A century ago today, the German parliament – the Reichstag – debated an incident that had taken place more than two months earlier but been kept quiet by the government. Conducted in public session, the debate shattered an illusion that was precious to the German people and vital to the German war effort.
The incident in question had taken place at the naval base of Wilhelmshaven on 2 August, when some 400 sailors of the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold mutinied. The Prinzregent Luitpold was one of the most modern dreadnoughts attached to the High Seas Fleet, but like other major German warships it had been largely inactive for a year, relegated to secondary status after the fleet’s perceived failure at Jutland had convinced the German high command to devote all possible resources to submarine warfare. Bored, on short rations and subject to iron discipline by officers on permanent alert for revolutionary tendencies, the sailors had marched into Wilhelmshaven demanding immediate peace and better working conditions. Quickly pacified by troops, they had soon returned to work, but 75 of them were imprisoned and two ringleaders were executed.
The illusion in question was the belief, assiduously fostered by state propaganda, that the German military was not just the best in the world (which almost went without saying and was probably true) but was in fine fighting fettle and on the brink of great victories. Made public because the end of the German political truce, or Burgfreiden, had freed opposition parties to expose government scandals (14 July, 1917, Stuck In The Middle), the almost unthinkable news of German servicemen refusing to fight, together with the deeply unsettling news that the government had been covering up the mutiny, delivered a massive shock to popular opinion. Popular belief in victory and the regime would recover, at least among the middle classes, but faith in the Navy was permanently shaken by consequent revelations of crisis and dispute among its commanders. The debate has since been credited with opening the first cracks in the hitherto rock solid edifice of the German war effort.
The military-industrial dictatorship that had been running Germany since August 1916 – the Third Supreme Command – had founded its strategies on the false premise that the German war effort was anything but rock solid, and that only total military victory would restrain a body politic on the brink of revolution. In fact, popular faith in a national system that had brought soaring wealth, quality of life and global influence during the previous decades had never really faltered during the first two years of the conflict, and dedicated commitment to the war effort was basic to most Germans until the Armistice. Revolution was meanwhile far less likely in mid-1916 than it had seemed in the years before the War, and had been kept off the immediate political agenda by the parliamentary truce.
A year later the truce was dead in the water, while a paranoid regime’s coercive social and economic policies were in the process of fostering the very revolution it feared. The government’s reaction to the August mutiny and its response to the October debate were both symptoms of this self-fulfilling paranoia.
As the Reichstag debate made fairly clear, and subsequent studies have confirmed, the Wilhelmshaven mutineers were strikers demanding better treatment. The regime treated them as revolutionaries, leaving grievances unsatisfied and widespread resentment within the ranks, exacerbated by executions that were generally viewed as judicial murder. This provided fertile ground for revolutionary agitation among the crews of the High Seas Fleet and, still without any significant military role to play, they would become thoroughly radicalised during the following months. When, a year later, crews at Wilhelmshaven mutinied on a much larger scale, they would be calling for revolution.
The October debate brought a government response that managed to be paranoid, clumsy and counterproductive all at once. Imperial Chancellor Georg Michaelis, the first commoner to hold the office, had been a compromise choice to succeed Bethmann-Hollweg during the summer. Forced on the Third Supreme Command after the Kaiser rejected its first two candidates, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz, he was selected because he got on well with Wilhelm and because, although he had no kind of parliamentary power base, he was considered capable of managing the Reichstag. Little more than a mouthpiece for the supreme command, Michaelis attempted to blame the relatively moderate parliamentary socialists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) for the August mutiny, a ridiculous claim that left him without a shred of credibility in an outraged Reichstag and triggered his resignation at the end of the month.
The next chancellor, veteran Bavarian academic and politician Georg von Hertling, was a virtual nonentity in his mid-seventies, with neither the influence nor the energy to mediate between the Reichstag, the supreme command and the Kaiser. That he remained in office until October 1918 reflected the end of the need for cooperation between them, as reformists in the Reichstag abandoned hope of state cooperation and turned to popular support, the Third Supreme Command abandoned the pretext of governance through consent, and the Kaiser sank into a royal torpor born of impotence in the face of what he now saw as his inevitable downfall.
The Allies had enough agents providing enough information about German life to recognise the political fires fuelled by the October debate, and Allied newspapers were full of speculation about the impending collapse of German national unity in its wake. Like most ‘big picture’ propaganda, designed to foster hopes of a quick and total victory, the stories were taken with a pinch of salt by most British or French readers, but three years of warfare had failed to generate the same level of healthy scepticism among German citizens.
German internal propaganda, state and private, was a much less flexible instrument than its British, French or American counterparts, shielding the public and most politicians from all bad news and leaving them with no inkling of Germany’s true position. The glimpse of the truth provided by the Reichstag debate on 9 October, and the palpable shock it applied to German civilian life, reflected the brittle nature of a society functioning under a shared illusion. When the edifice was torn away, suddenly and completely, at the end of the War, German society collapsed into violent, anarchic revolution.
I was about to sign off by calling the debate a straw in the wind of fundamental change, but it was more like a breeze block in a gale. It delivered a blow to German society and leadership that left them functioning – still marching forward along an ever more fragile tightrope – but concussed and ready to collapse. That’s what happens when truth escapes the smothering grasp of leaders peddling fake new: the harder it comes, the harder they fall.
A hundred years ago today, after exactly eight years in office, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg resigned as Germany’s Imperial Chancellor. On the same day, far to the northeast, the first Provisional Assembly of Estonia opened its first session. Neither centenary is likely to make much of a splash in British heritage terms, but both signalled big changes in the modern history of their own countries. I’ll start, like you do during world wars, with Germany.
Bethmann Hollweg’s departure had been coming. The advent of the Third Supreme Command, a lurch towards totalitarian control over an all-out war effort by a military-industrial oligarchy, had condemned Germany’s wartime political truce, or Burgfrieden, to a slow death, leaving the Chancellor adrift in the space between polarising political extremes.
I won’t repeat my enthusiastic condemnation of the Third Supreme Command’s dictatorship (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint), except to point out that its attempt to harness every aspect of German economic life to the pursuit of total victory deliberately rode roughshod over political opposition. Liberal or moderate left-wing elements, both within the labour movement and in the Reichstag (parliament), were by then accustomed to being consulted, and even occasionally listened to, in line with the Burgfrieden, and reacted by stiffening their opposition. As the exceptionally harsh winter of 1916–17 brought severe civilian shortages and faltering popular morale, political opposition focused on the Supreme Command’s refusal to consider any peace built on less than total victory, while industrial opposition took the form of strikes and street protests.
Bethmann Hollweg could only weave between the lines and hope to find some route back to national unity, but he never really stood a chance. Although he retained the support of the Kaiser – who was, in his one-eyed, bewildered way, equally desperate to keep the nation together – the Chancellor was regarded as part of the problem by both the Reichstag and the Supreme Command. His attempts to broker a negotiated peace were as hopeless as they were half-hearted (18 December, 1916: Peace? No Chance), and though he hoped to appease the Reichstag by prising a promise of post-War constitutional reform from the Kaiser in March, it was too little too late.
April saw the US enter the War, while a wave of strikes hit industrial production in northern Germany and the political debate about war aims became entangled with demands for immediate constitutional reform. All this helped undermine a hitherto solid popular faith in the Supreme Command’s promises of imminent victory, and with no sign that the regime intended to listen to, let alone meet any of its demands, rising public discontent encouraged the Reichstag’s main opposition parties to come together and formally demolish the Burgfrieden.
On 7 July 1917 the centre and socialist parties tabled a joint declaration in the Reichstag demanding an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities. Known as the Peace Resolution, it was proposed by Max Erzberger, a leading member of the conservative Catholic Centre Party who generally regarded socialists as Satan’s little helpers, and it was passed by 212 votes to 126 on 12 July. A direct affront to the Supreme Command’s ambitious plans for expansion into Eastern Europe, the Resolution left Bethmann Hollweg high and dry, unable to support either its proponents or its right-wing opponents. Liberal leaders in the Reichstag, the Supreme Command’s phalanx of right-wing deputies and senior military officers were all sufficiently dissatisfied with the Chancellor’s dithering response to form an unlikely (and very temporary) alliance that forced his resignation on Bastille Day.
