Category Archives: Britain

German U-Boat Losses, 1943-44

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 280-281:

After the carnage of 1942 and early 1943, the Allies had seen a stunning turnaround in the Atlantic. By September 1943, most U-boats had been swept from the Atlantic waters. This was thanks not only to the new high-speed bombes but also to a host of other Allied war measures: advances in radar, sonar, and high-frequency direction finding; more aircraft carriers and long-range aircraft; better convoy systems. The Allies changed their convoy cipher, and Dönitz could no longer read it. The tables turned. During the summer, American hunter-killer units used code breaking along with other intelligence to find and sink big German submarines that were sent out to refuel U-boats. These refuelers were known as milch cows, and between June and August, American carrier planes sank five. In October, they finished off all but one. The refuelers were critical to the U-boats’ ability to stay so far away from their home base, and as the milch cows went down, the U-boats began to drift homeward.

There was always the chance, however, that the U-boats could come back. And they did try. In October 1943, the U-boats reappeared. But now the costs were punishingly high. For every Allied merchant vessel sunk, seven U-boats were lost. Now Dönitz was the one who could not build boats fast enough to replace those he was losing. In November, thirty U-boats ventured into the North Atlantic and sank nothing. The U-boats began lurking elsewhere, clustering around the coast of Britain, hoping to intercept materiel brought in for an anticipated invasion of France. Dönitz was always trying to innovate the U-boats, adding a Schnorchel that enabled them to remain submerged longer. He was willing to sacrifice his boats, and his men, and kept the U-boats in the water even as a way to tie up Allied resources.

But it was a losing battle. In May 1944, the Allies sank half the U-boats in operation—more than the Germans could replace. More than three-quarters of the U-boat crews were killed, suffering terrible watery deaths. The women in the tracking room were privy to the full immensity and horror.

By now the British had indeed handed over the four-rotor bombe operations to the Americans. After the war, a U.S. Navy file was made of messages from grateful—and gracious—British colleagues. “Congratulations from Hut six on colossal… week,” said one missive from Bletchley. An internal British memo acknowledged that “by half way through 1944” the Americans “had taken complete control of Shark and undoubtedly knew far more about the key than we did.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, economics, France, Germany, language, military, nationalism, science, U.S., war

Occupied Germany as Ethnic Wastebasket

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 192-193:

As 1946, the year of “organized expulsions,” began drawing to a close, each of the Big Three was feeling the strain. “At present,” Colonel Thicknesse warned, “we tend to regard occupied Germany as a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world. We are not convinced that this attitude is correct, either economically or politically.” According to figures reported to CRX [= Combined Repatriation Executive], by November the Soviet zone had admitted more than 1.8 million expellees from Poland and Czechoslovakia; the U.S. zone approximately 1.7 million from Czechoslovakia and Hungary (including 160,000 who had arrived via Austria); and the British zone more than 1.3 million from the Recovered Territories: a cumulative total of almost five million people. To this figure could be added a number which could not be precisely calculated—but certainly one in the hundreds of thousands for each occupation zone—of Volksdeutsche who had made their way under duress out of their countries of origin, but entered Germany as unregistered “infiltrees.” All were arriving in a country whose urban centers the Western Allies had gone to immense trouble and expense during the previous five years to level to the ground, an endeavor in which they had enjoyed considerable success and which had left Germany with “a worse housing problem than has ever before existed in any area of comparable size and population.” Even after every available camp, military base, school, church, barn, air raid shelter, and, in some cases, cave had been filled with expellees, the onrushing human tide continued to overwhelm the best efforts of the rudimentary German administration upon whose shoulders the occupying forces thrust the responsibility. As a rule, according to reception officers in all three occupation zones, the expellees were arriving in possession of little more than the—usually insufficient—clothing in which they stood. The overwhelming majority were women and children. Few could make any meaningful contribution in the short term to their own support. Hundreds of thousands needed immediate care, in hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, or residential centers for the disabled, though the shortage of resources meant that a great many would not receive it.

