Category Archives: Western Front

19 DECEMBER, 1915: The Empire’s New Clothes

A couple of centenaries today, both reminders that the greatest military power on Earth had stumbled into a bit of pickle as 1915 drew to a close.  In the Eastern Mediterranean, British imperial forces began their planned evacuation of Gallipoli’s bridgeheads from Hell, Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove.  On the same Sunday, General Sir Douglas Haig took formal command of the BEF on the Western Front.  In British military terms these were major events, divesting the Empire’s war effort of two disasters in Sir John French and the entire Dardanelles operation, and for public purposes they could be presented as a fresh start after a year of bleak disappointments on every front.

The British war effort was in need of a fresh start.  Popular and political discontent was gathering as military failures chipped away the veneer of permanent good news that patriotism (and government) demanded of the British press.  This was especially true of those newspapers controlled by Lord Northcliffe.

Owner of (among others) The Times and The Daily Mail, the self-appointed voice of ‘the classes and the people’ was arguably the most powerful press baron in British history.  Northcliffe’s orchestration of the Shell Scandal during the late spring had played a major role in forcing a change of government, and his basic position was always that Germany – a state he hated and feared with unbridled passion – wasn’t being attacked with sufficient vigour.  He was a committed ‘Westerner’, sure the War could only be won in France and noisily against the distraction of resources to other fronts – so on the face of it an end to the Gallipoli adventure and a change at the top in France looked like positive government responses to press criticism.

All quite convincing if you wanted to be convinced, but it had nothing much to do with the truth.

Take Gallipoli. Of all the land fronts contested by British forces, sub-Saharan Africa aside, only Gallipoli had been conceived as an offensive operation.  Britain was fighting to defend Belgium and France, to protect imperial interests in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and (in theory at least) to rescue Serbia via Salonika.  The Dardanelles operation had been a bold attempt to change the War’s focus by knocking out the Ottoman Empire with a single blow, and its long, costly, embarrassing failure dealt a terrible blow to those arguing for that kind of lateral thinking.  The plan’s chief architect and sponsor, Churchill, quit the government and joined his old regiment on the Western Front, while the rest of British strategic thinking went back into its shell.  Some British resources would be sent to Mesopotamia and Palestine for offensive purposes in 1916, but the vast majority would be thrown into the battle for France or committed to a defensive posture in Salonika.

So all change but no progress when it came Britain’s strategic approach in late 1915, and the same applied to the tactical change of command on the Western Front.

Field Marshal Sir John French had to go, that much was clear to anyone not completely susceptible to propaganda.  Appointed in 1914 to command a small expeditionary force, and a cavalry officer with a reputation for colonial dash, he had proved timid and uncertain in command of a mass army.  His leadership had been characterised by extremes of optimism and pessimism, a chronic inability to liaise effectively with French commanders and a preference for caution at all times.  He also struggled to cope with large-scale operations, culminating in an inept display during the autumn’s Artois-Loos Offensive that was considered partly responsible for its failure and sealed his fate.

Like many a commentator before me, I feel the need to come to the poor Field Marshal’s defence, perhaps pointing out that even very good generals might have struggled with the rapid transition from leading a few hundred horsemen against colonial natives to commanding of millions of men in trenches.  Unfortunately I’ve read his relentlessly self-serving and notoriously unreliable memoirs, written during his post-War spell as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so I’ll leave him to suffer posterity’s scorn and move on to Haig.

Haig does deserve more sympathy than the heritage industry can usually spare.  An intelligent and efficient staff officer, a good organiser with a solid record in command of the BEF’s First Corps, he was an urbane and orthodox figure, comfortable in political circles, on good personal terms with the King and generally admired by his peers.  This isn’t the time to discuss his future performance in detail, but broadly speaking it was a lot more competent than his popular reputation as a serial butcher suggests.

On the other hand, and this is my point, Haig’s command was no more innovative than could be expected from a man chosen precisely because he was a trusted executive of convention.  As the BEF’s senior field commander after French, Haig was the safe, predictable choice, approved by King George V on the grounds that he wasn’t ‘too clever’ and charged with carrying out more of the same, more effectively.  Of course Haig was a believer in the ‘breakthrough tactics’ of 1915, and of course he was a byword for the steady but unspectacular, instinctively attracted to tried and tested tactics, loyal to subordinates in the field and inclined to blame chance or staff errors for their failures.

In short, feel free to deplore Haig’s persistent faith in the horrific bloodletting on the Western Front during 1916 and 1917, and in the tactics and generals involved, but be aware that he was the walking incarnation of the British high command’s strategic paralysis.  Far from setting off on a fresh start at the end of 1915, British leaders were stalled at the crossroads, forced to take stock but unable to come up with any positive ideas about a change of direction.

25 SEPTEMBER, 1915: Deep Sh*t

It’s been relatively quiet for a while on the Western Front, while German efforts have been focused on the Eastern Front, and Anglo-French strategists have been regrouping and reflecting after the ghastly failures of the spring.  A hundred years ago today, with plenty of advance warning and full orchestration provided by a four-day artillery bombardment of forward German positions, mayhem recommenced as French c-in-c Joffre launched his giant, two-pronged autumn offensive.

As I’ve mentioned before, Joffre believed in ‘breakthrough’, the theory that the way to beat modern trenches was to concentrate a vast weight of artillery and infantry against one point and punch a decisive hole in the front line.  The complete failure of breakthrough tactics during spring offensives in Champagne and Artois hadn’t shaken his belief, merely convinced him that he’d underestimated the amount of manpower and ordnance needed for the job.

Happily for Joffre’s faith, if sadly for posterity, both the French and British armies on the Western Front had received large-scale reinforcement during the summer, backed by rapid improvements in arms output as economic mobilisation for war gathered pace in both countries visite site.  Meanwhile the German Army’s focus on the Eastern Front had reduced its strength in France and Belgium.  Convinced his conditions for success had at last been met, and unwilling to try anything too complicated with armies full of raw recruits, Joffre went for the sledgehammer again in the autumn.

