer Rebellion by nationalist elements in Beijing, but its main effect was to give European powers an excuse to increase their military presence in China. Meanwhile, in northeast, the Japanese were establishing economic and political control over the vastness of Manchuria, a process hastened after Japan effectively eliminated the competition with victory over Russia in the war of 1904–05.

This prolonged series of imperial disasters came home to roost in October 1911, when republican revolution erupted in Beijing. Led by Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Alliance Society’, it forced the child emperor’s abdication the following February, but within a few days Sun Yat-sen lost power to Yuan Shi-kai, who became president of the new republic and reorganised the Alliance Society as the Kuomintang Party. Yuan remained in office until his death in June 1916, but only ever controlled an enclave around Beijing while a rival Kuomintang government sat at Canton, a Japanese client regime ran Manchuria and the rest of the provinces were ruled by independent warlords.

Sun Yat-sen was a major 20th-century figure, seen as the ‘father’ of post-imperial China… but his career amounted to a series of failures, and when a chance at success beckoned, in 1925, he died.  Check him out anyway.

The outbreak of war in Europe didn’t provide China with the economic boost felt by so many other neutral states, partly because rapid economic expansion was virtually impossible in a vast country with only some 13,000km of railways, and partly because almost all modern Chinese industry was in foreign hands. Cotton and opium remained the country’s principle exports throughout the period, and the War’s main effect was to distract European powers from restraining the ambitions of Japan, which wasted no time seizing the German enclave of Tsingtao in 1914 and forced major economic concessions from China under the threat of war in early 1915 (18 January, 1915: Statement of Intent).

The Chinese government did, on the other hand, experience the diplomatic pressure to join both sides that was common to most neutral states after August 1914. Yuan and his strongly pro-Allied prime minister, Tuan Chi-jui, favoured British over German advances because they promised an end to reparations owed since the Boxer Rebellion, but never came close to achieving a consensus among neutralist nationalists or warlords with better things to do. After Yuan’s death in June 1916, Tuan Chi-jui remained prime minister under his successor, Li Yuan-hung, and overrode opposition from both the president and the Kuomintang to pursue negotiations with the Allies.

Negotiations bore fruit in the diplomatic break with Germany and Austria-Hungary, voted into effect by Tuan’s cabinet on 14 March 1917 and followed by seizure of the half dozen German ships in Chinese ports. Having simply ignored opposition, Tuan was ready to go the whole way, but on the same day president Li and the Beijing parliament joined forces to block any declaration of war. Tuan reacted by moving his headquarters north of Beijing and building up military strength, while Li and parliament pursued their new and hitherto unlikely alliance by voting Tuan out of office in April.

At this point, Chinese politics melted down into a summer of warlord mayhem, with Tuan threatening to attack the capital, Li and the Kuomintang summoning warlord Chang Hsun to protect the city, and Chang instead seizing control as regent in the name of a restored emperor. The new emperor, Puyi, lasted a fortnight after his installation in the Forbidden City on 1 July, before Duan marched on Beijing in the name of the republic and Chang fled.

 

Beijing in 1917. Not industrialised.

In theory, the pro-Allied party had won the day. In practice the process of persuading China into the War, albeit carried out with less ferocity and urgency than the bullying directed at more strategically useful neutrals, put a wrecking ball through the fragile edifice of Chinese central government. Republican politicians forced from Beijing by Chang’s short-lived coup fled to Canton, which became the centre of mounting political and military opposition to new president Feng Kuo-chang, the former vice-president and an ally of Tuan, who replaced Li on 18 July. China would go on to declare war against the Central Powers in August, a move that made little or no strategic difference to the wider conflict and barely impinged on the sprawling, violent internal disorder that consumed the vast majority of Chinese energies and resources for the duration, and for decades after the War.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that the Chinese Republic would have prospered if European empires had left the place alone during the First World War. Its constituency of squabbling nationalists and old-school warlords was a civil war waiting to happen and showing no signs of immediate resolution, while white imperialists can’t really be blamed for Japan’s altogether more disruptive behaviour. Then again, the casual (and in this case primarily British) diplomatic vandalism that helped turn Beijing into a war zone for a few months in 1917 had no real strategic justification, and was yet another case of the imperial fever that accompanied the new concept of ‘total war’. As understood in 1917, total war was an all-consuming fight to the finish that threatened the losers with extinction, providing European empires with all the justification they needed for ruthless pursuit of every alliance, sphere of influence or resource base, however trivial.

Just as they did in Greece, in Portugal, in the Middle East and pretty much everywhere else in the world, European diplomats and strategists brought only trouble to China during the First World War. Memoirs suggest many of them were aware of the damage they were causing but considered it necessary for the protection of their own homelands. They had no reason to believe that their homelands might one day be materially altered, even threatened, by changes in what were then geopolitically unimportant, often distant countries. On the other hand they, and the generation of historians that came after them, had every reason to suppose that the Chinese Empire was doomed to disintegration and of little significance to the futures of their homelands – but they were wrong, and we know that now, so maybe posterity should re-jig its priorities and pay some attention to the ways we messed with China.

