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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in 1918 – Winter into Spring.   Leave a comment

Soldier-Poets, Philosophers,Treaties and Retreats:

We must strike at the earliest moment… before the Americans can throw strong forces into the scale. We must beat the British.

General Erich Ludendorff, November 1917.

The following letter appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 14 January 1918:

Sir,

Might I suggest that you would be doing a public service if you could induce the authorities to relieve the peaceful inhabitants of the city from the diurnal shock of the One O’clock Castle Gun? At the present time it is all the more an intrusion in that there are so many convalescent soldiers within range of the concussion. Two of these from Craiglockhart, suffering from shell shock, had to be carried home from Princes Street the other day after the shot was fired. We abolish police whistles in the vicinity of hospitals, why keep up this more violent reminder of their sufferings?

I am, etc, Citizen.

Shell-shock was the common name given to a range of emotional and mental disorders suffered by troops. The symptoms included hysteria, anxiety, physical tremors, sensitivity to noise, and nightmares. Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital treated soldiers suffering from shell shock; it was where Siegfried Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and encouraged him in his writing of poetry. At Craiglockhart, Sassoon wrote or completed the poems that were to be published in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it.  Sassoon also directed his indignation against the old and the rich who were making a handsome profit out of the war and who did not share the young soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet had the effrontery to conceal their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving. In Blighters, he aims his anger at the vulgar jingoism of a music-hall show and the shallow applause of the civilian audience:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin

And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks

Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;

‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

 

I’d like to see a Tanks come down the stalls,

Lurching to rag-time tunes or ‘Home, sweet Home’,

And there’d be no more jokes in music-halls

To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

In certain of his poems Owen imitates Sassoon’s irony; for instance, in ‘The Dead-Beat’, he tells how a soldier suddenly drops unconscious and is taken to casualty clearing-station. The stretcher-bearers label him a ‘malingerer’, but the poem ends with Owen mockingly mimicking anyone who talks callously about another’s death:

Next day I heard the Doc’s well-whiskied laugh:

‘That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!’

Another special target for satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. Sassoon’s poem, They, satirises the Bishop who is delighted with the way in which war ennobles soldiers:

We’re none of us the same’, the boys reply.

‘For George lost both his legs, and Bill’s stone-blind;

‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die…’

In At a Calvary near the Ancre Owen also attacks the military chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom thegentle Christ’s denied.

Owen, who as a patient at Craiglockhart had seen Sassoon’s angriest poems before they were published, is here imitating Sassoon’s mood and techniques. He also condemns the old when in The Parable of the Old Men and the Young he envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Despite their anger, both men returned to the western front to be with their men within a few months of writing these lines. The firing of ‘Mons Meg’ at Edinburgh Castle at one o’clock, an age-old tradition, was halted in April 1918 and it remained silent for over a year.

 

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With the coming of 1918, the initiative passed to Germany. For three years every attempt to decide the issue on the western front had proved a costly failure, but in 1918 Ludendorff decided to risk his entire reserves in a final effort to break the Allied line. The collapse of Russia enabled them to put larger forces on the front than the Allies could muster. They had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the USA could send her armies; it was Germany’s purpose before that date to reach a decision in the field. It was their last chance. The submarine had failed; Britain could not be starved into submission. On the contrary, the Allied blockade was undermining the health and morale of the German people. They were weak with privations and sick with hope deferred. A little longer and their wonderful fortitude would break. With all the strength they could muster, with their new tactics to aid them, and with a desperate necessity to goad them, they undertook the last great sally, staking everything on victory. Germany’s allies were giving way under the strain of prolonged war: the Turkish armies were in retreat; the Bulgarians, having already got all they wanted, were anxious for peace; the subject peoples of the Austrian Empire naturally faced privations with less fortitude than the Germans. It was ‘now or never’; the American troops were not yet in the field, but would be very shortly.

Ludendorff’s general plan was to isolate the British Army, roll it up from its right, and drive it into the sea, or pin it down to an entrenched camp between the Somme and the Channel – a ‘Torres Vedras’ from which it would only on the signature of peace. This done, he could hold it with a few troops, swing around on the French, and put them out of action. He must, therefore, strike with all his might at the point of junction of Haig and Pétain, on the western face of the great salient, where the Allies were weakest and the ground easiest. His position on interior lines gave him the chance of surprise, for until the actual attack the Allies would not know on which side of the salient the blow was to fall. His admirable communications would enable him to obtain a great local predominance. For the first stage of the great battle, he had sixty-three divisions in line or in immediate reserve.

The Versailles Council, formed by the Entente towards the end of 1917, miscalculated both the place and the date of the attack. Haig’s Intelligence service informed him of the exact hour, but he had neither the time nor the resources to prepare an adequate defence. He held 130 miles of line, and these were the most critical in the West, with approximately the same numbers as he had had two years before when his front was only eighty miles long and Russia was still in the fold. An initial German success was almost inevitable. Nineteen divisions in line and thirteen in reserve could scarcely stand against a first attacking wave of thirty-seven divisions, which was soon to grow to sixty-three.

Meanwhile, back at home, the historian and philosopher Bertrand Russell was jailed for six months in February for writing an article criticising the US Army. His action was described by the judge as being ‘a very despicable offence’ and in contravention of the Defence of the Realm Act, as it was likely ‘to prejudice His Majesty’s relations with the USA’. Also in February, William MacCaw MP was found guilty of hoarding foodstuffs (listed below). For this contravention of the 1917 Food Hoarding Order he was fined four hundred pounds:

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During the build-up of Germany’s forces on the western front, it also consolidated the territory it had gained in the east as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and actually occupied considerably more Russian territory than they were entitled to by the treaty. Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War after the Bolshevik takeover was formalised by the settlement between Lenin’s Russia and Germany and her allies on 3 March 1918 at Brest-Litovsk. The treaty, deeply unfavourable to Russia, revealed the in part the Europe Berlin hoped would be the outcome of the war. Russia lost all of its western provinces: Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine (as well as Georgia under the Treaty of Berlin of August 1918).

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They took Belorussia simply to shorten their line, but in the Black Sea region, where they advanced to the lower Don and crossed from the Crimea to the Taman Peninsula, they were clearly aiming at taking over permanently. In due course, they would doubtless have imposed a third round of concessions on the Revolutionary Russian government. Bolshevik power in this area was at a very low ebb. The Don Cossacks were refusing to accept the authority of Moscow, which became the seat of government in March when Lenin decided that the Germans were getting too close to Petrograd. Anti-Bolshevik forces rallying to the white flag of General Denikin were proving more than a match for the local Bolsheviks. In Caucasia, in the far south, the Turks had occupied not only the town they had lost in 1878, which they were entitled to as a result of Brest-Litovsk but everything else that wasn’t already in the hands of their German allies.

The Romanians also badly needed some compensation. After the completion of the initial Brest-Litovsk negotiations in March, it was their turn to sign on the dotted line. When they eventually did so (in May), they lost the southern half of Dobruja to the Bulgarians and the northern half to the Germans (another area to be included in the Black Sea Province) besides having to make major frontier adjustments in favour of Austria-Hungary. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had brought the war in the east to a successful conclusion, they now had to try to do the same in the west.

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They had until the summer to do so, before the Americans appeared in France in strength. For the moment, after the transfer of the eastern armies to the west, the German Army had superiority: 192 divisions facing 165 Allied divisions on the Western Front, but this would not last long. The critical blows would have to be struck during March and April, a Spring Offensive, of which ‘Operation Michael’ was the first part. It eventually became known as the Second Battle of the Somme, which continued until 5th April. It wasn’t just a case of overall numerical superiority; Ludendorff also had seventy specially trained ‘assault divisions’ facing just thirty-five similar British units on the Somme battlefront.

This most perilous stage for the British Army – and, except for the First Marne, the most perilous for the Allied cause – opened in the fog of the early morning of 21st March, when at a quarter to five four thousand German guns were released against the British front, firing more than a million shells over the following five hours, while all the back areas were drenched with gas, which hung like a pall in the moist air. When the guns crashed out and the attack went in, the British line simply disintegrated: whole battalions vanished, never to be heard of again. Reinforced with half a million troops from the Eastern Front, the German Infantry made strong breakthroughs using airpower and shock troops to bypass defensive positions in foggy conditions that hampered the defenders. By the end of the first day, twenty-one thousand prisoners were taken as the Germans overran the British positions. Lieutenant Ernst Jünger of the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment commented; We had but no doubt that the great plan would succeed. 

The narrative of the Somme retreat, however, was a tale of confused operations, improvised plans, chances, mischances, and incredible heroism. On the first day, a fifty-mile gap had opened in the Allied line, forty miles of the British line were submerged, and, in a week, forty miles off, the enemy tide was lapping the walls of Amiens. In the face of the German advance, General Carey was given the task of organising a last-ditch defensive unit to be positioned at Hamel, to protect Amiens. As well as infantry stragglers, ‘Carey’s Force’ was composed of an assorted collection of 3,500 soldiers, including kitchen staff and storemen, most of whom were not well versed in infantry tactics. ‘The Péronne Handicap’ was the name given to the ‘race’ by the 17th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, in their bid to reach the French town before being caught by pursuing German forces. Forty-six out of the British Expeditionary Force’s fifty-six divisions took part in the battle.

Within the first week, the leading German formations had advanced forty miles, a penetration ten times better than anything the Allies had ever achieved. The attack had broken the British Fifth Army and nearly severed the British communications link with the French. German schools were closed to allow celebrations but they were premature. The advance was magnificent, but it was not enough. Allied reinforcements were rushed in while rushed in while hungry German troops slowed, gorging on appropriated food and drink. After a fortnight, the impetus had gone out of the attack and German losses were beginning to exceed Allied casualties. In their advance, the Germans had outstretched their supply lines and losses of over a quarter of a million men couldn’t be sustained, so the offensive was halted and closed down.  The Germans sent forward large Krupp cannons, capable of long-range firing, their shells able to hit Paris from a distance of seventy-five miles. The huge shells were in the air for three and a half minutes. The French capital was hit by 183 of them, which killed over 250 Parisians.

