Category: world war 1

No Australian Need Apply: British Officers, Co…

This is the text of the paper I gave at the British Commission for Military History conference over the weekend. It’s about 3000 words so it’s not a short read but hopefully some of you will find it interesting.

The
First World War lies close to the heart of Australia’s popular imagination. The
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign are
well known to the vast majority of Australians. For many they hold an important
place in the making of national identity. Yet despite its seeming importance,
or perhaps because of it, a great many myths have made their way into the collective
memory. The one I want to talk about today encompasses questions of nation,
empire and the civil-military divide. That myth is command in the Australia
Imperial Force (AIF).

The popular interpretation of command in the AIF
is that Australian formations were dominated by bungling British officers. We’ve
taken Alan Clark’s “Donkey’s” view of First World War command and added an
additional twist of colonial resentment. This view stresses Australian
independence and ignores the pro-British and pro-Imperial sentiment that were a
vital part of Australian nationalism in the early 20th century. The
aim of this paper is to examine the extent to which this popular view is
accurate. It will look at the political, military and social forces that
interacted on command appointments to discover to what extent it was a British
dominated force. To do this requires both the examination of the changes in
command that the AIF underwent over its four years of active service and to
understand the complex network of national, imperial, military and political relationships
that ruled over the process of promotion during the War.

The fully independent Australia we know today is vastly different to the
Australia of 1914. The Commonwealth of Australia was firmly part of the British
Empire and followed British foreign policy. The decision of the extent of that
support was however, retained by the government of Australia. Australian
opposition leader Andrew Fisher famously cried “Australians will stand beside
our own to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling”.[1]

The
Great War was the first real trial of the Australian Army. Australia had few experienced
regular soldiers. It could not train staff and senior officers, so suitable
candidates were sent to the colleges at Camberly and Quetta. The British army
instituted an exchange program where British regular officers went to the
Dominions to take up command positions.[2]

 

When
Britain cabled the Australian government on July 30th to announce
that war with Germany was imminent the Commonwealth offered 20,000 men of any
composition. However there was a problem stemming from Australian defence
legislation. Article 49 of the Defence Act 1903 stated:

 

Members
of the Defence Force who are members of the Military Forces shall not be
required, unless they voluntarily agree to do so, to serve beyond the limits of
the Commonwealth and those of any Territory under the authority of the
Commonwealth.[3]

This
forced the Commonwealth to raise an entirely new, volunteer army for war
service, alongside its existing force based on compulsory military training. Inspector-General
William Bridges was appointed to command the 1st Australian Division
and administer the AIF with Australian regular Cyril Brudenell White as his
chief of staff. Bridges, was a decidedly imperial soldier. Born in Scotland he
was brought up in Britain and then Canada, where he attended Royal Military
College at Kingston. He left the college after two years and followed his
family to Australia at age 18. There he spent a number of years working for
local government before finally joining the New South Wales Artillery in 1885.

I
give you this quick sketch of Bridges to demonstrate the kind of person who was
considered Australian in 1914. Another indicator of Bridges’ feeling towards
Australia’s place in the Empire was his decision to name his command the
Australian Imperial Force – emphasising the Imperial nature of Australia’s
contribution – unlike the Canadians, New Zealanders and South Africans who all
created expeditionary forces.[4]

The
Australian government offered the AIF, then only one infantry division and one
light horse brigade, to Britain with few constraints on where it was deployed
or how it was employed. Though to prevent the dispersal of Australian troops
among British formations as had occurred in South Africa, the government
demanded that brigades be kept together to serve as a recognisably Australian
formation and that administration would be kept in Australian hands.

Australian Defence Minister, George Foster Pearce, called regularly for
Australians to be promoted to command and staff positions whenever available.
Australia had great difficulty in providing officers at brigade and division
level. Two of the first brigadiers chosen for the division were both
Australians and militia officers, Henry McLaurin and James McCay, but the third
was a regular British officer and friend of Bridges, Ewen Singlcair-Maclagan.
And the regular/militia rivalry is something about which much more could be
said.
In 1914 only six Australian officers had PSC to their name, but there were also
four British officers seconded to Australia and became part of the AIF.  They also took John Gellibrand, a staff
trained captain who had left the British army in 1912 to return to his native Tasmania.[5] Even the first officer cadet class
of the Duntroon Military College was graduated early so they too could help
fill the ranks of the AIF.

As
Egypt and Gallipoli demonstrated, the AIF was an untrained and inexperienced
organisation in 1914-15. Bridges’ death in May 1915, just three weeks after the
Gallipoli landings, threw the AIF into confusion. Lieutenant-General William
Birdwood, immediately placed Brigadier Harold Walker, an Indian Army officer,
in command of the 1st Division and took administrative command of
the AIF. A friend of Birdwood, himself an Indian Army officer, Walker was by
all accounts a very good commander and respected by his Australian troops.[6] The politics of empire spared
no time for mourning however and the Australian government despatched
Australian regular James Legge to command the division. Birdwood, knowing of
the government’s wishes regarding command positions agreed to the appointment,
and Legge took command at the end of June.[7] This proved an unpopular move
with the Australian brigadiers. If Bridges was Imperialist in outlook, then
Legge was his nationalist opposite. Pearce even described some of his views as
“much too revolutionary for those Officers who clung to their old ideas”.[8] Hamilton wrote that although
Legge was ‘a man of brilliant mentality’ and ‘probably the cleverest soldier in
Australia’ he was regarded as a ‘political and self-seeker … with a knack of
quarrelling and writing.’[9] Foes of Legge were ultimately
satisfied a month later when he broke, ironically, his leg and was evacuated
back to Egypt where he oversaw the formation of the 2nd Division.
Birdwood who had clashed with Legge, promoted Walker to command the division.
The Australian government protested, but bowed to Birdwood’s professional
knowledge whilst continuing to call “for the appointment of Australian officers
wherever possible to command Australian units.”[10]

