Category Archives: Home Front

24 MARCH, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip

Life’s a weave.  There’s never just one thing going on within any given timeframe, and life’s stories – collectively known as history – are inevitably edits, imposing the appearance of coherent narrative by selecting and prioritising from a mass of potentially relevant information. That’s one way of pointing out that all written, spoken or illustrated history is subjective, because editorial decisions come with the job.

I mention this obvious truth because I make a bunch of those editorial decisions every time I post, and I don’t want anybody thinking they amount to a coherent narrative. These are snapshots, intended to shine a bit of light on the First World War’s largely forgotten dimensions, and ideally to provoke a wide-angle view of the thing, in contrast to the Tommy-tight focus promoted by British popular media.

A century ago today, for instance, the British began an invasion of Palestine that (in my opinion) made an enormous difference to today’s world, so I plan to talk about it – but any number of other centenaries have passed during the last few days, a good few of them ripe with significance for the future.

On 16 March 1917, for example, Aristide Briand’s French government fell. It had been in place since October 1915 without ever looking or feeling secure, and the issue that brought it down was Briand’s support for French c-in-c Nivelle’s hugely controversial Western Front offensive. The successor chosen by President Poincaré, veteran centrist grandee Alexandre Ribot, went on to authorise the attack and was very much a stopgap premier. Elderly and in poor health, he lasted only six months in the job and had little impact on French strategic direction, though he was responsible for reversing the French government’s hitherto unshakable support for Greek King Constantine, a move that would help untie that particularly frustrating political knot.

Any wartime premier of any major belligerent, even France, deserves more than that shallow paragraph has to offer, and I’m about to give the same short shrift to the impact of food shortages throughout northern Europe in the early spring of 1917. I’ve mentioned the failure of the 1916 harvest recently (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and although its most potent long-term effects were felt in Germany, it was a major issue for, among others, the Low Countries and Great Britain.

In occupied Holland and Belgium, the effects of the poor harvest were exacerbated by German economic exploitation and caused widespread civilian hardship. In Britain, they were sharpened by losses to the German U-boat campaign, causing some discomfort along with a great deal of popular commentary – and in late March 1917 the British press was dominated by a severe national potato shortage. When Dutch civilians rioted over potato shortages in July 1917, they were fighting to stave off starvation, but although British outrage was primarily fuelled by addiction to chips it did reflect a popular sense that the War had come home to roost, brought into every home by a combination of mass casualties and basic shortages.

Oh well, you could still get tea.

In 1914 many Britons had regarded war as, at worst, a necessary evil, needed to sort out the geopolitical pecking order and to invigorate a nation grown idle with comfort. By the time British clocks went forward for only the second year, on 8 April 1917, nobody saw a good side to war any more.

There was, however, still a glimmer of dash and derring-do left in the conflict at large. While Lawrence was creating his own legend in Arabia, more conventional British officers were setting out on a parallel adventure in Palestine. On 26 March, British imperial forces led by General Murray attacked Ottoman lines blocking the only feasible route north from Sinai and the only viable way of establishing direct contact with the Arab Revolt.  The attack opened an invasion destined to stutter into life before maturing into a time bomb for the future disguised as a dramatic military success.

Based in Cairo, Murray had spent the second half of 1916 and the first weeks of 1917 making methodical preparations for an advance into Palestine, establishing supply lines across Sinai and building up his fighting strength (5 August, 1916: Backwards to the Future). By early 1917 he could call on about 75,000 front-line troops, against German General von Kressenstein’s Ottoman force of some 18,000 men – a combination of tribal irregulars, depleted Turkish Army units and German specialist forces – based on Gaza and deployed along a fortified line running about 40km southwest to the town of Beersheba.

Here’s a map.

Murray had sent ANZAC cavalry units to clear Turkish forward positions in December and January, and had intended to invade shortly afterwards, but loss of troops to other theatres forced him to postpone further attacks until March, when he finally received permission from London for an attack on Gaza. By that time water pipelines to the front had reached El Arish, and Murray – assuming that defenders, outnumbered 2-to-1, would retreat when threatened ­– had organised 35,000 of his best troops to deliver an attack as the ‘Eastern Force’. Much as Kressenstein wanted to retreat, he was under orders from theatre commander Djemal Pasha to hold the position… but before I get into what became known as the First Battle of Gaza, it’s worth making a couple of points about desert warfare in 1917.

Attacks on fortified positions in desert regions were dominated by artillery, machine guns and the other weapons associated with trench warfare on the Western Front model, but everything else – including exploitation of victories against trench lines – was about maintaining supplies, finding targets and making rapid movements across empty spaces to reach them. This meant that cavalry, whether mounted on horses or camels, was not the disastrous anachronism it proved on the main European fronts, but an absolutely vital reconnaissance and attack weapon, a fact worth remembering the next time some heritage pundit insists it was completely useless in a ‘mechanised’ war.

Aircraft were even better at reconnaissance, although they broke down too often in desert conditions to fully replace cavalry in the role, and were useful as ground attack weapons. Both sides deployed air units equipped with machines that were obsolete by Western Front standards in early 1917, but German Rumpler C-types and Halberstadt D-types could outperform the RFC’s sedate BE-2 fighters.  Murray could also call upon about a dozen wheeled seaplanes from four Royal Navy aircraft carriers stationed off the coast, but although aircraft carriers sound like a great leap forward with enormous implications, the floating airstrips of future wars were still in the development stage in 1917.  These were converted cross-Channel ferries, selected because they were fast enough to keep up with fleet units.  Each could only carry between three and seven seaplanes, which had to be winched in and out of the water for operations, and which weren’t enough to prevent Kressenstein’s pilots from holding their own in the air despite a numerical disadvantage.

HMS Ben-My-Chree off the coast of Palestine. This was Britain’s biggest aircraft carrier in 1917.

Eastern Force commander General Dobell spent two days massing the bulk of his troops near the coast about 8km short of Gaza, behind the Wadi Ghazi, before they crossed the wadi, undetected in dense fog, early on 26 March. Cavalry slipped through positions east and southeast of the town to cut off the Ottoman rear, but an infantry attack against the southeast approaches to Gaza failed in harsh conditions. Cavalry circled back in the afternoon to help the British take most of the high ground east of Gaza by evening, but darkness quickly reduced both sides to chaos.