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Ludendorff achieved much, but he did not achieve his main purpose. By 5th April, though, the main battle had died down, Amiens had not been taken, the front had been restored, and the French were not separated from the British. The ultimate failure was due to many factors; Ludendorff was false to the spirit of his own tactics and, instead of exploiting a weakness when he found it, wasted his strength on the steadfast bastion of Arras; half-way through he fumbled, forgot his true aim, and became a hasty improviser.

Perhaps Ludendorff sought to achieve the impossible, for his troops outmarched their supplies and their stamina, and, accustomed to short commons, lost discipline often when they found Allied stores to plunder. Yet he won a notable victory, and, to the ultimate advantage of the Allies, was encouraged to continue, for, had his blow been parried at the outset, he might have relapsed on the defensive, and thereby protracted the war. For his role in the success, commander Paul von Hindenburg was awarded the ‘Iron Cross with Golden Rays’, the highest medal of honour available. The only previous recipient was the Prussian Field Marshal von Blücher, honoured for his part in defeating Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo.

For its part, the British Army had written a shining page in its history, for a retreat may be as glorious as an advance. By the end of March seventy-three German divisions had engaged thirty-seven British. The disparity was, in reality, far greater than two to one, owing to the German power of local concentration, in many parts of the field the numbers had been three-to-one. Added to this, after the second day, the British had no prepared lines on which to retire, and the rivers parallel to their front were useless from the drought. It was a marvel, war correspondent John Buchan noted, that our gossamer front wavered and blew in the wind but never wholly disappeared. He went on:

Again and again complete disaster was miraculously averted. Scratch forces held up storm troops; cavalry did work that no cavalry had ever done in the history of war; gunners broke every rule of the textbooks. The retreat was in flat defiance of all precedent and law, and it succeeded only because of the stubborn value of the British soldier.

The moment was too solemn for half-measures. A divided command could not defend the long, lean front of the Allies against Germany’s organised might, directed by a single brain towards a single purpose, one strong hand only must be on the helm. On 23rd March, General Haig, after seeing Pétain, telegraphed to London for the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. At the request of Lloyd George, Lord Milner also crossed the Channel on the 24th, and on the 26th he and Sir Henry Wilson met Clemenceau and Poincaré, Haig, Foch and Pétain at Doullens. This conference, held amid the backwash of ‘the great retreat’, was, in a sense, the turning point of the war. The proposal for a supreme commander-in-chief, urged by Milner and supported by Clemenceau, was accepted and Pétain and welcomed by Haig, and for the post, Foch was chosen unanimously. The Allies in their extremity turned with one accord to the slight, grizzled, deep-eyed man of sixty-six, who during a life of labour had made himself into a master of warfare.

The ordeal of the Second Battle of the Somme was the source of other blessings, though some of them were somewhat mixed. The renowned Australian Corps had come under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson in early 1918. He was pleased, if bemused by the troops, as he wrote in his diary:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

The US increased its recruiting and strained every nerve to quicken the dispatch of troops, so that it might soon stand in line with the Allies. Lloyd George and Clemenceau appealed to President Wilson and their appeal was generously met. General Pershing postponed his plan of a separate American section of operations and offered Foch every man, gun and lorry which they had in Europe. France was showing that quiet and stoic resolution to win or perish which two years before had inspired her troops at Verdun. In Britain, the threat of industrial strikes disappeared and of their own accord the workers gave up their Easter holiday in order to make up by an increased output for lost guns and stores.

Nonetheless, when King George visited his armies in France in the last days of March, the situation was still on a razor’s edge. He had gone there for a week during the flood-tide of the first Battle of the Somme and again, accompanied by the Queen, on the eve of Passchendaele. Now he went to them in the throes of their sternest trial. He saw remnants of battalions which had been through the retreat, and he saw units which in a week or two were to be engaged in the no less desperate Battle of the Lys. Already his armies had lost more men in the German offensive than in the whole thirty-four week Dardanelles campaign. His appeal to his troops now was to “take counsel from the valour of their hearts”, an appeal which, two weeks later, Haig put into his own grave and memorable words.

In the meantime, divisions were being transferred from Palestine and Salonica to France and the old precautions against invasion were dropped. On 10th April, the House of Commons had passed a Bill raising the limit of the military age to fifty, and giving the Government power to abolish the ordinary exemptions. These mobilisations meant that within a month from 21st March, 355,000 extra men were sent across the Channel.

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However, few of these reinforcements arrived in time to soften Ludendorff’s second blow, which came on 1st April. Originally designed as a mere diversion, Operation Georgette, it grew by its startling success into a major effort, the Battle of the Lys, and thereby further compromised his main strategy. His aim was to drive for Ypres, pushing through between La Bassée and Armentiéres and then, pressing north-west, to capture Hazelbrouck and the hills beyond Bailleul. This would, he hoped, result in a British retirement and a direct threat to Calais and Boulogne, eating up the Allied reserves. That it achieved, but it also ate up his own reserves.

Depleted British units which had been involved in the great retreat across the Somme of the previous month were now stationed on what was known as a ‘quiet sector’. Portuguese troops were also in the line here, but were under strength and lacking motivation; a third became casualties as the Germans broke through. In three days they had advanced eleven miles,  and Allied troops were moved in hastily to stem the tide. For a week or more he met stern resistance from the British, against all the odds, in what became known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres (9-29 April). Haig’s patience was sorely tried by Foch’s delay in sending help, but on 11th April, with the Allies under severe threat by the onslaught, Haig issued his famous order:

There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike on the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment. 

The British front sagged and bent, but held, and by the end of April Ludendorff realised that he must try elsewhere, and called off the offensive at the end of the month. His second blow had proved yet another tactical success, but a strategic failure. He was now becoming desperate; his original strategic scheme had gone, and his remaining efforts were now in the nature of a gambler’s throw. The Fourth Battle of Ypres also became known for the first combat between two tanks, or ‘armed tortoises’ as they were first described by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell of the British Tank Corps. Three British Mark IV’s faced three German A7Vs. The British were the victors in this first historic engagement, which took place on 24 April at Villers-Bretonneux. Overall, the April attack had forced the Allies to abandon all the territory they had so dearly bought in the Passchendaele campaign and, for a while, had seriously threatened the Channel ports.

 

Sources:

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

András Bereznay (2001), The Times Atlas of European History. London: HarperCollins.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Irene Richards (1937), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Egalitarian millenarianism, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1452-1535: Part Six   Leave a comment

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Part Six – Zwingli, Luther and the Anabaptists, 1525-35:

The Lutheran Reformation had been accompanied by certain phenomena which, though they appalled Luther and his associates, were so natural as to appear in retrospect. As against the authority of the Church of Rome, the Reformers appealed to the text of the Bible. But once men were able to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language, they began to interpret it for themselves; their own interpretations did not always accord with those of the Reformers. Wherever Luther’s influence extended the priest lost much of his traditional prestige as a mediator between the layman and God. Once the layman could stand face to face with God and rely for guidance on his individual conscience, it was inevitable that some laymen should claim divine promptings which ran as much counter to the new as to the old orthodoxy.

For many centuries, the Church of Rome, whatever its failings, had been fulfilling a very important normative function in European society. Luther’s onslaught, precisely because it was so effective, seriously disturbed that function. As a result, it produced, along with a sense of liberation, a sense of disorientation which was just as widespread. Moreover, the Lutheran Reformation could not itself master all the anxieties which it had released in the population. Partly because of the content of his doctrine of salvation, partly because of his alliance with the established secular powers, Luther failed to hold the allegiance of great multitudes of the common people. Amongst the perturbed, disoriented masses there grew up, in opposition to both Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism, the movement to which its opponents gave the name of Anabaptism – in many ways a successor to the medieval sects, but a far larger movement which spread over most of west and central Europe.

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By 1525, Zurich was the seat of a new variety of the Reformation which was to be set over against that of Wittenberg and characterised as the Reformed. The leader was Huldreich Zwingli who had received a Humanist training as a Catholic priest, and on the appearance of Erasmus’ New Testament he committed the epistles to memory in Greek and affirmed in consequence that Luther had been able to teach him nothing about the understanding of Paul. But what Zwingli selected for emphasis in Paul was the text: The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life, which he coupled with a Johannine verse; The flesh profiteth nothing. By ‘flesh’ Zwingli meant the body in the Platonic sense, whereas Luther took it to mean, in the Hebraic sense, the ‘evil heart’. Zwingli, therefore, made a characteristic deduction from his disparagement of the body that art and music were inappropriate as the ‘handmaids of religion’ though he himself was an accomplished musician.

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His next logical step was to deny the ‘real presence’ of Christ in the Eucharistic, reducing the sacrament to a symbolic commemoration of the crucifixion, just as the Passover meal had been a memorial to the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt. Jesus’ words, this is my body… this is the new testament in my blood… could just as easily be translated as this signifies… Luther sensed at once the affinity between these views and those of Carlstadt whom he had effectively banished from Wittenberg for his support of iconoclasm. Luther also recognised a similarity with the views of Müntzer in Zwingli, in particular his willingness to turn to politics and even to countenance the use of the sword in the name of the faith. Zwingli was a Swiss patriot, and in translating the twenty-third psalm he rendered the second verse as… He maketh me to lie down in an Alpine meadow. But there he could find no still waters, but only fast-flowing streams. The evangelical issue threatened to disrupt his beloved confederation, for the Catholics turned to the traditional enemy, the House of Habsburg. Ferdinand of Austria was instrumental in the calling of the assembly of Baden to discuss Zwingli’s theory of the sacrament.

