15 JANUARY, 1919: Sticky Business

So the Great War was officially over but, like a big meteorite dropped into an ecologically diverse lake, it was still sending dangerous ripples in all directions as 1919 got going.

Pretty much every country in the world was trying to cope with major geopolitical, political, social, economic and cultural changes wrought by the conflict.  While the major combatants, or their surviving components, wrestled with the momentous consequences of losing or winning the war, the rest of the planet was busy trying to sort out the mess created by more or less voluntary commitment to imperial wars, by direct exploitation by warring empires (as either proxy battlegrounds or resource pools) or by the sudden absence of imperial landlords.  Even in Latin America, the region least directly affected by the First World War, economic upheaval and the spectre of US economic domination had fuelled political turmoil that was still playing out across the continent in 1919.

There were two major exceptions to this rule of thumb.  One was Japan, which had suffered a little economic and political upheaval while prosecuting a very canny and profitable war, but was proceeding along lines of national ambition that were essentially unchanged since the late nineteenth century.  The other was the United States, viewed by the rest of the world as having emerged from its short, victorious war fabulously rich, apparently very clever and generally admirable.  The War had triggered tectonic shifts in that nation’s economic, political and cultural life, but on the whole the US was acting as if it had been a mere blip, a temporary diversion, and as if it was back to business as usual, on the road to a serene, separate prosperity based firmly and (almost) exclusively in the New World.

The US president and his advisors may have been busy putting the world to rights, and the press was carrying news of returning servicemen along with the first official reports on their performance in the field, but the US public mind was once again focused on its home patch – and on 15 January it had some very strange news to absorb.  I had intended to spend today with the Estonian War of Independence, which was on the point of expelling Red Army forces from the country in mid-January, but although the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1915 had little to do with the First World War, it did shine a small light on its aftermath in the US… and it was too weird to leave alone.

Homecoming US troops got their parades, like this one in New York, but then it was back to business.

The Purity Distilling Company of Massachusetts, a subsidiary of United States Industrial Alcohol (USIA) since 1917, had been doing a roaring wartime trade in molasses, which were fomented to create ethanol, or grain alcohol.  Ethanol was useful for various culinary, industrial and agricultural processes, including the manufacture of munitions, and Purity couldn’t get enough of the stuff once war broke out in Europe.

Molasses landed from Cuba were stored at the company’s Boston facility and fomented before rail transfer to a distillery in nearby Cambridge, and rocketing demand required construction of an enormous new storage tank close to the waterfront.  The tank took its first shipment in December 1915, days after it had opened and before it had been fully tested for strength.  Peace brought the molasses boom to an abrupt end, but the prospect of prohibition in the US offered an alternative market during the one-year period of grace allowed before the legislation became active, and USIA sought to exploit it by stocking up big time as prices fell.

The tank

Locally renowned as a leaky source of free supplies to passers by, and inclined to internal rumblings, the Boston tank was spectacularly full in mid-January 1919, containing some 8.7 million litres of molasses that weighed almost 11.8 million kilos.  Whether because of leaks in the tank, a rapid rise in outside air temperature (which rose from -17C to 5C on 14 January), miscalculations about expansion during the fomentation process, or some or all of those factors in combination, the tank exploded just after 12.30pm on 15 January.

Preceded by a powerful shock wave that instantly reduced nearby wooden structures to splinters, a tsunami of molasses, reportedly either five or eight metres high and either 27 or 50 metres across, ripped out of the tank at a speed estimated at around 55kph.  The surge devastated the dockyard area, buckling girders supporting the overhead railway, derailing a train, tearing brick structures from their foundations and obliterating street furniture. People in its path were blown away, smothered or hit by flying debris from the tank.

The wave caused damage amounting to several hundred million dollars in modern terms, killed 21 people and injured 150.  Most of the dead drowned in molasses or were mortally wounded by debris, but a few died after being tossed into the harbour.  Once the tsunami lost momentum a flood spread through the streets of Boston’s North End, burying them under up to a metre of sweet, sticky goo, while rescuers arrived on the scene to dig bodies and survivors out of the morass.  The clean-up and rescue operation took weeks, and by the time it was finished visitors to the scene had spread a residue of molasses all over the city.

There goes the railway…

Investigators decided almost immediately that the tank had been too thin and held together with too few rivets, and US Industrial Alcohol was subject to a class action that reached court in August 1920.  The company was eventually found guilty of neglect in 1925, after which it settled out of court, paying compensation to the city of Boston, the Elevated Railway Company and the families of victims, each of which received $7,000 (around $120,000 today).

In historical terms, the vedict had important consequences for the US construction industry, prompting the city of Boston to introduce new building regulations that required all major structures to undergo official inspection before opening, and that were rapidly copied elsewhere.  Less obviously, and in a small way, the case said something about post-War attitudes to the rest of the world in the United States.

When the lawsuits against USIA came before their first hearing, in August 1920, the company claimed that anarchists had sabotaged the Boston storage tank to prevent use of the molasses for munitions.  It cited rumours of Italian anarchist conspiracies reported in the press since the Armistice, threats received by telephone and the discovery of a bomb at another of its installations in 1916.  Rubbished without much difficulty by prosecutors, the plea was a reminder that, while companies like USIA were selling business (and boozing) as usual for all they were worth, even they felt the shadow of the Great War and kept one eye on a world in revolutionary turmoil.  USIA’s decision to go with the anarchist argument also suggests it had reason to believe the public – or at least the public in cosmopolitan, coastal Boston – shared a concern for the wider world that no amount of isolationist wishful thinking could completely suppress.

This sense of involvement in world affairs, though sporadic and far more prevalent near coasts and frontiers, was part of the First World War’s enduring legacy in the USA.  It doesn’t get much space in a standard narrative that has the nation diving back into isolationism between the wars, yet it would have momentous, global consequences for the rest of the twentieth century, and it remains fundamental to the stark divisions exploited by modern politicians in the USA.  There, I knew I’d find an excuse for this one…

These are Finnish troops in Estonia, where they joined an invasion by some 3,000 native independence fighters that won a crucial battle against an equally small Red Army force at Utria on 17-20 January 1919. Important stuff for Estonians everywhere – sorry, Estonians.

4 JANUARY, 1919: The Revolution Will Not Be…

Despite more than four years of fighting to bring stability to the world’s geopolitical systems, or perhaps because of the path taken by the struggle, the survivors among Europe’s traditional stakeholders entered 1919 braced for a battle to preserve the political systems that kept them in place.  Speaking in the broadest possible terms, they had been very afraid of mass revolution in 1914, and pleasantly surprised when the outbreak of war provoked nothing of the sort, but by the beginning of 1919 they were terrified of it.

The roots of the fear weren’t hard to find.  The siren song of socialism demanded change and, having been all but silenced by the national crises of 1914, had come roaring back as a political force since the ghastly military stalemate of 1916.  The spectre of revolution, which had loomed ever larger over Europe’s comfortable classes through the nineteenth century, had developed undeniable substance by toppling the mighty Russian Empire in 1917, and seemed to menace every unstable or war-torn body politic during the turbulent denouement of 1918.

As 1919 got underway, viewed from a conservative perspective, it looked as if revolution’s day had come.  Not just Russia, and not just the many small, faraway countries thrown into revolutionary turmoil by wars – in early January it seemed Bolshevism was about to swamp Germany and was even, if your conservatism came with an alarmist streak, flexing for action in Britain.

I’ll start with Germany, which was showing every outward sign of going the way of imperial Russia.  This isn’t the place for detailed analysis of a very complex and often incoherent story, but the bare bones were reasonably straightforward.

The collapse of the imperial regime had left relatively moderate socialist politicians of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and its left-wing splinter group the Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP) in charge of a state disintegrating under pressure of war economics and along all the crevices of its endemic political divisions.  As reformists or ‘gradualists’, seeking peaceful change within the framework of parliamentary politics, these guys had long been an accepted part of the German political landscape, and had spent the years before the War pushing back against radical socialist demands across Europe.  They didn’t want a revolution governed by soviets or peoples’ councils.  They wanted a reformed version of normalcy and, in the optimistic belief that their allies in the military represented a genuine faith in representative democracy across the officer corps, they were prepared to use troops and right-wing militias (known as Freikorps) to get it.

The revolutionary left had also been a force in pre-War Germany, and had been actively fostering and preparing for revolution, regionally and nationally, since the eruption of street protests, street violence and soviet-style politics that had followed the Keil Mutiny in November (11 November, 1918: Peace Off).  After the ‘Christmas Crisis’ in Berlin, during which sailors’ councils occupied the imperial chancellery but were forced to withdraw after a fight with troops and Freikorps units, the most radical elements formally split from the SDP and USPD, forming the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) at the end of the year.

Germany was a de facto federation of states, and each faced its own political upheavals as royal or aristocratic government collapsed, but the centre of national power lay in Berlin and the industrial north, where the Spartacist League dominated revolutionary politics and the KPD.  The League and its dashing young leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, went on to become poster children for romantic revolutionaries everywhere during the twentieth century, and its ‘Spartacist Uprising’ of January 1919 is seen as the defining crisis of the German Revolution, but its actual impact was fleeting, limited and damaging to its cause.

Karl and Rosa, dashing but doomed.

While the moderate parties and radical union leaders (organised as the Revolutionary Stewards) remained committed to participation in forthcoming parliamentary elections, the Spartacists wavered for a couple of days before opting to seek revolution ‘on the streets’ (despite Luxemburg’s preference for a parliamentary campaign).  To their surprise, an opportunity to spark said revolution broke out almost at once.

Against the alliance of landowners, capitalism and new militarism… that was the Spartacist message in 1918.

