Category Archives: Russia

British Indian Expeditionary Forces, WWI

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 10-14:

All the men of Indian Expeditionary Force A to France went to liberate German-occupied territory in the name of democracy. Some 85,000 Indian soldiers and 50,000 non-combatants served with Force A on the western front. In the wider world the Indian Army served extensively to shut down the German colonial empire, partly as a natural adjunct of the British cause against Prussian militarism in Europe, and partly to secure British colonies. On 6 August 1914 the Cabinet at 10 Downing Street was already cooking up, wrote Asquith, ‘with some gusto… schemes for taking German ports & wireless stations in E & W Africa & the China Seas… I had to remark we looked more like a gang of Elizabethan buccaneers than a meek collection of black-coated Liberal Ministers.’ These extra-European anti-German schemes unfurled until the war’s end, with some 40,000 Indian soldiers and 12,000 Indian non-combatants taking part, primarily with Indian Expeditionary Forces B and C in tropical Africa.

The greatest Indian numbers overseas, however, were involved in the war against the Ottoman Empire covering most of the Middle East. Approximately 430,000 Indian soldiers and 330,000 non-combatants invaded the region, making the Indian Army by 1918 the single largest Allied force on Ottoman soil. Turkey had been neutral until the end of October 1914, when it picked sides by sending warships over the Black Sea under a German admiral to bombard Tsarist Ukraine. ‘The Turkish Empire has committed suicide, and dug with its own hands its grave,’ Asquith proclaimed within days, as Russia, Serbia, Britain and France responded with declarations of war. ‘It is the Ottoman Government that has drawn the sword, and which, I venture to predict, will perish by the sword. It is they and not we who have rung the death-knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe, but in Asia.’

As Asquith heard that death-knell in early November 1914, he was distracted by the need for British notes of religious caution towards the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic state. At the time the global Muslim population stood at 270 million. Around 100 million Muslims were British subjects, 70 million of them living in the Indian Empire, which made Britain the greatest Muslim power of the day, as the French Empire in North Africa and the Russian in Central Asia had 20 million Muslims each, and the Ottomans 15 million. While most Indian Muslims’ head of state was the King-Emperor, they generally revered his Ottoman counterpart, the Sultan of Turkey, as their highest religious leader. The overwhelming majority were Sunnis for whom the Sultan was Caliph, or the Prophet Muhammad’s direct successor, in whose stewardship lay Islam’s Holy Places including Mecca and Jerusalem. The British were anxious that Indian Muslims could see the war on Turkey as a war on Islam, stirring them into anti-British protest in sympathy with Ottoman co-religionists, and that Arabs under Ottoman rule could be equally alienated when they might otherwise turn on the Turks as Allied rebels. So Asquith was quick to reassure the King-Emperor and the Sultan’s Muslim subjects alike. ‘Nothing is further from our thoughts or intentions than to initiate or encourage a crusade against their belief,’ he announced on 9 November. ‘Their holy places we are prepared, if any such need should arise, to defend against all invaders and to maintain inviolate… We have no quarrel with Mussulman subjects of the Sultan.’

In the earliest days of the war on Turkey, therefore, British sensitivity to Muslim opinion ruled out any large gathering of British Empire forces for an immediate strike on the Ottoman state. Instead the British government ordered only pinpricks on the Ottoman Empire’s southern limits, reckoned to be the unavoidable minimum of military action at low risk of offending Muslims worldwide. They were all tasks in November 1914 for the Army in India. Thus Indian Expeditionary Force D of just one Indian brigade headed up the Persian Gulf. Its most obvious job was to guard from Turkish attack the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan, vital to the British government as Anglo-Persian’s majority shareholder which depended on it to fuel the Royal Navy’s warships, and lying on the coast of neutral Iran by the border of Ottoman Iraq (known to the British as Mesopotamia). But Force D’s primary purpose was to put Indian and British boots on the ground in Iraq close to Abadan, just enough to give the local Arabs confidence of British support if they rebelled against the Turks.

Meanwhile Indian Expeditionary Forces E and F sailed to secure Egypt, a de facto part of the British Empire. Egypt’s northeastern border was the longest British imperial land frontier with the Ottoman Empire, and its main asset was another British government shareholding: the Suez Canal, the precious sea link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean for Allied troopships and war materials.

From the second week of November 1914, however, the initial caution of the British war on Turkey receded as three pressures turned it into a tornado that over the next four years tore about the Middle East and European Turkey, carrying the Indian Army with it in all directions.

