Category Archives: Germany

11 NOVEMBER, 1918: Peace Off

I don’t suppose anyone in the world needs my help to remember that it was Armistice Day a century ago, because it’s been celebrated, loud and clear, across the world’s mass media during the last few days.  Fair enough on one level:  eleven o’clock on the eleventh was a big moment, especially for those fighting or focused on the Western Front, which was by then almost the last place still engaged in full-scale fighting between belligerent empires.  Citizens of France, Britain, Italy, their ‘white’ colonies, their allies and the USA partied in the streets, but these were the victors, celebrating the start of a more peaceful, settled future.  Elsewhere in the world, Armistice Day came and went in the middle of wild and dangerous chaos that felt like anything but peace.

Armistice Day.  In Philadelphia, they partied…
… in Cologne, they stood in the rain and accepted.

Civil war was spreading across vast swathes of the former Russian Empire, fought between ‘Red’ and ‘White’ forces, many of them using tactics and weapons from a pre-1914 age.  In northern Russia, the arrival of winter saw Red Army troops keeping a wary eye on the alliance of local insurgents and Allied units that had taken control of the area around Archangelsk, and fighting in Central Asia had died down with the failure of three British attempts to provide aid to anti-Bolshevik forces in Tashkent, Ashkhabad and Baku (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment).

In the southwest, Bolshevik forces had for now been cleared from the Ukraine, but had maintained control of the Kuban region until June 1918, when General Wrangel’s ‘Volunteer Army’ of some 9,000 men had launched an invasion.  After heavy fighting through the autumn, Wrangel’s capture of Stavropol on 1 November had marked the end of Bolshevik military resistance, and White forces spent the rest of the year extending their control over the whole of the northern Caucasus.

This is just one of the maps you’ll need to get a grip on the Russian Civil War in 1918. The rest, you go find.

With Allied backing and a lot of help from the Czech Legion, White forces in eastern Russia had cleared Siberia of Bolshevik enclaves by late June 1918.  They extended their control westward during the summer, and although a Bolshevik counteroffensive in September and October did drive White forces back from Kazan, the front had stabilised around Ufa and Orenburg by November.  At this stage the various White units in play, most of which were commanded by former imperial officers, generally enjoyed military superiority over ill-trained and unreliable Red Army forces, but command cohesion was harder to come by.  White forces at large included a People’s Army, a Siberian Army and various independent Cossack units only nominally under unified command, all theoretically controlled by a Provisional All-Russian Government, formed in September as an alliance of anti-Bolshevik authorities scattered around eastern Russia, and based in Omsk.

They arose, they squawked, they disappeared… states created during the Russian Civil War.

Essentially an arena for squabbling between tsarist and moderate socialist delegates, the provisional government didn’t last long.  As armistice was being proclaimed in the West, its war minister, former Imperial Navy officer Rear-Admiral Alexander Kolchak, was preparing the coup that put him in supreme command from 18 November.  Established in Omsk as ‘Supreme Leader and Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Land and Sea Forces’, Kolchak resumed the campaign against increasingly coherent Red Army forces in December, and White armies advanced to take Perm on Christmas Eve.  Kolchak would retain supreme command over the eastern wing of White resistance to the Bolsheviks, and remain the principal conduit for Allied aid to the cause, until his assassination in February 1920, but the fluctuating fortunes of his bid for regime change are a story for another day.

The republic based in Omsk had its own stamps: ‘For United Russia – Supreme leader of Russia, Kolchak.’

If most Russians could be forgiven a lack of enthusiasm for Armistice Day, so could most Germans.  The sombre reality of defeat obviously cut down on the street parties, but so did social and political breakdown across the nation.  What is known as the German Revolution, but is perhaps better described as a period of multiple, sometimes simultaneous German revolutions, national and regional, had been coming for a long time.  Predicted by observers of all political persuasions since before the War, it had finally been triggered by the decision of the extreme right-wing Third Supreme Command to walk away from the mess it had created and hand power to the Reichstag (8 October, 1918: What’s Going On?).

Ruthlessly marginalised by the military-industrial regime, and ultimately driven to abandon the political truce agreed in 1914, the Reichstag was dominated by liberal and socialist reformers.  When the Third Supreme Command’s choice to succeed Hertling as imperial chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, took office on 3 October he put moderate socialist Social Democratic Party (SDP) deputies at the heart of a new cross-party government.  While the soft left took power in the hope of a peaceful transition to full democracy in Germany, the far right withdrew to plan a counter-coup and ensure that the SDP took the blame for whatever peace emerged.

Both sides of this political equation had underestimated the depth of popular discontent across the country.  Ludendorff’s resignation did nothing to slow the nationwide escalation of food riots, strikes, peace protests and attendant violence, and the new government’s position was almost immediately called into question by a mass mutiny of the German High Seas Fleet at Kiel.

The mutiny was triggered by the decision of German Navy c-in-c Admiral Scheer and his senior commanders to launch a final suicide mission against the British Grand Fleet.  The sole purpose of the mission seems to have been restoration of the German surface fleet’s damaged reputation, and Scheer – very much the Third Supreme Command’s man – kept his plans secret from the von Baden’s government.  He couldn’t prevent rumours reaching crews aboard the High Seas Fleet’s ships at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, and when fleet commander Admiral Hipper ordered his ships to sea on 30 October he faced widespread failure to return from shore leave and mass refusal to work.  Hipper abandoned the mission and dispersed his ships, but when his Third Battle Squadron reached Kiel its crews went ashore, made contact with industrial workers in the port and began organising protests against their commanders.

No more war… German sailors of the High Seas Fleet refuse to fight.

During the next few days, protests escalated out of control. Mutineers overwhelmed the naval station, forcing its commander, Crown Prince Heinrich, to flee in disguise, and sailors joined with workers to form political councils.  The movement quickly spread south into Germany’s industrial heartland and beyond, and protesters’ demands expanded to include immediate peace and constitutional reform.  The German Navy was quick to blame the trouble on Bolshevik agitators, although inactivity, command insensitivity and increasingly harsh living conditions were at least partly responsible.  German newspapers, public and politicians, faced with the mind-boggling concept of mutiny within the world’s most disciplined military, swallowed the story whole, and the government in Berlin braced for a Russian-style revolution.