This was not at all how the Allies had envisaged the population transfers when they had been sold on the idea during the war. Then the stated rationale had been to remove a cohort of “dangerous” Germans—above all, fit men of military age—who might threaten the security of the countries in which they lived. Instead, it had been the least dangerous Germans who had been deported, while the fit men were being held back for forced labor, and in many cases pressured to take out Polish or Czechoslovak nationality against their will. The occupying powers thus found themselves presented with a first-class social, economic, and humanitarian crisis that threatened to undo whatever plans they had made for German reconstruction, as well as to disrupt the economies of the expelling states for years to come. Predictably, each of the Big Three with the benefit of experience discovered its enthusiasm for this novel method of “stabilizing” the European continent shrinking to the vanishing point. After coping—or failing to cope—with the “wild expulsions” of 1945, and finding the “organized expulsions” of 1946 from their perspective to be less satisfactory yet, each of the Allied powers entered 1947 with the same overriding objective: to put an end to what was proving an intolerable burden to it as quickly as possible.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Britain, Czechia, Germany, Hungary, labor, migration, military, nationalism, Poland, U.S., USSR, war

The 1941 Boom in U.S. Codebreaking Jobs

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 22-25:

During World War II, code breaking would come into its own as one of the most fruitful forms of intelligence that exists. Listening in on enemy conversations provides a verbatim, real-time way to know what that enemy is thinking and doing and arguing about and worrying over and planning. It provides information on strategy, troop movements, shipping itineraries, political alliances, battlefield casualties, pending attacks, and supply needs. The code breakers of World War II advanced what is known as signals intelligence—reading the coded transmissions of enemies, as well as (sometimes) of allies. They laid the groundwork for the now burgeoning field of cybersecurity, which entails protecting one’s data, networks, and communications against enemy attack. They pioneered work that would lead to the modern computing industry. After the war, the U.S. Army and Navy code-breaking operations merged to become what is now the National Security Agency. It was women who helped found the field of clandestine eavesdropping—much bigger and more controversial now than it was then—and it was women in many cases who shaped the early culture of the NSA.

The women also played a central role in shortening the war. Code breaking was crucial to Allied success in defeating Japan, both at sea and during the bloody amphibious assaults on Pacific islands against a foe that was dug in, literally—the cave fighting toward the end of the war was terrible, as were kamikaze attacks and other suicide missions—and willing to fight to the death. And in the all-important Atlantic theater, U.S. and British penetration of the Nazi Enigma cipher that German admiral Karl Dönitz used to direct his U-boat commanders helped bring about the total elimination of the Nazi submarine threat.

The chain of events that led to the women’s recruitment was a long one, but a signal moment occurred in September 1941, when U.S. Navy rear admiral Leigh Noyes wrote a letter to Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College, the women’s counterpart to Harvard. For more than a year the Navy had been quietly recruiting male intelligence officers from elite colleges and universities, and now it was embarking on the same experiment with women. Noyes wanted to know whether Comstock would identify a group of Radcliffe students to be trained in cryptanalysis. He confided that the Navy was looking for “bright, close-mouthed native students”—that is, high-achieving women who had the sense and ability to keep a secret and who had been born in the United States and were free of close ties with other nations.

“Evidence of a flair for languages or for mathematics could be advantageous,” Noyes said, adding that “any intense sociological quirks would, of course, be undesirable.” Without stating what such “quirks” might be, the admiral suggested that a handful of promising seniors could enroll in a training course the Navy had developed.

“In the event of total war,” Noyes told her, “women will be needed for this work, and they can do it probably better than men.”

Ada Comstock was happy to comply. “It interests me very much and I should like to take whatever steps would be thought serviceable,” she promptly wrote to her friend Donald Menzel, an astronomy professor at Harvard who was serving as a point person for the broader naval recruiting effort. Astronomy is a mathematical science and a naval one—for centuries, navigation was done using the position of the sun and the stars—and many of the instructors who taught the secret course would come from the field.

At the Navy’s request, Comstock also approached leaders of other women’s schools. These deans and presidents were devoted to the cause of educating women and eager to defend liberty and freedom of thought against fascism and totalitarian belief systems. They also were keen to develop career opportunities for their students. The leaders savvily perceived that war might open up fields—and spots in graduate schools—that up to now had been closed to women. Even before Comstock received the Navy’s letter, many of the leaders had been strategizing over how they could provide what Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College, called “trained brains” to a war effort that would depend on advances in science and math.

