Category Archives: Eastern Front

19 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Viva Vilnius!

Having rambled on at length about the Balkans and the First World War, it would be a shame to ignore the effects of the conflict on the Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania form another of Europe’s traditional trade conduits and, like the Balkans, have suffered the predations of bigger, more powerful nations as a consequence. All three states were provinces of the Russian Empire in 1914, but a hundred years ago today the German advance in the northern sector of the Eastern Front took Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The whole of modern Lithuania remained under German control for the rest of the War – and I’ll keep the focus there for now.

Part of the country had been under German occupation for some time. A strip near the frontier with East Prussia had been occupied in March 1915, and in April a German advance designed as a distraction from the main Eastern Front offensive further south had taken the whole of western Lithuania. The offensive that took Vilnius was also a secondary operation, a minor element of that summer’s German Triple Offensive.

Essentially a pursuit of the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ begun in late July, the northern wing of the German advance ran out of steam a few days later in the face of minor Russian counterattacks. When Germany officially halted offensive operations on 26 September, it controlled all of Lithuania and about half of Latvia, with the front line running south from the outskirts of Riga.  Despite occasional Russian attempts to push the line back beyond Vilnius, that’s pretty much where it remained until 1918.

Meanwhile, in Vilnius, German occupation breathed life into the long-suppressed cause of Lithuanian nationalism. While claims to independence by Lithuanian exiles eventually found focus with appeals to US President Wilson, nationalist politicians inside the country were encouraged by the German decision to create a Polish Republic (under a puppet government) in 1916.  Primarily concerned with milking Lithuania’s resources for the war effort, German authorities played it canny, making encouraging noises but postponing any decision about the nation’s future until after the War.  But the Germans changed their minds after the collapse of Russia in late 1917 and tried to set up a puppet state, triggering a decade of dangerous instability in the region.

A national assembly, the Taryba, was established under German auspices, and proclaimed a new Kingdom of Lithuania.  The crown was offered to a German princeling, Wilhelm of Urach, who became King Mindove II in July 1918.  Dependent on German support, the monarchy was overthrown in November, after which nationalist and Soviet regimes competed for control of the country during the upheavals of the Russian Civil War.

Lithuanian independence was formally achieved in 1920, but it took another three years to clear German elements from the west, and Polish forces (originally invited into the country to fight Red Army incursions) occupied parts of Vilnius until 1927. Thirteen turbulent years later, Lithuania would be annexed by the Soviet Union and, apart from three years under German control during the Second World War, it would remain a satellite of Moscow until the re-establishment of independence in 1990.

The point of this skim over the Baltic is two-pronged.  First, although the northern sector of the Eastern Front was always something of an afterthought for military planners, it is worth noticing that Lithuania and its neighbours were damaged and changed by the conflict.  Secondly, as modern Russia flexes its expansionist muscles and EU unity wobbles around multiple socioeconomic crises, I see no harm in a reminder of the vulnerability and volatility that always afflicts small states caught between competing empires.  So be nice to Lithuanians.  They’ve suffered.

22 JULY, 1915: Sounds Great…

These days, everybody knows it’s a bad idea to try and conquer Russia. Russia’s too big to invade properly in the few months when weather permits anything so frisky, and has the resources to recover from any known military disaster during the long, fallow months of winter. Napoleon and Hitler tried it, and ruined themselves in the failure. In the summer of 1915 General Ludendorff, already much maligned in these pages, wanted to try it, but was only allowed a limited version of his great invasion plan. The result was an apparently massive victory, won at relatively little cost, which stripped the Russian Empire of almost all its eastern European possessions. This was the (largely) German Triple Offensive that began in July 1915.

