Category Archives: France

29 APRIL, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front

It was kept very quiet, effectively hidden from the world’s press and publics, but a hundred years ago today the French Army on the Western Front mutinied.

The mutiny began as a number of small and disorganised refusals to fight, and mushroomed into a vast and disorganised surge of discontent that spread to parts of 54 divisions (a division generally mustered between ten and fifteen thousand troops). Bizarrely, at least to modern eyes, it passed without having any immediate effects on the Western Front’s strategic state of play. That’s enough to make it interesting, but it also marked a watershed in French military affairs that was important for the development of the French nation, for the future conduct of the war on the Western Front and for the future of Western Europe.  Worth a look then, starting with some background.

The French Army that began the Great War was a peculiar beast. On one hand it was the nation’s greatest pride and joy, the instrument of conquest that had, in the minds of most French people, elevated the country to global greatness during the Napoleonic era. As such it exerted enormous political influence, to the extent that governments rose or fell on the word of the officer class, as delivered through the minister of war. On the other hand, the nation’s greatest pride and joy had been in disgrace since its catastrophic defeat by Prussia in 1870, the humiliating occupation of Paris that followed and the eventual loss of two provinces – Alsace and Lorraine – to the new, united Germany.

How to address the Army’s failings, how to make it a world-beater again and how to recover the lost provinces were national obsessions in France, and the perceived answers to those questions informed the condition of the Army in 1914.

The big answer had been that the French Army lacked offensive spirit, a commodity known in France as élan, or sometimes attaque à l’outrance. The Army was seen as having been too defensively minded in 1870 to survive against an opponent committed to aggression in the field, and so it had become offensively minded to a fault. Long before 1914, all-out attack was established as the key to every military success, and was therefore the rationale behind every tactic, every choice of weapon, every decision about training priorities and every strategic plan. Defensive warfare was accepted as an occasional necessity, but never studied, developed or modernised to anything like the same degree.

I’m not sure if faith can move mountains but it can definitely promote denial, and the French military’s faith in attack as the answer to every question took some shaking. It survived the shocks of the War’s opening months, when everyone’s attacking plans fell apart in the face of technology that overwhelmingly favoured defensive warfare, and it went on to inspire a year of disastrous, French-led offensives on the Western Front in 1915. Plans to give it another go in 1916 were thwarted by the German attack on Verdun, which forced the French Army into a year of desperate defence and brought it to the brink of terminal exhaustion.

The hard-earned victory at Verdun convinced many commanders of the need for a changed approach, but that wasn’t enough to shift the paradigm. Command passed from the stoically attack-minded Joffre to the dramatically attack-minded Nivelle, who conceived and conducted yet another giant offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1917, claiming that tweaked tactics backed with sufficient élan would overwhelm (very well prepared) German defences within 48 hours. By the end of April, the Nivelle Offensive had failed, obviously, completely and expensively, and at that point the cannon fodder fought back.

Men being mutinous… quietly.

France was, and still is, a nation shaped by the strength and frequency of its popular uprisings. French soldiers had been exposed to plenty of socialist and pacifist agitation throughout the War so far, and conservative political opinion had long feared its influence. Signs of mounting discontent had been difficult to miss during the latter stages of the Verdun campaign – when, for instance, whole units en route for the front took to bleating aloud, lambs to the slaughter – and many field commanders expected trouble in the wake of the latest failure. Front-line forces were left decimated and disappointed, adding bitterness to long-term grievances about cancelled leave, poor pay and battle fatigue. Trouble duly erupted and took various forms, with some mutineers deserting (a record 27,000 French troops deserted in 1917), some simply refusing to fight, others demanding peace and a few groups threatening to march on Paris, but there was little or no coordination among mutinous units and soldiers generally proved amenable to pacification.

The hero of the hour was General Henri-Philippe Pétain, the same Pétain who had ‘saved’ Verdun by reorganising its defences a year earlier. Pétain had been passed over as c-in-c in favour of Nivelle, but was finally given the job on 15 May, after which he visited 90 divisions in person to hear grievances and discuss solutions. Careful to handle mutineers with kid gloves, he kept executions to a relative minimum and was credited (from above and below) with restoring the morale of ordinary troops in a remarkably short time. The last mutinous units had been pacified by about 10 June, the Army was back in position on the Western Font in July, and it was pronounced fit for combat in August.

Pétain being soothing – it worked.

All Pétain’s restorative work was carried out in strict secrecy. The French public knew nothing about the mutiny, neither did the country’s allies, and although the huge gaps in the French line were obvious to watching German units, they made no serious attempt to exploit the situation. I know that seems weird, but the German high command was busy frying other fish, and its army on the Western Front was in no position to exploit what otherwise seemed likely to be only limited, temporary gains.

Given that the war on the Western Front carried on as if nothing had happened for the rest of 1917, it may seem that the great mutiny came and went without changing anything much, but it did make an enormous difference to the French Army, to French soldiers and to French political life.

For the ordinary poilu (that’s the French word for Tommy or doughboy), pay and conditions improved, leave began to materialise as planned and best of all the doctrine of all-out attack lost its hold over their masters. The French Army on the Western Front was never again asked to provide the main thrust of a major offensive. Pétain restricted his ambitions to defensive operations, adopting the ‘defence in depth’ tactics perfected by the Germans (basically a matter of retreating from the front-line when attacked, and regrouping in prepared defensive positions), and although the French Army did manage one last counteroffensive effort after the German offensive of spring 1918, it played a largely supporting role in the Allied attacks that brought the War in the west to an end.

So did Pétain. His wise caution kept the French Army in the field for the rest of the War and restored it to a useful level of operational effectiveness, but he still faced opposition from conservative field commanders, staff officers and politicians who refused to accept that élan had been rendered unworkable by the mutiny. Failure to prepare defence in depth would still bring occasional disasters – the collapse of French positions near the Aisne in May 1918 springs to mind – and although Pétain retained his command until after the Armistice he was effectively sidelined from April 1918, when the more aggressively inclined Foch was appointed Allied Supreme Commander.

Much of the Army high command and many conservative politicians also persisted in regarding the mutiny as the work of pacifist and socialist agitators, a view encouraged by a spate of simultaneous strikes and civilian protests throughout France, and sharpened by news from revolutionary Russia. Their loud calls for suppression of left-wing dissent would eventually be answered by the government of Georges Clemenceau (of whom more later), which began mass arrests of pacifists, dissidents and suspected German sympathisers in November 1917, and orchestrated a series of sensational treason trials through the first half of 1918, citing the mutiny as the basis for most charges.

