Category Archives: Western Front

7 JUNE, 1917: Listen and Learn

This seems a good moment to take another look at the Western Front, because at ten past three in the morning on 7 June 1917 a massive explosion in Flanders, heard clearly in London, signalled the start of the limited British offensive known as the Battle of Messines.  Messines stands out as something rare indeed during the first three years of war in the theatre, a clear-cut victory for the BEF, and it marked a minor turning point in the War on the Western Front – but it gets my attention today because, with a little more creative thinking from the British high command, it might have been a major turning point.

The unarguable sense in which Messines was a turning point followed from the French Army’s mass mutiny at the end of the spring’s Nivelle Offensive (29 April, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front), which handed prime responsibility for further offensive action on the Western Front to the British.  British c-in-c Haig, who had been required to comply with the plans of successive French commanders since his appointment in December 1915, was finally free to run his own campaign, and the first thing he did was transfer the main thrust of British attacks north to Flanders.

The Messines Ridge, a natural strongpoint just south of Ypres, had been in German hands since 1914, forming a small salient (or bulge) in the Flanders front line. General Plumer, commanding the BEF’s Second Army in front of Messines, had been planning an attack on the Ridge for almost a year, and had devised a relatively cunning plan for the purpose. Making no attempt to achieve any kind of breakthrough, Plumer planned to make maximum use of mobile artillery, tanks and poison gas to protect advancing infantry. Heavy artillery would also support the attack with a creeping barrage, a tactic that had worked well during limited operations in the latter stages of the Verdun campaign but had failed miserably in support of full-scale breakthrough attempts (12 February 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear). Plumer’s plan also placed great reliance on one other surprise element: mines.

Anybody reading this probably doesn’t need telling about the nature of conventional land mines a century ago, but I’ll tell you anyway. Mines as we understand them today – essentially explosive booby-traps placed in the ground as anti-personnel devices – did exist in 1914. Primitive and largely ineffective, because they relied on the force of the explosion to cause any damage, they were regarded as barbaric by most regular armies and hardly used during the first three years of the War. Improvised anti-personnel mines had become a weapon of choice for guerilla fighters by 1917, most notably those of the Arab Revolt, who added shrapnel (stones, spent shells or anything hard that could be crammed inside the casing) to make them more dangerous, and underground mortars planted by the German Army as anti-tank weapons would become commonplace on the Western Front during 1918. In the meantime, mines on the War’s main battlefronts still meant tunnels dug beneath enemy positions.

Digging mines under the enemy had been a common extension of trench warfare, usually in siege conditions, since at least the sixteenth century. Used to hide infantry or filled with explosives and blown up, they were inevitably employed in great numbers by both sides of the static Western Front, and formed an almost private subterranean battlefront in its busiest sectors.


Wartime military mining was a tense and horrible job, whether in the crowded conditions of the Western Front or in the dangerous climates of other fronts. Specialist miners, usually drawn from coal-producing regions, worked under constant threat of discovery, often by enemy mines only a matter of yards away. Secrecy depended on silence, with ‘listening parties’ employed to detect enemy mines. Once discovered, mines were generally blown up (or ‘had their cover blown’), either by enemy ‘counterminers’ or by pre-emptive self-destruction, and sudden underground explosions were a routine occurrence around heavily contested hills and ridges.

Military buffs, then and now, get quite excited about Plumer’s mines.

Messines was one such ridge, and Plumer’s pre-match preparations counted as one of warfare’s great mining efforts. Starting in January 1917, his troops dug twenty mines under German positions, completing more than 8km of tunnels. Only one was discovered and blown, and the other nineteen were packed with 600 tons of explosives. Before the battle, an 18-day preliminary bombardment of German forward trenches by more than 2,300 big guns and 300 heavy mortars informed the defenders that an infantry attack was coming, but they weren’t expecting the mine explosions, which brought utter chaos, created a number of enormous craters and killed at least 10,000 men.

And I mean enormous…

Nine divisions of infantry advanced under a creeping barrage in the wake of the explosions, and took all their preliminary objectives within three hours. Reserves from the British Fifth Army and the French First Army had moved in to take their final objectives by mid-afternoon, and a German counterattack the following day failed badly, losing more ground than it recovered. Counterattacks continued for another six days but made no progress, and the BEF had occupied the entire Messines salient by the time they petered out on 14 June.

A tidy victory, and the first battle in the history of the Western Front to see defenders lose more casualties (25,000) than attackers (17,000), Messines provided a huge boost for Allied morale at a time when it was badly needed – but it could have been more. The enormous impact of Plumer’s mines, the knowledge that getting away with the same trick again would be very difficult, a sense that the Germans had been caught at an unusually weak moment, and the fact that mining was only really feasible under high ground all contributed to the operation being viewed by the high command as a one-off, when it was in many ways a blueprint for success in the context of trench warfare.

With the chimera of the knockout blow removed from the drawing board, Plumer’s success drew on the experience of front-line commanders fighting in conditions that made anything more than limited gains impossible – notably Australian veterans of the Gallipoli campaign, like General Monash, who had learned to focus everything on protection of initial infantry advances, and to settle for what they could get without losing that protection. As such, Messines foreshadowed the approach that would eventually bring Allied success during the last months of the war in France and Belgium, but in June 1917 it failed to change the thinking of the Western Front’s new head honcho.

To repeat one of my more routine tropes, there’s no justification for the idea that a collective failure of generalship was one of the fundamental reasons the First World War went so badly for everyone. Generals were needed in far greater numbers than ever before, so some pretty mediocre officers were inevitably given jobs they were barely fit to handle, but the real problem was the technology of the day, which rendered useless every form of attack known to military theory in 1914. Plumer was only one of many generals in many armies who found ways of overcoming or adapting to those terrible circumstances – but that doesn’t mean the First World War was distinguished by much in the way of great generalship at high command level, or that commanders you might class as competent didn’t have bad days or particular weaknesses.

I’ve always been inclined to classify Field Marshal Haig as a competent general, not special or exciting but on the whole sensible, and I like to rail against the ridicule he suffers at the hands of the heritage industry – but he wasn’t the man to spot a way forward in the details of Plumer’s attack, and you could call that a weakness, or at least as evidence that he wasn’t any kind of military genius.  Haig also had his bad days, and his subsequent decision to repeat the mistakes of his French predecessors and launch yet another massive breakthrough offensive, this time around Ypres, was definitely one of them. The decision propelled the BEF into the prolonged mess the British usually call Passchendaele, a disaster that has, for many of them, defined Haig ever since.

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

29 APRIL, 1917: All Riot On The Western Front

It was kept very quiet, effectively hidden from the world’s press and publics, but a hundred years ago today the French Army on the Western Front mutinied.

