Category Archives: Home Front

15 OCTOBER, 1919: The War To End (White Male) Wars

Rambling through five years of humanity’s darkest hours, focused on the details, I’ve contrived to ignore or virtually ignore certain broader areas.  They haven’t all needed input from me.  I make no apology, for instance, for leaving the heritage industry to shine a ‘human interest’ spotlight on the Western Front, poets and all, or for paying only passing attention to most acts of carnage and derring-do.

On the other hand, I have pretty much left alone some heritage orthodoxies that need challenging, usually because I’ve been too lazy for extra research or because I haven’t felt qualified to pontificate.  On the latter tip, take racism.  Racism (the comprehensive kind that heritage history pretends began with the Nazis) informed every white nation involved in the Great War, and the world is still living with the consequences of its practice and impacts – but I’ve been a bit shy about shouting that out because I’m a white, middle-class Brit.  I am also male and that’s about my only excuse for saying so little about another big wartime ‘ism’.

From a British heritage perspective, the story of feminism during the First World War is simple and uplifting.  Women were brought into the industrial workforce as never before, and they were enfranchised.  You might find discussion of the way they were summarily removed from the workforce to make way for returning veterans after the War, and recognition that only some women were given the vote – but you’d have to play close attention to notice that the feminist struggle for representation predated and was largely inhibited by the War.

For that matter, you’d have to go read a book to realise that the Pankhurst family, while undoubtedly the struggle’s most effective lobbyists, were by no means its only or most convincing heroes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, still the poster girl for most modern commentators, can be best described as a self-serving opportunist who used feminism as a platform for personal improvement, and her daughter Christabel was a spoiled version of the same.  Only Sylvia, Emmeline’s other daughter and as much a socialist as a feminist, gets my vote as a dedicated campaigner worth posterity’s acclaim, but of course her work for two causes has encouraged both to understate her legacy.

From a popular British viewpoint, pre-war and wartime suffragism (and feminism in general) tend to be seen from an Anglo-American perspective.  Because I can do it without extra research or political risk, a quick look around the feminist world at war seems a useful idea – but I will take the well-documented, much-vaunted US and British experiences as starting points.

Feminism was a strong force in the pre-War United States.  Four states had enfranchised women during the 1890s, and the first congresswoman took her seat in 1914.  The war years had some effect on the northeast of the country, where 30,000 women entered industrial jobs, but had little political impact on women in other regions, and the enfranchisement of women across the USA in 1920 was the product of decades of well-organised, middle-class agitation rather than the First World War.

The same was essentially true in Britain, where the fight for female suffrage was in full swing, principally in its many large towns and cities, when war broke out in 1914.  Emmeline Pankhurst, whose enthusiasm for the war dominated her behaviour for the next four years, helped organise an informal truce for the duration, but by then the British government was anyway close to sanctioning female suffrage, so that hunger strikes, fence chaining and other dramatic individual gestures soon lost their cachet in the circumstances of ‘total war’.

By August 1916 the British war economy was employing around 1.1 million full-time women workers, two-thirds of them in jobs previously performed by men, and by the spring of 1918 another quarter of a million were doing agricultural work with the Land Army.  The obvious importance of working women to the war effort, and the fact that they were paid on average 30 percent less than men for the same work, made wage discrimination the main focus of wartime feminist protest, although demonstrations also took place for the ‘right to serve’, a demand fulfilled by the formation of non-combat female armed forces in 1917.

Speaks for itself…

Propertied women over 30 were duly given the vote in December 1918, but the majority of employed women were put out of work over the next couple of years, as men returned to their jobs and war industries closed.  Like many other social developments hot-housed in Britain by the demands of total war, female emancipation was kicked into reverse by the post-War reset, but the seed of change had been planted all the same.  Thanks to Britain’s desperate wartime need for industrial workers, to its urbanised, relatively close-knit infrastructure and to the Land Army, it had been planted across the nation.