On 4 January 1919, a Saturday, Chancellor Ebert dismissed Berlin police chief Emil Eichhorn, who had refused to act against protesters during the Christmas Crisis.  Eichhorn’s call for a demonstration of support from those he had spared was backed by the USPD, the Revolutionary Stewards and the KDP, and was answered by hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of them armed, in Berlin the following day.  While Ebert’s government made arrangements to hire Freikorps units as peacekeepers, revolutionary groups occupied newspaper offices and the city’s police HQ, where a 53-strong revolutionary committee was formed.

The committee failed to reach any kind agreement on what to do next, but did call a general strike, which brought another half a million or so people onto the streets of Berlin on 8 January.  By that time the USPD had opened talks with Ebert and the KPD was effectively split between those who wanted revolution right then and those who thought it doomed to fail without deeper popular support.  The former won the argument, but the latter had it right.

Talks between Ebert and the USPD broke down later that day, triggering a call by the Spartacists for armed uprising and a call from Ebert to Freikorps commanders.  Easily and often derided as naive, calling in the Freikorps was not an unpopular move by the new government.  Even centrist and moderate left-wing newspapers had been calling for firm military action against revolutionary groups since the turn of the year, and their right-wing counterparts were demanding mass executions of revolutionary ‘traitors’.  Ebert and his ministers, their regime staggering in the shadow of Kerenski, had reason to hope that restoration of order could bring consensus around the idea of a liberal democratic Germany.

The fight that followed in Berlin was extremely one-sided, as combat veterans with state-of-the-art weaponry routed poorly armed, undisciplined, outnumbered revolutionaries.  Freikorps troops took full control of the city during next three days, losing seventeen dead but killing more than 150 insurgents, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who were arrested on 15 January and shot during the night.  Berlin’s conquerors never received any official government sanction and their actions were never officially investigated, but they did save the infant German republic, albeit at the cost of its dependence on independent right-wing groups.  Revolution in Germany was far from done, and would define its regional politics into the 1920s, but revolution by an extra-parliamentary coup d’état at the centre would never come so close again.

These were the January revolutionaries in Berlin, occupying the newspaper district…
… and these were the hardened veterans responsible for wiping many of them out.

I hadn’t intended to spend quite so long in Germany today, but information got the better of argument.  My point was to illustrate how fragile the established world order felt to its stakeholders in early 1919, by way of providing context for the fleeting moment of revolutionary Zeitgeist experienced by Britain at the same time.

Britain had suffered a lot of strikes in the latter part of 1918, including a police strike, but 3 January 1919 saw the beginning of a strike by serving soldiers.  Of course it looked like a mutiny to those convinced revolution was coming, and technically that’s exactly what it was – and it was a big one.  It began in Folkestone, where some 3,000 men refused orders to embark for France, reached troops at Dover the next day and spread to dozens of camps in southern England during the next few days.

The rest of the month saw similar incidents, involving tens of thousands of servicemen (and a few women), at camps across the UK provinces and among British troops still stationed in northern France.  The government and military authorities did their best to keep the whole thing quiet, and succeeded to some extent.  The original ‘mutinies’ on the south coast received some press coverage before the government stepped in, and basic news of major incidents at Southampton and around Calais was reported, as were the negotiations with senior officers that brought them to an end (in mid-January and the end of the month respectively), but the public had no idea how widespread the trouble had become.

Pictures of the soldiers’ strike? You’re kidding… so here’s one of the 1918 strike by British police.

From the perspective of a British government in the habit of imposing wartime censorship and well versed in the mechanics of contemporary mass politics, this smelled like revolution in the making.  The soldiers’ actions might, it was felt, be the prelude to formation of political councils and demands, revolutionary behaviour that could spread to infect the civilian workforce and trigger scenes parallel with those in Germany.  Right in tune with the times, this view made smothering the story, and keeping it smothered in the aftermath, a government no-brainer – but it was nonsense just the same.

Modern historians tend to refer to the soldiers’ actions in January 1919 as a strike, and they are right.  Peace had arrived, and conscripted soldiers quite naturally wanted to get home as soon as possible, or at the very least enjoy a relaxation of wartime routines. Instead they were being kept in uniform, subjected to full military discipline and discharged at snail’s pace.  Far from being demobbed, many troops were being ordered to or readied for further overseas service, either as occupying forces or to fight in those parts of the world the British Empire still considered war zones.  Everything we know about the demands of the soldiers and the concessions made to them suggests that they were on strike over working conditions, and the actions were all brought to a peaceful end once the demob process was speeded up, leave granted to those still in uniform and guarantees given against transfer overseas.

Hindsight tells us that the post-War British were, as usual, more interested in peace, quiet and comfort than in revolution – but thanks to the (understandable) paranoia of their ruling classes the soldiers’ strike of early 1919 has been consigned to the misty lands of myth and legend.  Britain wasn’t denied a workers’ paradise or saved from Bolshevik tyranny (delete as preferred) by government repression in 1919, but national propaganda’s enduring need to keep the strike a secret means that most people today have never heard of it, while the shortage of detailed information about it (particularly the lack of published contemporary memoir) has enabled polemicists on both right and left to claim it as a key moment in modern British history.  The strike did achieve its aims, and had important short-term effects on British military thinking, in particular helping to dissuade the government from committing large numbers of troops to the war in Russia, but any association with revolution existed purely in the minds of the converted.

26 DECEMBER, 1918: Waving And Drowning

It’s Boxing Day 2018, and in Britain we’re either shopping or slacking, the latter a clear dereliction of our duty to save the nation by spending more than we can afford.  Some of us are watching professional sport but these days that counts as a form of shopping, as does taking a holiday during the ‘festive’ season.  What we are not doing, with parliament on vacation and world news restricted to natural disasters or routine ceremonials, is politics – which, given Britain’s current political circumstances, says something about how completely we buy into the primacy of commercial Christmas over everything else in late December.  It wasn’t quite like that in 1918.

Christmas was big by 1918.  The habits we now call traditions were well established, though as bare bones compared with today’s sophisticated exploitations, and the implied pause for religious reflection was taken seriously by a very large chunk of the population.  Then again, the holiday did not, as it does today, blot out the real world, and on Boxing Day 1918 the attention of the informed nation, and especially that of more than seven million people living in and around London, was firmly fixed on one event that had nothing to do with nativity.  For the first time in history, a sitting US president was visiting Europe, and on 26 December he was arriving in Britain.

Even by the fanfare standards surrounding the office today, Woodrow Wilson wasn’t just any old sitting US President.  As 1918 drew to a close he was by far the most famous person in the world, and although it’s probably fair to say he loomed less large in the thinking of radical socialists, he was at the absolute peak of his personal influence over world affairs.  Millions of people in dozens of countries regarded Wilson’s ideas as the greatest, if not the only hope for the peaceful development of human civilisation, and hoped that the power of his office combined with his much-vaunted commitment to principles would deliver just that.  In an age when reputations were relatively immune to mass scrutiny on a personal level, he was rock star, Messiah and geopolitical colossus rolled into one.

They loved him in Paris – but the romance wouldn’t last.

Up there on his pedestal, Wilson did have enemies.  A small but fierce minority in many countries – wartime winners and losers alike – regarded Wilson as a potentially deadly threat to civilisation as they liked it, less violent than the bogeyman menace of Bolshevism but much more in their face.  Significant in that they represented many of the most powerful people in those countries, these minorities ended 1918 determined to scupper Wilson’s liberal agenda for the forthcoming peace negotiations by any means acceptable to their populations.  Broadly speaking, and judged largely through the medium of the popular press, those populations were deeply committed to the principles embodied by Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan, but rather more committed to either gaining rewards or escaping punishment for their parts in the late war – so Wilson’s overseas enemies felt they were in with a chance.

Wilson was probably the most famous person in his own country, though Charlie Chaplin could give him a run for his money, but he was never a particularly messianic figure.  Though granted a certain hallowed status by press, politicians and propaganda while the USA was actually at war, his ungainly and unsuccessful intervention in the midterm elections had reduced him to the ranks of ordinary, if high-profile politicians by late 1918.  This meant Wilson was open to personal criticism, like any other political leader, and his much-heralded departure for Europe on 4 December 1918 – an extended visit that would keep him away for more than six months, apart from a one-month spell back in the US – was seen by some US observers as evidence of his arrogance, self-importance and belief in his own legend.  I’ll get around to the controversies surrounding those chosen or not chosen to accompany Wilson’s delegation when the peace conference itself gets going, but for now I want to concentrate on the President’s instant impact on European life.

Wilson travelled aboard the SS George Washington (a German liner interned in 1914), arrived at Brest, France, on 13 December and proceeded to Paris.  He had visited France before, as president-elect in 1912, but this time the population gave him the full superstar treatment, thronging every street through which he passed and every perch from which he could be seen.  He remained in France until Christmas, accepting adoration wherever he went, and took the boat train next day to London.

Wilson’s advisors – well aware that the newly re-elected Lloyd George government regarded the President and his ideas with deep suspicion – expected a more restrained welcome from the British, but they were wrong.  From the moment Wilson’s train arrived at Charing Cross station he might as well have been in Paris.  The streets were packed with civilians in party mood, military honour guards accompanied his progress and he triggered a major outbreak of flag draping and waving.  Only the fact that he rode the two-mile carriage journey to Buckingham Palace accompanied by a king distinguished the day from its French counterpart.

Wilson with President Poincaré in Paris – the smiley face made a big impression in every country Wilson visited, largely because the world was used to…
… stern, serious Woodrow.

Wilson beamed a lot that day in London, and gave a short speech to the adoring multitudes from the Palace balcony, but he’d been to Britain several times before becoming president and didn’t stay long in the capital.  After a meeting with Lloyd George he travelled north for a little rest and relaxation, setting in motion what would become something of a presidential tradition by visiting Carlisle, the birthplace of his mother, and stopping on the evening of 29 December in Manchester, where he was given the full rock star welcome next day and delivered a speech at the Free Trade Hall.  He returned to Paris on New Year’s Eve, but just for the night before setting off for Italy.

