First World War

When Learning Goes Bad

DR JONATHAN BOFF

Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. His first book, Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. An audio recording of a paper detailing some of his new research on German command on the Western Front can be found here.

On the Western Front in September and October 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, the British army employed a new operational approach known as ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to drive deep into the German defences and break through, the BEF sought instead to limit any advance to the range of its artillery cover, driving a thousand yards or a mile into the enemy trenches, digging in quickly and then defeating the inevitable German counter attack. This approach posed a significant challenge to the German defenders. Based on new research into the papers of the army group commander opposite, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, this article explores how they adapted to the new British method. It demonstrates three points relevant to modern commanders:

  • Find solutions which address the real problems you face, not those which you best know how to fix;
  • Don’t assume that a solution exists, much less that you’re the person to find it;
  • Intellectual honesty about the past is crucial to the integrity of ‘lessons learned’ processes. Infection by present-day concerns risks misrepresenting the past and drawing the wrong conclusions.

In late September 1917 the Third Battle of Ypres burst back into life with a series of resource-intensive, limited-objective British attacks. In the battles of the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood (20 and 26 September, respectively), troops of the British Second Army used ‘bite and hold’ tactics to chew their way through the enemy defences. The Germans, practising an elastic defence in depth, seemingly had no answer. Their forward garrisons were too weak to beat off the first assault. And poor communications and the difficulty of movement across a devastated and lethal battlefield made it impossible to launch counter attacks to regain lost ground in time. For the first time in the Flanders campaign, Rupprecht needed to call in reinforcements. The search for counter-measures began.

According to the German Official History, the defensive expert, Fritz von Loßberg, proposed moving away from defence in depth and increasing the strength of the forward crust to prevent any initial British break-in. This was adopted on 30 September but did nothing to prevent another defeat in the Battle of Broodseinde (4 October). Consequently the Germans reverted to a (slightly reformed) elastic defence on 7 October. Within two weeks, then, they had been able to operate three different styles of defence: an impressive level of flexibility.

This narrative was false in three particulars. First, Loßberg’s was merely one of several senior voices, including some at Supreme Command (OHL), advocating a crust defence. Secondly, whatever the orders, it is far from clear that every front line unit was able to adjust their tactics in time. Some could but many could not. The 119th Infantry Division, for instance, which was at the front for 67 straight days from 11 August to 18 October, pointed out that new orders incorporating the latest lessons learnt were of only limited use with no opportunity to train. Thirdly, there were far simpler and more traditional explanations for the problems the Germans were facing, which spoke far more to the operational level of war than the tactical. The cumulative effect of attrition was beginning to make itself felt, with both the quantity and quality of replacements slipping. Poor leadership was another concern.

Nonetheless, the Official History narrative held considerable attractions for the German military writers who constructed it. First, by attaching responsibility for mistakes to Loßberg, it deflected blame from OHL and the General Staff more widely. Secondly, it simultaneously emphasised how flexible, rational and systematic the German approach usually was. Thirdly, it reinforced the case for elastic defence, which was an important tenet of German military thought between the wars. It is no accident that the Official History was compiled by former officers of the German General Staff, many of them who had served at OHL during the war. When the Treaty of Versailles demanded the abolition of the General Staff, the army transferred its finest doctrinal thinkers, steeped in the manoeuvrist approach of Schlieffen and Moltke the Elder, to the apparently civilian Reichsarchiv. There they were to keep the General Staff flame alive and produce a history designed to help train and teach the army’s officer cadre.

As a matter of fact, the revised elastic defence brought in after Broodseinde was never really tested. Continued British attacks at Ypres in autumn 1917 were handicapped more by weather and logistics than by German resistance. Thereafter there was little opportunity to try elastic defence until the Allied offensives of July-November 1918. It failed. But, since the German army was much weaker by then, and Allied attacks much stronger, comparisons with 1917 are tricky.

The lessons of this episode are threefold. First, the German general staff sought tactical solutions to what was in fact the operational challenge of ‘bite and hold’ and attrition. Culturally they were, like most militaries, ‘can-do’ institutions and natural problem solvers; but they were more comfortable offering tactical tweaks than in confronting operational reality. The tendency of the German army to offset operational weakness with tactical brilliance and to seek military solutions to political problems is a recurring theme in its history from Schlieffen to Stalingrad. Secondly, the experience of Flanders highlights the intellectual arrogance of its commanders. Men such as Erich Ludendorff and his entourage at OHL were convinced not only that a single solution to their difficulties existed but also that they could find it. This blinded them to the possibility that there might be no panacea, and that different situations might require different responses. It also meant that doctrine formulation became increasingly centralised and dogmatic, restricting the initiative of subordinate commanders and rendering the Germans predictable to their enemies. Rupprecht criticised this tendency, pointing out that ‘there is no cure-all. A pattern is harmful. The situation must be dealt with sometimes one way, sometimes another.’ Thirdly, the interwar German army’s prime mechanism for lesson-learning was distorted by official historians pursuing their own agenda. By misrepresenting the process of adaptation in contact during the Third Battle of Ypres they encouraged a fascination with tactical detail which helped distract the Wehrmacht from the strategic and political horrors it was soon to face. Their example reminds us that more history is not necessarily the answer. But better history may be.

Image: The view from a captured German pill-box, showing the burst of a shell of the German barrage searching British reserve trenches as part of the Battle of Polygon Wood within the Battle of Passchendaele. Taken near the Wieltje-Grafenstafel Road (Rat Farm), 27th September 1917, via the Imperial War Museum.

Legacies of the Great War: the Experiences of the British and American Legions during the Second World War

ASHLEY GARBER

Ashely is a DPhil student in the Globalizing & Localising the Great War programme at the University of Oxford. You can here a recording of the talk associated with this post here.

The year 2017 marks the centenary of American involvement in the First World War, but it is unlikely to draw the same level of public attention as the 2014 anniversary has in Britain. The Great War does not hold such prominence in the American national consciousness, a reality which is often attributed to its more limited role in the conflict. The United States entered the war three years into the fighting and lost approximately 53,400 men killed in combat (although including influenza deaths among servicemen raises the tally of American dead to more than 115,000). Britain, by comparison, suffered more than 700,000 dead during the conflict. It could be argued that such figures explain why the First World War has receded in American public memory while it retains such prominence in Britain, but it is significant to note that this was not the case in the years immediately following the war. As scholars such as Jennifer Keene, G. Kurt Piehler, Mark Snell, and Stephen Trout have argued, the war left a considerable mark upon America and a culture of commemoration developed in the post-war years just as it did in Britain and other former belligerents. So when – and how – did these memory trajectories come to diverge so markedly?

Naturally, our thoughts turn to subsequent historical developments for this answer, and particularly to the Second World War, which is the predominant twentieth-century war remembered in the United States. How this latter conflict came to affect the memory of its predecessor is an intriguing question into which ex-servicemen’s organisations such as the British and American Legions can provide unique insights.

The Legions’ shared characteristics provide a baseline for comparison that may help illuminate the unique national contexts in which they were situated. The membership, leadership, structure, and relationship to the state of both groups mirrored one another – as prior work by Niall Barr, Graham Wootton, William Pencak, Thomas Rumer, and Stephen Ortiz has demonstrated. Former officers and the upper classes were over-represented among the national leaderships of both groups, while white middle-class men of small towns dominated the rank-and-file membership. Hierarchically structured with local, regional, and national outposts, both groups enjoyed close working relationships with their respective states, thanks to conservative political agendas. Perhaps the most significant similarity, however, is their common mission to perpetuate the memory of the First World War. This agenda came to inform their political and cultural engagements in Britain and America throughout the interwar period.

Yet despite the similarities in demographic and cultural terms, and the shared background and aims of these groups, in-depth research comparing the two is lacking. This is due in part to the differing national contexts mentioned earlier, but also because of important distinctions between the organisations themselves. The American Legion was considerably larger and more powerful politically than its British counterpart, claiming between 15-25% of all Americans mobilised for World War I as members and enjoying support from political elites such as Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. The British Legion, in contrast, represented 10% of British veterans at most during its interwar peak. Its national presence was felt more through its annual Poppy Day appeal rather than its influence on official policies.

Yet these differences only make the question of divergent memory trajectories even more pronounced, since it is in the United States – with its larger and more politically influential Legion – where the memory of the Great War subsides most. Perhaps the answer can be found in the differing national experiences of the Second World War?