So the centenary of the mutiny provides a reminder that there was more to Pétain than his part in the horror of 1940s Vichy France, which can be seen as an old man’s last, disastrous attempt to protect French lives with defensive thinking. Perhaps more importantly, the mutiny is also a reminder that when radical discontent goes off half-cocked it tends to promote conservative suppression, and that the rule applies in western democracies as well as in less self-satisfied cultures.

24 MARCH, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip

Life’s a weave.  There’s never just one thing going on within any given timeframe, and life’s stories – collectively known as history – are inevitably edits, imposing the appearance of coherent narrative by selecting and prioritising from a mass of potentially relevant information. That’s one way of pointing out that all written, spoken or illustrated history is subjective, because editorial decisions come with the job.

I mention this obvious truth because I make a bunch of those editorial decisions every time I post, and I don’t want anybody thinking they amount to a coherent narrative. These are snapshots, intended to shine a bit of light on the First World War’s largely forgotten dimensions, and ideally to provoke a wide-angle view of the thing, in contrast to the Tommy-tight focus promoted by British popular media.

A century ago today, for instance, the British began an invasion of Palestine that (in my opinion) made an enormous difference to today’s world, so I plan to talk about it – but any number of other centenaries have passed during the last few days, a good few of them ripe with significance for the future.

On 16 March 1917, for example, Aristide Briand’s French government fell. It had been in place since October 1915 without ever looking or feeling secure, and the issue that brought it down was Briand’s support for French c-in-c Nivelle’s hugely controversial Western Front offensive. The successor chosen by President Poincaré, veteran centrist grandee Alexandre Ribot, went on to authorise the attack and was very much a stopgap premier. Elderly and in poor health, he lasted only six months in the job and had little impact on French strategic direction, though he was responsible for reversing the French government’s hitherto unshakable support for Greek King Constantine, a move that would help untie that particularly frustrating political knot.

Any wartime premier of any major belligerent, even France, deserves more than that shallow paragraph has to offer, and I’m about to give the same short shrift to the impact of food shortages throughout northern Europe in the early spring of 1917. I’ve mentioned the failure of the 1916 harvest recently (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and although its most potent long-term effects were felt in Germany, it was a major issue for, among others, the Low Countries and Great Britain.

In occupied Holland and Belgium, the effects of the poor harvest were exacerbated by German economic exploitation and caused widespread civilian hardship. In Britain, they were sharpened by losses to the German U-boat campaign, causing some discomfort along with a great deal of popular commentary – and in late March 1917 the British press was dominated by a severe national potato shortage. When Dutch civilians rioted over potato shortages in July 1917, they were fighting to stave off starvation, but although British outrage was primarily fuelled by addiction to chips it did reflect a popular sense that the War had come home to roost, brought into every home by a combination of mass casualties and basic shortages.

Oh well, you could still get tea.

In 1914 many Britons had regarded war as, at worst, a necessary evil, needed to sort out the geopolitical pecking order and to invigorate a nation grown idle with comfort. By the time British clocks went forward for only the second year, on 8 April 1917, nobody saw a good side to war any more.

There was, however, still a glimmer of dash and derring-do left in the conflict at large. While Lawrence was creating his own legend in Arabia, more conventional British officers were setting out on a parallel adventure in Palestine. On 26 March, British imperial forces led by General Murray attacked Ottoman lines blocking the only feasible route north from Sinai and the only viable way of establishing direct contact with the Arab Revolt.  The attack opened an invasion destined to stutter into life before maturing into a time bomb for the future disguised as a dramatic military success.

Based in Cairo, Murray had spent the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917 making methodical preparations for an advance into Palestine, establishing supply lines across Sinai and building up his fighting strength (5 August, 1916: Backwards to the Future). By early 1917 he could call on about 75,000 front-line troops, against German General von Kressenstein’s Ottoman force of some 18,000 men – a combination of tribal irregulars, depleted Turkish Army units and German specialist forces – based on Gaza and deployed along a fortified line running about 40km southwest to the town of Beersheba.

Here’s a map.

Murray had sent ANZAC cavalry units to clear Turkish forward positions in December and January, and had intended to invade shortly afterwards, but loss of troops to other theatres forced him to postpone further attacks until March, when he finally received permission from London for an attack on Gaza. By that time water pipelines to the front had reached El Arish, and Murray – assuming that defenders, outnumbered 2-to-1, would retreat when threatened ­– had organised 35,000 of his best troops to deliver an attack as the ‘Eastern Force’. Much as Kressenstein wanted to retreat, he was under orders from theatre commander Djemal Pasha to hold the position… but before I get into what became known as the First Battle of Gaza, it’s worth making a couple of points about desert warfare in 1917.

Attacks on fortified positions in desert regions were dominated by artillery, machine guns and the other weapons associated with trench warfare on the Western Front model, but everything else – including exploitation of victories against trench lines – was about maintaining supplies, finding targets and making rapid movements across empty spaces to reach them. This meant that cavalry, whether mounted on horses or camels, was not the disastrous anachronism it proved on the main European fronts, but an absolutely vital reconnaissance and attack weapon, a fact worth remembering the next time some heritage pundit insists it was completely useless in a ‘mechanised’ war.

Aircraft were even better at reconnaissance, although they broke down too often in desert conditions to fully replace cavalry in the role, and were useful as ground attack weapons. Both sides deployed air units equipped with machines that were obsolete by Western Front standards in early 1917, but German Rumpler C-types and Halberstadt D-types could outperform the RFC’s sedate BE-2 fighters.  Murray could also call upon about a dozen wheeled seaplanes from four Royal Navy aircraft carriers stationed off the coast, but although aircraft carriers sound like a great leap forward with enormous implications, the floating airstrips of future wars were still in the development stage in 1917.  These were converted cross-Channel ferries, selected because they were fast enough to keep up with fleet units.  Each could only carry between three and seven seaplanes, which had to be winched in and out of the water for operations, and which weren’t enough to prevent Kressenstein’s pilots from holding their own in the air despite a numerical disadvantage.

HMS Ben-My-Chree off the coast of Palestine. This was Britain’s biggest aircraft carrier in 1917.