With
the agreement of Pearce, Birdwood officially assumed administrative control of
the AIF in September 1915.[11]
The consequences of Bridges death showed that when pressed Birdwood and the
British were open to compromise with the Australian government, although only
when the outcome suited them. And on the other it handed over administrative
control of the AIF to a British officer, albeit one whom the government
approved of.[12]

The
next difficulty arose in the wake of the Gallipoli campaign and the reorganisation
of the AIF in Egypt. This meant forming five new brigades and twenty new
battalions. The complex methods used are worthy of a more detailed explanation
than I have time for here, so instead I’ll just say that these new units were
formed, creating the 4th and 5th Australian divisions.

The
new brigadiers chosen in 1916 were almost wholly Australian, promoted from men
who had proved their worth at Gallipoli. This included Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot
who had lead the 7th Battalion through the landing and Lone Pine and
future divisional commanders Gellibrand and William Glasgow. Only two of the
brigades went to British officers, Duncan Glasfurd and Nevill Smythe.[13]

The
divisional command appointments however turned out to be more political than
the brigades and the Australian government and Birdwood again entered into an
exceedingly polite argument over them with Birdwood telling Pearce.

           Believe
me, the question of these higher commands is one which gives me a very great
deal of thought and consideration, and I may say a great deal of worry, for
they are so extremely difficult to carry out to the satisfaction of everyone.[14]

Birdwood
had decided that McCay would be good candidate for a division, but McCay was
invalided back to Australia and to take command of the newly forming 3rd
Division. Birdwood wanted two British officers, Brigadier Herbert Cox and
Major-General Herbert Lawrence to command the 4th and 5th
Divisions. However, Pearce had received complaints from senior Australian
officers about Birdwood appointing British officers.

Monash
wrote: “Australians… feel in regards to advancements that the idea is ‘no
Australian need apply’”.[15]

Pearce
agreed with his Adjutant-General Thomas Dodds but held from pushing too hard,
writing

           “At the present time I realize how
dangerous it is to unduly interfere with the liberty of action of the G.O.C.,
General Birdwood, who is on the spot and who knows the capacity of the officers
under him, and upon whom will fall the responsibility of any failures due to
incompetency of commands…
[16]

A
compromise was reached when Birdwood accepted Pearce’s suggestion that when
recovered McCay take the 5th Division and Cox the 4th
with command of the 3rd remaining empty until another Australian
proved themselves worthy. Lyden-Bell noted the difficulty in dealing with
Australian appointments writing. “However, it is very difficult to move anyone
in the Australian forces because most of the appointments are made from
Australia and are governed by political considerations.”[17]
Bean wrote of Birdwood’s choices for promotion that “he went further than
White, in that, if he were fairly confident of an Australian’s adequacy, he
would prefer him to a British officer of greater ability.”[18]
The compromise between Birdwood and Pearce demonstrates the delicate nature of
the dominion relationship and how attuned Birdwood was to the politics of his
situation. It also shows that though military efficiency and skill could be
sacrificed on the altar of politics, not everyone approved.

The
bulk of the fighting done by the AIF was on the Western Front between 1916 and
1918 and command of every Australian division would change hands in these three
years.

Legge,
McCay and the British Cox were replaced in 1916. McCay and Cox were replaced by
Australians, but Legge by another British officer, Sir Nevill Smythe VC.
William Holmes replaced Cox, despite reservations from Birdwood who regretted
that Holmes lacked Cox’s “administrative experience or qualifications.” [19]
Monash was appointed to the 3rd Division in England after proving
himself in France while McCay was replaced by another Australian, Talbot Hobbs.

1917
saw more changes in command as Holmes was killed while visiting the front with
the NSW premier. He was initially succeeded by Australian brigadier Charles
Rosenthal, but Birdwood felt “it is impossible to recommend anyone for the
vacancy but Sinclair-Maclagan,” the British officer then commanding the 3rd
Brigade.[20]
Birdwood worried that the Australians could not stand up to the rigours of a
division. He was concerned that Gellibrand “has, to some extent, broken down
with all the strain… at best he is a delicate man.”[21]

In
late 1917 Haig finally acquiesced to the creation of an unified Australian
formation: a single Australian Corps under Birdwood. Haig also “agreed that no
British officers could in future be appointed to Australian staffs” and that
currently serving British officers would slowly be removed from Australian
commands and taken back into the British army.[22]

This
process would reach its climax in the spring of 1918. The first half of 1918
saw British officers Walker and Smyth leaving their divisions and brigadiers
Lesslie and Hobkirk leaving their brigades. Only Sinclair-MacLagan remained,
having seemingly been adopted as an Australian after his pre-war service there.
All four men were replaced by Australians and often by their picked successors.
Lesslie later writing that:

“When I parted with you [the brigade] it was
with very great regret, but I had the consolation that I was handling over my
much treasured charge to the officer whom I most wished to succeed me,
Brigadier-General [Iven] Mackay.[23]

The promotion of Birdwood to the command of the reorganised Fifth Army signified
the final change in the makeup of Australian command. With Birdwood gone the
position of GOC Australian Corps was open and a somewhat bitter campaign over
the appointment ensued. But unlike earlier arguments, this was intranational.
Birdwood preferred Monash for the role and cabled Pearce to designate him
successor.[24]
But the Jewish/German Monash had enemies, and these enemies had friends in high
places. A campaign was started by three civilians: Bean, then official
correspondent, newsman Keith Murdoch and war artist Wil Dyson to deny Monash
the command. Bean long had in mind a particular, idealised view of the
Australian officer and Monash, the “middle aged, Jewish-Australian citizen-soldier”
did not fit this image.[25]

They
preferred General White, Birdwood’s chief of staff, who was the talent behind
Birdwood. Bean formed a close friendship with White at Gallipoli idolising him
as “universally considered [the] greatest Australian soldier”.[26]

They took this campaign to Birdwood and the
Prime minister, stating that there was a lack of confidence in the AIF in
Monash as commander and that the men preferred White.

Hughes’
visit to France in early July decided the matter. The Prime Minister wanted to
postpone the question of command of the corps but Monash pushed the matter, stating
that he would not voluntarily give up his command and that he “would regard any
such removal as a degradation and humiliation.”[27] Hughes met
with three of the Australian divisional commanders and several other senior AIF
officers while in France, all of whom were strongly in favour of Monash. White,
spoke to Hughes and told him that Monash was the most qualified man for the
position and that he wouldn’t take the corps command unless it was voluntarily
vacated by Monash and even then, only if he were ordered to assume command.[28] This
effectively ended the matter of the corps command.

Now
only administration remained in British hands. Murdoch, a close friend of
Hughes lobbied the PM to have Birdwood replaced. He felt that Birdwood, now in
charge of a British army, would be unable to adequately serve the interests of
the AIF, especially where those interests came into conflict with British
interests. Hughes cabled his cabinet on August 1st reminding them that
“Birdwood is now commanding an English Army. He looks to the War Office for his
orders… Where interests of Australia and Britain clash… for which will he
stand?”[29] These doubts over the ability of a
British general to stand up to the British government for the interests of
Australia is at odds with the attitude taken by the Australian government up to
that point. Where was the concern over Birdwood’s loyalties when he took
control of the AIF after Bridges’ death and where were the worries when he took
command of the Australian Corps?

This
turn towards an Australian nationalism was by 1918 more widespread in both the
military and political spheres, especially as the Canadians were, from mid-1917
under Canadian command in the field and in London. By the end of the war the
AIF was as Australian a formation as it was possible to be, given the
restraints on its service. It was barely able to outfit a single division in
1914 with sufficient equipment and artillery, let alone trained and experienced
officers and whatever sense of identity it had was thoroughly British. Both
within the government and the military there was a definite feeling of
‘Britishness’ that was inculcated by close imperial and cultural, and often
familial, ties. The interests of the AIF were inseparable from the interests of
the British Army and the British Empire. It was the conduct of the war itself
and the way in which the Australian soldier, both officer and man, interacted
that changed this relationship.

When
face to face with their English comrades, a distinction was made for Scottish
soldiers and Irish soldiers, Australians often found them wanting. Comments
were made about the short stature of British soldiers at Gallipoli and
perceived failures by British formations such as at Fromelles and in early 1918
further embittered Australian opinion.

This
sentiment grew, helped along by feelings of insufficient recognition and
frequent overuse in order to spare British units. By 1918 the increasing strain
of combat with the decreasing numbers of reinforcements coming from Australia
furthered the feelings of resentment and proved fertile ground for mythology.
Supported by the post-war writings of Bean, Murdoch and even Monash, the
publicly accepted view of Australia’s war has become that of a truly
nationalising event in which the British are seen as Australia’s enemies as
much as their German or Ottoman foes.

The
reality however remains distant. The AIF was an organisation bound by ties of
empire, race, culture and tradition, but also the more practical ones of
stature, youth and inexperience. It began the war as a willing participant,
just a single part of the British Empire, but one beginning to feel the confidence
of a youthful nation, in search of its own mythology.

The
myth of commanding and administering to the AIF diverged after the war from a
no less inspiring reality. A reality which required tapping into the Imperial
network to place trained, experienced and skilled officers in command of
enthusiastic but inexperienced and untrained civilian soldiers. Australia
simply did not have the men to staff and command the AIF. It took years of
tutelage in the harshest and most trying education of a brutal and costly war,
but the AIF did manage to gain an impressive level of military efficiency and
skill. British accounts show that the political complexities surrounding the
AIF were widely known and it was openly acknowledged, by Haig among many others
that Australians had to be treated with a certain level of consideration due to
their peculiar place in the BEF.[30] This willingness to listen
to Australian appeals, and the continual pressure of the Australian government,
prevented the AIF from ever becoming overrun with British officers and instead
demonstrated a process of gradual Australianisation that was accomplished
before the end of the war.

