There were many wars within the War taking place in 1916, and during the night of 26–27 October a relatively minor naval engagement took place, known as the Battle of Dover Strait, that shone a light on one of them – the four-year struggle for control of the English Channel. To be more precise, this was Britain’s struggle to maintain the overwhelming dominance of its southern coastal waters that enabled it to protect the English shoreline, supply the Western Front and prevent passage of German warships, in particular submarines, to and from the Atlantic.
The Royal Navy had begun the job of blocking the Channel to enemy shipping on the outbreak of war in August 1914. It transferred a dozen fairly modern destroyers to reinforce the elderly destroyers normally stationed at Dover, and they formed the heart of what was known as the Dover Patrol. The Patrol remained in position throughout the War, its strength steadily mounting with the addition of old cruisers, monitors (floating gun platforms), minesweepers, aircraft, airships, torpedo boats, other motor boats and various armed yachts, but it began the War by laying substantial minefields across the Channel’s narrowest point, between Dover and the Belgian coast.
In February 1915, the minefields were augmented with ‘indicator nets’ – light steel nets dropped from small fishing boats (drifters), which remained on watch for anything that became entangled – and with Dover Patrol ships assigned as support the whole operation became known as the ‘Dover Barrage’.
Unlike its big brother in the Adriatic, the Otranto Barrage, the Dover version appeared to succeed at first, largely because it was almost immediately responsible for sinking the submarine U-8, which went down after getting tangled in the nets on 4 March. The German Navy reacted by restricting its submarines to the northern route round Britain for Atlantic operations, the British began building and installing bigger nets, and for the next year or so both British and German authorities were inclined ascribe any unexplained losses to the Barrage.
In fact the Barrage was far from impenetrable. British mines were hopelessly unreliable (and would stay that way until late 1917), even the bigger nets installed by October 1916 left large gaps, and insufficient support craft were deployed to monitor them. Its weakness eventually became clear to the German Navy, which reinstated the Channel route for small U-boats from Ostend and Zeebrugge in April 1916, and by the autumn submarines were passing through at will, usually travelling on the surface at night.
Submarines aside, the Dover Patrol’s various craft had been fighting a continuous ‘mosquito’ war against raids by torpedo boats from the German Flanders Flotilla, which made regular attempts to slip past the Barrage at night for attacks on Allied merchant and supply shipping. The Flanders Flotilla had been quiet throughout the summer of 1916, but in October it was reinforced with torpedo boats from the High Seas Fleet, and on the night of 26 October all 23 of its active boats attacked the Dover Barrage in five separate groups.
The British were expecting a night raid but had done little to prepare for it. The drifters watching the Barrage, each armed with precisely one rifle for defence purposes, were protected only by the elderly destroyer HMS Flirt, a naval trawler and an armed yacht. Taken completely by surprise when the German boats attacked in five groups, the British lost six drifters during the night, and three more were damaged, while the naval trawler suffered heavy damage, an empty transport vessel was sunk in passing, and the Flirt went to the bottom after its captain failed to recognise the Flotilla’s boats as enemy craft and blundered into their torpedoes.
Six of the modern, Tribal Class destroyers from Dover were called up to track down the raiders, but the first on the scene of the Flirt‘s sinking, HMS Nubian, also failed to recognise the German boats as enemies and was left dead in the water after a torpedo took off its bow. The rest of the British destroyer force caught up with some of the raiding groups, but came off worse, failing to sink any German boats while HMS Amazon and HMS Mohawk both suffered significant damage. By the time further Royal Navy reinforcements arrived from Dunkirk, the Flanders Flotilla had escaped for home.
At the end of a shambolic night for the Royal Navy the British had lost eight ships sunk, seven more damaged, 45 dead, four wounded and ten prisoners, while the German Navy suffered no casualties and only minor damage to a single torpedo boat.
Small craft in the English Channel were constantly engaged in this kind of skirmish, as they were in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Baltic, the Black Sea and every other tightly contested naval theatre, but the first Battle of Dover Strait (a smaller action would be named as the second in 1917) was both bigger and more strategically significant than most. Their undoubted victory encouraged German planners to dismiss the Dover Barrage as useless, so the Flanders Flotilla’s reinforcements were transferred back to the High Seas Fleet in November and large U-boats given permission to pass through the Channel in December, a decision that facilitated the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and as such helped draw the USA into the War.
The failure of October 1916, and the subsequent inability of the Barrage to stop big, commerce-raiding U-boats, also acted as a wake-up call for the British. In late 1917 the Barrage was moved onto a line between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez, and by the end of the year it had been equipped with new, more efficient mines. Minefields and numbers of support craft were steadily expanded, a new Barrage Committee established a system of night patrols using flares and searchlights, and by 1918 the Barrage was performing effectively enough to sink at least 12 U-boats before they stopped trying to breach it in August.
This was just a glimpse of yet another busy battlefront that was deadly by any standards less gruesome than those of the First World War, strategically important to both the Western and Atlantic Fronts, continuously in action for more than four years, and destined to be almost completely ignored by the modern heritage industry. I mention it here by way of commemoration.
This is one of those rare days when me and the heritage industry want to commemorate the same big news, because a hundred years ago the man running the German Army, Chief of General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, resigned after almost two years in the job. His replacement was the overall commander on the Eastern Front, Field Marshal Paul von Beneckendorf und von Hindenburg (we’ll just call him Hindenburg from now on), and his long-time number two, General Ludendorff, remained at his side as Quartermaster-General.
Approaching seventy, Hindenburg was a puppet. An essentially inert figure, he had been called out of retirement in 1914 to a command in East Prussia on the Eastern Front (with Ludendorff as his chief of staff), and he’d been striking lucky ever since. He had little to do with the initial German victory at Tannenberg, but Ludendorff conspired with the supreme command to make him its victor for propaganda purposes, and from that point Hindenburg became Germany’s equivalent of Lord Kitchener, a popular hero whose impressive features – martial but reassuring – made him the perfect front for Ludendorff.
While Ludendorff (who wasn’t so pretty) ran the Eastern Front, exaggerated his successes, and plotted with right-wing military and industrial contacts to bend overall German strategy to his ambitions, Hindenburg took the popular credit. For the next two years, Ludendorff pressed for military concentration on the Eastern Front, lobbied for his fantastic vision of Germany’s eastern empire, and generally undermined Falkenhayn’s authority whenever possible, while his military and industrial supporters took effective control of the war effort by establishing a firm grip on its supply system (1 May, 1916: Stomping On Thin Ice). By the time Falkenhayn resigned, his position fatally weakened by the exhaustion of German offensive efforts at Verdun and the Somme, the figurehead hero of the east was the inevitable choice as his successor.