This was the Swiss reformer’s Diet of Worms and he became convinced that the gospel could only be saved in Switzerland and the Confederation if the Catholic League with Austria were countered by an evangelical league with the German Lutherans, ready if need be to use the sword. The very notion of a military alliance for the defence of the gospel reminded Luther of Thomas Müntzer. Not only that, but the ‘home’ sphere of Luther’s activity was constantly being encroached upon. The Catholics, both clerical and lay, were determined to launch their counter-reformation. The Swiss, the south German Protestant cities and the Anabaptists had all developed divergent forms of the reformed faith. Even Wittenberg had experienced its radical moments and might not be free from fresh infiltrations from the sectaries. But Luther was more determined than ever to carve out enough space in between for his territorial church, working with the ‘godly princes’. He made a clear-cut division between the concerns and responsibilities of the church and state.

The radicals, sometimes called ‘enthusiasts’, wanted to carry out a complete spiritual transformation of the church, and expected Christians to live by the standards and teachings of Scripture. Their reform programme was, however, more far-reaching than most people were prepared to accept, especially in the rural areas where the activism of Müntzer and the peasants had led to such indescribable misery following the massacres, mass executions,  destruction of farms, agricultural implements and livestock. However, Anabaptism was not a homogeneous movement and was never centrally organised. There existed some forty independent sects of Anabaptists, each grouped around a leader who claimed to be a divinely inspired prophet or apostle, following in the apostolic succession. These sects, often clandestine, constantly threatened with extermination, scattered throughout the German-speaking lands, developed along the separate lines which the various leaders set. Nevertheless, certain tendencies were common to the movement as a whole.

In some parts of the Anabaptist movement which spread far and wide during the years following the Peasants’ War, Müntzer’s memory was venerated, even though he had never called himself an Anabaptist. Other parts of rejected his legacy. Again, this was because they did not, at first, emerge as a single, coherent organisation, but as a loose grouping of movements. All of these rejected infant baptism and practised the baptism of adults upon confession of faith. They themselves never accepted the label ‘Anabaptist’ (meaning ‘rebaptizer’), a term of reproach coined by their opponents, since they objected to the implication that the ceremonial sprinkling which they had received as infants had in fact been a valid baptism. They denied that their baptism of believing adults was arrogant and superfluous. They also soon discovered that the term gave the authorities a legal pretext for persecuting and executing them, based on Roman laws harking back to the fifth century.

For the ‘Anabaptists’ themselves, however, baptism was not the fundamental issue involved in their sectarianism. More basic was their growing conviction about the role the civil government should play in the reformation of the church. Late in 1523 intense debate broke out in Zürich.  At that time it became clear that the city council was unwilling to bring about the religious changes that the theologians believed were called for by Scripture. Zwingli believed that the reformers should wait and attempt to persuade the authorities by preaching. The ‘Anabaptists’ believed that the community of Christians, the corpus Christianum, should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and initiate Scripture-based reforms regardless of the views of the council. Despite continuing efforts to discuss the matters in dispute between the reformists and the radicals – the mass, baptism and tithes – the gap between the two parties widened. Finally, on 21 January 1525, came a complete rupture. On that day the city council forbade the radicals to assemble or disseminate their views. That evening, in the neighbouring village of Zollikon, praying that God would grant them to do his divine will and that he would show them mercy, the radicals met, baptized each other, and so became the first free church of modern times.

Their point of departure from the ‘mainstream’ reformers was another aspect of Erasmus’ programme and a point which was also important to Zwingli himself. This was the restoration of primitive Christianity, which they took to mean the adoption of the Sermon on the Mount as a literal code for all Christians, who should renounce oaths, the use of the sword whether in war or civil government, private possessions, bodily adornment, revelling and drunkenness. Pacifism, religious communitarianism, simplicity and temperance marked their communities. The church should consist only of the twice-born, committed to the covenant of discipline. Here again was the concept of ‘the Elect’, discernible by the two tests of spiritual experience and moral achievement. The Church should not rest on the baptism administered in infancy, but on regeneration, symbolised by baptism during or after ‘the years of discretion’. Every member should be a priest, a minister, and a missionary prepared to embark on evangelistic tours. Such a Church, though seeking to convert the world and not to exclude anyone from hearing the gospel message, could never embrace the unconverted community, however. Since the State comprised all the inhabitants, the Church would need to separate itself from its control and free itself from all magisterial constraint.

Zwingli was aghast to see the medieval unity of Church and State shattered and in panic invoked the arm of the state. In 1525 the Anabaptists in Zürich were subjected to the death penalty. Luther was not yet ready for such savage expedients, but he too was appalled by what to him appeared to be a reversion to the monastic attempt to win salvation by a higher righteousness. The leaving of families for missionary expeditions was in his eyes a sheer desertion of domestic responsibilities, and the repudiation of the sword prompted him to a new vindication of the divine calling alike of the magistrate and the soldier. But he was very much conflicted over the whole matter of the executions. In 1527, he wrote:

 It is not right, and I am deeply troubled that the poor people are so pitifully put to death, burned, and cruelly slain. Let everyone believe what he likes. If he is wrong, he will have punishment enough in hell fire. Unless there is sedition, one should oppose them with Scripture and God’s Word. With fire you won’t get anywhere. 

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This did not mean, however, that Luther considered one faith as good as another. Most emphatically he believed that the wrong faith would entail hell-fire; although the true faith could not be created by coercion, it could be relieved of impediments. The magistrate should certainly not suffer the faith to be blasphemed. Unlike the ‘mainstream’ reformers, the Anabaptists were not committed to the notion that ‘Christendom’ was Christian. From the beginning, they saw themselves as missionaries to people of lukewarm piety, only partly obedient to the gospel. The Anabaptists systematically divided Europe into sectors for evangelistic outreach and sent missionaries out into them in twos and threes. Many people were bewildered by their message; others pulled back when the cost of Anabaptist discipleship became clear. But others heard them gladly.

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In general, the Anabaptists attached relatively little importance either to theological speculations or formal religious observances. In place of such practices as daily church-going, they set a meticulous, literal observance of the precepts that they thought they found in the New Testament. In place of theology, they cultivated the Bible, which they were apt to interpret in the light of the direct inspirations which they believed they received from God. Their values were primarily ethical; for them, religion was above all a matter of active brotherly love. Their communities were modelled on what they supposed to have been the practice of the early Church and were intended to realise the ethical ideal propounded by Christ.

The diverse backgrounds of their leaders and the absence of any ecclesiastical authority to control them were enough to ensure diversity of belief and practice. They did, however, attempt to agree upon a common basis. In 1527 at Schleitheim, on today’s Swiss-German border near Schaffhausen, the Anabaptists called the first ‘synod’ of the Protestant Reformation. The leading figure at this meeting was the former Benedictine prior, Michael Sattler, who, four months later, was burned at the stake in nearby Rottenberg-am-Neckar. The ‘Brotherly Union’ adopted at Schleitheim was to be a highly significant document. During the next decade, most Anabaptists in all parts of Europe came to agree with the beliefs which it laid down.

It was in their social Attitudes that the Anabaptist were most distinct. These sectarians tended to be uneasy about private property and to accept community of goods as an ideal. If in most of the groups little attempt was made to introduce common ownership, Anabaptists certainly did take seriously the obligations of charitable dealing and generous mutual aid. On the other hand Anabaptist communities, facing continual persecution, often showed a marked exclusiveness. Within each group, there was great solidarity, but the attitude towards society at large tended to be one of rejection.

In particular, Anabaptists regarded the state with suspicion, as an institution which, though no doubt necessary for the unrighteous, was unnecessary for true Christians. Though they were willing to comply with many of the state’s demands, they refused to let it invade the realm of faith and conscience; in general, they preferred to minimise their dealings with it. Most Anabaptists refused to hold an official position in the state, or to invoke the authority of the state against a fellow Anabaptist, or to take up arms on behalf of the state. The attitude towards private persons who were not Anabaptists was equally aloof; Anabaptists commonly avoided all social intercourse outside their own community. Many regarded themselves as the only Elect and their communities as being alone under the immediate guidance of God; small islands of righteousness in an ocean of iniquity. But the history of the movement was punctuated by schisms over this obsession with exclusive election, which some were more obsessed with than others.

The movement spread from Switzerland into Germany. Mysticism, late-medieval asceticism and the disillusionment which followed the Peasants’ War of 1525 had prepared the way for them. Most Anabaptists were peaceful folk who in practice were quite willing, except in matters of conscience and belief, to respect the authority of the state. Certainly, the majority had no thought of social revolution. But the rank-and-file were recruited almost entirely from the ranks of peasants and artisans; after the Peasants’ War, the authorities were nervous of these classes. Even the most peaceful Anabaptists were therefore ferociously persecuted and many thousands of them were killed.

By 1527, the German Reformers and their princely allies had determined to use all necessary means to root out Anabaptism. They were joined in this determination by the Catholic authorities. To Protestants and Catholics alike, the Anabaptists seemed not only to be dangerous heretics; they also seemed to threaten the religious and social stability of Christian Europe. Their growth constituted a very real problem to the territorial church since, despite the decree of death visited upon them at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 with the concurrence of the Evangelicals, the fearlessness and saintliness of the martyrs had enlisted converts to the point of threatening to depopulate the established churches. Philip of Hesse observed more improvement of life among the sectaries than among the Lutherans, and a Lutheran pastor who wrote against the Anabaptists testified that they went in among the poor, appeared very lowly, prayed much, read from the Gospel, talked especially about the outward life and good works, about helping the neighbour, giving and lending, holding goods in common, exercising authority over none, and living with all as brothers and sisters. Such were the people executed by Elector John in Saxony. In the carnage of the next quarter-century, thousands of Anabaptists were put to death; thousands more saved their skins by recanting.

