Category Archives: Great Britain

15 FEBRUARY, 1915: Negative Thinking

Britain didn’t have much to gain by fighting a general war, and was involved because it had a great deal to lose by any major change in the geopolitical status quo. Its negative aims included preventing the rise of any single dominant power on mainland Europe, preventing the emergence of any credible threat to its global dominance of maritime trade and, of course, preventing any direct threat to the security of homeland or empire. When it came to the Empire, and for that matter to the maintenance of trade supremacy, British political, military, economic and popular opinion all agreed (and had done for decades) that one negative aim towered above all others in importance: nothing must be allowed to interfere with British business in India.

There was no Pakistan in 1915, and no Bangladesh, just British India, but the subcontinent was in no sense one nation. British administration functioned as a bureaucratic superstructure overlaying hundreds of ethnically, religiously and linguistically divided states, kingdoms and principalities of every size. The Hindu majority of India’s 320 million people were further divided on strict caste lines, and the British basically stepped in as top caste, working with existing administrative classes to maintain order, and providing developmental benefits in return for large-scale economic exploitation.

As Emperor of India, British King George V ruled through an appointed viceroy, who in turn liaised with a cabinet minister for India in London. Based in New Delhi and the purpose-built imperial headquarters at Simla, the viceroy (Lord Hardinge from 1910 to 1916) chose his own cabinet from some 6,500 resident British officials, and the vast majority of minor government posts were filled by high-caste natives. The regime exercised direct control over about two-thirds of the subcontinent, divided into 13 major provinces, with the rest comprising some 700 autonomous princedoms, some of them tiny, all of them swearing direct allegiance to the British King-Emperor.

The Hindu upper castes generally accepted British rule with some enthusiasm and gained a political education in the process, so by the late nineteenth century they were exerting relatively polite pressure for a share in decision-making. They had formed a political organisation, the Indian National Congress, in 1885, and been granted elected institutions with purely advisory powers in 1909, but their stance was not intrinsically anti-British in 1914 and they generally treated the War as an opportunity to prove their fitness for self-government.

The subcontinent’s large Moslem populations were more troublesome to the British. To the northeast, in Bengal, violence between neighbouring Moslem and Hindu communities was a regular occurrence, and the warlike peoples of the northwest (near the frontiers with Afghanistan and what was then Persia) were a constant source of uprisings and tribal disorder. Moslem political leadership meanwhile fluctuated between support for the moderate aims of the Congress and demands for full independence.

Minor uprisings, rebellions and local disorders of one sort or another were endemic to the Raj, and were dealt with by the British-led Indian Army. Although it recruited significant numbers of Sikh troops and Nepalese Gurkhas (and levied ‘Imperial Service’ troops from the autonomous princedoms), most of the Indian Army’s native personnel came from the same martially inclined Moslem communities that caused much of the trouble – and this contributed to an understandable, if misplaced, sense of foreboding among British authorities when war broke out in Europe.

Led by Hardinge, administrators chose to regard the Congress as a potential force for rebellion and assumed that a concerted Moslem uprising would follow any declaration of war against Ottoman Turkey. Fear of internal unrest made them reluctant to commit troops abroad, and they came in for a lot of criticism in Britain when the East African and Mesopotamian campaigns began poorly. On the one hand British complaints were unfair, because the Indian Army’s failings in the field were at least partly the result of pre-War cutbacks imposed from London. On the other hand, fear of large-scale rebellion in the Raj was paranoid fantasy, a reflection of the dread felt by British authorities at any hint of a threat to their control.

If anything, the northwest frontier experienced fewer disturbances than usual during the War years, and sporadic attempts by German agents to fund Moslem uprisings in Bengal came to nothing. Indian loyalty at home and in the field was affirmed time and again throughout the War, but there were enough failed conspiracies to keep British fears alive during its early years, and the most ambitious of these, known as the Ghadar Conspiracy, came to a head – or rather went out with a whimper – in February 1915.

