Quotulatiousness

August 19, 2014

The Prime Minister’s statement on the 72nd anniversary of Operation Jubilee

Filed under: Cancon, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:51

It was a bloody shambles, but we still remember the bravery and sacrifice of the troops who went ashore at Dieppe in 1942:

On August 19, 1942, nearly 5,000 Canadian troops, along with British and American Allies, undertook a raid on Dieppe to test new equipment, probe the strength of German defences and gain the experience necessary for a larger amphibious assault.

The majority of the forces that attacked that day at five different points along the 16 km front encountered stiff resistance, unexpected obstacles, and a well-entrenched, well-prepared enemy. The Canadians fought on, through machine gun fire, mortar barrages, and sniper and air attacks.

The lessons learned at Dieppe and subsequent landings proved invaluable for the D-Day invasion and were instrumental in saving countless lives on June 6, 1944. Sadly, the Raid on Dieppe came at a steep price for Canadian participants, with 916 making the ultimate sacrifice and 1,900 taken as prisoners of war.

On this solemn day, let us remember the courage and sacrifice of the thousands of Canadians who fought with bravery and determination at Dieppe to free Europe from Nazi tyranny and ensure the peace and freedom that we enjoy today.

Lest we forget.

August 18, 2014

Another look at the Ross Rifle, initial Canadian infantry weapon of WW1

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:11

Last year, I posted a video by Lickmuffin, showing his recently acquired Ross Mark III, a “sporterized” version of the model that equipped the First Canadian Division when it took the field in France in 1915. Yesterday, David Pugliese revisited the Ross controversy in the Ottawa Citizen:

When soldiers in the throes of battle discard their rifles and pluck a different weapon from the hands of dead allies, there’s clearly a serious problem, writes John Ward of the Canadian Press news service.

So it was with the Ross rifle, the weapon that Canadian soldiers took with them to the start of the First World War a century ago.

More from Ward’s article:

It was the brainchild of Sir Charles Ross, a wealthy Scottish-born engineer and inventor who offered it to the Canadian government as a military firearm well before the war began.

To Sir Sam Hughes, Canada’s minister of militia — defence minister in modern parlance — at the time, the Canadian-built Ross was highly accurate and the perfect tool for his soldiers, whom he saw as frontier marksmen.

But troops, some of whom sneered at the rifle as “the Canadian club,” soon discovered the Ross was not suited to dirty, rough-and-tumble trench warfare. They preferred the robust Lee-Enfield carried by their British comrades, picking them up from the battlefield when they could.

The .303-calibre, straight-pull Ross was longer than the Lee-Enfield, a problem in the cramped confines of the trenches. It was heavier, too, and in a day when infantrymen were over-burdened, any extra weight was unwelcome. When fired with its bayonet attached, it tended to shed the bayonet.

The Ross was also susceptible to jamming from dust and dirt and was very finicky about the quality of ammunition. The carefully machined cartridges made by the Dominion Arsenal worked fine, but not so the mass-produced British ammunition, which could vary in size beyond the Ross’s fine tolerances.

Further, it was easy to reassemble the Ross bolt incorrectly. Even when misassembled, the bolt would fit in the rifle and even chamber and fire a cartridge, only to slam back into the rifleman’s face — unheard of for most bolt-action rifles.

David Pugliese also linked to this Forgotten Weapons video, which investigates the best known failing of the Ross in combat:

Published on 16 Jun 2013

There is a long-standing urban legend about the Canadian Ross rifle, a straight-pull bolt action that was used in lieu of the SMLE by Canadian troops early in World War One. The story is that the Ross would sometimes malfunction and blow the bolt back into its shooter’s face, with pretty horrible results. Well, I wanted to learn “the rest of the story” – could this actually happen? What caused it? How could it be prevented? In short, what would a Ross shooter need to know to remain safe? And if I could get some cool footage of a bolt blowing out of a Ross in the process, all the better.

Well, reader Andy very generously provided a sporterized Ross for the experiments, and I started reading into what the issue really was. Turns out that the legend was quite true – you can put a Ross MkIII bolt together the wrong way, and it will allow you to fire without the locking lugs engaged, thus throwing the bolt back out of the gun at high velocity. However, the issue was recognized fairly quickly, and the vast majority of Ross rifles were modified with a safety rivet to prevent this from happening. It is also quite easy to determine if a Ross is assembled correctly, once you know what to look for.

August 16, 2014

The downfalls of ceremonial guard duties

Filed under: Humour, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Anyone who’s spent time in uniform can probably identify with the victims of gravity, equine misbehaviour, and cussed bad luck in this collection of military pratfalls during ceremonial duties.

H/T to Roger Henry for the link.

August 14, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part ten of a series)

Filed under: Africa, Britain, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

We’re edging ever close to the start of the Great War (no, I don’t know exactly how many more parts this will take … but we’re more than halfway there, I think). You can catch up on the earlier posts in this series here (now with hopefully helpful descriptions):

  1. Why it’s so difficult to answer the question “Who is to blame?”
  2. Looking back to 1814
  3. Bismarck, his life and works
  4. France isolated, Britain’s global responsibilities
  5. Austria, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan quagmire
  6. The Anglo-German naval race, Jackie Fisher, and HMS Dreadnought
  7. War with Japan, revolution at home: Russia’s self-inflicted miseries
  8. The First Balkan War
  9. The Second Balkan War

The Balkans were the setting for two major wars among the regional powers (Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Rumania, and the Ottoman Empire), but the wars had not spread to the rest of the continent. This run of good luck was not going to last much longer. We turn our attention to Britain, France, and Russia … as unlikely a set of allies as you’d find in the 1880s, now in the process of discovering a common threat in Europe.

Sir Edward Grey and Britain’s progress from “splendid isolation” to official ambivalence

The British government had spent most of the previous century staying out of continental disputes, only rarely becoming politically or militarily involved. Late in the nineteenth century, this began to change, and Britain started paying closer attention to what was happening on the continent and moving slowly toward re-engagement. While the British and the French had spent more time as enemies or as mutually distrustful neutrals, France was now looking across the Channel for much more than mere neutrality.

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary 1905-1916

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary 1905-1916

A key figure in negotiating Britain’s relationship with France was Sir Edward Grey, who was Foreign Secretary from 1905 onwards (despite the minor difficulty of speaking no other languages and having no interest in visiting other countries). In retrospect, the degree of freedom he was allowed in this role is amazing, especially as he didn’t seem to think he was required to let the prime minister, the cabinet, or parliament know what he was doing until he’d arranged things largely to his own satisfaction. Huw Strachan assigns most of the responsibility for the deepening relationship with France to Grey:

Sir Edward Grey had become foreign secretary on the formation of the Liberal government in December 1905, and remained in post until the end of 1916, so becoming the longest-serving holder of the post. Sir Edward brought diplomatic gravitas to his work in 1914. He had already convened the meeting of ambassadors that had contained and concluded the two Balkan wars of 1912-13. When the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28 prompted a third Balkan crisis, it seemed unlikely to have any direct effect on British interests, but Sir Edward might still prove central to its resolution. If the “concert of Europe”, the international order created in 1814-15 after the Napoleonic wars, still had life, the foreign secretary was the person best placed to animate it.

Sir Edward’s qualifications for such responsibility were of recent coinage. Notoriously idle as a young man, he had been sent down from Oxford, but returned to get a third in jurisprudence. He entered politics as much through Whig inheritance as ambition. He spoke no foreign language and, when foreign secretary, never travelled abroad – or at least not until he had to accompany King George V to Paris in April 1914. He seemed happier as a country gentleman, enjoying his enthusiasms of fishing and ornithology. His first wife increasingly refused to come to London, remaining at Fallodon, the family seat in Northumberland. Their life together was chaste and childless, but not unaffectionate.

