Category Archives: Germany

Italy vs. Austria-Hungary, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 205-207:

On Wednesday 24 October 1917 German and Austrian forces launched one of the most daring attacks of the war. Breaking through Italian positions in the upper Isonzo river valley, within two weeks they had advanced over 100 miles. Almost half the Italian army were killed, wounded, or captured, or discarded their weapons and streamed to the rear. Territory that had taken more than two years and 900,000 casualties to capture was abandoned within hours. Amid the dreary litany of failed offensives and attrition battles, the name of Caporetto stands out, and in Italy has remained a shorthand for rout and fiasco. Even so, for most of the war it had been the Italians, not the Central Powers, who had been on the attack, in conditions often even worse than on the Western Front. In part, the collapse grew out of overstretch. To understand how the Italian army became so exposed, we must consider not only the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (as the Italians officially entitled Caporetto), but also the Tenth and Eleventh. It is further necessary to survey the operations themselves, from Austro-German breakthrough to Italian recovery. Devastating though Caporetto was, in many ways it strengthened Italy’s war effort.

Between 1882 and 1914 Italy had regularly renewed its Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary. In 1914 it stayed neutral, and in May 1915 it joined the Allies, following the secret Treaty of London concluded with Britain, France, and Russia in April. Italy’s nineteenth-century national unification had left some 800,000 Italian-speakers under Austrian rule. But the Allies promised Italy not only the ethnically Italian areas in the Trentino and the environs of Trieste, but also the German-speaking South Tyrol and the Slovenian and Croatian territories of Istria and Dalmatia. And to incorporate any of these areas the Italians would have to conquer them. As France and Britain would enter any peace negotiations handicapped unless they dislodged the German army from France and Belgium, so too would Italy unless it dislodged the Austro-Hungarian army from the areas promised. In both theatres, if the Central Powers defended successfully they would win.

In both, however, they defended with one hand tied behind their backs. The Germans kept on average a third of their field army on the Eastern Front. The Austrian army was smaller, and because of its commitments in the Eastern and Balkan theatres, in 1917 only one-fifth of it faced Italy. Even so, this fifth included some of its best units, and the Italian war, imposed by an aggressor, was less unpopular than were other fronts. The Austrians also benefited from geography. The Front ran for 375 miles from the Swiss border to the Adriatic Sea, but much was so mountainous as to be completely unsuitable for operations (though fighting none the less occurred—trenches being dug in ice fields and thousands perishing in avalanches or freezing to death). The exceptions were the Trentino and the lower stretches of the Isonzo. The Trentino was one of the Italians’ target areas, but it was remote from the Austro-Hungarians’ urban and industrial centres, and easily defended. Projecting southwards, it formed an obvious jumping-off point for driving into the Po valley and cutting off the main Italian forces. For these reasons the Austrians had attacked there in May 1916, and although the Italians had rallied with assistance from Russia’s Brusilov offensive, the Austrians had pushed them closer to the plateau edge. They would be still more vulnerable if Austria-Hungary attacked again. None the less, the fighting concentrated on the Isonzo. Between May 1915 and September 1917 no fewer than eleven battles were fought there. In rocky terrain, bitterly cold in winter, it was hard to excavate dugouts and trenches, and stone splinters magnified the impact of bombardment, both sides sheltering in cliff-side caves. The quantities of heavy artillery, gas, and aircraft were smaller than in France, and to begin with the Italians were poorly equipped. Only in August 1916 did they achieve their first big success by switching reinforcements rapidly from the Trentino battle, gaining surprise, and taking Gorizia. Three more Isonzo battles that autumn, however, led to no further progress, and left the army exhausted before a prolonged winter pause. By this stage the Italians held most of the Isonzo except for an Austrian bridgehead round Tolmino. But east of Gorizia a natural ‘amphitheatre’ of encircling peaks overlooked their positions, and to the north and south lay the limestone plateaux of the Bainsizza, the Ternova, and the Carso. Rising to over 2,000 feet, the plateaux were waterless, treeless, and largely devoid of roads and settlement. But beyond them lay no comparably short and defensible line between the Italians and the goals set by their commander, General Luigi Cadorna, of  Trieste (Austria-Hungary’s one significant port) and Ljubljana, whence a further advance might threaten Vienna.

At first the Italians fought against Austria-Hungary alone, declaring war on Germany only in August 1916. They sent contingents to the Balkans but not the Western Front, and the Germans stayed out of the Italian theatre. The other allies resented the high price paid for Italian intervention, and the lack of Italian progress.

