Category Archives: Great Britain

13 APRIL, 1919: Dear Mr. Francois…

It’s long time since I talked about India (15 February 1915: Negative Thinking) and long past time me, you and the British Empire paid it some serious attention – because change was afoot in the Raj and the end of the First World War had sharpened its edge.  Today marks the centenary of one of British rule in India’s darkest and most deadly days – the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, usually known in Britain as the Amritsar Massacre –and of a fundamental sea change in the nature of India’s battle for independence.

The massacre is infamous across the Asian subcontinent.  It is understood as a signal of changing Anglo-Indian relations, as a trigger for the acceleration of that change and as a symbol of the long struggle for Indian political independence.   Above all, it is recognised as a damning exposure of the British Empire’s repressive, greedy, arrogant, ungrateful and clumsy response to a subject population’s hard-earned and reasonable hopes for political representation.  The event is also reasonably well known to the British, for whom it is routinely presented as a regrettable imperial error, but seldom discussed, let alone taught, in depth or from anything other than an Anglocentric perspective –so it seems to me some context is in order.

British imperial authorities had spent the war years showering their Indian subjects with praise and positive propaganda, as well they might.  More than 1.3 million Indians had fought for the Empire during the First World War, of whom 72,000 were killed, and they had fought well, generally displaying loyalty and tenacity despite appalling conditions, occasional communal disputes between Indians of different faiths or cultures and some maltreatment at the hands of officers inexperienced in Asian affairs.

War-related problems with British internal administration of colonial India had, understandably enough, been kept as quiet as possible – but they reflected a significant seam of native discontent across the Raj.  With German help, militant Indian nationalists, some of them imported from the British Empire and the USA, had fomented trouble in various corners of the sprawling Raj, with particular effect in Punjab and Bengal, and attempted to stir up rebellion in the Indian Army.  In March 1915, shortly after foiling an attempt by one militant organisation, the Ghadar group, to coordinate a major Indian Army mutiny, the British vice-regal government introduced the Defence of India Act.  Aimed at revolutionary militants but used at the whim of regional authorities against anyone deemed a nuisance, the Act gave the administration sweeping powers to imprison any Indian citizen without trial or verified evidence.

Militant nationalist agitation, regardless of religious or provincial background, existed side by side with the blossoming of Indian mass politics, centred on the Indian Congress.  Formed in 1885 as a largely powerless national forum for airing high-caste Hindu concerns, Congress had evolved into a broader arena for nationalist debate and a nationally recognised symbol of Indian identity.  More or less tolerated but never encouraged by the British, it had encompassed broad, overlapping divisions between moderates seeking gradual social reform and activists chasing more radical change, as had the parallel All-India Muslim League, formed in 1906.  Hindu and Muslim politicians generally squabbled with each other as much as with the colonial administration, but vague British promises of political reform as a reward for wartime loyalty had brought them closer to unity than ever before.

Gandhi and Jinnah at Lucknow, finding unity in the face of a paranoid, arrogant and often dishonest common enemy.

In December 1916 the Lucknow Pact temporarily committed Hindu and Moslem groups, with the support of all their internal factions, to the presentation of joint demands for specific reforms to Viceroy Lord Chelmsford.  This is not the place for a discussion of the details, but when the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms arrived in 1918 Indian politicians of all persuasions were united in regarding them as paltry reward for years of military service, political repression and economic hardship.  A consequent upsurge in political protest – in particular the rapid spread of MK Gandhi’s innovative, popular, pacifist nationalism – helped harden attitudes towards India once the British were free to administer their empire without the constraints of total war.

In Britain and among its enemies, few questioned the India’s position as the Empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’, in both economic and prestige terms, and so British governments had long been accustomed to a defensive attitude towards internal change or foreign involvement in their prize possession.  With civil protest spreading fast, post-War British policy in India was dominated by memories of the Ghadar conspiracy and the German mission to Afghanistan (6 March, 1919: Dangerous Liaisons), by fear of the new revolutionary threat of Bolshevism from nearby Russia, and by nervousness around continuing, apparently revolutionary unrest in the Punjab and Bengal.  The result, presaged by the appointment in 1917 of a Sedition Committee to investigate the various threats to the Raj, was the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, passed by the Imperial Legislative Council in Delhi on 10 March 1919.

Also known as the Rowlatt Act (after the chair of the Sedition Committee, Sir Sidney Rowlatt), but generally called the Black Act by those it governed, this was an indefinite extension of the Defence of India Act, with all its powers to detain and imprison without trial. Designed to douse the fires of protest, it had precisely the opposite effect, inflaming Indian public and political opinion, provoking a hartal (essentially a general strike) in Delhi that formed part of Gandhi’s mushrooming civil disobedience movement, convincing many politicians (including Gandhi and Jinnah, the future leader of Pakistan) that cooperation with the British would never bring significant reform, and sparking an upsurge in civil unrest, much of it scarred by violence, across the subcontinent.

Speaks for itself…

In Punjab, (typically racist) British assumptions about ‘martial’ Indian peoples, a wartime history of violent unrest, evidence of German infiltration and geographical proximity to the former Russian Empire had already convinced many colonial authorities that the province was on the verge of revolution.  Now things got a lot worse.  In the wake of the Act massed protests in Lahore, against a background of strikes and infrastructural sabotage throughout Punjab, prompted British arrest of two popular Punjabi politicians who had campaigned for Indian independence and supported Gandhi’s satyagraha (non-violent protest) movement.  Their arrest brought protests onto the streets of the Punjab city of Amritsar on 10 April, during which troops opened fire, killing several protesters.  Riots followed, along with attacks on public buildings and British property, before the city fell temporarily calm on 11 April.

The city of Amritsar looked set for a big day on 13 April.  The Sikh festival of Baisakhi always attracted thousands to its spring harvest fair, and local nationalist leaders had organised a large protest movement for the afternoon, to be held in the Jallianwala Bagh, the public garden of the building known as either the Harmandir, Sri Harmandir or Darbar Sahib (but usually called the ‘Golden Temple’ by Europeans).  The acting British regional commander (Acting) Brigadier-General Dyer, spent the morning announcing the imposition of martial law in the city, with a curfew and a ban on all meetings of more than four people – though his tour of the streets seems to have been ignored or missed by the population in general – but news of the protest persuaded him to abandon the effort and focus on events at Jallianwala Bagh.

The meeting had been called for 16.30 in the afternoon, but by 15.30 a crowd of at least 6.000 (Dyer’s estimate, based on aerial reconnaissance) was packed into the six-acre garden.  Subsequent enquiries suggested that the crowd was much larger – between 15,000 and 20,000 – boosted by festival-goers who had left the Baisakhi livestock fair after Dyer had it closed at 14.00.  Rather than attempt to enforce martial law and/or disperse the crowd, Dyer and his political chief, Deputy Commissioner Miles Irving, did nothing for the next couple of hours, before arriving at the garden with 90 Indian Army troops and two armoured cars at around 17.30.

The Jallianwala Bagh was an ideal spot for a massacre.  Surrounded by high buildings, it could be accessed by one main entrance or a number of narrow alleys, most of which were kept locked.  With the armoured cars (which were too wide to enter the garden) and troops blocking the main entrance, the protesters were effectively trapped when Dyer, without issuing any form of warning, ordered his men to open fire on the densest sections of the crowd.  The troops duly loosed off more than 1,600 rounds in the next ten minutes or so, killing indiscriminately and triggering a stampede that killed many more.  Many protesters jumped down the garden’s well to escape the shooting, and reports claim some 120 bodies were later recovered from the well, while British imposition of curfew meant that wounded could not be moved from the garden during the evening or night, and many more died before morning.

The well at Jallialwara Bagh – bullets couldn’t get in but people couldn’t get out.

British reactions to what can only be called a disaster said plenty about the attitudes that caused it.  Dyer reported his action as necessary in the face of a ‘revolutionary army’, and was supported by his immediate superiors, while the British lieutenant governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, asked for and got permission to impose martial law in Amritsar and other Punjabi hotspots.

Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer – a brutal mass murderer and proud of it.

Immediate Indian reactions can be summed up as outrage.  The most violent reaction took place on 15 April, in the Punjab city of Gujranwala, where local British commanders suppressed a full-scale riot by bombing and strafing from the air – which dispersed crowds rapidly while killing 12 and injuring 27 – and although the British tried to suppress news of the massacre elsewhere in India, the Indian population was quite capable of spreading news on its own and less violent protests took place in cities across the subcontinent. The massacre’s effect on Indian political leaders of all faiths was as anyone would expect, in that it multiplied mistrust of British political intentions and exposed the fear of imminent revolution lurking beneath the propaganda facade of unalloyed gratitude for the Indian people’s wartime contribution.   As such it struck a massive, arguably fatal blow to increasingly fragile hopes on either side for India’s gradual, peaceful transition to self-government within the Empire.