That the Second World War delivered a blow to such groups so firmly anchored in the Great War is unsurprising. The onset of another global conflict forced both organisations to re-evaluate the legacy of the preceding war. Comparing the First World War with the Second thus became a frequent theme in British and American Legion discourses – especially early on in each nation’s war effort. Placing Great War veterans in relation to those being mobilised for the new fight was particularly important for the groups, whose membership rolls might increase via these future ex-servicemen later on.

At the heart of wartime discussion was a debate about comradeship – which my paper to the First World War Research Group at the Joint Services Command and Staff College on 14 February 2017 (available here) analysed in detail. Participation in the First World War served as a cornerstone in the collective identities of the British and the American Legions. Incorporating ex-servicemen who had not experienced the Great War challenged existing ideas of who could be considered a “comrade in arms.” Deviating too far from past views might jeopardise the memory of the First World War, both in terms of upholding its broader historical significance and as well as its personal import. At the same time, recruiting Second World War ex-servicemen offered the chance to secure their futures as organisations. Discussions, therefore, needed to appeal to this generation, too.

Deciding who belonged and who did not boiled down to a much larger question with significant implications: why did the service of veterans from both the First and Second World Wars matter?

Examining discussions among Great War ex-servicemen in America and Britain offers a helpful case study demonstrating how the Second World War impacted narratives of the First within these differing national contexts. The extent to which the Legions continued to uphold the Great War as significant raises interesting questions about wider developments in national memory discourses. Understanding the conflict’s place in British or American national consciousness in 2017 is not only a matter of grasping these state’s respective war experiences, but of discovering how subsequent events served to shape its narratives as well.

Image: Crowd at an American Legion convention in New Orleans, 1922, via wikimedia commons. 

Conference Report: Commemorating the Centenary of the First World War

DR AIMÉE FOX-GODDEN & DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

This post reflects upon an event held on January 12th in the River Room at King’s College London. The symposium featured contributions from Prof Jay Winter, Dr Helen McCartney, Prof Annika Mombauer, Hanna Smyth, Dr Jenny Macleod, Dr Heather Jones, and Dr Catriona Pennell. Recordings of all of the days proceedings are available online and can be found by clicking on the name of the individual participant.

How the conflict which subsequently became known as the First World War ought to be interpreted, understood, and given meaning became a hotly contest topic almost immediately after the outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914. Debates over what the War meant displayed, and continue to display, a multiplicity of interpretations, attitudes, and agendas – which often reveal far more about those who formed them than the events they aim to discuss. The centenary of the conflict – and the accompanying raft of commemorative activities and spike in public interest – has presented a unique set of challenges to historians, but also a valuable opportunity to reflect upon the relationship between their craft and broader society. This event, held at King’s College London on January 12th, brought together scholars from a range of backgrounds to discuss the varying national approaches to the centenary, and what these might tell us about how the First World War is perceived and understood in the twenty first century.

 (Contested) Identities of Remembrance

What is the future of identities in the process of commemoration? Jay Winter’s provocation proved a key theme that ran through the event’s proceedings. With the aftermath of Brexit and the increasingly pluralised nature of identities in the modern age, participants were invited to consider how these identities might become contested and fluid, rather than temporally fixed. Vladimir Putin’s use of the ‘sacred memory’ of the First World War as a way of rehabilitating the Russian Empire and providing a ‘militarist narrative for popular consumption’ is just one example of the slippery way in which identities can be mobilised for political gain. Other speakers tapped into this pervasive theme. Hanna Smyth touched on these contested identities when speaking about the work of the Vimy Foundation. For Canada, national and imperial identities of remembrance were not binary. The idea of a Canadian national identity can be broken down further: how does Newfoundland – a separate dominion during the war, but now part of Canada – remember the First World War? What about the Quebecois? What about those from the First Nations? These contested identities are further compounded by the problematic narrative of ‘brave soldiers’ who died for freedom – a narrative that is by no means unique to Canada. In the case of Ireland, the tense, often divisive, nature of identities of remembrance has supposedly been tackled head on during the centenary commemorations. Catriona Pennell spoke of the ‘de-orangification’ of the First World War narrative, and the move towards equality of sacrifice in Ireland’s commemoration. As historians, we need to be mindful of the inherent complexity associated with the construction and presentation of national identities; the centenary has certainly reminded us of this.

Silences of commemoration

Despite the high level of commemorative activity across many of the main belligerents, there remain obvious silences of commemoration. Refugees and the reconfiguration of imperialism offer just two, broad examples. While attempts have been made to uncover and reintegrate the story of the Canadian First Nations, and Indigenous Australians into national commemorative narratives, there is still a continuing problem of visibility. Heather Jones spoke of the removal and muting of the ‘national’ narrative from France’s commemorative activity. While the international and the European has been a key focus of France’s commemoration, the continuing trauma of the nation’s colonial legacy and the often white, male face of commemoration has – unwittingly or not – proved another means of silencing complicated aspects of France’s past. From a British perspective, the focus on 1 July 1916 as a key focal point in the Somme commemoration is just one of the silences apparent in British commemorations. Cherry picking certain operations or campaigns, for commemoration, particularly those dominated by the army, is problematic. We are faced with similar problems when looking at the contributions of the army’s sister services. The British war in the air has been sidelined. In spite of its ubiquity, it will be commemorated in April 1918, aligning with the birth of the RAF. The war at sea has been both marginalised and militarised, overlooking the important contributions made by the Merchant Navy to the war effort. In many respects, commemoration activity in Britain runs the risk of distorting our own popular perceptions of the conflict, particularly in terms of who fought and their relative contribution. What happens then when we widen our view to look beyond the national to the international? What implications does this cleft between historical reality and remembrance have both during and beyond the centenary?

The Historian and the Centenary & Democratisation of commemoration

The complex relationship between historical accuracy and commemorative activity, and thus between the historian and the centenary, was also evident in the participants discussion of the democratization evident in the activities undertaken since 2014. Quite naturally the speakers welcomed initiatives intended to encourage broader participation in the centenary and engagement with the First World War. Schemes such as the ‘We’re here because we’re here’ and the poppy display at the Tower of London attracted widespread public interest, however questions remain over the extent to which they prompted people to reflect upon the conflict and its meaning. Helen McCartney highlighted how programmes such as Letter to an Unknown Soldier produced a degree of engagement with the historical detail that suggests a greater level of engagement with the record than critics might fear, however there is good reason to doubt the extent to which the centenary has genuinely changed the well-established narratives about the War evident prior to 2014. As Annika Mombauer highlighted in relation to Germany, even scholarship that penetrates into the popular domain – as Chris Clarke’s Sleepwalkers has done – tends to be simplified to the point of gross reductionism in popular debates, which are as much about the realities of the present as they are about the lost world of the past.

This all begs the question – what is the role of the historian during the centenary? Hanna Smyth observed that there is an implicit tension in those studying commemorative practice and centenary being involved in shaping its conduct. What effect does this have on the scholarship of those involved? And, in turn, ought the academic study of commemorative practice to play a role shaping how we commemorate? If the centenary is as much about the future as the past, what claim can historians make to inform a debate about events yet to pass?

Power & modern agendas – government, organizations, & the centenary

Ultimately, how we commemorate the First World War will always be determined by the needs of the moment. The iconic image of François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl standing hand in hand in the pouring rain before the memorial at Verdun is one of the most powerful encapsulations of European Unity and of a future devoid of conflict on the continent. Moments such as these are as much about power and political narrative as they are about historical accuracy, yet by attempting to mobilize the past for the needs of the present they also speak to the never ending debate as to what history is, and ought to be ‘for’. Indeed, the laudable inclusion of German and French representatives – alongside the British, Irish, and Commonwealth forces – at the centenary service for the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval – mirrored the move towards increasingly transnational, inclusive approaches within the discipline of history itself.

***

The timing of the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union – coming as it did days before the July 1st service – underlined how far we still are from a common narrative or understanding of the conflict. The War was mobilized in support of both the leave and remain arguments, often with precious little care for historical realities. Historians have no claim over this process, but do have an obligation to engage with it and to work against the crude instrumentalisation of the past for the needs of the political moment. This process is ongoing, and will be the subject of further discussion by the First World War Research Group as we approach the culmination of the centenary cycle in 2018-19.