French society was structured rather differently.  Although the conflict forced rapid industrial expansion, France remained overwhelmingly rural in 1919.   The vast majority of French women had spent the War labouring in fields without their menfolk for no financial, political or social reward – and with little sense of change.  The experience of women in French industrialised cities was broadly similar to that of their British counterparts – plenty of work in jobs previously reserved for men, gross inequality in the workplace, and mass post-War redundancy – but feminism had accumulated much less political traction when the War began.

A Union Française pour le Suffrage des Femmes (UFSF) had been founded in 1909 and had grown rapidly, but it could only muster some 12,000 members by 1914, tended to avoid militant action and declared a formal truce when war broke out.  Spared anything but small-scale feminist pressure for the duration, and understandably preoccupied with the enemy at the gates, the French government left women in political stasis.  Women were never allowed to serve in the armed forces during wartime, and although the lower parliamentary house did pass a bill enfranchising females in 1919, it was blocked in the upper house, the Senate, which repeated the trick throughout the inter-war period, finally giving women the right to vote in 1944.

‘Heroic women of France, hitched to the plough, cultivating the soil…’ Heroic, and unrewarded.

In Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, feminist progress was stymied by the same broad cultural divide.  While a small minority of politically aware, politically impatient urban women in northern Italy, parts of Austria and future Czechoslovakia moved into previously male-dominated employment, an infrastructurally isolated rural majority was far too busy toiling in the fields to broaden its horizons.  Women were permitted to vote in Austria and Czechoslovakia from 1918, and given limited voting rights in largely rural, landowner-controlled Hungary from 1920, but restrictions on female educational opportunities were imposed shortly afterwards in Hungary, and Hungarian women would not receive full voting rights until 1945.  The same was true for Italian women, who were eventually given the right to vote in local elections by the Mussolini regime in 1925 but had to wait another twenty years for full voting rights.

Women in post-Imperial Austria voted for the first time in 1919. Looks tentative, doesn’t she?

The Ottoman Empire was predominantly rural, embraced lands governed by strict Islamic traditions and, on the whole, left reform well alone throughout the War – but the aggressively secular Young Turk regime ensured that things were very different in Constantinople.  From the moment the Empire entered the War, liberal (male) intellectuals in Constantinople began criticising the veiling and seclusion of women as a waste of resources, and the next three years saw women working in the city’s offices, hospitals and schools for the first time.  Women were also employed in various menial jobs, including street cleaning, while the number of girls’ schools in the city mushroomed during the War and lynching of ‘fallen women’ all but stopped.  The Ottoman Army – another bastion of secular thinking – organised a female labour exchange at the start of the War and formed its first female battalion in February 1918, although Ottoman women’s greatest military contribution to the war effort came on the Caucasian Front, where they played a vital role as ammunition carriers.

Young Turk reforms, carried out against a constant backdrop of criticism from religious conservatives, weren’t feminist in origin, but were part of the all-male political struggle between religious and secular authorities that characterised Constantinople during the Empire’s last years.  The same would be true of the more comprehensive reforms enacted by the Ataturk regime in Turkey, which gave equal rights to women in all but suffrage in 1926 and eventually granted full voting rights to Turkish women in 1934.

In Germany, women’s attitudes towards feminism reflected the country’s stark political division between right and left.  By 1914, some 175,000 women were members of the moderate socialist SDP, but an equal number belonged to the conservative, traditionalist German Women’s League, which had the support of the nationalist, expansionist forces – military, industrial and political – that were running the country.  Women flocked to work in wartime factories and public services, and they received official encouragement once Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command took control in the second half of 1916 – but they were (broadly speaking) motivated by patriotism and financial need rather than feminist politics.  Demands for the enfranchisement of women were the province of small feminist pressure groups and the far left, both of which were easily and completely ignored by policy makers.

The collapse of the regime in late 1918, and the German revolutions that followed, transformed the situation.  Women received the right to vote on the day after the Armistice – a victory generally described as a ‘gift’ of the revolutions by left-wing commentators, but reclaimed by modern feminists as, at least in part, the product of persistent lobbying by their predecessors.  The 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic went much further, establishing equal opportunity for women in education and the civil service, along with equal pay in the professions.  This put German women in a far stronger position than women in the US or Britain, let alone France.  By 1926, thirty-five women formed 6.7% of Reichstag membership, against the thirteen women that constituted about 2% of the British House of Commons, but feminism’s relatively rapid progress was reversed after the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933.

‘Women:  Same Rights; Same Responsibilities.’  A Social Democratic Party poster making a promise it could keep… for a while.

Although New Zealand had given women full voting rights in 1893, and several Scandinavian countries were well ahead of the contemporary curve when the War broke out, nothing in the developed world could match the freedoms given to women in the Soviet Union during the First World War – in theory.  The Russian Empire (which had authorised voting for women in the semi-autonomous province of Finland in 1906) was forced to employ women in its industrial centres during the War, in increasing numbers and in very bad conditions.  Industry was concentrated around St. Petersburg and Moscow, as was political power, and radicalised women workers in both cities played a prominent role in the February Revolution of 1917.  The subsequent triumph of the radical left, which had always preached complete gender equality, saw women promised full and unconditional equality in the immediate aftermath of the October Revolution.  The USSR was as good as its word, and Soviet women enjoyed equal pay and opportunities in every walk of Russian life, including the military, along with full civil and political rights.  All good, except that equal rights in the Soviet Union soon amounted to equality of oppression.

In Japan – industrialised, urbanised and involved in the fighting – women were thoroughly oppressed throughout the War.  They had been banned from all political activity in 1900, and what little agitation existed on their behalf virtually disappeared after the suppression of Japanese socialists in 1910.  Japanese feminism was reborn a decade later with the New Women’s Movement, which won the right to hold political meetings in 1922, but the right to vote would be denied until after the Second World War.

In many ways, the experience of Japanese women is more typical of the world in 1919 than that of British or North American women.  Though the First World War is often trumpeted as a watershed in the socio-political history of women, its effects made a real difference in very few places.  In Germany, Russia and some of the central European states emerging from the wreck of Austria-Hungary, collapse of restrictive regimes gave an enormous boost to the feminist cause, but the experience of war merely hastened the processes of emancipation already underway in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia (but not South Africa, which eventually gave women the vote in 1930).  Italian and French women made only minor gains in the aftermath of the War and, like those in most future Warsaw Pact countries, would not achieve real freedoms until after the Second World War.

Elsewhere, women in Turkey saw the first cracks in the traditions that still keep them socio-politically separate from men in Islamic countries, but nothing much changed for the vast majority of women in the vast majority of other countries.  Many of them found their lives altered by economic fluctuations, the removal of menfolk or both, but the War had no important effects on their social, political or constitutional emancipation.  So, let’s whoop and cheer for those few women released into the political world during the first years of peace, but let’s be aware that we’re celebrating something essentially Anglophone, and that some of the icons we commemorate were middle-class experts in self-promotion.  I’m middle-class and British, so I think I’m allowed to say that.

20 FEBRUARY, 1919: Coughs And Sneezes…

This has nothing to do with any particular anniversary, and I’ve got nothing particularly eye opening to say about it, but it really is time I talked about the flu.  The global influenza pandemic of 1918–19 is often referenced by popular history, but usually in the most general terms.  The estimated worldwide death toll of at least fifty million people, about one in ten of those infected, is bandied about anywhere you care to look, and the effects of the pandemic on developed civilian societies receive plenty of coverage.  As is the case concerning most major issues a century ago, the picture presented by our heritage history is far from complete, focusing on home populations and ignoring vast swathes of the planet, so some basic 101 on the subject seems to fit my brief.  Here we go.

The ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918–19, which came in three waves, killed more people than any single outbreak of disease in human history to date, reducing the global population by between three and four percent.  Contrary to much popular thinking at the time, and to anyone on the Internet still peddling the idea, the arrival of the sickness had nothing to do with the four years of world warfare in progress when it arrived, though its rapid spread across the planet would not have been possible without the unprecedented crowding together of belligerent populations (in trenches, factories, mass protests, etc.) or the simultaneous surge in long-range transportation of humans.