Firstly, the Sultan of Turkey made a dramatic intervention to wield his spiritual authority as Caliph as a force of Allied destruction. At Istanbul on 14 November 1914 he declared a holy war, or jihad, against the Allies, developing the world war into a collision between Christianity and Islam. In a joint effort with the Germans, the Turkish government orchestrated the Sultan’s jihad to multiply anti-Allied fighters. It called on all Ottoman Muslims as obedient servants of Allah to defend their Islamic state against the Christian Allied invaders coming from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, and on all Muslims of the wider world, especially in the British, French and Russian empires and Iran, to join the jihad to punish the Allies for conspiring to annihilate Islam. ‘The rank of those who depart to the next world is martyrdom,’ the Sultan’s chief religious scholar, the Sheikh al-Islam, said of the holy warriors summoned by the official jihad proclamations that spread across Muslim Asia and Africa; ‘those who sacrifice their lives to give life to the truth will have honour in this world, and their latter end in paradise.’ For the sin of refusing to join the jihad, the Sheikh warned, the inevitable penalties were ‘the wrath of God’ and ‘the fire of hell’. Within days, in the name of the jihad the Turkish Army was plotting attacks with German officers and desert-dwelling jihadists on British Empire troops, oil pipelines and other installations from Egypt to Aden, Iraq and Abadan–all places where Indian troops were targets.

Secondly, following a Russian request in New Year 1915 for new Allied operations to divert the Turkish Army from the Caucasus, the Allies kick-started coalition warfare out of the eastern Mediterranean towards Istanbul. This began in February 1915 with Anglo-French naval attacks launched from island bases in the Aegean Sea, before falling hardest with military landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula dangling from the Ottoman Empire’s European fringe–where Indian Expeditionary Force G served.

Thirdly, the British kept bounding forward through the Middle East by following their imperialist noses to the war’s end. They seized military opportunities on horizon after horizon from the edges of Egypt, Ottoman Iraq and the Indian Empire, all in British imperial security interests and eventually making Britain the dominant force in the Middle East with control over the Islamic Holy Places. There was no masterplan here; rather it happened almost by accident as the sum of grand strategic decisions taken in bursts to secure and expand the British Empire–broadly speaking, if the war on Germany was for democracy, the war on Turkey was for imperialism.

By November 1918, the British had a stranglehold over the Ottoman Empire resembling the grip of an enchanted giant squid, its master the Prime Minister in London, its main body the Indian Empire, and its two longest tentacles Indian Expeditionary Forces: one being Force D extending from British India 2000 miles up the Persian Gulf into Ottoman Iraq, the other Force E 2500 miles up the Red Sea to Syria.

I resisted ordering this new book because the list price of the Kindle edition is over my normal threshold for Kindle books, but after downloading a sample, I decided to go ahead and buy it at what I presume to be a temporary promotional discount. It fits too well with the major themes of this blog.

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Filed under Africa, Britain, Germany, Middle East, military, religion, Russia, South Asia, Turkey, war

Notable British Consuls in Kashgar

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 59:

Kashgar’s consulate was the most remote of Britain’s diplomatic outposts in Asia, a three-week ride on horseback from India. The people who passed through included some of the most remarkable figures from the colonial past. The half-Chinese Sir George Macartney, whose same-named ancestor was Britain’s first ambassador to China in the eighteenth century, served as consul here between 1890 and 1918. Sir Percy Sykes, who effectively ran Persia during the First World War, relieved Macartney briefly in 1915.

Great Game players, both legendary and unsung, were regular visitors. Francis Younghusband stayed a winter. He went on to lead a British invasion of Tibet in 1903–4, only to experience an epiphany on the roof of the world that transformed him from an empire-builder into a soldier-mystic. In 1918, Colonel F. M. Bailey was at the consulate en route to an extraordinary series of adventures in central Asia. They included helping to propagate the revolt among Muslims which resulted in so many Kyrgyz crossing into Xinjiang after the Russian Revolution.

Bailey was such an effective spy that he was recruited by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to hunt himself, the British agent who was stirring up the peoples of central Asia against their new communist masters. He was also a noted naturalist, just as Sykes and Eric Shipton, the last British consul in Kashgar, were part-time explorers. In the days of empire, it was possible to serve your country and collect rare butterflies on the Tibetan plateau, conquer unclimbed mountains or cross unmapped deserts.

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Filed under Britain, Central Asia, China, education, military, nationalism, religion, Russia

Russians in Outer Manchuria

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 279-281:

In 1858, the Treaty of Aigun formalised the division of Manchuria. Everything north of what the Russians call the Amur River and the Chinese the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, was assigned to Russia. Two years later, more Manchu lands went north under the Treaty of Peking. In all, Russia acquired a million square kilometres of Outer Manchuria. It is a massive area. Stretching from the present Sino-Russian border to the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, it includes what are now the major cities of the Russian Far East – Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk – yet the tsar’s army barely had to fire a shot to attain it.