Meanwhile, an initial British report estimated casualties at 200 dead and approximately 1,000 injured, and although subsequent British investigations revised the casualty figures (accepting 379 deaths) they never matched the estimate by an Indian Congress investigation that posited at least 1,000 dead, possibly as many as 1,500, and at least 1,500 injured.  In November 1919, during a more formal Anglo-Indian inquiry carried out by the Hunter Committee, Dyer made it perfectly clear that he had gone to Jallianwala Bagh intending to open fire on any crowd he found there, by way of teaching the natives a lesson and of course avoiding personal (and by extension imperial) humiliation.  He was also clear that he would have used the armoured cars to fire their machine guns into the crowd had he been able to deploy them inside the garden.

British attitudes broadened somewhat in the face of such breathtakingly brutal realpolitik.  While the Hunter Committee was preparing its report, in December 1919, news of the massacre finally reached London, where Dyer’s actions and excuses were condemned by much of the national press and many British MPs during the following months.  When the Committee’s report was released, in May 1920, it concluded that Dyer had been wrong about the prospect of revolution and had acted with unnecessary harshness, but that the immediate support of Dyer’s superiors at the time made his prosecution politically impossible.  He had nevertheless been removed from his post in March of that year, after which he was denied his promotion and effectively retired.

The Hunter Committee’s report (which dealt with disturbances all over the Punjab province) was almost universally regarded as half-baked.  It provoked scorn and outrage in the British parliament, where Churchill was among those most strident in demanding more comprehensive condemnation of the massacre, and is still seen as an insult by many Indians.  Although various British leaders, including Queen Elizabeth II during the 1990s and Theresa May last week, have expressed their regret and sorrow at the events of 13 April 1919, no formal apology has ever been made.  The only real consolation available to those Indian politicians and cultural figures still demanding such an apology is that, despite the loss of life, the ultimate outcome of the massacre was Britain’s complete and irrevocable loss of political and economic control over India.

That was a long, late, rambling piece – but I’ve not been well and, like most Tottenham fans, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on real life for the last ten days.  As far as I can tell its only raison d’être is to provide a timely reality check to British readers, especially to those parts of the British population which have developed a taste for facile, noisily expressed jingoism, infused with the (essentially Nazi) idea of national exceptionalism.  If you know anyone with opinions along those lines, remind him or her that we’re no different to other bullies.

Here’s one.

4 JANUARY, 1919: The Revolution Will Not Be…

Despite more than four years of fighting to bring stability to the world’s geopolitical systems, or perhaps because of the path taken by the struggle, the survivors among Europe’s traditional stakeholders entered 1919 braced for a battle to preserve the political systems that kept them in place.  Speaking in the broadest possible terms, they had been very afraid of mass revolution in 1914, and pleasantly surprised when the outbreak of war provoked nothing of the sort, but by the beginning of 1919 they were terrified of it.

The roots of the fear weren’t hard to find.  The siren song of socialism demanded change and, having been all but silenced by the national crises of 1914, had come roaring back as a political force since the ghastly military stalemate of 1916.  The spectre of revolution, which had loomed ever larger over Europe’s comfortable classes through the nineteenth century, had developed undeniable substance by toppling the mighty Russian Empire in 1917, and seemed to menace every unstable or war-torn body politic during the turbulent denouement of 1918.

As 1919 got underway, viewed from a conservative perspective, it looked as if revolution’s day had come.  Not just Russia, and not just the many small, faraway countries thrown into revolutionary turmoil by wars – in early January it seemed Bolshevism was about to swamp Germany and was even, if your conservatism came with an alarmist streak, flexing for action in Britain.

I’ll start with Germany, which was showing every outward sign of going the way of imperial Russia.  This isn’t the place for detailed analysis of a very complex and often incoherent story, but the bare bones were reasonably straightforward.

The collapse of the imperial regime had left relatively moderate socialist politicians of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its left-wing splinter group the Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP) in charge of a state disintegrating under pressure of war economics and along all the crevices of its endemic political divisions.  As reformists or ‘gradualists’, seeking peaceful change within the framework of parliamentary politics, these guys had long been an accepted part of the German political landscape, and had spent the years before the War pushing back against radical socialist demands across Europe.  They didn’t want a revolution governed by soviets or peoples’ councils.  They wanted a reformed version of normalcy and, in the optimistic belief that their allies in the military represented a genuine faith in representative democracy across the officer corps, they were prepared to use troops and right-wing militias (known as Freikorps) to get it.

The revolutionary left had also been a force in pre-War Germany, and had been actively fostering and preparing for revolution, regionally and nationally, since the eruption of street protests, street violence and soviet-style politics that had followed the Keil Mutiny in November (11 November, 1918: Peace Off).  After the ‘Christmas Crisis’ in Berlin, during which sailors’ councils occupied the imperial chancellery but were forced to withdraw after a fight with troops and Freikorps units, the most radical elements formally split from the SDP and USPD, forming the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at the end of the year.

Germany was a de facto federation of states, and each faced its own political upheavals as royal or aristocratic government collapsed, but the centre of national power lay in Berlin and the industrial north, where the Spartacist League dominated revolutionary politics and the KPD.  The League and its dashing young leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, went on to become poster children for romantic revolutionaries everywhere during the twentieth century, and its ‘Spartacist Uprising’ of January 1919 is seen as the defining crisis of the German Revolution, but its actual impact was fleeting, limited and damaging to its cause.

Karl and Rosa, dashing but doomed.

While the moderate parties and radical union leaders (organised as the Revolutionary Stewards) remained committed to participation in forthcoming parliamentary elections, the Spartacists wavered for a couple of days before opting to seek revolution ‘on the streets’ (despite Luxemburg’s preference for a parliamentary campaign).  To their surprise, an opportunity to spark said revolution broke out almost at once.

Against the alliance of landowners, capitalism and new militarism… that was the Spartacist message in 1918.

On 4 January 1919, a Saturday, Chancellor Ebert dismissed Berlin police chief Emil Eichhorn, who had refused to act against protesters during the Christmas Crisis.  Eichhorn’s call for a demonstration of support from those he had spared was backed by the USPD, the Revolutionary Stewards and the KDP, and was answered by hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them armed, in Berlin the following day.  While Ebert’s government made arrangements to hire Freikorps units as peacekeepers, revolutionary groups occupied newspaper offices and the city’s police HQ, where a 53-strong revolutionary committee was formed.

The committee failed to reach any kind agreement on what to do next, but did call a general strike, which brought another half a million or so people onto the streets of Berlin on 8 January.  By that time the USPD had opened talks with Ebert and the KPD was effectively split between those who wanted revolution right then and those who thought it doomed to fail without deeper popular support.  The former won the argument, but the latter had it right.

Talks between Ebert and the USPD broke down later that day, triggering a call by the Spartacists for armed uprising and a call from Ebert to Freikorps commanders.  Easily and often derided as naive, calling in the Freikorps was not an unpopular move by the new government.  Even centrist and moderate left-wing newspapers had been calling for firm military action against revolutionary groups since the turn of the year, and their right-wing counterparts were demanding mass executions of revolutionary ‘traitors’.  Ebert and his ministers, their regime staggering in the shadow of Kerenski, had reason to hope that restoration of order could bring consensus around the idea of a liberal democratic Germany.

The fight that followed in Berlin was extremely one-sided, as combat veterans with state-of-the-art weaponry routed poorly armed, undisciplined, outnumbered revolutionaries.  Freikorps troops took full control of the city during next three days, losing seventeen dead but killing more than 150 insurgents, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who were arrested on 15 January and shot during the night.  Berlin’s conquerors never received any official government sanction and their actions were never officially investigated, but they did save the infant German republic, albeit at the cost of its dependence on independent right-wing groups.  Revolution in Germany was far from done, and would define its regional politics into the 1920s, but revolution by an extra-parliamentary coup d’état at the centre would never come so close again.

These were the January revolutionaries in Berlin, occupying the newspaper district…
… and these were the hardened veterans responsible for wiping many of them out.

I hadn’t intended to spend quite so long in Germany today, but information got the better of argument.  My point was to illustrate how fragile the established world order felt to its stakeholders in early 1919, by way of providing context for the fleeting moment of revolutionary Zeitgeist experienced by Britain at the same time.

Britain had suffered a lot of strikes in the latter part of 1918, including a police strike, but 3 January 1919 saw the beginning of a strike by serving soldiers.  Of course it looked like a mutiny to those convinced revolution was coming, and technically that’s exactly what it was – and it was a big one.  It began in Folkestone, where some 3,000 men refused orders to embark for France, reached troops at Dover the next day and spread to dozens of camps in southern England during the next few days.

