Tag Archives: World War I

The Guns of August

August has always been a good month to start a war. The reasons are simple: the harvest is ripening; the men are fit and ready; the long days are perfect for campaigning without worrying about the weather; and the summer heat seems to encourage rash decisions. In the Foreign Legion they call it le cafard – the depression or madness brought on by a hot summer.

We don’t have to look far for examples. Hitler decided to unleash his legions against Poland in August 1939; Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008; on 14 August 1974, Turkey launched its ‘Second Peace Operation’, which resulted eventually in the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus; and, most notorious of all, what started out as a European conflict went global in August 1914 when Britain declared war.

Well might Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, muse as he watched the lights going out on 4 August: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

If ever there was a war that changed the world it was World War I. Many of our international problems today stem from that disastrous August of 1914 and the conflict it spawned: Communism, Stalin, the USSR, Hitler and his Nazis, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Islamic fundamentalism were all offspring of World War I. Most damaging of all were World War II and the long Cold War that followed. All have their origins in what was nothing more than a ruinous four-year civil war in Europe.

The irony is that it all went wrong from the start and could have been avoided with a little adroit diplomacy. If there is a villain of the story in 1914 it was the German General Staff, who had been planning for years how to deal with a war on two fronts. Under the eye of a workaholic general (he even went to work on Christmas day, according to his family), Generaloberst Alfred von Schlieffen devised a plan. Blackadder would probably have it called it ‘a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.’

Unfortunately it wasn’t. The great Schlieffen plan was a deadly political and diplomatic trap. Even some Germans realised it at the time.

Late in the afternoon of 1 August 1914, Colonel General Helmuth von Möltke was driving back to the Army HQ in the Königsplatz when his car was stopped and he was commanded to return to the Royal Palace immediately. Back at the Berliner Schloss, a jubilant Kaiser told the head of the German armies that he had received a telegram from London assuring him that Britain would guarantee that, if Germany refrained from going to war with France, then London would ask the French not to attack Germany.

The Kaiser was ecstatic and ordered champagne; ‘Now we need only wage war against Russia! So we simply advance with the whole army in the east.’

Von Möltke was appalled. ‘But it is too late, Highness. All the planning, the stores and the armies are already moving west. The 16th infantry division is even now securing the railway junctions at Trier and in Luxembourg. It has been planned for years… we will just have a disorganised rabble without supplies. It cannot be done.’

A shocked Kaiser responded coldly, ‘Your uncle would have given me a different answer.’ Thrown out by a balked Kaiser, von Möltke went back to his office and wept.

He might have cried some more if he realised that the great Schlieffen plan was not just a rigid diplomatic and political cage: it had some serious flaws. Any decent general staff planner can spot them immediately. First, it relied on invading Belgium to outflank the French from the north. That would almost certainly drag the British into any war, as they were a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Not a clever political move?

Second, it relied on Russia taking weeks to mobilise, thereby allowing the Germans to knock the French out of the war before Russia could attack in the east.

Unfortunately the German planners had forgotten their own rule: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ The Russians were disobliging enough to mobilise quickly and invade East Prussia and Poland, which caused something like panic in Berlin. Stories of sad German refugees streaming west from the marauding Cossack hordes forced the Kaiser to send his priceless reinforcements to the east, not to France.

Third, and most damaging of all, the much vaunted brains of the German General Staff just hadn’t done their sums. To march through Belgium, then south through France to Paris or the Marne is about 240 miles (380 km). But the German troop trains stopped in Belgium. From then on it was ‘Shank’s pony’, as the increasingly hot and exhausted Ländser pursued the retreating French and British Expeditionary Force south.

This is where the general staff got it so badly wrong; like a piece of elastic the German supply line was stretched a little further every day. In those pre-lorry days, every round of ammunition, every bale of hay for the horses, every bit of food for the weary troops, even horseshoes and new boots for the footsore soldiers, had to find its way forward on an ever-lengthening supply chain to the advancing armies, which were getting further and further away from their logistic bases.

After two weeks the supply chain was stretched so far that hay intended for the front-line horses was being consumed by the horses trying to bring it forward. At the front horses were dying from lack of food or falling sick from eating green unripe corn. The great advance faltered and slowed in the sweltering heat. The German generals then took a fateful decision. Realising that they couldn’t surround Paris – it was now too far and would take too long – they ordered the advance to swing south, to the east of Paris. By doing so they presented a flank to the army in Paris, who promptly attacked and stopped the Germans on the river Marne. The German advance was over; they fell back in September to dig trenches and go on the defensive.

That was the moment the Germans found themselves fighting a war on two fronts. That was the moment Germany lost the Great War .