Appropriately enough, Bethmann Hollweg’s fall marked the start of a new phase in Germany’s accelerating collapse to revolution. Faced with the firm parliamentary expression of public opposition, and with something less than full support from the civilian head of government, the Supreme Command simply sidelined the Reichstag and the office of chancellor. Bethmann Hollweg’s replacement, Georg Michaelis (appointed after the Kaiser refused to accept the Supreme Command’s first two choices, former chancellor von Bülow and former navy minister Tirpitz) was a puppet of the Ludendorff regime with no personal support in the Reichstag. That didn’t matter to the Supreme Command because it had stopped listening to the Reichstag, which did manage to remove Michaelis in October – only to be saddled with another puppet, the elderly Bavarian right-winger Georg von Hertling – but otherwise exerted no significant influence on policy for the rest of the War.
In response to its loss of parliamentary legitimacy, and by way of providing a semblance of popular mandate for its pursuit of the Hindenburg Programme’s crazy targets, the Supreme Command put funds into a new political pressure group, the Fatherland Party. Led by Tirpitz, and loudly in favour of all the Supreme Command’s expansionist visions, it was launched in the autumn of 1917 and did eventually boast more than a million members, but most came from the conservative agrarian or military communities, and it had no impact on the gathering storm of disempowered opposition from practically every other sector of German society.
While Germany was being plunged into a deadly experiment in totalitarian post-democracy, a nation with rather less hubris when it came to world-changing destiny was taking its first, albeit faltering step towards a future as a sovereign democracy.
Until the fall of the Russian tsar in 1917, modern Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, divided between the province of Estonia to the north and the northern, Estonian-speaking part of Livonia to the south. The region was effectively ruled by an oligarchy of semi-feudal landowners, many of them German-speaking, but Russification during the nineteenth century had reduced the influence of the German language on popular culture. Nationalist and Estonian language groups had sprung up during the early twentieth century, particularly during and after the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and had become well established without achieving anything much by 1917, when the February Revolution changed everything.
In line with its revolutionary principles, the new Provisional Government in Petrograd issued a decree on 12 April 1917, unifying the regions of Estonia and northern Livonia as an autonomous Governate of Estonia, and calling for elections to a national assembly. Using a system of two-tier suffrage designed to ensure the influence of reliably socialist soldiers and industrial workers, the elections were a political battleground on the Russian model, with Bolshevik and other revolutionary agitators competing for popular support with more moderate socialists, liberals and nationalists. The 62-seat Provisional Land Assembly (known locally as the Maapäev) that met on 14 July at Toompea Castle, the traditional seat of power in Estonia and the country’s current parliament building, reflected all those interests across seven fairly evenly matched party groupings.
While nationalist and moderate elements coexisted with revolutionaries for whom independence and liberal parliamentary institutions were merely steps on the way to a new world order, autonomy left Estonia open to the free passage of Russian agitators and ideas. Far from producing the basis for unified progress towards sovereign status, the arrival of democracy plunged Estonia into the same kind of chaotic factional warfare that was undermining the Provisional Government in Russia.
Months of instability culminated in a failed Bolshevik coup d’état in the wake of Russia’s October Revolution, prompting a declaration of full independence by the Assembly in November 1917. Revolutionary parties fared poorly in new elections held the following January, but Russian-funded Bolsheviks responded with a second, more serious attempt to seize power, and that persuaded the newly independent nation to ask for German protection.
Estonia got German protection in spades. After expelling revolutionary forces from the port of Revel (Tallinn to you and me) in February 1918, the German Army put the country under military occupation, inevitably coupled with economic exploitation. The small Estonian Army created by the Assembly was disbanded in April, which left the country virtually defenceless when the German withdrew after the Armistice, a situation immediately exploited by a Red Army invasion. The Soviet force (ostensibly made up of Estonian revolutionaries) was eventually prevented from retaking Tallinn by Royal Navy warships in the Baltic, and driven back into Russia by a reconstituted Estonian army the following January. Fighting inside Russia continued for most of 1919, and Russia’s Bolshevik regime officially recognised Estonia’s full independence by a peace treaty signed in February 1920.
So while a defiant expression of German liberal democracy left it helpless in the face of right-wing dictatorship, the first expression of Estonian liberal democracy plunged a country so far untouched by three years of fighting into virtual civil war as it fought off left-wing dictatorship. In both cases, the existence of democracy depended on the goodwill of authorities that were anything but liberal, and in both cases it would take a long, painful process to establish liberal democracy as genuine political force. If there’s a lesson for the future to be drawn from these vaguely linked events, I guess it’s that anything stuck in the middle of the political road – be it Bethmann Hollweg, Estonian nationalism or liberal democracy – is a fragile thing in extreme times. Oh, and that democracy handed out to populations by powerful third parties – be they kings, empires or multinational coalitions – can always be taken away again.
It’s still January, the War is still quiet, and so I plan to spend the next hour or two telling three small tales about this week in 1917. None of them are particularly obscure or neglected by posterity, but they’re all interesting in their way and there’s a dash of world-historical significance to spice things up. They’re not really connected so let’s take them in chronological order, starting with the diplomatic black farce known as the Zimmermann Telegram or the Zimmermann Note.
Arthur Zimmermann was the German foreign minister in January 1917. He had only been in the post since November, and in political terms he can be dismissed as a creature of the military-industrial dictatorship that controlled Germany as the Third Supreme Command (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). Zimmermann was thoroughly imbued with the gamblers’ optimism that characterised his masters, as demonstrated by his reaction to the decision, taken in mid-January, to adopt a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare.
For reasons often discussed in the past, the decision meant that war with the United States was all but inevitable, which in turn meant Germany either had to win the War before America’s vast resources made it to Europe or prevent the US Army from coming to Europe at all. With the latter in mind, and encouraged by signs that collapse of the Russian war effort would release resources from the Eastern Front, Zimmermann wrote a note to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, instructing him to offer an alliance to the Mexican government whenever war between Germany and the US became certain. In return for declaring war against the US, Mexico would receive generous funding and military support from Germany, along with the former Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, once victory was secured. By way of encouragement, Zimmermann suggested that Japan might be persuaded to join the alliance, thus keeping the US occupied on two fronts, neither of them anywhere near Germany.
Reality was not heavily involved here. Even if Mexico wanted a full-scale war with its northern neighbour, it was in midst of a very long series of revolutions and in no fit state to fight one, and Japan had shown no signs of wanting to abandon its very profitable and useful alliance with Britain, let alone being ready to fight a war against its powerful Pacific trade rival. The message could, on the other hand, have very real diplomatic effects if its contents were to reach Washington while Germany was at peace with the US. Berlin took precautions against this possibility, but they never stood a chance.
One of the Royal Navy’s first wartime jobs had been to cut Germany’s transatlantic cables, so Berlin had been communicating with its ambassadors in the western hemisphere using US cables, an arrangement accepted by the Wilson administration on the grounds that it might facilitate the progress of peace talks. Berlin considered the US cable system secure, and had agreed not to use it for coded messages, but cited security concerns to persuade the US embassy to accept the Zimmermann message in code. The message was delivered to the embassy on 16 January, and transmitted to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington. Washington also thought its transatlantic cables were secure, but all traffic passed through a node near Land’s End, at the western tip of mainland Britain, where it was being tapped and passed on to the Royal Navy’s codebreaking centre, known as Room 40.
Room 40 was in possession of German diplomatic ciphers and had cracked the gist of the message within a day or so, but the codebreakers sat on the information for the next three weeks while they thought up ways to use it without their wire-tapping activities causing outrage in Washington. They eventually passed the telegram’s contents to the British foreign office on 5 February, five days after Germany’s public declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had effectively ended the diplomatic battle for American support.
Another two weeks passed before the first US official read a transcript, by which time the British had made up a couple of plausible alternative sources for the intelligence. It was shown to the US ambassador in London on 20 February, reached Wilson in Washington a few days later, and was released to the American press on 28 February, giving a predictable and enormous boost to anti-German sentiment in the States at a very important time.
