Category Archives: Real War

15 MAY, 1918: Blamespotting

Almost four years in, and it’s getting harder to come up with centenaries that have anything new to say about the First World War, so here comes another rambling excursion into generic territory.  Back in the early twentieth century, the key to mounting a good excursion was the same as the key to fighting a huge, mechanised war – so let’s talk about trains.

For almost a century now, a great deal of thought, print and educational torture has been devoted to analysing and correlating the ’causes’ of the First World War.  For reasons that are pretty obvious (learning from mistakes, for instance), the roots and triggers that produce wars are always of interest to posterity, but no conflict in human history has provoked anything like the intensity and controversy of our search for the First World War’s true parentage. This is largely because, having turned out so much bigger, longer, more ghastly and less decisive than it was supposed to be, the First World War needs some serious explaining, but it also has something to do with the wide range of debatable, disputable and damnable explanations available for its outbreak.

You’ll be glad to know I’m not planning a tilt at that particular windmill today, but competitive, chauvinist nationalism has its place among a litany of ’causes’, and there are arguments pinning the blame on one or other of those competing nations, on failure of an outdated diplomatic system, on social and economic pressures within the same states, on the shape of European geopolitics in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, on Karl Marx… the beat goes on, and it’s still generating plenty of funky arguments among academics not otherwise inclined to a lot of dancing.

The bottom line is that generations of historians and less objective commentators have failed to come up with a consensus about the relative importance of those political, social and economic factors they all agree had something to do with starting the First World War.  This is understandable and, if you’re looking to trace the War back to its seeds, unavoidable, but approach the question from a more holistic perspective and answers come more easily.  Ask yourself what factors were fundamental to the War’s origin and continuation, what it could not have existed without rather than what gave it such distinctive features, and it becomes clear that trains caused the First World War.

I know I’m begging the question of what caused trains, but every search for causation involves gazing into infinite mirrors.  In any case, however much the very existence of HMS Dreadnought served to exacerbate the contemporary world’s geopolitical and socio-economic tensions, none of the other beacons of technological progress that symbolised, facilitated or shaped it can claim to have made the First World War possible.

Prompted by fear, ambition or revenge, the Great Powers of mainland Europe were all ready to fight each other for many years before 1914, but their carefully if optimistically laid plans for massed invasions and rapid conquests would have been inconceivable without the great infrastructural leap forward that had created comprehensive national rail networks during the later nineteenth century.  You couldn’t rapidly mobilise and deploy million-man armies, or even hundred-thousand-man armies, using horses – and it took the false certainties of train timetables to inspire military minds to create the Schlieffen Plan, Plan 17 or Plan 19 (the German, French and Russian invasion plans for the outbreak of war in the years leading up to 1914).

Europe’s railway networks in 1850…
… had definitely expanded by 1910.

Precise, minutely detailed schedules for the transport of troops by train were at the crux of French, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German war plans in August 1914.  As military authorities took more or less complete control of networks, hundreds of thousands of reserves were rushed from their homes to their assigned battle positions, and delivering them more quickly than the enemy was seen as a fundamental precondition to the rapid victory everybody expected to win.

The German railway network performed its task almost perfectly as the War began (giving rise to the never-ending trope about German trains running on time). The French railway system performed a far less arduous operation with reasonable efficiency, and Russian armies (though not many of their weapons) were transported to front lines in East Prussia, Poland and (modern) Ukraine far more quickly than anybody, including most Russian commanders, expected.

By contrast, the Austro-Hungarian railway experience in August 1914 was nothing short of calamitous, as strategic dithering at the top forced armies to reverse course the hard way, taking single-track railways all the way to the Serbian frontier in order to travel back to the southern stretches of the Eastern Front.  Chaos, breakdowns, bottlenecks and the occasional skirmish between rail workers followed, so that Austro-Hungarian armies arrived late and in bad condition to every important action during the War’s first months.