The rest of the month saw similar incidents, involving tens of thousands of servicemen (and a few women), at camps across the UK provinces and among British troops still stationed in northern France.  The government and military authorities did their best to keep the whole thing quiet, and succeeded to some extent.  The original ‘mutinies’ on the south coast received some press coverage before the government stepped in, and basic news of major incidents at Southampton and around Calais was reported, as were the negotiations with senior officers that brought them to an end (in mid-January and the end of the month respectively), but the public had no idea how widespread the trouble had become.

Pictures of the soldiers’ strike? You’re kidding… so here’s one of the 1918 strike by British police.

From the perspective of a British government in the habit of imposing wartime censorship and well versed in the mechanics of contemporary mass politics, this smelled like revolution in the making.  The soldiers’ actions might, it was felt, be the prelude to formation of political councils and demands, revolutionary behaviour that could spread to infect the civilian workforce and trigger scenes parallel with those in Germany.  Right in tune with the times, this view made smothering the story, and keeping it smothered in the aftermath, a government no-brainer – but it was nonsense just the same.

Modern historians tend to refer to the soldiers’ actions in January 1919 as a strike, and they are right.  Peace had arrived, and conscripted soldiers quite naturally wanted to get home as soon as possible, or at the very least enjoy a relaxation of wartime routines. Instead they were being kept in uniform, subjected to full military discipline and discharged at snail’s pace.  Far from being demobbed, many troops were being ordered to or readied for further overseas service, either as occupying forces or to fight in those parts of the world the British Empire still considered war zones.  Everything we know about the demands of the soldiers and the concessions made to them suggests that they were on strike over working conditions, and the actions were all brought to a peaceful end once the demob process was speeded up, leave granted to those still in uniform and guarantees given against transfer overseas.

Hindsight tells us that the post-War British were, as usual, more interested in peace, quiet and comfort than in revolution – but thanks to the (understandable) paranoia of their ruling classes the soldiers’ strike of early 1919 has been consigned to the misty lands of myth and legend.  Britain wasn’t denied a workers’ paradise or saved from Bolshevik tyranny (delete as preferred) by government repression in 1919, but national propaganda’s enduring need to keep the strike a secret means that most people today have never heard of it, while the shortage of detailed information about it (particularly the lack of published contemporary memoir) has enabled polemicists on both right and left to claim it as a key moment in modern British history.  The strike did achieve its aims, and had important short-term effects on British military thinking, in particular helping to dissuade the government from committing large numbers of troops to the war in Russia, but any association with revolution existed purely in the minds of the converted.

26 DECEMBER, 1918: Waving And Drowning

It’s Boxing Day 2018, and in Britain we’re either shopping or slacking, the latter a clear dereliction of our duty to save the nation by spending more than we can afford.  Some of us are watching professional sport but these days that counts as a form of shopping, as does taking a holiday during the ‘festive’ season.  What we are not doing, with parliament on vacation and world news restricted to natural disasters or routine ceremonials, is politics – which, given Britain’s current political circumstances, says something about how completely we buy into the primacy of commercial Christmas over everything else in late December.  It wasn’t quite like that in 1918.

Christmas was big by 1918.  The habits we now call traditions were well established, though as bare bones compared with today’s sophisticated exploitations, and the implied pause for religious reflection was taken seriously by a very large chunk of the population.  Then again, the holiday did not, as it does today, blot out the real world, and on Boxing Day 1918 the attention of the informed nation, and especially that of more than seven million people living in and around London, was firmly fixed on one event that had nothing to do with nativity.  For the first time in history, a sitting US president was visiting Europe, and on 26 December he was arriving in Britain.

Even by the fanfare standards surrounding the office today, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t just any old sitting US President.  As 1918 drew to a close he was by far the most famous person in the world, and although it’s probably fair to say he loomed less large in the thinking of radical socialists, he was at the absolute peak of his personal influence over world affairs.  Millions of people in dozens of countries regarded Wilson’s ideas as the greatest, if not the only hope for the peaceful development of human civilisation, and hoped that the power of his office combined with his much-vaunted commitment to principles would deliver just that.  In an age when reputations were relatively immune to mass scrutiny on a personal level, he was rock star, Messiah and geopolitical colossus rolled into one.

They loved him in Paris – but the romance wouldn’t last.

Up there on his pedestal, Wilson did have enemies.  A small but fierce minority in many countries – wartime winners and losers alike – regarded Wilson as a potentially deadly threat to civilisation as they liked it, less violent than the bogeyman menace of Bolshevism but much more in their face.  Significant in that they represented many of the most powerful people in those countries, these minorities ended 1918 determined to scupper Wilson’s liberal agenda for the forthcoming peace negotiations by any means acceptable to their populations.  Broadly speaking, and judged largely through the medium of the popular press, those populations were deeply committed to the principles embodied by Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan, but rather more committed to either gaining rewards or escaping punishment for their parts in the late war – so Wilson’s overseas enemies felt they were in with a chance.

Wilson was probably the most famous person in his own country, though Charlie Chaplin could give him a run for his money, but he was never a particularly messianic figure.  Though granted a certain hallowed status by press, politicians and propaganda while the USA was actually at war, his ungainly and unsuccessful intervention in the midterm elections had reduced him to the ranks of ordinary, if high-profile politicians by late 1918.  This meant Wilson was open to personal criticism, like any other political leader, and his much-heralded departure for Europe on 4 December 1918 – an extended visit that would keep him away for more than six months, apart from a one-month spell back in the US – was seen by some US observers as evidence of his arrogance, self-importance and belief in his own legend.  I’ll get around to the controversies surrounding those chosen or not chosen to accompany Wilson’s delegation when the peace conference itself gets going, but for now I want to concentrate on the President’s instant impact on European life.

Wilson travelled aboard the SS George Washington (a German liner interned in 1914), arrived at Brest, France, on 13 December and proceeded to Paris.  He had visited France before, as president-elect in 1912, but this time the population gave him the full superstar treatment, thronging every street through which he passed and every perch from which he could be seen.  He remained in France until Christmas, accepting adoration wherever he went, and took the boat train next day to London.

Wilson’s advisors – well aware that the newly re-elected Lloyd George government regarded the President and his ideas with deep suspicion – expected a more restrained welcome from the British, but they were wrong.  From the moment Wilson’s train arrived at Charing Cross station he might as well have been in Paris.  The streets were packed with civilians in party mood, military honour guards accompanied his progress and he triggered a major outbreak of flag draping and waving.  Only the fact that he rode the two-mile carriage journey to Buckingham Palace accompanied by a king distinguished the day from its French counterpart.

Wilson with President Poincaré in Paris – the smiley face made a big impression in every country Wilson visited, largely because the world was used to…
… stern, serious Woodrow.

Wilson beamed a lot that day in London, and gave a short speech to the adoring multitudes from the Palace balcony, but he’d been to Britain several times before becoming president and didn’t stay long in the capital.  After a meeting with Lloyd George he travelled north for a little rest and relaxation, setting in motion what would become something of a presidential tradition by visiting Carlisle, the birthplace of his mother, and stopping on the evening of 29 December in Manchester, where he was given the full rock star welcome next day and delivered a speech at the Free Trade Hall.  He returned to Paris on New Year’s Eve, but just for the night before setting off for Italy.

Speaks for itself, and for Carlisle.

The Italian welcome for Wilson put Britain and France in the shade, at least in terms of hyperbole, with plenty of popular calls for sainthood to match his local nickname as the ‘god of peace’, accompanied by a torrent of praise for his beatific good looks from a gushing press.  If there is an explanation for this extreme excitement that doesn’t involve national stereotyping, it lies in the difference between contemporary Anglo-French and Italian attitudes to the USA.

The Italian population, like the British and French, was cheering because it was understandably and madly in love with peace, and besotted enough to overlook the fact that Wilson’s brand of peace expressly rejected many of their most cherished national ambitions – but Italians also saw Wilson (and by extension the USA) as a protector against their other powerful allies.  Italians had spent much of the last three years carping about a perceived lack of material support or strategic respect from the British and French, and since the Bolsheviks had made public all the wartime secret treaties to which Russia was party, they had known the promises that brought them into the War could not and would not be kept. Simply put, most Italians expected the British and French to stitch up Italy at the forthcoming peace conference, and wanted to believe that Wilson was principled enough, powerful enough and sufficiently steeped in traditional US hatred of empires to stop them.

Different city, same reaction – crowds greet Wilson in Rome.