20 FEBRUARY, 1917: Ask Don’t Get

A hundred years ago today, the Petrograd Conference broke up. Called for the purpose of assessing and improving Russia’s contribution to the Allied war effort, and Allied contributions to the Russian war effort, it had lasted 20 days and achieved very little.   All the same, the fact that it took place at all and the ways in which it failed do add up to an interesting glimpse at what an alliance between Britain, France and Russia really meant in 1917, as well as providing a snapshot of Russian imperial government immediately before it collapsed.

In any war you care to consider, at any time in history, coalitions mean conferences, whether called to coordinate the efforts of allies during a war or to share out the spoils at its end.  These days, international conferences at any level can take place without participants leaving their screens, and pre-industrial conferences among military allies ended to take place in the tent next to the battlefield.  In between, international conferences involved a lot of overseas travel.

The First World War took place just before technology took the sting out of overseas travel.  Conferences between widely separated allies remained arduous and potentially dangerous undertakings, usually conducted during the military quiet periods of mid-winter or high summer to reduce the risk of some major strategic change during the slow process of convening the delegates.

This basic logistic problem was one reason why it took the Allies until the end of 1915 to organise a major conference in France (8 December, 1915: Chat Lines), and the main reason why it was difficult to arrange any kind of conference between the Allies and Russia.  If getting a few Russian delegates to France represented an achievement, nobody wanted to ship boatloads of Allied delegates to Russia for a conference unless absolutely necessary.  By the middle of 1916, from both sides of the alliance, it was beginning to seem absolutely necessary.

 

Petrograd, as it was called between 1914 and 1924, was further from western Europe than this looks.

From a Russian perspective (as if perspective was a factor in imperial Russian government), the alliance wasn’t providing anything like enough military, supply or financial support.  Officials in Petrograd regarded the war on the Eastern Front as vital to the future of the Western Front, and believed that the Allies – and particularly Russia’s prime supplier, Britain – were holding back supplies because they failed to appreciate this fact.  Russian diplomats had meanwhile been unable to soften Britain’s hostility to unilateral trade between Russia and the USA, an attitude Petrograd put down to jealousy.

From an Allied point of view, the real problem with supplying the Russians was the Russian regime.  Shiploads of supplies were known to be rotting in dockyards that were simply not equipped to deal with the amount of traffic being sent from the West, let alone with the hundred percent increase the Russians were demanding.  The western Allies also doubted that military aid was being used properly when it did arrive, and the same applied to the financial credit being extended to Russia.  As for unilateral transatlantic trade, the British in fact feared that Russian business methods, considered cavalier and untrustworthy, could destabilise Allied relations with the USA.

Behind all these concerns lay a deep Allied mistrust of the Russian political and bureaucratic systems, and a mounting belief that the only way to sort them out was to go to Russia, find out what was really happening there and arrange support accordingly.  This was the main reason for Lord Kitchener’s trip to Russia in July 1916, which followed the failure of a London conference on Russian affairs, but his death en route postponed matters.  During the autumn, as Russian demands for loans beyond the scope of current agreements sparked another round of fruitless discussions with diplomats, plans were finalised for a major conference at Petrograd in early 1917.

Led by cabinet ministers and senior generals, British, French and Italian delegations finally reached Petrograd at the end of January, and after a few days of fractious preliminary meetings the conference opened officially on 1 February.  It quickly became clear that a full plenary session would be so crowded that any serious progress would be impossible, so the conference was split into committees to deal separately with military, political, financial and supply issues.  Even then, to the particular annoyance of British delegates, proceedings were slowed because a lot of senior Russian delegates were new to their jobs, such was the rate of ministerial turnover in the Tsar’s crumbling government, and by squabbling between rival Russian ministries.

The political committee had the easiest task, largely confined to confirming present arrangements and ensuring that all parties were aware of the others’ intentions.  The military committee was essentially in the same position, although the western Allies were obliged to repeat their rejection, confirmed at the Rome Conference a few weeks earlier (7 January, 1917: Back Door Man), of Russian demands that Greece be compelled to join the War on the Allied side, using military force if necessary.  Discussions about finance centred on Russia’s attempts to stop Britain demanding gold payments for loans made the previous year, and to secure unlimited credit for the duration of the War. They got nowhere, with Lord Milner, the head of the British delegation, eventually ending the debate by insisting on the need for further study.

Lord Milner’s worth a post of his own, and was a shadowy, influential figure among the British political elite. He was also a hard-core nationalist, imperialist kind of a guy…

The most important discussions and heated arguments were reserved for the knotty question of supplying Russia with military aid and trade. The Russians wanted more weapons from the western Allies, especially artillery, machine guns and rifles, but their negotiating technique reflected the regime they spoke for – inclined to fantasy, comfortable with fiction and naturally uncompromising – so they simply demanded huge numbers of everything.  The British and French (Italy was asking, not giving) wanted realistic assessments of Russia’s actual needs and of how much Russian docks could actually handle.  Supply would then depend on Allied estimates of what would constitute bang for buck on the field of battle.  These were not compatible positions, and they hadn’t got much more compatible by the time the conference broke up.