Faced with internal rebellions and in the midst of the Second Opium War with the British and French, the Qing dynasty was so enfeebled by the late 1850s that Russia was able to take Outer Manchuria simply by threatening Beijing. The once mighty Manchu, who had expanded China’s frontiers in the west and south-west, conceded the territory in the bitter knowledge that they were now unable to defend even their own homeland.

With the western colonial powers establishing themselves in China’s major ports in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Russia’s takeover of northern Manchuria was supposed to be the prelude to it conquering all of Dongbei. The extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first to Harbin and then south to Port Arthur, now known as Lushun, was another step towards that goal. From 1897, Russian workers started arriving in Harbin, then not much more than a fishing village on the Songhua River, to build the new rail line. So many Russians came over the border that they dominated Harbin for the next couple of decades.

Russia’s dreams of turning Dongbei into a colony were dashed by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Instead, it would be Japan which occupied Manchuria from 1931 until the end of the Second World War. But Harbin remained primarily a Russian city. Like the Koreans who escaped the Japanese occupation of their country by moving to Yanbian during the same period, Russians sought refuge in Harbin from the chaos at home.

Well over 100,000 White Russians arrived after the Russian Revolution of 1917, joining 20,000 or so Russian Jews who had fled tsarist pogroms a decade earlier, making Harbin the largest community of Russians anywhere outside the old country. Far outnumbering the Chinese population, and with the new rail link boosting the local economy, the Russian residents, known as Harbinets, created a city which imitated distant St Petersburg and Moscow.

Harbin’s main shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie, offers an architectural history lesson. Art Nouveau hotels and department stores sit alongside baroque-style buildings, and once grand houses with large arched windows and iron balconies line the streets running off it. Former Russian Orthodox churches, as well as synagogues with window frames in the shape of the Star of David, are scattered throughout the city.

Along with other Chinese cities which have an extensive foreign heritage, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, Harbin is ambivalent about its cosmopolitan past. The buildings, even the crumbling houses which have been chopped into apartments, are much more distinctive and impressive than anything built in the communist era. Yet they are also evidence of how Harbin was more Russian than Chinese until 1949. To admire them is unpatriotic, and locals claim to be indifferent to structures like the former St Sophia Cathedral, regarding them only as unique backdrops for wedding photos.

Most Harbinets returned home after the Second World War or emigrated to the west. By the 1960s only a handful remained, although Harbin’s last Russian resident didn’t die until the early 1980s. But the city attracts many tourists from across the frontier – enough for the Chinese to assume that any foreigner in town is Russian. They come on shopping trips from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in search of a far wider and cheaper range of products than are available in the Russian Far East. There are also many Russians studying Mandarin, the language which may one day be the lingua franca of the former Outer Manchuria. Others arrive in search of work, prompted by the slump in the Far East’s economy that was precipitated by the break-up of the old USSR in 1991 and continues today.

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Filed under China, economics, Japan, Korea, language, migration, nationalism, Russia

Japan’s POW Policies, 1894–1905

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 19-20:

During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, Japan stated that it would abide by the Brussels Declaration on prisoners of war, the first such international effort to regularize and humanize the reciprocal treatment of POWs. In that conflict, the Japanese captured 1,790 prisoners, while only one Japanese soldier was taken prisoner by the Chinese. Japan treated its prisoners humanely.

The Hague Convention of 1899 on the treatment of POWs was operative during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 and was generally observed by both sides. At the end of the war the Japanese held 71,802 prisoners, while the Russians had captured 1,626 Japanese soldiers and sailors, including 26 officers. The Japanese government of that time, unlike the one during World War II, acknowledged the existence of Japanese prisoners in enemy hands, including a regimental commander. Japan even sent a request through the U.S. government, which represented Japan’s interests in Russia during the war, asking that conditions be improved for Japanese POWs in Russian prison camps. It also facilitated the sending of letters and packages to Japanese POWs through international Red Cross channels. In line with this willingness to acknowledge the status of its captured military personnel, a regulation of Japan’s POW Information Office at that time stipulated that the name, rank, and other information of each POW would be published when received. (This regulation was voided on December 27, 1941.) Japan and Russia also agreed to several exchanges of prisoners while fighting was still going on.

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National vs. Imperial Emigration Priorities

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 388-410:

In part, the preoccupation with maintaining population in imperial Austria was linked to the explosive growth of popular nationalist movements at the end of the nineteenth century. In the nationalist battle for supremacy, numbers mattered. Beginning in 1880, when citizens were first asked about their “language of daily use,” the imperial census escalated into a high-stakes campaign for citizens’ allegiances, as the number of Czech-speakers, German-speakers, Polish-speakers, or Ruthene-speakers counted came to be seen as a measure of national strength. Increasingly, numbers determined how state resources were allocated, where schools were built, and in which languages children could be educated.

