Victory 1918by Alan Warwick Palmer, Alan Palmer
When an armistice was finally signed in the forest of Compiegne outside of Paris, the Great War had shuddered to an end, but not before it had been fought on three continents, three oceans, and nine seas. Studies of World War I tend to focus on the Western front, the muddy trenches of France and Belgium, which is particularly problematic considering the final year of the conflict, when offensives in the Balkans, the Middle East, Italy, and the West all ended with decisive victories for the Allied powers. Alan Palmer embraces the full scope of the war and illuminates many of the major players Allied generals Sir Douglas Haig, Sir Edmund Allenby, Ferdinand Foch, and John J. Pershing; Central Powers generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff; as well as David Lloyd George, Britain's prime minister. Victory 1918 is rife with tales of horrible misunderstandings such as the Austrian emperor Charles's appeal for peace on September 14, 1918, which was thought by the Allies to be a trick and, if taken seriously, could have saved as many as a quarter of a million lives. As he ably shifts between the diplomatic big picture and the local horrors of the trenches, Palmer presents the war in all its banality and valor.
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By Alan Palmer
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Alan Palmer
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Chapter OneWIDENING THE WAR
The British people went to war in 1914 with a firm clarity of intent and in expectation of early victory. The immediate occasion of hostilities for Europe as a whole might be an explosion of Balkan nationalism in distant Sarajevo, a protest at Austro-Hungarian 'colonization' of Bosnia, but that affair meant little in London. For the British public the enemy was, quite simply, the German Kaiser; his troops were on the march through 'brave little Belgium'; his High Seas Fleet challenged Britannia's divine right to rule the waves. A small expeditionary force would, it was assumed, cross the Channel and, alongside the armies of France and Belgium, push back the invader while the Royal Navy kept watch over home waters from Orkney to Dover and, more distantly, protected the 'lifelines of Empire' from ocean raiders. In the East the Russian steamroller would press forward relentlessly towards Berlin, and in the Balkans the Serbs could fight their own little war against an empire with whose ruler the British had no quarrel. Not one of fourteen conflicts in mainland Europe over the past hundred years had led to more than eleven months of continuous fighting; in most instances peace came even sooner. There seemed no reason in 1914 why established patterns should change.But it was as well to be cautious. 'It would not be safe to calculate the war lasting less than six months', the Cabinet had been told by the General Staff in a previous crisis. Now, as the armies mobilized, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War warned his colleagues that the struggle might continue for three years. 'That seemed to most of us unlikely, if not incredible', Sir Edward Grey later recalled. 'It will all be over by Christmas', people chose to believe.
But by Christmas the unfolding war made nonsense of such easy assumptions and patterns of expectation. The Russian steamroller became set in reverse gear in Poland; German cruisers, eluding close blockade, emerged from the mists of the North Sea to shell Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepool; the German Pacific Squadron, not the Royal Navy, gained the first victory at sea, a defeat avenged five weeks later but only after two battlecruisers detached from home waters reached the Falklands. But the greatest of shocks came, week after week, from the Western Front. For there the battles proved far more costly than the most pessimistic of forecasts. By the end of August 1914 the French had lost over 300,000 men, killed, wounded or missing as they sought to stem the German advance across Artois and Champagne while also persisting with long-cherished plans for an offensive to liberate Alsace and Lorraine. The momentum of the German thrust was blunted in early September by the series of interrelated actions along a 125-mile front which, by saving Paris, are remembered as the Miracle of the Marne. A British Expeditionary Force, originally comprising 150,000 men, had gone into action at Mons on 23 August. By the second week in November, when the Germans abandoned their first attempt to seize British-held Ypres, the BEF was reeling from the shock of 89,000 casualties in eighty-one days of fighting. As winter closed in on the exhausted armies a continuous static front ran from Belgium's North Sea coast, through flooded fields in Flanders and the shell-pitted Ypres Salient to Armentieres and the trenches of the Aisne and along the Chemin des Dames to the Argonne, the Meuse hills and around the Vosges down to the Swiss frontier. Over the next two and a half years this long entrenched line did not move as much as ten miles in either direction.