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But the blood of the martyrs proved again to be the seed of the church. This persecution, in the end, created the very danger it was intended to forestall. It was not only that the Anabaptists were confirmed in their hostility to the state and the established order, but that they also interpreted their sufferings in apocalyptic terms, as the last great onslaught of Satan and Antichrist against the Saints, as those ‘messianic woes’ which were to usher in the Millennium. Many Anabaptists became obsessed with imaginings of a day of reckoning when they themselves would arise to overthrow the mighty and, under a Christ who had returned at last, establish a Millennium on earth. The situation within Anabaptism now resembled that which had existed within the heretical movements of previous centuries, like the Waldesians. The bulk of the Anabaptists continued in their tradition of peaceful and austere dissent. But alongside it there was growing up in Anabaptism of another kind, in which the equally ancient tradition of militant millenarianism was finding a new expression.

The first propagandist of this new Anabaptism was an itinerant bookbinder called Hans Hut, a former follower and disciple of Müntzer and like him a native of Thuringia. He claimed to be a prophet sent by God to announce that at Whitsuntide, 1528, Christ would return to earth and place the two-edged sword of justice in the hands of the rebaptised Saints. They would then hold judgement on the priests and pastors for their false teaching and, above all, on the great princes of the earth for their persecutions; kings and nobles would be cast into chains. Finally, Christ was to establish a Millennium which, it seems, was to be characterised by free love and community of goods. Hut was captured in 1527 and imprisoned at Augsburg, where he died or was killed in prison; but not before he had made some converts in the towns of southern Germany. In the professions of faith of Hut’s followers can be recognised the doctrines of John Ball and the radical Táborites, repeated almost verbatim:

Christ will give the sword and revenge to them, the Anabaptists, to punish all sins, stamp out all governments, communise all property and slay those who do not permit themselves to be rebaptised… The government does not treat poor people properly and burdens them too heavily. When God gives them revenge they want to punish and wipe out the evil…

Hut himself expected all this to happen only when ‘Christ came on the clouds’, but his disciples were not so patient: at Esslingen on the Neckar in 1528, Anabaptists seem to have planned to set up the Kingdom of God by force of arms. Among these militant millenarians, the ideal of communal ownership clearly possessed a revolutionary significance; it was no doubt with some justification that the town authorities at Nürnberg warned those at Ulm that the Anabaptists were aiming at overthrowing the established order and abolishing private property. It is true that in south Germany revolutionary Anabaptism remained a small and ineffective force and that it was crushed out of existence by 1530. But by this time, Anabaptist-like groups also sprang up spontaneously in various parts of Europe. By the late 1520s, Anabaptism was to be found as far afield as Holland and Moravia, the Tyrol and Mecklenburg.

The early missionary who took the message along the Alps was Jörg Cajacob (‘Blaurock’), who had been the first adult to be baptized in Zürich in 1525. When the Tyrolean Catholic authorities began to persecute them intensely, many of the Anabaptists found refuge on the lands of some exceptionally tolerant princes in Moravia. There they founded a very long-standing form of an economic community called the Bruderhof. In part, they aimed to follow the pattern of the early apostolic community, but they sought community for practical reasons as well, as a means of group survival under persecution. Their communities attempted to show that brotherhood comes before self in the kingdom of God. Consolidated under the leadership of Jakob Hutter (died 1536), these groups came to be known as ‘Hutterites’.

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In 1530 Luther advanced the view that the two offences of sedition and blasphemy should be penalised even with death. The emphasis was thus shifted from holding incorrect beliefs, or heresy in itself, to its public manifestation by word and deed. This was, however, no great gain for liberty, because Luther construed mere abstention from public office and military service as sedition and a rejection of an article from the Apostles’ Creed as blasphemy. In a memorandum of 1531, composed by Melanchthon and signed by Luther, a rejection of the ministerial office was described as insufferable blasphemy and the disintegration of the Church as sedition against the ecclesiastical order. In order to understand Luther’s position, we need to bear in mind that Anabaptism was not in every instance socially innocuous. The year in which he signed a memorandum counselling death even for the peaceful Anabaptists was also the year in which a group of them ceased to be peaceful. Goaded by ten years of persecution, in 1534 bands of fanatics in the extreme north-west of Germany claimed to have received a revelation from the Lord that they should no more be sheep for the slaughter but rather as the angel with the sickle to reap the harvest.

The results of this so-called ‘revelation’ gripped the attention of the whole of Europe. North-west Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century consisted mainly of a number of petty ecclesiastical states, each with a prince-bishop as its sovereign. Usually, such a state was torn by fierce social conflicts. The government of the state was in the hands of the prince-bishop and of the chapter of the diocese, which elected him and to a large extent controlled his policy. The members of the chapter were recruited solely from the local aristocracy – a coat of arms with at least four quarterings was commonly an indispensable qualification – and they often chose one of their own number as bishop. This group of aristocratic clerics was not subject any control by a higher authority; in the regional diet they were powerfully represented and could always rely on the support of the knighthood. They, therefore, tended to govern solely in the interests of their own class and of the clergy in the diocese. In an ecclesiastical state, the clergy were not only very numerous but also highly privileged.

In the bishopric of Münster, there were some thirty ecclesiastical centres, including four monasteries, seven convents, ten churches, a cathedral and, of course, the chapter itself. Members of the chapter enjoyed rich prebends and canonries. The monks were permitted to carry on secular trades and handicrafts. Above all, the clergy as a whole were almost entirely exempt from taxation. But the power of the clerical-aristocratic stratum in an ecclesiastical state seldom extended very effectively to the capital city. In these states as elsewhere, the development of commerce and a money economy had given an even greater importance to the towns. The state governments were in constant need of money and by the usual method of bargaining over taxes the towns had gradually won concessions and privileges for themselves. This was particularly true in the bishopric of Münster, the largest and most important of the ecclesiastical states. From the beginning of the fourteenth century, the town had enjoyed a large measure of self-government and the power of the bishop, who seldom resided there, had been much restricted.

In Münster in the 1530s, the bishop was simply a secular lord who had not even been ordained. Moreover, the taxes imposed by the prince-bishop were commonly heavy and the whole burden fell on the laity, who benefited least from the administration. In addition, as citizens of an ecclesiastical state, they had to pay vast sums to the Roman Curia each time a new bishop was elected; Münster did so three times between 1498 and 1522. It is not surprising, therefore, that the immunity of the clergy from taxation was bitterly resented and that tradesmen and artisans also objected to the competition they faced from monks engaged in commerce and industry. The monks had no families to maintain, no military service to perform or provide, and no guild regulations to observe.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the resistance to the power of the bishop and clergy came, not from the town council, which had become a staid and relatively conservative body, but from the guilds. This was certainly the case in Münster. As the town, in the course of the fifteenth century, became an important commercial centre and a member of the Hanseatic League, the guilds obtained great political power. Organised in one great guild, which in the sixteenth-century contained no less than sixteen separate guilds, they could at a suitable opportunity rouse and lead the whole population against the clergy. One such opportunity was offered by the Peasants’ War. It is a striking fact that when the revolutionary excitement which spread from the south of Germany reached the north-west, it was neither the peasantry nor the towns in the secular states which rose in revolt, but solely the capitals of the states: Osnabrück,  Utrecht, Paderborn and Münster. In Münster, the guilds led an attack on a monastery which had entered into commercial competition with them and they also demanded a general restriction on the privileges of the clergy; the chapter was forced to make very considerable concessions.

On that occasion, the triumph of the guilds was short-lived, at Münster and in all its sister towns. As soon as the princes had dealt with peasants in the south, the chapters in the northern bishoprics were able to regain whatever powers they had conceded. They crushed every attempt at reform and did all they could to humiliate the rebellious towns. By 1530 the old system of government was re-established in all the ecclesiastical states. Nevertheless, the townsmen now resented the ascendancy of the clergy and nobles even more than they had done before; they had felt their own strength and now simply waited for another occasion on which to deploy it more successfully. In 1529 an outbreak of Black Death devastated Westphalia and at the same time, the crops failed. Finally, in 1530 an extraordinary tax was levied to finance resistance to the Turkish invasion of the eastern territories of the Empire. As a result of these factors, the distress in north-west Germany was exceptional, and it was therefore only to be expected that in one or other of the ecclesiastical states there would be outbreaks of serious disorder.  When in 1530 the Bishop of Münster tried to sell his bishopric to the Bishop of Paderborn and Osnabrück, these disorders did indeed break out.

In 1531 an eloquent young chaplain called Bernt Rothmann, a blacksmith’s son whose remarkable gifts had won him a university education, began to attract vast congregations in Münster. Very soon he became a Lutheran and put himself at the head of a movement, dating back to 1525, which aimed to bring the town into the Lutheran fold. He found support in the guilds and a patrician ally in a rich cloth-merchant named Bernt Knipperdollinck. The movement was further facilitated by the resignation of one bishop followed by the death of his successor. In 1532 the guilds, supported by the populace, became once more masters of the town, able to force the Council to install Lutheran preachers in all churches. The new bishop was unable to make the town abandon its faith and early in 1533, he recognised Münster as officially Lutheran. It did not remain so for long, however, as in the neighbouring Duchy of Julich-Cleves Anabaptist preachers had for some years enjoyed freedom of propaganda such as existed hardly anywhere else. But in 1532 they were expelled and a number of them sought refuge in Münster.

