Tag Archives: First World War

Month of Madness – BBC Radio 4

BBC radio has just broadcast a series of five 15 minute episodes about the Month of Madness that led to the First World War. It was presented and written by Professor Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, an acclaimed history of the causes of the war.

The programme is available on the BBC i Player from this link. Unlike TV ones, radio programmes appear to remain available indefinitely, and I do not think that there are any geographical restrictions on listening to them.

Episode one, Sarajevo

This covered the impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife by Gavrilo Princep, a Bosnian Serb nationalist on 28 June 1914. Franz Ferdinand was a moderate reformer who wanted to turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a United States of Greater Austria, consisting of 15 or 16 federal districts, each dominated by a different ethnic group: the Empire had 11 official nationalities. Clark argues that he was assassinated because he was a moderate: extremists fear moderate opponents more than hardliners, because moderates offer the possibility of peaceful change.

The assassination succeeded by luck. An attempt earlier in the day failed, other assassins lost their nerve and Princep got his chance only because Franz Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn.

Serbian nationalists wanted to incorporate Bosnia-Herzegovnia into a Greater Serbia because Serbs were the largest of its national groups, although at 43% they were still a minority. Princep and his fellow Bosnian Serb assassins were ‘abstinent’ young men, with little time for alcohol or women. Clark notes that they were the type of ‘sombre’ young men who join terrorist groups today.

The killing of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist meant that Austria-Hungary would take action against Serbia. However, whether a Balkan conflict became a European war depended on the decisions taken by other countries in the next few weeks.

Episode 2, Vienna

This explores how the Austro-Hungarians reacted to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. There was widespread shock; as with the assassination of JFK, people were able to remember years afterwards where they were when they learnt the news. Emperor Franz Josef did not get on well with his heir, but it is a myth that he received the news coldly. Eye witnesses stated that he was clearly upset.

The assassins were trained and equipped in Serbia, with backing from the Black Hand, a shadowy network whose objectives included the liberation of Bosnian Serbs from Austrian rule. It was headed by Dragutin Dimitrijević, also known as Apis, the head of Serbian Military Intelligence. The civilian Serbian government was unable to act against the members of the Black Hand because they were too well connected.

A consensus emerged quickly in the Austrian Foreign Ministry and General Staff that action must be taken against Serbia. As a minimum a very harsh ultimatum should be sent, but most wanted a war that would settle their issues with Serbia.

Two days after the assassination Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, told Emperor Franz Josef, that Austria-Hungary could no longer be patient with Serbia. The Emperor agreed. In previous Balkan crises Franz Ferdinand had urged caution, but nobody did so now that he was dead.

Clark says that the ultimatum prepared by Berchtold was a very firm one. He thinks that it can be questioned whether it was really completely unacceptable to a sovereign country, but the Austro-Hungarians certainly intended it to be rejected. They wanted ‘war on a neighbour that they saw as as impossibly turbulent and provocative.’

The Austro-Hungarians concentrated almost all of their attention on Serbia. They had no exit strategy, did not have clear objectives for their action, did not consider the risks involved and were not prepared for the major war that followed. They did realise that they needed support from their ally Germany, since Russia might come to the aid of Serbia.

Episode 3, Berlin.

This discusses Germany’s blank cheque to Austria-Hungary for war against Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm II got on well with Franz Ferdinand and agreed with him on many issues. Until now, the Germans had been urging the Austro-Hungarians to try to find peaceful solutions to their difficulties with Serbia; this now changed.

On 5 July the Austro-Hungarian ambassador presented letters from Franz Josef and his foreign minister to the Kaiser. The Kaiser and his general staff realised that Austro-Hungarians wanted war with Serbia, and promised to support whatever Austria-Hungary did, the so-called blank cheque. This came without conditions, so Germany was agreeing to support Austria-Hungary even if Russia intervened. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador told his government that the Kaiser thought Austria-Hungary should not delay if it wanted military action against Serbia.

The Germans did not think at this stage that Russia would intervene against Austria-Hungary, but knew that there was a risk that it would. If Germany stood by its ally, Russia’s ally France would join what would then be a continental war. The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg said that if Germany advised Austria-Hungary to act, it would say that Germany pushed it into war. If Germany urged caution, Austria-Hungary would claim that it had been abandoned and Germany would lose its only reliable ally.

Russian military power was also growing. It and France had one million more soldiers that Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914. Russia had embarked upon a massive rearmament programme, which was financed by France, but it would take time to complete. Germany and Austria-Hungary might win a war now, but not one in three years time.

However, the Germans thought that the Russian would not go to war. Tsar Nicholas II would surely not support regicide, Russia had no formal alliance with Serbia and why would Russia go to war now when it would be much stronger in three years time.

The Germans stuck to a policy of localisation. Nothing should be done that would escalate the crisis. Political and military officials, including the Kaiser went on holiday. When he returned on 27 July, he said that the Serbian reply to the Austro-Hungarian note meant that a war was now unnecessary. He now urged peace, something that did not surprise his critics in the German army, who regarded him as somebody who talked aggressively but would argue for peace in the end.

Clark argues that the failure of the Kaiser’s last minute attempt to prevent a war shows that he was not as powerful as many have claimed. The Germans did not have a plan for continental war, but were willing to risk one, something in which they were not alone.

Episode 4, The French in St Petersburg 

This looks at the dangerous impact of the extension of the Franco-Russian alliance. By chance, Raymond Poincaré, the French President, was on long planned state visit to France’s ally Russia for much of the crisis, arriving on 20 July. The minutes of the summit have been lost, but the meetings can be reconstructed from the notes and diaries of those present, including Count Louis de Robien, a young French diplomat. He was appalled by the bellicose tone of the meetings. On his return to France on 28 July, Poincaré was greeted as if the country was already at war.

The France and Russia had been allied since the early 1890s, but both had urged caution on the other until the beginning of 1912. Poincaré then assured Russia that France would support it if it took action against Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, even if Russia was not itself threatened with attack. The French were becoming concerned that they could not rely on British help, so felt that they had to remain close to Russia. This was a defensive strategy, with the object of never having to fight Germany alone, but it carried serious risks.

Russia had no serious conflicts of interest with Germany, but Austria-Hungary was a long-standing rival of Russia in the Balkans, which were becoming more important in Russian thinking because of their proximity to the Turkish Straits. All sea traffic to and from the Black Sea had to pass through them, including 80% of Russia’s grain exports, a vital source of revenue. Russian nationalists also felt close to other Orthodox and Slavic nations, such as Serbia.

This encouraged Serbian leaders to believe that they could afford to have poor relations with Austria-Hungary, because Russia would support Serbia in a conflict. Clark does not believe that France and Russia wanted or planned a war, but they increased the risk of one by linking their strategy to the uncertain Balkan situation.

During the Franc0-Russian summit Poincaré urged Russia to be firm; Clark says this was ‘enthusiastically received.’ Poincare’s policy of closer relations with Russia ensured that France would not have to fight Germany alone, but made the situation more complex. The French had to assure the Russians of their support, but also had to make certain that the British did not think that France was escalating the crisis.

By the end of July it was difficult to see how a war could be avoided, but the question of whether or not Britain would enter it remained. Both France and Germany acted cautiously, the former hoping that Britain would support it, the latter that Britain would remain neutral. Neither considered backing down or putting peace ahead of prestige. De Robain said that both sides had determined to ‘hold firm…in a tragic poker game.’

Episode 5, London

This explores how British decision-makers reacted in the July Crisis of 1914. Britain was more concerned by the threat of civil war in Ireland, where the Protestant Unionists of the north opposed the government’s intention to grant the Catholic Nationalists of the south demand for Home Rule.

The key player was the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Although a Liberal MP, he favoured what Clark calls ‘a secretive, even conspiratorial’ way of operating, believing that foreign policy was too important to be decided by Parliamentary debates. He knew little of foreign countries, spoke no foreign languages and felt uncomfortable in the company of foreigners.

For much of the crisis the British did not consider the possibility that they might be drawn into war. Grey did not raise it in Cabinet until 24 July. Over recent years he had allowed the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France to deepen into something close to a strategic partnership, but the majority of the Cabinet strongly opposed any binding commitment to France, and thus Russia. The French wanted the Entente to be a British commitment to stand by France, but for Grey it had to be a looser agreement that did not bind Britain, which did not know the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance.

On 3 August Grey justified British entry into the war on three grounds: the moral obligations resulting from the Anglo-French friendship, especially the strategic partnership between the two navies; if Germany won, Britain would face a Continent dominated by one power, whilst a Franco-Russian victory would mean a Russian threat to Britain’s Asian empire; and the German breach of Belgian neutrality.

Clark says that the German invasion of Belgium was:

‘a gross offense against international law which endowed the Entente war effort with a lasting sense of moral superiority, but it was not the true reason for British intervention…the decision was made on a cool calculation of national interest.’