Eastern Force commander General Dobell spent two days massing the bulk of his troops near the coast about 8km short of Gaza, behind the Wadi Ghazi, before they crossed the wadi, undetected in dense fog, early on 26 March. Cavalry slipped through positions east and southeast of the town to cut off the Ottoman rear, but an infantry attack against the southeast approaches to Gaza failed in harsh conditions. Cavalry circled back in the afternoon to help the British take most of the high ground east of Gaza by evening, but darkness quickly reduced both sides to chaos.

Kressenstein thought the battle was lost so he cancelled a call for reinforcements, while Dobell thought the battle was about to be lost and recalled his cavalry from beyond Gaza. That left the two British divisions holding the high ground exposed to a counterattack, which arrived the following morning and – along with water shortages – persuaded Dobell to order a general retreat. The operation had cost about 4,000 British imperial casualties, against some 2,400 suffered by Kressenstein’s force, and could only be called a comprehensive failure.

General Sir Archibald Murray had been around a long time and, having served as chief of staff to original BEF c-in-c Sir John French, he knew a bit about self-serving propaganda. Unwilling to foist defeat on a British public laid low by spuds and the Somme, he simply tripled the number of Ottoman casualties in his reports and turned failure into substantial victory. Still sure Kressenstein would retreat given one more push, Murray wanted another crack at Gaza as soon as possible, and his creative use of fiction was enough to secure enthusiastic agreement from London.

Some generals deserved posterity’s scorn, and Murray was one of them.

Murray was wrong, and Dobell’s second attempt on Gaza in mid-April would be another expensive failure in the face of well-organised Ottoman defences. A summer of desultory trench warfare would follow, while both sides reinforced and the British brought a new command team to Palestine for a renewed offensive in the autumn. You might wonder why they’d bother, given that eastern Mediterranean deserts were never anyone’s idea of a game-changer in terms of winning the War. The answers lie, as usual, in the unstoppable combination of military momentum and imperial instinct.

Forward defence of Suez and reports from Arabia had convinced British generals that the Ottoman Empire was in trouble, and dangled the irresistible carrot of easy victories. Imperial strategists in London were never going to turn down an offer of post-War control over the oil-rich geopolitical axis that was the Middle East, and were keen to establish possession rights over the eastern Mediterranean seaboard before Arab rebels or international peace treaties could intervene. Of course the invasion of Palestine was a mere sideshow to the Great War, but it sat right in the mainstream of British imperial progress.

12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear

February can be a cold, cold month, and in 1917 the first half of February was the coldest spell of the harshest winter in living memory for western, northern and central Europe. The effects of the freeze on troops fighting in France, in Italy and on the Eastern Front varied from uncomfortable and unhealthy in the west, to lethal in Italy and the east, while civilians all over the continent found fuel and food in relatively short supply, a situation exacerbated by poor autumn harvests and either the Allied blockade or the German U-boat campaign (or for neutral countries, both). In Germany, where the winter of 1916–17 is known as the ‘turnip winter’, severe food shortages that saw even serving troops receiving short rations are seen as a turning point in the process that culminated, two years down the line, in the collapse of popular morale and the outbreak of revolution.

All this was big news at the time and is very well documented these days, the kind of emotional Great War commemoration tailor-made for the modern consumer and all over the output of heritage peddlers like the (increasingly irritating) Imperial War Museum. So I plan to talk about something else induced by the cold weather and the general state of the War in February 1917 – French planning.

The dreadful carnage of the Verdun and Somme offensives, universally recognised at command level as terrible failures, brought a whiff of much-needed change to French conduct of the war on the Western Front. After more than two years under the dictatorial, strategically stubborn control of Joffre, a new man had taken over as French Army c-in-c in December 1916, and General Robert Nivelle came to the job claiming to have cracked the problem of Western Front deadlock.

A regimental colonel at the start of the War, Nivelle was a competent enough tactician who benefitted from the rapid turnover of French generals to reach corps command by late 1915 and command of the First Army the following April. He made his wider name in command of the Verdun campaign during its latter stages, and his successful counteroffensives east of the Meuse in October and December made him a national hero. Observers (and Nivelle himself) saw his adoption of ‘creeping barrage’ tactics as key to the victories, and his claim that large-scale use of the same tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours clinched his appointment as Joffre’s replacement.

That’s the jaunty look of a man telling you he can end a world war in 48 hours.

Creeping barrage was not a completely new tactic. British forces had developed it during the Somme campaign, and by late 1916 its value was widely recognised among Allied commanders in France and Belgium. Most of them also recognised the limitations of a tactic that amounted to a refinement rather than a revolution. The preliminary artillery bombardments that preceded attacks had conventionally stopped as soon as infantry went over the top, with the big guns redirected to secondary targets. Creeping barrage moved artillery fire forward in stages to match the infantry’s advance. By the autumn of 1916 a ‘creep’ of 50m per minute had been established as standard, but although the method proved a big help to infantry with limited objectives, it did nothing to solve the crippling problems that still faced any army advancing beyond the limits of immediate support.

Nivelle’s confident prediction of total victory didn’t convince his own or the BEF’s senior generals, but it went down a storm with the French public and with politicians on both sides of the Channel. Though careful to avoid the autocratic control given to Joffre, the Briand government overrode the generals to back Nivelle’s plan for a massive joint offensive around the River Aisne, scheduled for the spring, while British premier Lloyd George dealt with opposition to the plan from Haig by putting the entire BEF under temporary French command from late February.

And so the British and French Armies began another round of preparations for another supposedly decisive offensive. Things didn’t go quickly, partly because both the BEF and the French Army were in desperate need of rest and reinforcement, partly because of the military and political disputes that surrounded the preparations, and partly because the cold slowed everything down. I’ll go into detail about the operation known as the Nivelle Offensive another day, probably when the fighting starts in April, but for now I’m going to swerve into the margins, because Nivelle may have been confident about his own plans, but he was worried about what the German might be up to.

When Nivelle had taken charge in December, a German spring offensive in the west had seemed probable, begging the question of where it might take place. Future c-in-c General Foch, dismissed from his post in command of the Western Front’s northern sector when Nivelle took over, was given the task of analysing the three most probable lines of German attack. On the assumption that the main battlefields of 1916 would be left alone this time, these were: the Alsace-Lorraine sector, the Italian frontier and, as a possible preamble to any attack on the latter or into southern France, Switzerland. Foch would spend time in temporary command of armies in Alsace and Lorraine, and would visit Italy to liaise with Italian c-in-c Cadorna, but in early 1917 he focused his thinking on the danger of a German attack into Switzerland.