Without going into maps, the Triple Offensive was a series of attacks all along the Eastern Front. They were carried out with fewer men and weapons than Ludendorff (and, if he was awake, Hindenburg) wanted, but as many as German chief-of-staff Falkenhayn could spare, given his commitments on other fronts. The attacks found the Russian armies in their standard condition of overstretched, ill-organised unpreparedness, and the Russian high command (Stavka) reacted to initial German breakthroughs in the usual way, by sticking its head in the sand and simply ordering field commanders to hold firm. They couldn’t, and Stavka, facing the prospect of massive losses as armies were cut off by German forces advancing on their flanks, finally changed its mind on 22 July, when it played the trump card that has been saving Russia for the last two centuries. It ordered a ‘Great Retreat.’

History is full of ‘great’ retreats. A Russian Great Retreat had drawn Napoleon all the way to Moscow and left him broken, and a Soviet Great Retreat would one day lead Hitler along the same path, but the Russian retreat of 1915 wasn’t in the same league. It wasn’t even the greatest Great Retreat of that year, less desperate and dramatic than the Serbian version that would follow in November, and deserved the sobriquet only in that it stabilised the theatre by shifting the front line some 350km to the east. A lot of men and equipment were preserved to fight another day, some industrial plant was moved to safety, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy was implemented to deny supplies to the enemy – but the scorching was carried out on a patchy basis that allowed landowners of wealth and influence to negotiate exemptions, and on the whole the retreat was an improvised affair, barely controlled by Stavka and regarded as a shambles by contemporary Russian critics. If that makes you wonder how it joined the pantheon of Great Retreats, accepted as such by all sides of the argument, here’s an answer.

Simple propaganda explains why Russian authorities insisted that a narrow escape from catastrophic defeat constituted a brilliant exercise in defensive warfare, and why Russia’s allies were happy to support the myth – but the key to this retreat’s illusory greatness lies in German attitudes. As they pursued the retreat east, German forces missed the chance to encircle seven escaping Russian armies, a failure that left the balance of power on the Eastern Front essentially unchanged at the end of what had seemed a potentially decisive operation. Unwilling or unable to accept that rough terrain, poor communications and lengthening supply lines (in other words, the fighting conditions of the era) had been responsible for yet another disappointment, and anxious to avoid any personal blame, German commanders on the Front, from Ludendorff down, queued up to praise Russian brilliance.

The retreat ordered a hundred years ago today was undoubtedly significant. It repeated the militarily unpalatable lesson that, the way things stood in 1915, the mere fact of territorial gain turned any offensive into a laborious reinforcement of stalemate, and in so doing bought Russia time for the economic and military reorganisation that kept the stalemate going. It wasn’t great, and it became a Great Retreat simply because, like Dunkirk and a lot of other retreats (and for that matter like the War on Terror), the concept was convenient for both sets of leaders involved.

4 JUNE, 1915: This Time! Definitely.

The landscape of Eastern Europe is peppered with monuments and memorials that come as a surprise to many an educated Briton at large in Poland or Belarus, the Ukraine or Lithuania. These are not monuments to the vast battles and bloodletting of the Second World War, or even to the hubris of Napoleon, but to the sweeping, empty carnage of the First World War’s Eastern Front, a struggle largely ignored by Western historians and forgotten by the heritage industry.  A hundred years on from the day the Central Powers retook the symbolically significant fortress of Przemysl, which had fallen to the Russians in the autumn, the Eastern Front merits some attention.

The Eastern Front is generally described as another of the War’s great stalemates, and until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 it was. Unlike the death-grip immobility of the fronts in France, Gallipoli and Italy, the stalemate in the east was conducted over vast, often empty areas, so that armies could and did advance hundreds of kilometres without disturbing the overall strategic status quo.

All through the autumn of 1914 and the following spring, land had been won and lost all along the front, from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea. Long, long supply lines, the military inefficiency of Austrian and Russian forces, commitment of the best German forces to the Western Front, the difficulty of sustaining advanced forces in inhospitable, often baked or frozen wilderness – all these factors and more made every victory temporary, and every defeat reversible once a defensive line had been established. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the process in conditions that made the Western Front seem, if not benign, at least somewhere soldiers didn’t expect to starve or freeze to death.