In the course of 1533, more Anabaptists arrived from the Netherlands, followers of Melchior Hoffman, a celebrated visionary who had wandered through Europe as an itinerant preacher of the Second Coming and the  Millennium. He had joined the Anabaptist movement in 1529 and within a year a new wing of the movement, profoundly influenced by his ideas, had developed in the northern provinces of the Netherlands. According to Hoffman, the Millennium was to begin, after a period of ‘messianic woes’ and many signs and wonders, in the year 1533. In that year, the millenarian fantasy which Hoffman’s supporters brought with them into Münster rapidly turned into a mass obsession, dominating the whole life of the poorer classes in the town.  Meanwhile, Rothmann had abandoned Lutheranism and became an Anabaptist himself, breathing new life into the movement’s preaching. By October 1533 he was holding up the supposed communitarianism of the primitive Church as the ideal for a truly Christian community. In sermons and tracts, he declared that the true believers ought to model their lives minutely on the lives of the first Christians and that this involved holding all things in common.

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Albrecht Dürer’s powerful woodcut, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Death is on a bony horse, Want flourishes scales, Sickness waves his sword and War draws his bow. The people are trodden underfoot.

Expecting the Millennium, the Anabaptists, many of them from Holland, took over Münster and there inaugurated the reign of the saints, of which Thomas Müntzer had dreamed. The more prosperous burghers of the town were much perturbed. If most of them had rejoiced at the defeat of the Bishop and Chapter and the victory of the Lutheran cause, a powerful Anabaptist movement supported by a mass of unemployed and desperate foreigners held obvious and grave dangers for all of them alike. In the face of this threat, Lutherans and Roman Catholics closed ranks and came together to suppress this reign of the new Daniels and Elijahs. Towards the end of the year the Council several times tried to silence or expel Rothmann but, secure in the devotion of his followers, he was always able to defy it. The other Anabaptist preachers were indeed expelled and replaced by Lutherans, but before long they returned and the Lutherans were hounded from the churches. Week by week excitement in the town increased until, in the first days of 1534, the men arrived who were to direct it towards a specific aim.

Melchior Hoffman, who believed that the Millennium would dawn in Strasbourg, had been arrested in that town and imprisoned inside a cage in a tower; and there he spent the rest of his days. The prophetic mantle descended on a Dutch Anabaptist, the baker Jan Matthys of Haarlem. This change of leadership changed the whole tone of the movement. Hoffmann was a man of peace who had taught his followers to await the coming of the Millennium in quiet confidence, avoiding all violence. Matthys, however, was a revolutionary leader who taught that the righteous must themselves take up the sword and actively prepare the way for the Millennium by wielding it against the unrighteous. It had, he proclaimed, been revealed to him that he and his followers were called to cleanse the earth of the ungodly. In the first days of 1534, two of his Dutch apostles reached Münster, where their arrival at once produced a contagion of enthusiasm. Rothmann and the other Anabaptist preachers were rebaptised, followed by many nuns and well-to-do laywomen and then by a large part of the population. It is said that within a week the number of baptisms reached 1,400.

The first apostles moved on, but they were then replaced by two more, who were taken at first to be Enoch and Elijah, the prophets who according to traditional eschatology were to return to earth as the two ‘witnesses’ against Antichrist and whose appearance was to herald the Second Coming. One of the newcomers was Jan Bockelson, better known as John of Leyden, a young man of twenty-five who had been baptised by Matthys only a couple of months before. It was he who was to give to Anabaptism in Münster a fierce militancy such as it possessed nowhere else and who was to stimulate an outbreak or revolutionary millenarianism which startled the whole of Europe.

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During February 1534, the power of the Anabaptists in Münster increased rapidly. Bockelson at once established good relations with the leader of the guilds and patron of the Anabaptists, the cloth-merchant Knipperdollinck. On 8 February these two men ran wildly through the streets, summoning all the people to repent of their sins. It was in this millenarian atmosphere that they made their first armed rising, occupying the town hall and the market-place. They were still only a minority and could have been defeated if the Lutheran majority had been willing to use the armed force at its disposal. But the Anabaptists had allies on the Council, and the outcome of the rising was official recognition of the principle of liberty of conscience. The number of Anabaptist immigrants grew even beyond that of Lutheran emigrants, so that in the annual election for the Town Council on 23 February an overwhelmingly Anabaptist body was elected. In the following days monasteries and churches were looted and in a nocturnal orgy of iconoclasm the sculptures, paintings and books of the cathedral were destroyed. Meanwhile, Jan Matthys himself had arrived, and together with Bockelson he quickly dominated the town. On 27 February armed bands rushed through the streets driving multitudes of the ‘godless’ from the town in the bitter cold, without spare clothes and possessions. Those who remained were rebaptised in the market-place in a ceremony which lasted for three days. After that, it became a capital offence to be unbaptised and by 3 March there were no ‘misbelievers’ left in the town.

When the bishop massed his troops to besiege the city, the Anabaptists defended themselves by arms. As the siege progressed, even more, extreme leaders gained control. These Münsterite leaders, besides claiming prophetic authority to receive new revelations, also claimed that the Old Testament ethics still applied, and so felt justified in reintroducing polygamy. They even crowned a ‘King David’ of ‘the New Jerusalem’ in Bockelson. Terror, long a familiar feature of life in the New Jerusalem, was intensified during Bockelson’s reign. Within a few days of his proclamation, it was announced that in future all those who persisted in sinning against the truth must be brought before the king and sentenced to death. A couple of days later, executions began. The first victims were women: one was beheaded for denying her husband his marital rights, and another for bigamy, since the practice of polygamy was a male prerogative, and a third for insulting a preacher and mocking his doctrine. As the Bishop intensified his efforts to reduce the town through a blockade which began in January 1535, Bockelson declared that any man plotting to leave the town, or who was found to have helped someone else to leave was to be at once beheaded, as was anyone who was overheard criticising the ‘king’ or his policy.

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The Anabaptists of Münster under siege. The combined forces of the Catholics and Lutherans were intent on destroying the Anabaptists’ threat to the established order. The defenders were butchered after the final assault; their leaders cruelly tortured to death.

Rather than surrender the town, Bockelson would doubtless have let the entire population starve to death; but in the event, the siege was brought abruptly to a close. Two men escaped by night from the town and indicated to the besiegers certain weak spots in the defences. On the night of 24 June 1535, they launched a surprise attack and penetrated into the town. After some hours of desperate fighting the last two or three hundred surviving Anabaptists accepted an offer of safe-conduct, laid down their arms and dispersed to their homes. , only to be killed one by one and almost to the last man, in a massacre lasting several days. All the leaders of Anabaptism in the town perished. Rothmann is believed to have died fighting, and Bockleson, at the Bishop’s command was for some time led about on a chain and exhibited like a performing bear. In January 1536 he was brought back to Münster, where he, Knipperdollinck and another leading Anabaptist were publicly tortured to death with red-hot irons. After the execution the three bodies were suspended from a church-tower in the town centre, in cages which are still seen there today.

For centuries, churches and governments have exploited the excesses of these months prior to the fall of the city in June 1535 to make ‘Anabaptism’ an all-embracing byword for fanaticism and anarchy. Certainly, at the time, the whole episode did incalculable harm to the reputation of the Anabaptists, who before and after it were peaceable folk. This one episode of rebellion engendered the fear that sheep’s clothing concealed wolves who might better be dealt with before they threw off the disguise. In Luther’s case, it should be further remembered that the leading Anabaptist in Thuringia was Melchior Rink, who had been with Thomas Müntzer at the Battle of Frankenhausen in 1525. Yet when all these attenuating circumstances are taken into account, it is still difficult to ignore the fact that Melanchthon’s memorandum justified the eradication of the peaceful, not because they were clandestine revolutionaries, but on the grounds that even a peaceful renunciation of the state still constituted sedition.

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Besides this view of the role of the State, both Luther and Melanchthon were convinced that the truth of God could be known and that being known it lays supreme obligations on mankind to preserve it. To them, the Anabaptists were corrupters of souls. Luther’s leniency toward them is more deserving of comment than is his ultimate severity. He was consistent to the end in insisting that faith could not be forced; that in private a man might believe what he would; that only open revolt or public attacks on ordained preachers should be penalised; and that only sedition and blasphemy, rather than heresy, should be subject to constraint.

It is also striking that many of the major principles of the Anabaptists of Münster – the linking of church and state; the validity of Old Testament social patterns; the right of Christians to take up arms – were more typical of the ‘official’ churches of the time than they were of the Anabaptists in general. In its original, pacific form, Anabaptism has survived to the present day in communities such as the Mennonites, the Hutterite Brethren and, of course, the Baptists themselves. But militant, millenarian Anabaptism rapidly declined as a movement and though there was an attempt to revive it in Westphalia thirty years later, the band of terrorists which gathered around a cobbler-‘messiah’ called Jan Willemsen were eventually captured and executed.

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War, 1917 – Autumn into Winter   Leave a comment

This year’s Armistice Day (Saturday 11 November) also marks the end of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres), which ended on the 10th November, following the fall of the village of Passchendaele to Canadian troops on 6 November. It was claimed the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but if this were true, it was only at a cost of 275,000 British casualties in return for just five miles of territory.

While British troops were dying in the Flanders bogs, the usual autumnal sacrifice of an ally was all but consummated. Twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought on the Italian Front between June 1915 and November 1917. The Italians had little success after joining the war on the Allied side and suffered heavy losses in defeats by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Machine-gunners were heard to shout to Italian troops to stop and go back, promising to stop shooting. Italian commander Luigi Cadorna punished his underperforming units by shooting every tenth man, in a throwback to the Roman system of decimation. 

In 1917, the Battles on the Isonzo continued between June and November. On 24 October 1917 on the middle Isonzo, an army of nine Austrian divisions and six German burst in the misty morning through the Italian front, and in a fortnight’s fighting forced it back from river line to river line with a loss of 600,000 men. The German and Austro-Hungarian allies then advanced to positions just fifteen miles from Venice following their overwhelming victory at Caporetto in October and November, after which 260,000 Italian soldiers surrendered. The Italians eventually found standing ground on the River Piave, where they stopped their seventy-mile retreat, covering Venice, though only just. Britain and France sent reinforcements, and their generals helped to reconstitute the broken Italian forces.