Relatively minor outbreaks of a flu virus had taken place all over the world during 1915 and 1916.  It is now generally accepted that a mutated version of the same virus was responsible for outbreaks of what is seen (with hindsight) as a milder precursor of ‘Spanish Flu’ in military camps at Étaples in France and Aldershot in England between late 1916 and the following March.  Neither of the latter spread further, but a similar, much more infectious virus struck in the US state of Kansas a year later.  It quickly spread through military camps all over the country, crossed the Atlantic aboard ships and had become an epidemic across much of Europe by the early summer of 1918.

This first epidemic was no killer and most people recovered within a month, though it often left victims tired and lethargic for weeks afterwards.  It was also very big news, but in the midst of a global propaganda war the news was distinctly partial.  Highly disruptive wherever it struck, influenza’s effects on the fighting strength of belligerent armies were, for instance, concealed from public view at the time and have received little attention since – but modern historians generally agree that the sick condition of the German Army, which was struck by the disease after it passed through the Allied trenches, was an important contributor to the failure of its spring offensives on the Western Front.

Meanwhile a relative flood of news about disruption in neutral Spain, which had an uncensored press, was creating the false impression (promoted by the world’s press) that the virus was Spanish in origin.  And so the outbreak of early 1918 became ‘Spanish Flu’, for posterity and for millions at the time, but not for everyone.  The Spanish called it Italian, black South Africans called it ‘white man’s sickness’, white South Africans called it ‘black man’s disease’, Poles called it the Bolshevik disease, and dozens of other names, not all of them politically inspired, were used by contemporaries to describe a mysterious, apparently unstoppable affliction that was about to turn very nasty.

In Spain they called it the ‘Neapolitan Soldier’, and it killed.

According to modern medical orthodoxy, epidemic conditions produced rapid adaption in a virus that had mutated several times during the previous three years.  From August 1918, a new strain emerged that attacked the human lungs quickly and with potentially lethal ferocity, leaving many victims prey to bacterial pneumonia and proving particularly dangerous to vigorous young adults, whose strong immune systems over-reacted to cause viral pneumonia and respiratory crisis.

Arriving at a time of unprecedented human traffic as the Great War reached its climax, the new killer made its first appearances in three busy ports during late August.  It quickly hitchhiked around the world in the populations of ships and penetrated inland trade routes. From Boston it spread rapidly through the Americas, from Brest through Europe and from Freetown in Sierra Leone to western and southern Africa.  This second wave was by far the most destructive, infecting an estimated 500–600 million people during the autumn and winter of 1918 and responsible for the great majority of deaths. Just as the pandemic seemed to be abating, in early 1919, a third wave struck and a fresh mutation of the virus swept across the world, killing another 3–4 million people before it finally subsided in mid-summer.

The killer virus wasn’t understood in 1918, but people knew something about how to avoid it. US public medical advice, late 1918.

The pattern of influenza deaths was by no means regular, but was broadly explicable.  Generally speaking, Europe and North America suffered the least, while the worst hit areas were sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, southern and eastern Asia, and the islands of the Pacific – in other words the world’s poorest and least medically aware societies.  Death rates could also vary dramatically between regions or even localities in the same country.  These apparently inexplicable anomalies encouraged a wide spectrum of homespun superstitions surrounding the disease, everything from intervention for wartime sins by a divinity of choice to the idea that a source of death with ‘germ’ in its profile must be a German secret weapon.  There were, again with hindsight, more rational explanations.  The imposition and success, or otherwise, of quarantine regulations was often a local matter, as was the prevalence or otherwise of the crowds that spread the disease like lightning.  There is also evidence that those places most affected by the first wave of influenza had developed some degree of immunity to the second.

Most photographic records of the pandemic come from the United Sates – but this was a Maori hospital in New Zealand.

The disease killed more males than females, a difference attributed to social mores that encouraged men to keep on fighting or working when the most effective treatment was complete rest, but the flu also proved particularly dangerous to pregnant women, and controversy has bubbled ever since about whether to add unborn or stillborn babies to the overall death toll.  Some surviving children born to infected mothers are thought to have suffered developmental damage in the womb, and a large (though incalculable) number of adult survivors were left with permanently damaged respiratory systems.  Overall, the pandemic’s long-term physical effects on human society are difficult to quantify, not least because vast swathes of the infected world were bureaucratically challenged in 1919.

