1916 - A Global History

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  • Author:
    Keith Jeffery
    Professor Jeffery shows us how the Kaiser’s War had a truly worldwide impact, both geographically and ethnically, as it swept into its arms a huge variety of people, as combatants and otherwise, with examples of Africans of many races, Armenians, Chinese, Ethiopians, Maltese, Senegalese, Senussi, Tajiks, Uzbeks, West Indians, Kyrgyz and many others. Beyond the warring countries he also shows how the global reach of the war affected distant neutrals, for instance by cutting off their trade with the Central Powers. To encapsulate this in one volume he focuses on the year 1916, and within that majors on particular aspects of the conflict. For the central theatre of the war the chapters pivot on specific events - the Dardanelles, Verdun, Jutland, the Somme - whereas other sections focus on specific (but vast) geographical areas. In this way we visit (for instance) Sinkiang, Tientsin, Micronesia, Togoland and what is now Namibia. To make this system work he usefully sketches in the background - how each campaign came to be - and how each was related to others, for instance how the disastrous entry of Romania into the conflict came to be, and how it affected the Italian front, and, further, the entire outcome of the war. The vignettes relating to more minor participants are quite fascinating and I found them extremely informative, reflecting the depth of his (meticulously sourced) research into each. So also the coverage of the ethnic makeup of (for instance) the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish armies, for the former of which my own primer has long been Jaroslav Hacek’s ‘Good Soldier Schweik’. We see how the long arm of Russia reached out into Central Asia for conscripts, an example of how many of the ethnicities in the warring empires did not entirely grasp why they had to be involved and were thus destabilised and their parent empire with it. The Islamic dimension to the war is well covered.

    Given that this is a huge task I would question the relevance of the space given to the German-backed Dublin rebellion (Casement‘s treason is here well demonstrated), miniscule in military impact compared to the Somme or Verdun. This seems to me to have been shoehorned in to showcase the Irish dimension of the author’s scholarship, something I suspect of some other entries. It is further strange that any comparison should be sought between this and the situation in occupied Belgium under the German jackboot, with its deportations and forced labour (later we are shown the slavery and dispossession inflicted on the Lithuanians). The thousands of Irishmen who volunteered to fight in the British Army against German aggression and tyranny could see which way was up. While we are shown the cultural impact of the war in Turkey, Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere, I note we do not see southern Ireland sliding afterwards into civil war and its long night of backward bigotry.

    In Belgium (and elsewhere) the author does bring to life the ghastliness of the experience for the population although the Germans get away without mention of their inventing the deliberate aerial bombing of civilians visited on that neutral country, of which same neutrality Germany was itself a guarantor, although we are shown the Germans deliberately bombing clearly marked hospitals on the Russian front.

    At sea I do question some of the judgments such as the apparent conclusion that Jutland was a draw, which does not reach out to the German failure then or ever to achieve its strategic aim, the destruction of the Royal Navy’s blockade. Any German whining about it belies their own classification of food shipments as contraband. It should be noted that our blockade did not involve the sinking of merchantmen and thus the murder of their civilian sailors, unlike the German U-boat campaign, conducted in breach of the established international Conventions. The blockade itself is well covered in Nigel Hawkins’ ‘The Starvation Blockades’ (Pen & Sword 2002), which might have deserved admission to Jeffery’s eighteen-page bibliography. It is to the point that the use of Armed Merchant Cruisers avoided the Blockade having a negative effect on our main Fleet activities. The final test of our victory was the collapse of the inactive, bottled-up High Seas Fleet into Communist mutiny.

    The brief reference to the West Indian contribution to the war conflates the British regular army West India Regiment, two battalions recruited in Jamaica, with the eleven battalions of the British West Indies Regiment raised by the Colonial Office across all the islands and British Honduras. Five BWIR ORs were awarded Military Medals (one of them a Bar) after extinguishing fires in an ammunition dump in Belgium that was hit by an incendiary bomb in the middle of the night. Possibly because they were ill-equipped, the West Indians suffered badly from the cold European winter which is why they were eventually deployed to Taranto essentially as dock labour.

