Category Archives: United States

28 JULY, 1916: Special Relationship?

For months now, the First World War has been locked into a second full year of wholesale military carnage on the main European land fronts.  Major offensives have erupted at Verdun and the Somme in the west, in the Trentino Valley and on the Isonzo River in the south, across Galicia and Poland in the east – but none has yet brought decisive results or opened up any clear path to victory.

The same could be said of the various secondary fronts dotted around the planet.  Although some offered avenues for the post-War ambitions of the empires concerned, the strictly colonial struggle for East Africa, the regional dispute between the Russian and the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, the multi-pronged British invasion of Middle East and the crazy chaos around Salonika were all marginal to the search for overall victory by the Allies or the Central Powers. In short the military struggle on land was, as the heritage industry loves to point out, locked in stalemate.

The heritage boys and girls are also quite happy to remind us that the First World War was a ‘total war’, by which they mean whole societies and their economies were committed to (and crucial to) its prosecution… but they generally avoid following that argument to a logical conclusion that messes with their simplistic, confectionary narrative.

With whole societies involved – and in technological conditions that made decisive military victory at best unlikely – it stood to reason that the richest, most developed, organised and cohesive societies would eventually exhaust the socioeconomic resources of their enemies and claim victory. In other words, the fact of total war made military stalemate and unbreakable trench lines less fundamentally important (and less open to ridicule) than heritage history wants us to believe, because there was another way to win the War.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that contemporary generals, politicians and propagandists were well aware of economic warfare’s importance as an alternate, apparently certain route to glory, and used it frame the miserable excuse for a strategy that was attrition (14 July, 1916: Virtual Realities).  Last week, I pointed up the long-term economic perspective taken by all the major belligerents. Today marks the centenary of a formal protest by the United States against the British Empire’s macro-economic policies, a low point in Anglo-American relations that brings together the two biggest questions surrounding economic warfare in 1916.

The first question, a live issue since 1914 and still being asked two years on, concerned the Allied blockade of sea trade to the Central Powers, led by the enormous Royal Navy.  Would blockade bring total victory, as promised by British strategists and contemporary economists, and if so when?  Or could German submarine warfare against Allied trade be expanded and refined to even up an economic balance of power that had, from the moment a quick military victory failed to materialise in 1914, been heavily weighted against the Central Powers?

The second question cut across the first and had the potential to render it all but irrelevant to the War’s final outcome.  Would the United States, by far the world’s biggest and most important neutral economy, enter the War to slew the economic balance irrevocably in the Allies’ favour, and if so when?

Economists have been analysing the impact of the First World War on their particular field of interest ever since it ended, and the best they’ve managed so far is the unsurprising conclusion that US entry on the Allied side condemned the Central Powers – which were anyway fighting at a massive economic disadvantage in terms of available human and material resources – to certain defeat.  This would hardly have shocked informed observers in 1916, but the modern tendency to assume that US alliance with Britain and France was inevitable, simply a matter of time, would have raised a few eyebrows.

There was no real danger of the USA joining the Central Powers. Germany’s motives for and conduct of the War were generally deplored in the US, a mood defined by the German Army’s deliberate terror tactics against civilians in Belgium, and lately reinforced by the Ottoman Empire’s treatment of Armenians (many of whom fled to the US and spread tales of genocidal atrocity).  But that didn’t mean the United States wanted to side with Britain.

The great republic’s sympathies tended to lie with countries directly under the hammer of war – Belgium, Italy and France, for instance. Britain was seen in Washington (as it was in Berlin) as the main protagonist on the Allied side, and as an arrogant, greedy bully, fighting to squash any challenge to its long-term dominance of the global economy.  The War as a whole was perceived by many in the US as a battle for supremacy between Europe’s two greatest economies, with the rest of the continent suffering in support roles, and nothing reinforced that view more powerfully than the ongoing Anglo-German struggle for control of the sea lanes.

Hatred of German submarine warfare and British blockade tactics informed the whole US political spectrum, from traditional isolationists who loathed and disdained European imperialism, to business interests determined to create their own sea-trading economic empire.  And while the threat to life and property posed by U-boats was always likely to overtrump the Royal Navy’s aggressive but relatively civilised policing when it came to popular outrage, political and business interests were if anything more appalled by the systemic denial of their long-term economic destiny built into Britain’s blockade strategy.  Viewed with anything like historical dispassion, this was a reasonable point of view.