The name derives from the Ghadar Party, a group of ex-patriot Indians formed in the United States to foster armed revolt against the Raj. With the outbreak of war, leading Ghadar members worked to bring German agents together with revolutionaries in India, particularly in the Punjab. During the second half of 1914 they helped rebel groups plan a series of coordinated mutinies and uprisings for late the following February, but the rebellion collapsed after police in the Punjab learned of the plans on 15 February.

The only Indian act of rebellion that actually took place that month began on the same afternoon on the island of Singapore, when about half the troops of the 5th Light Infantry Regiment (which mustered 850 men in total) and about a hundred of the Malay State Guides mutinied. Opinions differ as to whether the mutiny was part of the Ghadar plot or an independent outbreak, but it lasted for almost a week, and fighting caused forty-seven British or civilian deaths before the mutineers were suppressed. Two hundred mutineers were brought to trial and forty-seven were executed, the rest receiving punishments ranging from deportation orders to lengthy prison sentences.

Fear of losing part or all of India, whether through encroachment by other powers or internal uprising, had dominated British imperial thinking throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with protection of trade routes to the subcontinent running a close second.  The outbreak of this small mutiny in Singapore, one hundred years ago today, was regarded in London and New Delhi as an event of potentially enormous significance, reminding us that, European horrors notwithstanding, British strategists were still nervously obsessed with India in early 1915.

24 JANUARY, 1915: Ruling The Waves… Quietly

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

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

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

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

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

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

WW1Book-RN2-102

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 JANUARY, 1915: A Small Great War

What with the January blues, the occasional misery that comes with supporting Tottenham and a cold that kept me out of the best Sunday league game this season, Poppycock hasn’t got the units to get overly creative with one of the First World War’s duller weeks. Instead, and as a change from stressing the War’s essential modernity, let’s give a passing mention to the action known as the Battle of Muscat, which reached its climax on 11 January 1915. A sideshow within a sideshow, fought for the security of a tiny Persian Gulf state, it was a very small battle and a reminder that, outside Europe, a whole lot of warfare was taking place in nineteenth-century conditions.

The port of Muscat is now the capital of Oman and the main city of the governate of Muscat, a coastal enclave that behaved like a separate state in the years before the War. Its ruler since 1913, Sultan Taimur, presided over a mediaeval system of government and was the fourth successive Sultan of Muscat to prosper as a client of the British. Control over Muscat was strategically important to the British Empire, first and foremost as a vital source of oil for British machines, but also as the centre of a trade in small arms that linked India with East Africa and had once put rifles in the hands of many a rebel against British rule. So the Royal Navy kept a watchful eye on Muscat, a British political agent was positioned close to the Sultan, a small garrison of British Indian Army troops protected the port, and plenty of money was provided to pay the Sultan’s expenses.

Speaks for itself…

Even before the outbreak of war in Europe, Muscat’s wealth had provoked angry resentment in Imam Salin bin Rashid al Kharusi, ruler of poverty-stricken Oman, theoretical overlord of Muscat and, when it suited him, loyal servant of the Ottoman Empire. By late 1914, the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with the Central Powers, a jihad against the British issued from Constantinople, and German financial assistance had persuaded the Imam to mount an attack.

The key to defending Muscat from inland attack was the fort at Bait Al Falaj, which lay about a mile from the coast and guarded the river and valley leading to the port. The Sultan’s small tribal army was stationed there, along with a detachment of Indian Army regulars. After this combined force repelled a preliminary attack in October 1914, six companies of infantry and two machine guns were sent from India as reinforcements, most of them Sikh troops, so that British strength in Muscat was up to 1,000 men by the time the Imam made his bid for conquest in January.

