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100D #5 | Yeats Refuses to Declare

20 Oct

During the course of reading a marvelous new volume just out this year from the Bodleian Library — From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-Hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916 — I was thrilled to discover something that sheds another sliver of light onto the matter of the Authors’ Declaration of 1914.

It comes in the form of a letter to the eminent classicist Sir Gilbert Murray from the influential Irish poet W.B. Yeats.  I think it is a mark of the direction in which history has unfolded that Yeats should need no contextualizing hyperlink while Murray surely does, but in their time it was Murray who was the titan and Yeats still the rising star.  In this letter, we discover that Yeats had been asked by Murray to endorse the Authors’ Declaration with his signature — but Yeats refused.

Here is the text of that letter, dated 15 September 1914:

Dear Murray,

No.  I am sorry, but No.  I long for the defeat of the Germans but your manifesto reads like an extract from the newspapers, and newspapers are liars.  What have we novelists, poets, whatever we are, to do with them?

First: I don’t know whether England or Germany brought on this war, and you don’t.  Diplomatic documents published in the White Book deal with matters of form.  The question is whether Germany has as England believes been arming for years to wage war on England, or whether as Germany believes, England has surrounded her with hostile alliances waiting their moment to attack, through which she had to force her way at the first likely moment.  That knowledge will be kept by secret diplomacy for a good many years to come.

Second: I cannot see who this document is going to influence.  It has every sign of its origin ‘drawn up to include as many people as possible’ that is to say to be something which nobody will wholeheartedly believe, and which looks all its insincerity.  If a manifesto is to move anybody the man who made it must at least believe in it.  I would gladly join with you if you would get up a declaration against secret diplomacy when the time comes, or get up a manifesto demanding some responsible investigation of German outrages.  The present campaign may result in reprisals that will make this war more shameful than that of the Balkans.

There should be no anonymous charges, and when the war is over the whole question of atrocities by whatever nation committed should be sifted out by the Hague or some other tribunal.  It doesn’t seem possible to doubt the atrocities in many cases, but one hopes that investigation would prove that great numbers of German commanders and soldiers have behaved with humanity.  I gather from stray allusions in the Press that the Germans are carrying on an atrocity campaign not only against the Belgians but against the French and English.

Yours sincerely

WB Yeats.

There is much in this that will already seem familiar to the anti-propagandist reader of the modern age — the skepticism of newspaper accounts, the condemnation of ‘secret diplomacy’, the dismissal of the Declaration‘s power on account of its seeming banality.  Yeats, in this letter, is very much a man ahead of his time.

Still, it is possible to be too much ahead of one’s time.  Modern scholarship — in volumes like John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities 1914 (2001), Jeff Lipkes’ Rehearsals (2007), and Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction (2007) — has shown that the vicious destruction of Belgium was all too real an event, and Yeats would have stood upon firm ground in condemning it if his qualms about the manifesto in question had been less fervent.

This is not a rarity, though.  Many at the time were suspicious of claims focused on German atrocities in Belgium, believing them to be likely propaganda inventions.  This notion was further cemented in the years following the war, with volumes like Irene Cooper Willis’ England’s Holy War (1928) and Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in War-Time (1928) insisting that such claims were the fatuous inventions of Allied propagandists.  History has proven otherwise, but this only lends further flavour to Yeats’ contemporary refusal.

100D #4 | The Recruitment Ads of Sir Hedley Le Bas

3 Jun

The fourth installment of my ongoing series, The First World War in 100 Documents, is now available at Oxford’s WW1C blog.  In it — inspired by the contents of yet another gift book — I take a look at some of the recruitment ads devised by the prolific Sir Hedley Le Bas (1868 – 1926).  One such ad appears below:

five questions better

The full piece refers to others as well, and looks back as well to a recruitment ad from 1802 calling upon the men of Manchester to join the army and travel at once to Gibraltar.  Be sure to click through to check it out.