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Russia’s Military Manpower in 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 98-99:

The war’s economic effects had caused the food supply crisis. Its impact on the army lay behind the mutiny. Although Russia had boosted military spending between 1909 and 1914, during the previous decade spending had stagnated. The 1914 army in some ways resembled the British rather than the French or German as, although composed of conscripts (in contrast to the British), it was relatively small and well equipped. The reverse of the coin was that barely a third of each age cohort had done service, so when casualties proved far higher than expected Russia ran out of trained men. Despite its bigger population than France or Germany, it called up similar numbers of conscripts: during the war it mobilized only 5 per cent of its population for active duty, against France’s 16 per cent and Germany’s 12 per cent. By 1917 14.6 million men had enlisted and over 5.5 million become casualties, 2.4 million of them as prisoners. At least 1 million returned to service after being wounded, and fatalities may have totalled 1.6–1.85 million. In 1914 the government sent to war the standing army and those who had served between 1904 and 1910. Subsequently it called up all the trained men of the 1896–1910 cohorts and many untrained members of the 1914–18 cohorts, but by 1916 it was recruiting men who were not only untrained but also in their forties, with jobs and families, and resistance mounted, leading in Central Asia to open revolt against being enlisted in labour corps. Even so, during the Brusilov offensive and its follow-on attacks Russian casualties may have reached another 2 million, of whom 1 million lost their lives. From the autumn the army was calling up its last reserve, including previously exempted sole breadwinners. Recruiting them led to riots in the villages and to wives mobbing induction points, and to mass protests in Petrograd.

Military censors read the soldiers’ letters, whose mood was ugly. By 1916 they betrayed deep hatred of the war and despair about winning it, condoned fraternization and mass surrender, and were desperate for a speedy peace, the Brusilov offensive exacerbating the discontent. Repeated defeats and superior enemy weaponry had dashed any early confidence, and the authorities were held to have betrayed their men. By the autumn, moreover, the army ate less and poorer-quality food. Daily bread rations were cut by a third or even two-thirds, or replaced by unpalatable lentils. Brusilov complained that on his South-Western Front the miserably inadequate provisions demoralized his troops, and between October and December over twenty mutinies broke out, including refusals to attack or to move up. Troops called out to quell a disturbance at Kremenchug refused to shoot, and the French ambassador learned to his dismay that during a strike in Petrograd soldiers had fired on the police. The authorities no longer placed their most reliable units in the cities, whose garrisons included the middle-aged and convalescents. Since 1916, moreover, strikers had been conscripted. Yet although the Petrograd commanders knew some men held revolutionary views, they had no plans to replace them.

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Inciting Wilson to War, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 58-59:

Although two US merchant vessels had gone down, neither loss seemed unambiguously due to unrestricted submarine warfare. None the less, by late February American freighters were sailing towards the war zone, which meant ‘overt acts’ were just a matter of time, and Wilson acknowledged that only luck had so far prevented them. He was reconciled, in other words, to measures that were virtually certain to lead to shooting war, and primarily in defence of US citizens and commercial interests. What remained unclear was how far public opinion would support him, how extensive America’s participation would be, and how far it would concert with the Allies.

During the following month the answers crystallized, and in the first instance due to the Zimmermann Telegram. Its origins are inseparable from the continuing revolutionary upheaval in Mexico, in which Wilson had already twice intervened. American forces had landed at Veracruz in 1914, and the casualties had preyed on his memory, while for months during 1916 US troops had pursued Pancho Villa across the north of the country. Germany, conversely, assisted the Constitutionalist movement of President Venustiano Carranza. Zimmermann had been involved in this effort and his expertise in subversion was one reason he became foreign minister. However, the idea of a Mexican alliance came from a junior Foreign Ministry official, Hans Arthur von Kemnitz. That of linking an approach to Mexico with one to Japan also had a lineage, extending back to German–Japanese contacts in Stockholm during 1916. Zimmermann and Bethmann approved the scheme with little discussion, and Ludendorff also endorsed it. It testified to the Germans’ cynicism, as they were quite unable to give Mexico serious help and an air of the absurd hung over the enterprise. Regardless, in its finalized form on 13 January the telegram instructed the German envoy in Mexico City, Heinrich von Eckardt, to propose an alliance to Mexico as soon as American entry into the war was considered imminent; to offer financial support and German acquiescence in Mexico’s acquiring territory lost to the United States in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in 1848; and to suggest that Carranza invite Japan to join the combination. The telegram went to Bernstorff to forward to Eckardt, which he did on 19 January. As the British had cut the Germans’ transatlantic cables it could be sent only because the United States—ironically in the interests of facilitating peace negotiations—had permitted Germany to use American diplomatic wires. But as the British were intercepting the communications of the American embassy in London, the message came to Room 40, the decrypting and decipherment unit of the Naval Intelligence Division in the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall. Initially the proposal was presented as a contingency plan, to be pursued if America entered the war, but in a follow-up message on 5 February Zimmermann authorized Eckardt to consult the Mexicans as soon as he thought appropriate. A partially decoded version of the initial telegram went to Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence, as early as 17 January, but Hall delayed before forwarding the information to the Foreign Office, for fear the Americans learned that Britain was reading their traffic. It was Hall’s idea that Balfour should give the decoded text on 23 February to the American ambassador, Walter Hines Page, by which stage the British had obtained a further copy in Mexico City and Balfour could obscure the real source with the half-truth that it had been ‘bought in Mexico’.