The mutiny began as a number of small and disorganised refusals to fight, and mushroomed into a vast and disorganised surge of discontent that spread to parts of 54 divisions (a division generally mustered between ten and fifteen thousand troops). Bizarrely, at least to modern eyes, it passed without having any immediate effects on the Western Front’s strategic state of play. That’s enough to make it interesting, but it also marked a watershed in French military affairs that was important for the development of the French nation, for the future conduct of the war on the Western Front and for the future of Western Europe.  Worth a look then, starting with some background.

The French Army that began the Great War was a peculiar beast. On one hand it was the nation’s greatest pride and joy, the instrument of conquest that had, in the minds of most French people, elevated the country to global greatness during the Napoleonic era. As such it exerted enormous political influence, to the extent that governments rose or fell on the word of the officer class, as delivered through the minister of war. On the other hand, the nation’s greatest pride and joy had been in disgrace since its catastrophic defeat by Prussia in 1870, the humiliating occupation of Paris that followed and the eventual loss of two provinces – Alsace and Lorraine – to the new, united Germany.

How to address the Army’s failings, how to make it a world-beater again and how to recover the lost provinces were national obsessions in France, and the perceived answers to those questions informed the condition of the Army in 1914.

The big answer had been that the French Army lacked offensive spirit, a commodity known in France as élan, or sometimes attaque à l’outrance. The Army was seen as having been too defensively minded in 1870 to survive against an opponent committed to aggression in the field, and so it had become offensively minded to a fault. Long before 1914, all-out attack was established as the key to every military success, and was therefore the rationale behind every tactic, every choice of weapon, every decision about training priorities and every strategic plan. Defensive warfare was accepted as an occasional necessity, but never studied, developed or modernised to anything like the same degree.

I’m not sure if faith can move mountains but it can definitely promote denial, and the French military’s faith in attack as the answer to every question took some shaking. It survived the shocks of the War’s opening months, when everyone’s attacking plans fell apart in the face of technology that overwhelmingly favoured defensive warfare, and it went on to inspire a year of disastrous, French-led offensives on the Western Front in 1915. Plans to give it another go in 1916 were thwarted by the German attack on Verdun, which forced the French Army into a year of desperate defence and brought it to the brink of terminal exhaustion.

The hard-earned victory at Verdun convinced many commanders of the need for a changed approach, but that wasn’t enough to shift the paradigm. Command passed from the stoically attack-minded Joffre to the dramatically attack-minded Nivelle, who conceived and conducted yet another giant offensive on the Western Front in the spring of 1917, claiming that tweaked tactics backed with sufficient élan would overwhelm (very well prepared) German defences within 48 hours. By the end of April, the Nivelle Offensive had failed, obviously, completely and expensively, and at that point the cannon fodder fought back.

Men being mutinous… quietly.

France was, and still is, a nation shaped by the strength and frequency of its popular uprisings. French soldiers had been exposed to plenty of socialist and pacifist agitation throughout the War so far, and conservative political opinion had long feared its influence. Signs of mounting discontent had been difficult to miss during the latter stages of the Verdun campaign – when, for instance, whole units en route for the front took to bleating aloud, lambs to the slaughter – and many field commanders expected trouble in the wake of the latest failure. Front-line forces were left decimated and disappointed, adding bitterness to long-term grievances about cancelled leave, poor pay and battle fatigue. Trouble duly erupted and took various forms, with some mutineers deserting (a record 27,000 French troops deserted in 1917), some simply refusing to fight, others demanding peace and a few groups threatening to march on Paris, but there was little or no coordination among mutinous units and soldiers generally proved amenable to pacification.

The hero of the hour was General Henri-Philippe Pétain, the same Pétain who had ‘saved’ Verdun by reorganising its defences a year earlier. Pétain had been passed over as c-in-c in favour of Nivelle, but was finally given the job on 15 May, after which he visited 90 divisions in person to hear grievances and discuss solutions. Careful to handle mutineers with kid gloves, he kept executions to a relative minimum and was credited (from above and below) with restoring the morale of ordinary troops in a remarkably short time. The last mutinous units had been pacified by about 10 June, the Army was back in position on the Western Font in July, and it was pronounced fit for combat in August.

Pétain being soothing – it worked.

All Pétain’s restorative work was carried out in strict secrecy. The French public knew nothing about the mutiny, neither did the country’s allies, and although the huge gaps in the French line were obvious to watching German units, they made no serious attempt to exploit the situation. I know that seems weird, but the German high command was busy frying other fish, and its army on the Western Front was in no position to exploit what otherwise seemed likely to be only limited, temporary gains.

Given that the war on the Western Front carried on as if nothing had happened for the rest of 1917, it may seem that the great mutiny came and went without changing anything much, but it did make an enormous difference to the French Army, to French soldiers and to French political life.

For the ordinary poilu (that’s the French word for Tommy or doughboy), pay and conditions improved, leave began to materialise as planned and best of all the doctrine of all-out attack lost its hold over their masters. The French Army on the Western Front was never again asked to provide the main thrust of a major offensive. Pétain restricted his ambitions to defensive operations, adopting the ‘defence in depth’ tactics perfected by the Germans (basically a matter of retreating from the front-line when attacked, and regrouping in prepared defensive positions), and although the French Army did manage one last counteroffensive effort after the German offensive of spring 1918, it played a largely supporting role in the Allied attacks that brought the War in the west to an end.

So did Pétain. His wise caution kept the French Army in the field for the rest of the War and restored it to a useful level of operational effectiveness, but he still faced opposition from conservative field commanders, staff officers and politicians who refused to accept that élan had been rendered unworkable by the mutiny. Failure to prepare defence in depth would still bring occasional disasters – the collapse of French positions near the Aisne in May 1918 springs to mind – and although Pétain retained his command until after the Armistice he was effectively sidelined from April 1918, when the more aggressively inclined Foch was appointed Allied Supreme Commander.

Much of the Army high command and many conservative politicians also persisted in regarding the mutiny as the work of pacifist and socialist agitators, a view encouraged by a spate of simultaneous strikes and civilian protests throughout France, and sharpened by news from revolutionary Russia. Their loud calls for suppression of left-wing dissent would eventually be answered by the government of Georges Clemenceau (of whom more later), which began mass arrests of pacifists, dissidents and suspected German sympathisers in November 1917, and orchestrated a series of sensational treason trials through the first half of 1918, citing the mutiny as the basis for most charges.

So the centenary of the mutiny provides a reminder that there was more to Pétain than his part in the horror of 1940s Vichy France, which can be seen as an old man’s last, disastrous attempt to protect French lives with defensive thinking. Perhaps more importantly, the mutiny is also a reminder that when radical discontent goes off half-cocked it tends to promote conservative suppression, and that the rule applies in western democracies as well as in less self-satisfied cultures.