Once the European frontlines had stabilised, railways played a vital part in creating and maintaining stalemate.  Defenders in France, Italy and (to a lesser extent) Eastern Europe could call upon sophisticated rail networks to whisk troops, weapons and supplies to wherever they were needed at the front, while attackers lost all those advantages the moment they crossed into enemy-held territory.

Cheating, I realise – but it saves a couple of paragraphs.

Railways played a different but no less crucial role in extending land warfare across the globe.  Vital tools for colonial and imperial powers, they connected ports with remote inland population or resource centres all over the world, and made it possible for belligerent Europeans to fight mechanised wars at the fringes of their empires.  Connection often amounted to a single, narrow-gauge railway line, and during the First World War some of those lines – in the Arab lands, in East Africa and across Russia’s Asian hinterland to Vladivostok, for instance – became battlefronts themselves.

Railways were obvious military targets whenever and wherever they came within range of hostile weapons.  Blowing up bridges or important junctions, train-wrecking and other forms of sabotage were high priorities for all spies and resistance groups behind enemy lines.  They were also the principal tactics of the Arab Revolt during its difficult early stages, and as such achieved significant strategic impact by effectively isolating the Ottoman Empire from its Arabian provinces.  The whole of the sprawling Ottoman Empire was ‘railway poor’ in that most of its (largely foreign-owned) network was of the narrow-gauge, single-line variety.  The system never recovered from a chaotic attempt at mass mobilisation in late 1914 and ground to a virtual halt after the Russian navy cut off coal supplies from the Black Sea in 1916, but I digress…

Railway systems close to busy front lines were in particular danger from hostile artillery and aerial attacks, which began as sporadic light raids by small aircraft, singly or in groups of three or four, but became steadily more organised and heavier as aerial tactics and technology underwent rapid development.  By the later years of the War purpose-designed light bombers were targeting railways near all the main European fronts, and heavy, long-range bombing forces on both sides were attacking railway systems deep inside hostile territory.  The long-range bombers weren’t very accurate or effective, but they kept trying because – by way of underlining the trains-to-blame theory – the national commitments to ‘total war’ that made such a long conflict possible could only have been developed and could only be sustained through the arteries of a sophisticated railway system.

Left alone, properly maintained and efficiently run, contemporary railway systems were quite capable of keeping the Great War in motion, so wartime technological innovation was unnecessary, give or take experiments in transporting enormous guns or small aircraft. The War did trigger one rapid change in the global railway landscape as thousands of kilometres of light railway track, hitherto used for local services or transporting mine and factory goods to main lines, were torn up and transported to war zones.

Railways near any battlefront, but particularly near the crowded artillery of the main European fronts, tended to get blown to bits during major battles or overrun when the lines shifted.  They could hardly be rebuilt in their original form amid the (potentially deadly) crater-scape left by the big guns, but ground could be flattened for light railways.  They were slow, fragile and could only carry reduced loads over short distances, but light railways could and did maintain the defenders’ advantage in supply and manpower deployment wherever trench warfare took hold, most famously during the French defence of Verdun in 1916.

Useful yes, comfortable no – light railway in action.

Light railways were also extremely useful as supply lines for forces operating in remote or desolate regions without roads, navigable rivers or established rail lines.  As such they were responsible (along with shipping, obviously) for extending the global reach of the Great War and its consequences, as chillingly demonstrated by the long-term fallout from British establishment of a line across Sinai in preparation for the invasion of Palestine in 1917.

Much of the above is fact-free and quite a lot of it is incidental to this post’s small message – but stats about global railway systems and the Great War are available in spades online, and I’m allowed to ramble off the point during conversational excursions.  The small message is this.

There’s no denying the argument that trains were to blame for the First World War in all its misery, and it’s always worth reminding ourselves that history isn’t just about human decisions but can be shaped by the circumstances of humanity’s development.  Then again, that doesn’t mean railways were THE cause of the War.