There isn’t much need to elaborate on the connections between our modern world and a document that helped get the USA involved in European affairs, except perhaps to paraphrase the incomparable Barbara Tuchmann by pointing out an unhappy consistency in the fruits of Prussian diplomacy, so I’ll move on to that week’s most disastrous by-product of the British class system.
Silvertown, a poverty-raddled East London suburb, had a nasty recent history as the capital’s industrial hellhole, a place where really noxious factories just outside the city’s regulatory reach were surrounded by the homes of their workforces. Among many chemicals companies operating in the area in the 1900s, Brunner, Mond & Co (a future original component of ICI) produced soda crystal and caustic soda until production of the latter ended in 1912, leaving half of the plant idle. In mid-1915, when the British Army was facing potentially critical shell shortages, the War Office requisitioned the spare half of the factory for production of high-grade, ‘purified’ TNT, despite protests that the process was too dangerous to be carried out in crowded areas, a view shared by the Brunner, Mond chemists who had invented the process.
Handling TNT was bad for workers, who suffered from a variety of side effects, including skin discolouration and nausea, but that kind of war wound could be described as unavoidable, whereas the British government could and did site many TNT factories in lightly populated, rural areas, where their well recognised tendency to explode was less of a hazard to life and property. These considerations didn’t spare poor, crowded Silvertown, neglected for the benefit of capital as a matter of passive government policy for the previous seventy years, and TNT production began in September 1915. On 19 January 1917, Silvertown paid the price, when fire broke out and, at 6.52pm, ignited 50 tonnes of stored TNT.
It was the biggest explosion in the history of London (though bigger TNT explosions took place in other wartime factories). The TNT factory and a number of surrounding buildings were wiped out at once, while debris destroyed goods and damaged property for miles around, fires raged all over Silvertown (and in a Greenwich gasometer hit by flying debris), and the sound of the blast, which shook buildings all over London, was heard as far away as Norfolk and the south coast. Had it not been evening, when most factory personnel were off work, the total of 73 dead and more than 400 injured would have been much higher, as would the £4 million paid out by the government in compensation to individuals and businesses affected by the explosion. Just so you sort of know, my laptop says £4 million in 1917 is the equivalent of between – wait for it – about £200 million and about £1.75 billion today. Could be that’s the main reason the British government stopped opening TNT factories in urban areas.
Lastly, and by way of getting up to date, the night of 22 January saw a burst of lethal derring-do in the North Sea. Cruisers from the Royal Navy’s Harwich Force – a collection of destroyers, light cruisers and smaller craft dedicated to patrolling eastern and south-eastern approaches to British home waters – intercepted the ten ships of a German Navy destroyer flotilla around the Schouwen Bank, about 30km off the Rhine Delta. In a brief exchange of fire between the cruisers’ guns and the destroyers’ torpedoes, two German destroyers were heavily damaged before the rest escaped, only to run into a flotilla of British destroyers, which inflicted serious damage on a third destroyer but lost one of its own, HMS Simoom, torpedoed and sunk at a cost of 47 lives. Again the actual combat was fleeting, though undertaken at what an eyewitness described as ‘pistol range’, before both sides ran for home.
I mention this essentially insignificant scrap because I’ve been inclined to focus on the timidity with which expensive, prestigious major warships were used during the First World War. The Schouwen Bank action is a reminder that battleships weren’t the only warships out there, and that the rather pointless war fought by the dreadnoughts doesn’t reflect either the experience of most serving warships or the (non-existent) generalised failure of wartime naval operations that is such a favourite heritage headline. What’s more, timidity had very little to do with rapid retreat from a night action, which was a deadly, terrifying game of cat and mouse played almost blind, with every shadowy ship in the darkness a potential friend or enemy, and every manoeuvre in crowded areas a collision waiting to happen. When enemy ships ran away in the dark, chasing around to find them in a crowded, active naval theatre was not a smart move before radar changed the game.
There were many wars within the War taking place in 1916, and during the night of 26–27 October a relatively minor naval engagement took place, known as the Battle of Dover Strait, that shone a light on one of them – the four-year struggle for control of the English Channel. To be more precise, this was Britain’s struggle to maintain the overwhelming dominance of its southern coastal waters that enabled it to protect the English shoreline, supply the Western Front and prevent passage of German warships, in particular submarines, to and from the Atlantic.
The Royal Navy had begun the job of blocking the Channel to enemy shipping on the outbreak of war in August 1914. It transferred a dozen fairly modern destroyers to reinforce the elderly destroyers normally stationed at Dover, and they formed the heart of what was known as the Dover Patrol. The Patrol remained in position throughout the War, its strength steadily mounting with the addition of old cruisers, monitors (floating gun platforms), minesweepers, aircraft, airships, torpedo boats, other motor boats and various armed yachts, but it began the War by laying substantial minefields across the Channel’s narrowest point, between Dover and the Belgian coast.
In February 1915, the minefields were augmented with ‘indicator nets’ – light steel nets dropped from small fishing boats (drifters), which remained on watch for anything that became entangled – and with Dover Patrol ships assigned as support the whole operation became known as the ‘Dover Barrage’.
Unlike its big brother in the Adriatic, the Otranto Barrage, the Dover version appeared to succeed at first, largely because it was almost immediately responsible for sinking the submarine U-8, which went down after getting tangled in the nets on 4 March. The German Navy reacted by restricting its submarines to the northern route round Britain for Atlantic operations, the British began building and installing bigger nets, and for the next year or so both British and German authorities were inclined ascribe any unexplained losses to the Barrage.
In fact the Barrage was far from impenetrable. British mines were hopelessly unreliable (and would stay that way until late 1917), even the bigger nets installed by October 1916 left large gaps, and insufficient support craft were deployed to monitor them. Its weakness eventually became clear to the German Navy, which reinstated the Channel route for small U-boats from Ostend and Zeebrugge in April 1916, and by the autumn submarines were passing through at will, usually travelling on the surface at night.
Submarines aside, the Dover Patrol’s various craft had been fighting a continuous ‘mosquito’ war against raids by torpedo boats from the German Flanders Flotilla, which made regular attempts to slip past the Barrage at night for attacks on Allied merchant and supply shipping. The Flanders Flotilla had been quiet throughout the summer of 1916, but in October it was reinforced with torpedo boats from the High Seas Fleet, and on the night of 26 October all 23 of its active boats attacked the Dover Barrage in five separate groups.
The British were expecting a night raid but had done little to prepare for it. The drifters watching the Barrage, each armed with precisely one rifle for defence purposes, were protected only by the elderly destroyer HMS Flirt, a naval trawler and an armed yacht. Taken completely by surprise when the German boats attacked in five groups, the British lost six drifters during the night, and three more were damaged, while the naval trawler suffered heavy damage, an empty transport vessel was sunk in passing, and the Flirt went to the bottom after its captain failed to recognise the Flotilla’s boats as enemy craft and blundered into their torpedoes.
Six of the modern, Tribal Class destroyers from Dover were called up to track down the raiders, but the first on the scene of the Flirt‘s sinking, HMS Nubian, also failed to recognise the German boats as enemies and was left dead in the water after a torpedo took off its bow. The rest of the British destroyer force caught up with some of the raiding groups, but came off worse, failing to sink any German boats while HMS Amazon and HMS Mohawk both suffered significant damage. By the time further Royal Navy reinforcements arrived from Dunkirk, the Flanders Flotilla had escaped for home.
At the end of a shambolic night for the Royal Navy the British had lost eight ships sunk, seven more damaged, 45 dead, four wounded and ten prisoners, while the German Navy suffered no casualties and only minor damage to a single torpedo boat.
Small craft in the English Channel were constantly engaged in this kind of skirmish, as they were in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Baltic, the Black Sea and every other tightly contested naval theatre, but the first Battle of Dover Strait (a smaller action would be named as the second in 1917) was both bigger and more strategically significant than most. Their undoubted victory encouraged German planners to dismiss the Dover Barrage as useless, so the Flanders Flotilla’s reinforcements were transferred back to the High Seas Fleet in November and large U-boats given permission to pass through the Channel in December, a decision that facilitated the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and as such helped draw the USA into the War.