Speaks for itself, and for Carlisle.

The Italian welcome for Wilson put Britain and France in the shade, at least in terms of hyperbole, with plenty of popular calls for sainthood to match his local nickname as the ‘god of peace’, accompanied by a torrent of praise for his beatific good looks from a gushing press.  If there is an explanation for this extreme excitement that doesn’t involve national stereotyping, it lies in the difference between contemporary Anglo-French and Italian attitudes to the USA.

The Italian population, like the British and French, was cheering because it was understandably and madly in love with peace, and besotted enough to overlook the fact that Wilson’s brand of peace expressly rejected many of their most cherished national ambitions – but Italians also saw Wilson (and by extension the USA) as a protector against their other powerful allies.  Italians had spent much of the last three years carping about a perceived lack of material support or strategic respect from the British and French, and since the Bolsheviks had made public all the wartime secret treaties to which Russia was party, they had known the promises that brought them into the War could not and would not be kept. Simply put, most Italians expected the British and French to stitch up Italy at the forthcoming peace conference, and wanted to believe that Wilson was principled enough, powerful enough and sufficiently steeped in traditional US hatred of empires to stop them.

Different city, same reaction – crowds greet Wilson in Rome.

Wilson stayed in Italy until 6 January, fitting in talks with King Victor Emmanuel, Prime Minister Orlando and Pope Benedict XV, the latter an irritant to an Italian government on very frosty terms with the Vatican.  With no time to undertake a proposed visit to Belgium – which eventually took place in June – he returned to Paris in time for the official opening of the peace conference on 7 January.

I’ll no doubt fall to chatting about the peace negotiations during the next few months, but today is about Woodrow Wilson’s pioneering display of global superstardom.  A spectacularly bloated product of circumstance and a somewhat arrogant academic’s self-belief, Wilson’s triumphant progress as something between Christ and the Beatles was something new in the world, and announced an age of mass adulation for individual leaders fuelled by ever-expanding, increasingly efficient global communications networks.

Be careful what you cheer for.

You see where I’m headed here?  Wilson’s reputation as the great bringer of peace fell apart as soon as it was seriously tested, and his ideas collapsed when they were applied to geopolitical reality.  From the moment the peace conference got underway his star was on the wane, and it never recovered.  At home and abroad, he proved to be a let-down, and the lesson for his adoring millions should have been clear – but we never did get the message that media fantasies always let you down, and whole populations have been falling for global superstardom ever since.  So a happy new year to both my readers, and put those flags away.

14 DECEMBER, 1918: Politics, Populism… Don’t Panic!

I’ve already mentioned that a general election took place in the UK and Ireland a century ago today.   I’ve outlined the basic political landscape during the brief campaign that preceded the election, which had been called straight after the Armistice, and I’ve touched upon the many factors that made this one special (30 November, 1918: Wh’appen?).  Because what was known as the Khaki or Coupon Election owed much about its shape and outcome to the First World War, and because it offers some (vaguely reassuring) parallels with the political weirdness currently afflicting the British parliament, I think it merits a little more song and dance.

The expansion of the franchise in 1918 was big enough to render electoral precedent redundant.  About 7.7 million citizens had been eligible to vote in the previous British election, in 1910, but the electorate now included most women over thirty, virtually all men over twenty-one and men over nineteen who had served in the War, so that almost 21.4 million voters had the right to their say.  Nobody could be sure how the nation’s new constituents would line up in party terms, with the millions on active service viewed by the political elite as even less predictable than women (seen by many male observers as likely to follow the advice of husbands or other male figures) or workers tempted to the left by the revolutionary flavour of the times.  All informed observers were sure the election would redefine Britain’s political landscape for the post-War era, and the prospect worried a lot of them.

Quite a few of the same informed observers, particularly those with a solid stake in the status quo, spent the campaign complaining that the election had been called too quickly.  The logistic challenge of collecting and counting millions of votes from overseas was cited as one good reason for delay, and another was the ongoing flu epidemic, which was just passing its autumn peak and expected to hobble the hustings.  Influenza did cause the cancellation of many election meetings – which were still an important form of political communication in 1918 – and forced some candidates to stand down, but for many social conservatives the real reason for demanding delay was the hope that more time and a proper dose of conventional campaigning might clarify the state of the parties and dissuade the new electorate from anything too radical.

The two-party system that had dominated mainland British politics for decades needed clarifying.  The biggest party in the House of Commons, the Liberal Party, was split between 145 ‘Coupon’ candidates for the governing coalition led by Lloyd George – known as such because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s sole candidate in a constituency – and 276 representing party leader Asquith’s anti-coalition bloc.  Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party, which had last formed a government in 1905 but had won only one seat less than the Liberals in 1910, stood solidly behind the ideological shelter of the coalition, fielding 362 of the coalition’s candidates against only 83 non-coalition Tories, but the real fly in the ointment was the relatively new Labour Party.

A surprise choice as Conservative Party leader in 1911, Andrew Bonar Law would survive to serve as prime minister in the early 1920s – but is possibly the least remembered major political figure of the age.

The socialist Second International’s bid for peace in the years before 1914, doomed at the time but looking smart with hindsight; the apparent disillusion with conventional nationalism that accompanied war weariness; the hope for a new world order, nurtured by propaganda promises and by the practical reforms introduced to make total war possible; the belief fostered by revolutions elsewhere, especially in Russia and now in Germany, that no regime was immune to the sudden expression of popular anger… all these factors would, it seemed, conspire to launch the British Labour Party into the forefront of parliamentary politics in 1918.  Only 5 Labour candidates took the Coupon – along with 18 (of a total of 23) candidates from the National Democratic and Labour Party (NDLP), an anti-pacifist, nationalist centre-left splinter group fighting its only election – but nobody had any real idea how far (predominantly urban and military) voters would support the other 361 Labour candidates.

The days before the election passed in a Brexit-like frenzy of anticipation, laden with dramatic predictions of national transformation but, partly because press and politicians regarded much of the new electorate as incapable of sophisticated political thinking, hooked on populism.  The issue  of reparations dominated debate and, broadly speaking, the coalition campaigned on its war-winning record, presenting itself as the ideal group to prosecute the peace and punish Germany for its crimes.  Trade was another axis of dispute, with Lloyd George and the Conservatives promoting the policy of ‘colonial preference’ agreed with the Empire’s ‘white’ dominions, while non-coalition Liberals argued for free trade –but Asquith’s lethargic, underfunded campaign failed to make trade a major popular issue.  Unable to summon a clear programme to compete with the Labour manifesto, which promised radical reform to match the ambitions kindled by wartime social measures, Asquith’s party paid for what historians regard as either weariness or complacency.

Only 36 Asquith Liberals were elected, and he lost his own seat, while 127 coalition Liberals were returned along with 332 coalition and 50 non-coupon Conservatives.  The big story was the Labour Party, which had won 42 seats in the 1910 election and now mustered 57 non-coupon MPs, alongside four Labour and nine NDLP coalition members.  This wasn’t revolution, despite a surge in the Labour vote that saw the party come second on lots of places, but it was steady growth and it did mark a shift in Britain’s basic political dividing line.

Fought to a chorus of ‘Hang the Kaiser!’, the election had produced a victory for the nationalist, patriotic sentiment associated with conservatism, but the immediate triumph of right-wing values masked an underlying shift to the left that has yet to be reversed.  It would force Conservatives to focus on social welfare as never before, see the Liberal Party permanently relegated to the margins of British political life, and establish the Labour Party’s various shades of reformist (rather than revolutionary) socialism as one of the twin pillars of a new two-party system that is only now falling apart.

A simple, populist message for a naive electorate… and it was enough to win the 1918 election.

Given that women and troops did not vote en masse for immediate reform of the political system, or even come out in strong support of one particular party (or gender), it could be argued that the 1918 election, while an important watershed moment, didn’t quite live up to the hype – but only if you ignore Ireland, where the it brought the expedient politics of wartime British rule home to roost.

Ireland accounted for 105 seats in the UK parliament (though the vagaries of double constituencies meant this only produced 101 MPs), but the issues upon which the election was fought had little to do with the preoccupations of mainland voters.  The War had brought to the boil the long, often violent, three-way argument about independence that had dominated Irish politics since the late 19th century.  Supporters of full Irish independence were principally represented by Sinn Fein, while supporters of Home Rule (autonomy within Great Britain, as proposed by the coalition government) were represented by the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and its offshoots.  The IPP and Home Rule had been fatally compromised by British government’s wartime behaviour (25 July, 1917: Green Shoots), and Sinn Fein reaped the benefits of popular disillusion with compromise.

This worked pretty well too…

Fighting its first general election, having taken six seats in wartime by-elections, Sinn Fein took 73 seats in 1918, while the IPP suffered a spectacular collapse, leaving it with only six of the 73 seats it had held in 1910.  The third corner of Ireland’s political triangle, those wishing to remain as a fully integrated part of Great Britain, almost all of them Protestants from Ulster, didn’t budge from its usual position, voting in 22 Ulster Unionist and three Labour Unionist MPs.  Sinn Fein’s landslide victory in the south owed a lot to the first-past-the-post system that stills skews British politics but was still a clear statement of popular opinion, as was Ulster’s rock solid support for the Union.  Irish politics had clearly polarised.  Home Rule was dead, and the status quo was doomed.