Image: Poppies At The Tower Of London 23-8-2014 via Flickr.

Sea Power, Alliances, and Diplomacy: British Naval Supremacy in the Great War Era

LOUIS HALEWOOD

Louis is a current DPhil student at the University of Oxford. He holds an MA in History from the University of Calgary. Louis is co-organiser of the upcoming ‘Economic Warfare and the Sea’ Conference, to be held at All SoulS College in July 2017.

A recording of the talk this post is drawn from is available here.

President Donald Trump’s statements over the continued viability of NATO has raised questions about the relevance and utility of alliances in 21st century international politics. Who gains most from alliance structures and collective security? What are the benefits for a global power in leading alliances? These questions appear particularly pertinent with the end of the ‘American moment’ and the return to a degree of multipolarity in world affairs, where the rise of China and its aspirations of a blue water navy and an emboldened Russia are challenging the status quo with increasing regularity.

Fresh as they may appear, many of these issues have a long historical antecedence. At the start of the 20th century the British Empire faced a changing global environment – with rising powers on the Continent, in the Americas and in Asia – which forced statesmen to confront the dilemma of how to guarantee the security of Britain’s maritime empire without overstraining public finances on defence expenditure. The supremacy of the Royal Navy had ensured the safety of Britain’s dominions and colonies both through its physical might and as a symbol of prestige throughout the 19th century. However, with the rise of new naval powers, chiefly Imperial Germany across the North Sea, seeking local dominance in all theatres simultaneously would be needlessly expensive. Maintaining a policy of ‘splendid isolation’ might leave Britain vulnerable in secondary theatres as it was forced to out-build the German navy so to command home waters. Consequently, British statesmen turned to diplomacy to underwrite maritime security elsewhere, developing alliances and strategic alignment to tilt local balances in Britain’s favour, neutralising potential threats in the process.

The first move towards this was the alliance with Japan, first struck in 1902, and renewed in 1905 and 1911. This settled concerns in Whitehall over the threat to British possessions in the Far East, with Japan turning from potential danger to guardian of these interests. This was an important embarkation point as British statesmen began to explore the opportunities that such agreements presented.

Pressure to find a similar solution in European waters began to mount as the costs of winning the Anglo-German naval race soared. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911, argued that Britain must prioritise a ratio of 60% superiority over the German High Seas Fleet, leaving little in the naval estimates for a Mediterranean fleet to protect this key imperial artery. The solution advanced was an accord with France (with whom ties had strengthened following the Anglo-French Entente, signed in 1904). The French navy could, with the support of a diminished British force, control the Mediterranean against a combination of Austria-Hungary and Italy, while the bulk of the Royal Navy took on the German navy in the North Sea.

Churchill’s predecessor at the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna had argued that Britain must spend whatever was necessary to give it domination in both seas without having to rely on France. However, this would require cuts to social programmes at home, which a Liberal government committed to welfare reform could not countenance. The Anglo-French naval agreement, signed in 1913, was therefore a means for securing British interests in the Mediterranean at minimal cost. It was not a sign of weakness: Britain was the senior partner in the agreement, giving little in return for the security of the Mediterranean (not least because it was not bound to supporting France in the event of war with Germany). Paris raised concerns over this imbalance, but made little headway.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, these arrangements came into play, and proved largely effective at safeguarding British maritime interests in the Far East and Mediterranean. The July Crisis demonstrated the limits of what British diplomacy and sea power could achieve: it was not able to prevent war from breaking out. Nevertheless, they did put Britain in a commanding position to wage war at sea: containing the battle fleets of the Central Powers, protecting British shipping, and enabling blockade to begin.

From 1914, Britain used its status as the world’s leading naval power to dominate the naval coalition, directing the maritime elements of the Entente’s strategy. It left the smaller issue of the Austro-Hungarian navy to France (joined by Italy in the Adriatic from spring 1915), while focusing on the more potent German threats in the North Sea and Atlantic. However, when Germany carried its underwater guerre de course into the Mediterranean as 1915 progressed, the Admiralty sought to develop an operational leadership role in this theatre too; partly for reasons of prestige, primarily to address the exigencies of war. Yet the Mediterranean was important to Paris and Rome for reasons of prestige as well – the source of many Franco-Italian disagreements – and their naval establishments prevented the Royal Navy from taking the reins entirely.

The United States Navy, on the other hand, was more content to act as an auxiliary in European waters once the U-boats had forced American entry into the war in 1917. While the White House was keen to work closely with the Admiralty at the operational level, however, there were problems when it came to long-term grand strategy. President Woodrow Wilson had wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict; now that this was unavoidable he sought to maintain independence from London and Paris by becoming an associated, rather than allied, power. Moreover, the United States was engaged in a large programme of naval construction, which would produce a powerful battle fleet that might rival the Royal Navy. David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, wanted this suspended so that American shipyards could be directed to the construction of smaller craft suitable for anti-submarine warfare. Yet American leaders feared this would leave them vulnerable in the post-war world, so refused. Arthur Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, came up with a solution: a general naval alliance in which Britain would guarantee American security at sea while capital ship construction caught up. Moreover, Balfour worked on plans which would bring together the Allied navies (including France, Italy, Russia, and Japan) with the US under an umbrella agreement of mutual assistance against maritime attack lasting for four years after the conclusion of the war.

This was anathema to the White House, with Wilson unwilling to bind his hands. Nevertheless, this episode demonstrates the evolution of British strategic thinking on alliances and their utility. With Britain at the centre of a web of mutually supporting navies, of which the Royal Navy would be the greatest, its partners could help to extend the security of the empire, affording London potential auxiliaries in war and neutralising possible rivals. Of such future challengers, the United States – poised to assume second place in the naval rankings if Germany was defeated and disarmed – was the greatest. The prospect of an Anglo-American rivalry gathered pace as the U-boat threat receded and the Americans increased the pace of capital ship construction. Yet neither side wanted a costly naval arms race, and following victory in 1918 they soon found renewed common cause in the League of Nations project. The prospect of a post-war strategic alignment (if not a formal alliance) was on the table at Versailles in 1919. British and American diplomats managed to suppress the nascent competition between their sailors, with Robert Cecil of the Foreign Office and Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s chief lieutenant, reaching a compromise through which Britain could carefully manage the US’ rise as a naval power via bilateral talks. Meanwhile, Wilson was prepared to make a guarantee of French security with the British. A new world order was set to emerge, with an Anglo-American alignment at its centre (a dream which seemingly still resonates in Whitehall a century later).

Yet the gentleman’s agreement struck in Paris collapsed in Washington later that year. The result was that in 1921 the Lloyd George government had to negotiate in a multilateral environment at the Washington Naval Conference. While the decisions reached there allowed an Anglo-American agreement on the naval balance of power to be reached, the proposed strategic alignment could not be covered, and it was at a higher price than the one to be paid if the Cecil-House understanding had been implemented. One such cost was the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The potential benefits of that agreement was driven home two decades later when the Japanese ran riot across British possessions in the Fat East, dealing an irreversible blow to the integrity of the British Empire. Coming after two years of war against Nazi Germany, this defeat left Britain beleaguered and appeared to leave India open to the Japanese. Yet for the period 1939-41, the US had refrained from active military support for Britain. Alliances and strategic alignments, then, can offer significant benefits to global powers. To reject or lose them can have repercussions. Certainly, isolation rarely is a better alternative – a point worth remembering in the 21st century.

Featured image: A Middleweight bout at the Grand Fleet Boxing Tournament in 1918 between Chief Carpenter’s Mate Gartner (US Navy) and Leading Stoker Roberts (Royal Navy), via the Imperial War Museum

Erdogan and the National Pact: the fallout today from the British Army’s seizing of Mosul in 1918

By Dr Rod Thornton

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently repeated his country’s long-held territorial claim to Mosul and the whole of northern Iraq. Such a claim is based on the belief prevalent in Turkey that this area had, as territory of the Ottoman empire, been illegally seized by the British in November 1918 after the First World War in the Middle East was over.

The facts are not in dispute. At the time of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and Ottoman forces – brought about by the Armistice of Moudros on 31 October 1918 – Mosul and most of its surrounding vilayet (administrative area) were still in Ottoman hands. Advancing British troops were still some way short of the city. However, during the next month, British troops – without any fighting – pushed beyond the armistice line and removed demoralised and unresisting Ottoman forces from both Mosul city and its vilayet. Thus the British took control of what today is northern Iraq.