The government’s representative in Kiel, moderate socialist Gustav Noske, reported the situation there as out of control on 6 November, but a march on the port by naval ground forces under Admiral Schroder was halted by the cabinet on the grounds that it would provoke nationwide revolution.  Three days later, convinced the revolution had already started and well aware of Kerenski’s fate in Petrograd, the moderate reformers attempted to seize the day.

On 9 November Max von Baden accepted moderate socialist demands and resigned as chancellor, handing power to SDP leader Friedrich Ebert and announcing the abdication of the Kaiser, although he no legal authority to do either.  Against Ebert’s wishes, vice-chancellor Philipp Scheidemann then proclaimed a German Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag, prompting Kaiser Wilhelm’s flight to the Netherlands and leaving Ebert as head of a provisional government pending national elections.  On the same day, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, General Wilhelm Gröner, made a deal with Ebert that offered military support for the government in return for a promise not to subject the officer corps to radical reform.  The pact effectively guaranteed an unreformed military a role in Germany’s political future, and everyone knows where that led.

Ebert…
… and Gröner.  Between them they kept moustaches and the army at the heart of German politics.

Ebert and Gröner, an accomplished staff officer recalled from the Ukraine after Ludendorff’s resignation, recognised that the government and the military feared a Bolshevik-style soviet revolution more than they feared each other.  Although the level of civil disturbance in Germany abated somewhat as the fact of peace persuaded less committed or radical protesters back to work, this simply made everyone still protesting look like a Bolshevik to the authorities.  Gröner and Noske, now in Berlin as the cabinet’s military liaison, began organising the deployment of regular Army units – and, as they formed, irregular ‘Freikorps’ units largely comprised of demobbed war veterans – to maintain order and suppress the supposed threat of Bolsheviks.

A year of violent struggle followed, while an uneasy alliance of democrats and right-wing military or paramilitary groups extinguished the far left’s bid for national control.  On a regional scale, beyond Prussia, the states that had relatively recently come together to form Germany underwent their own revolutionary upheavals.  Most minor monarchs and dukes were swept away, and the biggest of the states, Bavaria, came under a communist dictatorship that lasted into 1920.  Again, these are stories for another day, as are the civil wars, revolutions, uprisings and imperial conquests in progress all over the world as the war in Western Europe came to a ceremonial end.

And that’s the point here.  Alongside revolutionary wars across the former Russian Empire and in Germany, people in Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Arab world, East Africa, Bulgaria, the states forming from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and China were still experiencing wild and dangerous times, and the list would be longer if I wasn’t out of gas and beyond even light research.  So however good the Last Post sounded, and still sounds, Armistice Day didn’t mean peace.

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.

So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.

Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.

So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.

Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria – quick to sue for peace and destined for a turbulent, 25-year reign.

On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.

Takes a bit of study, but this pretty much nails what was happening on the Western Front.

If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.

The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.

Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.

Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.

The more self-important British newspapers in 1918 didn’t really do headlines. Americans did.

Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.

In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.

Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.

Once a place is conquered, you march through it in triumph, so that’s what the British did in Damascus on 2 October, 1918.

The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.

Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia.  The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania.  Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply.  Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action.  Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days.  A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.

7 SEPTEMBER, 1918: Talk Is Cheap… Or Not.

It has been said, often and on the whole wisely, that Allied insistence on making Germany pay for the First World War in cash, goods and assets was one of the worst of many world-historically bad things to come out of the peace process that followed the conflict. The payments were known as ‘reparations’. They were based on calculations made without consulting Germany, they were enormous, they proved impossible to collect in full (or anything like it), and they wreaked enough economic damage on a global scale to ensure that nobody, not even the payees, really benefitted from their imposition.

Of course, the German economy suffered the most immediate, comprehensive and dangerous damage from post-War reparations, which combined with political chaos to generate epic levels of hyperinflation in the country.  Post-War German commentators (along with academic voices elsewhere) regarded reparations as a spiteful, essentially criminal act of revenge by the Allies, in particular by the prime movers behind the punishment, the French, and that view has passed into modern historical orthodoxy.

Fair enough, up to a point.  Reparations were spiteful, stupid, counterproductive and dangerous, not to mention grossly unfair and imposed on Germany as the only major empire among the Central Powers still around to take punishment.  On the other hand the heritage history of the twentieth century – born into world-war propaganda but these days committed to a polar opposite picture of the War as a pointless exercise in elite machismo, won by stupid people – has a tendency to suggest that the folly of reparations was responsible, or at least bore prime responsibility, for Germany’s subsequent lurch into National Socialism.

The implication that Germany was essentially a victim of Allied imperial greed would have pleased Ludendorff and other contemporary apologists for the appalling regime that actually deserves most of the blame, but any examination of German history during the previous fifty years exposes it as nonsense.  I’ll leave you to confirm that.

The heritage view also allows the otherwise uninformed to assume that Allied imposition of reparations was a new idea, conjured up out of the collective need for a scapegoat at the end of a recognisably disastrous war, and that their scale was a gargantuan expression of the vitriolic looting carried out by victorious soldiers throughout recorded history.  There was indeed a strong element of angry revenge in the air at Versailles, at least among the European victors, and it did influence proceedings by shouting down voices for moderation, but it wasn’t the inspiration for reparations.  There was nothing new or unexpected about the presentation of a reparations bill to the losers of the First World War, and Germany had already made sure there was nothing unprecedented about its scale.

Before coming to power in Russia, the Bolsheviks had campaigned for immediate peace ‘without annexations or indemnities’, and that remained the position of Lenin’s government at the start of 1918. The phrase reflected contemporary geopolitical thinking about wars in general and the Great War in particular, in that they were fought for both territory and the extraction of resources.  Losers were expected to sacrifice anything perceived as an economic advantage, and frequent statements of war aims by both sides since 1914 had emphasised the War’s rising cost in money, goods, industrial plant, merchant shipping and anything else that could be claimed as expenses.  The new Bolshevik state got its peace in March 1918, when it finally signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Central Powers, but was never going to get away without annexations and indemnities (3 March, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace).

Most of the annexations attached to Brest-Litovsk came disguised as regional independence movements (leaving aside the Ottoman Empire’s technical annexation of Russian territories in the Caucasus that were part of an ongoing civil war), but the indemnities were straight-up, open demands for reparations on a scale that set an example for the peacemakers at Versailles.