The failure of October 1916, and the subsequent inability of the Barrage to stop big, commerce-raiding U-boats, also acted as a wake-up call for the British. In late 1917 the Barrage was moved onto a line between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez, and by the end of the year it had been equipped with new, more efficient mines. Minefields and numbers of support craft were steadily expanded, a new Barrage Committee established a system of night patrols using flares and searchlights, and by 1918 the Barrage was performing effectively enough to sink at least 12 U-boats before they stopped trying to breach it in August.
This was just a glimpse of yet another busy battlefront that was deadly by any standards less gruesome than those of the First World War, strategically important to both the Western and Atlantic Fronts, continuously in action for more than four years, and destined to be almost completely ignored by the modern heritage industry. I mention it here by way of commemoration.
This is one of those rare days when me and the heritage industry want to commemorate the same big news, because a hundred years ago the man running the German Army, Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, resigned after almost two years in the job. His replacement was the overall commander on the Eastern Front, Field Marshal Paul von Beneckendorf und von Hindenburg (we’ll just call him Hindenburg from now on), and his long-time number two, General Ludendorff, remained at his side as Quartermaster-General.
Approaching seventy, Hindenburg was a puppet. An essentially inert figure, he had been called out of retirement in 1914 to a command in East Prussia on the Eastern Front (with Ludendorff as his chief of staff), and he’d been striking lucky ever since. He had little to do with the initial German victory at Tannenberg, but Ludendorff conspired with the supreme command to make him its victor for propaganda purposes, and from that point Hindenburg became Germany’s equivalent of Lord Kitchener, a popular hero whose impressive features – martial but reassuring – made him the perfect front for Ludendorff.
While Ludendorff (who wasn’t so pretty) ran the Eastern Front, exaggerated his successes, and plotted with right-wing military and industrial contacts to bend overall German strategy to his ambitions, Hindenburg took the popular credit. For the next two years, Ludendorff pressed for military concentration on the Eastern Front, lobbied for his fantastic vision of Germany’s eastern empire, and generally undermined Falkenhayn’s authority whenever possible, while his military and industrial supporters took effective control of the war effort by establishing a firm grip on its supply system (1 May, 1916: Stomping On Thin Ice). By the time Falkenhayn resigned, his position fatally weakened by the exhaustion of German offensive efforts at Verdun and the Somme, the figurehead hero of the east was the inevitable choice as his successor.
I’ve poured bile over Ludendorff in the past (7 February 1915: Breaking Bad), so I won’t go into detail here about his first-class organisational abilities, both military and administrative, or about his self-important, power-hungry, fanatically nationalist, anti-semitic, stubborn and militarily deluded character. Both had helped define the Eastern Front’s peculiar form of mobile stalemate, and during the next two years both would help shape Germany as the modern world’s first military-industrial, totalitarian dictatorship.
The new Third Supreme Command (Möltke led the First, Falkenhayn the Second) sought to counter increased Allied production output by fully mobilising the German people for the war effort, in pursuit of absolute military victory and massive territorial annexations. On 31 August, just two days after Falkenhayn’s resignation, the regime put forward a plan to take central control over almost every aspect of national life. The Kaiser, by now a cowed and acquiescent figure, passed the measures under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave the crown far-reaching powers in time of national emergency.
The plan was known as the Hindenburg Programme. It demanded massive increases in military output, including tripled machine gun production, doubled ammunition production and similar leaps in production of mortars, artillery, aircraft and trench warfare equipment. Every suitable factory was turned over to war work, and those found to be inefficient were closed down by a new Integration of Factories Committee. In December 1916, all able bodied males not already in uniform were conscripted as war labour, while attempts were made to conscript women for the same purpose, and deportation programmes brought in forced labour from occupied Belgium and Poland. None of these unpopular measures made much difference to a labour force already stretched to the limit.
Meanwhile a Supreme War Bureau, headed by General Gröner, took over the functions of both the War Materials Department (KRA) and the arms procurement office. Effectively a branch of the Supreme Command, it proceeded to redraw Germany as an industrial magnate’s fantasy, pouring funds into the development of heavy industry and planning a series of lavish infrastructural projects without regard for feasibility.
The whole Programme was based on the assumption that the German people as a whole had been slacking – a view that was completely in tune with elite, right-wing thinking in contemporary Germany but had no basis in reality – and its immediate effect was to put an enormous spanner in the works of the German economy. Failure to find untapped labour resources meant 1.2 million men had to be transferred from the Army to civilian war work in September, while the strain of industrial reorganisation and a new campaign in Romania brought the railway system to a virtual standstill in October, causing widespread coal shortages, and unusually cold weather added urban starvation to the mix during the winter.
By the spring of 1917 none of the Programme’s production targets had been met, or even approached, and its only major achievement had been to unleash a storm of opposition, killing off the faltering political truce and raising the spectre of revolution that had haunted Germany’s pre-War ruling classes.
The occasional shaft of pragmatism did improve matters slightly during 1917. February’s decision to cut back on investment projects enabled the Programme to meet some of its targets by the autumn, including machine gun and light artillery quotas, but the industrial magnates behind the Third Supreme Command would not be denied their earthly paradise. Gröner was dismissed when he tried to curtail their profits in mid-1917, and a year later even Ludendorff was unable to force through similar measures. Meanwhile Germany’s economy and society screamed towards the buffers, its supercharged industries clearly unable to meet requirements or sustain the effort, its angry population ever closer to exhaustion, and its politics lurching into extremism.
German military strategies during the last two years of the War – from unrestricted submarine warfare to the occupation of Eastern Europe and the last battles in France – would display the same kind of reckless aggression as the Hindenburg Programme, and at first glance it’s hard to see the Third Supreme Command’s tenure as anything but a form of madness. To make any sense of the national harakiri presided over by Ludendorff and his backers you have to take on board the mindset of Germany’s elite rulers during the early twentieth century.
Germany had come into the War under internal political pressures the ruling classes could only see as revolutionary, and that terrible vision still dominated their thinking in 1916. They were fighting the British, French and Russians for Germany’s place in the world, but the struggle that really mattered to them had less to do with national ambitions than with class war. When the War seemed to be going against them, they preferred a colossal (and repeated) gamble on the ever more remote possibility of total victory to what they saw as the certainty of revolution without it.
History can’t be sure if revolution in a defeated Germany was inevitable, or if the chaos unleashed on post-War Germany was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. It can record that the Third Supreme Command operated in ways and in conditions that made the gamble’s failure all but inevitable, and that it trampled all over civil liberties in pursuit of state aims defined by and for of a powerful minority. In other words, the military-industrial oligarchy that took power in August 1916 created both a blueprint for future totalitarian dictatorships, and made Germany the fertile ground in which the twentieth century’s most ghastly example could flourish. A century on, that seems worth a commemorative mention.
You may not need me to tell you that the Battle of Jutland began a century ago today, because it’s one of very few wartime events outside the Western Front deemed worthy of the full treatment by the British heritage industry. Unfortunately, a high heritage profile comes with a requirement for drama and significance, so the BBC (to pick on the best of them) is coming at you with shows entitled ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’ and ‘The Battle That Won The War’. You get the message? Well, it’s nonsense. Jutland was a miserable non-event, significant only in what it failed to achieve, best viewed as a clear signal that the age of the battleship was well and truly over, and had ended with a whimper. That said, I’ll try and describe it.
Jutland was the only full-scale wartime confrontation between the two most powerful battle fleets in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, stationed either side of the North Sea.
The High Seas Fleet was the fruit of rapid German naval expansion during the previous two decades, which was in turn a product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego. Built around 27 modern battleships and battlecruisers (like battleships, but with most of the armour sacrificed for speed), it was not regarded as powerful enough to beat the British in a full-scale battle, but was designed to keep the Royal Navy’s biggest guns away from duties elsewhere, particularly the blockade of German ports, and to whittle away the Grand Fleet’s strength in advance of any possible confrontation.