Proof of the sea change came almost at once.  Sinn Fein, which refused to take up its seats in Westminster, called Ireland’s 101 elected MPs to an Irish assembly, the Dáil, which met for the first time on 21 January 1919.  Only 27 deputies attended the meeting – most other Sinn Fein MPs were in prison and other parties joined the British government in refusing to recognise the assembly – but they immediately declared an independent Irish Republic with the Dáil as its parliament.  This date, which coincided with the death of two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers during an ambush by members of the Irish Volunteers (a militant organisation soon to change its name to the Irish Republican Army under the aegis of Sinn Fein), is usually taken as the beginning of an Irish war against Great Britain that brought independence in 1921, followed by almost two years of civil war between republicans and unionists.

So the 1918 general election brought a permanent shift in the balance of political power in mainland Britain, and finally released the dancing genie of Irish independence from the imperial bottle.  It marked the true birth of British mass politics as we understand them today, both as the first occasion on which voting wasn’t restricted to male property holders and as the first confrontation between voters and a sophisticated government propaganda machine, bolstered by mass communication and aimed at the emotions of the poorly informed.  As such, the vote was preceded by far and away the noisiest election campaign in British history to that point, brief but awash with hyperbole, and was anticipated with the kind of apocalyptic fervour we’re learning to expect around Brexit electioneering.

For all that, life in mainland Britain was not fundamentally changed by the outcome in December 1918, and the election attracted a very low turnout, at 57.2 percent the lowest of any British general election before or since.  Big storm, big teacup, a little erosion of some longstanding pedestals, and life goes on… something to remember that the next time Britain’s current political crisis freaks you out.

8 DECEMBER, 1918: Britannia’s B Team

From a Western European perspective, orthodox history and current affairs make it very clear that the Mediterranean Sea has always been a hub for international competition.  Some people west of the Rhine are also aware that the Black Sea is, similarly, an arena in which those countries it touches compete for control and resources.  Enclosed seas have that effect, for reasons that are pretty obvious, and the Caspian Sea is no exception – but its geopolitics are a mystery to most modern Westerners, much as they were in 1918.

Given our general ignorance, it would seem hardly surprising that the formative battles being fought in and around the Caspian Sea in the months after the Armistice were largely ignored by the victorious Allies at the time, or that we ignore them now.  Ah, but today is the centenary of a minor battle that left the Royal Navy as undisputed master of the Caspian Sea during the winter of 1918–19, and was the first action of a strange, largely forgotten naval campaign in the region.  I’d best explain, in case no one else does.

The geopolitical melting pot of the Caspian Sea began to boil into chaos after the 1917 revolutions in Russia removed the region from imperial control.  North of Persia, the territories around the west, north and east of the sea could be broadly divided along ethnic lines into Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with the latter category including several related peoples to the north and east.  Along political lines they split between restoration Tsarists, various liberal, left-leaning or socialist groups united only by their opposition to Tsarist rule, and Bolsheviks loyal to the Moscow government.

Good maps of the Caspian Sea are (unsurprisingly) hard to steal, but if you can be bothered to look closely at this 1910 map, it does the business.

By mid-1918, the fluctuating, violent miasma of alliances and rebellions between relatively small armed forces representing all these factions and sub-factions had coalesced, superficially and north of Persia, into three independent republics – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – each with a fragile anti-Bolshevik regime in place.  If that sounds reasonably clear, it wasn’t.

Azerbaijan as a whole was strongly anti-Bolshevik but its capital, Baku, was under the control of Armenian and Russian Bolsheviks. Further east, in what is now Turkmanistan, resident Turkomans and Russians were largely anti-Bolshevik but the only useful port, Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenbaşy in Turkmanistan), was in Bolshevik hands until July 1918, when a non-Bolshevik socialist rebellion took control.  To the north, Bolshevik control of the of the coast was interrupted by a royalist Cossack enclave in the northeast, and to the south the Persian provinces close to the sea were feral badlands beyond central government control, with tribal warlords, ex-Imperial Russian troops and a small British contingent in tenuous charge of various enclaves.  Bolsheviks meanwhile controlled most remaining naval vessels of the Imperial Caspian Sea flotilla from a base at Astrakhan, about 100km from the sea.

The ill-fated advance into the region by ‘Dunsterforce’, a detachment from the British armies in Mesopotamia, was responsible for bringing the Royal Navy into the Caspian Sea (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!).  A small naval element arrived with Dunster’s infantry brigade to set up a base at Enzali and, in theory, work with the ‘Centro-Caspian’ flotilla, a few ex-Imperial gunboats supposedly under the command of the Baku government. The Baku regime had invited the British to intervene, but the soviet actually in charge of the flotilla refused to cooperate, so all the British were able to achieve was the hire of a few local merchant ships, which were fitted with 4-inch guns transported overland from the Mesopotamian Front, some 700 kilometres away.

When General Dunster’s expedition was forced to flee Baku in September 1918, the Royal Navy’s commandeered ships and their Russian or Azerbaijani crews remained at Enzali, charged with preventing Ottoman forces in the Caucasus from establishing a presence on the eastern coast.  By the end of October British flotilla commander Commodore Norris had converted five merchant ships and was awaiting overland transport of ammunition for their guns from Mesopotamia.

Unsatisfied with poor repair facilities at Enzali, Norris crossed to Krasnovodsk in the first ship armed, the small freighter (and subsequent flotilla flagship) SS Kruger, and moved his base there after accepting assurances of support from the social revolutionary local government then in place.  The Armistice changed his mind. Allied warships could now supply the Flotilla through the Black Sea, and on 17 November it steamed into Baku, where it was once again expected to cooperate with the Centro-Caspian flotilla and local ‘White’ ground forces.

Royal Navy forces in the Caspian Sea could have simply gone home after the Armistice – and only a few British personnel were anyway involved, for command, gunnery and radio duties – but imperial thinking kept them in place.  Given help and a modicum of collective organisation, anti-Bolshevik forces seemed to have a good chance of winning control over the region – as they did elsewhere in the former Russian Empire at that stage – and getting rid of Lenin’s regime was a high priority for all the world’s surviving major empires.  At the same time the British Empire was still very interested in securing oil supplies through Baku, and still determined to guard against any hostile exploitation of the Caspian ‘back door’ into India.

The principal duty of the combined RN and Centro-Caspian flotillas was to protect Baku from any attack by Bolsheviks to the north, with particular responsibility for the Bolshevik flotilla at Astrakhan, but it was also required to supply Cossack outposts to the northeast through the port of Guriev (now Atyrau in Kazakhstan).  In early December, while one RN ship performed the latter task another four went on patrol to the north, where the waters south of the Volga Delta were dangerously shallow, largely uncharted and frozen in winter.  The Centro-Caspian flotilla’s vessels again turned out to be allies in name only, and refused to take part.

The region’s rich intermingling of ethnic and political factions made any kind of secret difficult to keep, and the British were aware of Bolshevik plans to establish a warm-water naval base at the small port of Staro-Terechnaya, on the mainland near Chechen Island, at the southernmost limit of the winter freeze.  Two converted British ships, the Zoro-Aster and Alla Verdi, were waiting off Chechen Island when three Bolshevik armed merchantmen and three transports approached Staro-Terechnaya on 8 December.  The Bolshevik ships opened fire, and the British responded.  During the skirmish that followed the Zoro-Aster suffered minor damage and one Bolshevik ship caught fire before the rest withdrew, leaving the British short of ammunition but in undisputed control of ice-free Caspian waters for the winter.

The Bolsheviks made no further attempt to move south before northern waters froze in mid-January, when the RN Flotilla returned to Baku for repairs, leaving one ship to make occasional patrols just south of the ice.  While some very war-weary conscripts were finally sent home, additional British crews were transferred to the theatre from the Mediterranean and Home Fleets, and the facilities at Baku were upgraded.

Evidence that the Centro-Caspian flotilla and elements of the White ‘Volunteer Army’ in the city were (like much of the working population) in contact with Bolsheviks brought the pretence of cooperation to an end in March, when an Indian infantry division transferred from Mesopotamia expelled the Volunteer Army from Baku and Norris seized the Centro-Caspian flotilla.  From that point the RN flotilla underwent a significant growth spurt.

HMS Asia was typical of the local freighters requisitioned for the Caspian Flotilla.

Further British crews were transferred to the region, requisitioned ships were renamed ‘HMS’, the Zoro-Aster was designated a reserve vessel and the slow, unreliable Alla Verdi was paid off.  By late June the flotilla mustered eight frontline armed freighters, 12 coastal motor boats, a motor boat carrier, two seaplane carriers and four supporting transport ships, employing a total of about 1,100 RN officers and men along with more than 300 locally recruited personnel.  The RAF had also established a base on Chechen Island by late April, when the annual thaw enabled patrols to resume in the north.

RAF Airco DH4 bombers on the ground at Petrovosk. Royal Naval Air Service machines until the name change in 1918, they were used to bomb Bolshevik naval bases in and around the Volga Delta.

The Royal Navy would remain an important military presence in the Caspian Sea for much of that summer, and would fight what very nearly amounted to a battle against a much bigger Bolshevik force before its eventual withdrawal in early September.  I’ll give that moment of questionable glory its due when the centenary comes around, but for now this has been a nod to one of Britain’s least remembered military adventures and a reminder that, after all the lessons of the ‘war to end wars’, the British Empire was still acting as if Britannia ruled the waves.

30 NOVEMBER, 1918: Wh’appen?

I can’t help carping on about the worldwide turmoil in progress while the empires of the West were celebrating peace in November 1918, if only because nobody else seems to be mentioning it.  We seem to be living in wild and crazy times today, and no doubt expect them to be remembered as such, but try stripping away the sensationalism built into information overload and comparing modern madness with the everyday news hitting the streets a century ago.  With the grim exception of climate change, our apparently seismic social and political shifts can look pretty tame. Starting from where I left off in Germany, Russia, Belgium and Luxembourg, this is some more of what I mean.

