The First World War in 261 weeks

Meet all the characters of the Great War

Archive for the tag “General”

053 Luigi Cadorna and the fate of every tenth man

Download this episode (right click and save)

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)




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)





044 Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his order to die

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

Ottomans are not so sick after all

It is Sunday 25 April 1915. It is the 44th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

South Africans and Rhodesians give the Germans in Southwest Africa a beating.

Italian diplomats sign the secret London Pact: if Rome chooses the side of the allies, it is entitled to claim parts of Austria-Hungary, among which South Tyrol, Gorizia, Istria and half of Dalmatia.

An Austrian submarine, commanded by Georg Ritter von Trapp, succeeds in eliminating French cruiser Leon Gambetta in the Adriatic Sea, killing 547.

A new type of Zeppelin bombs the Sussex coast of England.

Germans and Austrians prepare for an attack at Gorlice in Galicia.

Despite warnings of the German embassy, ocean liner Lusitania leaves New York, destination Liverpool.

A French attack at Ypres results in heavy losses, in spite of support by the British artillery.

The Germans continue to target the allies with chlorine gas.

And the allied invasion of Gallipoli paints the sea red, while on the Turkish side a true hero emerges, Mustafa Kemal.

A lot has perished because of the First World War. Even headwear has been subject to demolition. Think of the Pickelhaube, the spiked symbol of the Prussian military. Or the fez, the round red felt hat – leftover of Byzantine culture in the Ottoman empire.

In post-First World War Turkey the fez was banned. It was Mustafa Kemal who was behind the Hat Law of 1925. He was the strong man, especially honoured by secular Turks as Atatürk, Father of Turks.  No Turkish living-room would be complete without his portrait on the wall. Insulting him would be the equivalent of lese-majesty, hence forbidden by law. Atatürk was in the hearts of all the Turks and it was he who made a town in the heart of Turkey its capital: Ankara. His sarcophagus is there, too.

Back to the fez. Why does a head of state want to interfere with headwear? For the same reason why Atatürk exchanged Arabic script for the western alphabet. The reason also why he granted women the right to vote, but forbade them to wear veils. Why he closed down monasteries of the Dervishes. Why he introduced family names and abolished all sorts of titles and nicknames and epithets. Why he established a civil code. Why he founded museums and stimulated the arts. Why he adopted the international calendar and time indications. And why he, above all, separated  mosque and state. Atatürk wanted Turkey to become a modern European nation.

Historian Bernard Lewis describes it as follows in ‘The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years’: ‘Atatürk, the master of social symbolism, was not pursuing the idle caprice of a despot when he decreed that the fez and all other forms of traditional headgear must be abandoned and European hats and caps adopted in their place. This was a major social decision, and he and those around him knew perfectly well what he was doing.’ Says Lewis.

The Turkey of Atatürk radically broke with the traditions of the Ottoman Empire, the once so mighty realm of the sultans. The First World War had been the fatal blow, but the decline had begun much earlier. When the peoples of Europe tried to find their way out of the Middle Ages in utter blindness, the civilization of the Ottomans had been at an unprecedented level for ages. Medically, mathematically, chemically, astronomically, philosophically and even theologically speaking, the islamic world was a long long way ahead of Europe.

In 1453 Constantinople had fallen into the hands of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. That signified the end of the Byzantine Empire as advanced post of Europe. The Ottomans had already  earlier managed to penetrate Europe via the Dardanelles. The Balkans were overrun, but in the sixteenth century the Ottomans were also at the gates of Vienna and even made attacks on the Spanish coast. Everywhere in Christian countries Allah’s hordes were feared.

However, in 1699 after a battle against a Holy League the Ottomans are forced to sign the Treaty of Karlowitz. It is the first time that they have to face a real defeat. The realization has dawned upon them that only the western way of waging war can be successful. Military reforms will precede a cultural merger. It is the French Revolution – with its ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity – that really breaks open Ottoman civilization. Napoleon brings the printing press to the Middle East.

A new western principle is introduced past the Bosphorus: nationalism. It is the aim of merging a state with a people. The Ottoman Empire has been organized differently. Numerous cultures have lived together there for centuries relatively harmoniously. Compared to Europe the Ottoman Empire was the epitome of tolerance and cultural diversity in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Persecuted minorities from other countries found a place there and minorities from their own empire enjoyed a lot of freedom.

