Category Archives: Great Britain

25 JULY, 1917: Green Shoots

Today marks the centenary of the first session of the Irish Convention, an attempt to resolve what the British persisted in calling the Irish Question that failed completely, reflected badly on its creators and participants, and helped polarise Irish politics through the decades of civil violence that followed.  Despite taking place slap in the middle of a crucial phase in the modern political development of a country hooked on history, you can see why the Convention has been largely ignored by posterity.

That doesn’t make it right, and forgetting about the Convention is a classic case of history being written by the winners.  While the subsequent successes of militant Irish republicanism have rendered glorious a failure like the Easter Rising, they have tended to obscure the failures of history’s losers, in this case those trying to negotiate for Irish autonomy within the British Empire.  You miss things that way.

I sketched a few paragraphs of Anglo-Irish history into my post about the Easter Rising (24 April, 1916: Heroes and Villains), so here I’ll just remind us all that autonomy within the British Empire, known as Home Rule, had been a raging political issue on both sides of the Irish Sea since the 1880s. Furiously opposed by the right wing of British politics (and the British Army occupying Ireland) and by the unswervingly pro-British Protestant population of Ireland’s industrially developed northeast, Home Rule was also despised as a half-measure by those Irish nationalists seeking full independence, whether or not they accepted violent struggle as an acceptable means to that end.

Home Rule was the aim of the moderate nationalists that made up the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the smaller All-For-Ireland League (AFIL), and it had the theoretical a support of the British Liberal Party.  The Liberals in government were never strong or brave enough to actually enact Home Rule until the second general election of 1910 left them as a minority government.  Dependent for survival on the support of 42 Labour MPs and 84 IPP/AFIL members, the Asquith government had no choice but to force Home Rule through a hostile House of Lords, but an attempt to introduce it in 1914 collapsed under the threat of rebellion in pro-British Ulster, and the War gave the Westminster government an opportunity to put the process on hold for the duration.

For most Irish people, as for most Europeans in 1914, political issues were trumped by war in all its emotive (and illusory) glory.  For almost two years the British were able to get away with yet another relapse into dithering inaction in Ireland, but the actions of relatively small cohorts of militant nationalists – gathered around organisations like the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and the more politically focused Sinn Fein – had already shaken British confidence by the spring of 1916, when the Easter Rising convinced Asquith’s coalition to throw the Irish a bone.

A month after the Rising, Asquith announced that he was sending war minister Lloyd George to Ireland to discuss the implementation of Home Rule with IPP leaders John Redmond and John Dillon. Given that Home Rule for a united Ireland was still fundamental to IPP aims and still anathema to Ulster Unionists, the talks stood no chance of success, but they did boost popular hopes of peaceful change at an important time.

Lloyd George – who held simultaneous but separate discussions with Unionists – made enough hopeful noises to both sides to keep the discussions dragging on until late July, when they finally collapsed, leaving the IPP leadership with nothing to show for its trouble except a very public humiliation.

The sense of crisis that pervaded Britain during and after the Somme Offensive extended to Ireland, and it wasn’t until 1917 that the extent of damage to the moderate cause became clear.  On becoming prime minister in December 1916, Lloyd George had responded to IPP requests for action on Home Rule with another piece of gesture politics, granting a Christmas amnesty to Irish internees in Britain.  The gesture merely released committed republicans back into Irish politics, which did the IPP no good at all, and in an atmosphere of rising popular support for an immediate ‘Irish Settlement’ Sinn Fein won its first two by-election victories in April and May 1917.  Well aware of the need to appease the strongly pro-Irish sentiment of Britain’s newest and most important ally, the USA, Lloyd George tried again.

Joseph McGuinness won Sinn Fein’s second ever seat in parliament, at South Longford in May 1917. He was in prison at the time, and didn’t take up his seat when he got out.

On 16 May Lloyd George made the Irish parliamentarians an offer of home rule for the 26 counties of southern Ireland, excluding the six counties of Ulster.  If this was unacceptable, he offered to call a conference of all parties in Ireland for the purpose of hammering out a system of self-government.  Faithful to their long, public commitment to all-Irish autonomy, the moderates chose the latter option, and in the process lost their last vestiges of political credibility in Ireland.

Sinn Fein refused to attend the Convention, as did the small AFIL delegation, both preferring to focus their efforts on winning electoral support, but 95 delegates representing a fairly broad cross-section of Irish life and political opinion were present for the opening session on 25 July.  That was as good as it got, because it quickly became clear that, no matter what the British had led them to believe, neither side had any intention of budging an inch.

The majority, led by IPP delegates, remained committed to autonomy within the Empire for all Ireland, while the northern unionist minority refused to include Ulster in any devolution process.  The small group of southern unionist delegates did put forward a compromise proposal, known as the Midleton Scheme, for an all-Irish parliament hedged by guarantees of Ulster’s separate identity.  It prompted weeks of highly detailed debate, and gave increasingly desperate moderates an opportunity to express a lot of unwarranted optimism, but had changed nothing by the time the Convention spluttered to a halt in late March 1918.  Its final report in early April amounted to little more than separate statements of both sides’ unchanged aims.

Members of the Irish Convention outside Trinity college, Dublin, in 1917 – a cross-section of moderate, middle-aged, white Irish men.

The Convention’s prolonged and much-derided failures did permanent damage to the IPP, to the cause of moderate Irish reformers in general and to the popular credibility of Home Rule in Ireland.  Lloyd George wasted no time finishing them off.

Although the Convention’s majority report in no way amounted to the ‘substantial agreement’ stipulated by the British government as a condition for implementing Home Rule, Lloyd George agreed to begin the process of implementation on the IPP’s terms, but only in return for the extension of conscription to Ireland.  Deemed necessary in the light of a sudden manpower crisis created by the German spring offensive on the Western Front, this bundling of Home Rule and the spectre of compulsory service effectively guaranteed the former’s popular rejection in Ireland.

The tortuous death of Home Rule pushed the Irish political agenda firmly and irretrievably towards republicanism, and the most obvious political consequence of the Convention was the irresistible rise of its most trenchant critics.  Sinn Fein had made a breakthrough in 1917 by winning its first four by-elections, and went on to win two more in 1918 before adding another 67 at that December’s general election.  The same election saw the IPP’s vote collapse, leaving it with only six parliamentary seats, and signalled the ‘War of Independence’ that finally secured southern Ireland’s freedom from the British Empire – but that’s another story.

The Convention was hardly Irish nationalism’s finest or most important hour, but looked at dispassionately it seems worth remembering for a few reasons.  In itself, it was the long, loud anticlimax that exposed the futility of seeking Home Rule within the Empire for all of Ireland, and conclusively confirmed the refusal of Ulster’s unionists to countenance any degree of separation from Great Britain.  Meanwhile the well-meaning, all-absorbing and circuitous efforts of the IPP,  some northern unionists and a small group of southern unionists to achieve an unlikely agreement left moderates in the south politically paralysed, stuck in wait-and-see mode while republicans galvanised popular opinion with demands for immediate change.

From a British perspective – the one I’m stuck with – everything about the Convention and its outcomes is a reminder of something our heritage view of the First World War tends to bypass altogether. By the time war broke out, it was probably impossible for Ulster and the rest of Ireland to develop as one nation, but the British routinely peddled false hope to both sides as a means of neutralising any distraction from the war effort, and casually shattered that hope when the same war effort had more need of Irish soldiers than Irish approval.

In 1917 Great Britain was fighting for its life or, if you prefer to take a social-historical view, British ruling elites were fighting for their fiefdoms.  Either way, the struggle entailed the ruthless exploitation of allied and occupied countries in ways that often left them poor, unstable, vulnerable to conquest or all three.  Germany tends to attract most of the opprobrium for that kind of behaviour during the Great War, and it’s not hard to see why, but if we forget what the British got up to we might end up with a warped worldview based on the idea that the rest of the world thinks we’re the good guys. Where that might lead, Gove only knows…

16 JUNE, 1917: Peace Wars

By way of an anniversary, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in Petrograd a hundred years ago today.  I plan to talk about it in context rather than in detail, because although it confirmed the legitimacy of the Provisional Government that had, in the form of various coalitions, been trying to run Russia since the February Revolution (in March), it otherwise reflected the chaotic nature of its political environment.

Most of the thousand or so delegates, and most of the workers or soldiers they represented, simply wanted food and peace in a hurry, but debates were guided by the more political animals among them, representing a wide spectrum of liberal and socialist views. These politicians, some of them hardened opponents of the old regime at the climax of a decades-long struggle, bickered along the lines anyone with a working knowledge of socialism in the early twentieth century would expect.

The majority wanted controlled, relatively gradual change within something like the social, political and geopolitical norms of the day, while a substantial minority argued for immediate revolution and a completely new socio-political world order. For the moment, the political gradualists still held sway in Petrograd and Moscow (the only places that really mattered when it came to controlling Russian politics), but with every day that passed without peace or economic transformation the workers and soldiers became more impatient, their mood more in tune with the aims of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and other revolutionary political factions.

Messrs Skobelev, Chkheidze, Plekhanov and Tsereteli.  Members of the Provisional Government and executive committee members of the All-Russian Congress, these were the relatively moderate socialists trying to hold back the tide of revolutionary pacifism in Russia.

The Congress both reflected the wild state of flux that had characterised Russian politics since the beginning of the year (and that generally accompanies revolution on the streets wherever it takes place), and was one of its by-products. Worker’s and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, had been a feature of the half-cocked 1905 revolution in Russia, and had returned in force during 1917, springing up spontaneously or as the work of local agitators all over Pertrograd, Moscow and the armed forces. During the February Revolution, those in the capital had been loosely organised into a central Petrograd Soviet, which had since been acting as a form of volatile but extremely powerful parliament, allowing the new Provisional Government to remain in power at its pleasure and drawing it ever further to the left.

The Petrograd Soviet was meanwhile facing its own challenges from below. In an attempt to add some semblance of concrete to its essentially ad hoc authority, it had organised a meeting of all the soviets it could muster, convened on 3 June with the understandably grandiose title of the National Conference of Soviets. The main business of the Conference was to organise the systems of credentials and voting necessary to turn itself into a congress that could claim a national, democratic mandate for policy decisions.

After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik-controlled All-Russian Congress would go on to function as the supreme political authority in Russia (rather than the whole USSR) until 1936, but in June 1917 it was just another noisy institution flailing in the whirlwind of ongoing revolution. While its leaders jockeyed to fill power vacuums, its constituent soviets swung towards radicalism and their delegates waited to be replaced, its debates centred on the one shared aim that might, if achieved, bring relative calm and the prospect of real social progress: peace.

Everyone with anything to say inside revolutionary Russia talked about wanting peace, and Russia – with its army, economy and society in ruins – was obviously ripe for peace, but wanting peace wasn’t quite the same as being a pacifist or as simple as it sounds.

For Marxism-inspired revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky – important street politicians in the context of the Petrograd whirlwind, but at this stage hardly bookies’ favourites as Russia’s next leaders – peace was a simple matter. Unwavering pacifists, they had opposed the War since before it began, regarded the conflict as a grotesque example of elite classes getting underclasses to do their fighting for them, and simply demanded that Russia stop fighting at once, leaving the warring states to sort out any fallout for themselves. This view resonated nicely with the impatient masses, but not with the gradualist side of Russian socialism, and not with the Provisional Government.

Left-leaning, and lurching further that way to keep up with events, but still essentially attached to the principles of pre-War liberal Europe, the Provisional Government desperately wanted peace and a chance to calm the storms, but not at any price. It promoted the socialist slogan – ‘peace without annexations or indemnities’ – that had already become a global buzz-phrase for pacifists, but it didn’t want to leave Russia at the mercy of a victorious German Army and it didn’t dare risk the loss of Allied economic aid by walking away from the fight. The government instead pinned its hopes on ending the War by bringing international socialism together for a peace conference – but by mid-June that wasn’t going so well.

In early June, the National Conference of Soviets (along with Dutch and Scandinavian socialist groups) had sent invitations to a conference in Stockholm to socialists from all the belligerent countries, but most belligerent governments were in no mood to grant passports to travelling pacifists and immediately banned delegates from travelling to Stockholm. Even more damagingly, a majority of Western European socialists at war, though in theory committed to seeking peace, remained patriots first and foremost, determined on a peace in line with their country’s needs and ambitions. The same catch had undermined international socialism’s stand against war in 1914, and pre-conference talks with international socialists already in Petrograd as observers quickly demonstrated that as yet, despite war-weariness and the rebirth of socialism as a revolutionary force in Russia, nobody else on either side was willing to abandon national interest for international brotherhood.

Displaying the kind of optimism it takes something like the overthrow of an emperor to generate, the Provisional Government clung to the belief that Stockholm represented a real chance of peace, pinning its hopes on the fact that the British government, alone among the major allies, had granted passports to pacifists. By the time the All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened those hopes had been dashed, and the British government was in the process of changing its mind. Why and how the Lloyd George coalition dithered its way to disapproval pretty much summed up why mainstream socialism was, as diplomacy had been a few months earlier, incapable of delivering peace in 1917.

For obvious strategic reasons, the British government wanted the Provisional Government to survive and carry on fighting. With the Labour Party installed as part of the governing coalition, it was also less afraid of pacifists or revolutionaries than most European governments (and less hostile to socialism in general than the USA), so its first reaction to the Stockholm proposals was to give peace and the new Russian regime a chance. Passports were therefore granted to a small group of pacifists, led by Labour MP and future premier Ramsay Macdonald, but they were prevented from sailing from Aberdeen on 11 June by the Firemen’s and Seamen’s Union, which then organised a nationwide blockade of ports to stop them finding a another route out of the country.

