Thursday, 19 February 2015

General situation at the end of 1914

Gand Duke Nicholas.
His end of year message suggested the
British should attack Turkey

1914 drew to a close after five tumultuous months of war since Austria- Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia. In terms of its duration, only 10% had passed and yet most of the major battles had been fought and many strategic dice had been cast. The major players took stock and reviewed their plans; and major players so far little involved reviewed their positions.
On 30th December the Russian Commander-in-Chief Grand Duke Nicholas proposed a British expedition against the Turks to ease the developing Russian situation in the Caucasus, and we will see in detail where this led in 1915.

The Western and Eastern Fronts had played out as described. Paris and the channel ports were saved; and there was a degree of stability on both main fronts. The British Army was being transformed by Kitchener’s efforts (and by the loss of so many of officers and men of the small professional army that started out as the BEF in August). By Christmas over 2 million men were under arms, either for home defence or foreign service.
The French spirit was intact following the defence of Paris and the consolidation of the Western Front. Joffre’s position was stronger than the politicians and he embodied the pride of France.
Russia had suffered badly in eastern front confrontations, but her immense reserves of men and territory still presented a massive threat to the central powers. (Buchan) "The statesman who marvelled at Russia’s apparent strength and exulted in her alliance, did not realise the she represented a stage of development wholly unlike that of Western nations…… Her mystic communism had no affinities with the shallow materialism and the capitalistic tyranny which had been the working creed of western Europe and the United States……… they forget that the humanity admired in Russian idealism might as easily have its roots in moral apathy and intellectual slovenliness as in divine wisdom and that qualities which may characterise the saint may also be an attribute of the mollusc." (as far as I can tell this was written before the Revolution of 1917, if so, prescient)

Although in a strong position militarily, Germany’s threat on the high seas was now limited to the North Sea and the U-boat campaign. In the medium to long term its position was difficult. Except through Scandinavia and Holland to the north, and Italy and Roumania to south and east, communications with the outer world were cut, and import of goods of all types was problematic.

Austria was reduced to a weak and inferior German partner with little autonomy in how she conducted her preferred approach to the war. She had to face the prospect of aggression from the south, in Italy, which had been part of an apparent triple alliance only months earlier.

Italy held an important strategic position on the flank of both Austria and Germany. Its membership of the Triple alliance dated back to 1881 and the Congress of Berlin, (which gave Cyprus to Britain and Tunis to France) but Italy was a new power, not naturally or historically linked with Austria or Germany. At the outbreak of war she had better relations with both Britain and France and her neutrality was not surprising. As Austria came under increasing pressure opportunism might push Italy into declaring for the Allies.

Romania and Bulgaria were smaller nations but potentially influential depending on the continuation, or not, of their neutrality. Both had had reversals of fortune during the first and second Balkan wars, and might move in either direction. Roumania had strong relations with Italy, and for the moment would follow Italy’s lead, and Bulgaria in turn would likely follow Roumania – but nothing was certain, and Bulgaria’s king was pro German. As we have seen the entry of Turkey into the war had raised the tension in the Balkan theatre

Across the Atlantic, the USA had started the war period with an avowedly neutral stance, and President Wilson worked hard to emphasise this. Despite large German and American Irish sympathies, the majority American opinion was more supportive of the allies than the central powers, but it seemed unlikely that any important intervention would come from the USA, although large numbers of Empire Canadians were flocking to the British army’s cause.

Naval Situation December 1914
Apart from the successful transport of the BEF to France in August, the Royal Navy’s first few months had brought more frustration and embarrassment than success. The hapless pursuit of the Goben and Breslau ended in their escape to the Black Sea where they caused severe damage to the allies - physically and diplomatically. The Battle of Coronel off South America's tip brought Britain’s first defeat in a major naval action in over 100 years, albeit swiftly revenged at the Battle of the Falklands. The sinking by German mines of the ‘super-dreadnought’ battleship HMS Audacious off Donegal on 27th October was such an embarrassment that news of it was suppressed until after the war.

The last minutes of HMS Audacious.
Censorship of press and official information was so strict, that the
loss of a major capital ship in home waters was suppressed for years

In home waters during November and December 1914, there was great uncertainty about the intentions of the Germans. Jellicoe, as C-in-C, was very cautious, and at odds with Fisher and Churchill at the Admiralty re his dispositions. There were also continuing anxieties about a German invasion during November, and defensive preparations were made all along the East Coast.

