Category Archives: Great Britain

31 MAY, 1916: Swansong

You may not need me to tell you that the Battle of Jutland began a century ago today, because it’s one of very few wartime events outside the Western Front deemed worthy of the full treatment by the British heritage industry.  Unfortunately, a high heritage profile comes with a requirement for drama and significance, so the BBC (to pick on the best of them) is coming at you with shows entitled ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’ and ‘The Battle That Won The War’.   You get the message?   Well, it’s nonsense.  Jutland was a miserable non-event, significant only in what it failed to achieve, best viewed as a clear signal that the age of the battleship was well and truly over, and had ended with a whimper.  That said, I’ll try and describe it.

Jutland was the only full-scale wartime confrontation between the two most powerful battle fleets in the world, the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, stationed either side of the North Sea.

The High Seas Fleet was the fruit of rapid German naval expansion during the previous two decades, which was in turn a product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s ego.  Built around 27 modern battleships and battlecruisers (like battleships, but with most of the armour sacrificed for speed), it was not regarded as powerful enough to beat the British in a full-scale battle, but was designed to keep the Royal Navy’s biggest guns away from duties elsewhere, particularly the blockade of German ports, and to whittle away the Grand Fleet’s strength in advance of any possible confrontation.

Based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, the Grand Fleet was the Royal Navy’s principle strike force, an enormous armada built around 35–40 modern battleships and battlecruisers, designed to respond to any threat, anywhere in the world, but primarily concerned with nullifying the threat of invasion and preventing attempts to interfere with the blockade.  Its ultimate task was seen as the destruction of the High Seas Fleet, and for that purpose the British Admiralty was careful to maintain a significant numerical advantage in the North Sea.

According to contemporary naval orthodoxy – established since the advent of armoured, coal- or oil-powered warships – battle fleets required not just modern battleships (costing the equivalent of about half a billion pounds each in modern terms), but also cruisers, destroyers, submarines and hundreds of smaller support craft to provide protection and reconnaissance for the bigger ships.  In short, fleets cost a fortune.

Understandably enough, admirals, politicians, press and public expected value for money from battle fleets in the event of war, and at the same time regarded the loss of wildly expensive major units as nothing short of a national catastrophe.  This required naval strategists to take risks while being risk averse, a tricky enough problem at the best of times, made almost insoluble by 1914 because the leviathans of the sea had become dangerously vulnerable to spectacularly cheap mines and torpedoes.

I’ve devoted plenty of space in the past to the paralysis produced by this situation, and a glance through the blog’s naval warfare category might be helpful if you’re interested in arguments and examples.  In North Sea terms, it meant neither side dared risk a major battle unless they were quite sure of winning, so the High Seas Fleet didn’t want to be caught in a battle at all, and the Grand Fleet’s attempts to engineer one were so timid they were hardly perceptible.

By 1916 both fleets had spent most of two years being pilloried by political, press and public opinion for their perceived inactivity, and both needed to prove themselves.  The British could only maintain their numerical supremacy and effective dominance of the theatre, avoiding trouble and hoping an open goal would present itself.   With the German high command in the process of prioritising submarine warfare at the expense of the High Seas Fleet, its new commander, Admiral Scheer, was under more immediate pressure to act.  In the late spring of 1916 he planned an expanded version of the nuisance raids on the British coast that had boosted the Fleet’s reputation in 1914.

Scheer’s plan was to send Admiral Hipper’s fast battlecruisers to raid the northeast English port of Sunderland, and to entice the British battlecruiser squadron, based at Rosyth, out onto the guns of the main fleet, following behind.  In addition, thirteen U-boats were positioned for ambush off British North Sea ports, with orders to stay there until 1 June.  Scheer was only prepared to take this risk if aerial reconnaissance confirmed that the Grand Fleet was still in Scapa Flow, but poor weather prevented deployment of the only machines able to do the job, Zeppelins, throughout late May.  Rather than do without his U-boats, Scheer switched to a slightly less bold demonstration of the High Seas Fleet’s powers, sending his battlecruisers as bait ahead of an otherwise pointless sortie up the Danish coast.

The German ships moved out of the Jade Bight, off Wilhelmshaven, at one in the morning on 31 May, unaware that the Grand Fleet had put to sea from Scapa Flow two hours earlier.  Because the Royal Navy’s Room 40 had broken German naval codes, Grand Fleet c-in-c Admiral Jellicoe had been informed of their impending departure on 30 May, but not of their destination, and had decided to undertake his own sweep of the Danish coast, planned for 2 June.

The two fleets, led by their battlecruiser squadrons, were on course for a head-on collision during the morning of 31 May, but didn’t know it.  In an age before radar and in the absence of aircraft (a seaplane aboard the converted ferry HMS Engadine was the only plane available to either fleet), the only way they were going to find out was by direct visual contact through the fast, modern cruisers both sides used for scouting.  British and German cruisers spotted each other in mid-afternoon, as both sides moved to investigate a stationary Danish merchant ship, and after a brief exchange of fire both sides hurried off to inform their battlecruisers that the enemy had blundered into their trap.

Admiral Beatty, in command of the British battlecruisers, manoeuvred to the south of Hipper’s ships, which turned to face the enemy, leaving both sets of battlecruisers in the path of the other’s main fleet.  Unknown to Hipper, four modern, Queen Elizabeth Class battleships were also attached to Beatty’s squadron, and were coming up fast when, at 3.45 in the afternoon, the battlecruisers opened fire, 13km apart and closing.  Beatty turned south to cut off what he assumed was a German retreat, and after Hipper followed suit the squadrons spent forty-five minutes exchanging broadsides.

2-WEB-Duckworth-3.30pm-Coloureed
This is how a battle looked on a dark day in the North Sea… battlecruisers going broadside.

The action went badly for the British.  While escorting destroyers fought a secondary battle, with each side losing two ships, three British battlecruisers had been damaged and two, Indefatigable and Queen Mary, had exploded by the time the Queen Elizabeths joined the fray (from 17km) at four-thirty.  Hipper’s success had something to do with the position of the sun, which helped German gunners on a hazy day polluted by gunsmoke, but also highlighted British operational weaknesses that would be evident throughout the battle: the inherent vulnerability of British ships to internal explosion; a spate of poor signalling; and the unexpected weakness of the Navy’s heavy shells, which tended to disintegrate on contact.

The arrival of four battleships to join the four British battlecruisers still in the fight shifted the odds against Hipper – but not for long.  At four-forty Beatty’s scouting cruisers reported that the entire High Seas Fleet was coming into range.  Wrongly informed that morning that Scheer was still in port, Beatty turned and ran north for Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.  The British battleships missed the turn and barely escaped the High Seas Fleet (with damage inflicted by both sides) before joining Beatty’s faster ships and quickly pulling away. Hipper’s squadron – battered, short on ammunition and with their gunners now facing a dipping sun – followed to prevent what he assumed was an attempt at escape.

Shortly before five-thirty Beatty turned east to a prearranged rendezvous with Jellicoe, crossing Hipper’s path to cut off any scouting ships that might report the trap, and drawing an attack from German cruisers and destroyers.  Three more British battlecruisers, commanded by Admiral Hood, then arrived on the scene from the east, severely damaging three of the German light cruisers and launching a destroyer attack of their own – and that was enough to convince Hipper he’d run into the entire Grand Fleet.

The actual Grand Fleet stumbled upon Beatty’s squadron just after six, when scouts sighted HMS Lion firing its guns at opponents out of visual range.  Jellicoe, who had thought he was still 20km northwest of Beatty, immediately formed the fleet in a line to port (turning east, in other words).  The manoeuvre was complete by six-thirty, just in time to put the Grand Fleet in perfect position to ‘cross the T’ of the High Seas Fleet.  Meanwhile Scheer, coming up from the south, found British warships to his north and northwest, and so turned east, heading straight for Jellicoe.

During this phase, one of the Queen Elizabeths, Warspite, survived 13 hits when a jammed rudder forced it to circle twice under the High Seas Fleet’s guns, and two British cruisers were sunk when they ran into the German fleet by accident.   The British also lost a third battlecruiser, when Admiral Hood’s flagship, Invincible, was illuminated by a random patch of clear air, attracted concentrated fire and exploded after a shell penetrated a turret.