However, public anger over the invasion of Belgium helped to win support for the declaration of war.

Clark’s conclusions was that the men who made the decisions ‘were walking in watchful steps’ towards war. There was an ‘intricate structure of..interlocking commitments’, which became mixed up with ‘the volatile politics of a region inflamed by repeated conflict.’ There was an atmosphere of distrust and provocation. No one power was to blame for a war that resulted from ‘a shared European political culture.’

A very interesting a thought provoking programme. Clark does not attempt to blame any one country or alliance for the war. I have just started reading his book, where he says that he is more interested in question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ the war began.

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1914: Day by Day: BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4 today started broadcasting a series of daily programmes in which the Canadian historian Prof. Margaret MacMillan gives a five minute summary of the news from each day from 27 June 1914 up until the outbreak of the First World War.

Each programme is broadcast at 4:55 pm on BBC Radio 4, and all will be available on the I-Player from this link once they have been broadcast. Radio programmes normally stay on the I-Player indefinitely, and I think that, unlike TV ones, there are no geographical restrictions on listening to them.

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The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery London

The National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition called The Great War in Portraits running until 15 June 2014. The Museum’s website describes the exhibition as:

In viewing the First World War through images of the many individuals involved, The Great War in Portraits looks at the radically different roles, experiences and, ultimately, destinies of those caught up in the conflict.

Setting the scene in 1914, the splendour and formality of portraits of national leaders are contrasted with a press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The narrative unfolds with power-portraits of commanders Haig, Foch and Hindenburg, asserting  military authority, which are displayed together with dignified pictures of their troops by artists including Orpen, Sickert and Nevinson. Finally, images of heroes and medal-winners are shown alongside the wounded and the fallen, representing  the bitter-sweet nature of a war in which valour and selfless endeavour were qualified by disaster and suffering.

From paintings and drawings to photography and film, the exhibition considers a wide range of visual responses to ‘the war to end all wars’, culminating in the visual violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner.

The majority of the portraits on show are by British artists of British Empire subjects, but there are some from other countries. There is a clear difference in style between post 1918 paintings of war scenes by British and German artists. The exhibition argues that in Britain, victorious but traumatised, many rejected Modernism in favour of a return to past values. In defeated Germany, however, the old order was rejected, resulting in a move the other way.

The curators were obviously restricted in their choice of portraits because few other than politicians, generals, admirals and VC winners would have had their portrait painted. However, there are also a number of paintings of unnamed ordinary British Empire soldiers made by William Orpen, with the aim of showing the importance of collective endeavour in the war effort.

The War Office did not want paintings of dead British soldiers to be shown, censoring one of dead Tommies by C. R. W. Nevision, ironically titled Paths of Glory. However, it was more relaxed about pictures of the wounded. Public exhibitions of war art in 1918 included paintings by Orpen and Eric Kennington of wounded men and hospital scenes.

After the war a group of artists led by Gilbert Rogers, an artist and wartime Royal Army Medical Corps officer, were commissioned by the Committee for the Medical History of the War to paint a series of pictures of the work of the RAMC. Another type of medical painting shown in the exhibition is a number of before and after portraits by Henry Tonks of men undergoing plastic surgery after suffering facial wounds. Some similar photos are also displayed.

The exhibition features other photographs and film as well. A wall displays 40 photographic portraits, some of unknown subjects intended to display different aspects of the war, but many of famous people, including several women. Extracts from two films, one British and one German, about the Battle of the Somme are shown on a rolling loop.

Both films featured a mixture of actual footage of the battle and reconstructions of battle scenes. The British one, Battle of the Somme by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, came out first and was very successful, being seen by 20 million people in its first six months of release. It is available on DVD and on YouTube. The German rival, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme [With our Heroes on the Somme] was less successful. It included footage clearly from earlier in the war and its reconstructed scenes were not even filmed on location. It can also be found on YouTube.

This is a very interesting exhibition. It is too small to make a lengthy journey just to see it, but is well worth seeing if in the area.

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UK National Archives Digitises WWI War Diaries

NB: this announcement has been well publicised in the UK, so some of the linked websites are getting a lot of traffic, hence may open slowly for a day or two.

The UK National Archives announced today that it has completed the first stage of the digitisation of the war diaries kept by British Army units during the First World War. Every British Army unit had to keep a daily war diary containing reports on operations, intelligence summaries and other pertinent material. The hard copies of these are held at the NA in series WO 95, but it is now possible to see many of them online, albeit for a fee of £3.36 per diary.