For Britain the strategic purpose of the war changed during the autumn months as drastically as did the character of the fighting. Hopes of standing aloof from the quarrels of central and eastern Europe were short-lived. The presence of token Austrian contingents along Germany's frontier with France led to declarations of war on Austria-Hungary from London and Paris before mid-August. Within hours of Austria becoming an enemy, however, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office was emphasizing to the Russian ambassador that the defeat of Germany remained the prime task, and 'it would be unfortunate if efforts to this end were diverted to side issues'. And so it long remained. Except for limited naval operations in the Adriatic, there was no direct confrontation between the Western Allies and Austria-Hungary during the remaining months of the year. The Serbs repelled three Austrian invasions of their kingdom; the Montenegrins remained secure in their mountain bastion; and the Russians, though thrown back by the Germans in the great plains of the Vistula basin, were able to reach the Carpathian passes before the snow fell, capturing Lemberg (then the fifth largest city in Austria-Hungary) and threatening Cracow. As yet there was no need for British or French intervention in eastern Europe. Briefly in August 1914 it seemed in London possible that the Ottoman Empire might remain at peace, despite the mounting German influence in Constantinople. The military mission led by General Liman von Sanders had for many months been working 'steadfastly and harmoniously for the Germanization of the Turkish army' (as the Kaiser's personal directive insisted), but there were already reports that the Ottoman officer corps resented 'German tyranny'. The British and French were better trading partners for the Ottoman Empire as a whole than were the Germans. Only a fortnight before war was declared on. Germany Ottoman bonds went on sale in London to finance further British enterprises on the Bosporus. A week earlier the Turkish Minister of Marine, Ahmed Djemal, was a guest observer at French naval manoeuvres. He then visited the Quai d'Orsay where he assured the French Foreign Minister that 'given the right conditions the Ottoman government "would orientate its policy towards the Triple Entente"'. Although Enver, the Ottoman War Minister, was regarded as a Germanophile, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had met him on two occasions and admired his qualities as a leader of the Young Turk reformers; and on 15 August he telegraphed directly to Enver counselling him in 'words of friendship' to safeguard Turkish interests 'by a strict and honest neutrality'. But Enver had already committed Turkey irrevocably to the German side, his final decision having been shaped by the First Lord's own actions; for on 1 August the news broke in Constantinople that Churchill had ordered the seizure and 'temporary' commissioning in the Royal Navy of two Turkish battleships newly completed on Tyneside; on 2 August, while the Turkish press railed against this evidence of 'English piracy', Enver secretly concluded an alliance treaty with Germany, providing for eventual action against Russia and guaranteeing Liman von Sanders 'an effective influence on the general direction of the [Ottoman] army'.
Soon the people of the Turkish capital were given visual evidence of German sympathy and support. As dusk fell on 10 August the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau, having evaded pursuit by the Royal Navy, entered the Dardanelles. Two days later, as both warships rode at anchor in the Sea of Marmara, they were sold to Turkey, with their German crews still aboard as 'instructors'. On 29 October these two warships and seven Turkish vessels, under German command but flying the Ottoman flag, left the Bosporus for exercises in the Black Sea in the course of which the squadron bombarded Odessa, Nikolaev and Sebastopol. Russia's response was to declare war on Turkey on 1 November. On that same Sunday two British destroyers sank a Turkish minelayer off Smyrna; on Monday morning, in the headwaters of the Red Sea, a British light cruiser shelled the Turkish fort at Aqaba and a landing-party destroyed the signals stations there; and for ten minutes on the Tuesday afternoon British warships shelled the southernmost forts on either side of the Dardanelles, with conspicuous success. 'We are now frankly at war with Turkey', Asquith casually noted next evening in a letter to his confidante, Venetia Stanley; a formal declaration followed on Thursday morning.
Thus the Entente allies drifted into a second war, parallel to the great conflict in France and Flanders and along Russia's western frontiers, but posing a different set of problems for their governments. If Sultan Mehmed V as Caliph proclaimed a jihad, an Islamic holy war against the Infidel, there was a risk of rebellion, not merely in the British Empire and British-occupied Egypt, but in French colonies across North Africa and the Tsar's possessions in central Asia as well. The team of specialist advisers left by Kitchener in Cairo - Ronald Storrs, Captain Gilbert Clayton (head of Military Intelligence), Sir Miles Cheetham (acting Consul-General) - sought to anticipate this danger by reminding their former chief of his contacts with Emir Abdullah, son of the Sherif Husseir, of Mecca. Kitchener telegraphed Storrs in the last week of September: he was to send a message to Abdullah asking whether, if Britain went to war with Turkey, 'he and his father and the Arabs of the Hedjaz would be with us or against us?'. But in talks with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary it became clear that Kitchener was not simply thinking of an armed revolt among the Arabs: the Sherif, as head of the Hashemite dynasty, was thirty-seventh in direct descent from the Prophet; this spiritual pedigree was more impressive than any Ottoman sovereign could claim. On 31 October, as the War Secretary was about to travel to Dunkirk for crucial talks with the French High Command over the German threat to the Channel ports, he found time to turn his thoughts to Mecca: 'It may be that an Arab of true race will assume the Khalifate at Mecca or Medina and so good may come by the help of God out of all the evil that is now occurring', Kitchener told Cheetham to let Sherif Hussein know. With such a prospect before him, no guardian of Islam's Holy Cities was likely to wage a religious war for the sake of an Ottoman sultan.
