I’ve got no good reason for picking on this particular day, except that it’s been long enough since the last ramble, it’s a date destined to mark Armistice Day and in 1916 it was a Saturday. The last part gives me an excuse for a loose look back on a wartime week that was, in conflict terms, essentially humdrum – not dull or anything, just short of a commemorative moment that knocks on any doors to historical understanding I haven’t peeked through lately. So here come a few morsels, newsletter style, rather than the usual stretched point.
The previous Tuesday had seen a US presidential election, but although it prompted media comment and speculation throughout the world, the battle for the White House was nothing like the global blockbuster of a story it is today. The obvious reason for that was a world war in progress, but another was the state of inter-continental communications in 1916. Telegraph meant news from the USA reached the rest of the world quickly, but it was still drawn from very limited sources and perspectives, rendering detailed, current analysis of slow-burning events like the election all but impossible for overseas media.
A third factor keeping the excitement down in Europe was that the re-election of Democrat incumbent Woodrow Wilson was seen as an essentially unremarkable and satisfactory result.
Wilson may have exasperated the British with his opposition to the Royal Navy’s idea of international law, and the Republican Party, represented by Supreme Court judge Charles Hughes, was certainly more likely to go to war against Germany than the current administration – but business between the USA and the Allies was proceeding smoothly, and US relations with Germany were worsening at a reasonably satisfactory pace. Continuity also avoided the potentially dangerous hiatus of a complex transition process that in those days continued until an inauguration ceremony in early March (though Wilson had in fact addressed that problem in advance, making plans for an unprecedented immediate inauguration if he lost). At the same time the Central Powers were less uncomfortable with Wilson, who had campaigned on the slogan ‘He Kept Us Out Of The War’ (despite his personal doubts that he’d be able to do so for much longer), than with a Republican platform built around military ‘preparedness’ for any unavoidable future entanglement in (European or Mexican) war.
From the American side of the Atlantic, Wilson’s victory by a razor-thin margin – the first successful tilt at a repeat term by a Democrat since 1832 – had been a lot more exciting. The final result had been so close that, with vital returns from California delayed by recounts, Hughes is reputed to have gone to bed on 7 November in the belief that he had won, and if the Republican Party had been less of a mess he might well have done.
The root of Republican disarray was, as in 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt, who had returned to the fold from his breakaway Progressive Party, and had thrown his weight behind the respected but altogether less charismatic Hughes after his own bid for the nomination had failed. Roosevelt’s militarist, nationalist populism didn’t reflect the views of Hughes, who shared Wilson’s preference for caution, but was seen by many voters as the dominant theme of the Republican campaign. Although the electorate’s preference for the Allies over Germany was clear, it was not ready to enthuse over entanglement in Europe’s war, and with hindsight many Republicans blamed Roosevelt’s noisy, bellicose contributions for Wilson’s victory.
Business interests in the US were understandably disappointed to miss out on the contracts bonanza implied by preparedness, and the result had sent Wall Street into a minor tumble by the time markets closed for the weekend, but it didn’t last. Wilson quickly calmed things down by announcing increased military spending, and within a few weeks Germany’s escalation of submarine warfare would render the election debate obsolete, freeing US industrialists to embark on a production boom that would cement their future dominance of world trade and, with government support, secure their complete victory over the nascent forces of US socialism.
A few days after the election, none of this was making much of a splash in the British press, which was crammed with all the usual optimistic reports from various battlefronts – dominated by highly detailed coverage of activity around the Somme (and, at this time of improving fortunes, around Verdun) – along with the usual long lists of casualties and medal winners.
The press also carried exhaustive lists of ships lost, and the previous week’s most high-profile maritime casualty had been the cruise ship Arabia, en route from Australia to Britain and carrying 439 civilian passengers, which was torpedoed without warning in the Mediterranean, about 100km off the southern tip of Greece, by the UB-43 on 6 November. Eleven crewmen were killed, and although all the passengers were rescued the nature of the attack on a ship carrying 169 women and children provoked worldwide outrage, particularly in the USA, which delivered a formal protest about the sinking to the German government, and in Australia, where it triggered a temporary surge in the numbers volunteering for armed service.
While an American judge was being denied the presidency by voters’ preference for peace, and outrage was propelling young Australians to war, pacifism was enduring a bad weekend in Britain. On 11 November, a British tribunal delivered its judgment on a test case that confirmed the government’s policy of restricting the wages of conscientious objectors to the amount they would have earned as a private in the Army. Understandable on one level, the state’s insistence that no individual gain financially from refusal to fight was also a labour relations issue, as was the government’s almost constant ‘combing out’ of men from reserved occupations for military service. Yet despite all the turmoil and realignments on both sides needed to adapt to more than two years of ‘total war’, the big labour question in late 1916, central to a British socialist movement positioned on the far left of the political spectrum as we understand it today, was the same as it had been in August 1914: war or peace?
Often led by Labour MPs, meetings and demonstrations demanding an immediate negotiated peace took place in increasing numbers all over Britain as the slaughter in France gathered momentum through 1916. That they represented a minority view was confirmed on 11 November at one such meeting in Cardiff. Organised by the South Wales miners, it was broken up by an angry citizen mob, which hurled mud and stones at participants as it chased them away, a street battle that both highlighted the depth of social divisions beneath the unifying mask of defiance to the enemy, and delighted a predominantly right-wing and universally jingoist national press.
Though none of the above episodes opens up any stunning new historical vistas, they do at least relate to a modern world experiencing President Trump, outrageous acts of terror against civilians and a British Labour Party led by a far-left pacifist. As such they strike me as more interesting than the event generally commemorated on this day by the heritage industry (whenever it can see past the poppies): the end of the grimly unremarkable, ten-day action – yet another attempt by the BEF to extend the tiny bulge in the Somme line it had created near Flers-Courcelette – known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights.