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September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

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

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – The Final Hundred Days, 1918, from Amiens to the Armistice.   1 comment

The Battle of Amiens, 8-12 August:

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British troops watch as German prisoners are escorted away.

The Allied attacks of July 1918 had shown the effectiveness of ‘all arms’ battle tactics: troops and tanks advancing behind a ‘creeping barrage’ of artillery fire as ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. Local counter-attacks were so successful that they quickly developed into a general offensive. Every day the Germans had to withdraw somewhere along the line; every day the Allies completed the preparations for another local push. The tactical situation seems to have loosened up slightly; the attacks were expensive but not prohibitively so and, as the Allies ground steadily forward, week in, week out, the morale of the German army finally began to fray.

At Amiens in August, these new tactics were put into operation to even greater effect. It was the most brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed of any British-led action on the Western Front. If this never quite matched the pace Ludendorff had set in March, it was better sustained and so, in the long run, more effective. The success of the advance was due to the profound secrecy in which the forces of the attack had been assembled. The offensive began with British, Australian, Canadian and French troops attacking to the east of the city. On the first day, the Australians met their objectives by early afternoon, taking eight thousand prisoners. But it was the Canadian troops who advanced the furthest, eight miles, taking five thousand prisoners. The Canadian Corps, supplied with ten million rounds of small-arms ammunition, were regarded by the Germans as ‘storm-troops’ and their attack from the north was cunningly concealed by the absence of a preliminary artillery bombardment. Instead, a swarm of 456 tanks were deployed alongside the troops, under the cover of the early morning ground mist. Haig himself attacked in the Somme area. As the troops left their trenches to advance, the artillery barrage began firing two hundred yards in front of their starting line. The guns then began to ‘lift’, increasing in range at timed intervals in their ‘creeping barrage’. The barrage included forty adjustments of a hundred yards every three minutes in this phase of the attack.

The advance slowed by the 12th, as the Allies over-reached their heavy artillery support and ran up against German troops determined to defend their 1917 trench positions, aided by the tangled wastes of the old Somme battlefield. On paper, the material gains by Allies did not appear extensive, for both in ground won and prisoners taken, Germany had frequently exceeded such gains, though it had failed to consolidate its offensives. By contrast, the Allied advance had not only given an indication of how the war could be won, but it had also achieved its essential purpose of striking a deadly blow at the spirit of an already weakening enemy. Ludendorff later confessed that…

August 8th was the black day of the German army in the history of the war. … It put the decline of our fighting force beyond all doubt.

After 8th August, the Kaiser concluded that…

We are at the end of our resources; the war must be ended.

At a conference held at Spa, the German generals informed him and the Imperial Chancellor that there was no chance of victory and that peace negotiations should be opened as soon as possible. The most that could be hoped for was an orderly retirement to the prepared defences of the Hindenburg Line, a strategic defensive action which would win reasonable terms from the Allies. Ludendorff himself offered his resignation, which was not accepted. He had lost hope of any gains, and his one remaining aim was to avoid an abject surrender. This was a far from the optimistic mood required to enter upon the most difficult operations which were still ahead.

The Hundred Days Offensive:

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When the initial momentum of the assault at Amiens died away, Haig was no longer willing to batter against stiffening opposition. Instead, he set the Third Army in motion farther north. This proved a more economical method of attack and from this point onwards a series of short, closely related offensives kept the Germans retiring until they reached the Hindenburg Line, from which they had started their offensive in the Spring. Foch was determined to hustle Ludendorff out of all his positions before he could entrench himself along the Hindenburg Line, driving the whole vast German army back to the narrow gut which led to Germany. But, at this time, he anticipated a gradual advance which would see the war continuing into 1919. As soon as serious resistance developed, Foch would, therefore, call a halt to the advance in that sector, only to renew it in another one. Tanks permitted him to mount a new offensive rapidly and frequently, so that his strategy became one of conducting a perpetual arpeggio along the whole of the Front, wearing down the enemy’s line and his reserves. Of this great plan,  to which Haig had undoubtedly contributed, the latter was also to be its chief executant. But, being closer to the field of battle, Haig was steadily coming to believe that, this year, it really would be all over before Christmas.

The ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ was a series of Allied engagements, that put continuous pressure on the retreating Germans. It began at Amiens and finished on 11th November. In all, there were a further twenty-two battles. Although the Germans realised they were to be denied victory they fought tenaciously, inflicting heavy casualties. The advance to victory, like the Somme retreat, cannot be painted in broad lines since it was composed of a multitude of interlinked actions. The first stage, completed by the first week in September, was the forcing of the enemy back to the Hindenburg Line, an achievement made certain by the breaking by the Canadians on 2nd September of the famous Drocourt-Quéant switch. Meanwhile, in the south, the Americans under Pershing had found immediate success at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, flattening out the Saint-Mihiel salient, cutting it off, and advancing northwards towards Sedan. The next stage was the breaching of the Hindenburg defences, and while Pershing attacked towards Meziéres, the Belgians and the British attacked in the north towards Ghent, movements which took place towards the end of August. Between these movements, the Hindenburg Line was breached at many points, and the Germans were compelled to make extensive evacuations.

The Allied advance was slower than had been expected, however, and the German army was able to retain its cohesion. Nevertheless, it was sadly pressed, and its fighting spirit was broken. The German soldiers had been led to believe that the Allies were as exhausted and as short of supplies as they themselves were. During their spring offensives, however, they had captured stores of allied clothing, food and metals which had opened their eyes to the deception being practised on them. Their casualties had been enormous, and the Allied reserves seemed unlimited. Their letters from home told of their families’ distress, making further resistance seem both hopeless and pointless.

Yet the news of this turn of the tide at Amiens and in its aftermath did not immediately change the popular mood on the home front in Britain. Everybody was over-tired and underfed, and an influenza epidemic was claiming hundreds of victims each week. My grandfather’s battalion, training at Catterick barracks to go to France, was almost wiped out. He was one of few survivors since he was an underage recruit, his mother presenting his birth certificate at the camp gates.   All over the country, there were strikes among munition-workers, followed by trouble with transport services and in the coal mines. Even the London police joined in. These difficulties were overcome very simply by increasing wages. Those in authority, perhaps more aware than most that the last stage of the ghastly shooting-match was finally coming to an end, and knowing something of the state of the German people, were anxiously questioning themselves as to whether a rot might set in.

At this juncture, it was the turn of the British War Cabinet to have doubts, and, as it would have put the brake on Allenby in Palestine, so it would also have held back Haig. But, as John Buchan wrote in 1935, the British commander had reached the point which great soldiers come to sooner or later when he could trust his instinct. On 9th September he told Lord Milner that the war would not drag on till next July, as was the view at home, but was on the eve of a decision. Buchan continued:

He had the supreme moral courage to take upon himself the full responsibility for a step which, if it failed, would blast his repute and lead to dreadful losses, but which, if it succeeded, would in his belief mean the end of the War, and prevent civilisation from crumbling through sheer fatigue.

Haig was justified in his fortitude. With the order, “Tout le monde à la Bataille,” Foch began the final converging battles of the war. One of the most major battles was that of Meuse-Argonne, which began on 26th September and was the American Expeditionary Force’s largest offensive, featuring over one and a quarter million troops by the time it ended on 11th November. This attack proved to be more difficult than the one at Saint-Mihiel on 12th August, as they faced strong German defences in the dense Argonne forest. The weather did not help; it rained on forty of the battle’s forty-seven. On the 26th September, two British and two American divisions faced fifty-seven weak German divisions behind the strongest entrenchment in history. It took the British troops just one day to cross the battlefield at Passchendaele. Brigadier General J. Harington of the 46th (North Midland) Division commented on his troops’ breaching of the Hindenburg Line on 29th September by telling them, You boys have made history. They had been given the difficult task of crossing the heavily defended St Quentin Canal, a feat which they had accomplished using rafts and pulled lines, with troops wearing cork lifebelts taken from cross-Channel steamships. Prisoners were captured at the Bellenglise Tunnel, which had been dug under the canal by the Germans after Allied soldiers fired a German ‘howitzer’ into it.

