Category Archives: Germany

15 JANUARY, 1916: Beneath The Surface

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.

Could U-boats win the War for Germany? Looks a good bet here…

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.

3 DECEMBER, 1915: Friendly Fires?

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.

16 AUGUST, 1915: Sea Change

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.

4 JUNE, 1915: This Time! Definitely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 MAY, 1915: Victims and Values

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.

2 MAY, 1915: This Cannot Be Happening…

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

A quick tour d’horizon should illustrate the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 MARCH, 1915: It’s The Economy, Stupid…

In a world pregnant with the seed of modern propaganda techniques, the second week of March 1915 looked pretty good to the British public. On 10 March, the BEF launched the first independent British attack of any size on the Western Front, up in northeast France, just west of Lille, and after three days of heavy fighting a great triumph was declared. In fact, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle gained the BEF two square kilometres of territory (including what was left of the eponymous village) at a cost of 12,000 or so casualties on each side, and its tactical lessons – that initial gains, easily enough achieved with sufficient firepower, were impossible to exploit – remained unlearned.

More triumphalism followed the Royal Navy’s sinking of the SS Dresden, the last of the German Navy’s raiding cruisers to remain at sea, off the coast of neutral Chile on 14 March, though little was made of the routine and ruthless manner in which the helpless ship was pounded to destruction. The British press was meanwhile presenting Anglo-French attempts to force a passage through the Dardanelles as a string of small successes, when in fact they were a series of blundering failures, and making much of steady Russian gains against Austro-Hungarian forces defending the long-besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl, which were genuine enough but strategically irrelevant.

The week’s most strategically significant War story was held back until the following Monday, 15 March, when the British government announced its decision, made the previous Thursday, to extend the Royal Navy’s blockade against the Central Powers.  This was big news, in theory a major step on the road to defeating Germany, yet it  was given a relatively low-key reception by British propaganda. Why was that?

The new blockade rules declared an absolute embargo on all goods bound for the Central Powers, including for the first time food, and claimed any neutral vessel intercepted in the course of such trade as a British prize. They were recognised as retaliation for a German declaration, made on 4 February and put into practice from 22 February, that the waters around Britain and Ireland were a ‘war zone’, and that enemy merchant shipping would be sunk without warning by its submarines.

Both announcements were extremely important because ships were the one and only key to global trade. Without freedom to trade across the seas – without money from exports or access to imports of raw materials and food – the world’s most developed economies could not function and grow as capitalism intended, so any nation denied access to sea trade would, in theory, find it impossible to fight a major war for very long.

These factors applied wherever merchant shipping operated, underpinning wars fought by, among others, the Russian, French, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman navies, but they were of particular importance to the war efforts of Britain and Germany. Britain, the world’s naval superpower, devoted a lot of strategic thinking and resources to blockading German trade all over the world, in the confident belief, eventually almost justified, that this would win the War. Germany was meanwhile determined to stifle vital seaborne supplies to Britain, a nation that depended on imports to feed its population, and was ready by early 1915 to make maximum possible use of submarines for the job.

Both announcements also sparked anger and outrage in neutral states. German authorisation of unannounced submarine attacks was widely regarded as barbaric, and everybody recognised that the policy would put neutral vessels at risk. The British blockade had been making it difficult for neutral nations to carry on their usual business, let alone profit from the War, since August 1914, and this latest extension was seen as high-handed, greedy interference with legitimate trade.

Britain, its media and public were not too bothered about being thought high-handed, and identification with martial aggression was unlikely to damage the German regime’s self-image, so London and Berlin were happy enough to ride roughshod over international outrage, even at a time when neutrals of every size were being courted as possible allies… or would have been but for the one neutral power nobody wanted to upset, the United States.

Rich in raw materials and cash, and a maritime trading power rising to rival Britain, the United States was the one neutral certain to make a decisive difference if it joined either side at war.  Politically divided between strict neutrality and varying degrees of support for the Entente powers, the USA was already an important economic influence on the War, having sold goods worth more than 800 million dollars to the Entente by the end of 1914 and, thanks to the Royal Navy’s blockade, almost nothing to the Central Powers. This trend would continue, so that by the time the US entered the War in April 1917 Britain and France would have spent a staggering eight billion dollars on American goods, compared with 27 million dollars spent by the Central Powers – but by the spring of 1915 it was already quite clear that, if and when the USA abandoned neutrality, it would do so in support of its major creditors.

The reason Germany made minor concessions to international opinion before putting submarine warfare into effect, and the explanation for Britain’s relatively sheepish flexing of its blockade muscle, were two sides of the same coin. Germany was terrified of outraging US public opinion to the point of war, but hoped to starve Britain before that happened; Britain was equally afraid of souring American opinion to the point of delaying or debarring US alliance with the Entente, but wasn’t about to let go its death grip on the German economy.  As news of the economic world war’s latest escalation broke around the world on the Ides of March 1915, it remained to be seen if either submarines or blockades could end the War before US military involvement became a live issue.

