Friday, 27 January 2017

The Russian Revolution 1: Build up to the February Coup d'Etat

Russian Empire pre World War 1
Aside from two world wars, the Russian Revolution must be the most seismic and far reaching event of the 20th Century. It is way beyond my compass to do it justice, but there’s no doubt (in retrospect) it was made inevitable by the first of those global conflicts  - the Great War, subject of this blog. The outbreak of war in 1914 effectively sentenced the Russian people and its army to a perdition that would finish off the Tsar’s Empire. Of course, that dreadful culmination resulted from events and incidents over many years long before, but it was the terrible reverses of 1914 and 1915 that made the Russian Revolution of 1917 reality.

The primitive feudal economy of the Russian Empire, in place since its creation in 1721, began to change in the 1860s with the abolition of serfdom and tentative moves to respond to the industrial modernisation sweeping Western Europe. Urbanisation and industrialisation developed but brought with them social unrest and a weakening of the autocracy. By the early 20th century industrial unrest and crippling strikes were frequent. The war with Japan in 1904, alongside tensions with Germany, the Balkans and the Ottomans, contributed to nearly twelve months of revolutionary turmoil through 1905. This was eventually suppressed, but at the cost of the Tsar agreeing to an elected parliament – the Duma – plus certain civil and trade union rights.

Alexandra Fyodorovna.
German born grand-daughter
of Queen Victoria.  
Nevertheless, by 1913 Russia was recovering, making the most of her huge country, population and limitless natural resources to become the world's leading grain producer, and the fifth largest industrial power. Ironically this growing strength was one of the key factors pushing Germany towards declaring war during the crisis of July 1914.
As we have seen, Russia’s war to date had been a dismal one (Posts 18/1/15; 23/1/15; 7/6/15 and 28/6/15). Pervading gloom was lifted only right at the start – with Lemberg and the crushing victories over the Austrians in Galicia (Post14/1/15) – and in mid 1916 with Brusilov’s counterstroke (Post 15/5/15). They also clutched at the perennial hope that Allied victory against the Ottomans would hand them Constantinople. After the disastrous defeats of 1915, Tsar Nicholas had appointed himself as supreme commander of the army, replacing his own uncle, the Grand Duke. He was now directly accountable for for failures and by late 1916 his reputation had hit rock bottom. In the battlefields, Brusilov’s surge had degenerated into costly attritional warfare. At home the Tsarina Alexandra’s court was rumoured to be full of bad influences (foremost amongst them Rasputin) and German agents. The Tsarina was hated by the common people, while the Tsar had lost all trace of respect.

Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin
This was the point we reached in the previous post (23/12/16). The outspoken attacks on the Tsar and his incompetent government by Miliukov and Kerensky did not immediately bring great change. In fact, the Tsar confirmed two reactionary autocrats at the head of his appointees in the Duma – Prince Golitzin and Protopopov. But the opposition’s various factions were now united and determined on change. The murder of Rasputin on 30th December ignited the blue touch paper for the February coup d’etat. Rasputin's body was hidden beneath the ice of a frozen lake, but on its discovery several days later, the death rapidly became public knowledge, and there were noisy celebrations on the streets of Petrograd.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Keeping the Home Fires Burning: January to May

In the great actions of 1914 and 1915 Britain had been a minor player alongside the enormous armies of Germany, Austro-Hungary and France on the battlefields of the Western and Eastern Fronts. The costly Somme campaign of 1916 had changed all that, both in perception and reality. The full impact of British Imperial capacity alongside the attritional losses to the other major players made Britain's strategy for the war in 1917 just as important - and not solely on the high seas. The previous post has noted new PM Lloyd George's impact - his powerful war cabinet of five persons and his creation of new departments - on management of the war effort. In time this hub of government would become overloaded and exhausted, but for now, the raft of initiatives created a positivity that contrasted with the wary workings of Asquith's cabinet.
The PM flew, in rapid succession, to Paris and Rome. He despatched Lord Milner, Minister without Portfolio to St. Petersburg. He pressed for more frequent Allied conferences, and involvement of the Dominion leaders.