What matters here is less the telegram’s provenance than its consequences. Page reported it on 24 February. It showed that even when the Germans had seemed open to American mediation they had already decided for unrestricted submarine warfare and were plotting an anti-American alliance.

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U.S. Economic Boom, 1910s

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 38-39:

In 1910 out of a US population of 92 million, 2.5 million were German-born and 5.8 million of the native-born had one or both German-born parents. Although Wilson believed 90 per cent of America’s people were strongly pro-Allied, he had grounds to fear that rival allegiances would breed civil strife.

The traditional corollary to political abstention was unimpeded commerce. Exporting to belligerents was unobjectionable, the more so as America was in recession and the fighting expected to be brief. But demands for artillery, munitions, steel, machine tools, chemicals, and food and raw materials rose far higher than anticipated, fuelling one of the strongest upsurges in US history. In the winter of 1914–15 German-Americans backed a proposal in Congress to embargo arms exports, but Wilson prevented the move as ‘a foolish one, as it would restrict our plants’. Commerce secretary, William Cox Redfield, and the Treasury secretary, William Gibbs McAdoo, urged the boom must be sustained, Redfield advising that exports were at record levels, and McAdoo using the extra revenue to pay off debt. Between 1915 and 1917 exports to Britain, Canada, France, Italy, and Russia grew from $3,445 million to $9,796 million (184 per cent); those of wheat by 683 per cent; and of copper by 277 per cent; but whereas pre-war trade with the Central Powers had been one-fifth of that with the Allies, now it shrank to 1 per cent. The Allies could find the shipping to transport their purchases and the cash or credit to pay for them; the Central Powers could find neither, so whatever stance America took would benefit one side. Britain had the world’s biggest merchant navy in 1914 (43 per cent of world tonnage—and the Allies in total 59 per cent, against the Central Powers’ 15 per cent). As the Allies converted to military production, however, they had less to export, and were less able to pay. The Wall Street banking giant, J. P. Morgan & Co., became the British government’s purchasing and financial agent and permitted it a growing overdraft, and in the summer of 1915 it advised the Allies to attempt a bond flotation. Following convention, Wilson had prohibited loans to belligerent governments. But McAdoo warned that ‘to maintain our prosperity we must finance it. Otherwise it may stop, and that would be disastrous.’ Finally Wilson approved the bond issue, and even if the primary motive was to sustain the boom and the yield proved disappointing, American policy had clearly altered to the Allies’ advantage. In 1915, 75 per cent of US exports went to the Allies or to countries that had broken relations with Germany and between 1913 and 1916 America’s percentage of French imports rose from 10 to 30. By 1916 bottlenecks on the railroads into New York stretched back for miles.

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German Views of U.S. Military, 1916

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 28-29:

Although the chancellor insisted they must wait until the diplomacy connected with the Central Powers’ and American peace notes was completed, he and Helfferich concluded ‘that in the question of unrestricted U-boat warfare they must now give way, as otherwise open conflict would break out between the OHL and the government. That would shake the emperor, people, and fatherland to their foundations. They, as the weaker party, must set aside their own better convictions for the sake of internal peace.’ Privately Bethmann feared that the ‘foundation of the entire situation relates to a dictatorial quest for mastery and the consistently pursued objective of militarizing the entire life of the state’. None the less, he was prepared to yield even before he received the Holtzendorff memorandum. Holtzendorff offered at least a chance of victory and securing the war aims that the OHL deemed essential, whereas Bethmann offered slow defeat, and a spring renewal of the Allies’ offensives with no certainty of the munitions and manpower needed to resist. Certainly Ludendorff told the navy he had run risks in his career but always calculated risks, and the OHL delayed until Romania’s defeat secured the borders. But remarkable was both armed services’ indifference to the United States. Although it possessed one of the world’s most modern fleets, Holtzendorff said its naval contribution would make no difference, Capelle telling the Reichstag it would be ‘zero’. The Holtzendorff memorandum considered the Americans lacked the tonnage to send many volunteers, and could send few more munitions than they were doing already. The army had little modified its 1913 assessment that the Americans could assemble a first-line land force of just 100,000 soldiers at low readiness. On 15 January Hindenburg wrote to Conrad von Hötzendorff that the Americans could not add much to Allied shipping and munitions, their men were untrained, and their country lacked food. Whereas Bethmann and Helfferich insisted that American intervention might condemn Germany to defeat, Hindenburg believed American forces would be ‘not decisive’. The OHL’s world-view was continental rather than global, Ludendorff summing up derisively that ‘I whistle at America.’

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How Tok Pisin Came to Gapun

From A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, by Don Kulick (Algonquin Books, 2019), Kindle pp. 31-33:

Tok Pisin entered Gapun in around 1916. A year or so before the outbreak of the First World War, word spread from the coast that white men were in the area searching for young men to work for them. These white men were German labor recruiters, and the men they recruited were to be shipped off to the copra plantations that the Germans had established along the Rai Coast of eastern New Guinea (at that time, it was German New Guinea) and on various distant islands. Two Gapun men, Ayarpa and Waiki, went to the coast to find those white men. They resisted the protests of their relatives, who believed that the white men wanted to lure them away from the village to kill them. The two men were itching for an adventure. They ignored their relatives, found the recruiters, and left with them.

Ayarpa and Waiki joined the scores of men from various parts of the mainland who were taken to a copra plantation on Kokopo near the German settlement of Rabaul, on the faraway island of Neu-Pommern (“New Pomerania”). They remained on this plantation for at least three years, and they apparently witnessed the Australian occupation of Germany’s New Guinea territories at the outbreak of World War I (at which time “New Pomerania” was imperiously changed to “New Britain”). My language teacher in Gapun, old Raya, recalled Ayarpa—who was Raya’s father—describing how the inglis (that is, the Australians) rounded up the Germans and “put them into big crates. They put them all inside the crates, nailed them shut, and sent them back to their country.”

Sometime after the Australian takeover of German New Guinea in 1914, Ayarpa and Waiki came home. The stories that survive them recount how they arrived triumphantly in the village, carrying with them the fruits of their labor. Each man had a small wooden patrol box filled with “cargo”: steel knives, machetes, axes, bolts of factory-made cloth, European tobacco, saucer-sized ceramic plates that looked like seashells. (Villagers throughout New Guinea regarded such flat seashells as valuable items, and knowing that, the Germans mass-produced counterfeit ones in white ceramic to pay their laborers.) But just as impressive and even longer lasting than the goods they brought with them were the stories they told about working on the plantation. And most impressive of all was the new language the men had acquired while working for the white men.

As most people in New Guinea did at the time, Ayarpa and Waiki assumed that Tok Pisin was the language of white men. And like the steel axes and fake seashells that entered the village’s redistributive networks, so did the white men’s language: Ayarpa and Waiki immediately set about sharing the language with their peers.

A few years after Ayarpa and Waiki returned to Gapun, a group of Australian labor recruiters suddenly appeared in the village. This was the first time any white person had actually come to the village, and panic ensued. Most of the terrified villagers fled into the rainforest. Only Ayarpa, Waiki, and a few old people who were too frail to run fast enough to escape were left. Seeing the village thus deserted, the Australians resorted to what was presumably a time-tested technique of persuasion: they gathered together the old people who remained and prevented them from leaving, and then they waited until their anxious cries brought back a few young men. At that point, Ayarpa and Waiki did the recruiters’ work for them: they told the men that if they went off with the white men, they would go to where the two of them had gone, and they would learn Tok Pisin. “We’ve taught you some of the white man’s language,” they are said to have told the men, “but you don’t know it well. If you go away to the plantation, you’ll learn it well.”

Five men left with the recruiters.

And so a pattern of learning Tok Pisin became established. Young men acquired a basic knowledge of the language in the village. They then went off to work as contracted laborers to learn Tok Pisin “well.” Later, when they returned to the village, they taught the language to the young men.