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Back on the Western Front on 20th November, British forces, at last, achieved a breakthrough by deploying 476 Mark IV tanks at Cambrai. For a moment, they almost brought back the warfare of manoeuvre. Although first used at Flers-Courcelette, Cambrai was where tanks first showed their true potential. Additionally, the battle incorporated new tactics from the air as well as on the ground. Ground-attack aircraft and coordinated artillery fire ensured the advancing troops were able to move forward in a way which had hitherto been impossible or, at least, uncommon, along the front. The surprise was achieved across a broad section of it, and troops broke through the Hindenburg Line, in places gaining five miles of territory. Church bells were rung in celebration, somewhat prematurely, as it turned out.

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Yet Passchendaele had so drained and depleted British reserves that they were unable to develop their initial victory into an outright one at Cambrai or to prevent a determined German counter-attack ten days later. The reach of British forces had exceeded their grasp. The German counter-attacks reversed the successes. Casualties amounted to 45,000 on each side, but the battle at least, and at last, gave hope to the Allies that new tactics could succeed where the war of attrition had failed. Cambrai remains one of the key actions of the War, for it offered them a means of release from the bondage of sieges. For the first time the British, in particular, were able to learn the true value of a weapon of which they were the exponents.

At Cambrai, the British forces were pioneers in new tactics which their enemy did not grasp the full meaning of. But the Germans had also been innovative in their tactics. All former offensives had, sooner or later, come to a halt for the same reason – wearied troops were met by fresh reserves. The attackers continued hammering at an unbreakable front because they had ‘set the stage’ for action in that one area, and could not easily shift their batteries and communications. In a word, all offensives lacked mobility. Germany’s first business, therefore, was to make the battle mobile and introduce the element of surprise.

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Above: An ammunition column at the Battle of Cambrai, 21 November 1917.

Yet their plan was not a breakthrough in the older sense of puncturing the line in one spot, but a general crumbling of the line. It was based on the highly specialised training of certain units, and the absence of any preliminary massing of near the point of attack. There was no longer to be any prolonged bombardment to alarm the enemy. The advance was made by selected troops in small clusters, carrying light trench-mortars and many machine-guns, with the field batteries close behind them in support. The actual mode of attack, which the French called infiltration, was like a hand with steel finger-tips being pushed through a yielding substance, like loose earth. The élite troops at the fingertips made gaps through which those behind them passed, till each section of the defending line found itself outflanked and encircled. Rather than an isolated stroke, the offensive was like a creeping sickness which could demoralise a hundred of miles of front.

In fact, the Germans had first used these tactics at the capture of Riga in September, but the true test had come in October at Caporetto. The Allied Staffs had been slow to grasp the significance of the new method for the Western Front. Caporetto was explained by a breakdown in Italian nerve, hence their ill-preparedness for the counter-attack at Cambrai. There the attack on the British left, carried out using the old tactics, signally failed, while the assault on their right, deploying the new ones, was an obvious success. Yet the Allied Staffs blamed their defeat on defective local intelligence. As a consequence, four months later, their armies read the true lessons of Cambrai in letters of fire.

After Passchendaele and Caporetto some inquisition into military methods was inevitable. The first changes were at British Headquarters. The Prime Minister was in favour of a change in the chief command, but Haig could not easily be forced from his place. He made a bold bid for more unity in command, securing some lesser resignations in order to improve the efficiency of his staff. After Caporetto it was decided that a War Council should sit at Versailles, consisting of the Prime Minister and one other statesman from each of the Allies. The soldiers naturally objected to being mere advisers without executive power, so in January 1918 a revised machinery was framed – a military committee with Foch as president, empowered to create a general reserve by contributions from all the Allied armies. The committee soon failed, however, since it is one of the first principles of war that the same authority which controls general operations must also control reserves, and a committee cannot, therefore, command an army. Added to this, Haig refused to allocate British divisions to the general reserve since he believed that he had no divisions to give since they were all already deployed at the front.

If at the beginning of 1918, Haig and Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had proposed Foch as their overall Commander, they would have carried the day, but in November 1917 Lloyd George was more interested in a great offensive in Palestine and determined to make the Versailles machinery work. He had complained, perhaps unfairly, that he did not get sufficient help from his official military advisers. Nevertheless, as John Buchan pointed out in 1935,

In a democracy relations between soldiers and statesmen must always be delicate, but they were notably less strained in Britain than in France or Italy.

At the close of 1917, British public opinion could no longer see a clear outline of the war. Russia had fallen out of that line, and new and unknown quantities had entered the conundrum. It had been a depressing year which, beginning with the promise of a decision, had closed for the Allies in a deep uncertainty. They had taken Baghdad and Jerusalem, indisputable successes, but ones which affected only Turkey, and even there weakening her extremities rather than striking at her heart.

Discomfort was growing in every British home since lights were darkened and rations were reduced, and there was the unvarying tale of losses to rend the heart. One such tale was that of Mrs Amy Beechey, who had eight sons, all of whom served in the armed forces. Five were killed: Barnard at Loos in September 1915; Frank on the Somme in November 1916; Harold at Arras in April 1917; Charles in Tanzania in October 1917 and Leonard, who died in December 1917 after being wounded at Cambrai. When the King and Queen met Mrs Beechey, she told the Queen:

I did not give them willingly.

Of her three other sons, Chris suffered severe injuries after being hit by a sniper at Gallipoli, Samuel served in France at the very end of the war, and Eric became a dentist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In addition to these bereavements, women were also being killed in the munitions factories at home. In 1916-17 ninety-six died from poisoning caused by working in TNT. Women munitions workers became known as ‘canaries’ due to the toxicity affecting the liver and causing jaundice, turning their skins yellow.  The economic cost of war was also taking its toll, with seventy percent of Britain’s Gross National Product being spent on it in 1917.

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Above: Women making shells

Peace, Bread and Land were what the Bolsheviks promised the Russian people in the October Revolution (which took place in November in the western, Gregorian calendar). Protests had led to the end of the tsar’s rule in March, after which the Provisional Government had kept Russia in the war. The minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, advocated a fresh attack but the lacklustre Kerensky Offensive in June, although initially successful, saw the Russian Army disintegrate as the Germans overwhelmed their opponents, reaching Riga in September.  The First Women’s Battalion of Death was set up to shame male Russian soldiers into fighting, though they were also antagonistic towards those seeking to prolong the war.  In total, several hundred Russian women took part in the war.

Kornilov, the one fighting General left, wasted his in futile quarrels; a weary people turned to whatever offered leadership; and in October the Bolshevik revolution, inspired by Vladimir Lenin and organised by Leon Trotsky, marched swiftly to power. On 7 November (in the west) its triumph was complete, the triumph of a handful of determined men. When Lenin and Trotsky established the Bolsheviks as the dominant group in December, he was then in a position to take Russia out of the war. An armistice soon followed, on 16 December, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the war. At Brest Litovsk before the close of the year, the new Russian rulers accepted from Germany a degrading peace. The victory of the Bolsheviks and the defeat of Russia meant Germany would no longer be fighting on two fronts, and so troops were released to take part in the Spring Offensive – Germany’s last chance to win the war.

In Britain, the Russian Revolution, followed by the Stockholm Conference, let loose a flood of theorising; there were incessant Labour disputes. John Buchan observed that the British people were…

… war-weary, puzzled, suspicious, and poisoned to some extent by false propaganda. All zest and daylight had gone out of the struggle. The cause for which the British people had entered it was now half-forgotten, for men’s minds had grown numb. Civilians at home, as well as soldiers in the field, felt themselves in the grip of an inexorable machine.

He remarked that it was a dangerous mood;

… dangerous to the enemy, for it meant that grim shutting of the teeth which with Britain is a formidable thing. But it was also dangerous also to ourselves, for it might have resulted in a coarsening of fibre and a blindness to the longer view and the greater issues.

But Buchan believed that Britain had an effective antidote to this mood in the stoical form of George V:

That this was not its consequence was in large part due to the King, who by his visits to every industrial centre kept before dazed and weary minds the greatness of the national purpose and the unity of the people. Wherever he went he seemed to unseal the founts of human sympathy. 

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He visited the shipbuilders on the Clyde and the Tyne, as well as most of the major munitions works. To the disquiet of the War Cabinet, he also went to Lancashire during a strike, where he was warmly welcomed. Lloyd George paid the following tribute to his role:

The loyalty of the people was heartened and encouraged… by the presence of their Sovereign in their midst, and by the warm personal interest he showed in their work and their anxieties. In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given to the affection inspired by the King, and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the functions of his high office.

The Autumn and early Winter of 1917 were indeed the darkest days of the war for Britain, but exactly how dark was only realised by the Government and the Admiralty. Lloyd George himself also rose to the crisis. The loss of British shipping to the U-boats in the early part of the year had left the country with only six weeks of corn supplies. It was impossible to lay a mine-field close to the German bases or to attack them because the Battle of Jutland had left the Royal Navy without full command of the North Sea. Much was done by rationing, by increasing home production and through the expansion of shipbuilding, but the real remedy, which, before the summer had gone had relieved the situation, was a new plan of defence. The convoy system was pressed upon an unwilling Admiralty at a time before Britain had even the promise of a multitude of American destroyers. With the help of some of the younger naval officers, it was finally accepted and put into force. It had an immediate effect, as the losses to convoyed ships amounted to only one percent, compared to the one in four being lost in April. By September, the monthly tonnage lost was under two hundred thousand, compared with the 875,000 lost in April, at the peak of the losses. When peace came, eighty-eight thousand merchant vessels had been convoyed, with a loss of only 436. At the same time, the advent of better depth charges led to the destruction of more than half of the U-boats by the Royal Navy before the end of the War.