13 APRIL, 1917: Long Arm Of The War

A century ago, after a prolonged period of recuperation and planning, the Western Front was back in full-on, bloodletting action. In line with Berlin’s decision to focus resources on the escalation of submarine warfare while remaining poised to exploit fallout from Russia’s revolutionary chaos in the east, the German Army in France had taken a small step backwards to occupy carefully prepared defensive positions.  In line with recent tradition, the French and British armies on the Western Front had chosen to hurl themselves at those positions in the same northern and southern sectors of the front that had been their targets since the beginning of 1915, employing a tweaked and expanded version of the same tactics that had failed every time.

As usual, the Allied attacks were launched in the belief that final victory was just a well-aimed push away, but this time the belief was a little more desperate and a little less universal.  While politicians clung gratefully to French Army c-in-c Nivelle’s assertion that his version of breakthrough tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours, they were forced to override opposition from many senior commanders in both armies.  I’ve talked about the build-up to the Allied spring offensives on the Western Front before (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear), and on 9 April they finally got underway, when the BEF launched its opening assault in the northern sector.

This was the start of the Battle of Arras (sometimes known as the Second Battle of Arras), which encompassed various smaller battles (beginning with the Battle of Vimy Ridge), and which formed the northern prong of the Allied Artois and Champagne Offensive (often known as the Nivelle Offensive).  If that seems unclear, bear in mind it’s a simplification and then let’s move on.

Vimy Ridge – you know what happens next.

The Nivelle Offensive was destined to be the usual disaster and its centenaries (again beginning with the genuinely heroic, largely Canadian and distinctly minor victory at Vimy Ridge) are destined to keep the Anglophone heritage industry busy for the foreseeable future.  There’s no real need for me to bang on about the combinations of bad weather, bad strategy, bad tactics and bad luck that turned the spring of 1917 into another miserable confirmation that contemporary methods of attack were no match for efficient, trench-based defence, so I won’t.  Instead, let’s take a look at South America, because on 11 April 1917 Brazil broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and Bolivia followed suit two days later.

The standard line on Latin America during the First World War is that the flight of European money and influence during the conflict opened the door for American business interests, bolstered by money, military force and diplomatic pressure, to gain control over much the continent’s exportable economic output.  This was true enough, broadly speaking, but sweeping generalisations applied to whole continents – like the ones about all African music or all European food – tend to be short on nuance and riddled with exceptions.  US economic encroachment in Latin America was primarily driven by trade winds, so it was directly concerned with securing all approaches to the new Panama Canal and focused on exploitation of small states with easy access to sea lanes; the kind of countries that could be easily coerced by the dispatch a few marines and plenty of dollars.  Much of Central America, the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America were targetted accordingly, but for very different reasons neither Brazil nor Bolivia came into these categories.

Brazil, a country with plenty of accessible coastline, rich in resources for exploitation and a system of government ripe for the marines and dollars treatment, was simply too big to be an easy target for American dominance, as were its neighbours Argentina and Chile. As the region’s most powerful states, the three of them make for an interesting subset within the world at war, pursuing lines of alliance and development that would shape the continent’s turbulent twentieth-century history, so they’re worth a post of their own another day.

On the other hand Bolivia was small, possessed valuable natural resources and was dominated by an almost feudal political system that could be controlled from the centre – but it didn’t meet the accessibility criterion, having been landlocked since the loss or sale of territory to its more powerful neighbours in the late 19th century. Partly because of its relative isolation, and partly thanks to the talents of a particularly acquisitive ruling elite, the country faced no wartime threat to its political or economic independence – but that didn’t protect it from the War’s destabilising effects.

How Bolivia ended up landlocked…

Bolivia’s otherwise agricultural economy was built on abundant tin and silver resources, and during the late 19th century its politics were run by competing oligarchies of tin and silver barons, both principally concerned with maximising their wealth and content to treat the native population as forced labour.  Promises of reform had won some native support for the Liberal Party, representing the La Paz-based tin industry, which had seized power from the silver barons of the Conservative Party, based in the city of Sucre, in 1899. The Liberals still ran a government tightly controlled by the presidency in 1917, by which time they had established La Paz as the national capital and become a lot richer on the back of a tin boom based on European shortages during the early 1900s, but had done nothing to improve the miserable condition of the workforce.

Foreign investment poured into Bolivia during the tin boom, but wealthy Bolivian entrepreneurs quickly learned to exploit the dependence of overseas smelting industries on Bolivian tin.  The process of putting the tin industry back into Bolivian hands was well underway by 1917 and would be complete by the early 1920s – but though the ruling elite remained prosperous during wartime, the long-range economic effects of world war, especially disruption of trade with Europe, were forcing socio-political changes that threatened its hold on power.

A long slump in the silver trade helped keep the Conservatives weak and divided, but the dip in general trade with Europe before and after the outbreak of War, along with a series of droughts that hit agricultural production, brought a third, elite-based political force into play, as a faction committed to territorial expansion broke away from the Liberals to form a Republican Party.  Rapid growth of the tin mining sector, and associated construction of roads and railways, meanwhile bred rising social tensions as native workers moved into cities, where they became more organised and more militant.  With strikes beginning to disrupt the mining sector, the Republicans making appeals for support to workers’ organisations, and a presidential election due in May 1917, the ruling Liberals were understandably keen to promote economic recovery through a resumption of normal trade patterns.

Ismael Montes, President of Bolivia between 1913 and 1917.  All moustache and no chops.

German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 had precisely the opposite effect, and made trade with the American continent, above all with great market of the USA, even more important to Bolivia.  Under the circumstances, the US declaration of war against Germany offered the ruling oligarchy a free hit, which it took by severing diplomatic relations on 13 April.

The move was a no-brainer, offering a chance to display solidarity with the USA and to mop up the remnants of extensive pre-War German investment in the country, as well as leaving Bolivia poised to become an official belligerent should it need a voice at the peace conference.  It was also good local PR, and a sense of better times on the horizon helped the Liberals win the 1917 election, but it made no difference to Bolivia’s immediate economic problems.

Nothing Bolivian leaders could do was ever going to interfere with the tsunami progress of world war economics, and better times were too long coming for the tin barons.  Two decades of relatively stable misery for the Bolivian people came to an end in 1920, when a bloodless coup by the Republicans ushered in a long period of upheaval underpinned by a multi-faceted popular struggle for social reform.

The Bolivian government’s dip into world-war diplomacy involved no pressure from foreign powers, but was yet another case of a ruling elite’s opportunistic self-interest disguised as national interest.  Bolivia’s behaviour was more like that of Bulgaria or Romania than of Cuba or Panama, which had declared war against Germany on 7 April in their capacity as what amounted to US client states.  As with almost every state in any way involved in the First World War, those behind Bolivia’s involvement were destined to disappointment in its outcome, and couldn’t stop the ripples from distant battlefields contributing to fatal cracks in a political system built on repression.