Not that the British saw it that way.  Seen from London, blockade was doing a good job of grinding down the enemy war effort, but doing it too slowly to guarantee the long-term prosperity of a British Empire haemorrhaging men, materials and money.  Constant efforts were being made to tighten the blockade for greater efficiency, usually by assuming ever-greater powers to stop, search and seize neutral vessels suspected of trading with the enemy.  The fact that neutral powers were legally entitled to trade with anyone they liked was seen as irrelevant during a fight that claimed to be between good and evil.

The British press in 1916 had no doubt that trading with the enemy was a heinous crime against civilisation, and its shrill outrage helped elevate the practice into something seen by many in Britain as a major obstruction to victory through blockade.  It wasn’t, but every Brexit victim knows how attractive an easy fix for complex problems can be in times of crisis, so few British voices were raised in doubt when, on July 18 1916, the government issued a ‘Black List’ of 87 US-based companies accused or suspected of trading with the enemy, making it a criminal offence for any British company to trade or even correspond with them.

To the surprise of British interests without American experience (and nobody else), the list triggered a furious reaction in the US, bringing scathing rebukes from editors coast to coast, and helping cement continued pacifism (exactly the thing Britain didn’t want from the US) as the dominant theme of that year’s presidential election campaign.  It also provoked the formal note of protest from Wilson’s government, delivered by the US Ambassador to London, Walter Hines Page, on 28 July.

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You rule the waves, you make enemies…

The note marked a major crisis in Anglo-American relations.  Though aware that it had made a mistake and anxious to defuse the situation, an increasingly shaky Asquith government didn’t dare climb down in the face of a British press and parliament roaring their outraged indignation at American reactions, and didn’t want to encourage similar protests from other neutral governments. Foreign minister Edward Grey therefore issued a statement refusing to retract the list, and although repeated negotiations over the following months produced a series of quiet reductions in the list’s scope, along with reversal of an initial threat to expand it, the British would not renounce their claim to impose trade restrictions on neutral states as a matter of right.

This was inevitable, given Britain’s need to maintain control over other neutral traders, but it went to the crux of US emotional and economic antipathy towards the old colonial foe, so by late 1916 the Black List controversy had contrived to make Britain even more unpopular than Germany with many Americans, and in particular with Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson had reacted to initial publication of the Black List with undisguised anger.  He admitted to aides that he was ‘about at the end of my patience with Britain and the Allies’, and told his closest advisor, Colonel House, that he planned to consider restrictions on loans and exports to the Allies.  As the row rumbled on through the autumn, and once he had been returned to office for a second term, Wilson made good his threat, putting federal pressure on US bank JP Morgan – which functioned as the British government’s wartime financial agent in the US – to limit the loans promised to Britain at the end of 1916, a move that threatened major disruption to Allied plans for offensives in 1917.

The British had painted themselves into a bad corner, and if Germany hadn’t managed to repair relations between London and Washington by taking submarine warfare beyond the point of US tolerance, the Black List might now be remembered as one of the War’s most calamitous diplomatic screw-ups.   As it is, the controversy seems worth commemorating as a reminder that US friendship with Britain was a fragile and, in many eyes, unlikely state of affairs in 1916, and as proof that, although imperial Germany has quite rightly become a by-word for diplomatic incompetence (see for instance 3 December, 1915: Friendly Fires?), the insular, often unconscious arrogance of wartime British diplomacy could run it a good second.

4 JULY, 1916: Just Say No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 MARCH, 1916: Able Baker

There’s an argument, and I’ve mentioned it before, that says the Great War’s most world-historically significant effect was the USA’s transformation from isolationist on the geopolitical sidelines to world policeman.  It’s only an argument – events in the Middle East, Russia and either side of the Rhine would have to come into the debate – but given that the US has been the world’s preeminent military, economic and cultural power ever since, it’s not a bad one.

The full story of why and how Uncle Sam became the Great Satan is a long, complex and fascinating tranche of history that has no business here – but we can try for a snapshot of the environment in which the modern, globally responsible USA was born. That’s my excuse for a look at President Wilson’s surprise appointment, on 6 March 1916, of confirmed pacifist Newton Baker as Secretary of State for War.

Pacifism in high office was hardly new in the USA.  Refusal to get involved in foreign wars was one of the nation’s fundamental founding principles, and was still taken very seriously by the American public and political establishment at the start of the twentieth century.  But the nation’s rapid economic growth had by then convinced a growing minority, generally but not always allied to businesses with big trade plans, that the principle was outdated, a denial of the USA’s manifest economic destiny and ripe for the breaking.