At the end of painstaking preparatory operations that made their intentions abundantly clear, French forces in Champagne and Anglo-French armies further north – in the sector now designated Artois-Loos – launched simultaneous massed infantry assaults on 25 September.  Both were complete failures.

In Champagne, where German defenders were outnumbered 3-to-1, French forces gained about 3km of ground and lost 145,000 casualties before the attacks were halted on 28 September, by which time German reinforcements had arrived from the Eastern Front.  French attacks were resumed on 6 October but gained only a few yards during five days of heavy fighting before being stopped by counterattacks.  The two sides battled on indecisively until the offensive was officially called off on 6 November, having inflicted about 50,000 German casualties, half of them as prisoners.

The picture was hardly less bleak for the attackers further north, where the offensive’s secondary thrust was divided into French and British operations.  French forces pushed towards the high ground of Vimy Ridge, in the Artois area, but struggled to make any progress against well-prepared German defensive positions.  They did secure a tiny foothold on the Ridge for a while, but repeated attacks made no lasting gains before exhaustion and foul weather forced a halt to the operation in early November.

The British northern wing under First Army commander Haig – a general far more sceptical about breakthrough tactics than heritage history would have you believe – advanced towards Loos, and did achieve some initial success.  Despite rough terrain, a continuing shell shortage and the wind-induced failure of a first British attempt to use poison gas, massive numerical superiority saw British troops through Loos and approaching Lens by the end of the first day.  At this point BEF c-in-c Sir John French, nervous caution personified, forced Haig to halt by denying him immediate reinforcements, and next day a strong German counterattack forced the British back. When Haig was able to try again, on 13 October, his attack was repulsed with heavy losses, after which bad weather made further large-scale operations impossible.

German defenders in the Artois-Loos sector inflicted 50,000 British and about 48,000 French casualties, losing less than half that number in the process.  Between them, the autumn offensives cost the Entente around 320,000 casualties, almost half as many again as had been lost during the spring offensives.  Why?  The autumn campaign did involve more Entente troops, with less training, and all the defence-friendly conditions that characterised contemporary trench warfare still applied, but another element had come into play. The German Army was developing new defensive tactics.  Largely ignored by the offensive’s planners, they were working.

The British came to call it Defence in Depth, and with hindsight it was hardly rocket science.  Instead of packing troops in forward trenches, where they suffered from preliminary bombardment before meeting the first enemy assault, German defenders learned to deploy relatively light first-line defences, and to give ground by withdrawing to strong, pre-prepared secondary positions, out of immediate bombardment range.  Counterattacks would then be launched  before the enemy could bring up artillery support.

This basic blueprint for defence rapidly became more sophisticated, with multiple layers of bombardment-proof fortifications designed to draw attackers forward into a kind of massive ambush.  Perfected by the German Army, Defence in Depth was adopted by most British commanders in 1916, but many French generals continued to cram front-line trenches well into 1917, trusting in weight of numbers to hold the line and avoid the chaos of headlong flight into hastily-built second-line defences.

Defence in Depth can be seen as one of the first Western Front tactics that actually worked… but it was in the nature of the theatre’s first years for everything to look as if it might work, for many things to look as if they were working, and for nothing to do much good.  Designed to save lives, or at least defenders’ lives, the system worked well enough unless both sides were using it.  Once both sets of infantry were being drawn into empty space for an artillery ambush, the most intense fighting tended to take place on ground covered by both artillery arms, ensuring a much higher casualty rate.

In one sense, the ghastly non-event of the Entente’s autumn offensive in 1915 stands as a metaphor for the Western Front as a whole until 1918.  You couldn’t win anything big if you were inflexible and stubborn; you couldn’t win anything big and lasting if you were flexible and intelligent; and you couldn’t lose if you stayed on the defensive.  It would be some time before commanders were ready to address the problem of the Western Front in those terms – and a hundred years later plenty of voices are still loudly blaming them for the carnage, as if their failure to solve the techno-military riddle of the age was the problem, rather than a symptom.

14 MAY, 1915: The Blame Game

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the optimism with which most European belligerents anticipated their spring offensives in 1915. It didn’t last long. On the Western Front in particular, where the Entente powers were doing almost all the attacking while German offensive efforts were focused on the east, optimism was already degenerating into a public, political and military search for scapegoats by the middle of May.

To recap, French c-in-c Joffre had launched repeated offensives against the bulge (or salient) in the German front line, focused primarily on its southern edge in the Champagne region, from December until March. They took the form of massed infantry assaults preceded by heavy artillery bombardment, and they failed. Hindsight makes their failure unsurprising, given the advantage contemporary technology bestowed on defenders of fortified positions, but Anglo-French commanders didn’t see it that way.

Massive expansion of the BEF’s volunteer forces, the sheer scale of French conscription and further progress towards industrial mobilisation for war (particularly in Britain) combined to give the Entente an advantage in men and materiel that Joffre believed must, if properly concentrated, crush the enemy. With the support of BEF commanders, he planned a bigger but essentially similar assault on the northern sector of the front between Arras and Lille for May.

Before the Entente was ready for what became known as the Artois Offensive, the Germans launched their one major offensive of the year on the Western Front, making first use of poison gas during an attack on British positions around Ypres. This, the second Battle of Ypres, achieved only carnage, but heavy fighting continued until 25 May and was still in progress when Joffre launched his own grand offensive.

After a massive five-day artillery bombardment, French infantry attacked along a ten-kilometre front between Arras and Loos on 9 May. Pétain’s central corps broke through and advanced five kilometres in ninety minutes, but in line with previous experiences the gains couldn’t be supported or sustained, and both sides were about back where they’d started when the first wave of fighting died down on 15 May. A second assault, lasting from 15–19 June, didn’t break the deadlock, by which time the offensive had cost the French Army 100,000 men.

