Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Russian Revolution 2: to end of March 1917

The year 1917 is remembered for two Russian revolutions – February and October. The February event was a true coup d’état, with the Tsar’s Duma government being replaced by a provisional government – a coalition of previously split factions of opposition. The October Revolution was the Bolsheviks’ definitive bid for power, and was followed by bitter and chaotic civil war.
Most of the world lost 13 days in 1582. Some,
including Russia declined the offer. 
For historical reasons, the Russian Empire ran its affairs according to the Julian Calendar (dating back to Julius Caesar’s time) whereas most of the world had adopted the Gregorian Calendar proposed by Pope Gregory in the 16th Century. The Russian Orthodoxy resisted such Catholic innovation, and it was not until its influence was lost after the Bolsheviks took power that Russia adopted the Gregorian version in February 1918. The practical difference between the two is 13 days i.e 1st February 1916 Julian is 14th February 1916 Gregorian. So, as it turned out, the February Revolution occurred in March, our time. Confusing.

Alexander Protopopov.
Last stooge of the Tsar and
(particularly) the Tsarina.
The Tsar’s final nominees for his Duma government proved no more acceptable to the opposition than their predecessors. Led by the unstable interior minister, Protopopov, the government suspended the Duma through January, and forbade the annual congress of the towns and 'zemstvos' delegates (the primitive local government structures throughout most of Russia). They diverted imports of British and American arms arriving at the northern ports to the rooftops and key positions in Petrograd as the rumbling of discontent in the capital grew louder.
In mid February an Allied delegation was visiting the city, including Lloyd George’s Minister, Lord Milner, and the French General Castelnau. The more moderate opposition leaders, including Miliukov appealed for calm, but Milner reported back that Revolution was inevitable though not, perhaps, immediately. The final straw broke the long-suffering Petrograd citizens backs when the bread rations failed.

Revolution day by day.
Thursday 8th March (23rd Feb Julian calendar). With fine weather and a clear blue sky overhead, the Duma was half-heartedly debating food shortages. News came that bakery shops had been looted in the poorer quarters, and that women and students were marching in protest in the government quarter.
Friday 9th March (24th Feb. JC). As the Duma convened with greater urgency, there were many more people on the streets, amongst a heavy presence of police and soldiers. While the people distrusted the police (and hated the secret police), they bantered good naturedly with the soldiers, who assured them they would not shoot at them, and they were just as hungry.