The leader of Labour’s pacifist wing thwarted by a picket line? Cartoon gold in 1917.

The stated reason for this superficially bizarre behaviour was the seamen’s fury at public rejection by pacifists, and by MacDonald in particular, of their demands for reparations from Germany to compensate the victims of submarine warfare. MacDonald tried to defuse the situation by making a statement accepting the seamen’s view that reparations should be paid to both Allied and neutral victims, but it made no difference because the real issue behind the blockade was the union’s mistrust and resentment of pacifism itself.

The delegation gave up and went home on 15 June, by which time popular and press support for the union’s actions had made clear to the cabinet that, much as the government wanted to give peace without indemnities a chance, the nation as a whole wanted the pound of flesh propaganda had led most people to expect. The delegates’ passports were cancelled, any hope disappeared that the Stockholm conference would be more than another token gathering of powerless pacifists, albeit bolstered by the newly empowered pacifists of the Russian revolutionary left, and the government in Petrograd was left with the impossible task of satisfying bellicose allies and a pacifist population.

Peace was what everyone wanted, even in Britain, but pacifism was another matter altogether.

Just how badly that turned out is another part of the wider story. For now, this grossly simplified, largely fact-free amble through the muddy, swirling waters of socialist politics in June 1917 is a reminder of how quickly the solidarity of opposition can be turned into civil war by the expectations, dilemmas and compromises that come with power. It is also, like the fate of Austrian Emperor Karl I (31 March, 1917: The Right Charlie), a reminder that once you start breaking up a system you’d better go all the way, or someone else will do it for you. They can often seem like a good idea to people trying to balance a vested interest in stability against a conscience, but moderate revolutionaries are still an oxymoron trying to deliver the impossible… so watch your back, M le Président.

20 FEBRUARY, 1917: Ask Don’t Get

A hundred years ago today, the Petrograd Conference broke up. Called for the purpose of assessing and improving Russia’s contribution to the Allied war effort, and Allied contributions to the Russian war effort, it had lasted 20 days and achieved very little.   All the same, the fact that it took place at all and the ways in which it failed do add up to an interesting glimpse at what an alliance between Britain, France and Russia really meant in 1917, as well as providing a snapshot of Russian imperial government immediately before it collapsed.

In any war you care to consider, at any time in history, coalitions mean conferences, whether called to coordinate the efforts of allies during a war or to share out the spoils at its end.  These days, international conferences at any level can take place without participants leaving their screens, and pre-industrial conferences among military allies ended to take place in the tent next to the battlefield.  In between, international conferences involved a lot of overseas travel.

The First World War took place just before technology took the sting out of overseas travel.  Conferences between widely separated allies remained arduous and potentially dangerous undertakings, usually conducted during the military quiet periods of mid-winter or high summer to reduce the risk of some major strategic change during the slow process of convening the delegates.

This basic logistic problem was one reason why it took the Allies until the end of 1915 to organise a major conference in France (8 December, 1915: Chat Lines), and the main reason why it was difficult to arrange any kind of conference between the Allies and Russia.  If getting a few Russian delegates to France represented an achievement, nobody wanted to ship boatloads of Allied delegates to Russia for a conference unless absolutely necessary.  By the middle of 1916, from both sides of the alliance, it was beginning to seem absolutely necessary.

 

Petrograd, as it was called between 1914 and 1924, was further from western Europe than this looks.

From a Russian perspective (as if perspective was a factor in imperial Russian government), the alliance wasn’t providing anything like enough military, supply or financial support.  Officials in Petrograd regarded the war on the Eastern Front as vital to the future of the Western Front, and believed that the Allies – and particularly Russia’s prime supplier, Britain – were holding back supplies because they failed to appreciate this fact.  Russian diplomats had meanwhile been unable to soften Britain’s hostility to unilateral trade between Russia and the USA, an attitude Petrograd put down to jealousy.

From an Allied point of view, the real problem with supplying the Russians was the Russian regime.  Shiploads of supplies were known to be rotting in dockyards that were simply not equipped to deal with the amount of traffic being sent from the West, let alone with the hundred percent increase the Russians were demanding.  The western Allies also doubted that military aid was being used properly when it did arrive, and the same applied to the financial credit being extended to Russia.  As for unilateral transatlantic trade, the British in fact feared that Russian business methods, considered cavalier and untrustworthy, could destabilise Allied relations with the USA.

Behind all these concerns lay a deep Allied mistrust of the Russian political and bureaucratic systems, and a mounting belief that the only way to sort them out was to go to Russia, find out what was really happening there and arrange support accordingly.  This was the main reason for Lord Kitchener’s trip to Russia in July 1916, which followed the failure of a London conference on Russian affairs, but his death en route postponed matters.  During the autumn, as Russian demands for loans beyond the scope of current agreements sparked another round of fruitless discussions with diplomats, plans were finalised for a major conference at Petrograd in early 1917.

Led by cabinet ministers and senior generals, British, French and Italian delegations finally reached Petrograd at the end of January, and after a few days of fractious preliminary meetings the conference opened officially on 1 February.  It quickly became clear that a full plenary session would be so crowded that any serious progress would be impossible, so the conference was split into committees to deal separately with military, political, financial and supply issues.  Even then, to the particular annoyance of British delegates, proceedings were slowed because a lot of senior Russian delegates were new to their jobs, such was the rate of ministerial turnover in the Tsar’s crumbling government, and by squabbling between rival Russian ministries.

The political committee had the easiest task, largely confined to confirming present arrangements and ensuring that all parties were aware of the others’ intentions.  The military committee was essentially in the same position, although the western Allies were obliged to repeat their rejection, confirmed at the Rome Conference a few weeks earlier (7 January, 1917: Back Door Man), of Russian demands that Greece be compelled to join the War on the Allied side, using military force if necessary.  Discussions about finance centred on Russia’s attempts to stop Britain demanding gold payments for loans made the previous year, and to secure unlimited credit for the duration of the War. They got nowhere, with Lord Milner, the head of the British delegation, eventually ending the debate by insisting on the need for further study.

Lord Milner’s worth a post of his own, and was a shadowy, influential figure among the British political elite. He was also a hard-core nationalist, imperialist kind of a guy…

The most important discussions and heated arguments were reserved for the knotty question of supplying Russia with military aid and trade. The Russians wanted more weapons from the western Allies, especially artillery, machine guns and rifles, but their negotiating technique reflected the regime they spoke for – inclined to fantasy, comfortable with fiction and naturally uncompromising – so they simply demanded huge numbers of everything.  The British and French (Italy was asking, not giving) wanted realistic assessments of Russia’s actual needs and of how much Russian docks could actually handle.  Supply would then depend on Allied estimates of what would constitute bang for buck on the field of battle.  These were not compatible positions, and they hadn’t got much more compatible by the time the conference broke up.