Soon after becoming Foreign Secretary, Grey was careful to assure Russian ambassador Count Alexander Benckendorff that he wanted a closer and less fraught relationship with St. Petersburg. Britain’s long-running dispute with the expanding Russian Empire in Asia stood in the way of any co-operation between the two great powers: the “Great Game” across central Asia had been in progress for nearly a century and neither side trusted the other. British concerns that any advance of Russian interests across that vast swathe of land were part of long term plans to destabilize the Indian frontier and eventually to absorb India. Whether these fears were realistic is beside the point: they had driven Raj policy in India despite the low chance of them turning into actual dangers. The disagreements were partially settled with the Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907, where both Russian and British regional interests were codified:

Formally signed by Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, and Sir Arthur Nicolson, the British Ambassador to Russia, the British-Russian Convention of 1907 stipulated the following:

  1. That Persia would be split into three zones: A Russian zone in the north, a British zone in the southeast, and a neutral “buffer” zone in the remaining land.
  2. That Britain may not seek concessions “beyond a line starting from Qasr-e Shirin, passing through Isfahan, Yezd (Yazd), Kakhk, and ending at a point on the Persian frontier at the intersection of the Russian and Afghan frontiers.”
  3. That Russia must follow the reverse of guideline number two.
  4. That Afghanistan was a British protectorate and for Russia to cease any communication with the Emir.

A separate treaty was drawn up to resolve disputes regarding Tibet. However, these terms eventually proved problematic, as they “drew attention to a whole range of minor issues that remained unsolved”.

Anglo-Russian spheres of influence in Persia, 1907 (via Wikipedia)

Anglo-Russian spheres of influence in Persia, 1907 (via Wikipedia)

While the convention did not resolve every outstanding issue between the two imperial powers, it smoothed the path to further negotiations on European issues. One of the things the two had to consider was the expansion of German activity in Ottoman territory, especially the Baghdad Railway project, which threatened to extend German influence deep into the oil producing regions of Mesopotamia just as Britain was contemplating switching the Royal Navy from coal to oil. German engineers and financiers had already proven their worth to the Ottomans by building the Anatolian Railway in the 1890s, connecting Constantinople with Ankara and Konya.

Vernon Bogdanor’s recent History Today article explains Grey’s role in bringing Britain into the war alongside the French and Russians:

The growth of German power posed a challenge to an international system based on the Concert of Europe, developed at the Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon, whereby members could call a conference to resolve diplomatic issues, a system Britain, and particularly the Liberals in government in 1914, were committed to defend. Sir Edward Grey had been foreign secretary since 1905, a position he retained until 1916, the longest continuous tenure in modern times. He was a right-leaning Liberal who found himself subject to more criticism from his own backbenchers than from Conservative opponents. In his handling of foreign policy his critics alleged that Grey had abandoned the idea of the Concert of Europe and was worshipping what John Bright had called ‘the foul idol’ of the balance of power. They suggested that he was making Britain part of an alliance system, the Triple Entente, with France and Russia and that he was concealing his policies from Parliament, the public and even from Cabinet colleagues. By helping to divide Europe into two armed camps he was increasing the likelihood of war.

On his appointment in December 1905 Grey had indeed maintained the loose Anglo-French entente of 1904, which the Conservatives of the previous government had negotiated. He extended that policy by negotiating an entente with France’s ally, Russia, in 1907. In 1905 France was embroiled in a conflict with Germany over rival claims in Morocco. The French had essentially said to Lord Lansdowne, Grey’s Conservative predecessor: ‘Suppose this conflict leads to war – if you are to support us, let us consult together on naval matters to consider how your support can be made effective.’ The Conservatives had responded that, while they would discuss contingency plans, they could not make any commitments.

Grey continued the naval conversations and extended them to include military dialogue. He informed the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, and two senior ministers of these talks, but not the rest of the Cabinet. Nevertheless, Britain could not be committed to military action without the approval of both Cabinet and Parliament. In November 1912, at the insistence of the Cabinet, there was an exchange of letters between Grey and the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, making it explicit that Britain was under no commitment, except to consult, were France to be threatened. In 1914, furthermore, the French never suggested that Britain was under any sort of obligation to support them, only that it would be the honourable course of action.

Romancing the bear, romancing the lion: France breaks out of imposed isolation

As I discussed back in part four of this series, the French had been left diplomatically isolated in Europe by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, but that began to change as Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne and started imposing his will on German foreign policy. French money opened opportunities for French diplomacy, to the long-term benefit of French security. The Franco-Russian alliance was signed in 1894, signifying the end of French encirclement (Bismarck’s policy) and the start of German encirclement (Kaiser Wilhelm’s nightmare).

Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1904 French postcard: a celebration of the signing of the Entente Cordiale. (via Wikipedia)

Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1904 French postcard: a celebration of the signing of the Entente Cordiale. (via Wikipedia)

Anglo-French diplomatic efforts took longer to come to fruition, but by 1904, the Entente Cordiale was more than just a pleasant diplomatic nicety, although it fell short of the full alliance France had hoped for. Among other things, the agreement traded French acceptance of Britain’s position in Egypt for British acceptance of France’s position in Morocco, along with some border adjustments in west Africa, fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland, and other issues. The Entente also allowed the two great powers to avoid being involved in the Russo-Japanese War (discussed in part seven), where they were each allied to the opposing powers. Each side saw the agreement in rather different terms, with the French believing it was the next best thing to an alliance, but as British foreign ministry staffer Eyre Crowe expressed it: “The fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content.”

French public opinion was still ambivalent at best about Britain — the PR and humanitarian disaster that was the Boer War had only just faded from the headlines, and there was still much resentment over the Fashoda incident — but the French government recognized the importance of gaining British support (and the British government was conscious of how low their international reputation had gone). Huw Strachan:

The previous Conservative government had in 1895 moved from “splendid isolation” to embrace the need to form alliances. But it was Sir Edward who narrowed these options by excluding the possibility of a deal with Germany. As a Liberal Imperialist, concerned by the evidence of British decline in the South African war, Sir Edward increasingly fixed Britain to France and then to Russia. The latter relationship may have looked frayed by 1914, but that with France was buttressed by military and naval talks. The result was not so much a balance of power in Europe as the isolation of Germany.

Moroccan crises and using the Kaiser as a bargaining chip

The First Moroccan Crisis of 1905-6 was a potential flashpoint between the Entente Cordiale and the German Empire. Germany was hoping to split the Entente or at least to gain territorial concessions in exchange for a resolution. Kaiser Wilhelm was on a cruise to the Mediterranean and had been intending to bypass Tangier, but the situation was manipulated by the Foreign Office in Berlin so that he eventually felt he had to put in an appearance. In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan describes the scene:

Although Bülow had repeatedly advised him to stick to polite formalities, Wilhelm got carried away in the excitement of the moment. To Kaid Maclean, the former British soldier who was the sultan’s trusted advisor, he said, “I do not acknowledge any agreement that has been come to. I come here as one Sovereign [sic] paying a visit to another perfectly independent sovereign. You can tell [the] Sultan this.” Bülow had also advised his master not to say anything at all to the French representative in Tangier, but Wilhelm was unable to resist reiterating to the Frenchman that Morocco was an independent country and that, furthermore, he expected France to recognize Germany’s legitimate interests there. “When the Minister tried to argue with me,” the Kaiser told Bülow, “I said ‘Good Morning’ and left him standing.” Wilhelm did not stay for the lavish banquet which the Moroccans had prepared for him but before he set off on his return ride to the shore, he found time to advise the sultan’s uncle that Morocco should make sure that its reforms were in accordance with the Koran. (The Kaiser, ever since his trip to the Middle East in 1898, had seen himself as the protector of all Muslims.) The Hamburg sailed on to Gibraltar, where one of its escort ships accidentally managed to ram a British cruiser.

Tension rose so high that both Germany and France were looking to their mobilization timetables (France cancelled all military leave and Germany started moving reserve units to the frontier) before the diplomats were able to agree to meet at the conference table rather than the battlefield. The Algeciras Conference lasted from January to April, 1906, and the French generally had the better of the negotiations (with support from Britain, Russia, Italy, Spain, and the United States) while the Germans found themselves supported only by the Austro-Hungarian delegation. France ended up making a few token concessions, but overall retained their position in Morocco.

The Agadir Crisis of 1911 was the second incident in Morocco, where Germany tried a little bit of literal gunboat diplomacy with the gunboat SMS Panther. The port of Agadir was closed to foreign trade, but the Panther (and later the light cruiser SMS Berlin) was sent to “protect German nationals” in southern Morocco from rebel forces. A minor problem turned out to be that there were no conveniently threatened Germans in the region. Margaret MacMillan:

The Foreign Ministry only got round to getting support for its claim that German interests and German subjects were in danger in the south of Morocco a couple of weeks before the Panther arrived off Agadir, when it asked a dozen German firms to sign a petition (which most of them did not bother to read) requesting German intervention. When the German Chancellor, Bethmann, produced this story in the Reichstag he was met with laughter. Nor were there any German nationals in Agadir itself. The local representative of the Warburg interests who was some seventy miles to the north started southwards on the evening of July 1. After a hard journey by horse along a rocky track, he arrived at Agadir on July 4 and waved his arms to no effect from the beach to attract the attention of the Panther and the Berlin. The sole representative of the Germans under threat in southern Morocco was finally spotted and picked up the next day.

France reacted to the German provocation, despite efforts by Sir Edward Grey to restrain them: eventually he recognized that “what the French contemplate doing is not wise, but we cannot under our agreement interfere”. German public opinion, on the other hand, was ecstatic:

After its setbacks earlier on in Morocco and in the race for colonies in general, with the fears of encirclement in Europe by the Entente powers, Germany was showing that it mattered. “The German dreamer awakes after sleeping for twenty years like the sleeping beauty,” said one newspaper.

[...]

In Germany, public opinion, which had been largely indifferent to colonies ten years earlier, now was seized with their importance. The German government, which was already under considerable pressure from those German businesses with interests in Morocco, felt that it had much to gain by taking a firm stand. [...] The temptation for Germany’s new Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Holweg, and his colleagues to have a good international crisis to bring all Germans together in support of their government was considerable.

Eventually, after negotiations, France and Germany signed the Treaty of Fez, which granted France Germany’s recognition of her rights in Morocco in exchange for ceded French territory in French Equatorial Africa (which was annexed to the existing German colony in Togoland), including direct access to the Congo River. In addition, Spain was granted rights to a portion of northern Morocco which became Spanish Morocco.

Not part of the treaty terms, but of rather greater significance in the near future, France and Britain agreed to share responsibility for the naval defence of France: the Royal Navy took on the responsibility for defending the north coast of France, while the French navy redeployed almost all ships to the western Mediterranean with the explicit agreement to defend British interests in the region.

I’m finding each successive part of this blog series to be taking longer to put together, and not from a lack of material! I’m hoping to have the next installment posted sometime this weekend or early next week.

August 11, 2014

QotD: The decay of the profession of arms

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Military, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

We lecture the [West Point] cadets on professionalism but we practice bureaucracy. To summarize the difference, professional cultures debate, discuss, and continually innovate to stay effective in the changing world. Bureaucracies churn out ever-restrictive rules and seek to capture every eventuality in codified routines.

Consider this: From day one at the academy every possible situation that a cadet could conceivably encounter is accounted for by strict regulations. Not sure how many inches should be between your coat hangers, whether you can hold your girlfriend’s hand on campus, or how your socks should be marked? Consult the regulations. Moreover, all activity is subjected to the cadet performance system, which essentially assigns a grade to every measurable event in a cadet’s life (think shoe shines, pushups and pop quizzes) then ruthlessly ranks the entire class from first to last. Cadets at the top of the list get the jobs and postings they want after graduation. Those near the bottom end up driving trucks at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The result is two-fold: First, cadets have very little experience adapting to unfamiliar environments. After all, what happens when the regulations don’t describe what’s going on around you? Second, cadets devote zero attention to activities that “don’t count.” If it’s not on the syllabus, and it’s not for a grade, the cadets aren’t learning it. Ask a cadet to spend a few minutes writing up a list of the skills, traits, and knowledge that he wishes he’d have when he finally takes over his first platoon in combat. Then compare this to his four-year curriculum and summer training plans. There will be surprisingly little overlap between the two lists, and the cadet has neither the time nor the incentive to learn what’s missing. In the end, we graduate far too many cadets that are more bureaucrat than professional, lacking the expert knowledge of their trade and the flexibility to be effective in the complex environments they’ll soon encounter.

Major Fernando Lujan, U.S. Army, quoted in “West Point faculty member worries it is failing to prepare tomorrow’s officers”, Foreign Policy, 2010-06-11

Canada’s Special Forces

Filed under: Cancon, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

CANSOFCOMbadgeLast month, I posted an item on the organization of the Canadian Army, but I didn’t include the Canadian special forces … partly because the special forces are Canada’s “fourth” branch of service and not organizationally part of the Canadian Army … and partly because I just plain forgot about them. Having just read a short article in the most recent Dorchester Review, I was reminded to include Canada’s special forces units (as much as we know about them, anyway). Special forces fall under their own service command, separate from the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force, known as the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM), established in 2006.

The core unit of CANSOFCOM is the original Joint Task Force-2 (JTF2) which was formed in 1992-3 when the Canadian Forces took over the domestic counterterrorism role from the RCMP. When JTF2 was included in the new command, other units were established to support a wider range of missions and capabilities. CANSOFCOM is headed by a Brigadier General and composed of a headquarters and the following units:

Although the official web page for CANSOFCOM emphasizes its domestic role, Canadian special forces have also been involved in overseas operations beginning (so far as we know) with Afghanistan in 2001-2. Very little information about JTF2 missions in specific or CANSOFCOM in general has been released by the government, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. Joseph Jockel’s article in the Dorchester Review states:

The consequences of the successful deployment [...] are clearer. JTF2 had been tested and admitted to the “international tier 1 counterterrorism community”, the other members being the special forces of the US, UK, and Australia. A good indication of this was that the US military planned to include Canadian special forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A year after Canada declined to go to Iraq, “the US government sends a démarche to Ottawa specifically requesting JTF2 deploy to Afghanistan for a second one-year commitment”. Ottawa “obliges relatively quickly to the US request for forces and CANSOF deploys for a second one-year commitment in the summer 2005″

The Wikipedia page has more:

Core tasks

CANSOFCOM’s core tasks are: to provide the Canadian Forces with a capacity to prevent and react to terrorism in all environments, to provide the CF with a capability to perform other missions as directed by the Government of Canada, such as direct action (DA), special reconnaissance (SR), defence diplomacy and military assistance (DDMA), as well as special humanitarian assistance (such as the evacuation of non-combatants).

Commanding officers

On September 12, 2005, Colonel David Barr was appointed the provisional commander of the CANSOFCOM. During his tenure as commander, Colonel Barr also deployed to Afghanistan as commander of the Canadian special operations task force in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Major-General D. Michael Day, OMM CD – Commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command 2007–2011

Brigadier-General D.W. Thompson, OMM MSC CD is the current commander of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, appointed in April 2011.

The current command chief warrant officer is Chief Warrant Officer John H. Graham, MSM CD.

Uniform

With operational uniforms, all members of CANSOFCOM wear the tan beret, regardless of their environment (navy, army or air force), with the badge of their personnel branch or, in the case of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps and Royal Canadian Infantry Corps members, the badge of their former regiment. With ceremonial and service dress, navy members wear service caps with tan bands, army members wear tan berets and air force members wear blue wedge caps with a tan insert.

