A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in the winter of 1916-17.   Leave a comment

It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.

First Sea Lord John Jellicoe,  April 1917

Germany is finished.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, on the decision made by the Kaiser and the military chiefs allowing unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The U-boat Menace:

Although they had been used in warfare since the eighteenth century, it was during the First World War that the submarine, especially the German U-boat (Unterseeboot), came to play a crucial role. But this did not develop until 1916-17. In 1914 to 15 the number of Allied ships lost to U-boat raids increased from just three to almost four hundred, and this number had increased to 964 in 1916. Debate raged in Germany over whether their submarines should attack civilian ships without warning or conform to prize rules and warn the ship’s crew first. Some amongst the German high command thought that unrestricted submarine war could antagonise America to enter the war; others reasoned it would finish the war early. Those who reasoned the latter were justified by the increase of allied ships lost to 2,439 in 1917, and even in 1918 over a thousand were lost. Even more costly was the loss of British merchant ship tonnage, which reached its peak of 545,282 in April 1917. Before the introduction of the convoy system, the rate of British shipping loss was at a rate of twenty-five per cent, dropping to just one per cent afterwards.

In February 1917 Germany opted to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare. In the next three months they sank over five hundred ships. This action had a major effect on the transportation to Britain of supplies, leading even to the banning of rice being thrown at weddings. New tactical and technical methods were brought in, such as the use of convoys, Q-ships (disguised armed merchant ships) and depth charges, which could sink  U-boats while still submerged, or force it to the surface where it could be fired upon, so that by the end of 1917 the Atlantic was safe enough to allow huge numbers of American troops to be transported to Europe. One of the Austro-Hungarian submarine commanders, Georg Ludwig von Trapp, became an Austrian national hero for sinking thirteen ships. His later marriage to his children’s tutor and their escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938 provided the inspiration for the 1960s musical, The Sound of Music.

Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!

In Germany itself, the Royal Navy’s blockade of its ports was starting to ‘bite’ by the winter of 1916-17, with a scarcity of home-grown potatoes leading to turnips and other foods being turned into sustenance. Up to this point the War had been fought by traditional methods, by combatants whose national integration was still intact. But with the coming of the New Year of 1917 a change came over the scene. Ancient constitutions began to crack, old faiths were questioned, and potent, undreamed of historical forces began to be released. Everywhere in the world the sound of the old order beginning to crack was heard but, as yet, it was drowned out by the noise of war.

Nevertheless, in half-conscious anticipation of these permanent fractures, a fumbling movement towards peace began across the continent. The wiser heads in every country were coming to fear that their nations might crumble through sheer weariness, and that absolute victory, even if it were won, might only mean chaos. The first sign of movement came from Germany, but its peace offer of December 1916 was framed in the arrogant terms of one who felt that they had the winning cards. The main German motive was prudential. The Somme had shown them that their military machine was being strained to breaking-point; if it broke all would be over, and at any cost that catastrophe must be averted. If the belligerents consented to come to terms, however, the Germans believed that they would have certain advantages at any peace conference. They had much to lose which they might have difficulty holding on to by fighting on, whereas their renunciation of the war might help them win things considered by them, at least, to be vital to Germany’s future.

Moreover, once Germany’s opponents were entangled in discussion, there was a chance of breaking up their unity and shifting the argument to minor issues. For the German government, it was a matter of life and death that a rift should appear among the Entente powers before they suffered any irremediable disaster. They also had an eye on neutral states, especially the USA, which was interested in promoting negotiations. Finally, there was a tactical motive, since the Kaiser and the high command were contemplating their new and anarchic methods of naval warfare. To justify an all-out war at sea, Germany had to appear as an angel of peace, rudely repulsed in its efforts to secure a truce. Action proceeding from so many mixed motives was likely to result in blunders, and the Allies saw through this strategy. On 30 December, they rejected the German overtures, and the German Chancellor agreed to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which very nearly led to Britain’s defeat in the short-term, but ultimately helped to secure its victory. Writing in April 1935, John Buchan put the German strategy of the winter of 1916-17 into a broader contemporary context:

The effects of the War were so catastrophic and terrible that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer was impossible. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria, whose new Emperor Charles , through the medium of his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon, made secret proposals for a separate peace. They shipwrecked principally upon the opposition of Italy and France, whose reply was that of Lucio’s comrade in ‘Measure for Measure’ – “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”

President Wilson’s re-election as a peace President also strengthened the case for an agreement to end the war and led to his offer of mediation at the end of 1916. He saw the clouds thickening ahead, and knew he would have to justify himself to the American people were he to be forced into a less pacific, more pragmatic, reality. He asked for a definition of war aims,

… that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs.

The Allied governments, in spite of certain of a certain irritation among their peoples, had the wit to see Mr Wilson’s purpose. In a remarkable document the American diplomats set out, calmly and clearly, not a set of war aims as such, but a general purpose, which was wholly consistent with the ideals of the USA. More than two years before the Treaty of Versailles, what came to be known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated almost all the principles on which the Paris peace settlement was founded.

Lloyd George’s rarer gift: A sense of political atmosphere…

Alone among the Allies, Britain had now attained a certain unity in the political direction of the war, with a Prime Minister who could draw together and maximise all the powers of the nation as a whole. His pre-War record had revealed his unsurpassed talents as a demagogue, but his Premiership was also beginning to demonstrate his sense of political atmosphere. He might make mistakes in his ultimate judgments, but rarely did so in his initial intuitions; his quick sense of reality made him at heart an opportunist, so that, as Buchan found of him…

This elasticity, combined with his high political courage, had made him even in his bitterest campaigns not wholly repugnant to his opponents, for he was always human and had none of the dogmatic rigidity, the lean spiritual pride of the elder Liberalism.