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By the 29th, the combined British and American troops had crossed the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt Canal, and within a week they were through the whole defence system and in open country. Despite their adherence to outdated tactics that brought about heavy casualties, the Americans prevailed and continued their assault right up to the end of the war. By 8th October the last remnants of the Hindenburg zone had disappeared in a cataclysm. Foch’s conception had not been fully realised, however; Pershing had been set too hard a task and was not far enough forward when the Hindenburg system gave, pinning the enemy into the trap which had been set. Nevertheless, by 10th October Germany had been beaten by the US Army in a battle which Foch described as a classic example of the military art.

The Collapse of Germany’s Allies:

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The day of doom was only postponed, and Ludendorff no longer had any refuge from the storm. Long before his broken divisions could reach the Meuse Germany would be on its knees.  The signs of Germany’s military decline were quickly read by her partners. It was now losing all its allies. They had been the guardians of Germany’s flanks and rear, and if they fell the country would be defenceless. On 15th September, the much-ridiculed Allied armies comprising British, French, Greek, Italian and Serbian troops, attacked the German-led but mainly Bulgar forces in Macedonia, moving forward into Salonica, and within a fortnight Bulgaria’s front had collapsed and its government sought an armistice. This was concluded on 29th September at Thessalonica. British forces were moving across the country towards the Turkish frontier. French columns had reached the Danube and the Serbs had made a good start on the liberation of their homeland.

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The Turks held out for a further month, during which the British conquered Syria, then they too surrendered. On 19th September, General Allenby in Palestine had opened up an action which provided a perfect instance of how, by surprise and mobility, a decisive victory may be won almost without fighting. Algerians, Indian Muslims and Hindus, Arab tribesmen, Africans and Jewish battalions came together to liberate the Holy Land from Ottoman rule. Breaking the Turkish defence in the plain of Sharon, Allenby sent his fifteen thousand cavalry in a wide sweep to cut the enemy’s line of communications and block his retreat, while Prince Faisal and T. E. Lawrence (a young British officer who had attained an amazing ascendancy over the Arab tribes) created a diversion east of the Jordan. This played an important role in Allenby’s victory at Megiddo. In two days, the Turkish armies to the west of Jordan had been destroyed, its right-wing being shattered, while its army on the east bank was being shepherded north by the merciless Arabs to its destruction. By 1st October Damascus was in British hands, and Aleppo surrendered on 26th October. The elimination of Bulgaria exposed both the Danube and Constantinople to attack and the French and British forces diverged on these two objectives. A Franco-British force sailed in triumph past Gallipoli and took possession of Constantinople. With her armies in the east shattered, Turkey made peace on 30th September by the Armistice of Mudros.

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The Allied armies in the Balkans still had a fair way to travel before they could bring Austria-Hungary under attack, but it was a journey they never had to make.: the Habsburg Empire was falling to pieces of its own accord. October saw Czech nationalists take over in Prague and proclaim it the capital of an independent Czechoslovak state, while the Poles of Galicia announced their intention of taking the province into the new Polish state – a programme disputed by the Ruthenians of Eastern Galicia, who looked towards the Ukrainian Republic for support and integration. At the same time representatives of the various south-Slav peoples of the empire – Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, repudiated Austro-Hungarian rule and expressed, with surprising unanimity, their desire to fuse with Serbia and Montenegro to form a single Yugoslav state. All that was left was for revolutions in Vienna and Budapest to declare in favour of separate Austrian and Hungarian republics and the Habsburg Empire had ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, on the anniversary of Caporetto, Italy had made her last advance and the Austrian forces, which had suffered desperately for four years and were now at the end of their endurance, melted away. So did the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 3rd-4th November an Armistice was signed at Villa Giusti with Austria-Hungary, and the Dual Monarchy immediately broke up into fragments. The Emperor was left alone and without friends in the vast echoing corridors of the Palace of Schönbrunn. Thus, even as it resisted Allied pressure on the Western Front, Germany saw all its chief allies fall away, collapse and disintegrate.