Negotiations about Russian reparations payments went on long after the signature of the treaty, but in August 1918 the Bolshevik government finally accepted an agreement to pay cash, gold and goods worth six billion German marks.  That converted to around £214 million in 1918, but to put the figure into some kind of context there were only 13 billion marks in circulation just before the War, and only about 60 billion in circulation when it ended.  We’re talking about an era when cash really counted, and at a particular moment in history when international banking transactions were only possible between established allies, so payment of the first Russian instalment on 7 September 1918, a century ago today, involved carting some 350 million marks’ worth of banknotes and gold to the frontier and handing them over.

And here it is… cash and gold from Russia arriving in Berlin.

Germany never received another payment from Bolshevik Russia, and the Bolsheviks never got their money back because they were neither invited to nor recognised the post-War peace agreement, but the fact remained that Germany had intended to bleed Russia of everything it could grab in the aftermath of victory on the Eastern Front.  The German regime had turned the threat of reparations, voiced since the beginning of the War, into a reality.  Motivated by greed, laced with desperation as the Hindenburg Programme sent the German economy hurtling to oblivion, rather than by revenge, the imposition of indemnities at Brest-Litovsk set the bar for everything that followed, and provided all the example the Allies needed to produce their own demands in 1919.

After last week’s epic ramble through the backwoods of espionage, a succinct opinion piece seemed appropriate, but much as I’d like to sneak away inside a thousand words, I feel compelled to add a brief note about the festival of triumphalism filling the pages of the British press in September 1918.  Having spent the last four years finding ways to get triumphant about military defeats, bloody stalemates and minor tactical victories on the Western Front, British newspapers were almost forced to exaggerate the extent to which the tide had turned during the previous few weeks.

German battlefront morale was ‘crumbling’, the German leadership was issuing cries of despair and the advances of Allied armies in France, admittedly much faster and more significant than anything they had managed before, were described as ‘pursuits’ of fleeing enemies.  Occasional mentions of stiff resistance by German units here and there, or of the fact that Allied forces had yet to reach, let alone overcome, the Hindenburg Line’s massed, carefully prepared defences, were rare scraps of journalism amid the festivities.

This didn’t exactly set British newspapers apart from their counterparts in other countries.  Their relentless propaganda for what amounted to maintenance of the political status quo was mirrored in Germany and the USA, the former thanks to censorship, the latter reflecting the survival of revolutionary idealism in US civic thinking.  French and Italian newspapers were far more inclined to promote radical political change, and more directly aggressive in their criticisms of home governments, but could match or exceed anything the British could print by way of sensationalism.  What did distinguish the British press at this late stage of its long, loud War was its unintended effect on long-term public perception.  By acting as if the German Army on the Western Front was all but beaten, press coverage encouraged expectations of an imminent end to the War, expectations that quickly morphed into familiar questions about why the end was taking so long to arrive.

OK, so I could only find a Canadian picture to steal, but it’s British imperial and it makes my point.

It would have been difficult for the British fourth estate to adopt a more measured approach to the excitement of 1918.  National interest had demanded press hyperbole for the preceding four years, and the country’s most powerful press barons, having just about reined in their political ambitions over the same period, were in no mood to stop shouting.  Had they been, the final battles on the Western Front might have been a time of popular redemption for a British military leadership that had shouldered much of the blame for the War’s length and cost.  Instead the great Allied victories of the autumn became yet another reason for damning British generals as donkeys.

An illustrative case study isn’t hard to find.  French c-in-c Ferdinand Foch was a genuine national hero in the post-War era, and AEF commander Pershing remained a hugely respected and popular figure for the rest of his days in the US.  They fought the same victorious battles as BEF c-in-c Haig, who received the military victor’s usual honours, money and gratitude from official sources, but was regarded with contempt by much of the British public during the immediate post-War years, and has been treated with (at best) disdain by popular history ever since.

You want a message?  Independent mass communication is a wonderful expression of human culture’s ambition to create a workable society on a grand scale but – like those other great expressions of same, democracy and nuclear power – constitutes a force we can deploy and target, but neither control nor predict. Message ends.

30 JULY, 1918: The Butterfly Bomb

The great trading or migration routes of the ancient ‘civilised’ world, that’s Europe and Asia to you and me, developed certain characteristics that inform their modern incarnations.  They were corridors.  Great wealth passed through them and so did a wide variety of races, elements of which tended to settle en route as fortune and ambition dictated, leaving the corridors quilted with different and sometimes incompatible cultures, each seeking to flourish on its own terms.  They were also great prizes, attracting conquest by powerful outside forces seeking control over riches and rival traders.  All these elements added up to a recipe for political instability.

These were lands blighted by tribal conflicts over shared territories, conflicts between emerging regional states, wars against potential or actual conquerors, and wars (or proxy wars) fought between those conquerors.  They were a mess, and many of them still are.

The Middle East and the Balkans are the most obvious through routes that still boil with modern versions of the old tensions, but they are by no means the only examples.  The Baltic States have been a corridor of power-mongering since Roman times and they fear for their future stability with an eye on their past history, while the land corridors linking Europe to the plunder of southern Asia, notably modern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, have never known lasting peace.  The elephant in the room here, seldom mentioned in the same category as the other deadly corridors of human traffic, is the vast strip of land between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, the longest and most open frontier between Europe and the cultures to its east.

We call it Eastern Europe – for all that it contains elements of Slav and other cultures – and because it includes peoples familiar to our geopolitical history as Europeans, analysts in the West have tended to view the region component by component.  Standard Western histories are inclined to treat Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the overlapping problems of Lithuania and its neighbours, the Ukraine and, up to a point, Georgia as essentially separate stories, and they each make for a wild and gripping tale.  We don’t tend to notice, or at least to discuss, that the whole of Eastern Europe has been one gigantic corridor of instability throughout recorded history.

One reason for that has been a lack of anyone willing to tell the coherent story of Eastern Europe as a whole.  More than a millennium of attempts to push European culture eastwards, whether by Teutonic knights or Panzer generals, and several hundred years of Europeanised Russian culture trying push itself westwards, have bequeathed us a history of spheres of interest, of geographical subdivisions invented to accommodate external ambition.  In all that time, the region has only twice been under the effective control of a single source of analysis.