Wilson stayed in Italy until 6 January, fitting in talks with King Victor Emmanuel, Prime Minister Orlando and Pope Benedict XV, the latter an irritant to an Italian government on very frosty terms with the Vatican.  With no time to undertake a proposed visit to Belgium – which eventually took place in June – he returned to Paris in time for the official opening of the peace conference on 7 January.

I’ll no doubt fall to chatting about the peace negotiations during the next few months, but today is about Woodrow Wilson’s pioneering display of global superstardom.  A spectacularly bloated product of circumstance and a somewhat arrogant academic’s self-belief, Wilson’s triumphant progress as something between Christ and the Beatles was something new in the world, and announced an age of mass adulation for individual leaders fuelled by ever-expanding, increasingly efficient global communications networks.

Be careful what you cheer for.

You see where I’m headed here?  Wilson’s reputation as the great bringer of peace fell apart as soon as it was seriously tested, and his ideas collapsed when they were applied to geopolitical reality.  From the moment the peace conference got underway his star was on the wane, and it never recovered.  At home and abroad, he proved to be a let-down, and the lesson for his adoring millions should have been clear – but we never did get the message that media fantasies always let you down, and whole populations have been falling for global superstardom ever since.  So a happy new year to both my readers, and put those flags away.

14 DECEMBER, 1918: Politics, Populism… Don’t Panic!

I’ve already mentioned that a general election took place in the UK and Ireland a century ago today.   I’ve outlined the basic political landscape during the brief campaign that preceded the election, which had been called straight after the Armistice, and I’ve touched upon the many factors that made this one special (30 November, 1918: Wh’appen?).  Because what was known as the Khaki or Coupon Election owed much about its shape and outcome to the First World War, and because it offers some (vaguely reassuring) parallels with the political weirdness currently afflicting the British parliament, I think it merits a little more song and dance.

The expansion of the franchise in 1918 was big enough to render electoral precedent redundant.  About 7.7 million citizens had been eligible to vote in the previous British election, in 1910, but the electorate now included most women over thirty, virtually all men over twenty-one and men over nineteen who had served in the War, so that almost 21.4 million voters had the right to their say.  Nobody could be sure how the nation’s new constituents would line up in party terms, with the millions on active service viewed by the political elite as even less predictable than women (seen by many male observers as likely to follow the advice of husbands or other male figures) or workers tempted to the left by the revolutionary flavour of the times.  All informed observers were sure the election would redefine Britain’s political landscape for the post-War era, and the prospect worried a lot of them.

Quite a few of the same informed observers, particularly those with a solid stake in the status quo, spent the campaign complaining that the election had been called too quickly.  The logistic challenge of collecting and counting millions of votes from overseas was cited as one good reason for delay, and another was the ongoing flu epidemic, which was just passing its autumn peak and expected to hobble the hustings.  Influenza did cause the cancellation of many election meetings – which were still an important form of political communication in 1918 – and forced some candidates to stand down, but for many social conservatives the real reason for demanding delay was the hope that more time and a proper dose of conventional campaigning might clarify the state of the parties and dissuade the new electorate from anything too radical.

The two-party system that had dominated mainland British politics for decades needed clarifying.  The biggest party in the House of Commons, the Liberal Party, was split between 145 ‘Coupon’ candidates for the governing coalition led by Lloyd George – known as such because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s sole candidate in a constituency – and 276 representing party leader Asquith’s anti-coalition bloc.  Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party, which had last formed a government in 1905 but had won only one seat less than the Liberals in 1910, stood solidly behind the ideological shelter of the coalition, fielding 362 of the coalition’s candidates against only 83 non-coalition Tories, but the real fly in the ointment was the relatively new Labour Party.

A surprise choice as Conservative Party leader in 1911, Andrew Bonar Law would survive to serve as prime minister in the early 1920s – but is possibly the least remembered major political figure of the age.

The socialist Second International’s bid for peace in the years before 1914, doomed at the time but looking smart with hindsight; the apparent disillusion with conventional nationalism that accompanied war weariness; the hope for a new world order, nurtured by propaganda promises and by the practical reforms introduced to make total war possible; the belief fostered by revolutions elsewhere, especially in Russia and now in Germany, that no regime was immune to the sudden expression of popular anger… all these factors would, it seemed, conspire to launch the British Labour Party into the forefront of parliamentary politics in 1918.  Only 5 Labour candidates took the Coupon – along with 18 (of a total of 23) candidates from the National Democratic and Labour Party (NDLP), an anti-pacifist, nationalist centre-left splinter group fighting its only election – but nobody had any real idea how far (predominantly urban and military) voters would support the other 361 Labour candidates.

The days before the election passed in a Brexit-like frenzy of anticipation, laden with dramatic predictions of national transformation but, partly because press and politicians regarded much of the new electorate as incapable of sophisticated political thinking, hooked on populism.  The issue  of reparations dominated debate and, broadly speaking, the coalition campaigned on its war-winning record, presenting itself as the ideal group to prosecute the peace and punish Germany for its crimes.  Trade was another axis of dispute, with Lloyd George and the Conservatives promoting the policy of ‘colonial preference’ agreed with the Empire’s ‘white’ dominions, while non-coalition Liberals argued for free trade –but Asquith’s lethargic, underfunded campaign failed to make trade a major popular issue.  Unable to summon a clear programme to compete with the Labour manifesto, which promised radical reform to match the ambitions kindled by wartime social measures, Asquith’s party paid for what historians regard as either weariness or complacency.

Only 36 Asquith Liberals were elected, and he lost his own seat, while 127 coalition Liberals were returned along with 332 coalition and 50 non-coupon Conservatives.  The big story was the Labour Party, which had won 42 seats in the 1910 election and now mustered 57 non-coupon MPs, alongside four Labour and nine NDLP coalition members.  This wasn’t revolution, despite a surge in the Labour vote that saw the party come second on lots of places, but it was steady growth and it did mark a shift in Britain’s basic political dividing line.

Fought to a chorus of ‘Hang the Kaiser!’, the election had produced a victory for the nationalist, patriotic sentiment associated with conservatism, but the immediate triumph of right-wing values masked an underlying shift to the left that has yet to be reversed.  It would force Conservatives to focus on social welfare as never before, see the Liberal Party permanently relegated to the margins of British political life, and establish the Labour Party’s various shades of reformist (rather than revolutionary) socialism as one of the twin pillars of a new two-party system that is only now falling apart.

A simple, populist message for a naive electorate… and it was enough to win the 1918 election.

Given that women and troops did not vote en masse for immediate reform of the political system, or even come out in strong support of one particular party (or gender), it could be argued that the 1918 election, while an important watershed moment, didn’t quite live up to the hype – but only if you ignore Ireland, where the it brought the expedient politics of wartime British rule home to roost.

Ireland accounted for 105 seats in the UK parliament (though the vagaries of double constituencies meant this only produced 101 MPs), but the issues upon which the election was fought had little to do with the preoccupations of mainland voters.  The War had brought to the boil the long, often violent, three-way argument about independence that had dominated Irish politics since the late 19th century.  Supporters of full Irish independence were principally represented by Sinn Fein, while supporters of Home Rule (autonomy within Great Britain, as proposed by the coalition government) were represented by the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and its offshoots.  The IPP and Home Rule had been fatally compromised by British government’s wartime behaviour (25 July, 1917: Green Shoots), and Sinn Fein reaped the benefits of popular disillusion with compromise.

This worked pretty well too…

Fighting its first general election, having taken six seats in wartime by-elections, Sinn Fein took 73 seats in 1918, while the IPP suffered a spectacular collapse, leaving it with only six of the 73 seats it had held in 1910.  The third corner of Ireland’s political triangle, those wishing to remain as a fully integrated part of Great Britain, almost all of them Protestants from Ulster, didn’t budge from its usual position, voting in 22 Ulster Unionist and three Labour Unionist MPs.  Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the south owed a lot to the first-past-the-post system that stills skews British politics but was still a clear statement of popular opinion, as was Ulster’s rock solid support for the Union.  Irish politics had clearly polarised.  Home Rule was dead, and the status quo was doomed.

Proof of the sea change came almost at once.  Sinn Fein, which refused to take up its seats in Westminster, called Ireland’s 101 elected MPs to an Irish assembly, the Dáil, which met for the first time on 21 January 1919.  Only 27 deputies attended the meeting – most other Sinn Fein MPs were in prison and other parties joined the British government in refusing to recognise the assembly – but they immediately declared an independent Irish Republic with the Dáil as its parliament.  This date, which coincided with the death of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers during an ambush by members of the Irish Volunteers (a militant organisation soon to change its name to the Irish Republican Army under the aegis of Sinn Fein), is usually taken as the beginning of an Irish war against Great Britain that brought independence in 1921, followed by almost two years of civil war between republicans and unionists.

