I don’t have the cultural reach or the linguistic skills to interpret mass media’s take on the First World War in those parts of the modern world immune to Western, or apparently Western, historical perspectives. It seems unlikely, but I can’t be sure that Chinese, Ukrainian, Turkish or Iranian media aren’t bigging up the centenaries of a certifiably crazy world’s climactic death spasms, reminding populations that the planet’s modern geopolitical structures were created amid the frantic chaos of the Great War’s rush to conclusions. I can be sure that Western media, while maintaining their lachrymose commentaries on futility, deprivation and death, are keeping oddly quiet about the hurricane of military movement and political upheaval that was sweeping through the world in the autumn of 1918.
So why do the big, decisive events of the War’s latter stages merit so little commemoration compared with the meat-grinding failures of its earlier years? Why do the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele qualify for floods of retrospective tears and millions of platitudes from the heritage industry, while events that made a real difference to modern lives are buried for deep readers or completely ignored? Lots of possible reasons spring to mind, most of them boiling down to laziness or arrogance, depending on whether modifying the ‘static warfare’ narrative is deemed to be too much like hard work or too hard for the punters to swallow. Then again, it could be our own fault for buying into the doleful trench poetry so comprehensively and enthusiastically that media providers can’t find an audience for anything else, or it might simply be that we’re all too busy with today’s chaos to waste time getting serious about any kind of commemoration.
Whatever its roots, the eerie silence leaves a significant gap in common knowledge. In my experience, moderately well-informed people – folks with a sense of history but no specific training or obsessions – see the trench picture, absorb the narrative about static futility and then see the peace treaty that proclaimed its end, with nothing much in between. The overall picture appears simple: a disastrous, ill-conducted war concludes with a disastrous, ill-conceived peace and, Bob’s your uncle, a rotten system is launched along a straight road to dictators and another world war. There is some truth in there, but it’s no more useful than the ‘truth’ that humanity discovered fire and then bombed Hiroshima. We need the journey from A to B if we’re going to extract anything useful from history.
So all’s quiet on the heritage front during the first week of October 2018, yet a hundred years earlier the world was experiencing a few days of sensational and significant turmoil. More all-round earthshaking than anything seen since the heady, hopeful days of August 1914, the game-changing developments taking place all over the world in early October 1918 set the tone for the weeks that followed, leading up to the Armistice in November, and traced out fault lines that would destabilise the century to come. By way of illustration, here’s a fairly detailed look at a week of news that makes today’s Trumpery look trivial.
The Kingdom of Bulgaria had officially ceased fighting on 30 September, a Monday, and King Ferdinand would abdicate in favour of his son, Boris, before the week was out, but by 1 October this relatively minor triumph was barely worth a propaganda mention in the British press. That’s because bigger fish were being hooked in a hurry.
On the Western Front, battles were gleefully named, concluded and pronounced victorious as British and French armies advanced steadily east in Flanders and Champagne. Battles of the Canal du Nord, Ypres (again), the St. Quentin Canal and the Beaurevoir Line came and went, the Hindenburg line was reached and breached, so that by 5 October British forces were pushing east of Le Catelet, French divisions were advancing east of Reims and German forces had evacuated Lille. Further south, French and US forces, the latter at last operating at full strength and as a unified American command, were attacking northeast in the Meuse/Argonne sector, making progress that was only unspectacular by the new standards being set elsewhere.
If the German Army was clearly on the ropes in France and Belgium, the Austro-Hungarian Army and Empire looked ready to collapse. A military remnant, demoralised and short of everything, was drawn up along the Danube frontier by 1 October, theoretically ready to defend the imperial heartlands from invasion, but nobody really expected it to fight. The Reichsrat (Austrian parliament) in Vienna spent the day in uproarious discussion of possible peace options, and on 4 October the government sent a note to US President Wilson proposing an armistice.
The German government sent its own note to Wilson on the same day, after a ‘national summit’ on 3 October, presided over by a panic-stricken Kaiser, had produced general acceptance of defeat and a radical change of administration. Ludendorff, Hindenburg and the rest of the Third Supreme Command simply transferred executive power to the Reichstag, intending to snipe from the sidelines while those they considered to blame for defeat were forced to make peace. German parliamentarians accepted the poisoned chalice in the hope of preventing the revolution that everyone inside Germany could see coming, and the new government led by Max von Baden wasted no time opening peace negotiations.