The Petrograd Conference failed to instigate any real changes in policy or process, failed to elicit any signs of reasonable compromise from the Russian administration, and was quickly rendered null and void by revolution in Russia – but it did provide one or two small benefits to the Allied war effort.  The Allies had learned to address all their issues with Russia as a coordinated whole, and their willingness to send important delegates such a long way had confirmed (to themselves and to Russians) the seriousness of their commitment to the alliance.   This helped smooth relations with the new Provisional Government in Petrograd, and some of the more useful organisational reforms discussed at the Conference did survive to improve the flow of supplies in the months that followed.

Petrograd also gave us a last, damning glimpse of imperial Russian bureaucracy and government at work before the February Revolution (which took place in March by the western calendar) consigned them to history.  The British, the French and the new Russian government were all quick to point the finger at the old regime when analysing the failings of the Conference, and I’m no apologist for the last Tsar’s catastrophic performance, but there is another side to that part of the story.

No matter how loudly they blamed Russian inefficiency, corruption and intransigence, the British had come to Petrograd with no intention of shifting their own position on supply and finance, or of admitting their own weakness in those matters.  By early 1917, all Allied loan and credit arrangements were dependent on US agreement, and a Wilson administration desperate to find grounds for peace was in no mood to make generous arrangements with belligerent autocracies.  Any major increase in supplies to Russia would also depend on US industry, which was already working to full capacity for its preferred Anglo-French clients, and anyway the rapid increase in losses to German submarines meant the British couldn’t spare any shipping to deliver more supplies.  Nothing about any of this was going to change in Petrograd, and the British knew it.

So although it wasn’t the first, the last or anything like the most significant example of the practice, the Petrograd Conference was a reminder of how easily and often the presence of a convincing scapegoat can be used to distract history’s attention from the full picture.

 

22 JANUARY, 1917: One Clanger, Two Bangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 JANUARY, 1917: Back Door Man

If you thought 2016 was bad – and let’s face it most people did – cheer yourself up by imagining how ghastly the world looked at the end of 1916.  Feeling better?  Good, now get past the heritage notion that everyone running the world a century ago was stupid, and think about how a smart person like you, equipped with a hundred years of hindsight, might have changed things at the start of 1917.

It’s a tricky one.  You could take an extreme pacifist position and walk away at all costs, forcing peace for its own sake, but only by betraying every clarion call and sacrifice since 1914, and only by leaving the enmities of 1914 unresolved, primed to start another war.  This was morally and politically impossible for anyone in a position of power in any of the main belligerent nations.

Perhaps you could parley for peace, persuade the warring empires to swap compromises in the face of escalating slaughter and socio-economic mayhem – but both the German Chancellor and the President of the United States had just tried that, only to discover that neither side was ready or willing to give an inch.  Given that the Allies had framed their entire case for war as an outraged mission to save civilisation, and that only total victory could save the regime directing the Central Powers, you might as well forget about the spirit of compromise.

So you’re going to have to keep fighting this war, and aiming for final victory, but surely an intelligent, open-minded leader can find a quicker and less costly route to goal than the hideous attrition of the Western Front, or for that matter the Eastern and Italian Fronts. Well, the British and French have tried this before, only to land in trouble at Gallipoli and strategic quicksand at Salonika.  Meanwhile the British Empire, the only Allied state with any resources to spare elsewhere, is already busy fighting sideshow wars in the Middle East, in Africa and across the world’s oceans, and any day now the German Third Supreme Command is going to bet its collective shirt on the almighty short-cut of all-out submarine warfare.  In other words, you’ll struggle to find any viable new route to victory, let alone one you can get past the combined scepticism of military and political forces still fixated on the main European fronts.

Generations of intelligently applied hindsight have failed come up with a convincing alternative to the ‘keep marching to the light’ approach adopted by leadership on both sides during the second half of the War, so it’s no wonder that even the most creative British statesperson of modern times couldn’t crack the problem.  Newly installed as British Prime Minister, at the very peak of his political power and influence, David Lloyd George gave it a characteristically bold try, but by the time the Rome Conference of Allied leaders ended on 7 January 1917, he knew he had failed.

I’m a big fan of Lloyd George. I’m not planning to go into details here, but few people with his energy, pragmatism, vision, boldness and cunning get to achieve much in modern politics while keeping their ideals on the side of the angels. Despite a list of personal flaws to match his gifts, Lloyd George entered office on the back of a brilliant record as both a reformer of British society and its prime organiser for total war. Though the War years burned him out politically, and his career never fully recovered from association with the universally unloved post-War peace settlement, he was a fearless and confident figure throughout the conflict, and at the end of 1916 he was determined to force it to a swift, victorious conclusion.

Ruthlessly effective at streamlining government and bureaucracy to meet wartime needs, Lloyd George was equally adept at shaping press and popular opinion – but though his work on the home front established a platform upon which victory could be built, persuading the military to complete the task his way presented an altogether more formidable challenge.  Broadly speaking the Army, led by Chief of Staff Robertson and BEF commander Haig, was absolutely committed to maintaining maximum focus on the Western Front, and sure the War would be won or lost in France, while Lloyd George was equally sure that victory could be achieved more quickly and less painfully by attacking the Central Powers through a back door.

The trouble was, as mentioned earlier, most of the back doors had been tried and found locked, or at least extremely difficult to open, and though the prospect of an attack on the underbelly of the Ottoman Empire still beckoned in the Middle East, nobody expected it to defeat Germany.  Given the abject performance of Allied forces in Salonika, it was clear that nothing the British Army could do was likely to have much effect on the Eastern Front’s overall picture, and that left Lloyd George with few new options for lateral thinking except the unlikely scenario he came up with: an attack into the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Italy.

In military terms, it wasn’t a great idea. Lloyd George wasn’t far wrong in thinking that Vienna’s empire was ripe for collapse, but the Italian Army was going to need a lot of reinforcement and the Italian Alps were still a blood-soaked nightmare for offensive operations. That didn’t stop Lloyd George suggesting the transfer of British and French heavy artillery to Italy within a week of taking office, and he took the idea further at a meeting of Anglo-French leaders on Boxing Day, when delegates accepted his proposal for a summit between the British, French and Italian high commands to discuss overall strategic priorities. Robertson and Haig were unimpressed, and were placing obstacles and objections in the path of any serious military aid to Italy within a matter of days. This was to be expected, but might be overcome if the combined weight of French and Italian opinion could be convinced to swing behind Lloyd George.