Switzerland was of course neutral during the First World War, and although the wartime breakdown of normal trade patterns created (relatively minor) civilian shortages, the nation as a whole did quite well out of the conflict, supplying the belligerents with a highly profitable range of chocolates and financial services. This didn’t mean the Swiss were comfortable at any time during the War, because the country was not only surrounded by warring nations – Germany and Austria to the east, France to the west and Italy to the south – but its population was divided along the same lines.

Although nobody expected modern armies to waste themselves trying to conquer Switzerland’s mountainous heart, the prospect of invasion by one side or the other to force a passage through the lowlands was always in play, and like other similarly vulnerable neutral governments the Swiss spent a lot of time assuring belligerents that they needed a peaceful, neutral Switzerland, both as a trading partner and as a handily placed peace broker. The fact remained that the German-Swiss majority in the east of the country was understandably pro-German, and unlikely to oppose any military incursion, while the Italian speakers of the south and the French-speaking westerners were equally committed to their own ethnic causes. That was why the French command feared a German attack through Switzerland, and that was why Foch and leaders of the French-Swiss cantons drew up Plan H, a blueprint for a French invasion of the country.

The tiny Swiss Army was backed by 250,000 civilian militia, all handy with a hunter’s rifle. When asked what they could do against half a million invading troops, the answer was ‘shoot twice and go home’.

The final plan was submitted on 7 February and enthusiastically accepted by Nivelle a century ago today. It entailed detailed cooperation with Swiss military personnel and railway authorities to move a French army of thirty to forty divisions, led by Foch, across Switzerland. Contingent upon a German attack and a request for help from the Swiss federal government, this was hardly an act of imperial expansion, and as it happened it was never needed.

The collapse of the Russian war effort in March was seen by Germany’s Third Supreme Command, not as a chance to reinforce for attacks in the west, but as an as an opportunity to assure the occupation and economic exploitation of Eastern Europe. The simultaneous withdrawal of the German Army to formidable defensive positions at the Hindenburg Line, which took the Allies by surprise and forced Nivelle to modify his offensive plans, proved an accurate indicator of Berlin’s intentions on the Western Front, and major offensive operations in the theatre would be left to the Allies for the rest of the year.

So why bother mentioning Plan H at all? My main excuse is that nothing much else was going on at this point in the War, but there’s also an argument for undermining the assumptions that can accompany historical thinking. Looking back, we know how the story panned out and it’s very easy to forget that the protagonists didn’t. Allied commanders had to plan for German attacks that never came, and trampling over a small country’s neutrality in 1917 was nothing like the shocking response of last resort it seems today.

The only other place this branch line excursion takes us is the wonderful world of ‘what if’. What if Germany had decided to make one more attempt at a decisive move in the west? What if the Third Supreme Command had chosen to radically expand the Western Front instead of funnelling resources into U-boats and an eastern empire? With Switzerland and southern France as part of a front line stretching from the Channel to Venice, with German and Austrian armies from the Eastern Front committed to the west for one last, giant push before the Americans arrived, I’ll leave you to wonder where the world might have travelled in the wake of a very different 1917…

9 MAY, 1916: Big Deal?

You’ve probably heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and if your life in any way involves the Middle East you’ll definitely have a handle on it.  Agreed a century ago today, and accepted in principle by the relevant Allied governments on 16 May 1916, it is notorious as documentary proof that Britain and France intended to carve up the Middle East between them after the First World War.

Actually called the Asia Minor Agreement, the document was the fruit of six months’ discussion and negotiation between Sir Mark Sykes, a British diplomat and politician, and François Georges-Picot, a French diplomat and lawyer.   These were relatively obscure civil servants, and it is a measure of what is generally seen these days as imperial arrogance on the part of Britain and France that they were given responsibility for drawing a new map of the Middle East, to be imposed if and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

The deal looks disgraceful now, but seemed logical enough, unexceptional even, to anyone operating by the imperial standards of the nineteenth century, and has an internal logic in the context of First World War realpolitik.  Victory was likely to see the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Triple Entente powers – Britain, France and Russia – all harboured longstanding ambitions when it came to partitioning the cadaver, as did their relatively new ally, Italy.  If an arrangement could be made while they were all friends, why risk the danger and inconvenience of post-War squabbling?

The Russians weren’t involved in Anglo-French discussions because the French and British had promised Constantinople to the Tsar in March 1915, in return for a free hand further south, and Russia was the only candidate for control of the Kurdish and Armenian territories to the northeast of the Ottoman Empire.  Italy was left to its own devices in Libya (Ottoman North Africa wasn’t covered by the Agreement), but was otherwise expected to do as it was told and took no part in the discussion process.

As drafted in 1916, and mapped out below in its original pomp, the Agreement gave France effective control over Syria, the Lebanon and Turkish Cilicia (the coastal area north of Syria). Britain was to take control of Mesopotamia as far north as Baghdad, along with effective economic dominance over Palestine and what was then called Transjordan. Italy’s designated ‘sphere of influence’ was Turkish Anatolia, Jerusalem was to be governed by an unspecified international authority, and those parts of Arabia not already taken were to remain independent, though under British or French supervision.  The latter can be seen as a nod to arrangements already made with Arab leaders, as outlined a few months back (26 December, 1915: Boxing Clever), or as an indication that neither Britain nor France saw much plunder in Arabia’s barren tribal deserts.

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Even in 1916, imperial partition of territories to which the only credible claim was greed were not good for the popular or international reputations of empires.  That was one good reason for keeping the carve-ups secret; another was the opportunity for double-dealing provided by secrecy.  Just as the Treaty of London between the Entente and Italy had been kept secret, hiding Italy’s greed and her new allies’ tendency to give things away twice, so the Sykes-Picot Agreement was kept under wraps, enabling the British in particular to make promises they had no intention of keeping to the leaders of the Arab Revolt.

Like the Treaty of London and other secret international deals, Sykes-Picot was exposed to the world by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution in Russia, planting an entirely justified mistrust of Anglo-French motives in the minds of Arab leaders that affected the latter stages of the fighting in the Middle East, soured relations at the Paris Peace Conference, made a liar of TE Lawrence (of whom more next year) and has never really gone away.  Exposure of the agreement also managed to outrage Zionists, coming as it did only three weeks after the Balfour Declaration (of which, again, more another day).