The Imperial War Cabinet at 10 Downing St. 1917
Note the demographic.
It was Lloyd George’s initiative to convene an Imperial conference, to be held in London in March 1917, and to create an Imperial War Cabinet. Empire conferences had been held periodically in London since 1887, usually tagged on to other visits or major royal occasions. Initially styled as ‘Colonial’, they became ‘Imperial’ conferences in 1907, and at the George V coronation event in 1911 they received further enhancement in status and profile.
However, it was Lloyd George’s first such conference in 1917, and he argued for greater involvement of the Dominions, not only in conduct of the war, but also in shaping the unpredictable post-war world. Up until this point, all policy decisions (with the exception of the quasi-autonomous Indian government) had been made by London. Out of this month long convention arose Lloyd George’s Imperial War Cabinet, which – in addition to the 5 British members - included the Prime Ministers of Canada, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa plus two representatives from India. It was at this conference that the term ‘Commonwealth’ was coined for the first time. It was indeed a pointer towards post-war changes.

The divisive tensions over conscription of the 1915 Coalition government were replaced by a commitment to national service. However, superimposing this on the voluntary system and Lord Derby’s half-way house scheme of the past two years was a challenge. Men previously rejected on health or occupation grounds were re-assessed against less stringent criteria, but there were many individuals left unhappy with decisions applied.

Even before the declaration of unrestricted warfare, the increased U-boat activity was hitting British imports hard. In February Lloyd George imposed restrictions on all imports not directly related to the war effort. In that month he announced government control over coal production – a move that would have been unthinkable two years earlier. Lord Devonport was appointed as National Food Controller to address the worsening shortage of grain, sugar and potatoes. Britain was in a much better position than Germany and Austria in this regard, but the prospect of escalating losses of shipping was a serious matter. Voluntary rationing was encouraged, as was maximising agricultural production on all types of open land.

Britain was running out of money as well as materials. In February Bonar Law, the new Chancellor, reported that in the current financial year, the daily cost of prosecuting the war had risen by nearly 20% to almost £6million per day (it would do so again in the next few months). His first budget in April projected an eye watering deficit, nearly three times higher than the projected total income. Matters were helped by a £100 million donation from the aforementioned Government of India, but it took a massive war bond scheme – the Four and a Half Percent War Loan (to which 8 million people subscribed) – to stump up the cash to keep Britain solvent. The USA’s entry to the war improved the outlook for later in the financial year.

With all these matters, and the enduring effects of the terrible losses in the Somme campaign, the British public appreciated that backs were being pushed towards the wall. This, and the increases in government control of production, meant that there was less industrial unrest than in the earlier stages of the war. However tensions remained, especially over the adoption of unskilled labourers and women into jobs previously protected as skilled trades. One strike by engineers involved a quarter of a million men, and many arrests.  Everyone was feeling the pressure.

Churchill writes glowingly of the PM's performance in these months. Although he was strongly supported by the press and public, Lloyd George had a lot to do to win the backing of parliament. He was head of a coalition, but not leader of a political party, and he had made numerous enemies en route to the top. At Churchill’s suggestion (sic) he convened a secret session of the House of Commons in May, and was able to win strong backing in a debate with frank exchanges about the realities of the war situation. Churchill lists Lloyd George's greatest achievements in this period as the Imperial War Cabinet; unified command of the Allies; the Atlantic convoy system, and the advances in Palestine (see subsequent posts for the last two).

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

1917 begins - hopes and fears

David Lloyd George - supreme politician.
His new government galvanised
a weary nation
As 1916 ticked over into 1917 peoples of the warring nations had conflicting emotions. On one hand the understandable fear that the war would drag on without closure was balanced on the other by the hope of some decisive initiative, breakthrough or collapse that would hasten its end. In Britain Lloyd George's new coalition government was led by a small and determined War Cabinet of five rather than Asquith's Cabinet of 23. His four fellow members were Andrew Bonar Law (Conservative) as Chancellor; Lord Curzon (ex-Viceroy of India) as Leader of the Lords; Arthur Henderson (Labour), without portfolio but lead for labour issues; and Lord Milner also without portfolio but a brilliant administrator. Within weeks radical proposals were put forward to improve the national position in army recruitment; production and distribution of foodstuffs; labour relations, and for effective nationalisation of mines and shipping. A gigantic loan was raised through war bonds, and Lloyd George set about organising the first Empire Conference, encouraging greater dominion leadership involvement. He was one of a number of new brooms around.