Giving human and civil rights a small shove from a great distance isn’t such a big deal, and war-related changes didn’t conjure up any happy endings (or many happy intermissions) for the people of Bolivia – but even that has probably made a more significant contribution to modern times than the springtime slaughter on the Western Front, and it’s definitely less depressingly repetitive.

12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear

February can be a cold, cold month, and in 1917 the first half of February was the coldest spell of the harshest winter in living memory for western, northern and central Europe. The effects of the freeze on troops fighting in France, in Italy and on the Eastern Front varied from uncomfortable and unhealthy in the west, to lethal in Italy and the east, while civilians all over the continent found fuel and food in relatively short supply, a situation exacerbated by poor autumn harvests and either the Allied blockade or the German U-boat campaign (or for neutral countries, both). In Germany, where the winter of 1916–17 is known as the ‘turnip winter’, severe food shortages that saw even serving troops receiving short rations are seen as a turning point in the process that culminated, two years down the line, in the collapse of popular morale and the outbreak of revolution.

All this was big news at the time and is very well documented these days, the kind of emotional Great War commemoration tailor-made for the modern consumer and all over the output of heritage peddlers like the (increasingly irritating) Imperial War Museum. So I plan to talk about something else induced by the cold weather and the general state of the War in February 1917 – French planning.

The dreadful carnage of the Verdun and Somme offensives, universally recognised at command level as terrible failures, brought a whiff of much-needed change to French conduct of the war on the Western Front. After more than two years under the dictatorial, strategically stubborn control of Joffre, a new man had taken over as French Army c-in-c in December 1916, and General Robert Nivelle came to the job claiming to have cracked the problem of Western Front deadlock.

A regimental colonel at the start of the War, Nivelle was a competent enough tactician who benefitted from the rapid turnover of French generals to reach corps command by late 1915 and command of the First Army the following April. He made his wider name in command of the Verdun campaign during its latter stages, and his successful counteroffensives east of the Meuse in October and December made him a national hero. Observers (and Nivelle himself) saw his adoption of ‘creeping barrage’ tactics as key to the victories, and his claim that large-scale use of the same tactics would effectively end the War in 48 hours clinched his appointment as Joffre’s replacement.

That’s the jaunty look of a man telling you he can end a world war in 48 hours.

Creeping barrage was not a completely new tactic. British forces had developed it during the Somme campaign, and by late 1916 its value was widely recognised among Allied commanders in France and Belgium. Most of them also recognised the limitations of a tactic that amounted to a refinement rather than a revolution. The preliminary artillery bombardments that preceded attacks had conventionally stopped as soon as infantry went over the top, with the big guns redirected to secondary targets. Creeping barrage moved artillery fire forward in stages to match the infantry’s advance. By the autumn of 1916 a ‘creep’ of 50m per minute had been established as standard, but although the method proved a big help to infantry with limited objectives, it did nothing to solve the crippling problems that still faced any army advancing beyond the limits of immediate support.

Nivelle’s confident prediction of total victory didn’t convince his own or the BEF’s senior generals, but it went down a storm with the French public and with politicians on both sides of the Channel. Though careful to avoid the autocratic control given to Joffre, the Briand government overrode the generals to back Nivelle’s plan for a massive joint offensive around the River Aisne, scheduled for the spring, while British premier Lloyd George dealt with opposition to the plan from Haig by putting the entire BEF under temporary French command from late February.

And so the British and French Armies began another round of preparations for another supposedly decisive offensive. Things didn’t go quickly, partly because both the BEF and the French Army were in desperate need of rest and reinforcement, partly because of the military and political disputes that surrounded the preparations, and partly because the cold slowed everything down. I’ll go into detail about the operation known as the Nivelle Offensive another day, probably when the fighting starts in April, but for now I’m going to swerve into the margins, because Nivelle may have been confident about his own plans, but he was worried about what the German might be up to.

When Nivelle had taken charge in December, a German spring offensive in the west had seemed probable, begging the question of where it might take place. Future c-in-c General Foch, dismissed from his post in command of the Western Front’s northern sector when Nivelle took over, was given the task of analysing the three most probable lines of German attack. On the assumption that the main battlefields of 1916 would be left alone this time, these were: the Alsace-Lorraine sector, the Italian frontier and, as a possible preamble to any attack on the latter or into southern France, Switzerland. Foch would spend time in temporary command of armies in Alsace and Lorraine, and would visit Italy to liaise with Italian c-in-c Cadorna, but in early 1917 he focused his thinking on the danger of a German attack into Switzerland.

Switzerland was of course neutral during the First World War, and although the wartime breakdown of normal trade patterns created (relatively minor) civilian shortages, the nation as a whole did quite well out of the conflict, supplying the belligerents with a highly profitable range of chocolates and financial services. This didn’t mean the Swiss were comfortable at any time during the War, because the country was not only surrounded by warring nations – Germany and Austria to the east, France to the west and Italy to the south – but its population was divided along the same lines.

Although nobody expected modern armies to waste themselves trying to conquer Switzerland’s mountainous heart, the prospect of invasion by one side or the other to force a passage through the lowlands was always in play, and like other similarly vulnerable neutral governments the Swiss spent a lot of time assuring belligerents that they needed a peaceful, neutral Switzerland, both as a trading partner and as a handily placed peace broker. The fact remained that the German-Swiss majority in the east of the country was understandably pro-German, and unlikely to oppose any military incursion, while the Italian speakers of the south and the French-speaking westerners were equally committed to their own ethnic causes. That was why the French command feared a German attack through Switzerland, and that was why Foch and leaders of the French-Swiss cantons drew up Plan H, a blueprint for a French invasion of the country.

The tiny Swiss Army was backed by 250,000 civilian militia, all handy with a hunter’s rifle. When asked what they could do against half a million invading troops, the answer was ‘shoot twice and go home’.

The final plan was submitted on 7 February and enthusiastically accepted by Nivelle a century ago today. It entailed detailed cooperation with Swiss military personnel and railway authorities to move a French army of thirty to forty divisions, led by Foch, across Switzerland. Contingent upon a German attack and a request for help from the Swiss federal government, this was hardly an act of imperial expansion, and as it happened it was never needed.

The collapse of the Russian war effort in March was seen by Germany’s Third Supreme Command, not as a chance to reinforce for attacks in the west, but as an as an opportunity to assure the occupation and economic exploitation of Eastern Europe. The simultaneous withdrawal of the German Army to formidable defensive positions at the Hindenburg Line, which took the Allies by surprise and forced Nivelle to modify his offensive plans, proved an accurate indicator of Berlin’s intentions on the Western Front, and major offensive operations in the theatre would be left to the Allies for the rest of the year.