The Internal Collapse of Germany:

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These blows broke the nerve of the German High Command. Ludendorff told the political leaders that an armistice was imperative, and Prince Max of Baden was appointed Chancellor to use his international reputation for moderation in the negotiations. Ludendorff stuck to his idea of a strategic defence to compel better terms, till his physical health failed and with it his nerve; but the civilian statesmen believed that the army was beyond hope and that there must be no delay in making peace. From the meeting at Spa on 29th September till the early days of November there was a frenzied effort by the German statesmen to win something by negotiation which their armies were incapable of enforcing. While Foch continued to play his deadly arpeggio in the West, Germany strove by diplomacy to arrest the inevitable. They knew what the soldiers had not realised, that the splendid fortitude of the German people was breaking, disturbed by Allied propaganda and weakened with suffering. The condition of their country was too desperate to wait for an honourable truce at the front since the home front was dissolving more quickly than the battlefront. The virus of revolution, which Germany had fostered in Russia, was also stealing into her own veins. Popular feeling was on the side of Scheidemann’s view, …

“Better a terrible end than terror without end.”

On 3rd October, the new German Chancellor made a request to Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, to take in hand the restoration of peace on the basis of his Fourteen Points, published in January as a way of justifying the USA’s involvement in the war and ensuring future peace. In particular, they were interested in securing a general disarmament, open diplomacy (no secret treaties) and the right of Germany to self-determination. Wilson replied that the armistice now sought by Germany was a matter for the Allied leaders in the field. In the exchange of notes which followed, it became clear that the Allies demanded little short of unconditional surrender. Wilson’s points were, however, used as the basis for the negotiation of the peace treaty at Versailles the following year. Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister, remained sceptical about them:

“God was satisfied with Ten Commandments. Wilson gave us fourteen.”

Faced with the certainty of being faced with a demand for an unconditional surrender from the Allies, Ludendorff now wished to fight on, but neither the new government nor the people supported him. Short of proper clothing and fuel, weakened by semi-starvation and racked by the influenza epidemic which killed 1,722 in Berlin on one day, 15th October, they demanded peace and turned on the leaders who had promised victory but brought defeat.  Ludendorff resigned on the 26th, and the High Command was superseded by the proselytes of democracy. Everywhere in Germany kings and courts were tumbling down, and various brands of socialists were assuming power. Steps were taken to transfer the real power to the Reichstag. President Wilson had refused to enter negotiations with military and “monarchical autocrats” and therefore required “not negotiation but surrender.” But the height of the storm is not the moment to recast a constitution, and for the old Germany, the only way was not reform but downfall.

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With political unrest in Germany, it was thought the removal of the Kaiser would placate the popular mood. Civil War was threatened since the Kaiser, despite relentless pressure, was unwilling to abdicate. On 29th October, he left Berlin for Spa, the army headquarters, where Hindenburg had to tell him that the army would not support him against the people. Some army officers proposed that he go to the front and die an honourable death in battle. It was now early November. On the 3rd, the sailors of the German fleet mutinied rather than sail out into a death-or-glory mission against the British. By 4th November, the mutiny was general, and Kiel was in the hands of the mutineers.

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The same day, the army fell into confusion in Flanders, and the Austrian armistice exposed the Bavarian front to hostile attack. The temper of many army divisions was reported to be equally uncertain as the navy. An armistice had now become a matter of life or death, and on 6th November the German delegates left Berlin to sue for one. President Wilson had indicated that an armistice was on offer to the civilian leaders of Germany, but not to the military or the monarchy. Any hopes that this armistice would take the form of a truce between equals were quickly dispelled by an examination of its terms. Haig and Milner were in favour of moderation in its demands, but Foch was implacable, arguing that it must be such as to leave the enemy no power of resistance, and be a pledge both for reparations and security.

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A few days later the mutineers had occupied the principal cities of North-west, and an insurrection had broken out in Munich. On 9th November revolutionaries occupied the streets of Berlin. A Republic was proclaimed from the steps of the Reichstag and, at last bowing to the inevitable, the Kaiser abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, where he lived out his life in the Netherlands. Already, on 7th November, the German delegates had passed through the Allied lines to receive the terms drawn up by the Allied Commanders. They had no choice but to accept Foch’s terms for what was an unconditional surrender, but it also became clear that the Armistice could not have been refused by the Allies, both on grounds of common humanity and in view of the exhaustion of their own troops, yet it was negotiated before the hands of fighting Germans were formally held up in the field, leading to the accusation that the politicians who signed it had stabbed the German army in the back. In Buchan’s view, …

… It provided the victors with all that they desired and all the conquered could give. Its terms meant precisely what they said, so much and no more. Wilson’s Fourteen Points were not a part of them; the Armistice had no connection with any later peace treaties. It may be argued with justice that the negotiations by the various Governments between October 5th and November 5th involved a declaration of principle by the Allies which they were morally bound to observe in the ultimate settlement. But such a declaration bore no relation to the Armistice. That was an affair between soldiers, a thing sought by Germany under the pressure of dire necessity to avoid the utter destruction of her armed manhood. It would have come about though Mr. Wilson had never indited a single note.  

