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The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands

25 Jul

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.

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Morebeck

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 Cracked.com, 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]

The Death of Charles Fryatt

27 Jul

From our “this day in history” file…

The following notice appeared in Dutch, French and German on July 27th, 1916, to broadcast a dark announcement:

NOTICE. The English captain of a merchant ship, Charles Fryatt, of Southampton, though he did not belong to the armed forces of the enemy, attempted on March 28th, 1915, to destroy a German submarine by running it down. For this he has been condemned to death by judgment this day of the Field Court Martial of the Naval Corps, and has been executed. A ruthless deed has thus been avenged, belatedly but just. Signed VON SCHRÖDER, Admiral Commandant of the Naval Corps, Bruges, July 27th, 1916.

Captain Fryatt’s execution by firing squad reignited international outrage at the German treatment of foreign nationals, already banked high after the similar execution of Nurse Edith Cavell in October of the previous year. British artillerymen on the Somme, incensed at Fryatt’s treatment, began a trend of chalking tributes to the executed captain on their shells before loading them into the guns.

In the weeks leading up to his court-martial, Fryatt was held at the civilian prison camp of Ruhleben near Berlin.  I note this as a sort of taste of things to come, as the subject of the conditions endured by civilians in German prison and labor camps is one that is not often discussed and which has recently come to interest me deeply.  It is one of the most appalling gaps in the war’s popular memory (in the English-speaking world, at least — the French and the Belgians have not forgotten) that currently exists, and as the rolling centenaries commence I have hope that this imbalance may finally be redressed.

All of which is to say that you can expect to hear more about this in the coming weeks.  Ruhleben and Holzminden are on my mind.

22 July 1917 | A Letter from a German Prison Camp

19 Jul

I’m posting this here because I don’t imagine I’ll ever get the chance to bring it up otherwise.  The following is a letter from the French Archives nationales, dated 22 July, 1917.  It is from a young woman in the civilian prison camp at Limburg, and is addressed to her husband, another civilian who had been forced to work in Battalion 2 of the Zivilarbeiter Bataillonen, stationed somewhere in northern France.  This latter group, easily distinguishable in public by the red armbands they were forced to wear, was comprised of French and Belgian civilians who were essentially enslaved to support the German war effort through their labour.  From Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker’s 14-18 (2000):

They were blackmailed in a particularly odious manner.  Either they voluntarily agreed to work for the Germans, in which case their situation was one of ‘free’ salaried employees who were entitled to leaves and to contact with their relatives; or they refused, in which case they were rounded up and subjected to compulsory labour.  [. . .] Since most mayors refused to hand over lists of their town’s unemployed, the Germans simply rounded up men in the streets and deported them. [75]

It is against this backdrop that we must read this heartbreaking letter from the young Eugénie Broyart.  Her original grammar has been preserved as much as is possible in translation:

22 July 1917

Dear Lucien,

I’m surprised by your silence I havent received news since your cards of 3 and 11 March, yet I would be very happy to get some for I miss you a lot and regardless of my courage and my resignation I don’t know if I can stand this suffering of being separated from the whole family as we are if I knew where my little children and my parents are I’d take courage more easily.  In spite of everything I’m in good health and so is my little Henri and I hope my letter will find you well also, which is what we must ask for in our sad situation.  Rosa is fine still works outside she sends you her greetings but still doesn’t know about her misfortune she received another card this week from your parents they sent back to non-occupied France… all these upheavals of all these families, Rosa doesn’t know where Raymond is either.

Dear Lucien if you can try to look into the fate of our poor little children, because for myself I can’t and you will write me but write me always as much as possible, that will be a very precious consolation… I feel like everyone is abandoning me, though, dear husband we must not get too discouraged for we’re still needed on earth to bring up our little family.  I hope though that there will be an end and that we will all be reunited to live happier days after so many cruel ordeals we certainly deserve to I don’t have much else to tell you hello from my comrades to Cousin Désiré and to you I hope you are still together.

A thousand loving kisses from afar while waiting to kiss each other close up what a happy day, dear Lucien, but when… let’s hope for God’s clemency.  Yours for life.

Eugénie Broyart

(Above all, send me good news from you soon, I forgot to tell you I haven’t yet received news of the plea for pardon that I asked for I hope.)

Pause to think on all that is contained above.

In any event, it reminds me of nothing so much as this remarkable passage from Edith Wharton’s The Marne (1918), which sees a young American man head off to France as a volunteer after having been briefly exposed to the war in its early months during the initial German invasion.  He arrives in the little town he and his family used to visit so often, seeking news of the friendly family that had acted as hosts and tutors in French.

Troy jumped down, and began to ask questions. At first the only person who recognized the name of Gantier was an old woman too frightened and feeble-minded to answer intelligibly. Then a French territorial who was hoeing with the women came forward. He belonged to the place and knew the story.