In November 1918, a year after Sykes-Picot went public, the British government dumped it.  The French had little choice about signing an Anglo-French Declaration that officially superseded the Agreement, promising to encourage and supervise the development of stable sovereign states in the region.  Though partly designed to improve the British Empire’s international image as the War ended, and to ease negotiations with Arab leaders, the Declaration was also seen in London as an opportunity to wriggle out of its commitment to accepting French supervision of the Syrian region (marked ‘A’ on the map).

Whatever the motives behind them, the Declaration’s fine words made no difference to anything in practice.  Though Russian territorial ambitions had disappeared with the Revolution, and Italy’s claims were overruled at the Paris Peace Conference, something very close to the simple, Eurocentric convenience of the Sykes-Picot map was established in the post-War Middle East.  Arab attempts to achieve full independence were met by a combination of military intervention and diplomatic finesse by the British and French, who imposed spheres of influence in the guise of ‘mandates’. Mandates were, in theory, territories being nurtured for full independence by their European guardians on the authority of the new League of Nations, but the planned fate of one British mandate, Palestine, was left conveniently vague.

I’m leaping ahead into areas that deserve a closer look, and they’ll get one, because this story’s going to run and run.  As for Sykes-Picot, of course it was a bad idea, and of course the Middle East is still suffering from the imposition of artificial borders – but no agreement or declaration by European belligerents in 1916 was more than a minor tactic in a Great Power game that presumed territorial and economic acquisition as the just rewards for a victorious warfare gambit.

The European powers were always intent on carving up the Middle East if they defeated Turkey, but neither Britain nor France saw Sykes-Picot as more than a standard opening gambit, a blueprint to be modified according to circumstance or opportunity.  So for all its well-earned notoriety, the Agreement was nothing special or substantial – and nothing like the defining moment an angry posterity likes to portray.

21 FEBRUARY, 1916: Blood Equity

What was the First World War’s defining event?  It’s a tricky question, and it invites a variety of answers in almost every country involved.

For relatively small countries embroiled in the conflict, along with colonies drawn in by imperial ties and the newly independent nations born from the ruins of wartime empires, the answer might be one of the great battles or might be a matter of strictly national perspective.  In Serbia, for instance, the Great Retreat of late 1915 stands as an emblem for national survival, while Australians and New Zealanders look to Gallipoli as the birthplace of modern national identity.

For most of the great empires at war, an answer is even more difficult to pin down.  For most inhabitants of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, the War was probably defined by the collapse that ended it rather than any event within it, and you can argue that entering the War was its defining moment for the United States.

That leaves Britain and France, the two great European empires that survived the struggle from start to finish and might be said to enjoy an uninterrupted historical view.  If you’re British, eyes permanently fixed on the nearest and most costly theatre, the Western Front, the Somme or Ypres is probably the name that defines the War in all its ghastliness, but it’s still a matter of opinion and the title’s still up for grabs.  If you’re French, there’s no argument.  For France, the event that defines the First World War was the German attack on Verdun, and it began a hundred years ago today.

I shouldn’t have to give you the basic facts about this particular centenary, but the British heritage industry isn’t paying much attention to Verdun, partly because the First World War went off the radar and is back to being subsumed by the Second, partly because the British weren’t involved.  So at the risk of boring anyone well informed or French, here’s the deal.

The battle for Verdun was fought from 21 February until 18 December 1916.  It was the longest battle of the War and the most costly in terms of casualties.  Verdun was a fortified garrison town on the River Meuse, some 200km east of Paris, surrounded by rings of forts and considered the strongest defensive position in France. An important strategic point for French defence during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s and the war against Prussia in 1870, the Verdun fortress network was seen by French strategists, politicians and public as the key – or at least the symbolic key – to national security against threats from the east.

Since 1914 the fortified area around Verdun had jutted into German lines as a bulge, or salient, and was an obvious target for a limited German offensive.  Despite a growing consensus among French field commanders that defending fortresses was an anachronistic waste of resources, it was considered vital to popular morale by military and political leaders constantly afraid that a traditionally turbulent public would succumb to pacifism or rebellion.  So why did the German high command pick on such a tough nut as the target for its big spring offensive on the Western Front?

German Chief of the General Staff Falkenhayn had spent 1915 fighting his corner against the noisy ambitions of Eastern Front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, merely able to hold positions in France and Belgium while resources flowed east.  By the end of the year, with Eastern Front operations on hold and the distraction of Serbia out of the way, he was ready to concentrate on the West.  Compared to Moltke and Hindenburg, his predecessor and successor in overall command, Falkenhayn often gets a fairly easy ride from posterity, but that doesn’t make him lovable, and the calculation behind his decision to attack Verdun is a fairly breathtaking example of cold pragmatism.

Reasoning that nothing he could do would knock either Great Britain or Russia out of the War, Falkenhayn identified France as only enemy Germany could beat in 1916.  Experience had taught him that simply breaking through the trench lines, an approach attempted by everyone everywhere since late 1914, was an unlikely route to victory, so he chose to try grinding France to defeat by attacking where they would feel compelled to defend to the death. The offensive’s stated intention was to ‘bleed the French Army white’ by inflicting as many casualties as possible over a sustained period.  I know that looks like a very bad idea, and it was, but in the context of early 1916 it was also a reflection of the desperation felt by commanders everywhere to do something, anything to bring an end to the stalemate – and at least Falkenhayn’s timing was good.

A massive build-up of German artillery and ammunition in the Verdun sector had begun in the New Year, at a time when the French Army was in the process of dismantling and reorganising the fortress defences.  Field commanders of the French Second Army, drawn up in trenches some 5km in front of the outer fortresses, could hardly fail to notice that trouble was coming and sent repeated warning to the high command, but French c-in-c Joffre was busy planning his own offensive around the Somme and paid only belated attention.  In late January a few French reinforcements did reached Verdun, along with some of the artillery stripped from the fortresses for front line use, but by late February, when a million troops of the German Fifth Army were ready to attack, only 200,000 men were defending the sector.

After a 21-hour preliminary bombardment had dropped more than a million tons of shells onto the area around Verdun’s eastern and northern forts, German troops advanced along a 12km front late on the afternoon of 21 February.  They met more resistance than expected from surviving defenders, but had driven them back to their second line of trenches by the next day.  On 24 February, the French Fifth Army withdrew to a third line of trenches, 8km from Verdun itself, and this exposed the prestigious but barely garrisoned fortress of Douaumont.