The first stage sees the release of the diaries for the whole war of the seven infantry and three cavalry divisions sent to France and Flanders in 1914. As well as the diaries for the division, its component brigades, infantry battalions, cavalry regiments and supporting artillery, engineer, supply and medical units kept their own diaries. Diaries for units subsequently assigned to one of these divisions are included, not just those that comprised the divisions in 1914.

These diaries are the building blocks of most books written about the British Army in the First World War, going back to the Official Histories. Even books not based on archival research will have used other books that were based on these diaries. Note that these diaries are official military documents kept by unit adjutants. Some media reports seem to assume that they are the private diaries of individual soldiers.

A project called Operation War Diary has also been launched. Volunteers will analyse the pages that have been digitised. According to its website,

Data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes:

  • to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries,

  • to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project

  • to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought

Operation War Diary is a joint venture between the National Archive, the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse, a company that has developed systems that enable volunteers to help with scientific and historical research from home.

See the BBC website and the Great War Forum for more details.

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Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War

I recently attended an exhibition of war art by Stanley Spencer titled Heaven in a Hell of War at Somerset House in London. It is on until 26 January 2014, before transferring to Pallant House in Chichester, West Sussex from 15 February to 15 June 2014.

The bulk of the exhibition consists of 17 pictures that are normally displayed at the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, near Newbury, Hampshire, which is currently closed for renovation. They were painted specially for the chapel by Spencer, and show scenes from his experiences in the First World War.

Spencer volunteered to join the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915. He was initially stationed at Beaufort Hospital, a mental asylum near Bristol that had been requisitioned as a military hospital. In 1916 he was posted to the Macedonian Front, initially as a medic. In 1917 he volunteered to transfer to the infantry, before becoming an official war artist.

The majority of the pictures show scenes from daily life Beaufort Hospital, but there are also some based on Spencer’s memories of Macedonia. The Daily Telegraph review of the exhibition reproduces some of them. The Resurrection of the Soldiers, Spencer’s vision of the end of the war, in which heaven has emerged from hell, is adhered to the wall over the high altar at Sandham, so could not be moved to the exhibition. It is instead depicted by a projection onto a wall.

The exhibition also includes some studies for Spencer’s paintings at Sandham and a number of war scenes from Macedonia and a portrait of Spencer painted by Henry Lamb, who was also served in the RAMC in Macedonia and as an official British war artist. He was instrumental in obtaining Spencer the commission to paint the pictures at Sandham.

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First World War Christmas Cards

The BBC History Magazine’s History Extra eNewsletter recently carried an article on First World War Christmas cards.The exhibits at a major exhibition at the York Castle Museum called ’1914: When the World Changed Forever’, which opens on 28 June next year, will feature a number of handmade Christmas cards sent home by British soldiers serving in France and Belgium during the war.

The cards were embroidered by French or Belgian women working either at homes or in refugee camps. They are in a different style to modern cards, often showing items such as swallows, flowers and boats rather than winter scenes, Christmas trees or Father Christmas.

See the BBC History Magazine website for more details, including some pictures.

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Churchill’s First World War – BBC4

On 30 July 2013 BBC4 broadcast a documentary called Churchill’s First World War. The BBC website describes it as follows:

Drama-documentary about Winston Churchill’s extraordinary experiences during the Great War, with intimate letters to his wife Clementine allowing the story to be told largely in his own words. Just 39 and at the peak of his powers running the Royal Navy, Churchill in 1914 dreamt of Napoleonic glory, but suffered a catastrophic fall into disgrace and humiliation over the Dardanelles disaster.

The film follows his road to redemption, beginning in the trenches of Flanders in 1916, revealing how he became the ‘godfather’ of the tank and his forgotten contribution to final victory in 1918 as Minister of Munitions. Dark political intrigue, a passionate love story and remarkable military adventures on land, sea and air combine to show how the Churchill of 1940 was shaped and forged by his experience of the First World War.

The programme was billed as being a drama-documentary, but the dramatisations were fairly limited: scenes of Churchill (Adam James) in the trenches and making a speech and shots of Clementine (Verity Marshall) at home. Most of it consisted of comments by experts, archive footage and extracts from private papers. The majority  of these were letters between Winston and Clementine, but there were also extracts from the papers of others, including Admiral Jackie Fisher, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s wife Margot and Andrew Gibb, an officer in Churchill’s battalion on the Western Front.