August 6, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part eight of a series)

Filed under: Africa, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

We’re getting closer to the end of the series now … you can catch up to the earlier posts here: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven. The previous post touched on Russia’s disaster in the far east and the dangerous domestic situation it faced after the war. In this post we discover that Italy could be at least as perfidious as “Perfidious Albion”, and that the Balkans are a hell of a place to wage a war.

Italy tips the first domino … in Africa

In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark talks about a war I don’t think I’d ever heard of … an Italian campaign against the Ottoman Empire:

At the end of September 1911, only six months after the foundation of Ujedinjenje ili smrt! ["Union or death!" aka The Black Hand], Italy launched an invasion of Libya. This unprovoked attack one one of the integral provinces of the Ottoman Empire triggered a cascade of opportunistic attacks on Ottoman-controlled territory in the Balkans.

Italy’s attack on the Ottoman Empire was literally planned to steal what is now Libya and incorporate it into a new Italian Empire. Although the formal war was over in thirteen months, indigenous Arabs were still fighting back twenty years later. This attack broke the public-but-informal international understandings about leaving the remaining parts of the Ottoman Empire alone to prevent the risk of great power struggles breaking out. Britain and France had gone to war in 1854 to ensure that Russia did not gain access to the straits and thus a warm-water route to the Mediterranean and the coastlines of southern Europe, but the outcome of both the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War (and the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Germany) meant that Russia’s hands were largely free as long as Constantinople and the straits were not directly attacked. Italy’s attack broke with that understanding, and could be said to have started the most recent (and also most fatal) scramble for territory in the Balkans.

However, Italy did not act completely outside the norm for a would-be great power: they had an understanding with the French government that was formalized in a secret treaty in 1902 — Italy would not oppose French designs on Tunisia in exchange for French acceptance of Italy’s similar hopes for Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (modern day Libya). Italy’s attack was only possible because of the anomaly of the British position in Egypt: although still formally part of the Ottoman Empire, day-to-day Egyptian affairs were run by or overseen by British officials. Egypt was militarily occupied, but not a colony of the British Empire, and the country was — in theory — still run by the government of the Khedive. The Ottomans could not move formed bodies of troops through Egypt, and the Ottoman navy did not have the ships to transport them from Anatolia directly to Libya. This gave Italy the opportunity to concentrate against the weaker Ottoman forces.

The otherwise obscure Italo-Turkish War was interesting for several reasons, as the Wikipedia article notes:

Italian airships bomb Ottoman troops in Libya

Italian airships bomb Ottoman troops in Libya (via Wikipedia)

Although minor, the war was a significant precursor of the First World War as it sparked nationalism in the Balkan states. Seeing how easily the Italians had defeated the weakened Ottomans, the members of the Balkan League attacked the Ottoman Empire before the war with Italy had ended.

The Italo-Turkish War saw numerous technological changes, notably the airplane. On October 23, 1911, an Italian pilot, Captain Carlo Piazza, flew over Turkish lines on the world’s first aerial reconnaissance mission, and on November 1, the first ever aerial bomb was dropped by Sottotenente Giulio Gavotti, on Turkish troops in Libya, from an early model of Etrich Taube aircraft. The Turks, lacking anti-aircraft weapons, were the first to shoot down an aeroplane by rifle fire.

It was also in this conflict that the future first president of Turkey and leader of the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, distinguished himself militarily as a young officer during the Battle of Tobruk.

Although Italy ended up with possession of the disputed land, it did not come easily or cheaply:

The invasion of Libya was a costly enterprise for Italy. Instead of the 30 million lire a month judged sufficient at its beginning, it reached a cost of 80 million a month for a much longer period than was originally estimated. The war cost Italy 1.3 billion lire, nearly a billion more than Giovanni Giolitti estimated before the war. This ruined ten years of fiscal prudence.

After the withdrawal of the Ottoman army the Italians could easily extend their occupation of the country, seizing East Tripolitania, Ghadames, the Djebel and Fezzan with Murzuk during 1913. The outbreak of the First World War with the necessity to bring back the troops to Italy, the proclamation of the Jihad by the Ottomans and the uprising of the Libyans in Tripolitania forced the Italians to abandon all occupied territory and to entrench themselves in Tripoli, Derna, and on the coast of Cyrenaica. The Italian control over much of the interior of Libya remained ineffective until the late 1920s, when forces under the Generals Pietro Badoglio and Rodolfo Graziani waged bloody pacification campaigns. Resistance petered out only after the execution of the rebel leader Omar Mukhtar on September 15, 1931. The result of the Italian colonisation for the Libyan population was that by the mid-1930s it had been cut in half due to emigration, famine, and war casualties. The Libyan population in 1950 was at the same level as in 1911, approximately 1.5 million in 1911.

The war ended well — at least geographically speaking — for Italy, having gained title not only to Libya but also to the Dodecanese: a group of twelve large and about 150 small islands in the Aegean Sea. The largest and most economically valuable island was Rhodes, which became a useful base for Italian forces for more than 40 years. The treaty ending the Italo-Turkish War required Italy to vacate the islands, but due to both fuzzy wording and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, Italy managed to retain possession.

The Ottoman tide ebbs

A German map of the Balkans, showing the borders as of 1905 (via Wikiepedia)

A German map of the Balkans, showing the borders as of 1905 (via Wikipedia)

The remaining Ottoman territories in Europe were under constant pressure both from external forces (Austria and Russia) and internal linguistic, religious, and cultural separatist movements. Austria preferred to view the separatists as potential new provinces for the Dual Monarchy, while Russia saw the possibility of new independent Russophile political groupings that might allow indirect Russian access to the Mediterranean, bypassing Constantinople (or, perhaps more realistically, additional bases from which to launch an attack against the straits).

Italy’s attack was the first domino falling. Christopher Clark writes:

The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War. How as this possible? Conflicts and crises on the south-eastern periphery, where the Ottoman Empire abutted Christian Europe, were nothing new. The European system had always accommodated them without endangering the peace of the continent as a whole. But the last years before 1914 saw fundamental change. In the autumn of 1911, Italy launched a war of conquest on an African province of the Ottoman Empire, triggering a chain of opportunistic assaults on Ottoman territories across the Balkans. The system of geopolitical balances that had enabled local conflicts to be contained was swept away. In the aftermath of the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Austria-Hungary faced a new and threatening situation on its south-eastern periphery, while the retreat of Ottoman power raised strategic questions that Russian diplomats and policy-makers found it impossible to ignore.

Margaret MacMillan, in The War That Ended Peace:

It was in the Balkans [...] that the greatest dangers were to arise: two wars among its nations, one in 1912 and a second in 1913, nearly pulled the great powers in. Diplomacy, bluff and brinksmanship in the end saved the peace but although Europeans could not know it, they had had a dress rehearsal for the summer of 1914. As they say in the theatre, if that last run-through goes well, the opening night will be a disaster.

The First Balkan War of 1912 — A Pan-Slavic triumph

To some, the Balkans were a comic opera assemblage of exotic uniforms, passionate actors, indecipherable languages, a bit of bloodshed, but no real source of international danger or worry. Margaret MacMillan explains that much happened beneath the surface of the above-ground culture: much that portended danger to the entire region and beyond.

To the rest of Europe the Balkan states were something of a joke, the setting for tales of romance such as the Prisoner of Zenda or operettas (Montenegro was the inspiration for the The Merry Widow), but their politics were deadly serious — and frequently deadly with terrorist plots, violence and assassinations. In 1903 King Peter’s unpopular predecessor as King of Serbia and his equally unpopular wife had been thrown from the windows of the palace and their corpses hacked to pieces. [...] The growth of national movements had welded peoples together but it had also divided Orthodox from Catholic or Muslim, Albanians from Slaves, and Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Bulgarians or Macedonians from each other. While the peoples of the Balkans had coexisted and intermingled, often for long periods of peace through the centuries, the establishment of national states in the nineteenth century had too often been accompanied by burning of villages, massacres, expulsions of minorities and lasting vendettas.