By that time French reinforcements were being rushed to the battle, but they were too late to prevent German capture of Douaumont on 25 February – and that triggered exactly the reaction Falkenhayn had been hoping for, in spades.  French national outrage exploded into fervent popular determination to hold Verdun at all costs, to an extent that surprised even Falkenhayn, and from that moment any French withdrawal became a political and moral impossibility for the Briande government.  So far so good for Falkenhayn, but not for long.

On 24 February command of the Verdun defence had been given to General Pétain.  An experienced field commander who had long argued against fortress defence, Pétain responded to Joffre’s order forbidding any kind of withdrawal by rushing every artillery piece to the front from reserve areas and concentrating all his guns on the attacking German infantry.  This brought the German advance to a halt by 28 February, when mutual ammunition shortage forced a lull in the fighting for a week.  Having saved an apparently hopeless situation, Pétain used the breathing space to complete a thorough reorganisation of his lines , enabling rapid reinforcement and constant supply of French forces for a long battle.

Here’s a map of the battlefield, dull and stolen but efficient and self-explanatory, by way of adding some scale and context to what solidified into one of humanity’s great horror stories.

 

Battle_of_Verdun_map

 

For now the pattern was set.   Pétain had been established as a French military hero for the next 24 years or so, and Falkenhayn’s big plan was working as advertised – but as attrition set in at Verdun the big question begged by the offensive was yet to be answered. Could the French Army be bled into submission?

Nine months later, the answer would be no, delivered at a cost of about 434,000 German and 550,000 French casualties, half of them killed.  The German Army had gained a few kilometres of ground, a few villages had been obliterated, most survivors had been scarred for life by the experience and the French nation scarred for all time.

Those are just the bare bones, and I’ll try to add flesh to the horror story during the next few months.  Beyond simple information the only real purpose of this post is to make the point that, as usual during the Great War, a really terrible idea destined to go horribly wrong had its root, not in the mental deficiencies of its creators, but in the impossible dilemma of needing total victory in a world designed for anything but.

8 DECEMBER, 1915: Chat Lines

A hundred years ago today, after three days of talks between Entente military leaders designed to coordinate their strategic approach in the year to come, the Second Chantilly Conference came to an end.  Attended by representatives of the six Allied powers – Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia and Italy – the conference boasted one significant achievement.  After complaining about Anglo-French inaction on the Western Front during the summer’s Triple Offensive in the east, Russian delegate General Zhilinski secured agreement from every power that it would launch an attack whenever an ally was threatened.

The other major business conducted at Chantilly was a U-turn by French c-in-c Joffre.  In advance of the conference, on 4 December, he and French prime minister Briande had met with BEF chief of staff Roberston and British war minister Kitchener at Calais.  Joffre had accepted, albeit reluctantly, British demands for a withdrawal from Salonika, where a Franco-British expedition had missed the chance to help Serbia.  When the French public, kept in the dark about the fate of Serbia, reacted to the decision with predictable and intense outrage, Joffre changed his mind.  At Chantilly, he persuaded the Russian, Italian and Serbian delegates to support continuation of the Salonika operation.  The new British delegates – BEF commander Sir John French and Imperial chief of staff Sir Archibald Murray (both destined to lose their jobs before the end of the month) – chose to preserve the appearance of unity rather than argue, and their acceptance of further commitment in Salonika sealed the decision to put an end to the Gallipoli campaign.

All worth knowing, by way of joining up various dots, but perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chantilly Conference is how long it had taken the Allies to get around to it.  There had been a first conference in early July, also held at Joffre’s headquarters in Chantilly and attended by representatives of all six powers, but it can best be described as a false start. Proceedings had amounted to a long peroration by Joffre about the need for inter-allied cooperation, and no decisions had been reached or joint declarations made. Otherwise, it had taken sixteen months of all-out, escalating warfare on a global scale before the allies came together for serious joint discussions.  A hundred years on, after decades of summit diplomacy as the norm, the delay calls for an explanation.

The explanation is fairly obvious, but it is a useful perspective check. Before the age of long-range powered flight it took a lot of time and effort to get important people from various countries together in one place.  In the past it had been attempted only in peacetime, for the first time after the Napoleonic Wars when the victorious allies convened at the Congress of Vienna, and subsequently to make territorial and political arrangements designed to preserve peace. In the middle of a war, strategic positions might undergo major changes in the time it took for delegates to travel to and from a summit, especially when an alliance included far-distant Russia.  This was why the first Allied summit attempt took place in July, when European armies traditionally took a summer break from major operations, only to be rendered obsolete when the Germans ignored tradition and launched their Triple Offensive against the Russians a few days later.

Winter offered a more reliable break in European operations, but the War’s first winter had passed without much perceived need for inter-Allied strategic discussion.  Britain, France and Russia had long been accustomed to pursuing imperial ambitions as rivals rather than partners, and mutual suspicion was still a restraining influence, but above all they saw no need for strategic debate at the end of 1914 because they all knew exactly what to do.  Serbia and Belgium had only one strategic option, to lobby their more powerful allies for help with national survival.  The big boys meanwhile devoted the winter to massing lots more men and weapons at the front lines, confident that the mistakes of the autumn would be corrected and the enemy overcome by sheer force of numbers in 1915.

By the end of 1915, force of numbers, various strategic sideshows and the development of new ‘breakthrough’ tactics had quite clearly failed to overwhelm an enemy fighting on two major and several minor fronts.  The Central Powers had held firm against superior numbers on the Western Front, swept aside Russian defences in the east, proved far more obdurate than expected on the Ottoman fronts and were now in the process of conquering Serbia.  Home fronts were becoming less stable and enthusiastic for war, costs had spiralled far beyond any pre-war planner’s wildest nightmares and there was no sign at all of victory on the horizon.  It had been a very bad autumn for the Allies, and it had become clear that pursuit of separate imperial agendas by the main partners was at least partly to blame.  With British and French authorities anxious to show impatient populations that constructive change was in progress, a lull in European fighting once Serbia could no longer be saved meant the Allies were finally ready to take the first step towards behaving like a modern military coalition.

My point here is a variation on one of my regular tropes.  As I will keep telling anyone who’ll listen, it’s impossible to understand the modern world without knowing about the First World War – but Allied attempts at strategic coordination are a reminder that you’ll never get the hang of the thing if you judge it by modern standards.

Lesson over, so I’ll sign off with a couple of sidelights on that first summit.  First of all the sensible, overdue agreement reached at Chantilly would prove counterproductive in 1916.  Triggered when German forces attacked the French at Verdun in February, it prompted a hasty and ill-fated Russian offensive on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, and a British offensive at the Somme that, though anything but hasty, was hardly a success.