 What is in dispute is whether the British had the right to do this. Ottoman government protests that the British should have kept to the armistice line and that Mosul should have remained under its control came to be enshrined, post-war, in something called the National Pact. This had actually been promulgated by Kemal Ataturk himself in 1920 and long before he became the first president of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923. This Pact is a document which still has influence to this day within the Turkish body politic and is being quoted by Erdogan as he makes his claim to Mosul. Overblown rhetoric, maybe, but the danger for the future geopolitics of the Middle East is that Turkey, referring to the Pact, will see no legal impediment to its troops not only occupying large swathes of northern Iraq but also of northern Syria as well.

So, why did the British take the controversial action they did in 1918? Well, the then Ottoman prime minister blamed not so much the British in general, but rather the ‘sophistry’ of one individual British officer. This was the GOC Mesopotamia, General Sir William Marshall. Here was, indeed, a highly unusual case where one man – acting without orders and largely on his own initiative – may be said to have shaped the territorial boundaries of a significant portion of the modern Middle East.

Marshall had, near the end of the war and as the Ottoman army in Mesopotamia was rapidly weakening, been pushing his Anglo-Indian forces north from Baghdad (seized in April 1917). The view in the literature on this subject has it that Marshall had received orders from London to try and seize Mosul before war’s conclusion because of its oil potential. My research (mostly carried out in Erbil, 90 miles from Mosul) shows, however, that this was not the case. Marshall had no such orders. London, in fact, was showing very little interest in capturing Mosul. Rather, Aleppo and Baku were seen as the big regional prizes.

Marshall was moving towards Mosul for reasons of his own. He needed British control not just of the city of Mosul itself but also of its whole vilayet. This was for two reasons. The first was because he understood that the populations of the two Ottoman vilayets that the British had already occupied during the course of the war (Baghdad and Basra) could simply not be fed after the war if what was known as the ‘granary’ of Iraq – i.e. Mosul’s wheat fields – was still in Ottoman hands. For centuries, this granary had been supplying Baghdad and Basra. Marshall, who would be responsible for maintaining order in post-war Iraq, was aware that while there would be difficulties enough in trying to control southern Iraq’s fractious Sunni and Shia tribes his task might become insuperable if compounded by any inability of British authorities to actually feed the people of said tribes. By 1918, indeed, there were already severe food shortages across central and southern Iraq.

The second rationale for seizing Mosul was that Marshall needed to keep in situ the hundreds of thousands of Christians (some indigenous, but including many displaced Armenians) who were present in Mosul vilayet. If this region was not in British hands at war’s end then these Christians would doubtless flood south. They could then overwhelm the already taxed British system for dealing with the huge number of Christian refugees who, fleeing from Ottoman excesses in eastern Anatolia, had already arrived in southern Iraq.

As for the Ottomans, they had realised by October 1918 that they had to sue for peace quickly. They needed an end to hostilities before they lost more territory – including cities such as Mosul and Aleppo – to the general British advance north in Mesopotamia and Syria. The British likewise wanted a swift peace deal in order that troops could be transferred from the Middle East to the Western Front. Talks thus began on 26 October on a British battleship in Moudros harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos. They were conducted between Ottoman representatives and a Royal Navy delegation led by Vice-Admiral Somerset Gough-Calthorpe. He had been given carte blanche by British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George to negotiate on behalf of the Allies. An armistice was duly signed on 30 October and this was to come into force at midday the next day.

While Aleppo had by now been taken (on the 26th) by General Edmund Allenby’s troops operating in Syria, Marshall’s forces in Mesopotamia, advancing up the Tigris, were still some 12 miles short of Mosul. They had reached the town of Hammam al-Alil (much in the news today as the site of ISIS massacres). This was on 1 November. Marshall, hoping that his lead cavalry brigade could seize Mosul if allowed extra time to advance, did not actually tell his forward commanders that the war was over! Troops at the front were only informed of the armistice by the Turks themselves (under white flags). At Hammam al-Alil they were requested by Ali Ihsan Pasha – the Ottoman commander at Mosul – to return to the point they had reached when the armistice had been signed the previous day; i.e. back to Qayyarah. The ranking British officer at the front – Brigadier Robert Cassels – refused and stayed put to await orders.

 On 2 November, and three days after the armistice, Marshall, in Baghdad, did finally receive some orders from London to occupy ‘Mosul’. Marshall then conveyed this order to Cassels who, doubting it at first given that the war was over, asked for confirmation. Cassels assumed he could only enter the city if there was evidence of a breakdown of law and order (e.g, if Christians were being massacred). But all was quiet there. The order to occupy was, though, reiterated to Cassels and he conveyed it to Ihsan. The latter refused to vacate the city and a stand-off ensued. Ihsan made complaints about the British behaviour to his superiors. These were passed on to Gough-Calthorpe at Moudros. The admiral agreed with the Turkish position. He was of the opinion that nothing he had negotiated with the Turks on behalf of the Allies/British government covered the post-armistice seizure of any Ottoman territory not occupied at the time of the armistice – including Mosul. Gough-Calthorpe made his views known to the Admiralty in London.

To break the impasse, Marshall flew up to Mosul from Baghdad on 7 November. He ordered Ihsan, under duress, to not only vacate the city but also the whole of the vilayet as well. While he had his orders to occupy ‘Mosul’, it was not actually clear to Marshall what this meant. He was fairly sure it only meant Mosul city and not the whole vilayet as well. Marshall was thus taking a huge risk in making his own independent interpretations of both the wording of the Moudros Agreement and of his orders. He was using these interpretations in his negotiations with Ihsan. Hence he came to be accused by the Turkish prime minster of ‘sophistry’.

Ihsan again protested to Istanbul. But he was told not to oppose the British. The authorities in the Ottoman capital needed British diplomatic help in keeping Turkey-proper free from any post-armistice occupation by French, Greek and Italian forces. Thus they did not want to make an issue of Mosul.

Ihsan, in high dudgeon, resigned his commission and left the city. Marshall’s troops then moved in on 8 November and, in a swift operation and one for which Marshall took responsibility, went on to clear the entire vilayet of Ottoman forces up to what is roughly today’s border between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall, by his actions, had thus established a de facto if not an actual de jure border.

Curiously, in the British Official History of the war in the Middle East, Marshall received no praise at all for any of his actions as GOC Mesopotamia – including his seizing of Mosul. And yet by his actions he had added a vast area of – theoretically – tremendous economic potential to the British empire. This lack of praise is both highly unusual and telling. He must have done something that the British government could not approve of.

The Mosul situation had further negative consequences for Istanbul in that it had set a precedent. British troops in Syria could now, post-armistice and in light of what had happened at Mosul, also move forward and seize Ottoman territory right up to what is now, more-or-less, the current border between Syria and Turkey. The most significant town then taken was Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun and part of modern Turkey). The commander there was one Mustapha Kemal – Kemal Ataturk himself. He, ashamed of what had happened at Mosul, wanted to fight the British troops as they approached Alexandretta. Gough-Calthorpe – again sympathising with the Turks – once more complained to the Admiralty.

Kemal was also told by his government not to oppose the British. The same rationale applied as with Ihsan at Mosul – the British could not be offended. Kemal, while protesting vehemently, obeyed. As it happened, the capitulations made over Mosul and Alexandretta did not, as hoped for by the Ottoman authorities, result in the garnering of any future assistance from the British. London raised little meaningful opposition to the subsequent occupation of Turkey by French, Greek and Italian forces.

Kemal never forgot his personal humiliation. In the post-war turmoil within Turkey, and as Kemal became involved in politics, he put forward the idea of the aforementioned National Pact. In his opinion, and thus also in the opinion of generations of Turks who were to follow, northern Iraq and northern Syria had been illegally seized by the British in operations that went against the wording of the agreement made at Moudros. These areas should, it follows, have remained within the Ottoman empire and thus they should have then become part of Ataturk’s modern Turkish republic. Erdogan agrees.

Image: Geographic map of Mesopotamia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Conference Report: International Society for First World War Studies conference, ‘War Time’

Hanna Smyth (with Adam Luptak & Louis Halewood)

– War Time co-organisers, Globalising and Localising the Great War, University of Oxford.