In 1915, that year of unfounded optimism, the east’s stalemate of movement offered a mirage of total victory even more seductive than breakthrough in the West or backdoor triumph through a sideshow. Nothing so coherent as focused strategic optimism was coming out of Russia’s chaotic and fractious high command, Stavka, but in Conrad, the blinkered eminence of Vienna’s war effort, and Ludendorff, the influential egotist in charge of Germany’s eastern operations, the Central Powers were saddled with two of the War’s most dangerous dreamers.

The fall of Przemysl was a highlight of the German and Austrian clean-up operation after the spring’s highly successful but strategically irrelevant Gorlice-Tarnow offensive. By the end of the month the Central Powers had occupied all of Galicia, and operations paused for another round of fantasist lobbying by Conrad and Ludendorff. Their argument was, as ever, that if German chief of staff Falkenhayn would give priority to the east, Russia could be knocked out of the war with one great blow. Falkenhayn, caught between the seductive propaganda of his most apparently successful general and the need to stay strong in the west, once again refused the great gamble, and instead opted for a limited July offensive designed to pinch out the great bulge in the front line that was the Polish heartland.

To be fair to Ludendorff and Conrad – both high on my list of the Twentieth Century’s relatively unsung villains – the Russians looked ripe for the beating in June 1915. Having hemorrhaged men all spring, Russian forces were scattered along the front in shallow trenches, desperately short of equipment, training and competent commanders. Russia’s Entente allies were very afraid that a second enemy offensive, swiftly delivered, would force the Tsar into a separate peace with Germany, a fear that added urgency to their own efforts to achieve breakthrough in France.

So optimism about the attacker’s chances reigned supreme into the summer of 1915. The fact that Russian armies could triumph after retreating a very long way for a very long time had been well established since Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, and nothing about the Tsar’s regime suggested that the loss of a few hundred thousand subjects was likely to alter its strategic priorities – but as preparations for what would be called the Triple Offensive got underway the world at large held its breath in anticipation of news from a front that seemed on the point of decisive denouement.

2 MAY, 1915: This Cannot Be Happening…

Thanks to extraordinary military conditions, underpinned by equally unprecedented social, economic and political upheavals, a war that couldn’t possibly last for more than a few weeks was still raging out of control nine months later.  It seemed reasonable to assume – no, it was reasonable to assume that it couldn’t last much longer, so when the main belligerents contemplated their big moves in spring 1915 they did so in a spirit of military optimism.  Whether pouring resources into existing fronts, widening their military horizons to take in less direct routes to victory or experimenting with new weapons and tactics, strategists everywhere operated in the understandable belief that one big push in the right place must bring an end to the War’s unnatural life, and planned accordingly.

A quick tour d’horizon should illustrate the point.

Let’s start with the exception to the rule, Serbia, which had survived three invasions in 1914 but had been completely exhausted by the effort, and was still deep in the process of licking its wounds and reorganising what was left of its army.  Quite incapable of any aggression and surrounded by enemies intent on its demise, Serbia was focused only on survival.

Serbia’s most powerful enemy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wasn’t really focused at all.  Struggling to replace huge manpower losses during unsuccessful campaigns on two fronts, and facing a third on its Italian frontiers, the Empire was showing ominous signs of internal collapse.  As well as rising nationalist discontent among subject populations, especially Czechs and Slovaks, shambolic infrastructural management and Hungarian reluctance to share food supplies had left Vienna close to starvation.  Increasingly reliant on Germany to shore up its military position, and required to focus economic effort on its well-developed arms industry in accordance with German needs, the Austrian high command was nevertheless ignoring reality in favour of what might be called endgame optimism.  Having just abandoned a disastrous offensive in the Carpathian Mountains on the Eastern Front, Vienna was planning towards a renewed invasion of Serbia and offering support for further German offensives in the east.