Good humour and non violence gave way to
stridency and tension.
Saturday 10th March (25th Feb. JC). Workers went on strike, swelling the numbers and disruption on the streets. Increasingly strident calls for the government to go replaced the banter about food shortages.
Sunday 11th March (26th Feb. JC). The government finally reacted- unhelpfully – by posting widespread proclamations that police would disperse all crowds forcibly. Shots were fired, and up to 200 civilians were killed. One of the regiments of the Imperial Guard mutinied. Word was sent to the Tsar at the front that ‘anarchy reigns’ in the streets and that he must act urgently. His response was to order suspension of the Duma, and that he would send forces to re-establish order. But the Duma refused to be suspended, instead electing a provisional executive committee, hailed as the sole constitutional authority of Russia.
Monday 12th March (27th Feb.JC). This was the day the Revolution finally exploded. The soldiers of the main Petrograd garrison, now numbering over 150,000 men refused their orders to move into the centre. There, the Household Troops elite group, the Preobrojenski Guards refused to fire on the protesters, instead shooting their officers. When reinforcements were sent in, they too mutinied. By 11am the Law Courts were on fire, and by early afternoon public buildings were occupied and prisoners en masse – many of them political – were being released from prisons. Documents from the offices of the secret police were burnt in the streets. Later that afternoon, the Duma elected twelve men to serve as the Provisional Government (PG) of Russia.
Tuesday 13th March (28th Feb.JC). The takeover had happened. Any of the Tsar’s forces reaching Petrograd promptly joined the people. However, a coup d’état in the capital meant little at this stage to the rest of Russia. News travelled slowly across the vast and disparate empire, and the Tsar was still officially in command of the army. Later that day a boost came with support in Moscow being indicated by cable messages.
Wednesday 14th March (1st March JC). With the coup d’état a fait accomplit in Petrograd (sic), The PG set about analysing its priorities - top of the list being the Tsar, still officially the monarch. However, an interesting and growing dynamic was the PG’s relationship with the masses on the street. As more and more soldiers joined the factory workers, the Council of Labour rapidly swelled to become the Council of Worker’s and Soldiers’ Delegates – or Soviet.
Thursday 15th March (2nd March JC). The Tsar had returned to his front HQ at Pskov (Oblast), having been barred by armed resistance en route to Petrograd. At 2am, in the presence of his senior generals, Russki and Brusilov, he resolved to abdicate. A phone call to the Duma confirmed that the PG would accept nothing less. Initially he was advised to abdicate in favour of his son, but he refused, and signed the statement in favour of his brother Grand Duke Michael. Miliukov announced the decision to the Duma that morning.
Grand Duke Michael.
Regent Monarch for
but a few hours.
The PG was in favour of a constitutional monarchy and minded to accept the offer, but when the news hit the streets the Soviet exploded in protest, demanding a republic. For some hours the fragile pact between the Duma and the Soviet was at risk. The PG of 12 members was without a natural leader, but the emerging favourite was the Siberian Lawyer, Alexander Kerensky. A staunch republican, he bravely entered the lion’s den of the Petrograd Soviet and debated passionately for a period of organisation and stability to enable the Revolution to succeed. He won the day, and the support of the Soviet, albeit at the cost of the Grand Duke’s regency. Later that night, a deputation (including Kerensky) delivered the news to the Grand Duke, urging him to renounce the Regency, and pass all constitutional power to the PG. He did so, and with that pen stroke the Romanov dynasty passed into history.

In one breathless week, a coup d’état had moved Russia from Empire to Republic. Given the size and influence of Russia, this revolution had been relatively bloodless. But, of course, severe haemorrhages were still to come. By late March, Kerensky was emerging as leader of the coalition PG, but he had to manage the Soviets - now springing up all over Russia – with their bewildering array of factions. Mensheviks; Bolsheviks; Social Revolutionary Party (of left, right or central persuasion offshoots) jostled with others in a furious revolutionary discourse. The peoples of the Russian Empire were only 44% ethnic Russians – the remainder comprising nearly 150 ethnicities incorporating nationalist views at all levels of maturity.
A successful coup, but there would be another revolution in 1917, and years of civil war and repression to follow.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Unrestricted submarine warfare: 1

Stower's portrait of the chilling reality of U-boat warfare
Within days of their proclaimed ‘victory’ at the Battle of Jutland, (see Post 4th June 2016) the German Naval leadership was clamouring for resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare (UUW). They were frustrated and effectively silenced by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s persuasive arguments on American neutrality. Tirpitz had resigned in protest, and although the Kaiser could over-rule the Chancellor, he balked at doing so. However, by late autumn 1916 circumstances had changed again. Not only had the Germans manufactured many more and better U-boats, increasing their capacity and reach (the 170 U boats now available could rotate in packs of 50 covering the busy Western approaches to England, south of Ireland) but the military leadership had passed in August from Falkenhayn to the forceful duet of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The duo acted as one, and were much more aggressive in pressuring the Kaiser to overrule Bethmann. Aside from Bethmann, the most persuasive voices against UUW were those of Jagow, the Foreign Minister, and of Bernstorff, the ambassador to the USA. Under severe pressure from Hindenburg, Jagow resigned on 22nd November 1916, and his Deputy Arthur Zimmermann, a chancer, was appointed to replace him. More of him later. Loss of this support and Bernstorff’s anxiety in Washington were the main drivers for Bethmann’s speech to the Reichstag on 9th December, which contained his disingenuous peace proposals (see Post 19th December 2016)). He was playing his last card, and the Kaiser persuaded 'Hinden-dorff' to await the outcome. When it was rejected by the Allies, and Holzendorff, the Chief of naval staff produced his memo almost guaranteeing victory within months, the approval was inevitable.