The explosion tool place at 18.33, and the Grand Fleet opened fire at once.  Two minutes later Scheer ran away, and the High Seas Fleet did a brilliant job of it, executing a ‘battle turn away’ (Gefechtskehrtwendung, effectively a massed u-turn) and leaving Jellicoe chasing its taillights, all for the loss of one cruiser to British gunfire.  Jellicoe more than matched Scheer’s caution, refusing to chase his prey into what he thought might just be a submarine trap. Instead he ordered the Grand Fleet to turn southeast and then south, hoping to intercept Scheer’s homeward journey before nightfall.

It shouldn’t have worked, but Jellicoe got lucky.  Scheer turned his fleet north and then back on itself, aiming to get behind the British, but he overestimated the Grand Fleet’s speed and instead steamed back into its guns, which opened up at ten past seven.  This time Scheer sent Hipper’s squadron (backed by destroyers) to charge at the Grand Fleet, guns blazing, while the rest of the German force pulled off another u-turn.  A destroyer was sunk, and the battlecruisers took another pounding (but didn’t explode) before turning away, but within a few minutes the High Seas Fleet was disappearing to the west.

Still confident that he could intercept Scheer’s presumed route home, Jellicoe turned the Grand Fleet southeast.  At eight-fifteen Beatty’s battlecruisers, some 10km ahead of the main fleet, sighted Hipper’s ships sailing south, and a few minutes later opened fire, damaging two battlecruisers and sinking the Lützow.  Scheer responded by sending six vulnerable pre-dreadnought battleships into a holding action, and after keeping Beatty’s guns busy for a few minutes they rejoined the German fleet escaping to the west.

Scheer then turned south for home, and although the two fleets were less than 10km apart and converging when night fell, at about nine, they never met again.  Scouting forces on both sides battled on through the night in a series of costly and often confused actions, costing the German fleet one pre-dreadnought battleship, three cruisers and a destroyer, the British a cruiser and six destroyers.

Partly thanks to effective radio jamming by German crews, no reports of the night actions reached Jellicoe, who let anxiety govern his next move.  Worried about night actions against an enemy with superior searchlights, and about Admiralty reports suggesting Scheer was behind him, he kept on steaming south, enabling the High Seas Fleet to escape around the rear of the Grand Fleet and reach the relative safety of Horn’s Reef by about three in the morning of 1 June.  Jellicoe turned his fleet for home half an hour later.

The two fleets got home without interference from submarines stationed in wait, and the last casualty of Jutland was the German dreadnought Ostfriesland, badly damaged by a British mine in the Jade Bight.

800px-Map_of_the_Battle_of_Jutland,_1916.svg
There’s your map. Thanks, Wikipedia…

Both sides claimed victory.  Both were right and both were wrong. The German Navy won on numbers, and could justifiably claim that both its ships and crews had performed better on the day.  The Royal Navy took a lot of criticism for its operational failures, and the Grand Fleet’s commanders took their fair share for behaving cautiously, but British claims to victory are based on the many months it took the High Seas Fleet to get back into operational shape (the Grand Fleet was pronounced ready for action on 2 June), and on the fact that it never again ventured out in force.  The latter claim is perfectly true, but was hardly a product of the battle, and that brings me back to ‘The Navy’s Bloodiest Day’, ‘The Battle That Won The War’ and the heritage hype.

Jutland involved 274 warships and about 70,000 seamen.  The Royal Navy lost 14 ships, 6,097 men killed and 510 wounded; the German Navy 11 ships, 2,551 killed and 507 wounded.  So yes, Jutland was the Royal Navy’s most costly day out in terms of casualties, but this was hardly surprising when so many men took part in the nearest thing to a major sea battle since the dawn of the mechanised age.

As for Jutland winning the War, that’s rubbish.  The High Seas Fleet was already slated for effective mothballing by the German High Command, and only a huge success at Jutland (or Skagerrak, as it’s known in Germany) could have altered that.  You might say that Jellicoe’s caution spared the Royal Navy any risk of losing control in the North Sea, but otherwise Jutland is a story of errors, failures and accidents, a  series of chaotic skirmishes that very nearly turned into a battle.  Does that really constitute a victory when its only effect was to leave  everything about the naval war unchanged?

22 MAY, 1916: The Blind Bully

It’s not my business here to provide a narrative of the First World War.  I’m more interested in shining a small light into the many nooks and crannies largely ignored by one-track posterity, and in joining up some of the forgotten threads that link that world with ours.  That’s why, with the great powers of 1916 in the midst of vast military enterprises all over Europe, I’m heading for a small but geopolitically formed campaign in the Sudan, or to be more precise in the remote (and these days infamous) western province of Darfur.

A century ago today, an Anglo-Egyptian force met and defeated the fighters of Ali Dinar, Sultan of Darfur, at Beringia, near the regional capital of El Fahser.  Before I get into details of the battle itself – which was an old-school colonial affair defined by a huge technological gap between the two sides – it’s worth taking a look at why, at a time when manpower shortages for ambitious offensives elsewhere were a major issue, the British saw fit to send some 2,000 well-equipped and supported troops to the back of beyond.

One basic reason is that, from start to finish, Great Britain viewed the First World War in a global, imperial context.  The Empire’s first act on the outbreak of war had been to send naval units to protect imperial oil supplies coming out of Mesopotamia, and by 1916 it had time and again proved willing to commit resources to securing or expanding its overseas possessions.

This was partly a product of attitude, in that a century of largely unchallenged global supremacy had left British ruling elites accustomed to imperial success and inclined to assume that it would remain the index of geopolitical power in the post-War world – but it was also a matter of circumstance.  Britain had more resources available than any other European empire; its prosperity was more dependent on overseas trade; and it wasn’t required to focus every effort on defeating a homeland invasion, or threat of invasion.  In contrast, wartime France and Belgium regarded empire primarily as a source of manpower against the invader on the Western Front, Germany had never seen overseas possessions as more than bargaining chips in a European power struggle, the Netherlands and Portugal were strictly minor military powers, and Italy’s imperial pretensions were little more than optimistic fantasies.  Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were meanwhile concerned only with the preservation or expansion of their centralised land empires.

The second, more specific reason is lodged in the history of the region, giving me an excuse to provide some distant background to its modern troubles, and to give one granite-minded icon of militarism through the ages his first mention of the War to date.

If you’ve ever stayed awake through much of the movie, you may know that Charlton Heston (aka General Charles Gordon) met his death at the hands of Sudanese rebels, led by an Islamic sect, in January 1885, shortly before a belated British relief attempt reached his besieged headquarters at Khartoum.  Gordon’s ill-fated expedition from Egypt had marked a reversal of the British government’s previous decision to abandon the Sudan as worthless. The change had been forced by popular and press outrage at the perceived loss of prestige involved, and Gordon’s death sealed the renewed commitment.

The commander of the relief force, future war minister General Kitchener, began a process of destroying rebel enclaves in the Sudan that was complete by the end of the century, leaving the British in theoretical control of a vast, wild and endemically lawless nation.  It was also a largely Moslem nation, making its people particularly amenable to Turkish agitation once Britain was at war with the Ottoman Empire.

Policing the Sudan was the primary wartime responsibility of the Egyptian Army – a force that was (like Egypt) nominally independent but was trained and led by British officers, and equipped with obsolete British weapons.   The task kept some 14,000 Egyptian, Sudanese and Arab troops occupied throughout the War, along with a battalion of British Army infantry (and attached artillery) based at Khartoum.  Helped by a relative boom in the Sudanese economy – moribund and chaotic in 1914, but boosted by the supply needs of British forces in Egypt and East Africa – they generally restricted insurgent activity to isolated incidents.  Before 1916, the noisiest of these had been the arrest of Ottoman emissary Elmaz Bey for inciting uprising among Egyptian troops at Port Sudan in 1915, but the prospect of a concerted Islamic rebellion in the Darfur region posed a more serious threat.

Dafur – the land of the Fur people – covered some 400,000 square kilometres of western Sudan, bordered by French Chad to the west and Libya to the north.

The Sudan, 1885–1916
Northwest Africa, 1885–1916

The leader of the region’s Tama tribe, Ali Dinar, had accepted British rule at the turn of the century and been appointed British agent for Darfur, but had since run his unloved province as an increasingly autonomous fiefdom, treating the British authorities in much the same way other Ottoman outposts in North Africa treated the regime in Constantinople.

The arrangement suited both sides until war between the empires brought British declaration of a protectorate over Egypt and the Sudan in 1914 (18 December, 1914: Sand Grab), ending their nominal status as Ottoman provinces.  This, along with grievances about French incursions from Chad and British quarantine regulations applied to livestock, prompted Ali Dinar to seek Turkish support against the infidel.