The women’s college leaders met at Mount Holyoke on October 31 and November 1, 1941, with representatives from Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Smith, and Mount Holyoke attending. Comstock told them about the Navy’s request and said Radcliffe would participate. She distributed some materials the Navy had developed: a “Guide for Instructors” and an “Introduction to Students.” The idea was that selected students would take the course during the remainder of their senior year, then go to work for the Navy, in Washington, as civilians. The “Guide for Instructors” assured them that no prior experience was necessary and that they would receive a “gouge,” or answers to the problems. The instructors would be given a few texts to jump-start their own education, including a work called Treatise on Cryptography, another titled Notes on Communications Security, and a pamphlet called The Contributions of the Cryptographic Bureaus in the World War—meaning World War I, the so-called war to end all wars.

The result was the wave of secret letters that appeared in college mailboxes in the fall of 1941, summoning surprised young women to secret meetings. Most were in the top 10 percent of their class, selected based on academic performance as well as character and loyalty and grit.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, economics, education, Germany, Japan, labor, language, military, nationalism, U.S., war

Long History of People Exiled

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle p. 67:

The driving out of unwanted peoples, to be sure, is a practice almost as old as recorded history. The Old Testament tells the story of numerous forced migrations carried out by the Israelites and their neighbors against each other, the Babylonian Captivity being the most celebrated. Philip II of Macedonia was renowned for the scale of his population transfers in the fourth century B.C., a precedent that his son, Alexander the Great, appears to have intended to follow on a far more massive scale. The colonial era witnessed many more forced displacements, often accompanied or initiated by massacre. Some of these bore a distinctly “modern” tinge. The Act of Resettlement that followed Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, for example, ordered Irish property owners in three-quarters of the island to remove themselves to the impoverished western province of Connacht by May 1, 1654, to make room for incoming English and Scottish colonists; those remaining east of the River Shannon after that date were to be killed wherever found. “The human misery involved,” in the judgment of Marcus Tanner, “probably equaled anything inflicted on Russia or Poland in the 1940s by Nazi Germany.” On a smaller scale, but proportionately just as lethal, was the United States’ forced relocation of part of the Cherokee nation from Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to eastern Oklahoma along the so-called “Trail of Tears” in 1838; perhaps a quarter of the fifteen thousand men, women, and children who were driven out perished, most of them while detained in assembly camps. Extensive forced migrations occurred in Africa and Asia also. In what is today Nigeria the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest independent state in nineteenth-century Africa, practiced slavery on a massive scale—by 1860 it possessed at least as many slaves as the United States—as an instrument of forced migration, the purpose being to increase the security of disputed border areas. “Enforced population displacement … was supposed to strengthen the Islamic state, which was achieved through demographic concentration.” On the western borderlands of China, the Qing Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “used deportations and mass kidnappings to build a human resource base.”

Contemporary scholars agree, though, that the twentieth century has been the heyday of forcible population transfers. The rise of the nation-state, in place of the dynastic multinational empires of the earlier period, was both cause and effect of the ideological claim that political and ethnographic boundaries ought to be identical.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Asia, Britain, Central Asia, China, Ireland, Mediterranean, Middle East, migration, military, nationalism, religion, slavery, U.S., war

Missing Migration History in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 1-3:

Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles. Others again were forcibly removed from Yugoslavia and Romania, although the Allies had never sanctioned deportations from those countries. Altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen; the smallest cohort of those affected were adult males. These expulsions were accomplished with and accompanied by great violence. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lost their lives through ill-treatment, starvation, and disease while detained in camps before their departure—often, like Auschwitz I, the same concentration camps used by the Germans during the Second World War. Many more perished on expulsion trains, locked in freight wagons without food, water, or heating during journeys to Germany that sometimes took weeks; or died by the roadside while being driven on foot to the borders. The death rate continued to mount in Germany itself, as homeless expellees succumbed to hypothermia, malnutrition, and other effects of their ordeal. Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present. Much more research will have to be carried out before this range can be narrowed to a figure that can be cited with reasonable confidence.