So the 1918 general election brought a permanent shift in the balance of political power in mainland Britain, and finally released the dancing genie of Irish independence from the imperial bottle.  It marked the true birth of British mass politics as we understand them today, both as the first occasion on which voting wasn’t restricted to male property holders and as the first confrontation between voters and a sophisticated government propaganda machine, bolstered by mass communication and aimed at the emotions of the poorly informed.  As such, the vote was preceded by far and away the noisiest election campaign in British history to that point, brief but awash with hyperbole, and was anticipated with the kind of apocalyptic fervour we’re learning to expect around Brexit electioneering.

For all that, life in mainland Britain was not fundamentally changed by the outcome in December 1918, and the election attracted a very low turnout, at 57.2 percent the lowest of any British general election before or since.  Big storm, big teacup, a little erosion of some longstanding pedestals, and life goes on… something to remember that the next time Britain’s current political crisis freaks you out.

30 NOVEMBER, 1918: Wh’appen?

I can’t help carping on about the worldwide turmoil in progress while the empires of the West were celebrating peace in November 1918, if only because nobody else seems to be mentioning it.  We seem to be living in wild and crazy times today, and no doubt expect them to be remembered as such, but try stripping away the sensationalism built into information overload and comparing modern madness with the everyday news hitting the streets a century ago.  With the grim exception of climate change, our apparently seismic social and political shifts can look pretty tame. Starting from where I left off in Germany, Russia, Belgium and Luxembourg, this is some more of what I mean.

On the day that Allied forces entered Luxembourg, 21 November, the German Navy surrendered to the Allies in the Firth of Forth, just off the Royal Navy base at Rosyth.  The surrender, and that of some 160 U-boats at Harwich (in batches through the second half of the month), put an end to the only threat to Great Britain’s home security since Napoleon, and was a hugely symbolic moment for the British, whose path to war had been mapped by the rapid rise of German sea power.  Given that the Kaiser hanging from a gibbet was off the menu, at least for now, the image of his feared warships tamed was most visible proof of victory available to the British public.  The nation rejoiced, but soon had other things on its collective mind.

HMS Cardiff leads the German High Seas Fleet to surrender in the Firth of Forth, 21 November 1918.  No known photograph can match this for pomp…

The following day saw the publication of election manifestos by the two main contenders in the British general election, the Coalition Liberals led by Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party.  Called within twenty-four hours of the Armistice and due to take place in mid-December, the election asked a greatly expanded franchise – including some women for the first time, and millions of men serving overseas – to choose a government fit to rebuild the nation and the world while the party political system in Britain was in a state of unprecedented flux.

Most Conservatives and the majority of Liberals committed to continuation of the wartime coalition stood as ‘Coupon’ candidates – because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s chosen candidate – and were opposed only by those against the coalition.  The latter included a large portion of the new force in British politics, the Labour Party, and a substantial rump of the Liberals, still led by former premier, Herbert Asquith.

Asquith had won the last general election, but that had been back in 1910 and since then his popular stock had fallen a long way, prompting predictions of electoral failure in 1918 from almost everyone but Asquith himself, whose campaign was already being described as complacent and lethargic.  Pundits assumed with equal certainty that the Labour Party, which produced its own manifesto on 27 November, would make substantial gains, not least because of the broader franchise, but how well it would do was anybody’s guess.  With the future shape and prosperity of the Empire manifestly in the balance, and given that I haven’t even mentioned that it was also an obviously pivotal moment for the future of Ireland, this was one of the most extraordinary and eagerly awaited public votes in British history… and I’ll get back to it.

This is William Adamson, the relatively unknown Scots trade unionist who was leader of the Labour Party in 1918, while more famous men like Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald waited in the wings.

While the British were all agog with triumph and trepidation, other victorious peoples were taking crucial steps towards nationhood or adherence to a chosen nation.  In Zagreb and Belgrade, late November saw urgent attempts to organise a united front of southern Slav peoples in time to make a bloc impact at the forthcoming peace negotiations.  The kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro had been unified in wartime, with the former far and away the more influential partner, but a separate National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs had been established during the War’s last year at Zagreb, where it had proclaimed a Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in March 1918.  On 23 November, after hasty negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere, the National Council proclaimed full unification of Serbia and Montenegro into a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (ah, the wording).

A compromise reached under deadline pressure, created by a body that was self-appointed rather than representative, the new Kingdom was headed by the elderly King Peter of Serbia and came into being when his heir Prince Alexander accepted the Council’s declaration on 1 December – but it pleased neither pan-Slavic nor nationalist elements within its constituent nations and was largely ignored by Britain, France and Italy.  Allied troops continued to occupy parts of the territory claimed by the Kingdom (KSCS), occasionally becoming entangled in skirmishes with ragged local defence forces, and although the KSCS went on to send a delegation to Versailles, so did the Kingdom of Serbia.  The Big Four (France, Britain, Italy and the US) chose to negotiate with the latter, though the US eventually recognised the KSCS in February 1919, while Britain and France gave it reluctant recognition at the end of the peace process.  This was the only means of getting the KSCS to sign the treaty, and of passing responsibility for ongoing disputes about its legitimacy back to the Slavs themselves.

The Prince Regent, he say yes… Alexander gives the KSCS his approval, Belgrade, 1 December 1918.

Despite its universal unpopularity and an almost continuous history of instability – including a coup in 1929 by which the then King Alexander established autocratic rule and Serbian dominance of a renamed Yugoslavia – the state would survive until the 1990s, when its tensions would finally explode into bloody civil war, an outcome that was predicted with some confidence by British newspapers and politicians in November 1918.

Meanwhile the disintegration of Germany was unfolding on a daily basis.  A workers’ republic of northern German states, with Hamburg as its capital, was proclaimed on 24 November.  Three days later the newly proclaimed People’s State of Bavaria, a social democrat regime filling a power vacuum since the flight of King Ludwig III on 7 November, severed relations with Berlin, and on 28 November the Kaiser signed the deed that turned his own flight to the Netherlands into a formal abdication.

Further east, the area that would one day be controlled by the USSR was in a state of dramatic, often dangerous flux, as civil war gathered pace in Russia and regions formerly dominated by the Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian Empires sought to establish their political identity and geographical borders.

The Bukovina region announced its intention to join Romania on 24 November, and a week later King Ferdinand reoccupied Bucharest at the head of his army.  In between, on 28 November, Romanian troops retook the much-disputed Dobrudja province from Bulgaria, a move that forced the resignation of liberal Bulgarian premier Malinov.  The new Bulgarian premier, Teodor Teodorov, took power the same day and was tasked with simultaneously making clear Bulgaria’s condemnation of its alliance with the Central Powers (a crucial position in the run-up to peace negotiations), maintaining Tsar Boris III in power and appeasing the demands of both nationalists on the right and revolutionaries on the left (principally the Agrarian Union and the Communist Party).  He would last until the following October, when revolutionary forces would take control of government without overthrowing the Tsar.

In Poland, the personal prestige of independence campaigner Josef Piludski had helped him form a generally accepted and stable government in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, but it had territorial ambitions.  The first skirmishes of the nine-month Polish-Ukrainian War for control of Galicia’s mixed population were already taking place in November 1918, just as a revolutionary socialist Directorate was taking power in Kiev, while Polish disputes with Lithuania and Russia about the Vilnius region and Belarus would sputter briefly into open warfare before Poland’s Baltic frontiers were set by the 1919 peace treaty.

Lviv, November 1918: the city at the heart of the Polish-Ukrainian war.

Poland also sent forces into the northern Czechoslovakian provinces of Spis and Orava during November, and helped foster uprising to support its claims in Silesia, which was eventually partitioned between Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia after a plebiscite imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.  Czechoslovakia was meanwhile engaged in border confrontations with Hungary that would spill over into warfare during 1919, and part of the Romanian Army had also entered Hungary in pursuit of territorial claims to Transylvania that culminated in the proclamation of a Romanian-Transylvanian union on 1 December.

This is a map of the situation in 1919, but it puts some shapes and places to the mess in Eastern Europe.

I could go on like this for hours, reeling off crisis reports from all corners of a confused world, and still leave out plenty of big news.  I won’t.  Instead I’ll make the small point that, as mass media commemoration of the Great War issues its last outraged squawks, an explosion of events with far more global significance than trench battles are passing their centenaries on a daily basis.  You won’t be hearing much about them from the mainstream, but they’re worth even this brief, partial examination, both as a perspective on the modern world and as a reassuring reminder that we have survived crazier times than these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 JULY, 1918: The Way We Were

A crucial battle was about to erupt on the Western Front in mid-July 1918.  Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it was a case of two offensives clashing.  In Berlin, Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command planned one last attempt to turn the German Army’s great Spring Offensive, begun in March, into tangible strategic success (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs).  Short of supplies and experienced troops, raddled with influenza and suffering an unprecedented crisis of morale, German forces on the Marne were almost ready to launch a two-pronged attack towards Reims, as a prelude to a bigger offensive further north, in Flanders.

