Tag Archives: World War I

Cyprus in World War I

In 1914 Cyprus was a protectorate of the British Empire, leased by the Ottomans in 1878 to provide London with a base in the Eastern Mediterranean. This all changed in 1914 when, following a secret treaty between the Ottomans and Germany, the Ottoman Empire declared war against the Triple Entente powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. The British garrison promptly annexed the island on 5 November 1914.

Despite its proximity to Turkey, Cyprus was never a battlefield during World War I. Constantinople had too many other problems: first, it was flat broke. Second, many of its citizens – such as the Armenians – did not support the war, and the Sultan found himself fighting off enemies on no less than five fronts, as well as at home: the British in Egypt and Mesopotamia; the Russians invading the Caucasus; the Anglo-French landings in Gallipoli; and the desert Arabs rising up in what is today Saudi Arabia.

The British authorities were always concerned that the Turkish Cypriots might turn against the British, since the Ottoman Empire was officially one of Britain’s enemies. Listening stations were set up to spy on Turkish radio messages and spies and saboteurs were smuggled into Turkey. Cyprus was also used as a convalescent home for thousands of sick and wounded British soldiers from the Middle East campaigns. It also became a secure place to hold the thousands of Turkish prisoners of war. The island was on a martial footing throughout the war and various Governors had to fight off repeated attempts by the Army to take over the administration.

Nevertheless many Cypriots played an active part in the war. Thousands volunteered for the British army and they played an important part in the Salonika campaign. By 1916, the Military Commander of the British divisions on the Salonika front requested a Corps of Muleteers to help carry stores and supplies in the mountainous region of Macedonia.

This contribution of thousands of Cypriots supporting British troops on the Macedonian Front is a largely untold story, but Cypriots provided crucial logistical support to the Allied war effort on the Salonika Front. The Macedonian Muleteer Corps had enlisted 9200 men by early 1918.  Another 401 remained at the training centre in Famagusta. They were well paid at 3 drachmas per day and, by March 1919, the Muleteers Corps was 15,910 strong.  It was estimated that 89% of those recruited were Greek Cypriots and 11% Turkish Cypriots. They served in the Macedonian front, in Serbia and in Bulgaria, while at the end of the war some even entered Constantinople with the victors.

Inevitably they suffered losses. In five military cemeteries in Macedonia there are the graves of 30 Cypriot muleteers killed in action between the years 1916-19.

Perhaps the most curious twist of Cyprus’ involvement in the Great War was the attempt to hand the island over to Greece, lock, stock and barrel. By 1916 London was desperate to woo Greece into joining the war. Athen’s nationalist Prime Minister, Venizelos was actually offered complete ownership of the island as a bribe towards Greek dreams of ‘MegaHellas’, a greater Greece, at Turkey’s expense. To the amazement of the Greek Cypriots, King Constantine turned it down, to the fury of his Prime Minister Venizelos, who was sacked. Tempting though the offer was, at the time the King didn’t want to be dragged into someone else’s war.

This call for ‘Enosis’ – union with Greece – would have to wait another half century and for EOKA’s gunmen. But that is another story …

This article first appeared in Cyprus Today in November 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the armistice to end World War I. The piece is reproduced here with the kind permission of Cyprus Today.
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The Slaughter of the Subalterns

Open letter to the Editor of Legion, the Royal British Legion magazine

Dear Sir,

I was dismayed to read the letter from Elisabeth Wooley in your September issue on officers in the First World War. It is a frequent misapprehension and demands the strongest rebuttal.

I speak from experience. Once, some years ago, I was compelled to intervene at Delville Wood Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France, after hearing an earnest young schoolmistress holding forth to her gullible pupils that ‘the reason there were so few officers’ graves was because they all stayed in the trench, forcing their men to advance at pistol point or be executed for cowardice.’ My (somewhat forceful) interruption to point out that she was talking nonsense and there were only 30 officers in a battalion of 900 men (3 per cent), and the officers led from the front was met with incredulity ….

