Misunderstanding the cause of World War One and the importance of 29th September 1918

As we approach the centenary for the end of ‘the Great War’, commemorations will be focused upon the Allied achievements and sacrifices in the trenches of the Western front; and rightly so.

Yet the four years of fighting through the mud and blood of Flanders and France was not what the great struggle had originally been about; that lay further further east. If we can understand the causes, the mistakes and the consequences of decision making of the time, it gives today’s leaders a better chance of dealing with current geo-political problems, be that the general rise of nationalism, the emergence of China as a military and economic superpower, an aggressive and resurgent Russia, an uncertain USA, an unpredictable Turkey, Brexit and a fragile EU, the continued problems of the Middle East and all the shifting alliances that result from it.

It is often said that ‘the Hundred Days’ Offensive’ starting in August 1918 on the Western Front was the beginning of the end for the German Army. Yet few Allied strategists had thought that the war in the west could be won outright before the middle of 1919, if at all, given that a withdrawing German Army would be hard to beat once it had crossed the Rhine in retreat and blown the bridges; and there would be little appetite to follow it into Germany. After all, just months earlier, even when the successful German Spring offensive of April 1918 had managed to punch holes up to 100km deep in the Allied lines, it was still indecisive, such was the nature of warfare at the time. Furthermore, by 1917, the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary had decisively defeated the Russians in the east and held huge areas of Eastern Europe. So what really persuaded the Central Powers to sue for peace in the late autumn of 1918?

The date of 29th September 1918 (a hundred years ago today) in Macedonia is not a date or a region that will necessarily draw much attention to most people thinking about the end of World War I. However, in part accident and part by design, it was to be the decisive moment and place that signalled the end of the road for the aspiring German Empire and the rapidly decaying Ottoman one. It was here in Macedonia, where a considerable force of French, Greek, Serbian, Czechoslovakian, Italian and British Empire Forces, commanded by the French General Franchet d’Esperey, attacked the Bulgarians and Central Powers from 15th-29th September 1918 on what was termed the Salonica Front. The offensive took Bulgaria out of the war and broke the physical link between Germany and her faltering Ottoman ally. As the French then turned west to take the Balkans, the British Force turned east and marched on Constantinople. With few Ottoman troops to defend their capital and with the majority of the Middle East in British Empire hands all the way from Basra and Cairo, through Baghdad and Jerusalem to Damascus, the door was wide open for the British to complete the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Both German High Command and Ottoman Rulers realised that the game was up, with the Ottoman Grand Vizier saying, “We’re done” and German General Ludendorff telling his inner team that the fall of Bulgaria meant that the war was lost for the Central Powers.

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We should not be surprised that the war’s fate was sealed in this region, and not on the Western Front, because this is where the German Empire’s strategy to expand and hold dominance came from. To understand it, we need to look at events prior to 1914.  

On the eve of the 20th Century, it was the British Empire that was dominant, effectively having control of the seas through its hugely capable and formidable Royal Navy and control over the key strategic bottlenecks, such as the straights of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the English Channel, the North Sea (capable of blocking the entrance to the Baltic) and key logistic staging points such as Cape Town and Aden. This allowed Britain to trade and run its huge empire, not least its ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of India, many parts of the Far East and much of Southern and Sub Saharan Africa. Now the emerging German nation desired expansion, which coined the phrase ‘Drang nach Osten’ which quite literally means ‘drive to the east’. Whilst this included the Slavic areas directly east towards Russia, it also involved the plan of partnering and supporting with the Ottoman Empire, who although known as the ‘sick man of Europe’, still ruled over the Middle East. Turkey’s relationship with Britain was one of mutual respect, where Britain wished to see the continuation of a weak but stable Ottoman Empire, capable of preventing Russia from obtaining a Mediterranean ‘warm water port’ and control of the shipping lanes through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

Germany understood that the Ottoman Empire was losing its grip. In 1908 the Austro-Hungarians annexed Bosnia, and internal revolutions in Turkey had led to the rise of the ‘Young Turks’ government that were looking for new ways to shore up their nation. Further afield from 1911 onwards, the Ottomans lost wars against the Italians and in the Balkans. Thus Germany identified a long-term strategy of support and influence over the Young Turks. It led to the deployment of military and naval advisers and materiel, financial support through large bank loans for infrastructure, engineering and assistance to the building of a railway ‘from Berlin to Baghdad’. This would give the Germans access to markets, the ability to support Ottoman lands militarily if needs be, and most importantly, it would give them access to the new discovery in the Middle East, that of oil.

The British were already exploiting this opportunity in both Persia and Southern Mesopotamia (noting that conversion to oil from coal for naval warships had been identified by the British Admiralty as essential to maintain its naval superiority). But in another threat to the Royal Navy, in 1914, Germany widened the Kiel Canal to allow large German warships access to the North Sea without having to pass through the Baltic. Last but not least, the Germans identified that all was not well for Britain’s rule in India, where the growing calls for independence from the indigenous community (Muslim, Hindu and Sikh alike) threatened the very heart of Britain’s Empire.