The Petrograd Conference failed to instigate any real changes in policy or process, failed to elicit any signs of reasonable compromise from the Russian administration, and was quickly rendered null and void by revolution in Russia – but it did provide one or two small benefits to the Allied war effort.  The Allies had learned to address all their issues with Russia as a coordinated whole, and their willingness to send important delegates such a long way had confirmed (to themselves and to Russians) the seriousness of their commitment to the alliance.   This helped smooth relations with the new Provisional Government in Petrograd, and some of the more useful organisational reforms discussed at the Conference did survive to improve the flow of supplies in the months that followed.

Petrograd also gave us a last, damning glimpse of imperial Russian bureaucracy and government at work before the February Revolution (which took place in March by the western calendar) consigned them to history.  The British, the French and the new Russian government were all quick to point the finger at the old regime when analysing the failings of the Conference, and I’m no apologist for the last Tsar’s catastrophic performance, but there is another side to that part of the story.

No matter how loudly they blamed Russian inefficiency, corruption and intransigence, the British had come to Petrograd with no intention of shifting their own position on supply and finance, or of admitting their own weakness in those matters.  By early 1917, all Allied loan and credit arrangements were dependent on US agreement, and a Wilson administration desperate to find grounds for peace was in no mood to make generous arrangements with belligerent autocracies.  Any major increase in supplies to Russia would also depend on US industry, which was already working to full capacity for its preferred Anglo-French clients, and anyway the rapid increase in losses to German submarines meant the British couldn’t spare any shipping to deliver more supplies.  Nothing about any of this was going to change in Petrograd, and the British knew it.

So although it wasn’t the first, the last or anything like the most significant example of the practice, the Petrograd Conference was a reminder of how easily and often the presence of a convincing scapegoat can be used to distract history’s attention from the full picture.

 

22 JANUARY, 1917: One Clanger, Two Bangers

It’s still January, the War is still quiet, and so I plan to spend the next hour or two telling three small tales about this week in 1917.   None of them are particularly obscure or neglected by posterity, but they’re all interesting in their way and there’s a dash of world-historical significance to spice things up.  They’re not really connected so let’s take them in chronological order, starting with the diplomatic black farce known as the Zimmermann Telegram or the Zimmermann Note.

Arthur Zimmermann was the German foreign minister in January 1917.  He had only been in the post since November, and in political terms he can be dismissed as a creature of the military-industrial dictatorship that controlled Germany as the Third Supreme Command (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint).  Zimmermann was thoroughly imbued with the gamblers’ optimism that characterised his masters, as demonstrated by his reaction to the decision, taken in mid-January, to adopt a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

For reasons often discussed in the past, the decision meant that war with the United States was all but inevitable, which in turn meant Germany either had to win the War before America’s vast resources made it to Europe or prevent the US Army from coming to Europe at all.  With the latter in mind, and encouraged by signs that collapse of the Russian war effort would release resources from the Eastern Front, Zimmermann wrote a note to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, instructing him to offer an alliance to the Mexican government whenever war between Germany and the US became certain.  In return for declaring war against the US, Mexico would receive generous funding and military support from Germany, along with the former Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, once victory was secured.  By way of encouragement, Zimmermann suggested that Japan might be persuaded to join the alliance, thus keeping the US occupied on two fronts, neither of them anywhere near Germany.

Reality was not heavily involved here.  Even if Mexico wanted a full-scale war with its northern neighbour, it was in midst of a very long series of revolutions and in no fit state to fight one, and Japan had shown no signs of wanting to abandon its very profitable and useful alliance with Britain, let alone being ready to fight a war against its powerful Pacific trade rival.  The message could, on the other hand, have very real diplomatic effects if its contents were to reach Washington while Germany was at peace with the US.  Berlin took precautions against this possibility, but they never stood a chance.

One of the Royal Navy’s first wartime jobs had been to cut Germany’s transatlantic cables, so Berlin had been communicating with its ambassadors in the western hemisphere using US cables, an arrangement accepted by the Wilson administration on the grounds that it might facilitate the progress of peace talks.  Berlin considered the US cable system secure, and had agreed not to use it for coded messages, but cited security concerns to persuade the US embassy to accept the Zimmermann message in code.  The message was delivered to the embassy on 16 January, and transmitted to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington.  Washington also thought its transatlantic cables were secure, but all traffic passed through a node near Land’s End, at the western tip of mainland Britain, where it was being tapped and passed on to the Royal Navy’s codebreaking centre, known as Room 40.

The Royal Navy’s Room 40 broke this code. Feel free to have a go.

Room 40 was in possession of German diplomatic ciphers and had cracked the gist of the message within a day or so, but the codebreakers sat on the information for the next three weeks while they thought up ways to use it without their wire-tapping activities causing outrage in Washington.  They eventually passed the telegram’s contents to the British foreign office on 5 February, five days after Germany’s public declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had effectively ended the diplomatic battle for American support.

Another two weeks passed before the first US official read a transcript, by which time the British had made up a couple of plausible alternative sources for the intelligence.  It was shown to the US ambassador in London on 20 February, reached Wilson in Washington a few days later, and was released to the American press on 28 February, giving a predictable and enormous boost to anti-German sentiment in the States at a very important time.