History isn’t, or shouldn’t be about nailing down cause and effect. That’s what heritage and demagogues do.  History is about gathering up all the possible causes, causes of causes and influences to causes that can shine any light on the impossibly obscure big picture of the past.  History won’t ever show us the whole picture of anything and will always leave us guessing.  It won’t ever grant us understanding of its effects, of the present, and it won’t ever stop trapping the unwary into dangerous ‘eureka’ moments.  What it can do, looked at from enough angles, is help us to stay open-minded.

17 APRIL, 1916: Devil’s Pie

Just a quick sidelight on the War today, as much a case of me asking questions as answering them, because I don’t know a lot about today’s token anniversary.   On 17 April 1916, Italy announced the prohibition of trade with Germany.   Italy had been officially at war with Germany since the previous August, and I’ve yet to find anything that tells me why it took almost eight months to stop business between the two countries.  If I’m going to speculate – and I am – my guess is that trade was more important than any state of war in 1916, and that gives me something to say.

A hundred years on, it’s easy to assume that Europeans of 1916 (or at least Western Europeans) viewed the world with the same post-imperial pessimism we think of as normal today.  In 2016, deep down inside, we all know European civilisation is over the hill.  We’ve been everywhere, done it all and enjoyed a prolonged spending spree, but now we can see the end of the supply line and a future of permanent (if relative) austerity.   In 1916, for all that the previous couple of years had been disastrous beyond anyone’s wildest nightmares, most Europeans still lived an age of optimism.

Science and technology were providing wonders at an unprecedented rate, the conquest of nature for human benefit seemed all but complete, and the rest of the world was still an apparently limitless source of bounty waiting to be carried off. Before the War, most Europeans took for granted that the future was always going to be better than the past, and even in 1916 they were living in a narrative that saw the shock and horror of total war as a course correction on the road to the Promised Land.

Depending on nationality or class, the Promised Land took many forms.  Some Europeans dreamed of independence from empire, others of turning independence into the prosperity enjoyed by the richest countries.  Socialists and liberals saw a future of social justice, some of their political masters sought preservation of traditional pecking orders, and plenty from both sides of that particular fence regarded defeat of an historical enemy as an acceptable version of paradise.

My point is this.   War today is a means of keeping what you have in a shrinking world, but a hundred years ago war it a means of winning prizes in an expanding world.  In order to win the prizes wars had to be won, but no nation or empire could fight wars, let alone win them, without wealth, generated or borrowed.  In the early twentieth century, the way to wealth on a national scale had been taught to the world by the British Empire and was pretty much set in stone. Taking control of territory (by annexation or colonisation) supplied raw materials that could be turned into goods that could be traded for wealth.

There was no other way; there had been no other way since the opulence of monarchs had ceased to be the main indicator of national wealth; and there’s still no other way.

For smaller economies – and in 1916 that meant pretty much everyone except the European empires and the USA – there was an obvious catch: you needed wealth before you could grab more territory.  So in order to fight wars and win prizes, available trading opportunities had to be exploited to the full.  That made trade sacred, the first and fundamental priority in the affairs of sovereign states, the only route to a Promised Land the whole human race could see on the horizon.

I know this is all very generalised, and it may have nothing to do with wartime trade between Italy and Germany (there could, for instance, be legal or contractual reasons behind that), but it is a reminder of an important thread running through the entire conflict. Entering the War, staying neutral, invading neighbours, carving up collapsing empires, blockading the oceans, grabbing colonies or even coming from colonies to aid the mother country… every kind of First World War was about trading for a shot at the treasure.

In age of optimism about the future, that meant no good guys or bad guys.   Belgium, France, Serbia and a host of other sovereign states (even Britain) might have claimed to be fighting a defensive war, but none of their buckets hold water once you disqualify countries invaded because their own invasions failed, and any state that committed an expeditionary or colonial force abroad oxycontin dosage.   So that’s today’s heritage subversion message:  every state fighting the First World War was in it for greed.