A century on, we do a grave disservice to the dead young officers of the Great War to allow this disgraceful lie to continue unchallenged. Historical facts and truth are more important than ignorant opinions and prejudice. The Legion has a national duty to set the record straight.

The real truth is that the casualty rates among the junior officers in the Great War were horrific. The title of John Lewis-Stempel’s book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, describes the fate of most; the life expectancy of a lieutenant in the Western Front in the trenches was just 42 days: ‘The universal expectation of a subaltern was “a hospital bed or interment in the soil”. Many had come straight from the classroom to the most dangerous job in the world, yet nearly all stepped forward, unflinchingly, to do their duty.’

Attacking across No Man’s Land with nothing but a revolver and in a distinctive uniform, junior officers were obvious targets for German defenders; they dropped in their thousands. One in five of the officer-students drawn from Oxford and Cambridge Universities died.

In the UK around 6 million men were mobilised and, of those, just some 750,000 were killed. That’s around 12 per cent. In fact, as a British soldier, statistically you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-6) than in World War I.

However, although numerically the great majority of casualties in World War I came from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately much harder by the global conflict. Their sons provided the junior officers, whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.

Some 17 per cent of the British army’s officers were killed, compared with 12 per cent of the rank-and-file soldiers killed during the war. Most of those were junior officers, although – contrary to popular belief – more British generals were killed in World War I than in any other major conflict (including three divisional commanders at Loos in 1915). Also, in 1914-18, most officers came from privileged backgrounds.

Casualty rates for regimental officers have always been proportionately higher than for other ranks.

The reason is simple. Young men as junior officers are needed to command infantry. The basic unit of foot soldiers was – and still is – the platoon under the command of the lowest commissioned officer rank. The official title of these junior officers is ‘subaltern’. A century ago in Britain, any educated young man over 18 and with a private school education was deemed officer material and, given a minimum of training, competent to lead his men into battle.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, these young men (many of whom were barely out of school) rushed to join the forces; many thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at most, and they didn’t want to miss out on the glory and fun.

Overwhelmingly, these junior officer volunteers were educated in British public schools, which in the quaint way we British have with the language are actually private institutions open only to those who can afford the fees. In 1914, the student body came almost exclusively from the British upper and professional caste and filled the classrooms of 120 elite schools.

According to an article by Lewis-Stempel in The Express (9 February 2014), ‘They trained a whole generation of boys to be waiting in the wings of history as military leaders. The young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools paid a terrible price for this duty … but there was one unassailable, and surprising, truth about it. The more exclusive your education, the more likely you were to die. Manliness, duty, love of Britain, and stiff upper-lip self-denial were the inescapable virtues. So, when Lord Kitchener asked public school boys to step forward to officer the expanded British Army in 1914, they did so in their thousands.’

These products of tough boarding schools had been educated in a regime of muscular Christianity: team games, cold showers, demonstrating ‘pluck’ at sports, and immersion in history and the classics. They read GA Henty and Rudyard Kipling and were brought up on the famous Henry Newbolt poem, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’

In a society defined by class and the accent with which a person spoke, public-school boys were taught it was their destiny to lead, above all to set an example, and to inspire others through their gallantry. Their soldiers deferred to their young leaders sharing the same hardship in the trenches and acknowledged their courage and devotion to duty.

They were rarely let down. The courage of these junior officers was by and large amazing. A common thread is in the letters of many of these well-educated young men; they seemed to fear to be seen ‘letting the side down’ or ‘not being brave enough’ in front of their men more than they feared death itself. They were schooled to set an example; and they did.

The subalterns – in all armies – were always the first ones over the top of the trench and the last ones to retreat. The idea was that through this display of careless bravado they would inspire their men to follow them into Hell. Lionel Sotheby was a product of Eton and a subaltern on the Western front. He wrote in his last letter home that ‘To die for one’s school is an honour.’ He fell in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was just 20 years old. His public school, Eton College, sent 3000 of its ex-pupils into the army of the First World War: 1157 (over 30 per cent of them) died on the battlefields.

