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Archive for the month “June, 2015”

053 Luigi Cadorna and the fate of every tenth man

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Luigi Cadorna

Luigi Cadorna

Italian high command shows merciless discipline  

It is Sunday 27 June 1915. It is the 53rd week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

The Forest of Argonne between the Champagne and Lorraine is the stage of a German offensive, where also lieutenant Erwin Rommel plays a part as commander of a regiment. 

Army group Mackensen advances in Galicia, while the Austrians are fully occupied with the Russians between the rivers Bug and Vistula. 

During a war meeting in Posen the German kaiser decides to continue the offensive in the east, but he prefers the plans of his Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn to the strategy of the royal couple Hindenburg and Ludendorff. 

Parliament in London agrees to a munitions law which makes British industry subject to the importance of the war effort by limiting the freedom of both employers and employees considerably. 

In Stockholm a British committee arrives to discuss trade relations with neutral Sweden. 

The South African campaign in German South West Africa is concluded with a victory near Otavi.

And after a seven-day bombardment the Italians start the attack on the town of Gorizia, near Trieste, under the command of the ruthless General Luigi Cadorna.

When in 1961 historian Alan Clark expressed his view on the First World War, he gave his book the significant title Lions led by donkeys. He borrowed this sneer from a conversation the two German generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann are said to have had. When Ludendorff remarked that the British soldiers fought like lions, Hoffmann is supposed to have replied: ‘True. But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys’.

There is some serious doubt whether this short dialogue actually took place, but the picture remains. To many the Great War is essentially the story of brave front soldiers and gutless chateau generals. But other opinions can also be heard. The writer James Hayward for example sees in the simplification of lions and donkeys a superficial and damaging war myth. According to him it ignores the fact that the commanders of the Great War found it hard to use the latest technologies and tactics in a war of an unprecedented scale. Generally speaking they made the most of it. So Hayward says.

Whatever new insights historians may gain, it is to be hoped that they will at least keep one donkey in the stable. His name is Luigi Cadorna, the commander in chief of the Italian army, though the king held that position in name. The monarch was also the only person of authority to whom Cadorna wished to be accountable. No other commanding officer showed such lack of compassion, such disdain for especially his own soldiers as Luigi Cadorna.

The Italians are considered the worst led, wordt fed, worst clad and worst equipped soldiers in the Great War. Understanding each other was already a problem. Different dialects kept the ranks divided. It is in favour of Cadorna that already long before the war he had stressed the appalling condition of the Italian army. But it speaks against him that this was no reason for him to treat his human resources with the utmost care.

Cadorna’s most gruesome exploit is decimation, to which he urged his commanding officers in the field. Decimation is a ruthless form of castigation, going back to the days of the Romans, though they must have used it sparingly. In units that failed collectively every tenth man was picked out and mercilessly executed. That should teach the comrades to perform better in the next attack.

It is reminiscent of the executions of traumatized boys, who at the moment suprême did not have the guts to leave the trenches. Shot at dawn. Those were the words written by the administrators after the names of these so-called deserters. But the complete arbitrariness of decimation concealed an additional dimension of ruthlessness. The heart-rending executions have been presented by the American writer Ernest Hemingway in his 1929 novel A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway borrowed from his own experiences. He was active on the Italian front for the Red Cross.

It was sheer terror that Cadorna unleashed on his own troops. And there were other methods to maintain discipline as well. During an attack he ordered machine guns to be put up behind their own lines. Whoever stayed behind during an offensive, risked being shot in the back. It must be said though that this was not an exclusively Italian custom. If the enemy took an Italian prisoner, his fate was certainly not to be denied. This was because Italian high command refused to send food parcels to their own soldiers who were taken prisoner of war, as was customary in other countries. Cadorna feared that these parcels would fuel the urge among his troops to capitulate.

Italian high command had a deeply rooted distrust of their own men. Cadorna dismissed 217 generals during the war. Between 1915 and 1918 330,000 Italian soldiers were accused of having committed a criminal offence, of whom 61 per cent were declared guilty. No other warring country showed such callous statistics.

Cadorna himself had no significant combat experience, but he was of a military family. His father was no less a person than Raffaele Cadorna, who conquered Rome on the papal troops in 1870. Raffaele’s heroic status added extra lustre to his son Luigi. But now the war against the Austrians offered junior the opportunity to actually follow in his father’s footsteps.

The border between Austria and Italy was 650 kilometres long. Two regions qualified for an Italian offensive. One of the two, Trentino, was abondoned because the mountain passes there were heavily defended by the Austrians. Throughout the war the Italians had to take Austrian counter attacks into account in this part of South Tyrol. For his offensive strategy Cadorna stuck to the valley of the Isonzo river, which has its source in Slovenia and flows via Italy into the Adriatic Sea. The Julian Alps appear behind it. That must have been an attractive perspective for Cadorna, conquering the Alps of Julius Caesar.

The fighting along the Austro-Italian front extended into the high mountains. The Great War started to use Hunters of the Alps on skis, while heavy artillery had to be hoisted across rocks with the greatest possible effort. In 2008 Mark Thompson’s book The White War appeared. This white war took place on impossible territory, barren and cold. ‘Imagine the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders,’ Thompson writes, ‘tilting at 30 or 40 degrees, made of grey limestone that turns blinding white in summer.’ It should be added that in this landscape of peeks and valleys the Italians were usually on lower ground and the Austrians high up.

It was a military challenge the greatest genius would have had to work extremely hard on. But the Italians were lumbered with Luigi Cadorna. And his tactics were roughly the following: order as many soldiers as possible to attack on a front as wide as possible  until the other yields. Exhaustion as a battle plan did not work with the Italians either. Cadorna did not get any further than deadlocks.

Italy just could not cope with modern warfare. Its army consisted of barely a million soldiers, who could hardly rely on any artillery to back them up. The Italian industry was a long way behind the western countries, while also agriculture lacked resilience. As it would be a short war, the Italians could not care much. But the quick campaign grew into an exhausting battle of equipment, for which Italy did not have the raw materials. It was not until the winter of 1915-1916 that the Italian government managed to start some form of economic mobilization.

There was hardly any lack of pathos. The high priest of Italian nationalism was called Gabriele D’Annunzio. This ‘pornographer of the war’ wrote.: ‘Where masses of butchered flesh fall apart, new life ferments in a sublime manner.’ Cadorna may have expressed it a bit less poetically, but to him human sacrifice was also a form of purification which his tender-hearted Italy could use well.

He tried eleven battles on the Isonzo in order to break through the Austrian lines. When reconstructing them one by one, an occasional Italian success can be found. During the sixth Isonzo battle for example Gorizia was taken, but the objective, the town of Trieste with the Istria peninsula behind it, would never come within reach. Cadorna could afford eleven fruitless massacres around an otherwise idyllic river, which glistens in the sun like an emerald, 140 kilometres long. Cadorna’s tormentor on the other side was Austrian Field Marshal Svetozar Boroević, one of the generals from the Great War who was an absolute master in defending. The specialty of the Croatian field marshal was to recapture as quickly as possible what the enemy had taken with great difficulty.

When in August 1917 the Austrians finally appear to have become numbed, the Germans come to their rescue. During the twelfth Isonzo battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, the tide turns. In October and November the Central Powers break through the Cadorna lines with unimaginable ease. Now the effect of his merciless discipline on troop morale also becomes apparent: 265,000 men were taken prisoner. An even larger number deserted. The loss of equipment was in proportion.

The Italian government then thinks the time is right to look around for a new commander in chief. Rome has come to this realization under pressure of especially the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Cadorna’s final order of the day is ‘to die but not to bend’.  After him Armando Diaz can try a different approach. Diaz indeed shows compassion for his soldiers. Despite all previous losses, Italy embraces the war in the last year as it has never done before.

Cadorna may have left the front, but his role is certainly not yet over. He travels to Versailles, where on the initiative of the British Prime Minister Lloyd George the Supreme War Council of the allied forces is created. The immediate reason for these joint crisis deliberations is Caporetto.

After the war Cadorna finally ends in the witness box, when from an official investigation into the Caporetto debacle an accusing finger points in his direction. It fills him with sadness. Self-reflection is still not known to the old general. Napoleon would not have done better than he. If his troops had shown more stamina, it would have ended better on the Isonzo. But Cadorna thought that the army was like the people, not to be trusted.

This requires at least some explanation. The Caporetto defeat had been preceded by serious rioting in Turin. They had been Russian situations, but in Italy the army had been prepared to nip a revolution in the bud firmly: 41 dead and over 200 wounded.

Sulking about the defeatism and faint-heartedness of the Italians Luigi Cadorna starts on his memoirs. And then in 1924 he receives a great honour. In the first year of the war the British have already raised him to the peerage in The Most Honourable Order of Bath. Now Italy’s new commander-in-chief Benito Mussolini appoints him Field Marshal, a title which Il Duce also has in store for Armando Diaz.

In 1928 Cadorna complacently dies at the age of 78. Four years later a mausoleum is opened in his honour. It is on the Lago Maggiore, not far from the place where Luigi was born. One can of course visit the mausoleum, but then again one can also abstain from doing so.

Next week: Lord Kitchener

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)




052 Walter Rathenau and the raw materials for a war

Walter Rathenau

Walter Rathenau

Reconciliation vain hope in Germany

 It is Sunday 20 June 1915. It is the 52nd week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

During an attack on Gallipoli the French lose 2,500 men, but the Turks have to sacrifice almost double that number for their defence.

Lemberg, present-day Lviv in the Ukraine, falls into the hands of the Austrians again.

In Galicia the Eighth Army and Eleventh Army of the Russians beat the retreat.

German submarine U-40 thinks they are stopping a British trawler in the North Sea, but in reality this Taranaki is a Q-ship, a decoy vessel, which is in direct contact with a British submarine, which will torpedo U-40.

In East Africa British troops ‘celebrate’ a hard-won victory on the Germans with rape and pillaging in the port of Bukoba on Lake Victoria.

On the Isonzo front, between the Adriatic Sea and Monte Santo, the Italians start a large-scale attack  with an artillery bombardment.

Under pressure of parliament, the Duma, Tsar Nicholas II discharges his Minister of War, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, who is the man responsible for the deplorable state in which the Russian army went to battle.

And in Germany the industrialist Emil Rathenau dies, after which the management of the AEG-concern is passed on to his son Walther Rathenau.

‘Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau, die gottverdammte Judensau’. Those are the nauseating lyrics that mark the transition from the First to the Second World War. On 24 June 1922 Walther Rathenau is indeed shot dead like a damned Jewish pig. With his death the hope for lasting peace after a Great War is drowned. Of course this is an interpretation in hindsight, but also in the Weimar Republic of those days the assassination of the Minister of Foreign Affairs was like a blow with a sledgehammer, though Rathenau was not the first or last politician to be killed in the new Germany.

It is also tempting to draw a parallel between the murder of Walther Rathenau and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, eight years earlier. Then it was Sarajevo, now it is Berlin. In both cases a handful of young conspirators, affected by extreme-nationalistic ideals. Then it was The Black Hand, now Organisation Consul. In Berlin the terrorists have not come on foot, but they drive their car by the side of Rathenau’s. One attacker opens fire, while the other throws a grenade. Then it was the starting signal for a war, now it is a shot in the back for peace.

Who was Walther Rathenau? In his own words: ‘I am a German of Jewish descent. My people is the German people. My Fatherland is Germany. And my religion is that German faith which is above all religious.’ And in his mother’s words, which she wrote to the mother of one of the assassins: ‘My son was the noblest man the earth bore.’ And finally in the words of publicist Sebastian Haffner: ‘He was an aristocratic revolutionary, an idealistic economic planner, a Jew who was a German patriot who was a liberal citizen of the world… He combined within himself qualities that in another person would have been dangerously incompatible. In him, the synthesis of a whole sheaf of cultures and philosophies became not thought, not deed, but a person.’

You could also call Walther Rathenau one of the most tragic characters of the twentieth century. A key figure in any case, in whom all hope and despair are joined. A Jew who could not be a German. The patriot who was seen as a traitor. The bachelor who passed for a homosexual. The captain of industry, who was in pursuit of a more just society. The war planner, who afterwards wanted to secure peace, but was not supposed to succeed in this.

He was born a child of a time that became more and more modern at a rapid pace. His father, Emil Rathenau, was introduced to Thomas Alva Edison’s electric light bulb in 1881. He immediately saw its potential and succeeded in acquiring the German rights. Two years later he founded the Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft, the AEG. When Emil Rathenau dies on 20 June 1915, his son Walther is the first man of the company, also in name. In fact he had already reached that position years before the war. But also outside the company Rathenau the younger had made his mark as a visionary economist, who had empowered the German economy especially through the formation of cartels. In the long run he also foresaw a mid-European customs union, with Germany as the epicentre.

Rathenau was also a cultured and well-read man. He painted, played the piano, wrote poetry and books on politics, philosophy and economics. As an intellectual and a society figure he was in touch with distinguished artists and writers. Author Joseph Roth once said about Rathenau: ‘In everything he read or wrote, there was always the urge to reconcile’. And yet it was this very man who supported the German war economy as no other. There are historians who maintain that Germany would have been swept away in the first year of the First World War, if Walther Rathenau had not raised his finger.