Eastern Europe was certainly homogenised during the seventy or so years of the USSR, but Soviet historical analysis had very little to do with history and could only describe the region as an expanding frontier of world revolution.  The other power to gain complete control over the expanded corridor of Eastern Europe was the German Empire in 1918.  The German experience was brief, spectacularly chaotic and spawned its own swathes of ridiculous propaganda – but it did at least generate some relatively honest attempts to analyse the overall nature of the beast.

Between March 1918, when Lenin signed away Russia’s imperial pretensions at Brest-Litovsk, and the Armistice in November, the German regime took and held control over all of Eastern Europe. Whether its control was formal or merely practical, Berlin took its new empire very seriously, dedicating more than a million troops to its policing and sending in armies of bureaucrats or technocrats to manage regional politics and organise economic exploitation on a massive scale.

Serious commitment to empire-building: German troops in Kiev, 1918.

As Germany’s prospects against the Western Allies and the USA began to look increasingly bleak, the dictatorship led by Ludendorff and, in theory, Hindenburg focused state propaganda on its successes in the east, so that by the time German plans on the Western Front had come off the rails, in the summer of 1918, the condition of Eastern Europe was a matter of constant and high-profile national debate.

Those German observers enduring first-hand experience of life in the new empire, analysts from top to bottom of the government and army, the German press and that section of public opinion not yet alienated into irrevocable hostility to the regime were all in basic agreement:  Eastern Europe was a savage wilderness to match the Balkans, filled with feral peoples in need of discipline and organisation.  The real debate concerned what could be done to stabilise the region, and whether its contagion of revolutionary ‘Russian conditions’ posed a threat to German society.

On 30 July 1918 the German military commander (and effective dictator) of the Ukraine and Crimea, Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn, was killed by a bomb thrown from a car in Kiev.  Coming just as news of the Tsar’s death was sending shivers of fear through Germany’s anti-Bolshevik majority, and not long after Bolsheviks had murdered the German ambassador Russia, Count Mirbach, the assassination propelled German debate about Eastern Europe to a new peak of intensity.

Eichhorn had been supervising the process of bleeding the Ukraine white to feed the Fatherland’s needs, while his troops were busy propping up a puppet Ukrainian regime against threats from revolutionary Bolsheviks, counter-revolutionary nationalists and everyone in between – but he wasn’t an especially deserving case for assassination.  There is no evidence that German occupation of the Ukraine was much more or less unpopular than its equally ruthless equivalents in other parts of Eastern Europe, and Eichhorn was by all accounts a cultured and generous-spirited soldier. Eichhorn was also, and remained, the most senior German officer to be killed during the First World War, and that added to the shock felt in Germany when it became clear that his murder had more to do with revolution than occupation.

The killer was one Boris Donskoy, a Russian member of the Left Socialist Revolutionary party, one of several radical factions overtaken by the Bolsheviks in the race to power as the Kerenski regime collapsed.  The Left SRs had been allied with the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution.  They had filled a number of senior government posts until opposition to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty prompted their resignation in March 1918, and had continued to support the Bolsheviks until earlier in July, when they had been expelled from the Fifth Congress of the Soviets.

News of the split was communicated swiftly across Eastern Europe to any place former Russian Army soldiers were active in fostering revolution, and the assassination seems to have been Donskoy’s way of trumpeting the doctrinal superiority of the Left SRs.  Its ultimate aim was to dissuade regional Bolsheviks from their temporary cooperation with German occupying forces against Ukrainian nationalists with counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Eichhorn’s death was headline news in Germany…

The sad futility of Donskoy’s gesture, which made absolutely no difference to the seething chaos of Ukrainian politics, was not lost on the German press, which turned fear and loathing of Bolshevism up to eleven, raising the spectre of imminent revolution across Europe and spreading alarmist rumours about the enormous number of Russian prisoners – 1.25 million of them – resident in Germany.

… and so was his funeral

The irony of this approach was that it helped cement the popular and official view that all of Eastern Europe was awash with a contagion that, unless suppressed, would sweep through Germany. At time when the German war effort was on the point of atrophy, that belief added urgency to the right’s need to destroy the left, or at least blame it for defeat, and added energy to the rising revolutionary tide uncorked by the failure.  Donskoy’s gesture may have done nothing to help his own cause, but it was one of the straws that broke the back of the German Empire and readied it for civil war.

This somewhat airy post does, believe it or not, have a small point to make.  There is a price for interference in, or attempts to control the world’s corridors of power-mongering, because cross-cultural influence is a two-way street and a region’s inherent instability can damage its would-be controllers.  Eastern Europe as a whole was one such corridor in 1918, when the military-industrial dictatorship running Germany paid the price in a hurry, and there’s no real doubt in anybody’s mind that it still is.  So while the world’s big hitters are locking horns, yet again, over the futures of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Georgia, we should maybe brace for impact.

24 JANUARY, 1918: All We Are Saying…

Fighting on the wartime Western and Italian Fronts never really stopped, and British imperial forces were keeping reasonably busy with minor operations against Ottoman garrisons in the Middle East, but broadly speaking the First World War’s guns were pretty quiet during January 1918.  As was the way during such interludes, preparations for future campaigns were in progress, but the absence of potentially world-changing military action also gave war-weary civilian populations a moment to consider their futures. This was particularly true for millions of socialists who had been on the cusp of significant political progress all over Europe before the War’s injection of nationalist fervour stifled their ambitions, and particularly incendiary in those belligerent empires under the most acute economic and social stress.

Though Ottoman Turkey was under acute stress, it was barely industrialised and had no socialist tradition to speak of, so its largely rural population remained disorganised, incapable of coherent protest while it suffered and starved.  Not so the politically sophisticated workers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian heartlands, who reacted to the bleak midwinter of early 1918 with an eruption of mass discontent that dwarfed any previous protest in either state.  It began in Austria-Hungary, and a hundred years ago today the winter’s first wave of mass strikes in Vienna was halted on the brink of all-out revolution.