Guy Chapman of the Royal Fusiliers recalled ‘I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to thoughts of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, most anxious lest I show it.’

Another tragic example was Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, educated at Wellington, keen to join the fight, but rejected because of his severe short-sightedness. His father pulled strings and wangled him a commission as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards. In autumn 1915, he saw his first and last action in the Battle of Loos. Within minutes of going ‘over the top’ he was dead, crying from the pain of his wound, shot through the jaw but still – according to his platoon serjeant – gamely trying to carry on, only to be later blown to pieces by a shell, just six weeks after his 18th birthday.

John Ellis wrote in his 1989 book Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I that, among subalterns, ‘estimates for the mortality rates among platoon commanders in the attack range from 65 to 81 per cent. This was, at its lowest estimate, double the rate for enlisted men.’  The German and French casualties reflect even higher mortality rates for their officers, and lost over 50 percent of their young males aged 20–24 during the Great War.

Bloodshed on this scale prompted the British historian AJP Taylor to write ‘The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I destroyed the flower of the English gentry.’ The American novelist Gertrude Stein lived through the Great War and afterwards described the dead young officers as ‘The Lost Generation’.

Sandhurst’s proud motto is ‘Serve to Lead’. The British soldier expects nothing less from his officers – then and now. The dead young officers of the Great War prove that truth, as a visit to any CWGC cemetery on the Western Front shows.

John Hughes-Wilson
Past President, International Guild of Battlefield Guides
Author, A History of the First World War in 100 Objects (Imperial War Museum, 2014)

History’s Tipping Points: Kaiser Bill

According to documents in the RAF Museum archive in France, 100 years ago tomorrow Britain tried to kill Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918 in a secret RAF bombing raid (David Keys, The Independent). History is full of ‘What ifs?’, some of which happen and others that don’t.

If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had survived assassination, the Great War may not have happened; if Kaiser Bill had been murdered, this revelation suggests the conditions for World War II may not have arisen.

Sliding doors? Alternative histories? Maybe … but it’s also fascinating to play out mentally the ‘war game’ scenarios of crucial tipping points of history. What will be revealed in 100 years’ time from now that will keep future historians guessing about what may have happened differently?

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Gallipoli and the ANZACS

Last Wednesday, 25 April, was ANZAC day, which commemorates the invasion of Gallipoli in Western Turkey by the Allies in 1915. While Gallipoli was not exactly the British Empire’s finest hour, for Australia ‘ANZAC Day’ celebrates the colony’s rebirth as a new nation, forged in war.

The ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ was formed in Egypt in December 1914 from Antipodean volunteers. They were fit, adventurous young men, well paid and full of enthusiasm for the Empire and its war. Their first action was at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.

However, the Gallipoli campaign turned out to be a major defeat for the Allies. It killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of men, wasted scarce resources and changed the face of British politics in the middle of a global war. It ensured that the Ottoman Empire would stay in the war, and helped condemn Tsarist Russia to defeat and the subsequent Red revolution.

The campaign was approved in January 1915, following a Russian request for an attack on Turkey. Russia was geographically isolated and fighting on three fronts. Both the Tsar and the Allies desperately needed support for Russia’s war effort because, if Russia stopped fighting, the whole might of the German war machine would be free to fall upon the Western Front.  Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered a naval assault on the Dardanelle Straits to bombard Constantinople. France added reinforcements to the force assembling in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The attack started in February when Admiral Carden led a mixed British and French fleet into the Straits. The British and French battleships blasted the Turkish fortresses and marines went ashore to confirm that the forts were out of action. It therefore came as a surprise when the fleet returned early in March to be met by accurate fire from mobile Turkish field artillery batteries. Worse, the minesweeping trawlers clearing the narrows ahead of the battleships with their crews of untrained civilian fishermen ‘turned tail directly they were fired upon.’