Based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the Grand Fleet was the Royal Navy’s principle strike force, an enormous armada built around 35–40 modern battleships and battlecruisers, designed to respond to any threat, anywhere in the world, but primarily concerned with nullifying the threat of invasion and preventing attempts to interfere with the blockade. Its ultimate task was seen as the destruction of the High Seas Fleet, and for that purpose the British Admiralty was careful to maintain a significant numerical advantage in the North Sea.
According to contemporary naval orthodoxy – established since the advent of armoured, coal- or oil-powered warships – battle fleets required not just modern battleships (costing the equivalent of about half a billion pounds each in modern terms), but also cruisers, destroyers, submarines and hundreds of smaller support craft to provide protection and reconnaissance for the bigger ships. In short, fleets cost a fortune.
Understandably enough, admirals, politicians, press and public expected value for money from battle fleets in the event of war, and at the same time regarded the loss of wildly expensive major units as nothing short of a national catastrophe. This required naval strategists to take risks while being risk averse, a tricky enough problem at the best of times, made almost insoluble by 1914 because the leviathans of the sea had become dangerously vulnerable to spectacularly cheap mines and torpedoes.
I’ve devoted plenty of space in the past to the paralysis produced by this situation, and a glance through the blog’s naval warfare category might be helpful if you’re interested in arguments and examples. In North Sea terms, it meant neither side dared risk a major battle unless they were quite sure of winning, so the High Seas Fleet didn’t want to be caught in a battle at all, and the Grand Fleet’s attempts to engineer one were so timid they were hardly perceptible.
By 1916 both fleets had spent most of two years being pilloried by political, press and public opinion for their perceived inactivity, and both needed to prove themselves. The British could only maintain their numerical supremacy and effective dominance of the theatre, avoiding trouble and hoping an open goal would present itself. With the German high command in the process of prioritising submarine warfare at the expense of the High Seas Fleet, its new commander, Admiral Scheer, was under more immediate pressure to act. In the late spring of 1916 he planned an expanded version of the nuisance raids on the British coast that had boosted the Fleet’s reputation in 1914.
Scheer’s plan was to send Admiral Hipper’s fast battlecruisers to raid the northeast English port of Sunderland, and to entice the British battlecruiser squadron, based at Rosyth, out onto the guns of the main fleet, following behind. In addition, thirteen U-boats were positioned for ambush off British North Sea ports, with orders to stay there until 1 June. Scheer was only prepared to take this risk if aerial reconnaissance confirmed that the Grand Fleet was still in Scapa Flow, but poor weather prevented deployment of the only machines able to do the job, Zeppelins, throughout late May. Rather than do without his U-boats, Scheer switched to a slightly less bold demonstration of the High Seas Fleet’s powers, sending his battlecruisers as bait ahead of an otherwise pointless sortie up the Danish coast.
The German ships moved out of the Jade Bight, off Wilhelmshaven, at one in the morning on 31 May, unaware that the Grand Fleet had put to sea from Scapa Flow two hours earlier. Because the Royal Navy’s Room 40 had broken German naval codes, Grand Fleet c-in-c Admiral Jellicoe had been informed of their impending departure on 30 May, but not of their destination, and had decided to undertake his own sweep of the Danish coast, planned for 2 June.
The two fleets, led by their battlecruiser squadrons, were on course for a head-on collision during the morning of 31 May, but didn’t know it. In an age before radar and in the absence of aircraft (a seaplane aboard the converted ferry HMS Engadine was the only plane available to either fleet), the only way they were going to find out was by direct visual contact through the fast, modern cruisers both sides used for scouting. British and German cruisers spotted each other in mid-afternoon, as both sides moved to investigate a stationary Danish merchant ship, and after a brief exchange of fire both sides hurried off to inform their battlecruisers that the enemy had blundered into their trap.
Admiral Beatty, in command of the British battlecruisers, manoeuvred to the south of Hipper’s ships, which turned to face the enemy, leaving both sets of battlecruisers in the path of the other’s main fleet. Unknown to Hipper, four modern, Queen Elizabeth Class battleships were also attached to Beatty’s squadron, and were coming up fast when, at 3.45 in the afternoon, the battlecruisers opened fire, 13km apart and closing. Beatty turned south to cut off what he assumed was a German retreat, and after Hipper followed suit the squadrons spent forty-five minutes exchanging broadsides.
The action went badly for the British. While escorting destroyers fought a secondary battle, with each side losing two ships, three British battlecruisers had been damaged and two, Indefatigable and Queen Mary, had exploded by the time the Queen Elizabeths joined the fray (from 17km) at four-thirty. Hipper’s success had something to do with the position of the sun, which helped German gunners on a hazy day polluted by gunsmoke, but also highlighted British operational weaknesses that would be evident throughout the battle: the inherent vulnerability of British ships to internal explosion; a spate of poor signalling; and the unexpected weakness of the Navy’s heavy shells, which tended to disintegrate on contact.
The arrival of four battleships to join the four British battlecruisers still in the fight shifted the odds against Hipper – but not for long. At four-forty Beatty’s scouting cruisers reported that the entire High Seas Fleet was coming into range. Wrongly informed that morning that Scheer was still in port, Beatty turned and ran north for Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet. The British battleships missed the turn and barely escaped the High Seas Fleet (with damage inflicted by both sides) before joining Beatty’s faster ships and quickly pulling away. Hipper’s squadron – battered, short on ammunition and with their gunners now facing a dipping sun – followed to prevent what he assumed was an attempt at escape.
Shortly before five-thirty Beatty turned east to a prearranged rendezvous with Jellicoe, crossing Hipper’s path to cut off any scouting ships that might report the trap, and drawing an attack from German cruisers and destroyers. Three more British battlecruisers, commanded by Admiral Hood, then arrived on the scene from the east, severely damaging three of the German light cruisers and launching a destroyer attack of their own – and that was enough to convince Hipper he’d run into the entire Grand Fleet.
The actual Grand Fleet stumbled upon Beatty’s squadron just after six, when scouts sighted HMS Lion firing its guns at opponents out of visual range. Jellicoe, who had thought he was still 20km northwest of Beatty, immediately formed the fleet in a line to port (turning east, in other words). The manoeuvre was complete by six-thirty, just in time to put the Grand Fleet in perfect position to ‘cross the T’ of the High Seas Fleet. Meanwhile Scheer, coming up from the south, found British warships to his north and northwest, and so turned east, heading straight for Jellicoe.
During this phase, one of the Queen Elizabeths, Warspite, survived 13 hits when a jammed rudder forced it to circle twice under the High Seas Fleet’s guns, and two British cruisers were sunk when they ran into the German fleet by accident. The British also lost a third battlecruiser, when Admiral Hood’s flagship, Invincible, was illuminated by a random patch of clear air, attracted concentrated fire and exploded after a shell penetrated a turret.
The explosion tool place at 18.33, and the Grand Fleet opened fire at once. Two minutes later Scheer ran away, and the High Seas Fleet did a brilliant job of it, executing a ‘battle turn away’ (Gefechtskehrtwendung, effectively a massed u-turn) and leaving Jellicoe chasing its taillights, all for the loss of one cruiser to British gunfire. Jellicoe more than matched Scheer’s caution, refusing to chase his prey into what he thought might just be a submarine trap. Instead he ordered the Grand Fleet to turn southeast and then south, hoping to intercept Scheer’s homeward journey before nightfall.
It shouldn’t have worked, but Jellicoe got lucky. Scheer turned his fleet north and then back on itself, aiming to get behind the British, but he overestimated the Grand Fleet’s speed and instead steamed back into its guns, which opened up at ten past seven. This time Scheer sent Hipper’s squadron (backed by destroyers) to charge at the Grand Fleet, guns blazing, while the rest of the German force pulled off another u-turn. A destroyer was sunk, and the battlecruisers took another pounding (but didn’t explode) before turning away, but within a few minutes the High Seas Fleet was disappearing to the west.
Still confident that he could intercept Scheer’s presumed route home, Jellicoe turned the Grand Fleet southeast. At eight-fifteen Beatty’s battlecruisers, some 10km ahead of the main fleet, sighted Hipper’s ships sailing south, and a few minutes later opened fire, damaging two battlecruisers and sinking the Lützow. Scheer responded by sending six vulnerable pre-dreadnought battleships into a holding action, and after keeping Beatty’s guns busy for a few minutes they rejoined the German fleet escaping to the west.