However, in the nineteenth century more and more ethnic groups – Greeks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and Jews – began to experience Ottoman rule as tyranny. This made the realm of the sultan sick. The eastern Question was put on the map. In 1853 the Russian czar Nicholas I expressed his worries: ‘We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made.’

Despite the caring words of the czar, the Russians repeatedly wage war with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. The sultans succeed in holding their own thanks to the European powers. They are opposed to a Russian extension at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. In the Crimean war, between 1853 and 1856, the French and the British even fight together with the Ottomans against the Russians.

Six decades later the situation is completely different and the Ottomans stand between the Russians on one side and the British and the French on the other. They do not allow an allied rapprochement across the water, via the Dardanelles, and across the land, via Gallipoli. The common Turk appears to be a lot more vigorous than the sick man of Europe for which the Ottoman Empire had been held.

When the allied forces land on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915, a German by the name of Liman von Sanders is in command of the Ottoman troops. But commander Mustafa Kemal will be the star on the front. It seems that Australians and New Zealanders chase the Turks away from their slopes and their trenches, but then Mustafa Kemal straightens his back. The beach where the Anzacs land turns into a bloodbath. Every Turkish child learns how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk encouraged his men never ever to give up: ‘I don’t order you to fight, I order you to die.’ And these words proved to be very successful. In nine months’ time around a hundred thousand were killed during the batlle of Gallipoli. More than half of them were Turkish martyrs. The number of wounded soldiers on the side of the Ottomans is calculated to be another 140,000.

Mustafa Kemal was born in the Ottoman town of Salonika, which is now known as the Greek town of Thessaloniki. His surname ‘Kemal’ means something like ‘the perfect one’. His father was a government official, who later went into the wood trade. Mustafa Kemal was born in 1880 or 1881. Due  to the absence of a proper civil registry, there has always been some disagreement about the exact date of his birth. The theory that Mustafa’s father was of Jewish descent is not accepted by everyone either.

Mustafa Kemal joins the Committee of Union and Progress, better known as the Young Turks. He serves as a professional soldier in the Turkish-Italian War of 1911-1912 and in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Strong man Enver Pasha does not like the heroic role of Mustafa Kemal at Gallipoli, where he has also been hit by shrapnel. Mustafa Kemal has also spoken against the commitment to Germany in the first year of the war, though this has not prevented him from serving in the Ottoman army. After Gallipoli he is first sent to Edirne and then to the Caucasus front, far away from Enver’s power base in Constantinople. When he is in command of the Turkish Second Army after being promoted general in 1916, Mustafa Kemal made life for the Russians very difficult. After that things become tougher for him on the Arab front. Syria and Palestine offer very little perspective for him.

Meanwhile he accompanies on a tour through Germany the heir apparent of the throne of the Ottomans, the later sultan Mehmet VI. On his return he first takes sick leave and goes to Vienna and Karlsbad to recuperate. He is not only plagued by kidney problems, but also has to cope with the remnants of the venereal disease gonorrhoea. During his rehabilitation in Austria he becomes more familiar with the western lifestyle. Once returned to active service Mustafa Kemal, too, has to acknowledge defeat. On 31 October 1918 the armistice of Mudros is signed on board the British warship Agamemnon. The Ottoman Empire is left completely stripped.

On 8 February 1919 French general Franchet d’Espèrey parades through Constantinople on a white horse, just as Mehmet the Conqueror had done in 1453. The pride of the Turks is wounded. Their defeat is finalized in the Treaty of Sèvres, which will be signed by the new Turkish sultan, but which is rejected by an alternative government in Ankara. That government is led by Mustafa Kemal. He will gloriously lead the Turkish war of independence, which will result in the Treaty of Lausanne. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey is composed of Asian Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, which on the other side of the Dardanelles is considered to be a part of Europe.

Mustafa Kemal then remodels his country. Above all, he shows himself to be a Turkish nationalist. Threfore his name is not hallowed in Greek, Kurdish or Armenian circles. But whoever claims that Atatürk’s ruthless modernization has gone hand in hand with ethnics cleansing, will be addressed by any true Kemalist with the words of Atatürk: ‘It is not important that you are a Turk, but that you feel Turkish’.