Far
from the monocled English colonel demanding a suicidal attack in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli – a colonel who was actually an
Australian – the role of British officers in the AIF was much more complex,
much less evident and far less sensational than we have ever been led to
believe.

[1]
Andrew Fisher ‘Last man, last shilling’ speech, 31 July 1914, National Archives
of Australia (NAA). Accessed 12/10/18

[2]
For more see Doug Delaney The Imperial
Army Project

[3]
Federal Register of Legislation, Defence
Act 1903,
Acts
as Made
accessed 15/10/18.

[4] Bean
C.E.W, The Official History of Australia
in the War of 1914-1918, Volume I:
The
story of Anzac
(St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press in
association with the Australian War Memorial, 1981). p.36

[5] Mallett,
Ros. The Interplay between
Technology, Tactics and Organisation in the First AIF
 (Master
of Arts thesis). University of New South Wales
1998. Accessed 17/10/18.

[6]
Sweeting, A.J. Harold B. Walker, Australian Dictionary of Biography, ANU. Accessed 31/10/18

[7]
See Birdwood Papers at the AWM, 3DRL/3376.        

[8]
Pearce to Birdwood, 11/9/1915. Field Marshall Lord Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376 7/2. Australian
War Memorial. Accessed 5/11/18.

[9] Clark,
Chris. ‘Legge, James Gordon (1863–1947)’,
Australian
Dictionary of Biography
, National Centre of Biography, Australian National
University, accessed online 17 October 2018.

[10] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.44

[11]
Connor, John. Anzac and Empire: George Foster Pearce and the Foundations of Australian
Defence
, Cambridge
University Press, Melbourne, 2011. p.65; Birdwood to Pearce, 29/1/16.
Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376
7/1 Part 1
, AWM. Accessed 5/11/18

[12]
Birdwood to Pearce, 29/1/16. Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376 7/1 Part 1,
AWM. Accessed 5/11/18.

[13] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.46

[14]
Birdwood to Pearce, 24/3/16. Birdwood Papers, 3DRL/3376
7/1 Part 1
– AWM. Accessed 5/11/18.

[15]
Quoted in Delaney, D, The Imperial Army
Project: Britain and the Land Forces of the Dominions and India 1902-1945,
Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 2017. p.138

[16] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.46

[17]
Lynden-Bell to Maurice, 2/2/1916. Arthur Lynden-Bell Papers, Imperial War
Museum, Doc.76826b

[18] Bean,
C. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 – Volume III, p.46

[19]
Ibid

[20]
Birdwood to Pearce 2/6/17. Birdwood Papers 3DRL/3376 7/1 Part 2,
AWM. Accessed 6/11/18

[21]
Ibid

[22]Carlyon, Les. The
Great War
. Picador, Sydney, 2007. pp.533

[23]
Lesslie, William. Randwick to Hargicourt,
Preface.

[24]
Pearce to Birdwood 20/6/18. Birdwood Papers 3DRL/3376 7/2. Accessed
5/11/18

[25]Bean, C. Official History of Australia in the War of
1914–1918 – Volume VI, pp.185

[26]Serle, G. John Monash: A biography. pp.322

[27]Serle, G. John Monash: A biography. pp.326

[28]Smithers, A.J. Sir John Monash. pp.211

[29]
Hughes to Australian Cabinet, 1st August, 1918. AA A6006 1918/8/7

[30]
Lynden-Bell to Maurice, 2/2/1916. Arthur Lynden-Bell Papers, Imperial War
Museum, Doc.76826b

Coup in Omsk

Kolchak inspecting his troops, later in the Russian Civil War.

November 18 1918, Omsk–The Provisional All-Russian Government, an attempt to unify the Komuch (the leftovers of the Constituent Assembly) with the other, more right-wing White forces in Siberia, satisfied neither side.  Both compared it unfavorably to Kerensky’s government in 1917–the left for unnecessarily including the right when they clearly had the people’s support, and the right for including the left when their policies had led to Russia’s collapse.  

In the wee hours of November 18, Cossack forces broke up an SR meeting and arrested the attendees, including both SR members of the Provisional All-Russian Government.  That morning, what was left of the government (which was now purged of left-wingers) installed Admiral Kolchak, former head of the Black Sea Fleet, as Supreme Leader.  The prospect of reassembling the Constituent Assembly–and with it many of the anti-Bolshevik’s claims to democratic legitimacy–were ended.  The SRs, whose main program was support for the Constituent Assembly and expulsion of the occupying Germans, were dealt a twin blow in mid-November; many would quietly drop their opposition to the Bolsheviks in the coming months.

Kolchak had been effectively exiled by Kerensky in the summer of 1917 for counter-revolutionary intrigues, having been sent on a military mission to the United States.  This meant, a year later, that he was one of the few notable military leaders available in Siberia.  After having spent a year waiting in Manchuria, he only arrived in Omsk in October, and had been made the Provisional All-Russian Government’s War Minister on November 4.  It is unclear how much Kolchak was actively involved in the coup, though it seems unlikely that he did anything to discourage it.

The Czechs, who had always been allies of the Komuch, protested the coup, but took no action against it; at this point, most of them just wanted to get home to their newly-independent country.  The British were often blamed by the Soviets for their supposed involvement in the coup, though they likely did not explicitly participate.  They likely knew of it, however, and British troops did take up positions to prevent a possible counter-coup against Kolchak that day.

Kolchak issued a personal manifesto that day:

The Provisional All-Russian Government has come to an end. The Council of Ministers, having all the power in its hands, has invested me, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, with this power. Taking up the cross of this power in the exceptionally difficult conditions of civil war and the complete breakdown of state life I declare: I will not go either on the road of reaction or on the fatal road of party politics.  I set as my chief aim the creation of an efficient army, victory over the Bolsheviks, and the establishment of law and order, so that the people can choose for itself, without obstruction, the form of government which it desires and realize the great ideals of liberty which are now proclaimed all over the world. 

The White movement was now under the control of the generals and admirals.

Sources include: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War.

Hungary Signs Armistice With Allies

November 13 1918, Belgrade–Hungary was left in an especially awkward position by the end of the war.  Karólyi’s new government declared independence from Austria-Hungary at the end of October, and hoped they would be treated as a new state looking for self-determination on the same basis that the Czechoslovaks and the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes were.  On the other hand, Hungary had been an equal partner in Austria-Hungary.  At a meeting on November 7 between Károlyi and Franchet D’Espérey in Belgrade, the Allies made their position quite clear: Hungary was a defeated belligerent, not a neutral–and Károlyi’s claims of representing all of Hungary were undercut by Hungary’s long history of oppression of its Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovak minorities.

After the armistice at Compiègne, the Allies continued to advance north of the Danube, though it is unlikely they met much resistance; the Hungarians, in their own view, had already exited the war.  At 11:15PM on November 13, the Hungarians agreed to armistice terms similar to those Austria-Hungary had agreed to ten days earlier.  The Hungarians would evacuate all territory corresponding to modern-day Croatia and Serbia, as well as much of Translyvania (up to the river Mureș).  The Allies (including the Serbians and Romanians) would have the right to occupy whatever strategic points were deemed necessary and have free use of the railways.  All German troops were to leave Hungary by November 18 (an unrealistic deadline, especially for Mackenen’s troops that were still in Romania).  At the insistence of the Hungarians, the armistice did not specify a time it would take effect on the front, merely declaring that “Hostilities between the Allies and Hungary have ceased.”

Today in 1917: Royal Navy Makes Plans for Italian Separate Peace

Today in 1916: Battle of the Ancre
Today in 1915: Kitchener Visits Gallipoli
Today in 1914: Tales of Roland Garros’ Exploits

Sources include: Alan Palmer, The Gardeners of Salonika; Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I; Bogdan Krizman, The Belgrade Armistice of 13 November 1918.

FAIL! COLUMBIA! Too proud to fight, too right …

FAIL! COLUMBIA!
Too proud to fight, too right to right a wrong;
Too wise to walk with wisdom, too mighty to be strong;
Fail! Columbia!

A cartoon satirizing the United States in 1916. From the diary of Lieutenant General T Snow.

Republic Declared in Austria

Territories claimed by the Republic of German-Austria.  In addition to modern-day Austria (excepting Burgenland, at that time still in Hungary), it included South Tyrol (already occupied by the Italians) and the Sudetenland.

November 12 1918, Vienna–In the last two weeks of the war, Austria-Hungary had very quickly broken apart.  The Hungarian part of the empire split off entirely (and was itself under threat from the advancing Allies).  The new State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs had taken over much of what now forms Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and parts of northern Serbia.  Czechoslovakia declared independence and Kraków and the surrounding area had pledged allegiance to a new Polish state under Piłsudski.  The Ukrainians had established themselves in Lviv (though not without resistance from the Poles), while the Romanians had entered Bukovina and were preparing to move into Transylvania and the Italians had occupied  Trento, South Tyrol, and the Austrian Littoral (including Trieste and large parts of present-day Slovenia).  Even the German-populated portion of the empire was breaking away; on October 21, well before the other declarations of independence, the German Austrians had formed their own national committee.

When it became clear that none of his subjects wanted him anymore, Emperor Charles decided not to fight for his throne, ignoring pleas from Boroević to let him bring his army to Vienna to restore order.  On November 11, Charles, in a carefully-worded proclamation, announced that “I renounce all part in state affairs”–not technically an abdication, but it was taken as such.  On November 12, the German Austrian national committee declared the existence of the Republic of German-Austria, under the leadership of the Social Democrats.  German nationalism had been growing in Austria during the war, and it was commonly assumed that the new Republic would quickly join with Germany (as the new State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs would join with Serbia).  The provisional constitution, issued on the same day, stated that “German-Austria is an integral part of the German republic.”  The next day, they began negotiations with Germany regarding a union, and they soon appealed for Wilson’s support on the basis of national self-determination.  The Allies were less than enthusiastic about enlarging defeated Germany, however, and made sure the union did not take place.