So why bother mentioning Plan H at all? My main excuse is that nothing much else was going on at this point in the War, but there’s also an argument for undermining the assumptions that can accompany historical thinking. Looking back, we know how the story panned out and it’s very easy to forget that the protagonists didn’t. Allied commanders had to plan for German attacks that never came, and trampling over a small country’s neutrality in 1917 was nothing like the shocking response of last resort it seems today.

The only other place this branch line excursion takes us is the wonderful world of ‘what if’. What if Germany had decided to make one more attempt at a decisive move in the west? What if the Third Supreme Command had chosen to radically expand the Western Front instead of funnelling resources into U-boats and an eastern empire? With Switzerland and southern France as part of a front line stretching from the Channel to Venice, with German and Austrian armies from the Eastern Front committed to the west for one last, giant push before the Americans arrived, I’ll leave you to wonder where the world might have travelled in the wake of a very different 1917…

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

24 September, 1916: Who Let The Dogs Out?

Back in 1914, the German Army had announced the arrival of aerial warfare by sending a lone aircraft to drop very small bombs on Paris (August 30, 1914: The Bomb).  A little more than two years later, and a hundred years ago today, two French airmen completed a daring long-range trip to the German industrial city of Essen, where they dropped a dozen or so bombs on or around the Krupps armament works. Although part of the works was slightly disrupted for two days after the attack, and German sources claimed the a bomb had killed a child, Captain de Beauchamp and Lieutenant Daucourt didn’t achieve much more than a minor propaganda coup – but I’m bothering to commemorate their fifteen minutes of fame because it serves as a convenient and appropriate signpost for the end of aerial warfare’s first phase.

Warplane – 1914 version.
How they looked in 1914…

History can’t (and really shouldn’t keep trying to) put exact dates on its processes, so there was no precise moment when aircraft stopped being tactical adjuncts to more traditional methods of fighting and became the practical focus of strategic thinking, or when they moved beyond the experimental stage to become established, trusted weapons of war in their own right. Generally speaking, these things happened across the middle of 1916, and by late September the kind of demonstration missions typified by the Essen raid – essentially experiments to test the capacity and impact of warplanes – were no longer seen as the most aircraft could achieve on their own.

That tortuous set of statements calls for some context, so here’s a potted look at aerial warfare during the first two years of its existence.

Aircraft were still very new in 1914. The global impact of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight in 1903 had been delayed by wrangles over licensing agreements, and the first aircraft had finally reached military service (with the French Army) in 1911. When the War began in 1914, the French Aeronautique Militaire possessed 132 frontline machines, and as many again in reserve, while the German Army had responded to French expansion by providing its Air Service with even more aircraft, though the designs were generally inferior and trained pilots were in short supply. The British Royal Flying Corps was smaller than either, but well equipped and organised, while the Russian Army possessed a sprawling collection of aircraft that weren’t really organised at all. All four empires were also experimenting with naval aircraft by 1914, but no other state possessed more than a few imported machines.

War arrived before aircraft were ready for it, and technical limitations dictated their performance during the first months of the conflict. Fragile, skeletal and terrifyingly unreliable, they were too feeble to lift more than a token bomb load or any kind of weapon, they struggled to make any kind of forward progress against headwinds, and they could be destroyed on the ground in large numbers by a heavy storm. Ramming was the only effective combat tactic against other aircraft, and the vast majority of early operational casualties were caused by accidents. Formation flying was rightly considered dangerous and not attempted, while night flying only ever happened by accident.

Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that aircraft were restricted to unarmed liaison, reconnaissance and artillery spotting duties in 1914, or that what armies were looking for in aircraft was a stable flying platform, ideally with easy packaging for transport with mobile armies. That changed when mobile warfare on the Western Front (always the place to find the majority of First World War aircraft) turned into static trench warfare, at which point aircraft became far more important to armies, needed for long-range reconnaissance behind enemy lines, short-range photo-reconnaissance, a lot more artillery spotting and, as more powerful designs became available, short-range bombing of enemy lines and installations. At the same time, all belligerents developed countermeasures against enemy aircraft, modifying guns for anti-aircraft purposes and deploying some of its own aircraft as air-to-air ‘fighters’.

During 1914 and 1915, technological development was hindered by the widespread belief that the War would be ended by the next wave of offensives. This discouraged innovation, promoting modification and adaptation of existing designs, which grew steadily more reliable and mounted more powerful engines, so that they could soon drop something heavier than a grenade and carry machine guns.

Guns were obviously key to effective development of fighters, but finding ways to fire them accurately took a while longer. The first fighters were two-seaters, carrying a rear gunner, but performance needs called for faster, more maneouvrable single-seaters. Experiments with high-mounted guns, and with steel ‘deflector’ plates on propellers to enable pilots to shoot directly forwards, had limited success, and it was not until the autumn of 1915 that the German air service introduced ‘interrupter gear’, which synchronised gun and propeller to allow forward firing. It took the British and French a few months to produce shells reliable enough to work with interrupter gear, but by the middle of 1916 everyone was using it.

With optimism about the end of the War fading fast, entirely new designs finally began reaching combat units in numbers during 1916. Along with improved machines for all the tasks already allotted to aircraft, these included a new generation of fighters, designed for and capable of the dogfights that only then became the defining motif of aerial warfare on the Western Front. Most Western Front dogfights, incidentally, took place over German positions, thanks to prevailing winds and the same Allied doctrine of ‘permanent offensive’ that got so many trench soldiers killed for nothing much.

Bigger aircraft also began to make their presence felt from 1916. Along with the relative failure of the German airship programme, a few minor successes for Russian Sikorsky and Italian Caproni multi-engine bombers during 1914 and 1915 had encouraged the belief – popular among some theorists since the initial spread of powered flight – that wars could be won by strategic bombing of enemy territory.  Britain, France and Germany all introduced relatively long-range, heavy bomber aircraft during 1916, and all embarked on bombing programmes that grew more ambitious through the rest of the War.  They would achieve very little in strategic terms, but would do enough to convince theorists that, given technological progress, they would one day be capable of winning wars at a stroke.

The other major tactical development made possible by improved performance criteria was the fighter-bomber, as aircraft designed for direct support of ground troops came to be known. When first used by the British in support of their new ‘tanks’ during the summer of 1916, ground support aircraft lacked specialised equipment or organised tactics, but armoured and even cannon-armed machines would appear in numbers during the next two years, and by 1918 ‘trench fighting’ would be the aircraft’s principal combat role on the Western Front.

So the autumn fighting season in 1916 marked the aircraft’s arrival as an effective weapon purpose-designed for defined tactical and strategic combat roles. It also coincided with great leaps forward in the production capacity behind the British, French and German air arms, making possible a huge proliferation in the numbers and variety of aircraft available for combat duties. Numbers were further increased by the export of aircraft technology to other belligerent countries, notably Italy, which rapidly developed an indigenous industry producing good quality original designs, and the United States, which built aircraft for the Allies under licence before it joined the war in April 1917, and had 750 combat aircraft of its own by the Armistice. In this context it’s worth remembering that First World War aircraft were relatively cheap and easy to build, as evidenced by the US Army’s post-War decision to burn its entire air fleet in a French field rather than foot the bill for transporting it home.