At least Vienna planned to stick on good defensive positions against the Italians in the Alps. Italy, on the other hand, was preparing to ignore the depleted condition of its armed forces (after a war with the Ottoman Empire in 1911–12), its desperate wartime supply shortages of everything from ammunition to food, and the tactical realities of alpine warfare to launch attack after costly attack on those positions. The Ottoman Empire, under attack in modern Iraq, at Gallipoli and in the Caucasus, was meanwhile facing internal breakdown of supplies and sliding into dependence on German aid, but was planning a new offensive in the Causasus and further attacks on depleted British positions around Suez.

A similar disdain for reality infected planners in St. Petersburg. Having held off the Austrian spring offensive in the Carpathians and Turkish attacks in the Caucasus, they could call on all the manpower they needed but precious little else, not least because Russia possessed none of the state mechanisms that enabled its western allies to wage ‘total war’.   Designed by a general staff (Stavka) specialised in factional squabbling, Russian strategy in spring 1915 lacked coherence, took a very long time to get from drawing board to action, and ignored any lessons from recent failures.  The result was scattergun optimism, with massed offensives planned for both the northern and southern sectors of the Eastern Front.  Forces were being slowly built up for these as May got underway, a process that depleted defences in the centre of the front and weakened Russian armies in the Caucasus, where the need for a defensive posture, though unavoidable in the short term, was seen as no more than a temporary delay on the road to Constantinople and the Mediterranean.

You couldn’t accuse the French war effort of lacking focus in 1915. A single-minded national commitment to victory on the Western Front was backed by an economy capable of delivering total war (at least for the time being), and fuelled by the conviction that enough firepower, properly concentrated and deployed with sufficient offensive spirit, would soon drive the enemy from the gates. This had been the basis of all French military thinking since the autumn of 1914, and nothing had changed by the following spring, so C-in-C Joffre and his staff were simply planning bigger, more concentrated and more dashing attacks all along the front line until the predicted ‘breakthrough’ came to pass.

The British believed in breakthrough and, despite minor tactical differences, were following the French lead on the Western Front, but Britain controlled enough resources to indulge in plenty of aggressive optimism elsewhere. While men and materiel were still being poured into France, the Royal Navy was pursuing victory through blockade, an ill-conceived, under-resourced and ill-led attempt at decisive intervention was stuttering towards disaster at Gallipoli, and British Indian forces in Mesopotamia were advancing into serious trouble on the long road to Baghdad.  All these, along with a fistful of minor campaigns all over the Empire, combined to disperse and dilute the British war effort, and none of them came close to unlocking the stalemate in 1915, but within twelve months the British would be at it again in Salonika and Palestine

Like most other belligerents, even Austria-Hungary, the British had a choice about dividing their resources, but Germany was stuck with it.  Both its principal allies were in constant and growing need of economic, military and technical support, and it faced enormous demand for resources in both the War’s principal theatres.  The spring season of 1915 presented the High Command with a genuine dilemma: should Germany seek all-out victory on the Western Front and merely hold its own on the Eastern Front, or vice versa?  Chief of staff Falkenhayn wanted to concentrate on the west, but the need to support Austria and Turkey on other fronts, along with the combination of extravagant promises and relentless propaganda coming from the Eastern Front command team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, persuaded him to take the less expensive option, a major offensive against depleted Russian defences along the central sector of the Eastern Front.

Eight German divisions were moved east from France and two were transferred south from the Carpathians.  Equipped to western Front standards, they became the Eleventh Army under General Mackensen.  Supported by eight Austro-Hungarian divisions, and preceded by a four-hour artillery bombardment far bigger than anything yet seen in the east, they attacked along the Gorlice-Tarnow sector of the front on 2 May.  Russian defenders, outnumbered six to one, desperately short of even the most basic equipment and denied reinforcements while offensives were prepared elsewhere, simply ran away.  By 10 May a chaotic Russian retreat, punctuated by feeble counterattacks, had fallen back to the River San with losses of more than 200,000 men, almost three-quarters of them as prisoners, and by early June the central section of the Russian line was retreating towards Lvov.  The offensive eventually halted to consider future strategy in the last week of June, by which time Austro-German forces had occupied all of Galicia, crossed the River Dneister, taken almost a quarter of a million prisoners and captured 224 big guns for a total loss of 90,000 men.