Kressenstein thought the battle was lost so he cancelled a call for reinforcements, while Dobell thought the battle was about to be lost and recalled his cavalry from beyond Gaza. That left the two British divisions holding the high ground exposed to a counterattack, which arrived the following morning and – along with water shortages – persuaded Dobell to order a general retreat. The operation had cost about 4,000 British imperial casualties, against some 2,400 suffered by Kressenstein’s force, and could only be called a comprehensive failure.

General Sir Archibald Murray had been around a long time and, having served as chief of staff to original BEF c-in-c Sir John French, he knew a bit about self-serving propaganda. Unwilling to foist defeat on a British public laid low by spuds and the Somme, he simply tripled the number of Ottoman casualties in his reports and turned failure into substantial victory. Still sure Kressenstein would retreat given one more push, Murray wanted another crack at Gaza as soon as possible, and his creative use of fiction was enough to secure enthusiastic agreement from London.

Some generals deserved posterity’s scorn, and Murray was one of them.

Murray was wrong, and Dobell’s second attempt on Gaza in mid-April would be another expensive failure in the face of well-organised Ottoman defences. A summer of desultory trench warfare would follow, while both sides reinforced and the British brought a new command team to Palestine for a renewed offensive in the autumn. You might wonder why they’d bother, given that eastern Mediterranean deserts were never anyone’s idea of a game-changer in terms of winning the War. The answers lie, as usual, in the unstoppable combination of military momentum and imperial instinct.

Forward defence of Suez and reports from Arabia had convinced British generals that the Ottoman Empire was in trouble, and dangled the irresistible carrot of easy victories. Imperial strategists in London were never going to turn down an offer of post-War control over the oil-rich geopolitical axis that was the Middle East, and were keen to establish possession rights over the eastern Mediterranean seaboard before Arab rebels or international peace treaties could intervene. Of course the invasion of Palestine was a mere sideshow to the Great War, but it sat right in the mainstream of British imperial progress.

22 JANUARY, 1917: One Clanger, Two Bangers

It’s still January, the War is still quiet, and so I plan to spend the next hour or two telling three small tales about this week in 1917.   None of them are particularly obscure or neglected by posterity, but they’re all interesting in their way and there’s a dash of world-historical significance to spice things up.  They’re not really connected so let’s take them in chronological order, starting with the diplomatic black farce known as the Zimmermann Telegram or the Zimmermann Note.

Arthur Zimmermann was the German foreign minister in January 1917.  He had only been in the post since November, and in political terms he can be dismissed as a creature of the military-industrial dictatorship that controlled Germany as the Third Supreme Command (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint).  Zimmermann was thoroughly imbued with the gamblers’ optimism that characterised his masters, as demonstrated by his reaction to the decision, taken in mid-January, to adopt a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

For reasons often discussed in the past, the decision meant that war with the United States was all but inevitable, which in turn meant Germany either had to win the War before America’s vast resources made it to Europe or prevent the US Army from coming to Europe at all.  With the latter in mind, and encouraged by signs that collapse of the Russian war effort would release resources from the Eastern Front, Zimmermann wrote a note to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, instructing him to offer an alliance to the Mexican government whenever war between Germany and the US became certain.  In return for declaring war against the US, Mexico would receive generous funding and military support from Germany, along with the former Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, once victory was secured.  By way of encouragement, Zimmermann suggested that Japan might be persuaded to join the alliance, thus keeping the US occupied on two fronts, neither of them anywhere near Germany.

Reality was not heavily involved here.  Even if Mexico wanted a full-scale war with its northern neighbour, it was in midst of a very long series of revolutions and in no fit state to fight one, and Japan had shown no signs of wanting to abandon its very profitable and useful alliance with Britain, let alone being ready to fight a war against its powerful Pacific trade rival.  The message could, on the other hand, have very real diplomatic effects if its contents were to reach Washington while Germany was at peace with the US.  Berlin took precautions against this possibility, but they never stood a chance.

One of the Royal Navy’s first wartime jobs had been to cut Germany’s transatlantic cables, so Berlin had been communicating with its ambassadors in the western hemisphere using US cables, an arrangement accepted by the Wilson administration on the grounds that it might facilitate the progress of peace talks.  Berlin considered the US cable system secure, and had agreed not to use it for coded messages, but cited security concerns to persuade the US embassy to accept the Zimmermann message in code.  The message was delivered to the embassy on 16 January, and transmitted to Mexico via the German ambassador in Washington.  Washington also thought its transatlantic cables were secure, but all traffic passed through a node near Land’s End, at the western tip of mainland Britain, where it was being tapped and passed on to the Royal Navy’s codebreaking centre, known as Room 40.

The Royal Navy’s Room 40 broke this code. Feel free to have a go.

Room 40 was in possession of German diplomatic ciphers and had cracked the gist of the message within a day or so, but the codebreakers sat on the information for the next three weeks while they thought up ways to use it without their wire-tapping activities causing outrage in Washington.  They eventually passed the telegram’s contents to the British foreign office on 5 February, five days after Germany’s public declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had effectively ended the diplomatic battle for American support.

Another two weeks passed before the first US official read a transcript, by which time the British had made up a couple of plausible alternative sources for the intelligence.  It was shown to the US ambassador in London on 20 February, reached Wilson in Washington a few days later, and was released to the American press on 28 February, giving a predictable and enormous boost to anti-German sentiment in the States at a very important time.

There isn’t much need to elaborate on the connections between our modern world and a document that helped get the USA involved in European affairs, except perhaps to paraphrase the incomparable Barbara Tuchmann by pointing out an unhappy consistency in the fruits of Prussian diplomacy, so I’ll move on to that week’s most disastrous by-product of the British class system.

Silvertown, a poverty-raddled East London suburb, had a nasty recent history as the capital’s industrial hellhole, a place where really noxious factories just outside the city’s regulatory reach were surrounded by the homes of their workforces.  Among many chemicals companies operating in the area in the 1900s, Brunner, Mond & Co (a future original component of ICI) produced soda crystal and caustic soda until production of the latter ended in 1912, leaving half of the plant idle.  In mid-1915, when the British Army was facing potentially critical shell shortages, the War Office requisitioned the spare half of the factory for production of high-grade, ‘purified’ TNT, despite protests that the process was too dangerous to be carried out in crowded areas, a view shared by the Brunner, Mond chemists who had invented the process.

