Category Archives: Spain

23 AUGUST, 1917: World Invades Spain!

No real reason for the date at the top, except that it matched the date I started writing this post – just before the laptop fried, a long way from home.  That’s my excuse for running late, and for what will almost certainly turn out to be a somewhat lightweight, top-of-the-head wander through the War.  So anyway…

A hundred years ago, Western Europe was engaged in an outburst of unseasonal fighting.  The Third Battle of Ypres was into the fury of its second phase, the Italian Army had just launched its eleventh assault on the Isonzo, and the French Army was two days into a minor offensive around Verdun.

None of these attacks was destined to achieve anything very significant.  We know what happened at Passchendaele, and the French operation –essentially a test-run of the Army’s military competence after the mutiny of the spring – achieved the recapture of one stubborn (if symbolic) German outpost on the hill known as Mort Homme on 20 August, and then stopped.  The Italians meanwhile made moderate initial gains with their latest, and last, attempt to dislodge weakening Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo, but progress halted when large-scale German reinforcements arrived from the dormant Eastern Front, leaving Italian forces in exposed positions pending an Austro-German counterattack.

Posterity may not make much of these battles but they certainly hogged the headlines at the time, leaving barely a paragraph for news of serious internal disturbances in one of Western Europe’s biggest countries.  Spain’s experience of the First World War gets even less treatment from today’s heritage industry, so here’s a look at why the country was under martial law in August 1917.  It should be a long, complicated look, in line with the subject’s complexities, but I haven’t got time to put in the kind of research I’d need to get the details right so you’ll have to make do with a bunch of sweeping generalisations.

Broadly speaking, Spain in 1914 was a mess, economically and politically backward after centuries of sociopolitical stasis under an aristocratic oligarchy that used colonial wealth to keep a modernising world at bay.  A restored Bourbon monarchy had been in power since the end of 1874, in theory constitutional and liberal, but in fact operating along lines that pre-dated the advent of mass, or even bourgeois political influence in more advanced states, so that national politics were controlled by and for an oligarchy of nobles and their clients.  Trade and industry were similarly marooned in the pre-industrial age, and Spain’s capacity for external military activity was generally and rightly regarded as non-existent, a condition confirmed by a disastrous war colonial against the USA at the end of the nineteenth century.

This one was originally captioned ‘life in Spain, 1917’, and I guess that sums it up.

Military uselessness meant nobody was very interested in triggering the government’s pre-War defensive alliances with Britain and France in 1914, but mere decrepitude was not in itself enough to keep Spain out of the War.  Other countries in southern Europe with essentially pre-industrial economies and little military clout spent the first three years of the War being bribed or bullied into the conflict by one side or the other, but unlike Bulgaria, Romania or Greece, Spain was in no geographical or political position to harbour territorial ambitions, and unlike Portugal it had no colonial possessions near other people’s war zones.

So Spain was spared extreme pressure from either side to join the fighting, and was able to remain neutral throughout the War, but as warfare went total the country became part of the global battle for supplies.

For some neutral countries this was no bad thing.  Those neutrals outside Europe, particularly in the Americas, could enjoy economic good times based on massively increased demand (though British control of long-range trade routes prevented large-scale business with the Central Powers), and had little to fear beyond the occasional loss of ships and lives to U-boats or saboteurs.

Neutral European states could more easily trade with both sides, especially if they had overland links to the Central Powers, but ran a much greater risk of interference from, or even invasion by the belligerent empires on their doorsteps.  Those that managed to maintain and even benefit from neutrality tended to be prosperous, politically stable countries, equipped with social structures capable of withstanding the pressures brought by wartime economic change and political uncertainty – northern European countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, but not like Spain.

In Spain, as in other neutral countries, debate about whether to join one side or the other rapidly became a major political issue, fuelled by the activities of agents from both sides seeking a monopoly over Spanish exports.  Where in some states, Greece springs inevitably to mind, the debate boiled over into civil war, in Spain it woke up politics.  The limitations and uncertainties of the government’s vaguely pro-Entente stance provided a platform for dispute that effectively reignited a system hitherto controlled from above by a combination of rigged elections and institutionalised bureaucratic corruption, but above all maintained from below by the political apathy of most Spaniards.

At the same time the flood of work and money into Spain, as it strove to meet escalating demands for raw materials from both sides, swept in a storm of modern ideas and circumstances that the monarchy and aristocracy couldn’t begin to control.  Seasoned by a smattering of rapid industrialisation in the textile and iron industries, rampant inflation fuelled the social discontent that bred mass politicisation, while socialist ideas flourished under the yoke of profiteering employers, and the concentration of incoming wealth in the relatively developed north of Spain fed tensions between the centre and the provinces.