Wilson, who received the German request for peace talks on 6 October and the Austrian version the following day, was very much the go-to guy for peace talks. The United States of America has never before or since matched the global authority, popularity and prestige it enjoyed during the couple of years between its commitment to the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles. Where common sense and religion had failed more or less miserably to provide any kind of guidance or salvation, the USA spoke with the strictly liberal voice of its founding constitution, wielded sufficient economic and (potential) military might to make liberalism stick and, through its borderline messianic president, offered an apparently victimless blueprint for global healing.
Wilsonian magic was popular everywhere, even in those Latin American states being ravished by US corporations with Washington’s help, and the literate, Western world pretty much held its breath in anticipation of the President’s response to Berlin and Vienna. Wilson, a messiah hedged around by political considerations, fudged it, keeping the remaining Central Powers onside while respecting the stated war aims of his European allies by insisting, on 8 October, that withdrawal from all territorial conquests was the first pre-condition for peace talks. The world breathed out and, for now, the War went on.
Amid the fanfares from the Western Front, the glimpses of peace to come and all the usual action reports (the wars at sea and in the air were still providing a regular diet of disaster and derring-do), British newspapers still needed room to report a bumper crop of major events elsewhere, many of them rich in implications for the post-War world.
In the Middle East, the long-awaited fall of Damascus took place on 1 October, but British and Arab forces reached the city at about the same time, leaving their alliance on a knife edge and direct confrontation a distinct possibility. Tensions cooled after 3 October, when British c-in-c Allenby and Arab leaders reached a provisional agreement to officially recognise the Arab nations as belligerent states, guaranteeing them a voice in the peace process.
Meanwhile the Ottoman war effort had breathed its last. Anglo-French naval forces occupied Beirut on 7 October – having found it abandoned by Ottoman forces the previous day – just as the reckless, fantasist Young Turk regime in Constantinople was mimicking its German counterparts, resigning en masse and handing the task of clearing up to a moderate parliamentarian cabinet. New grand vizier Izzet Pasha immediately opened peace negotiations with the Allies, but by the time agreement on an armistice was reached on 30 October Enver and his senior colleagues had fled to revolutionary Russia aboard German ships. Izzet’s administration was widely believed to have facilitated Enver’s escape, and was forced to resign on 11 November, after which the heart of the Ottoman Empire (or more accurately its surviving rump) came under relatively short-term military occupation by the Allies, of which more another day.
The deaths of empires give birth to new states, and this week’s first major proclamation of European statehood came on 5 October, when formation of a Yugoslav National Council at Agram marked the first (but not last) attempt to unite the northern Balkans as a single nation. Three days later, Polish nationalist leaders issued their demands for a representative national government, and on the same day the Spanish cabinet resigned, triggering a change of government that made little difference to the military’s effective and oppressive grip on power over that well-established but decrepit state. Far away from Europe, in another ancient and crumbling state, the republican Chinese government at Canton declared war on the Emperor’s regime in Beijing, formalising a multi-faceted civil conflict that would rage almost uninterrupted for more than thirty years.
Like the fate of Bulgaria, all these stories were mere background news, as were the sporadic actions of Allied forces around Archangelsk and Japanese divisions in Siberia. The same could be said of actions on and around the Italian front, which amounted to a few minor infantry seizures of Austro-Hungarian positions along with regular bombing raids, the usual naval skirmishes and Italy’s ongoing military occupation of Albania. Rather more column inches were being devoted – in British, French and Italian newspapers – to demands for the Italian Army to launch a full offensive against the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the theatre, but Italian c-in-c Diaz was in no hurry to comply. Despite increasing pressure from Allied strategists and his own government, especially expansionist foreign minister Sonino, who eventually threatened him with the sack, Diaz held out until the end of the month before sending his fragile army into action. Italy rejoiced, but its hour of triumph would be over in a matter of days. A country that had entered the conflict in search of conquests to ease a national inferiority complex would end the War with its collective appetite for expansion whetted but not satisfied.
Those are just the noisier headlines from a wild and crazy week in October 1918, displayed as pointers to some of the ways in which they shaped modern life. I plan to say more about most of them as their stories unfold, and to spin a few words about various other chunks of geopolitical architecture under construction as the Great War ground to a halt, but for now this has been an attempt to shine some light on huge, crucial changes to the world that nobody with a modern audience can be bothered to mention.