16 FEBRUARY, 1916: The Walrus In Winter

A month ago I mentioned that European weather in January 1916 was weirdly warm, but that exploiting it with any serious offensive action was beyond the military technology and orthodoxies of the day.  By mid-February, northern and western Europe were well into an almost equally extraordinary spell of wet weather, destined to last another week or so before a fall in temperatures signalled an unusually cold, wet March.  On the Western Front, where major offensives by both sides were still in preparation, weather conditions presented no more than a logistic nuisance – but soggy ground, mud and freezing cold were about to have their day in France and Belgium… and how.

So spare a small, forgiving thought for contemporary leaders when, amid the appalling carnage that took place on the Western Front in 1916,  the heritage lines get clogged with contemptuous dismissals of their idiocy.  Bad ideas, badly executed by bad generals were a problem by 1916, but commanders were not only dealing with a form of mechanised warfare that was still in the experimental stages, and working with unprecedented numbers of lightly trained, inexperienced troops, they were doing it under conditions created by one of the strangest winters in European history.

A little further south, on the alpine front between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, the weather was essentially normal for the time of year, that’s to say wintry, unpredictable and unsuited to fighting.  Both sides were still in recovery from the four fruitless offensives launched by the Italians in the Isonzo valley during 1915, but while Austro-Hungarian forces were being reinforced for a future attack on positions further west, in the Trentino region, Italian commander Cadorna was preparing his battered troops for yet another Isonzo assault.

Nobody has much good to say about General Cadorna’s long, ugly campaign on the Italian Front, and quite right too, but in February 1916 even he deserved some sympathy.  Italy had entered the War bent on territorial gain but in no economic condition to fight it, and was dependent from the start on Allied promises of military and economic aid.  Nine months on, with public and press criticism of the military campaign mounting and urban food shortages becoming serious, Allied aid had become critical to national survival but was delivered only on the condition that the Italian government did exactly as Britain and France asked.  In December 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, Italy had of course agreed that any Allied offensive should be supported by attacks on other fronts, so once Haig and Joffre had finalised their plans for offensives on the Western Front, Cadorna had no choice about mounting an attack. Given the requirement to do so quickly, he had little practical choice about its general location.

Elsewhere, the Eastern Front was still paralysed by winter, Salonika was inert, British plans for an advance into Palestine were still brewing, and the Mesopotamian campaign was locked around the siege of General Townshend’s troops in Kut.  In Africa, German Cameroon had just reached the end of the line, and in German East Africa a new South African commander, Jan Smuts, was preparing a major British offensive against General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s resolute defence.  In other words, the First World War was under starters orders for the year… unless you were in Armenia.

When I last gave the Caucasian Front its due (15 August, 1915: No Silver Lining), it lay fallow while both sides were busy elsewhere – Ottoman armies at Gallipoli, Russian coping with German advances on the Eastern Front.  West of the front line, remaining Ottoman authorities then spent the latter part of 1915 attempting to wipe out the Armenian people, while on the eastern side Russian General Yudenich could only hold his positions until the high command provided sufficient reinforcements for an attack.  The vast improvement in Russian industrial output, as discussed back in June, meant that by the end of the year Yudenich had built up a force of some 300,000 troops, including reserves.  This outnumbered Ottoman forces at the front by at least three to one and Yudenich, aware that reinforcements were on their way from Gallipoli, chose to launch an offensive before they arrived.

On 10 January, in deep snow, Yudenich launched his advance into Armenia with preliminary attacks all along the front. Ottoman forces, most of them still in winter camp, were taken by surprise, and a week later the Russians broke through the lines at Köprukoy, inflicting some 25,000 casualties but failing to surround the rest of the Turkish Third Army, which retreated into the reputedly impregnable fortress city of Erzurum.