Scheer then turned south for home, and although the two fleets were less than 10km apart and converging when night fell, at about nine, they never met again. Scouting forces on both sides battled on through the night in a series of costly and often confused actions, costing the German fleet one pre-dreadnought battleship, three cruisers and a destroyer, the British a cruiser and six destroyers.
Partly thanks to effective radio jamming by German crews, no reports of the night actions reached Jellicoe, who let anxiety govern his next move. Worried about night actions against an enemy with superior searchlights, and about Admiralty reports suggesting Scheer was behind him, he kept on steaming south, enabling the High Seas Fleet to escape around the rear of the Grand Fleet and reach the relative safety of Horn’s Reef by about three in the morning of 1 June. Jellicoe turned his fleet for home half an hour later.
The two fleets got home without interference from submarines stationed in wait, and the last casualty of Jutland was the German dreadnought Ostfriesland, badly damaged by a British mine in the Jade Bight.
Both sides claimed victory. Both were right and both were wrong. The German Navy won on numbers, and could justifiably claim that both its ships and crews had performed better on the day. The Royal Navy took a lot of criticism for its operational failures, and the Grand Fleet’s commanders took their fair share for behaving cautiously, but British claims to victory are based on the many months it took the High Seas Fleet to get back into operational shape (the Grand Fleet was pronounced ready for action on 2 June), and on the fact that it never again ventured out in force. The latter claim is perfectly true, but was hardly a product of the battle, and that brings me back to ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’, ‘The Battle That Won The War’ and the heritage hype.
Jutland involved 274 warships and about 70,000 seamen. The Royal Navy lost 14 ships, 6,097 men killed and 510 wounded; the German Navy 11 ships, 2,551 killed and 507 wounded. So yes, Jutland was the Royal Navy’s most costly day out in terms of casualties, but this was hardly surprising when so many men took part in the nearest thing to a major sea battle since the dawn of the mechanised age.
As for Jutland winning the War, that’s rubbish. The High Seas Fleet was already slated for effective mothballing by the German High Command, and only a huge success at Jutland (or Skagerrak, as it’s known in Germany) could have altered that. You might say that Jellicoe’s caution spared the Royal Navy any risk of losing control in the North Sea, but otherwise Jutland is a story of errors, failures and accidents, a series of chaotic skirmishes that very nearly turned into a battle. Does that really constitute a victory when its only effect was to leave everything about the naval war unchanged?
May Day is far and away the most popular of several dates chosen around the world to mark the achievements and sacrifices of international labour. None too surprisingly, the idea of a day set aside for the purpose dates from the late 19th century – when mass literacy (and with it politicisation) had brought self-confidence and tactical sophistication to the international labour movement. Perhaps more surprisingly, May Day labour celebrations originated in the USA, in Chigaco, where the first such march took place in 1886.
That event, which became known as the Haymarket Massacre, featured an anarchist bomb attack and a police shoot-out with marchers. It triggered a press (and therefore ‘big business’) backlash against the left-wing labour movement that, though largely based on Hillsborough-style defamation of victims, played a significant role in the eradication of socialism as a legitimate political standpoint in the USA. That process, boosted after August 1914 by employers’ determination not to let politics interfere with a war-inspired production boom, was essentially complete by 1916 (and these days 1 May is officially Law Day in the US), but May Day had meanwhile caught on with European socialists.
So, a hundred years ago today, industrial cities all over Europe witnessed demonstrations by working people and their political organisers, and in the pre-War heart of moderate socialism, Germany, May Day saw the arrest of Karl Liebknecht for making an anti-War speech in Berlin. (That’s Karl getting his collar felt in the picture at the top, by the way.)
Liebknecht was a famous socialist, a revolutionary rather than a reformer and the only Reichstag deputy to vote against the War in 1914. As a reward for that piece of impudence, he had been sent to bury dead bodies on the Eastern Front, but had resumed his political career after being discharged on health grounds. He would stay in jail until the regime’s complete breakdown brought his release at the end of the War, when he would cement his fame as a martyr of the German Revolution that spilled into chaotic life in 1919. He may get more attention from me then, but for now I plan to use Karl as an excuse to see how German society was handling the shock of total war.
Back when this blog started, I put together a piece on Germany in 1914 (it’s under Big Guns), and what follows won’t make much sense without it. I left it at the outbreak of war, at which point the explosive, volatile brew of autocracy, rising social discontent and rampant economic expansion that was Germany in 1914 suddenly cohered into passionate national unity. Rampant popular enthusiasm for the War was matched in the Reichstag and by declaration of a political truce (Burgfrieden) for the duration, while the Kaiser, a man whose thinking only really moved in leaps and bounds, decided his troubles were over and that happy, unified German nationalism was here to stay.
The powerful industrial, landowning and military interests that sustained the regime, conservative to the core, weren’t so sure they trusted the change, and the Army immediately took over much of the civil administration under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave it enormous powers in time of national crisis. In other words the ruling elites of German society, unlike their counterparts in France or Britain, saw no need to nurture the nation’s good vibe with a spirit of compromise.
And so it went. Like every other belligerent power, Germany was in no way prepared to fight a long war, let alone one that embraced every aspect of national life. When faced with unimagined demands for manpower, war materials and money to pay for them, its leaders had no recourse to anything but top-down imposition of ever-increasing demands. By October 1914, the Army’s demands had already outstripped production, and reinforcements were dependent on current output. Massive government orders to big arms companies didn’t solve anything, merely pushed up the price of raw materials, and the situation worsened as the enemy (largely British) naval blockade tightened.
This wasn’t the bumper war German big business had bargained for, and in Germany big business talked, demanding and getting extension of the Prussian War Ministry’s powers, so that its War Materials Department (KRA) took control of goods distribution throughout Germany.
Essentially a means of focusing all national effort on supplying big arms and war materials manufacturers (and securing their profits), the KRA succeeded on one level, improving output and seeing the war effort through 1915, a year in which Germany still enjoyed material superiority over its enemies and industrial profits went through the roof. On the other hand the KRA’s system unbalanced the economy in ways that would eventually prove fatal, alienating smaller companies that were given only a token share of wartime business, and enabling the big boys to charge extortionate prices that encouraged inflation and multiplied financial problems that were anyway crippling.
Germany found most of the enormous sums needed to finance the war effort by raising taxes on a regular basis and, above all, by issuing war bonds, lots of them. That form of borrowing rapidly spiralled out of control, so that the victory soon represented the only possible way of paying back bond subscribers, a factor that goes some way to explaining the regime’s unwillingness to discuss a negotiated peace before 1918.
Meanwhile civilian shortages of food and manufactured goods were mounting – exacerbated by a bad harvest in 1915 and an agricultural manpower crisis – and by the beginning of 1916 Germans, no less than other Europeans, were becoming weary of the apparently endless military stalemate. All in all, given the explosive state of German society and politics in the immediate pre-War period (Big Guns again, I’m afraid), it would seem reasonable to expect a breakdown of political truce and a world of trouble for the ruling regime – yet the May Day march in Berlin that got Karl Liebknecht arrested (remember him?) was the first major anti-War demonstration to hit the streets, and only about 10,000 people from the far left took part.
So the military-industrial complex running Germany was holding its ground in April 1916, and the obvious question is: how? It’s easy to fall back on national stereotypes and stress the depth of German obedience to authority, and that perhaps played a part, as did the hope of victory that came with superficial maintenance of an efficient war effort, along with the determination of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s civilian administration, a haven for the more moderate among the conservative elite, to keep the Reichstag sweet with minor constitutional concessions.
Posterity has a bit more trouble remembering the extent to which Germans believed they were fighting a defensive war. Threatened by Russia and France, betrayed by the British, saddled with allies in constant need of support, the German body politic was still feeding on righteous indignation. Even Germany’s official socialist groups were still giving solid, outraged support to the struggle, and it was left to the small, anti-War Spartacus League, founded by Liebknecht and his allies in early 1916, to organise the May Day demonstration.