I’ve poured bile over Ludendorff in the past (7 February 1915: Breaking Bad), so I won’t go into detail here about his first-class organisational abilities, both military and administrative, or about his self-important, power-hungry, fanatically nationalist, anti-semitic, stubborn and militarily deluded character. Both had helped define the Eastern Front’s peculiar form of mobile stalemate, and during the next two years both would help shape Germany as the modern world’s first military-industrial, totalitarian dictatorship.
The new Third Supreme Command (Möltke led the First, Falkenhayn the Second) sought to counter increased Allied production output by fully mobilising the German people for the war effort, in pursuit of absolute military victory and massive territorial annexations. On 31 August, just two days after Falkenhayn’s resignation, the regime put forward a plan to take central control over almost every aspect of national life. The Kaiser, by now a cowed and acquiescent figure, passed the measures under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave the crown far-reaching powers in time of national emergency.
The plan was known as the Hindenburg Programme. It demanded massive increases in military output, including tripled machine gun production, doubled ammunition production and similar leaps in production of mortars, artillery, aircraft and trench warfare equipment. Every suitable factory was turned over to war work, and those found to be inefficient were closed down by a new Integration of Factories Committee. In December 1916, all able bodied males not already in uniform were conscripted as war labour, while attempts were made to conscript women for the same purpose, and deportation programmes brought in forced labour from occupied Belgium and Poland. None of these unpopular measures made much difference to a labour force already stretched to the limit.
Meanwhile a Supreme War Bureau, headed by General Gröner, took over the functions of both the War Materials Department (KRA) and the arms procurement office. Effectively a branch of the Supreme Command, it proceeded to redraw Germany as an industrial magnate’s fantasy, pouring funds into the development of heavy industry and planning a series of lavish infrastructural projects without regard for feasibility.
The whole Programme was based on the assumption that the German people as a whole had been slacking – a view that was completely in tune with elite, right-wing thinking in contemporary Germany but had no basis in reality – and its immediate effect was to put an enormous spanner in the works of the German economy. Failure to find untapped labour resources meant 1.2 million men had to be transferred from the Army to civilian war work in September, while the strain of industrial reorganisation and a new campaign in Romania brought the railway system to a virtual standstill in October, causing widespread coal shortages, and unusually cold weather added urban starvation to the mix during the winter.
By the spring of 1917 none of the Programme’s production targets had been met, or even approached, and its only major achievement had been to unleash a storm of opposition, killing off the faltering political truce and raising the spectre of revolution that had haunted Germany’s pre-War ruling classes.
The occasional shaft of pragmatism did improve matters slightly during 1917. February’s decision to cut back on investment projects enabled the Programme to meet some of its targets by the autumn, including machine gun and light artillery quotas, but the industrial magnates behind the Third Supreme Command would not be denied their earthly paradise. Gröner was dismissed when he tried to curtail their profits in mid-1917, and a year later even Ludendorff was unable to force through similar measures. Meanwhile Germany’s economy and society screamed towards the buffers, its supercharged industries clearly unable to meet requirements or sustain the effort, its angry population ever closer to exhaustion, and its politics lurching into extremism.
German military strategies during the last two years of the War – from unrestricted submarine warfare to the occupation of Eastern Europe and the last battles in France – would display the same kind of reckless aggression as the Hindenburg Programme, and at first glance it’s hard to see the Third Supreme Command’s tenure as anything but a form of madness. To make any sense of the national harakiri presided over by Ludendorff and his backers you have to take on board the mindset of Germany’s elite rulers during the early twentieth century.
Germany had come into the War under internal political pressures the ruling classes could only see as revolutionary, and that terrible vision still dominated their thinking in 1916. They were fighting the British, French and Russians for Germany’s place in the world, but the struggle that really mattered to them had less to do with national ambitions than with class war. When the War seemed to be going against them, they preferred a colossal (and repeated) gamble on the ever more remote possibility of total victory to what they saw as the certainty of revolution without it.
History can’t be sure if revolution in a defeated Germany was inevitable, or if the chaos unleashed on post-War Germany was a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. It can record that the Third Supreme Command operated in ways and in conditions that made the gamble’s failure all but inevitable, and that it trampled all over civil liberties in pursuit of state aims defined by and for of a powerful minority. In other words, the military-industrial oligarchy that took power in August 1916 created both a blueprint for future totalitarian dictatorships, and made Germany the fertile ground in which the twentieth century’s most ghastly example could flourish. A century on, that seems worth a commemorative mention.
You may not need me to tell you that the Battle of Jutland began a century ago today, because it’s one of very few wartime events outside the Western Front deemed worthy of the full treatment by the British heritage industry. Unfortunately, a high heritage profile comes with a requirement for drama and significance, so the BBC (to pick on the best of them) is coming at you with shows entitled ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’ and ‘The Battle That Won The War’. You get the message? Well, it’s nonsense. Jutland was a miserable non-event, significant only in what it failed to achieve, best viewed as a clear signal that the age of the battleship was well and truly over, and had ended with a whimper. That said, I’ll try and describe it.
Jutland was the only full-scale wartime confrontation between the two most powerful battle fleets in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, stationed either side of the North Sea.
The High Seas Fleet was the fruit of rapid German naval expansion during the previous two decades, which was in turn a product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego. Built around 27 modern battleships and battlecruisers (like battleships, but with most of the armour sacrificed for speed), it was not regarded as powerful enough to beat the British in a full-scale battle, but was designed to keep the Royal Navy’s biggest guns away from duties elsewhere, particularly the blockade of German ports, and to whittle away the Grand Fleet’s strength in advance of any possible confrontation.
Based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the Grand Fleet was the Royal Navy’s principle strike force, an enormous armada built around 35–40 modern battleships and battlecruisers, designed to respond to any threat, anywhere in the world, but primarily concerned with nullifying the threat of invasion and preventing attempts to interfere with the blockade. Its ultimate task was seen as the destruction of the High Seas Fleet, and for that purpose the British Admiralty was careful to maintain a significant numerical advantage in the North Sea.
According to contemporary naval orthodoxy – established since the advent of armoured, coal- or oil-powered warships – battle fleets required not just modern battleships (costing the equivalent of about half a billion pounds each in modern terms), but also cruisers, destroyers, submarines and hundreds of smaller support craft to provide protection and reconnaissance for the bigger ships. In short, fleets cost a fortune.
Understandably enough, admirals, politicians, press and public expected value for money from battle fleets in the event of war, and at the same time regarded the loss of wildly expensive major units as nothing short of a national catastrophe. This required naval strategists to take risks while being risk averse, a tricky enough problem at the best of times, made almost insoluble by 1914 because the leviathans of the sea had become dangerously vulnerable to spectacularly cheap mines and torpedoes.
I’ve devoted plenty of space in the past to the paralysis produced by this situation, and a glance through the blog’s naval warfare category might be helpful if you’re interested in arguments and examples. In North Sea terms, it meant neither side dared risk a major battle unless they were quite sure of winning, so the High Seas Fleet didn’t want to be caught in a battle at all, and the Grand Fleet’s attempts to engineer one were so timid they were hardly perceptible.
By 1916 both fleets had spent most of two years being pilloried by political, press and public opinion for their perceived inactivity, and both needed to prove themselves. The British could only maintain their numerical supremacy and effective dominance of the theatre, avoiding trouble and hoping an open goal would present itself. With the German high command in the process of prioritising submarine warfare at the expense of the High Seas Fleet, its new commander, Admiral Scheer, was under more immediate pressure to act. In the late spring of 1916 he planned an expanded version of the nuisance raids on the British coast that had boosted the Fleet’s reputation in 1914.
Scheer’s plan was to send Admiral Hipper’s fast battlecruisers to raid the northeast English port of Sunderland, and to entice the British battlecruiser squadron, based at Rosyth, out onto the guns of the main fleet, following behind. In addition, thirteen U-boats were positioned for ambush off British North Sea ports, with orders to stay there until 1 June. Scheer was only prepared to take this risk if aerial reconnaissance confirmed that the Grand Fleet was still in Scapa Flow, but poor weather prevented deployment of the only machines able to do the job, Zeppelins, throughout late May. Rather than do without his U-boats, Scheer switched to a slightly less bold demonstration of the High Seas Fleet’s powers, sending his battlecruisers as bait ahead of an otherwise pointless sortie up the Danish coast.
The German ships moved out of the Jade Bight, off Wilhelmshaven, at one in the morning on 31 May, unaware that the Grand Fleet had put to sea from Scapa Flow two hours earlier. Because the Royal Navy’s Room 40 had broken German naval codes, Grand Fleet c-in-c Admiral Jellicoe had been informed of their impending departure on 30 May, but not of their destination, and had decided to undertake his own sweep of the Danish coast, planned for 2 June.
The two fleets, led by their battlecruiser squadrons, were on course for a head-on collision during the morning of 31 May, but didn’t know it. In an age before radar and in the absence of aircraft (a seaplane aboard the converted ferry HMS Engadine was the only plane available to either fleet), the only way they were going to find out was by direct visual contact through the fast, modern cruisers both sides used for scouting. British and German cruisers spotted each other in mid-afternoon, as both sides moved to investigate a stationary Danish merchant ship, and after a brief exchange of fire both sides hurried off to inform their battlecruisers that the enemy had blundered into their trap.
Admiral Beatty, in command of the British battlecruisers, manoeuvred to the south of Hipper’s ships, which turned to face the enemy, leaving both sets of battlecruisers in the path of the other’s main fleet. Unknown to Hipper, four modern, Queen Elizabeth Class battleships were also attached to Beatty’s squadron, and were coming up fast when, at 3.45 in the afternoon, the battlecruisers opened fire, 13km apart and closing. Beatty turned south to cut off what he assumed was a German retreat, and after Hipper followed suit the squadrons spent forty-five minutes exchanging broadsides.
The action went badly for the British. While escorting destroyers fought a secondary battle, with each side losing two ships, three British battlecruisers had been damaged and two, Indefatigable and Queen Mary, had exploded by the time the Queen Elizabeths joined the fray (from 17km) at four-thirty. Hipper’s success had something to do with the position of the sun, which helped German gunners on a hazy day polluted by gunsmoke, but also highlighted British operational weaknesses that would be evident throughout the battle: the inherent vulnerability of British ships to internal explosion; a spate of poor signalling; and the unexpected weakness of the Navy’s heavy shells, which tended to disintegrate on contact.
The arrival of four battleships to join the four British battlecruisers still in the fight shifted the odds against Hipper – but not for long. At four-forty Beatty’s scouting cruisers reported that the entire High Seas Fleet was coming into range. Wrongly informed that morning that Scheer was still in port, Beatty turned and ran north for Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet. The British battleships missed the turn and barely escaped the High Seas Fleet (with damage inflicted by both sides) before joining Beatty’s faster ships and quickly pulling away. Hipper’s squadron – battered, short on ammunition and with their gunners now facing a dipping sun – followed to prevent what he assumed was an attempt at escape.
Shortly before five-thirty Beatty turned east to a prearranged rendezvous with Jellicoe, crossing Hipper’s path to cut off any scouting ships that might report the trap, and drawing an attack from German cruisers and destroyers. Three more British battlecruisers, commanded by Admiral Hood, then arrived on the scene from the east, severely damaging three of the German light cruisers and launching a destroyer attack of their own – and that was enough to convince Hipper he’d run into the entire Grand Fleet.
The actual Grand Fleet stumbled upon Beatty’s squadron just after six, when scouts sighted HMS Lion firing its guns at opponents out of visual range. Jellicoe, who had thought he was still 20km northwest of Beatty, immediately formed the fleet in a line to port (turning east, in other words). The manoeuvre was complete by six-thirty, just in time to put the Grand Fleet in perfect position to ‘cross the T’ of the High Seas Fleet. Meanwhile Scheer, coming up from the south, found British warships to his north and northwest, and so turned east, heading straight for Jellicoe.
During this phase, one of the Queen Elizabeths, Warspite, survived 13 hits when a jammed rudder forced it to circle twice under the High Seas Fleet’s guns, and two British cruisers were sunk when they ran into the German fleet by accident. The British also lost a third battlecruiser, when Admiral Hood’s flagship, Invincible, was illuminated by a random patch of clear air, attracted concentrated fire and exploded after a shell penetrated a turret.