Handling TNT was bad for workers, who suffered from a variety of side effects, including skin discolouration and nausea, but that kind of war wound could be described as unavoidable, whereas the British government could and did site many TNT factories in lightly populated, rural areas, where their well recognised tendency to explode was less of a hazard to life and property.  These considerations didn’t spare poor, crowded Silvertown, neglected for the benefit of capital as a matter of passive government policy for the previous seventy years, and TNT production began in September 1915.  On 19 January 1917, Silvertown paid the price, when fire broke out and, at 6.52pm, ignited 50 tonnes of stored TNT.

It was the biggest explosion in the history of London (though bigger TNT explosions took place in other wartime factories).  The TNT factory and a number of surrounding buildings were wiped out at once, while debris destroyed goods and damaged property for miles around, fires raged all over Silvertown (and in a Greenwich gasometer hit by flying debris), and the sound of the blast, which shook buildings all over London, was heard as far away as Norfolk and the south coast.  Had it not been evening, when most factory personnel were off work, the total of 73 dead and more than 400 injured would have been much higher, as would the £4 million paid out by the government in compensation to individuals and businesses affected by the explosion.  Just so you sort of know, my laptop says £4 million in 1917 is the equivalent of between – wait for it – about £200 million and about £1.75 billion today.  Could be that’s the main reason the British government stopped opening TNT factories in urban areas.

Bombing raid? Heavy artillery attack? Nope, just Silvertown after a wild Friday night in 1917.

Lastly, and by way of getting up to date, the night of 22 January saw a burst of lethal derring-do in the North Sea.  Cruisers from the Royal Navy’s Harwich Force – a collection of destroyers, light cruisers and smaller craft dedicated to patrolling eastern and south-eastern approaches to British home waters – intercepted the ten ships of a German Navy destroyer flotilla around the Schouwen Bank, about 30km off the Rhine Delta.  In a brief exchange of fire between the cruisers’ guns and the destroyers’ torpedoes, two German destroyers were heavily damaged before the rest escaped, only to run into a flotilla of British destroyers, which inflicted serious damage on a third destroyer but lost one of its own, HMS Simoom, torpedoed and sunk at a cost of 47 lives.  Again the actual combat was fleeting, though undertaken at what an eyewitness described as ‘pistol range’, before both sides ran for home.

The doomed Simoom… if anyone asks, a simoom is a desert wind occurring in Arabia and the Sahara.

I mention this essentially insignificant scrap because I’ve been inclined to focus on the timidity with which expensive, prestigious major warships were used during the First World War.  The Schouwen Bank action is a reminder that battleships weren’t the only warships out there, and that the rather pointless war fought by the dreadnoughts doesn’t reflect either the experience of most serving warships or the (non-existent) generalised failure of wartime naval operations that is such a favourite heritage headline.  What’s more, timidity had very little to do with rapid retreat from a night action, which was a deadly, terrifying game of cat and mouse played almost blind, with every shadowy ship in the darkness a potential friend or enemy, and every manoeuvre in crowded areas a collision waiting to happen.  When enemy ships ran away in the dark, chasing around to find them in a crowded, active naval theatre was not a smart move before radar changed the game.

14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge

This war has been running for a little more than two years, and Europe is still teetering on the brink of self-destruction.  Ask yourself how long ago the last World Cup final feels, and that’s how long Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Belgium, Russia, Britain and their various empires had been at war by August 1916. Two years can feel like the blink of an eye, but it’s safe to say that to citizens of those countries – or at least the literate ones – the heady, bellicose, optimistic days of August 1914 felt like a very long time ago.

In Britain, despite a warm start to the month, citizens were marking the anniversary by going to the pictures.  Twenty million people – almost half the population – were flocking to cinemas to watch the Battle of the Somme, the propaganda film that gave civilians their first even remotely accurate images of modern industrialised warfare. The movie didn’t do much to lift mounting popular war weariness or soothe increasing exasperation with the Asquith government.  Nor did it silence the rumbles of unrest bubbling under the surface of a society that, though outperforming its rivals in terms of finding a sustainable model for ‘total war’, was storing up sociopolitical tensions for the future. On the other hand the film’s convincing realism did reinforce rock-solid popular support for the troops themselves, and recognition that millions of ordinary people in uniform depended on it was still the key to public obedience in Britain.

The same was true in the only remotely comparable democracy fighting since 1914, France.  The grumbling, turbulent waters of French politics had been calmed by the vast loss of men and materials during a six-month struggle for Verdun. The initial German attack in February had damaged both the authority of French Army c-in-c Joffre, who was blamed for the depleted state of Verdun’s defences, and the popularity of the government, which was blamed for not telling Joffre what to do. French recovery on the battlefield had since improved the government’s popular reputation, and turned the defence of Verdun into a national crusade, replete with attendant mythology (most of which, hero-worship of Pétain aside, still informs French heritage commemoration).  For now at least, a combination of grief, outrage and patriotism was keeping war weariness at bay France.

Given that both were under occupation by the Central Powers, popular opinion and war weariness in Belgium or Serbia didn’t really amount to a hill of beans, and the same can be said of Austria-Hungary. People were suffering and weary all across the central European swathes still controlled by the Habsburg dynasty, but all significant strategic and constitutional activity took place in the refined, strictly eighteenth-century bubble of imperial Vienna, where the Emperor and his court were fiddling with fantasy warfare while the provinces seethed with separatism. As for Russia, its ruling autocracy defined anything outside the immediate royal entourage as ‘popular’, regarded politicians, businessmen and industrialists as enemies to be ignored, and never considered the mass of its subjects capable of a sophisticated sensation like weariness.

Politically, as geographically, Germany stood somewhere between the autocratic east and the democratic west, a would-be autocracy atop a modern, literate population or, to put it another way, a powder keg perched on a red hot economy. The psychedelic patriotism of August 1914 had brought an unprecedented political truce across the young nation, but two years later it was showing signs of cracking.  Bad harvests, shrinking supplies of imported goods, high casualties and now, after months of military disappointment on land and sea, an underlying pessimism about the chances of overall victory were all contributing to change of atmosphere. Strikes had broken out in Berlin and the Ruhr, and the Reichstag (Germany’s largely powerless parliament) had resumed its peacetime habit of demanding constitutional reform.

Berlin in 1916 – a serious need for soup kitchens.
Berlin in 1916 – a serious need for soup kitchens.