By the end of the month Russian forces had besieged Erzurum, and a century ago today, on 16 February 1916, the garrison surrendered, giving up some 13,000 prisoners and 350 (largely obsolete) artillery pieces.  Two days later, a secondary advance to the south took the town of Mus.  All this deserves a map, but as I’ve mentioned before the Internet is a little short on remotely comprehensible maps of the Caucasian Front, so this is the best I can do:

400px-Russian-Caucas-Front-1916
You’ll just have to work this one out for yourselves…

The fall of Erzurum and Mus ended the first phase of a genuinely successful campaign. Alone among senior Russian commanders at the time, Yudenich understood the concentration and reserve strength needed to achieve a breakthrough, knew how to take enemies by surprise and was open to innovation. Crucially, he also recognised the inherent dangers of over-extension that had been ruining grand offensive plans since 1914, and pursued strictly limited objectives. Better yet, because regional commander Grand Duke Nikolai was busy with factional intrigue in far off Tbilisi, Yudenich was left to get on with being a good general without interference from Stavka.

Having caught the Turks unawares and under strength, and broken through their lines, Yudenich made no attempt to exploit the victory by sweeping onward into the heart of Turkey, as the likes of Ludendorff would surely have done (and as British commanders in Palestine were hoping).  Instead he sprung another surprise by turning his armies northwest from 22 February, and using naval landings to occupy Black Sea coastal positions before taking Trabzon in April.

In the summer, Yudenich expanded his area of control with an attack west of Erzurum, advancing the front line some 150km and taking the town of Erzincan in late July.  The advance nipped most of a planned Turkish offensive in the bud, and although the Ottoman Second Army did advance at the southern end of the front to take Bitlis in August, Russian counterattacks had recovered all the lost ground by the end of the month.  At that point, aware that the theatre was of secondary importance to Stavka and unlikely to be heavily reinforced, Yudenich cashed in his chips and spent the rest of the year consolidating his gains.

The long-term strategic importance of the Erzurum Offensive is debatable, given that the collapse of both competing empires made it irrelevant to the political future of Armenia, but in the short term it did protect at least some of the region’s population from the further predations of genocide-inclined Ottoman officials.  Its main claim to fame, or at least to my interest, is that (with the qualification that it benefitted from some very poor defending by ill-equipped Ottoman forces) it can honestly be called efficient and successful, which is more than you can say for anything else attempted by the major powers since the autumn of 1914.

Yudenich was not the only general to have begun solving the offensive conundrum posed by the state of the military-technological world in early 1916.  Australian General Monash had, for instance, been learning similar lessons on a smaller scale in the cauldron of Gallipoli.  For now though, they were voices in the wilderness, drowned out by the sweeping strategies of leaders desperate to end the agony with one killer blow.  It would be another two years before the pragmatic good sense of their step-by-step approach to victory would find much general acceptance, and that, as history’s grim statistics record, was a terrible shame.

15 MARCH, 1915: It’s The Economy, Stupid…

In a world pregnant with the seed of modern propaganda techniques, the second week of March 1915 looked pretty good to the British public. On 10 March, the BEF launched the first independent British attack of any size on the Western Front, up in northeast France, just west of Lille, and after three days of heavy fighting a great triumph was declared. In fact, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle gained the BEF two square kilometres of territory (including what was left of the eponymous village) at a cost of 12,000 or so casualties on each side, and its tactical lessons – that initial gains, easily enough achieved with sufficient firepower, were impossible to exploit – remained unlearned.

More triumphalism followed the Royal Navy’s sinking of the SS Dresden, the last of the German Navy’s raiding cruisers to remain at sea, off the coast of neutral Chile on 14 March, though little was made of the routine and ruthless manner in which the helpless ship was pounded to destruction. The British press was meanwhile presenting Anglo-French attempts to force a passage through the Dardanelles as a string of small successes, when in fact they were a series of blundering failures, and making much of steady Russian gains against Austro-Hungarian forces defending the long-besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl, which were genuine enough but strategically irrelevant.

The week’s most strategically significant War story was held back until the following Monday, 15 March, when the British government announced its decision, made the previous Thursday, to extend the Royal Navy’s blockade against the Central Powers.  This was big news, in theory a major step on the road to defeating Germany, yet it  was given a relatively low-key reception by British propaganda. Why was that?