As history tells us, tensions in Europe grew in the early summer of 1914. Then when the Arch Duke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo on 28th June, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire served ultimatums on the Serbians, the stage was set for confrontation in Central Europe, but it did not have to affect Britain. However, by this time, it was too late to ensure that Turkey would stay neutral, as Germany, (an ally to the Austro-Hungarian Empire), was far more embedded both military and financially with the Ottomans than Britain had dared to believe. Although the Turks were concerned by this situation and did not want war, the writing was on the wall. A decision by the British to cancel the sale of two new warships to Turkey on 28th July (the same day that the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia) was unfortunate timing, which played into German hands. Just after a state of war existed between Germany and Britain (4th August), the Germans managed to sail two warships through the Dardanelles and on to Constantinople, where they were given to the Turks (but manned by German sailors in Turkish uniforms). Later, on 27th October, to bring Turkey into the war, these two warships raided the Russian Black Sea naval ports, thus Turkey and Russia declared war on each other, followed shortly by Britain and France declaring war on Turkey. The Germans now had their eastern ally secured; all of a sudden for Britain, it was not just France and the Western Front that was at stake, but its entire empire. If access through the Suez Canal was blocked, if Germany could challenge the Royal Navy at sea and if Germany could foment an uprising in India, Britain’s position as the preeminent global power would be lost.

Seen through this strategic perspective, it is in some ways, hard to see why so much importance was placed on the Western Front, a campaign where Germany held the advantage in numbers, lines of communication, equipment and in tactics and where by the summer of 1916, the Allies had made no progress and taken hundreds of thousands of casualties. In the previous war of 1878, he Germans had successfully besieged and taken Paris in 1878, but it had not led to German occupation, merely peace on German terms. At that time, Britain had not intervened to help France, but by the early 1900s, the War Office had begun to be alarmed by the Kaiser’s massive program of military and naval rearmament. Perhaps the situation across the Middle East was less thought of as a potentially decisive point for the war because the British assumed that some sort of neutral Ottoman rule would survive, and Britain had no intention to occupy and rule areas of the Middle East. After all, who else could possibly govern such an ungovernable region?

Notwithstanding this situation, it was still essential for Britain to immediately take steps to shore up its lines of communications to India and the Far East and to ensure that it would have a secure source of oil produced from Mesopotamia. Forces were strengthened in Egypt to secure the Suez Canal and on 6th November, an Indian Army Expeditionary Force landed at the oil terminal at Fao at the top of the Arabian Gulf and by 20th November Basra was occupied, thus securing the oil for the Royal Navy. Thus two of the three threats that faced the British Empire had been removed for now. The final one, (that of an uprising against British rule in India) had to be carefully managed over the next 4 years, not least because the Germans set up ‘the Intelligence Bureau of the East’ to incite rebellion in any British occupied region. On 23rd November Turkey declared a ‘Jihad’ against Britain and its allies, hoping that such an action would turn both Arab Tribesmen and Indian Muslims against the British and this threat was recognised by the British. When Indian Army troops were deployed to the Gallipoli Campaign and in Mesopotamia (where they distinguished themselves), there were fears that word would spread back to India of Indian muslims fighting fellow muslims. However, these fears were not realised and both Indian troops and the people of India remained loyal to the British throughout the war.

After the disastrous Allied setbacks at both Gallipoli and at Kut, Mesopotamia in 1915, (and the key strategic decision point of Bulgaria joining the Central Powers, thus physically connecting Germany with Turkey), this area of operations against the Ottomans and their German advisors went relatively quiet, not least because of the worsening situation on the Western Front. However, a second Mesopotamian campaign, Commanded by General Maude succeeded in capturing Baghdad in 1917 and General Allenby’s Army’s campaign from Egypt captured Jerusalem in December 1918. Just as importantly, Greece, which had remained neutral for the first part of the war, mainly due to King Constantine’s support for Germany (he was married to the sister of the Kaiser), was persuaded to join the Allies in 1917 and a large allied military force grew at the port of Salonica. It was this force that commenced offensive operations in September 1918 that brought about the crucial turning point in the war.

From the Turkish historical perspective, sadly, our ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918 was only part of their protracted conflict, which lasted from effectively 1911-1922, starting and ending in the Balkans and leading to the destruction of the 500-year old Ottoman Empire and the ending of the last Muslim Caliphate. It was followed by the Turkish-Greek war of 1919-1922 with all its slaughter and mass movement of peoples, through to the rebuilding of the new Turkish state, on terms of their favour.

From the British perspective, it is worth remembering that although ‘victorious’ at the end of the Great War, the country had bankrupted itself, taken over a million casualties, the British Empire was weakened, and India would have its independence within 30 years, and rest of the empire would be gone not long afterwards, making way for the emerging superpower of the United States of America. Perhaps the more generally unrecognised prize of 1918 was the control Britain now had over the Middle East, which would secure the vital supply of oil for years to come and be a crucial factor in the outcome of World War II.

As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of when the guns fell silent on the Western Front on 11th November 1918, it is worth remembering that the 1914-18 War was originally less about the defence of France and Belgium and more about the struggle between an empire at its peak, keen to maintain its access to and dominance of world markets (Britain), a rising and aspiring empire, desperately in need of expanding its reach, control and trade (Germany), and a declining empire that knew its days were numbered but had little idea of how to manage the change (Ottoman).

It has become a cliché to state that we should learn from history. But the reality is that we don’t. Today, on the 29th September 2018, as political leaders grapple with understanding the current fragile and unstable world, we should encourage them to look back on history and reflect on the decisions taken, the mistakes made, and the actions and moments in time that were truly decisive. Only then can we hope that stability will return to the world without further conflict.

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