The 9th conference of the International Society for First World War Studies was held at the University of Oxford on 9-11 November. Each year a different theme is chosen (such as ‘Landscapes’ and ‘Other Fronts, Other Wars’), but each ISFWWS conference aims to uphold the same tone of encouraging collegiality established by ISFWWS co-founders Jenny Macleod and Pierre Purseigle.

‘War Time’ was held at the Maison Française d’Oxford and organised by a team of PhD students and postdocs from Oxford’s Globalising and Localising the Great War research network. 2016, as the midpoint of the First World War formal centenary period, marked a significant opportunity to re-examine and reflect upon the ways that time has been conceptualised both during the war itself and in the hundred years of scholarship that have followed. The conference sought to reveal and contextualise new chronologies, pursued along flexible and multiple timelines, and particularly encouraged transnational and comparative work.

The conference welcomed 85 First World War academics from 11 countries, beginning with a drinks reception on 9th November followed by two days of conference proceedings and then an affiliated public engagement day on the 12th.

One of the most striking features about this conference was its format, which was inherited from the ISFWWS. No conference papers were given during the event: instead the 18 conference papers were circulated more than a month in advance. All 18 were written by PhD students and early-career researchers. 18 more senior academics were handpicked to be matched to these 18 junior paper authors to provide invited commentaries at the conference. During the event, each panel consisted of commentary and discussion on a pair of papers: each ten-minute commentary was followed by an opportunity for the paper author to respond to their commentator’s remarks, and then the floor was opened to discussion.

The encouragement and generosity of the invited commentators towards the beginning researchers they were paired with was a standout feature of the conference, praised by many. Their commentaries were incisive, full of questions and directions to explore further, and it was an interesting role-reversal to have senior academics giving précis of their junior colleagues’ work as part of their comments.

ISFWWS conferences aim to encourage interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, and War Time was no exception. The nine conference panels were titled:

  • Aerial Time
  • Endgame
  • Medical Time
  • Soundscapes of Time
  • Ideological Timelines
  • Personal Memories and Experiences
  • Materiality on the Home Front
  • Discursive Time
  • Anticipation

 

The full program can be accessed on the conference website here.

‘War Time’ was opened and closed by three keynote speakers: Professor Sir Hew Strachan (University of St Andrews), Professor John Horne (Trinity College Dublin / University of Oxford), and Professor Margaret MacMillan (University of Oxford), speaking on strategic planning, time-frames of the war, and moving from war to peace, respectively. These keynotes were recorded by the University of Oxford’s recording team and will be available online shortly.

At the end of the first day, the winner and runner-up of the “WWI Research Competition” were announced. This was a competition run by The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), unaffiliated with the conference and with an entirely separate selection committee. It was open to all students, staff and faculty at the University of Oxford who had original ideas for engaging and accessible research projects relating to the conflict. Coincidentally, the winner of the prize was War Time conference committee member Dr. Alice Kelly (currently Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute), for her podcast ‘Remembering before the end: death and the Great War’ which can be accessed here. Runner-up was JC Niala, a Creative Writing masters student, for her podcast ‘African Soldiers in WWI: Forgotten in a global war’ which can be accessed here.

During the concluding remarks of the conference another prize was announced: the Gail Braybon Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper. This was selected by the conference committee with input from an ISFWWS representative, and was open to those of the 18 conference papers whose authors do not already have their doctorates. The winning paper was “‘It is at night-time that we notice most of the changes in our life caused by the war’: Zeppelins, Time and Space in Great War London”, by Assaf Mond of Tel Aviv University. Assaf’s paper also sparked excellent discussion during the conference, particularly on his innovative analysis of ‘child time’ versus ‘adult time’ during war.

Three of the Defense Studies Department’s researchers attended the conference in invited capacities. Dr. Helen McCartney was asked to serve as commentator for Ashley Garber’s paper ‘Age, Generations and the Life Cycle in Comradeship after the Great War’ on the Personal Memories and Experiences panel; Dr. David Morgan-Owen was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor Sir Hew Strachan; and Dr. Aimee Fox-Godden was asked to serve as chair for the keynote address given by Professor John Horne. Dr. Fox-Godden also contributed by joining the conference team and a few other attendees in prolifically live-tweeting the proceedings to make them accessible to a wider audience, in what one academic following from a distance called “the best twitter coverage of a conference ever”. A Storify from the conference is available here.

Following the conference on 12th November was a public engagement day, for which the conference partnered with Oxford’s Academic IT department to run a ‘Community Collection Day’ as part of the Europeana14-18 initiative. Twenty conference delegates and organisers spent the day as part of the volunteer team staffing the event. Members of the public brought in FWW-related documents and artefacts; they were interviewed about their contributions by conference volunteers, before their items were digitised by further conference volunteers under the supervision of Academic IT digitization specialists. The event also featured a series of short talks by conference delegates and community representatives, including Liz Woolley (66 Men of Grandpont project), Sarah Wearne (Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme author), and Alison Patron (National Trust: Sandham Memorial Chapel). Volunteers from the Museum of Oxford were also on hand providing FWW-related craft activities for children.

The rationale for the public engagement day was that, although it was fantastic to bring an international cohort of 85 FWW specialists together for the conference, it was also quite exclusive and inaccessible to other interested parties; especially since this event was fully booked with a waiting list more than three months beforehand. It would have been unfortunate to have such a concentrated pool of expertise visiting Oxford and not find ways to share that with the conference’s host community, and so the organisers were very grateful for the generosity of those delegates who made time to engage with the public on the 12th.

If you would like to become a member of the ISFWWS, membership information is available at http://www.firstworldwarstudies.org/membership.php. Locations and details for the 2017 and 2018 ISFWWS conferences are still pending. The organisers of ‘War Time’ intend to publish the proceedings in due course.

On behalf of the conference organising committee, many thanks to the paper authors, keynotes, commentators, chairs, and delegates who filled War Time with such an abundance of fruitful and dynamic discussions.

Image courtesy of St Agnes Museum.

The Battle of the Somme: The First Proving Ground for British Air Power?

By Dr David Jordan

100 years after the conclusion of the Battle of the Somme, there is still a tendency – a quite understandable one – within the wider public discourse on the First World War to concentrate upon the first day of the Battle, on 1 July 1916 because of its appalling casualties, and to overlook the fact it was part of a broader campaign which concluded on 18 November 1916, with the ending of the Battle of the Ancre. The long casualty lists dominate our perspective, and when historians look at the wider swathe of the Somme campaign, they tend to focus upon aspects such as strategy and tactics and innovations such as the first use of the tank at Flers in September. Yet there were other innovative uses of weapons seen on a large scale during the Somme campaign, notably in the use of British air power. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had demonstrated the utility of aircraft from almost the start of the war, particularly in the realms of reconnaissance and artillery observation. The RNAS’s early attempts to bomb German targets (notably Zeppelin sheds) hinted at the future potential use of aircraft in the long-range attack role, and the RFC took the first steps to what would become an extensive part of aerial activity in 1917 and 1918 through what we would now term interdiction and close air support. All of this was underpinned by a firm recognition that fighting for control of the air was a vital element, since it was impossible to enable the other activities to take place without significant interference from German aircraft if this were not obtained.

It is perhaps unfortunate that the role of fighter aircraft became central to accounts of the use of aircraft during the war, because of the supposed glamour associated with aerial combat, embellished by newspaper accounts and overwrought rhetoric from the likes of Prime Minister Lloyd George, waxing lyrical about the ‘cavalry of the clouds,’ since this has obscured the fact that the critical business of the Flying Corps was that of gaining information and correcting the fire of the artillery pieces which dominated the war of static lines that had evolved after the initial war of manoeuvre in 1914, and which predominated until 1918 when mobility would return to the battlefield. As a growing canon of historiography of air power demonstrates, this awareness of the inter-relationship of air combat and the less-well known aspects of air operations has become more widespread, but is perhaps not as widely appreciated as might be the case.