The summit convened as the Rome Conference on 5 January. Lloyd George asked delegates to consider increasing military aid to Russia and increasing the strength of Allied forces in Salonika. He also urged the development of joint offensive strategies on the Italian Front, supported by the transfer of Anglo-French artillery and infantry to the theatre. The Italian high command had no problem with the latter idea, and Italian Army c-in-c Cadorna agreed to mount a major offensive provided the Allies added at least 300 heavy guns to his artillery. At first the British and French military commands, neither of which had any official advance warning of the proposal, made it clear they had no guns or troops to spare for the Italian Front, but under pressure they agreed to loan the Italian Army some heavy artillery – only for the French to qualify the offer by insisting on the return of the guns by April. Cadorna pointed out, quite rightly, that Italy couldn’t possibly mount an offensive in the Alps before April, and the conference broke up on 7 January without any firm arrangements on the table, let alone agreed.

When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.
When the French Army complained it was hard to get guns from the Somme to the Italian Alps, it had a point.

Lloyd George had been thwarted by the military on both sides of the Channel, had received no substantial support from the French government and, with a characteristic disregard for military realities, declared himself let down by Cadorna’s refusal of a bad offer. His battle against Robertson and Haig was far from over, and the rest of the year would see him manoeuvring to curb their control over strategic direction, but the cross-Channel military solidarity displayed at the Rome Conference set a pattern that precluded any fundamental change in military priorities. From the other perspective, Italian delegates at the Conference came away confirmed in their view that Britain and France were serious about wanting a major offensive into southern Austria-Hungary, but weren’t prepared to pay for it.

The Rome Conference was a failure, but is worth remembering as a nod to the largely forgotten efforts of those trying to alter the character of the First World War at what seemed its hour of deepest gloom. It also merits commemoration as the start of something, because despite Italian scepticism the Conference forced Anglo-French military leaders to at least examine the position on the Italian Front. New French c-in-c Nivelle visited the front in February; Robertson followed in March. What they saw convinced them that the Italian Army, operating far less sophisticated defence systems than those in use on the Western Front, might well need reinforcement, if not for an offensive then for credible defence against any major attack by Austrian or German forces. British and French commanders began formulating plans for the rapid transfer of guns and troops to Italy in the event of a crisis, and these would prove extremely valuable when crisis came the following autumn.

19 November, 1916: Fake News

History books and heritage agree that the Battle of the Somme ended a hundred years ago yesterday, on 18 November, with the abandonment of British attacks in the Flers-Courcelette sector that had begun a week earlier.  The end of the battle, or more accurately campaign, was all over British mass media in 2016 – but in 1916 it didn’t receive any of the fanfares or instant retrospectives we’d expect today.

At a time when propaganda reported the start of an attack and any good news about its progress, but left out any bad news and only reported successful endings, the conclusion of an offensive now seen as one of the most momentous events in British military history received no mention in the British press during the days that followed and was only really acknowledged with the beginning of new offensives in 1917.

In a sense, that was fair enough because the Somme Offensive didn’t so much end as fade away, and as fade-outs go it made Hey Jude or Heart Of Glass look succinct.  Its original purpose had faded away before it began, because the German Army’s offensive at Verdun had turned it into a supporting action for the French defence, and by the autumn signs of French success were the only stated justification for BEF commander Haig’s continued attacks around the Somme.  Come mid-November, it was clear that French victory – if you can call nine months of carnage to get back to where you started a victory – was no longer contingent on support from the BEF, and that German reinforcement at the Somme was making further British advance more rather than less difficult with time. Meanwhile manpower shortage had again become a problem for the battle-ravaged BEF, and by 18 November it was snowing in northern France.

Bad weather stopped play on the Somme from 18 November, and the season ended before the restart.
Bad weather stopped play on the Somme from 18 November, and the season ended before the restart.

Under those circumstances suspension of major operations until the spring was both orthodox and sensible, two of the adjectives most readily associated with Douglas Haig, and so the campaign subsided into the ‘permanent offensive’ of trench warfare as a matter of course rather than strategic decision.

I mention the end of the Somme Offensive, not because it’s been this week’s big heritage hit but because it’s being commemorated as if someone blew a final whistle, they all shook hands, the scores were checked and everyone went home.  That wasn’t what happened. Even the strategists at the top in late 1916 were only able to put a date on the thing once winter had set in, and planting the idea of a grandstand finish into the public mind seems ridiculous coming from an industry that otherwise sells the simplistic idea that the whole offensive was a gruesome exercise in indecisive meandering.

A hundred years ago today, the public mind wasn’t particularly focused on the Somme, partly because it was a Sunday and news travelled slowly at the weekend, and partly because Monday’s papers would be dominated by the more immediately exciting news that Allied forces had captured the major Serbian city of Monastir. Trumpeted as an important blow against enemy occupation of Serbia, and as a fatal blow to Bulgarian war aims, it was in fact an entirely token victory with few positive military, social or political consequences.  Though destined for the popular obscurity in Britain that went with any sort of failure, and not even close to a place in our modern heritage narrative, it was part of a crucial phase in the history of a region that is today as geopolitically important as it was in 1916, but is now much closer to home.  So let’s go there.

I last cast any kind of detailed eye over the Salonika Front in the late summer (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), at which point the division of Greek political society over which offer of alliance, if any, to accept had degenerated into virtual civil war.  Former prime minister Venizelos led a pro-Allied faction in the northwest of the country, based around Salonika itself, while King Constantine led a government in Athens that, though reputedly pro-German, worked to avoid fighting on either side for as along as possible.  Political volatility and disease – which had reduced Allied frontline strength in the theatre to 100,000 men (from a total force of 500,000) – had persuaded Allied c-in-c General Sarrail’s to abandon his half-hearted summer offensive from Salonika into southern Serbia, while at the same time German and Bulgarian forces had stirred the political pot by pushing unopposed into positions within Greek Macedonia.

The military strategy of the Central Powers was by now fully under German control and, despite Bulgaria’s ambitions in Macedonia, September found Berlin far more interested in exploitation of Romania than destabilisation of Greece.  With the forces ranged against him dwindling as they were transferred to Bulgaria’s northern frontier with Romania, Sarrail launched a second offensive in the middle of the month, though on a smaller scale than the first. Serbian forces, bolstered by French and Russian detachments, advanced east of Lake Prespa and the Albanian frontier from 13 September, and next day British units further east began moving forward either side of the River Struma.  You’ll be needing another look at the map to figure any of that out, so here it is.

salonika-map

The largely Serbian advance retook the recently occupied town of Florina on 18 September, but its subsequent attempt to push north up the River Crno towards Monastir became bogged down in hilly country against determined Bulgarian defenders.  Meanwhile the British contingent made little progress in similar conditions, and was still well short of Seres, its primary objective, at the end of the month.  Bulgarian forces launched counterattacks all along the line from 14 October, but they failed everywhere, and deadlock set in after the weather turned to rain and fog a week later.  Serbian forces did manage to make contact with Italian units in Albania, but were prevented from further progress towards Monastir by the arrival of German reinforcements, while the British advance dissolved into trench warfare on the Struma and around Lake Doiran.