... to this in September 1916.
The purpose-designed fighter, September 1916.

That was a very generalised snapshot of aerial warfare at one of its watershed moments, but it was only meant to set the table for the deadly derring-do of dogfight heroics, which really got going around a century ago, and to mark another stage in the prolonged experiment that was strategic bombing. In the first instance, I reckon you can rely on the heritage industry to provide all the detail you need, and though mass media may prove a little more reticent when it comes to the ultimately catastrophic choices made around bombing theory, you can rely on me to come back to that before too long.

One last point worth making is that, although warplanes performed in every theatre, including naval theatres, any discussion of contemporary aerial warfare’s cutting edge is obliged to focus on the Western Front, which saw almost exclusive deployment of the latest technology and was the only theatre to experience busy air traffic at all times.

15 September, 1916: False Start

I’m inclined to bang on about the First World War’s impact on the future, and though I tend to stress its momentous economic, political and social effects, there’s no getting away from the weapons.

Any major war is a hothouse for weapons development, but posterity tends to focus on the Second World War as the twentieth century’s big moment in this respect.  Fair enough on one level, in that coming up with missiles and nuclear weapons counts for a lot of posterity points, but even the horror perpetrated on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the ultimate expression of an idea – strategic bombing – conceived and first attempted during the Great War. Most of the other major weapons associated with Hitler’s war, including submarines, chemical weapons and all the other ways of using aircraft, were direct products of First World War development that would go on to blight the next hundred years – and that brings me to tanks.

Today, as anyone watching, hearing or reading Anglophone news media probably knows, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, a subsidiary action within the long and horrible Somme Offensive that saw the first large-scale combat use of what were then called ‘landships’ and are now known as tanks. Heritage history being what it is, you don’t need me to talk about how it felt inside a landship or about details of the operation. What’s more, the populist grapevine makes it reasonably clear that tank warfare’s first day out wasn’t a great success, and very clear that tanks would go on to play an important part in future warfare.  On the other hand, possibly because it’s primarily concerned with celebrating tanks as a great British invention, mass media tends go a little easy on both subjects, so here’s a take on some of that stuff with the flag-waving filtered out.

First of all, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was yet another of the BEF’s increasingly desperate attempts to gain something positive (and, more to the point after 77 days of fighting, popular) from the Somme debacle. It was a relatively minor foray, involving 12 divisions of General Rawlinson’s 4th Army, which advanced northeast along a 12km front on 15 September, intending to extend the small salient (that’s a bulge in everyday English) it had established in the opposing line.  Beyond the use of all 49 available landships, and of aircraft to provide them with direct ground support, the attack was bereft of innovation and failed accordingly. After making initial gains of about 2km, British units were halted by bad weather and German reinforcements, and the operation was called off on 18 September.

Secondly, the tanks were a complete failure and didn’t scare the German high command.  They did cause a certain amount of local disruption, and terrified German troops at first sight, but were too few to make any major tactical contribution.  Most of them broke down or were destroyed, and German observers were of the opinion that they could be beaten and weren’t worth copying.

The British felt very differently about tanks in 1916, and despite the credit given to him by later propagandists (and his own memoirs), Churchill didn’t have all that much to do with it.  The general idea of an armoured trench-buster had been under discussion inside both the British Army and the Royal Navy (which was already using armoured cars in Flanders) since the autumn of 1914.  As the sitting naval minister, Churchill’s contribution was to read reports of naval ideas – along with a memo about army ideas from Colonel Hankey, secretary to the Committee for Imperial Defence (Britain’s central strategic command) – and secure the formation of a Landships Committee for technical research and development in February 1915.  By September, the Committee had built a working prototype on the chassis of an American tractor, and its trials impressed BEF commander Haig so much he ordered 40 more in advance.

Haig’s enthusiasm reflected high hopes among British strategists and newspaper editors that the landships could finally break the deadlock on the Western Front. War Minister Lloyd George gave the project his approval in February 1916, and Mark 1 Heavy Tanks (ultimately named after their transit code name of ‘water tanks’) went into full production in April.  In June, the first Mark 1’s entered front line service with the Heavy Section of the Machine Gun Corps, promptly renamed the Tank Corps.

Senior British commanders, by now very excited about tanks, could hardly wait to let the new monsters loose on the enemy and win the War, but official military doctrine regarded them as infantry support weapons, and the relatively junior officers charged with actually operating the things agreed, quickly deciding they were best used in small numbers to aid attacks on specific targets.  Haig’s decision to ignore their advice and deploy the all tanks as a single, concentrated force at Flers-Courcelette, using every half-trained crewman and every half-tested machine, was controversial at the time, and the operation’s failure left some senior officers convinced tanks should only be used for direct infantry support (like a machine-gun unit, one for each company, or even each platoon if sufficient numbers became available).  Not Haig, who ordered another massed tank attack in the same sector on 25 September, and reacted to a second abject failure by ordering 1,000 more tanks – and not the British press, which went right on assuring its readers that tanks were unstoppable war-winners.

The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.
The Mark I tank in 1916 – the British Army decided it was meant to travel this way, and took more than 20 years to change its mind.

Tank warfare had arrived, but for a time it hardly set the world alight. The French Army was soon developing its own chars d’assaut, and like British tanks they would see plenty of combat in France, Italy and Russia, but the USA was the only other Allied power to build tanks in wartime (though only two machined reached France before the Armistice).  Wartime tank development among the Central Powers was confined to Germany, which built a few (generally enormous) machines for trench support during the next couple of years, but never prioritised their development.  With hindsight, and bearing in mind the other pressures on German industry, that was probably a smart move.  Though their armour would be improved, their weight would be reduced to aid mobility and they would become marginally more reliable, British and French tanks would still be all potential and very little end product when the War ended.

Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers... but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.
Wartime German tanks were huge, hardly mobile and built in very small numbers… but would soon be abandoned as a strategic dead end.

Post-War technological progress would change that, opening up alternative possibilities for deployment of tanks.  British theorists were the first to argue for use of tanks – in large numbers, with air support – as long-range strike weapons, but they were ignored by the British and French armies, which carried on developing big, lumbering machines for the support of infantry attacks.  German planners, on the other hand, paid careful attention to British theories, and built Panzers to carry out a refined version known to posterity as Blitzkrieg.

So while giving a cheer for yet another groundbreaking product of British invention and enterprise, and accepting that the tank went on to become one of the 20th century’s defining weapons, let’s remember that First World War tanks never really worked in the only role they were capable of fulfilling, and were the blueprints for a strategic blind alley taken by the British and French that would be utterly discredited at the start of the next war.  In other words, the British invented the wrong tanks for the wrong reason. The result was a huge waste of time, lives and money that ultimately provided a research and development platform for the very army it was intended to defeat.