The military, industrial and aristocratic interests that ran the Empire for an increasingly tame monarchy were aware that Germany was losing the industrial and economic battle, and that German society, though still deeply committed to the national cause, was incapable of the military-industrial focus that might reverse the situation. By August 1916, they were preparing a revolution that would change Germany forever… and we’ll get to that one day soon.

If civilians with two years of war behind them were feeling the strain, many of the troops they were supporting had been reduced to virtual inactivity by sheer exhaustion.  On the Western Front around Verdun, almost six months into the battle, the vast casualties suffered by both sides (as well as the need for French and German forces to be shifted to the Somme) had reduced fighting to inconclusive and largely incoherent skirmishing on a relatively small scale, and the sector would not come to the boil again before the autumn. On the front line around the Somme, the battle begun at the start of July had developed an extra-strategic momentum of its own, with both sides fighting on in the belief that the other was on the point of exhausted collapse – but August was a period of recuperative quiet (just localised trench warfare for its own sake) while British generals planned a renewed push for September.

On the Eastern Front, Russia’s astonishingly successful Brusilov Offensive was still in progress, but had ground into a stalemate of its own. As I’ve mentioned before (4 June 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), Brusilov had driven the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of Galicia during the summer, and inflicted crippling losses in the process, but the offensive had left advanced German positions in the northern and central sectors of the Front essentially unchanged. In July the Russian high command (Stavka), obsessed with pecking orders and imprisoned by orthodoxies, had taken overall command away from Brusilov and abandoned his successful tactics, so that ongoing Russian attempts to drive on into the Austro-Hungarian heartlands were employing standard ‘breakthrough tactics’ – and failing accordingly.

Russia’s other successful field commander – General Yudenich on the Caucasian Front – was meanwhile in position to drive west towards the Ottoman Empire’s heartlands, but was aware that no significant reinforcements were coming his way as long as the Eastern Front remained active and never considered the idea. Instead he spent the late summer and autumn consolidating his army’s gains in Armenia.

Neither exhaustion nor manpower shortage stood in the way of Allied offensive operations from the Salonika Front that summer. French General Sarrail’s multinational force of British and French imperial troops had been augmented by the remnant of the Serbian Army that had survived the previous winter’s brutal retreat (25 November 1915: The Hard Way), and now amounted to some 200,000 troops. They were not comfortable in Salonika, hemmed in by the volatile chaos of Greek politics, and their governments were uncomfortable with their inactivity, so Sarrail had been planning a major offensive against the mixed Bulgarian, Austro-Hungarian and German force currently occupying the Serbian frontier with Macedonia.

Intended to drive north, deep into Serbia, the Allied offensive got underway with an artillery bombardment in the centre of the allied position, around Lake Dorian, on 10 August, but had produced only trivial gains by French forces when, on 17 August, some 120,000 German and Bulgarian troops opened an offensive further west. The attack, agreed by Berlin to keep its relatively new Bulgarian allies happy, focused on the town of Florina, where Allied positions were held by Serbian forces, and the town fell on the same day.  The Serbs had been driven back to the Lake Ostrovo region by 18 August and, after a failed counterattack next day, they held a line east of Florina, around the Crno River.

Meanwhile, to the east of the Allied attack, Bulgarian forces crossed the frontier to take the town of Seres on 25 August and advanced to the coastal fortress of Kavalla, meeting no resistance from Greek Army forces and brushing off a half-hearted coastal barrage by Royal Navy warships .

The front lines on this map hadn't yet been established, but you get the picture.
The front lines on this map (stolen and removable on request, natch) hadn’t yet been established, but you get the picture.

The invasion of Macedonia went no further.  Inspired by Bulgaria’s desire to modify the results of the Second Balkan War, and dependent on German support, it was halted as soon as Romania joined the Allies on 27 August.  Bulgarian attention then switched to its northern frontier – and the new threat from a neighbour with its own grudges left over from the Balkan Wars – but Bulgarian forces retained control of their conquests in eastern Macedonia.  This didn’t matter much to the inhabitants of a region that had been changing hands on a regular basis for years, but it did upset Greek nationalists, triggering rebellion against the Greek monarchy by the pro-Allied ‘Venizelist’ faction, which set up an alternate state based on Salonika (21 July 1916: Money Talks… And Can Be Dumb). General Sarrail’s offensive was meanwhile quietly called off, and a less ambitious operation rescheduled for September.

The slow death of Brusilov’s offensive the Ukraine and the spasm of military action around Salonika weren’t the only military adventures taking place during August.  Italy had spent little more than a year at war, but the attack on the River Isonzo launched by c-in-c Cadorna on 4 August was already the Italian Army’s sixth offensive in the sector.  Unlike the five before it or the five more that followed, this one was very nearly a success.

Cadorna’s penchant for attacking on the Isonzo generally needed little encouragement – in fact he never attempted an attack anywhere else – but the sixth offensive was essentially forced upon him by the national passion for instant revenge that followed the shock of invasion by Austro-Hungarian forces around the Trentino valley (15 June, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug).  Cadorna did his usual good job of exploiting northern Italy’s excellent railway network to deploy his forces quickly and efficiently for the attack, and for the first time the Austro-Hungarian Army, reduced to a skeleton by the needs and losses around the Trentino and Brusilov Offensives, wasn’t ready and waiting to pick off the attackers in the valleys below their positions.

By 8 August the Italian Army had surpassed anything achieved by the first five offensives, establishing its first bridgehead across the Isonzo and taking the town of Gorizia.  Having secured these two longstanding objectives, it went on to achieve a relatively huge advance of some 5km along a 20km front by 12 August, when the arrival of Austro-Hungarian reinforcements brought progress to a halt. Cadorna called off the attack five days later, cutting his losses (already above 50,000 men, against some 40,000 Austrian troops killed, wounded or taken prisoner) and accepting the laurels for a limited victory.

Sometimes dignified as the Battle of Gorizia, the offensive provided a beleaguered Italian government with some breathing space and boosted national morale to keep popular enthusiasm for the War at an unfashionable high. It also provided the only sliver of genuinely good military news, for either side, coming out of Europe during that summer’s sombre pause for breath.