There isn’t much need to elaborate on the connections between our modern world and a document that helped get the USA involved in European affairs, except perhaps to paraphrase the incomparable Barbara Tuchmann by pointing out an unhappy consistency in the fruits of Prussian diplomacy, so I’ll move on to that week’s most disastrous by-product of the British class system.

Silvertown, a poverty-raddled East London suburb, had a nasty recent history as the capital’s industrial hellhole, a place where really noxious factories just outside the city’s regulatory reach were surrounded by the homes of their workforces.  Among many chemicals companies operating in the area in the 1900s, Brunner, Mond & Co (a future original component of ICI) produced soda crystal and caustic soda until production of the latter ended in 1912, leaving half of the plant idle.  In mid-1915, when the British Army was facing potentially critical shell shortages, the War Office requisitioned the spare half of the factory for production of high-grade, ‘purified’ TNT, despite protests that the process was too dangerous to be carried out in crowded areas, a view shared by the Brunner, Mond chemists who had invented the process.

Handling TNT was bad for workers, who suffered from a variety of side effects, including skin discolouration and nausea, but that kind of war wound could be described as unavoidable, whereas the British government could and did site many TNT factories in lightly populated, rural areas, where their well recognised tendency to explode was less of a hazard to life and property.  These considerations didn’t spare poor, crowded Silvertown, neglected for the benefit of capital as a matter of passive government policy for the previous seventy years, and TNT production began in September 1915.  On 19 January 1917, Silvertown paid the price, when fire broke out and, at 6.52pm, ignited 50 tonnes of stored TNT.

It was the biggest explosion in the history of London (though bigger TNT explosions took place in other wartime factories).  The TNT factory and a number of surrounding buildings were wiped out at once, while debris destroyed goods and damaged property for miles around, fires raged all over Silvertown (and in a Greenwich gasometer hit by flying debris), and the sound of the blast, which shook buildings all over London, was heard as far away as Norfolk and the south coast.  Had it not been evening, when most factory personnel were off work, the total of 73 dead and more than 400 injured would have been much higher, as would the £4 million paid out by the government in compensation to individuals and businesses affected by the explosion.  Just so you sort of know, my laptop says £4 million in 1917 is the equivalent of between – wait for it – about £200 million and about £1.75 billion today.  Could be that’s the main reason the British government stopped opening TNT factories in urban areas.

Bombing raid? Heavy artillery attack? Nope, just Silvertown after a wild Friday night in 1917.

Lastly, and by way of getting up to date, the night of 22 January saw a burst of lethal derring-do in the North Sea.  Cruisers from the Royal Navy’s Harwich Force – a collection of destroyers, light cruisers and smaller craft dedicated to patrolling eastern and south-eastern approaches to British home waters – intercepted the ten ships of a German Navy destroyer flotilla around the Schouwen Bank, about 30km off the Rhine Delta.  In a brief exchange of fire between the cruisers’ guns and the destroyers’ torpedoes, two German destroyers were heavily damaged before the rest escaped, only to run into a flotilla of British destroyers, which inflicted serious damage on a third destroyer but lost one of its own, HMS Simoom, torpedoed and sunk at a cost of 47 lives.  Again the actual combat was fleeting, though undertaken at what an eyewitness described as ‘pistol range’, before both sides ran for home.

The doomed Simoom… if anyone asks, a simoom is a desert wind occurring in Arabia and the Sahara.

I mention this essentially insignificant scrap because I’ve been inclined to focus on the timidity with which expensive, prestigious major warships were used during the First World War.  The Schouwen Bank action is a reminder that battleships weren’t the only warships out there, and that the rather pointless war fought by the dreadnoughts doesn’t reflect either the experience of most serving warships or the (non-existent) generalised failure of wartime naval operations that is such a favourite heritage headline.  What’s more, timidity had very little to do with rapid retreat from a night action, which was a deadly, terrifying game of cat and mouse played almost blind, with every shadowy ship in the darkness a potential friend or enemy, and every manoeuvre in crowded areas a collision waiting to happen.  When enemy ships ran away in the dark, chasing around to find them in a crowded, active naval theatre was not a smart move before radar changed the game.

16 JANUARY, 1916: Peace and Quiet?

As world wars go, this one was pretty quiet at the start of 1917.  The Western Front had reverted to its particular version of inactivity, the patchwork violence of trench raids and minor attacks defined by the very British concept of ‘permanent offensive’, and on the Eastern Front – inevitably quiet during Eastern Europe’s ferocious midwinter – the last rites of the Central Powers’ attack into Romania were the only substantial military activity.

Elsewhere, the Italian, Caucasian and Salonika fronts were quiet, and an uneasy standoff existed in East Africa, with German forces confined to the south of the colony and the British still busy replacing European and Indian troops with as many African soldiers as they could mobilise. The slow, steady preparation for British operations in Palestine, from forward defence of the Suez Canal to invasion, was approaching completion, and a limited British offensive was taking place in Mesopotamia.  The latter was making fast progress towards Baghdad, but we’ve been to Mesopotamia lately and we’ll be back there soon, so I’ll give the preliminary battles their due then.

This relative lack of carnage, which had encouraged talk of a compromise peace during December, encourages me to talk about peaceful things – like Denmark.