The explosion tool place at 18.33, and the Grand Fleet opened fire at once. Two minutes later Scheer ran away, and the High Seas Fleet did a brilliant job of it, executing a ‘battle turn away’ (Gefechtskehrtwendung, effectively a massed u-turn) and leaving Jellicoe chasing its taillights, all for the loss of one cruiser to British gunfire. Jellicoe more than matched Scheer’s caution, refusing to chase his prey into what he thought might just be a submarine trap. Instead he ordered the Grand Fleet to turn southeast and then south, hoping to intercept Scheer’s homeward journey before nightfall.
It shouldn’t have worked, but Jellicoe got lucky. Scheer turned his fleet north and then back on itself, aiming to get behind the British, but he overestimated the Grand Fleet’s speed and instead steamed back into its guns, which opened up at ten past seven. This time Scheer sent Hipper’s squadron (backed by destroyers) to charge at the Grand Fleet, guns blazing, while the rest of the German force pulled off another u-turn. A destroyer was sunk, and the battlecruisers took another pounding (but didn’t explode) before turning away, but within a few minutes the High Seas Fleet was disappearing to the west.
Still confident that he could intercept Scheer’s presumed route home, Jellicoe turned the Grand Fleet southeast. At eight-fifteen Beatty’s battlecruisers, some 10km ahead of the main fleet, sighted Hipper’s ships sailing south, and a few minutes later opened fire, damaging two battlecruisers and sinking the Lützow. Scheer responded by sending six vulnerable pre-dreadnought battleships into a holding action, and after keeping Beatty’s guns busy for a few minutes they rejoined the German fleet escaping to the west.
Scheer then turned south for home, and although the two fleets were less than 10km apart and converging when night fell, at about nine, they never met again. Scouting forces on both sides battled on through the night in a series of costly and often confused actions, costing the German fleet one pre-dreadnought battleship, three cruisers and a destroyer, the British a cruiser and six destroyers.
Partly thanks to effective radio jamming by German crews, no reports of the night actions reached Jellicoe, who let anxiety govern his next move. Worried about night actions against an enemy with superior searchlights, and about Admiralty reports suggesting Scheer was behind him, he kept on steaming south, enabling the High Seas Fleet to escape around the rear of the Grand Fleet and reach the relative safety of Horn’s Reef by about three in the morning of 1 June. Jellicoe turned his fleet for home half an hour later.
The two fleets got home without interference from submarines stationed in wait, and the last casualty of Jutland was the German dreadnought Ostfriesland, badly damaged by a British mine in the Jade Bight.
Both sides claimed victory. Both were right and both were wrong. The German Navy won on numbers, and could justifiably claim that both its ships and crews had performed better on the day. The Royal Navy took a lot of criticism for its operational failures, and the Grand Fleet’s commanders took their fair share for behaving cautiously, but British claims to victory are based on the many months it took the High Seas Fleet to get back into operational shape (the Grand Fleet was pronounced ready for action on 2 June), and on the fact that it never again ventured out in force. The latter claim is perfectly true, but was hardly a product of the battle, and that brings me back to ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’, ‘The Battle That Won The War’ and the heritage hype.
Jutland involved 274 warships and about 70,000 seamen. The Royal Navy lost 14 ships, 6,097 men killed and 510 wounded; the German Navy 11 ships, 2,551 killed and 507 wounded. So yes, Jutland was the Royal Navy’s most costly day out in terms of casualties, but this was hardly surprising when so many men took part in the nearest thing to a major sea battle since the dawn of the mechanised age.
As for Jutland winning the War, that’s rubbish. The High Seas Fleet was already slated for effective mothballing by the German High Command, and only a huge success at Jutland (or Skagerrak, as it’s known in Germany) could have altered that. You might say that Jellicoe’s caution spared the Royal Navy any risk of losing control in the North Sea, but otherwise Jutland is a story of errors, failures and accidents, a series of chaotic skirmishes that very nearly turned into a battle. Does that really constitute a victory when its only effect was to leave everything about the naval war unchanged?
May Day is far and away the most popular of several dates chosen around the world to mark the achievements and sacrifices of international labour. None too surprisingly, the idea of a day set aside for the purpose dates from the late 19th century – when mass literacy (and with it politicisation) had brought self-confidence and tactical sophistication to the international labour movement. Perhaps more surprisingly, May Day labour celebrations originated in the USA, in Chigaco, where the first such march took place in 1886.
That event, which became known as the Haymarket Massacre, featured an anarchist bomb attack and a police shoot-out with marchers. It triggered a press (and therefore ‘big business’) backlash against the left-wing labour movement that, though largely based on Hillsborough-style defamation of victims, played a significant role in the eradication of socialism as a legitimate political standpoint in the USA. That process, boosted after August 1914 by employers’ determination not to let politics interfere with a war-inspired production boom, was essentially complete by 1916 (and these days 1 May is officially Law Day in the US), but May Day had meanwhile caught on with European socialists.
So, a hundred years ago today, industrial cities all over Europe witnessed demonstrations by working people and their political organisers, and in the pre-War heart of moderate socialism, Germany, May Day saw the arrest of Karl Liebknecht for making an anti-War speech in Berlin. (That’s Karl getting his collar felt in the picture at the top, by the way.)
Liebknecht was a famous socialist, a revolutionary rather than a reformer and the only Reichstag deputy to vote against the War in 1914. As a reward for that piece of impudence, he had been sent to bury dead bodies on the Eastern Front, but had resumed his political career after being discharged on health grounds. He would stay in jail until the regime’s complete breakdown brought his release at the end of the War, when he would cement his fame as a martyr of the German Revolution that spilled into chaotic life in 1919. He may get more attention from me then, but for now I plan to use Karl as an excuse to see how German society was handling the shock of total war.
Back when this blog started, I put together a piece on Germany in 1914 (it’s under Big Guns), and what follows won’t make much sense without it. I left it at the outbreak of war, at which point the explosive, volatile brew of autocracy, rising social discontent and rampant economic expansion that was Germany in 1914 suddenly cohered into passionate national unity. Rampant popular enthusiasm for the War was matched in the Reichstag and by declaration of a political truce (Burgfrieden) for the duration, while the Kaiser, a man whose thinking only really moved in leaps and bounds, decided his troubles were over and that happy, unified German nationalism was here to stay.
The powerful industrial, landowning and military interests that sustained the regime, conservative to the core, weren’t so sure they trusted the change, and the Army immediately took over much of the civil administration under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave it enormous powers in time of national crisis. In other words the ruling elites of German society, unlike their counterparts in France or Britain, saw no need to nurture the nation’s good vibe with a spirit of compromise.