That was the situation on 14 November, with the Allied advance up the Crno still 25km from Monastir, when exhausted Bulgarian forces began a general retreat.  Monastir was evacuated on 18 December and re-occupied without a fight the next day.  In the east, the British kept at it for another three weeks, but had made only minor advances when bad weather brought fighting in the theatre to a halt in mid-December, stabilising the front line north and east of Monastir, where it would remain unchanged until late 1918.

Monastir, the modern Macedonian city of Bitola, had been an important place in pre-War Serbia.  Annexed from the Ottoman Empire after the First Balkan War of 1912, it had been the country’s second largest city and a major regional trading centre, but its economy had atrophied since conquest by the Central Powers.  The Allies took possession a crowded, hungry, unhealthy town, its mountain valley climate ideal for the breeding of malaria-bearing mosquitoes – not much of a prize, and even its propaganda value quickly disappeared with the consequences of occupation.  Divided into French, Serbian, Russian and Italian sectors for the rest of the War, Monastir was now close enough to the front to attract almost constant air and artillery bombardment, suffering the kind of structural damage and civilian casualties generally associated with towns close to the Western Front.

Speaks for itself...
Speaks for itself…
The city's 60,000 population was swollen by refugees, and nobody ever counted the number of wartime civilian casualties.
The city’s 60,000 population was swollen by refugees, and nobody ever counted the number of wartime civilian casualties.

So the only practical values to the British war effort of the week’s big Allied success story were that it took people’s minds off the Somme, and that it satisfied the reconstructed Serbian Army’s need for a victory to establish its existence in the minds of an occupied population.  From a Macedonian point of view, Allied capture of Monastir merely exchanged one occupying force for another and put the city in the front line, and is remembered as a dark deed from some of the nation’s darkest days.  Whichever way you cut it, Monastir’s wartime fate and the stumbling military aggression that sealed it seem worth remembering.  As for yesterday’s artificially created anniversary, I’m not so sure.

11 NOVEMBER, 1916: War and Peeps

I’ve got no good reason for picking on this particular day, except that it’s been long enough since the last ramble, it’s a date destined to mark Armistice Day and in 1916 it was a Saturday. The last part gives me an excuse for a loose look back on a wartime week that was, in conflict terms, essentially humdrum – not dull or anything, just short of a commemorative moment that knocks on any doors to historical understanding I haven’t peeked through lately.  So here come a few morsels, newsletter style, rather than the usual stretched point.

The previous Tuesday had seen a US presidential election, but although it prompted media comment and speculation throughout the world, the battle for the White House was nothing like the global blockbuster of a story it is today. The obvious reason for that was a world war in progress, but another was the state of inter-continental communications in 1916. Telegraph meant news from the USA reached the rest of the world quickly, but it was still drawn from very limited sources and perspectives, rendering detailed, current analysis of slow-burning events like the election all but impossible for overseas media.

A third factor keeping the excitement down in Europe was that the re-election of Democrat incumbent Woodrow Wilson was seen as an essentially unremarkable and satisfactory result.

Wilson may have exasperated the British with his opposition to the Royal Navy’s idea of international law, and the Republican Party, represented by Supreme Court judge Charles Hughes, was certainly more likely to go to war against Germany than the current administration – but business between the USA and the Allies was proceeding smoothly, and US relations with Germany were worsening at a reasonably satisfactory pace.  Continuity also avoided the potentially dangerous hiatus of a complex transition process that in those days continued until an inauguration ceremony in early March (though Wilson had in fact addressed that problem in advance, making plans for an unprecedented immediate inauguration if he lost).  At the same time the Central Powers were less uncomfortable with Wilson, who had campaigned on the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out Of The War’ (despite his personal doubts that he’d be able to do so for much longer), than with a Republican platform built around military ‘preparedness’ for any unavoidable future entanglement in (European or Mexican) war.

Hi-tech, cutting-edge political campaigning...
Hi-tech, cutting-edge political campaigning…

From the American side of the Atlantic, Wilson’s victory by a razor-thin margin – the first successful tilt at a repeat term by a Democrat since 1832 – had been a lot more exciting. The final result had been so close that, with vital returns from California delayed by recounts, Hughes is reputed to have gone to bed on 7 November in the belief that he had won, and if the Republican Party had been less of a mess he might well have done.

The root of Republican disarray was, as in 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, who had returned to the fold from his breakaway Progressive Party, and had thrown his weight behind the respected but altogether less charismatic Hughes after his own bid for the nomination had failed. Roosevelt’s militarist, nationalist populism didn’t reflect the views of Hughes, who shared Wilson’s preference for caution, but was seen by many voters as the dominant theme of the Republican campaign.  Although the electorate’s preference for the Allies over Germany was clear, it was not ready to enthuse over entanglement in Europe’s war, and with hindsight many Republicans blamed Roosevelt’s noisy, bellicose contributions for Wilson’s victory.

Business interests in the US were understandably disappointed to miss out on the contracts bonanza implied by preparedness, and the result had sent Wall Street into a minor tumble by the time markets closed for the weekend, but it didn’t last. Wilson quickly calmed things down by announcing increased military spending, and within a few weeks Germany’s escalation of submarine warfare would render the election debate obsolete, freeing US industrialists to embark on a production boom that would cement their future dominance of world trade and, with government support, secure their complete victory over the nascent forces of US socialism.

A few days after the election, none of this was making much of a splash in the British press, which was crammed with all the usual optimistic reports from various battlefronts – dominated by highly detailed coverage of activity around the Somme (and, at this time of improving fortunes, around Verdun) – along with the usual long lists of casualties and medal winners.

The Arabia, a big target and just the kind of vessel the Allies used for transport.
The Arabia, a big target and just the kind of vessel the Allies used for troop transport.

The press also carried exhaustive lists of ships lost, and the previous week’s most high-profile maritime casualty had been the cruise ship Arabia, en route from Australia to Britain and carrying 439 civilian passengers, which was torpedoed without warning in the Mediterranean, about 100km off the southern tip of Greece, by the UB-43 on 6 November.  Eleven crewmen were killed, and although all the passengers were rescued the nature of the attack on a ship carrying 169 women and children provoked worldwide outrage, particularly in the USA, which delivered a formal protest about the sinking to the German government, and in Australia, where it triggered a temporary surge in the numbers volunteering for armed service.