Vienna was no stranger to wartime civil discontent. Food shortages had been a critical problem in the city since the brutal winter of 1916–17, when strikes had swept Vienna and spread south to the industrialised parts of Upper Styria.  News of the February Revolution in Russia sparked a further wave of unrest in the capital, culminating in a strike of more than 40,000 metal workers in May 1917.  They soon went back to work, but only after relatively moderate Social Democrat politicians had won important concessions from the government, including the relaxation of censorship, decriminalisation of public meetings and the recall of the Austrian parliament (Reichsrat), which had been dissolved in 1914.

Russia’s October Revolution had a similarly slow-burning but even more profound impact on workers in distant countries.  The subsequent return of PoWs to Austria-Hungary from the Eastern Front raised the number and intensity of socialist agitators within the empire, and the Bolshevik commitment to immediate peace raised hopes of an end to the conflict.  Meanwhile news of US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a putative blueprint for peace based on liberal values and the principle of ethnic self-determination, encouraged popular expectations of fair post-War treatment from the Allies.

Hard times in Vienna, 1918, as painted by Josef Engelhart.

Anger at delays to the peace process at Brest-Litovsk, popularly blamed on the Central Powers’ demands for territorial annexations, was already fuelling calls for strike action when desperate urban food shortages forced the government to halve the bread and flour rations, on 14 January.  The dangerous brew of war-weariness, hope and frustration ignited into furious protest.   Workers at the Daimler factory in the industrial town of Wiener Neustadt, just south of Vienna, immediately struck for peace (rather than improved pay or conditions), and by 20 January some three-quarters of a million workers around the empire had joined them, amid a wave of peace protests and food riots.  Strikes hit the empire’s armaments, railway and metal industries, along with printing, retail and dozens of other domestic trades, and a few days later engulfed the industrially developed Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, once nationalist leaders had made it clear that Czech workers were acting independently from their Austrian counterparts.

For several days, as strikers organised themselves into workers’ councils (or soviets), the situation lurched out of control and revolution appeared imminent – but, as in May 1917, the Social Democrats played the role of intermediaries.  The largest party in the Reichsrat, and openly committed to ending the War since 1916, they were able to take control of the politically inexperienced soviets and negotiate with the (well-meaning but deeply reactionary) government of Emperor Karl to win further concessions, including the introduction of a minimum wage.  These were enough to convince a majority of workers’ groups to halt their action.  Strikers in Vienna began returning to their jobs on 21 January, and most strikes were officially called off three days later.

If revolution had been staved off for the moment, Austria-Hungary was hardly calm.  New strikes, demanding peace and an end to imperialist greed at Brest-Litovsk, broke out all over Austria, Bohemia and Moravia during the next ten days, and the government was forced to break up street protests using troops.  Though the Army gradually restored a fragile semblance of order during the first week of February – at least in Vienna – it had become dangerously unreliable as an instrument of state policy.   Troops from the empire’s non-German provinces frequently joined protesters, a pacifist mutiny broke out at the garrison town of Judenburg, which was also a major steel production centre, and the Navy put down a brief mutiny at the Adriatic naval base of Cattaro (now Kotor in Montenegro).

Vienna calmed down a little during the spring, but Austria-Hungary as whole remained in a volatile and precarious condition, wracked by civilian shortages, on the edge of disintegration into its ethnic components and crumbling from the ground up under revolutionary socialist pressure.  The next crisis would be along in the early summer, by which time the end of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire was near.

Bad moon rising… national groupings in the pre-War Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When Vienna erupted in mid-January, the German Third Supreme Command had been considering annexation of its principal ally (an issue since the 1870s, when the rest of German-speaking central Europe united as one nation under Prussia), but by the end of the month Germany was facing its own socio-political crisis.

Food shortages no less acute than those in Austria-Hungary, the same angst around the Brest-Litovsk/Fourteen Points equation, and an opportunist desire to exploit the revolutionary atmosphere coming out of Vienna prompted a call to strike by Berlin union organisers.  It began on 28 January, and by the end of the day half a million workers had downed tools.  Revolutionary German socialists (of whom more another day) organised a central Action Committee that drew up a list of demands inspired by Bolshevik peace proposals at Brest-Litovsk – but while the government sent troops to break up factory meetings, and the far left demanded revolution on the spot, the protest was being hijacked by the moderate reformists of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the smaller but more streetwise Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP).

Invited to join the Action Committee by the far left – by celebrity revolutionary theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg, to be precise – the SDP found allies in union organisers shocked by the scale of revolutionary activity they had unleashed.  Violent clashes between strikers and scab workers on 30 January cemented moderate left-wing determination to end the strike, and while the SDP orchestrated calls for negotiation, it’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, announced his support for further military intervention by the state. Thus encouraged, the government began arresting radical strike leaders on 31 January, and threatened to impose martial law in Berlin if the strikes were not called off by 4 February.

Berlin, 28 January 1918: strikers outside the trade union building… and an announcement in the 2 February issue of the SDP newspaper, ‘Vorwaerts’, that martial law was coming.

Union leaders in Berlin obliged with a day to spare, but unrest had meanwhile spread across the military/industrial heartlands of northern Germany, affecting (among other towns and cities) Kiel, Dusseldorf, Nuremburg, Augsburg, Hamburg and Cologne.  The military moved in hard and fast.  Mass arrests, the execution of 150 ringleaders, and the conscription some 50,000 strikers for service with occupation forces in Eastern Europe had brought organised strike action to an end by about 11 February.

Watched keenly by Allied and neutral observers at the time, the Austro-Hungarian and German strikes of early 1918 barely register with the modern commemorative industries.   Even big-picture historians generally give them no more than a passing mention as a preamble to the full-scale revolutions that followed military defeat. That may have been their status in Austria-Hungary, but the German strikes were in themselves an important turning point.

Radical elements behind the mass spread of industrial unrest in late January clearly failed to achieve their stated aim of immediate peace without annexations or indemnities, and failure sharpened the angry frustration of pacifists and revolutionaries in Germany – but the strikes did provide a shock to the ruling Third Supreme Command, and it reacted in typical fashion by doubling down.  Having gambled against the odds in search of military success by pinning everything on submarine warfare, and in search of economic salvation by attempting to run an empire in Eastern Europe, Ludendorff and his ultra-conservative cabal faced the rising tide of revolution the only way they had ever known how, with another desperate roll of the dice.