And so it went. Like every other belligerent power, Germany was in no way prepared to fight a long war, let alone one that embraced every aspect of national life. When faced with unimagined demands for manpower, war materials and money to pay for them, its leaders had no recourse to anything but top-down imposition of ever-increasing demands. By October 1914, the Army’s demands had already outstripped production, and reinforcements were dependent on current output. Massive government orders to big arms companies didn’t solve anything, merely pushed up the price of raw materials, and the situation worsened as the enemy (largely British) naval blockade tightened.
This wasn’t the bumper war German big business had bargained for, and in Germany big business talked, demanding and getting extension of the Prussian War Ministry’s powers, so that its War Materials Department (KRA) took control of goods distribution throughout Germany.
Essentially a means of focusing all national effort on supplying big arms and war materials manufacturers (and securing their profits), the KRA succeeded on one level, improving output and seeing the war effort through 1915, a year in which Germany still enjoyed material superiority over its enemies and industrial profits went through the roof. On the other hand the KRA’s system unbalanced the economy in ways that would eventually prove fatal, alienating smaller companies that were given only a token share of wartime business, and enabling the big boys to charge extortionate prices that encouraged inflation and multiplied financial problems that were anyway crippling.
Germany found most of the enormous sums needed to finance the war effort by raising taxes on a regular basis and, above all, by issuing war bonds, lots of them. That form of borrowing rapidly spiralled out of control, so that the victory soon represented the only possible way of paying back bond subscribers, a factor that goes some way to explaining the regime’s unwillingness to discuss a negotiated peace before 1918.
Meanwhile civilian shortages of food and manufactured goods were mounting – exacerbated by a bad harvest in 1915 and an agricultural manpower crisis – and by the beginning of 1916 Germans, no less than other Europeans, were becoming weary of the apparently endless military stalemate. All in all, given the explosive state of German society and politics in the immediate pre-War period (Big Guns again, I’m afraid), it would seem reasonable to expect a breakdown of political truce and a world of trouble for the ruling regime – yet the May Day march in Berlin that got Karl Liebknecht arrested (remember him?) was the first major anti-War demonstration to hit the streets, and only about 10,000 people from the far left took part.
So the military-industrial complex running Germany was holding its ground in April 1916, and the obvious question is: how? It’s easy to fall back on national stereotypes and stress the depth of German obedience to authority, and that perhaps played a part, as did the hope of victory that came with superficial maintenance of an efficient war effort, along with the determination of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s civilian administration, a haven for the more moderate among the conservative elite, to keep the Reichstag sweet with minor constitutional concessions.
Posterity has a bit more trouble remembering the extent to which Germans believed they were fighting a defensive war. Threatened by Russia and France, betrayed by the British, saddled with allies in constant need of support, the German body politic was still feeding on righteous indignation. Even Germany’s official socialist groups were still giving solid, outraged support to the struggle, and it was left to the small, anti-War Spartacus League, founded by Liebknecht and his allies in early 1916, to organise the May Day demonstration.
So, all surprisingly quiet on the German home front, but Liebknecht’s small gesture is as good a marker as any for a long, painful turning point in the middle of 1916. Verdun was already underway, the summer would bring the Somme on the Western Front and the Russian Brusilov offensive in the east, and they would demonstrate beyond doubt that Allied production capacity was expanding beyond Germany’s ability to compete in the long term. They would also undermine the relatively moderate sway of Bethmann-Hollweg in government and General Falkenhayn atop the Army, leaving the Kaiser’s ear open to the siren song of extreme right-wing industrial and military interests.
Led by the appalling Ludendorff, the far right believed salvation lay in compelling the German people to stop slacking, and in ruthless exploitation of conquered or allied territories. By May, they were already manoeuvring to establish what would effectively be a military dictatorship, and by the autumn it would be in place. Watch this space, things are about to turn very nasty in Germany…
It’s the middle of January, and a hundred years ago the British were talking about the weather. Fair enough, given that the War in Europe was quiet and the only British actions of note were taking place in Mesopotamia, where propaganda was still masking the failure of attempts to relieve the siege of Kut – and fair enough given the state of the weather.
After the coldest November in British history, and the fourth wettest December ever seen in England and Wales, January 1916 was on the way to becoming the mildest on record. These records stand today, but in 1916 the end of the world meant global warfare rather than global warming, and they were generally seen as evidence of divine critique rather than climate change.
I mention the weird warmth of Western Europe for atmosphere, so to speak, and apropos of nothing in particular, because its effects on the War were largely confined to fuel savings and logistic benefits. The kind of military opportunism that might have exploited it with a surprise initiative wasn’t on anybody’s agenda, and not just because the major European powers needed to take stock and restock before the inevitable, heavyweight confrontations of the spring.
The technologies of contemporary ground warfare were too vast and cumbersome to do anything spontaneous on a large scale; aircraft technology was only just approaching the capacity to inflict more than strategic fleabites; and, as I’ve mentioned in detail before, naval warfare’s strategic weapons, the most modern surface fleets, were far too expensive and prestigious to be risked in acts of daring. That brings me, in undeniably tortuous fashion, to today’s centenary, because on 15 January 1916 Admiral Reinhardt Scheer succeeded Admiral Pohl as c-in-c of the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet.
The High Seas Fleet was the product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s recklessly expensive attempt to rival British sea power, and had been very big news in the years before 1914. Its construction had triggered a naval arms race with Britain, and as it grew into a formidable force of modern warships it became both a symbol of German geopolitical ambition and a source of mounting British paranoia, seen as a clear and deliberate threat to national security. Its very existence, operating out of North Sea bases at Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven, compelled the Royal Navy to protect the North Sea with the Grand Fleet, a superior force on paper and centred on Scapa Flow. Come the outbreak of war, facing each other across the Kaiser’s chosen battlefield, these naval juggernauts, the most powerful ever seen, stood ready to… wait for the other to make the first move.
And so it went. Both fleets wanted victory, not least as justification for their enormous cost to both economies, but neither wanted risk, and by the end of 1915 what had looked like being modern warfare’s showpiece campaign amounted to a few raids and one or two largely accidental skirmishes. This put both fleets under popular and political pressure to do better. In politically stable Britain, respectful criticism of the Royal Navy reflected its enormous contribution to centuries of Empire. On the other hand politically volatile Germany had no naval traditions, and at the modern equivalent of between £60 and £120 million a shot, critics of the German Navy could think of more useful things to buy than idle warships. In short, the High Seas Fleet needed to justify itself, hence the appointment of Scheer, one of very few senior Fleet officers to have emerged from the North Sea’s phoney war with a reputation for aggression.