Lloyd George had now found his proper task, Buchan felt, and was emerging as one of the most formidable figures in the world. Lord Milner, with a strong sense of historical perspective, considered him the greatest War Minister since Chatham. His social, legal and then political campaigning had shown that he was ‘in his element’ when leading in times of strife, including war. He was more than a democrat, a representative of democracy, he was a personification of it, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For his critics who often accused him of inconsistency, Buchan cautioned…

… for a tyrant or an oligarchy may be consistent, but not a free people. He had a democracy’s short memory, and its brittle personal loyalties. Perhaps his supreme merit as a popular leader was his comprehensibility. No mystery surrounded his character or his talents. The qualities and the defects were evident to all, and the plain man found in them something which he could not himself assess – positive merits, positive weaknesses, so that he could give or withhold his confidence as if he were dealing with a familiar. This power of diffusing a personality, of producing a sense of intimacy among millions who have never seen his face or heard his voice, is the greatest of assets for a democratic statesman, and Mr Lloyd George had it not only for Britain but for all the world…

Lacking the normal education of British public servants, he had large gaps in his mental furniture, and consequently was without that traditional sense of proportion which often gives an air of wisdom to mediocrities. He had a unique power of assimilating knowledge, but not an equal power of retaining it. Hence his mental processes were somewhat lacking in continuity; all was atomic and episodic, rather than a steady light. His mind had in it little of the scientific, it was insensitive to guiding principles, and there was no even diffusion of its power through many channels…

The fact that his mind was not a ‘continuum’,… but a thing discrete and perpetually re-made, kept him from lassitude and staleness… His loose hold on principles kept him from formalism, and opportunism is often the right attitude in a crisis… Many of his endowments, such as his parliamentary  tact, his subtlety in the management of colleagues, his debating skill, … however invaluable to a statesman in in normal times, were of less account in war. But that one gift he had which is so rare and inexplicable that it may rightly be called genius… He could not be defeated, because his spirit and buoyancy and zeal was insatiable… and that spirit he communicated to the nation.

The machine which he fashioned, the War Cabinet, worked with a synchronised vigour, on the whole, though not always with great precision. Its secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, showed an uncanny foresight and a supreme competence. The special executive duties fell to General Smuts, who was often charged with almost impossible diplomatic missions, and to Lord Milner, who was the ablest living British administrator, with a powerful intellect and devoted to public service. Milner cared little for personal popularity, and possessed none of Lloyd George’s oratorical gifts, which made him a natural ‘foil’ for his Prime Minister. The presence of these two men underlined that the War Cabinet was actually an Imperial Council, especially as it also contained representatives from India and the Dominions. The Prime Minister of Canada pointed out at the time that the establishment of the cabinet turned a new page in the history of the Empire. There was a war purpose in this step, since the whole Empire was in arms. Under the pressure of war, the old individualism of industry was breaking down as the state enlarged its sphere of interest and duty, and on some there broke the vision of a new and wiser world coming to birth while the old world was dying.

Women at War: The Rise of the ‘Business Girl’.

001

Woman working on a cartridge machine during the First World War

One of the signs of an old world dying and a new one dawning was the impact of the imposition of universal conscription in the previous year on the growth of women’s employment. It determined that the changes involved would go far beyond a limited expansion and upgrading of industrial labour. In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915 was 256,000, a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 this had more than doubled 520,000 and by July 1917 the figure had reached 819,000. In industry as a whole 800,000 more women were in employment in 1918 than in 1914.

By February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses had jumped to around 2,500, and transport in general showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment – from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. There were also big proportionate increases in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finances there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917. In these statistics we can discern what Arthur Marwick referred to as a central phenomenon in the sociology of women’s employment in the twentieth century, the rise of the business girl. By creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of male labour (all men aged 18 to 41 were eligible for call-up from May 1916, except ministers of religion those engaged in the ‘reserved occupations’ of munitions, mining and farming), the war had brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of a category of women employees. They worked as lamplighters and window cleaners as well as doing heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. A simple remedy for when women succumbed to these arduous conditions was, afterwards, well-remembered:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then (get them to) drink a bottle of Guinness.

Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these had not been conspicuously successful. In fact, in July 1915 there were actually 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than there had been twelve months earlier. As was the case with domestic service, the war provided a blessed release for women who had had very little alternative employment, if any, available to them beforehand. However, as Marwick has pointed out, we must be careful to see the question of changes in women’s roles and rights in the broader context of social relationships and political change. Many men also preferred a move into the army or reserved occupations to poorly-paid work on the land or in service, and many women found it impossible to hold on to factory jobs once the able-bodied men returned. Nevertheless, the war did bring a new self-confidence to many women, dissipating apathy and silencing the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly, the replacement of militant suffragette activity by determined patriotic endeavour also played its part.

More than this, by 1917 the all-out, total war was generating a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovation. Whatever might or might not have happened to the roles of women in British society had there been no war, and therefore no ‘home front’, only that concentrated experience, as Marwick put it, showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, speaking in January 1918, was already claiming victory in the long campaign for women’s rights:

The great searchlight of war showed things in their true light, and they gave us enfranchisement with open hands. 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Arthur Marwick (1977), Women at War, 1914-18. London: Croom Helm.

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