Today in 1917: Kerensky’s Attempt to Retake Petrograd Fails
Today in 1916: Germany Expresses Interest in Mexican U-Boat Base

Today in 1915: Russians Land in Persia as Germans Negotiate with Shah
Today in 1914: Boer Rebel De Wet Defeated at Mushroom Valley

Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel; Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

The Future of Today in World War I

image

Armistice celebrations in Philadelphia, a city which only weeks before had been effectively shut down due to the flu.

November 11 2018, Arlington–After 1568 days, the war has finally come to an end.  At the time, however, it was not completely obvious that this would be a permanent end to the war.  After all, the armistice at Brest-Litovsk was called off by the Germans after the Russians walked out of peace talks, resulting in thirteen days of renewed fighting on the Eastern Front before a final treaty was signed.  In fact, Ludendorff had originally hoped that an armistice would let the Germans regroup behind their own borders and let them secure better peace terms than defeat and invasion of Germany would.  Groener was under no such illusions, and the terms of the Compiègne Armistice, including the occupation of the Rhineland and surrender of the bulk of the German fleet, did their best to ensure that the Germans could not viably reject the resulting peace terms by force.

In the rest of Europe, the end of the war was not as neat as on the Western Front.  In particular, Hungary, which had declared independence from Austria at the end of October, was still considered a belligerent by the Allies, though they were no longer resisting the advance of the Allies into territories claimed by the Serbs and Romanians.  The Allies still had a significant presence in Russia (though the Czechs had lost interest after Czechoslovak independence), and the civil war between the Reds and the Whites still raged.  The political future of the states that had once formed Russia’s western frontier was now extremely unclear, as the German occupation there would presumably soon end.  In the Ottoman Empire, the Allies planned to occupy Constantinople and large parts of the country.

As a result, Today In WWI plans to cover the aftermath of the war going forward, though posts will no longer always be on a daily basis.  I expect coverage to continue, if in an increasingly-sporadic fashion, until at least early 1923.


When I started this blog on a whim on June 29, 2014, the day after the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, I honestly did not expect I would make it all the way to the Armistice.  I definitely could not have made it without extensive help and support from many people, and I especially want to thank:

  • My wife, for her unfailing support over the last 4+ years, including searches for topics for posts on quieter days in the war, and acquiring a signed copy of Gene Fax’s With Their Bare Hands.
  • My parents, for being two of my most devoted readers and for many helpful books they have provided as gifts, forming the backbone of my collection.
  • My Aunt Sherry and my father-in-law, for additional books.
  • The libraries of Arlington County, Hennepin County, the University of Minnesota, and MIT, for their extensive collections.
  • Williams College, for continued access to JSTOR.
  • Wikipedia, for general (and, more times than I’d care to admit, specific) information.
  • The collections of the Imperial War Museum.
  • Randal Gray and Christopher Argyle, whose two-volume Chronicle of the First World War was especially invaluable.
  • And my many devoted readers, without whom I likely would not have continued the project past 1914.  Particular thanks to (among others) @darthmarx, @someoneinla, @yger, @qsy-complains-a-lot, and especially my comrade-in-arms @greatwar-1914 for their feedback and help over the years.

If you somehow haven’t had enough World War I coverage over the last four years and want to learn more, check out my Further Reading section for books that I found especially interesting and useful during the process. 

Highlights of Today in WWI

The highlights of the war, as chosen by you, the readers:

10: 

The Only Christmas Truce of 1915 (12/25/15)

9: 

The “Silent Raid” (10/19/17)

8:

Battle of the St Quentin Canal

(9/29/18)

7:

The Lost Battalion (10/2/18)

6: 

The Halifax Explosion (12/6/17)

5: 

Marines Capture Belleau Wood (6/25/18)

4: 

The Czar Abdicates (3/15/17)

3:  Bolsheviks Kill the Czar and His Family (7/17/18)

2: 

The Armistice (11/11/18)

1: 

First Use of “OMG” (9/9/17)

The State of the World at the Armistice

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The Allied gains on the Western Front in the “Hundred Days” from August 8 to November 11.

The last four months of the war were marked by impressive Allied victories and revolution in three of the four Central Powers.  The Tsar of Bulgaria was forced out in favor of his son, the Hohenzollerns in Germany were overthrown, and Austria-Hungary completely disintegrated.

The Russian Civil War:

The Bolsheviks’ one-time allies, the Left SRs, turned against them in protest at their continuing collaboration with the Germans.  Turning back to “propaganda of the deed,” they assassinated the German ambassador in Moscow and the German military governor of occupied Ukraine.  Although the Bolsheviks soon cracked down on the Left SRs, they were weakened, and Komuch and Czech forces were able to take large stretches of the Volga, including Kazan.  In response, the Reds moved forces that had been defending Petrograd from a possible German advance, and retook Kazan within a month.  By the Armistice, the Komuch’s military power had largely been destroyed, and their Czech allies just wanted to return home to their newly-independent country.

Further south, the Don Cossacks threatened Tsaritsyn [Volograd], though Germany’s exit would deprive them of a key ally.  The Volunteer Army took Ekaterinodar in August, largely securing the Kuban, though Alexeyev’s death in October deprived them of a crucial figure who could garner international attention.  SR-aligned forces seized power in much of Turkmenistan, and quickly gained support from British forces in Persia.  The Allies intervened more heavily in Russia, securing Archangel, pushing south from Murmansk, and greatly expanding their presence in and around Vladivostok.  In response to these setbacks and an assassination attempt against Lenin, the Reds increasingly turned to terror as a hallmark of their rule.