The BEF also attacked on 9 May, at northeastern end of the sector, on a front either side of Neuve Chapelle, but a shortage of shells meant the advance by General Haig’s First Army was preceded by a mere forty-minute bombardment, trivial by Western Front standards. Poorly supported the attack was called off later the same day, having achieved only the loss of 11,000 men. A second attack further south, around Festubert, was launched on 15 May after a four-day bombardment. It made initial gains but soon became bogged down in the usual ways, and had pushed the German Sixth Army back less than a kilometre when it was called off twelve days later.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the blame game was heating up fast. Popular and press demands for a coalition government had been gathering strength all year, founded on the perception that Asquith’s Liberal regime had mismanaged national mobilisation. There was something to said for the argument. The first months of war had exposed glaring inefficiencies in some government departments, and the British economy had been relatively slow to produce weapons and equipment for mass armies. On the other hand Britain hadn’t been planning a major land war before 1914, and so had a lot more adjustments to make than, for instance, Germany or France, but as the promised victory failed to materialise this logic cut little ice with a shocked public.  When The Times of 14 May 1915 published a report claiming that initial failures at Neuve Chapelle were caused by a serious shortage of high explosive shells, pressure on Asquith’s regime hit new peaks.

The report was written by one of the country’s most influential war correspondents, Colonel Repington, and The Times was then considered a semi-official newspaper. The article had also been passed by the government censor, and therefore carried considerable authority. As intended by the paper’s owner, press baron and serial meddler Lord Northcliffe, along with his political allies and many senior Western Front commanders, the ‘Shell Scandal’ fatally damaged the government, which would be replaced by a coalition on 25 May.

Northcliffe failed, however, to achieve his ultimate aim of discrediting War Minister Lord Kitchener, who lost control of munitions production to a new ministry under Lloyd George but remained in his post.  Another Northcliffe newspaper, the scandal-friendly Daily Mail, followed up with a series of direct attacks on Kitchener, but his iconic status and mass popularity were unbreakable. Say what you like about Northcliffe (and I agree with most of the many bad things said about him), but getting rid of Kitchener was a good idea. For all that the august hero of colonial warfare made an excellent poster, as a government minister in a vital position he was an almost unmitigated disaster.

Enigmatic and uncommunicative, with a touch of the mystic about him, Kitchener was responsible for the breakneck recruitment of volunteers for a mass army in 1914, and for failure to anticipate either its needs or the economic effects of its creation. As a strategist he was arbitrary, contradictory and prone to certainty without the benefit of information. He backed concentration on the Western Front, and provided mass reinforcements for the BEF in 1915, but also gave support to the Gallipoli adventure without ever providing it with the organisation or reinforcement it needed to succeed.

A major obstacle to efficient relations between the government and the Army, Kitchener remained untouchable until his death in June 1916, when he drowned off the Orkneys after a mine sank the cruiser taking him on an official visit to the Russia.  Undoubtedly a significant boon to Britain’s war effort, his demise has of course been feeding conspiracy theorists ever since… but much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t think he was assassinated by the Daily Mail.

31 JANUARY ,1915: GAS!

Here in Britain, populist history of the First World War paints a simple picture chemical warfare. Poison gas was a terrifying, volatile weapon that never lived up to its reputation as a game-changer and made no strategic difference to anything. Its use was a classic symptom of the modern brutality foisted upon the world by the Great War, and yet another example of the clumsy desperation displayed by contemporary commanders. Gas shouldn’t have been used, and might not have been if the dastardly Germans hadn’t broken international law to start the ball rolling.

This analysis contains plenty of truth, most of it obvious, but the overall picture contains more than a hint of poppycock. So on the centenary of the German Army’s first large-scale battlefield deployment of gas, at Bolimov in what is now Poland, here’s a brief but sober look at what chemical warfare actually meant in 1915.

It meant gas and flamethrowers. Flamethrowers were a German invention, developed since the turn of the century, regularly deployed by the middle of 1915 and eventually copied by the British for limited use in the latter stages of the War on the Western Front. Gas had been around a lot longer – the Chinese had used arsenic smoke as a weapon almost three thousand years earlier – and had become a matter of serious international concern with the growth of mass-producing chemicals industries during the nineteenth century. Although outlawed by the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the Hague Convention of 1907, agreements ratified by every major power except the USA, the use of poison gas was still a matter of live argument in 1914.

Washington’s official view, espoused by Admiral Mahan, its chief delegate at the Hague and an isolationist nation’s apostle of military preparedness, was that no international agreement should be allowed to restrict the USA’s technological or military enterprise, but the real debate centred on the morality of gas attacks.  The argument that poisonous gas was a  weapon too barbarous for use by civilised people won the day in peacetime, but every armed nation embraced a strand of opinion, usually though not always military, that saw no real difference between gassing people and shooting them or blowing them to bits.  Once war broke out they had their day.

Both sides on the Western Front attempted small-scale experiments with canisters of irritant gas during the autumn of 1914, as the defensive superiority of trench warfare became evident and forced a search for radical methods of attack, but discovered that small amounts of tear gas weren’t even noticed by troops on a modern battlefield. On 31 January 1915 the German Ninth Army on the Eastern Front repeated the experiment on a much larger scale, firing 18,000 shells containing canisters of tear gas (xyxyl bromide) at Russian troops defending Borimov.

The German attack, a preliminary to a major offensive around the Masurian Lakes, in the northern sector of the Eastern Front, was a total failure. Cold weather meant most of the gas fell harmlessly to the ground, changing winds sent some of the rest in the wrong direction and the small amounts that reached Russian forces had little effect. Tear gas was cheap and easy to mass produce, but after one more large-scale experiment in March at Nieuport, on the northern tip of the Western Front, the German High Command turned to lethal chlorine gas.

Germany’s first use of chlorine, against French colonial troops at Ypres in April, signalled the beginning of chemical warfare in earnest. The British began their own attacks in September, and by 1916 both sides on the Western Front were adding poison gases to artillery shells as a matter of course.

Gas always terrified those in its path and sometimes caused utter panic, but its strategic impact was very limited. Changeable weather always made its use a risky business, and when successful it delayed or prevented advance into affected areas. Countermeasures meanwhile improved rapidly to provide reasonably effective protection in the form of gas masks, but were heavily dependent on rapid detection and therefore less useful against another German innovation introduced near Riga in 1917 – mustard gas.