Politicians who had ridden to power by playing on nationalism and with promises of national glory found they were in the grip of forces they could not always control. Secret societies, modelling themselves on an eclectic mix which included Freemasonry, the underground Carbonari, who had worked for Italian unity, the terrorists who more recently had frightened much of Europe, and old-style banditry, proliferated throughout the Balkans, weaving their way into civilian and military institutions of the states.

In addition to the ethnic, proto-national, cultural, and religious aspects of Balkan conflict, it was also an inter-generational conflict:

The younger generation who were attracted to the secret societies were often more extreme than their elders and frequently at odds with them. “Our fathers, our tyrants,” said a Bosnian radical nationalist, “have created this world on their model and are now forcing us to live in it.” The young members were in love with violence and prepared to destroy even their own traditional values and institutions in order to build the new Greater Serbia, Bulgaria, or Greece. (Even if they had not read Nietzsche, which many of them had, they too had heard that God was dead and that European civilization must be destroyed in order to free humankind.) In the last years before 1914, the authorities in the Balkan states either tolerated or were powerless to control the activities of their own young radicals who carried out assassinations and terrorist attacks on Ottoman or Austrian-Hungarian official as oppressors of the Slavs, on their own leaders whom they judged to be insufficiently devoted to the nationalist cause, or simply on ordinary citizens who happened to be in the wrong religion or the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place.

French map of the territorial changes due to the First Balkan War (via Wikipedia)

French map of the territorial changes due to the First Balkan War (via Wikipedia)

Comic opera states or not, they proved to be more than a match for their Ottoman overlords. Taking advantage of the Italian attack on Libya, Serbia allied with Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro to invade and capture much of the Balkan peninsula, stopping just a few miles outside Constantinople. The First Balkan War triggered vast population shifts, as nearly half a million Muslims fled from the conquered territory to escape religious persecution (and many thousands died through privation, disease, and starvation. Between the actual combat between military forces, forced evacuations, and the early use of genocidal policies, several million people were forced out of their homes and moved at gunpoint to wherever the armed groups wanted them to go. Cultural patterns nearly a millennia old were uprooted and dispersed to suit the tastes of local warlords and jumped-up military leaders.

And there it might have ended, but the unexpectedly successful campaign by the Balkan League left just a few too many loose ends, which almost immediately led to conflict among the victorious allies. Since I’ve already tipped you to the fact that there was more than one Balkan War, you probably won’t be surprised to find that the Second Balkan War happened quite soon after the first one. But that’s a tale for another day.

August 5, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part seven of a series)

Filed under: China, Europe, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

I thought we’d be done by now, but there’s still more historical ground to cover on what I think are the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six). The previous post examined the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Today, we’re looking at the unhappy Russian experiences in the far East and the dangerous domestic situation it faced after the war.

Russia’s Oriental catastrophe

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was a huge upset, as all the great powers expected Russia to crush the upstart Japanese and put them back “in their place”. Japan’s stunning naval and military successes at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, Tsushima and Port Arthur left Russia in a potentially disastrous situation, with utter undeniable defeat in the East and revolution brewing at home.

The war came about due to irreconcilable differences in the expansionary plans of the two empires: Russia wanted control of Manchuria and Japan wanted control of Korea, but neither side trusted the other enough to make negotiations work. Japan decided to initiate the conflict with a surprise attack on the Russian naval forces in Port Arthur (now known as the Lüshunkou District of Dalian in China’s Liaoning province). From that point onwards, Japan maintained the initiative, forcing Russia to react and interrupting Russian moves on land and at sea.

The Russian Baltic Fleet passage to and return from the Battle of Tsushima (via Wikipedia)

The Russian Baltic Fleet passage to and return from the Battle of Tsushima (via Wikipedia)

After the defeat of the original Russian fleet in the Pacific, the Baltic Fleet was re-tasked and set out to avenge the loss. The fleet’s luck was terrible to begin with, as shortly after passing between Sweden and Denmark and sailing out into the North Sea, lookouts on the Russian battleships spotted Japanese forces and the fleet opened fire. Twenty minutes, later the enemy was in tatters … unfortunately, the “enemy” were British fishing trawlers. Given the massive firepower of even pre-dreadnought ships, the casualties were surprisingly light: one trawler sunk, two dead, and many wounded. Not long afterward, a Russian ship in the fleet was mis-identified as a Japanese ship and nearly sunk by friendly fire. The nearest Japanese ship was still thousands of miles to the East.

Despite nearly starting a war with the Royal Navy over the Dogger Bank incident (Britain and Japan had signed an alliance in 1902), Admiral Rozhdestvensky was unapologetic and insisted it was the trawlers’ fault and his ships were perfectly entitled to defend themselves from Japanese attackers. As a result of the Russian mistake, Britain refused to allow the fleet passage through the Suez Canal, forcing them to take the far longer trip around Africa instead. If ever a military expedition has had bad omens, the sortie of the Baltic Fleet — now renamed the Second Pacific Squadron for this mission — must be one of the best examples.

When the Russian and Japanese fleets met in the Tsushima Straits, Admiral Tōgō managed to “cross the T” of the Russians, allowing his ships to use their full broadside armament against only the forward-facing guns of the Russian ships. In the end, the Second Pacific Squadron lost all eleven battleships and over 4,000 men killed, another 5,900 captured, and 1,800 interned. Japanese losses were trivial in comparison: three torpedo boats sunk, 117 men killed and about 500 wounded.

There were no major subsequent battles, and Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth to end the war in September 1905. Despite the Tsar’s initial instructions to the Russian delegation, the Russians agreed to recognize Japan’s sphere of influence in Korea, withdraw their troops from Manchuria, and to give up their lease on Port Arthur and Talien. The reaction in both countries was similar: political unrest. Japanese public opinion was that they had been cheated of their full reward from the war, and the government fell in the aftermath. Russians were even more angry and the result was revolution.

The (first) Russian revolution

While the result of the Russo-Japanese war was the trigger for the 1905 Revolution, it was far from being the only grievance. Margaret MacMillan wrote in The War That Ended Peace:

In 1904 the Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve, is reported to have said that Russia needed “a small victorious war” which would take the minds of the Russian masses off “political questions”.

The Russo-Japanese War showed the folly of that idea. In its early months Plehve himself was blown apart by a bomb; towards its end the newly formed Bolsheviks tried to seize Moscow. The war served to deepen and bring into sharp focus the existing unhappiness of many Russians with their own society and its rulers. As the many deficiencies, from command to supplies, of the Russian war effort became apparent, criticism grew, both of the government and, since the regime was a highly personalized one, of the Tsar himself. In St. Petersburg a cartoon showed the Tsar with his breeches down being beaten while he says, “Leave me alone. I am the autocrat!” Like the French Revolution, with which it had many similarities, the Russian Revolution of 1905 broke old taboos, including the reverence surrounding the country’s ruler. It seemed to officials in St. Petersburg a bad omen that the Empress had hung a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a gift from the French government, in her rooms.

In December 1904, a strike in St. Petersburg triggered sympathy strikes in other industries, leading to 80,000 workers and supporters protesting in the city. In January 1905, a mass march by the strikers to the Winter Palace was met with rifle fire from the defending troops. Casualty estimates range from 200 to over 1,000 on Bloody Sunday. The strikes and protests spread beyond St. Petersburg, to the point that the government was threatened. Eventually the Tsar was persuaded to offer concessions :

Under huge pressure from his own supporters, the Tsar reluctantly issued a manifesto in October promising a responsible legislature, the Duma, as well as civil rights.