In touch with Turkish officers aiding the Senussi uprising in Libya (13 December, 1915: Thin End, Big Wedge), Ali Dinar apparently accepted their assurances that Darfur would become an autonomous Islamic state after an Ottoman victory, and definitely accepted a shipment of 250 rifles from the Senussi.  Aware of the latter, the British Governor-General of the Sudan, Sir Reginald Wingate, opted to nip rebellion in the bud by sending a punitive expedition from Khartoum to Darfur .

The Western Frontier Force (WFF) assembled by Wingate was powerful enough for the job.  Some 2,000 infantry supported by six light artillery pieces, a dozen machine guns, eleven motorised trucks and an RFC contingent of four BE2 biplanes, marched against perhaps 3,000 poorly armed and trained Fur regulars, backed by about 2,000 tribal spear-carriers and 800 cavalry.  Defeating Ali Dinar was not expected to be problem… but getting to him was another matter.

The Sudan’s western railhead at El Obeid was almost 700km from Khartoum, and reaching the regional capital of El Fasher meant travelling another 650km across dry, inhospitable country, with survival dependent on the efficient seizure of precious water holes. The WFF marched northwest from El Obeid on 16 March 1916, moving from water hole to water hole, using aircraft to scare away Fur fighters posted for their defence.  The advance eventually reached the approaches to the capital on 21 May, and the following morning, shadowed by Ali Dinar’s mounted forces, it came up against defenders entrenched beyond the village of Beringia, some 20km short of El Fasher.

What followed was, aircraft aside, straight out of the nineteenth-century imperial playbook.  The WFF’s infantry moved forward in a square, in the style of the Napoleonic Wars, and when an unauthorised advance by a British Camel Corps company (that’s cavalry on camels, obviously) occupied a ridge overlooking the village, Ali Dinar’s 4,000 fighters abandoned their trenches and launched an attack.  Though unquestionably brave, this was not a smart move, and during a 40-minute exercise in slaughter the Fur were cut down without getting close to the British square, leaving 261 dead and 95 seriously wounded on the battlefield and removing many more casualties when they fled.

That afternoon the British moved up and entrenched outside El Fasher, where they were attacked at three in the morning by about 700 Fur cavalry and 300 infantry, but starshell (flares) illuminated the battlefield for machine-gunners and the attackers were driven off in less than fifteen minutes.

Ali Dinar had abandoned the capital and withdrawn to the southwest by the time the British entered El Fasher next morning, and on 29 May he sent word to WFF commander Lt.-Col. Kelly that he intended to surrender and renounce his sultanate.  At that point operations by both sides were brought to a halt by the rainy season, and by the time it was over, in October, Ali Dinar had shown no sign of actually surrendering, forcing Kelly to send a detachment in pursuit.

A small British force eventually attacked and defeated the last coherent Fur force in early November, and on 6 November Ali Dinar was tracked to his hideaway and killed, effectively ending the campaign.  The result was formalised on 1 January 1917, when the autonomous province of Darfur was absorbed into the Sudan and placed under direct British administration.

Ali Dinar – stone dead, but his cause would rise again.
Ali Dinar – stone dead, but his cause would rise again.

The British weren’t primarily responsible for Ali Dinar’s rebellion.  It was a product of the self-interested ambition typical among regional warlords within the crumbling Ottoman Empire, fuelled by the genuine (and religiously inspired) support of his followers and ignited by false Turkish promises of post-War independence.  Nor could the British know that, a century after they crushed the Fur people’s clumsy bid for self-governance, the independent status of Darfur would still be a running sore poisonous with slaughter and deprivation.

On the other hand, particularly given the tendency of British heritage industries to portray the Empire as an adventure seen through British eyes, the casual manner in which Britain ran roughshod over the Sudan in general, and Darfur in particular, is a breathtaking reminder of the self-centred thinking behind the ‘civilising mission’ of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European empires.

Britain didn’t want to control the Sudan and had no use for it.  It was only there because a nationalist press and public behaved like fans of flat-track bullies, forcing Gordon’s expedition and everything that followed, including 1916’s pointless suppression of nascent national awareness in Darfur.  Needless to say, the campaign aroused no controversy at the time, but these days its long-term effects are painfully obvious, and peddlers of heritage are letting down history by ignoring it.

9 MAY, 1916: Big Deal?

You’ve probably heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and if your life in any way involves the Middle East you’ll definitely have a handle on it.  Agreed a century ago today, and accepted in principle by the relevant Allied governments on 16 May 1916, it is notorious as documentary proof that Britain and France intended to carve up the Middle East between them after the First World War.

Actually called the Asia Minor Agreement, the document was the fruit of six months’ discussion and negotiation between Sir Mark Sykes, a British diplomat and politician, and François Georges-Picot, a French diplomat and lawyer.   These were relatively obscure civil servants, and it is a measure of what is generally seen these days as imperial arrogance on the part of Britain and France that they were given responsibility for drawing a new map of the Middle East, to be imposed if and when the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

The deal looks disgraceful now, but seemed logical enough, unexceptional even, to anyone operating by the imperial standards of the nineteenth century, and has an internal logic in the context of First World War realpolitik.  Victory was likely to see the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Triple Entente powers – Britain, France and Russia – all harboured longstanding ambitions when it came to partitioning the cadaver, as did their relatively new ally, Italy.  If an arrangement could be made while they were all friends, why risk the danger and inconvenience of post-War squabbling?

The Russians weren’t involved in Anglo-French discussions because the French and British had promised Constantinople to the Tsar in March 1915, in return for a free hand further south, and Russia was the only candidate for control of the Kurdish and Armenian territories to the northeast of the Ottoman Empire.  Italy was left to its own devices in Libya (Ottoman North Africa wasn’t covered by the Agreement), but was otherwise expected to do as it was told and took no part in the discussion process.

As drafted in 1916, and mapped out below in its original pomp, the Agreement gave France effective control over Syria, the Lebanon and Turkish Cilicia (the coastal area north of Syria). Britain was to take control of Mesopotamia as far north as Baghdad, along with effective economic dominance over Palestine and what was then called Transjordan. Italy’s designated ‘sphere of influence’ was Turkish Anatolia, Jerusalem was to be governed by an unspecified international authority, and those parts of Arabia not already taken were to remain independent, though under British or French supervision.  The latter can be seen as a nod to arrangements already made with Arab leaders, as outlined a few months back (26 December, 1915: Boxing Clever), or as an indication that neither Britain nor France saw much plunder in Arabia’s barren tribal deserts.

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Even in 1916, imperial partition of territories to which the only credible claim was greed were not good for the popular or international reputations of empires.  That was one good reason for keeping the carve-ups secret; another was the opportunity for double-dealing provided by secrecy.  Just as the Treaty of London between the Entente and Italy had been kept secret, hiding Italy’s greed and her new allies’ tendency to give things away twice, so the Sykes-Picot Agreement was kept under wraps, enabling the British in particular to make promises they had no intention of keeping to the leaders of the Arab Revolt.

Like the Treaty of London and other secret international deals, Sykes-Picot was exposed to the world by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution in Russia, planting an entirely justified mistrust of Anglo-French motives in the minds of Arab leaders that affected the latter stages of the fighting in the Middle East, soured relations at the Paris Peace Conference, made a liar of TE Lawrence (of whom more next year) and has never really gone away.  Exposure of the agreement also managed to outrage Zionists, coming as it did only three weeks after the Balfour Declaration (of which, again, more another day).

In November 1918, a year after Sykes-Picot went public, the British government dumped it.  The French had little choice about signing an Anglo-French Declaration that officially superseded the Agreement, promising to encourage and supervise the development of stable sovereign states in the region.  Though partly designed to improve the British Empire’s international image as the War ended, and to ease negotiations with Arab leaders, the Declaration was also seen in London as an opportunity to wriggle out of its commitment to accepting French supervision of the Syrian region (marked ‘A’ on the map).

Whatever the motives behind them, the Declaration’s fine words made no difference to anything in practice.  Though Russian territorial ambitions had disappeared with the Revolution, and Italy’s claims were overruled at the Paris Peace Conference, something very close to the simple, Eurocentric convenience of the Sykes-Picot map was established in the post-War Middle East.  Arab attempts to achieve full independence were met by a combination of military intervention and diplomatic finesse by the British and French, who imposed spheres of influence in the guise of ‘mandates’. Mandates were, in theory, territories being nurtured for full independence by their European guardians on the authority of the new League of Nations, but the planned fate of one British mandate, Palestine, was left conveniently vague.