Approaching his mid-fifties, Scheer had been in command of the Fleet’s Second Battleship Squadron in August 1914, and transferred to lead the Third Squadron that December. He hadn’t done much with his battleships by the time he took overall command of the Fleet – such action as took place had been carried out by Admiral Hipper’s fast, hit-and-run battlecruisers – but he had talked a good fight, and did prove a more aggressive leader than the infinitely cautious Pohl. In May, Scheer’s willingness to take a risk would be the catalyst for the only major wartime action between the two fleets, the near miss that was Jutland, but the real significance of his tenure lay elsewhere.
Jutland confirmed Scheer’s opinion that large surface warships were redundant in the North Sea and the Baltic. A torpedo specialist as a junior officer, he now threw his considerable weight behind increased use of submarines, both as fleet weapons against enemy warships and as purveyors of Handelskrieg, or trade warfare.
Scheer sponsored a rapid increase in U-boat construction, and made no secret of his complete support for ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare against enemy trade. He lobbied successfully for the restricted campaign against British merchant ships that opened in March 1916, and protested by recalling all his U-boats from the Atlantic to the North Sea when the Kaiser changed his mind in April. Scheer’s death or glory approach to submarine warfare, more concerned with victory than with keeping the USA out of the War, found full support in the autumn, when the Kaiser fell under the effective control of a new supreme command led by Ludendorff and Hindenburg.
Restricted attacks against British trade recommenced in October 1916, and U-boats destroyed about 300,000 tons of British shipping per month for the rest of the year. British leaders were worried, but kept it from the pubic, while a triumphant German command ensured maximum publicity for the idea that Britain could be starved to defeat in six months.
As Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s opposition to the Navy’s new approach crumbled with the failure of peace overtures to the Allies, the German press, public opinion and most of the Reichstag were strident in their support for the campaign. On 7 January 1917, less than a year after Scheer’s appointment, the Kaiser bowed to pressure from all sides and signed the order to prosecute unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February. Death or glory had won the argument over the German Navy’s wartime role, and within a few weeks the victory had provided justification for US entry into the War.
Scheer would go on to preside over an increasingly desperate search for victory through Handelskrieg until almost the end. Appointed head of a new Naval Supreme Command in August 1918, when he knew the War was lost, he signed off his military career in the style he personified, planning a ‘heroic’ final attack on the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. It was prevented by the sailors’ Kiel Mutiny on 30 October, and as Germany crumpled into revolution Scheer was finally dismissed by the Kaiser a day before the Armistice.
So, during a quiet week in January 1916, what seemed a simple change of command designed to bring vigour to the North Sea’s gigantic fleet face-off, turned out to be a catalyst that helped to redefine naval warfare in the context of total war, and to bring the United States into the business of world policing. Thanks for that, Reinhardt.
Today’s the day, a century ago, that relations between the United States and the German Empire hit a new low, as Washington announced the expulsion of German military attachés Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed. This wasn’t a decisive moment in the process that would eventually bring the US into the War, and it had no direct bearing on the issue generally credited with doing the trick, German submarine warfare against commercial traffic. On the other hand, the announcement did make global headlines at the time, as did anything to do with Washington’s diplomatic position in 1915, and its centenary is a useful opportunity to mention the sabotage campaign carried out by German agents in the wartime US. Why bother? Because the campaign played an important and often ignored role in bringing the Unites States to war.
Even in the context of the First World War’s giant jamboree bag of world-defining events, US entry into the European conflict stands out as arguably the defining event of the twentieth century. Others were more dramatic, and you can make a case for revolutions, nuclear weapons or the day Hitler got really angry (to name just a few), but it’s hard beat the moment the United States abandoned one of its most basic constitutional tenets, got involved in somebody else’s war for the first time, and committed to becoming the world’s dominant diplomatic, military and economic superpower. So it seems a shame the heritage industry on this side of the Atlantic isn’t too bothered about why it happened.
If the question does crop up, the heritage answer is usually nice and simple: U-boats sank the Lusitania, as well as other dubious targets occupied by American citizens, and the USA’s outrage eventually trumped its pacifism. You won’t be surprised to hear that the real picture was more complex.
Let’s start with a few broad brushstrokes. A refusal to take part in overseas wars that were considered imperialist was a fundamental founding principle of the independent United States, enshrined in its constitution and strong in the public mind as the Great War got underway in Europe. Then again, like so many of the grandest principles, national pacifism had never really stopped the USA from going to war when it suited the right vested interests. Regular invasions of Canada and Mexico peppered the republic’s early history, and by the late nineteenth century the impulse to overseas trade was breeding a parallel (and standard) impulse to interference in foreign affairs.
It was by no means a universal impulse. Vast swathes of ‘middle America’, along with traditionalists everywhere, regarded all dealings overseas as dangerous and undesirable, but manufacturing and maritime interests in the northeastern states, increasingly supported by their emergent counterparts on the Pacific coast, recognised a huge opportunity for world-class wealth when they saw one, and led the way in demanding that the USA behave like a world power. Driven on by their noisiest champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, they had crossed a significant line at the very end of the nineteenth century, when economic imperatives had prompted invasion and conquest of the far distant Philippines. Fifteen years later, with the much less bullish Woodrow Wilson in the White House, US Marines moved in to help establish long-term economic dominance in various Latin American capitals once the new war had sucked European investments from the continent.
So the USA was no virgin when it came to overseas military adventure by 1914 – it was merely in denial the way, for instance, our modern media deny the strategic irrelevance of British military adventure. The USA was also neutral, generally referred to as ‘the great neutral’, but again an element of denial was involved, particularly when it came to trade.
When war came to Europe, opportunity knocked louder than ever for US overseas trade. All the biggest European governments were suddenly desperate for everything the USA could grow or build. American farmers, manufacturers and merchants responded in spades, making vast fortunes in the process, but with very few exceptions they responded only to the Entente powers, because the Royal Navy’s blockade strategy made delivery of goods to Germany, Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire almost impossible.
This huge imbalance played into wartime diplomatic rows between the US and Britain over blockade tactics (as discussed back in March), and into the mounting dispute over the submarine tactics used instead by Germany. It also convinced many German observers that the US was neutral only in name, a belief that became the justification for German attempts to slow the flow of goods and arms to the Entente by sabotage.