As so often happens in revolutionary moments, the concessions only encouraged the opponents of the regime. It appeared to be close to collapsing with its officials confused and ineffective in the face of such widespread disorder. That winter a battalion from Nichlas’s own regiment, the Preobrazhensky Guards, which had been founded by Peter the Great, mutinied. A member of the Tsar’s court wrote in his diary: “This is it.” Fortunately for the regime, its most determined enemies were disunited and not yet ready to take power while moderate reformers were prepared to support it in the light of the Tsar’s promises. Using the army and police freely, the government managed to restore order. By the summer of 1906 the worst was over — for the time being. The regime still faced the dilemma, though, of how far it could let reforms go without fatally undermining its authority. It was a dilemma faced by the French government in 1789 or the Shah’s government in Iran in 1979. Refusing demands for reform and relying on repression creates enemies; giving way encourages them and brings more demands.

Russia’s economy did recover eventually, but the political solution was not strong enough to stand the strains of another war any time soon. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine what the Russian leaders who advised the Tsar were thinking as the Russians continued to stir the pot in the Balkans…

August 4, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part six of a series)

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Over the last week, I’ve posted entries on what I think are the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five). And yes, to be honest, I didn’t think it would take quite this many entries to begin to explain how the world catastrophe of August 1914 came about — putting together this series of blog posts has been educational for me, and I hope it’s been at least of interest to you. The previous post examined the history of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in some detail (yes, it matters). Today, we finally clear the Victorian era altogether and begin to look at the last decade-or-so before the outbreak of the war.

The Anglo-German naval race

Even after the creation of the German Reich in 1871, Germany was not seen (by the British government) to be a major threat to British interests: Germany had no significant presence beyond Europe to worry the Colonial Office, and instead was seen as a potentially useful balancing factor in the European theatre. That all changed with the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II as explained by Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers:

The 1890s were [...] a period of deepening German isolation. A commitment from Britain remained elusive and the Franco-Russian Alliance seemed to narrow considerably the room for movement on the continent. Yet Germany’s statesmen were extraordinarily slow to see the scale of the problem, mainly because they believed that the continuing tension between the world empires was in itself a guarantee that these would never combine against Germany. Far from countering their isolation through a policy of rapprochement, German policy-makers raised the quest for self-reliance to the status of a guiding principle. The most consequential manifestation of this development was the decision to build a large navy.

In the mid-1890s, after a long period of stagnation and relative decline, naval construction and strategy came to occupy a central place in German security and foreign policy. Public opinion played a role here — in Germany, as in Britain, big ships were the fetish of the quality press and its educated middle-class readers. The immensely fashionable “navalism” of the American writer Alfred Thayer Mahan also played a part. Mahan foretold in The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783 (1890) a struggle for global power that would be decided by vast fleets of heavy battleships and cruisers. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who supported the naval programme, was a keen nautical hobbyist and an avid reader of Mahan; in the sketchbooks of the young Wilhelm we find many battleships — lovingly pencilled floating fortresses bristling with enormous guns. But the international dimension was also crucial: it was above all the sequence of peripheral clashes with Britain that triggered the decision to acquire a more formidable naval weapon. After the Transvaal episode, the Kaiser became obsessed with the need for ships, to the point where he began to see virtually every international crisis as a lesson in the primacy of naval power.

The Royal Navy (RN) had been Britain’s most obvious sign of global dominance, and Britain’s fleets had gone through many technological changes over the century since Waterloo. What had been for centuries a slow, steady process of gradual improvement and incremental change suddenly became the white-hot centre of rapid, even revolutionary, change:

At the same time that you need to add armour to protect the ship, you also need to mount heavier, larger guns. Between placing your order with the shipyard for a new ship, the metallurgical wizards may have (and frequently did) come up with bigger, better guns that could defeat the armour on your not-yet-launched ship. Oh, and you now needed to revise the design of the ship to carry the newer, heavier guns, too.

The ship designers were in a race with the gun designers to see who could defeat the latest design by the other group. It’s no wonder that ships could become obsolete between ordering and coming into service: sometimes, they could become obsolete before launch.

The weapons themselves were undergoing change at a relatively unprecedented rate. As late as the mid-1870′s, a good case could be made for muzzle-loading cannon being mounted on warships: until the gas seal of the breech-loader could be made safe, muzzle-loaders had an advantage of not killing their own crews at distressingly high frequency. Once that technological handicap had been overcome, then the argument came down to the best way to mount the weapons: turrets or barbettes.

The RN’s international prestige invited envious imitators (like Wilhelm) and challengers (the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy), but the RN was the supreme naval power against which all other nations measured themselves. In 1889, parliament passed the Naval Defence Act, which specified that the Royal Navy would be maintained at the “two-power standard”: that the RN’s fleet of capital ships would be at least equal to the number of battleships maintained by the next two largest navies (at that time, the French and Russian navies). The increased spending allowed ten battleships plus cruisers and torpedo boats to be added to the fleet … but the French and Russian navies added twelve battleships between them over the same period of time. “Another British expansion, known as the Spencer Programme, followed in 1894 aimed to match foreign naval growth at a cost of over £31 million. Instead of deterring the naval expansion of foreign powers, Britain’s Naval Defence Act contributed to a naval arms race. Other powers including Germany and the United States bolstered their navies in the following years as Britain continued to increase its own naval expenditures.”

In The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan describes the implicit power of the RN in peacetime:

In August 1902 another great naval review took place at Spithead in the sheltered waters between Britain’s great south coast port of Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, this time to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. Because he had suddenly come down with appendicitis earlier in the summer, the coronation itself and all festivities surrounding it had been postponed. As a result, most of the ships from foreign navies (except those of Britain’s new ally Japan) as well as those from the overseas squadrons of the British navy had been obliged to leave. The resulting smaller review was, nevertheless, The Times said proudly, a potent display of Britain’s naval might. The ships displayed at Spithead were all in active service and all from the fleets already in place to guard Britain’s home waters. “The display may be less magnificent than the wonderful manifestation of our sea-power witnessed in the same waters five years ago. But it will demonstrate no less plainly what that power is, to those who remember that we have a larger number of ships in commission on foreign stations now than we had then, and that we have not moved a single ship from Reserve.” “Some of our rivals,” The Times warned, “have worked with feverish activity in the interval, and they are steadily increasing their efforts. They should know that Britain remained vigilant and on guard, and prepared to spend whatever funds were necessary to maintain its sovereignty of the seas.”

Admiral Fisher’s new broom

Admiral Sir John "Jackie" Fisher (via Wikipedia)

Admiral Sir John “Jackie” Fisher (via Wikipedia)

In 1904, Admiral Sir John “Jackie” Fisher was appointed as First Sea Lord (the professional head of the RN, reporting to the First Lord of the Admiralty, a cabinet minister). Fisher was a full-steam-ahead reformer, with vast notions of modernizing and reforming the navy. He was brilliant, argumentative, abrasive, tactless, and aggressive but could also be charming and persuasive. “When addressing someone he could become carried away with the point he was seeking to make, and on one occasion, the king asked him to stop shaking his fist in his face.” (Fortunately for Fisher, the king was a personal friend, so this did not hinder his career.)

Margaret MacMillan describes him in The War That Ended Peace:

Jacky Fisher, as he was always known, shoots through the history of the British navy and of the prewar years like a runaway Catharine wheel, showering sparks in all directions and making some onlookers scatter in alarm and others gasp with admiration. He shook the British navy from top to bottom in the years before the Great War, bombarding his civilian superiors with demands until they usually gave way and steamrollering over his opponents in the navy. He spoke his mind freely in his own inimitable language. His enemies were “skunks”, “pimps”, “fossils”, or “frightened rabbits”. Fisher was tough, dogged and largely immune to criticism, not surprising perhaps in someone from a relatively modest background who had made his own way in the navy since he was a boy. He was also supremely self-confident. Edward VII once complained that Fisher did not look at different aspects of an issue. “Why should I waste my time,” the admiral replied, “looking at all sides when I know my side is the right side?”