I’m leaping ahead into areas that deserve a closer look, and they’ll get one, because this story’s going to run and run.  As for Sykes-Picot, of course it was a bad idea, and of course the Middle East is still suffering from the imposition of artificial borders – but no agreement or declaration by European belligerents in 1916 was more than a minor tactic in a Great Power game that presumed territorial and economic acquisition as the just rewards for a victorious warfare gambit.

The European powers were always intent on carving up the Middle East if they defeated Turkey, but neither Britain nor France saw Sykes-Picot as more than a standard opening gambit, a blueprint to be modified according to circumstance or opportunity.  So for all its well-earned notoriety, the Agreement was nothing special or substantial – and nothing like the defining moment an angry posterity likes to portray.

24 APRIL, 1916: Heroes and Villains

A hundred years ago today, in Dublin, Irish nationalists occupied the main post office and proclaimed a provisional independent government of Ireland. This was the first action of what is now called the Easter Rising against British colonial rule, and anyone with a TV in Britain can tell you it copped for the heritage treatment a few weeks back.  Odd decision, that, and for all that I’m impressed with the resurrection myth’s tenacity I prefer to commemorate the Rising on the day it actually began.

The British heritage industry’s editorial stance was equally odd, though less surprising, in that while dwelling on the rebellion’s brief narrative (and of course every crumb of human interest) they seem to have largely ignored the question of why the rebellion took place.  That may be a matter of embarrassment, because when it comes to Ireland the British have been on the wrong side of history for a very long time – so, with apologies to any Irish reader for being brief and occasionally facile, here’s some background.

The Normans got conquest of Ireland underway, establishing control of an eastern tranche of the country (known as The Pale), and by the later Middle Ages English influence dominated the whole island.  For the next few hundred years Ireland suffered straightforward, often brutal, few-benefits-attached exploitation and oppression, bolstered by colonial seeding of English lords and labour.  Subject to complete union with the UK since 1801, its population of less than five million remained predominantly rural and Catholic in the early 20th century, and industrial development was concentrated in the northern province of Ulster.

In Ireland as elsewhere (if more slowly than in England), the nineteenth century brought literacy and political awareness into mass culture, and with them came a surge of popular nationalism. By the 1880s a movement for autonomy (or Home Rule) had won support from the British Liberal government, but the carrot of Home Rule was destined to dangle for some time, suspended by furious opposition from British conservatives and from the Protestant, pro-British, ‘Unionist’ majority in Ulster.

Home Rule bills were defeated by Parliament in 1886 and 1893, and though the Asquith government – along with southern Ireland’s 84 Westminster MPs – eventually managed to pass one in May 1914, it caused nothing but trouble.  Ulster promptly descended into something close to civil war, and British party politics went into crisis mode when it appeared that British soldiers in Ulster would refuse to fire on Unionists if called upon to enforce Home Rule. Known as the Curragh Mutiny, this sparked the resignations of regional commander General Gough, all his officers, Army chief of staff Sir John French (yes, him) and war minister Seeley – and made the British Army establishment’s opposition to Home Rule, let alone independence, abundantly clear.

The crisis was still in progress, and no new war minister had been appointed, when the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand brought down Europe’s diplomatic dominoes and Home Rule was shelved for the duration.  Ulster quieted down, and Irishmen from every province enlisted in droves to fight for the Empire.  Most Irish nationalists were caught up in the war fever that infected most of Europe, and their politicians gave official support to the British war effort, but some of their more militant fellow travellers reacted with anger and understandable frustration.

Nationalists had no reason to suppose that the good intentions of a few Liberal politicians represented the views of the British ruling class., and every reason to suspect that war meant the days of reforming governments at Westminster were over for the foreseeable future.  Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that some nationalist elements sought to exploit the War – as nationalists had exploited the Napoleonic Wars – by seeking German aid for their cause.  More surprisingly, there weren’t many of them and they didn’t get far, though German agents in the USA did recruit a small number of ex-patriot Irish nationalists to carry out sabotage operations.

The same German agents made contact in New York with one relatively eminent nationalist who was out to make a difference – retired Anglo-Irish diplomat Sir Roger Casement.  Casement travelled to Germany in the autumn of 1914, arranged with German authorities to have Irish PoWs placed in a separate camp, and set about trying to recruit them for a nationalist army.  Few detailed records of the enterprise survive, and those that do are more shaky than wiki-world would have you believe, but it’s generally accepted that no more than a few dozen of the 2,000 prisoners involved signed up for his Irish Legion.

Casement is still a controversial figure – lionised in Ireland, but dismissed as a traitor and subject to character smears by many British commentators – but there’s no doubting his optimism, given that all the men he was trying to recruit had volunteered to fight for Britain.  To be fair, he was also let down by the German authorities, who treated him with benevolent neglect.  They never came close to keeping promises of weapons and training for the Legion, ignored his strategic advice about Irish affairs and generally payed more attention to their sources inside Ireland, in particular the militant Military Committee of the Irish Volunteers.

I’m not getting into the minutiae and individual lives of Irish republican politics here – you haven’t got the time and I might get the nuance wrong – but broadly speaking the movement was represented by three significant organisations.  Sinn Fein was nationalism’s relatively new political wing, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB, and known as the Fenian Brotherhood in the US) was its long-established agitprop organisation, and the Irish Volunteers was its militant, activist cell.  The Volunteers alone refused to officially support the British war effort in August 1914, and the Military Committee, a splinter group within it, had begun planning a wartime uprising by early September.  That said, it’s worth pointing out that these organisations overlapped all over the place, and that many of the principal figures involved in the Easter Rising belonged to all three.

The Committee had begun making practical arrangements for a rising by May 1915.  Though never given the full support of the Volunteers, Sinn Fein or the IRB – who all considered an uprising premature, inappropriate and unlikely to win popular support – the Committee was in contact with German agents and delayed plans in the hope of significant backing from Germany.  When Casement and the Committee eventually co-presented a scheme for a German invasion to coincide with the rebellion, Berlin turned down the idea, agreeing only to send arms to Ireland.  Despite opposition from nationalist politicians (the plan was hardly a secret, though theoretically kept from the British), the Committee went ahead anyway, and the date of the rising was set for 23 April 1916.

Up to a point the Germans kept their word, sending a few thousand old rifles and a handful of machine guns to southwest Ireland on a disguised steamer in early April.  They also sent Casement, by submarine, to act as a figurehead for the rebellion, but the British were way ahead of them, using intelligence from the United States to catch both the guns and Casement, who was captured on 20 April, stripped of his knighthood and hanged as a traitor.   News of the losses sparked another round of calls for the rising to be cancelled from leading nationalist figures, which cut down the number of people taking part but only postponed the event for one day.

The Rising went ahead on 24 April and, as TV documentaries have been at pains to point out, lasted less than a week.  Following the post office occupation, rebels took several buildings covering roads into Dublin after fierce street fighting with British garrison troops, but attempts to storm Dublin Castle and the local arsenal failed.  The Empire fought back with ruthless efficiency.  Britain put the whole of Ireland under martial law from 27 April, and troops led by General Maxwell forced the surrender of surviving rebels on 1 May.  About 300 were killed in the fighting, roughly a third of them military personnel, and another 1,000 or so were wounded or reported missing.

dublin-after-british-shelling-1916
Dublin after it was shelled by a British gunboat… that’ll teach them to mess with the post office.
Soldiers_holding_street_UCD_Archives
This was always a form of civil war… 35% of the troops killed during the Rising were Irish born.

That’s about where the British heritage story ends, and it tends to dismiss the Rising as a failure.  From a simply historical point of view – in other words without taking sides – that’s nonsense.  Of course it didn’t sweep the rebels to political power in a liberated Ireland, but none of the Rising’s main protagonists expected that it would.  In its intended role as a demonstration of Irish intent and impatience, it could hardly have been more successful.

The enormous international splash created by the Rising amounted to a massive propaganda victory for Irish nationalists, particularly in the USA, a constituency the British government dared not upset as long as it remained neutral. The government’s relatively mild reaction in the aftermath of the Rising –’only’ 14 rebels were executed and those imprisoned were given amnesty in 1917 – was an attempt to soothe US opinion that made very little difference, and nothing an increasingly divided administration could do would restore Britain’s popular reputation in southern Ireland.  By 1919, when enforcement of Home Rule was finally due, southern Irish politics had shifted decisively away from the compromise it represented, and after three years of sporadic civil war the Independent Irish Free State was established in 1922, with Ulster becoming an autonomous province within the United Kingdom.