On the day that Allied forces entered Luxembourg, 21 November, the German Navy surrendered to the Allies in the Firth of Forth, just off the Royal Navy base at Rosyth.  The surrender, and that of some 160 U-boats at Harwich (in batches through the second half of the month), put an end to the only threat to Great Britain’s home security since Napoleon, and was a hugely symbolic moment for the British, whose path to war had been mapped by the rapid rise of German sea power.  Given that the Kaiser hanging from a gibbet was off the menu, at least for now, the image of his feared warships tamed was most visible proof of victory available to the British public.  The nation rejoiced, but soon had other things on its collective mind.

HMS Cardiff leads the German High Seas Fleet to surrender in the Firth of Forth, 21 November 1918.  No known photograph can match this for pomp…

The following day saw the publication of election manifestos by the two main contenders in the British general election, the Coalition Liberals led by Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law’s Conservative Party.  Called within twenty-four hours of the Armistice and due to take place in mid-December, the election asked a greatly expanded franchise – including some women for the first time, and millions of men serving overseas – to choose a government fit to rebuild the nation and the world while the party political system in Britain was in a state of unprecedented flux.

Most Conservatives and the majority of Liberals committed to continuation of the wartime coalition stood as ‘Coupon’ candidates – because they carried a coupon identifying them as the coalition’s chosen candidate – and were opposed only by those against the coalition.  The latter included a large portion of the new force in British politics, the Labour Party, and a substantial rump of the Liberals, still led by former premier, Herbert Asquith.

Asquith had won the last general election, but that had been back in 1910 and since then his popular stock had fallen a long way, prompting predictions of electoral failure in 1918 from almost everyone but Asquith himself, whose campaign was already being described as complacent and lethargic.  Pundits assumed with equal certainty that the Labour Party, which produced its own manifesto on 27 November, would make substantial gains, not least because of the broader franchise, but how well it would do was anybody’s guess.  With the future shape and prosperity of the Empire manifestly in the balance, and given that I haven’t even mentioned that it was also an obviously pivotal moment for the future of Ireland, this was one of the most extraordinary and eagerly awaited public votes in British history… and I’ll get back to it.

This is William Adamson, the relatively unknown Scots trade unionist who was leader of the Labour Party in 1918, while more famous men like Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald waited in the wings.

While the British were all agog with triumph and trepidation, other victorious peoples were taking crucial steps towards nationhood or adherence to a chosen nation.  In Zagreb and Belgrade, late November saw urgent attempts to organise a united front of southern Slav peoples in time to make a bloc impact at the forthcoming peace negotiations.  The kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro had been unified in wartime, with the former far and away the more influential partner, but a separate National Council of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs had been established during the War’s last year at Zagreb, where it had proclaimed a Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in March 1918.  On 23 November, after hasty negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere, the National Council proclaimed full unification of Serbia and Montenegro into a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (ah, the wording).

A compromise reached under deadline pressure, created by a body that was self-appointed rather than representative, the new Kingdom was headed by the elderly King Peter of Serbia and came into being when his heir Prince Alexander accepted the Council’s declaration on 1 December – but it pleased neither pan-Slavic nor nationalist elements within its constituent nations and was largely ignored by Britain, France and Italy.  Allied troops continued to occupy parts of the territory claimed by the Kingdom (KSCS), occasionally becoming entangled in skirmishes with ragged local defence forces, and although the KSCS went on to send a delegation to Versailles, so did the Kingdom of Serbia.  The Big Four (France, Britain, Italy and the US) chose to negotiate with the latter, though the US eventually recognised the KSCS in February 1919, while Britain and France gave it reluctant recognition at the end of the peace process.  This was the only means of getting the KSCS to sign the treaty, and of passing responsibility for ongoing disputes about its legitimacy back to the Slavs themselves.

The Prince Regent, he say yes… Alexander gives the KSCS his approval, Belgrade, 1 December 1918.

Despite its universal unpopularity and an almost continuous history of instability – including a coup in 1929 by which the then King Alexander established autocratic rule and Serbian dominance of a renamed Yugoslavia – the state would survive until the 1990s, when its tensions would finally explode into bloody civil war, an outcome that was predicted with some confidence by British newspapers and politicians in November 1918.

Meanwhile the disintegration of Germany was unfolding on a daily basis.  A workers’ republic of northern German states, with Hamburg as its capital, was proclaimed on 24 November.  Three days later the newly proclaimed People’s State of Bavaria, a social democrat regime filling a power vacuum since the flight of King Ludwig III on 7 November, severed relations with Berlin, and on 28 November the Kaiser signed the deed that turned his own flight to the Netherlands into a formal abdication.

Further east, the area that would one day be controlled by the USSR was in a state of dramatic, often dangerous flux, as civil war gathered pace in Russia and regions formerly dominated by the Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian Empires sought to establish their political identity and geographical borders.

The Bukovina region announced its intention to join Romania on 24 November, and a week later King Ferdinand reoccupied Bucharest at the head of his army.  In between, on 28 November, Romanian troops retook the much-disputed Dobrudja province from Bulgaria, a move that forced the resignation of liberal Bulgarian premier Malinov.  The new Bulgarian premier, Teodor Teodorov, took power the same day and was tasked with simultaneously making clear Bulgaria’s condemnation of its alliance with the Central Powers (a crucial position in the run-up to peace negotiations), maintaining Tsar Boris III in power and appeasing the demands of both nationalists on the right and revolutionaries on the left (principally the Agrarian Union and the Communist Party).  He would last until the following October, when revolutionary forces would take control of government without overthrowing the Tsar.

In Poland, the personal prestige of independence campaigner Josef Piludski had helped him form a generally accepted and stable government in the immediate aftermath of the Armistice, but it had territorial ambitions.  The first skirmishes of the nine-month Polish-Ukrainian War for control of Galicia’s mixed population were already taking place in November 1918, just as a revolutionary socialist Directorate was taking power in Kiev, while Polish disputes with Lithuania and Russia about the Vilnius region and Belarus would sputter briefly into open warfare before Poland’s Baltic frontiers were set by the 1919 peace treaty.

Lviv, November 1918: the city at the heart of the Polish-Ukrainian war.

Poland also sent forces into the northern Czechoslovakian provinces of Spis and Orava during November, and helped foster uprising to support its claims in Silesia, which was eventually partitioned between Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia after a plebiscite imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.  Czechoslovakia was meanwhile engaged in border confrontations with Hungary that would spill over into warfare during 1919, and part of the Romanian Army had also entered Hungary in pursuit of territorial claims to Transylvania that culminated in the proclamation of a Romanian-Transylvanian union on 1 December.

This is a map of the situation in 1919, but it puts some shapes and places to the mess in Eastern Europe.

I could go on like this for hours, reeling off crisis reports from all corners of a confused world, and still leave out plenty of big news.  I won’t.  Instead I’ll make the small point that, as mass media commemoration of the Great War issues its last outraged squawks, an explosion of events with far more global significance than trench battles are passing their centenaries on a daily basis.  You won’t be hearing much about them from the mainstream, but they’re worth even this brief, partial examination, both as a perspective on the modern world and as a reassuring reminder that we have survived crazier times than these.

21 NOVEMBER, 1918: Hello Goodbye

I hope my last ramble made it clear that not everyone was dancing for joy on Armistice Day 1918, and that plenty of people around the world were too busy with wars and revolutions to celebrate peace.  I didn’t get round to mentioning another factor that complicated peace celebrations in some countries: military occupation.  A century ago today, the first Allied troops entered Luxembourg, which had been occupied by German forces at the very start of the conflict, and two days later the last German troops left Belgium, which had been suffering under a much harsher occupation since the first week of the War.

Token map – this was the big picture in northwestern Europe after the Armistice.

Let’s begin in Belgium.  The German occupation, which had been ruthless, exploitative and sometimes brutal (8 January, 1918: Remember Belgium), had begun to fall apart in mid-October, when officers and administrators, recognising that the end was nigh, began sending their families home, and roads east became clogged by thousands of troops retreating from the Western Front.  The outbreak of revolution in Germany saw the establishment of German soldiers’ councils all over Belgium and the effective end of the official occupying regime from 9 November, after which chaos hit the streets of the country’s towns and cities.  Loyal German troops, revolutionary German troops, Belgian political radicals, Belgian police and citizens with grudges to satisfy contributed to a week or more of high tension and sporadic violence that brought a dark dimension to the party when large numbers of Belgians and Germans took to the streets in celebration of Armistice Day.

The situation was exacerbated as garrison forces prepared to leave the country and tens of thousands of German troops passed through on their way home from the Western Front.  The retreat from France was in full flow from 16 November, and although some units travelled by train most were on foot, their slow, largely unmechanised withdrawal providing plenty of opportunities for desertion, civilian revenge and illicit trading between hungry troops and citizens interested in dirt cheap, second-hand military equipment.  The Belgian Army followed in their wake and gradually restored order wherever it arrived, imprisoning a few local political agitators and making token efforts to stem an outbreak of revenge violence against collaborators.

The final German train left Belgium on 21 November, and the last occupying troops crossed the border from Liège two days later.  In between, on 22 November, King Albert made his ceremonial entry into a packed Brussels at the head of his army and accompanied by contingents of US, French and British troops.  Once the party was over, the restored government embarked on a programme of economic reconstruction, rapid industrialisation and social reform, the latter focused on calming an immediate resumption of strife between the country’s Walloon population and its slightly larger Flemish contingent, and culminating in the first official recognition of the Flemish language in 1920.  Battered but not broken, brutalised but defiant, and lionised where before the War it had been a byword for colonial greed, ‘brave little Belgium’ was back.

Goodbye German Army…
… hello King Albert. His entry into Brussels marked the end of the War for Belgium.