When planning the Somme campaign, the RFC held an integral part, since the BEF would place heavy reliance upon artillery to prosecute the offensive, and would require information about enemy dispositions behind the front line – something which could only be obtained from the use of aerial reconnaissance. The challenge facing the RFC was that the Somme battle would be on a much grander scale than anything that it had done before, and the rate of expansion of the air service between late 1915 and spring and summer 1916 had been such that many of the new squadrons to be found in France were dominated by pilots and observers who had received relatively little training, and whose experience levels were notably lower than those who had fought in the battles of 1915. The Germans’ qualitative advantage in fighter aircraft during the so-called ‘Fokker Scourge’ had increased RFC losses, and only the appearance of new fighter aircraft such as the DH2, a ‘pusher’ fighter which looks odd to our eyes today, had redressed the balance. While the chances of operating with reduced levels of interference from the German air services had grown, failings in training and thus the observation that resulted were to prove a problem throughout the Somme campaign. To make matters worse, as the battles of Autumn 1916 demonstrated, the German air service had begun to introduce new fighter types which would tilt the balance in their favour, reaching to a nadir in the losses of ‘Bloody April’ in 1917. Nevertheless, the commander of the RFC in France, Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard, pursued a policy of a constant offensive over German lines, seeking to dominate the airspace in the battle area by the expedient of keeping enemy aircraft as far away from it as possible – preferably over their own lines – allowing the observation aircraft to go about their work relatively unmolested (RAF Museum, Trenchard Papers MFC 73 ‘Future Policy in the Air’, 22 September 1916.). That this policy is open to legitimate criticism because of its blunt, often inflexible, nature and the casualties which resulted is beyond doubt – but so is the fact that it broadly achieved its aim on many occasions. This was particularly true for the Somme offensives, which has been described as a ‘golden period for the RFC’ (See James Pugh’s excellent PhD thesis ‘The conceptual origins of the control of the air: British military and naval aviation, 1911 – 1918’ (University of Birmingham, 2013) for a detailed consideration).

Confidence in the ability of artillery to destroy the German front line positions, and particularly the barbed wire before them, proved to be sadly misplaced on 1 July 1916, but the work of the RFC was not the critical factor – as historians such as Shelford Bidwell, Toby Graham and Sanders Marble have demonstrated, the failings in the artillery scheme for 1 July went far deeper than the quality of aerial observation. And even though the cooperation with the guns did not reach the levels hoped for it, the after-action reports from Fourth Army as it sought to learn the lessons from the Somme offensives demonstrate that senior commanders still placed great importance on the use of the RFC’s army cooperation squadrons. It was noted that in poor weather, when the RFC had been unable to fly, artillery commanders, anxious to prepare the battlefield, had compensated for the lack of aerial observation by the expedient of firing twice as many shells in the general direction of the target (based on knowledge usually derived from air reconnaissance) in the hope that the greater weight of fire would increase the chances of hitting the target (National Archives, WO 95/431, ‘Lessons of the Somme’, Fourth Army War Diary 1916). This had been nothing more than optimism and a waste of ammunition. Generals Rawlinson (Fourth Army) and Horne (First Army), both made clear their view that aerial observation would be a vital component in any future offensive and that the quality of information gained and the skill with which artillery fire was directed needed to be improved. This had, in fact, been appreciated by the senior commanders of the RFC, notably Generals Henderson (Director General of Military Aeronautics and GOC of the RFC) and Trenchard (GOC of the RFC in France), with the latter making strenuous – and sometimes slightly over-optimistic – efforts to demonstrate that the quality of the pilots and observers reaching the front line was improving as better training regimes were applied (National Archives, Air 1/524/16/12/26, ‘Cooperation between aeroplanes and artillery’, notes by Trenchard on observations by Generals Rawlinson and Horne).

What is perhaps significant in considering the Somme as the proving ground for a notable air contribution to a campaign is, therefore, the extent to which air and land elements interacted and then thought about what had worked and what had not was considerable; there was no technophobia at work with aircraft seen as peculiar items that, as the stereotype later had it, simply frightened the horses. The fact that it was necessary to use air power to help win battles was now something which the BEF and its commanders took as read, rather than as something open to doubt and mistrust. The failings and disappointments of 1916 would and could not be overcome immediately – it took time before the training regime was reorganised to the point where it began to deliver aircrew with appropriate skills to the front line; the loss of control of the air in early 1917 cost more lives and aircraft and was not overcome until the early summer of that year, and yet more work was required to ensure that air and land units, particularly the artillery, cooperated in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Yet for all of this, the Somme was the first large-scale battle in which it could be said that Britain began the full application of its air power capabilities. While attempting to mark the Somme offensive as the exact point at which Britain ‘got’ air-land integration and made it work is to stretch the evidence too far, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that it was the first proper proving ground upon which the formidably effective air-land co-operation seen in the final battles of 1918 would be built.

Image: Air mechanics dismantling an Albatros C.III two-seat biplane (J7) brought down during the Battle of the Somme at the 9th Wing RFC HQ at Fienvillers. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The First Victory…

DR ANDREW STEWART

The last few years have witnessed a feverish period of remembering Britain’s military and the battles it and others fought during the Great War (what I recall increasingly vaguely as having been referred to at school more commonly as the First World War). A centenary is a historical marker worthy of reflection, particularly for a conflict which involved such horrendous levels of personal sacrifice, human cost and social change. Its place in the psyche of global historians past, present and future is beyond question; for Woodrow Wilson it was “the war to end all wars”, an argument and descriptive term that continues to generate a literature and passionate level of debate all of its own such as can be found in a recent article in The New York Times and Hew Strachan’s 2003 review essay. It certainly led to the fall of kings and ended empires and changed political systems whilst also altering the way conflict was discussed and understood both at the time and still today during the current continuing period of reflection (DefenceInDepth.co has carried on its pages a series of excellent discussions about various aspects of this war which have left this reader much better informed about the catalyst for what followed).

The extended period of recollection which has dominated recent years has rather crowded out a public appetite for discussion of the war that followed. This is a pity as there are still veterans – albeit in ever small numbers – who remain to offer first-hand accounts. The announcement in January 2014 that the Normandy Veterans’ Association was to disband was one of many during recent years as memberships dwindle but there remain men and women with powerful and urgent stories to tell of the Second World War. A range of seventy-fifth anniversary events, defining moments in Britain’s military and cultural psyche such as Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, have passed by with only the briefest of popular reference.

It is fortunate, however, that there remains a considerable academic interest in the second global conflict of the twentieth century. There are various reasons expounded for why there was a Second World War. I have never really seen the ‘controversy’ in A.J.P. Taylor’s 1961 “revisionist argument” in which he “reconnected the First and Second World Wars and drew attention back to Versailles” and simply offered an entirely logical examination of events that continues to underpin our understanding of why Europe once again slid into a second, and even more brutal and destructive war. Explicit to his thesis was an exhausting earlier conflict which resulted in a poorly considered and triumphalist peace. This in turn helped produce an increasingly reflective body of domestic opinion which challenged the merits of an internationalist approach, military intervention and, more generally, the use of force as a lever of national power. It sounds familiar – indeed the replay of more recent events seems difficult to escape – but the degree to which there remained, even after the war had begun, an apathy amongst leading elements of British society for what was viewed as an ill-considered moral crusade against Nazi Germany can easily be forgotten. In this context Lord Owen’s fascinating new account (‘Cabinet’s Finest Hour’) is particularly timely as it attempts to re-focus attention to the political drama of May 1940, albeit whilst in its epilogue also musing on more recent Westminster dramas.

The focus for many historians and the public at large may have been fixed somewhere between 1914 and 1918 but as the recent most welcomed additions to the literature have demonstrated (notably including the first volume of Dan Todman’s hugely impressive ‘Britain’s War’), there certainly still remains considerable opportunities to scrutinise the war that followed the twenty-year peace and the themes and events that contributed to its structural foundations. To this end, in my latest book, The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign, published this week by Yale University Press, I have attempted to explore one of the many gaps and look at what has been viewed by many as a peripheral military campaign. I previously had the opportunity to introduce to the Joint Services Command and Staff College this almost entirely overlooked strand of the Second World War as a case study for examination. In the supporting instructor notes I summarised it then with the following paragraph:

Fighting began in early July 1940 and ended in November 1941; the principal Allied offensive actually began in the January. Just eleven months later the 70,000 strong British-led force had succeeded in defeating an Italian army of nearly 300,000 men, in the process capturing 50,000 prisoners and occupying 360,000 square miles all at a cost of 500 casualties and just 150 men killed. It was a varied and wide-ranging conflict that witnessed many different types of military operations. These ranged from commando raids to long mechanised pursuits, mountain assaults and a protracted attritional battle. Added to this was an often decisive use of airpower, a triumphal amphibious landing and a generally incredible feat of logistical planning. In the process Mussolini’s East African Empire had been destroyed and the British Empire had secured its first significant wartime victory.

