Category Archives: Poland

8 OCTOBER, 1918: What’s Going On?

I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.

So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.

Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.

So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.

The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.

Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria – quick to sue for peace and destined for a turbulent, 25-year reign.

On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.

Takes a bit of study, but this pretty much nails what was happening on the Western Front.

If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.

The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.

Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.

Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.

The more self-important British newspapers in 1918 didn’t really do headlines. Americans did.

Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.

In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.

Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.

Once a place is conquered, you march through it in triumph, so that’s what the British did in Damascus on 2 October, 1918.

The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.

Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia.  The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania.  Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply.  Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action.  Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days.  A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.

Italians occupying Berat Albania… the way Italians saw it.

Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.

5 NOVEMBER, 1916: Pandora’s Puppets

Two years back, I spent a few hundred words exhorting us all to remember Poland’s grim First World War – and I’ve been virtually ignoring it ever since.  Today’s a good day to make up for that, because 5 November 1916 saw the proclamation of a new Kingdom of Poland by the Emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

As you might expect, this gesture by two of the three great powers dedicated to carving up Poland was not exactly a gift, and was in fact an act of ruthlessly exploitative self-interest designed in Berlin .  Yet it was welcomed by some Polish nationalists at the time, and is still seen by many Polish commentators as the first step on what would be a tortuous path to modern independent nationhood.  This says a lot about the condition of ethnically Polish territories in late 1916, which can be summed up as catastrophic but merits a more detailed commemoration.

I abandoned Poland at the end of 1914, after unsustainable German and Austro-Hungarian offensives along the central sector of the Eastern Front had been halted by the Russians, leaving the two sides locked in entrenched stalemate on a line east of Warsaw (11 November, 1914: Remember Poland?).  Poles everywhere had been conscripted by whichever side controlled their homeland, and had frequently ended up fighting each other, while the only part of modern Poland that had been spared battlefield devastation and pillage was the northwestern region then in Prussia.

This miserable period of stagnation had come to an end in the summer of 1915.  The huge territorial gains made by the Central Powers’ summer Triple Offensive, and the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ that re-established the frontline 350km further east, eased Poland’s situation in some respects.  For the time being at least, the Russians had been driven out of all but the country’s eastern fringes, and the brunt of the fighting was no longer taking place on Polish soil.

On the other hand, the retreating Russians took a substantial portion of Poland’s heavy industrial plant with them, and Poland was the one place where the Russian Army’s much-vaunted scorched earth policy was carried out with any real efficiency.  Meanwhile economic exploitation of the newly occupied territories by the Central Powers, very much led by Germany, was swift, wide-ranging and ruthless.  The overall effect on Polish life was devastating. Factory closure and unemployment were rife in the cities, despite mass deportations of workers deeper to Germany or Austria-Hungary, while fuel and food shortages, exacerbated by hyperinflation and enforced exports for the German war effort, brought widespread malnutrition and encouraged the spread of diseases.

Amid this chaos, Polish nationalist and independence movements struggled to find common focus.  As had been the case before the War, various political and military groupings adopted positions according to their regional priorities.  In the south, for instance, some Galician nationalists sided with the Russians to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian dominion, and others did the reverse, while nationalist groups further north accepted Russian or German sponsorship on the same basis, and they all raised armed forces to fight for their particular allies.  The most coherent and best known nationalist force, the Polish Legions, was formed in August 1914 as an independent unit of the Austro-Hungarian Army.  Its commanders included Josef Pilsudski, the most prominent anti-Russian agitator in pre-War Galicia and the main focal point for relations between Polish nationalists and the Central Powers.

Cavalry were the poster boys of minor First World War armies, including the Polish Legions.
Cavalry were the poster boys of minor First World War armies, including the Polish Legions.