Across the border in tiny Luxembourg, citizens had endured a somewhat peculiar world war.  Although technically neutral and primarily francophone, the economic life of the Grand Duchy’s quarter of a million people had been dominated since 1842 by a customs union with Germany, which had also taken control of the railways in 1872.  When the German Army occupied Luxembourg on 2 August 1914, it met formal protests from the government of constitutional ruler Grand Duchess Marie Adelaide but no resistance from the Duchy’s 300 troops.  After that, Luxembourg’s Great War was a relatively quiet affair.

The government retained control of internal affairs, and no attempt was made to impose the German language.  A few Luxembourgeois were conscripted into the German military, communications with the outside world were strictly controlled and economic exploitation for the German war effort brought mounting civilian hardship, but on the whole the population was largely left alone by an occupation force of about five thousand troops.

Political life continued along pre-War lines, with national sovereignty and supply shortages added to the issues dividing a majority alliance of liberals and socialists from their right-wing opponents.  Broadly speaking, conservatives supported the state’s farmers while liberals and socialists represented urban and industrial interests, and tensions between them rose steadily as the country’s economic condition worsened.  Four elections were held between February 1915 and September 1918, reflecting a tendency for liberals and socialists to diverge when in power but come back together in the face of a challenge from conservatives and their most high-profile supporter, the Grand Duchess.

Marie Adelaide, who had been in power since 1912 and had quickly made enemies by expressing her anti-liberal views, became a focus of popular and political controversy during the occupation.  Most internal criticism was aimed at her openly pro-German attitude, which also drew attacks from Allied propaganda that never stopped complaining about the Duchy’s close relations with Berlin.  They all had a point.  The Grand Duchess surrounded herself with German speakers, regularly consulted occupation authorities on matters of state and married her younger sister Antonia to Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria in August 1918, by which time her popularity had plummeted in line with the country’s economic condition.

Marie-Adelaide was 18 when she took power, abdicated at 24 and died of influenza at 30.  Short life, but feisty…

Most of Luxembourg’s industry, including its important iron and steel sector, was dedicated to the German war effort, but so were food supplies.  As shortages hit to the towns and prices rocketed, public health suffered and political tempers rose.  Starvation was never an issue in wartime Luxembourg, but malnutrition weakened resistance to diseases, particularly the influenza epidemic of 1918, and contributed to a significant rise in mortality rates, above all among the elderly.  The state was forced to impose food price controls and rationing from March 1915, but with shortages worsening and wages stagnating it could do nothing to stem a rise in worker protests, formation of the country’s first trades unions (in the mining industry, in 1916), attacks on profiteering traders or mounting antagonism between urban and rural communities.

As in many other European countries, conditions became much harsher after the bad harvest of 1916, but attempts to secure Allied aid through the scheme set up for the relief of Belgium fell foul of Luxembourg’s reputation as a German vassal state, with Britain insisting that supplies to the Duchy were Berlin’s responsibility. Berlin nevertheless refused to make specific plans for supplying Luxembourg, and instead took over the purchase of all its imports from November 1916, a move that helped cement Allied disapproval of Marie-Adelaide’s regime.

By 1918, British hostility to Luxembourg brought air raids. This was Luxembourg city in March, and an RAF raid in July killed ten civilians.

Allied opinions always mattered in the context of Luxembourg’s neutral self-image, but became critical as the War neared its end. Germany had planned to annex Luxembourg in the event of victory, but the Grand Duchy had come into existence in its present form (in 1839) after a long struggle to remain separate from Belgium, and the Belgians wanted it back.  They might well have got it back if the British and French had been the only arbiters of Luxembourg’s fate, but the influence of the USA and its commitment to self-determination proved too much for Belgian post-War ambitions.

German withdrawal from Luxembourg was announced on 6 November 1918, was complete on 22 November, and proceeded in a generally courteous and orderly fashion.  The same could be said about most of the Duchy’s relatively sober armistice celebrations, but the whiff of revolution wasn’t completely absent.  A socialist revolt in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second largest town, took place on Armistice Day but was quashed after a few hours, and the following day a motion demanding abolition of the monarchy, proposed by an alliance of liberals and socialists, was narrowly defeated in the Chamber of Deputies.  Marie-Adelaide was still in power on 21 November, when General Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force – which needed somewhere to liberate as a matter of protocol – into Luxembourg, but her days were numbered.

The Americans, who called themselves liberators and were treated as such by a population used to placating greater powers, set up a temporary joint administration with French occupying forces. Although the administration interfered as little as possible in local politics, the French government refused to cooperate with the ‘collaborator’ Marie-Adelaide, and republican unrest remained a problem until January 1919, when a revolt by a company of the Luxembourg Army, quickly put down by French troops, prompted Marie-Adelaide’s abdication in favour of another sister, Charlotte. Later that year, a referendum confirmed the population’s overwhelming desire to remain a monarchy under the new Grand Duchess and, having abandoned its customs union with Germany, Luxembourg joined a new union with Belgium in 1921.

Despite a period of political turmoil that encompassed five governments, a change of ruler, the rapid rise of radical socialism and economic separation from Germany, Luxembourg emerged from the First World War largely unchanged and undamaged.  In any sane world this would be considered a major achievement, but Luxembourg’s collective memory of the conflict has tended to echo the shame implied by Allied wartime propaganda.  Most years, Armistice Day is not a particularly big deal in Luxembourg, and the Great War has generated relatively little cultural output, most of it concentrated on the 3,000 or so Luxembourgeois who volunteered for service with the Allies.

Apart from that reminder that history’s winners invent our heritage, this has been another attempt to expand the absurdly one-dimensional take on the 1918 armistice provided by pretty much every media outlet you can think of.  I think I’m done with Armistice Day now – time to get on with war and peace.

11 NOVEMBER, 1918: Peace Off

I don’t suppose anyone in the world needs my help to remember that it was Armistice Day a century ago, because it’s been celebrated, loud and clear, across the world’s mass media during the last few days.  Fair enough on one level:  eleven o’clock on the eleventh was a big moment, especially for those fighting or focused on the Western Front, which was by then almost the last place still engaged in full-scale fighting between belligerent empires.  Citizens of France, Britain, Italy, their ‘white’ colonies, their allies and the USA partied in the streets, but these were the victors, celebrating the start of a more peaceful, settled future.  Elsewhere in the world, Armistice Day came and went in the middle of wild and dangerous chaos that felt like anything but peace.

Armistice Day.  In Philadelphia, they partied…
… in Cologne, they stood in the rain and accepted.

Civil war was spreading across vast swathes of the former Russian Empire, fought between ‘Red’ and ‘White’ forces, many of them using tactics and weapons from a pre-1914 age.  In northern Russia, the arrival of winter saw Red Army troops keeping a wary eye on the alliance of local insurgents and Allied units that had taken control of the area around Archangelsk, and fighting in Central Asia had died down with the failure of three British attempts to provide aid to anti-Bolshevik forces in Tashkent, Ashkhabad and Baku (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment).

In the southwest, Bolshevik forces had for now been cleared from the Ukraine, but had maintained control of the Kuban region until June 1918, when General Wrangel’s ‘Volunteer Army’ of some 9,000 men had launched an invasion.  After heavy fighting through the autumn, Wrangel’s capture of Stavropol on 1 November had marked the end of Bolshevik military resistance, and White forces spent the rest of the year extending their control over the whole of the northern Caucasus.

This is just one of the maps you’ll need to get a grip on the Russian Civil War in 1918. The rest, you go find.

With Allied backing and a lot of help from the Czech Legion, White forces in eastern Russia had cleared Siberia of Bolshevik enclaves by late June 1918.  They extended their control westward during the summer, and although a Bolshevik counteroffensive in September and October did drive White forces back from Kazan, the front had stabilised around Ufa and Orenburg by November.  At this stage the various White units in play, most of which were commanded by former imperial officers, generally enjoyed military superiority over ill-trained and unreliable Red Army forces, but command cohesion was harder to come by.  White forces at large included a People’s Army, a Siberian Army and various independent Cossack units only nominally under unified command, all theoretically controlled by a Provisional All-Russian Government, formed in September as an alliance of anti-Bolshevik authorities scattered around eastern Russia, and based in Omsk.

They arose, they squawked, they disappeared… states created during the Russian Civil War.

Essentially an arena for squabbling between tsarist and moderate socialist delegates, the provisional government didn’t last long.  As armistice was being proclaimed in the West, its war minister, former Imperial Navy officer Rear-Admiral Alexander Kolchak, was preparing the coup that put him in supreme command from 18 November.  Established in Omsk as ‘Supreme Leader and Commander-in-Chief of All Russian Land and Sea Forces’, Kolchak resumed the campaign against increasingly coherent Red Army forces in December, and White armies advanced to take Perm on Christmas Eve.  Kolchak would retain supreme command over the eastern wing of White resistance to the Bolsheviks, and remain the principal conduit for Allied aid to the cause, until his assassination in February 1920, but the fluctuating fortunes of his bid for regime change are a story for another day.

The republic based in Omsk had its own stamps: ‘For United Russia – Supreme leader of Russia, Kolchak.’

If most Russians could be forgiven a lack of enthusiasm for Armistice Day, so could most Germans.  The sombre reality of defeat obviously cut down on the street parties, but so did social and political breakdown across the nation.  What is known as the German Revolution, but is perhaps better described as a period of multiple, sometimes simultaneous German revolutions, national and regional, had been coming for a long time.  Predicted by observers of all political persuasions since before the War, it had finally been triggered by the decision of the extreme right-wing Third Supreme Command to walk away from the mess it had created and hand power to the Reichstag (8 October, 1918: What’s Going On?).