As they started out their third year of all-out warfare on an unprecedented scale, Gorizia didn’t amount to much in the way of consolation for literate civilian observers from Britain or France, but their prospects were on the whole far better than those of everyday people from other European states at war. They couldn’t be expected know that in 1916 – but we can, and adding some European context to Britain’s endlessly documented home front struggles is my only excuse for subjecting you to this very long, very rambling, spectacularly generalised tour of the continent’s ramparts.

1 MAY, 1916: Stomping On Thin Ice

May Day is far and away the most popular of several dates chosen around the world to mark the achievements and sacrifices of international labour.  None too surprisingly, the idea of a day set aside for the purpose dates from the late 19th century – when mass literacy (and with it politicisation) had brought self-confidence and tactical sophistication to the international labour movement. Perhaps more surprisingly, May Day labour celebrations originated in the USA, in Chigaco, where the first such march took place in 1886.

That event, which became known as the Haymarket Massacre, featured an anarchist bomb attack and a police shoot-out with marchers.  It triggered a press (and therefore ‘big business’) backlash against the left-wing labour movement that, though largely based on Hillsborough-style defamation of victims, played a significant role in the eradication of socialism as a legitimate political standpoint in the USA.  That process, boosted after August 1914 by employers’ determination not to let politics interfere with a war-inspired production boom, was essentially complete by 1916 (and these days 1 May is officially Law Day in the US), but May Day had meanwhile caught on with European socialists.

So, a hundred years ago today, industrial cities all over Europe witnessed demonstrations by working people and their political organisers, and in the pre-War heart of moderate socialism, Germany, May Day saw the arrest of Karl Liebknecht for making an anti-War speech in Berlin.  (That’s Karl getting his collar felt in the picture at the top, by the way.)

Liebknecht was a famous socialist, a revolutionary rather than a reformer and the only Reichstag deputy to vote against the War in 1914.  As a reward for that piece of impudence, he had been sent to bury dead bodies on the Eastern Front, but had resumed his political career after being discharged on health grounds.  He would stay in jail until the regime’s complete breakdown brought his release at the end of the War, when he would cement his fame as a martyr of the German Revolution that spilled into chaotic life in 1919.  He may get more attention from me then, but for now I plan to use Karl as an excuse to see how German society was handling the shock of total war.

SZP353832 Starving Germans queue at a soup kitchen to buy a warm lunch for 35 pfennigs, during WWI, Berlin, 4 May 1916 (b/w photo) by German Photographer (20th Century); © SZ Photo / Scherl; FRENCH RIGHTS NOT AVAILABLE; German, out of copyright

Berliners queue at a soup kitchen in May 1916 – starving, but not yet revolting.

Back when this blog started, I put together a piece on Germany in 1914 (it’s under Big Guns), and what follows won’t make much sense without it. I left it at the outbreak of war, at which point the explosive, volatile brew of autocracy, rising social discontent and rampant economic expansion that was Germany in 1914 suddenly cohered into passionate national unity.  Rampant popular enthusiasm for the War was matched in the Reichstag and by declaration of a political truce (Burgfrieden) for the duration, while the Kaiser, a man whose thinking only really moved in leaps and bounds, decided his troubles were over and that happy, unified German nationalism was here to stay.

The powerful industrial, landowning and military interests that sustained the regime, conservative to the core, weren’t so sure they trusted the change, and the Army immediately took over much of the civil administration under the Prussian Siege Law, which gave it enormous powers in time of national crisis.  In other words the ruling elites of German society, unlike their counterparts in France or Britain, saw no need to nurture the nation’s good vibe with a spirit of compromise.

And so it went.  Like every other belligerent power, Germany was in no way prepared to fight a long war, let alone one that embraced every aspect of national life. When faced with unimagined demands for manpower, war materials and money to pay for them, its leaders had no recourse to anything but top-down imposition of ever-increasing demands.  By October 1914, the Army’s demands had already outstripped production, and reinforcements were dependent on current output.  Massive government orders to big arms companies didn’t solve anything, merely pushed up the price of raw materials, and the situation worsened as the enemy (largely British) naval blockade tightened.

This wasn’t the bumper war German big business had bargained for, and in Germany big business talked, demanding and getting extension of the Prussian War Ministry’s powers, so that its War Materials Department (KRA) took control of goods distribution throughout Germany.

Essentially a means of focusing all national effort on supplying big arms and war materials manufacturers (and securing their profits), the KRA succeeded on one level, improving output and seeing the war effort through 1915, a year in which Germany still enjoyed material superiority over its enemies and industrial profits went through the roof.  On the other hand the KRA’s system unbalanced the economy in ways that would eventually prove fatal, alienating smaller companies that were given only a token share of wartime business, and enabling the big boys to charge extortionate prices that encouraged inflation and multiplied financial problems that were anyway crippling.

Germany found most of the enormous sums needed to finance the war effort by raising taxes on a regular basis and, above all, by issuing war bonds, lots of them.  That form of borrowing rapidly spiralled out of control, so that the victory soon represented the only possible way of paying back bond subscribers, a factor that goes some way to explaining the regime’s unwillingness to discuss a negotiated peace before 1918.

Meanwhile civilian shortages of food and manufactured goods were mounting – exacerbated by a bad harvest in 1915 and an agricultural manpower crisis – and by the beginning of 1916 Germans, no less than other Europeans, were becoming weary of the apparently endless military stalemate.  All in all, given the explosive state of German society and politics in the immediate pre-War period (Big Guns again, I’m afraid), it would seem reasonable to expect a breakdown of political truce and a world of trouble for the ruling regime – yet the May Day march in Berlin that got Karl Liebknecht arrested (remember him?) was the first major anti-War demonstration to hit the streets, and only about 10,000 people from the far left took part.

So the military-industrial complex running Germany was holding its ground in April 1916, and the obvious question is: how? It’s easy to fall back on national stereotypes and stress the depth of German obedience to authority, and that perhaps played a part, as did the hope of victory that came with superficial maintenance of an efficient war effort, along with the determination of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s civilian administration, a haven for the more moderate among the conservative elite, to keep the Reichstag sweet with minor constitutional concessions.

Posterity has a bit more trouble remembering the extent to which Germans believed they were fighting a defensive war. Threatened by Russia and France, betrayed by the British, saddled with allies in constant need of support, the German body politic was still feeding on righteous indignation.  Even Germany’s official socialist groups were still giving solid, outraged support to the struggle, and it was left to the small, anti-War Spartacus League, founded by Liebknecht and his allies in early 1916, to organise the May Day demonstration.