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U.S. vs. Germany in Mexico, 1915

From The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa: A True Story of Revolution and Revenge, by Eileen Welsome (Little, Brown, 2009), Kindle pp. 64-65:

Villa left the civilized comforts of Juárez and began the arduous march across the Sierra Madre. It took his men twenty-five days to get through the mountains with their horses, forty-two cannons, and pack mules. Men and horses perished when they lost their footing on the narrow passes and plunged headlong into the deep canyons. Especially treacherous was the Cañón del Púlpito, a name taken from a towering rock shaped like a church pulpit.

When the Villistas had exited the mountains and were toiling toward Agua Prieta, Villa learned that President Wilson had recognized Venustiano Carranza as the de facto leader of Mexico. To Villa, who had professed himself a friend of the Americans early on, Wilson’s decision was an unthinkable betrayal.

FOR WILSON, the decision had as much to do with the deteriorating geopolitical conditions as it did with Villa. In Berlin, the German high command had continued to watch with interest the tension between the United States and Mexico, hoping against hope that war might break out between the two countries. Such a conflict, they theorized, would slow the U.S. supplies going to Great Britain and discourage the United States from entering the European war. An even more delicious scenario involved manipulating Japan, which had allied itself with Great Britain, into joining Mexico in a war against the United States, thereby diverting resources from that potential enemy as well.

The Germans had hoped to use Victoriano Huerta as their catalyst and had offered to supply him with arms and money to return to Mexico, regain control of the country, and attack the United States. Huerta accepted the German offer and arrived in New York City on April 13, 1915, almost a year to the day after the Veracruz invasion. Two months later, he boarded a train for the border and was arrested a few miles west of El Paso. By then, Huerta was extremely ill from cirrhosis of the liver, and was eventually allowed to spend his remaining days with family members, who were now living in El Paso. He died on January 13, 1916, his bed facing his convulsed country and his parlor filled with old generals who wept openly and smoked corn-husk cigarettes. Thousands attended his funeral, where he lay in a coffin covered with flowers, wearing his full-dress uniform. Worried about further German attempts to destabilize Mexico, the United States decided to recognize the bellicose Carranza. The War Department’s chief of staff, Hugh Scott, had gotten wind of the administration’s plan and did everything he could to stop it. “The recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion and of making an outlaw of the man who had helped us.” But the American decision was a pragmatic one. Carranza had the upper hand, Villa’s fortunes were in decline, and stability in Mexico mattered most.

The United States had even gone beyond simply recognizing Carranza as Mexico’s legitimate leader. The government allowed Carranza’s troops to travel by train through the border states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to reinforce Agua Prieta. On the thirty-first of October, as the yellow plume of dust signaling the advance guard of Villa’s army appeared on the horizon, three infantry brigades consisting of five thousand Carrancistas arrived in the little town.

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Echoes of the Russo-Japanese War

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 389-390:

Britain and the United States grew apprehensive as to Japanese aspirations. Their mutual suspicions were confirmed when, in 1915, Japan issued China with her notorious 21 Demands, a plan for the annexation of China. Japan was blocked for the time being, but there was reflection as to how long she could be kept down….

It had been in 1918 that a combined force which had included British, American and Japanese troops had gone to the assistance of the White Russians but, seeing the permanence of the revolution, Britain and America withdrew from the half-hearted intervention. Japan remained in Siberia until 1922 and did not return northern Sakhalin to Russia until 1925. (Russia acquired all of Sakhalin in 1945 as part of the agreement with the allies for her last-minute entry into the war against Japan.)

The interested powers had no intention of giving Japan a free hand in developing her power, and arranged at the Washington Conference in 1921 to impose conditions. Under this treaty the ratio of capital ship tonnages between Britain, the United States and Japan was set at 5:5:3. In 1923 the Anglo-Japanese alliance was abrogated and the London Naval Treaty of 1930 imposed further limitations upon the Imperial Japanese Navy. Anti-British feeling grew in Japan as pro-German sentiments increased. The technical exchange between Britain and Japan had ceased with the abrogation of the alliance. Since there was no prospect of support from the United States, with whom a fatal rivalry was now developing, Japan sought a new partner to supply essential technical expertise.