Meanwhile, despite the manpower crisis that faced both Britain and France after the bloodletting of the spring – and ignoring French c-in-c Pétain’s insistence that his exhausted troops were incapable of major offensives until US forces were ready to join the fight – Allied supreme commander Foch planned an attack on the western flank of the German salient (that’s a bulge to you and me) at the Marne. Thanks to prisoners and deserters, each side was fully aware of the other’s plans.

Not the world’s most useful map, but it was the best I could do…

The German attack began first, on 15 July, but had turned into an orderly withdrawal from the Marne positions by 20 July, and by the time it ended on 3 August French attacks (with some British and US support) had driven the line back beyond the Rivers Aisne and Vesle. The fighting was heavy and horrible, costing more than 95,000 French, 13,000 British and 12,000 US casualties on the Allied side, and an estimated 168,000 German losses.  The battle finally put an end to the Third Supreme Command’s offensive ambitions on the Western Front, and ushered in a series of, ultimately decisive, Allied offensives during the autumn.

There’s a lot more to say about the Second Battle of the Marne, its turning points, tactical nuances and military-political fallout, but it’s a popular choice with the posterity industry and I’ve got something less stirring and triumphal to talk about.  On 12 June 1918, the ‘Denaturalisation Bill’ passed through its first and second readings in the British House of Commons, on the way to receiving royal assent in early August and becoming law the following January.

Denaturalisation in this context meant the revocation of citizenship granted to those born in foreign countries but qualified as British through long-term residence.  The bill itself (properly known as the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1918), its bumpy passage into law and the noisy public debate surrounding it shine some light on a social norm of the time that hit one of its wartime peaks in Britain during the summer of 1918.  I’m referring to xenophobia, which was uncontroversially indivisible from patriotism for most Britons a century ago and has been making something of a comeback in the last couple of years.

Until 1914, the law concerning British nationality had been based on the 1870 Naturalisation Act, which allowed aliens to become citizens after five years of residence, but successive governments had come under press and political pressure to make it more difficult for hostile foreigners to pose as loyal Britons.  Promoted by influential right-wing and ‘diehard’ imperialist elements, this xenophobic pressure mounted in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust towards other European powers and their subjects, especially Germans, in the years leading up the War.  It bore fruit just as the conflict was erupting.

The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act received royal assent on 7 August and became law on 1 January 1915.  It came in three parts. The first defined ‘natural’ British nationality as belonging to anyone born in the British Empire, anyone born with a British father (even a naturalised father) and anyone born on a British ship.  The second section concerned naturalisation, which the Home Office (interior ministry) could grant to any applicant who had lived in Britain for five years and intended to stay there, was of ‘good character’ and spoke ‘adequate’ English.  Candidates were required to take an oath of allegiance, and their status could be revoked if obtained by fraud.

The third part of the 1914 Act dealt with particulars, including the treatment of married women, who were deemed to hold the nationality of their husbands, so that a British-born widow (or ex-wife) of a foreigner was considered an alien and required to apply for naturalisation.  The section also made clear that although naturalised foreigners could hold any property (except for a British ship) in the manner of natural citizens, they were barred from voting or holding any kind of local or national political office.

Confirmed as law just as national paranoia became government policy, the Act came under shrill attack even before it became active, with the popular press and the right wing of the Conservative Party demanding stronger powers to denaturalise aliens from hostile countries.  Hysteria inevitably focused on some 6,000 naturalised former Germans living in Britain, who were portrayed as potential hostile agents, and critics decried the Act’s failure to require naturalised aliens to renounce their former nationality, raising the spectre of British citizens bound by loyalty to the Kaiser.  In fact, under the German constitution, Germans choosing naturalisation elsewhere were automatically stripped of their original nationality, but a clause in the same constitution that allowed dual citizenship in certain, officially sanctioned circumstances was portrayed as a loophole through which Berlin intended to destabilise foreign societies.

This one from 1915 – they got more virulent as the War went on.

Amid a tsunami of government propaganda based on the idea that Germans and German culture were intrinsically violent, militaristic, devious and bad, what now seems like hysterical paranoia found ready acceptance among many people at all levels of British society. It crystallised into a campaign in the press and in parliament for a legal means to denaturalise ‘hyphenated’ Anglo-Germans at the whim of the Home Office, and the demand soon became impossible for even a Liberal government to ignore.

The Home Office was considering an extension of revocation powers by early 1916, but civil servants considered it difficult to apply and the idea was still bouncing around committees when the Imperial War Conference of April 1917 was asked to approve a draft bill of amendments to the 1914 Act.  This proposed giving the minister power to denaturalise anyone obviously disloyal, of obvious poor character, convicted of a serious crime or absent from the Empire for seven years.  It also suggested extending the wartime ban on naturalisation of aliens from Germany or Austria for five years after the end of hostilities.

The Conference – representing British state departments along with representatives of the ‘white’ dominions (which had hyphenation issues of their own) and India – gave the draft bill its overall approval without stipulating any timescale for change.  Spared the rod, the coalition government took its time before finally introducing such an intrinsically illiberal piece of legislation for its first parliamentary reading in May 1918.  Meanwhile the increasingly furious impatience of the political right, the jingoist press and a considerable section of military opinion (including the Admiralty) were coalescing to turn fear of naturalised Germans into a major national issue.

Rampant anti-German sentiment was reaching a wartime peak by the time the new Act went through its second reading on 12 July. The anti-German ultras were already denouncing the new legislation as soft on aliens, and a proposal to strip citizenship from all Germans naturalised within the last thirty years (and their children, including many men in senior military and civil service positions) was being widely touted to general acclaim from the political right.  In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the 1918 Act – essentially a reprise of the 1917 draft proposal – became a little tougher as it passed through parliament, adding contact with enemy states to the list of reasons for denaturalisation, and banning the children of naturalised citizens from public service jobs unless they were given exemption by a special loyalty tribunal.

Some politicians get to be important but forgotten. This is wartime British home secretary George Cave, the (rather vexed) face of the 1918 Nationality Act.

The new Act still fell far short of the Draconian discrimination against anyone born outside the Empire demanded by the ‘radical’ right and a massively self-important Fleet Street barony, and as such it can be seen as a rescue success for the liberal values at the heart of the Lloyd George coalition.  And because the War against Germany and Austria-Hungary had ended by the time it came into force at the start of 1919, momentum drained from the tide of populist xenophobia that had threatened to make the Act the thin end of a very nationalist wedge.

British public xenophobia would be back.  An instinctive reaction to fear that feeds on ignorance to identify targetable threats, it is always likely to surface in times of popular panic, especially when encouraged by powerful voices with an eye for populist profit.  Over the decades since 1918 it has only tended to come all the way out of the closet during major wars, but these days it’s flouncing around naked in peacetime.  So the only point I’d make around the flood of race hatred that almost carried the day in post-Edwardian Britain is this:  today’s demagogues of modern economic insecurity are tapping into a form of escapism that runs deep and dangerous in our collective psyche, so maybe we should work harder at coping with reality.

23 JUNE, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!

A hundred years ago today the first elements of an Allied invasion force landed at the port of Murmansk, in northwestern Russia.  Their arrival marked a significant uptick in a steadily expanding international campaign against Bolshevism in Russia, and its centenary gives me an excuse to talk about it.

What is usually known as the North Russian Intervention or the Northern Russia Expedition (or three or four other names, none of them any better known) was a complicated, messy and fairly crazy business, entwined with the equally complex and largely shapeless Russian Civil War.  It was geopolitically connected to anti-Bolshevik interventions from Japanese and US forces far to the southeast, around Vladivostok, and to the adventures of the relatively powerful Czech Legion as it marched across Russia in search of safe passage to Allied territory.  I’ve touched on Vladivostok (12 January, 1918: Port In A Storm, Pt.1) and the Czech Legion (31 May, 1918: Fame And Fortune) during the last few weeks, and I’ll be getting back to them sometime soon.  One day I’ll even attempt some kind of overview briefing about the Civil War as a whole, but for now let’s wonder why and how the British came to be invading Russia in mid-1918.

The roots of British military involvement inside Russia lay in the wartime battle for control of Arctic trade routes.  Like convoys and submarine warfare in general, fighting in the Arctic theatre is popularly associated with the Second World War but was an equally significant factor during the First – and for the same reasons.