On 16 January 1917, US president Woodrow Wilson ratified the purchase from Denmark of what had been the Danish West Indies and subsequently became the US Virgin Islands. This was a rare moment in the headlines for wartime Denmark, and most Danes tend to see the First World War as little more than a passing nuisance, not central to the country’s twentieth-century development. With all due respect to anyone Danish, this is only half true.

A constitutional monarchy since the mid-19th century, Denmark had lost its southern provinces and 150,000 of its people to Germany after the Second Schleswig-Holstein War of 1864, and was one of Europe’s smallest states in 1914, with a population of less than three million. Though its industrial and urban development had kept pace with the most advanced European countries, it retained a predominantly agricultural economy that had made a highly successful switch from grain to pork and dairy production since the 1870s, and that sustained Europe’s most prosperous farmers.

Agricultural products accounted for 90 percent of Denmark’s exports and, underpinned by a thriving merchant navy, much of the nation’s wealth.  This was reflected in the country’s political development, which embraced contemporary socialism (especially in modern, industrialised Copenhagen) but centred on liberal and social democratic attempts to curb the power of major landowners by opening up the country’s narrow electoral franchise.

Since the country was also dependent on imports for food, energy and manufacturing raw materials, international trade was obviously very important to Denmark, and its two main trading partners in 1914 were Germany and Great Britain.  When war broke out between them, Denmark could only choose neutrality, but the fact that it shared a long, scary frontier with Germany, and couldn’t hope to defend it, soon forced the Danish government to play favourites.

Denmark’s only strategic importance to the belligerent powers lay in a geographical position that controlled access to the Baltic Sea, and in August 1914, at Berlin’s request and in spite of a promise to Britain, the Danish Navy began laying minefields across the narrow straits separating Denmark from Sweden. The Navy spent the rest of the War tending the minefields, while the 58,000-strong Danish Army remained clustered around Copenhagen, the only part of the country considered defensible if the Germans decided to march in and take over.

Danish naval squadrons spent four years protecting the minefields that guarded the Baltic.

Invasion from the south remained a possibility throughout the War. It seemed most likely at the start of the conflict, when collective insecurity triggered a run on gold deposits in Danish banks. With the country’s political parties committed to a cooperative truce for the duration, a coalition government responded by suspending convertibility of the national currency, the Krøne, into gold, and followed up with a raft of emergency laws that gave it control over prices, food supplies and exports.  These measures were primarily designed to ensure fair distribution of resources in the face of inevitable shortages, but control of exports also added to the government’s bargaining power with warring powers desperate for supplies.

With wartime inflation running close to 20%, subsequent measures provided (and later increased) welfare provision for poorer citizens, introduced government subsidies to keep down prices of fuel and essential foodstuffs, and responded to housing shortages by regulating rents and offering tax exemptions to housing developers. Progressive taxation was also introduced to counter both the strain on public finances – partly caused by keeping the armed forces mobilised throughout the conflict – and excessive profiteering.

All this interventionism, new to Denmark and similar in nature to governmental developments in belligerent European states, worked reasonably well, as did the diplomatic balancing act performed by a government that spent its time convincing both sides that trade with an independent, neutral Denmark was to their advantage. Once the uncertainty of the War’s opening phase had passed, Danish society and economy adjusted to its requirements in relative comfort… for a couple of years.

By the summer of 1916, a change at the top in Germany appeared imminent, and the prospect revived fears of an invasion aimed at breaking (or at least stretching) the Allied naval blockade by occupying Norwegian and Danish ports. Nervousness in Denmark was echoed by worsening relations with equally worried Allied countries, and by alarm in the United States, which saw the Danish West Indies (the Caribbean islands of St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas) as part of the western gateway to the Panama Canal, and was determined to take control of them before Germany could invade.

Here they are…

The Danish government had no good reason to keep the islands, which were economically depressed and expensive to run, and had agreed to sell them to the US twice before, in 1867 and 1902. The US Senate had rejected the first treaty of sale, essentially to spite unpopular Secretary of State Seward, and the Danish upper house had rejected the second, largely because of fears that a US administration would mistreat the islands’ predominantly black population. The same fears were expressed when Danish authorities rejected a fresh offer of purchase in October 1915, but Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, kept on asking, eventually making it clear that the US would seize the islands rather than let them fall into German hands. Menaced by Germany and under pressure from Britain, Denmark could ill afford to make an enemy of the US, which was likely to impose selective restrictions on neutral trade from its shores if and when it joined the Allies, and the Danish ambassador signed a preliminary treaty of sale in New York on 4 August 1916.

The treaty did not secure rights of US citizenships for the islands’ residents, nor did it grant them a say in the matter, but by December it had passed through both Danish houses of parliament and a national plebiscite. The US Senate ratified the treaty in September, but Wilson delayed his own signature until 16 January 1917, by which time all hope of imposing peace on the world had faded and US relations with Germany had virtually collapsed. The formal transfer of power took place on 31 March, at which point the US paid Denmark $25 million in gold and the US Navy took administrative control of the islands. Island natives eventually received full citizenship rights in 1932, but that’s another story, as is the considerably less prosperous neutrality endured by the Danes after the US entered the War.

Like it or not, here’s Uncle Sam.