On 9th January 1917, a weary Bethmann boarded a train in Berlin to make his final pleas at the Kaiser’s Grand Headquarters in Southern Germany. When he arrived the next day, all his opponents had already arrived and he was presented with a fait accomplit . The Kaiser signed the Imperial Order for commencement of UUW on 1st February (they did not plan to inform the USA until 31st January). A shattered Bethmann held on to office, but resigned within months.

The British, particularly the Admiralty, were practically and temperamentally undercooked when it came to combating the U boat menace. The limited impact of the first brief episode of UUW in 1915 ( terminated by the outrage over the loss of the Lusitania- Post 17th November 2015) had, if anything, reinforced British disdain for this type of warfare.
Sir Henry Wilson. Appalled by
submarine warfare.
"Es ist nicht cricket"
This had been summarised by Sir Henry Wilson before the war as “Underhand, unfair, and damned un-English.” It wasn’t just submarines. The Germans, led by von Zeppelin and Tirpitz established a significant, if temporary, air superiority over the seas. At Jutland, Jellicoe was perfectly happy to leave at Scapa Flow the one prototype aircraft carrier that might have helped him locate Scheer’s fleet. The mindset of the navy was set at Nelsonian ‘elan’. “Attack, attack, defence is weakness’ – the reason why the prudent Jellicoe attracted so much (uninformed) criticism, and remarkably similar to the approach that brought catastrophe to Joffre’s army in the first weeks in 1914. It’s like one of those 11plus verbal reasoning questions I remember vaguely from years ago: 1914 French army is to Napoleon as 1914 Royal Navy is to? ……… Nelson.

The War Committee had considered some options during late 1916 to disable the U boat operations from bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge, but had no clear plans, and by the time U boat inflicted damage started to increase again in late 1916, the Admiralty realised it was ill prepared for what would be a much more formidable challenge. Its reputation had been ailing since the failure to produce that Nelsonian victory at Jutland, and it was decided the time was right for change at the top. Balfour was moved from First Lord to Foreign Secretary to replace Grey in the new Government. Sir Edward Carson, a man more popular with the Navy than the dour, distant Balfour, replaced him. He was described by Admiral Evan-Thomas (see Post 29th May 2016)  as a “bullet headed sort of cove who anyway looks you straight in the face which is more than those confounded politicians will, so perhaps he will suit us quite well”. Jellicoe was pulled (very reluctantly) from Scapa Flow to become First Sea Lord in place of Sir Henry Jackson, and this enabled the ambitious David Beatty to realise his dream as Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet.
Jellicoe, with his formidable organisational and administrative skills set about improving the co-ordination of defence against the U-boat threat. These were the deployment of barrages of mines, nets and other obstructions, and curious decoy craft known as Q-boats. These will be covered more in the subsequent post, but it would prove too little too late. Jellicoe’s major blind spot – which was shared by almost all conventional wisdom of the time – was a dismissive approach to convoy protection of merchant shipping.  Despite the use of convoys throughout the history of sea warfare (and an excellent record in protecting troopships and warships in WW1 to date) convoys were viewed as completely inappropriate for the protection of modern merchant ships by modern warships. Hubris? Nelsonian elan? Neither of these was likely in the case of humble, cautious Jellicoe, yet he was the most senior of many voices advising against convoys as protectors. A painful lesson had to be learned, and it would cost Jellicoe his position.
Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff
His detailed memo won over 

the Kaiser
Britain and her allies thus accepted the risks to merchant shipping, and felt they would prevail through increased production. They very nearly miscalculated fatally. The losses (in tonnage) per month began to climb again in late 1916, from a base of around 50,00 per month through to November when they exceeded 100,000. 
Holtzendorff’s prescription for victory in six months required 600,000 tons of lost shipping per month. In February 520,000 tons, in March 560,000, and in April 860,000 tons of losses made his predictions look realistic and terrifyingly close. Panic was abroad – in the Admiralty, in the Government and not far from the streets. Something had to be done.