The ruling oligarchy was forced to turn for support to the newly rich merchant and landowning middle classes, and to an army much more interested in internal affairs than foreign adventures, but by 1917 it faced serious opposition from elements of both groups.  As pressure for Catalan independence mounted in Barcelona, and the Army began organising its own political institutions in the name of centrism, the monarchist government of Count Romanones was forced to resign in April 1917.  Romanones was replaced by a series of prime ministers increasingly sympathetic to the military, which gained further influence at the centre in direct proportion to the threat level posed by the regime’s third big problem – the socialist revolutionary forces that were gaining support in the wake of Russia’s world-shaking February Revolution.

Displaying the same, almost touching optimism that characterised some of the Russian Provisional Government’s behaviour, Spanish socialists made a bid for revolution in August 1917.  The Workers’ General Union (UGT), by far the biggest in Spain, reacted to the failure of a railway workers’ strike to halt traffic by announcing its expansion into a general strike on 14 August.  Called in conjunction with the anarchist National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and the small Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the strike’s stated aim was the downfall of the monarchy, but the end of apathy isn’t quite the same as revolutionary fervour.  Despite strong support in some cities (especially Barcelona) the strike was ignored by most workers, caused only temporary disruption and collapsed within a few days.

Troops attacking strikers in Madrid, August 1917. They had it much worse in Barcelona, where 70 were killed.

After a period of falling membership and squabbling between moderate union reformers, separatists, anarchists and socialist revolutionaries, mass, left-wing politics would return to the national stage with a second, far more successful general strike in 1919.  In the meantime the failed strike of 1917 gave the regime and the Army an excuse to impose martial law, and to use violence to suppress strikers wherever they took to the streets.

Military support would continue prop up the regime for the remainder of War, representing the strengthening right wing of an increasingly, irrevocably polarized political landscape.  The Army would eventually run out of patience with separatists, socialists and liberals in 1923, when a coup d’état saw Catalan General Miguel Primo de Rivera take power as dictator under the nominal leadership of King Alfonso XIII.  Alfonso was driven into exile less than a year after Primo de Rivera’s death in 1930, but all the divisions exposed by Spain’s hothouse exploitation during the First World War resurfaced under a Spanish Republic that presided over the nation’s slide to civil war in 1936.

So the links between world war and civil war in Spain are as definite as they are generally ignored, and history offers a fairly straight line from civil war via Franco to modern Spain.  Nobody’s pretending the old Bourbon monarchy would still be presiding over a semi-feudal sump of decadent corruption if the First World War hadn’t come along, but there’s no denying that, hundreds of kilometres behind the backs of Haig’s poor, mud-soaked Tommies, a fundamental strand of European culture was being painfully resuscitated to meet the conflict’s insatiable demands.

9 DECEMBER, 1916: Tourist Trouble

This can be a busy and potentially depressing time of year (ask any shopper), so we all understand why European minds turn to the warm, sunny Canary Islands.  A winter break in Tenerife wasn’t an option back in 1916, even for wealthy, leisured men like Asquith, Grey and other pre-War titans of the British political establishment who found themselves consigned to history from 6 December, when David Lloyd George took over leadership of the governing coalition.  Nor could the beleaguered population of Bucharest, which surrendered to German-led invasion forces on the same day, escape to the sun, though the country’s great and good, led by King Ferdinand, were already safe behind Russian lines in the northern province of Moldovia.

The change of tenant at 10, Downing Street signalled the climax to one of Britain’s greatest political careers, and was arguably the moment when British government joined the twentieth century, while the potential economic benefits from annexation of the Romanian heartlands fed the world-changing madness of the Third Supreme Command in Germany.   But Christmas is coming and I live in Norwich, so I can’t really help turning to the Canaries – and today marks the centenary of a complaint by Spanish authorities in the Canary Islands that the archipelago’s ports were being subjected to a ‘virtual blockade’ by German submarines.

The Canary Islands had been under Spanish colonial control since the fifteenth century, give or take a couple of years under British rule in the early nineteenth, and they shared Spanish neutrality in 1914.  Though it had close diplomatic and economic ties to the Entente, Spain’s neutrality was never really in question at the start of the War.  The Spanish royal government had signed pre-War agreements with the British, French and Portuguese that guaranteed the Iberian peninsula’s neutrality in the event of war – and though these proved meaningless when the Allies found a use for Portugal’s armed forces in 1916 (9 March, 1916: Pawn Sacrifice), everybody concerned recognised that Spain was in too much of a social and economic mess to restore any kind of military competence to its decrepit armed forces.

