Category Archives: The Netherlands

23 JULY, 1918: Tipping Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite a lot harder than this made it look…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 JANUARY, 1916: The Food Chain

Out in Mesopotamia, at Sheikh Sa’ad, on the Tigris just southeast of Kut, the first British attempt to relieve General Townshend’s besieged force was in the process of failing, suffering some 4,000 casualties and gaining a single line of trenches before Turkish defenders withdrew. In Gallipoli, the Anglo-French evacuation was finally drawing to an end, and the Russian Army in Galicia was spending its Christmas Day in a hopeless struggle against Austro-Hungarian artillery. But that’s enough fighting and dying, let’s talk about Arthur Henderson’s trip to the Netherlands.

Henderson was a British politician. At the time he was President of the Board of Education, a member of the cabinet and leader of the Labour Party, one of only three Labour politicians to serve in the coalition government. A hundred years ago he was in The Hague, charged with talking Dutch workers, business leaders and politicians into shaping their national economy according to British war aims. The visit was a watershed moment in a long saga that reflected the changing geopolitics of the age, and that began in August 1914.

For the Netherlands, a small nation dependent on seagoing trade, next door to Germany and across the water from Britain, the outbreak of war was a diplomatic disaster. With no dog in the fight, nothing to gain and everything to lose by declaring war on bigger powers, the Dutch could only remain neutral, but that didn’t spare them pressure from both sides as the conflict got underway.

Assured by Germany on 2 August that its territorial integrity would be respected, the government in The Hague turned down a British offer of alliance and instead closed the Scheldt to all warships, a technically neutral move but one that favoured Germany by protecting the flank of its advancing armies from the Royal Navy. This was hardly a choice for the Dutch, given that any other response might trigger a German invasion, but of course it annoyed the British, who announced that they would respect Dutch neutrality – unless it became ‘one-sided’.

In fact the British, certain that naval blockade was the key to undermining Germany’s war effort, treated the Netherlands (and other neutral countries with strong trading links to Germany) as if they were economic enemies from the start. By the end of August 1914, the Royal Navy had stopped more than fifty Dutch ships and seized three loads of American grain bound for the Netherlands, while the UK government had stated its intention to prevent food, as well as war materials, from reaching Germany via neutral ports. As the year went on the British blockade tightened, wreaking havoc on the flow of trade from America that was fundamental to Dutch economic stability.

Compelled to appease the British, the Dutch government managed to reduce ‘stop and search’ delays to transatlantic trade by forming the country’s leading banks and businesses into a consortium, the Netherlands Oversea Trust (NOT). As a private company, and so able to liaise with the British without compromising Dutch neutrality, the NOT acted as a clearing-house for imported goods and guaranteed that contraband (as defined by the British) wouldn’t be sold on to Germany. The British, happy to be handed effective control over Dutch transatlantic imports, generously agreed a temporary relaxation of blockade against goods from the Dutch East Indies. For a year or so relations between the two countries were relatively smooth, as was Dutch passage across the Atlantic, and the British went on to use the NOT as a blueprint for addressing the contraband issue in other neutral states.

Generally speaking, having witnessed at close hand the effects of occupation on Belgium, Dutch politicians, businessmen and civilians were sympathetic to the Allies throughout the War – but the NOT agreement put the neutrality boot on the other foot, and now the Dutch could only appease Germany. Germany needed food and raw materials, and so 1915 saw a boom in the trade of home-produced Dutch goods across the frontier. Dutch exports to Germany in 1915 ran at almost four times pre-War levels, with agricultural produce dominating the market, and were still rising at the end of the year.

So of course the British spent 1915 lobbying the Dutch to stop ‘feeding the enemy’, but diplomatic efforts didn’t cut much ice against the threat of occupation, and by late summer the Royal Navy was again stopping, searching and seizing Dutch transatlantic merchant traffic. In September, recognising the impossibility of a complete ban on exports from the Netherlands to Germany, the British accepted an agreement ‘rationing’ Dutch import levels of staple foods and oil to pre-War levels, a measure that would at least reduce the surplus available for export. Unfortunately for the Dutch, this essentially reasonable compromise didn’t last the autumn.

I’ve already mentioned that the military disappointments of the year, and of the autumn in particular, had left British war leadership at a crossroads, short on ideas but bent on change and looking for scapegoats (19 December, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes). By the end of the year political and military opinion in Britain had decided one key to shortening the War was a tighter naval blockade of Germany, and so Henderson was sent to The Hague to finalise the rationing agreement and bully the Dutch into further concessions.

Henderson got nowhere, but his failure did trigger political reform of the British blockade system. In February, the various departments in various ministries concerned with blockade were merged under a new Minister of Blockade, Sir Robert Cecil.  Cecil renewed pressure on The Hague during the spring, forcing an agreement that required Dutch farmers to sell half their exports to Britain. The farmers refused to cooperate, unsurprisingly when the British paid far less than the Germans, and the so-called Agricultural Agreement soon collapsed, so that by the summer of 1916 the Royal Navy was back at work making life miserable for Dutch merchantmen and, by way of sending a message, doing the same to the Dutch fishing fleet.

Once again caught between a rock and a hard navy, facing immediate shortages and unsustainable economic disruption, the Dutch could only accept an invitation to renegotiate the Agricultural Agreement. When a final version of the Agreement was signed on 1 November 1916, the British finally got what they wanted, genuine (or at least general) cooperation in the enforcement of quotas on Dutch exports to Germany.

The wartime battle for the Dutch economy was over. Food and other exports to Germany from the Netherlands were significantly reduced after 1916, and the British retained effective control over Dutch trading patterns for the rest of the War. But it had been a struggle and, apart from pointing out that Britain treated its good neighbours in the Netherlands as ciphers to be ruthlessly exploited in 1916, that’s the small point of today’s ramble.

In the century of relative peace before 1914, the British Empire had become accustomed to flexing its gigantic economic muscles and dictating policy to small European countries, comfortable in the knowledge that it was far and away the toughest bully in the playground. Britain still wielded the world’s biggest stick during the First World War, but with resources stretched and in the face of serious competition it had to be sharpened and used with greater precision. This was the lesson learned during the shadow war for Dutch cooperation, a clear signpost to an impoverished British Empire’s more modest position in the post-War world.