On the most optimistic interpretation, nonetheless, the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the “ethnic cleansings” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade. They took place without any attempt at concealment, under the eyes of tens of thousands of journalists, diplomats, relief workers, and other observers with access to modern communications, in the middle of the world’s most crowded continent. Yet they aroused little attention at the time. Today, outside Germany, they are almost completely unknown. In most English-language histories of the period they are at best a footnote, and usually not even that. The most recent (2009) edition of Mary Fulbrook’s excellent History of Germany 1918–2008 disposes of the episode in a single uninformative paragraph; the antics of the tiny ultraleftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s, in comparison, rate four. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany is typical in not according the expulsions even a single mention. What is true of German history textbooks is also the case with those dealing with the history of Europe as a whole, and even of the central European states most directly concerned. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield’s fine survey of the region in the postwar era, Return to Diversity—by far the most accessible and reliable one-volume treatment of the subject—takes a cumulative total of less than a page to explain the means by which Poland and Czechoslovakia, until 1939 among the most heterogeneous and multicultural countries in Europe, had just ten years later become ethnic monoliths. It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute this pervasive ignorance of the expulsions, their context, and their consequences to any conspiracy of silence. What has occurred in the postwar era is something less calculated in nature, but more insidious in effect: the phenomenon of a historical episode of great significance that is hidden in plain sight. Certainly information, albeit of highly variable quality, on the expulsions is available—for those who possess the requisite language competence and are prepared to go looking for it. A 1989 bibliography lists almost five thousand works dealing with them to some degree in the German language alone. Even today, some sixty-five years later, living expellees are not hard to find; it has been calculated that a quarter of the current German population are expellees or their immediate descendants. What is denied, then, is not the fact of the expulsions but their significance. Relegated in textbooks to a single passing mention in a vaguely phrased sentence referring to the “chaos” existing in Germany in the immediate postwar era, or simply passed over in silence, the impression is effectively conveyed that they occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Czechia, democracy, disease, Germany, Hungary, migration, nationalism, Poland, publishing, Romania, U.S., USSR, war, Yugoslavia

Transition to Alphabetical Grading

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 226-227:

For Panizzi, and the British Museum, alphabetical order was seen as a pragmatic, modern solution—in fact it was the pragmatic, modern solution.

These questions arose in American university libraries just as the institutions themselves were moving toward a grading system that used the alphabet. Yet universities had not naturally been a home to ordering by alphabet more generally. Even in the New World, supposedly freed from old caste systems by its revolution, society continued to be viewed hierarchically: the earliest surviving lists of students at Harvard and Yale Colleges show them ranked not according to their own merits, by examination results or by their conduct, but by their families’ social status. It was not until 1886 that Yale began to list graduating students in alphabetical order.

At the same time, many colleges had used descriptive phrases to indicate pass or fail marks. In the late eighteenth century, Yale had used “Optimi,” best; “second Optimi,” second best; “Inferiores (Boni),” lower (good); and “Pejores,” worse. In the nineteenth century this was replaced by a scale of 1 to 4. Harvard, on the other hand, switched from numbers to letter grades in descending order from A to C just as it was adopting an alphabetically ordered card catalog. The University of Michigan initially simplified its system to pass or fail, later replaced with P for passed, C for “conditioned” (presumably some form of conditional passing grade), and A for absent. Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts, founded in 1837 as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, used A for excellent, B for good, C, fair, D, passed (“barely”), E for failed, before changing to pass grades A to E, with F becoming the new “failed.” With none of these changes does there appear to have been any discussion as to why A was almost always the best—it just seemed obvious that it was.

I don’t remember what grading system we used when my wife and I taught English in Zhongshan, China, in 1987-88, but I remember writing 努力 ‘works hard’ next to a few of the student names in the roster. The hardest workers tended to be students who didn’t have relatives in Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver, or Sydney who sent them allowances in hard currency that exceeded the value of the renmenbi we were paid each month. In any case, the grades we assigned didn’t matter. The graduates who got the best jobs were the ones who looked most attractive and/or had the richest parents.