So long as Spanish interests didn’t coincide with any of the War’s battlefronts, all the Allies wanted from Spain was benevolent neutrality, unencumbered by the costs of financing a military ally. Britain in particular wanted Spanish benevolence expressed in maritime terms, as cooperation with Allied seagoing trade and obstruction of German or other enemy shipping (within the limits of international law).   In that context, nowhere administered by Spain mattered like the Canary Islands.

Peurto La Luz, Las Palmas, before the War. Times would get harder.
Peurto La Luz, Las Palmas, before the War. Times would get harder.

The Canaries were a vital crossroads and supply station for European trade with South America and Africa.  As such, they had long attracted attention from the British Royal Navy, which used warships from bases at Gibraltar and in West Africa to protect merchant shipping in the region.  The islands’ strategic importance mushroomed as everyone’s plans for a short war in 1914 matured into mobilisation for a prolonged, global economic conflict, but Allied trade via the Canaries carried on without too much trouble for the next couple of years.  Regular patrols of nearby sea lanes by British and French cruisers enforced the blockade against enemy trade and kept commerce-raiding German warships at bay, while fears that German agents in the Canaries were sending fuel and supply tenders to meet enemy shipping at sea were never substantiated.

The possibility that German naval units could be resupplied locally raised the greater fear – shared by British naval strategists, British officials on the islands and a population dependent on the free flow of trade – that U-boats were operating around the Canaries, and from the spring of 1915 the islands were alive with rumours of submarine sightings and submarine attacks.  Increased patrols and searches for German supply lines revealed no conclusive evidence of U-boat activity off the west coast of Africa, but in a world without radar or sonar the threat couldn’t be discounted.  In fact no German submarines operated anywhere near the Canaries, or took on fuel from the islands, before late 1916, when improved technology and altered strategic priorities finally persuaded the German Navy to send U-boats to the equatorial east Atlantic.

The disappointments of Jutland and appointment of the risk-taking Third Supreme Command had cemented German loss of faith in surface warships during the summer of 1916, while the development of bigger, more reliable submarines had made long-range operations feasible for the first time.  As part of a renewed commitment to limited submarine warfare against Allied trade, the first U-boat bound for the Canaries, the UC-20, left the Austrian Adriatic port of Pola in mid-October 1916, and arrived off Lanzarote on 12 November.  On 17 November it sank the Portuguese barque Emilia 15km east of Las Palmas, the first wartime loss to German submarines in Canary waters.

Survivors of the Emilia raised the alarm, and Spanish authorities followed British instructions to conduct yet another search of the archipelago’s remote harbours for German supply bases.  The few motor boats that constituted the islands’ anti-submarine defences were sent out on patrol, but the UC-20 escaped the area unmolested, and hopelessly overstretched Spanish defences had no more success with the next two submarines to arrive, the U-52 and U-47, which sank four ships in early December before shortage of fuel forced their withdrawal.

For the remainder of the War, the waters around the Canaries would remain easy pickings for U-boats, and their activities would intensify with the expansion of German commitment to unlimited submarine warfare and deployment of the giant ‘cruiser’ boats first seen when the Deutschland visited the USA (24 August, 1916: Deep Thinking). Spanish naval capacity was always hopelessly overstretched, colonial authorities were never able to effectively monitor the archipelago’s major ports, let alone its remote harbours, and the Allies were never prepared to compromise Spanish neutrality by sending state-of-the-art anti-submarine units to the islands.

Even so, U-boat attacks in the waters around the Canaries were never a strategic success, largely because the Allies, recognising the vulnerability of the Spanish islands, routed most neutral east Atlantic merchant traffic via Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands, which could receive direct protection because they belonged to a co-belligerent, Portugal.  The slump in the economy of the Canary Islands that followed from this change in trading patterns was exactly what the Spanish authorities feared when they issued their forlorn complaint against the arrival of U-boats in December 1916.

That was hardly an anniversary, more a glimpse at a corner of the First World War that, while neither blood-soaked nor world-changing, altered the history of a region familiar to millions of modern European tourists, and that is almost completely forgotten outside academia.  It’s also a reminder that, while it’s easy to condemn the many nations tempted into joining the First World War for gain, neutrality amid the flailing avarice of the warring Great Powers often came at a price.