Gorlice-Tarnow was a German victory, no doubt about that, and on a scale that very nearly matched Ludendorff’s sales pitch, but it completely failed to achieve the prime objective of every major offensive conceived and carried out that spring because it didn’t end, shrink or even noticeably shorten the War.  Russia wasn’t knocked out of the fight, the two things it had lost in large measure – men and territory – were the things it could most afford to lose, and the main practical effect of the success was to extend Austro-German supply lines for further operations.

In failing to end the War, much of the season’s military endeavour was ruined by flawed planning, refusal to recognise reality or command incompetence, but even when the optimists of 1915 avoided all those pitfalls – as Gorlice-Tarnow did – their hopes were wrecked by a historical coincidence of military, technological and social conditions that rendered outright victory all but impossible. Deride First World War leaders for their efforts if you will, join me in condemning the egoists and fantasists among them, but they were dealing with a world that defied all contemporary logic in sustaining a conflict it lacked the technology to end.

7 FEBRUARY, 1915: Breaking Bad

Poppycock doesn’t subscribe to the laddish theory that bad generals were to blame for battlefield carnage during the First World War. The generals were of their time, socially and technologically, and it was a very bad time to fight a major war. Most belligerent armed forces produced a few excellent and innovative commanders, and the worst you can call the majority is mediocre. Mediocre isn’t such a terrible score when you consider the unprecedented number of generals needed to command such a vast conflict, and that the advent of million-man armies had the main belligerents scraping the command barrel from the very start of the War.

That said, there were some really bad generals around, and the centenary of 1915’s first big offensive on the Eastern Front – the German attack in East Prussia known as the Winter Battle, or the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes – provides a good opportunity to bad-mouth one of the very worst of them. I’m talking about the man responsible for the offensive, General Erich Ludendorff.

The charge against Ludendorff is nothing so simple as straight incompetence. He was a successful and energetic field commander and tactician, particularly talented when it came to military logistics, who came through the War with an enormous, if largely self-generated reputation based on his version of the German campaign on the Eastern Front. On the down side – and quite apart from a personality built on virulently anti-Semitic, extreme right-wing nationalism – he was guilty of overweening self-belief, vaunting ambition, cynical self-promotion and enormous strategic errors, a catalogue of failings that would have momentous consequences for Germany and the world. Destined to achieve far too much power, he was still a rising star in February 1915, a successful field commander, a popular celebrity and a strident voice in favour of ambitious offensive warfare.

He had first made a name for himself in Belgium, leading a brigade into Liège on 6 August 1914 to threaten its fortresses from within. Promoted chief of staff to the new commander in East Prussia, General Hindenburg, he cemented his fame with a striking (if ultimately indecisive) victory at the Battle of Tannenberg, and although public adulation was focused on the elderly and rather inert Hindenburg, Ludendorff was careful to ensure that he received credit for the campaign in military circles. After the same team was given overall command of the Eastern Front in November 1914, Ludendorff again sought and won admiration for the rapid mobilization and concentration that overtrumped Russian offensives around Poland.