Fisher had been a maverick throughout his career (which makes it even more amazing that he eventually did rise to become First Sea Lord), as his actions when he took command of the Mediterranean Fleet clearly illustrate:

A programme of realistic exercises was adopted including simulated French raids, defensive manoeuvres, night attacks and blockades, all carried out at maximum speed. He introduced a gold cup for the ship which performed best at gunnery, and insisted upon shooting at greater range and from battle formations. He found that he too was learning some of the complications and difficulties of controlling a large fleet in complex situations, and immensely enjoyed it.

Notes from his lectures indicate that, at the start of his time in the Mediterranean, useful working ranges for heavy guns without telescopic sights were considered to be only 2000 yards, or 3000-4000 yards with such sights, whereas by the end of his time discussion centred on how to shoot effectively at 5000 yards. This was driven by the increasing range of the torpedo, which had now risen to 3000-4000 yards, necessitating ships fighting effectively at greater ranges. At this time he advocated relatively small main armaments on capital ships (some had 15 inch or greater), because the improved technical design of the relatively small (10 inch) modern guns allowed a much greater firing rate and greater overall weight of broadside. The potentially much greater ranges of large guns was not an issue, because no one knew how to aim them effectively at such ranges. He argued that “the design of fighting ships must follow the mode of fighting instead of fighting being subsidiary to and dependent on the design of ships.” As regards how officers needed to behave, he commented, “‘Think and act for yourself’ is the motto for the future, not ‘Let us wait for orders’.”

Lord Hankey, then a marine serving under Fisher, later commented, “It is difficult for anyone who had not lived under the previous regime to realize what a change Fisher brought about in the Mediterranean fleet. … Before his arrival, the topics and arguments of the officers messes … were mainly confined to such matters as the cleaning of paint and brasswork. … These were forgotten and replaced by incessant controversies on tactics, strategy, gunnery, torpedo warfare, blockade, etc. It was a veritable renaissance and affected every officer in the navy.” Charles Beresford, later to become a severe critic of Fisher, gave up a plan to return to Britain and enter parliament, because he had “learnt more in the last week than in the last forty years”.

One of his first changes was to sell nearly one hundred elderly ships and move dozens of less capable vessels from the active list to the reserve fleet, to free up the crews (and the maintenance budget) for more modern vessels, describing the ships as “too weak to fight and too slow to run away”, and “a miser’s hoard of useless junk”. Between his reforms as Third Sea Lord (where he had championed the development of the modern destroyer and vastly increased the efficiency and productivity of the shipyards) and his new role as First Sea Lord, Fisher was able to get more done even on a budget that dropped nearly 10% in the year of his appointment than his predecessor had managed.

HMS Dreadnought and the naval revolution

Fisher was not a naval designer, but he knew how to push new ideas to the front and get them adopted. The one thing that most people remember him for is the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought, the first all big gun, fast steam turbine powered battleship, and when she went into commission, she signified the obsolescence of every other capital ship in every navy from that moment onwards.

HMS Dreadnought underway, circa 1906-07

HMS Dreadnought underway, circa 1906-07

Dreadnought was the platonic ideal of a battleship: she was faster than any other capital ship in any other navy, her guns were at least the equivalent in range, rate of fire, and throw of shot, and her armour was sufficient to allow her to take punishment from opposing ships and still deal out damage herself. She was the first British ship to be equipped with electrical controls allowing the entire main armament to be fired from a central location. Thanks to Fisher’s earlier efforts with the shipyards, Dreadnought took just a year to build — far faster than any other battleship had been built.

The “entirely crazy Dreadnought policy of Sir J. Fisher and His Majesty”

The Kaiser was not happy with the new British battleship, as it had been German policy since his accession to build up the German navy to at least provide a tool for pressuring Britain (if not for actually confronting the Royal Navy in battle). Now his entire naval plan had been upset by the Dreadnought revolution. Margaret MacMillan:

As far as the Kaiser and [Admiral] Tirpitz were concerned the responsibility for taking the naval race to a new level rested with what Wilhelm called the “entirely crazy Dreadnought policy of Sir J. Fisher and His Majesty”. The Germans were prone to see Edward VII as bent on a policy of encircling Germany. The British had made a mistake in building dreadnoughts and heavy cruisers, in Tirpitz’s view, and they were angry about it: “This annoyance will increase as they see that we follow them immediately.” [...] Who could tell what the British might do? Did their history not show them to by hypocritical, devious and ruthless? Fears of a “Kopenhagen”, a sudden British attack just like the one in 1807 when the British navy had bombarded Copenhagen and seized the Danish fleet, were never far from the thoughts of the German leadership once the naval race had started.

German fears of British attack increased almost in lockstep with British fears of German attack (William Le Queux had his equivalents among the German press and popular novelists). The thought had actually occurred to Fisher himself, who outlined a possible coup de main against the German fleet. The king responded “My God, Fisher, you must be mad!” and the suggestion was ignored, thankfully.

The popular worries about an attack from Britain fed the support for the German Navy laws, which funded dreadnought and battlecruiser building programs. In direct proportion, the increased German support for their naval expansion worked to the advantage of British politicians who wanted to build more dreadnoughts of their own. And, in fairness, Britain risked far more by allowing an enlarged German navy than Germany risked by stopping their building program … but in either case, the fear of popular unrest kept the shipyards humming anyway. As Churchill later wrote, “The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”

There we go, finally getting within striking distance of the triggering events of the First World War … and I’m still not sure how many more posts it will take to get us there! More to come this week.

August 3, 2014

The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry at 100

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:47

The Ottawa Citizen notes the centennial of one of Canada’s three regular force infantry regiments, the PPCLI:

During four years of war, from August 1914 to November 1918, Canada contributed some 620,000 men to the fight against Germany. By war’s end, 61,000 — about 1o per cent — of those who served in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force had been killed. Another 172,000 had been wounded, gassed, crippled or psychologically damaged by the war. For a country of not yet eight million, it was an enormous undertaking, and an enormous sacrifice. The proportional loss for Canada a war today, with a population of about 34 million, would be more than 250,000 killed and 550,00 wounded.

The Canadian Corps acquired a reputation for battlefield prowess. British prime minister David Lloyd George referred to the C.E.F. as “the shock army of the British Empire.” This reputation was in some ways the making of the country, historians say. Canada’s contribution to the war effort — men, munitions and food supplies — fostered a deeper sense of national identity and led to greater political sovereignty. Canada went from being a subordinate member of the British Empire to a nation in its own right on the world stage.

[...]

When Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, Canada, as a Dominion within the Empire, was automatically at war, too. Canadians, by and large, responded with enthusiastic support. Within days of the declaration of war the country was mobilizing. One Montreal businessman, Andrew Hamilton Gault offered $100,000 of his own money — about $2 million in today’s currency — to finance and equip a regiment.

Prime minister Robert Borden’s government was only too happy to accept the offer, having committed itself to raising an army division of 25,000 men as Canada’s initial contribution to the war. The Patricias received their official charter on Aug. 10. Gault, joined by Lt-Col. Francis Farquhar, a British Army veteran and military secretary to the governor-general, the Duke of Connaught, launched a cross-country recruitment campaign.

PPCLI cap badgeMore than 3,000 men responded to the call to arms, and headed for Ottawa. “Prospectors, trappers, guides, cow-punchers, prize-fighters, farmers, professional and businessmen, above all old soldiers, poured into Ottawa by every train,” writes regimental historian, Ralph Hodder-Williams. By Aug. 19, 1,098 men were chosen — the Originals, as they became known —- and Farquhar was named regimental commander.

