|The funeral of Emperor Franz Joseph |
in Vienna. Late 1916
The world was split into belligerents and neutrals. Belligerents on all sides were weary and hard pressed. But even for neutrals, tensions were high and they ran risks of damage, or even worse, of being sucked into the war.
Pressure was building, and events were unfolding towards the 1917 cataclysm that would cast a long shadow over 20th and 21st centuries. Despite Pokrovsky’s patriotic rebuttal in the Duma in December of the German peace proposal, the Tsar’s popularity was at rock bottom, and his position precarious. 1916 had brought a third year massive Russian losses, relieved only by the early successes of the Brusilov offensive (see Post 15th May). Away from the front, starvation, inflation and droves of refugees ensured misery for the people. The Tsar, increasingly, was held responsible.
|Pavel Miliukov. Although a moderate|
compared to those that followed, his
speech fatally undermined the Tsar
and mystic monk Rasputin (who was popularly believed to be the lover of the Tsarina Alexandra). As the year closed, the Duma was warning the Tsar that it would no longer support him, and on 30th December – in an intriguingly complex drama – Royalists, who feared his malign influence on the Tsar’s fortunes, murdered Rasputin.
|Venizelos in 1916, flanked by his|
army and navy commanders
The events in Greece at the end of 1916 would have been farcical, if they had not led to such bloodshed and disaster, continuing for several years after the 1918 Armistice. During and ever since Gallipoli, Greece had been pressured to declare on the side of the Allies. This eventually led to an open split between the Anglophile Premier, Venizelos, and the officially neutral (but strongly pro-German) king, Constantine. As Venizelos shuttled from arrest for treason to reinstatement as Prime Minister, the neutral country – caught between the Balkans and the Ottoman empire – descended towards civil war. In early December, after many weeks of claim and counter claim, public unrest and gunboat diplomacy, Constantine’s government demanded the withdrawal of Allied ships lying off Piraeus; and then sent its own troops to menace Sarrail’s garrison at Salonika. This was too much for the Allies, above all for the French Imperial reputation in the eastern Mediterranean - already badly damaged. Constantine accepted an Allied ultimatum demanding a withdrawal of Greek troops from around Salonika. Within days, Venizelos was reconfirmed as premier, but not before senior French naval officers off Piraeus had decided to put ashore some brigades of marines to ‘restore order’. In the ensuing bloodshed, as the marines marched on parliament in ‘neutral’ Athens, dozens of people were killed. Crisis talks in London, holding up the conference to respond to Germany’s peace offer, created a route to cessation of violence.
It had been an trying episode – most damaging to French prestige – from which nobody emerged with any credit. The German propaganda machinery made the most of it.
3. The Middle East
|Sir Frederick Stanley Maude.|
An old Etonian, who led the capture
of Baghdad in 1917, only to die
later of cholera
Disaster at Gallipoli and faintly embarrassing stalemate at Salonika summed up the European end of the middle eastern region. However, not so far to the east and south, things were starting to look better for the Allies. The siege and fall of Kut earlier in the year (see Posts 3rd November 2015 and 1st February 2106) had been a serious blow to British prestige in the middle east, and more importantly in the Indian sub-continent. There was a real worry that German and Turkish advances through Persia and beyond would provoke sedition and Muslim unrest in India itself. The British were determined to re-establish dominance in Mesopotamia, and through the year they built up forces, communications and infrastructure. On 13th December, under a new commander General Maude, the British launched a new offensive to recapture Kut. Their aim was to move on to take Baghdad. Apart from the reputational gain, this would increase the possibility of linking with Russian forces attempting to move into northern Persia from the Caucasus.
Almost parallel to the Mesopotamian thrust but close to the Mediterranean, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, under Sir Archibald Murray was moving from its strengthened base in Cairo into Sinai and towards Palestine. On 21st December, El Arish just south of Gaza was taken. These dual thrusts by the British would continue into 1917, contributing importantly to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and to the emergence of a certain TE Lawrence.
4. The War at Sea
The spectre of unrestricted submarine warfare hovered beneath the oceans. The Germans were incensed by the continuing success of the Royal Naval blockade of the North Sea. Their High Seas Fleet had not challenged the British Home Fleet seriously since Jutland, but U-boat attacks were increasing. Portugal, who had entered the war in March 1916 found her Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores surrounded by watery graveyards by the end of the year.
The stock of the Royal Navy with the British public had not really recovered from the anti-climactic outcome of the Battle of Jutland, and on 4th December, Admiral of the Fleet Jellicoe was booted upstairs to become First Sea Lord at the Admiralty. His successor was the odiously ambitious David Beatty. Having dodged, or shifted, blame for his several severe failings during the Battle of Jutland, Beatty now found himself in charge of the British Grand Fleet. Ironically the only significant action of this alleged ‘dasher’ in his new role was to receive the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in November 1918.