Already in the habit of using contacts on the far right of German politics to help exaggerate his successes, and with Hindenburg as his puppet-like figurehead, Ludendorff had turned his personal propaganda machine against overall Army chief of staff Falkenhayn by early 1915. Popular and military orthodoxy accepted the (entirely spurious) argument that only Falkenhayn’s lack of ambition had deprived Ludendorff of decisive victory in the east. Despite the Supreme Command’s reluctance to commit resources to the campaign against Russia, Ludendorff’s pressure (along with the need to impress potential allies in the Balkans) pushed Falkenhayn into authorising and supplying a major offensive in the east.  It was to be spearheaded by an attack in the northern sector, around the Masurian Lakes, that Ludendorff claimed would outflank Russian positions in Poland to force a general retreat beyond the River Vistula.

Ludendorff’s genuine talent was for concentrating his strength quickly and attacking before the enemy was ready. His great weakness lay in believing, time and again, that initial success was the prelude to complete triumph and acting accordingly. So it was with the Winter Battle.

By early February some 150,000 German troops faced a similar number of Russians along a broad front west and east of the Lakes. The Germans enjoyed a slight superiority in artillery, but their great advantage lay in Russian attempts to concentrate for an offensive further south, which had left defences stretched in the Lakes sector. The southern wing of those defences crumbled when the German attack opened on 7 February, and an attack on the northern wing had the same effect two days later. Despite chaotic Russian attempts to relieve the centre, a general retreat began on 14 February, and 12,000 survivors of the central corps, surrounded in the Forest of Augustovo, were forced to surrender on 21 February.

So far, so good for Ludendorff’s grand schemes for a decisive breakthrough, but not for the first or last time exploitation of the initial victory proved impossible. Attempts to advance southeast ran up against strong Russian forces still gathering for their own offensive, the northern prong of the German advance got bogged down in a failed attempt to take the well-defended fortress at Osoweic, and the whole German force retired to the frontier in early March as more and more Russian troops poured into the theatre.

The campaign ended with both sides roughly where they had started, and although at least 60,000 Russian troops had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, manpower shortages were the least of Russia’s worries. In short, Ludendorff had achieved nothing, but that didn’t stop him massively exaggerating Russian casualty figures and claiming a vital strategic victory.

With the Hindenburg/Ludendorff dream team’s reputation as national heroes undiminished, Ludendorff would go on to repeat the trick of portraying short-lived tactical success as strategic triumph, and continue to blame the Supreme Command for denying him the tools to win total victory in the east. As such he could be dismissed as just another stubborn general unable, like so many on the Western Front, to bridge the gap between military techniques and military technology – but the tragedy is that Ludendorff’s star would continue to rise until he became Germany’s effective ruler in the latter stages of the War, when his one-eyed pursuit of the elusive total victory would lay waste to Eastern Europe and reduce Germany to chaos.

At the end of the War he would escape into exile to promote the myth of his own rectitude, the more dangerous myth that an undefeated Germany had been betrayed from within, and the growth of extreme right-wing groups inside Germany. Now that’s what I call a bad general.

11 NOVEMBER, 1914: Remember Poland?

It’s Armistice Day, 2014, and something with a Last Post atmosphere seems appropriate.  In 1914, 11 November marked the beginning of a German offensive against Russian positions around the Polish city of Łódź, so today let’s spare a little commemoration for Poland’s suffering during the First World War.

During the last 250 years or so, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a European country more mistreated by war than Poland, or a people more martially abused than the Poles. Since the latter part of the seventeenth century – at which point it was a reasonably successful sovereign state, joined to neighbouring Lithuania by a shared monarchy – Poland has been a prime battleground of choice for anyone going to war in central or Eastern Europe. Time and again the armies of empires have invaded, fought over, occupied and partitioned Poland. Time and again the Poles have been conquered, annexed, suppressed and slaughtered.

There’s a long, sad story to be told about the decline of Poland in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I’ll try to keep it brief.  The country was partitioned three times between 1772 and 1795 as Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia got into the habit of invading, putting down nationalist uprisings as they went, and coming to mutual agreement about which parts to keep for themselves. The last of these partitions removed independent Poland from the map altogether, with mineral-rich Silesia in the northwest becoming part of Prussia, the southern region around Krakow falling under Austro-Hungarian rule and the rest becoming part of the Russian Tsar’s empire.