Ruthlessly marginalised by the military-industrial regime, and ultimately driven to abandon the political truce agreed in 1914, the Reichstag was dominated by liberal and socialist reformers.  When the Third Supreme Command’s choice to succeed Hertling as imperial chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, took office on 3 October he put moderate socialist Social Democratic Party (SDP) deputies at the heart of a new cross-party government.  While the soft left took power in the hope of a peaceful transition to full democracy in Germany, the far right withdrew to plan a counter-coup and ensure that the SDP took the blame for whatever peace emerged.

Both sides of this political equation had underestimated the depth of popular discontent across the country.  Ludendorff’s resignation did nothing to slow the nationwide escalation of food riots, strikes, peace protests and attendant violence, and the new government’s position was almost immediately called into question by a mass mutiny of the German High Seas Fleet at Kiel.

The mutiny was triggered by the decision of German Navy c-in-c Admiral Scheer and his senior commanders to launch a final suicide mission against the British Grand Fleet.  The sole purpose of the mission seems to have been restoration of the German surface fleet’s damaged reputation, and Scheer – very much the Third Supreme Command’s man – kept his plans secret from the von Baden’s government.  He couldn’t prevent rumours reaching crews aboard the High Seas Fleet’s ships at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, and when fleet commander Admiral Hipper ordered his ships to sea on 30 October he faced widespread failure to return from shore leave and mass refusal to work.  Hipper abandoned the mission and dispersed his ships, but when his Third Battle Squadron reached Kiel its crews went ashore, made contact with industrial workers in the port and began organising protests against their commanders.

No more war… German sailors of the High Seas Fleet refuse to fight.

During the next few days, protests escalated out of control. Mutineers overwhelmed the naval station, forcing its commander, Crown Prince Heinrich, to flee in disguise, and sailors joined with workers to form political councils.  The movement quickly spread south into Germany’s industrial heartland and beyond, and protesters’ demands expanded to include immediate peace and constitutional reform.  The German Navy was quick to blame the trouble on Bolshevik agitators, although inactivity, command insensitivity and increasingly harsh living conditions were at least partly responsible.  German newspapers, public and politicians, faced with the mind-boggling concept of mutiny within the world’s most disciplined military, swallowed the story whole, and the government in Berlin braced for a Russian-style revolution.

The government’s representative in Kiel, moderate socialist Gustav Noske, reported the situation there as out of control on 6 November, but a march on the port by naval ground forces under Admiral Schroder was halted by the cabinet on the grounds that it would provoke nationwide revolution.  Three days later, convinced the revolution had already started and well aware of Kerenski’s fate in Petrograd, the moderate reformers attempted to seize the day.

On 9 November Max von Baden accepted moderate socialist demands and resigned as chancellor, handing power to SDP leader Friedrich Ebert and announcing the abdication of the Kaiser, although he no legal authority to do either.  Against Ebert’s wishes, vice-chancellor Philipp Scheidemann then proclaimed a German Republic from the balcony of the Reichstag, prompting Kaiser Wilhelm’s flight to the Netherlands and leaving Ebert as head of a provisional government pending national elections.  On the same day, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, General Wilhelm Gröner, made a deal with Ebert that offered military support for the government in return for a promise not to subject the officer corps to radical reform.  The pact effectively guaranteed an unreformed military a role in Germany’s political future, and everyone knows where that led.

Ebert…
… and Gröner.  Between them they kept moustaches and the army at the heart of German politics.

Ebert and Gröner, an accomplished staff officer recalled from the Ukraine after Ludendorff’s resignation, recognised that the government and the military feared a Bolshevik-style soviet revolution more than they feared each other.  Although the level of civil disturbance in Germany abated somewhat as the fact of peace persuaded less committed or radical protesters back to work, this simply made everyone still protesting look like a Bolshevik to the authorities.  Gröner and Noske, now in Berlin as the cabinet’s military liaison, began organising the deployment of regular Army units – and, as they formed, irregular ‘Freikorps’ units largely comprised of demobbed war veterans – to maintain order and suppress the supposed threat of Bolsheviks.

A year of violent struggle followed, while an uneasy alliance of democrats and right-wing military or paramilitary groups extinguished the far left’s bid for national control.  On a regional scale, beyond Prussia, the states that had relatively recently come together to form Germany underwent their own revolutionary upheavals.  Most minor monarchs and dukes were swept away, and the biggest of the states, Bavaria, came under a communist dictatorship that lasted into 1920.  Again, these are stories for another day, as are the civil wars, revolutions, uprisings and imperial conquests in progress all over the world as the war in Western Europe came to a ceremonial end.

And that’s the point here.  Alongside revolutionary wars across the former Russian Empire and in Germany, people in Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Arab world, East Africa, Bulgaria, the states forming from the wreckage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and China were still experiencing wild and dangerous times, and the list would be longer if I wasn’t out of gas and beyond even light research.  So however good the Last Post sounded, and still sounds, Armistice Day didn’t mean peace.

5 NOVEMBER, 1918: Midterm Matters

It’s fair to say that in early November 1918, for the first time in years, peace had replaced war as the world’s principle preoccupation.  Pretty much every literate person on the planet knew peace was imminent, and a large chunk of them knew that the ways peace was shaped and maintained were likely to define their future.

Reaching a state of peace was contingent on agreement between the Great War’s three long-term heavyweights:  Germany, Britain and France.  With Russia and Austria-Hungary effectively excluded from international diplomacy, and most other belligerent nations dependent upon the heavyweights, this was obvious to anyone paying attention.  In broad terms it was equally clear what each of the main empires, as well as almost all their allies and dependents, would want from the agreement that followed.

Germany and its surviving allies wanted to remain intact and rebuild, while Britain and France wanted to increase their imperial resources and security by any means feasible.  France was more interested in fleecing Germany through reparations, while Britain and most of the other allied states were primarily concerned with territorial expansion.  There were of course many other personal, social, philosophical or political visions of the future at play in the world of November 1918 – these were, after all, very interesting times – but the big picture smacked of all the same ambitions that had characterised ‘old world’ diplomacy and geopolitics before the ‘war to end wars’.

On the other hand there were two new players at the great game’s top table.  Both had become infinitely more influential since 1914 and both represented a threat to the status quo or, depending on your point of view, a chance to really change the world for the better.  Radical socialism, in charge but fighting for its life in the former Russian Empire, promised a new world order but generally frightened more people than it attracted, and the Bolshevik government was anyway unlikely to be involved in the peacemaking process.  Radical liberalism, as represented by the United States, was altogether more cuddly and definitely would have a voice at the peace talks.

Radical liberalism postulated a future of peaceful reform, of guaranteed civil liberties and of economic prosperity through trade, underpinned by the harmonious co-existence of peoples with sovereign control over their ‘natural’ domains.  The United Sates of America, founded on anti-imperialist principles and well on the way to becoming the world’s first military and economic superpower, was the one major belligerent espousing radical liberalism, and the creed was embodied in the person of its president, Woodrow Wilson.  As peace beckoned in late 1918, it was to Wilson and the Fourteen Points – his sketchy blueprint for future peace – that most of the war-torn world turned in hope or fear of real change.

Just about sums it up.

I’ve chatted around them before and this isn’t the day for a detailed analysis, but whatever the merits or failings of the Fourteen Points they were popular with and well known to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.  A rallying call for pacifists and a beacon of support for populations seeking independence or autonomy, they came across as a benevolent package of common sense sufficiently homespun for the tastes of moderate observers everywhere.  To a lot of people in a lot of countries, they marked out a road to the kind of future that might justify the horrors of the previous four years.

The power of the United States as a force for change on the Wilsonian model was more of a threat than a promise to anyone with a major stake in the status quo – and in national terms that meant the War’s winners.  In Britain, France and Italy in particular, public opinion was divided on the merits of the Fourteen Points and national leadership regarded the USA’s attitude as the principle obstacle to the spoils of war.  By November 1918 one of the few issues that united premiers Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Orlando was a shared determination to secure the national interest (and national votes) by doing everything in their power to disarm and thwart Wilson’s radical agenda.

History records that they succeeded, or at least that the complexities and machinations surrounding the peacemaking process robbed Wilson’s vision of the consistency and clout needed for survival in subsequent decades.  In other words the Fourteen Points were paid lip service and the institutions they created left toothless, while Europe’s old-school imperialists built for one last hurrah.  For this, post-War European peacemakers have been often and roundly condemned, though as representative democrats they were in no position to lead their countries into Wilson’s paradise.

Blame has also been heaped on the Republican Party for blocking US ratification of the peace treaty and membership of its international police authority, the League of Nations.  Generally described as a retreat into isolationism by the US, and perceived as a conservative refusal to do the rest of the world any favours, the political reaction against Wilson in his home country is seen as the final nail in the coffin of radical liberalism as a world-changing force.

So the crafty, greedy imperialists and the self-centred, greedy isolationists killed off the idea of a world in self-regulating liberal harmony.  When the next world war gave international regulators another shot at the idea, in and after 1945, the presence of two military superpowers, one of them anything but liberal, ensured its stillbirth.  It hasn’t been seen since.

That thesis, which just about sums up the heritage take on the peace from a European perspective, largely ignores one of the principle reasons for Wilson’s failure – Wilson himself.  The president is conventionally described as naive in his dealings with wily old world politicians, note is taken of his personal stubbornness and inflexibility, and much is made of his ideals.  He is popularly portrayed as the man the world hoped he was in 1918:  the good guy. The US looks more closely at its presidents than we do, and Wilson’s reputation at home is closer to the truth, which is that he was an arrogant academic, a really lousy politician, and as much to blame as anybody for the failure of his peace plan on both sides of the Atlantic.