“M. Gantier – the old gentleman? He was mayor, and the Germans took him. He died in Germany. The young girl – Mlle. Gantier – was taken with him. No, she’s not dead… I don’t know… She’s shut up somewhere in Germany… queer in the head, they say. …The sons – ah, you knew Monsieur Paul? He went first… What, the others? … Yes; the three others – Louis at Notre Dame to Lorette; Jean on a submarine; poor little Félix, the youngest, of the fever at Salonika. Voilà… The old lady? Ah, she and her sister went away… some charitable people took them, I don’t know where… I’ve got the address somewhere…”

He fumbled, and brought out a strip of paper on which was written the name of a town in the centre of France.

“There’s where they were a year ago. … Yes, you may say: there’s a family gone – wiped out. How often I’ve seen them all sitting there, laughing and drinking coffee in the arbour! They were not rich, but they were happy, and proud of each other. That’s over.”

He went back to his hoeing. [64-66]

This story, and others like it, repeated itself over and over, in the millions, throughout France and Belgium from the autumn of 1914 onwards.  The focus on the trenches, while understandable, does tend sometimes to obscure this fact.

“Propaganda”

27 Jun

Searching in vain for a preserved copy of The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin (1918), I stumbled across this small selection of clips from anti-German propaganda produced during the war.  It makes for fascinating viewing: the production quality on the animated sequence is actually quite high, and the live-action portion is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for, albeit on a sadly diminished scale.  There were entire feature-length films like that, and I cannot properly express how keen I am to find them.

So, very much worth watching in that light — but that’s not all there is.

The clip itself comes from an old documentary series, apparently called The Peoples’ Century.  The clips are accompanied by a voice-over and some interviews with veterans intercut throughout.  All fair enough, but the impression that it all conveys is absolutely appalling.

First, yes, propaganda of this sort was certainly produced and distributed, and on a quite massive scale.  Nobody would deny that.  And second, yes, many propagandistic works made use of hyperbole and sensationalism in the prosecution of their cause; nobody should find this surprising.

What disgusts me about this clip is the complete lack of meaningful engagement with the truth claims of such works.  It’s simply taken for granted that they were all fabricated and deceitful from start to finish.  The American veteran interviewed is wearily cynical about it all, and the German veteran — who is permitted to have the final word — can only say how personally hurt he was at the slander such propaganda laid upon him and his colleagues in the German army.

But how seriously can we actually take this?  The American veteran cites some things — abuses and murder of women and children, burning of villages, general terrorizing — as though they were gross and sensational distortions, made up out of whole cloth in a bid to angry up the recruits.  The implication is that such reports are not to be trusted.  This sort of perspective is unforgivable in light of what we now know about the misdeeds perpetrated in Belgium in the autumn of 1914.  The most credible modern scholarship (see specifically Horne and Kramer’s German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial, 2001) makes clear that a great deal of this sort of thing really did happen, for very shabby and misconceived reasons, and that the findings of the subsequently notorious Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages produced under the direction of Viscount Bryce (1915) were essentially correct.  The Report‘s notoriety as an icon of deceitful governmental war-mongering, in fact, may perhaps be undeserved.

Somewhat more importantly, it doesn’t even really need the findings of modern scholarship to make this kind of thing clear.  To claim that the invasion of Belgium by the German Army in the autumn of 1914 was in fact not accompanied by the mass destruction of villages, the displacement of tens of thousands of people (1.5 million, actually, in this case), the ravaging of the countryside, the theft or destruction of untold amounts of property and the deaths of numerous civilians is to paint the invasion as being unique in the whole history of warfare.  How can those who so regularly denounce these claims as “propaganda” and leave them at that lack so much in the way of historical imagination and empathy?  What exactly is it that they think happens when a city like Louvain is burned or a national redoubt like Antwerp invested?  It isn’t an orderly affair.

In any event, I believe that most of those who are skeptical of the Bryce Report or of the more sensational claims like the film I referenced above would not insist that nothing of note at all happened during the German passage through and eventual occupation of Belgium, but one could be forgiven for thinking as much based on how they sometimes treat it in their books.  That, however, will be the subject of a later post.

Don’t mention the war!

22 Apr

[Hat tip to George Simmers at the excellent Great War Fiction for the link]

It’s been announced that the BBC has commissioned a new five-part miniseries to run as part of the Armistice Week programming next year.  2014 will of course mark the beginning of a series of rolling centenaries for all of the war’s major events, and I’m sure the various media organs are salivating at the prospect of almost sixty weeks’ worth of contextually relevant period pieces, whether documentary, dramatic, or both.