100D #3 | Advertising King Albert’s Book

30 May

The latest installment in this series has been cross-posted at Oxford’s WW1C blog — you can check it out here.  An excerpt:

The ad is not so much a tantalizing description of the book as it is an exercise in propagandistic persuasion.  The emphatic declaration at the ad’s outset that the book will “help put on record for all time the true and only reason for which the Allies have drawn the sword” reads like a press release from the agency with which this blog shares its name — and may very well actually have been, given that Hall Caine had been enthusiastically involved with the Bureau from its very inception.

A great deal of rhetorical effort is expended in emphasizing the volume’s unique and international character.  It could be “the most remarkable production that has ever issued from the press” — “a book to treasure now, and to hand down to one’s children,” because “perhaps nothing of its kind will ever appear again.”  This has turned out to be somewhat true; we have many imperfect analogues to the “gift book” craze in the modern day (like celebrity telethons, perhaps, or the Live Aid concert), but not to the same extent and with the same dizzying popularity as these volumes achieved at the turn of the 20th century.  The volume was certainly quite unique in its comprehensive breadth, as we’ve already seen, but it was its international flair — and the spirit of co-operation between “civilized” nations that it promoted — that was a primary focus.

I’ll be taking a look at King Albert’s Book itself in an upcoming installment, so stay tuned (so to speak).


31 Jul

A quick note to say that a revised version of the Lettow-Vorbeck piece from a couple of days ago is now available to read at Oxford’s WWI Centenary Blog.

A very different 1st

30 Jul

Just a short little thing for the moment, offering a further extract from a book I mentioned in my previous post (that is, Palmer and Wallis’ Intimate Voices from the First World War, 2003).

The First Day on the Somme (July 1st, 1916) has become a byword for catastrophe, nightmare and grim, pointless death.  It is the very avatar of suffering, and this conception of it — though incredibly oversimplified — is more or less impossible to escape when discussing the date in question.

Still, it’s interesting to consider what the day meant for other people.  John Terraine astutely noted in The Smoke and the Fire (1980) that the 1st day on the Somme was also the 132nd day on Verdun — a thing well worth remembering.  But what about experiences still further removed?

What follows is a very short passage from the wartime journal of Capt. Douglas “Duggie” Lyall Grant, a 28-year-old London man of Scottish extraction.  He had served for the first two years of the war as an embarkation officer in Bolougne — a relatively benign position not likely to see him end up on the Somme, but work with me here — but unhappily found himself captured by the Germans in June of 1916.  He ended up, initially, at the POW camp at Gütersloh in German Westphalia, and very quickly found it to his liking.  His companions were congenial, there were plenty of activities, and he no longer had to worry very much about taking care of himself.

This leads us to his journal entry for July 1st, 1916.  Contrast this with the Opening of the Somme:

1st July: Dominion Day, which was celebrated by the Canadians by a game of baseball in the morning and a dinner at night, both very noisy entertainments.  The French lesson got a miss for tennis and in the afternoon I watched our Hockey Team defeat the Russians’ 1st by 15-12, the 12 being their handicap.

I… yeah.

It would be worth also examining his next entry.

3rd July: This afternoon, in the company of thirty-nine others, I went for a walk.  This is a new idea, mutual arrangement between British, French and German Governments, by which officers give their parole not to escape while out walking, and in return no guard is sent with them but only one man as a guide.  We have parole cards which we sign and give up on our return.  We go out in batches of forty twice a week.  The crops looked to be good but we saw practically no men and certainly no young ones, while the ladies of the district must be noted more for their rotundity than their beauty.

The journal goes on in much the same vein until his release in April of 1918.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: A Different View

29 Jul

For those of you who have never read the articles at, I can’t say I would heartily recommend the experience.  While they’re of some value, sometimes, in bringing to popular attention subjects and people that might otherwise languish in obscurity, the quality of the treatment accorded such things is very, very uneven.

This is doubly true of their articles on historical matters, and trebly true for military historical ones.  The tendency is towards flash and sensation and the “badass” — all well and good, I guess, but it is not worth the steep cost of nuance that every single article seems so cheerfully to pay.