The psychological effects of such a massive global catastrophe on the heels of such a terrible war are equally impossible to pin down, but it does seem to fair to say that grief, fear, bitterness, pessimism and partying like there was no tomorrow were all significant influences on human history during following decades, and were all promoted by the pandemic experience of 1918–19.  On the positive side, the evident failure of contemporary medicine to understand or combat influenza prompted a frenzy of analysis and research in its aftermath.  Along with a transformation of first-world attitudes to disease prevention through quarantine and sanitation, a worldwide effort eventually produced decisive breakthroughs in the field of virology, enabling final identification of the virus responsible for the pandemic in 1933.

Apart from the usual reminders about first-world perspectives on relatively recent history, the enduring power of wartime propaganda and the links between the First World War and pretty much everything since, all I’ve been trying to do here is wrap some context around a well-known catastrophe.  Apologies if there’s nothing new on offer, but it always seems a good idea for us white folks from rich countries to season our unsalted heritage with a little context.

23 JULY, 1918: Tipping Points

By July 1918 the War’s big picture was getting clearer and something resembling a logical conclusion was slowly coming into focus for most observers on both sides, informed or propagandised. So I’m going for slight change of approach today, aimed at providing a few snapshots, and ideally a flavour, of the Great War’s last summer.

The Second Battle of the Marne may have begun as a German attack on 15 July, but within five days it was clearly turning into an Allied victory.  After four months of near-panic among the Allies, especially the British and French, as German offensives on the Western Front suddenly threatened to turn a fast tide against them, the battle was also emerging as the moment the world as a whole realised Germany wasn’t going to win.

No such clarity could be drawn from the other side of the big picture, the puzzling and potentially frightening spectacle of the Russian Empire collapsing into civil war.  Would Lenin’s soviets triumph and form a completely new kind of state, or would the multi-faceted, multi-headed forces of counter-revolution restore something resembling the old order?  Nobody, including Lenin and Trotsky, had much idea of the answers, and by no means everybody outside Russia was sure which side they wanted to win – but most of them were sure they wanted to see the Czech Legion get home.

By now a global cause célèbre and, with a total strength of around 100,000 troops, the single biggest coherent military force in the civil war zone, the Legion was strung out along the Siberian railway en route for Vladivostok.  Advanced Czech and Slovak forces took Irkutsk on 13 July and, far to the west, rear elements took Kazan the following day.   Both occupations were duly celebrated as victories in the Allied press, which also reported Japanese agreement, on 18 July, to US proposals for a joint intervention in Siberia, and the proclamation, five days later at Vladivostok, of a Siberian Government Council.  But the big story coming out of Russia that week was the news that Bolsheviks had executed the Tsar and all his family at Ekaterinburg on 17 July, a measure apparently hurried through for fear that the Czech Legion was on its way.

There are more accurate images concerning the Tsar’s death – but this one has the best eye rolls.

One thing becoming clear about Russia’s meltdown was that it wasn’t going to end the War in a hurry.   Fears that Bolshevik success would spark immediate popular revolution in Europe’s other great powers had faded, and the theory that release of German troops from the Eastern Front would turn the battle in the West had been proved false, though only just.  By mid-1918 both sides also recognised that Germany’s submarine-led campaign against shipping lanes had failed to end the conflict, but that didn’t mean the global war on trade was over.

Adoption of convoy systems had reduced Allied merchant losses to manageable, sustainable levels, and U-boats had switched their priorities accordingly, targeting the ongoing transfer of US forces to Europe.  Submarines sank five Allied transports between 15 and 19 July – at the cost of one submarine sunk by a British destroyer – and a British armed merchant cruiser on 23 July.  The victims included the Cunard liner Carpathia, sent to the bottom on 17 July while sailing with an Atlantic convoy from Liverpool to Boston, and famous as the first rescuer on the scene after the Titanic went down in 1912.