The new blockade rules declared an absolute embargo on all goods bound for the Central Powers, including for the first time food, and claimed any neutral vessel intercepted in the course of such trade as a British prize. They were recognised as retaliation for a German declaration, made on 4 February and put into practice from 22 February, that the waters around Britain and Ireland were a ‘war zone’, and that enemy merchant shipping would be sunk without warning by its submarines.

Both announcements were extremely important because ships were the one and only key to global trade. Without freedom to trade across the seas – without money from exports or access to imports of raw materials and food – the world’s most developed economies could not function and grow as capitalism intended, so any nation denied access to sea trade would, in theory, find it impossible to fight a major war for very long.

These factors applied wherever merchant shipping operated, underpinning wars fought by, among others, the Russian, French, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman navies, but they were of particular importance to the war efforts of Britain and Germany. Britain, the world’s naval superpower, devoted a lot of strategic thinking and resources to blockading German trade all over the world, in the confident belief, eventually almost justified, that this would win the War. Germany was meanwhile determined to stifle vital seaborne supplies to Britain, a nation that depended on imports to feed its population, and was ready by early 1915 to make maximum possible use of submarines for the job.

Both announcements also sparked anger and outrage in neutral states. German authorisation of unannounced submarine attacks was widely regarded as barbaric, and everybody recognised that the policy would put neutral vessels at risk. The British blockade had been making it difficult for neutral nations to carry on their usual business, let alone profit from the War, since August 1914, and this latest extension was seen as high-handed, greedy interference with legitimate trade.

Britain, its media and public were not too bothered about being thought high-handed, and identification with martial aggression was unlikely to damage the German regime’s self-image, so London and Berlin were happy enough to ride roughshod over international outrage, even at a time when neutrals of every size were being courted as possible allies… or would have been but for the one neutral power nobody wanted to upset, the United States.

Rich in raw materials and cash, and a maritime trading power rising to rival Britain, the United States was the one neutral certain to make a decisive difference if it joined either side at war.  Politically divided between strict neutrality and varying degrees of support for the Entente powers, the USA was already an important economic influence on the War, having sold goods worth more than 800 million dollars to the Entente by the end of 1914 and, thanks to the Royal Navy’s blockade, almost nothing to the Central Powers. This trend would continue, so that by the time the US entered the War in April 1917 Britain and France would have spent a staggering eight billion dollars on American goods, compared with 27 million dollars spent by the Central Powers – but by the spring of 1915 it was already quite clear that, if and when the USA abandoned neutrality, it would do so in support of its major creditors.

The reason Germany made minor concessions to international opinion before putting submarine warfare into effect, and the explanation for Britain’s relatively sheepish flexing of its blockade muscle, were two sides of the same coin. Germany was terrified of outraging US public opinion to the point of war, but hoped to starve Britain before that happened; Britain was equally afraid of souring American opinion to the point of delaying or debarring US alliance with the Entente, but wasn’t about to let go its death grip on the German economy.  As news of the economic world war’s latest escalation broke around the world on the Ides of March 1915, it remained to be seen if either submarines or blockades could end the War before US military involvement became a live issue.

Watch this space…

27 FEBRUARY, 1915: How Goes the War?

With the fighting season for 1915 getting fully underway, this seems a good moment to offer a quick overview of Hell’s progress. How had the War been going for the major belligerents, and where were they headed?

The simple answer is that, for Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Serbia and any smaller European states swept into the conflict (Belgium and Luxembourg, for instance, or Montenegro), the War was not going to plan. It had, in fact, defied all expectations, producing no swift, decisive glories on land or sea, and had already raged for longer than any rational observer in 1914 thought possible.