Churchill began the war as First Lord of the Admiralty, the Royal Navy’s political head. In July 1914 the bulk of the fleet was at Portland on the south coast. He decided to move it overnight to its war station at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which was, according to Prof. Andrew Lambert of King’s College London, the critical point.

Prof. Gary Sheffield of Birmingham University said that Churchill’s problem was that he was not trusted. He regarded himself as a soldier, perhaps a warrior, and possessed an unquestioning belief in the British Empire, as did most British people at the time.

In 1914 Churchill wanted to be involved in the land campaign, which was then more significant than the war at sea. The RN’s air arm, the RNAS, had sent units to Dunkirk in order to bomb Zeppelin bases, which gave him an opportunity. They were accompanied by armoured cars, which were supposed to protect the airfields, but also undertook what David Tilley, Curator of the Tank Museum, describes as ‘buccaneering patrols.’

Churchill would build on the RNAS’s experience with armoured cars to carry out experiments with trench crossing machines, eventually leading to the development of landships, or tanks. Prof David Ceserani of Royal Holloway London noted that Churchill was a very modern military figure who appreciated the value of science and technology in warfare. However, he was an egomaniac, who had enormous self-confidence and energy, but sometimes struggled to work out what was a good idea and what was a bad one.

On 3 October the port of Antwerp was on the verge of surrender. Holding it would stall the German advance. Churchill rushed the Royal Naval Division, made up of naval reservists without ships and marines, to Antwerp, with some of them travelling in 100 commandeered buses. He wanted to resign his Cabinet post and be appointed a general. According to Sheffield, this caused derision amongst his Cabinet colleagues, who laughed at him.

Antwerp fell on 10 October, and 1,000 member of the RND were interned in the Netherlands. Churchill was branded a reckless adventurer by the Press, although Lambert noted that the extra week that the Germans took to capture Antwerp did make some difference to the war.

Lambert and Sheffield agreed that Churchill wanted to emulate his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough by producing a war winning stroke. He saw Gallipoli as being his chance, but the campaign ended in disaster. Churchill fell out with Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the navy’s professional head, the First Sea Lord. Lambert said that each really wanted the other’s job. The deterioration in their relationship was shown by Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, via letters held by that archive.

The failure at Gallipoli meant that the ruling Liberals had to bring the Conservatives into a coalition government. Churchill had originally been elected to Parliament as a Conservative, but then switched to the Liberals, so was distrusted and disliked by the Conservatives. He lost his job as First Lord, though he remained in the Cabinet.

It was at this time that he took up painting. It had a therapeutic effect on him, although Alice Martin, the House and Collections Manager at Chartwell, his former home, noted that he painted a very dark self-portrait at this time: usually his paintings were bright.

In late 1915 he resigned from the Cabinet, and sought a commission on the Western Front: he was a Major in the Oxfordshire Hussars, a yeomanry [reserve cavalry] unit. He hoped that Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, would give him command of a brigade, but French was replaced by Sir Douglas Haig before this could be finalised. Haig gave Churchill command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Churchill was English, but he was MP for a Scottish constituency, Dundee.

It was probably better for Churchill that he was given command of a battalion rather than a brigade; the latter would have been too big a promotion, and would have meant that he would have been out of touch with the average soldier.

Clementine, according to Dr Tiffany Jenkins, agreed. She knew he was under great danger in the trenches, but urged him to stay for the sake of his political career, which was more important to him than his life. Clementine saw Winston’s war lust and realised that she was the only person who could restrain him. She wrote to Asquith defending Winston when he was sacked as First Lord, but Jenkins said that she was really accusing Asquith of being weak.

Packwood noted that Clementine was his defender and anchor in Westminster whilst she was in France. She was very busy, since she was also involved in setting up canteens for munitions workers. She and Winston wrote to each other almost every day whilst he was at the Western Front.

Patrick Hennessey, a former Army officer, noted that Churchill, a cavalry officer commanding an infantry battalion, got off to a disastrous start, but quickly turned it round. He recognised the importance of making the men’s conditions better, and targeted lice. His battalion became, and remained, one of the least lice plagued battalions on the Western Front. His time on the Western Front showed him as caring, focussed and sensitive. He possessed the ability of great military commanders to be imperturbable under fire.