Of all the poisonous chemicals deployed by both sides, none was more effective as a shock weapon than mustard gas, which could be used in tiny, undetectable quantities and produced powerful but delayed effects. Its relative success has come to represent wartime gas attacks, the terror they caused and the suffering of their victims, for posterity, while sealing Germany’s popular reputation as the villain of the piece.

The Germans were quicker than the Entente powers to exploit the potential of chemical warfare, were perhaps more ready than their enemies to ignore international law in the process, and were arguably more ruthless in its execution.  None of that alters the fact that the British and French were more than willing to do the same thing, or erases the suspicion that the long-term effects of propaganda have something to do with our heritage history’s acceptance of German guilt.

Gas was and still is frightening. While other weapons initially deplored as barbarous and greeted with blind terror – aerial bombing, mines and torpedoes spring to mind – have passed into modern definitions of conventional warfare, chemical warfare has remained in the realm of nightmares, outlawed and despised the world over. Perhaps this twist of human psychology explains why the gas attacks presaged on the last day of January 1915 are treated by today’s heritage industries very much as they were by British propaganda at the time, as German-inspired barbarism, when they were in fact a symptom of the age, implemented with greater determination by the most efficient fighting nation of the age.

10 DECEMBER, 1914: Fame, Faith and Failure

A week or two back, I mentioned that winter warfare in Europe was restricted by weather conditions, an obvious fact illustrated by the entrenched stalemate that had infested both the Western and Eastern Fronts by mid-December 1914. There were many good reasons for this – weather-related transport problems, the battlefield chaos caused by mud and shortage of daylight hours, to name just a few – but one man was determined to ignore them all. That man was Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French Army’s Chief of Staff and de facto field commander, and he chose 10 December 1914 as the opening day of the biggest Allied offensive of the War to date.

Generally known as the First Champagne Offensive (two more were to follow in 1915 and 1918), it began around the town of Perthes but eventually spread all along the northern and central sections of the Western Front. Intended to remove two German-held bulges (or salients) from the front line, the campaign achieved absolutely nothing during four months of attrition, and cost the French army some 90,000 men. It did provide conclusive evidence that well-constructed defensive positions held an unbeatable advantage in the contemporary technological climate, a fact already quite clear to many observers, but Joffre went on to mount similar offensives with grimly similar results all through 1915.  Why?

Warfare could get slow in the snow…

On the whole I don’t subscribe to the ‘lions led by donkeys’ school of remembrance. Most generals on the Western Front and elsewhere were not brilliant but nor were they stupid. Commanders on both sides were dealing with unprecedentedly huge conscript armies in unprecedented conditions that demanded attack, when the state of military and infrastructural technology made defence the only sustainable option. On the other hand, and particularly during the War’s early stages, some important commanders can be accused of blind faith in military theory, of refusal to accept its manifest failure and of autocratic deafness to alternatives. Nobody fits this unfortunate bill more completely than Joffre.

An engineer with an unspectacular career in colonial warfare behind him, Joffre was a consensus choice as Chief of Staff in 1911. Already approaching sixty, he proved a true, arguably fanatical believer in the French Army’s sacred role as the sword of national redemption, and in its prevailing military doctrine of attack, attack and attack. A stern, magisterial presence, armoured by an utter contempt for politicians and politics, he lobbied aggressively for increased military budgets, purged the Army of ‘defensively minded’ officers and developed an unshakeable faith in the prospects of the Army’s offensive strategy for the inevitable war against Germany, Plan Seventeen.

A natural offspring of fanatically attack-minded strategists, Plan Seventeen assumed that all-out, passionate offensive spirit was the key to victory, and came a spectacular cropper in the early weeks of August 1914. True to his faith, Joffre kept driving his generals forward into Germany, convinced that sweeping conquest was only a sufficiently dashing attack away, until the German invasion of France had all but succeeded to his rear. Luck and German mistakes, along with his attack-minded opportunism and that of senior subordinates, enabled Joffre to save Paris and his job at the Marne in September, a victory for which he took full credit and the mantle of national hero.

After the Marne Joffre was untouchable, and knew it. He dropped any pretext at consulting civilian authorities, deliberately kept politicians and the public uninformed about the military position or his own plans, and took complete control of the French struggle on the Western Front. Charging up and down the front line in his high-powered automobile, swooping on individual units without warning (and often staying for a full, two-hour lunch), he was an autocrat unfettered – and he still believed that total victory was just a matter of attacking the enemy with sufficient verve and audacity. The French term for this was élan, and through the succession of failed attacks that saw fixed trench lines established from the Belgian coast to the Swiss frontier, Joffre remained convinced that a little more of it would do the trick next time. This was still his view in December.

There can come a point when belief in a theory is no longer a matter of choice, because the consequences of disproving the theory are too terrible to contemplate. It may well be that, having already sacrificed so many lives, Joffre was psychologically incapable of writing them off as a mistake, and it was certainly the case that nobody in Paris or the Army possessed the authority to prevent the Saviour of France from a policy of semi-permanent, all-out offensive warfare.  Joffre would fling his troops at German defences again and again, winning nothing and learning nothing, until he was eventually replaced in late 1916, after the ghastly, ten-month carnage of Verdun had exposed his neglect of defensive preparations.  Even then his public popularity required the government to promote him to the largely honorific post of Marshal of France.

So yes, the generals deserve at least some of the blame they’ve been taking from posterity, but men like Joffre were a type of officer found at the start of every major conflict: commanders unable to forget lessons from the last war. Their infamy has been compounded by the facts that the previous major war had been forty years ago, that technology had transformed the battlefield in the meantime, and that sociopolitical changes had drastically raised the numbers of potential casualties involved. Even the big difference between Joffre and his peers at the Great War’s command posts – his absolute power to apply the wrong lessons on a stupendously grand scale – was as much a product of peculiarities in French society as of one man’s personal failings.

26 NOVEMBER, 1914: A World Policeman’s Lot…

Late November, winter is settling in all over Europe and the 1914 fighting season is drawing to a close. Trench warfare in Belgium and northeastern France, while hardly quiet, will be defined by defensive successes during the next few months, and operations around Poland in the east are coagulating into a long winter stalemate. In the south, where the weather stays warmer, the battered but unbeaten Serbian army is regrouping for one last effort to repel a third planned Austrian invasion, while over in Armenia and Georgia the first Ottoman offensive is grinding to a halt in foul conditions. Even in the Middle East, where winter is more battle-friendly than summer, British imperial forces are resting on their laurels after taking Basra on 23 November, waiting until spring to begin a reckless advance up the rivers towards Baghdad.