During the War’s first year, US authorities had foiled attempts at sabotage in San Francisco, Hoboken and Seattle, and had uncovered a scheme to supply German agents with US passports bought from dock workers, but successful saboteurs were thought responsible for more than a dozen factory fires and fires aboard at least thirty ships. Reported with all due hysteria, these incidents left the American public in the grip of a spy craze that made every fire suspicious and every German-American a suspect. For a time the Wilson administration chose to protect its neutrality by accepting German ambassador Bernstorff’s claims that misguided, independent associations or individuals were to blame, and that no official sabotage campaign existed – but by the middle of 1915 US authorities knew those claims to be false.
In February, a lone German agent had set off a suitcase full of dynamite on the railway bridge linking the US and Canada at Vanceboro, Maine. The bomb did only minor damage, the perpetrator was caught (not hard, given that he was wearing his old German Army uniform) and his orders were traced back to Bernstorff’s military attaché, Franz von Papen. Further investigations linked von Papen to several other sabotage incidents, and also implicated Karl Boy-Ed, a Turkish-German with excellent connections among the New York social elite. On 3 December, shortly after a fire at a munitions factory had raised popular spy mania to fever pitch, the US government finally expelled the two of them, and confiscated documents in Papen’s possession that detailed an ongoing nationwide campaign against railways, shipping and factories.
The German sabotage campaign in the USA didn’t end with the expulsions, but the minimal disruption it caused to Entente supply lines was far outweighed by the damage it did to German-American relations. Coming at a time when keeping the United States out of the War was Germany’s overwhelming diplomatic priority, it was a classic example of the spectacular incompetence that characterised the Empire’s wartime diplomacy.
The decision to turn atrocities against Belgian civilians into an international publicity stunt, the clumsy attempts to interfere in Mexican affairs, the serial miscalculations of US opinion around submarine warfare… all these helped underpin the American impulse towards war in the name of trade by cementing the German regime’s image in the States as a greedy, militarist danger to civilisation and something worth fighting. None of them prepared the American people for overseas war more effectively than the outrage created by German saboteurs.
Today in 1915, the German Navy launched the main thrust of a major operation against the Russian (now Latvian) port of Riga, one of the Russian Navy’s most important bases in the Baltic Sea.
The attack involved about half the German High Seas Fleet, which had so far been dedicated to giving the British something to worry about in the North Sea. It was intended to neutralise the much smaller Russian force stationed in the port, and so provide support for advances taking place on the Eastern Front. In practical terms, the German plan was to clear the minefields that had protected Riga since the autumn, bombard the city and destroy its principle warships, chief among them the pre-dreadnought battleship Slava, and then block the port with German mines. It didn’t work, and for the usual reasons.
While two old battleships kept the Slava busy and the rest of the German fleet waited offshore to discourage Russian naval reinforcement, minesweepers went to work on 8 August, but were unable to clear a passage before darkness fell and the attempt was suspended. Various German fleet units were then dispatched to bombard Russian positions on small islands in the vicinity, inflicting only minor damage, before a second, more ambitious attempt to clear a passage through the Gulf of Riga opened on 16 August.
Two dreadnoughts, three cruisers and 31 minesweepers had fought their way past Russian defences by the next day, damaging the Slava in the process. By 19 August Russian minefields had been cleared, and the German force entered the Gulf. So far, so good for the High Seas Fleet, but just as the big warships were poised to complete the kind of victory that might restore their damaged fighting reputation, they fell victim to caution.
Failure to make full use of dreadnoughts and battlecruisers was bad, but losing one or more of the hugely expensive things was much, much worse, so unconfirmed reports of British and Russian submarines in the area were enough to prompt a rapid withdrawal of the entire German force on the following day. Minor damage aside, the operation had cost the German Navy two destroyers and the Russians a single gunboat. Riga would remain an operational Russian base until September 1917.
Apart from highlighting the switch in German emphasis to the Eastern Front in 1915, and once again demonstrating the Catch-22 that hobbled the great warships of the First World War, this ultimately insignificant naval battle also gives me a chance to mention another of the conflict’s forgotten fronts, the Baltic Sea.
The Baltic was the main theatre of operations for the Russian Navy, which fought a continuous battle against German units in the southern and eastern Baltic from August 1914. Russia’s main aim was to prevent German penetration of the Gulf of Finland, which led to Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was now known), but the navy was also charged with disrupting German trade to and from Scandinavia. Although redeployments from the North Sea occasionally gave German forces an advantage, they were generally outnumbered in the theatre, never had any intention of approaching Petrograd, and were primarily concerned with protecting their trade routes.
At the start of the War neither side felt confident of dominating the Baltic. The Russian fleet simply holed up in the Gulf of Finland behind a field of 4,000 mines and dared the Germans to come after them, while the Germans opted for a defensive approach and laid their own minefields. In September, having taken the measure of German naval weakness in the theatre, the Russians moved west, re-establishing bases in the Gulf of Riga and protecting them with more minefields.
This set a pattern. Major operations like that of August 1915 were the exceptions in a campaign that revolved around minelaying for the next three years. By the end of 1915, the Russians had laid about 4,000 more mines in the Baltic, including fields off the German coast, while a smaller number of German minelayers never stopped working, and both sides soon built up substantial minesweeping fleets. The main targets for mines were cargo vessels, with Russian fields in particular taking a steady toll of merchant shipping throughout the conflict.
Submarine warfare was another, albeit marginal feature of the Baltic campaign. German and Russian boats enjoyed almost no success in the theatre, but were used to some effect as minelayers. British submarines (five of them were in the Baltic by October 1915) fared better, inflicting sufficient damage on German merchantmen to prompt the transfer of several big ships from the North Sea to protect trade routes.
The unceasing battle between minelayers and minesweepers in the Baltic, with major warships watching from safe harbours, was as marginal to the War’s outcome as it was intense. It was eventually ended in late 1917 by the collapse of the Russian war effort, at which point the Russian Navy was ahead on points. Having sunk three times as much shipping as it had lost, it had escaped the eventual capture of Riga by German land forces and arrived without serious damage in the Gulf of Finland, where it lay idle when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended hostilities between Russia and Germany.
Like the ‘mosquito’ war fought in the northern Adriatic, the Baltic campaign evolved into an example of modern naval war, and as such was another slap in face for pre-War naval planners wedded to the nineteenth-century doctrine of fleet warfare… and now you know it happened.