In August 1914 Rathenau is the man chosen to keep the German war machine afloat. After Krupp, his own AEG becomes the biggest supplier to the army and the navy. But Rathenau’s war effort extends itself to far beyond his own company. When the British trade block forces the Germans to cut their coats according to their cloth, Rathenau introduces the Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, the KRA, in the German Ministry of War. He starts this Raw Materials for War Department with three employees and after some sampling he comes to the conclusion that German industry will have bled to death within six months. At the end 2,500 people are employed by the KRA and Germany can face up to the war. In October 1915 The Times calls Rathenau’s KRA ‘one of the best ideas of modern times’. Rathenau was personally in charge until March 1915.

Rathenau masters recycling and finding Ersatz raw materials to perfection. Companies have to present their balance of raw materials on a monthly basis. That is also the core of his influential management philosophy: separation of ownership and control.

He had warned that war would break out. On 1 August 1914 he wrote in his diary that he was very pessimistic about what was to come. But Rathenau, too, will embrace the war as a purification of the narrow-minded middle-class. We see him again as a true patriot, a hawk even, who recommends, for example, to use tens of thousands of Belgians as forced labour in German industry. He gets along extremely well with Erich Ludendorff, who will implement the war agenda together with Paul von Hindenburg.

Walther Rathenau wants to be more German than German. Already in 1897 he called upon the Jews of Germany to assimilate completely in the German people, who he admired for their courage and robustness. This pamphlet was called ‘Höre, Israel’. Later he would be ashamed of it. This embarrassment went hand in hand with the painful awareness that antisemitism was unavoidable, that he, too, was doomed to remain a second-rate citizen in Germany. Bernhard von Bülow, Reich’s Chancellor in the first decade of the twentieth century, remembered his first meeting with him. Rathenau introduced himself as follows: ‘Let me, before I am honoured by the favour of being received by you, make a statement that is at the same time a confession.’ Then he paused for a little while. ‘Your Highness, I am a Jew.’

He should never have been able to get through to the officer’s exam, but now, thanks to the war, he had the rank of general. Could it be that the war provided new opportunities for a fairer society for everyone? Rathenau, who had seen his political aspirations go up into thin air before the war, must have believed in it. But he was terribly wrong.

Immediately after the outbreak of the First World War the German government was under pressure of the right wing to scrutinize the war effort of Jews with a Judenzählung. Later it would become clear that more Jews had left the war dead, wounded or decorated than could have been expected on the basis of their numbers in society. But the picture of the treacherous Jew, ducking away, was ineradicable, creating its own dynamics. An increasing number of Jews started to long for a new Germany, a post-war Germany.

Meanwhile at the end of the war Walther Rathenau turns against a hasty armistice. He thinks that a Germany that keeps on fighting could secure better conditions with the allies. That attitude will indeed sidetrack him in the years following the war. It is Catholic Chancellor Joseph Wirth who calls upon him in 1921 to  tackle the reconstruction of Germany. Erfüllungspolitik would be part of the game. Wirth and Rathenau think that it would be advisable if Germany complied with the provisions of Versailles, including the war reparations, as best as possible. Their Germany would have to walk the extra mile and reconcile with the new realities. That policy turns them into traitors of the German cause for every rightwinger. When on top of that Rathenau concludes a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1922, the red Jew’s reputation as a traitor is a fait accompli. The extreme-right free corps march the streets, singing ‘Knallt ab den Walther Rathenau’.

According to British ambassador Edgar d’Abernon, Rathenau knew he was going to be assassinated. He had told him often enough. A month before his death papal nuncio Eugenio Pacelli also paid a visit to Chancellor Wirth. A priest had told the later Pope Pius XII that there was a conspiracy against minister Rathenau of Foreign Affairs. Wirth then insisted that Rathenau started working on extra police protection, but the latter continued to refuse.

On the day of his funeral hundreds of thousands of workers paraded the streets of the German towns. It was a protest against political violence and a tribute to the man the new democracy had needed so badly, a man who had promised them a just society where an even distribution of property and income were both morally and economically imperative.

In the decade after his death Walther Rathenau remained a subject of worship. His death inspired democratic Germans to be vigilant. Already a day after the attack Chancellor Wirth had told the Reichstag where the danger came from in the new Germany: ‘The enemy is on the right.’ And we now know that he did not just stand there.

Once in power the nazis turned Walther Rathenau’s assassins into heroes. Two of them, Erwin Kern and Hermann Fischer, had fled after the attack. They had not succeeded in leaving the country and had decided to get away by bike. Both went into hiding in an old castle ruin in Thuringia, but soon the couple became too conspicuous. In a gunfight with the police Kern was shot in the head, after which Fischer ended his own life. From the castle tower they had called out to Germany: ‘We will die for our ideals.’