14 JULY , 1916: Virtual Realities

Anyone interested has probably noticed that I haven’t had much to say about the Western Front lately.  At the risk of repeating myself, that’s because everyone else is doing it for me, but today is Bastille Day, I’m sat here in France, and 14 July 1916 marked a watershed for both the gigantic battles taking place in France – so I’ve found something to say that’s at least vaguely concerned with Verdun and the Somme.

Just northeast of Verdun, the latest big German attack had ground to a halt on 12 July, within sight of the town itself but with little prospect of getting any further article source.  It would prove to be the limit of German progress.  On the Somme, the British made one more effort to match limited French successes to their south on 14 July, before calling a temporary halt to attacks and bringing the battle’s opening phase to an end.  By the end of the day a pause for breath was in progress along the front, albeit more apparent to posterity than to contemporary eyes.

Posterity can also identify the full horror of the military situation in France by mid-July 1916, and has no trouble pointing the finger of outrage at massed armies locked into a mechanised, virtually motionless, apparently unending and unendingly expensive death struggle – but spotting this basic truth was a little more difficult at the time.

Despite noisy pockets of dissent and anger – from socialists, pacifists and fringe religious groups, among others – Western Europe’s civilian populations generally accepted the disastrous state of the War in 1916 without significant protest.  This was largely thanks to the power of propaganda, a dark art thoroughly mastered by modern states during the increasingly literate century after the Napoleonic Wars.  Citizens were told a pack of lies and part-truths, coupled with diagnoses and speculation that went way beyond the bounds of optimism into fantasy, and on the whole they believed them.  Even when time – sometimes, as in the case of the Somme Offensive, a mere few days – exposed something close to the real truth (maps showing no territorial gain after days of ‘success’ tended to do the trick), propaganda providers in Western European democracies could get away with the kind of retrospective rationalisation that makes their audience look stupid now.

A captured wood or hill possessed enormous, if hitherto unmentioned, strategic value… the enemy had been softened up for the ‘big push’, as planned all along… the enemy had been forced to throw vast resources into desperate defence or counterattack, cancelling out reported successes but crucially weakening his strength on other sectors or fronts… and, more stridently in 1916 than ever before, the enemy was being worn down by attrition and couldn’t take much more of it.

Attrition was a buzzword in 1916, and not quite the byword for failure it is today.  It was used by German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn to justify the attack on Verdun (at least in concept, though his exact wording is open to questions of translation), and the idea that an enemy could be bled to surrender by simply killing enough of its troops soon caught on among British and French generals, if not as a preferred plan of action then as a way of making deadlock look like some kind of positive progress.

And there’s the rub.  Falkenhayn, shrewd desk general that he was, is widely suspected by historians of having hedged his bets around Verdun. Bleeding the French Army white wasn’t what he or any other senior commander wanted.  Like their Allied counterparts, German commanders wanted to smash through enemy lines, march on enemy capitals and end the War in glory – but though the Allied failures of 1915 hadn’t by any means dispelled the illusion of breakthrough, they had taught politicians and military leaders on all sides that they might need an excuse if glorious victory failed to materialise.

Dangling a prospect of final triumph through attrition, describing failure as part of a planned long game, meant that simply winning the body count (or claiming to win it, or claiming that your casualties mattered less, in percentage terms, than the enemy’s) offered a chance to declare a victory.  So by the summer of 1916 attrition – good for military careers and, crucially, seen as good for public morale on the home front ­– was being presented to the the folks back home as a form of success.

Go on! It's great over there...

Go on! It’s great over there…

It’s not hard to see why civilians in 1916 were willing to be convinced by attrition, endless unproductive successes, demonisation of the enemy and all the other illusions peddled by the press, and by the armies of writers, film-makers and intellectuals hired by their governments.  The instinct to grasp at hope in time of trouble was (and clearly still is) fundamental to mass psychology (and therefore politics), while human capacity for faith in the improbable has always started high and been inflated by the wheezings winds of ignorance – and by our standards most British, German and French citizens were stranded in ignorance during the First World War.

Rapid long-distance communication – by telegraph or telephone – was still the province of what we’ll call the officer classes in 1914, and international travel was about as likely as a trip to the moon for ordinary Europeans not living near land frontiers.  India, Mesopotamia and Belgium were all almost equally exotic in the British public mind, and so it went for most French and German civilians. That left them completely reliant for information on government-sponsored output, rumour and, above all, mass-circulation newspapers.  And mainstream newspapers, while perfectly willing and able to cut loose with the political criticism, stuck firmly to the morale-boosting, upbeat, illusory official line in all matters pertaining to the actual course of the War.

Major newspapers, their editors and owners nurtured propagandist fictions because – in an age of culturally separate nation states, when patriotism was a more basic, less controversial emotion – they accepted maintenance of popular morale as their duty.  The need for massive national commitment to the supply of total war had made home front morale seem an ever more important priority, and so journalistic propaganda was genuinely regarded as helpful to front-line fighters.

This orthodoxy was so well established that journalists embedded with front-line troops, faced with the reality of warfare and living with its victims, didn’t on the whole even test their editors by attempting to report the truth.  This wasn’t because they were all happy to peddle fiction – front-line reporters from all three countries would later describe the self-disgust involved – but because shattering the illusion would be letting down the troops. One of the Western Front’s small, sad ironies is that reporters’ propaganda, intended to sustain fighting men in the field, helped create a morale paradox that contributed to the psychological problems suffered by so many troops away from the front.

As the one social group that was never going to fall for propaganda’s upbeat take on their misery, front-line troops found themselves in an information vacuum whenever they returned to civilian life. Burdened, angered and often maimed by their grotesque experiences, but surrounded by people incapable of acknowledging the horror, many veterans became sceptical about and isolated from the societies they had served, a situation that stored up a mess of personal suffering and social unrest for the post-War period – and that isn’t entirely unfamiliar today.

Which brings me to the point.  This has been a very generalised chat about propaganda at a time of extreme societal stress.  I’ve done scant justice to those moments – like the British Shell scandal, or Keith Murdoch’s exposé of conditions in Gallipoli – when journalistic patriotism overtrumped propaganda.  Worse,  I’ve  glossed over or ignored a wealth of important differences between the home front experiences of British, French and German citizens – but I’ve done it to highlight something we all have in common today:  a tendency to assume that the lessons delivered so painfully by the First World War have been well and truly learned.

Modern transport and communications have made the Middle East (for instance) feel as close to home, if not closer, than the Western Front felt to most British people in 1916, yet for all our iPhones, Internet and analysis, who among us has the faintest idea of the real military situation in Iraq or Syria?  So it could be we’re no less vulnerable to the illusions and social divisiveness of propaganda than we were a century ago – and that’s seems worth mentioning while we look back at the carnage of 1916 in the comforting belief that we couldn’t possibly make the same mistakes again.