During 10 January, in a scene straight out of a Fifties colonial movie, large (if indeterminate) numbers of Omani warriors gathered a mile or so from the fort. Variously armed with swords and rifles, protected by shields made of East African hippopotamus hide and working up a noisy collective fervour for jihad, they attacked at two the following morning, charging the fort’s outposts and seizing a piquet to its northwest side.  British and sultanate forces launched a counterattack at dawn, and by noon they had systematically driven the Omanis back into the hinterland.

British Indian troops would go on fighting their mini-campaign in defence of Muscat throughout the War, but the victory at Bait Al Falaj kept things quiet for a time. The loss of some 300 dead, against a handful of casualties among the defenders, forced the Imam to rethink his tactics and weaponry options on twentieth century lines before contributing further to the ongoing Ottoman campaign, sponsored by Berlin, to disrupt British interests in the Middle East.

What should have been called the Battle of Bait Al Falaj was renamed the Battle of Muscat so the British public – far more informed about the world’s physical geography than modern audiences – would know roughly where it had taken place.  Even in 1915 it was seen as a relatively quaint example of the colonial upheaval triggered all over the world by Europe’s Great War, and as a suitably old-fashioned affair. On the other hand it was also a product of Britain’s, and in particular the Royal Navy’s, determination to secure oil supplies, and the modern world has been living with that particular strategic novelty ever since.

25 DECEMBER, 1914: Bah! Humbug!

Poppycock’s War is running a little late, but then it’s Christmas and everyone knows war stops for Christmas. At least, it did in 1914, or so last week’s heritage commemorations would have you believe.

It’s been hard to miss the centenary of that football truce on the Western Front, and it’s been heartwarming stuff. The spirit of Christmas soothes mankind’s savage breast, ordinary men default to goodwill and a kick-about when the chance arises, there’s a whiff of honourable conduct in the air… it’s all very Old World, very British, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Football Truce reflected the respectful politesse of a bygone age. Well maybe, but let’s balance the picture with a glance at what the Royal Navy was up to on Christmas Day 1914.

On the evening of 24 December, three converted cross-Channel steamers, HMS Engadine, HMS Empress and HMS Riviera, left Harwich for positions off the north German coast. Escorted by two light cruisers and ten destroyers, each steamer carried three Short seaplanes, which were lowered into the water some 70 miles from Germany early on Christmas morning. Replacing wheels with floats to create seaplanes was almost as old as flight itself, but taking off from anything but calm water was still a lottery and only seven of the aircraft managed the feat before flying on to celebrate the festive season by carrying out the world’s first naval air raid.

Their official mission was ‘air reconnaissance’ of German military installations in Heligoland, Cuxhaven and the major naval base at Wilhelmshaven, locations far beyond the range of any land-based Allied aircraft, but the Navy also hoped to bomb the coastal airfield at Nordholtz, just south of Cuxhaven, which housed the half dozen Zeppelins then being used as very effective support for German ground operations on the Western Front. The raid’s underlying purpose was a more strategically significant attempt to provoke the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet into leaving port, and ten British submarines had been stationed off the coast to ambush any warships coming out of Wilhelmshaven.

None of the above really worked. Gathering coastal mist prevented any of the seaplanes from finding Cuxhaven, let alone attacking Nordholtz, and they eventually dropped small bomb loads on Wilhelmshaven, inflicting minor damage on seaplane base, a cruiser and a submarine. Some valuable reconnaissance was carried out, and the bombing did provoke the battlecruiser Von Der Tann into evasive manoeuvres that ended in collision with a cruiser, but the High Seas Fleet wasn’t tempted out to sea. Meanwhile all seven Short seaplanes received hits from ground fire, and only two made it back to the British fleet, although all the aircrew involved came through the mission unscathed. The only two men not picked up by British ships were rescued by a Dutch trawler and interned in the Netherlands.