Leave a comment

Filed under anglosphere, Britain, China, education, language, U.S.

Neutrality of Alphabetical Order

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 18-19:

This alphabetic predominance makes it hard for us to remember today that the phrase “alphabetical order” has two parts, and that they might be of equal weight: “alphabetical,” yes, but also “order.” And that all order, and ordering, is not of necessity alphabetical—indeed, for centuries the idea of ordering by random chance, by the letters of the alphabet, was considered less useful than a multitude of other sorting methods—geographical, chronological, hierarchical, categorical. Sometimes things had, and continue to have, no visible organizing method, their innate order being so essential that it is simply remembered. For a medieval clergyman, what would have been the point of putting the books of the Bible in alphabetical order? To him, it was obvious that Genesis comes before Exodus, just as, to us, it is obvious that Monday comes before Tuesday, September before October. In fact, it is surprisingly difficult to put the days of the week or the months of the year into alphabetical order, because the days and months have a “natural” order, one that is not alphabetical.

Other types of categorizing and sorting that were natural to generations past today seem as peculiar to us as April heading a list of the months of the year because it begins with A. Yet in a world more stratified than our own, sorting things hierarchically was once a natural impulse. The Domesday Book, that summary of land occupancy in England and parts of Wales produced for William the Conqueror in 1086, assessed the values of 13,418 places, organizing them first by status, then by geography, then by status again, and finally by wealth. The king came first, followed—broken down by region—by the great clergy, the powerful barons, and, lastly, each district’s most humble tenants.

But of course, for the information in the Domesday Book to be accessible to later readers, they had to know the regions of England and Wales, and the orders of hierarchy—who outranked whom. For, in all the millennia of reading and writing, only one major sorting system has evolved that requires no previous knowledge from the searcher: alphabetical order. To use it, the only thing searchers need to know is a list of approximately (depending on the language) two dozen characters, in an established order. They do not need to know on what continent a city is located to find it in an atlas, nor if a bishop outranks a cardinal to find him in a list of participants at a clerical summit. Neither do they need to know whether the English Civil War preceded or postdated the American Civil War to locate it in an alphabetical list of “Wars Through History”; nor, indeed, do they need to know whether a pumpkin is considered a vegetable or a fruit to search for it in a seed catalog.

Alphabetical order is in this way entirely neutral.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, education, language, publishing, scholarship

World War I Spreads, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 297-298:

By the end of 1917 most of the world’s population had entered a state of belligerency. Even during the Napoleonic Wars this situation had no precedent. Two impetuses to the process came from the unrestricted submarine campaign and from American entry. The first threatened death and destruction to almost every country; the second made neutrality less attractive and joining the Allies more so. Yet the new belligerents made their own decisions, which were frequently contested. In China intervention led to civil war, and in Greece to something close to it; in Brazil it prompted civil disorder and repression of the German-Brazilians. In China, the issue became embroiled with the contests between Duan and Li and between the northern Chinese warlords and the Guomindang. Intervention became a gambit in a domestic struggle, with Duan holding the advantage. Brazilian public opinion was always pro-Allied in tendency, but it took the submarine sinkings to create a Congress majority for belligerency. Finally, in Siam the government had no legislature to contend with, and once the king insisted on intervention his foreign minister assented.

None of the four countries envisaged an all-out struggle, which makes their interventions easier to comprehend. So does US entry, which made the Allies more likely to win. Indeed, America also initially envisaged a limited commitment, but unlike the other new arrivals it subsequently expanded it. China, Brazil, and Siam were remote from the Central Powers and therefore ran little risk. Greece ran a bigger one, as a fighting front ran through its northern territory, and of the four it made the biggest military contribution. But the costs and risks should be set against the prospective gains. For Brazil these were primarily economic. For Siam and China the additional incentive was gaining traction against the unequal treaties, the Chinese being particularly focused on the Shandong lease. In Greece Venizelos wanted Bulgarian and Turkish territories that might support a glittering future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. The prize all sought was a voice in the peace settlement.