Admiral de Robeck took over and on 18 March led another full-blooded assault to ‘Force the Narrows’, when disaster struck. Four old battleships hit mines and sank. De Robeck withdrew, planning to return with reliable minesweepers and this time with army support to secure the ground covering the Straits. The upshot was that an expeditionary force under General Sir Ian Hamilton landed on Cannakale (Gallipoli) on 25 April. The ANZACs came ashore halfway up the west coast at Gaba Tepe and the British stormed ashore on the southern tip at Cape Helles.

But now the Turks were waiting. Both landings were a shambles. The ANZACs landed on an unknown beach under heavy fire. They struggled ashore to scramble up the steep slopes to the high ground overlooking the peninsula. Some Australians could even see the distant waters of the Dardanelles.  However, back on the beach all was confusion. Units waited for orders, officers failed to advance and artillery could not get up the steep hills. A near-suicidal counter attack by Mustafa Kemal’s 19th  Division stopped the Australians. Hamilton ordered the ANZACS to consolidate and dig in. They would stay in those locations for another eight wretched months.

Hamilton tried to break out on 28 April; but little was achieved and the bridgeheads were reduced to the troglodyte trench conditions of the Western Front by a determined Turkish defence. In the first five weeks of the campaign, the Imperial troops suffered nearly 40,000 casualties, the French a further 20,000; the Turks lost even more.

Gallipoli had become a bloody failure, politically and militarily. In May 1915 Admiral Fisher resigned over the direction of the campaign. Churchill was promptly sacked by Prime Minister Asquith as the price of forming a new coalition government.

As the summer heat built up, the campaign stagnated; flies, disease, lack of water and sanitation became the real enemy in the blistering heat of a Mediterranean summer. In August three new attacks were mounted. All failed. All that was left were three beleaguered beachheads – at Helles, Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. In October, Hamilton was replaced by Sir Charles Monro, who promptly recommended withdrawal.

Lord Kitchener himself came out to see what conditions were like on the ground; appalled, he confirmed that the campaign must be ended. The only decision left was when to do so. In December the ‘Constantinople Expeditionary Force’ extricated itself under the very noses of the Turks without the loss of a single soldier. Ironically, the evacuation was easily the most successful element of the entire campaign.

However, Gallipoli established the ANZACs’ unique reputation. This was confirmed when they joined the BEF on the Western Front in France in 1916.  However, while no one doubted their ferocity in action or their fighting ability, they were – by British army standards – woefully undisciplined. Australian blood lust in the attack was legendary and they frequently took no prisoners, as at Polygon Wood near Ypres in the final assault towards Passchendaele in 1917. Here they encountered the Prussian Guard, whom they had fought when they arrived on the Somme the year before. Even the official communique admitted, ‘the ANZACs took no prisoners’. Robert Graves claimed in Goodbye to All That, that an Australian had boasted of robbing a dozen German prisoners then killing them all in cold blood.

These excesses were not just confined to the battlefield. Stories of Australian misconduct abounded and a host of contemporary references detail the lengthy list of their misdeeds, which were not limited to drunken sprees in estaminets behind the lines, either. They had the worst VD record in the BEF and a remarkable record of disciplinary infringements and imprisonment.  (By 1918, nine Australians per thousand were in prison for military crimes, some of them extremely serious. For the rest of the Dominion troops, the figure was only 1.6 per thousand.)

Australians were even bold enough to release British prisoners undergoing field punishment and dare the Military Police to try and re-imprison them. The Australians were not just tough and resourceful; they were also brazen in their defiance of authority.

The big difference was probably the absence of the death penalty. Alone in the BEF, Australians were effectively exempt from capital punishment for military offences. Although the British Commander-in-Chief, Haig, made several pleas for the death sentence to be enforced on his bolshie Australians, for domestic Australian political reasons the penalty was never enforced. Whatever the reasons, wherever ANZAC troops gathered in a gang out of the line there was often theft, drunkenness, disorder and trouble.