While an American judge was being denied the presidency by voters’ preference for peace, and outrage was propelling young Australians to war, pacifism was enduring a bad weekend in Britain. On 11 November, a British tribunal delivered its judgment on a test case that confirmed the government’s policy of restricting the wages of conscientious objectors to the amount they would have earned as a private in the Army.  Understandable on one level, the state’s insistence that no individual gain financially from refusal to fight was also a labour relations issue, as was the government’s almost constant ‘combing out’ of men from reserved occupations for military service.  Yet despite all the turmoil and realignments on both sides needed to adapt to more than two years of ‘total war’, the big labour question in late 1916, central to a British socialist movement positioned on the far left of the political spectrum as we understand it today, was the same as it had been in August 1914: war or peace?

Often led by Labour MPs, meetings and demonstrations demanding an immediate negotiated peace took place in increasing numbers all over Britain as the slaughter in France gathered momentum through 1916. That they represented a minority view was confirmed on 11 November at one such meeting in Cardiff.  Organised by the South Wales miners, it was broken up by an angry citizen mob, which hurled mud and stones at participants as it chased them away, a street battle that both highlighted the depth of social divisions beneath the unifying mask of defiance to the enemy, and delighted a predominantly right-wing and universally jingoist national press.

Though none of the above episodes opens up any stunning new historical vistas, they do at least relate to a modern world experiencing President Trump, outrageous acts of terror against civilians and a British Labour Party led by a far-left pacifist.  As such they strike me as more interesting than the event generally commemorated on this day by the heritage industry (whenever it can see past the poppies):  the end of the grimly unremarkable, ten-day action – yet another attempt by the BEF to extend the tiny bulge in the Somme line it had created near Flers-Courcelette – known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights.

27 OCTOBER, 1916: Net Loss

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.

HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage
HMS Nubian after the battle – spot the damage

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.

A good map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker
A good, uncomplicated map of the evolving Dover Barrage, this, so credit to its maker…

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.

28 JULY, 1916: Special Relationship?

For months now, the First World War has been locked into a second full year of wholesale military carnage on the main European land fronts.  Major offensives have erupted at Verdun and the Somme in the west, in the Trentino Valley and on the Isonzo River in the south, across Galicia and Poland in the east – but none has yet brought decisive results or opened up any clear path to victory.

The same could be said of the various secondary fronts dotted around the planet.  Although some offered avenues for the post-War ambitions of the empires concerned, the strictly colonial struggle for East Africa, the regional dispute between the Russian and the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, the multi-pronged British invasion of Middle East and the crazy chaos around Salonika were all marginal to the search for overall victory by the Allies or the Central Powers. In short the military struggle on land was, as the heritage industry loves to point out, locked in stalemate.

The heritage boys and girls are also quite happy to remind us that the First World War was a ‘total war’, by which they mean whole societies and their economies were committed to (and crucial to) its prosecution… but they generally avoid following that argument to a logical conclusion that messes with their simplistic, confectionary narrative.

With whole societies involved – and in technological conditions that made decisive military victory at best unlikely – it stood to reason that the richest, most developed, organised and cohesive societies would eventually exhaust the socioeconomic resources of their enemies and claim victory. In other words, the fact of total war made military stalemate and unbreakable trench lines less fundamentally important (and less open to ridicule) than heritage history wants us to believe, because there was another way to win the War.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that contemporary generals, politicians and propagandists were well aware of economic warfare’s importance as an alternate, apparently certain route to glory, and used it frame the miserable excuse for a strategy that was attrition (14 July, 1916: Virtual Realities).  Last week, I pointed up the long-term economic perspective taken by all the major belligerents. Today marks the centenary of a formal protest by the United States against the British Empire’s macro-economic policies, a low point in Anglo-American relations that brings together the two biggest questions surrounding economic warfare in 1916.

The first question, a live issue since 1914 and still being asked two years on, concerned the Allied blockade of sea trade to the Central Powers, led by the enormous Royal Navy.  Would blockade bring total victory, as promised by British strategists and contemporary economists, and if so when?  Or could German submarine warfare against Allied trade be expanded and refined to even up an economic balance of power that had, from the moment a quick military victory failed to materialise in 1914, been heavily weighted against the Central Powers?

The second question cut across the first and had the potential to render it all but irrelevant to the War’s final outcome.  Would the United States, by far the world’s biggest and most important neutral economy, enter the War to slew the economic balance irrevocably in the Allies’ favour, and if so when?

Economists have been analysing the impact of the First World War on their particular field of interest ever since it ended, and the best they’ve managed so far is the unsurprising conclusion that US entry on the Allied side condemned the Central Powers – which were anyway fighting at a massive economic disadvantage in terms of available human and material resources – to certain defeat.  This would hardly have shocked informed observers in 1916, but the modern tendency to assume that US alliance with Britain and France was inevitable, simply a matter of time, would have raised a few eyebrows.

There was no real danger of the USA joining the Central Powers. Germany’s motives for and conduct of the War were generally deplored in the US, a mood defined by the German Army’s deliberate terror tactics against civilians in Belgium, and lately reinforced by the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians (many of whom fled to the US and spread tales of genocidal atrocity).  But that didn’t mean the United States wanted to side with Britain.

The great republic’s sympathies tended to lie with countries directly under the hammer of war – Belgium, Italy and France, for instance. Britain was seen in Washington (as it was in Berlin) as the main protagonist on the Allied side, and as an arrogant, greedy bully, fighting to squash any challenge to its long-term dominance of the global economy.  The War as a whole was perceived by many in the US as a battle for supremacy between Europe’s two greatest economies, with the rest of the continent suffering in support roles, and nothing reinforced that view more powerfully than the ongoing Anglo-German struggle for control of the sea lanes.

Hatred of German submarine warfare and British blockade tactics informed the whole US political spectrum, from traditional isolationists who loathed and disdained European imperialism, to business interests determined to create their own sea-trading economic empire.  And while the threat to life and property posed by U-boats was always likely to overtrump the Royal Navy’s aggressive but relatively civilised policing when it came to popular outrage, political and business interests were if anything more appalled by the systemic denial of their long-term economic destiny built into Britain’s blockade strategy.  Viewed with anything like historical dispassion, this was a reasonable point of view.

Not that the British saw it that way.  Seen from London, blockade was doing a good job of grinding down the enemy war effort, but doing it too slowly to guarantee the long-term prosperity of a British Empire haemorrhaging men, materials and money.  Constant efforts were being made to tighten the blockade for greater efficiency, usually by assuming ever-greater powers to stop, search and seize neutral vessels suspected of trading with the enemy.  The fact that neutral powers were legally entitled to trade with anyone they liked was seen as irrelevant during a fight that claimed to be between good and evil.

The British press in 1916 had no doubt that trading with the enemy was a heinous crime against civilisation, and its shrill outrage helped elevate the practice into something seen by many in Britain as a major obstruction to victory through blockade.  It wasn’t, but every Brexit victim knows how attractive an easy fix for complex problems can be in times of crisis, so few British voices were raised in doubt when, on July 18 1916, the government issued a ‘Black List’ of 87 US-based companies accused or suspected of trading with the enemy, making it a criminal offence for any British company to trade or even correspond with them.