Next week: Luigi Cadorna

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)



051 Kick Schröder and his sense of independence

Kick Schröder

Kick Schröder

The Dutch guard neutrality 

It is Sunday 13 June 1915. It is the 51st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Army Group Mackensen crushes General Nikolai Ivanov’s men in Galicia, while also at Lviv, Lemberg in German, the Russians are put under pressure by the Austrians.

In Artois a French bombardment of the troops of Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, lacks precision, but a Moroccan division of General Philippe Pétain will succeed in reaching the top of Vimy Ridge after all.

Two days later General Ferdinand Foch realizes that his armies cannot get through at Artois, which he largely blames on the failure of the British at Aubers and Festubert.

The Germans transfer troops from the east to the west because of the successes in Galicia.

At the Isonzo Front a huge effort of the Italians to conquer Hill 383 is not rewarded.

Lloyd George takes the oath as Minister of Munitions and with his French colleague Albert Thomas he immediately synchronizes the clocks at a conference in Boulogne.

In the Alsatian Vosges Mountains the Germans leave the village of Metzeral after setting fire to the houses.

And in the Dutch daily newspaper De Telegraaf a flaming article is published against the Germans, signed by editor-in-chief Kick Schröder.

‘There is a group of unscrupulous villains in the centre of Europe, who have caused this war. In the interest of humankind, to which our country belongs, if we are not mistaken, it is essential that these criminals are eliminated. It is the honourable job of the Allies to do this, so that they, too, wage war directly in the interest of the Netherlands ‘par excellence’, our autonomy, which will be over, if German militarism wins. Our battle is against these criminals. It is against them that our sense of independence has to be mobilised.’

What the editor-in-chief of De Telegraaf wrote in his own columns is by no means very mild. It is 16 June 1915 and Mr Kick Schröder is putting a cat among the Dutch pigeons, which the government indeed wants to keep as far away from each other as possible. Even the tabloid press is expected to respect neutrality. But Schröder will not accept ‘fear’ and ‘pettiness’ and ‘Prussian censorship’, which applies to the Dutch newspapers according to him. Schröder will not accept neutrality either. He thinks independence should be the goal of Dutch politics. He mainly targets the companies that secretly continue exporting goods to Germany.

It is usually taken to be true that Dutch journalism prefered the secure middle way in the war. In ‘De Donkere Poort’ (The Dark Gate), a 1931 study of the Netherlands in 1914-1918, author P.H.Ritter quotes the example of De Limburger Koerier. This regional newspaper one day received a letter from the Comité Catholique de Propagande Française. The idea is to place articles that were positive towards the French cause in exchange for well-paid advertisements. Ritter then writes: ‘De Limburger Koerier was one of the ‘beneficiaries’, but the newspaper dismissed these practices with contempt, as did the entire Dutch press, which appeared not to be susceptible to such bribery.’

Then there is the writer Paul Moeyes who states in his much more recent study ‘Buiten Schot’ (‘Out of harm’s way’) that the position of the Dutch newspapers has been ‘exemplary neutrality’. De Telegraaf could be considered the exception to the rule, which was also to be said for De Toekomst (The Future) at the other end of the spectrum. But this strongly anti-English newspaper counted a much smaller number of readers.

It is Joan Hemels, professor of communication sciences, who knocked the image of the immaculate national press off its pedestal. In his farewell lecture, which he gave in March 2009, Hemels argued that ‘the picture of the neutral position of Dutch journalism urgently needed correcting’. According to Hemels Austria-Hungary bribed quite a few Dutch journalists, which is remarkable. The dual monarchy is said to have sent numerous biased press releases into the world via the Hollands Nieuwsbureau (Dutch News Agency). Propaganda under the cover of objectivity. Cheque book journalism with a view to creating an enemy.

But the British greased their propaganda machine best. The Germans did their utmost, too, but completely lost the battle for public opinion worldwide. In September 1914 it could be read in the Kölnische Volkszeitung how the Belgian citizens had rampaged: ‘They tore out the eyes of German soldiers, they cut off their ears, noses, fingers, genitals or ripped open their bodies.’