It follows logically that nationalists would mobilize to prevent the emigration of members of their own national community and encourage the exodus of national rivals. The Hungarian government, which operated somewhat like a nation-state within the Dual Monarchy (sharing only a common foreign policy and military with Austria), did just that. As of 1904, two-thirds of the emigrants leaving the Hungarian half of the monarchy were not native Hungarian-speakers. A secret memorandum from the Hungarian undersecretary of state to the Hungarian prime minister explained, “For the institution of national statehood it is absolutely necessary that the ruling race . . . become the majority of the population. . . . Providence . . . has granted another population factor which has significantly raised the proportion of the Hungarian element at the expense of the nationalities. . . . This important new factor is the mass emigration of the non-Hungarian population.”

In Russia as well, imperial authorities began to encourage Jewish emigration in the 1890s, while restricting the emigration of nationally “desirable” citizens. The Russian government allowed the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) to set up branches across the empire beginning in 1892, effectively legalizing Jewish emigration, even though emigration remained illegal for non-Jewish Russians. The JCA had established four hundred offices throughout Russia by 1910, providing migrants with information about opportunities to emigrate and assisting with the burdensome paperwork.

In Vienna, by contrast, imperial authorities officially mourned the loss of all the kaiser’s subjects equally. In 1905, out of 111,990 emigrants from Austria to the United States, 50,785 (45 percent) were Polish-speakers, 14,473 (14 percent) spoke Ruthene (a language later known as Ukrainian), and 11,757 (10 percent) were Czech-speakers. In contrast to their proportion in the emigration from imperial Russia, where anti-Semitic persecution was much more severe, Jews were not heavily overrepresented among emigrants from the Dual Monarchy. Out of a total of 275,693 emigrants from Austria-Hungary in 1905, for example, 17,352 emigrants (6 percent) were Jewish, only slightly more than the percentage of Jews in the total population in 1900 (4.7 percent in Austria, 5 percent in Hungary).

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Filed under Austria, Hungary, labor, language, migration, nationalism, religion, Russia

How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.

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Filed under Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, education, language, nationalism, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

Population, Industry, and World War I

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 169-95:

A combination of industrialisation and major improvements in public health in the second half of the 19th century led to large increases in the population of Europe, rising from about 200 million in 1800 to double that figure by 1900. The experiences of war during the 19th century resulted in most large nations adopting systems of national service followed by a variable period as a reservist; as a result, when the continent plunged over the precipice into war in the summer of 1914, all the Great Powers had the ability to field forces on a scale that dwarfed anything that had gone before.

The same industrialisation that helped increase the population of Europe also provided arms and munitions on a scale to match the huge armies that were sent into battle. Yet despite the enormous stockpiling and production of guns, bombs and shells, all armies found themselves struggling to cope with the huge consumption of resources that followed. Every army that fought in 1915 was forced to moderate its military ambitions to live within the limitations imposed by ammunition shortages, and it was only at the end of the year that all sides could begin to look forward to a time when they might have sufficient matériel to cope with the demands of modern warfare.

In the west, the terrible irony of the ‘mobilisation’ of 1914 was that hundreds of thousands of men were left facing each other in almost static front lines, subjecting each other to bombardments and assaults that left huge numbers dead or maimed without any prospect of ending the war. In many respects, the fighting on the Eastern Front was very different, with the front line moving back and forth as the vast spaces of Eastern Europe allowed armies to exploit weaker areas. However, the very space that allowed for such movement also made a conclusive victory almost unachievable. As early as October 1914, the Germans had correctly calculated that it was impossible for armies to maintain operations more than 72 miles (120km) from their railheads, and both sides rapidly realised that there were few if any strategically vital objectives within such a radius. Consequently, although there were major advances by all sides, it was not possible to advance sufficiently far to force the other side out of the war.

The Great Powers entered the war with a clear idea of how they intended to win. Germany wished to avoid a prolonged two-front war, and opted to concentrate most of its strength against France, intending to send its victorious armies east after defeating its western opponents. Russia believed in the irresistible might of its vast armies, and anticipated a steady advance that would roll over the German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire calculated that their best hope was to draw the full weight of the tsar’s armies onto themselves, giving the Germans every opportunity to win the war in the west before the Russians could put enough forces into the field. When these initial plans failed, senior commanders struggled to come up with alternative strategies, trying usually without success to learn from the errors of the opening campaigns. To a very large extent, the one shining victory of the opening phases of the war – the German triumph at Tannenberg in September 1914 – left commanders on all sides attempting in vain to recreate the great encirclement. They repeatedly saw the endless stalemates as anomalies; the reality was that it was Tannenberg that was the anomaly, achieved at a time when there was still open ground between formations, allowing corps and armies to be outflanked – by the time they became aware of German movements, it was too late for the Russians to react. As the war continued, the density of troops prevented any such advantage being achieved.

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