So, all surprisingly quiet on the German home front, but Liebknecht’s small gesture is as good a marker as any for a long, painful turning point in the middle of 1916. Verdun was already underway, the summer would bring the Somme on the Western Front and the Russian Brusilov offensive in the east, and they would demonstrate beyond doubt that Allied production capacity was expanding beyond Germany’s ability to compete in the long term. They would also undermine the relatively moderate sway of Bethmann-Hollweg in government and General Falkenhayn atop the Army, leaving the Kaiser’s ear open to the siren song of extreme right-wing industrial and military interests.
Led by the appalling Ludendorff, the far right believed salvation lay in compelling the German people to stop slacking, and in ruthless exploitation of conquered or allied territories. By May, they were already manoeuvring to establish what would effectively be a military dictatorship, and by the autumn it would be in place. Watch this space, things are about to turn very nasty in Germany…
It’s the middle of January, and a hundred years ago the British were talking about the weather. Fair enough, given that the War in Europe was quiet and the only British actions of note were taking place in Mesopotamia, where propaganda was still masking the failure of attempts to relieve the siege of Kut – and fair enough given the state of the weather.
After the coldest November in British history, and the fourth wettest December ever seen in England and Wales, January 1916 was on the way to becoming the mildest on record. These records stand today, but in 1916 the end of the world meant global warfare rather than global warming, and they were generally seen as evidence of divine critique rather than climate change.
I mention the weird warmth of Western Europe for atmosphere, so to speak, and apropos of nothing in particular, because its effects on the War were largely confined to fuel savings and logistic benefits. The kind of military opportunism that might have exploited it with a surprise initiative wasn’t on anybody’s agenda, and not just because the major European powers needed to take stock and restock before the inevitable, heavyweight confrontations of the spring.
The technologies of contemporary ground warfare were too vast and cumbersome to do anything spontaneous on a large scale; aircraft technology was only just approaching the capacity to inflict more than strategic fleabites; and, as I’ve mentioned in detail before, naval warfare’s strategic weapons, the most modern surface fleets, were far too expensive and prestigious to be risked in acts of daring. That brings me, in undeniably tortuous fashion, to today’s centenary, because on 15 January 1916 Admiral Reinhardt Scheer succeeded Admiral Pohl as c-in-c of the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet.
The High Seas Fleet was the product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s recklessly expensive attempt to rival British sea power, and had been very big news in the years before 1914. Its construction had triggered a naval arms race with Britain, and as it grew into a formidable force of modern warships it became both a symbol of German geopolitical ambition and a source of mounting British paranoia, seen as a clear and deliberate threat to national security. Its very existence, operating out of North Sea bases at Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven, compelled the Royal Navy to protect the North Sea with the Grand Fleet, a superior force on paper and centred on Scapa Flow. Come the outbreak of war, facing each other across the Kaiser’s chosen battlefield, these naval juggernauts, the most powerful ever seen, stood ready to… wait for the other to make the first move.
And so it went. Both fleets wanted victory, not least as justification for their enormous cost to both economies, but neither wanted risk, and by the end of 1915 what had looked like being modern warfare’s showpiece campaign amounted to a few raids and one or two largely accidental skirmishes. This put both fleets under popular and political pressure to do better. In politically stable Britain, respectful criticism of the Royal Navy reflected its enormous contribution to centuries of Empire. On the other hand politically volatile Germany had no naval traditions, and at the modern equivalent of between £60 and £120 million a shot, critics of the German Navy could think of more useful things to buy than idle warships. In short, the High Seas Fleet needed to justify itself, hence the appointment of Scheer, one of very few senior Fleet officers to have emerged from the North Sea’s phoney war with a reputation for aggression.
Approaching his mid-fifties, Scheer had been in command of the Fleet’s Second Battleship Squadron in August 1914, and transferred to lead the Third Squadron that December. He hadn’t done much with his battleships by the time he took overall command of the Fleet – such action as took place had been carried out by Admiral Hipper’s fast, hit-and-run battlecruisers – but he had talked a good fight, and did prove a more aggressive leader than the infinitely cautious Pohl. In May, Scheer’s willingness to take a risk would be the catalyst for the only major wartime action between the two fleets, the near miss that was Jutland, but the real significance of his tenure lay elsewhere.
Jutland confirmed Scheer’s opinion that large surface warships were redundant in the North Sea and the Baltic. A torpedo specialist as a junior officer, he now threw his considerable weight behind increased use of submarines, both as fleet weapons against enemy warships and as purveyors of Handelskrieg, or trade warfare.
Scheer sponsored a rapid increase in U-boat construction, and made no secret of his complete support for ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare against enemy trade. He lobbied successfully for the restricted campaign against British merchant ships that opened in March 1916, and protested by recalling all his U-boats from the Atlantic to the North Sea when the Kaiser changed his mind in April. Scheer’s death or glory approach to submarine warfare, more concerned with victory than with keeping the USA out of the War, found full support in the autumn, when the Kaiser fell under the effective control of a new supreme command led by Ludendorff and Hindenburg.
Restricted attacks against British trade recommenced in October 1916, and U-boats destroyed about 300,000 tons of British shipping per month for the rest of the year. British leaders were worried, but kept it from the pubic, while a triumphant German command ensured maximum publicity for the idea that Britain could be starved to defeat in six months.
As Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s opposition to the Navy’s new approach crumbled with the failure of peace overtures to the Allies, the German press, public opinion and most of the Reichstag were strident in their support for the campaign. On 7 January 1917, less than a year after Scheer’s appointment, the Kaiser bowed to pressure from all sides and signed the order to prosecute unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February. Death or glory had won the argument over the German Navy’s wartime role, and within a few weeks the victory had provided justification for US entry into the War.
Scheer would go on to preside over an increasingly desperate search for victory through Handelskrieg until almost the end. Appointed head of a new Naval Supreme Command in August 1918, when he knew the War was lost, he signed off his military career in the style he personified, planning a ‘heroic’ final attack on the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. It was prevented by the sailors’ Kiel Mutiny on 30 October, and as Germany crumpled into revolution Scheer was finally dismissed by the Kaiser a day before the Armistice.
So, during a quiet week in January 1916, what seemed a simple change of command designed to bring vigour to the North Sea’s gigantic fleet face-off, turned out to be a catalyst that helped to redefine naval warfare in the context of total war, and to bring the United States into the business of world policing. Thanks for that, Reinhardt.
Today’s the day, a century ago, that relations between the United States and the German Empire hit a new low, as Washington announced the expulsion of German military attachés Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed. This wasn’t a decisive moment in the process that would eventually bring the US into the War, and it had no direct bearing on the issue generally credited with doing the trick, German submarine warfare against commercial traffic. On the other hand, the announcement did make global headlines at the time, as did anything to do with Washington’s diplomatic position in 1915, and its centenary is a useful opportunity to mention the sabotage campaign carried out by German agents in the wartime US. Why bother? Because the campaign played an important and often ignored role in bringing the Unites States to war.
Even in the context of the First World War’s giant jamboree bag of world-defining events, US entry into the European conflict stands out as arguably the defining event of the twentieth century. Others were more dramatic, and you can make a case for revolutions, nuclear weapons or the day Hitler got really angry (to name just a few), but it’s hard beat the moment the United States abandoned one of its most basic constitutional tenets, got involved in somebody else’s war for the first time, and committed to becoming the world’s dominant diplomatic, military and economic superpower. So it seems a shame the heritage industry on this side of the Atlantic isn’t too bothered about why it happened.
If the question does crop up, the heritage answer is usually nice and simple: U-boats sank the Lusitania, as well as other dubious targets occupied by American citizens, and the USA’s outrage eventually trumped its pacifism. You won’t be surprised to hear that the real picture was more complex.
Let’s start with a few broad brushstrokes. A refusal to take part in overseas wars that were considered imperialist was a fundamental founding principle of the independent United States, enshrined in its constitution and strong in the public mind as the Great War got underway in Europe. Then again, like so many of the grandest principles, national pacifism had never really stopped the USA from going to war when it suited the right vested interests. Regular invasions of Canada and Mexico peppered the republic’s early history, and by the late nineteenth century the impulse to overseas trade was breeding a parallel (and standard) impulse to interference in foreign affairs.