1916:  a brilliant year…
... but

… because we say so.

21 FEBRUARY, 1916: Blood Equity

What was the First World War’s defining event?  It’s a tricky question, and it invites a variety of answers in almost every country involved.

For relatively small countries embroiled in the conflict, along with colonies drawn in by imperial ties and the newly independent nations born from the ruins of wartime empires, the answer might be one of the great battles or might be a matter of strictly national perspective.  In Serbia, for instance, the Great Retreat of late 1915 stands as an emblem for national survival, while Australians and New Zealanders look to Gallipoli as the birthplace of modern national identity.

For most of the great empires at war, an answer is even more difficult to pin down.  For most inhabitants of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, the War was probably defined by the collapse that ended it rather than any event within it, and you can argue that entering the War was its defining moment for the United States.

That leaves Britain and France, the two great European empires that survived the struggle from start to finish and might be said to enjoy an uninterrupted historical view.  If you’re British, eyes permanently fixed on the nearest and most costly theatre, the Western Front, the Somme or Ypres is probably the name that defines the War in all its ghastliness, but it’s still a matter of opinion and the title’s still up for grabs.  If you’re French, there’s no argument.  For France, the event that defines the First World War was the German attack on Verdun, and it began a hundred years ago today.

I shouldn’t have to give you the basic facts about this particular centenary, but the British heritage industry isn’t paying much attention to Verdun, partly because the First World War went off the radar and is back to being subsumed by the Second, partly because the British weren’t involved.  So at the risk of boring anyone well informed or French, here’s the deal.

The battle for Verdun was fought from 21 February until 18 December 1916.  It was the longest battle of the War and the most costly in terms of casualties.  Verdun was a fortified garrison town on the River Meuse, some 200km east of Paris, surrounded by rings of forts and considered the strongest defensive position in France. An important strategic point for French defence during the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s and the war against Prussia in 1870, the Verdun fortress network was seen by French strategists, politicians and public as the key – or at least the symbolic key – to national security against threats from the east.

Since 1914 the fortified area around Verdun had jutted into German lines as a bulge, or salient, and was an obvious target for a limited German offensive.  Despite a growing consensus among French field commanders that defending fortresses was an anachronistic waste of resources, it was considered vital to popular morale by military and political leaders constantly afraid that a traditionally turbulent public would succumb to pacifism or rebellion.  So why did the German high command pick on such a tough nut as the target for its big spring offensive on the Western Front?

German Chief of the General Staff Falkenhayn had spent 1915 fighting his corner against the noisy ambitions of Eastern Front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, merely able to hold positions in France and Belgium while resources flowed east.  By the end of the year, with Eastern Front operations on hold and the distraction of Serbia out of the way, he was ready to concentrate on the West.  Compared to Moltke and Hindenburg, his predecessor and successor in overall command, Falkenhayn often gets a fairly easy ride from posterity, but that doesn’t make him lovable, and the calculation behind his decision to attack Verdun is a fairly breathtaking example of cold pragmatism.

Reasoning that nothing he could do would knock either Great Britain or Russia out of the War, Falkenhayn identified France as only enemy Germany could beat in 1916.  Experience had taught him that simply breaking through the trench lines, an approach attempted by everyone everywhere since late 1914, was an unlikely route to victory, so he chose to try grinding France to defeat by attacking where they would feel compelled to defend to the death. The offensive’s stated intention was to ‘bleed the French Army white’ by inflicting as many casualties as possible over a sustained period.  I know that looks like a very bad idea, and it was, but in the context of early 1916 it was also a reflection of the desperation felt by commanders everywhere to do something, anything to bring an end to the stalemate – and at least Falkenhayn’s timing was good.

A massive build-up of German artillery and ammunition in the Verdun sector had begun in the New Year, at a time when the French Army was in the process of dismantling and reorganising the fortress defences.  Field commanders of the French Second Army, drawn up in trenches some 5km in front of the outer fortresses, could hardly fail to notice that trouble was coming and sent repeated warning to the high command, but French c-in-c Joffre was busy planning his own offensive around the Somme and paid only belated attention.  In late January a few French reinforcements did reached Verdun, along with some of the artillery stripped from the fortresses for front line use, but by late February, when a million troops of the German Fifth Army were ready to attack, only 200,000 men were defending the sector.

After a 21-hour preliminary bombardment had dropped more than a million tons of shells onto the area around Verdun’s eastern and northern forts, German troops advanced along a 12km front late on the afternoon of 21 February.  They met more resistance than expected from surviving defenders, but had driven them back to their second line of trenches by the next day.  On 24 February, the French Fifth Army withdrew to a third line of trenches, 8km from Verdun itself, and this exposed the prestigious but barely garrisoned fortress of Douaumont.

By that time French reinforcements were being rushed to the battle, but they were too late to prevent German capture of Douaumont on 25 February – and that triggered exactly the reaction Falkenhayn had been hoping for, in spades.  French national outrage exploded into fervent popular determination to hold Verdun at all costs, to an extent that surprised even Falkenhayn, and from that moment any French withdrawal became a political and moral impossibility for the Briande government.  So far so good for Falkenhayn, but not for long.

On 24 February command of the Verdun defence had been given to General Pétain.  An experienced field commander who had long argued against fortress defence, Pétain responded to Joffre’s order forbidding any kind of withdrawal by rushing every artillery piece to the front from reserve areas and concentrating all his guns on the attacking German infantry.  This brought the German advance to a halt by 28 February, when mutual ammunition shortage forced a lull in the fighting for a week.  Having saved an apparently hopeless situation, Pétain used the breathing space to complete a thorough reorganisation of his lines , enabling rapid reinforcement and constant supply of French forces for a long battle.

Here’s a map of the battlefield, dull and stolen but efficient and self-explanatory, by way of adding some scale and context to what solidified into one of humanity’s great horror stories.




For now the pattern was set.   Pétain had been established as a French military hero for the next 24 years or so, and Falkenhayn’s big plan was working as advertised – but as attrition set in at Verdun the big question begged by the offensive was yet to be answered. Could the French Army be bled into submission?

Nine months later, the answer would be no, delivered at a cost of about 434,000 German and 550,000 French casualties, half of them killed.  The German Army had gained a few kilometres of ground, a few villages had been obliterated, most survivors had been scarred for life by the experience and the French nation scarred for all time.

Those are just the bare bones, and I’ll try to add flesh to the horror story during the next few months.  Beyond simple information the only real purpose of this post is to make the point that, as usual during the Great War, a really terrible idea destined to go horribly wrong had its root, not in the mental deficiencies of its creators, but in the impossible dilemma of needing total victory in a world designed for anything but.