Category Archives: Great Britain

11 NOVEMBER, 1916: War and Peeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 OCTOBER, 1916: Net Loss

There were many wars within the War taking place in 1916, and during the night of 26–27 October a relatively minor naval engagement took place, known as the Battle of Dover Strait, that shone a light on one of them – the four-year struggle for control of the English Channel.  To be more precise, this was Britain’s struggle to maintain the overwhelming dominance of its southern coastal waters that enabled it to protect the English shoreline, supply the Western Front and prevent passage of German warships, in particular submarines, to and from the Atlantic.

The Royal Navy had begun the job of blocking the Channel to enemy shipping on the outbreak of war in August 1914. It transferred a dozen fairly modern destroyers to reinforce the elderly destroyers normally stationed at Dover, and they formed the heart of what was known as the Dover Patrol. The Patrol remained in position throughout the War, its strength steadily mounting with the addition of old cruisers, monitors (floating gun platforms), minesweepers, aircraft, airships, torpedo boats, other motor boats and various armed yachts, but it began the War by laying substantial minefields across the Channel’s narrowest point, between Dover and the Belgian coast.

In February 1915, the minefields were augmented with ‘indicator nets’ – light steel nets dropped from small fishing boats (drifters), which remained on watch for anything that became entangled – and with Dover Patrol ships assigned as support the whole operation became known as the ‘Dover Barrage’.

Unlike its big brother in the Adriatic, the Otranto Barrage, the Dover version appeared to succeed at first, largely because it was almost immediately responsible for sinking the submarine U-8, which went down after getting tangled in the nets on 4 March. The German Navy reacted by restricting its submarines to the northern route round Britain for Atlantic operations, the British began building and installing bigger nets, and for the next year or so both British and German authorities were inclined ascribe any unexplained losses to the Barrage.

In fact the Barrage was far from impenetrable.  British mines were hopelessly unreliable (and would stay that way until late 1917), even the bigger nets installed by October 1916 left large gaps, and insufficient support craft were deployed to monitor them.  Its weakness eventually became clear to the German Navy, which reinstated the Channel route for small U-boats from Ostend and Zeebrugge in April 1916, and by the autumn submarines were passing through at will, usually travelling on the surface at night.

Submarines aside, the Dover Patrol’s various craft had been fighting a continuous ‘mosquito’ war against raids by torpedo boats from the German Flanders Flotilla, which made regular attempts to slip past the Barrage at night for attacks on Allied merchant and supply shipping.  The Flanders Flotilla had been quiet throughout the summer of 1916, but in October it was reinforced with torpedo boats from the High Seas Fleet, and on the night of 26 October all 23 of its active boats attacked the Dover Barrage in five separate groups.

The British were expecting a night raid but had done little to prepare for it. The drifters watching the Barrage, each armed with precisely one rifle for defence purposes, were protected only by the elderly destroyer HMS Flirt, a naval trawler and an armed yacht.  Taken completely by surprise when the German boats attacked in five groups, the British lost six drifters during the night, and three more were damaged, while the naval trawler suffered heavy damage, an empty transport vessel was sunk in passing, and the Flirt went to the bottom after its captain failed to recognise the Flotilla’s boats as enemy craft and blundered into their torpedoes.

Six of the modern, Tribal Class destroyers from Dover were called up to track down the raiders, but the first on the scene of the Flirt‘s sinking, HMS Nubian, also failed to recognise the German boats as enemies and was left dead in the water after a torpedo took off its bow.  The rest of the British destroyer force caught up with some of the raiding groups, but came off worse, failing to sink any German boats while HMS Amazon and HMS Mohawk both suffered significant damage.  By the time further Royal Navy reinforcements arrived from Dunkirk, the Flanders Flotilla had escaped for home.

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

At the end of a shambolic night for the Royal Navy the British had lost eight ships sunk, seven more damaged, 45 dead, four wounded and ten prisoners, while the German Navy suffered no casualties and only minor damage to a single torpedo boat.

Small craft in the English Channel were constantly engaged in this kind of skirmish, as they were in the Mediterranean, the Adriatic, the Baltic, the Black Sea and every other tightly contested naval theatre, but the first Battle of Dover Strait (a smaller action would be named as the second in 1917) was both bigger and more strategically significant than most.  Their undoubted victory encouraged German planners to dismiss the Dover Barrage as useless, so the Flanders Flotilla’s reinforcements were transferred back to the High Seas Fleet in November and large U-boats given permission to pass through the Channel in December, a decision that facilitated the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and as such helped draw the USA into the War.

The failure of October 1916, and the subsequent inability of the Barrage to stop big, commerce-raiding U-boats, also acted as a wake-up call for the British.  In late 1917 the Barrage was moved onto a line between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez, and by the end of the year it had been equipped with new, more efficient mines. Minefields and numbers of support craft were steadily expanded, a new Barrage Committee established a system of night patrols using flares and searchlights, and by 1918 the Barrage was performing effectively enough to sink at least 12 U-boats before they stopped trying to breach it in August.

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

This was just a glimpse of yet another busy battlefront that was deadly by any standards less gruesome than those of the First World War, strategically important to both the Western and Atlantic Fronts, continuously in action for more than four years, and destined to be almost completely ignored by the modern heritage industry.   I mention it here by way of commemoration.

28 JULY, 1916: Special Relationship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You rule the waves, you make enemies…

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

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

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

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

7 JUNE, 1916: The Bruiser And The Cruiser

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

Front-page-resource-material0002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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Dublin after it was shelled by a British gunboat… that’ll teach them to mess with the post office.
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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.