It had already been broken for self-interested purposes, amid heated and controversial public debate, when the US invaded the Philippines in 1898, and the same desire to protect and expand overseas markets (along with a clear-eyed recognition that war was pretty good for business at home) lay behind an influential lobby for direct involvement once European war erupted in 1914.

At that point the ‘interventionist’ lobby stood no chance.  Public opinion was solidly pacifist, as were Wilson and his allies on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which enjoyed a comfortable majority in Congress – but during the next eighteen months the situation changed.

For one thing the Central Powers lost the propaganda war hands down.  German diplomatic clumsiness, the expedient killing of civilians (especially American civilians) by German submarines and a series of economic sabotage attempts by German agents were all manna from Heaven to a largely anti-German US press, much of it in the same hands as those who, if not necessarily in favour of war per se, were doing stupendously well of trading with the Entente powers.  Long before the end of 1915 the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were accepted in the US as to blame for the war and as dangerous representatives of the old, imperialist ways the nation had been founded to oppose.

Alongside business acumen and sentiment, both important elements in the US political psyche, national strategic interest eroded pacifism at the top as the War progressed.  Supplying wartime Entente needs, a bias forced by Britain’s naval blockade of trade with the Central Powers, had created a massive economic boom in the US.  This helped Americans feel good about the Entente and, crucially, increased the country’s stake in the wider world.  With so much more in the way overseas markets and bases to protect in future, the US now needed a say in how the post-War world looked.  Wilson and his administration couldn’t fail to see that only participation in the War would guarantee influence at the peace table.

Wilson – a natural pacifist, representing a party that stood for pacifism against the perceived economic imperialism of the Republicans – responded to the changing tide reluctantly and cautiously.  In September 1915 he announced his support for ‘limited preparedness’ for the possibility of war, and December’s National Defense Act permitted limited expansion of the US Army, Navy and merchant marine, but these half-measures failed to satisfy either side of a polarising debate.

Republicans, led by the redoubtably interventionist Henry Cabot Lodge, demanded much greater increases in US military spending, while the liberal wing of the Democrats – the main source of Wilson’s personal support – maintained the absolute commitment to peace reflected in the party’s official line.  To add spice to the president’s discomfort, some of his own administration wanted much faster military expansion than planned in the legislation, and Secretary of War Lindley Garrison resigned over the issue in February 1916.

This was an election year in the US, so Wilson needed the support of liberals for his personal campaign as much as he needed their cooperation in Congress.   Expected to appoint a military specialist as Garrison’s replacement, he chose Cleveland mayor Newton Baker, a long-time supporter who had twice turned down the job of Secretary for the Interior since 1912.  A pacifist with impeccable liberal credentials, Baker’s pragmatic personality was acceptable to many Republicans and he was completely free of any prior connection to military matters.  Usefully, because the US War Department still administered the Philippines, he was also a very capable lawyer.

Baker proved a quick study and an adroit choice.  Almost his first duty in office was to order a punitive expedition into troubled Mexico, and he went on to supervise a steady, balanced build-up of US military resources during the next year of peace.  Best of all from Wilson’s perspective, he took the blame.  While Baker and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, another diehard liberal pacifist given military responsibility, bore the brunt of criticism from both sides, Wilson could get on with running his re-election campaign.

Narrowly re-elected in November on the party’s official slogan – ‘He Has Kept Us Out Of The War’ – and with Democrats guaranteed continued control of Congress until elections in early 1917, Wilson pursued the only possible alternative to entering the War – peace.   He issued a ‘Peace Note’ to the belligerent nations in December 1916, in a largely ignored attempt to achieve what he called ‘peace without victory’, and was still pushing that line publicly as late as January 1917, by which time Berlin’s all-in gamble on unrestricted submarine warfare and a crescendo of popular hostility to Germany had made US intervention all but inevitable.

But not for long...
But not for long…

We’ll get to that big moment when it arrives, but for now my point is that a hundred years ago, when President Wilson put a pacifist in charge of war, the USA’s future as a major player on the world stage was still a matter of considerable doubt.  A year later it wasn’t, and now we all have MTV.

3 DECEMBER, 1915: Friendly Fires?

Today’s the day, a century ago, that relations between the United States and the German Empire hit a new low, as Washington announced the expulsion of German military attachés Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed.  This wasn’t a decisive moment in the process that would eventually bring the US into the War, and it had no direct bearing on the issue generally credited with doing the trick, German submarine warfare against commercial traffic.  On the other hand, the announcement did make global headlines at the time, as did anything to do with Washington’s diplomatic position in 1915, and its centenary is a useful opportunity to mention the sabotage campaign carried out by German agents in the wartime US.  Why bother?  Because the campaign played an important and often ignored role in bringing the Unites States to war.