More than ever convinced that a crushing victory over the Allies, and only that, would frighten the unruly German population into long-term obedience, Germany’s leaders intensified pressure for annexations at Brest-Litovsk, clamped down ruthlessly on  popular dissent and pressed ahead with plans for a major spring offensive on the Western Front.  In other words they lit the blue touch paper, at home and abroad, and hoped for the best, a climactic moment of madness that seems well worth remembering.  My other, rather flimsy excuse for featuring the January strikes is their reminder of the enormous differences, in aims and methods, between social democrats and socialist revolutionaries in 1918, a distinction that remains relevant today, particularly but by no means only in the UK.

22 DECEMBER, 1917: Loose Talks

Brest-Litovsk is now Brest, a regional capital of some 340,000 people in Belarus, close to the border with Poland.  For much of the last three centuries this has not been a peaceful part of the world, one of those unhappy regions stuck between the ambitions of competing empires that I mentioned a couple of weeks back (6 December, 1917: The Lucky Country?).  During the First World War, the town stood in the path of three imperial armies on the Eastern Front, and was reduced to a burned, battered wreck by the Russian Army as part of its ‘Great Retreat’ in 1915. By late 1917, when the front line had shifted some 150km to the east, what remained of Brest-Litovsk was serving as the German Army’s regional headquarters, and on 22 December 1917 it played host to the first formal peace talks between Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria on one side, and Bolshevik Russia on the other.

When posterity ponders peace treaties and the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles loom large. Fair enough, because nobody should try and wrap their head around modern geopolitical history without appreciating the mess made at Paris and the principles behind it – but you can’t do that without context, and you can’t really put Versailles into context without some understanding of the various wartime treaties that preceded it. By blotting out the sun when it comes to looking at other treaties, the heritage industry’s obsession with the tournament-style pomp of Paris actually makes understanding it more difficult – and of all those other treaties Brest-Litovsk was the big one.

Brest-Litovsk, as left behind by the Russians in 1915.

I’m not giving away any secrets (or I shouldn’t be) by saying that the negotiations begun on 22 December produced a treaty of enormous significance, in terms of both immediate impact and historical reach. It triggered a breathtakingly ambitious (if not bonkers) German attempt to establish an instant eastern empire, and was a pivotal step in the painful birth process of the Soviet Union – but it wasn’t destined to be signed for another three months, so for now I want to talk about the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.

A combination of hindsight and a worm’s eye view makes it very easy for us to invest history’s chaos with coherence, and to assume that great historical events, in particular great staged events, came with the kind of trappings and organisation we associate with a modern summit meeting or World Cup. This tendency can turn blind blunders into plans of action and make stumblebums look like statesmen, or it can make the results look stupid because the circumstances look sensible.

For example, punitive Allied attitudes towards Germany during the postwar peace process are much discussed and deplored as fundamental to the ruin that followed. They can’t really be explained if, like much of the heritage industry, you ignore the agreements signed at Brest-Litovsk, which can’t be understood without an appreciation of the improvised, occasionally farcical process by which they were reached.  So let’s have a look.

Pretty much the moment it took power in Petrograd, the new Bolshevik regime in Russia had declared peace. The government in fact declared peace between all the warring nations, on the grounds (not seen as altogether fanciful by many reputable foreign observers) that Western European war efforts were anyway about to be overwhelmed by socialist revolution. Given that ‘bread and peace’ had been the Bolshevik call to revolution in Russia, it was necessary to deliver peace in advance of world revolution, and so three Russian emissaries had crossed German lines under white flags on 26 November 1917, empowered to discuss the terms of an armistice between Russia and the Central Powers. A general ceasefire was agreed with the Germans on 4 December, signed at Brest-Litovsk by representatives of all the Central Powers on 5 December, and came into official force next day.

Talks towards a full armistice then began, also at Brest-Litovsk, at which point things got a little slapstick. On the Russian side the recently appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, sent a 28-strong delegation that expressed Bolshevik disdain for old world diplomacy. Led by an old revolutionary ally, Adolf Joffe, aided by a couple of veteran revolutionaries in Lev Kamenev and Lev Karakhan, it included soldiers, sailors and factory workers as representatives of the revolution’s core support, along with a female representative (Anastasia Bizenko, notorious as the assassin of an imperial official). Legend claims the delegation completed the set by picking up a passing peasant en route for the railway station.

Lev Kamenev arriving at Brest-Litovsk for the armistice talks.

The Russians arrived at Brest-Litovsk to face old world diplomacy in full effect, as organised by General Max Hoffmann. Hoffmann was an interesting figure, a staff officer who had taken much of the credit for the campaigns that had made the names of Hindenburg and Ludendorff during 1914 and 1915, and who had been theatre chief of staff since Prince Leopold, the King of Bavaria’s younger brother, had taken command of the Eastern Front in August 1916. A born fixer, energetic, imaginative and equipped with the kind of vaunting ambition appreciated by his former chiefs at the Third Supreme Command, Hoffmann effectively controlled subsequent German strategy in the east. He organised the return of revolutionary leaders (like Lenin) to Russia, and suspended offensive operations after the attack on Riga in September 1917 to avoid the risk of igniting Russian patriotism at a revolutionary moment. Perhaps with one eye on a wider world scared of Bolsheviks, he now assembled a negotiating team of old school, elite diplomats.

Max Hoffmann… almost as scary as he looks.

Five Germans, four Austro-Hungarian representatives, three Ottoman and two Bulgarian treated the Russians – housed in wooden huts within the, largely intact, Brest-Litovsk fortress – to the wining, dining and conversation in French that came with the territory, and by all accounts the days that followed were an exercise in mutual bewilderment and contempt. Bad vibes made little or no immediate difference to the process. The Russians had no bargaining chips remotely comparable to the German Army, while the Central Powers, especially Germany, were in a hurry to get on with formal peace negotiations and associated annexations, so a 28-day armistice was arranged in three days.

A delay followed because Joffe had been instructed to sign an armistice for every battlefront, including those contested exclusively by Russia’s allies, and had to go home for new orders. Demanding world peace may seem as ridiculous to modern eyes as it did to many contemporary observers, but it followed from the genuine conviction among Bolsheviks that the workers of other countries were about to seize power. The same belief made any delay to the negotiating process a good thing from Petrograd’s point of view, because it bought time for world revolution to gestate. The Russian delegation eventually returned to Brest-Litovsk a week later, and a 30-day armistice was signed on 15 December.

