Category Archives: Mexico

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.

4 JULY, 1916: Just Say No

A century ago, on US Independence Day 1916, President Venustiano Carranza of Mexico wrote a letter to his US counterpart, Woodrow Wilson. The letter effectively begged Wilson not to declare war on Mexico. Although it made mild protest at the presence of American troops on Mexican soil, it agreed to pretty much every condition that could possibly encourage US friendship, and what had seemed a strong possibility of war vanished from the moment it was received by the Wilson administration.

At first glance that’s nice work, and perhaps an example of peacekeeping that Europe, or at least those militarily minor European nations drawn into the First World War by nationalist ambition, might have done well to emulate – but let’s not get carried away. War between states isn’t so hard to avoid when both parties have something more important to be doing, and while the USA was far more interested in taking control of the world economy in the absence of European competition, Carranza was primarily concerned with establishing control over a long, bloody and chaotic revolution that would eventually shape Mexico into the globally significant shambles it is today.

So while millions are fighting and dying to little immediate strategic effect on the First World War’s main battlefronts, here’s a quick look at the first decade or so of a revolution that had killed an estimated 1,300,000 Mexicans (and a handful of US citizens) by the time its most violent phase came to an end in 1920 – and at why the US was messing with it in 1916.

Independent since 1821, after an 11-year war against Spanish colonial rule, Mexico remained a mess of internal turbulence and international interference until the 1870s. It emerged as a relatively coherent federal republic under the ruthless control of General Porfirio Díaz, who became president in 1876, served for all but four of the next 35 years, and can be broadly summed up as good for business and bad for civil liberties. When lack of clarity about the succession opened the door for his overthrow in 1911, by which time Díaz was over eighty, Mexico was a sprawling nation of some 15 million people, dependent on the USA for 75% of its overseas trade (and almost all its exports of gold, lead, silver and copper), plagued by popular unrest and fractured along political, regional and social fault lines.

Something like civil war broke out almost at once. New president Francisco Modero was murdered in early in 1913, and his successor, Victoriano Huerta, was forced to resign in July 1914 after his internment of US Navy personnel prompted the occupation of Veracruz by US Marines. Meanwhile (by way of locating the revolution’s most famous names), a peasant revolt led by Emilio Zapata had swept through the central southern part of the country since the fall of Díaz, and flamboyant self-publicist Pancho Villa had proclaimed a rebel government in the resource-rich northern province of Chihuahua.

Regular troops against rebels, peasants against rich landowners and businesses, liberals against conservatives… with armies roaming all over the country and inflicting carnage wherever they went, it was maintenance of US trade that eventually imposed a modicum of order in Mexico.  Once American mining and metals interests identified Carranza as an apparently liberal force for socioeconomic laissez-faire, their financial support enabled him to establish a regime that, though never anything like secure, was recognised by Washington in October 1915.

By this time Mexican affairs had become a hot topic in the United States, largely thanks to US interventionist and Allied propaganda that claimed both Huerta and Villa were in the pay of the German Empire. When Villa, his army reduced to a bandit remnant after a major defeat by Carranza, launched a cross-border raid against the US town of Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916 (aimed at punishing US mining executives in the town for their support of Carranza), popular outrage meant the new Secretary of State for War, Newton Baker, had little choice but to react.

Excitement was the dominant emotion when US newspapers contemplated war against Mexico.
Excitement was the dominant emotion when US newspapers contemplated war against Mexico.

A US Army force of some 10,000 men, led by General John J. Pershing (later to command US forces in France, and even later reincarnated as a tank), crossed into Mexico on 15 March, charged with hunting down Villa. It failed, and instead toured Chihuahua province dealing with local hostility wherever it went, culminating in a skirmish with regular forces that sent Carranza – who had given permission for the incursion but then changed his mind – scurrying to open conciliatory talks with the Wilson administration.

Talks between US Army chief of staff General Scott and Carranza’s representative (and future president) General Obregon had achieved nothing substantial when Villa upped the stakes by launching another raid, this time against the town of Glenn Springs, Texas. Pershing’s force was promptly reinforced, but still couldn’t pin down Villa, and full-scale war became a genuine prospect when, on 21 June, a detachment of about 100 American troops (most of them Afro-American or ‘Buffalo’ soldiers) followed up a report that Villa was in the Chihuahua town of Carrizal, but instead ran into a force of 400 Mexican regulars, or Carrancistas. When the US troops refused to withdraw a battle broke out, and by the time it spluttered to an indecisive halt 24 Mexicans were dead and 43 wounded, against eleven US fatalities and 23 taken prisoner.

Funeral_Procession_of_Capt__Charles_Boyd
The buffalo soldiers at Carrizal lost their commander, Charles T Boyd, and this was his funeral procession.

A furious Pershing was characteristically keen to launch a full-scale reprisal attack against the main Carrancista garrison in Chihuahua, and public opinion on both sides of the border was loudly in favour of the war such an attack would no doubt have provoked. Wilson, at the start of a re-election campaign that portrayed him as the protector of peace, forbade further action, instead making US outrage clear by mobilising more than 100,000 National Guard troops along the frontier. Carranza’s response was the letter of 4 July, which contained a fulsome apology, along with an offer to open negotiations and a promise to meet American demands for reform of his regime.

The negotiations began in early September and produced a joint statement on Christmas Eve that promised a new, more liberal constitution for Mexico, and gave US forces permission to remain in Mexico for as long as Washington felt necessary on security grounds. Pershing’s force eventually withdrew back into the US in early February 1917, by which time war between the US and Germany appeared imminent. Mexico’s mining and emerging oil industries then enjoyed a temporary war boom on the back of increased US demand, helping Carranza stay in power throughout the War, despite permanent, violent internal unrest and persistent US suspicion that he was colluding with the Central Powers (of which more another day).

After failing to fix the election of a civilian successor, Carranza was murdered in 1920 (a fate that befell pretty much every leader involved in the Mexican Revolution, including Zapata in 1919 and Villa in 1923). His death signalled another three years of civil war, and Mexico would remain in a state of revolutionary turmoil, punctuated by coups d’état and armed conflicts, until the late 1930s, when critical food shortages for a growing population compelled cooperation between landed interests, peasant leaders and the church, ushering in decades of relative political stability in the face of endemic economic fragility.

No big message comes with this post. It’s just a nod to more than a million dead, to the contemporary power and importance of American business interests, and to a protracted struggle to determine a vast country’s destiny that is largely ignored outside Mexico and the USA. Meanwhile, in northern France, heavy thunderstorms didn’t stop French and British forces involved in the Somme Offensive capturing a village and a couple of woods on 4 July… but everyone knows that.