Despite this improving picture at sea, by the end of 1917, the initiative in the war on the land had passed once again to the Central Powers. Russia’s collapse enabled the Germans to redeploy large forces from the Eastern to the Western Front which meant that they could muster more men on the latter than the Allies, who had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the Americans could send their armies. Germany had one last chance to beat the Allies before that happened. The U-boat campaign had failed and the German people were weak with privations and their hope was failing, having suffered so many military disappointments. A decisive Spring Offensive was all that stood between them and ignominious defeat in the year to come.

 

Sources:

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

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

 

Britain Sixty Years Ago (V): With Love and Laughter.   Leave a comment

In mid-fifties’ Britain, political satire, exuberantly popular in Georgian times, now returned in full force with the advent of the new media of radio and TV. It also featured savage cartoons in the newspapers, staged lampoons and fortnightly mockery in the magazine Private Eye. Among the two million regular listeners to The Goon Show in the mid-fifties were key members of the next generation of comics, men like Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The Goons passed the baton to Beyond the Fringe, which passed it to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, from where it went to Little Britain. Each generation built on the humour of the previous one, changed it and then passed it on. Peter Cook, Spike Milligan’s only rival as the outstanding comic genius of his age, sent a schoolboy script to Milligan at the BBC which was good enough for him to be invited up to London for lunch. In turn, the group of comedians who became known as The Pythons were transfixed by Cook and his friends. In the decade that they grew up after the war, Britain was still dominated by the private schools, which were often bleak institutions. The austerity years meant little heating, poor food and few modern facilities, a life conditioned by brutal customs and petty hierarchies often dating back before the Edwardian years to the founding of many of the ‘public schools’ in mid-Victorian times.

Peter Cook’s school, Radley in Oxfordshire, still ’employed’ a régime  which deployed frequent beatings, cold showers, complicated dress codes, compulsory star-jumps, thumpings with hockey sticks for minor transgressions, and a great deal of other forms of bullying, all of which went undeterred by the staff. This forced bright but vulnerable children like Cook to develop mimickry and mockery to deflect bullies. He would make people laugh so that they wouldn’t hit him. Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, attended Shrewsbury School, whose new boys were called ‘douls’ after the Greek for slave; its day started with cold baths; it too had a byzantine dress code, involving different colours of scarf, tie and waistcoat, and when the whole school was sent on cross-country runs, the boys were chased by men with whips. Ingram’s humour was less about mimickry and more about writing mock school magazines with Paul Foot, son of the Labour leader Michael, and Willie Rushton. In many ‘public-private’ schools, such as at John Cleese’s Clifton College in Bristol, boys developed underground languages to cope with their aggressive, closed communities. They knew little of women, which meant that the humour that emerged from them was often ridiculously naive about sex. They were rarely politically radical, since they were from a privileged élite. Cook’s father had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria and Gibraltar. Ingrams was the son of an eccentric banker and intelligence agent, a one-time member of a pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship Society, and a Catholic mother whose father had been doctor to Queen Victoria. Both men were brought up to look down on the working classes as essentially inferior and comic. Their satire was biting, with underlying layers of anger and hurt. But it would be very public schoolboyish as well, involving much juvenile tittering and snobbery.

The brightest of these ‘boys’ then went on to Cambridge or Oxford, still then mainly male societies, and where in those days there was a direct line from the world of Oxbridge student reviews, like The Cambridge Footlights to the West End theatres. Future satirists mingled with fellow students who would go on to become politicians and business leaders. Peter Cook’s generation at Cambridge in 1957 included the later Conservative cabinet ministers Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke (just returned sixty years later as an MP and ‘father’ of the House of Commons) and Leon Brittan, as well as various actors and impresarios. Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, has pointed out that:

One reason has traditionally produced so many political satirists is that its undergraduates come face to face with their future political leaders at an early age, and realise then quite how many of them are social retards who join debating societies to find friends.

It could be added that the same could be said of those joining theatrical societies and satirical magazines. At Cambridge, Cook simply transferred his monotone sketches about the Radley School butler to his new environment and eventually had half the undergraduates mimicking him and repeating his one-liners. Cook found his voice as a schoolboy and maintained the same deadpan drawl at Cambridge to Edinburgh’s Beyond the Fringe review, to London, New York and global success. Similarly, Ingrams and Rushton transferred their jokes and cartoon characters to the pages of Private Eye. There were, of course, many other comics and satirists from other backgrounds, including Alan Bennett, the Yorkshire grammar school boy and Dudley Moore, the working-class boy from Dagenham who became the other half of the comedy duo with Peter Cook in the TV series Not only… but also… There was also David Frost, the son of a Methodist preacher from Kent. But it was the dominant personalities of Cook and Ingrams which gave them so strong a hold over the satire boom which began in the second half of the fifties. If Cook had any politics of his own, they were difficult to discern, and always took second place to a good punchline, though Fluck and Law, who went on to create the latex satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, were socialist friends of Cook. At the time of the satire boom itself, there was no organic link between the left of British politics and the wave of comedians, mimics and journalists who tore down the facade of Tory Britain towards the end of their thirteen years in power. There could not have been, since too many of the satirists were public schoolboys,  getting their revenge on the nation’s authority figures for the way they had been bullied. Macmillan for them was the image of the head of a decaying prep school, but Labour was also worthy of snobbish ridicule – full as it was with lower middle-class and working-class people with funny accents and petty, mundane concerns.

Ian Fleming was also a fine example of how the British society was tightly twisted at the top. He was yet another Etonian, and yet another character who flitted between journalism, intelligence and high society. From a Scottish banking family, he had tried Sandhurst, foreign correspondence – including in Stalin’s Moscow – and the City, before joining Naval Intelligence during the war. There his wild schemes for sabotage and dirty tricks were widely considered more fit for novels. After the war he ran a network of foreign correspondents and tried to work out ways of moving out of the dreary reality of austerity London. He eventually built a house in Jamaica, then still a colony, which he called Goldeneye. It was here that the Edens fled after the Suez Crisis to recuperate. In different ways, all these people, from Nöel Coward to the newspaper barons, Hugh Gaitskell to the Flemings, were struggling with time warp lives and challenged patriotism. Morals were becoming more fluid and new kinds of pleasure were seeping in. Gaitskell in particular was able to appreciate Fleming’s books, writing of the Bond books in the New Statesman that:

I am a confirmed Fleming fan – or should it be addict? The combination of sex, violence, alcohol and – at intervals – good food and nice clothes is, to one who lives such a circumscribed as I do, irresistable.

There’s probably no better testimony to the way in which the austerity years gave way to the affluent society. James Bond became one of the most successful if mildly ironic symbols of recovering British pride after Suez. From Russia, with Love, first published in Britain in April 1957, is the fifth novel by Fleming to feature his fictional British Secret Service agent. Fleming wrote the story in early 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica; at the time he thought it might be his final Bond book. The novel deals with the East–West tensions of the Cold War, and the decline of British power and influence in the post-Second World War era.

Fleming’s sketch showing his concept of the James Bond character.

From Russia, with Love received broadly positive reviews at the time of publication. The book’s sales were boosted by an advertising campaign that played upon a visit by the British Prime Minister’s visit to Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming’s first work of non-fiction, The Diamond Smugglers, was also published in 1957 and was partly based on background research for his fourth Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever. Much of the material had appeared in The Sunday Times and was based on Fleming’s interviews with John Collard, a member of the International Diamond Security Organisation who had previously worked in MI5. Even before they were transformed into the endless films, the novels provided a glorious fantasy for a nation in trouble, and in his earlier Bond stories Fleming worked to satisfy the almost pornographic lust of the British for the richer, more colourful consumer culture over the Atlantic. But though Fleming was a connected member of the élite, and had pictured his hero as an Old Etonian, it was a Scottish working-class body-builder, Sean Connery, who was chosen to play him in the first films. After that, Bond became, ironically, something of an outsider figure in the popular imagination, which perhaps helps to explain his endurance as a British cultural icon. Fleming’s original establishment character might not have appealed to a mass film audience in the more egalitarian atmosphere of the sixties.

Source:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

 

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – Spring into Summer, 1917.   1 comment

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The tale of the Allied Campaign of 1917 in the West was one of difficult beginnings, successes which led nowhere, and desperate battles which all but broke the hearts of their participants. As a diversion from the imminent French Nivelle Offensive, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander troops attacked Arras on 9th April. They captured the Vimy Ridge which was strategically important and proved to be an invaluable gain the following year. The first days were successful, but as so often on the Western Front, Haig’s offensive slowed and was only continued for political reasons, to support the ailing French. He was compelled to continue long after the attack was fruitless.

On 16 April, French commander Robert Nivelle struck on the Aisne, with a poor tactical scheme and no chance of surprise, since the enemy had captured his papers and knew his plans in detail. The Germans had been able to strengthen and position their forces accordingly. The French suffered a costly check and for a little it seemed as if their strength might melt away. Nivelle had promised a breakthrough at Chemin des Dames that would finish the war. It was not to be, with the French Army suffering 90,000 casualties on the first day’s fighting.

Disgruntled at yet another defeat and more lives lost needlessly, troops mutinied in over half the French divisions. The front line was left weakly defended but French commanders were able to keep the unrest secret from both their allies and the enemy. At one point, it was believed that there were only two loyal divisions between the Germans and Paris.

