8 DECEMBER, 1915: Chat Lines

A hundred years ago today, after three days of talks between Entente military leaders designed to coordinate their strategic approach in the year to come, the Second Chantilly Conference came to an end.  Attended by representatives of the six Allied powers – Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia and Italy – the conference boasted one significant achievement.  After complaining about Anglo-French inaction on the Western Front during the summer’s Triple Offensive in the east, Russian delegate General Zhilinski secured agreement from every power that it would launch an attack whenever an ally was threatened.

The other major business conducted at Chantilly was a U-turn by French c-in-c Joffre.  In advance of the conference, on 4 December, he and French prime minister Briande had met with BEF chief of staff Roberston and British war minister Kitchener at Calais.  Joffre had accepted, albeit reluctantly, British demands for a withdrawal from Salonika, where a Franco-British expedition had missed the chance to help Serbia.  When the French public, kept in the dark about the fate of Serbia, reacted to the decision with predictable and intense outrage, Joffre changed his mind.  At Chantilly, he persuaded the Russian, Italian and Serbian delegates to support continuation of the Salonika operation.  The new British delegates – BEF commander Sir John French and Imperial chief of staff Sir Archibald Murray (both destined to lose their jobs before the end of the month) – chose to preserve the appearance of unity rather than argue, and their acceptance of further commitment in Salonika sealed the decision to put an end to the Gallipoli campaign.

All worth knowing, by way of joining up various dots, but perhaps the most interesting thing about the Chantilly Conference is how long it had taken the Allies to get around to it.  There had been a first conference in early July, also held at Joffre’s headquarters in Chantilly and attended by representatives of all six powers, but it can best be described as a false start. Proceedings had amounted to a long peroration by Joffre about the need for inter-allied cooperation, and no decisions had been reached or joint declarations made. Otherwise, it had taken sixteen months of all-out, escalating warfare on a global scale before the allies came together for serious joint discussions.  A hundred years on, after decades of summit diplomacy as the norm, the delay calls for an explanation.

The explanation is fairly obvious, but it is a useful perspective check. Before the age of long-range powered flight it took a lot of time and effort to get important people from various countries together in one place.  In the past it had been attempted only in peacetime, for the first time after the Napoleonic Wars when the victorious allies convened at the Congress of Vienna, and subsequently to make territorial and political arrangements designed to preserve peace. In the middle of a war, strategic positions might undergo major changes in the time it took for delegates to travel to and from a summit, especially when an alliance included far-distant Russia.  This was why the first Allied summit attempt took place in July, when European armies traditionally took a summer break from major operations, only to be rendered obsolete when the Germans ignored tradition and launched their Triple Offensive against the Russians a few days later.

Winter offered a more reliable break in European operations, but the War’s first winter had passed without much perceived need for inter-Allied strategic discussion.  Britain, France and Russia had long been accustomed to pursuing imperial ambitions as rivals rather than partners, and mutual suspicion was still a restraining influence, but above all they saw no need for strategic debate at the end of 1914 because they all knew exactly what to do.  Serbia and Belgium had only one strategic option, to lobby their more powerful allies for help with national survival.  The big boys meanwhile devoted the winter to massing lots more men and weapons at the front lines, confident that the mistakes of the autumn would be corrected and the enemy overcome by sheer force of numbers in 1915.

By the end of 1915, force of numbers, various strategic sideshows and the development of new ‘breakthrough’ tactics had quite clearly failed to overwhelm an enemy fighting on two major and several minor fronts.  The Central Powers had held firm against superior numbers on the Western Front, swept aside Russian defences in the east, proved far more obdurate than expected on the Ottoman fronts and were now in the process of conquering Serbia.  Home fronts were becoming less stable and enthusiastic for war, costs had spiralled far beyond any pre-war planner’s wildest nightmares and there was no sign at all of victory on the horizon.  It had been a very bad autumn for the Allies, and it had become clear that pursuit of separate imperial agendas by the main partners was at least partly to blame.  With British and French authorities anxious to show impatient populations that constructive change was in progress, a lull in European fighting once Serbia could no longer be saved meant the Allies were finally ready to take the first step towards behaving like a modern military coalition.

My point here is a variation on one of my regular tropes.  As I will keep telling anyone who’ll listen, it’s impossible to understand the modern world without knowing about the First World War – but Allied attempts at strategic coordination are a reminder that you’ll never get the hang of the thing if you judge it by modern standards.

Lesson over, so I’ll sign off with a couple of sidelights on that first summit.  First of all the sensible, overdue agreement reached at Chantilly would prove counterproductive in 1916.  Triggered when German forces attacked the French at Verdun in February, it prompted a hasty and ill-fated Russian offensive on the Eastern Front at Lake Naroch, and a British offensive at the Somme that, though anything but hasty, was hardly a success.

Secondly, and in case you’re wondering, the Central Powers didn’t really need strategic summits in 1915.  This was partly a matter of geography.  As their collective name suggested, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria were all within relatively easy communication distance of each other, and the main German strategic justification for joining the invasion of Serbia was to open overland communications with the Ottoman Empire.  The other reason summits weren’t necessary was that Germany made all the decisions.  All Germany’s allies were dependent on military and/or economic support to keep them in the War, so inter-allied strategic debates were essentially cosmetic.

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