The series in question, creatively called The Great War, will yet again focus entirely upon the Western Front, will yet again inordinately emphasize the now thoroughly problematized meta-narrative of Mud, Blood and Futility, and is being crafted by a former soap opera scribe with the express intention of condemning the war in toto and avoiding anything that might upset future German viewers.  In short, there is literally no reason for it to exist at all — nothing new under the sun.

And it’s a damned shame, it really is.  The last three decades have seen an enormous amount of work done by military historians to overturn the otherwise all-pervading cultural memory of the war as a stupid fiasco, and it’s depressing to think that none of the inevitable movies and programming and journalism are likely to give them the time of day.  Sorry, Gary Sheffield!  Sorry, Brian Bond.  Too bad, John Terraine and Richard Holmes — it’s probably for the best that neither of you lived to see this.  Still, Paul Fussell is dead too, but his perspective will no doubt run rampant.  So, no doubt, will John Laffin’s — though I wonder if they’ll have the guts to air Haig: The Unknown Soldier (1996) again.

The article linked above includes some content that is… troubling, to say the least.  Let’s take a look:

The row has echoes of The Monocled Mutineer series in the Eighties, when the BBC was accused of sensationalising a minor mutiny in the trenches.

Conveniently left out of this little contextual note is the fact that those accusations were entirely correct.  The Monocled Mutineer was an historical disgrace, whatever it may have been as entertainment; see Emma Hanna’s The Great War on the Small Screen or Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory for more on why.

If The Great War is going to be anything like Mutineer — and, let’s not kid ourselves, it will be — the kid glove treatment of it above fills me with dismay.  And this from the Daily Mail!  I carry no torch for it at all as a source of reputable journalism, but Lord Northcliffe must be spinning in his grave.  Yes, I just uttered that as a complaint; let that sink in.

The series creator Tony Jordan, a former EastEnders lead writer, said he realised the decision to give equal weight to both perspectives might cause controversy, but dismissed any critics as ‘cretins’.

He said: ‘If there’s a moron in Tunbridge Wells who thinks that what we’re commemorating is beating the s*** out of the Germans, then all I can say is these are the kinds of people who made the war happen in the first place.

‘Back then, no one knew what a world war meant. It was all going to be over by Christmas and so
all the kids dashed in – it was the equivalent of an iPod craze.’

Inspiring stuff.  George Simmers, in his post on this development, has some solid criticisms to offer when it comes to this way of thinking, but I have to note the well-poisoning that’s going on here in addition to that.

This series — and all the others like it — will face criticism from those in the military historical community for its pandering, for its facile surrender to a tired narrative, for its utter lack of originality (“hey guys, guys, seriously guys, what if — no wait, seriously — what if we talked about the war, guys, come on, what if we talked about it from the German perspective?  Come on, guys, I’m tripping out here, this is HUGE”).  It will face criticism from that community, and from those of us who support it, for blandly pushing along the prejudices of 1960s historiography rather than considering that things might actually have developed somewhat in the last fifty years.  We don’t need yet another mini-series informed by the ideas of A.J.P. Taylor, Alan Clark, and Basil Liddell Hart.  We have so many as it is.

Dismissing potential critics as “cretins” who just don’t understand is pretty insulting, and I hope this screenwriter gets exactly what he deserves.

To be clear, and to conclude, the idea of having a series of this sort include an equivalently emphasized German counterpart for the British character is perfectly fine, and even desirable.  There’s a lot of good dramatic and historical grist to mill, there, and it is simply true that a generation of young Germans suffered as much during the war as did their enemy counterparts.  This cringing insistence upon making everything “non-offensive,” however, will do no service to the war’s history — or to the millions of men and women who fought and died in it.  It is not “triumphalism” to acknowledge that the war concluded with the German army routed in the field, the German navy in mutiny, the German emperor in flight, and the German nation in a state of armed revolution.  It is simply telling the truth.  If the art produced in commemoration of the centenary of this war is too terrified of causing offense to tell the truth, what’s the point?

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.

The Kings

5 Apr

Barbara W. Tuchman, in her highly influential The Guns of August (1962), takes as her prologue the funeral rites of Britain’s King Edward VII.  The funeral brought together dozens of heads-of-state from across the world, and occasioned one of the single largest gatherings of royalty in history.  It has never been equaled since, and I should be very surprised to learn that it had been dwarfed by anything before.

It was during this funerary gathering that this remarkable photograph was taken, at Windsor in May of 1910:

Standing, from left to right: King Haakon VII of Norway, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, King Manuel of Portugal, Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire, King George I of Greece and King Albert I of the Belgium.

Seated, from left to right: King Alfonso XIII of Spain, King George V of Great Britain and King Frederick VIII of Denmark.

There almost appears to be a certain wariness on Albert’s face — perhaps rightly so.