The British meanwhile persisted with their own, more successful version of economic warfare, in place since the start of the War, which combined the Royal Navy’s blockade of enemy ports with some serious diplomatic bullying to prevent neutral countries from trading with the enemy.  Nobody needed more bullying than Germany’s close neighbours, particularly Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, and all three countries spent the war years juggling the threat of invasion across the German frontier, the threat of starvation or conquest by the British, and the benefits of an economic boom generated by trade with both.

The Dutch juggling act almost came to grief during the spring and summer of 1918.  In March, just as the Allies were trying to requisition Dutch ships to address a critical shortage of transatlantic transports, Berlin demanded increased supplies of sand and gravel along the Rhine or the railway from Antwerp to the Ruhr. Agreements with the Allies allowed the Netherlands to export only certain, specifically non-military supplies along these routes, with some sand and gravel permitted for civilian road-building purposes, but German demands coincided with a need for materials to build new fortifications on the Western Front, and everybody knew it.

The German press responded to initial Dutch refusal with barely veiled threats of imminent invasion, and while the Dutch military braced for war the Allies considered a preemptive ‘friendly’ occupation of coastal provinces.  Fortunately for a Dutch government that could not agree to either side’s demands and remain neutral, Ludendorff’s plan to invade Zeeland was rejected (for once) by the rest of the Third Supreme Command, and Germany’s massive commitment to the Western Front offensive soon rendered a full-scale invasion of the Netherlands impossible.  The British, having already seized the Dutch ships in question (and paid compensation, of course), also needed every available body at the Western Front and advised the Hague to reach a compromise with Berlin, so the Dutch government accepted a reduced German sand and gravel demand, and agreement to restart trade was reached on 2 May.

Quite a lot harder than this made it look…

Reaction from right-wing editors and politicians in Britain was noisy and predictable, denouncing what they saw as Dutch collusion with Germany and becoming increasingly hysterical as the crisis on the Western Front deepened.  The British government finally responded to their outrage by issuing a formal protest about the sand and gravel arrangement on 15 July – just as the pivotal battle on the Marne was beginning – and the Dutch quickly agreed to talks aimed at arranging military cooperation in the event of German aggression. The talks began in August, proceeded in friendly, constructive fashion and continued until the Armistice, but by the time they got going much of the tension had gone out of diplomatic atmosphere in Europe because the German end of the neutrality tightrope had sagged.

Within few days of the British protest, the battle at the Marne had revealed the true weakness of Germany’s military position in France, and as Anglo-Dutch relations eased so did the sense of crisis that had gripped British and French society, military and civil, since the shocks of the spring.  A generalised fear of impending defeat gave way to an equally broad belief that victory was assured once the US was fully in the fight.  The change was both swift and obvious to contemporaries, as nicely illustrated by the immediate outbreak of labour trouble in Britain.

British trades union leaders had agreed to suspend industrial action for the duration in 1914, and the agreement had largely held. Strikes still took place throughout the War but were led by local union leaders or shop stewards, and usually concerned with local disputes over pay and conditions.  Even these tended to abate in times of national crisis, and Britain experienced almost no significant strike action amid the manpower shortages and military disasters that blighted the first half of 1918.  Victory at the Marne changed that.

On 23 July, as news of German withdrawal from the Marne was still coming in, engineering and munitions workers in Coventry took strike action, and their counterparts in Birmingham followed suit the next day.  The strike was, typically, called in response to a perceived infringement of workers’ rights by the government, in this case the ’embargo’, an official ban on the employment of additional skilled labour by certain firms.  It was also based on a misunderstanding, because the embargo was a far more trivial matter than shop stewards realised, and only applied to very few companies.

Munitions workers were crucial to the war effort and protected from conscription, so the strike came as a shock to the pubic and brought a punitive response from the government, which announced that all strikers would be liable to conscription if the action continued.  It ended after a week, but the shift it reflected in the British national mood, from relatively obedient pessimism to increasingly militant expectation, was destined to outlast the War.