Whatever your view of the violence it entailed, the modern standards we like to set for other countries insist that Irish nationalism in 1916 was a just cause – just as they make Britain an evil empire straight out of central casting.  Opposed or let down by their supporters, manifestly doomed to failure and, at best, imprisonment, the Easter rebels were in effect successful martyrs for that cause.  At the time, of course, they were officially British, and it seems a shame British popular history can’t treat them with the respect it reserves for violent rebels with a cause like Oliver Cromwell or Robin Hood.

9 MARCH, 1916: Pawn Sacrifice

Here’s something the English-speaking world tends to ignore: a century ago today Germany declared war on Portugal.  Taking part in the First World War went on to wreck Portugal, but though peace treaties and posterity have given Germany the blame, the real culprits were Portugal’s allies, especially the British.  Here’s why.

Portugal in 1916 was a turbulent republic with a population of around six million, a fragile economy and an unstable government. The monarchy had been overthrown in 1910, after it blundered into a dispute with Britain over Portugal’s African colonies, and by the time war broke out in August 1914 the republican government of President de Arriaga had survived royalist uprisings, military plots and serial changes of prime minister.

Portugal’s foreign policy was dominated by Britain, its ally since the fourteenth century and its regular protector against outside attack, and was largely motivated by the desire to hold on to its African colonies.  Apart from uprisings against notoriously harsh European administrations, the biggest danger facing those colonies – Portuguese East Africa (Angola) and West Africa (Mozambique) – was encroachment from neighbouring German colonies, so Portugal’s wartime sympathy for the Entente was never in doubt.

On the other hand, a small army of 33,000 ill-equipped and poorly trained troops, along with internal instability and economic disarray, meant Portugal was in no position to actually fight a war, so the government adopted what the British called ‘quasi-neutrality’.  This amounted to remaining technically neutral while obeying the instructions of Sir Lancelot Carnegie, the British minister in Lisbon, an attempt to have it both ways that eventually came home to roost.

If that sounds harsh on a struggling Portuguese government trapped by a Great Power conflict beyond its control, bear in mind that stricter neutrality might have been possible if Lisbon had been less determined to defend its colonial possessions.  When German border raids hit Mozambique in August 1914, and Angola later in the year, Portugal did manage to send some 1,500 troops to Mozambique.  Poorly supplied, ill-led and without clear orders, the expeditionary force had no real impact on German operations on or around the frontier with German East Africa.

Arriaga resigned the presidency when his term of office ended in 1915, and from August of that year Dr. Bernadino Marchada held a shaky grip on power in Lisbon.  By that time the British, still vexed by their inability to winkle the Germans out of East Africa, were losing patience with the situation in Mozambique.  After the dispatch of another 1,500 Portuguese troops to the colony in November 1915 had changed nothing on the ground, London decided that what little military value Portugal had to offer was worth extracting after all.

In return for a desperately needed loan, and a call from exiled ex-King Manoel to end royalist rebellion for the duration, the Marchada government agreed to Britain’s demand for the removal of all German shipping from Portuguese ports.  Rather than attempt negotiation with German ships in its ports, the Portuguese regime chose to seize them in a series of surprise raids during February, effectively guaranteeing that war would follow.  The rationale behind this sudden flush of aggression was simple:  by entering the War as an active ally, complete with ships seized for Allied use, Portugal could be sure of British protection from reprisal attacks.

Sure enough, Germany declared war on 9 March, followed a week later by Austria-Hungary, and the British set about making the most of Portugal’s belligerent status.  They began training Portuguese divisions for France at once, and the Portuguese Army mushroomed, eventually mustering 335 big guns and about 180,000 men, of whom about 100,000 saw active service on the Western Front or in Africa.  After final training in Britain, the first two Portuguese divisions – about 40,000 men – reached Flanders by mid-1917, and fought with the BEF until their withdrawal in the spring of 1918, while increasing numbers of troops blundered around the African colonies upsetting the natives but making no progress against German incursions.

In total the Portuguese Army suffered about 21,000 wartime casualties, almost 8,000 of them killed.  Meanwhile the small Portuguese Navy, headed by one venerable old pre-Dreadnought battleship, was too busy taking part in factional squabbles at home to make much contribution to the war effort, and though the tiny Portuguese Army Air Service did add a couple of old British machines to its collection of three obsolete biplanes, none of them saw active service.

So apart from providing a few small German ships and a smattering of strategically insignificant cannon fodder, Portugal’s War was a non-event – but the cost of token military involvement was enough to tear down the country’s society and economy.  Internal unrest worsened as severe shortages of basic foods and fuel hit the civilian population, and a military coup in December 1917 drove Macheda into exile.  Never comfortable around revolutionaries, Britain withdrew financial aid to Portugal a couple of weeks later, having provided £23 million since March 1916, and shortages had worsened by the Armistice.

Peace brought an immediate resumption of royalist agitation, and the assassination in December 1918 of the new president, Major Sidonio Paes, triggered a year of civil war and economic chaos that saw inflation reach 440% by the beginning of 1920.  Meanwhile, as a reward for a shabby African campaign that had killed an estimated 100,000 natives, Portugal qualified for a seat at the post-War Paris Peace Conference, got to keep its colonies and was allowed to add some 500 square kilometres of former German territory to Mozambique.

Portugal’s prize for ‘winning’ the War: Mozambique’s Kionga Triangle, under occupation.

I’ve got two more things to say about Portugal’s pointless and largely forgotten First World War.  First off, Portugal had little choice about being bullied into war as a notional aid to Britain’s failing East African campaign, a reminder of the enormous clout and willingness to use it that characterised Great Power relations with little countries in the early twentieth century, and of how desperately the greatest of the Great Powers needed any help it could grab by 1916.

Secondly, the fact that Portugal’s economy was ruined by the strain of adding a tiny pinprick to the Allied war effort highlights the vast difference in scale, shocking at the time, between the First World War and anything that had gone before.  This was (literally) war on an industrial scale, and only the most efficient societies could handle it.  To a greater or lesser extent every small European nation that mounted a War effort, and all the big ones except Britain and (arguably) France, suffered social and/or economic breakdown as a consequence.  Beyond Europe, it was possible to emerge from the War altered but essentially intact.  The United States and Japan managed it, along with most of the ‘white’ British colonies and those opportunist nations, like Brazil, that joined the Allies late on – but only because they were far from the imperial battlefields and engaged in less than what we now call total war.

24 JANUARY, 1916: First Draft

I try to avoid too much focus on Britain’s experience during the First World War, mostly because nobody else does, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The world’s most powerful and extensive empire was absolutely central to the story of the Great War, and the War played an enormous part in shaping twentieth-century Britain. So bear with me if you’ve been hearing about this one on the BBC: a century ago today, the Westminster parliament passed the first Military Service Act, introducing conscription for the first time in British history.

The British public was braced for the call up, because compulsory military service had been a hot debate for years.  A vociferous minority of British imperialists had been advocating conscription since the Army’s last major campaign, in South Africa at the turn of the century, had left the country with almost no home defence forces – but in peacetime they had faced overwhelming and noisy opposition. Along with the vast majority of those likely to be affected by conscription, religious organisations, pacifists, socialists, most liberals, some conservative politicians and successive governments as a whole were all firmly against the idea. Five compulsory service bills were comfortably defeated in parliament during the years immediately before 1914, and even after the outbreak of war Asquith’s cabinet greeted Churchill proposal for its introduction with unanimous rejection.

Popular or not, conscription was standard peacetime practice in all the other major European armed forces by 1914, essentially as a way of maximising the number of trained men available when the next war started, and patriotic nationalism was no less a force in Britain than elsewhere, so why were the British so precious about putting on a uniform for the sake of the nation? Ideologies aside, two obvious reasons spring to mind.

The first, more pragmatic argument against conscription was that Britain didn’t expect to need a big army, intending to win any future war with the relatively small force of highly trained men it took to run the Royal Navy. The other major inspiration for opposition was less tangible, and amounted to national self-importance.