16th December saw a naval bombardment of Hartlepool and Scarborough. The British set out to trap the four responsible German battleships in a pincer movement from north and south as soon as they heard about it. Bad weather supervened, and in mist the Germans made an improbable retreat. In fact, this action came close to a major sea battle, since the German battle cruisers were the vanguard of von Ingelhohl’s High Sea Fleet near the Dogger Bank; but von Ingelhohl turned tail and ran back to Cuxhaven when the fleets were only a few miles apart. The whole event was another PR embarrassment for the Admiralty, but was of no strategic significance. 

There will be short pause in these blogs before we move on to cover the events of 1915

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Turkey and the Caucasus are drawn into the war

Ceremonial Declaration of War on the Entente
by the Ottoman Empire November 13th 1914 

 To the east of the power blocs of Europe - the triple alliance and the triple entente - the continental land mass stretched away through Turkey and the Balkans and on to the middle east and the Caucasus. For the previous 600 years most of this land had been part of the Ottoman Empire, or at least under its influence. Like its opponent the Habsburg Empire, the Ottoman was in long term decline, and by the outset of the War effectively comprised only the nation of TurkeyWith its differing relationships across the patchwork of  Balkan and Caucasus nations, Turkey's stance was viewed as of strategic importance by all the great powers.  Most of the smaller nations were either strongly pro-German or pro-Entente. Turkey was more ambivalent but was always likely to be anti-Russian, given Russia's longstanding designs on Constantinople as the gateway to Mediterranean for its fleet and trade. The Young Turks, who had taken control in 1909, were anti-Islam, anti-National and politically unscrupulous. Britain had an uneasy relationship with Turkey because of its geographical position vis a vis the empire. Churchill was there in 1911 to build alliances and meet the Young Turks, led by Enver Pasha who was avowedly pro-German. Although he had little time for them, Churchill did commit Britain to building and supplying two Dreadnought battleships. This arrangement was to have profound consequences in the build up to war when the British felt compelled to impound the ships just as they were about to launched from Newcastle.

The Balkan wars of 1912-13 had pitted Turkey against Greece, and it was difficult to see them declaring for the same side in the great conflict now engulfing the continent. Also key was the role of Bulgaria, which did most of the heavy and successful fighting in Turkey in the first Balkan war, only to see Greece and Serbia take the territory it had gained. Bulgaria attacked them in response, allowing a Turkish counter attack in the second Balkan war, and an incursion into northern Bulgaria by Roumania. At the end of the second Balkan war, Bulgaria was left as a brooding, bitter, threatening neutral party, led by its influential (and Germanophile by family links) King, Ferdinand.
 18th August, at the outbreak of the war, the Ottoman government declared neutrality. On 19th August, Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister, put all his country’s resources at the disposal of the Entente. Churchill and others were keenly in favour, seeing this as a way of getting Greece, Serbia, Roumania and Bulgaria on side, as in any case it seemed likely that Turkey would drift to Germany. At that stage such a group could easily take the Gallipoli peninsula and protect the Dardanelles for the Allies. Grey, however, did not want to accept the Greek offer – he preferred to keep Turkey (and the region in general) as neutral. There was a lot of prevarication on all sides, but it was later discovered that a secret Turco-German treaty had been signed as early as 2nd August.

On 28th September, Turkey closed the Dardanelles to naval traffic. These were vital for Russian commerce and for communications between the Western Allies and Russia. By this time two battle cruisers of the German fleet - the Goben and Breslau - were safely in the Black Sea, having escaped a prolonged British Navy pursuit in the first days of the war. This highly embarrassing episode arose by combination of vacillation and incompetence by the Fleet, and heads had rolled.  
On the 19 October, Goben and Breslau were donated by Germany to the Ottoman Navy, thereby compensating them for the refusal of Britain to release the two commissioned Dreadnoughts. The German crews stayed with the ships, and on 29th October bombarded the Black Sea ports of Sebastopol and Theodosia. The Grand Vizier expressed regret to Allies for the unsanctioned operations of the Navy, but this was the final straw for Russia. They declared war, and despite diplomatic activity, on 5th November the United Kingdom and France also declared war on the Ottoman Empire. On 14 November, the Ottoman majority government, following a very public ceremony on 13th (pictured above) stated a "declaration of existence of the war". An ever present source of antagonism to Britain and its allies during this time was General Liman von Sanders, a German adviser to the Turkish army. He would bring much more suffering to the Allies the following year. 

Tsar Ferdinand I of
Bulgaria. Pro German
and angry
The first action anticipated after declaration of war was against Suez by the Turks. There were great movements of the British Fleet from India to Suez – easier now that German surface raiders had been dealt with. Also the great convoy of ANZACS arrived in Egypt, via the Red Sea. In these months from August to November, so many seeds had been sown for the inevitable failure of the Dardanelles campaign that was to follow in early 1915. 

The Caucasus
Enver Pasha
Leader of the Young Turks
 Another front now started to open up in December in the east, where Enver Pasha was determined to lead an assault against the relatively weak Russian border forces. Leading 150,000 Turks, he invaded the Caucasus against 100,000 Russians, just as the winter was setting in.  It became a disaster. Stuck in the mountains in mid winter, and unable to progress against well defended Russian positions the Turks became stranded. By the New Year they were dying in their thousands from starvation and exposure. 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The fate of Serbia

The pot-pourri of peoples comprising Austria-Hungary
Not surprising there was such instability

One answer to my rhetorical question re Poland in the previous blog might be Serbia. Serbia suffered dreadfully during the first world war and on many occasions since but, unlike Poland, was not blameless in the long sequence of events leading up to WW1. Serbia, as a small nation striving for autonomy for the southern Slav peoples had been exhausted and weakened by the first and second Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, and yet had to face the onslaught of Austria, fuelled by righteous indignation after the assassination in Sarajevo, in the very opening phases of the war in late July. Following the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 Serbia had to beware of its southern and eastern borders where Bulgaria, Greece and Albania all had designs on its newly gained territories. In July 1914, against all expectations, the Serbs routed the Austrians in the first exchanges, but then followed another of WW1's see saw struggles. Once Austria had benefited from significant German reinforcements, the Serbian nation suffered terribly in the forced winter retreats through the mountains towards the Adriatic sea, and its misery continued through 1915 to the end of the war.

Although all had expected Serbia to be destroyed quickly by Austria, this had not happened. The Serbs even advanced into Bosnia in Autumn 1914 to strike at Sarajevo, but at this point the Austrians re-established control and sent them back into Serbia – to Valjevo and the river Kolubara. The Austrian public demanded revenge for the earlier humiliations, and the Austro-German strategy of gains in the east - to create a corridor through to the Aegean sea - meant that German strength was added to the Austrian forces.

Potiorek - previously
nominated as one of the
failures of WW1
Initial success for Potiorek, commander of the Austrians, opened up the possibility of advancing to Belgrade and seizing the railway that opened up the route to Turkey. The Serbian Crown Prince’s army was completely dwarfed by the wide sweep of the Austrian advances from rivers Danube, Sava and Drina, and was forced to retreat into the mountains to the south east. Yet again Potiorek misjudged events with disastrous consequences. He decided that the retreat of the Serbians to the mountains marked the end of any effective resistance. He detached three of his army corps to leave Serbia and join the fighting in Galicia.  The Austrians actually entered Belgrade, but they were weakened and exhausted, and vulnerable to a Serbian counter-stroke. Their offensive plan was to move on south east with a pincer movement to enclose the Serbian army, and they moved to cover the line between Mladenovatz and Ushitza on 1st December. They advanced into a trap, and a fierce and desperate Serbian counter attack came on 3rd December, all along the front. By dawn on 6th the Austrians were routed and in full retreat north and west to Austria and Hungary, even beyond their own borders.
(Buchan):On the 15th the capital was retaken, and while the Austrian rearguard was fighting in the northern suburbs, King Peter was on his knees in the cathedral giving thanks for victory.

Of the 200,000 Austrians who crossed the Drina and Sava, not 100,000 returned. The disaster was indeed for Austria what Tannenberg had been for Russia: it virtually destroyed a field army. Potiorek was removed (finally) from his command, and all talk of the conquest of Serbia by Austria alone died away.
Sadly for Serbia, strengthened central powers forces would return and force them into the nightmare retreat back across the mountains that effectively finished the country as a theatre of war. (Wikipedia)The Serbian Army declined severely towards the end of the war, falling from about 420,000 at its peak to about 100,000 at the moment of liberation. The Kingdom of Serbia lost more than 1,100,000 inhabitants during the war (both army and civilian losses), which represented over 27% of its overall population and 60% of its male population. These figures are not matched by any other country.