Striking munitions workers didn’t get much sympathy from Punch magazine…

Major distractions have helped make this one of my clumsier efforts, but its vague purpose has been to commemorate a historical turning point that, if not exactly hidden, passed without the kind of totemic event that provides a passport to posterity.   During the summer of 1918, sometime after the middle of July and before the start of August, the planet as a whole decided that the result of the Great War was no longer in doubt, and that predictions of its imminent end – fanfared at the beginning of every campaigning season since 1914 – could finally be taken seriously.   After four years of fixation on survival, the minds of politicians, generals, ordinary fighters and civilians in every warring state could at last focus on the future peace and their places in it.  The battles between states were almost over, and the battles within states were just beginning.

12 JULY, 1918: The Way We Were

A crucial battle was about to erupt on the Western Front in mid-July 1918.  Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it was a case of two offensives clashing.  In Berlin, Ludendorff’s Third Supreme Command planned one last attempt to turn the German Army’s great Spring Offensive, begun in March, into tangible strategic success (21 March, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs).  Short of supplies and experienced troops, raddled with influenza and suffering an unprecedented crisis of morale, German forces on the Marne were almost ready to launch a two-pronged attack towards Reims, as a prelude to a bigger offensive further north, in Flanders.

Meanwhile, despite the manpower crisis that faced both Britain and France after the bloodletting of the spring – and ignoring French c-in-c Pétain’s insistence that his exhausted troops were incapable of major offensives until US forces were ready to join the fight – Allied supreme commander Foch planned an attack on the western flank of the German salient (that’s a bulge to you and me) at the Marne. Thanks to prisoners and deserters, each side was fully aware of the other’s plans.

Not the world’s most useful map, but it was the best I could do…

The German attack began first, on 15 July, but had turned into an orderly withdrawal from the Marne positions by 20 July, and by the time it ended on 3 August French attacks (with some British and US support) had driven the line back beyond the Rivers Aisne and Vesle. The fighting was heavy and horrible, costing more than 95,000 French, 13,000 British and 12,000 US casualties on the Allied side, and an estimated 168,000 German losses.  The battle finally put an end to the Third Supreme Command’s offensive ambitions on the Western Front, and ushered in a series of, ultimately decisive, Allied offensives during the autumn.

There’s a lot more to say about the Second Battle of the Marne, its turning points, tactical nuances and military-political fallout, but it’s a popular choice with the posterity industry and I’ve got something less stirring and triumphal to talk about.  On 12 June 1918, the ‘Denaturalisation Bill’ passed through its first and second readings in the British House of Commons, on the way to receiving royal assent in early August and becoming law the following January.

Denaturalisation in this context meant the revocation of citizenship granted to those born in foreign countries but qualified as British through long-term residence.  The bill itself (properly known as the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1918), its bumpy passage into law and the noisy public debate surrounding it shine some light on a social norm of the time that hit one of its wartime peaks in Britain during the summer of 1918.  I’m referring to xenophobia, which was uncontroversially indivisible from patriotism for most Britons a century ago and has been making something of a comeback in the last couple of years.

Until 1914, the law concerning British nationality had been based on the 1870 Naturalisation Act, which allowed aliens to become citizens after five years of residence, but successive governments had come under press and political pressure to make it more difficult for hostile foreigners to pose as loyal Britons.  Promoted by influential right-wing and ‘diehard’ imperialist elements, this xenophobic pressure mounted in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust towards other European powers and their subjects, especially Germans, in the years leading up the War.  It bore fruit just as the conflict was erupting.

The 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act received royal assent on 7 August and became law on 1 January 1915.  It came in three parts. The first defined ‘natural’ British nationality as belonging to anyone born in the British Empire, anyone born with a British father (even a naturalised father) and anyone born on a British ship.  The second section concerned naturalisation, which the Home Office (interior ministry) could grant to any applicant who had lived in Britain for five years and intended to stay there, was of ‘good character’ and spoke ‘adequate’ English.  Candidates were required to take an oath of allegiance, and their status could be revoked if obtained by fraud.

The third part of the 1914 Act dealt with particulars, including the treatment of married women, who were deemed to hold the nationality of their husbands, so that a British-born widow (or ex-wife) of a foreigner was considered an alien and required to apply for naturalisation.  The section also made clear that although naturalised foreigners could hold any property (except for a British ship) in the manner of natural citizens, they were barred from voting or holding any kind of local or national political office.