The Central Powers brought their big diplomatic guns to Brest-Litovsk for the actual peace negotiations, including German foreign minister von Kühlmann and his Austrian counterpart Count Czernin. The Russian delegation was strengthened by the addition of a professional historian and, as military advisor, a former Tsarist general, but was stripped of its symbolic revolutionary representatives (although Anastasia Bizenko kept her place at the table). The banquets seem to have passed off rather more convivially as a result, and in more languages, but the negotiations themselves collapsed into almost instant confusion.

Joffe began proceedings by presenting Bolshevik peace demands, which amounted to the established slogan of peace ‘without indemnities or annexations’, and the German delegates agreed to this in principle, provided it was also accepted by all the other belligerent nations. Joffe was delighted at what the Bolsheviks thought was an agreement not to carve up the old Russian Empire, but had to reverse his optimistic reports home when, a day later, Germany’s position was explained in more careful detail. In accordance with the principle of national self-determination, as espoused by the Bolsheviks, territories under German occupation would be granted their independence… and then treated as German puppet states.

Protest as they might, and did, the Russian delegation had no way of preventing the Germans from doing whatever they liked, whenever they liked, because the one force on any Russian front that was still an effective instrument of state policy, the German Army, had remained in potentially offensive positions for the duration of the armistice. The only tactic left to the new Russian regime was to delay agreement for as long as possible, and hope revolution reached Western Europe before a treaty reached the statute books. Under strict instructions from Trotsky – who would later lead Russian negotiations in person – Joffe and his team responded to the certainty of a punitive settlement by doing just that.

And so it went; an elaborate dance between two mutually hostile worldviews seeking peace but refusing compromise. The German Empire and its virtually powerless allies were desperate to get their hands on the resources of Eastern Europe before the wider war was lost, but stepped lightly to exploit a rare shot at looking like the good guys, or at least more acceptable than the Bolsheviks, to their prospective new subjects. The Russians, equally determined to incorporate those same resources into their new world order, stepped nimbly because every day wasted at the negotiating table brought the downfall of their former enemies a little closer. When the music finally stopped, in March 1918, the two sides would be left with a treaty that lasted no more than a few months but changed the world forever – and is another story.

24 OCTOBER, 1917: This Plan Sucks

When the First World War got started everybody knew it couldn’t last long, because the social and economic effort required to fight a war with the massed armies simply couldn’t be sustained for more than a few weeks, even by the world’s richest and powerful empires. The only person of any military or political significance to doubt this blindingly obvious truth in the late summer of 1914 was British war minister Lord Kitchener, who insisted the war would last for years and cost millions of lives but never explained his views.  Given that Kitchener generally gave off an air of enigmatic mysticism, the more normal movers and shakers felt he could be safely ignored.

We know now that the normal people got it wrong.  Military stalemate spurred every nation at war, and in particular the great empires at the conflict’s heart, to previously unimagined levels of industrialisation and organisation that extended their military lifespan beyond anything thought possible in 1914.  The stresses created by their extraordinary responses to the demands of total war eventually helped destroy the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and German empires, permanently diminished the British and French, and wrecked Italy’s self-conscious attempt to join the ranks of what were, until 1914, known as the ‘great powers’.

The strategists guiding them were well aware that the War’s big European players were running their systems too hot, and the repeated failure of military efforts to conjure any kind of decisive victory during 1915 reduced them to the desperate resort of attrition.  Effectively a gamble that the enemy’s war effort would crumble first, war of attrition depended on the efforts of Europe’s two strongest and most industrial economies, Germany and Britain.

Although France was just about capable of surviving the hothouse into 1917, the bloodletting at Verdun had confirmed its inability to win a war of attrition against Germany on its own, while neither Russia nor Italy possessed the economic infrastructure to fight one with more than simple manpower.  All three relied on military and economic aid from Britain’s (once bottomless) well of money and goods, and on Britain to make attrition work.

By late 1916 Berlin’s principal allies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, were only able to fight at all because Germany’s astonishing economy was continuing to provide large-scale military and industrial support.  The Third Supreme Command had come to power well aware that a strategy of attrition depended entirely on Germany, and convinced it was doomed to failure.  From the moment the it chose to provoke US involvement by launching an all-out U-boat offensive, attrition was no longer an option for Germany, but it looked like a guaranteed winner for the Allies, albeit in the medium-to-long term and far too late save the Russian Empire, once the US had entered the War in April 1917.

During the summer of 1917 it became clear to both sides that submarines were not going to knock Britain out of the fight anytime soon.  While the British could choose to keep piling into the Western Front, this time around Ypres, in the knowledge that even if Haig’s big offensive failed attrition was on their side, Germany was now in desperate need of a new game-changer.  Ultimately, only a sweeping victory in France would do the trick, but the only hopes of that lay in distraction at least some Allied strength from the Western Front as a preamble to concentrating all German and Austro-Hungarian strength in the theatre.

The most likely theatre to attract large-scale military aid from Britain and France was the Italian Front.  Italy had been promised substantial Allied reinforcement in the event of a crisis, and after more than two years of almost continuous warfare – most of it unsuccessful, all of it attritional – the Italian war effort appeared volatile and fragile enough to collapse in the face of a major military setback.  Unfortunately from Germany’s point of view the Italian Army’s immediate opponent, the Austro-Hungarian Army, was in grave anger of collapse in its own right, in no condition to mount an offensive and only notionally in a position to plan one.

The Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Baron Arz von Straussenberg, had replaced the appalling Conrad the previous March, but had little actual influence over the course of the War.  He functioned as a personal advisor to the earnest, reformist young Kaiser Karl, taking instructions rather than formulating policy, and had little say in the dispositions of Austro-Hungarian armies controlled from Berlin through German military advisors.  He kept himself strategically occupied wit proposals to Berlin for joint operations in Italy, and had no more success than his predecessor until mid-September.  Aware that Austrian positions on the Isonzo had barely survived Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s eleventh offensive in the sector – which was only just slowing to a halt – the Third Supreme Command finally said yes, and committed German forces to an attack on the Italian Front.