A hundred years on, relative calm on the battlefronts gives me a chance to focus on a tragedy that was relatively insignificant, though only in the context of mass carnage. On 26 November 1914 the British battleship HMS Bulwark exploded while moored at Sheerness in the River Medway, so this seems a good day to talk about the everyday dangers of serving aboard a major warship in 1914, and about the everyday wartime importance of Britain’s massive, hugely expensive Royal Navy.

The Bulwark had been completed in 1902, only to be rendered obsolete as a front-line weapon four years later, when the arrival of HMS Dreadnought signalled a fundamental upgrade in battleship technology. After service in the Mediterranean, Channel and Home Fleets, Bulwark was reduced to reserve status in 1910, but as naval rivalry with Germany heated up she was refitted and returned to Channel service in 1912. When war broke out she performed patrol duties in the Channel, based at Portland, tasked with protecting the southern English coast from the predations of German minelayers, submarines and torpedo boats, from attack by major German warships and from the possibility, taken seriously at the time, of a full-scale German invasion.

Protection of Britain’s long coastline was just part of an enormous workload that meant few serviceable Royal Navy ships could malinger in reserve once war broke out. The Navy’s other basic responsibilities included protecting colonies and trade routes all over the world, imposing blockades on enemy ports and maintaining a battle fleet bigger than any likely combination of opposing fleets put together.

It’s often said that the First World War’s massive battle fleets were outdated by the time the war began and served little practical purpose. True enough, hugely expensive dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had become fatally vulnerable to cheap, easily deployed mines and torpedoes, and contemporary fleets served primarily as deterrents, but the populist idea that the Royal Navy therefore failed to pull its weight in the Great War could hardly be further from the truth.

The Navy’s maintenance of trade routes was vital to Britain’s wartime survival, as was the connected battle against enemy submarines, and denying imports to Germany was one of the War’s slow-burning strategic successes.  The service also acquitted itself more than adequately throughout the four-year battle for control of the Channel that was an (often forgotten) adjunct to nearby fighting on the Western Front, and acted as vital support to coastal and supply operations on all the other Allied fronts.

There were major failures, and heritage commemoration’s fascination with them – particularly the ill-conceived Dardanelles operation in 1915 and the inert performance at Jutland the following year – tends to preserve the myth of naval irrelevance.  There were also plenty of individual screw-ups to write home about, some of them grimly entertaining, but these were inevitable when such a gigantic organisation was stretched to the limit and relying on emergency staff. The high-profile failures weren’t the whole story, and they shouldn’t replace the Navy’s vital contribution to survival and victory in the modern public mind.

All of which brings me meandering back to HMS Bulwark. She served a short stint in early November as host to the court martial of Admiral Troubridge (in charge of shambolic attempts to intercept the Goeben back in August), and was then transferred from Portland to Sheerness, in the Medway estuary, as part of the battle group on watch for German attacks across the North Sea.

On 26 November the battle group was at anchor off Sheerness, having completed a set of North Sea exercises, and at ten to eight in the morning most of the Bulwark‘s crew were having breakfast while the ship took on coal and a marine band played on deck – when the ship exploded. The blast tore the ship to pieces, shook buildings in Southend, nine kilometres away, and scattered personal items belonging to the crew all over northern Kent. All 51 officers and all but fourteen of the 759 crewmen on board were killed at the scene, and five of the survivors later died of their wounds.


Saboteurs, mines and U-boats were immediately installed as chief suspects by much of the British press, encouraged by persistent rumours of suspicious foreigners around the docks, but the Navy inquest that followed decided the disaster had been a tragic accident. The same public paranoia followed explosions that destroyed HMS Natal in 1915 and HMS Vanguard in 1917, but contemporary warships, crammed full of oil or coal, explosive devices and relatively primitive electrical equipment (not to mention hundreds of smokers), were always likely to explode if flame found the wrong feeding ground. That’s all that happened on the Bulwark, but it was enough to cause instant, total destruction, and it was a stark reminder of another fundamental fact of naval warfare often overlooked, then and now:  an armed warship was a very dangerous place to work.


Heroic, blood-soaked and… er… what else does British heritage commemoration have to say about France in 1914?  Not a lot.  In the heritage story France is a mere sidekick, a sometimes clumsy, often pathos-laden second banana in Britain’s First Big War Against Germany.  The French heritage industry – a lot like ours in most ways – takes a mirror-image view of Britain in 1914, as a minor co-star in the story of the Second-Last Big French War Against Germany. If any French people are reading this, I realise that fighting on home soil is a pretty good excuse and I’ll get around to talking about Britain one of these days, but for today here’s a quick sketch of France at the beginning of the Great War.

France today is the Fifth Republic, founded after De Gaulle’s coup d’état of 1958. France in 1914 was the Third Republic, founded in 1870 after the country’s crushing military defeat by Prussia and the overthrow of its last monarch, Napoleon III.  Well equipped with railways, canals and shipping, it was one of the world’s most successful trading nations but lagged far behind Germany and Britain in industrial development. The vast majority of the population (40 million in 1911) depended on agriculture for a living, making the country self-sufficient in food, but the heavy industries concentrated in the northeast were relatively small and inefficient, and most manufacturing still took place at workshop level.

Unlike Germany, France was a genuine representative democracy, or at least what passed for one in the early twentieth century. A two-tier National Assembly controlled legislation and most adult males were entitled to vote in direct elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, but the upper house, the Senate, was indirectly elected. The Assembly as a whole elected a president as head of state every seven years, and the president nominated a prime minister, who in turn occupied a ministry in the 12-man cabinet and selected the other eleven ministers. Before the election of moderate conservative Raymond Poincaré in 1912, the presidency had been a largely honorific office, but Poincaré took a much more active role in internal politics and was the guiding force in French conduct of foreign affairs.

