Category Archives: Great Britain

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.