Though the Royal Navy’s Christmas present to Germany, known to posterity as the Cuxhaven Raid, failed in almost every practical respect, its long-term influence was both significant and malign. Trumpeted by the British as a technical triumph, it confirmed the potential of naval air power to both sides, prompting rapid improvements in coastal anti-aircraft defences and encouraging the development of genuine aircraft carriers during the next few years. The raid also encouraged advocates of long-range strategic bombing, adding weight to the theory that aerial attacks on civilian or infrastructural targets could bring an enemy to its knees, while the outrage it caused in Berlin has been credited with influencing the German High command’s decision to use Zeppelins against Allied cities in 1915.

So that was a Merry Christmas from the Royal Navy, scaring a lot of people and giving a mighty leg-up to the theory that would see civilians bombed into oblivion all over the world to no real strategic effect for the next thirty years. Then again, the Navy was merely adhering to Britain’s military policy of the day and demonstrating aggression, essentially for its own sake and in defiance of any seasonal lull in the fighting. The same thinking, designed to keep the nation in warlike mood and the enemy on his toes, lay behind the British Army’s continuous trench raids all along the Western Front that winter, and the military’s stern disapproval of pacifist episodes like the football match.

Did the War take a Christmas pause? Not really, and not if the British had anything to do with it.

18 DECEMBER, 1914: Sand Grab

A hundred years ago today the British Empire announced a formal protectorate over the Ottoman province of Egypt.  This came as no surprise to contemporary observers, given that the two empires were at war, that Constantinople was in no position to impose its will on Egypt and that the country was immensely valuable to Britain, not only as a central base for African, Asian and Mediterranean operations, but also as the host nation of the Suez Canal.   What might have surprised them was the long-term impact of British rule on a nation edging towards independence from Ottoman Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire’s control over Egypt had been a matter of form rather than substance at the end of the eighteenth century, when Napoleon led a French army (and a boatload of scholars) across the Mediterranean and occupied the country, only to be expelled by the British a few years later. The two nations had competed for influence over a virtually autonomous Egypt through much of the nineteenth century, but construction of the Suez Canal (aka the massive shortcut to India) had changed the stakes. Using endemic tribal warfare on Egypt’s southern and western frontiers as an excuse, Britain had placed the country under what amounted to military occupation in the 1880s.

This was still the situation in 1914. Though Egypt was nominally ruled by a hereditary Khedive under the auspices of the Sultan of Turkey, the Khedive and his council of ministers took orders on all military, foreign and economic affairs from the British consul-general. That post, held by Lord Kitchener from 1911 until he became British War Minister in August 1914, came with its fair share of problems. Libya and the Sudan remained chronically unstable, requiring periodic military intervention to quell uprisings, while nationalist movements were gaining strength within Egypt. The Legislative Assembly, a quasi-representative body established in 1913, was virulently anti-British, as was the devoutly pro-Ottoman Khedive, Abbas Himli.

Egypt’s strategic importance as a military base and a trade route was instantly multiplied by the outbreak of war.  The British government would have liked nothing better than an immediate takeover and the ruthless suppression of dissident elements, but for the first few months of the conflict it was unwilling to do anything that might provoke the Ottoman Empire into siding with the Central Powers. The result was chaos in Cairo, as Turkish neutrality prevented the deportation of some 70,000 Germans and Austrians resident in Egypt and the country became a seething hotbed of international intrigue.

As soon as Turkey entered the war in early November, British forces were free to impose martial law and dissolve the Assembly.  On 19 December, one day after the country’s effective annexation,Abbas Himli was deposed and replaced as Khedive by his pro-British uncle, Husein Kemal.  Egypt remained firmly in British hands, governed by a High Commissioner appointed in London, for the rest of the War.

Nationalist agitation still simmered in Egypt but with little practical effect before 1918, and the largely native Egyptian Army spent most of the War dealing with tribal unrest on the frontiers. Meanwhile the Royal Navy made use of Alexandria as a port, and imperial ground forces came and went en route for campaigns in Gallipoli, Salonika, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Though Egyptian forces never fought overseas for the British, in line with a promise made at the start of the Protectorate, a volunteer Egyptian Labour Corps provided 120,000 men for support services on the Mesopotamian and Western Fronts, and the country’s agricultural resources suffered heavy exploitation.