It’s easy to see why the First World War is no big deal in Denmark, where commemoration is largely focused on the 35,000 Danes from German-controlled Schleswig-Holstein who were conscripted to fight for Germany and the 6,000 of them who died, along with the three hundred or so Danish merchant ships sunk during the conflict and some 800 sailors who lost their lives. Otherwise, the post-War return of northern Schleswig to Danish control is recognised as a turning point in the country’s modern history, but much of the state’s wartime legislation was dismantled in the early 1920s and is largely forgotten, while the country’s economy quickly returned to something like its pre-War condition. A new constitution was introduced in 1915, widening the franchise and allowing women to vote for the first time, but it was the product of pre-War political dynamics and not influenced by the course of the conflict.

On the other hand, as they did in so many other developed European countries, wartime organisational needs forced an enormous, lasting growth in the reach and power of Danish unions and employers’ associations. They also spawned a political truce that propelled the country’s emerging social democrats to governmental responsibility and laid the foundations for an alliance with the liberal left that went on to shape Danish society for the next forty-five years. Perhaps most significantly, the country’s geopolitical position was fatefully altered by its years of neutrality, because experience of Allied blockade tactics during the First World War convinced German planners to occupy Denmark during the Second.

Just so you know, Danes serving in the German Army fought and died on the Western Front.

This has been a long, flimsy piece of journalism, and aside from telling another small tale of big people bullying little people, it has only one, small point to make – that the First World War changed the lives of almost every citizen in the developed world, even those that think it passed them by.

7 JANUARY, 1917: Back Door Man

If you thought 2016 was bad – and let’s face it most people did – cheer yourself up by imagining how ghastly the world looked at the end of 1916.  Feeling better?  Good, now get past the heritage notion that everyone running the world a century ago was stupid, and think about how a smart person like you, equipped with a hundred years of hindsight, might have changed things at the start of 1917.

It’s a tricky one.  You could take an extreme pacifist position and walk away at all costs, forcing peace for its own sake, but only by betraying every clarion call and sacrifice since 1914, and only by leaving the enmities of 1914 unresolved, primed to start another war.  This was morally and politically impossible for anyone in a position of power in any of the main belligerent nations.

Perhaps you could parley for peace, persuade the warring empires to swap compromises in the face of escalating slaughter and socio-economic mayhem – but both the German Chancellor and the President of the United States had just tried that, only to discover that neither side was ready or willing to give an inch.  Given that the Allies had framed their entire case for war as an outraged mission to save civilisation, and that only total victory could save the regime directing the Central Powers, you might as well forget about the spirit of compromise.

So you’re going to have to keep fighting this war, and aiming for final victory, but surely an intelligent, open-minded leader can find a quicker and less costly route to goal than the hideous attrition of the Western Front, or for that matter the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Well, the British and French have tried this before, only to land in trouble at Gallipoli and strategic quicksand at Salonika.  Meanwhile the British Empire, the only Allied state with any resources to spare elsewhere, is already busy fighting sideshow wars in the Middle East, in Africa and across the world’s oceans, and any day now the German Third Supreme Command is going to bet its collective shirt on the almighty short-cut of all-out submarine warfare.  In other words, you’ll struggle to find any viable new route to victory, let alone one you can get past the combined scepticism of military and political forces still fixated on the main European fronts.

Generations of intelligently applied hindsight have failed come up with a convincing alternative to the ‘keep marching to the light’ approach adopted by leadership on both sides during the second half of the War, so it’s no wonder that even the most creative British statesperson of modern times couldn’t crack the problem.  Newly installed as British Prime Minister, at the very peak of his political power and influence, David Lloyd George gave it a characteristically bold try, but by the time the Rome Conference of Allied leaders ended on 7 January 1917, he knew he had failed.

I’m a big fan of Lloyd George. I’m not planning to go into details here, but few people with his energy, pragmatism, vision, boldness and cunning get to achieve much in modern politics while keeping their ideals on the side of the angels. Despite a list of personal flaws to match his gifts, Lloyd George entered office on the back of a brilliant record as both a reformer of British society and its prime organiser for total war. Though the War years burned him out politically, and his career never fully recovered from association with the universally unloved post-War peace settlement, he was a fearless and confident figure throughout the conflict, and at the end of 1916 he was determined to force it to a swift, victorious conclusion.

Ruthlessly effective at streamlining government and bureaucracy to meet wartime needs, Lloyd George was equally adept at shaping press and popular opinion – but though his work on the home front established a platform upon which victory could be built, persuading the military to complete the task his way presented an altogether more formidable challenge.  Broadly speaking the Army, led by Chief of Staff Robertson and BEF commander Haig, was absolutely committed to maintaining maximum focus on the Western Front, and sure the War would be won or lost in France, while Lloyd George was equally sure that victory could be achieved more quickly and less painfully by attacking the Central Powers through a back door.

The trouble was, as mentioned earlier, most of the back doors had been tried and found locked, or at least extremely difficult to open, and though the prospect of an attack on the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire still beckoned in the Middle East, nobody expected it to defeat Germany.  Given the abject performance of Allied forces in Salonika, it was clear that nothing the British Army could do was likely to have much effect on the Eastern Front’s overall picture, and that left Lloyd George with few new options for lateral thinking except the unlikely scenario he came up with: an attack into the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Italy.