On 7 March 1916 Churchill returned to the House of Commons. He had by then made his peace with Fisher, and made a very badly received speech calling for Fisher to be recalled. He returned to the Front, staying to May, when his battalion was merged with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers because to casualties

Churchill believed in attrition by metal and machines rather than men. He noted that the Allies had lost air superiority, and criticised the government and the generals. He said that: ‘Machines save life. Machine power is a substitute for manpower. Brains will save blood.’ He wanted tanks to be used in a mass attack, so was angry when the secret was given away in November 1916 by an attack of only 50 tanks.

Churchill was close to David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister in late 1916. He hoped that this would mean his return to the government, but Prof. Richard Toye of Exeter University pointed out that Lloyd George was not initially in a strong enough political position to bring Churchill back to office.

By the summer of 1917 U boats were threatening  to starve Britain into submission. Lloyd George took the  risk of appointing Churchill as Minister of Munitions in July 1917 as his spirit and imagination were needed to increase production of the equipment and ammunition required to win the war. Churchill also had the grasp of detail needed to organise munitions production. He was not, however, in the War Cabinet so was excluded from the highest level of strategy and decision-making.

Sheffield commented that Churchill wanted to build up resources, wait for US help and win the war in 1919. However, the Germans took the offensive in March 1918. Ceserani noted that this converted the war into one of manoeuvre in which tanks, trucks and logistics were vital. Churchill’s Ministry of Munitions replaced the huge losses of tanks and guns in March 1918 and provided the enormous quantities of ammunition needed in 1918.

At Amiens in August 1918 the British Empire forces combined the use of tanks, artillery and aircraft to defeat the enemy. This led to the 100 days campaign that culminated in victory.

Lambert argued that the First World War convinced Churchill that he was a man of destiny because he could recover from anything.

The programme showed that Churchill made many mistakes during the First World War, losing office for a while and ending the war with a lesser political position than he had held at its start. However, its conclusion was that during the First World War:

‘No man learnt more of war command. It was a bitter but complete apprenticeship…First would come more wilderness years… But when summoned again, a greater warlord, steeled by the Great War, was ready and prepared to fulfil his destiny.’

For UK viewers, the programme is repeated on BBC4 at 2240 on Thursday 1 August, and is available on the I-Player until 6 August. It will probably be shown again on BBC4: such programmes tend to be shown a lot.

 

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Europeana – Digitised European Cultural Collections

Europeana is a website that provides access to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe.

It includes a number of specific exhibitions. Two of these are about wars; the First World War and the Napoleonic War.

Untold Stories of the First World War contains photos, sound recordings, postcards, official documents and diaries; the last named are very big files. Most items relate to ordinary people, but there is a postcard sent by Adolf Hitler. It can best be explored from this link.

More items are being collected, and a series of First World War family history roadshows are being held across Europe.  Click here for more information on roadshows and on how to contribute.

The Napoleonic War exhibition is hosted in conjunction with the European Library Exhibitions. It contains paintings, both battle scenes and portraits, maps and documents.

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Joseph Watt VC Fought a Light Cruiser in a Drifter

On 15 May 1917 three Austro-Hungarian light cruisers attacked a force of drifters that were patrolling the Straits of Otranto in order to prevent Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats breaking out from their bases in the Adriatic into the Mediterranean.

The drifter Gowan Lea, with a crew of eight men and a dog and armed with only a 6 pounder gun and depth charges, attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Novara, which had a crew of 318, nine 3.9 inch and one 47mm guns and four 17.7 torpedo tubes. Gowan Lea’s skipper, Joseph Watt was awarded the VC. He was born in  Gardenstown, Banffshire and in peacetime skippered a Fraserburgh drifter. His vessel survived; its only casualty was the dog, who suffered shock and died three days later. Watt’s VC, Italian Al Valore Militare and French Croix de Guerre were sold by the auctioneer Spink for £204,000 on 19 April 2012; see the BBC website. I think that the purchaser will have paid £170,000 with a 20% fee to the auctioneer added on. The previous day’s Scotsman reported that the citation for Watt’s VC read:

Skipper Joseph Watt, Royal Naval Reserve.

For most conspicuous gallantry when the Allied Drifter line in the Straits of Otranto was attacked by Austrian light cruisers on the morning of 15 May, 1917. When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter the “Gowan Lea” Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter’s gun. The gun’s crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed on Skipper Watt took the “Gowan Lea” alongside the badly damaged freighter “Floandi” and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.

According to this website on the VC, one Victoria Cross; two Distinguished Service Orders; six Distinguished Service Crosses; five Conspicuous Gallantry Medals; eighteen Distinguished Service Medals; and 31 Mentioned-in-Despatches were awarded for the action; see the London Gazette for the list of recipients. Thanks to poster Michaeldr of the Great War Forum for the link to the London Gazette.