This cocky, over-confident Australian attitude was not universally admired. However, a Royal Artillery officer grudgingly conceded that he was ‘always glad when they were in the line nearby.’

As the war progressed the ANZACs’ reputation grew, even as their volunteer soldiers increasingly became casualties. Their final commander was an ‘amateur’ soldier: an Australian civil engineer, John Monash. General Monash led his Australians to remarkable victories as the German Army finally collapsed in the last years of the war. From 8 August to 11 November 1918 the ANZACs alone destroyed no less than 39 German divisions and advanced 100 miles.

According to the British Official Historian, ‘We all agreed; the Australians were finest assault troops on the Western Front.’ French Marshal Foch agreed after the war, stating that ‘the greatest individual fighter of the war was the Australian,’ and Field Marshal Montgomery later wrote: ‘Sir John Monash was the finest general on the Western Front.’

ANZAC Day therefore marks Monash and his ‘Diggers’ true achievement. Australians started the war in 1914 as one of Britain’s ‘Lion Cubs.’ Thanks to the exploits of the ANZACs at Gallipoli and the Australian victories of 1918, a new, independent and proud Australia emerged from World War I.

Professor Sir Michael Howard later hailed the ANZACs as ‘builders of a nation’: he was right.

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The Month that Changed the World

A century ago this month an event occurred that would have world-changing consequences: the United States of America entered the First World War.

In 1914 the prospect of ‘Europeans cutting each other’s throats’ proved a blessing to the economy of the USA. Industrial production and stocks and shares soared that autumn as the British and French placed massive orders for weapons with American companies. The war was very distant and very profitable. The general feeling among Americans was, ‘Let Europe stew in its own juice’.

However news of German atrocities in Belgium shocked many Americans and there were some open calls for war. But with 2.3m German-Americans, German immigrants were the largest ethnic group in the United States. The Irish bore no love for the British either and America’s Jewish community supported the Germans, seeing Russian Jews rescued from the tyranny of the Tsar.  Congress agreed that staying out of it was best, and supported a strongly isolationist foreign policy. The Americans’ view was that it was not in their interest to get involved in the ‘Europeans’ War’.

However, the powerful ‘Robber Baron’ capitalists of Wall Street slowly came to realise during 1915 that if the Allies lost the war – and could not repay the two billion dollars they owed to the American bankers – the US economy risked collapse. US bankers, led by J P Morgan, unsurprisingly began to lobby for a pro-Allied policy.

Into this confused neutrality Mexican Pancho Villa’s invasion and attack on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico in early 1916 caused shockwaves throughout America. A retaliatory expedition under General John Pershing promptly invaded Mexico to hunt down the rebellious warlord. Suddenly the realities of war seemed closer for many Americans.

Moreover, by the summer of 1916 American attitudes towards Europe’s bloody conflict were changing. There were dark rumours of German-inspired industrial sabotage, supposed poisoning of water supplies, kidnapping individuals, and penetration of American labour unions. These rumours, along with the shock of the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, added to the growing distrust of Germany. Growing public concern over the weak state of the US armed forces saw a National Defense Act passed in June 1916, authorizing an army of 175,000 men, and a National Guard of 450,000. Many liberals regarded this as a dangerous first step towards war and campaigned hard for peace and isolationism.

The November 1916 election spelled out these political issues very clearly. After a close fought campaign, Woodrow Wilson’s winning margin was tiny. (He carried New Hampshire by just 56 votes.) An idealistic Harvard law professor, Wilson was re-elected on a ticket promising ‘peace, progressivism and prosperity’. He succeeded primarily because he branded his Republican opponents as ‘the War Party.’ The great majority of Americans were determined to remain neutral.