The call to jihad came from Constantinople, as predicted; though not until the Ottoman Empire had been at war for a fortnight. It made less impact than the Allied governments feared. A sultan-caliph did not enjoy the spiritual authority of a medieval pope: secularists responded more readily to political and economic inducements; the zealous Shi'ites of what are today Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan ignored all calls from a Sunni pretender; and many other strict Muslim communities hesitated to obey a Caliph who owed his throne to Young Turk modernizers like Enver and Djemal. Only the Senussi tribesmen along Egypt's border with Italian-held Libya and ex-Mahdists around Darfur in the Sudan were ready to answer the call to arms. In Egypt the British cut the last constitutional link between Constantinople and Cairo by deposing Mehmed V's subject ruler, Khedive Abbas Hilmi (who had gone to his palace on the Bosporus at midsummer), and proclaiming his uncle Hussein Kamil 'Sultan of Egypt'. At the same time Egypt became a British protectorate: Egyptians were assured that they would not be compelled to fight in campaigns against the Turks; and a cautiously phrased undertaking committed Egypt's new protectors to examine ways of advancing self-government. Of more immediate satisfaction to Egypt's peasants was a British move to protect the interests of the cotton producers, for whom war meant a loss of export markets, by purchasing the cotton crop, while also encouraging cereal production as a much needed and profitable alternative.
In London every issue concerning Egypt and the Arabs was automatically referred by Grey to the War Secretary for consideration and approval - the Middle East remained Kitchener's patch. The Foreign Office was dutifully informed of military decisions he was about to impose. No one as yet questioned them. To give his Omdurman companion-in-arms General Sir John Maxwell command in Egypt seemed natural. Soon an irreverent junior officer was to observe that Maxwell took 'the whole job as a splendid joke' and mixed 'a mysterious gift of prophesying what will happen' with 'a marvellous carelessness about what might happen', but the General had nearly twenty years' experience of Egypt and the Egyptians behind him and could write of problems and places and people in the language which the Secretary of State readily understood. Kitchener assumed he could also communicate directly with General Beauchamp Duff, Commander-in-Chief in India; in this command, ten years back, Kitchener had himself created a fighting force capable of defending the subcontinent and of providing men and material for expeditions overseas. But, within a few days of arriving at the War Office, Kitchener found to his surprise that the India Secretary (Lord Crewe) and the Viceroy (Lord Hardinge) frowned on such contact. A growl from the Field Marshal to General Duff that 'I do not think you quite realise in India what the war is going to be' was unlikely to ease mounting friction.
This dispute presaged strategic misunderstanding. British command in the Middle East was divided. The vital defence of the Suez Canal rested with the authorities in Cairo; the defence of Aden and its hinterland, and of the Persian Gulf (with its newly tapped oil resources) was the responsibility of the viceregal authorities in Bombay and of General Duff's headquarters at Simla. The Viceroy deplored any encouragement of rebellion in Ottoman lands, especially along the Tigris and Euphrates; Kitchener and Maxwell, on the other hand, would happily exploit Arab nationalism if it held out a prospect of local levies to discomfort the Turks and their German advisers. Militarily Simla moved faster than Cairo: 'Expeditionary Force D', two brigades from the 6th Indian Division, waited aboard the transport Dufferin off Bahrain until the outbreak of the Turkish War; then, escorted by HMS Ocean, an ageing battleship from the East Indies Squadron, and smaller vessels of lesser draught, Force D sailed up the Gulf and landed at Fao at the entrance to the Shatt-el-Arab on 6 November to safeguard the oil installations at Abadan. Brushing aside Turkish resistance, the expedition advanced upriver to take Basra within three weeks of the outbreak of war. Thus, with little reference back to London, Force D opened up the longest continuous peripheral campaign of the war. When, almost exactly four years later, the campaign ended in victory amid the oilfields around Mosul, more than 600 miles up the Tigris, 31,000 officers and men of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force had perished in battle or from disease or amid the privation of harsh captivity.
Excerpted from Victory 1918 by Alan Palmer Copyright © 1998 by Alan Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
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