Friday, 3 February 2017

The capture of Baghdad

General Maude enters Baghdad on horseback at
the head of his troops on 12 March 1917
As covered in the 1916 year end post (see 23/12/2016) a second and better planned advance by the British Army in Mesopotamia had begun. Stung by the humiliation and the tragedy of the siege of Kut (see Post 1/2/2016), honour was to be restored by Sir Stanley Maude’s leadership of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force (MEF). His force was 50,000 strong, comprising two Army Corps. By the end of December, the MEF, supported by better supplies and communication lines, had advanced to envelop Kut, and turn the tables on its Turkish garrison, which had only the river Tigris as an escape route to the north. Nevertheless, in conditions of widespread flooding from torrential rains it took several weeks of battling and manoeuvring for the MEF to take the city. A two-pronged approach was led by Lt. Gen. Cobbe VC on the right bank and Lt. Gen. Marshall on the left bank. Both army corps performed magnificently in dreadful conditions. On 24th February, just ten months after Townshend had spiked his guns and surrendered his garrison, Cobbe’s forces entered Kut, and the British gunboats were able to come upstream and anchor in the city.

From here, things moved rapidly. A pursuit by Marshall’s troops of the northwardly retreating Turks followed shortly. The terrain alongside the tortuous course of the Tigris upstream allowed for advances by British cavalry forces as well as the infantry – a rare occurrence in World War 1. The cavalry reached the river town of Laj on 5th March, and to the east the infantry took Zeur, seven miles south of Laj, and an eighteen miles march on the road from Kut. By 7th March they had reached Diala, nine miles south of Baghdad, where the tributary river Diala joins the Tigris. At this point the Turks made a determined stand to protect Baghdad, and fierce resistance to Marshall’s infantry was encountered. That night a furious dust storm incapacitated both sides. By morning the Turks had withdrawn and the British groped their way to Diala station. On the right bank, Cobbe’s forces had made good progress in parallel, prompting the Turks to abandon their defences there, and shortly after Baghdad itself. By mid morning Marshall entered the centre of Baghdad to a tumultuous welcome from the local population. British troops burst into the arsenal, where they found the guns spiked on Townshend’s orders ten months earlier.
If not a major strategic victory, this was a tremendous morale boost for the British, and more generally for the Allies. This was the first major city to be captured by any allied force. Most of all, for the British, after the shame of Gallipoli and Kut, this restored some of their prestige in the middle east, and lifted spirits at home (although Churchill makes no mention of it in The Great War).
Great credit was due to Maude, the Commander of the MEF since July 1916. Acting somewhat against the orders of Sir William Robertson (Chief of the Imperial General Staff and a staunch Western Front man), he had built up his forces for the campaign, encouraged by pro India politicians, especially Curzon, the previous Viceroy. When, in December 1916, Robertson changed his mind due to Russian success further north, Maude was ready to sweep into action.
Maude - 'liberator' of Baghdad
Sir Herbert Stanley Maude (not to be confused with Maude Stanley of Five Dials fame) was a quintessential upper class British officer, although more successful than most of his contemporaries. With a lineage extending back to the Norman Conquest, and a military father who won the VC at the Crimea, Maude excelled at both Eton, where he was cross-country champion, and at Sandhurst. He performed heroically in Autumn 1914 in Flanders, when he was injured and invalided to England; and at Gallipoli, where in December 1915 he was the last man to be evacuated from the ill fated landing at Suvla Bay (see Post 14/10/2015). His command of the technically challenging Baghdad campaign was exemplary. Sadly he did not live long to celebrate his achievements. Later in 1917 when leading actions towards Ramadi and Tikrit, he succumbed to a fulminating attack of cholera, and died suddenly at the age of 53 in November. An impressive statue of him in Baghdad as the city’s liberator from the Ottomans survived until a government coup in 1958 (see photo). He also has a memorial in the Brompton cemetery in London, alongside that of his father.

For Turkey, the loss of Baghdad was a crushing blow, signifying further shrinkage to its Ottoman Empire, and offering encouragement to an Arab revolt far to the south, where Lawrence of Arabia would grasp the British public’s attention within a few months.