To the surprise of British interests without American experience (and nobody else), the list triggered a furious reaction in the US, bringing scathing rebukes from editors coast to coast, and helping cement continued pacifism (exactly the thing Britain didn’t want from the US) as the dominant theme of that year’s presidential election campaign.  It also provoked the formal note of protest from Wilson’s government, delivered by the US Ambassador to London, Walter Hines Page, on 28 July.

_c2A2tU0fTm708jQTGvH43VcPJxtdGyo5p9fysNKqyc
You rule the waves, you make enemies…

The note marked a major crisis in Anglo-American relations.  Though aware that it had made a mistake and anxious to defuse the situation, an increasingly shaky Asquith government didn’t dare climb down in the face of a British press and parliament roaring their outraged indignation at American reactions, and didn’t want to encourage similar protests from other neutral governments. Foreign minister Edward Grey therefore issued a statement refusing to retract the list, and although repeated negotiations over the following months produced a series of quiet reductions in the list’s scope, along with reversal of an initial threat to expand it, the British would not renounce their claim to impose trade restrictions on neutral states as a matter of right.

This was inevitable, given Britain’s need to maintain control over other neutral traders, but it went to the crux of US emotional and economic antipathy towards the old colonial foe, so by late 1916 the Black List controversy had contrived to make Britain even more unpopular than Germany with many Americans, and in particular with Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson had reacted to initial publication of the Black List with undisguised anger.  He admitted to aides that he was ‘about at the end of my patience with Britain and the Allies’, and told his closest advisor, Colonel House, that he planned to consider restrictions on loans and exports to the Allies.  As the row rumbled on through the autumn, and once he had been returned to office for a second term, Wilson made good his threat, putting federal pressure on US bank JP Morgan – which functioned as the British government’s wartime financial agent in the US – to limit the loans promised to Britain at the end of 1916, a move that threatened major disruption to Allied plans for offensives in 1917.

The British had painted themselves into a bad corner, and if Germany hadn’t managed to repair relations between London and Washington by taking submarine warfare beyond the point of US tolerance, the Black List might now be remembered as one of the War’s most calamitous diplomatic screw-ups.   As it is, the controversy seems worth commemorating as a reminder that US friendship with Britain was a fragile and, in many eyes, unlikely state of affairs in 1916, and as proof that, although imperial Germany has quite rightly become a by-word for diplomatic incompetence (see for instance 3 December, 1915: Friendly Fires?), the insular, often unconscious arrogance of wartime British diplomacy could run it a good second.

7 JUNE, 1916: The Bruiser And The Cruiser

There was plenty going on in the world at war as summer got underway in 1916, more than enough to leave me well off the pace and backdating a bunch of posts for the same crowded week. But with offensives on progress on all three European fronts, and Arab rebellion erupting in the Middle East, the headline story in British newspapers on 7 June mourned the loss of a national hero and icon, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener of Khartoum.  I’m not going to shine any surprising lights on the War here, and Kitchener’s pretty much the business of the heritage trade, but I can’t resist a few words around the centenary of his passing.

Front-page-resource-material0002

Kitchener had been drowned just off the Orkney Isles on 5 June, when a mine sank the cruiser, Hampshire, which was taking him from Scapa Flow to Archangel for talks with the Russian Tsar. Viewed by the British press and public as a national disaster, and the most senior military fatality of the War to date, his death came as a considerable relief to the British government… and thereby hangs a whole bunch of conspiracy theories.

A ruthlessly effective colonial campaigner, and a former governor of Egypt famous for quelling tribal rebellion in the Sudan, Kitchener was Britain’s most eminent soldier when war broke out, towering above the rest of the Army establishment. Too old for active service at 64, he was a natural, popular and almost inevitable choice as war minister – but not a particularly practical one.

Horatio Kitchener was a very strange and remote person. Vain, arrogant and taciturn to the point of mysticism, he made no secret of his contempt for politicians – and little attempt to behave like one. His stern, mandarin air brooked no debate, and he saw no need to keep ministers informed about military strategy, let alone about the thinking behind it.

Naturally enough, Kitchener didn’t explain why he, alone among senior European strategists, believed in August 1914 that the coming conflict would last for years and cost millions of lives – but he did institute the immediate creation of a volunteer mass army for the purpose, becoming in the process the most famous recruitment poster in the history of the world, ever.  Mass recruitment proved vital when stalemate on the Western Front called for huge numbers of British reinforcements, but the flood of volunteers unleashed by Kitchener’s appeal also disrupted labour distribution and contributed to the major supply problems suffered by the BEF in 1915 (15 May, 1915: The Blame Game).

As war minister, Kitchener took some of the blame for supply problems, and by late 1915 his popular reputation as a politician was somewhat tarnished.  As a strategist, he generally gave solid, largely silent support to concentration on the Western Front, but he also backed Churchill’s Dardanelles adventure in 1915, only to indulge in a bout of opaque wavering as the campaign developed. His uncertainty promoted continued but half-hearted commitment of military resources to Gallipoli, and his prestige took a further hit when the shambles came to an ignominious end. Subsequently a trenchant ‘westerner’, but no longer influential enough to prevent extended commitment of Anglo-French forces to Salonika, he offered his resignation in early 1916.

The rest of the government was, to a man, desperate to be rid of Kitchener, but his resignation was turned down. The scourge of the Sudan was still a popular love object, and amid the gathering war weariness of early 1916 the government needed all the friends it could keep. On the other hand a spell of respite from the big, brooding bully with the piercing blue eyes was an irresistible temptation, so when talks in Russia called for a delegate of genuine international standing, Kitchener was offered the job. Happy to accept a respite from the travails of office, the old colonial butcher headed for Scapa Flow and oblivion.

This was a convenient death, providing an heroic end for a national hero while freeing the national war effort from his baleful influence… and nothing so convenient reaches posterity without attention from conspiracy theorists. The first targets for public suspicion were German saboteurs, soon joined by Communists, anarchists, Irish republicans and the other usual suspects, including a brief fashion for blaming vengeful victims of Kitchener’s ruthless conduct during the Boer War. In the century since the Hampshire‘s demise, and with no credible supporting evidence, theorists have gone on to suggest collusion by the British government, a plot by a cabal of British admirals and grandees, and a host of the other unlikely scenarios.  I could spend time explaining the weaknesses that render all of them at best unlikely, at worst ridiculous, but think Kennedy, Robert Maxwell or Princess Diana and you should get the message.

Having doffed an acknowledgment to the sudden, noisy departure of a man whose career spanned Britain’s uncomfortable transition from late-nineteenth century colonialism to twentieth-century realpolitik, I’m happy to leave more detailed examination of the Field Marshal’s legacy to the commemorative industries – just so long as we’re clear about the conspiracy theories.