Saturday, 13 January 2018

Allied Strategic Developments early 1918

The Supreme Allied War Council
meeting atVersailles in 1918
A new year saw the Allies needing to up their game to deal with the concentration of German forces on the Western Front. Previous years' meetings had focused on co-ordination of the Allies own breakthrough, whereas it was now clear that the Allied response in the west would have to be a defensive one. Haig's overoptimistic reports could no longer hide the serious losses and lack of strategic progress in Flanders. Furthermore, throughout 1917 the picture that had slowly and eventually emerged from Russia was a deeply disturbing one. Although wishful thinking had persisted for some months after the February revolution that Russia could remain as a significant partner in the Allied cause, by the end of the year all hopes were gone. The Bolsheviks were being lined up for a punitive armistice (thinly disguised as a Treaty) at Brest-Litovsk, and the Russian army was inactive and in ruins. Another Allied conference to agree on dates and priorities for the 1918 season was clearly not going to be appropriate. Previous posts (see 13/11/2017 and 21/12/2017) described the agreement to establish a Supreme Allied War Council to be based in Versailles, and it was scheduled to hold its first executive meeting on 30th January 1918. The focus would be the Western Front, and the unpalatable news that it might be as late as autumn before significant American forces could bolster the Allied defences there. 

In early January, Lloyd-George took advantage of a speaking engagement with the Trades Unions to re-frame Britain’s objectives for the war. Gone were any references to destruction of the German, Austro-Hungarian or Turkish empires. The objectives were much the same, but stated more positively – restoration of occupied territory in France, Belgium, Italy, Serbia and Montenegro; restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France; independence for Poland and for any aspiring nations within Austia-Hungary; and further east Britain wanted to see separate states for Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Arabia. Constantinople would remain the capital of Turkey, but the waters surrounding and the Dardanelle straits should become international. Reparations for war damage would be required, and an international ‘war prevention’ organisation created. Of course, the German government would take little notice of it, but they did pay heed to a similar document issued by the US President Wilson just a few days later. Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, published on 8th January were:
·       Open covenants of peace and no secret diplomacy in future
·       Absolute freedom of navigation in peace and war outside territorial waters
·       Removal as far as possible of all economic barriers
·       Adequate guarantees for the reduction of national armaments
·       An absolutely impartial adjustment of colonial claims, the interests of those peoples concerned having equal weight
·       All Russian territory to be evacuated, and Russia given full opportunity for self-development, the Powers aiding
·       Complete restoration of Belgium, in full and free sovereignty
·       All French territory freed and the wrong done by Prussian in 1871 in the matter of Alsace Lorraine righted
·       Re-adjustment of Italian frontiers on lines of nationality
·       Peoples of Austria-Hungary accorded an opportunity of autonomous development
·       Rumania, Serbia and Montenegro evacuated, Serbia being given access to the sea, and relations of Balkan states settled on lines of allegiance and nationality
·       Non-Turkish nationalities in the Ottoman empire assured of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles to be permanently free to all ships
·       An independent Polish state
·       A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.
Wishful thinking? Certainly Wilson’s greatest hope was the fourteenth point – the creation of a League of Nations, to promote democracy, weaken imperial power and preserve peace. Idealistic, as we well know by now, but it received a positive, if disingenuous response from the Chancellors of Germany and Austria-Hungary. They were facing difficult domestic conditions, particularly in Austria, where Vienna was largely incapacitated by unrest and strikes. Both Cernin, for Austria-Hungary, and Hertling, for Germany, gave gushing responses in public statements about the principles, whilst rejecting points concerning territory and nationalist aspirations.

Lloyd-George was also determined to push his own military agenda, rather than listen to Haig, or the increasingly isolated CIGS Sir William Robertson. He chose the Supreme Allied Council meeting in Versailles in late January to do this. Largely due to Lloyd-George’s disruptions, this committee produced (in military aspects) a camel rather than a thoroughbred horse. Predictably, the agenda was dominated by the defensive plan for the Western Front. There was agreement about the need for a unified command, and the majority, including the generals, wants a supremo, generalissimo to take control. Lloyd-George was against this, despite (or perhaps because of) support for it by both Haig and Robertson. He argued successfully for a compromise that in the end suited nobody. A military executive, with Marshall Foch at its head would be allocated a force of thirty Divisions made up from the Allied armies, and have discretion over its deployment as the German plans revealed themselves. This was never likely to be a success, but Lloyd George was not finished. He insisted that the British advance through Mesopotamia and Palestine should not be compromised by shifting resources to France (this at a time when Ludendorff was moving forces from Rumania, Bulgaria and Turkey to maximise his strength on the Western Front). Finally he used the meeting to pursue his own domestic agenda. He informed Robinson bluntly of his decision that the senior representative of the British Military on the Council should not be the CIGS, but a separate position. He offered Robertson the choice of either, but not both. Robertson, who believed the opposite, decided to resign - as Lloyd-George must have hoped he would. This neatly ended several differences Lloyd-George had with his CIGS. The most important was an impasse over whether all available British reserves should be transferred to France, as Haig was demanding (more of this in a future episode).  It was hard on Robertson – the first man to rise from the rank of private to the very pinnacle of the British Army. He had laboured unceasingly for the cause for over two years since Kitchener’s fall from favour, and now paid the same price – probably for being too supportive of Douglas Haig and for Lloyd-George’s understandable unwillingness to risk another Passchendaele.
Sir Henry Wilson, the new CIGS
A better fit with Lloyd-George,
he had better political skills than
the soldier's soldier, Robertson.
Sir Henry Wilson, the new CIGS, was much more to Lloyd-George’s taste. At the same time as appointing Wilson as CIGS, Lloyd-George moved Lord Milner within the cabinet, creating the post of Secretary of State for War. He now had two new (and strongly supportive) senior advisers.