With the sole exception of British war minister and military icon, Lord Kitchener (who predicted a stalemate lasting for years but wouldn’t tell anyone why), strategists everywhere had assumed that the sheer cost of twentieth-century warfare would force European powers to stop fighting after a few months. The alternative seemed to be economic atrophy and loss of the accumulated capital wealth that had fuelled the Age of Progress throughout the nineteenth century. So why was it that, once the flurry of mobile warfare that opened the War had subsided into a form of stalemate on each of the Western, Eastern and Southern fronts, all of Europe’s ‘great powers’ came into 1915 determined to prolong and, if possible, extend the conflict?

First and foremost, they’d discovered that they could. Galloping technology and rampant bureaucracy were enabling them to continue a fight that was evolving into ‘total war’ between whole societies. The social and economic cost of deploying and supplying massive armed forces began a rapid expansion of the role of governments that would have been unthinkable a year earlier. Governments in France, Germany and Britain were taking on powers that would surely have provoked massive unrest among politically aware peacetime populations, while the Austrian, Russian and Ottoman regimes were achieving levels of national mobilisation that, while neither efficient nor sustainable, were off the scale by pre-War standards.

Enduring popular approval in those countries where it mattered, and political approval elsewhere, was another factor permitting European governments to carry on fighting. The frenzied enthusiasm that marked Europe’s march to war had, very generally speaking, matured into a grittier popular and political determination to get the job done – but uncritical faith in military judgment had been severely undermined by serial failure.

The French invasion of Germany had failed, as had Germany’s invasion of France, Russia’s invasions of East Prussia and Galicia, Austria-Hungary’s invasions of Galicia and Serbia, and Turkey’s invasion of the Caucasus. The British may have entered the land war for defensive purposes, but its subsequent invasion of Ottoman Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) was hardly going smoothly, and its enormous navy had conspicuously failed to win the War in short order by blockading and stifling its enemies’ supply lines. Fed a constant stream of victories by burgeoning propaganda machines, but denied the total victory they’d been led to expect, voting populations made loud demands for better leadership, but knuckled down and accepted the orthodoxy that one more, even greater effort would be enough to decide the conflict in their favour.

Military leaders felt the same way. A fateful advantage for defenders over attackers had been established and recognised on all the European fronts by the beginning of 1915, yet commanders on almost every front went into the new year with attack plans that assumed greater weight of arms would succeed against enemies perceived as overstretched.

On the Western Front, bitter trench warfare was defined by French c-in-c Joffre’s enduring belief that German defences were ready to collapse, a faith strengthened by Germany’s need to commit forces Russia, and expressed in an almost continuous series of massed, French-led offensives between November 1914 and the following March.  Focused on the Artois region to the north of the front line, these achieved nothing, but Joffre was already planning a similarly attritional campaign further south, in Champagne.

In the East, both sides imagined that fresh offensives would decide ongoing battles for East Prussia, Poland and Galicia, and the promise of swift victory given to the German High Command by influential front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff convinced Berlin to divert forces from the west for a really big effort in 1915. It wouldn’t make any difference to the pattern for stalemate on the Eastern Front, where rapid advances and retreats took place on a regular basis, but were reversed as soon as attackers with extended supply lines came up against pre-prepared defensive positions.

In the south, deadlock had followed from Austrian ineptitude and the ruggedness of Serbian national resistance in mountainous country ideally suited to defensive warfare. Here at least, the spring of 1915 promised to pass quietly, while the Serbian Army fought against utter exhaustion and Vienna prepared a major offensive for the autumn.

Meanwhile, the war had been expanding around the world. All the major powers were looking for allies among Europe’s smaller nations, hoping that their contribution might tip the balance on one front or another. The first victory in this diplomatic beauty contest went to Germany in early November, when the Ottoman Empire joined the War on the side of the Central Powers, but competition continued for the allegiance of all neutral states, and the desire to attract them by looking like the War’s probable winners was another factor encouraging big guns to go on the attack in 1915. Ottoman Turkey’s involvement had already prompted the opening of indecisive hostilities in the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf and Gallipoli, and new battlefronts were already being planned as ambitious neutral nations considered ever more lavish offers of territory and aid.