The word itself is not enough. The injustice should also be depicted. A Belgian girl, her chopped off hands stretched out to heaven, becomes an icon of German barbarism. Satirical newspaper cartoons get vicious traits. The Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers becomes world famous with his drawings in which he presents the Hun as a pig, devil or butcher. The Germans are so enraged that in 1915 they put a prize on the head of the Dutchman. But Raemaekers received generous praise from former American president Theodore Roosevelt. He said in April 1917: ‘The cartoons of Louis Raemaekers constitute the most powerful of the honourable contributions made by neutrals to the cause of civilisation in the World War.’ In that particular year Raemaekers happens to be in the United States. With his pictures he wants to prepare the country for participation in the war. At the end of 1917 over two thousand papers worldwide publish his cartoons on a regular basis.

Raemaekers’ paper in the Netherlands is De Telegraaf, which is owned by Hak Holdert, a true press mogul. Just as Schröder Holdert hated the Germans, though he was still alive when De Telegraaf made its columns available in fact for the German occupier in the Second World War.

As editor-in-chief of De Telegraaf Kick Schröder is a man with a flaming pen and a fiery beard. One of his pseudonyms is Barbarossa. Via sports he found his way to journalism. Schröder played cricket and soccer at a high level. How British can you get. In 1894 he was captain of a Dutch soccer team, which has entered into the annals as the first still unofficial Orange.

Schröder was the son of a German baker, who in the middle of the nineteenth century had moved to the Netherlands. ‘At home they spoke German’, explains his grandson, also called Kick Schröder. ‘As an Amsterdam boy he was ashamed of this. His hatred against anything German and despotic dates from his youth.’

Already in the beginning of 1915 Schröder got in trouble with a soldier who had trumpeted in a bar that De Telegraaf was paid by the English government to rouse public feelings for the allies. Schröder successfully took the man to court. The soldier withdrew the allegation.

And yet Schröders strong anti-German tone eventually gets him in trouble with the law. Prime Minister Cort van der Linden could not survive the German pressure to end the slander of De Telegraaf. German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gottlieb von Jagow, indirectly informed The Hague in April 1915 that public opinion in Germany ‘would eventually not tolerate such excesses to remain unanswered.’

On the eve of Saint Nicholas Day in December 1915, it should be noted, Schröder is arrested and taken to prison. ‘There was quite a crowd of people in front of his parental home,’ his grandson recalls. ‘Hundreds of people who cheered and demonstrated that he had to be set free. Grandmother visited him in prison with sandwiches.’ Schröder himself writes a letter from prison in which he says that his only conversational partner is a bucket of faeces that only answers ‘with a somewhat soft smell’.

De Telegraaf cries blue murder and appeals to the reasonable part of the Dutch population to defend the freedom of press. The paper subtly adds that the arrest of its editor-in-chief had led to a considerable increase in subscribers. Meanwhile Schröder gets the support of professors and journalists, even though he has thrown the book at them. But the riot becomes international. In the allied countries people wonder whether the Dutch government happens to be committed to the German cause. Justice will restrain itself under all this pressure and have Schröder released before Christmas. Louis Raemaekers draws a cartoon depicting Barbarossa kicking open the door of the prison cell, while frightened politicians flee away. It is not until October 1917 that the blunder of the Dutch government is a legal fact. Schröder is acquitted on appeal of the allegation of having endangered Dutch neutrality.

From the end of 1915 Hak Holdert starts to fight the illegal trade with Germany with his Anti-Smuggle Bureau and the French award Kick Schröder the Légion d’Honneur. At the end of 1917 he gets permission to visit the French front. He writes about that experience in the book Een dagje poilu (‘A day in the life of a soldier’). ‘Embedded journalism’ is what we call it now. Incidentally, Paul Moeyes also mentions examples of Dutch war correspondents – there were not many – who had to bear the harness of German censorship.

After the war Schröder comes into conflict with Hak Holdert. Because of this he is sidetracked as a journalist. He dies at his desk of a cardiac arrest, pen in hand, at the age of 68.

How should we assess his robust writings during the First World War? Was Barbarossa an advocate of both the free word and civilisation? Or did he thunder like a bull in a china shop, putting the fragile peace for the Netherlands on the line?

We could leave it to P.H. Ritter, a contemporary, to answer this question. Ritter wrote: ‘I cannot conceal my judgement that the allegations, made by Schröder to the Dutch government,  were completely incorrect. For whatever the Dutch government may be accused of when they were in office between 1914 and 1918, nobody who has studied the history of the Netherlands during the crisis years can doubt the sincerity and painfully accurate enforcement of neutrality. I am convinced that the conduct of De Telegraaf was highly dangerous and on top of that inappropriate for a leading institution of a neutral country. But I am equally convinced of the dangerous and inappropriate attitude of the government. One may wonder what endangered the neutrality more, the one-sided indignation of a single press medium or government pressure on the judiciary.’