    Jeffery briefly alludes to the capture of German Cameroon in 1915. The number of different African colonies contributing troops to this is well covered at www.kaiserscross.com/188001/264701.html (which website hosts a number of other items relating to the war in Africa and elsewhere). The expedition relied on considerable Royal Navy support including two 6” guns disembarked from a cruiser onto a dredger and a lighter derisively christened Dreadnought and Iron Duke, later augmented by a number of other ships’ guns fought from a variety of craft. The 4,600 battle casualties, including two RN post-Captains but otherwise mostly unsung Africans, were totally outnumbered by the 36,000 sick, from tropical ulcers, malaria, dysentery, pneumonia, rheumatism, jiggers in bare feet, and, among the French, self-inflicted beri-beri. For this side-show no Battle Honour was awarded. This campaign brought out the different approaches of the Germans and British to colonial administration - we had only a couple of machine guns per battalion, the Germans many more. In general our management of our colonial subjects comes out of Jeffery’s narrative as superior in terms of basic humanity to that of other European Powers.

    In spite of the appalling casualties the Somme must surely be regarded as a strategic victory, both for the irreplaceable attrition it imposed on Germany but more for the pinning of German forces so that they could not reinforce of Verdun - this saved the entire western front from collapse. It could be argued that detailed territorial objectives were set merely to give structure to operations. Here again the narrative sometimes has a somewhat intrusive Irish accent. The point is well made as to how the battle gave an identity focus to Ulstermen and Newfoundlanders just as Gallipoli has to Australia and New Zealand, albeit with some historical distortion in the Gallipoli case.

    The book then moves east to the labyrinth of Greek and Balkan politics, where the Austro-Hungarians showed they had nothing to learn from the Germans in terms of frightfulness, and the Salonika campaign whose near half million casualties, a third of them from malaria, are nowadays pretty much forgotten. Further east we go to the war in Egypt and Palestine, for which I recommend Michael J Mortlock’s ‘The Egyptian Expeditionary Forces in World War 1’ (McFarland 2011). For a light-hearted look at the local participants see CS Jarvis’ ‘The Back Garden of Allah’ (John Murray, 1939). As to the parallel Arab Revolt, Jeffery is much mistaken in describing the British contribution as ‘mostly in the form of munitions and money’. Indeed we bankrolled and supplied it, but the Royal Navy played a pivotal role via shore bombardment and landing parties, as described by John Johnson-Allen, in his ‘TE Lawrence and the Red Sea Patrol’ (Pen & Sword 2015). The Franco-British carve-up of the area, which is still giving trouble to put it mildly, is well explained.

    The chapter on the neutral USA in 1916 chronicles the German sabotage campaign and also the shadow boxing of the intelligence and propaganda war being played out there by Britain and Germany, for which I take it the prime reference would be Jeffery’s 2011 ‘MI6: the Official History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949’. In that context I found it strange that the eventual entry of the USA into the war was ascribed pretty much to German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare without any mention of the Zimmerman telegram of January 1917, a naval intelligence coup if ever there was one.

    The collapse of Russia in 1917, again with intelligence insights, starts with the killing of Rasputin at the very beginning of the year. What I see from the narrative is a general unrest in 1916 caused mostly be bad organisation of food supply providing and preparing the ground for Lenin. Ironic that the German’s clever trick of smuggling Lenin to Russia to break the Russian state turned round and bit them.

    The summary at the end takes the narrative right up to the present with its accounts of reconciliation ceremonies and the like from the end of the war onward. For me this chapter is shot through with woolly false equivalence between the Allies who died in an honourable cause and its enemies who died in an evil one. Somehow we then find ourselves back, metaphorically, in Ireland - I find this contrived.

    One would have liked more maps. There will be other readers unfamiliar with, for instance, the geography of the Balkans, Central Asia, Mesopotamia, Transylvania, or German Cameroon, particularly as to their political geography at the time. The illustrations however are an excellent, and to me generally unfamiliar, selection; they include examples of contemporary war, or rather anti-war art.

    Throughout the author finds space to rub our noses in the true horrors of the war, of life in a trench with human limbs sticking out of its walls and the stench of putrefaction from unburied corpses so vile that one man could not bring himself to eat for four days. I found this book highly educational; a 21st century Time Machine that truly takes one back a hundred years. The author is not slow to correct the received popular view of particular events. He certainly broadened my somewhat British-oriented understanding of the conflict.

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