One article that’s been making the rounds for a while is this one — Five Soldiers Who Kicked Ass in the Face of Death (and Logic).  The article has been viewed some 875,000 times.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the first page, you’ll see that no. 3 on their list is the German general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964), a legitimately remarkable character who served with distinction in the German East African campaign of World War One, and largely refused to serve with any distinction at all under the Third Reich.  His dislike of Hitler was well-known and cost him much of his reputation in Germany, at the time.

It’s the East African Campaign with which we are most concerned, here, and specifically with the hopelessly rosy view of it that the linked article paints.  Remember, this has been read over 800,000 times, and likely constitutes the first and only exposure of many of its readers to the person of Lettow-Vorbeck and to the East African Campaign.

The first claim of substance is true enough: Lettow-Vorbeck was ordered to maintain neutrality in East Africa as much as possible and to refrain from prosecuting a campaign there.  This was from his military superiors; the German governor of the colony similarly ordered him to stand down, worried that war in East Africa would have a serious and negative impact on the local economy.  Lettow-Vorbeck defied these orders in a bid to keep the Allied forces there locked down for as long as possible, and over the course of four long years he led them on a merry chase through jungles, down rivers, up cliffs and into thin air.  By the time the war was over, very little of Lettow-Vorbeck’s ragtag army remained — but it had not been defeated.  He formally surrendered on November 25th, 1918, waiting only for confirmation of the Armistice to reach him.

That does sound pretty amazing — so what’s the problem?

There are a few things worth noting, here, and the first of them is the article’s claim about Lettow-Vorbeck’s victory at the Battle of Tanga.  He apparently “handed the British their asses even though he was outnumbered eight to one.”  It is true that it was a remarkable action, and that LV and his army did indeed hold Tanga in the end, but there’s an element of luck involved in this that the article utterly fails to note.  The British attack on Tanga was sent into disarray by the sudden and explosive presence of African bees, which flew around stinging soldiers in the hundreds and sending a ripple of panic through the line.  To make matters worse, LV faced not seasoned British regulars but largely green and just-arrived colonial Indian troops.  This is to say nothing against the bravery of colonial troops generally, I wish to be absolutely clear, but a very important component of the defeat of the British attack on Tanga was the morale collapse and headlong rout of entire battalions of Indian infantry.

To make matters still more complicated, as we learn from the diaries of Dr. Ludwig Deppe — who was attached to LV’s army for the whole of the war, running the mobile sickbay — the initial assault on Tanga resulted in a truce after British shells accidentally landed on the hospital in Tanga where Dr. Deppe was working.  His meeting with the British envoy, the equally interesting Richard Meinertzhagen, inadvertently revealed the amazing news that the British planned to withdraw — a welcome discovery indeed for the German forces, who were convinced they were going to be overrun and who had intended to withdraw themselves as soon as possible.  Vorbeck’s troops were actually in the process of leaving the city when Dr. Deppe, suddenly realizing what one of Meinertzhagen’s remarks had meant, ran out into the street to call them back.

Is this really “handing the British their asses even though he was outnumbered eight to one?”

Of the rest of LV’s campaign I have little to say except as a thumbnail sketch.  The article doesn’t go into much more detail about it than I already provided earlier in the post, apart from pausing to note that he cobbled together artillery from guns salvaged from a sunken ship.  This is admittedly pretty cool.  LV and his forces spent the next four years racing around through the jungle, one step ahead of their enemies, pausing only to conduct lightning strikes against their much larger pursuers when and where they were least expected.  It does have the air of romance to it, and I completely understand why people are so happy to read about this.

But it comes at a price.  A terrible, often unspoken price.

The nature of the terrain over which this “war” was fought made transport extremely difficult.  Trucks were right out, as were boats, planes, any large number of horses or mules — even airships, though heaven knows they tried.  LV’s army had no lines of provision, no access to resupply, no home base, and no possibility of evacuation.  Attempts to resupply him from the air or by sea were thwarted by a strict British blockade and by Belgian troops holding much of the shoreline.  LV and his army were on their own.