Africa:

Lettow-Vorbeck continued his campaign in Mozambique, nearly reaching Quelimane before turning back north.  At the end of September, his forces crossed the Rovuma again, returning to German East Africa for the first time in nearly a year.  By November, his forces had entered Northern Rhodesia [Zambia], where he would learn of the Armistice on the 13th.

The Balkans:

The Italians went on the offensive in Albania in July, but their gains were mostly reversed by an Austrian offensive (the last one by the Central Powers in Europe) in August.  On September 15, the Allied Army of the Orient launched a great offensive in Macedonia, breaking through the Bulgarian defenders.  A general withdrawal, decided a few days later, quickly turned into a rout, and the Bulgarians quickly sued for an armistice.  By the time it was signed on September 29, French cavalry had reached as far as Skopje.  The Serbians quickly pushed further north into their country, taking Nish by October 10 and Belgrade by the end of the month.  In November, they pushed across the Danube, joining their Serb, Croat, and Slovene compatriots in Austria-Hungary that had already declared independence.  Meanwhile, French forces advanced north via Bulgarian railroads and crossed the Danube into occupied Romania on November 10; Romania re-joined the war on the same day, and made plans to liberate their own territory and move into Transylvania.  Hungary did not consider the armistice Austria concluded to be binding on them, though negotiations for an armistice with Hungary were well under way by the time of the Armistice at Compiègne.

The Ottoman Empire:

The Turks turned their main attention towards Baku, taking the city from its Armenian and British defenders in mid-September.  Dreams of pushing on further into Persia or even across the Caspian into Central Asia were overtaken by events elsewhere.

Allenby’s forces broke through in Palestine on September 19, and British cavalry surrounded and effectively destroyed two Turkish armies.  They soon took Damascus (together with Feisal’s Arab forces), and by the end of October had pushed beyond Aleppo.  In late October, the British attacked in northern Mesopotamia as well, destroying much of the Turkish defending force.  The Bulgarian collapse, however, was what forced Turkey out of the war, due to the threat that the British could just march on Constantinople by land.  After the most-prominent CUP leaders (the “Young Turks”) were forced out of office, the Turks concluded an armistice with the Allies on October 30.  The Allies occupied Mosul on November 4, and would arrive in Constantinople by land and sea on November 12.

Italy and Austria-Hungary:

The Italians, still cautious after Caporetto, did not decide to join in the general Allied offensives, and did not attack until late October.  At this point, Austria-Hungary was quickly falling apart–a move by Emperor Charles to quickly federalize the Austrian half of the empire had backfired, and Wilson had made it clear that any acceptable peace with Austria-Hungary would require Czechoslovak and Yugoslav independence.  By the time an armistice was concluded in early November, Austria-Hungary had essentially ceased to exist: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and a State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs had all declared independence with no real opposition.  Austria’s Polish territories had pledged allegiance to an independent Poland, which was still in the process of forming on November 11.  Ukrainian forces took control of Lviv, though fighting quickly broke out between the Ukrainians and the local Polish population.  The Italians, meanwhile, had occupied all of South Tyrol and were moving into the “Austrian Littoral”–including large swathes of territory home to Slovenes and Croats with no love for the occupying Italian forces.

The War at Sea:

Armistice negotiations forced the German government to cease its unrestricted submarine warfare in October.  In response, Scheer and Hipper planned a final sortie by the High Seas Fleet, in an attempt to deal as much damage to the British as possible before the Armistice.  The sailors on board the fleet, however, had other ideas, and extensive mutinies forced the plan to be cancelled and the fleet to be dispersed.  The mutineers, however, soon took control of the ports they had been sent to, starting a wave of revolution that quickly spread across Germany and toppled the German monarchy.

The Italians had one final success of their guerilla naval tactics in the final days of the war, when frogmen sank the dreadnought Viribus Unitis on November 1; a day earlier, it had been handed over to the new State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, though the Italians were not aware of this at the time.

The Western Front:

The Germans launched their final offensive, hoping to outflank Rheims from both sides, on July 15.  The Allies counterattacked three days later, however, and soon retook, after intense fighting, most of the ground that had been lost in May.  On August 8, the British attacked from Amiens, advancing up to nine miles; Ludendorff called it “The Black Day of the German Army.”  By the beginning of September, the Germans had been forced back to the Hindenburg Line.

In mid-September, the Americans, in their first major independent operation, took the St Mihiel salient, a quick victory as the Germans had been busy preparing an evacuation of the salient.  There was no effort to follow up on the victory and push towards Metz, however, as Pershing had committed to an offensive on the other side of the Meuse later in the month.  The Meuse-Argonne Offensive, launched on September 26, was considerably less successful; the Americans would take extremely heavy casualties for only small gains.  Other near-simultaneous Allied offensives had better luck, however–the Canadians on the Canal du Nord, a combined Allied force in Belgium, and, most dramatically, a British attack on the St. Quentin Canal.  These combined offensives, along with Bulgaria’s sudden exit, sent Ludendorff into a panic and led him to call for an immediate armistice.  Although he would later walk this back, the damage was done; the explicit appeal, issued on October 3, made it much less likely that the Central Powers’ forces could continue to resist in a war they were clearly losing.