These objectives would be satisfied unequally and tardily; and in Greece’s case scarcely at all. But the widening of the war through new interventions weakened European pre-eminence. Siam and China challenged the unequal treaties in a manner impossible before 1914; Chinese nationalism strengthened and became more anti-Western; Brazil and other South American countries turned away from Europe. China’s intervention was determined more by Japan than by the European Allies or the United States. Moreover, the war’s prolongation undermined not only informal European dominance in East Asia but also formal control elsewhere. This was most evident in the August 1917 Montagu Declaration, promising ‘responsible government’ in India, the grandest empire’s biggest possession. But if European control was under challenge in Asia, it was still expanding in the Middle East, and 1917 was the decisive year for establishing British authority over Palestine and Iraq. These developments too would figure among the lasting consequences of these crowded months.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brazil, Britain, China, Eastern Europe, Europe, Japan, Mediterranean, Middle East, nationalism, South Asia, Southeast Asia, U.S., war

Siam Enters World War I

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 285-286:

Siam declared war on Germany on 22 July 1917. The 1855 Bowring Treaty had limited its tariffs to 3 per cent and secured extraterritorial jurisdiction for British citizens, soon to be followed by those of other Powers. By 1914 Siam had ceded more than one-third of its territory to French Indochina and to the British Malay states. That its core remained independent owed something to it suiting Britain and France to keep Siam as a buffer, and something to King Rama V (reigned 1868–1910) and his advisors. Rama appointed Prince Dewrawangse as foreign minister, who served for thirty-eight years, and by 1914 was vastly experienced and temperamentally cautious. When Rama VI acceded to the throne in 1910, he kept Dewrawangse on.

Siam was less developed than Greece or Brazil. Its population in 1910 was about 8 million, and Bangkok the one substantial city. Its principal export was rice and most of its foreign trade was managed by the British from Singapore and Hong Kong. Its government was an absolute monarchy, untrammelled by representative institutions, in which members of the royal family held key ministerial portfolios and several hundred foreign advisers worked in royal service. Insofar as public opinion existed, it might have been expected to be hostile to France and Britain; but Europe was distant and Germany and Austria-Hungary could not have aided the country. In fact such considerations were outweighed by the personal outlook of King Rama, who had attended Sandhurst and Oxford and undergone officer training with the Durham Light Infantry. In 1915–16 he made donations to widows and orphans of his former regiment, and he and George V exchanged the titles of ‘General’ in each other’s armies, despite German protests that such behaviour was un-neutral.

Unrestricted submarine warfare and America’s appeal to other neutrals to break off relations with Germany started a similar debate in Siam to those in Brazil and China. The initial response to Wilson was that Siam was very remote from the war, and preferred to see how the situation developed. This holding position was primarily due to Dewrawangse, who worked closely with the British minister in Bangkok, Herbert Dering, who in turn advised London that it was best to apply no pressure but let the situation mature, and this recommendation the Foreign Office heeded. Although it might be advantageous to control the nine German steamers in Bangkok harbour and expel the 300 Germans working for the Siamese government, the country had already cooperated in, for example, deporting Indian seditionists, and the advantages from its belligerency were marginal. Dering also feared the Siamese might seek concessions over the unequal treaties. The situation remained unchanged until Rama returned from a visit to the provinces, during which time Dewrawangse (with reluctant acquiescence from an impatient ruler) sounded out Siam’s overseas emissaries. In a Cabinet meeting on 28 May Rama intervened decisively. Dewrawangse reported that the diplomats were divided: the representatives in France and Russia recommended breaking off relations (as did the French and Russian governments), but the London envoy considered it unnecessary. The king, however, said Siam should join the Allies. Previously the Central Powers had seemed to be winning, but American entry altered the equation and delaying meant Britain would end the war with greater leverage than it had now. Rama hoped the unequal treaties could be revised or even abrogated, although he forbade his ministers from saying so. Instead Dewrawangse, who was uneasy but went along, drafted a note that blamed Germany’s persistence in an illegal method of warfare despite Siam’s protests. The government took over the German vessels before their crews could damage them, rounded up the German nationals, and asked the Allies how Siam could help them. When the communications minister voiced concern about running the railways without German experts, Rama replaced him. The kingdom had an army of 12,000–15,000 men, and initially it was not intended to send troops, but in 1918 a contingent of 1,254 volunteers went to France, where nineteen were killed. Siam attended the peace conference and urged amendments to the unequal treaties and recovery of full sovereignty, which America conceded in 1920 and Britain and France in 1925. In relation to the objectives set for it, Siam’s was the most successful of the 1917 interventions, despite the war being followed by a financial crisis. The story underlines how the new conditions forged opportunities for dissatisfied nations to press claims.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, military, nationalism, Russia, Thailand, war