Having now had the opportunity to study in considerable depth the battles fought in British and Italian Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea drawing upon primary sources from Britain, Kenya, South Africa, the United States and (even) Australia, this remains a reasonable description. Thanks to a bold and imaginative publisher who was willing to take a risk with what might have seemed too obscure an event to attract popular attention and a fantastic editor, I have been hugely fortunate to be able to see another book made available for public scrutiny and I hope they will accept my contention that there was huge operational and strategic significance in the crushing victory secured by British and Commonwealth forces that fought in East Africa. But at the same time – and just as importantly – in so doing I hope I will also have highlighted that there still remain a great many gaps in our knowledge of the Second World War which I and many of my colleagues in the department are actively doing our best to tackle.

[An addition to this blog will be published in November 2016 at http://yalebooksblog.co.uk/ marking the anniversary of the campaign’s end]

Images taken from ‘The War Weekly incorporating War Pictorial’.

The Battle of the Somme and German ‘Battle Management’

DR. ROBERT T. FOLEY

On 1 July 1916, the infantry of British 4th Army and the French 6th Army launched what their strategic leadership hoped would be the beginning stages of a decisive campaign against the German army in northeastern France. Initially, the German strategic leadership welcomed the start of the Anglo-French  offensive on the Somme, believing it would be quickly and bloodily defeated. However, it slowly became apparent that this offensive was on a scale and intensity hitherto unseen on the Western Front. Similar to the German offensive at Verdun earlier in 1916, the battle along the Somme was above all else a Materialschlacht — a battle of material — that demanded the German army develop new methods of command and control. While tactical action was important, providing frontline units with the men, munitions, and material required to maintain their line proved to be one of the battle’s greatest challenges and greatest feats. Between the beginning of the battle on 1 July and its end 141 days later on 19 November, ‘battle management,’ rather than traditional concepts of command or leadership, became the decisive factor in ensuring a German defensive victory on the Somme.

After a seven-day preparatory bombardment, 40 British and French divisions supported by some 2,500 artillery pieces attacked the German 2nd Army along the Somme with the initial objective of seizing the Bazentin Ridge, where the second German defensive position was located. On 1 July, Fritz von Below’s 2nd Army comprised 15 divisions, supported by some 600 light and 246 heavy artillery pieces. With the Entente onslaught, the German High Command rushed reinforcements to the hard-fought 2nd Army. Already by 5 July, elements of 11 additional divisions had been drawn in from around the Western Front to plug gaps in the 2nd Army’s line. Additionally, 27 heavy artillery batteries were drafted in. The 2nd Army quickly formed ‘Gruppe’ around new and existing army corps commands. These were necessary particularly to provide some command and control for the increasing number of artillery units thrown into the battle. These new Gruppe also formed an important constant in the battle; these command teams stayed in the frontline for long periods during the battle while divisions came and went. Indeed, divisions lasted on average two weeks in the frontline before being forced by high casualties to be replaced, while Gruppe might remain for months.

The numbers of units involved in the battle on the German side had grown so large that the German High Command decided to create a new command structure to handle the battle. On 19 July, a new army, the 1st Army, was formed out of the units north of the Somme River under the command of Fritz von Below, with the noted defensive specialist Fritz von Loßberg as its chief of staff. The 2nd Army commanded units south of the river and was led by the highly experienced Max von Gallwitz with Bernard Bronsart von Schellendorf as his chief of staff. One of the key advantages of this new command structure was logistics. In the First World War German army, armies were responsible for providing the logistical framework from the frontline back to the home front; each army on the Western Front had its own line-of-supply network [Etappen] to keep its units supplied.

Two armies on the Somme meant two independent means of keeping the frontline units going, and this was very much needed. In addition to the enormous stores of food required by the 750,000 men of the two armies and their horses, the 1st Army calculated that each fighting division required 100 tonnes of engineering material — wood, cement, barbed wire, etc — per day. Further, each division required 5,500 hand grenades and 10,000 flares of various colours every day. These added up to 150 train wagons per day. The German army also found the battle placed extraordinary demands on clothing, with a division requiring up to 5,000 tunics, 5,000 trousers, and 5,000 pairs of infantry boots per month.

The battle of the Somme was above all else an artillery battle. The British and French attackers used artillery in an attempt to batter down German defences and defenders prior to infantry attacks. The German 1st and 2nd Armies tried to create a wall of artillery fire to protect their own infantry. The numbers of artillery barrels used by the defenders rose dramatically as the battle progressed. At its start, the 2nd Army had about 850 light and heavy artillery pieces; by early September the two armies had between them some 1,700 barrels. As a consequence, the numbers of rounds fired skyrocketed. In the month of July, the German defenders fired some 3,566,500 rounds. By October, this had risen to almost 6,377,000 rounds. Obviously, there were peaks and troughs throughout the battle. On 1 July, the artillery of the XIV Reserve Corps fired some 120,000 rounds, with one battery alone firing some 4,600 rounds. The single highest expenditure of munitions came on 26 September, when the two armies fired more than 200,000 rounds of the main calibers (7.7, 10.5, and 15 cm). As a result of the battle, the German army on the Western Front increased expectations for the average daily expenditure for each artillery piece. For example, 7.7 cm field guns were expected to have a daily rate of 375 rounds per gun up from 250 before the battle.

The voracious appetite of the artillery needed to be fed, and this came in the form of munitions trains. The German army had set loads for these trains, with one train delivering 26,880 7.7 cm rounds, 12,000 10.5 cm rounds, or 6,000 15 cm rounds. Indeed, usage of munitions trains became the standard way of measuring artillery expenditure in battle during the war. The scale of the munitions usage can be seen by the fact that in July and August, the German army went through 587 field artillery munitions trains and 372 heavy artillery trains, a far higher rate than at any point in the war to date. The unloading of these munitions trains and the distribution of the munitions to the frontline commands were handled through the Etappen of the two armies. Moreover, the armies each maintained special artillery depots, which served to replace worn out and destroyed artillery pieces, but also to repair damaged weapons, and these numbers were considerable. Between 26 June and the end of August, the German defenders lost 1,068 field guns and 371 heavy artillery pieces to enemy action or to wear and tear.

At the same time the 1st Army was created, a new Army Group Gallwitz was formed under the command of the 2nd Army commander, Max von Gallwitz, and was given overall command of the battle. One of the key functions of this level of command was to manage the large numbers of units flowing in and out of the battle. As we have seen, divisions lasted for an average of two weeks before needed to be replaced. Over the course of the battle, 96 German infantry divisions fought on the Somme, the equivalent of three-quarters of the German army on the Western Front, and many of these fought more than once. With divisions and corps focused on fighting the battle and armies on supplying this combat, the army group could pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of individual combat divisions. The battle drew in so many divisions that the German High Command recognised that an army group formed of two armies was insufficient to manage divisional rotation effectively. Accordingly, at the end of August a new army group, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, was created comprised of four armies. This created a much larger pool of divisions upon which the army group could draw to supply the battle with manpower. ‘Fought-out’ divisions could be withdrawn before they reached the point of collapse, sent to quite sectors of the army group front to rest and refit, and fresh divisions inserted as their replacements. (Often, divisional artillery was kept in place and served as reinforcement for the incoming artillery, which increased the significance of the Gruppe staff in coordinating the artillery battle.)

All of this meant that for the higher leadership of the German defenders, the corps, army, and army group commanders, the battle of the Somme demanded new means of ‘leading.’ As a Materialschlacht, the battle put careful and efficient management of resources to the fore. The creation of more-or-less permanent corps commands, splitting the battle between two armies, and last the creation of a standing army group all served this purpose. Each of these levels of command helped provide resources to the front line. The permanent corps (Gruppe) provided staff and support for the artillery battles. Each of the armies came with their own lines-of-communication service (Etappentruppe). Finally the army group managed the flow of divisions between armies and into and out of the battle. Increasingly, the tactical battle, where traditional ideas of leadership and command were more significant, was the preserve of the divisions and below, while the higher commands, whether based in a chateau or not, managed the battle. If any of these levels of command failed in their tasks of supplying different elements of the battle, than no amount of tactical brilliance on the part of the frontline commanders and their troops could have rescued the situation. The battle of the Somme brought home forcefully to the German army that ‘management’ was as important to victory in battle as ‘leadership.’