The four bloody years that followed merely reinforced the outcome of that August. But from that war, the world changed out of all recognition. The effect and consequences of World War I were dramatic. In 1914 Europe controlled most of the world, effectively. For five hundred years Europeans had sailed the globe, seizing land and dominating what Kipling called ‘lesser breeds without the law.’ The 15th-century European voyages of Henry the Navigator – resulting in discoveries and maritime expansion into Africa and Asia – set up the Portuguese Empire. A century later Spain dominated the Americas, to be followed on the high seas by the Dutch, the French, the English and the Americans, all projecting their trade and power across the world. By the 19th century, Europe, and European ideas and values, ruled the world in one form or another. The ‘Guns of August’ put a stop to that. By 1922, the Russian, German, Austrian Ottoman empires were no more. France and Britain were bankrupted and enfeebled and new countries after Versailles were hostages to future problems, from the Balkans to the Middle East.

The Great War opened a Pandora’s box of problems that has haunted us ever since.

Once again we are in the danger zone this month for armed conflict somewhere. So, yes, beware the month of August. Statistically speaking, this tends to be the favoured season for wars to start.

Looking around at our troubled world, it is worrying that there are far too many conflicts waiting to explode.

Mereo Books release ‘Chronicles of the Winter World’

All five novels in the ‘Tommy Gunn’ World War I ‘Chronicles of the Winter World’ series are now published by Mereo Books.

Written by leading military historian, John Hughes-Wilson, these five historically accurate novels in takes us in the company of protagonist ‘Tommy’ Gunn from the outbreak of the Great War, through the horror of the trenches and arduous campaigns to the eventual Armistice.

Publication date was 28 June 2019, to mark the centenary of the opening of the Versailles Conference (on 28 June 1919) that marked the official end of World War I

‘A unique contribution to World War I literature’
Brian MacArthur, author: King and Country

In 1914, they could not have known just how long this war would last or just how many lives it would cost …

When we first meet TOM Gunn, he’s a young infantry lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters, back on leave from India just as Europe catches fire in the chaotic summer of 1914.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) is off to France, and Gunn joins a hastily formed mixed battalion of reservists, regular and territorial soldiers. He soon finds himself pitchforked into the mayhem and suffering of unrelenting war.

Soon the high hopes of short conflict fade into the horrific reality of the trenches. Thaddeus Gunn and his men realise that this is going to be a long and bloody war and they will be lucky if any of them survive ….

Hughes-Wilson places the main character, Thaddeus (‘Tommy’) Gunn, at most of the major battles of the war, in order to show us the utter terror and slaughter suffered by the troops.
Although this series of books are fictional accounts, the use of real diaries of young officers who fought and quotes from newspapers of the day, give these novels authenticity and help the reader appreciate how people actually lived through the war.

Now, with the release of all five novels to mark the Centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, readers can follow Hughes-Wilson’s creation, ‘Tommy Gunn’ throughout the entire war. These powerful novels stand as a testament to the heroism and sacrifice of a generation of young men.

‘Gripping … superbly written, true-to-life down to the least military detail, and very exciting. Readers will be keen to follow the fortunes of Thaddeus Gunn’
Andrew Roberts, FRSL, historian

All five novels are available in paperback or ebook:

  • 1914 First Blood
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-277-2 210pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B00Q386D90; £3.00
  • 1915 Pride & Glory
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-922-1 213pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KMB934Q; £2.35
  • 1916 The Big Push
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-923-8 280pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKP874RRRP £2.35
  • 1917 Hanging On
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-925-2 234pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKNCS8C; £2.35
  • 1918 Defeat Into Victory
    Paperback ISBN: 978-1-86151-277-2 175pp RRP £12.00
    ebook ISBN: B07KKLRD7P £2.35

All five titles in the series are published by Mereo Books (an imprint of Memoirs Publishingand are available through all good bookshops and internet booksellers (see Mereo Books: Books by John Hughes-Wilson)

Local UK interest, Nottinghamshire:

Tommy Gunn, the central character in the series, comes from Nottinghamshire and serves with the Sherwood Foresters. (The author also served in the Sherwood Foresters early in his career.)

To request review copies or to be put in touch with the author, please contact:

Andrew Hayward
Court Publishing Services
andrew.hayward21@yahoo.com
Tel: 07876 155663 or 020 8761 0147

Further information:
www.johnhugheswilson.co.uk

Press release issued on behalf of Mereo Books & Court Publishing by Elly Donovan PR
elly@ellydonovan.co.uk | Tel: 01273 205 246

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.

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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