Except, of course, that they really weren’t.

I mentioned above that transport was difficult, but all of their existing provisions, weapons, tents, medical supplies, tools, and artillery had to be moved around somehow.  It had to be carried on human backs — specifically, on East African backs.  These porters were culled from every village and town that could be found as the armies made their way through the bush.  Many went willingly, enticed by the promise of pay and adventure, or in the hopes of currying favour with the colonizers; many were pressed into service, or functionally left with no choice after their homes were destroyed in the running battles between LV’s men and his British, Belgian, Portuguese and South African pursuers.  Those pursuers needed porters too, make no mistake, and rather more of them than LV’s dwindling army did.  In all, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 700,000 East African porters were used between the two armies.

So, what were the consequences of this?

Catastrophe.  Black, bloody catastrophe of the most callous sort imaginable.

In the course of conducting his wholly unnecessary war — Lettow-Vorbeck had been ordered not to do this, remember — the combined German and Allied armies in the East African campaign worked between 200,000 and 400,000 native porters to death.  They died in unthinkable numbers, killed off by malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, accident, combat, reprisal and even execution for “desertion”.

Did it end there?  Of course it didn’t.

Apart from this massive wave of human depletion, one of the effects of having hundreds of thousands of men stamping around through a jungle for four years is that a lot of supplies were consumed.  LV and his army had no possibility of resupply, so they only survived by stripping the jungle bare of edible plant and animal life, when they could, and by regularly looting East African villages and towns that they passed.  For the Allied armies the situation was somewhat better, given the existence of a supply train, but it is impossible for the multi-annual passage of so many people through a region this small not to have a dramatic impact.

The despoliation undertaken by these armies during their wholly unnecessary jaunt left East Africa in a state of famine.  The food had all been eaten; rivers were corrupted, wells were drained.  Agriculture collapsed in many areas owing to all of the able-bodied men having been carried off as porters, and this absence would also have severe demographic consequences in the generations to come.  Cramped conditions in hastily-constructed prison camps for captured porters who refused to switch sides eventually saw the Spanish flu cut through them like a scythe.  Taken all together, this resulted in the post-war death over the next several years of another estimated 300,000 people — this, too, a direct consequence of Lettow-Vorbeck’s refusal to stomach the possibility of surrender and the Allied refusal to give up the pursuit.

So, to conclude, yes — it’s all very cool, I guess, but perhaps only up to a point.

[With credit to Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis’ Intimate Voices from the First World War (2003) for references to Deppe’s and Meinertzhagen’s journals]

More on Raymond Asquith, sort of

31 May

Previously I posted a short meditation from Raymond Asquith on his erstwhile colleague Julian Grenfell, one of the war’s more militant poets.  Both men died in the war, much to the detriment of English letters, but I haven’t had much to say about Asquith himself just yet.  I hope to in time (he’s no end of interesting), but for the moment here’s another short snippet in the same spirit as the earlier post.

Maurice Baring (who thankfully did NOT die in the war), in a letter to Dame Ethel Smyth, Sept. 20th, 1916:

“Life is a strain now, isn’t it? Scaffolding falls about one daily, one’s old friends and one’s new friends are killed or disappear like flies; the floor of life seems to have gone, and one seems to live in a permanent eclipse and a seasonless world – a world with no summer and no winter, only a long, grey, neutral-tinted Limbo. Raymond Asquith is the latest. I was certain he would be killed. I dined with him the night before he went back to his regiment after a spell at G.H.Q. – I felt I would never see him again…”

This sense of loss was one that was felt keenly throughout all the world as the war continued to expand and consume, expand and consume.

Brittain, Kipling(s), Roosevelt

20 May

Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge have edited a fantastic volume of wartime letters that were sent to and among Vera Brittain’s intimate circle of friends and lovers — Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends (1998).  It’s a fine collection of correspondence marked with a necessary sense of impending loss, given the frequency with which Brittain’s doomed fiance, Roland Leighton, comes up.  His own letters are included as well.