The attack was launched a century ago today, and is known as either the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or the Caporetto Offensive.  Like so many efficiently conceived and executed German offensive operations in a war defined by victory’s mirage, this one began with a flourish and promised the Earth but couldn’t quite deliver.

The Austrians had proposed a repeat of their 1916 near miss in the Trentino valley, but were overruled by German planners, who prepared a limited offensive intended to buy the Austro-Hungarian Army a breathing space for reconstruction.  Nine Austrian divisions were reinforced by six German divisions drawn from General von Hutier’s highly successful army around Riga, to form the German Fourteenth Army.   Commanded by General Otto von Bülow – not the Karl von Bülow who messed up the invasion of France in 1914 –it concentrated against a lightly defended 25km stretch of the Italian line north of Gorizia, in front of the town of Caporetto (now Kobarid in Slovenia) .

This one needs a map. Here’s a map.

Well informed of German movements by spies and deserters, Cadorna and the Italian high command reacted to the long-feared news that the Germans were finally coming to the theatre by suspending all offensive operations on the Isonzo – but no attempt was made to take up superior defensive positions in preparation for an attack.  Italian armies merely stopped where they were and adopted a generally defensive posture.

While history has never doubted that this was a mistake, explaining it has been harder.  Cadorna probably underestimated German strength and overestimated the fighting capability of his exhausted troops.  He also seems to have assumed that Italian numerical superiority over the whole front (41 divisions against 35) provided sufficient protection against attack, and ignored the fact that enemy concentration had left Italian forces heavily outnumbered in the Caporetto area.  Defensive preparations weren’t helped when the commander of the Caporetto sector, an inveterate maverick by the name of General Luigi Capello, ignored orders to withdraw his artillery to safe positions across the river and instead deployed his best units for an attack on Bülow’s east flank.

General Cadorna had a good view of the situation – but didn’t see it.

If the Italians were ill-prepared to meet attack, they certainly weren’t ready for General Hutier’s new ‘infiltration tactics’ (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  The main German advance in the centre of the position took Italian defenders by surprise on the morning of 24 October, broke through the lines almost immediately and had stormed forward some 25km by the end of day.  Secondary attacks on either flank were held off by defenders, as was an Austro-Hungarian attempt to push south from positions near the coast, but the collapse at the centre threatened to leave the majority of Capello’s army cut off at the River Tagliamento.

Capello wanted to retreat at the end of the first day, but Cadorna ordered counterattacks in the centre.  They lasted for another six days, and although they failed to block the central gap they did give most Italian troops time to get back across the Tagliamento. German attempts to take a bridgehead beyond the river began on 2 November, prompting Cadorna to order a further retreat to the fast-flowing River Piave, less than 30km north of Venice.

The Italian retreat from Caporetto, not quite headlong but very miserable…

By the time the retreat was complete, on 10 November, the shock of defeat had reverberated around Western Europe.  The somewhat inert liberal government of Paolo Boselli, in power in Italy since June 1916 and already under pressure as the economy lurched into crisis, was voted out of office on 25 October.  New premier Vittorio Orlando, the former interior minister, wasted no time appealing to Britain and France for emergency help, meeting British PM Lloyd George and French premier Painlevé at the north-west Italian port of Rapallo on 5 November.

In line with contingency plans laid out during the spring, Italy’s allies agreed to reverse the recall of heavy artillery lent from the Western Front for Cadorna’s last Italian offensive, and to provide substantial ground and air reinforcements to help stabilise the Italian line at the Piave.  Rapallo also saw the dismissal of Cadorna – on 7 November, at the insistence of the Allies – and creation of the Supreme War Council, originally comprising (as its military representatives) new Italian c-in-c General Diaz, French General Foch and British General Wilson.  Established as a means of curtailing the independence of Italian field commanders, and as such a classic case of shutting the stable door, the Council would eventually mature into a fully unified Allied military command, led by Foch.

Six French and five British divisions from the Western Front reached the Italian front line in early December, but by then the Austro-German offensive had run out of steam.  An attack by two Austrian armies in the Trentino area had opened on 12 November, but was short on reserves and made little progress.  Further east, attacks between the upper Piave and the River Brenta resumed on 13 November, but were held off during five days of heavy fighting.  The battle dragged on into late December, with attacks steadily diminishing in scale, before bad weather and the withdrawal of German units from the theatre halted major operations for the winter.

Although the German high command had orchestrated a stunning victory, it had lacked the resources to complete the job, and had exhausted the last offensive gasp of an enfeebled Austro-Hungarian Army, which would never again mount a successful offensive.  In strategic terms, the transfer of Allied troops from France could be called a minor German success, but in the end it made much less difference to the balance of power on the Western Front than it did on the Italian.

The Italian Army lost 300,000 men at Caporetto, all but 30,000 of them as prisoners, as well as most of its artillery, but it survived and would be strengthened from now on by Allied involvement in the theatre, which brought both a continuous stream of reinforcements and a major reorganisation programme.  What’s more the threat of invasion silenced the rising crescendo of popular pacifism in Italy, as public opinion reacted as it had done at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Trentino Offensive in 1916, uniting behind the government and military in time of national crisis.  So the Third Supreme Command’s best-laid plans, intended to knock Italy out of the conflict, had instead breathed new life into a failing Italian war effort.

If there’s a point to this story it’s that even the most careful plans for war – about its size, its length or its strategic direction, not to mention its tactical details and aftermaths – are never much more than blind guesswork.  History, particularly heritage history, inevitably draws on the rationalisations of participants to give war a coherent narrative, to make its outcomes look planned, but war is always a time of chaos and none of the plans has ever worked.

9 OCTOBER, 1917: Home Truth

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 Prinzregent Luitpold, because we like a handsome old battleship.  Shame it functioned as little more than a floating prison for miserable matelots…

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.

Georg Michaelis – a leader every bit as as inspiring as he looked.

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.

Harder than the rest… classic First World War propaganda for Germans.

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.

14 JULY, 1917: Stuck In The Middle

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.

All pomp and bad circumstances… the Reichstag in July 1917.

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.

The emblem of the Fatherland Party, 1917-18.

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.

You are here…

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.

Russian war minister Kerensky addresses sailors in Revel (Tallinn). The port was a major Russian naval base and a hotbed of revolutionary activism.

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.

22 JANUARY, 1917: One Clanger, Two Bangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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