Well said by Ritter. No government should be afraid of just a newspaper.

Next week: Walther Rathenau

050 Nicholas Nikolaevich and the revenge on his dogs

Nicholas Nikolaevich

Nicholas Nikolaevich

The Russian steamroller is faltering 

It is Sunday 6 June 1915. It is the 50th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

In his monoplane British pilot Reginald Warneford shoots down Zeppelin LZ-37 over Ghent, after which the burning airship crashes against the convent of Our Lady Visitation.

In Berlin the government orders U-boat commanders not to torpedo passenger ships any longer.

In the Cameroon jungle the allies are facing both German resistance and heavy rainfall.

America’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, William Jennings Bryan, resigns because he thinks president Woodrow Wilson has railed too fiercely against Germany after the sinking of Lusitania.

French and British launch another attack on Gallipoli.

The French struggle on in the area around Arras in northern France.

The Canadian government announces that they intend to send another 35,000 men to the war. 

On the eastern front Austrians and Germans succeed in crossing the river Dniester. 

The Italians try to build a bridgehead between Gorizia and Tolmin. 

And on the Galician front in the east pressure on the Russians becomes untenable, which eventually also applies to the position of commander-in-chief Nicholas Nikolaevich.

With its tall legs and long hair the borzói is a proud Russian greyhound. But the leftist revolutionaries of 1917 hated it so much that they could easily kill it. The borzói was the reactionary symbol of the nobility, that had used it to hunt for wolves, while the people impoverished. The revenge of the reds was satisfying: borzóis were tracked down and killed on a large scale. If Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich had not given so many borzóis as presents to European friends in the years before the Great War, the breed could very well have disappeared from the face of the earth. Nicholas was a fervent hunter, but his dogs did the heavy work. He only got off his horse to cut a wolf’s throat, after it had been cornered by the dogs.

The cavalry was his craft in the army. In the Russian-Japanese War Nicholas did not move into action, but during the rebellion that broke out after the defeat a star role lay ahead. Tsar Nicholas II did not want to undertake reforms and relied on his namesake, the Grand Duke. Would he, please, tighten the reins as military dictator? Nicholas Nikolaevich refused to do this job in a grand manner. He spoke to a minister and said: ‘Do you see this gun? I will now go to the tsar and I will beg him to sign. Either he will comply, or I will shoot myself.’ After which the reluctant tsar signd the reform papers after all.

Nicholas Nikolaevich was an uncle of Nicholas II. Their family lines came together at Nicholas I. He was the Romanov, whose empire from the first half of the nineteenth century was described by the writer Ivan Turgenev as ‘a mixture of light and darkness, of European civilization and Asian barbarousness’. The first Nicholas, the two Alexanders after him and finally the second Nicholas, all four Romanov tsars held on to their conservatism for a century, each in his own way. Oppression of the people was at the heart of this. The abolition of servitude in 1861 had got Alexander II the title ‘Liberator of Russia’, but he was not really such an idealist. They were purely economic motives that had made him decide to create a big class of free farmers. The muzjiks of the immense countryside were an inexhaustible source for the Russian army, which derived its reputation of steamroller from this. The tsar had the support of 170 million people. That reservoir of flesh and blood would have to pay off on the battlefield. But in practice it would not work out like this.

In the first place personal preponderance had to be put in perspective. Large groups of the population, notably the non-Russians, were exempt from military service. Many of those who qualified for the army could neither read nor write. All these illiterate soldiers had to be trained for a long period of time in order to be fully prepared. There was quite a shortage of highly trained officers and non-commissioned officers. The enemy considerably reduced the scarce elite of the Russians already in the first year of the Great War. And what was then replenished from below not only lacked fighting strength but also political reliability. This applied especially to workers and intellectuals, who wanted to have nothing to do with old-fashioned army discipline and corporal punishment.

Then the equipment of the army remained appalling throughout the war. Russian industry could not provide the men with the guns and the artillery they needed. Against the 381 heavy batteries the Germans put up on the eastern front in 1914, there were only 80 on the Russian side.

Moreover, the Russians were also in two minds tactically and strategically. For a long time defending had been the slogan, but the friendly French wanted a frontal attack in the back of the Germans. And apart from being loyal allies, the French were also important money lenders of the Russian army. Meanwhile also the Serbian bloodbrothers, because of whom the whole conflict had actually started, had to be helped. As a result the Russians overplayed their hand in the opening stage by both acting against Germany in East Prussia and dealing with the Austrians in Galicia. A clear choice for plan A (Austria) or plan G (Germany) would have offered a better chance of success.