What struck my eye while browsing the volume, however, was a remarkable letter from Vera to Roland in October of 1915, after the Battle of Loos.  This was the ill-starred battle that led to the now infamous death of John Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s only son; its immortalization in numerous books, articles, a play, and a (reasonably good) TV movie have seen the young Kipling take on a symbolically resonant status.  Much of this is intentionally emphasized — even exaggerated — in the art that surrounds the event, of course; what better image could there be, from the still-disillusioned modern point of view, than that of a bright young men sent off to a war he barely understood at the urging of his famous, wealthy father?  What better than that he should die unceremoniously and immediately, his body vanishing (this is debatable) forever into the mud-soaked hell of the trenches?  They couldn’t have done it better in a novel, and the degree to which a superficial reading of the situation lends itself exactly to the template played up by so many post-war books and poems and plays has made it hard to separate fact from fancy.  My Boy Jack is fine entertainment, but it should hardly be taken as a totally reliable account of these events.

Anyway, this letter, dated October 7th of that fateful year, contains a surprising meditation on Brittain’s part on the death of John Kipling.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever read from a now-canonical author of the war, and offers a perspective that would be very hard to fit into what we’re all supposed to think everyone then was supposed to be thinking.

And so:

Vera to Roland. Buxton, 7 October, 1915.

I could often have wept at the casualty lists that have kept coming in this week – so many officers and most of them so young too. Rudyard Kipling’s son is among the ‘Missing believed killed’. I always feel sorrier when they are the sons of intellectual & brilliant people. I don’t know why I should be, but somehow I always feel that they must mean even more to their parents than those of the more ordinary ones do to theirs…

Amazing — and rather against the grain of how many now feel in an age that persists in seeing Wilfred Owen’s death as tragic while viewing the national grief at the death of Rupert Brooke as quaint and silly.

Three years later, in July of 1918, Rudyard Kipling himself opened up to a friend about a similar matter and about the gulf that the loss of so many young men had left in his life and in the lives of those around him.  He takes as his pretext the death in action of another “son of intellectual & brilliant people” — that of Quentin Roosevelt, former president Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son.  The younger Roosevelt had joined the air force and was killed in action over France on July 14, 1918.  Roosevelt’s own response to this (and his correspondence with Kipling on that very subject) will likely turn up on this blog later, but for now I’m going to stick to Kipling’s letter to Edmonia Hill:

I see to-day that poor young Quentin Roosevelt has been killed flying.  One doesn’t  mind these things so much for oneself as one does for other people.  I know Kermit and like him immensely but I believe Quentin was a great favorite of his father’s and a most promising man.  His mother will feel it – and more as the years roll around.

Can you imagine such a life as it is with us here now – where there are no young men left among the people one knows, within eight visiting miles of us, every house has lost its son.  Now my second young cousin – younger than John – has just gone out to take John’s place in the Irish Guards, and I’m praying that he’ll get a good satisfactory deep-seated wound that will keep him quiet for six or eight months.

We had a boy staying with us one Sunday night.  He had just recovered from a wound and was off on Monday morning.  By Thursday he was wounded and back again in hospital.  Now he is out once more at the front twice wounded and a Major at the age of twenty-three!  Another friend of mine is a Brigadier General, aged twenty-six! which when you remember the ancient Generals in the East seems revolutionary.

Theodore Roosevelt would not have long to grieve his son — he would die six months later, Jan. 6, 1919.  Kipling would endure with his increasingly estranged wife and daughter until 1936, dying within days of his friend, King George V.  The monarch, as My Boy Jack is at pains to emphasize, also lost a son during this time — though not because of the war.  But that is another post for another day…

The worst war poem

18 Apr

I wish to say at the very start that I have nothing against Sir William Watson (1858-1935).  He was a popular and oft-anthologized poet in his time, and on two occasions was seriously considered for the post of Poet Laureate.  He had personal demons, and he fought them; he had hard politics, and he expressed them; he had a love for an older style, and wrung out every last drop of it that he could in producing his own works.