The PPCLI officially formed up on Aug. 23 at Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park. Gault had asked the governor-general’s daughter, Princess Patricia, if he could name the regiment after her. She agreed and offered to design a regimental Colour. “I have great pleasure in presenting you with these colours, which I have worked myself. I hope they will be associated with what I believe will be a distinguished corps,” the princess told the assembled soldiers. “I shall follow the fortunes of you all with the deepest interest, and I heartily wish every man good luck and a safe return.”

It was a naive hope, as it turned out. The Patricias boarded the R.M.S. Royal George for England in late September 1914. On Dec. 20, after a few months training in Britain, they arrived in Le Havre. Two weeks later, on Jan. 6 and 7, 1915, the Patricias moved into the Ypres Salient, the first Canadian regiment to go into the field.

[...]

The Camp Colour presented by Princess Patricia in August of 1914 was consecrated in a religious ceremony in Belgium in late January 1919. A month later, the princess, who had returned to England in 1916, attached a commemorative silver gilt laurel wreath to the Colour’s staff in a ceremony before the regiment’s return to Canada. “My thoughts have been continually with you during the years of suffering and trial through which you have passed,” she told the assembled regiment, “and I think with mingled sorrow and pride of your many and gallant comrades who so willingly laid down their lives in the greatest of all causes.”

Such sentiments may sound alien to contemporary ears, but to dismiss them as deluded or naive is to presume that those who lived through the Great War couldn’t possibly have understood what they were doing as well as we can with our historical hindsight and sophisticated post-modern worldview.

But that is an arrogant and condescending assumption, as Philip Child, a Canadian army officer who served with a howitzer battery in the trenches, suggests in his 1937 novel, God’s Sparrow. Child tells the story of Daniel Thatcher, a veteran of the trenches. At one point, reflecting on the dead, Thatcher reaches this conclusion: “The thousands went into battle not ignobly, not as driven sheep or hired murderers … but as free men with a corporate if vague feeling of brotherhood because of a tradition they shared and an honest belief that they were doing their duty in a necessary task.”

H/T to Steve Paikin for the link.

July 31, 2014

Churchill on the news from the Battle of Mons, August 1914

Filed under: Britain, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:47

History Today are nearly done digitizing their back-catalogue of articles, including this 1964 article by John Terraine on how the news got back to Britain after the Battle of Mons:

At seven o’clock in the morning of August 24th, 1914, Mr. Winston Churchill was sitting up in bed, working, at his room in the Admiralty. The door opened, and the Secretary of State for War, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, appeared.

    “These were the days before he took to uniform, and my recollection is that he had a bowler hat on his head, which he took off with a hand which also held a slip of paper. He paused in the doorway and I knew in a flash and before ever he spoke that the event had gone wrong. Though his manner was quite calm, his face was different.

    I had the sub-conscious feeling that it was distorted and discoloured as if it had been Punched with a fist. His eyes rolled more than ever. His voice, too, was hoarse. He looked gigantic. ‘Bad news,’ he said heavily and laid the slip of paper on my bed. I read the telegram.

    It was from Sir John French: …I forget much of what passed between us. But the apparition of Kitchener Agonistes in my doorway will dwell with me as long as I live. It was like seeing old John Bull on the rack!”

Sir John French’s telegram contained the first information to the British Government of the Battle of Mons, which had taken place on the preceding day:

    “My troops have been engaged all day with the enemy… we held our ground tenaciously. I have just received a message from G.O.C. 5th French Army that his troops have been driven back, that Namur has fallen… I have therefore ordered a retirement… which is being carried out now. It will prove a difficult operation, if the enemy remains in contact…”

The last sentence was electrifying:

    “I think that immediate attention should be directed to the defence of Havre.”

It was the reference to Namur that produced the first shock in Churchill’s mind.

    “We were evidently in the presence of new facts and of a new standard of values. If strong fortresses were to melt like wisps of vapour in a morning sun, many judgments would have to be revised. The foundations of thought were quaking…

    ‘Fortify Havre,’ said Sir John French. One day’s general battle and the sanguine advance and hoped-for counterstroke had been converted into ‘Fortify Havre’.”

The War was now precisely three weeks old. During those three weeks, governments, military leaders and populations had existed in a fog of ignorance and misconception. This was equally true of both sides; but the worst effects were felt by the Allies. Britain had committed her army to the direct support of the French; but almost no-one in Britain understood the nature of the operations to which the French had committed themselves.

July 27, 2014

Floating HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Three hours of careful work compressed into a short video:

QotD: Qui veut tout défendre ne sauve rien (Who defends everything defends nothing)

Filed under: Military, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

This is an elementary and self-evident Principle. Indeed, it is so axiomatic that few examples of it will be given in these pages. The only point to stress is that it is useless to hope to obtain complete security in passive defense. It is also unsound. “He who tries to defend everything saves nothing.” declared Marshal Foch, echoing Frederick the Great. It should be noted that the very act of assuming the offensive imparts a certain degree of security. Make as if to strike a man, and he instinctively assumes a defensive attitude. As General Rowan Robinson expresses it in his Imperial Defence, “The highest form of strategic security is that obtained through the imposition of our will upon the enemy, through seizing the initiative and maintaining it by offensive action.” There may sometimes be an element of risk in this, but, as we have seen, war in its nature involves risk.

Lt. Colonel Alfred H. Burne, The Art of War on Land, 1947.

July 26, 2014

Royal Navy commander may have had affair with crew member

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:04

From the Guardian, a report on a current investigation into a Royal Navy officer who may have had an affair with a subordinate:

The first female commander of a major Royal Navy warship has left her vessel after claims she had an affair with a shipmate.

Commander Sarah West, 42, took charge of Type 23 frigate HMS Portland in May 2012.

It is understood she has left the ship while the navy investigates the claims. Her second-in-command has taken over the running of the vessel, but West is still the commanding officer.

The navy inquiry will consider whether West breached the armed forces’ code of social conduct, which governs personal relationships within the military. Possible punishments for a breach include a formal warning, reassignment and even termination of service.

A Royal Navy spokesman said: “We are aware of an allegation of a breach of the code of social conduct on board HMS Portland, which we are treating seriously.

“Anyone who is found to fall short of the Royal Navy’s high standards can expect to face appropriate action. It would be inappropriate to comment further.”

West made headlines when she became the first female commander of a frontline warship in the 500-year history of the service.

But earlier this year she explained how work commitments made it difficult to have a relationship.

July 25, 2014

US Marine Corps Commandant goes off-message

Filed under: Media, Middle East, Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:56

James Joyner discusses the problem with depending on partial reporting:

Many of us have experienced occasions where we’ve read about an event in which we were a participant — either as a direct actor or merely an observer — and found ourselves perplexed by the written account. Whether because of an ideological agenda, an inadequate understanding of the topic, or — more commonly — a desire for a juicy headline and a scandal, reporters frequently misrepresent what transpired or was said. Paradoxically, however, we instinctively treat reports about events where we were not present as gospel.

Recently, a collaborator and I fell into this trap. A series of venues reported some remarks by General Jim Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which seemingly questioned the president’s leadership on issues of international security, blamed the current crisis in Iraq on his fecklessness, and strongly implied that the president had betrayed the sacrifices of American warriors who had died there. As strong advocates for civilian control of the military, we submitted a blistering piece to War on the Rocks outlining the proper limitations for general officers publicly speaking on matters of policy, explaining the rationale for those limitations, and ending with Amos standing at attention in the Oval Office being reminded of his place in the chain of command. It was right on all counts — except for the not so minor detail that Amos hadn’t done what we were criticizing him for doing.

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