Breakdown of Peace Feelers, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 268-270:

The breakdown of the 1917 peace feelers can be explained at different levels. Certainly it demonstrated the perils of amateur diplomacy. An older Catholic, aristocratic, and dynastic Europe, alongside the socialists and portions of the business elite, attempted to transcend divisions, as later it would support continental unification. Yet mediators such as Sixte and the Coppées helped sustain the contacts by over-representing to each party the other’s goodwill, and it is hard to see that professionals would have done better. Although the feelers made both sides review their war aims, they remained far apart. Admittedly, there were signs of movement: some French and British leaders were prepared at least to talk to the Germans; and the Germans to renounce the annexation of Longwy-Briey and give up the Belgian coast, while the Austrians considered ceding the Italian-majority areas of the Trentino (though both Central Powers hoped for compensations). But the Allies were less willing to jettison their claims. The British wanted full restoration for Belgium and to retain Germany’s colonies, while the German leaders, except for Kühlmann and briefly Bethmann, insisted on continuing control of Belgium. Nor would they cede more than a fraction of the Alsace-Lorraine of 1870, whereas the French wanted all of it, and preferably more. Italy’s Treaty of London claims on Austro-Hungarian territory were an equally formidable stumbling block. The territorial controversies really mattered, for economic and strategic reasons as well as on grounds of national self-determination, ethnicity, and international law and morality. But behind the territorial disputes lay a deeper issue: that the peace feelers served as weapons in the struggle, and especially to divide the enemy. The British and French saw the Sixte and Armand–Revertera affairs as such opportunities, as did Kühlmann the Villalobar contact. Both alliances’ efforts to shatter the other had been central to pre-1914 diplomacy, and this quest continued during the war.

The belligerent governments were cognizant of the rising threat of revolution and Czernin tried to use it as a lever. But none, except for Russia, stood quite yet on the verge of insurrection. Socialist and labour movements had gained support, but a renewed and strident nationalism rallied against them, and governmental concessions to the Left—such as pledges to support a League of Nations—were cosmetic. The domestic balance in the major belligerents shifted in favour of anti-war forces, but not, until the Bolsheviks seized power, by enough to end the conflict. The Reichstag peace resolution meant less than it seemed. Moreover, if the diplomatic and domestic political elements in Europe’s stalemate softened rather than dissolved, the same was true of the military deadlock. By summer 1917 both unrestricted submarine warfare and the Allies’ Chantilly offensives had failed to deliver. But by the autumn Russia’s collapse opened new prospects for the Central Powers, especially in conjunction with tactical innovations that brought renewed successes for their armies. And conversely America’s deepening engagement gave the Allies reason to hope that time still favoured them. Ribot and Lloyd George gambled on victory coming with American aid, and that in spite of Wilson’s palpable aloofness the Allies could still attain their objectives. It is surprising how little America featured in the 1917 debates, but without it Britain, France, and Italy would most likely have been forced, at best, into the unfavourable compromise that they dreaded. Wilson not only gave them economic, maritime, and psychological support, but also diplomatic backing, by rejecting the Stockholm conference and the papal peace note. For Wilson, too, had decided not to settle for a peace based on the pre-1914 status quo ante, and American power would be applied to forestall one. In the coming winter Washington would assert its leadership of the anti-German coalition. Before considering that development, we must explore the wider world, and the spreading shock waves from the European strife.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, nationalism, Russia, U.S., war