Secondly, and in case you’re wondering, the Central Powers didn’t really need strategic summits in 1915.  This was partly a matter of geography.  As their collective name suggested, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were all within relatively easy communication distance of each other, and the main German strategic justification for joining the invasion of Serbia was to open overland communications with the Ottoman Empire.  The other reason summits weren’t necessary was that Germany made all the decisions.  All Germany’s allies were dependent on military and/or economic support to keep them in the War, so inter-allied strategic debates were essentially cosmetic.

13 OCTOBER, 1915: La Différence

A hundred years ago today Théophile Delcassé, the French foreign minister, resigned. The architect of prewar French diplomacy as foreign minister from 1898 until 1905, and a former navy minister, Delcassé had been recalled to the foreign office by the new Viviani government in August 1914, and was one of its most prestigious figures, particularly on the international stage. A firm supporter of complete strategic focus on the Western Front, his departure came in protest at Anglo-French commitment of resources to Salonika, and was the substantial straw that broke the fragile back of the French government. Within a fortnight, the Viviani regime would be gone, and this seems a good time to dispel any easy assumptions that French democratic government bore much resemblance to its British counterpart in 1915.

In Britain, the elected government controlled the armed forces. In France, the armed forces controlled the elected government. I could just leave it at that, point simply made, but the difference made a difference to the big picture, so it merits a bit of explanation.

Where the British system of government was enshrined in tradition and had developed since the seventeenth century through reform rather than revolution, French democracy was a volatile beast, with a lively history of upheaval and overthrow since its birth in revolution. The assumptions, broadly speaking basic to the British political psyche, that patterns of power and the comfortable prestige of those wielding it were fixed, didn’t apply to politicians in France. They did apply to the French Army.

Like the Royal Navy in Britain, the French Army basked in the glories of its Napoleonic past, and was generally viewed as the foundation and spirit of the nation. But where the Royal Navy was part of, and committed to, the political status quo, the French Army (again broadly speaking) regarded democracy in general and the Republic’s constitution in particular with what can at best be described as suspicious tolerance. Meanwhile a substantial majority of the body politic regarded the Army as the nation’s sole credible authority in time of struggle – in particular, ever since the catastrophic defeat by Germany in the war of 1870–71 – and saw politicians as collectively to blame for any setbacks along the way, a point of view assiduously encouraged by the more politically inclined among the military.

The semi-permanent struggle in France between a strong military and a weak political establishment took a major turn in the summer of 1914. The outbreak of war inevitably strengthened the Army’s position, and while President Poincaré was no mere figurehead, the crisis found a novice premier, Viviani, at the helm of government. Viviani was serving his first stint in a job that most of the big hitters in French politics had occupied more than once. A compromise leader and nobody’s strong man, he could exert no more than marginal influence on the military juggernaut let loose in August, and the government’s only real role in the military disasters that followed was to take the blame.

Circumstances weakened the government’s position still further during the first months of the War. At the height of the invasion crisis, with Paris under threat, it had moved to Bordeaux. When it returned the nation was under martial law and the capital had been included in the ‘Zone of the Armies’, making it effectively part of the front line and subjecting the cabinet to military authority. It didn’t help that the ultimate authority was Joffre, whose contempt for all things political knew no bounds and whose word could not be challenged after his victory at the Marne.

By the autumn of 1915, the government had survived a year as the Army’s supply dogsbody, struggling to mobilise a nation that was industrially backward by Anglo-German standards and had lost its most productive region – including two-thirds of iron and steel capacity, forty percent of coal output and a sixth of the industrial workforce – to German occupation. As military demands mushroomed and the military failures piled up, Viviani’s cabinet absorbed blame from the military, the press and the populace, while Viviani himself stood accused of failure to control the Army on one hand, and failure to meet its needs on the other. With no obvious successor champing to receive the poisoned chalice of government, cabinet survival depended on an appearance of unity and the continued support of senior political figures. Obviously divided over strategic priorities and deprived of Delcassé, government authority dwindled beyond repair.

Very little changed when Viviani resigned in late October. His government was replaced by another coalition under the more prestigious figure of moderate socialist leader Aristide Briand, whose third term (of six) as premier would last for eighteen months. The military continued to dominate political authority in France, and although Joffre would eventually be out-manoeuvred and removed at the end of 1916, the repeated failure of his offensive tactics and the defensive carnage he supervised at Verdun had much more to do with his fall from grace than any strengthening of civilian authority.

A hundred years on, popular views of the First World War tend to assume that Britain and France – neighbours, democracies and allies – were cut from the same, essentially parliamentary, sociopolitical cloth. They weren’t then, and nobody with an eye on history thought they were. They aren’t now, but we’re not so good at history these days.

6 OCTOBER, 1915: Big Hammer, Small Nut

Now here’s a rarity for this stage in the War:  a plan that worked.  A hundred years ago today, as mentioned only yesterday, German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces invaded Serbia on two fronts. Within two months, the country had been conquered and most of the invasion’s limited objectives achieved, at which point the invaders secured their gains and redeployed resources back to other fronts. The attack’s only failure lay in allowing the remains of the Serbian Army to retreat into Albania, but chasing it across the mountains would have risked heavy casualties in a largely symbolic cause, and it would be a long time before Serbian forces troubled the Central Powers again.  So what was the secret of the year’s only complete offensive success?

The answer is that there was no secret.  For once, the offensive tactics and technology of 1915, efficiently used, found circumstances ideal for their success.  The offensive method in question, breakthrough tactics, has been described before, and amounted to massive concentration of men and firepower against a single point of the enemy defence.  Breakthrough tactics had failed against well-prepared German defences on the Western Front and, after achieving initial successes during German offensives on the Eastern Front, they had fallen foul of extended supply lines and failed again.  Serbia was different.

First of all, Serbia was barely able to defend itself.  After the campaigns of 1914 had left its citizen army decimated, exhausted and short of every conceivable supply need, the country had been promised major reinforcement by Britain and France – but squabbles between the two had delayed help beyond usefulness. Serbian leaders had known for months that the invasion was coming, and that Bulgaria would take part, but Britain and France had also vetoed a Serbian plan for a preemptive summer strike against Bulgaria, which was still considered a potential ally in London and Paris.  So the Serbian Army – some 200,000 typhus-ridden, hungry troops, all desperately short of ammunition and artillery support – could only take up its positions and wait for the hammer to fall.