Russia, like every other state fighting against the Central Powers, expected and received direct aid from its filthy rich ally, Britain. Given the virtual impossibility of Allied shipping reaching Russia via the Baltic, and the regular interruptions to overland trade traffic via neutral Sweden (10 October, 1917: National Stereotypes), supplies had to be shipped across the top of Scandinavia to the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and the smaller White Sea port of Archangelsk.

Nice, simple map – in case you weren’t sure.

Nobody had anticipated this before the War, and neither port was remotely fit for purpose in 1914, so all Russian activity in the region during the conflict’s first months was concerned with expanding their harbour and railway facilities for use as major supply centres for Allied coal and weapons.  The German Navy eventually decided to interfere with the process in June 1915, when an auxiliary cruiser laid 285 mines at the entrances to Archangelsk harbour, and that was enough to trigger an Allied response.

A makeshift minesweeping force, consisting of a few British armed trawlers and 18 Russian boats seconded from the Baltic Fleet, was cobbled together, and a miscellaneous collection of second-line warships was gathered from other theatres for patrol duties in the Arctic Sea.  By the end of 1915 these included two old British cruisers, a Russian submarine and a minelayer transferred from the Far East, while two coastal batteries were established and thirty old naval guns fitted to merchant ships.  German mines meanwhile sank a British minesweeper and twelve merchant ships.

Levels of Allied naval protection for Arctic shipping rose in line with a steady increase in traffic during 1916.  The Russian Navy formed an Arctic Flotilla in February, operating out a new ice-free base at Kola, and the Royal Navy began establishing a larger presence in the theatre during the summer.  The old, pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Glory was stationed in Murmansk from August, and a scratch force based around the light cruiser HMS Askold and a few old destroyers from the Far East was still being formed in the autumn, when six U-boats of the German High Seas Fleet spearheaded a brief but highly effective campaign against Arctic shipping.  In six weeks before winter ice prevented operations, they sank 25 Allied ships, captured two more and damaged several small Allied warships, losing one submarine in the process.

The biggest warship in the region – the old battleship HMS Glory.

In the wider context of a world at war, and in terms of its practical impact on the Eastern Front, the Arctic theatre was still very small beer, and British aid to Russia amounted to only about £20.5 million of war materials in 1916.  Even that was far more than northern Russian ports could handle, and half the year’s imports were still piled up at Archangelsk awaiting rail transport in early 1917.  By that time four British icebreakers and a few more auxiliary craft had reached northern Russian waters, bringing the combined strength of the Anglo-Russian naval presence up to about 40 vessels – but the German Navy had better things to do with its submarines in 1917 and only 21 more Allied ships were sunk in the Arctic before hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers ended in December.

Although the Arctic Flotilla’s Russian units continued to patrol alongside British ships until the Armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Arctic naval war to an effective end – but it also triggered the outbreak of land warfare in northern Russia.  British theatre commander Admiral Kemp was charged with maintaining Murmansk and Archangelsk, along with the territory in between and transport links to the Russian heartlands.  The vast area involved, along with the arrival of a German army in neighbouring Finland, threats of Finnish incursions across the Murmansk railway, and chronic uncertainty about whether local Bolsheviks were allies, enemies or neutrals fighting their own civil war, prompted Kemp to ask for reinforcement by the Army in April 1918.  Bad timing, what with the BEF’s desperate need for manpower against the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, and Kemp was told to make do with the marines aboard his ships.

In early May about a hundred marines, supported by Red Guards and naval units, were landed at the small port of Pechenga, about 50km along the coast from Murmansk, to hold off attacks from German-backed, anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ Finns.  Later that month a single German U-boat appeared off Pechenga and sank a few small craft before disappearing, never to return.  Both incidents served to convince strategists in the British Admiralty and War Office that a major German-Finnish attack on northern Russia was in preparation.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of agreements made with the Petrograd regime concerning the Czech Legion’s safe departure from Russia opened up the possibility that half its troops, some 50,000 men, would march to join any Allied forces in northern Russia.  With Petrograd pressurising the Murmansk soviet (more socialist than Bolshevik at this stage) to stop cooperating with the British, and threatening to send Red Army units to commandeer the trove of war materials lying around in Archangelsk, the British War Office finally approved the dispatch of ground troops to the region.

It didn’t approve much.  The Royal Navy sent an extra marine force of some 300 men to Murmansk, including a naval artillery battery and a machine-gun section, while the British Army managed to scrape two detachments together under the codenames ‘Syren’ and ‘Elope’.  Syren amounted to 600 troops, most of them fresh out of basic training, just released from PoW camps or invalided out of France.  Commanded by Major-General Maynard, an officer previously retired as unfit for duty, they were supposed to protect Murmansk.  The 500 men of Elope were British trainees, backed by a few companies of ANZAC and Canadian volunteers.  Under the command of Brigadier-General Finlayson, they were detailed to cross the White Sea from Murmansk to Archangelsk, and its supply mountain, once the winter ice melted.

Assembled in strict secrecy, because the Allies were not at war with Bolshevik Russia, Syren and Elope sailed from Newcastle on 18 June.  After a difficult journey, during which the emerging flu epidemic struck down the transport ship’s Moslem crew (many of whom were malnourished because they were serving during Ramadan in a region without sunsets), the detachments reached Murmansk on 23 June.  Their arrival brought total Allied ground strength in the new theatre up to around 2,500 (largely second-line) troops, including a few French and Serbian soldiers sent as token assistance by their hard-pressed governments.

Overall command of North Russian operations was given to another British officer, Major-General Poole, who had retired in 1914 but was serving as a military attaché in Petrograd, and who had arrived in Murmansk on 24 May.  Poole was expected to protect a very large stretch of land and its port facilities, to recruit and train local anti-Bolshevik or anti-German elements for their own defence, to absorb any Czech forces that happened to show up, and to use these forces to reopen the Eastern Front.

With hindsight, this was a pretty ridiculous fantasy, particularly given that Poole received hardly any funding for the task and that the entire Czech Legion had by then decided to march east towards Vladivostok – but there is an argument for letting British strategists off the hook.  Deep ignorance of the actual situation in Russia, the sheer scale of the crisis involved and Germany’s obvious desire for an eastern empire all conspired to encourage extravagant speculation, and extravagant strategies naturally followed.  On the other hand, there was no good excuse for General Poole’s extreme optimism about military prospects or his unshakable, seemingly authoritative belief that the Bolshevik regime was a shambles on the point of collapse, both of which exerted a powerful influence on Allied strategic thinking.

A cheery chap, very optimistic and good at despising Bolshies – General Poole, and friends.

The Supreme War Council had already agreed to recruit additional troops for northern Russia from other Allied nations, though most were at least as hard-pressed for manpower as Britain, and Poole’s insistence that, with another five thousand or so troops, he could work all the miracles required of him prompted a steady growth of Allied strength in the theatre.  The campaign that followed eventually occupied some 13,000 British imperial troops, 2,000 French (most of them from French colonies), a mixed group of about 1,000 Serbs and Poles, a battalion of former Russian troops recruited from the autonomously inclined Karelian province and, eventually, about 8,000 US troops.

Long before most of them arrived, and once the winter ice melted, Poole was committed to the occupation of Archanglesk and its supplies.  The port’s Bolshevik government was far less sympathetic to British intervention than the Murmansk authority, and Poole spent July organising a coup by local ‘White’ forces, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Elope force and strong naval support. By way of illustrating the disconnects within what is often mistaken for coherent strategic planning at national level, the coup also happened to coincide with the arrival from Petrograd of a British trade mission that had been instructed to seek friendly relations with Lenin’s regime.  Whatever London’s intentions, the success of the coup on 2 August sparked a state of open warfare between the Bolshevik regime and Allied forces in northern Russia, a breakdown cemented by Poole’s subsequent establishment of regional martial law under a puppet, avowedly ‘socialist’ government.

So now the North Russian Intervention really was an invasion.  Like Britain’s accidental advances through Mesopotamia to Baghdad and beyond, it was a product of strategic sloppiness that blurred the line between attack and defence, allowing feral local commanders to dictate imperial policy.  Never remotely capable of achieving the revival of war on the Eastern Front envisaged by Poole and his political supporters in London (including, inevitably, Winston Churchill), it was destined to expand in black comic, bloodstained fashion during the autumn… when I’ll come back to Russia’s Arctic coasts and point the way to its long, slow deflation, a process that lasted well into 1920.