Four years of war as a British possession did nothing to encourage political stability in Egypt, but did establish the Wafd Party as the political voice of nationalist opposition. Wafd objections to British control of the Canal Zone were the main stumbling block to dissolution of the Protectorate after 1918, and though formal independence was eventually granted in 1922 it was little more than a facade disguising continued military occupation. Even after the occupation was ended by treaty in 1936 the British maintained occupying forces around the Canal, and they remained in place until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Whichever way you look at it, Britain’s annexation of Egypt in December 1914 had serious, long-term warping effects on that country’s social, economic and political future, with momentous consequences that are still being felt by the world as a whole. So while we mull over the Football Truce, or consider the continuous, costly and futile attacks still taking place all along the Western Front, let’s spare a seasonal thought for the geopolitical havoc being brewed by the British in the Middle East.

26 NOVEMBER, 1914: A World Policeman’s Lot…

Late November, winter is settling in all over Europe and the 1914 fighting season is drawing to a close. Trench warfare in Belgium and northeastern France, while hardly quiet, will be defined by defensive successes during the next few months, and operations around Poland in the east are coagulating into a long winter stalemate. In the south, where the weather stays warmer, the battered but unbeaten Serbian army is regrouping for one last effort to repel a third planned Austrian invasion, while over in Armenia and Georgia the first Ottoman offensive is grinding to a halt in foul conditions. Even in the Middle East, where winter is more battle-friendly than summer, British imperial forces are resting on their laurels after taking Basra on 23 November, waiting until spring to begin a reckless advance up the rivers towards Baghdad.

A hundred years on, relative calm on the battlefronts gives me a chance to focus on a tragedy that was relatively insignificant, though only in the context of mass carnage. On 26 November 1914 the British battleship HMS Bulwark exploded while moored at Sheerness in the River Medway, so this seems a good day to talk about the everyday dangers of serving aboard a major warship in 1914, and about the everyday wartime importance of Britain’s massive, hugely expensive Royal Navy.

The Bulwark had been completed in 1902, only to be rendered obsolete as a front-line weapon four years later, when the arrival of HMS Dreadnought signalled a fundamental upgrade in battleship technology. After service in the Mediterranean, Channel and Home Fleets, Bulwark was reduced to reserve status in 1910, but as naval rivalry with Germany heated up she was refitted and returned to Channel service in 1912. When war broke out she performed patrol duties in the Channel, based at Portland, tasked with protecting the southern English coast from the predations of German minelayers, submarines and torpedo boats, from attack by major German warships and from the possibility, taken seriously at the time, of a full-scale German invasion.

Protection of Britain’s long coastline was just part of an enormous workload that meant few serviceable Royal Navy ships could malinger in reserve once war broke out. The Navy’s other basic responsibilities included protecting colonies and trade routes all over the world, imposing blockades on enemy ports and maintaining a battle fleet bigger than any likely combination of opposing fleets put together.

It’s often said that the First World War’s massive battle fleets were outdated by the time the war began and served little practical purpose. True enough, hugely expensive dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had become fatally vulnerable to cheap, easily deployed mines and torpedoes, and contemporary fleets served primarily as deterrents, but the populist idea that the Royal Navy therefore failed to pull its weight in the Great War could hardly be further from the truth.

The Navy’s maintenance of trade routes was vital to Britain’s wartime survival, as was the connected battle against enemy submarines, and denying imports to Germany was one of the War’s slow-burning strategic successes.  The service also acquitted itself more than adequately throughout the four-year battle for control of the Channel that was an (often forgotten) adjunct to nearby fighting on the Western Front, and acted as vital support to coastal and supply operations on all the other Allied fronts.