Even in the context of the First World War’s giant jamboree bag of world-defining events, US entry into the European conflict stands out as arguably the defining event of the twentieth century.  Others were more dramatic, and you can make a case for revolutions, nuclear weapons or the day Hitler got really angry (to name just a few), but it’s hard beat the moment the United States abandoned one of its most basic constitutional tenets, got involved in somebody else’s war for the first time, and committed to becoming the world’s dominant diplomatic, military and economic superpower.  So it seems a shame the heritage industry on this side of the Atlantic isn’t too bothered about why it happened.

If the question does crop up, the heritage answer is usually nice and simple:  U-boats sank the Lusitania, as well as other dubious targets occupied by American citizens, and the USA’s outrage eventually trumped its pacifism.  You won’t be surprised to hear that the real picture was more complex.

Let’s start with a few broad brushstrokes.  A refusal to take part in overseas wars that were considered imperialist was a fundamental founding principle of the independent United States, enshrined in its constitution and strong in the public mind as the Great War got underway in Europe.  Then again, like so many of the grandest principles, national pacifism had never really stopped the USA from going to war when it suited the right vested interests.  Regular invasions of Canada and Mexico peppered the republic’s early history, and by the late nineteenth century the impulse to overseas trade was breeding a parallel (and standard) impulse to interference in foreign affairs.

It was by no means a universal impulse.  Vast swathes of ‘middle America’, along with traditionalists everywhere, regarded all dealings overseas as dangerous and undesirable, but manufacturing and maritime interests in the northeastern states, increasingly supported by their emergent counterparts on the Pacific coast, recognised a huge opportunity for world-class wealth when they saw one, and led the way in demanding that the USA behave like a world power.  Driven on by their noisiest champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, they had crossed a significant line at the very end of the nineteenth century, when economic imperatives had prompted invasion and conquest of the far distant Philippines. Fifteen years later, with the much less bullish Woodrow Wilson in the White House, US Marines moved in to help establish long-term economic dominance in various Latin American capitals once the new war had sucked European investments from the continent.

So the USA was no virgin when it came to overseas military adventure by 1914 – it was merely in denial the way, for instance, our modern media deny the strategic irrelevance of British military adventure.  The USA was also neutral, generally referred to as ‘the great neutral’, but again an element of denial was involved, particularly when it came to trade.

When war came to Europe, opportunity knocked louder than ever for US overseas trade.  All the biggest European governments were suddenly desperate for everything the USA could grow or build. American farmers, manufacturers and merchants responded in spades, making vast fortunes in the process, but with very few exceptions they responded only to the Entente powers, because the Royal Navy’s blockade strategy made delivery of goods to Germany, Austria-Hungary or the Ottoman Empire almost impossible.

This huge imbalance played into wartime diplomatic rows between the US and Britain over blockade tactics (as discussed back in March), and into the mounting dispute over the submarine tactics used instead by Germany.  It also convinced many German observers that the US was neutral only in name, a belief that became the justification for German attempts to slow the flow of goods and arms to the Entente by sabotage.

During the War’s first year, US authorities had foiled attempts at sabotage in San Francisco, Hoboken and Seattle, and had uncovered a scheme to supply German agents with US passports bought from dock workers, but successful saboteurs were thought responsible for more than a dozen factory fires and fires aboard at least thirty ships. Reported with all due hysteria, these incidents left the American public in the grip of a spy craze that made every fire suspicious and every German-American a suspect.  For a time the Wilson administration chose to protect its neutrality by accepting German ambassador Bernstorff’s claims that misguided, independent associations or individuals were to blame, and that no official sabotage campaign existed – but by the middle of 1915 US authorities knew those claims to be false.

In February, a lone German agent had set off a suitcase full of dynamite on the railway bridge linking the US and Canada at Vanceboro, Maine. The bomb did only minor damage, the perpetrator was caught (not hard, given that he was wearing his old German Army uniform) and his orders were traced back to Bernstorff’s military attaché, Franz von Papen.  Further investigations linked von Papen to several other sabotage incidents, and also implicated Karl Boy-Ed, a Turkish-German with excellent connections among the New York social elite.  On 3 December, shortly after a fire at a munitions factory had raised popular spy mania to fever pitch, the US government finally expelled the two of them, and confiscated documents in Papen’s possession that detailed an ongoing nationwide campaign against railways, shipping and factories.