The main force for expansion of the War had been, and continued to be the British Empire, which was rich enough to focus more and more resources on the Western Front while maintaining a global perspective. Britain had brought the War to Africa, by way of taking over the continent’s German colonies, to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, while its navy brought aggressive policing to the world’s seas on the Empire’s behalf. This dual perspective was reflected in a division of opinion among British strategists – clear by late 1914 and analogous to the east/west divide in German strategic thinking – between ‘Westerners’ bent on all-out commitment to victory in France, and ‘Easterners’ convinced the War could be won by aggressive thrusts from other directions. The Easterners were hoping to win the War via Gallipoli in 1915, and were a constant, growing voice for expansion elsewhere.

The War’s indirect impact on the rest of the world had been varied but almost always significant. The populations of European colonies everywhere – black, brown and white – were fighting or working for their ‘mother countries’, often with far-reaching sociopolitical consequences at home. Japan was using the War to further its plans for conquest in China and the Far East, while South American political and economic landscapes were being transformed by the disappearance of European money. And the United States, though still strictly neutral, was gearing up to inherit the wealth that, as spring gathered in 1915, Europe was preparing to squander in what was supposed be a final, Herculean surge to victory.

10 AUGUST, 1914: Playing Battleships

A hundred years ago today, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau, put into port at Constantinople (Istanbul) and promptly enlisted, crews and all, in the Ottoman Turkish Navy.  That may seem an odd thing to do at the start of a war in which the Ottoman Empire was, at that point, neutral, and there’s quite a tale of derring-do, incompetence and naval warfare attached.

The Goeben was a big, dangerous ship, a modern battlecruiser designed for attacking prowess, heavy on armament, light on armour and quick for its size.  The Breslau was a light cruiser, a faster escort for attacks on smaller targets.  Both were in the Mediterranean, taking on fuel at the then neutral Italian port of Messina, when war with France broke out on 3 August, and they sailed south to interfere with French troop movements from its North African colonies.  On the way back the following day they passed close to Royal Navy warships, but war between Britain and Germany hadn’t yet been declared and no shots were fired.  War came a few hours later, and sent the German ships running east for their lives, hopelessly outnumbered and effectively surrounded by an enormous Royal Navy presence in the Mediterranean.

What followed was a wild ride for the German ships, but also a revealing snapshot of naval warfare in 1914.  Despite the presence of on board radio, communication over long distances remained shaky, and the German ships fled for Constantinople on the basis of a false rumour that Turkey had joined the War on Germany’s side.  Shadowed by smaller British warships, Goeben and Breslau dodged and wove their way east, successfully avoiding the three British forces in a position to intercept them.  They were helped by the risk-averse approach of British admirals, who found better things to do or defensive undertones in standing orders whenever the opportunity to fight arose, but they received no help at all from the expensive but inert Austro-Hungarian Navy based in the Adriatic.

Both navies were later accused of timidity, a charge regularly levelled at the commanders of big surface craft throughout the War, but their behaviour said less about their command capabilities, more about the massive cost and prestige attached to major warships at the time.  It took a very brave man to chase glory at the risk of losing something so valuable, especially when something as cheap as a torpedo or a mine could send it to the bottom.

Once the German ships reached Constantinople and found it neutral, they had only twenty-four hours’ grace before international law required them to put to sea.  By staying as part of the Turkish Navy – far and away the best part – they were spared almost certain destruction, scored an effective point in Berlin’s campaign for an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and survived as a thorn in the side of the Allies when that goal was achieved.  That said, and despite the undoubted propaganda victory the episode delivered for Berlin, Goeben and Breslau had minimal military impact on the rest of the War.  They did achieve some success against Russian shipping and coastal installations in the Black Sea, but only between long spells under repair after damage by mines.  When peace with Russia brought them back to the Mediterranean in 1918 they again fell foul of mines, which sank the Breslau and forced the Goeben to hole up in Constantinople, reduced to the inactive deterrent role that was the lot of most big warships throughout the First World War.