Most of these awards were made to the drifter crews, but some went to the crews of the cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol, which participated in the later stages of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. Deckhand Frederick Lamb of the Gowan Lea received the CGM for continuing to fire her gun despite being wounded. Watt’s entry in Wikipedia, says that three other  members of the Gowan Lea’s crew received the CGM or the DSM. Since the London Gazette gives the citations for awards of the CGM but just lists recipients of the DSM, this is presumably Lamb’s CGM and two awards of the DSM.

The Otranto Barrage consisted of a line of drifters, mostly British, which were intended to trap enemy submarines that could then be attacked with depth charges. There were not enough drifters to have a continuous line and submarines could evade the line; in 1916 most passed it on the surface at night. In July 1916 there were supposed to be 50 drifters at sea, but a French officer reported that there were only 37, of which only 10 had their nets out. Strong currents meant that the drifters would move apart. Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, commander-in-chief of the British Adriatic Squadron, thought that 300 drifters were needed.

Only one submarine, the Austro-Hungarian U6 on 13 May 1916 was definitely destroyed by the Otranto Barrage. Two others were lost to unknown causes and may have fallen victim to it; the German UB44 in August 1916 and the Austro-Hungarian U30 in April 1917.

The Austro-Hungarians made several attacks on the Barrage; the one on 14-15 May 1917 was the largest. It was led by Captain Miklos Horthy of the Novara, which was accompanied by her sister ships the Helgoland and the Saida. They were modified to make them look like British destroyers from a distance. Two Tatra class destroyers, the Csepel and Balaton, would carry out a diversionary attack. Two Austro-Hungarian submarines, the U4 and U27, and a German minelaying submarine, the UC25, also took part.

The two Austro-Hungarian destroyers attacked a convoy, sinking the Italian destroyer Borea and a munitions ship, and damaging the other two ships in the convoy, one of which was set on fire. For some reason, they did not finish off the damaged ships, which both made port. The drifters were being screened by the Italian flotilla leader Mirabello and the French destroyers Commandant Riviere, Bisson and Cimeterre. The destroyer Boutefeu had returned to port with condenser problems.

Horthy’s cruisers evaded this force and two Allied submarines and attacked the drifters. They used their sirens to warn the almost defenceless drifters of their presence, giving their crews an opportunity to abandon ship, which the Gowan Lea did not take. Other drifters also resisted.

According  to the British official history[1]Floandi, described as a freighter in Watt’s VC citation, was a drifter which fired on the Novara. Skipper D. J. Nicholls and one of her enginemen were wounded, with the other engineman being killed. The crew of the Admirable, next to the Gowan Lea in the line,abandoned ship, but one man returned to her. He tried to man the gun but was killed before he could fire.

The Austro-Hungarians sank 14 drifters out of 47 and damaged four, three seriously. They rescued 72 of the drifters’ crews before heading back to their base at Cattaro, but they were 40 miles further from it than from the Allied base at Brindisi.

The attack on the convoy began at 3:24 am and that on drifters at 3:30 am. At 4:35 am Rear Admiral Alfredo Acton, commander of the Italian Scouting Division, ordered the Mirabello destroyer force to intercept the Austrians. It took some time until other Allied ships were ready to sail, but the British light cruisers Dartmouth, flying Acton’s flag, and Bristol, the Italian flotilla leader Aquila and the Italian destroyers Mosto, Pilo, Schiaffino and Acerbi set sail at 6:45 am. Acton did not order the Italian light cruiser Marsala and four more destroyers to sea until 8:25 am, an hour after they were ready.

The Mirabello group contacted the Horthy’s  cruisers at 7:00 am, but the French destroyers struggled to keep up. Acton’s force intercepted the Austro-Hungarian destroyers at 07:45. The Austro-Hungarians escaped after disabling the Aquila.

Acton was now between Horthy and Cattaro  and the two forces spotted each other at 9:00 am. Dartmouth (eight 6 inch guns) and Bristol (two 6 inch and 10 4 inch guns) outgunned the three Austro-Hungarian cruisers (nine 3.9 inch guns each), but Acton’s force was being whittled down. Pilo and Schiaffino  remained with Aquila, Mirabello had problems with her fuel supply and Commandant Riviere broke down at 11:45; Bisson and Cimeterre stayed to escort her. Bristol’s bottom was fouled, and she dropped behind the other cruisers.