There was only one mitigating circumstance. President Wilson had declared that the frontiers of post-war Europe would be decided by its people, not its politicians. Self-determination was to be the guiding principle in this process; plebiscites would take place and make clear the people’s will. On this basis, Germany would not do too badly. This was why the Germans had chosen to negotiate with Woodrow Wilson and not his European allies. True, the President had indicated that there would be exceptions to this general rule: Alsace-Lorraine would have to go back to France and the new Polish state, whose existence all parties had agreed upon, must be given access to the sea. But, if Wilson stuck to his Fourteen Points, Germany should emerge from the war clipped rather than shorn.

The Armistice and its Terms:

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With no other option available to them, the German representatives met their Allied counterparts in railway carriage 2419D in a forest near Compiegne on 8th November. In 1940, Hitler symbolically used the same railway carriage to accept the French surrender. The location was chosen to ensure secrecy and no one in the German delegation was a senior military figure. The German Army High Command were keen to remain distant from the proceedings to preserve their reputations. There was little in the way of negotiation, and the Allies presented the Germans with the terms and if they did not sign, the war would continue. The Germans had three days to decide. Early in the morning of 11th November, at 5.20 a.m. to be precise, they concluded that they had no alternative but to agree to the stringent Allied terms and they signed the Armistice document. It detailed what Germany was required to do to secure the peace. Thirty-four sections laid out reparations and territory that had to be given up. Material to be surrendered included:

1,700 aircraft

2,500 field guns

2,500 heavy guns

3,000 Minenwerfer (German trench mortars, nicknamed ‘Moaning Minnies’ by British soldiers)

5,000 locomotives

5,000 motor lorries

25,000 machine guns

150,000 wagons

All submarines

The most important section of the document as far as most of the troops were concerned was the very first:

Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the Armistice (Naval hostilities were also to cease).

It was agreed that at 11 o’ clock on that morning the Great War would come to an end. At two minutes to eleven, a machine-gun opened up at about two hundred metres from the leading British Commonwealth troops at Grandrieu. John Buchan described that last morning’s action:

In the fog and chill of Monday morning, November 11th, the minutes passed slowly along the front. An occasional shot, an occasional burst of firing, told that peace was not yet. Officers had their watches in their hands, and the troops waited with the same grave composure with which they had fought. At two minutes to eleven, opposite the South African brigade, which represented the eastern-most point reached by the British armies, a German machine-gunner, after firing off a belt without pause, was seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and then walk slowly to the rear. Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a second of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind. It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.

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In fact, some US Army artillery guns continued to fire until 4 p.m., believing the sound of nearby engineering work to be enemy gunfire. But it was soon confirmed that this was indeed the last day of a First World War that had lasted 1,568 days. In the field since 15th July, Germany had lost to the British armies 188,700 prisoners and 2,840 guns; to the French 139,000 prisoners and 1,880 guns; to the Americans 44,000 and 1,421 guns; to the Belgians 14,500 prisoners and 474 guns. In the field, because she could not do otherwise, she made a full and absolute surrender. The number of Commonwealth personnel who died on 11th November was 863, and almost eleven thousand were killed, wounded or recorded as missing on 11th November. The following are the records of the last of the combatants’ countrymen to die in battle in the Great War:

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The last Australians to be killed in action on the Western Front were Sappers Charles Barrett and Arthur Johnson and Second Corporal Albert Davey, who had been killed at Sambre-Oise Canal on 4th November. Private Henry Gunther’s death, recorded above, is described in the US Army’s 79th Divisional history:

Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.