In military terms, it wasn’t a great idea. Lloyd George wasn’t far wrong in thinking that Vienna’s empire was ripe for collapse, but the Italian Army was going to need a lot of reinforcement and the Italian Alps were still a blood-soaked nightmare for offensive operations. That didn’t stop Lloyd George suggesting the transfer of British and French heavy artillery to Italy within a week of taking office, and he took the idea further at a meeting of Anglo-French leaders on Boxing Day, when delegates accepted his proposal for a summit between the British, French and Italian high commands to discuss overall strategic priorities. Robertson and Haig were unimpressed, and were placing obstacles and objections in the path of any serious military aid to Italy within a matter of days. This was to be expected, but might be overcome if the combined weight of French and Italian opinion could be convinced to swing behind Lloyd George.

The summit convened as the Rome Conference on 5 January. Lloyd George asked delegates to consider increasing military aid to Russia and increasing the strength of Allied forces in Salonika. He also urged the development of joint offensive strategies on the Italian Front, supported by the transfer of Anglo-French artillery and infantry to the theatre. The Italian high command had no problem with the latter idea, and Italian Army c-in-c Cadorna agreed to mount a major offensive provided the Allies added at least 300 heavy guns to his artillery. At first the British and French military commands, neither of which had any official advance warning of the proposal, made it clear they had no guns or troops to spare for the Italian Front, but under pressure they agreed to loan the Italian Army some heavy artillery – only for the French to qualify the offer by insisting on the return of the guns by April. Cadorna pointed out, quite rightly, that Italy couldn’t possibly mount an offensive in the Alps before April, and the conference broke up on 7 January without any firm arrangements on the table, let alone agreed.

When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.
When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.

Lloyd George had been thwarted by the military on both sides of the Channel, had received no substantial support from the French government and, with a characteristic disregard for military realities, declared himself let down by Cadorna’s refusal of a bad offer. His battle against Robertson and Haig was far from over, and the rest of the year would see him manoeuvring to curb their control over strategic direction, but the cross-Channel military solidarity displayed at the Rome Conference set a pattern that precluded any fundamental change in military priorities. From the other perspective, Italian delegates at the Conference came away confirmed in their view that Britain and France were serious about wanting a major offensive into southern Austria-Hungary, but weren’t prepared to pay for it.

The Rome Conference was a failure, but is worth remembering as a nod to the largely forgotten efforts of those trying to alter the character of the First World War at what seemed its hour of deepest gloom. It also merits commemoration as the start of something, because despite Italian scepticism the Conference forced Anglo-French military leaders to at least examine the position on the Italian Front. New French c-in-c Nivelle visited the front in February; Robertson followed in March. What they saw convinced them that the Italian Army, operating far less sophisticated defence systems than those in use on the Western Front, might well need reinforcement, if not for an offensive then for credible defence against any major attack by Austrian or German forces. British and French commanders began formulating plans for the rapid transfer of guns and troops to Italy in the event of a crisis, and these would prove extremely valuable when crisis came the following autumn.

18 DECEMBER, 1916: Peace? No chance.

A hundred years ago, as the horror story of 1916 ground towards its end, talk of peace was in the air – but it had nothing to do with Christmas.  It sprang instead from the fear felt by two individuals, powerful and experienced politicians facing the prospect of their best-laid plans coming to abject grief.   Though they were only a month apart in age, German Chancellor Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg and US President Woodrow Wilson didn’t have much else in common, but within the space of a week each felt moved to take a personal stab at halting the First World War.

Look at Woodrow, folks! One throw and he can save the world! Or not.
Just look at Woodrow, folks!  One pitch and he thinks he can save the world! He also thinks he’s living in the same world as…
Not a populist and never a soldier, but Bethmann-Hollweg got to wear a general's uniform anyway.
Bethmann-Hollweg, who’d never been a soldier but wore a general’s uniform anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bethmann-Hollweg, the epitome of Prussian political orthodoxy, born and married into its elite inner circle, had been Chancellor since 1909 and had survived in office by reacting to, rather than attempting to overly influence, the moves made by a dominant military.  Like any good political survivor he was a wind direction expert, and he had long supported the growing influence of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, backing their demands for concentration on the Eastern Front against the less cavalier, west-facing strategy pursued by Chief of General Staff Falkenhayn.

The Chancellor remained onside once Ludendorff and his figurehead took power as the Third Supreme Command in late August 1916, and he announced their recipe for a supercharged war effort, the Hindenburg Programme, as government policy in September – but he didn’t share the belief that the German economy, bullied out of slack complacency and boosted by resources from the Army’s conquests, could outpunch its enemies. Having helped unleash a military-industrial combine bent on turning Germany into a socioeconomic runaway train, and unable to impose any kind of restraint or to prevent its huge gamble on the war-winning potential of all-out submarine warfare, an outbreak of peace was Bethmann-Hollweg’s only hope of avoiding the disastrous flame-out he foresaw.