For more on how the German army fought the battle of the Somme and the lessons it drew from this battle, see my Journal of Military History article on the subject.

Image: A German munitions factory in early 1916. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-047-37 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Keeping the Genie in the Bottle: RNAS Anti-Submarine Warfare, 1912-1916

ALEXANDER HOWLETT

Throughout its long history, the Royal Navy has been both an innovator of, and adapter to, technological change. By the end of the 19th century, the sailing warship of Nelson’s day had been transformed into the all steel construction, reciprocating engine, electric powered and radio equipped, battleship. As formidable an implement of sea power as the modern battleship, Robert Whitehead’s 1866 invention of the self-propelled torpedo, despite its diminutive stature, threatened to undermine the relevance of the big-gun warship. Britain’s traditional naval strategy- close blockade and combined maritime operations- built on a foundation, according to Admiral Mahan, of sea power generated by the line-of-battle-ship, now seemed increasingly risky when faced against the meek, but deadly, coastal torpedo boat. The modern submarine, actualized by John Holland in 1900, effectively hid the otherwise vulnerable torpedo boat and thus brought the danger of torpedo attack to a new degree of immediacy.

Submarines, despite the critiques of skeptics, were soon added to the inventories of the naval powers, yet, the battleships only continued to grow in size, complexity and cost. To some radical naval thinkers, it seemed only a matter of time before the extinction of the old ways. It was at this point, at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, when the disruptive asymmetry between super-heavy warships and ultra-light flotilla craft was reaching a crescendo, that another transformative technology began to enter the armouries of the naval powers, a technology that promised to transform naval warfare more profoundly than all preceding developments, and perhaps, countering the submarine along the way.

Although it is little known, the Royal Navy laid surprisingly strong foundations for the use of aircraft in anti-submarine warfare before the start of the First World War. The role of aircraft in ASW was proposed, demonstrated and operationalized between 1912 and 1914. During 1915 and 1916, however, this developing ability was placed on the backburner as wartime priorities shifted. Nevertheless, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) had been primed to play a critical role in the submarine crisis, helping to contain and defeat the submarines at sea in 1917-1918. What were the roots of this wartime transformation?

Within the ranks of Royal Navy, and the nascent naval air service, there were several far-sighted officers, submariners, and undersea warfare specialists, who believed aircraft could play a vital role in ASW. Late in 1909, as his first tenure as First Sea Lord was coming to an end, Sir John Fisher established what soon became the Admiralty Submarine Committee, responsible for, amongst other trials, using aircraft to search for, and bomb, submarines. The first chairman of the Fisher committee was Admiral Cecil Burney, and it was his son, Lt. Charles Burney, who was one of the first to examine the possibility of using aircraft against submarines, a possibility he discussed in a 1913 Naval Review article (volume I, issue two). Burney then went to work for the Bristol Company, where he contributed to the development of seaplanes, specifically engineered for ASW, when the war broke out. After the disaster of 22 September 1914, when U-9 sank HMS Cressy, Hogue, and Aboukir, Burney was re-assigned to the RN’s torpedo school, HMS Vernon, to develop an anti-submarine explosive, the result of which was the towed paravane explosive, like the depth charge, both introduced in January 1916.

Another important pre-war practitioner was a submariner, Lt. Hugh Williamson. In early 1912, he published a paper that was circulated by Captain Murray Sueter, the Director of the Navy’s Air Department. Williamson’s paper identified and explored the significant role he believed aircraft could play in ASW: by traveling aboard a parent carrier ship, the airplanes could be delivered to the submarine’s operational area, and deployed in flights to patrol. Once detected, an enemy submarine would be forced to dive, thus shortly exhausting its battery power.

Williamson was supported by Sueter, who envisioned ASW as one of the essential duties of the Naval Wing. In the event, Williamson, following injuries sustained in a disastrous seaplane crash in March 1915, while acting as a gunfire observer at the Dardanelles, was appointed as an assistant to Rear Admiral Charles Vaughan-Lee, the Director Air Services (Sueter’s replacement). Williamson later became an influential staff officer, head of the Naval Staff’s Section 11 (Air) at the Operations Division.

The usefulness of airplanes operating in the anti-submarine role was actually demonstrated during the 1913 naval maneuvers. Commander Vivian, the captain of HMS Hermes, the Navy’s first seaplane carrier, wrote an encouraging report, emphasizing the success of ship- and shore- launched aircraft for spotting submarines. In December 1913, Vivian followed up with a lecture for the Royal Navy College at Plymouth, in which he endorsed aircraft for the anti-submarine role. Another proponent, Lt. Boothby, had made the same case in the RUSI Journal in 1912, although he favoured airships.

All told, Sueter, Boothby, Burney, Williamson, and Vivian provided a solid theoretical foundation for the use of aircraft in ASW. By 1913, as Arthur Marder pointed out, it was “not an uncommon belief” that the airplanes of the future would be used to attack, and indeed bomb, submarines. The RNAS had gone some way towards operationalizing these theories by July 1914.

However, at the beginning of the war, the RNAS still possessed no specialized equipment for ASW, and the implementation of theory now confronted a dramatic wartime reality. Hermes was torpedoed by U-27 in the Dover Straits on 31 October- Vivian had been reassigned- and Williamson was dispatched to the Dardanelles. Burney’s work at Bristol was interrupted, and Sueter soon had his hands full, controlling the air defence of London during the Zeppelin raids of spring 1915.

Fisher returned to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord in October 1914, and, the following February, urged the development of an aerial stopgap measure for ASW. Taking a page from Lt. Boothby, Fisher looked to non-rigid airships (blimps) to fill the role. The resulting Sea Scout, perhaps the direct antecedent of the helicopter in terms of its ASW function, was soon put into production by the airship section of the Air Department. Likewise, other kit was being perfected: J. C. Porte, of Felixstowe fame, was at work improving the American Curtiss flying boats, which, of all types of naval aircraft, were the most highly anticipated for their potential range of capabilities, including ASW.

These were bold developments. However, as the land war ground to a stalemate, and the attractiveness of using submarines against merchant shipping led to the February 1915 War Zone declaration by Germany, the inability of the Navy and its Air Department to respond decisively was exposed. Deliveries of flying boats and Sea Scouts proved far short of requirements, and the machines themselves were short on horse-power, striking power, and crew comforts. Compounding these technical limitations, in May 1915, the air-minded Churchill-Fisher regime collapsed over the prosecution of the Dardanelles campaign. The RNAS, under the following Balfour-Jackson administration, was restructured and placed in a subordinate position to the Navy’s district commanders, not always harmoniously, and thus lacked coordination and central control. Resources were stretched thin, not least because the RNAS had to compete for aircraft with the Royal Flying Corps, from competing priorities within the Air Department itself. RNAS squadrons were sent to France to supplement the RFC, and an increasing number of units were engaged in the defence of British airspace from Germany’s Zeppelin raiders. The ASW campaign was only beginning, and diplomacy had so far prevented the threat from becoming critical.

When this state of affairs changed in 1917, the RNAS had three years of experience to fall back on. The pre-war theorists were soon vindicated: the aircraft would play an integral role, hunting submarines at sea, and flying protection for merchant convoys, while also striking out against the submarine bases, and thus contributing to the failure of the desperate effort to knock Britain out of the war.

This history of theory and adaptation, hesitant development and ad-hoc innovation, all under wartime pressure, is crucial, not only for the historiography of the World Wars (as many of the lessons learnt in 1914-1916 had to be relearned after 1939), but because it was a case where an ounce of prevention truly was worth a pound of cure. Although the airplane did not defeat the submarine threat, airplanes and airships did dramatically restrict U-boat areas of operation, and could have functioned (as the pre-war theory and experiments demonstrated) as part of a synergistic combined arms approach to combating the submarines right from the outset, rather than three years into the conflict. Admittedly, such an enticing possibility remained unlikely due to limitations of kit, manpower and doctrine, however, developing these capabilities before 1914 would have cost relatively little compared to the expense of the super-dreadnought arms race and lives ultimately lost during the long submarine campaign against merchant shipping.

Image: Felixstowe F.2A in flight during an anti-submarine patrol, via the Imperial War Museum.