The constitution was intended to provide France with a stable political base, something lacking since the Revolution of 1789 had inaugurated a century of serial regime change, and destined to prove elusive into the late 20th. It was working in 1914, but only just, and the broader political picture in France was hardly less polarised than in Germany.

At one end of the political and intellectual spectrum, French socialism was an important force at home and abroad. Though the country’s industrial workforce was smaller and less volatile than its German counterpart, French representatives formed the moderate heart of the global socialist organisation, the Second International, and socialists always mustered a substantial group in the Assembly. As pacifists and committed republicans, constantly alert to the possibility of a royalist revival, socialists provided rugged, sometimes bitter opposition to the other great extra-parliamentary political force in France – the Army.

Well-endowed with overt royalists and, inasmuch as its officers paid any attention to political opinion, the predominantly right-wing Army was hugely important to the Third Republic as the instrument of its manifest destiny: the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, the rich eastern provinces ceded to the new Germany after the defeat of 1870. Another war between the two countries was regarded as inevitable by most informed opinion everywhere, and the question of how to create an army capable of winning it was the big issue in French politics before the War. It is hard to overstate the levels of mistrust between the Army and all but the right-wing of the political establishment (though a look at the long-running Dreyfus affair gives a flavour), and in the years before 1914 mutual antipathy crystallised around the question of conscription.

Conscription of all eligible males for a period of national service, as practiced in most mainland European countries of the day, went without saying, but Germany’s bigger manpower base left France at a disadvantage. Attempts by the Army and its political supporters to compensate by extending the term of conscription faced bitter socialist opposition, but finally bore fruit when the Three Year Law was passed in 1913. This apparent success soon backfired by persuading Berlin to fight sooner rather than later, but in the meantime it left many observers, military and otherwise, convinced that the political left would refuse to fight when war came.

Alsace and Lorraine were the defining aims of French foreign policy, and arguably of French society as a whole, but as a major colonial and trading power France did have other irons in foreign fires. Security of trade with colonies in Africa and Indo-China called for maintenance of a strong naval force in the Mediterranean, which brought potential conflict with Britain, Italy and Austria-Hungary, the other major powers with fleets in the theatre. And growing French commercial ambitions in the Middle East, as well as strong French ties with Serbia (an Ottoman province until l903), were straining historically good relations with the Turkey.

The obvious diplomatic move for France was sealed in 1892 by alliance with Russia, which could menace Germany from the east and was as yet no threat to the Mediterranean. The dream move from a French perspective, alliance with Britain as the ultimate protection against German dominance of mainland Europe, was never quite sealed before war broke out.

Informal arrangements had brought France much closer to her old enemy in the first years of the new century, culminating in a naval agreement that took pressure off both parties in northern and Mediterranean waters from 1912, while British agreements with Russia in 1907 had created a ‘Triple Entente’ to counterbalance the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. But try as they might, and they did try, successive French governments could not persuade Britain into a formal alliance.

This was the one dampener on French enthusiasm for an attack on Germany when the Austro-Serbian crisis of July 1914 brought war into prospect. The Army couldn’t wait to get started, the French government was ready to fight and the attack-minded optimism of the Army’s Plan 17 convinced both that a quick victory over Germany was all but guaranteed – but Poincaré and his inexperienced prime minister, Viviani, delayed in the hope of concrete British support.

When the shit hit the fan at the end of the month both men were in St. Petersburg, giving fateful guarantees of military support to Russia. They were able to hold off Army demands for immediate mobilisation, and on 30 July ordered a withdrawal of forces from the German frontier in an attempt to convince the British of their peaceful intentions. The following day, in a Paris café, a French nationalist who regarded pacifism as treason assassinated Jean Jaurès, far and away the most illustrious face and voice of French socialism. The government, afraid that the great man’s death would trigger a surge of pacifist dissent, or even a full-scale revolution, dared wait no longer.

French armed forces were mobilised on 1 August, with government and Army ready to conduct mass arrests of dissidents, only for the country’s internal problems to vanish the moment war was certain. The same thing happened in other belligerent countries, but nowhere was the surge of patriotic chauvinism triggered by war more pronounced or dramatic than in France. Pacifist opposition disappeared, instantly and completely, and the Assembly voted for an immediate political truce (the Union Sacrée). Within a few weeks some 2.5 million Frenchmen had answered the call-up, most with joy in their hearts, and the government was coping with manpower crises in crucial industrial and infrastructural sectors. After half a century of increasingly rabid internal division and uncertain legitimacy, the Third Republic was finally united, marching to war in confident pursuit of its lost provinces.

Shame about Plan 17.

BIG GUNS: Germany, 1914

Militarist, expansionist, successful, frustrated, to blame… that’s pretty much the heritage story when it comes to Germany in 1914. It doesn’t tell you much and what it does suggest is, as usual, only part of the truth.

Modern historians generally agree that the main impetus to general war in 1914 came from Berlin, but heritage remembrance tends to skate over the equally accepted view that Vienna, Paris and Belgrade deserve their share of the blame. It also lets us assume, albeit largely by omission, that Germany went to war inspired by some Teutonic imperative to greed and martial glory, when in fact the German leadership’s decision to embrace war sprang primarily from desperate fear of the immediate future without it.

So by way of softening any cartoon images you may have picked up, here’s a beginner’s guide to the real German Empire. It’s not particularly snappy reading and it’s not meant to be, but it should at least demonstrate that Germany went to war for intelligible reasons.

Germany was a federation of twenty-two kingdoms or principalities and three independent city-states (Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen). The biggest component was Prussia, which accounted for 64 percent of the country’s land area; the smallest was the principality of Schaumberg-Lippe, covering all of 340 square kilometres.

They had been united as Germany since 1871, largely thanks to Prussian military successes against Austria and France, and they were dominated by Prussia in 1914. Some of the larger kingdoms – Bavaria, Saxony and Württemburg, for instance – enjoyed military autonomy in peacetime and retained much of their previous national identity, but the Prussian king was Emperor of Germany, with control over foreign policy, ministerial appointments and the armed forces, and Berlin served as the Imperial capital.