Shortly after the dysfunctional Versailles summit, President Wilson made a further contribution, outlining four principles as preconditions for peace. Each dealt with the importance of allowing self determination and peoples’ sovereignty rather than service under the yoke of oppression. More worthy principles. This time the German Chancellor Hertling seemed less interested – probably because Germany had just secured its access to the resources of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Baltic states. More important still, a secret session of the Reichstag held in January had been promised by Ludendorff that Germany was poised for certain and outright victory on the Western Front.  

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Royal Navy in 1918

Nelsonian hero Roger Keyes.
Served with distinction in the Boxer
Rebellion in 1899 and two World Wars
In the early days of 1918 the war position was, in several ways, very different from one year earlier, but in others depressingly familiar. On 2nd January  the new Air ministry was established in London, and on 4th January a hospital ship was torpedoed in the English Channel. A fog of revolution and instability covered the Eastern Front, and a winter calm on the Western Front concealed massive German preparations for a coming storm. The British Government was trying to keep the Arabs onside to help its Palestine and Syria campaign, following the shock of the Balfour Declaration in November*, and the British army continued to make steady progress in the middle east. But what was happening at sea?
The post on 3/9/2017 (UUW Part 2) described how by late 1917 Britain had overcome the existential threat posed by UUW, and that of 21/12/2017 (End of 1917 Position: Part 2) covered the change of personnel at the top of the Admiralty. It was tough on Jellicoe, but probably stemmed from the different perceptions of the British Navy and Army held by politicians and public alike. Since Trafalgar in 1805 Britain collectively had rested secure in the primacy and invincibility of the Royal Navy (RN). Even with the late 19th century build up of Japanese, American and (particularly) German fleets, there remained in 1914 a conviction that the RN could not be challenged. Instead, WW1 had brought initial embarrassments; the unspectacular (though highly effective) blockade of Germany; the indeterminate outcomes of Jutland, and the terrible 1917 merchant losses of UUW. The Army, on the other hand, had been traditionally small, and now its new legions were seen to be fighting heroically against a mighty military machine – albeit with terrible losses.
1918 would at last bring a Nelsonian style operation to warm British hearts ahead of final victory.

The first two actions of 1918 occurred 2000 miles apart. On 14th January German destroyers (for the third time) bombarded the east coast town of Yarmouth. But in the eastern Mediterranean on 20th January a symbolic success took place. Go back to the first days of the war in 1914 (see Post 17/2/2015) and the escape of the German battle cruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau across the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. This embarrassingly incompetent episode was the first to reveal how weakened the RN had become after 100+ years of complacency, bureaucracy and nepotism. Now more than three years later, after a war spent in the Black Sea under the Turkish flag (but German command), the two ships re-appeared in the Mediterranean Aegean sea. Early in the morning the British destroyer HMS Lizard spotted them heading for moored British ships in the island harbour of Imbros (today Gokcheada) west of Gallipoli. A brief action ensued, in which two moored British monitors were sunk before the German ships turned away. The Breslau promptly ran into a mine and was sunk. The damaged Goeben was listing, and ran for cover in the Dardanelles, where she ran aground in the narrows. In this case British revenge was certainly a dish enjoyed cold.