Confirmed as law just as national paranoia became government policy, the Act came under shrill attack even before it became active, with the popular press and the right wing of the Conservative Party demanding stronger powers to denaturalise aliens from hostile countries.  Hysteria inevitably focused on some 6,000 naturalised former Germans living in Britain, who were portrayed as potential hostile agents, and critics decried the Act’s failure to require naturalised aliens to renounce their former nationality, raising the spectre of British citizens bound by loyalty to the Kaiser.  In fact, under the German constitution, Germans choosing naturalisation elsewhere were automatically stripped of their original nationality, but a clause in the same constitution that allowed dual citizenship in certain, officially sanctioned circumstances was portrayed as a loophole through which Berlin intended to destabilise foreign societies.

This one from 1915 – they got more virulent as the War went on.

Amid a tsunami of government propaganda based on the idea that Germans and German culture were intrinsically violent, militaristic, devious and bad, what now seems like hysterical paranoia found ready acceptance among many people at all levels of British society. It crystallised into a campaign in the press and in parliament for a legal means to denaturalise ‘hyphenated’ Anglo-Germans at the whim of the Home Office, and the demand soon became impossible for even a Liberal government to ignore.

The Home Office was considering an extension of revocation powers by early 1916, but civil servants considered it difficult to apply and the idea was still bouncing around committees when the Imperial War Conference of April 1917 was asked to approve a draft bill of amendments to the 1914 Act.  This proposed giving the minister power to denaturalise anyone obviously disloyal, of obvious poor character, convicted of a serious crime or absent from the Empire for seven years.  It also suggested extending the wartime ban on naturalisation of aliens from Germany or Austria for five years after the end of hostilities.

The Conference – representing British state departments along with representatives of the ‘white’ dominions (which had hyphenation issues of their own) and India – gave the draft bill its overall approval without stipulating any timescale for change.  Spared the rod, the coalition government took its time before finally introducing such an intrinsically illiberal piece of legislation for its first parliamentary reading in May 1918.  Meanwhile the increasingly furious impatience of the political right, the jingoist press and a considerable section of military opinion (including the Admiralty) were coalescing to turn fear of naturalised Germans into a major national issue.

Rampant anti-German sentiment was reaching a wartime peak by the time the new Act went through its second reading on 12 July. The anti-German ultras were already denouncing the new legislation as soft on aliens, and a proposal to strip citizenship from all Germans naturalised within the last thirty years (and their children, including many men in senior military and civil service positions) was being widely touted to general acclaim from the political right.  In this atmosphere, it was hardly surprising that the 1918 Act – essentially a reprise of the 1917 draft proposal – became a little tougher as it passed through parliament, adding contact with enemy states to the list of reasons for denaturalisation, and banning the children of naturalised citizens from public service jobs unless they were given exemption by a special loyalty tribunal.

Some politicians get to be important but forgotten. This is wartime British home secretary George Cave, the (rather vexed) face of the 1918 Nationality Act.

The new Act still fell far short of the Draconian discrimination against anyone born outside the Empire demanded by the ‘radical’ right and a massively self-important Fleet Street barony, and as such it can be seen as a rescue success for the liberal values at the heart of the Lloyd George coalition.  And because the War against Germany and Austria-Hungary had ended by the time it came into force at the start of 1919, momentum drained from the tide of populist xenophobia that had threatened to make the Act the thin end of a very nationalist wedge.

British public xenophobia would be back.  An instinctive reaction to fear that feeds on ignorance to identify targetable threats, it is always likely to surface in times of popular panic, especially when encouraged by powerful voices with an eye for populist profit.  Over the decades since 1918 it has only tended to come all the way out of the closet during major wars, but these days it’s flouncing around naked in peacetime.  So the only point I’d make around the flood of race hatred that almost carried the day in post-Edwardian Britain is this:  today’s demagogues of modern economic insecurity are tapping into a form of escapism that runs deep and dangerous in our collective psyche, so maybe we should work harder at coping with reality.

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.

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.


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.