Watson was knighted in 1917 — possibly at the urging of David Lloyd George, about whom Watson had written a number of stirringly laudatory poems.  One such poem appeared as the title piece in Watson’s The Man Who Saw: and Other Poems Arising Out of the War, which had come out earlier the same year.  It’s an astounding piece; a short selection follows to give you a taste of the thing:

…then indeed shall Time
Add yet another name to to those the world
Salutes with an obeisance of the soul:
The name of him, the man of Celtic blood,
Whom Powers Unknown, in a divine caprice,
Chose and did make their instrument, wherewith
To save the Saxon; the man all eye and hand,
The man who saw, and grasped, and gripped, and held.

It’s sensational.  John Collings Squire, in a short essay on the collection, drily notes that “this must certainly be the most eulogistic poem ever written about a British politician.”

But it isn’t.

Later in the same volume, Watson offers up a sonnet called “The Three Alfreds.”  A footnote somewhat surprisingly declares that “Friends have urged the author not to republish this sonnet.  He does so because he believes it to be the truth.”

And so:

Three Alfreds let us honour. Him who drove
His foes before the tempest of his blade
At Ethandune — him first, the all-glorious Shade,
The care-crowned King whose host with Guthrum strove.
Next — though a thousand years asunder clove
These twain — a lord of realms serenely swayed;
Victoria’s golden warbler, him who made
Verse such as Virgil for Augustus wove.
Last — neither king nor bard, but just a man
Who, in the very whirlwind of our woe,
From midnight till the laggard dawn began,
Cried ceaseless, “Give us shells — more shells,” and so
Saved England; saved her not less truly than
Her hero of heroes saved her long ago.

The “Three Alfreds” are King Alfred the Great, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Alfred Harmsworth — that is, Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper baron and propagandist.  I have a small portrait of Northcliffe on my desk even as I write this, but it is possible to go too far.

The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands

12 Apr

Apart from Jutland, the war is not often noted for its naval battles. This is largely due to most of the German surface navy having spent the war under blockade, with the most wide-ranging naval operations instead being conducted by the German U-Boat fleet.

There was one independent squadron operating elsewhere at the outbreak of the war: Admiral Maximilian von Spee‘s German East Asia Squadron, which had been based out of Tsingtao in China. With the declaration of war, however, and Japan’s decision to enter on the side of Great Britain, the then-at-sea squadron could not return to port and was forced to flee. Vastly outnumbered and with few options (other German colonies and ports in the area having been swiftly seized), von Spee decided to take his ships into the Atlantic to subject Allied shipping to their predations until better opportunities came along. It was also hoped that they’d be able to dock at Valparaiso in Chile to refuel and rearm.

The Royal Navy was greatly concerned by the threat von Spee’s squadron posed to the Pacific theatre, but also with the above possibility of it making its way around the Cape to enter the Atlantic. Rear-Admiral Christopher Cradock‘s South Atlantic Squadron was given orders to take up the hunt. Cradock was given considerable operational leeway, and decided that it would be best to split the squadron into two patrols, the one to sail up and down the western coast of Chile from the Cape to Valparaiso, the other to patrol the southern coast of Argentina. Cradock and his flagship, HMS Good Hope, accompanied the western patrol — both were going to their death.

The western patrol (the cruisers Good Hope, Monmouth, Glasgow, and six other lighter ships of varying types) encountered von Spee’s squadron off the island of Coronel on Nov. 1st, 1914, and Cradock gave the order to engage. The gathering darkness played to German advantage, however, as did their more modern ships; by the time the battle was over, Good Hope, Monmouth and 1600 British sailors lay on the ocean floor — no survivors. Von Spee’s squadron, by comparison, suffered fewer than ten wounded and no fatalities at all. They steamed into Valparaiso as planned. Von Spee seemed deeply troubled by his success — he was of the type to respect a gallant action, even from an enemy, and to mourn a wholly lop-sided victory.