The German sabotage campaign in the USA didn’t end with the expulsions, but the minimal disruption it caused to Entente supply lines was far outweighed by the damage it did to German-American relations.  Coming at a time when keeping the United States out of the War was Germany’s overwhelming diplomatic priority, it was a classic example of the spectacular incompetence that characterised the Empire’s wartime diplomacy.

The decision to turn atrocities against Belgian civilians into an international publicity stunt, the clumsy attempts to interfere in Mexican affairs, the serial miscalculations of US opinion around submarine warfare…  all these helped underpin the American impulse towards war in the name of trade by cementing the German regime’s image in the States as a greedy, militarist danger to civilisation and something worth fighting.  None of them prepared the American people for overseas war more effectively than the outrage created by German saboteurs.

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.

7 MAY, 1915: Victims and Values

A hundred years ago today, the giant passenger liner SS Lusitania went down off the coast of western Ireland. En route from the USA to Britain, it had turned directly into the path of the German submarine U-20 and been holed to starboard by a single torpedo. After a second, larger explosion it had rolled onto its side, preventing the launch of more than half its lifeboats, and within twenty minutes it had sunk. Of more than 1,900 people on board, 1,198 lost their lives. If you’ve been listening to the radio, watching the television and hearing about it in the heritage corner, you won’t have learned much.

Maybe that’s not fair. You will have learned that a German U-boat sank a very big ship, and you will have learned how it feels to be the descendant of somebody killed at sea or rescued from the sea. More detailed reports may have included the phrase ‘international outrage’, but only in passing and with no attempt at context. Poppycock wonders why, when the full story is neither boring nor complicated, various editors felt compelled to serve up yet another saccharine-soaked reminder that the really important thing about the First World War is its ability to tug at modern heartstrings. The answer presumably lies somewhere between a desperate need to attract the Downton Abbey constituency and a lazy preference for the lowest common denominator, but it’s not my job to work out why you’re being fed slurry or why nobody seems to mind. My job is to snipe from the sidelines, but now I’ll put down the rifle and supply some information.

For all the loss of civilian life involved, the real significance of the Lusitania incident lay in its value to the British as a weapon in the propaganda war for hearts and minds in the United States. The German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had already soured relations between Washington and Berlin, and the death of 124 Americans aboard the Lusitania was a godsend for allied propagandists.

According to pro-British media all over the world, the loss of a civilian liner was an outrageous consequence of Germany’s barbaric submarine policy, which allowed U-boats to sink anything that might be construed as valuable to the Entente war effort. The British also claimed, repeatedly and vehemently, that a second torpedo, launched to ensure maximum casualties, had caused the second explosion.

German propaganda initially greeted the sinking as a success but soon changed its tune.  Berlin sought to limit diplomatic damage by issuing apologies to the United States, renewing restrictions on U-boat commanders, denying that a second torpedo had been launched and insisting that the second explosion was caused by the Lusitania‘s secret cargo of heavy munitions.

German protestations fell on deaf ears.  The British version of the story was generally accepted at the time and had a powerful, long-term effect on popular and political opinion in the USA. It also passed into Anglo-American folklore as the truth, and is the (often unspoken) subtext for much of today’s commemorative coverage.

Evidence from the wreck of the Lusitania reveals a rather different truth. The vessel wasn’t carrying a secret cargo of heavy munitions, but might have been carrying small arms and ammunition for the British military, a regular (and cynical) practice that complicated attempts to immunise passenger and hospital ships from attack at sea. These would not have caused the second explosion, but neither did the U-20, which fired no second torpedo, and modern analysts accept that coal dust igniting in the ship’s almost empty fuel bunkers was responsible for the fatal blast.

So the high death toll that made the Lusitania such big news was down to an accident, but even if the heritage industry was telling us that it’s no excuse for treating the loss like a second Titanic. Our mass media could, perhaps should be commemorating one of the most important propaganda victories of that or any war, a vital step on the road to an American intervention that defined the century to come, but I suppose it’s hard to commemorate propaganda without acknowledging its existence.

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…

24 JANUARY, 1915: Ruling The Waves… Quietly

I was going to talk about the United States today, a hundred years on from Secretary of State Bryan’s letter refuting claims by the Central Powers that Washington was favouring the Entente. Then again, better opportunities to discuss the USA are going to crop up later, so I’ll make one small point and move on. This is it.