Here’s a map, which I will of course remove should anyone object to its use.




Germany was Europe’s great economic success story in 1914. Industrial output, trade and infrastructural development had all mushroomed since the 1880s, and although an increasingly urban population had grown from 41 to 65 million in forty years, some 35 percent of German workers were still employed in agriculture and the country was virtually self-sufficient in food. Along with the United States, it had caught and was overtaking Britain as the world’s leading economic power, but with no colonial empire to speak of Germany badly needed new export markets if its rampant production boom was to be sustained.

German politics ran just as hot. The industrial working class was expanding fast, as was an educated middle class, but the constitution denied them genuine political representation. At federal level, every male citizen was entitled to vote for members of the parliamentary lower house, the Reichstag, but its only real function was to approve measures enacted by the upper house, the Bundesrat. That was elected by partial suffrage and populated by conservative aristocratic, military and business interests, as were most of the regional parliaments that ran the internal affairs of individual states.

Atop this pyramid of yes-men and natural supporters, the Kaiser appointed his ministers and ruled with no real need for concessions to a plethora of political parties that reflected stresses all through the system. Regional differences were important political issues, as were tensions between Protestants and Germany’s large Catholic minority, but the fault line that threatened a political earthquake in Germany was the country’s ever-widening socioeconomic divide.

The regime received qualified support from conservative and liberal parties in the Reichstag but had a real problem with the rapid rise of socialism. Most parliamentary socialists belonged to the relatively moderate Social Democratic Party (SDP), which sought gradual reform but was seen by all shades of conservative opinion as a pack of rabid revolutionaries. Once the 1912 election returned the SDP as the largest single party in the hitherto acquiescent Reichstag, some kind of constitutional crisis seemed inevitable to all sides.

German street politics were even more polarized. Few German employers recognised unions, but strikes had become a major issue by 1914, many of them focused on demands for an eight-hour working day. Socialist community organisations had sprung up all across the industrial landscape, and printed attacks on the regime proliferated in an atmosphere relatively free from media censorship. Every left-wing pressure group, however radical, had its right-wing counterpart, often in the form of ‘patriotic’ Leagues sponsored by conservative interests. Most called for military expansion and a more aggressive foreign policy but some, like the anti-feminist German Women’s League, existed primarily to oppose perceived radicalism.

Faced with rampant economic growth and sitting on a political pressure cooker, Germany’s ruling elites expected revolution at any time during the first decade of the twentieth century. Terrified of reform, on the grounds it would unleash the revolutionary agents of their own destruction, they tried to release the pressure with a policy, personally led by the Kaiser and known as Weltpolitik, aimed at making Germany a world power.

Broadly, Weltpolitik sought to establish a pan-German state, win colonial markets, secure economic domination of continental Europe and build up armed forces. It was supposed to culminate in a short, decisive war against France and Russia, as detailed very precisely in the Army’s Schleiffen Plan. So far, so militarist and expansionist, but by 1914 Weltpolitik lay in ruins.

Attempts to secure overseas possessions had achieved little, but had helped provoke France and Britain into an arms race that threatened German military superiority, while tax battles fought in Berlin to pay for German arms expansion, especially its new navy, had brought political tensions at home close to the boil. With every day that passed the enemy abroad became stronger and the enemy within more likely to explode into revolution.

By 1914 siege mentality had taken a firm grip on the administration. The Schlieffen Plan for a rapid attack on France through Belgium still beckoned as a solution to all its problems, but had to be implemented sooner rather than later or everything would be lost. In that context the Balkan crisis of 1914 and an appeal for help from Germany’s main ally, Austria-Hungary, looked  to political and military planners in Berlin like a last shot at salvation.

Once the opportunity had been seized and the world’s most efficient military machine set in motion, Germany’s internal problems evaporated in a blaze of national unity. At that point German civil and military authorities, astonished by the speed and depth of the change, had every right to consider the War an instant success, and to hope that the new patriotism would endure into peacetime. After all, even if the Army failed to deliver its rapid knockout blow, economic arguments insisted that the conflict couldn’t possibly last for more than nine months.

History knows better, and so does heritage. But where history tries to see the past from the perspective of its participants, heritage seems happy to describe it in terms of modern stereotypes. The Kaiser’s Germany, aggressive and unafraid?  That’s poppycock.

30 AUGUST, 1914: THE BOMB!

During its early phases, the war in France generally stopped for lunch, a national habit personified by Army c-in-c Joffre, who always insisted on a full, uninterrupted midday meal wherever he happened to be on the Western Front.  Today in 1914, Sunday lunch was well underway all over Paris when, at 12.45, a lone German aircraft flew over the city.

The aircraft was a Taube , a little reconnaissance monoplane, already in service for four years and appropriately slow, that was known for its stable flight and therefore considered ideal for bombing experiments.  Parisians, who at this stage called any German aircraft a Taube, watched as it circled the city centre and tossed five small objects over the side

Four were bombs, small four-pounders designed for anti-personnel use, and the fifth was a propaganda message to Parisians, advising surrender in the face of the impending German Army onslaught.  The bombs killed two people, injuring two more, and the propaganda had no discernible effect, but both were global firsts with long-term implications.

There’s never been the slightest proof that dropping propaganda leaflets on enemy civilians has any effect on anything, but air forces still do it today.  Nor, nuclear madness aside, has there ever been any evidence that large-scale bombing of civilian targets can deliver a knockout blow to an enemy, or even significantly shorten a major war – but the bombs dropped on Paris a century ago were the first, small expression of a theory that went on to blight the twentieth century in defiance of logic.

The theory that massed fleets of aircraft could bomb cities and nations into submission, even instant submission, was popular with a few military theorists and many more fiction writers even before powered flight had been achieved.  Informed observers at the start of the War were well aware that aircraft technology couldn’t yet deliver this ‘war-winning weapon’, but experiments began nonetheless and development of heavier, long-range machines soon followed.