Zeebrugge 1918. The grounded Thetis lies beyond
Iphigenia and Intrepid in the canal mouth
The Nelsonian event that lifted the nation took place in April, but had been in planning since November. Its architect was the intrepid Sir Roger Keyes, who had taken command of the Dover Patrol in the 917 re-shuffle. Keyes had shown himself to be a dasher by his courageous actions to date and, in the words of Buchan “he interpreted generously the limits of what was possible for the British sailor”. The targets for action were the two occupied Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend. Both provided safe haven for U-boats and proximity to the western approaches of the Atlantic, extending U-boat killing time (provided they could evade the Channel barriers). They also acted as ports for a number of destroyers, such as those that raided Yarmouth on 14th January. Keyes’s audacious plan was to disable both ports by means of sinking ‘block ships’ in the harbour entrances. Success would push the U-boat havens 300 miles to the east, but was easier said than done. Both ports were heavily fortified and inaccessible to the attackers. Zeebrugge, the larger of the two, was protected by a crescent shaped breakwater, or ‘mole’, carrying a railway track and bristling with defences. The block ships would have to manoeuvre round the mole and position themselves across the canal outlet before scuttling. Immediately before their attempt to do so diversionary attacks would be launched. A bombardment of the mole by offshore destroyers would accompany a landing of marines to take out the buildings on the mole and destroy the railway viaduct linking the mole to land. Ostend was smaller and had no protecting breakwater. Here the task of two block ships was simply to charge in, ram and block the entrance before scuttling. 
After some predictable delays for inclement weather the attacking armada left Dover late evening on 22nd April. Keyes led the flotilla in the destroyer HMS Warwick and there were two other destroyers; the cruiser HMS Vindictive with two ferry boats for the landing parties and attack on the mole, and an assortment of monitors and smaller boats to make smoke and cause confusion. The stars of the show were the five block ships - old cruisers, full of explosive and weighed down with concrete – three were for Zeebrugge and two for Ostend.
At midnight the diversionary attacks on the mole began, along with aerial attacks and bombardment, and as much smoke as could be generated. All went well for the three block ships initially, as they rounded the lighthouse at the top of the mole. Then, unluckily, the wind changed, the smoke cleared and they were seen. Although most of the mole’s guns had already been put out of action, heavy fire from the shore batteries damaged the first block ship Thetis and grounded her. The two others – Iphigenia and Intrepid – ploughed on, belching smoke with all guns firing, and managed to position themselves near perfectly across the canal entrance before scuttling. The crews escaped in small boats to be picked up by destroyers, and the landing party scrambled to re-embark via the ferries and make their exit. By 2am all were safely in English waters – complete success with negligible casualties.
HMS Vindictive lying along-
side the pier at Ostend May 1918
The Ostend attack was a different story. With no diversionary attack to protect them, the two block shops, Brilliant and Sirius, were wholly reliant on surprise and effective smoke cover. Unfortunately, the wind direction worked against them – they were visible but their target was obscured. In the chaos they found themselves almost beached well to the east of the harbour piers, and were forced to scuttle and abandon the mission. Still, the larger port of Zeebrugge had been completely closed off, and the operation was hailed as a major victory at home. The Germans immediately strengthened their position at Ostend, and posted a guard of nine destroyers. It seemed to make a further attempt almost impossible, and yet this is precisely what Keyes attempted some two weeks later on 9th May. One of the two new block ships did not make it to the attack zone, but the other was the Vindictive - hero of the landing party actions at Zeebrugge -  now on her final voyage. Supported by destroyers, air cover and fog, she ran the gauntlet and did manage to ram one of the entrance piers. She sunk at an angle that caused major obstruction. Again, the skeleton crew escaped in motor launches and were picked up by destroyers.

These two victories (small strategically) helped restore the faith of the British public in the RN and raised morale amongst naval staff and civilians. Perhaps more significant was the effect on the German navy. U-boat strategy took another hit, and the morale of the German navy, already low, took another fall. Cooped up since Jutland, the German fleet was now subject to more restrictions, as destroyers from Dover and Harwich were free to cause more damage amongst the light craft and defences of the Heligoland Bight area. Mutiny was stirring in the German navy, and within months it would become reality.


* Balfour’s famous/infamous statement in November 1917 indicated British Government support for a post war establishment of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine – apparently contradicting assurances given to the Arab leader King Feisal in 1916. We all know what followed.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

End of 1917 position: Part 2

Silver threepenny piece 1917
The previous post covered the status of the Central Powers as 1917 ended, and also of France. The British Empire army (from being almost a sideshow at the left extreme of the French line in 1914) was by this stage an almost equal partner with France on the Western Front. Alongside its global sea power responsibilities plus campaigns in the Middle East and Africa, the British war effort had the widest spread of all the belligerent parties.
The epicentre of the Russian revolution was St. Petersburg, but all along the Eastern Front, from the Baltic in the north west to collapsing Roumania in the east, the effects were being felt.
The USA was steadily building and training a new army for the Western Front and also moving her fleet westwards. In central and south America some states were declaring against the Central Powers, pushed from their neutrality by ham-fisted Austrian and German diplomacy.