For reasons obvious to anyone with a reasonable sense of self-preservation, the Chancellor had spent much of the autumn hoping someone else would bring about peace. Woodrow Wilson was by far the most likely candidate, both because he was a liberal pacifist to the tips of his fingers and because only the USA had the power to stop the War by cutting supplies to the belligerents. After Wilson had secured a second term at the White House on a pacifist ticket, and the vast battles on the Western Front had subsided into stalemate, Bethmann-Hollweg waited in vain for such apparently ideal circumstances to generate a peace initiative from Washington.

Hope faded as the weeks passed, so on 12 December the Chancellor took the plunge and led with his only playable card.  On behalf of the Central Powers, he proposed peace talks on the basis of frontiers as they then stood, backing the proposal with claims that German force of arms had defined the War so far and could not be beaten. This was not a strong lead. It was never going to impress the Allies, committed as they were (strategically and publicly) to reversing German conquests and punishing the perpetrators, and they duly rejected it out of hand. Meanwhile any hope that the prospect of quitting while Germany was ahead might prompt the Third Supreme Command and its backers to pursue peace (rather than the do-or-die option of all-out submarine warfare) proved completely illusory. Bethmann-Hollweg’s slightly more plausible best bet – that evidence of German interest in peace might persuade the US administration to force the issue – did appear to generate a reaction from Wilson, but didn’t come close to flushing out an ace that could end the War.

Wilson wanted peace. He had campaigned as a peacemaker, he saw himself as a peacemaker and he too viewed the exhausted, deadlocked end of the Somme and Verdun battles as a good moment for a newly re-elected president to broker peace. What’s more, this seemed a good time for the President to act as a genuinely neutral mediator because US relations with the Allies were at a low and US-German relations were on something of a high.

Despite strong cultural links with Britain and France, despite widespread American sympathy for those nations under attack by the Central Powers, and despite the huge economic boom built on the USA’s position as the Allies’ chief supplier of finance and war materials, US politicians and public were unhappy with the British in 1916. They had been infuriated by the obvious distaste for a negotiated peace expressed by the British government, by British suppression of Irish civil rights after that year’s Easter Rising in Dublin, and by Britain’s blundering high-handedness around the enforcement of its naval blockade (28 July, 1916: Special Relationship?).

At the same time, US relations with Germany had been relatively positive since the spring, when the furore surrounding the sinking of the Sussex – an English Channel ferry packed with civilians, some of them American – had persuaded Berlin to issue the ‘Sussex Pledge’, by which the German Navy agreed to stop U-boats from attacking unarmed, non-military shipping without warning. As long as the Pledge held, so would the US electorate’s mandate for peace, but the President’s hopes of avoiding, let alone ending the War would be dead if the German High Command, fighting on three fronts and required to support all its allies, sought total victory through submarine warfare.

So Wilson was in a hurry to do something peaceable once he was safely back in the White House, and was planning to approach the belligerents in mid-December – but Bethmann-Hollweg’s initiative of 12 December gave him second thoughts, on the grounds that any US move at that point might be interpreted as pro-German. Having thought twice, Wilson went ahead and acted anyway, sending identical notes to all the belligerents on 18 December. By way of avoiding any direct association with Bethmann-Hollweg’s proposal, the notes were careful to neither demand peace nor offer US mediation, but merely invited all the belligerents to state their war aims as a means of facilitating future peace talks.

Even that modest idea proved far too radical for the empires at war. Without stating its war aims, the German government replied that, though it was of course anxious to end the conflict as soon as possible, it preferred direct negotiations between warring parties to any negotiation through a mediating power such as the USA. The British government, answering on behalf of the Allies, was more forthcoming on the subject of war aims, declaring that they required the Central Powers to evacuate occupied territory, pay indemnities for the trouble caused, and grant political freedom to those central European peoples subject to Austro-Hungarian or German control. These were not aims designed to bring Germany to the negotiating table.

Taken together, the German proposal and the general response to Wilson’s note made it clear that, despite Bethmann-Hollweg’s fears for the future, neither side was really interested in a negotiated peace. Wilson nevertheless kept chasing what we would these days call his legacy, and what he saw as a new world order based on liberal principles. Talks between his chief foreign policy advisor, ‘Colonel’ Edward House, and the German ambassador to Washington, Count Johann von Bernstorff, raised the possibility of secret negotiations with a view to setting up peace talks, but in mid-January the Third Supreme Command once again rejected the idea of US mediation, making clear that it would only negotiate with belligerent powers.

Still Wilson didn’t give up, and on 22 January 1917 he delivered an oration to the Senate – known to history as the Peace Without Victory speech – that laid down his vision for a peaceful future and challenged the world to match it. The huge global impact of his words, their significance for the post-War world and the many controversies that surrounded them are important elements of the story to come, but as a postscript to the minor flurry of mid-December peace overtures the speech was irrelevant.  By the time it was delivered, the Third Supreme Command had already secured Kaiser Wilhelm’s agreement to announce the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare on 1 February.

So the German ruling elite was going for victory because anything less would break its hold on power, while the Allies were going for victory because the stats said the Central Powers were almost exhausted, and because their two-year propaganda portrayal of evil German militarism demanded it.   However much Bethmann-Hollweg and Wilson wanted to stop the War (for their own sakes), and however much war-weary populations agreed with them, peace stood no chance in December 1916.