There were major failures, and heritage commemoration’s fascination with them – particularly the ill-conceived Dardanelles operation in 1915 and the inert performance at Jutland the following year – tends to preserve the myth of naval irrelevance.  There were also plenty of individual screw-ups to write home about, some of them grimly entertaining, but these were inevitable when such a gigantic organisation was stretched to the limit and relying on emergency staff. The high-profile failures weren’t the whole story, and they shouldn’t replace the Navy’s vital contribution to survival and victory in the modern public mind.

All of which brings me meandering back to HMS Bulwark. She served a short stint in early November as host to the court martial of Admiral Troubridge (in charge of shambolic attempts to intercept the Goeben back in August), and was then transferred from Portland to Sheerness, in the Medway estuary, as part of the battle group on watch for German attacks across the North Sea.

On 26 November the battle group was at anchor off Sheerness, having completed a set of North Sea exercises, and at ten to eight in the morning most of the Bulwark‘s crew were having breakfast while the ship took on coal and a marine band played on deck – when the ship exploded. The blast tore the ship to pieces, shook buildings in Southend, nine kilometres away, and scattered personal items belonging to the crew all over northern Kent. All 51 officers and all but fourteen of the 759 crewmen on board were killed at the scene, and five of the survivors later died of their wounds.

Bulwark-graphic

Saboteurs, mines and U-boats were immediately installed as chief suspects by much of the British press, encouraged by persistent rumours of suspicious foreigners around the docks, but the Navy inquest that followed decided the disaster had been a tragic accident. The same public paranoia followed explosions that destroyed HMS Natal in 1915 and HMS Vanguard in 1917, but contemporary warships, crammed full of oil or coal, explosive devices and relatively primitive electrical equipment (not to mention hundreds of smokers), were always likely to explode if flame found the wrong feeding ground. That’s all that happened on the Bulwark, but it was enough to cause instant, total destruction, and it was a stark reminder of another fundamental fact of naval warfare often overlooked, then and now:  an armed warship was a very dangerous place to work.

22 SEPTEMBER, 1914: Das Boot

Popular views of the First World War tend to be obscured by the monolith of the Second, in all its screen-friendly pomp. Submarine warfare, for example, is so thoroughly established as a Second World War story that a lot of well-educated people I meet have no idea it took place at all during the First. It did.

Conducted by men in slow, often experimental boats, operating in appallingly unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions, submarine warfare spread terror across the seas during the First World War, had globally important diplomatic and political effects, and threatened, as in the 1940s, to warp the War’s military course. It was also big news at the time, but although both submarines and their potential had been a fact of military life for some years when the War began, it took the events of 22 September to embed its underwater menace in the popular imagination.

Between six-twenty five and about eight in the morning, in an area of the North Sea off the Dutch coast known as the ‘Broad Fourteens’, the German submarine U-9 torpedoed and sank three Royal Navy cruisers, killing more than 1,400 crew. The action made global headlines and sparked outcry in the British press, focused on criticism of the Navy’s failure to prepare against the threat of submarines. The critics had a point.

The three patrolling cruisers had all been obsolete, slow and unable to carry out the relatively fast zigzag manoeuvres recommended as protection against surface attack. Known as the ‘livebait squadron’, they were largely crewed by cadets and reservists, operating without protection from faster destroyers, and should probably have been spared active service – but their commanders hadn’t even considered the possibility of submarine attack and had contrived to make the ships easy targets during the action.

To make matters worse, the U-9 was – as its number suggests – one of the German Navy’s first operational submarines, in service since 1910. In the context of rapid design advances it was hardly less obsolete than the cruisers it sank, and superior boats were already available to both the British and German services. The British public (not to mention British merchant fleets) trembled at the havoc they might cause, and British naval officers awoke from the collective denial that had been warping their responses to submarine technology for years.