Watch this space…

7 FEBRUARY, 1915: Breaking Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 JANUARY, 1915: Ruling The Waves… Quietly

I was going to talk about the United States today, a hundred years on from Secretary of State Bryan’s letter refuting claims by the Central Powers that Washington was favouring the Entente. Then again, better opportunities to discuss the USA are going to crop up later, so I’ll make one small point and move on. This is it.

The Royal Navy had effectively prevented trade between the US and the Central Powers since the start of the War, while transatlantic business with the Entente powers was undergoing a prolonged and massive boom. Under the circumstances American traders either looked a world-historical gift horse in the mouth, or they favoured the only customers available. Bryan’s protestations may have been politically accurate – the US was neutral and on the whole committed to taking that position seriously – but British sea power rendered them meaningless in practical terms.

A reminder of the Royal Navy’s importance seems appropriate, because 24 January 1915 also produced that rare First World War phenomenon, a sea battle.

Fought in the middle of the North Sea, the Battle of the Dogger Bank wasn’t much of a battle, but then neither of the forces concerned – the Royal Navy’s home fleets and the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet – was remotely interested in fighting a major action unless they were quite sure of winning. In fact this extended skirmish bore the hallmarks of a publicity stunt, in that it was indirectly promoted by the need for hugely expensive navies to look as if they were doing something.

It looks unfair with hindsight, given that the Royal Navy was performing vital war work all over the world, but the Admiralty was getting a lot of stick from British politicians, press and public by the end of 1914. Its biggest and best warships, widely regarded as invincible before the War, had spent most of the last few months sitting quietly in home ports, and when daring to venture out had suffered a number of high-profile losses to mines and torpedoes. For all its enormous and controversial cost, the Navy had not apparently hastened the War to an early conclusion and, most damning of all in the public mind, it hadn’t even neutralised the manifest (and massively hyped) threat of the German High Seas Fleet, itself largely confined to brooding in its bases. When Admiral Hipper’s squadron of five fast, modern battlecruisers came out of Germany in December 1914, bombarded the English east coast and escaped scot free, popular disappointment in the Royal Navy turned to outrage.

The Navy, thus far reasonably content for its home fleets to act as successful deterrents, decided it had better do something. Five equally quick British battlecuisers under Admiral Beatty were moved south from Cromarty in northern Scotland to Rosyth.  Here’s a map, nicked form the Net and removable on request, by way of making the geography clear.

WW1Book-RN2-102

When the Navy’s secret decoding unit, known as Room 40, reported that four of Hipper’s squadron (one had been put temporarily out of action by Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas Day) were to mount a second raid, Beatty’s force steamed out to ambush it on the evening of 23 January. Accompanied by six light cruisers, and later joined by cruisers and destroyers from Harwich, they made first contact with light forces screening Hipper’s battlecruisers at 7.20 next morning. In the belief that he was facing dreadnoughts, slower but with bigger guns, Hipper ran for home, but the miscalculation allowed Beatty’s ships to get within firing range by nine o’clock, and the two forces began exchanging gunfire in parallel lines half an hour later.

Despite some confusion in their signalling, the British drew first blood, damaging the Seydlitz and bringing the older Blücher to a virtual standstill, but concentrated German fire had brought Beatty’s flagship, the Lion, to a stop by eleven o’clock. At this point a phantom submarine sighting and fear of a possible minefield persuaded Beatty to withdraw his main force, and an attempt to send his most powerful ships in further pursuit of Hipper’s out-gunned squadron was thwarted by another bout of bad signalling, which sent them instead to gather round and finish off the Blücher. With the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet – ordered to sea from Scapa Flow as something of an afterthought – still more than 200 kilometres to the north, the chance of a major victory was lost, and Hipper got home without further interruption.

Both sides trumpeted the battle as a victory – and reacted as if beaten. High Seas Fleet commander Ingelhohl, blamed for not providing Hipper with direct support, was replaced in February, and Beatty’s second-in-command was transferrred to the Canary Islands. And although British propaganda gave a narrow points victory enough lustre to assuage public opinion in the immediate aftermath, the engagement later became part of popular history’s case against the wartime Royal Navy for bumbling incompetence and reluctance to fight.

There is something to be said for the argument. British signalling had been poor, and would remain a problem because the lessons of the January North Sea were not learned, but charges of reluctance to fight, unlike those levelled at Navy commanders chasing the Goeben back in August, are unjustified.

For all that Beatty, Hipper and their superiors would take a major naval victory, they were also aware that pursuit of one risked something much more strategically valuable.

For the British, maintaining deterrent status around home waters was enough, so long as the Navy was carrying out its role guarding trade and blockading enemy ports. Losing that status would be a disaster. For the High Seas Fleet, its mere existence kept a disproportionally enormous weight of British sea power occupied, and a major defeat might unleash all those dreadnoughts into the wider War. When the stakes are thousands of lives, ships so expensive they dominated national economies and the strategic balance of power in the war to end wars, perhaps posterity should forgive a little caution.