Wilson tried hard to end the war, even launching his own diplomatic mission over the winter of 1916-17 to seek a peace deal. All it did however, was to reveal was that the warring factions’ aims were absolutely irreconcilable. Germany insisted on keeping Alsace and Lorraine; Britain, under its new Prime Minister Lloyd George, would fight to the death; and France and Belgium demanded all their occupied territories back, full compensation, plus a demilitarised border on the Rhine.

Then in February 1917 came the news of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The normally calm Wilson was furious and broke off diplomatic relations with Berlin.  Despite this, Wilson still believed that ‘the Teutonic powers’ really wanted peace and began preparing a new round of peace proposals.

However, Germany now made a disastrous blunder. On 24 February an astonished Wilson learned of the contents of a secret telegram sent by the German Foreign Minister, Zimmermann.

On top of U-boat attacks on American ships, came the breath-taking news that Berlin had made a back-stairs deal with Mexico to invade the USA. It was impossible for America to ignore such a provocation.  Wilson, who had been returned to office on a peace platform only two months before, was now contemplating taking his country to war – and all because of a serious German miscalculation.

When the German submarine cable had been cut in 1914, Sweden let Berlin use the Swedish cable to send its diplomatic telegrams out to its embassies world-wide. But this cable route went through the UK and the British codebreakers could read the German signals. The so-called ‘Swedish roundabout’ suddenly produced pay-dirt on 17 January 1917, when astonished Admiralty codebreakers intercepted a German telegram from Zimmermann to the German Ambassador in Mexico, to let him know that Germany was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Ominously, it also instructed the Ambassador to offer Mexico a secret alliance with Germany on the promise that Berlin could offer ‘an understanding … that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.’

The British sat on this explosive telegram for over 2 weeks, hoping that the Americans might be provoked without any action from London. The British problem was how to tell the world of the Germans’ plans without letting them know how they had found out? That would compromise the true source and the Germans would change their codes. Signals intelligence relies on total secrecy.

London’s ‘insurance’ copy of the Mexican version of the telegram provided the solution. The British obtained a hard copy of the actual telegram that had been delivered to the Germans in Mexico City.  When the Americans were handed the formal copy of the offending telegram, they were told that it had been obtained by ‘an agent in Mexico.’ To British astonishment, Germany admitted that the telegram was no forgery.

Even when confronted with this open evidence of hostile German intention, Wilson still hesitated to call for war. He only briefed his Cabinet on 20 March, nearly a month after he had first seen the telegram. By then, the U-boats’ deliberate sinkings of neutral American merchant and passenger ships, plus the explosive content of the ‘Zimmermann Telegram’, had completely changed American public opinion.  On 2 April an indignant President briefed the House and Senate, calling for a declaration of war. In typical idealistic style however, he sold it as some great moral crusade: ‘The world,’ Wilson declared, ‘must be made safe for democracy.’ On the 6 April 1917 the USA declared war on an unrepentant Germany.

Allied hopes of any immediate reinforcement by US armed forces turned out to be optimistic. America’s army was still tiny, with only 128,000 men. There was no air force – in 1914 the army had only 6 planes and 16 pilots, and the navy was undermanned and unprepared. America was just not ready for war. The first real reinforcement only came as late as December 1917, when US Navy dreadnoughts arrived in Scapa Flow to augment Britain’s Grand Fleet.

The real benefit of America’s entry into the war in 1917 was the psychological boost to Allied morale post-Passchendaele, post-French Army mutinies, with the promise of massive new fighting forces coming from across the Atlantic in 1918 to tip the balance in Europe by sheer weight of numbers. It also meant that Berlin was now uncomfortably aware that America’s entry inevitably spelled defeat unless Germany got in some war-winning blow before it was too late.

So April 1917 was a decisive month for the war – and for the world. It was the month that would ultimately lead to Germany’s desperate final offensive of spring 1918, to be followed by inevitable defeat, retreat, revolution and the fall of the Second Reich, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Those great events of one hundred years ago this month would also lead to America’s emergence as a world power.

To this day we still live with the consequences of that April, long, long ago.

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