Poland’s situation worsened from the summer of 1916. The Brusilov Offensive brought the Russians back into Polish Galicia, and economic exploitation by the Central Powers escalated dramatically under the Hindenburg Programme laid down by the new German supreme command.  In October, amid rising popular and industrial unrest in urban areas, Pilsudski resigned his commission in the Polish Legions after a dispute over the number of Polish officers. With the loss of its most influential nationalist figurehead, the German supreme command (and a completely subservient Austro-Hungarian command) felt it prudent to make a token concession to Polish nationalist sentiment.

The ‘Two Emperors’ Proclamation’ issued on 5 November was certainly token.  It declared the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Poland, a hereditary constitutional monarchy allied to the Central Powers and comprising all the ethnically Polish territories formerly under Russian control.  It failed to specify the monarch involved or how he would be chosen, postponing any decisions until after the War, and made no attempt to define the new kingdom’s actual boundaries. Nor was the new state provided with a government, let alone a governmental system, so at first the only tangible proofs of its existence were the immediate establishment of a national army, with Pilsudski as its commander, and a mass outbreak of the national flags, symbols and ceremonies now permitted by the occupying authorities.

Initial popular enthusiasm for the Proclamation was fleeting. January’s announcement of a government – or at least a Provisional Council of State made up of ten German and five Austrian appointees – did nothing to alter the general view of the Kingdom as a puppet state, and Pilsudski soon fell out with his German sponsors, losing his command in March after refusing to have his troops swear allegiance to the Central Powers.  By then, with deportations and forced exports to Germany rising all the time, revolutionary events in Russia were threatening to move the goalposts for Berlin and swamping any prospect of further wartime political development in Poland.

So the Kingdom of Poland remained in limbo, destined for history’s dustbin as soon as the War ended and meanwhile amounting to little more than a name and an idea, treated with contempt at the time by both its subjects and its sponsors. Yet sometimes the expression of an idea to the world at large can give the idea life, and many modern Poles view the Proclamation as a vital moment enabling the eventual establishment of a truly independent Poland.

In part, this refers to the reappearance and widespread adoption of Polish national symbols from November 1916, but the Proclamation is also credited with bringing the question of Polish independence into the international diplomatic arena, because it demanded a response from the western Allies.  What had been a debate conducted within three empires hostile to Polish ambitions now included Britain, France and Italy, and would soon include the United States.  By the time the War ended full Polish independence would be enshrined as one of US President Wilson’s prerequisites for peace, and the Treaty of Versailles would create an enlarged, independent Poland led by Pilsudski as head of state.

We may have forgotten Poland's First World War now, but we knew about it then.
We may have forgotten Poland’s First World War now, but we knew about it then.

The Proclamation of 5 November didn’t mark any kind of end to Poland’s wartime suffering, and the Poland it helped create was not long for this world, but for all its illusory nature the puppet Kingdom created in 1916 was a reminder of the power of ideas, even when the military overkill gets mind-boggling.  The German regime tried deploying an idea to douse the fire of Polish nationalism, and though the tactic failed the idea, released into the ether with a coating of official status, developed an indestructible life and will of its own… one of those small lessons from history worth remembering the next time someone floats a racial stereotype or a Mexican wall idea.

11 NOVEMBER, 1914: Remember Poland?

It’s Armistice Day, 2014, and something with a Last Post atmosphere seems appropriate.  In 1914, 11 November marked the beginning of a German offensive against Russian positions around the Polish city of Łódź, so today let’s spare a little commemoration for Poland’s suffering during the First World War.

During the last 250 years or so, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a European country more mistreated by war than Poland, or a people more martially abused than the Poles. Since the latter part of the seventeenth century – at which point it was a reasonably successful sovereign state, joined to neighbouring Lithuania by a shared monarchy – Poland has been a prime battleground of choice for anyone going to war in central or Eastern Europe. Time and again the armies of empires have invaded, fought over, occupied and partitioned Poland. Time and again the Poles have been conquered, annexed, suppressed and slaughtered.