Britain’s building of the Singapore naval base caused a furore in Japan where it was seen as an Anglo-American provocative measure to attempt to limit Japan’s interests in the Pacific. In 1937, when the Sino-Japanese War began, relationships deteriorated further. Japan took full advantage of her time in China to develop and refine tactics and machinery. While the Stukas were being tested in Spain, a similar experience was being enjoyed by the Zeros in China. After the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, Japan moved closer to Germany, culminating in September 1940 with the signing of the tripartite pact. Japanese confidence had developed into Japanese over-confidence.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a repeat performance of the attack on Port Arthur. As if to acknowledge that point, the lead carrier Akagi flew the same battle flag as Admiral Togo had flown on the Mikasa during Japan’s pre-emptive strike on Port Arthur. What was surprising was that on 19 February 1942 a smaller Akagi carrier group would make a similar, successful, surprise attack on the airfield and ships at Darwin in what was to be described in Australia as ‘a day of national shame’.

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Tsarist Russian Officer Corps

From Rising Sun And Tumbling Bear, by R. M. Connaughton (Orion, 2020), Kindle pp. 383, 392:

The Japanese officer provided the essential link between the men and their Emperor. The majority of junior officers were of peasant origin and had been educated in the tradition of the samurai and the school of Bushido. With very few exceptions, the Russian officer did not enjoy such empathy with his men because the men were of lowly origin. That in itself is no reason why, as Britain’s armed forces proved in the twentieth century, they should not fight as an effective and harmonious whole. One reason why Russia’s officer corps lacked the common standards and professionalism enjoyed by the Japanese officer corps was noted by a military observer: ‘… the remarkable number of Guards officers, who were either promoted to commands, or else were appointed to the staff. A few were good men in the field but family influence was usually the deciding factor, and the officers of the line – and Russia – suffered accordingly.’ Another reason was the advanced years of many commanders, effectively blocking the progress of energetic, younger officers with new ideas.

In 1914, the Russian First and Second Armies were commanded by Rennenkampf and Samsonov, the former sparring partners at Mukden station in 1905. Colonel Max Hoffman had been one of the German observers during the Russo-Japanese War and used the possibility of a breakdown in communication and co-operation between the two Russian generals to offer Ludendorff and Hindenburg a plan to divide the two Russian armies. When German signals intercept units picked up the Russian future intentions being sent in clear and not coded, Hoffman was able to persuade his doubting commanders that this was not a deception plan but rather sheer, unsurprising incompetence.

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Original Goals of Rhodes Scholarships

From Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2008), Kindle pp. 382-383:

Rhodes was often troubled by premonitions of an early death. It prompted him to write a series of wills with grandiose notions intended to ensure his personal immortality. In his first will, drawn up in 1877 while he was a student at Oxford, he instructed his executors to establish a secret society with the aim of extending British rule throughout the world, restoring Anglo-Saxon unity and creating ‘a power so great as to render wars impossible’. His next four wills – in 1882, 1888, 1891 and 1892 – followed much the same theme; in a covering letter to his 1888 will, he suggested to Lord Rothschild that he should use the constitution of the Jesuits as a template for a secret society, inserting ‘English Empire’ in place of ‘Roman Catholic Religion’.

In 1899, at the age of forty-five, sensing he had not long to live, he drew up his seventh and final will, refining his previous ‘great idea’ into something more practical. He made bequests to members of his family and to his Oxford college, Oriel; and he directed that Groote Schuur should be used as the official residence for future prime ministers of a federal South Africa. But his main ‘great idea’ focused on the education of young colonists. He gave instructions for scholarships to be awarded to suitable colonial candidates to study at Oxford, stipulating the qualifications they needed. In the first place, only men were eligible. Discussing other necessary qualifications with W. T. Stead in London, Rhodes envisaged a points system:

You know I am all against letting the scholarships merely to people who swot over books, who have spent all their time over Latin and Greek. But you must allow for that element which I call ‘smug’, and which means scholarship. That is to stand for four-tenths. Then there is ‘brutality’ which stands for two-tenths. Then there is tact and leadership, again two-tenths, and then there is ‘unctuous rectitude’, two-tenths. That makes up the whole. You see how it works.

In the terminology he finally used, Rhodes instructed points to be awarded for: literary and scholastic attainments; success in ‘manly outdoor sports’; ‘qualities of manhood’, including devotion to duty, protection of the weak, and unselfishness; and ‘moral force of character’. He listed fifteen colonies from which sixty scholars from the British Empire were to be drawn; and he added a further ninety-six scholarships for students from the United States. After meeting Kaiser Wilhelm in 1899, Rhodes allocated fifteen scholarships to German students.

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