When looking at the pre-war map, one could see Russian Poland appear between East Prussia and Galicia as a small bulge of the colossal tsarist empire. In military terms Poland was an enormous salient. Because of that vulnerable position the Russians had neglected to tackle Poland infrastructurally. After all it could easily fall into the hands of the enemy. The downside was that the troops going westward could hardly be stocked up because there were not enough railway lines.

It was the same problem with communication. Artillery fire usually had to be aimed using the human eye. The Russians did not have a decent network for the telegraph and the telephone. Wireless messages could quite easily be deciphered by the Germans. All in all the high command, the Stavka, was barely in control of the movements at the front.

The court loved to interfere in the appointment of commanding officers, which usually did not work out all too well. Between 1908 and 1914 four chiefs of the general staff  took turns. After the mobilization the envy continued to fester among the army leaders, who were also subordinate to a quarrelsome and corrupt minister of war, Vladimir Sukhomlinov. Incidentally, there are also historians who correct the ‘bad press’ of this minister. After the humiliation by Japan, Sukhomlinov, is said to have tried to free the Russian army from obsolete tactics and to supply them with sufficient resources. Yet in spring he is blamed for the substandard condition of the Russian army. In June 1915 Sukhomlinov has to step down after a bribes affair. Moreover, staff from his immediate surroundings are convicted of espionage.

In 1914 Nicholas Nikolaevich had positioned himself at the head of this slow and shady army. He has never commanded any troops in the field, but as commander-in-chief he now leads the biggest army the world has ever seen. Around 6.5 million soldiers are serving Nicholas Nikolaevich at the end of 1914.

He does not lack optimism. He is not unpopular with his men either. And as a Christian he shows enough religious zeal. There is prayer every day. But military historians have not observed any vision and diligence in his case. Eventually the setbacks he had on the extended war front are held against him.

Already in September 1914 the Russians have to withdraw from invaded East Prussia. And when finally the Germans come to the rescue of their Austrian ally in Galicia and Poland, Nicholas Nikolaevich also loses ground there. In August 1915 the Russians are on the brink of a breakdown. Brest-Litovsk falls. Its defenders will have to get away from a burning city in a hurry. The Grand Duke uses all his energy to close the gaps and to prevent the retreat from derailing into an uncontrolled flight. The fighting subsides because the Germans are also at the end of their tether. The Russian army is not at all defeated at the end of 1915, but it is no longer a threat to Germany.

Nicholas Nikolaevich’s days are numbered. The tsar decides that he had better take the helm himself in this hour of greatest danger. It is Rasputin the intriguer who, together with the tsarina, has urged Nicholas II to do so. This is not at all strange, as the relationship between the dark monk at the court and the tall grand duke at the front was downright hostile. At the beginning of the war Rasputin wanted to bless the Russian soldiers at the front, but Nicholas Nikolaevich responded as follows: ‘Please, come. I will have you hanged immediately.’

Then Nikolaevich leaves for the Caucasus, where fighting the Turks will become his  consolation prize. He is going to improve the equipment and the provisioning of the Russian army, but on this side stage of the Great War it is General Nikolai Yudenich who will grow into the number one Russian daredevil. In January 1916 a Russian offensive is unleashed under Yudenich’s command.

As Vice King of Transcaucasia Nicholas is still busy planning a railway line from Georgia in 1917. But the revolution at home draws a straight line through that plan.

On the day that Tsar Nicholas II abdicates, once more an appeal is made on his uncle. Nikolaevich again takes over command, but the new government reversed that decision within twenty-four hours. When the tsar and his family have been assassinated and a fierce civil war between the Reds and the Whites is raging, Nicholas Nikolaevich spends his days on the Crimean with his wife, who has a mystic penchant. They manage to flee for the Bolsheviks in the nick of time on board a British battleship.

First his brother-in-law, the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, gave him shelter. They are both married to a daughter of the Montenegrin king. In 1922 a White general will proclaim Nicholas the new tsar of Russia, but the Grand Duke must have realized by then that he is involved in a rearguard action. The days of the Romanovs in Russia are definitely over. As an exile in France, Nicholas, who is considered the last hope of reactionary Russia, becomes a prominent target of Soviet spies. However, in 1929 he dies a natural death on the French Riviera.

After Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich there has not been a Romanov who could claim a serious right to the throne of Mother Russia. And little has been heard of the borzóis who went hunting for wolves with the nobles.

Next week: Kick Schröder

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)





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