There’s a long, sad story to be told about the decline of Poland in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I’ll try to keep it brief.  The country was partitioned three times between 1772 and 1795 as Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia got into the habit of invading, putting down nationalist uprisings as they went, and coming to mutual agreement about which parts to keep for themselves. The last of these partitions removed independent Poland from the map altogether, with mineral-rich Silesia in the northwest becoming part of Prussia, the southern region around Krakow falling under Austro-Hungarian rule and the rest becoming part of the Russian Tsar’s empire.

This was roughly the situation in 1914, despite Napoleon’s temporary occupation of the region early in the nineteenth century and further territorial adjustments in the 1803s, 1840s and 1860s, when the usual suspects intervened to put down nationalist or political uprisings. Here’s a map, lifted from net as ever and instantly removable if anyone minds.

poland_partition

The First World War conformed to the pattern of modern warfare by devastating Poland.  By late in 1914 the country had become the main focus of fighting between Russia and the Central Powers on the Eastern Front, and an estimated 3.5 million Poles were conscripted into the armed forces of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary during the next four years. A few Poles also fought with the French army as an independent unit, and hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians died as collateral damage. Though accurate casualty figures are impossible to establish, estimates of Polish deaths during the First World War vary between about 700,000 and one million.

The German offensive around the Silesian city of Łódź in mid-November enjoyed initial success against ill-prepared Russian forces and inflicted serious casualties, but was halted once the Russians abandoned their own plans to attack into Silesia and concentrated for defence. Heavily outnumbered, but committed to repeated attacks by front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the German Ninth Army did eventually take Łódź after a Russian withdrawal on 6 December, but despite Hindenburg’s claims of a great strategic victory no decisive breakthrough was achieved. German attempts to push further east slackened after 13 December, by which time both sides had lost around 100,000 men, leaving the central sector of the Eastern Front in a state of entrenched stalemate west of Warsaw by the end of the year. Poland’s suffering was just beginning.

This has been a sketchy post, delivered late. My apologies to anyone reading the blog in real time, but every now and then real life takes over and prevents me from playing historian for a few days. Never mind, the point I’m trying to make is fairly simple: the First World War wasn’t only, or even largely about Britain. Ask any Pole.

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

A hundred years ago today, German and Russian forces fought the first engagement of the War on the Eastern Front.  The fight took place at Stallupönen, a German village near the frontier between the two empires.  It wasn’t much of a battle, an unauthorised attack by a small portion of the regionally-based German army against the southern flank of an invading Russian army that forced a division (about 10,000 men) of Russian troops to retreat and took some 3,000 prisoners – but it was the start of a long and vastly important campaign that changed the world, changed the War and is almost completely forgotten by the heritage version as seen from the West.

I’ll be checking into the Eastern Front on a regular basis during the next few years, but for now here’s the start-up picture of a theatre of war that raged for more than four years and ultimately stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Given that an alliance dating back to 1892 committed Russia to fighting in support of France, and that Germany was tied to Austria-Hungary by defensive alliance, a glance at a basic map of Europe in 1914 makes the opening battle lines fairly clear.  I’ve pinched the one below from the net, and I’ll be glad to remove it if anyone minds.

Europe1914

The Russian and German Empires faced each other along the borders of East Prussia to the north.  Austria-Hungary lined up along a disputed frontier with Russia further south, across the then Russian (now Ukrainian) province of Galicia, and all three empires were clustered hungrily round Poland, then ruled by Russia as a semi-autonomous and very turbulent province.  Still further south, the independent kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria remained neutral for now, but both were looking to expand and both would enter the fighting once they’d juggled inducements from both sides and decided which represented the man chance.

All three main protagonists had plans in place for the outbreak of war.  Germany had left an army on its eastern frontier as part of the wider Schlieffen Plan, expecting to have beaten France and sent reinforcements during the anticipated six-week delay while Russian forces got organised.  Austria-Hungary’s battle plan defied both logistical realities (like most plans conjured up in Vienna) and the demands of war against Serbia on its southern frontiers to call for an immediate invasion of Galicia.  The latest of many Russian plans, known as Plan 19, was equally ambitious and smacked of autocratic fantasy.  Originally conceived as a simple, massed attack against the relatively small German force defending East Prussia (the eastern spur of Germany stretching up to what became the Lithuanian border), it was repeatedly doctored to satisfy squabbling court factions until it encompassed a smaller attack on East Prussia, a major attack on Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia and the maintenance of strongly defended fortresses inside the frontiers.