The Allies made steady progress throughout October, especially in Flanders, where the seacoast was liberated by the 20th.  Ludendorff was sacked on October 26 after sending an insubordinate telegram to the troops rejecting an armistice and urging continued “resistance with all our strength.” Another set of combined offensives in early November–the Americans and French in the Meuse-Argonne, the Canadians at Valenciennes, and the British on the Sambre-Oise canal–broke through the improvised German positions.  Ludendorff’s replacement, General Groener, ordered a full retreat to the Meuse-Antwerp position, though he did not believe it could hold the Allies for long.  The Americans had already crossed the Meuse, and were preparing for an offensive towards Metz set for November 14.  General Foch received a German armistice delegation on the 8th, which was empowered to sign the Allied terms by Chancellor Ebert after the Kaiser’s forced abdication.  

Influenza

In the meantime, the Spanish Flu had its third and deadliest wave.  Ultimately, the flu would kill more people than the war.

Today in 1917: Ludendorff Decides on 1918 Offensive in West

Today in 1918: Germans Launch Offensive Through Carpathians; Rommel in the Vanguard
Today in 1915: Churchill Resigns After Exclusion from New War Committee
Today in 1914: Final German Push at Ypres

Sources for today’s earlier post include: Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; Gary Mead, The Doughboys.

The Armistice

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Foch (center, with cane) and Wemyss (to the immediate left) pictured outside the train car in which the armistice was signed.

November 11 1918, Compiègne–The German armistice delegation at Compiègne had attempted to secure better terms, but had failed at doing so, apart from a slight extension of the two-week timeframe to evacuate Belgium, France, and Alsace-Lorraine.  On November 10, they received notification that the Kaiser had abdicated, and received instruction from the new Chancellor, Ebert, that they were to sign the armistice as they were.  Shortly after 5AM local time (GMT) on the 11th, Erzberger, the other Germans, Foch, and Wemyss signed the armistice.  The armistice was slated to go into effect six hours after the signing (backdated to 5AM), at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Fighting continued until 11AM across the front, though dampened by rain that day.  Gunner B.O. Stokes, with the New Zealand Field Artillery, recalled:

We heard the announcement of the Armistice when we were still in the Forest de Mormal on a cheerless, dismal, cold, misty day.  There was no cheering or demonstration.  We were all tired in body and mind, fresh from the tragic fields of battle, and this momentous announcement was too vast in its consequences to be appreciated or accepted with wild excitement.  We trekked out of the wood on this dreary day in silence.

In some sectors, six hours was not enough time to convey news of the armistice to troops in the thick of fighting.  Parts of 89th Division, which had attacked at 4AM that morning, did not stop fighting until noon.  There are no known reports of any shooting continuing beyond 12:30 in the afternoon.

I leave you with a recollection from American Private Frank W. Groves:

At the front our days and nights were filled with the sounds and smells of the bombardment.  Never were we free of it and we had learned to live with it.  On November 11 at 11:00 am those sounds and vibrations abruptly stopped.  The quietness that followed was awesome; you could feel it – almost smell and taste it.  There was no singing, no shouting, no laughter; we just stood around and looked and listened.

Romania Re-Enters the War

King Ferdinand re-enters Bucharest on December 1, accompanied by General Berthelot.

November 10 1918, Iași–Since Bulgaria’s collapse, the Romanians had quietly been preparing to re-enter the war.  With most of their country occupied, however, doing so before linking up with the French advancing north through Bulgaria would have been a disastrous move; the Germans and Austro-Hungarians could have crushed them with little effort.  By the second week of November, however, the situation had changed.  Austria-Hungary had left the war (even if Hungary’s status was still in question), and Germany was actively negotiating armistice terms with the Allies.  If the Romanians wanted a seat at the peace table and the gains they wanted from Bulgaria and Hungary, re-entry into the war would greatly help them.  However, even if the Germans were no longer in a condition to attack the Romanians, they could still carry out severe damage in occupied Romania.

Nevertheless, the Romanians announced an immediate mobilization and sent an ultimatum to General Mackensen, demanding that all German troops leave Romania within 24 hours.  Mackensen’s forces were already doing so, to prevent being cut off from Germany by Austria-Hungary’s exit, but such a short timeline was impossible.  At dawn on the 10th, French forces crossed the Danube into German-occupied Romania; the Germans offered only desultory resistance.  Romanian troops had already begun moving into Bukovina (in the former Austrian half of the empire) at the invitation of local Romanian councils, and on November 10 the Romanian National Council in Transylvania similarly invited the Romanian army to intervene there.

At the expiry of the ultimatum on November 10, Romania declared war on Germany, less than twenty-four hours before the general armistice.  What little fighting there was ended when the news of the armistice reached Romania on the 12th.

Today in 1917: Battle of Passchendaele Ends

Today in 1916: German Raid on Gulf of Finland Catastrophically Fails
Today in 1915: Fourth Battle of the Isonzo
Today in 1914: Germans Take Dixmude

Sources include: Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I.