Once news reached England of the defeat, several more ships were detached from the North Sea blockade and the Home Fleet and sent to reinforce what was left of Cradock’s squadron. The new squadron, which added to it HMS Danger, Invincible and *Inflexible, came under the command of the marvelously named Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee, an accomplished sailor and administrator who had recently served as the Chief of Staff at the Admiralty. Nevertheless, he had something of a rivalry with Sir John Fisher, then First Sea Lord, and Fisher had seen this as an opportunity too get Sturdee out of the way. Little did he know that his rival would return covered in glory.

In any event, Sturdee and his men were ready for battle. They found it — by accident — on Dec. 8th, 1914.

The British squadron was in harbour at Stanley in the Falkland Islands on the 8th, having only just arrived there the previous morning. There was considerable surprise when von Spee’s squadron unexpectedly came into view from the south. It’s hard to say for sure, but the best evidence we have is that von Spee had hoped to attack Stanley before the British squadron arrive and then slip off northward; their meeting on the 8th was a result of delays for the one party and a mostly speedy crossing for the other. Whatever the case, they had met — something had to be done.

Sturdee, commanding from his flagship Invincible, ordered his squadron to disembark, while fire from the shore kept von Spee’s ships from being able to approach the island at sufficient distance to shell their opponents in port. Realizing the gamble had failed, von Spee turned his squadron north-east and tried to race off into the Atlantic; by 1PM, the British had caught up.

What happened next was something in the way of a massacre, though not an easy-going one for all that. The Germans were outnumbered, outmanned, and outgunned, and their enemies were out for revenge, but having made it this far they were not about to go down without a fight. Over the course of the next few hours the Germans kept up an intensity of fire that shocked their British counterparts, buying crucial time through von Spee’s skillful maneuvering of the squadron with the shifting winds to always keep the British funnel smoke obscuring their own targeting. Invincible and Inflexible came under fire from the longer-ranged German guns, and it would take some time to close the gap.

But it was closed, and the results were as catastrophic for von Spee’s squadron as his earlier action had been for Cradock’s. Von Spee’s flagship Scharnhorst was the first to go down, taking the admiral, his two sons and every other soul aboard with her. The rest of the squadron swiftly followed suit, with only one cruiser, the Dresden, being able to escape — she would be driven into hiding after intense pursuit and eventually scuttled three months later. While the British suffered ten fatalities as a consequence of the action, the Germans lost 1900 men (with an additional 200 taken prisoner), six ships, a daring and accomplished admiral, and the ability to ever again effectively conduct surface operations in the Atlantic. The war was only four months old.

The last of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau [William Lionel Wyllie c. 1918]

The battle is an interesting one to me because of all the things it was not: no stagnation in the trenches, no repeated folly, no gross miscalculations. The worst that can be laid at the feet of those involved is misfortune. Even more than this, in a war that was so often marked by the disproportionate (even appalling) results achieved by tactics involving nascent technologies, the Battle of the Falkland Islands was nothing more or less than a squadron action, gun upon gun, in the oldest traditions of the navies involved. No radar, no aircraft, no submarines, no mines. Everything involved but the ships themselves would not have been out of place in the age of Lord Nelson, and the victory at the Falklands — particularly after the disaster at Coronel — was seen as a sign that the Royal Navy’s age-old supremacy had at last been reasserted.  Mark Connolly of the University of Kent provided a spectacular keynote about the battle’s commemorative history at the 2011 The Great War: From History to Memory conference in London, ON.  The conference’s proceedings no longer seem to be online, so no link to that is possible at this time — in a very real sense, you had to be there.

I’m happy to report that the good people at Osprey have finally put out a volume about these events — Coronel and Falklands 1914; Duel in the South Atlantic (2012). Those who would like to know more will find it an accessible and comprehensive work.