So, all surprisingly quiet on the German home front, but Liebknecht’s small gesture is as good a marker as any for a long, painful turning point in the middle of 1916.  Verdun was already underway, the summer would bring the Somme on the Western Front and the Russian Brusilov offensive in the east, and they would demonstrate beyond doubt that Allied production capacity was expanding beyond Germany’s ability to compete in the long term. They would also undermine the relatively moderate sway of Bethmann-Hollweg in government and General Falkenhayn atop the Army, leaving the Kaiser’s ear open to the siren song of extreme right-wing industrial and military interests.

Led by the appalling Ludendorff, the far right believed salvation lay in compelling the German people to stop slacking, and in ruthless exploitation of conquered or allied territories.  By May, they were already manoeuvring to establish what would effectively be a military dictatorship, and by the autumn it would be in place.  Watch this space, things are about to turn very nasty in Germany…

 

Germany’s future… the lovely General Ludendorff

 

8 FEBRUARY, 1916: No Cigar

It’s been eighteen months coming, but I’ve finally reached a week short on centenaries to get excited about.  True, 8 February 1916 was the day on which the British government made a formal request on  to its Far Eastern ally, Japan, for naval aid, but that didn’t get exciting for a couple of decades.  As I’ve mentioned before (23 August, 1914: Prowling Tiger), the squadron of Japanese destroyers that eventually arrived to join Allied Mediterranean patrols in April 1917 did nothing of any military significance, but did learn plenty about the latest naval techniques and equipment.

The last rites of the Central Powers’ invasion of the Balkans were also in progress, with Bulgarian and Austrian forces mopping up in Albania and Montenegro respectively, while the remnants of the Serbian Army were still being evacuated to Corfu, where a government in exile was established on 9 February.  Again, I’ve been there and done that (25 November, 1915: The Hard Way), and the same is true of the increasingly bonkers British Naval Africa Expedition, which was busy with its gunboat war for control of Lake Tanganyika (15 June, 1915: Do So, Mister Allnut…).

Early February also saw the usual trickle of naval losses, most notably the Amiral Charner, an old French cruiser stationed off the Syrian coast.  Part of the naval blockade of the Ottoman Empire, she was torpedoed by the U-21 on 8 February and went down with only one survivor.  Three days later, the British lost a much more modern light cruiser, the Arethusa, when it struck a mine off Felixstowe, a disaster that cost only ten lives but, so close to home, fuelled the pathological caution of British naval commanders in the North Sea.

Otherwise, on all the main battlefronts, the weather was being watched while offensives were being prepared.  Russian forces in the Caucasus were almost ready to begin a push into Armenia towards Erzurum; in northern Italy, yet another Izonso offensive was grinding towards action; and the German Army, after a year with its focus firmly to the east, was about to start punching its increased weight on the Western Front.  This was the quiet before the storm and everybody in the belligerent countries knew it.

That didn’t mean everybody was talking about it.  Offensives being of a necessarily secret nature, this was a good time for the official and unofficial press (and thus popular opinion) to focus on issues at home.  That, along with the sensational nature of the subject and the existence of some excellent illustrations, explains why newspapers and magazines in Britain and France were still full of news about Zeppelins.  It also gives me an excuse to go back a few days to an anniversary I skipped.

The source of most press coverage had been two Zeppelin raids at the end of January.  During the misty night of 29/30 January a single airship, the LZ77, bombed Paris, killing 29 civilians and injuring thirty.  This would turn out to be the last Zeppelin raid on Paris, and a turning point in German bombing strategy.

Two nights later, a fleet of nine German Navy Zeppelins set out from bases in northern Germany to bomb the British mainland, with instructions to fly right across the country and demonstrate their long-range power by attacking the vitally important port of Liverpool.  Nothing so bold had ever been attempted before, by Zeppelins or winged aircraft, and though the raid’s main purpose was to frighten the enemy, it was also an experiment to test the viability of very long-range bombing.

At this stage in the development of powered flight, Zeppelins were the only weapons available to those who advocated, and would later practice, the monstrosity of strategic bombing theory. That’s the theory, popularly associated with Göring and Harris but tried out by many others during and since the First World War, that bombing the Hell out of civilian targets can win wars on its own.  By 1914 the theory, first proposed by the Italian air theorist Douhet as early as 1911, had advocates in all the major belligerent states, but they all faced the problem that aircraft technology couldn’t deliver machines with the range or payload to make massed bombing of distant enemy targets feasible.

Up to a point, Zeppelins solved the problem.  Designed by German nobleman Graf (Count) von Zeppelin, and first flown in 1900, they were accepted into German Army service from 1909.  By August 1914, the German Army was using ten Zeppelins and the German Navy one, all attached to the high command for strategic operations.

Little use as frontline reconnaissance craft, because they took so long to get into the air, Zeppelins announced themselves as bombers at the very start of the War, when the Z6 successfully attacked Liège on the night of 6/7 August.  But the Z6 had to be withdrawn from service after ground fire forced it to crash land, and that set a pattern for Zeppelin operations: they could deliver long-range bombing raids, but were extremely vulnerable to attack and bad weather why not try this out.

By the spring of 1915, with eight new airships commissioned and six lost, the German Army fleet was concentrated in Belgium for bombing missions over Flanders, France and England. Paris suffered regular small-scale attacks, and the first raid on London took place on 31 May.  Despite the introduction of new, bigger Zeppelins, with their trademark extendable observation cars slung beneath the ship, a bomb load of 1,200Kg and the ability to attack from above clouds, losses remained high throughout the year, even after bombing operations were restricted to moonless nights.

By the start of 1916 only six German Army Zeppelins were operational.  Still too slow and fragile for effective frontline operations, as would be confirmed by a final deployment at Verdun that saw three of four ships destroyed almost at once, their bombing role was being undermined by improvements in air defence technology.  That the gathering of naval Zeppelins for the raid on Liverpool was essentially a propaganda operation reflected the German high command’s fading faith in their ability to deliver a strategic blow.