A prominent feature of British culture during the imperial era, the idea that Britain was the source and epitome of modern civilisation had elevated the political system to a sacred position as humanity’s home of liberty, defined as voluntary adherence to a shared, organically developed and uniquely British set of values. Many opponents of conscription, across the political spectrum, argued that it was a betrayal of these values, the thin end of a wedge that would create an authoritarian, militarist state along Prussian lines. Other, less eloquent opponents simply believed that whatever Britain had always done was by definition the best, an attitude that hasn’t quite gone away a hundred years later.

The argument that Britain wouldn’t need a mass army had long since bitten the dust by early 1916 – everybody knew the nation needed more troops and more munitions workers – but defence of traditional liberties was a harder nut to crack.

The Derby Scheme of autumn 1915 had been the government’s last, somewhat desperate attempt to avoid the odium of conscription by boosting voluntary recruitment (22 October, 1915: Derby Day), and its failure had prompted an intensified propaganda campaign by the growing number of politicians in favour of compulsory service.   A chorus of press opinion, much of it orchestrated by conservative members of the coalition cabinet and Liberal munitions minister Lloyd George, now presented conscription as the only real alternative to peace talks, and before the end of the year cabinet opposition, led by prime minister Asquith, had evaporated.

The Military Service Act passed through Commons on 6 January 1916 with a comfortable majority of 298, got through the Lords on 24 January and came into effect the following month.  The Act called up single men and childless widowers aged between 18 and 41, starting with those who had ‘attested’ their willingness to fight under the Derby Scheme. Clergymen, vital war workers and conscientious objectors were exempt, although the latter were subject to local tribunals where most ‘absolute’ objectors – those refusing to perform non-combatant war work in place of service – were treated as criminals and imprisoned. Conscription wasn’t applied to Ireland, where the British were already struggling to contain the seeds of nationalist uprising.

Propaganda’s success in persuading the British public into the unthinkable was soon undermined by the incompetence of bureaucrats coping with the unfamiliar. By March, married men who had attested were receiving call-up papers before many of their bachelor counterparts, and the eruption of protest that followed obliged the government to produce a revised Act that made married men liable for immediate service.  Passed through parliament in May, the second Act worked well enough to see the British Army through the next two years, but further legislation was needed in the spring of 1918, when battlefield crises on the Western Front forced a radical expansion of the conscripted intake.

A new Act passed in April 1918 extended compulsory service to 51-year-olds, and in theory to Ireland, although civilian unrest prevented its application there and no Irishman was ever actually conscripted. In May, all males born in 1898–99 were called up regardless of occupation, and by the end of June a further 100,000 men had been ‘combed out’ of war industries and put into uniform.

Now the British were experiencing the kind of total war long familiar to the people of Germany and France, but its social impact on the nation was never really tested, because the arrival of US troops on the Western Front enabled the government to relax its recruitment criteria during the second half of the year. By December, when the last of some 2.3 million British conscripts entered service, most exemptions had been reinstated at 1916 levels.

With all due respect to subsequent outraged generations, it’s fair to say that conscription didn’t turn out to be the catalyst for an authoritarian, militarist takeover in Britain. On the other hand, once broken, the tradition of voluntary service took a long time to fix. In 1938, during the rush to rearm in the face of threatening behaviour by Germany, the British government felt able to introduce limited peacetime national service, and when war broke out in 1939 compulsory service was imposed within a few weeks, netting 1.5 million conscripts by the end of the year.  National service would remain in force for another 16 years after the Second World War, providing troops for Britain’s final fling at independent colonial and world policing.

By the time the last British conscript entered service in 1962, the missile age had rendered mass manpower militarily redundant, and compulsory service is unlikely to make a comeback in Britain anytime soon.  So this isn’t one of those centenaries that links directly with twenty-first century life, just a reminder that Britain wasn’t so very different to other European countries when push came to shove, and that millions of twentieth-century Britons, many of them alive today, fought for their country because they were compelled to do so.

7 JANUARY, 1916: The Food Chain

Out in Mesopotamia, at Sheikh Sa’ad, on the Tigris just southeast of Kut, the first British attempt to relieve General Townshend’s besieged force was in the process of failing, suffering some 4,000 casualties and gaining a single line of trenches before Turkish defenders withdrew. In Gallipoli, the Anglo-French evacuation was finally drawing to an end, and the Russian Army in Galicia was spending its Christmas Day in a hopeless struggle against Austro-Hungarian artillery. But that’s enough fighting and dying, let’s talk about Arthur Henderson’s trip to the Netherlands.

Henderson was a British politician. At the time he was President of the Board of Education, a member of the cabinet and leader of the Labour Party, one of only three Labour politicians to serve in the coalition government. A hundred years ago he was in The Hague, charged with talking Dutch workers, business leaders and politicians into shaping their national economy according to British war aims. The visit was a watershed moment in a long saga that reflected the changing geopolitics of the age, and that began in August 1914.

For the Netherlands, a small nation dependent on seagoing trade, next door to Germany and across the water from Britain, the outbreak of war was a diplomatic disaster. With no dog in the fight, nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring war on bigger powers, the Dutch could only remain neutral, but that didn’t spare them pressure from both sides as the conflict got underway.

Assured by Germany on 2 August that its territorial integrity would be respected, the government in The Hague turned down a British offer of alliance and instead closed the Scheldt to all warships, a technically neutral move but one that favoured Germany by protecting the flank of its advancing armies from the Royal Navy. This was hardly a choice for the Dutch, given that any other response might trigger a German invasion, but of course it annoyed the British, who announced that they would respect Dutch neutrality – unless it became ‘one-sided’.

In fact the British, certain that naval blockade was the key to undermining Germany’s war effort, treated the Netherlands (and other neutral countries with strong trading links to Germany) as if they were economic enemies from the start. By the end of August 1914, the Royal Navy had stopped more than fifty Dutch ships and seized three loads of American grain bound for the Netherlands, while the UK government had stated its intention to prevent food, as well as war materials, from reaching Germany via neutral ports. As the year went on the British blockade tightened, wreaking havoc on the flow of trade from America that was fundamental to Dutch economic stability.

Compelled to appease the British, the Dutch government managed to reduce ‘stop and search’ delays to transatlantic trade by forming the country’s leading banks and businesses into a consortium, the Netherlands Oversea Trust (NOT). As a private company, and so able to liaise with the British without compromising Dutch neutrality, the NOT acted as a clearing-house for imported goods and guaranteed that contraband (as defined by the British) wouldn’t be sold on to Germany. The British, happy to be handed effective control over Dutch transatlantic imports, generously agreed a temporary relaxation of blockade against goods from the Dutch East Indies. For a year or so relations between the two countries were relatively smooth, as was Dutch passage across the Atlantic, and the British went on to use the NOT as a blueprint for addressing the contraband issue in other neutral states.

Generally speaking, having witnessed at close hand the effects of occupation on Belgium, Dutch politicians, businessmen and civilians were sympathetic to the Allies throughout the War – but the NOT agreement put the neutrality boot on the other foot, and now the Dutch could only appease Germany. Germany needed food and raw materials, and so 1915 saw a boom in the trade of home-produced Dutch goods across the frontier. Dutch exports to Germany in 1915 ran at almost four times pre-War levels, with agricultural produce dominating the market, and were still rising at the end of the year.

So of course the British spent 1915 lobbying the Dutch to stop ‘feeding the enemy’, but diplomatic efforts didn’t cut much ice against the threat of occupation, and by late summer the Royal Navy was again stopping, searching and seizing Dutch transatlantic merchant traffic. In September, recognising the impossibility of a complete ban on exports from the Netherlands to Germany, the British accepted an agreement ‘rationing’ Dutch import levels of staple foods and oil to pre-War levels, a measure that would at least reduce the surplus available for export. Unfortunately for the Dutch, this essentially reasonable compromise didn’t last the autumn.

I’ve already mentioned that the military disappointments of the year, and of the autumn in particular, had left British war leadership at a crossroads, short on ideas but bent on change and looking for scapegoats (19 December, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes). By the end of the year political and military opinion in Britain had decided one key to shortening the War was a tighter naval blockade of Germany, and so Henderson was sent to The Hague to finalise the rationing agreement and bully the Dutch into further concessions.