It was by no means a universal impulse. Vast swathes of ‘middle America’, along with traditionalists everywhere, regarded all dealings overseas as dangerous and undesirable, but manufacturing and maritime interests in the northeastern states, increasingly supported by their emergent counterparts on the Pacific coast, recognised a huge opportunity for world-class wealth when they saw one, and led the way in demanding that the USA behave like a world power. Driven on by their noisiest champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, they had crossed a significant line at the very end of the nineteenth century, when economic imperatives had prompted invasion and conquest of the far distant Philippines. Fifteen years later, with the much less bullish Woodrow Wilson in the White House, US Marines moved in to help establish long-term economic dominance in various Latin American capitals once the new war had sucked European investments from the continent.
So the USA was no virgin when it came to overseas military adventure by 1914 – it was merely in denial the way, for instance, our modern media deny the strategic irrelevance of British military adventure. The USA was also neutral, generally referred to as ‘the great neutral’, but again an element of denial was involved, particularly when it came to trade.
When war came to Europe, opportunity knocked louder than ever for US overseas trade. All the biggest European governments were suddenly desperate for everything the USA could grow or build. American farmers, manufacturers and merchants responded in spades, making vast fortunes in the process, but with very few exceptions they responded only to the Entente powers, because the Royal Navy’s blockade strategy made delivery of goods to Germany, Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire almost impossible.
This huge imbalance played into wartime diplomatic rows between the US and Britain over blockade tactics (as discussed back in March), and into the mounting dispute over the submarine tactics used instead by Germany. It also convinced many German observers that the US was neutral only in name, a belief that became the justification for German attempts to slow the flow of goods and arms to the Entente by sabotage.
During the War’s first year, US authorities had foiled attempts at sabotage in San Francisco, Hoboken and Seattle, and had uncovered a scheme to supply German agents with US passports bought from dock workers, but successful saboteurs were thought responsible for more than a dozen factory fires and fires aboard at least thirty ships. Reported with all due hysteria, these incidents left the American public in the grip of a spy craze that made every fire suspicious and every German-American a suspect. For a time the Wilson administration chose to protect its neutrality by accepting German ambassador Bernstorff’s claims that misguided, independent associations or individuals were to blame, and that no official sabotage campaign existed – but by the middle of 1915 US authorities knew those claims to be false.
In February, a lone German agent had set off a suitcase full of dynamite on the railway bridge linking the US and Canada at Vanceboro, Maine. The bomb did only minor damage, the perpetrator was caught (not hard, given that he was wearing his old German Army uniform) and his orders were traced back to Bernstorff’s military attaché, Franz von Papen. Further investigations linked von Papen to several other sabotage incidents, and also implicated Karl Boy-Ed, a Turkish-German with excellent connections among the New York social elite. On 3 December, shortly after a fire at a munitions factory had raised popular spy mania to fever pitch, the US government finally expelled the two of them, and confiscated documents in Papen’s possession that detailed an ongoing nationwide campaign against railways, shipping and factories.
The German sabotage campaign in the USA didn’t end with the expulsions, but the minimal disruption it caused to Entente supply lines was far outweighed by the damage it did to German-American relations. Coming at a time when keeping the United States out of the War was Germany’s overwhelming diplomatic priority, it was a classic example of the spectacular incompetence that characterised the Empire’s wartime diplomacy.
The decision to turn atrocities against Belgian civilians into an international publicity stunt, the clumsy attempts to interfere in Mexican affairs, the serial miscalculations of US opinion around submarine warfare… all these helped underpin the American impulse towards war in the name of trade by cementing the German regime’s image in the States as a greedy, militarist danger to civilisation and something worth fighting. None of them prepared the American people for overseas war more effectively than the outrage created by German saboteurs.
Today in 1915, the German Navy launched the main thrust of a major operation against the Russian (now Latvian) port of Riga, one of the Russian Navy’s most important bases in the Baltic Sea.
The attack involved about half the German High Seas Fleet, which had so far been dedicated to giving the British something to worry about in the North Sea. It was intended to neutralise the much smaller Russian force stationed in the port, and so provide support for advances taking place on the Eastern Front. In practical terms, the German plan was to clear the minefields that had protected Riga since the autumn, bombard the city and destroy its principle warships, chief among them the pre-dreadnought battleship Slava, and then block the port with German mines. It didn’t work, and for the usual reasons.
While two old battleships kept the Slava busy and the rest of the German fleet waited offshore to discourage Russian naval reinforcement, minesweepers went to work on 8 August, but were unable to clear a passage before darkness fell and the attempt was suspended. Various German fleet units were then dispatched to bombard Russian positions on small islands in the vicinity, inflicting only minor damage, before a second, more ambitious attempt to clear a passage through the Gulf of Riga opened on 16 August.
Two dreadnoughts, three cruisers and 31 minesweepers had fought their way past Russian defences by the next day, damaging the Slava in the process. By 19 August Russian minefields had been cleared, and the German force entered the Gulf. So far, so good for the High Seas Fleet, but just as the big warships were poised to complete the kind of victory that might restore their damaged fighting reputation, they fell victim to caution.
Failure to make full use of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers was bad, but losing one or more of the hugely expensive things was much, much worse, so unconfirmed reports of British and Russian submarines in the area were enough to prompt a rapid withdrawal of the entire German force on the following day. Minor damage aside, the operation had cost the German Navy two destroyers and the Russians a single gunboat. Riga would remain an operational Russian base until September 1917.
Apart from highlighting the switch in German emphasis to the Eastern Front in 1915, and once again demonstrating the Catch-22 that hobbled the great warships of the First World War, this ultimately insignificant naval battle also gives me a chance to mention another of the conflict’s forgotten fronts, the Baltic Sea.
The Baltic was the main theatre of operations for the Russian Navy, which fought a continuous battle against German units in the southern and eastern Baltic from August 1914. Russia’s main aim was to prevent German penetration of the Gulf of Finland, which led to Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was now known), but the navy was also charged with disrupting German trade to and from Scandinavia. Although redeployments from the North Sea occasionally gave German forces an advantage, they were generally outnumbered in the theatre, never had any intention of approaching Petrograd, and were primarily concerned with protecting their trade routes.
At the start of the War neither side felt confident of dominating the Baltic. The Russian fleet simply holed up in the Gulf of Finland behind a field of 4,000 mines and dared the Germans to come after them, while the Germans opted for a defensive approach and laid their own minefields. In September, having taken the measure of German naval weakness in the theatre, the Russians moved west, re-establishing bases in the Gulf of Riga and protecting them with more minefields.
This set a pattern. Major operations like that of August 1915 were the exceptions in a campaign that revolved around minelaying for the next three years. By the end of 1915, the Russians had laid about 4,000 more mines in the Baltic, including fields off the German coast, while a smaller number of German minelayers never stopped working, and both sides soon built up substantial minesweeping fleets. The main targets for mines were cargo vessels, with Russian fields in particular taking a steady toll of merchant shipping throughout the conflict.
Submarine warfare was another, albeit marginal feature of the Baltic campaign. German and Russian boats enjoyed almost no success in the theatre, but were used to some effect as minelayers. British submarines (five of them were in the Baltic by October 1915) fared better, inflicting sufficient damage on German merchantmen to prompt the transfer of several big ships from the North Sea to protect trade routes.
The unceasing battle between minelayers and minesweepers in the Baltic, with major warships watching from safe harbours, was as marginal to the War’s outcome as it was intense. It was eventually ended in late 1917 by the collapse of the Russian war effort, at which point the Russian Navy was ahead on points. Having sunk three times as much shipping as it had lost, it had escaped the eventual capture of Riga by German land forces and arrived without serious damage in the Gulf of Finland, where it lay idle when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended hostilities between Russia and Germany.
Like the ‘mosquito’ war fought in the northern Adriatic, the Baltic campaign evolved into an example of modern naval war, and as such was another slap in face for pre-War naval planners wedded to the nineteenth-century doctrine of fleet warfare… and now you know it happened.