The President’s travails in Versailles are a story for another year, but on 5 November 1918, half way through his second term in the White House, the Democrats suffered a crucial defeat in the midterm elections to Congress, and it was largely Wilson’s fault.

World saver? Dangerous idealist? How about all mouth, no trousers?

The only elections held while the US was actually fighting the First World War, the midterms took place in the middle of the global flu epidemic – which had killed almost 200,00 Americans in October – and until just before the vote they were fought with kid gloves.

The flu epidemic, at its peak in the US during the autumn of 1918, would be prolonged by troops returning from Europe.

During eighteen months at war both main parties had shown restraint when it came to attacking the other, partly to bolster national unity and partly to be seen bolstering national unity.  It suited the national interest for Wilson to be considered above the dirt of party politics, a firm but bipartisan hand on the tiller during a storm.

Republicans were generally against the expansion of government functions to administer the war effort, and regarded proposals for a post-War League of Nations as the thin end of a very dangerous, interventionist wedge.  Slim Democrat majorities and the changes implied by an end to war had shortened the odds against them taking control in both houses of Congress, but the unspoken truce kept Wilson’s personal popularity out of the equation – until he put it up for grabs.

On 25 October, against all advice and without sparing the righteous indignation, Wilson lowered himself into the political bullring, issuing a call for voters to support the Democrats on the grounds of national security and throwing in a few attacks on the Republicans. The effect on voters was comparable with the impact made by the UK’s Prince Charles when he interferes in politics, in that Wilson’s popular stock fell and his message quickly stopped being the story. By losing his nerve and tossing away his electoral invulnerability Wilson dispelled the illusion of national unity, reignited the flames of party rivalry and let the politics of personality back into the fight for votes.

Wilson, who came across in public as the aloof academic he was, despised the politics of personality and was no good at them. Having come to power thanks to a split in the Republican Party and been re-elected as a familiar pair of hands at a time of global crisis, the decision to get personal against a re-united opposition just as the crisis was coming to an end was about as clumsy as clumsy gets.

Wilson intervention did him no good at the polls.  The Republicans gained six seats in the Senate and 25 in the House of Representatives, giving them a majority in both chambers and hobbling Wilson’s administration for the remaining two years of his (peacetime) presidency.  They took the White House in 1920 and held it for twelve years, during which three politically inert administrations presided over a rollback of federal regulation that ended in massive depression.  It’s no wonder American historians point to the 1918 midterms as a major watershed in US politics – but given that the same elections effectively doomed Wilson’s foreign policy, and by extension extinguished any hope of world peace based on his Fourteen Points, it does seem surprising that European historians largely ignore them.

30 OCTOBER, 1918: Job Done?

The other day, I mentioned that territorial ambition kept the British Empire on the attack in the Middle East when the Great War was effectively over.  This wasn’t quite the whole truth, because while General Allenby had been powering his way past Ottoman defences in Palestine and Syria, British imperial forces on the Mesopotamian Front had spent most of 1918 in a state of what their commanding officer called ‘astonishing inactivity’.  They were eventually sent into concerted action in late October, but this was no last-minute land grab.  The operation culminating in the Battle of Sharqat, which ended on 30 October 1918, was about securing the prize that had brought the British Empire to the Persian Gulf at the very start of the War: oil.

I last looked at Mesopotamia more than a year ago, a century after a small British motorised force had tried and failed to follow up a victory on the Euphrates at Ramadi with the capture of Hit (28 September, 1917: Wheels Come Off).  British c-in-c General Maude spent the next few weeks going after remaining Ottoman forces in the region.  Two divisions were sent up the River Diyala under General Marshall in mid-October, but Ali Ihsan Pasha’s XIII Corps retreated into the hills and the chase was called off.  Two more divisions advanced up the Tigris under General Cobbe, and continued the pursuit after Khalil Pasha’s forces withdrew from defensive lines around Samarrah.  They took Tikris on 2 November but the garrison, along with most of its supplies and equipment, escaped again.

Having failed to eliminate the possibility of an Ottoman counterattack, Maude died of cholera in mid-November.  His death signalled a reduction of British commitment to the campaign, and new c-in-c Marshall was ordered to scale back operations.  After another sortie up the Diyala had failed to trap Ali Ihsan, Marshall focused on reorganising his forces until early March 1918, when a small-scale advance up the Euphrates took Hit.  The town’s defenders had retreated before they were attacked and regrouped behind a new line at Khan Baghdadi, which was surrounded and taken by British forces at the end of the month.

Throughout the summer – when it was anyway too hot to fight, the Western Front was in crisis and Allenby was preparing big things in Palestine – Mesopotamia languished way down the list of British strategic priorities.  By autumn Allenby’s forces from Palestine had taken Aleppo, cutting off any full Ottoman retreat from Mesopotamia, and the Ottoman war effort was palpably on the point of final collapse.  The region housed no coherent Arab independence movement to contest future British control, and Marshall’s offensive options were restricted by a serious shortage of transport vehicles, many of which had been transferred to Dunsterforce (17 February, 1918: Follow that Figment!).  Further fighting in Mesopotamia could hardly be described as a military necessity.

This was the legacy of the Mesopotamian campaign: the post-War British mandated territory of Iraq.

Ah, but having come much, much too far on what was originally conceived as a mission to protect the flow of oil supplies out to sea through Basra, the British found themselves just short of the oil fields around the Tigris city of Mosul, a prize that was both tempting and extremely vulnerable to sabotage.  It was also a prize that might prove difficult to secure after the War ended, when multilateral peace negotiations would inevitably be influenced by the liberal, essentially anti-imperialist stance of the USA and President Wilson.

British premier Lloyd George, acutely aware of an American attitude he considered naive and no slouch when it came bossing his generals around, duly ordered Marshall to advance up the Euphrates and the Tigris, clearing out remaining Ottoman forces in the region and taking the Mosul oilfields.  Marshall was able to convince his government that, amid a debilitating attack of influenza, he lacked the resources to attack on both fronts, and while he made preparations for an operation on the Tigris, British diplomacy set about making sure he could proceed without international interference.

The Young Turk government in Constantinople had resigned on 13 October, triggering a scramble for peace by the new grand vizier, Izzet Pasha.  He immediately sent a note to the US asking for peace talks, and emissaries were dispatched to Britain and France for the same purpose on 15 October.  The US administration declined to respond before hearing its allies’ views on the subject, and for reasons that remain unclear the French were slower on the uptake than the British, who seized upon the offer of negotiations delivered from Constantinople by long-term Ottoman prisoner General Townshend (5 April, 1916: Decline and Fall).

In anticipation of victory, the Allies had already agreed that whichever country received an armistice offer should lead negotiations, but the British chose to interpret this as permission to conduct talks alone and Ottoman authorities, again for reasons that can only be guessed, were content to keep things bilateral.  Talks began on 27 October aboard the British battleship Agamemnon, anchored in the Bay of Mudros (off the island of Lemnos), and both sides agreed to prevent French representatives from joining the negotiations.

I always like an old battleship picture, and this was the pre-Dreadnought HMS Agamemnon.

Marshal had meanwhile begun operations on 18 October by clearing the last of the defensive lines facing him on the Tigris at Fathah Gorge.  They were abandoned by defenders on 23 October, and on the same day two divisions and two brigades of cavalry, commanded by General Cobbe, left Baghdad in pursuit of Ismail Hakki Bey’s retreating forces.  Cobbe reached their hastily improvised defensive line at the Little Zab, a tributary of the Tigris, the following evening, but was forced to resume the  pursuit when Ismail Hakki Bey retreated another 100km north to Sharqat, where his remnant made its last stand.

Cobbe’s attack at Sharqat began on 29 October, and although it failed to break through Ottoman lines after one of his Anglo-Indian divisions arrived late on the scene, Ismail Hakki Bey was aware that negotiations off Mudros were making swift progress and chose to spare everyone further bloodshed.  Some 12,000 troops and fifty artillery pieces surrendered to Cobbe on 30 October, ending what proved to be the last action of the war on the Mesopotamian Front.

Ottoman troops surrender to an armoured car at Sharqat.

Negotiations aboard the Agamemnon were indeed proceeding with remarkable speed, both because the Ottoman government was desperate for immediate peace and because the British were in a hurry to end the fighting before international peace processes restricted their movements. The British made demands and the Ottomans accepted them without delay, so that an armistice was agreed on 30 October (and of course both sides later concluded that they could have driven a harder bargain).

Fighting between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire ceased throughout the Middle East at noon on 1 November, by which time Marshall had sent a column under General Fanshawe from Tikrit to Mosul, where the remains Ali Ihsan’s XIII Corps surrendered without a fight.  British forces began occupying the city next day.

As far as the British Empire was concerned that was job done, and British control over Middle Eastern oil supplies became a fact of life for decades after the War.  On the other hand, and despite the booty it produced, nobody at the time thought the Mesopotamian campaign had been a good idea.  It had cost 97,579 (largely) Anglo-Indian casualties, including 31,109 dead, along with an unknown but presumably higher number of Ottoman casualties.  The Anglo-Indian invasion had suffered at various stages from maladministration, command ineptitude and strategic drift, and the report of a British commission of enquiry (set up in 1916) concluded that it had been an unnecessary waste of resources, given that the campaign in Palestine proved a far more efficient means of defeating the Ottoman Empire and securing oil supplies.

The same report also pinned much of the blame for the essentially casual carnage in Mesopotamia on the Indian administration and army, but that ignored London’s failure to exert imperial control over the adventure during its early stages and the British government’s dithering attitude throughout.  However you apportion the blame – and one way or another it comes down to British imperial ambition – the Battle of Sharqat and the Mudros armistice signalled a victory for greed that was hollow even by the standards of that terrible war… and the echo of its empty venality is still vibrating through the Middle East.

THE REAL FIRST WORLD WAR