At the very top of the Royal Navy, principally in the person of recently retired arch-reformer Admiral Sir John Fisher, the realities of submarine warfare had been understood for some time. The Navy had built plenty of submarines, among the best in the world, and though strategic priorities meant it saw little need for them as offensive weapons, the threat posed to all forms of surface shipping by invisible attackers with torpedoes was no secret. Here’s where it got a little weird. A large number of British naval officers, important figures from senior admirals down to combat level, simply refused to accept that submarines and torpedoes had changed the game for navies at war.

Surface fleets had ruled the waves for hundreds of years, and the British had long been the unchallenged masters of fleet warfare. Vast amounts of money and manpower had been invested in making the Royal Navy the mightiest weapon of naval warfare ever seen – but it all counted for nothing if cheap little submarines could destroy battleships and devastate trade routes. So they couldn’t.

Sneaky underwater attacks were immoral, ran the argument, against the rules of war and would never be carried out by any civilised nation. Better to carry on building Dreadnoughts and perfecting fleet operations, it went on, and despite decrees to the contrary from above this attitude extended to a neglect of anti-submarine tactics as war approached. The attitude came home to roost on 22 September.

Submarine warfare would prove persistently difficult to carry out in pursuit of any organised, strategic goal, and anti-submarine measures would quickly develop the capacity to limit its impact, inflicting terrible casualties on submarine fleets. That story goes for both world wars, but nobody knew it in September 1914. What the whole world did know, and never forgot, in the aftermath of U-9’s exploits was that something invisible and deadly had been added to the terrors of modern warfare.

Like other new weapons of the time, submarines weren’t war-winners.  Their direct military impact was peripheral but, like the heavy bombers foreshadowed by raids on Paris, they would cast a long shadow over the decades to come. Nuclear-armed, they still stalk the oceans today.

There you go: important, direct consequences for the future of humanity, ideally with a little craziness thrown in; that’s the First World War I’m talking about.

18 SEPTEMBER, 1914: History suspended

A hundred years ago most British eyes were on the Western Front, where the Battle of the Aisne subsided into stalemate after days of attack and counter had convinced both sides that frontal assaults on installed defensive positions were suicide in the machine-gun age.  Outflanking the opposition was now the name of the game, and would remain so until the front line ran out of flank at the Channel to the north and the mountainous Swiss frontier to the south.

On the same day, exactly a century before today’s Scottish independence referendum, the British parliament was imposing its own stalemate on the ambitions of Welsh and Irish populations.

The Welsh Church Act, creating a Church of Wales that freed Welsh nonconformists from paying taxes to the English church, was finally given royal assent on 18 September, after Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government had ridden popular controversy and used legislation to override opposition in the House of Lords.  The same method enabled passage of the even more controversial Government of Ireland Act on the same day.  Otherwise known as the Third Home Rule Bill for Ireland, it provided for devolved Irish government within the United Kingdom and was supposed to bring an end to three decades of violent social and political strife.

The Welsh bill was the first applied separately to Wales, rather than to the entity of England and Wales, and the Irish act was the first concession to devolution made by any UK administration.  Both should have been significant successes for the government’s peacetime reform programme – but the War had changed everything.  The really momentous legislation given royal assent on 18 September 1914 was a third bill, the Suspensory Act, which postponed implementation the first two, initially for a year but effectively for the duration of the War.

Wales eventually got its church in 1920, but home rule never came to Dublin.  The Act of 1914 had brought the predominantly Protestant and pro-British northern province of Ulster close to civil war, and during the next four years southern Ireland’s evident determination to secure immediate independence rendered home rule redundant.  We’ll never know what difference a devolved parliament in 1914 might have made to Ireland’s twentieth-century history, but without it the country went on to suffer decades of uprising, suppression, partition and inter-communal violence.

The Suspensory Act was a small but significant side effect of the First World War’s outbreak that is easy to miss amid the remembrance.  Today, when the possible effects of Scottish independence loom large in British thinking, feels like a good time to mention it.