Henderson got nowhere, but his failure did trigger political reform of the British blockade system. In February, the various departments in various ministries concerned with blockade were merged under a new Minister of Blockade, Sir Robert Cecil.  Cecil renewed pressure on The Hague during the spring, forcing an agreement that required Dutch farmers to sell half their exports to Britain. The farmers refused to cooperate, unsurprisingly when the British paid far less than the Germans, and the so-called Agricultural Agreement soon collapsed, so that by the summer of 1916 the Royal Navy was back at work making life miserable for Dutch merchantmen and, by way of sending a message, doing the same to the Dutch fishing fleet.

Once again caught between a rock and a hard navy, facing immediate shortages and unsustainable economic disruption, the Dutch could only accept an invitation to renegotiate the Agricultural Agreement. When a final version of the Agreement was signed on 1 November 1916, the British finally got what they wanted, genuine (or at least general) cooperation in the enforcement of quotas on Dutch exports to Germany.

The wartime battle for the Dutch economy was over. Food and other exports to Germany from the Netherlands were significantly reduced after 1916, and the British retained effective control over Dutch trading patterns for the rest of the War. But it had been a struggle and, apart from pointing out that Britain treated its good neighbours in the Netherlands as ciphers to be ruthlessly exploited in 1916, that’s the small point of today’s ramble.

In the century of relative peace before 1914, the British Empire had become accustomed to flexing its gigantic economic muscles and dictating policy to small European countries, comfortable in the knowledge that it was far and away the toughest bully in the playground. Britain still wielded the world’s biggest stick during the First World War, but with resources stretched and in the face of serious competition it had to be sharpened and used with greater precision. This was the lesson learned during the shadow war for Dutch cooperation, a clear signpost to an impoverished British Empire’s more modest position in the post-War world.

26 DECEMBER, 1915: Boxing Clever

One reason I bang on about the First World War, possibly the only good reason, is because it’s crammed full of world-changing stuff that gets buried by posterity. Some of the world-changing stuff – the torrential flow of money from Europe to the USA springs to mind – was treated with great seriousness by contemporaries but is largely ignored by a modern commemorative industry fixated on social history, at home and in the trenches. Other wartime developments with serious, long-term global implications were seen as small matters at the time, at least relative to the collision of Europe’s Great Powers, and have been left in the corner ever since. Today’s anniversary is a cracking example of the latter, because on Boxing Day 1915 the British Empire signed the Treaty of Darin with Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa’ud.

Ibn Sa’ud was the Arab head of the conservative, puritanical Wahabi sect, and tribal ruler of the isolated, central-Arabian Sultanate of Najd. Based in Riyadh and, like every Arab in the Middle East, loosely administered subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the Wahabi regarded most of the other Islamic tribes in Arabia as heretics, particularly the Sharifians of the Hejaz region, but their mortal enemies were the Shammar (or Rashidi) of southeastern Syria.

The Wahabi and the Rashidi had been fighting for control of central Arabia for almost 80 years by 1914. The advantage had swung back to the Sa’udi side since 1902, when the 21 year-old Ibn Sa’ud had led a small Bedouin force to recapture Riyadh from the Rashidi, ending more than a decade of exile. One of modern history’s more wily fundamentalists, Ibn Sa’ud had spent the next decade or so securing and expanding his restored emirate, so that by the time the British and Ottoman Empires faced each other at war across the Middle East in late 1914 he had become one of several important Arab leaders worth cultivating by both sides oxycontin high.

From the British point of view, the treaty was a small but locally important piece of a diplomatic jigsaw being put together in the Middle East.  The jigsaw’s twin aims were to foster a revolt of Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire and to protect vitally important oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.  Its principal architect was Sir Percy Cox, Britain’s chief political agent in the region and a man whose pivotal role in the creation of the modern Middle East deserves a blog of its own.

Cox had been wooing Ibn Sa’ud (and any other Arab leaders deemed likely to oppose Ottoman rule) since before the Ottoman Empire had entered the War in late 1914. The Wahabi were not expected to play a major military role in any future Arab revolt, but the Sultanate of Najd occupied a geographical position – between the Ottoman heartlands to the north and coastal sheikhdoms to the south and east that were already British protectorates – that could not be left unsecured.

Cox had already attached his agent, Captain William Shakespear, to Ibn Sa’ud’s retinue by January 1915, when a fresh outbreak of hostilities between the Wahabi and the (Ottoman-sponsored) Rashidi culminated in the Battle of Jarrab, a tribal skirmish that ended in a definite but inconclusive victory for Ibn Sa’ud. Shakespear’s death during the battle raised Britain’s stock with Ibn Sa’ud, and Cox was able to arrange a truce between the Wahabi and the Rashidi, essentially an acceptance of Sa’ud’s ascendancy and the basis for the Boxing Day treaty signed on the island of Darin (also known as Tarout).

The treaty reflected Arabia’s tribal culture and smacked of 19th-century colonial diplomacy. In making the house of Sa’ud a protectorate of the British Empire, to be defended if attacked, it was required to define the Emirate’s geographical boundaries for the first time, in effect planting the concept of European statehood in the region (a charge that can be levelled at British diplomacy across the Middle East during and after the First World War). Cox also agreed to pay Sa’ud a monthly stipend of £5,000 and, importantly as it turned out, to provide regular deliveries of surplus arms, ammunition and other supplies from Britain’s expanding Middle East Command.

In return, Sa’ud declared for the Allies – not too hard given that the Rashidi were sponsored by the Ottoman Empire – and agreed not to attack Kuwait, Qatar or other existing British Protectorates on what was known as the Pirate Coast. On the other hand, he made no guarantees of military involvement against the Turks, and refused to rule out an attack on the Sharif of Mecca, who was emerging as Britain’s most important ally in the region (and who will have his day in the sun when we get to Lawrence of Arabia).  Bottom line, though the treaty satisfied basic British strategic needs in a wartime context, and was as such an understandable undertaking, Ibn Sa’ud secured a fabulously good deal with implications extending far into the future.

A map seems like a good idea at this point, so here it is, shamelessly nicked from the Internet and removable at the drop of a complaint.

 

Arabia_1914

 

What became known as the Arab Revolt would get going in 1916 and would, for better or worse, have an enormous impact on both the War and the future Middle East – but the Wahabi kept their powder dry and restricted active participation to a few raids against Turkish forces to the north.  Meanwhile Ibn Sa’ud stockpiled his British money and supplies, concentrated on securing new frontiers the British had legitimised, attacked the Rashidi whenever possible and played a long game.

By the end of the War, the Wahabi were established as the major power in central Arabia, and Sa’ud, always careful to cultivate the continued support of his British allies, was ready to embark on a campaign of expansion.  He attacked the Rashidi in 1920, and had all but wiped them out by the time he  secured British agreement to the annexation of much of Kuwait in 1922.  In 1927 a new alliance with Britain,  the Treaty of Jennah, recognised Sa’ud’s claim to the Sharif of Mecca’s Hejaz region, and he had completed its conquest by 1931.  The following year his expanded kingdom, renamed Saudi Arabia, was recognised by the League of Nations, and the rest may one day be quite an important chunk of history…

Beyond apologising for any poor choices among the crazy mess of spelling and naming variations that plague any Anglophone writer dealing with Middle Eastern history, I don’t think this post needs much explanation.  Just mention it the next time someone tells you the First World War changed nothing.

19 DECEMBER, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes

A couple of centenaries today, both reminders that the greatest military power on Earth had stumbled into a bit of pickle as 1915 drew to a close.  In the Eastern Mediterranean, British imperial forces began their planned evacuation of Gallipoli’s bridgeheads from Hell, Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove.  On the same Sunday, General Sir Douglas Haig took formal command of the BEF on the Western Front.  In British military terms these were major events, divesting the Empire’s war effort of two disasters in Sir John French and the entire Dardanelles operation, and for public purposes they could be presented as a fresh start after a year of bleak disappointments on every front.

The British war effort was in need of a fresh start.  Popular and political discontent was gathering as military failures chipped away the veneer of permanent good news that patriotism (and government) demanded of the British press.  This was especially true of those newspapers controlled by Lord Northcliffe.

Owner of (among others) The Times and The Daily Mail, the self-appointed voice of ‘the classes and the people’ was arguably the most powerful press baron in British history.  Northcliffe’s orchestration of the Shell Scandal during the late spring had played a major role in forcing a change of government, and his basic position was always that Germany – a state he hated and feared with unbridled passion – wasn’t being attacked with sufficient vigour.  He was a committed ‘Westerner’, sure the War could only be won in France and noisily against the distraction of resources to other fronts – so on the face of it an end to the Gallipoli adventure and a change at the top in France looked like positive government responses to press criticism.