This has been long and late, because I’ve been under heavy distraction, but the landings of Syren and Scope at Murmansk seem to me worth remembering, and not just as an illustration of the military clumsiness still at large within a British war effort down to its last barrel-scrapings.  Feeble, half-hearted examples of gesture strategy at its most absent-minded, those two little detachments – barely fit for manoeuvres let alone combat – turned out to be the straws that broke the hope, once and for all, of friendly relations between Britain and the new USSR.

6 JUNE, 1918: Satan’s Little Helpers

Of all the gaps in our general appreciation of the First World War, none gets me more worked up than the way Anglophone posterity ignores the wartime invention of aerial bombing and its evil offspring, long-range bombing of civilian targets.  So I’m going to talk about it again.

Maybe it’s the strong whiff of denial that upsets me.  Anglophone popular history has long been accustomed to blaming Germany for everything bad that happened during the first half of the twentieth century, and is comfortable with blaming the Luftwaffe for the cult of civilian bombing.  Ask many Brits how that started and they’ll cite the Blitz of 1940, showing scant regard for the suffering of civilians bombed during the previous decade in China, Spain and the Low Countries (to name the most obvious cases), and completely ignoring the First World War.  Even those relatively informed Anglophones who might mention Guernica, Zeppelins and Gotha raids are apt to leave it at that, simply backdating the assumption of German guilt.

To be sure, the German military was an enthusiastic early proponent and serial pioneer of what was known as ‘strategic bombing theory’ – but only as part of a story that also has roots in Italy, Russia and above all Britain (30 December, 1917: Let’s Drop the Mask).

An Italian, Giulio Douhet, developed the theory and the Russian Army developed the first aircraft big enough to make it potentially viable, while German armed forces made the first systematic attempts to put it into practice, with their Zeppelin fleets and then with their purpose-designed Gotha bombers.  The British were meanwhile open to the arguments of their own strategic bombing theorists.  Though never first on the plot during the War’s early years, the British Army and in particular the Royal Navy always kept up with the game, developing purpose-built bombers and using them in increasing numbers to carry out raids against militarily relevant targets ever deeper inside enemy territory.

Nobody’s efforts ever came close to fulfilling the war-winning potential ascribed to strategic bombing by its ‘air-minded’ European proponents, but then nobody thought the technology was yet ready for the job and in any case no European authority was willing or able to advocate the slaughter of countless civilians during an epoch that still considered warfare a civilised activity.  By 1918 it had become clear to all but the most ardent enthusiasts that, even if strategic bombing might be a game-changer, it wasn’t going to win this war anytime soon.

The Italians and Russians were anyway in no position to risk resources pursuing the theory further, and the German high command, having noted the limited impact of Gotha raids, had scaled down its interest in air power.  With the French never more than dabblers in long-range bombing, because they were primarily interested in aircraft as an adjunct to the ground war on the Western Front, and the US military effort entirely focused on the same campaign, the only major military power still chasing the dragon was Britain.

Relatively rich in resources and right at the forefront of contemporary aviation technology, Britain was home to a fervent group of strategic bombing believers within the RFC and the RNAS, led with bombastic commitment by the nation’s most persistent profit of air power, Hugh Trenchard, and backed by some very noisy armchair strategists running the popular press.

Trenchard in 1918 – moderate moustache, radical views.

An early fan of Douhet, Trenchard had joined the RFC in 1913 and taken command of its home training squadron in August 1914.  By general consent one of the least competent British pilots to have gained his flying certificate in peacetime, but equipped with a clear-eyed determination to prove the importance of air power to modern and future warfare, he was transferred to France in November of that year as commander of No.1 Wing and was promoted brigadier-general in August 1915, when he replaced General Henderson as the RFC’s field commander on the Western Front.

It was a fact of life that Allied aircraft were inferior to German machines in 1915, but Trenchard wasn’t a man to let the weapon of the future languish on the defensive.  He committed his squadrons in wholehearted support of the BEF’s aggressive policy of ‘permanent warfare’ in the trenches, sending large numbers of obsolete aircraft on constant raiding missions over enemy lines and accepting heavy losses more cheerfully than many of his field commanders.  During another period of German superiority in the spring of 1917, he flung everything the RFC could muster in support of the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive, and emerged from the carnage of Bloody April as a fully-fledged bête noir for many combat officers (7 May, 1917: Up In The Air).

Trenchard’s approach was, understandably enough, a lot more popular with the British Army’s high command, and he made that count.  Always convinced that the offensive potential of aerial warfare lay in strategic bombing, he lobbied insistently for development of a mass bomber fleet, and eventually got one.  The creation of an independent RAF was in part a reflection of his views (not least because it enabled the grouping of army and naval heavy aircraft), and his preliminary appointment as its chief of staff in January 1918 was a demonstration of government commitment to the concept of strategic bombing.

The appointment was also fraught with political intrigue, centred on the machinations of Lord Rothermere, Britain’s new air minister and the contemporary definition, along with his brother Lord Northcliffe, of a press baron.  Rothermere’s principal aims can be summed up as a desire to get rid of Haig and his like, and to end the horror of the trenches by concentrating all available resources on winning the War through strategic bombing.  As such he led a political faction supporting a far more radical swerve to heavy bombing strategy than anything advocated by Trenchard, who never lost sight of the need for aircraft to respond to immediate tactical priorities on the ground, and was anyway a friend and supporter of Haig.  On discovering that Rothermere was simultaneously promising the Royal Navy a massive fleet of anti-submarine aircraft – a move that would effectively starve the Western Front of air power – Trenchard resigned in March, although his resignation was not officially accepted until 11 April.

Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere: check him out, he was nasty.

Now a major-general, Trenchard was instead offered command of the RAF’s planned strategic bombing force, the very embodiment of his ideas.  After trying and failing to add overall control of RAF offensive operations to the job description, he accepted the offer in May, and the new Independent Air Force  (IAF) came into being on 6 June 1918.

The IAF was specifically tasked with carrying out its own strategy for long-range, heavy bombing attacks on any target deemed militarily relevant, without reference to British Army or Royal Navy priorities.  Other powers had imagined it, and Germany had taken the first, relatively half-hearted steps towards putting it into practice, but the British were the first to follow strategic bombing theory all the way and create a weapon designed to win wars by inflicting mass carnage on an enemy’s homeland.

Like every other massed bombing fleet in history, the Independent Air Force was a failure.  Stationed at various airfields in eastern France, it dropped around 350,000 tons of bombs during the course of 162 raids that were rarely accurate and made little strategic difference to the course of the War.  Long-range raiders faced vastly improved anti-aircraft defences by mid-1918, and casualties were high.  In total, 153 IAF pilots and 194 other aircrew were killed before the Armistice, although those figures include losses during the final Allied offensives on the Western Front, when the IAF made a more conventional contribution, co-operating with other formations in support of ground operations.

Faced with disappointing results, Trenchard behaved like every other believer in strategic bombing theory in deciding that success was just a matter of deploying bigger fleets of bigger bombers.  The IAF grew in size throughout its short life.  By August it comprised four squadrons of day bombers and five of night bombers; it expanded constantly during the next four months; and plans to add Italian, Belgian and US units to Trenchard’s strength were interrupted by the Armistice.

State of the dark art: the Handley Page 0-400 was standard equipment for IAF squadrons in the summer of 1918.

Trenchard and his followers (including a rising star in Major Arthur Harris and a full battery of popular press barons) also typified true believers by exaggerating, or at least optimising, the impact of bombing raids on enemy production and morale.  Their excuse was the conviction that technological progress would make failure to develop a strategic bombing force a recipe for total defeat in any future war.  Their tragedy, in an epoch enthralled by the world-changing potential of new technologies, was to be believed.

Trenchard went on serve as RAF chief of staff from 1919 until 1930, and guided development of the service as a strategic bombing force while other powers opted for a more mixed approach to aerial warfare.  Though he had government support, he was never remotely likely to receive funding for the kind of fleet he envisaged in a political atmosphere dominated by disarmament and pacifism, and when war came the RAF’s bombers again proved too small and few in number to deliver on strategic bombing theory.

Belief was still strong – in 1938 official British government figures predicted the death toll from one major raid on London at around 600,000 – and so the Second World War’s heavy bombing story was essentially a repeat of the First.  Germany tried to bomb Britain into submission with what turned out to be insufficient force, and the British led the Allies in once more upping the game, pounding Germany (and Japan) with massive bombing raids, exaggerating their impact to secure the further expansion that would surely bring results, and failing consistently until 1945 revealed the grim truth about strategic bombing’s destiny.

Winning wars with huge fleets of big bombers had after all been a hideous chimera, leading humanity to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the gateway to Hell.  The false, dark vision was foisted on humanity during and after the First Word War by misguided militarists from many countries, but the British tried harder than anyone to make it a reality.

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…