The landscape of Eastern Europe is peppered with monuments and memorials that come as a surprise to many an educated Briton at large in Poland or Belarus, the Ukraine or Lithuania. These are not monuments to the vast battles and bloodletting of the Second World War, or even to the hubris of Napoleon, but to the sweeping, empty carnage of the First World War’s Eastern Front, a struggle largely ignored by Western historians and forgotten by the heritage industry. A hundred years on from the day the Central Powers retook the symbolically significant fortress of Przemysl, which had fallen to the Russians in the autumn, the Eastern Front merits some attention.
The Eastern Front is generally described as another of the War’s great stalemates, and until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 it was. Unlike the death-grip immobility of the fronts in France, Gallipoli and Italy, the stalemate in the east was conducted over vast, often empty areas, so that armies could and did advance hundreds of kilometres without disturbing the overall strategic status quo.
All through the autumn of 1914 and the following spring, land had been won and lost all along the front, from the Baltic coast to the Black Sea. Long, long supply lines, the military inefficiency of Austrian and Russian forces, commitment of the best German forces to the Western Front, the difficulty of sustaining advanced forces in inhospitable, often baked or frozen wilderness – all these factors and more made every victory temporary, and every defeat reversible once a defensive line had been established. Hundreds of thousands had been killed in the process in conditions that made the Western Front seem, if not benign, at least somewhere soldiers didn’t expect to starve or freeze to death.
In 1915, that year of unfounded optimism, the east’s stalemate of movement offered a mirage of total victory even more seductive than breakthrough in the West or backdoor triumph through a sideshow. Nothing so coherent as focused strategic optimism was coming out of Russia’s chaotic and fractious high command, Stavka, but in Conrad, the blinkered eminence of Vienna’s war effort, and Ludendorff, the influential egotist in charge of Germany’s eastern operations, the Central Powers were saddled with two of the War’s most dangerous dreamers.
The fall of Przemysl was a highlight of the German and Austrian clean-up operation after the spring’s highly successful but strategically irrelevant Gorlice-Tarnow offensive. By the end of the month the Central Powers had occupied all of Galicia, and operations paused for another round of fantasist lobbying by Conrad and Ludendorff. Their argument was, as ever, that if German chief of staff Falkenhayn would give priority to the east, Russia could be knocked out of the war with one great blow. Falkenhayn, caught between the seductive propaganda of his most apparently successful general and the need to stay strong in the west, once again refused the great gamble, and instead opted for a limited July offensive designed to pinch out the great bulge in the front line that was the Polish heartland.
To be fair to Ludendorff and Conrad – both high on my list of the Twentieth Century’s relatively unsung villains – the Russians looked ripe for the beating in June 1915. Having hemorrhaged men all spring, Russian forces were scattered along the front in shallow trenches, desperately short of equipment, training and competent commanders. Russia’s Entente allies were very afraid that a second enemy offensive, swiftly delivered, would force the Tsar into a separate peace with Germany, a fear that added urgency to their own efforts to achieve breakthrough in France.
So optimism about the attacker’s chances reigned supreme into the summer of 1915. The fact that Russian armies could triumph after retreating a very long way for a very long time had been well established since Napoleon’s invasion of 1812, and nothing about the Tsar’s regime suggested that the loss of a few hundred thousand subjects was likely to alter its strategic priorities – but as preparations for what would be called the Triple Offensive got underway the world at large held its breath in anticipation of news from a front that seemed on the point of decisive denouement.
Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.
A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.
While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.
The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.
Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort. Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.
I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.
Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.
All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.
From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.
There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.
A hundred years ago today, the giant passenger liner SS Lusitania went down off the coast of western Ireland. En route from the USA to Britain, it had turned directly into the path of the German submarine U-20 and been holed to starboard by a single torpedo. After a second, larger explosion it had rolled onto its side, preventing the launch of more than half its lifeboats, and within twenty minutes it had sunk. Of more than 1,900 people on board, 1,198 lost their lives. If you’ve been listening to the radio, watching the television and hearing about it in the heritage corner, you won’t have learned much.
Maybe that’s not fair. You will have learned that a German U-boat sank a very big ship, and you will have learned how it feels to be the descendant of somebody killed at sea or rescued from the sea. More detailed reports may have included the phrase ‘international outrage’, but only in passing and with no attempt at context. Poppycock wonders why, when the full story is neither boring nor complicated, various editors felt compelled to serve up yet another saccharine-soaked reminder that the really important thing about the First World War is its ability to tug at modern heartstrings. The answer presumably lies somewhere between a desperate need to attract the Downton Abbey constituency and a lazy preference for the lowest common denominator, but it’s not my job to work out why you’re being fed slurry or why nobody seems to mind. My job is to snipe from the sidelines, but now I’ll put down the rifle and supply some information.
For all the loss of civilian life involved, the real significance of the Lusitania incident lay in its value to the British as a weapon in the propaganda war for hearts and minds in the United States. The German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had already soured relations between Washington and Berlin, and the death of 124 Americans aboard the Lusitania was a godsend for allied propagandists.
According to pro-British media all over the world, the loss of a civilian liner was an outrageous consequence of Germany’s barbaric submarine policy, which allowed U-boats to sink anything that might be construed as valuable to the Entente war effort. The British also claimed, repeatedly and vehemently, that a second torpedo, launched to ensure maximum casualties, had caused the second explosion.
German propaganda initially greeted the sinking as a success but soon changed its tune. Berlin sought to limit diplomatic damage by issuing apologies to the United States, renewing restrictions on U-boat commanders, denying that a second torpedo had been launched and insisting that the second explosion was caused by the Lusitania‘s secret cargo of heavy munitions.
German protestations fell on deaf ears. The British version of the story was generally accepted at the time and had a powerful, long-term effect on popular and political opinion in the USA. It also passed into Anglo-American folklore as the truth, and is the (often unspoken) subtext for much of today’s commemorative coverage.
Evidence from the wreck of the Lusitania reveals a rather different truth. The vessel wasn’t carrying a secret cargo of heavy munitions, but might have been carrying small arms and ammunition for the British military, a regular (and cynical) practice that complicated attempts to immunise passenger and hospital ships from attack at sea. These would not have caused the second explosion, but neither did the U-20, which fired no second torpedo, and modern analysts accept that coal dust igniting in the ship’s almost empty fuel bunkers was responsible for the fatal blast.
So the high death toll that made the Lusitania such big news was down to an accident, but even if the heritage industry was telling us that it’s no excuse for treating the loss like a second Titanic. Our mass media could, perhaps should be commemorating one of the most important propaganda victories of that or any war, a vital step on the road to an American intervention that defined the century to come, but I suppose it’s hard to commemorate propaganda without acknowledging its existence.