Great Britain
Late 1917 saw a mixed picture for the British military forces. The greatly enlarged British army was in a state of near exhaustion on the Western Front, apparently still unable to find sufficient reserves to relieve the hard pressed men. Such 1917 victories as there had been - at Arras, Ypres and Cambrai -came at tremendous cost. the great potential of tanks had been demonstrated at Cambrai, but Haig and his generals were aware of the transfer of German reinforcements from the Eastern Front to Western for some sort of campaign in early 1918. Elsewhere, the British army had had a much better year in Mesopotamia and Palestine.
King George V Wytschaete Ridge
July 1917, marking Britain's most
outright victory of 1917 - Messines.
The Royal Navy was retaining control of the Channel, North Sea and High Seas, despite the heavy loss of merchant shipping inflicted through the year by unrestricted submarine warfare (UUW). Under its new energetic leader, Roger Keyes (see Post 3/9/2017), the Dover patrol was launching a series of raids to blockade the U boats in German occupied Belgian ports, but it was the wider trade blockade that continued to strangle the life out of the German population. 
On 29th November an Act of Parliament brought a third service, the Royal Air Force, into being. This brought the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service (both developing rapidly) under a single command, and led to further growth and development in 1918.

Lloyd George had just passed his first anniversary as Prime Minister, and he had consolidated his own position and that of his war cabinet. But it had been a trying year. Not only had the enormous losses on the Western Front depressed the people, but also the shortages resulting from UUW, and the increasing German air raids on civilians. Further pressure for a negotiated peace came with the publication on 29th November of a letter by the respected Lord Lansdowne, a former Foreign Secretary. He called for a revision of war objectives and an genuine search for peace, and his letter found support on both sides of the Channel (and of the Atlantic). However, Lloyd George was standing firm for outright victory (despite his concerns about Haig as C-in-C), and his government was performing well by a number of war effort metrics.The Army had increased by more than 800,000 men in 1917; more than 1.5million more men and women had been added to the war production efforts (Woolwich Arsenal, which employed 11,000 men in 1914 now had almost 100,000); more than one million acres of land had been put into food production since UUW started; aircraft production was up by 250%, and ship, timber and guns production had all increased dramatically. By these and other measures the government, working with an efficient administration, had increased productivity and kept the population fed.
Sir Maurice Hankey - first
Cabinet Secretary, and
quintessential Civil Servant.
The war cabinet was effective, co-ordinated by the supreme administrator and logistician Sir Maurice Hankey. The strength and imperturbability of Lord Milner and General Smuts (after his arrival from Africa) proved the ideal balance for the capricious leadership style of Lloyd George.
Right at end of the year, there was a surprise change at the top of the Admiralty. Geddes, the new First Lord, dismissed Jellicoe as First Sea Lord, replacing him with Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. This was partly as pay back for the slow Admiralty response to the UUW threat (See Post 3/9/2017), but was a hard blow for the noble Jellicoe to take. Under similar pressure was the army C-in-C, Douglas Haig. Unity of army command would be mandated by the emerging Supreme Allied War Council, and Haig was nobody’s first choice.

Russia
By year end, the Bolsheviks had made their power grab and Kerensky had fled from St. Petersburg. The event - like the February Revolution - had been relatively bloodless (the horrors of the Red Terror and the Civil War were still to come), but political chaos and uncertainty were everywhere.
Cessation of the (Imperialist) war had been the Bolsheviks' most consistent policy, and preliminary negotiations between them and the Germans began as soon as November 21st (4th December, Julian)*. These soon became the Brest-Litovsk Conference, which dragged on for several months before ending with the infamous Brest-Litovsk Treaty in 1918. Negotiations also involved Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. Lenin sent Trotsky to lead for the Bolshevik government with instructions to stymie and buy as much time as possible. Gradually, the political uncertainty was creating ramifications across the Russian empire. Nationalist ambitions were emboldened, and independence was declared by several in rapid succession – Ukraine (20th November); Estonia (28th November); Finland (6th December), and Moldavia (23rd December).

North and South America
The USA had no standing army, and was making strenuous efforts to recruit, train and transport one to Europe for early 1918 (although see earlier Post 9/3/2017 for Pershing’s forces in Mexico at the USA declaration of war). General Tasker H Bliss, Chief of Staff of the US Army had joined the embryonic Supreme Allied War Council in Versailles. The American fleet was actively supporting the British navy by the end of the year. A detachment of the fleet had joined Beattie’s Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, and American destroyers were an integral part of the anti-UUW forces stationed in and around Ireland.
President Wilson was building his own peace proposals, and influencing previously neutral central and southern American neighbours to declare for the Allies. By the end of 1917, Panama, Ecuador and Cuba had declared against the Central Powers, and Argentina had expelled the German Ambassador after U-boats sunk three of their merchant ships.

Germany’s isolation was increasing.


*Cessation of hostilities between Russia and Germany began in a piecemeal way on 2nd December. An armistice was signed on 15th December