Private Gunther’s death was the last of 53,402 losses sustained by the US Army during its sixth-month participation in the war. In the same period, there were 360,000 casualties out of the 1.2 million men in the British Army.  Sixty years later, in eight years of fighting in Vietnam, 58,220 Americans were killed. While the loss of so many young men in Vietnam had a significant impact on American society and culture in the late twentieth century, the losses of World War One had, arguably, an even more profound effect on the USA from 1918 to 1943, when the country finally got over these costs of getting involved in European conflicts and agreed to send its soldiers back to the continent. Another important social effect, though a secondary one, was that resulting from the participation of two hundred thousand African-American troops who served in France. Having been integrated into the fighting forces in western Europe, many of them returned to continuing poverty and segregation in their home states and counties.

Poetry & Pity:

005

In Shrewsbury, as the bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice on the 11th November, the parents of Wilfred Owen received a telegram informing them of their son’s death. Although like his friend and fellow soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen had come very close to becoming a pacifist during his convalescence at Craiglockart War Hospital in Scotland, where he had met Sassoon in August 1917, he had insisted on being sent back to the front in September 1918. He had felt that he had to return to France in order remain a spokesman, in his poetry, for the men in the front line, through sharing their experiences and their suffering. on 4th October, after most of his company had been killed, he and a corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners; for this feat, he was awarded the Military Cross. But a month later, and just a week before the Armistice, on 4th November 1918, he was trying to construct a make-shift bridge so as to lead his company over the Sambre Canal, in the face of heavy machine-gun fire, when he himself was killed. Just before he left England for the last time on 31st August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish, but which he thought of as a kind of propaganda. He scribbled a preface for it, which began:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Owen’s best and most typical poetry, written earlier in the war, is in harmony with this Preface. As Andrew Motion has written more recently (2003), Owen believed that it was still possible to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. He stressed the tragic waste of war, and so his characteristic attitude is of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonising and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, British and German, could have achieved if only they had lived. Two types of tension give a cutting edge to Owen’s best poetry. He cannot quite make up his mind about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to the problem of war. So he carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning: the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Two of his later poems reject Christianity more openly: Futility arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

A less well-known poem, The End, expresses the most serious doubts that Owen ever put into poetry. He asks what will happen on the Last Day:

Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth

All earth will He annul, all tears assuage?

His pious mother removed the second despairing question mark from these lines when she chose them for his tombstone, but her more pessimistic son ended his poem with a speech by Earth who says:

It is death.

Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,

Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried.

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts quiver in the balance. But in his letters Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed, but do not kill… pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Arguments such as this are made explicitly in his letters but are only hinted at below the surface of his poems. Sassoon was more negative in tone, better at rousing indignation against warmongers than at raising pity for dead soldiers. But in some of his poems he managed to do both:

He’s young, he hated war! How should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through!

Such tragedies impelled Sassoon to his desperate protest, O Jesus, make it stop! Owen and Sassoon impelled other poets, both civilians (like Edith Wharton, below) and soldiers, to similar expressions of pity or protest. Kipling, so often unfairly dismissed for his earlier jingoism, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane, 1914-18, and Edward Thomas’ As The Team’s Head-Brass tells of a Gloucestershire farm labourer who cannot move a fallen tree because his mate has been killed in France. This simple example typifies all that the men might have accomplished whose lives were wasted in war. If Owen had lived, it is generally agreed among literary critics that he would have gone on to be at least as great as his inspiration, John Keats. Perhaps more importantly, his maxim has held firm through the years, even in wars which have generally been considered to be ‘just’. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients, especially when the realities of war are blurred by euphemism, propaganda and ‘fake news’.

012

006

Sources:

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

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

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

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (eds.) (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Irene Richards, J.B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map  History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.

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

Posted August 10, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Africa, American History & Politics, Arabs, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Bulgaria, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Coalfields, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, democracy, Egypt, Empire, English Language, Europe, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Germany, Great War, guerilla warfare, History, Hungary, Integration, Italy, Jerusalem, Jews, Literature, Marxism, Memorial, Middle East, Monarchy, nationalism, Palestine, Remembrance, Revolution, Rudyard Kipling, Serbia, South Africa, Syria, terror, Turkey, Uncategorized, USA, Warfare, World War One

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