All quite convincing if you wanted to be convinced, but it had nothing much to do with the truth.

Take Gallipoli. Of all the land fronts contested by British forces, sub-Saharan Africa aside, only Gallipoli had been conceived as an offensive operation.  Britain was fighting to defend Belgium and France, to protect imperial interests in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and (in theory at least) to rescue Serbia via Salonika.  The Dardanelles operation had been a bold attempt to change the War’s focus by knocking out the Ottoman Empire with a single blow, and its long, costly, embarrassing failure dealt a terrible blow to those arguing for that kind of lateral thinking.  The plan’s chief architect and sponsor, Churchill, quit the government and joined his old regiment on the Western Front, while the rest of British strategic thinking went back into its shell.  Some British resources would be sent to Mesopotamia and Palestine for offensive purposes in 1916, but the vast majority would be thrown into the battle for France or committed to a defensive posture in Salonika.

So all change but no progress when it came Britain’s strategic approach in late 1915, and the same applied to the tactical change of command on the Western Front.

Field Marshal Sir John French had to go, that much was clear to anyone not completely susceptible to propaganda.  Appointed in 1914 to command a small expeditionary force, and a cavalry officer with a reputation for colonial dash, he had proved timid and uncertain in command of a mass army.  His leadership had been characterised by extremes of optimism and pessimism, a chronic inability to liaise effectively with French commanders and a preference for caution at all times.  He also struggled to cope with large-scale operations, culminating in an inept display during the autumn’s Artois-Loos Offensive that was considered partly responsible for its failure and sealed his fate.

Like many a commentator before me, I feel the need to come to the poor Field Marshal’s defence, perhaps pointing out that even very good generals might have struggled with the rapid transition from leading a few hundred horsemen against colonial natives to commanding of millions of men in trenches.  Unfortunately I’ve read his relentlessly self-serving and notoriously unreliable memoirs, written during his post-War spell as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so I’ll leave him to suffer posterity’s scorn and move on to Haig.

Haig does deserve more sympathy than the heritage industry can usually spare.  An intelligent and efficient staff officer, a good organiser with a solid record in command of the BEF’s First Corps, he was an urbane and orthodox figure, comfortable in political circles, on good personal terms with the King and generally admired by his peers.  This isn’t the time to discuss his future performance in detail, but broadly speaking it was a lot more competent than his popular reputation as a serial butcher suggests.

On the other hand, and this is my point, Haig’s command was no more innovative than could be expected from a man chosen precisely because he was a trusted executive of convention.  As the BEF’s senior field commander after French, Haig was the safe, predictable choice, approved by King George V on the grounds that he wasn’t ‘too clever’ and charged with carrying out more of the same, more effectively.  Of course Haig was a believer in the ‘breakthrough tactics’ of 1915, and of course he was a byword for the steady but unspectacular, instinctively attracted to tried and tested tactics, loyal to subordinates in the field and inclined to blame chance or staff errors for their failures.

In short, feel free to deplore Haig’s persistent faith in the horrific bloodletting on the Western Front during 1916 and 1917, and in the tactics and generals involved, but be aware that he was the walking incarnation of the British high command’s strategic paralysis.  Far from setting off on a fresh start at the end of 1915, British leaders were stalled at the crossroads, forced to take stock but unable to come up with any positive ideas about a change of direction.

8 DECEMBER, 1915: Chat Lines

A hundred years ago today, after three days of talks between Entente military leaders designed to coordinate their strategic approach in the year to come, the Second Chantilly Conference came to an end.  Attended by representatives of the six Allied powers – Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia and Italy – the conference boasted one significant achievement.  After complaining about Anglo-French inaction on the Western Front during the summer’s Triple Offensive in the east, Russian delegate General Zhilinski secured agreement from every power that it would launch an attack whenever an ally was threatened.

The other major business conducted at Chantilly was a U-turn by French c-in-c Joffre.  In advance of the conference, on 4 December, he and French prime minister Briande had met with BEF chief of staff Roberston and British war minister Kitchener at Calais.  Joffre had accepted, albeit reluctantly, British demands for a withdrawal from Salonika, where a Franco-British expedition had missed the chance to help Serbia.  When the French public, kept in the dark about the fate of Serbia, reacted to the decision with predictable and intense outrage, Joffre changed his mind.  At Chantilly, he persuaded the Russian, Italian and Serbian delegates to support continuation of the Salonika operation.  The new British delegates – BEF commander Sir John French and Imperial chief of staff Sir Archibald Murray (both destined to lose their jobs before the end of the month) – chose to preserve the appearance of unity rather than argue, and their acceptance of further commitment in Salonika sealed the decision to put an end to the Gallipoli campaign.

All worth knowing, by way of joining up various dots, but perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chantilly Conference is how long it had taken the Allies to get around to it.  There had been a first conference in early July, also held at Joffre’s headquarters in Chantilly and attended by representatives of all six powers, but it can best be described as a false start. Proceedings had amounted to a long peroration by Joffre about the need for inter-allied cooperation, and no decisions had been reached or joint declarations made. Otherwise, it had taken sixteen months of all-out, escalating warfare on a global scale before the allies came together for serious joint discussions.  A hundred years on, after decades of summit diplomacy as the norm, the delay calls for an explanation.

The explanation is fairly obvious, but it is a useful perspective check. Before the age of long-range powered flight it took a lot of time and effort to get important people from various countries together in one place.  In the past it had been attempted only in peacetime, for the first time after the Napoleonic Wars when the victorious allies convened at the Congress of Vienna, and subsequently to make territorial and political arrangements designed to preserve peace. In the middle of a war, strategic positions might undergo major changes in the time it took for delegates to travel to and from a summit, especially when an alliance included far-distant Russia.  This was why the first Allied summit attempt took place in July, when European armies traditionally took a summer break from major operations, only to be rendered obsolete when the Germans ignored tradition and launched their Triple Offensive against the Russians a few days later.

Winter offered a more reliable break in European operations, but the War’s first winter had passed without much perceived need for inter-Allied strategic discussion.  Britain, France and Russia had long been accustomed to pursuing imperial ambitions as rivals rather than partners, and mutual suspicion was still a restraining influence, but above all they saw no need for strategic debate at the end of 1914 because they all knew exactly what to do.  Serbia and Belgium had only one strategic option, to lobby their more powerful allies for help with national survival.  The big boys meanwhile devoted the winter to massing lots more men and weapons at the front lines, confident that the mistakes of the autumn would be corrected and the enemy overcome by sheer force of numbers in 1915.

By the end of 1915, force of numbers, various strategic sideshows and the development of new ‘breakthrough’ tactics had quite clearly failed to overwhelm an enemy fighting on two major and several minor fronts.  The Central Powers had held firm against superior numbers on the Western Front, swept aside Russian defences in the east, proved far more obdurate than expected on the Ottoman fronts and were now in the process of conquering Serbia.  Home fronts were becoming less stable and enthusiastic for war, costs had spiralled far beyond any pre-war planner’s wildest nightmares and there was no sign at all of victory on the horizon.  It had been a very bad autumn for the Allies, and it had become clear that pursuit of separate imperial agendas by the main partners was at least partly to blame.  With British and French authorities anxious to show impatient populations that constructive change was in progress, a lull in European fighting once Serbia could no longer be saved meant the Allies were finally ready to take the first step towards behaving like a modern military coalition.

My point here is a variation on one of my regular tropes.  As I will keep telling anyone who’ll listen, it’s impossible to understand the modern world without knowing about the First World War – but Allied attempts at strategic coordination are a reminder that you’ll never get the hang of the thing if you judge it by modern standards.

Lesson over, so I’ll sign off with a couple of sidelights on that first summit.  First of all the sensible, overdue agreement reached at Chantilly would prove counterproductive in 1916.  Triggered when German forces attacked the French at Verdun in February, it prompted a hasty and ill-fated Russian offensive on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, and a British offensive at the Somme that, though anything but hasty, was hardly a success.

Secondly, and in case you’re wondering, the Central Powers didn’t really need strategic summits in 1915.  This was partly a matter of geography.  As their collective name suggested, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were all within relatively easy communication distance of each other, and the main German strategic justification for joining the invasion of Serbia was to open overland communications with the Ottoman Empire.  The other reason summits weren’t necessary was that Germany made all the decisions.  All Germany’s allies were dependent on military and/or economic support to keep them in the War, so inter-allied strategic debates were essentially cosmetic.