The Royal Navy had effectively prevented trade between the US and the Central Powers since the start of the War, while transatlantic business with the Entente powers was undergoing a prolonged and massive boom. Under the circumstances American traders either looked a world-historical gift horse in the mouth, or they favoured the only customers available. Bryan’s protestations may have been politically accurate – the US was neutral and on the whole committed to taking that position seriously – but British sea power rendered them meaningless in practical terms.

A reminder of the Royal Navy’s importance seems appropriate, because 24 January 1915 also produced that rare First World War phenomenon, a sea battle.

Fought in the middle of the North Sea, the Battle of the Dogger Bank wasn’t much of a battle, but then neither of the forces concerned – the Royal Navy’s home fleets and the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet – was remotely interested in fighting a major action unless they were quite sure of winning. In fact this extended skirmish bore the hallmarks of a publicity stunt, in that it was indirectly promoted by the need for hugely expensive navies to look as if they were doing something.

It looks unfair with hindsight, given that the Royal Navy was performing vital war work all over the world, but the Admiralty was getting a lot of stick from British politicians, press and public by the end of 1914. Its biggest and best warships, widely regarded as invincible before the War, had spent most of the last few months sitting quietly in home ports, and when daring to venture out had suffered a number of high-profile losses to mines and torpedoes. For all its enormous and controversial cost, the Navy had not apparently hastened the War to an early conclusion and, most damning of all in the public mind, it hadn’t even neutralised the manifest (and massively hyped) threat of the German High Seas Fleet, itself largely confined to brooding in its bases. When Admiral Hipper’s squadron of five fast, modern battlecruisers came out of Germany in December 1914, bombarded the English east coast and escaped scot free, popular disappointment in the Royal Navy turned to outrage.

The Navy, thus far reasonably content for its home fleets to act as successful deterrents, decided it had better do something. Five equally quick British battlecuisers under Admiral Beatty were moved south from Cromarty in northern Scotland to Rosyth.  Here’s a map, nicked form the Net and removable on request, by way of making the geography clear.

WW1Book-RN2-102

When the Navy’s secret decoding unit, known as Room 40, reported that four of Hipper’s squadron (one had been put temporarily out of action by Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas Day) were to mount a second raid, Beatty’s force steamed out to ambush it on the evening of 23 January. Accompanied by six light cruisers, and later joined by cruisers and destroyers from Harwich, they made first contact with light forces screening Hipper’s battlecruisers at 7.20 next morning. In the belief that he was facing dreadnoughts, slower but with bigger guns, Hipper ran for home, but the miscalculation allowed Beatty’s ships to get within firing range by nine o’clock, and the two forces began exchanging gunfire in parallel lines half an hour later.

Despite some confusion in their signalling, the British drew first blood, damaging the Seydlitz and bringing the older Blücher to a virtual standstill, but concentrated German fire had brought Beatty’s flagship, the Lion, to a stop by eleven o’clock. At this point a phantom submarine sighting and fear of a possible minefield persuaded Beatty to withdraw his main force, and an attempt to send his most powerful ships in further pursuit of Hipper’s out-gunned squadron was thwarted by another bout of bad signalling, which sent them instead to gather round and finish off the Blücher. With the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet – ordered to sea from Scapa Flow as something of an afterthought – still more than 200 kilometres to the north, the chance of a major victory was lost, and Hipper got home without further interruption.

Both sides trumpeted the battle as a victory – and reacted as if beaten. High Seas Fleet commander Ingelhohl, blamed for not providing Hipper with direct support, was replaced in February, and Beatty’s second-in-command was transferrred to the Canary Islands. And although British propaganda gave a narrow points victory enough lustre to assuage public opinion in the immediate aftermath, the engagement later became part of popular history’s case against the wartime Royal Navy for bumbling incompetence and reluctance to fight.

There is something to be said for the argument. British signalling had been poor, and would remain a problem because the lessons of the January North Sea were not learned, but charges of reluctance to fight, unlike those levelled at Navy commanders chasing the Goeben back in August, are unjustified.

For all that Beatty, Hipper and their superiors would take a major naval victory, they were also aware that pursuit of one risked something much more strategically valuable.

For the British, maintaining deterrent status around home waters was enough, so long as the Navy was carrying out its role guarding trade and blockading enemy ports. Losing that status would be a disaster. For the High Seas Fleet, its mere existence kept a disproportionally enormous weight of British sea power occupied, and a major defeat might unleash all those dreadnoughts into the wider War. When the stakes are thousands of lives, ships so expensive they dominated national economies and the strategic balance of power in the war to end wars, perhaps posterity should forgive a little caution.