It was a big hammer, deployed for generally sound strategic reasons. Austria-Hungary wanted to finish the job so poorly begun in 1914, and Bulgaria wanted territory it had failed to secure at the end of the Balkan Wars, but German military involvement took a wider perspective.  German chief of staff Falkenhayn saw the removal of Serbia as a means to open up land communications with the Ottoman Empire and with its new Bulgarian allies.  Once the Pless Convention had committed Bulgaria to the attack, Falkenhayn overruled the inevitable protests from Ludendorff and transferred forces from the Eastern Front to the Balkans.  Come October, Serbia’s ragged defenders faced 300,000 efficiently concentrated, well-equipped and supported attackers, commanded by German Field Marshal Mackensen, star of the year’s Eastern Front offensives and the acknowledged master of breakthrough tactics.

When the hammer fell, with Austro-German attacks from the north and Bulgarian from the southeast, Serbian resistance crumbled very quickly.  Once the government realised that Allied help wasn’t going to arrive, and even before the failure of General Sarrail’s unconvincing attempt to intercept the Bulgarians from Salonika, the campaign as a whole became a matter of retreat and pursuit.  With no second line defences to overcome, and no problems with supply lines, the combined invasion force could deliver, within the limits of a relatively small theatre, the Holy Grail that had tormented Joffre and eluded Ludendorff – total victory through the shock and awe of breakthrough tactics.

The Serbian campaign of late 1915 makes a grimly fascinating story, and I’ll be having a word about it in weeks to come, but for now just an academic point: it took a small war within the War, in which defenders effectively fought with one hand tied behind their backs, for one of the period’s most efficient commanders to achieve the only clear-cut victory in Europe throughout 1915.  So today marks the centenary of the exception that proved the rule.

5 OCTOBER, 1915: Carry On Camping

Today was the day the first Anglo-French forces landed at Salonika, the port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia now known as Thessaloniki. If you’ve been getting your perspective on the First World War through the heritage window, don’t feel bad if this development seems a little puzzling. The three-year Salonika campaign was one of history’s head-scratchers, the kind of half-mad, half-sane enterprise that can give war leaders a bad name. I’ll try to let you to decide if they deserve a bad name, and aim for a dispassionate briefing on a campaign that involved some 600,000 Allied troops at its peak, yet somehow manages to justify the sobriquet ‘little known’.

Let’s start with the why. The French were obsessively piling up the manpower on the Western Front; the British were doing the same while committing substantial land forces at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Why would they choose to open another front in the southern Balkans?

The first and stated reason was to come to the aid of their ally, Serbia. It was no secret that, once Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers, payback was coming to Serbia, which had barely survived the Austro-Hungarian invasion attempts of 1914, and had never received anything like the support necessary to promote a real recovery in the meantime. An invasion was imminent, Serbia’s prospects looked grim, and something had to be done – or at least seen to be done.

A second reason, also stated, was to provide support for pro-Allied factions in divided, still neutral Greece. Greece had taken that part of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary harboured undisguised ambitions in the region. Partly as protection against their predations, and partly as a tactic in his ongoing power struggle with the pro-German monarch, King Constantine, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited the Entente to send forces to Salonika – and failure to respond risked the unthinkable diplomatic crime of upsetting a potential ally,

Another reason – not stated at the time but much discussed since – was strategic confusion. The autumn’s big plan to smash through reduced German strength on the Western Front had manifestly failed, and Churchill’s big plan to win the war by coming through the back door of Constantinople was melting down into an epic shambles. Britain’s essentially accidental invasion of modern Iraq was making rapid, if incoherent progress towards Baghdad, but nobody expected it to win the war anytime soon. In Paris and above all in London, where ‘Easterners’ demanding an alternative strategy to the carnage in France remained an important political force, national morale at every level needed a rabbit out of a hat.

If you looked at it from that perspective, and squinted to avoid seeing the obstacles, Salonika might just be the place to provide one. This very simple map (nicked from the Net and removable at the drop of a complaint) goes most of the way to showing why Salonika seemed a good jumping off point for a new front. All that’s missing is the cherry on the cake, just beyond the northern borders of Serbia and Bulgaria – the prospect of striking at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

balkans

So much for the best-case scenario, but the conjuring trick went horribly wrong almost from the moment four French divisions and one British division arrived at Salonika on 5 October. The operation had been launched on the assumption that Greece was about to join the War on the Allied side, but Greek political squabbles were far from over. Venizelos resigned on the day the troops arrived, and French General Sarrail, c-in-c of the new ‘Army of the East’, began his preparations for an offensive in an atmosphere of mounting local mistrust. By the time Sarrail was able to send substantial forces north to its aid, the Serbian Army was in full retreat towards Albania, and by early November Sarrail was retreating back to his base. Threatened by both local hostility and hostile armies on the frontier, he turned Salonika into a massive fortified camp and waited for reinforcements.

Once the Gallipoli campaign was over, in early 1916, reinforcements duly arrived, with British forces under General Milne bringing total Allied strength up to around 160,000 men and the Royal Navy chipping in with a squadron of second-line warships. Sarrail, still in overall command, now considered his force under siege, cutting rail links with Constantinople, forcing the surrender of Greek artillery overlooking the harbour approaches, fortifying his small fiefdom to Western Front standards, and on the whole staying safely inside it. By the spring of 1916, a campaign that depended on swift exploitation of Salonika’s strategic location had found its own particular route to stalemate.

There would be further attempts to move north and achieve some sort of strategic impact from Salonika, but broadly speaking an ever-expanding Army of the East stayed holed up in its swampy, overcrowded encampments until the last weeks of the War – long after Greece had finally joined the Allies and when the enemy ahead of it was disintegrating. In the meantime, while Sarrail became embroiled in the equally swampy battleground of Greek politics, a total Allied commitment of more than a million troops over three years would suffer a relatively light 20,000 battle casualties – but disease would cause no less than 1.5 million hospital cases in Salonika, and almost 450,000 men would be invalided out of the theatre with malaria alone.

Hopeless strategic and tactical incompetence, or yet another example of the way offensive warfare simply didn’t work in 1915? Opinions differ, and I anticipate having a word or two about it later in the War, but the sickness rate at Salonika, like the horrifying deaths suffered by so many troops in Mesopotamia, is a reminder of another important factor often overlooked by the mocking voices of heritage commentators. Medical science, like so much contemporary human culture, simply wasn’t ready to fight efficiently on a global, or even continental scale during the First World War.

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.