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

From a German viewpoint, the big surprise was that two Russian armies invaded East Prussia as early as 15 August.  They didn’t get far, not least because although Russia possessed hordes of troops – perhaps 25 million men of military age to call upon – and had performed miracles to get men to battle so quickly, its retarded industrial condition meant that uniforms and equipment were an altogether different matter.  The preliminary battle at Stallupönen set a pattern of well-equipped and well-trained German forces routing their more numerous opponents, but that didn’t prevent a certain amount of initial panic in Berlin at this unexpectedly early development.  Reinforcements under the newly paired team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff were diverted from the west to meet the situation, a move that had momentous consequences for the Western Front and opened floodgates to a campaign that would absorb more and more German attention and resources during the next four years.  A comprehensive German victory against superior numbers at Tannenberg on 26 August then forced the Russians to fall back and reinforce, bringing the invasion to an end.

Russian attacks in Galicia took longer to get going but met greater success against 10 shambolic Austro-Hungarian forces that were neither up to strength nor ready for operations, but which were carrying out their own planned invasion anyway.  The Austrians won the first skirmish, and forced the Russians back across their frontier when the two armies, each about half a million strong, collided in late August along a line centred on the small (now Ukrainian) town of Komarov.  Austrian optimism, never remotely justified by the performance of its armies in 1914, brought immediate attempts to push further east, but they collapsed against defensive positions and turned into a full-scale retreat, first to the city of Lvov and then into the sanctuary of the Carpathian Mountains.

As autumn began, the Germans were preparing an advance against the Russians in the north while the Russians planned an attack into the Carpathians, but deteriorating weather and the strength of defensive positions brought temporary stalemate to both fronts, and for the rest of the year all three empires focused their campaigns on the cherry in the middle, Poland.

That was just an outline sketch of the opening phase of the War on the Eastern Front.  Much, much more was to come.  For long periods, the Front achieved its own forms of gruesome stagnation, sometimes locked into trench warfare around strong defensive positions, sometimes involving huge advances by either side that moved the lines hundreds of miles across vast wildernesses without inflicting any sort of knockout blow.  Like the Western Front, the Eastern Front would see strategists and field commanders struggling and failing to find ways of making offensive land warfare actually work, and losing millions of lives in the process.

The total numbers killed in the theatre defy accurate calculation – Russian figures were often guesses and Austrian records were lost when its empire collapsed, to name just two of the problems faced by historians – but estimates of military deaths start above three million, and in most of the regions involved nobody bothered counting civilian deaths after about 1915.  Even by the standards we understand from the Western Front, fighting conditions were unspeakably horrible, with whole units freezing to death overnight amid desperate shortages of basic equipment and medicines, especially on the Russian side but also among multiracial Austro-Hungarian forces.

Unlike the Western Front, the War in the east did have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the world at large.  Russian involvement ended with the collapse of the regime to Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution; Austria-Hungary’s unproductive effort drained and eventually helped destroy its empire; Germany filled the void, took control over great swathes of territory, and then propelled its overall war effort towards disaster by attempting to administer them and exploit their economies.  And although a host of newly independent states sprang into existence all across the theatre in the War’s aftermath, many of them still faced prolonged struggles for survival as revolutions and civil wars raged across the region.  One way or another every part of the Eastern Front remained at war until the 1920s.

Even slammed together in a few paragraphs the Eastern Front makes quite a story, worth remembering as a human tragedy in itself and because it gave birth to so much of modern Europe.  You won’t hear much about it from the heritage industries in the West, and that’s a shame, because attempting to tell the story of the First World War without it can only be poppycock.