This was roughly the situation in 1914, despite Napoleon’s temporary occupation of the region early in the nineteenth century and further territorial adjustments in the 1803s, 1840s and 1860s, when the usual suspects intervened to put down nationalist or political uprisings. Here’s a map, lifted from net as ever and instantly removable if anyone minds.

poland_partition

The First World War conformed to the pattern of modern warfare by devastating Poland.  By late in 1914 the country had become the main focus of fighting between Russia and the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, and an estimated 3.5 million Poles were conscripted into the armed forces of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary during the next four years. A few Poles also fought with the French army as an independent unit, and hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians died as collateral damage. Though accurate casualty figures are impossible to establish, estimates of Polish deaths during the First World War vary between about 700,000 and one million.

The German offensive around the Silesian city of Łódź in mid-November enjoyed initial success against ill-prepared Russian forces and inflicted serious casualties, but was halted once the Russians abandoned their own plans to attack into Silesia and concentrated for defence. Heavily outnumbered, but committed to repeated attacks by front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the German Ninth Army did eventually take Łódź after a Russian withdrawal on 6 December, but despite Hindenburg’s claims of a great strategic victory no decisive breakthrough was achieved. German attempts to push further east slackened after 13 December, by which time both sides had lost around 100,000 men, leaving the central sector of the Eastern Front in a state of entrenched stalemate west of Warsaw by the end of the year. Poland’s suffering was just beginning.

This has been a sketchy post, delivered late. My apologies to anyone reading the blog in real time, but every now and then real life takes over and prevents me from playing historian for a few days. Never mind, the point I’m trying to make is fairly simple: the First World War wasn’t only, or even largely about Britain. Ask any Pole.

BIG GUNS: Germany, 1914

Militarist, expansionist, successful, frustrated, to blame… that’s pretty much the heritage story when it comes to Germany in 1914. It doesn’t tell you much and what it does suggest is, as usual, only part of the truth.

Modern historians generally agree that the main impetus to general war in 1914 came from Berlin, but heritage remembrance tends to skate over the equally accepted view that Vienna, Paris and Belgrade deserve their share of the blame. It also lets us assume, albeit largely by omission, that Germany went to war inspired by some Teutonic imperative to greed and martial glory, when in fact the German leadership’s decision to embrace war sprang primarily from desperate fear of the immediate future without it.

So by way of softening any cartoon images you may have picked up, here’s a beginner’s guide to the real German Empire. It’s not particularly snappy reading and it’s not meant to be, but it should at least demonstrate that Germany went to war for intelligible reasons.

Germany was a federation of twenty-two kingdoms or principalities and three independent city-states (Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen). The biggest component was Prussia, which accounted for 64 percent of the country’s land area; the smallest was the principality of Schaumberg-Lippe, covering all of 340 square kilometres.

They had been united as Germany since 1871, largely thanks to Prussian military successes against Austria and France, and they were dominated by Prussia in 1914. Some of the larger kingdoms – Bavaria, Saxony and Württemburg, for instance – enjoyed military autonomy in peacetime and retained much of their previous national identity, but the Prussian king was Emperor of Germany, with control over foreign policy, ministerial appointments and the armed forces, and Berlin served as the Imperial capital.

Here’s a map, which I will of course remove should anyone object to its use.

 

MAP-German_Kingdoms_1870

 

Germany was Europe’s great economic success story in 1914. Industrial output, trade and infrastructural development had all mushroomed since the 1880s, and although an increasingly urban population had grown from 41 to 65 million in forty years, some 35 percent of German workers were still employed in agriculture and the country was virtually self-sufficient in food. Along with the United States, it had caught and was overtaking Britain as the world’s leading economic power, but with no colonial empire to speak of Germany badly needed new export markets if its rampant production boom was to be sustained.