Meanwhile, Hill 145 was the highest part of the Vimy Ridge and the objective for the Canadian Corps, fighting as a complete unit for the first time, Their careful preparations, accurate artillery fire and tenacious fighting found success where other offensives had failed. In 1915, the French had lost 150,000 casualties there. On this occasion the Canadians suffered 10,000 casualties, half that of the Germans. Their success was a major boost for the Allies and it had a longer-lasting effect in helping engender a feeling of nationhood amongst Canadians.

Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who restored confidence and order, the greatest achievement of a fine soldier. Forty-three mutineers were shot and the French soldiers were marched past the executed men as an incentive to keep their discipline. But it took Pétain all summer to nurse his armies back to health, and in the meantime the British troops had to bear the brunt of campaign alone. On average, they lost 4,175 men every day at Arras, the highest experienced in any single battle.

By the summer of 1917, on the home front, the British Women’s Land Army had over 260,000 women working as farm labourers, allowing male agricultural workers to be released for military service. This enabled the strength of the British Army on the Western Front to reach 1,700,000 that summer. At a Conference in May, a confident Lloyd George had promised the French that no respite would be given to the Germans.

At Messines in June, the British Army carried out a perfect model of a limited advance. The battle was a preliminary to a major offensive planned for Flanders. It began with a week-long heavy bombardment by the British artillery before large underground mines were detonated. Lloyd George, who was staying in Surrey, asked to be woken early on 7 June, in time for ‘zero hour’ detonation of the 19 mines, containing 420 tons of explosives. He heard the ‘tremendous shock’ at 3.10 a.m. Ten thousand German troops were estimated to have died in the explosion, which created craters of between 140 and 260 feet in diameter. British troops then advanced alongside tanks, supported by closely controlled artillery. It was a major success for the British Army with the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge easily taken and German counter-attacks repulsed. However, there was a cost of over 26,000 British and ANZAC troops. It was soon after described to John Buchan as the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war. But neither the politicians nor the generals would allow the Army to rest on its laurels for a while, so Haig turned the offensive towards the Belgian coast, which had always been his main plan.

In a united front, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions, comprised respectively of Catholics and Protestants from the island, fought side by side to take the town of Wytschaete. In 2007 two memorial stones were placed on either side of the road, inscribed with the name of each division and the words Irish comrades-in-arms. In total around 140,000 Irishmen enlisted, with over 35,000 fatalities. The battle ended on 14 June.

In the meantime, following a raid on the English coastal town of Folkestone towards the end of May by Zeppelins, 162 people were killed in a raid on London on 13 June by 26 Gotha bombers. Over four hundred were injured in what was the worst raid of the war. The Gothas were heavy bombers able to fly in the daytime or at night and were a bigger threat to the civilian population than the much-feared Zeppelins, which were susceptible to bad weather and presented a larger and less well-defended target to British fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery. During the war as a whole, the number of people killed in aircraft raids on Britain totalled 857 with a further 2,058 injured, whereas 557 were killed by Zeppelins, with 1,358 wounded. Losses and injuries would have been greater had it not been for ‘The Black Flight’, a highly successful unit of the Royal Naval Air Service, which shot down 87 German aircraft. Each Black Flight aircraft’s forward fuselage was painted black and given an individual name, such as:

Black Maria-Black Roger-Black Death-Black Sheep-Black Prince.

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The specifications and details of ten German and Allied aircraft are given in the table below, followed by the statistics relating to the top ten ‘aces’ of the war:

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On 17 July a royal proclamation was issued:

We out of our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce, Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor.

The previous name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha arose from the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840, but it felt insensitive for the royal family to have German names amidst a world war in which Gotha aircraft bombing London. On hearing the news, the German Kaiser, Queen Victoria’s grandson, joked that he wanted to see the Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Compared with the stories of the events of 7-14 June, the story of the battle of a hundred days which began on 31 July was a far more melancholy one. The battle is known as Third Ypres, or Passchendaele. There was some merit in its conception, but little in its execution, wrote Buchan. The aim of the offensive was to break through the German lines and drive northwards to the coastal ports from which the German U-boats were reported to be operating and to take railway hubs.

On the first day it started to rain heavily. The bad weather continued, turning the battlefield into a quagmire; artillery fire had destroyed the field drainage systems. This made early success, as at Messines, impossible, and it continued long after the mud-holes and ridges aimed at had lost all strategic relevance. The battle dragged on, with Field Marshal Haig determined to persevere despite little being achieved. This time the German defence showed great tactical ingenuity, but their strength was strained to its utmost and their fangs against France were, for the moment, drawn, since this cruellest action of the war cost them 300,000 men. Buchan commented, with perhaps not  an insignificant touch of irony:

Whatever the reason for the tragic prolongation – the uneasiness of the French, the inelasticity of our military machine – one alleged cause may be ruled out, the personal vanity of Haig. Such was not the nature of the most modest and single-hearted of men.

The mud at Passchendaele made for atrocious living conditions. If a soldier slipped off wooden duckboards into a shell hole it was difficult for him to be extricated and orders were given that men who got into such difficulties were to be left. One soldier fell and was abandoned. When the platoon returned a few days later they found him, still alive but having suffered a nervous collapse, with the mud now up to his neck.

It wasn’t until 6 November that the ruined village of Passchendaele was finally taken by the Canadians. It was claimed that the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but at a cost many found too high. The British Army suffered 275,000 casualties for five miles of territory. One piece of land, ‘the Inverness Copse’ changed hands nineteen times over the course of the battle.

At 4.45 a.m. on 16 August, Allied forces attacked at Langemarck. Amongst the troops was Private Harry Patch of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He survived the battle but was wounded a month later by shell shrapnel when three of his Lewis machine-gun team were killed. He returned to Britain, where he convalesced until the end of the war. He went on to become the last British survivor of the trenches. Private Patch refused to talk about his experiences of war until he reached the age of a hundred, and then his forthright views on the war and its futility made him a popular figure and the focus of much attention even after his death as the last Tommy, aged 111, in 2009. He once said, War isn’t worth one life.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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

What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment

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The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.

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It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

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India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Sources:

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War; Winter into Spring, 1917.   Leave a comment

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The ‘figure’ above shows how the most important telegram of the war begins. Sent from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to his ambassador in Mexico on 16 January, it promised American territories to Mexico if it entered the war on the German side. The coded signal was intercepted by British Intelligence and shown to the Americans in February. It outraged public opinion in the USA, which soon after entered the war.

 America’s patience with Germany and her traditional isolation had already begun to break down. On 1 February Germany entered upon unrestricted submarine warfare, as noted previously. It proclaimed a blockade in all the approaches to Europe, and her intention to sink any vessel whatsoever found in these waters. The German Ambassador at Washington was promptly given his passports, but it was not until five American vessels were sunk in March with loss of life that Wilson decided to take action. So it was not the discovery of the secret overtures to Mexico which led to war, however much it added to the shift in public opinion in favour of action, but these overt acts of war at sea. On 2 April, the President asked Congress for a declaration of war. He outlined the means for the preparation of America and for supplying the Allies with what they needed, and he concluded his speech in the strain of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address:

It is a fearful thing to lead this great and peaceful people into war… But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest to our hearts – for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for the universal dominion of right by such a concert of free Peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.  To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace that she has treasured. God helping her, she can do no other.

On 6 April, Congress voted overwhelmingly to join the war. In the Senate, the vote was 82 to 6, and in the House of Representatives 373 to 50. America then flung itself into the preparations for war with a disciplined enthusiasm. Its entry seemed to make an Allied victory certain, and the right kind of victory, for it was not based on parochial concerns, but in order to reorder the world on a sane basis. The USA also brought with it enormous assets, having overtaken Great Britain as the workshop of the world, and having immense wealth to put into the common stock. It had a powerful fleet and a great capacity for shipbuilding. Its reserves of manpower made its army capable of almost limitless expansion. The number of men who were registered for the draft in America was twenty-four million, almost a quarter of its total population.

President Wilson’s achievements in bringing his nation into line have not been forgotten, nor should they be. The matter of war meant the reversal of every traditional mode of American thought. With war declared, the stiff, Germanic conservatism of much of American life was transformed into a turning tide against everything Germanic. Sales of sauerkraut collapsed and it was renamed liberty cabbage.  Bismarck doughnuts were renamed American beauties, and German shepherd dogs became Alsatians. In a foreshadowing of what would happen in Germany twenty years later, German books were taken out of libraries and burnt in the streets. The government also began a propaganda poster campaign against German-brewed beer, which had the unintended consequence of dramatically increasing the flow of cheap whiskey from Canada and illegal or unregulated distilleries, increasing the consumption of hard liquor and more widespread intoxication.

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Meanwhile, Germany had calculated that, as a result of her new submarine campaign, she could bring Britain to its knees by cutting off seaborne supplies. Germany had begun to realise, even before the March Revolution in Moscow, that in the long run the front around her borders, whether on land or around her coasts, was the vital front. Germany had five times as many submarines in 1917 as in 1915. By April, as noted previously, the loss of British ships reached 875,000 in tonnage. All western sea approaches became a cemetery, and one ship in four that left British ports never returned. It was the darkest moment in the war for Britain, not helped by the fact that the newly formed Royal Flying Corps lost 275 aircraft and 207 men in April. The airmen were carrying out valuable aerial reconnaissance at Arras and, despite having numerical superiority, their aircraft were outmatched. In 1917, the average life expectancy of a British pilot was just eleven days.

The first of the old things to die was not the British Empire, however, but the Tsarist Empire and regime in Russia. A coup d’état, supported by most of the troops, ended on 16 March (February in the Julian calendar used in Russia) with the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of a Provisional Government. The Liberal intellectuals now in office believed that they could conduct both a revolution and a war. Kerensky, who became Prime Minister, flung his energies into a great Russian offensive, but all discipline had gone from the army. The army ceased to be a force for order, becoming a mob of peasants, clamouring for bread, peace and land.

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