On one level the raid failed miserably.  Mechanical problems and poor navigation in difficult conditions meant that the Zeppelins got hopelessly lost, scattering bombs around various towns and factories in the English Midlands.  Around 70 civilians were killed and about 115 injured (exact figures vary), making it the second most lethal wartime attack on Britain, but it failed to inflict any serious infrastructural damage.  On the other hand the Zeppelins suffered only one loss, when the L19 was shot down and crashed in the Channel, proving that very long-range attacks were possible, and they fulfilled their propaganda role by causing a genuine sensation. With new, higher-altitude models about to come into service, the airships had earned one last chance to prove their strategic value.

Le-Petit-Journal-27-2-1916

The L19 was lost with all hands after Dutch ground fire brought it down in the Channel… and the Allied press loved it.

They did well.  Attacks on England by flotillas of four and five ships were carried out without loss in April 1916 and, as numbers of operational ships grew, the next few months saw the climax of their career as long-range bombers. Britain suffered twenty more raids during the year, five German Army airships performed well on the Eastern Front, suffering just one loss, and three more were deployed in the Balkans, though with less success. Yet just as the Zeppelins were starting to deliver as promised, aircraft technology was finally passing the tipping point that ended the argument about their strategic value.

By late 1916, modern fighter aircraft could reach and destroy the highest airship, and heavier, multi-engine aircraft could deliver bigger, more efficient strategic bombing attacks.  A reorganised German Army Air Service lost interest in airships, preferring to concentrate on its heavy aircraft programmes, and ceased Zeppelin operations altogether from June 1917.  German Navy Zeppelins continued in service until the end of the War, carrying out small raids and occasional supply missions, but they were never more than a marginal nuisance.  The day of the military airship had passed.

In some ways the raid that shocked the Midlands during the last night of January 1916 was the Zeppelins’ finest hour.  The sheer distance they travelled and the surprise they caused took strategic bombing to a new level, and foreshadowed massed raids to come, as did the incidental fact that the attack caused only civilian casualties. In other ways it was their last hurrah, bigger than any operation subsequently attempted with airships, and the last time they carried the baton for strategic bombing theory before it passed to the ancestors of the B-52.

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.

22 OCTOBER, 1915: Derby Day

 

Broadly speaking, the autumn of 1915 was a terrible time for the great powers at war. For the second time in a year, all their apparently infallible plans to bring the conflict to a victorious end had failed.

Superior Allied manpower and material strength had made absolutely no difference to the position on the Western Front, and the vast swathes of territory taken by advancing German and Austro-Hungarian forces had simply moved the stalemate on the Eastern Front some 350 kilometres to the east. Attempts to approach the War from other angles – whether prompted by broad strategic considerations, by the greed or desperation of smaller belligerents, or by the belief that victory could be achieved through the side door – were all turning into pocket nightmares. Campaigns taking place in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, the Caucasus, Serbia and Italy all fell into this category one way or another, and none of them offered any real hope of a happy ending any time soon.

Meanwhile the cost of the War – in manpower, money and resources – was escalating out of control and showing no sign of a slowdown.  To meet it, all the major players in Europe were being compelled to warp their social and economic systems to create  war machines.  On top of mounting carnage and repeated military disappointment, this enforced combination of rapid social change and relative deprivation was steadily eroding popular enthusiasm for the War.

Popular discontent was mounting in all the main belligerent countries, but in most of them it hardly mattered.  In Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, for instance, governments could and did expect workforces to do as they were told and conscripts to take up arms when ordered. Any misbehaviour could simply be suppressed, such was the weakness of their democratic structures. In France, where popular democracy did hold genuine power to influence strategy, the invader at the gate ensured that, no matter how fractious the sociopolitical landscape, continued commitment to the fight at an individual level was never in doubt. In Britain, things were different.

The British war effort depended on the consent and cooperation of the population as a whole, albeit heavily filtered through the mechanisms of representative democracy. And in 1915, Britain still depended on volunteers to do the fighting, so signs of war weariness were a potentially fatal problem for the government.

In the relatively optimistic days of the spring, British volunteer recruitment to the armed forces had been running at 100,000 men per month. This was barely enough to meet military requirements, and no matter what the military prognosis nobody thought it could be sustained. In May 1915 the age limit for volunteers was raised from 38 to 40, and in July the government began the very public process of compiling a national register of able-bodied civilian males between the ages of 15 and 65, in the vain hope that it would stimulate recruitment.  When the register was complete in mid-September it showed that almost five million men of military age were still civilians. About 1.6 million of them worked in reserved occupations and were exempt from service, but something had to be done to get the rest into uniform.

The obvious answer was conscription, but unlike their neighbours the British had never been subject to conscription, and it remained a dirty, politically dangerous word. Instead, the coalition government went for a half measure. Lord Derby, known for his successful drumming up of volunteers for the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, was appointed Director-General of Recruiting, and a hundred years ago today his response to the challenge, officially called the Group Scheme but known to one and all as the Derby Scheme, was announced to the nation in a blaze of publicity.

The scheme’s main purpose was to create a reserve of men who had agreed to fight, but only if and when needed. Men were invited to ‘attest’ in return for a day’s pay and an armband showing the world their intentions, with the added incentive that married men were promised no call up until the supply of single men was exhausted.

The Derby Scheme failed miserably, persuading only 350,000 men to attest before it was abandoned in December, and accurately reflecting an increasingly pessimistic popular mood. On the other hand it was a resounding success as a test of whether or not Britain could fight on with a volunteer army, and clinched the argument for those few senior politicians bold enough to openly advocate conscription.

So 22 October 1915 marked the last, convoluted attempt by a British government to hold off the reality of modern, total warfare by attempting to fight a global conflict as a volunteer nation. I just thought you should know.

31 AUGUST, 1915: Peace in the Valley

On August 31 1915, a strike by some 32,000 miners in South Wales came to a formal end, bringing to a close a summer of discontent in the region’s collieries that had shaken the nation to its core.

Back in March, the Asquith government had finalised the Treasury Agreement with a significant majority of British unions, a move that helped mobilise the economy for modern warfare and transformed the nation’s industrial relations. While it calmed controversy over ‘diluted’ labour, the Agreement still left room for pay disputes – and in particular for a long-running dispute between miners and employers in South Wales.

Details aren’t my business here. They can be looked up, as can opinions stating that the miners were greedy and arguments that the employers were greedy. My view is that the miners, working to archaic pay agreements and hard hit by spiralling living costs, were quite justified in demanding incremental pay increases, and that mine owners were unlikely to suffer much hardship as a consequence – but that’s just emotion talking and beside the point. The point is that 250,000 miners in South Wales went on strike in mid-July, defying an ill-judged government attempt to apply the Munitions Act, which rendered the strike illegal and the miners liable to arrest.