Paris, within easy reach of German forces at the front line, bore witness to the wartime escalation this entailed.  The raids by single Taube machines continued in 1914, arriving at about five o’clock each evening and killing a few civilians but occasioning more curiosity than panic.  Zeppelin raids would follow, spreading greater destruction and fear but remaining no more than a minor nuisance to the city, and as the War grew old fleets of German heavy bombers – the Gothas – would deliver smaller loads in greater numbers and with more destructive power.  By the end of the War German bombs had killed 275 Parisians, injured more than six hundred and achieved nothing of military value.

The story was the same elsewhere.  German raids on other cities and countries (including Britain), Allied reprisal raids on more distant German targets and, ultimately, a major British experiment in massed bombing, all failed on a number of levels.  Lumbering bombers were easy meat in daylight for improving defence systems, night raids were hopelessly inaccurate, and even when targets were hit civilian populations showed no sign of the morale meltdown predicted by strategists.  At the end of the War, their case still unproven, the disciples of ‘strategic bombing’ in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere went right on believing that all they needed to win future wars at a stroke were aircraft that were big enough, fast enough and numerous enough.

History records that they were given their chance to prove it and that, until Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the rules, they kept on trying in the face of repeated and ghastly failure.  Even now, conventional bombing of civilians is used to create ‘shock and awe’ on the grounds that raining death on people makes them stop wanting to fight.  As Parisians gathered each evening to watch the daily Taube in 1914 they surely knew something new had come into the world.  They couldn’t know they were witnessing the birth of the twentieth century’s most monstrous chimera.

We can know, even should know, but somehow our commemorative obsession with the Western Front manages to bypass some of its most far-reaching consequences.  The heritage story sees the air war over France as a support act for the futility of trench warfare.  In many ways it was, and air forces did get tangled up in their own private war, well documented and essentially pointless.  History can show us there’s more to it, stretching the story across time to reveal hidden punchlines and make direct connections with our modern experience.  Strategic bombing is a huge story, casting a giant shadow across the last hundred years and worth a lot more than a few hundred words.  Any version of the War that ignores its first chapter is sadly incomplete.

7 AUGUST, 1914: France Invades Germany

We are generally quite well informed about Germany’s attack on Luxembourg, Belgium and France in early August.  For the purposes of British heritage commemorations it serves as the act that triggered Europe’s plunge into war, and its adherence to the Schlieffen Plan – a precisely timetabled blueprint for a swift, knockout punch against France that dated back to the 1890s – is seen as evidence of Germany’s prime responsibility for the catastrophe.  The story has less to say about French aggression.  France had been preparing an attack on Germany since ceding territory to a victorious Prussia in 1871.  It possessed its own plan to deliver a knockout blow, and it could hardly wait to get an invasion started.

Plan 17, the French strategic blueprint for war, was the brainchild of Ferdinand Foch, the general destined to end the war as commander-in-chief of allied forces on the Western Front.  Adopted in 1913 by the then c-in-c of French forces, Joffre, it was more flexible (and a lot less precise) than the Schlieffen Plan, and reflected the French Army’s dogmatic commitment to offensive warfare as the key to military success.  A radical departure from previous plans, which had been focused on defence of the Belgian frontier in response to a German attack, it called for French forces to retake Alsace and Lorraine, the eastern provinces lost in 1871, and then to push further east into Germany through the Ardennes forests.

With hindsight, the greatest weakness of Plan 17 was that it was based on a giant miscalculation.  French leaders had spent a decade trying and failing to get a British commitment to defending France if Germany attacked.  Joffre and most of his senior commanders refused to believe that Germany would force Britain off the fence by invading Belgium, and steadfastly ignored the possibility that Berlin might interpret Britain’s deeply opaque diplomatic fudging as licence to get away with just that.

Plan 17 did allow for a turn north to protect Belgium and Luxembourg, but this was an afterthought and treated as such, so that even an ominous build-up of German forces around the Belgian frontier in the summer of 1914 was interpreted as good news because it weakened defences in Alsace and Lorraine.  With or without hindsight, the fact that well-trained German reserve forces could be brought up to plug any gaps in Alsace and Lorraine might have worried French commanders, but they weren’t the first or last powerful men to see the world as they wanted it to be.

After a delay to be sure the British saw France as victim rather than aggressor, Plan 17 swept into action with a preliminary attack into Alsace on 7 August, its planners confident that an invasion carried out with sufficient élan (by which they meant attack-minded verve and flair) would carry all before it.

It didn’t.  German forces withdrew from Alsace to await reinforcements, and although France erupted with joy as the major town of Mulhouse was ‘liberated’ without a fight (and with most of its German-speaking citizens notably absent), a German counter-attack arrived two days later and drove the French slowly back.  A change of commander and belated reinforcement did enable the French to regain Mulhouse later in the month, but by that time part two of Plan 17, a full-scale attack into Lorraine, had run into serious trouble.

It was the kind of trouble soon to become familiar on the Western Front.  Two French armies advanced into Lorraine from the north on 14 August and attacked the towns of Sarrebourg and Morhange, coming up against the German Sixth Army, a largely Bavarian force deployed along a line protecting the towns.  French infantry charges were easy meat for entrenched troops armed with machine guns and artillery, and attack-minded French forces had no trenches of their own in place when German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht (the heir to the Bavarian throne) launched a counterattack on 20 August.

Within two days French forces had been driven back to a line of fortified bases on high ground east of Nancy.  Two days after that, on 24 August, the invasion of Germany was officially called off, by which time French, British and Belgian forces were manifestly on the defensive all along the northwestern frontiers of France.  On the same day Rupprecht, having persuaded his High Command to divert strength from the drive on Paris further north, launched a major offensive against the French line, only for roles to be reversed as three days of German assaults failed against well-prepared trenches.  The sector then subsided into armed stalemate for most of the next four years.

Heritage has pretty much forgotten about the French invasion of 1914, and that means its inadvertent contribution to the defeat of Germany’s invasion is also left out of the story.  If the French attack on Lorraine hadn’t failed badly enough to give Prince Rupprecht visions of glory and massive reinforcement to carry them out, the German thrust further north towards Paris would have been considerably, perhaps decisively stronger.  That’s history for you – everything connected up in ways heritage, with its perceived need for simple straight lines, finds inconvenient.