The widespread state of war weariness amongst the combatants made all sides ready to countenance harsh or radical measures to bring it to a solution. Politicians, military leaders and the peoples were ready to get behind schemes that carried some imprecise hopes of decisive victory.
Germany was now effectively a military dictatorship. Hindenburg and Ludendorff  had crushed most of the arguments against their all out victory approach. The younger Ludendorff was the more active, almost running the country on a day to day basis. The Kaiser was now no more than a figurehead. Once the Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg had played his final cynical diplomatic peace card, and the Allies had decisively rejected it, Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over. They moved to save resources on the Western Front by withdrawing to shortened positions – the Hindenburg Line. Once the diplomatic effort had failed, they then quickly decided to launch the threatened unrestricted U-boat warfare. This was an all out gamble to win the war by mid 1917, through strangling the British Empire into submission. Success here and (they argued) the rest of the Allies would fall like dominoes. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were advised by their experts that 3-4 months would prove sufficient to bring Britain to its knees with economic and military ruin, and starvation for the people. In retrospect it is hard to see why they were so confident about this – it was clearly wrong. Perhaps it was simply wishful thinking. A victory in such a short time would not allow the USA time to influence military events on the European continent, even if they entered the war on the Allied side. The German people were suffering the privations of the ‘turnip winter’, with food and fuel shortages taking them to the limits of their resilience. They blamed the ongoing British naval blockade for their suffering, and would gladly see the British people in the same position.

Meanwhile the allies had plans of their own to make a decisive breakthrough in the west and roll up the German forces. The promotion of Nivelle to replace Joffre as Western Front military supremo somehow convinced the French and British war cabinets that he could succeed in 1917 where Joffre and Haig hd been unsuccessful in 1915 and 1916. Nivelle argued persuasively - based on his recent successes at Verdun with improvements in artillery and infantry tactics – that this time a concerted attack on the large German salient in Artois and Champagne would succeed. This was not radical, but ambitious and fanciful. The British would attack Arras from the north, and the French would resume their attacks from the river Aisne (scene of the 1914 battle – see Post 27/12/14).
Lloyd George as War Minister in 1916, seen here with Haig and Joffre. His relationship
with Haig was difficult. He over-rode Haig's resistance to Joffre's successor Nivelle's plans for 1917
The British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had come to power partially on the promise of a decisive ‘knockout blow’ to bring the war to an end. He was quick to support Nivelle’s ideas, to the extent of undermining his own C-in-C, Douglas Haig, who was much more sceptical about the plans.

The Russian military leadership, still nominally under control of the Tsar, had agreed again to play their part by keeping the Eastern Front busy during the Anglo-French assaults, but their ability to do so was questionable. As we have seen in the previous blog (23/12/16) the storm clouds of revolution were very close. The radical solution of the most extreme revolutionaries was to exit Russia from the ‘imperialist’ war. This, of course, was deeply worrying to the Allies who were propping up Russia by shipping large amounts of material support (much of it American but paid for by Britain and France) to northern Russian ports.

All of this left Woodrow Wilson, President of the world’s most powerful non-combatant nation, in a precarious position. His own attempt to finesse the German peace proposal to an honest broker mediator role for himself in a negotiated peace, had fallen flat with the unanimous and decisive response of the Allies (see Post 19/12/2016). His advisers and intelligence services were warning him of the imminence of unrestricted submarine warfare, and he must have been preparing for the worst. However, it was to take an additional, quirky diplomatic blunder to tip the balance on the USA’s entry to the war, as we shall see in due course.