Because South Wales was the chief supplier of coal to the Navy, political mayhem erupted when the strike began on 14 July, and for the same reason the government didn’t let it last long. A high-powered delegation led by Lloyd George, without question the minister most qualified and able to parley with socialist-leaning Welsh miners on a mission, caved in to most of the miners’ demands in Cardiff on 19 July, and work resumed next day. The strike had cost an estimated million tons of coal output, outraged right-wing opinion and taught the government the limits of its power to dictate labour relations… or almost.

A few weeks later, the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman – no political ally of Lloyd George – sparked a second, smaller strike over his interpretation of the July agreement. Some 32,000 miners struck, and the government was again obliged to concede to their demands before the strike ended on the last day of the month.

That return to work did mark the sea change in industrial relations that the government had hoped would take place in March. For the rest of the year strikes in Britain were uniformly small affairs, and the overall number days lost to strikes in 1915 came out lower than at any time since 1910. The downward trend would continue through 1916, and not rise again until the last year of the war.

So yes, as the heritage story goes, the British government and labour force did get together to create a modern war economy during the Great War – but it wasn’t just a matter of mutual wisdom and patriotic handshakes all round. To make mutual compromise between employers and workers equitable and sustainable, some British citizens had to fight for their share and hold the nation to ransom.

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.

14 MAY, 1915: The Blame Game

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the optimism with which most European belligerents anticipated their spring offensives in 1915. It didn’t last long. On the Western Front in particular, where the Entente powers were doing almost all the attacking while German offensive efforts were focused on the east, optimism was already degenerating into a public, political and military search for scapegoats by the middle of May.

To recap, French c-in-c Joffre had launched repeated offensives against the bulge (or salient) in the German front line, focused primarily on its southern edge in the Champagne region, from December until March. They took the form of massed infantry assaults preceded by heavy artillery bombardment, and they failed. Hindsight makes their failure unsurprising, given the advantage contemporary technology bestowed on defenders of fortified positions, but Anglo-French commanders didn’t see it that way.

Massive expansion of the BEF’s volunteer forces, the sheer scale of French conscription and further progress towards industrial mobilisation for war (particularly in Britain) combined to give the Entente an advantage in men and materiel that Joffre believed must, if properly concentrated, crush the enemy. With the support of BEF commanders, he planned a bigger but essentially similar assault on the northern sector of the front between Arras and Lille for May.

Before the Entente was ready for what became known as the Artois Offensive, the Germans launched their one major offensive of the year on the Western Front, making first use of poison gas during an attack on British positions around Ypres. This, the second Battle of Ypres, achieved only carnage, but heavy fighting continued until 25 May and was still in progress when Joffre launched his own grand offensive.

After a massive five-day artillery bombardment, French infantry attacked along a ten-kilometre front between Arras and Loos on 9 May. Pétain’s central corps broke through and advanced five kilometres in ninety minutes, but in line with previous experiences the gains couldn’t be supported or sustained, and both sides were about back where they’d started when the first wave of fighting died down on 15 May. A second assault, lasting from 15–19 June, didn’t break the deadlock, by which time the offensive had cost the French Army 100,000 men.

The BEF also attacked on 9 May, at northeastern end of the sector, on a front either side of Neuve Chapelle, but a shortage of shells meant the advance by General Haig’s First Army was preceded by a mere forty-minute bombardment, trivial by Western Front standards. Poorly supported the attack was called off later the same day, having achieved only the loss of 11,000 men. A second attack further south, around Festubert, was launched on 15 May after a four-day bombardment. It made initial gains but soon became bogged down in the usual ways, and had pushed the German Sixth Army back less than a kilometre when it was called off twelve days later.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the blame game was heating up fast. Popular and press demands for a coalition government had been gathering strength all year, founded on the perception that Asquith’s Liberal regime had mismanaged national mobilisation. There was something to said for the argument. The first months of war had exposed glaring inefficiencies in some government departments, and the British economy had been relatively slow to produce weapons and equipment for mass armies. On the other hand Britain hadn’t been planning a major land war before 1914, and so had a lot more adjustments to make than, for instance, Germany or France, but as the promised victory failed to materialise this logic cut little ice with a shocked public.  When The Times of 14 May 1915 published a report claiming that initial failures at Neuve Chapelle were caused by a serious shortage of high explosive shells, pressure on Asquith’s regime hit new peaks.

The report was written by one of the country’s most influential war correspondents, Colonel Repington, and The Times was then considered a semi-official newspaper. The article had also been passed by the government censor, and therefore carried considerable authority. As intended by the paper’s owner, press baron and serial meddler Lord Northcliffe, along with his political allies and many senior Western Front commanders, the ‘Shell Scandal’ fatally damaged the government, which would be replaced by a coalition on 25 May.

Northcliffe failed, however, to achieve his ultimate aim of discrediting War Minister Lord Kitchener, who lost control of munitions production to a new ministry under Lloyd George but remained in his post.  Another Northcliffe newspaper, the scandal-friendly Daily Mail, followed up with a series of direct attacks on Kitchener, but his iconic status and mass popularity were unbreakable. Say what you like about Northcliffe (and I agree with most of the many bad things said about him), but getting rid of Kitchener was a good idea. For all that the august hero of colonial warfare made an excellent poster, as a government minister in a vital position he was an almost unmitigated disaster.

Enigmatic and uncommunicative, with a touch of the mystic about him, Kitchener was responsible for the breakneck recruitment of volunteers for a mass army in 1914, and for failure to anticipate either its needs or the economic effects of its creation. As a strategist he was arbitrary, contradictory and prone to certainty without the benefit of information. He backed concentration on the Western Front, and provided mass reinforcements for the BEF in 1915, but also gave support to the Gallipoli adventure without ever providing it with the organisation or reinforcement it needed to succeed.

A major obstacle to efficient relations between the government and the Army, Kitchener remained untouchable until his death in June 1916, when he drowned off the Orkneys after a mine sank the cruiser taking him on an official visit to the Russia.  Undoubtedly a significant boon to Britain’s war effort, his demise has of course been feeding conspiracy theorists ever since… but much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t think he was assassinated by the Daily Mail.