German politics ran just as hot. The industrial working class was expanding fast, as was an educated middle class, but the constitution denied them genuine political representation. At federal level, every male citizen was entitled to vote for members of the parliamentary lower house, the Reichstag, but its only real function was to approve measures enacted by the upper house, the Bundesrat. That was elected by partial suffrage and populated by conservative aristocratic, military and business interests, as were most of the regional parliaments that ran the internal affairs of individual states.

Atop this pyramid of yes-men and natural supporters, the Kaiser appointed his ministers and ruled with no real need for concessions to a plethora of political parties that reflected stresses all through the system. Regional differences were important political issues, as were tensions between Protestants and Germany’s large Catholic minority, but the fault line that threatened a political earthquake in Germany was the country’s ever-widening socioeconomic divide.

The regime received qualified support from conservative and liberal parties in the Reichstag but had a real problem with the rapid rise of socialism. Most parliamentary socialists belonged to the relatively moderate Social Democratic Party (SDP), which sought gradual reform but was seen by all shades of conservative opinion as a pack of rabid revolutionaries. Once the 1912 election returned the SDP as the largest single party in the hitherto acquiescent Reichstag, some kind of constitutional crisis seemed inevitable to all sides.

German street politics were even more polarized. Few German employers recognised unions, but strikes had become a major issue by 1914, many of them focused on demands for an eight-hour working day. Socialist community organisations had sprung up all across the industrial landscape, and printed attacks on the regime proliferated in an atmosphere relatively free from media censorship. Every left-wing pressure group, however radical, had its right-wing counterpart, often in the form of ‘patriotic’ Leagues sponsored by conservative interests. Most called for military expansion and a more aggressive foreign policy but some, like the anti-feminist German Women’s League, existed primarily to oppose perceived radicalism.

Faced with rampant economic growth and sitting on a political pressure cooker, Germany’s ruling elites expected revolution at any time during the first decade of the twentieth century. Terrified of reform, on the grounds it would unleash the revolutionary agents of their own destruction, they tried to release the pressure with a policy, personally led by the Kaiser and known as Weltpolitik, aimed at making Germany a world power.

Broadly, Weltpolitik sought to establish a pan-German state, win colonial markets, secure economic domination of continental Europe and build up armed forces. It was supposed to culminate in a short, decisive war against France and Russia, as detailed very precisely in the Army’s Schleiffen Plan. So far, so militarist and expansionist, but by 1914 Weltpolitik lay in ruins.

Attempts to secure overseas possessions had achieved little, but had helped provoke France and Britain into an arms race that threatened German military superiority, while tax battles fought in Berlin to pay for German arms expansion, especially its new navy, had brought political tensions at home close to the boil. With every day that passed the enemy abroad became stronger and the enemy within more likely to explode into revolution.

By 1914 siege mentality had taken a firm grip on the administration. The Schlieffen Plan for a rapid attack on France through Belgium still beckoned as a solution to all its problems, but had to be implemented sooner rather than later or everything would be lost. In that context the Balkan crisis of 1914 and an appeal for help from Germany’s main ally, Austria-Hungary, looked  to political and military planners in Berlin like a last shot at salvation.

Once the opportunity had been seized and the world’s most efficient military machine set in motion, Germany’s internal problems evaporated in a blaze of national unity. At that point German civil and military authorities, astonished by the speed and depth of the change, had every right to consider the War an instant success, and to hope that the new patriotism would endure into peacetime. After all, even if the Army failed to deliver its rapid knockout blow, economic arguments insisted that the conflict couldn’t possibly last for more than nine months.

History knows better, and so does heritage. But where history tries to see the past from the perspective of its participants, heritage seems happy to describe it in terms of modern stereotypes. The Kaiser’s Germany, aggressive and unafraid?  That’s poppycock.

11 SEPTEMBER 1914:  Bad Day for the Bad Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

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

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

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

Europe1914

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

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

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poppycock.