Horthy’s  cruisers were able to concentrate on Dartmouth, so Acton slowed her to allow Bristol to catch up. Between 10:30 and 11:00 am Dartmouth damaged Novara, but Acton decided to concentrate on Saida, which was lagging the other two Austrian cruisers, which had drawn ahead of the British ships. Marsala and her destroyers had now arrived.

Saida was not badly hit, but Novara had now stopped. However, Austro-Hungarian reinforcements, including a heavy cruiser had now appeared, so at noon Acton headed back to Brindisi. On the way there, UC25 torpedoed Dartmouth and the Boutefeu, which had come out to assist her, struck one of the mines laid by UC25 and sank.

Aircraft from both sides were present. The Austrians got the better of the Italians, and their aircraft were able to spot for their destroyers. The Austrians bombed and strafed the British cruisers but did not damage them.

The action was clearly a success for the Austrians. The multi-national Allied force had suffered from signalling problems. It was clear that the drifters could not be protected at night unless more destroyers were available, which they were not. consequently, the barrage was maintained only during the day.

As Paul Halpern points out[2], the action made little strategic difference. The major Austro-Hungarian warships were still confined to port, and the threat to Allied shipping in the Mediterranean continued to come from submarines. Horthy had risked three of the best Austro-Hungarian warships in order to attack an ineffective blockade.

The big gainer from the Battle of the Otranto Straits was Horthy himself. He was promoted to Rear Admiral and made commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in March 1918. He was Regent of Hungary from 1920-44.

Skipper Joseph Watts returned to the fishing fleet after the war. The Scotsman quoted a spokeswomen for Spink, the auctioneers who sold his medals, as saying that:

 “His Victoria Cross, so bravely earned, was kept in a small drawer on his boat, amidst the accumulated junk of a sailor’s life. Joseph Watt died at home in Fraserburgh from cancer of the gullet on 13 February, 1955, and was buried alongside his wife in Kirktown Cemetery. His loss was felt all over the North-east fishing communities with deep regret.”


[1] Henry Newbolt, Naval Operations, vol. iv (London: HMSO, 1938), p. 300.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 166.


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La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion, a French film directed by Jean Renoir, has recently been restored and re-released. It was made in 1937 and was banned by the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels called Renoir ‘Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1′. It is set in WWI, mostly in Prisoner of War (PoW) camps, but features little combat. The key issues of the film are class, nationality and duty.

The film starts with Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a pilot from a humble background, preparing to fly on a reconnaissance mission with Captaine de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic staff officer. The next scene takes place in a German officers’ mess. The two Frenchmen have been shot down by von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), another aristocrat. He invites them for lunch before they are sent to a PoW camp. Von Rauffenstein knows de Boeldieu’s cousin and they find that they move in similar circles.

The scenes in the PoW camp are similar to those in later American and British films about WWII PoWs; the French officers dig a tunnel with improvised tools, presenting difficulties in disposing of the soil; the guards are dim; Maréchal spends time in solitary confinement; the prisoners put on a concert party; they eat well thanks to parcels from home, especially those sent to Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a rich banker.

It must be remembered that this is a 1937 film; it is the later Anglo-American films that have followed Renoir. The French officers come from a wide range of backgrounds, but co-operate well in their attempts to escape and share their parcels from home. There is a link between the defiant singing of the Marseillaise in this film and the similar scene in Casablanca; in the later film, Madeleine Lebeau, Dalio’s then wife, appears in the Marseillaise scene, playing Yvonne, Rick’s jilted lover. Dalio played the croupier in Casablanca.

Maréchal and de Boeldieu are eventually sent to a fortress prison camp. Rosenthal is already an inmate and von Rauffenstein, unfit for combat service because of wounds, is the commandant. Von Rauffenstein offers privileges to de Boeldieu. He is prepared to take de Boeldieu’s word of honour that his quarters contain no prohibited items, but insists on searching the quarters of other French officers.

Von Rauffenstein’s motivation appears to be that he sees a bond between two aristocratic, regular officers rather than any attempt to turn the Frenchman against his colleagues and country. There is a clear link between the two aristocrats, who can switch fluently between English, French and German, have friends and acquaintances in common, and to a large extent belong to an international class. They foresee that their class and way of life is doomed, regardless of which side wins the war.

An excellent film, well acted and directed film, which is the precursor of many other PoW films. Some do not like films that are in 1.33 aspect ratio, black and white, subtitled and have only two female characters, a mother and her small daughter. If you do not have such objections, then it is well worth seeing.

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