He gets married in 1923, but the marriage is dissolved after two years without issue. He will, however, adopt seven daughters and a son. In 1934 Mustafa Kemal accepts the title Atatürk, Father of Turks. Four years later he dies at the age of 57 of cirrhosis of the liver, a disease that must have been the result of his consumption of large quantities of raki. In that respect, too, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was far removed from straight Islam.

The Turks have erected a memorial at Anzac Cove, the bay of Gallipoli where so many Australian and New Zealand boys were killed on 25 April 1915. It carries the following words that Atatürk spoke to them and their loved ones in 1934: ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of  a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

Next week: Alfred Vanderbilt

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


038 Sir Ian Hamilton and the bloody fiasco of the Dardanelles

Sir Ian Hamilton

Sir Ian Hamilton

Gallipoli ends allied lives and careers

It is Sunday 14 March 1915. It is the 38th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans detonate two mines below a British hill in the Westhoek in Flanders and then capture Sint Elooi, but this village is recaptured again by the British the following day.

Three British cruisers checkmate SMS Dresden, the last ship of the squadron of Maximilian von Spee, off Chile.

French army commander Joseph Joffre announces an offensive near the river Meuse and in the Argonne.

Loss of an eye causes general Michel-Joseph Maunoury to give up command over the French Sixth Army.

The Russians capture the port of Memel in East Prussia.

German U-boat captain and war hero Otto Weddigen perishes together with the crew of his U-29 off the coast of Scotland.

In the Dardanelles admiral John de Robeck takes over command from Sackville Carden, who could not withstand the pressure.

And De Robeck then enters the mine-covered channel of the Dardanelles with three divisions of ships and eliminates several Turkish fortresses, but eventually he goes off with five ships less, after which the success of the campaign is entrusted to the land forces of Sir Ian Hamilton.

The message is: attack is the best defence. Let the First World War be the exact exception to the rule. The defenders on both sides beat the attackers on both sides gloriously. And yet the ‘cult of the offensive’ was preserved in a deeply tragic way throughout the war by the commanders in chief.

Plenty of examples, but the textbook example appears to be the Gallipoli Campaign of the allied forces. It was a desperate undertaking, but for months on end British, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Newfoundlanders and French were killed by the machinegun fire of the Turks. The allied beaches were low and the Ottoman mountains further along were high. It was a shooting match for the men of commanding officer Mustafa Kemal, who after the war was to pull the new Turkey along as Atatürk. So he already built his reputation on the Gallipoli peninsula.

On the British side Gallipoli was the very cause of the loss of careers. Winston Churchill  had to give up his position of minister. And the army commander over there, Sir Ian Hamilton, had to accept a job as Lieutenant of the Tower in London, though the vice-chancellorship of Edinburgh University lay ahead of him at an old age.

Hamilton’s military failure could be called unfortunate. In the pre-war years he was actually one of the few soldiers who realized that military offensives pur sang were out of date. Hamilton had learned this lesson in the heat of the battle during the Second Boer War. But he had also paid close attention in the Russo-Japanese war, in Manchuria, when he was military attaché of the Indian Army. He learned how to fend off an attack of the infantry from entrenched positions. But he also came to notice that the cavalry belonged to the past, an understanding which ten years later in the opening phase of the Great War was shared by only few.

In his History of the First World War Basil Liddell Hart writes the following about Hamilton: ‘There is little hint, among those who were to be the leaders in the next war, that they had recognized the root problem of the future – the dominating power of the fire defence and the supreme difficulty of crossing the bullet-swept zone. Sir Ian Hamilton alone gave it due emphasis, and even he was too sanguine as to the possibility of overcoming it. His proposed solution, however, was in the right direction. For he urged not only the value of exploiting surprise and infiltration tactics to nullify the advantages of the defence, but the need of heavy field artillery to support the infantry. Still more prophetically, he suggested that the infantry might be provided with ‘steel shields on wheels’ to enable them to cross no-man’s-Land and make lodgment in the enemy’s position.’

Perhaps Hamilton was not conventional enough to be given an important post on the western front right away. However, to the surprise of many he was sent to the Dardanelles by his friend Lord Kitchener in the beginning of 1915. ‘If you succeed’, Kitchener reminded Hamilton, ‘You will have won not the battle, but the war’. Without any particular preparation 62-year-old Hamilton could start hunting down the Turks. According to some sources he had to get his local knowledge from tourist guides.

The Dardanelles is the name of the narrow waterway connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Gallipoli is the peninsula to the north of it. When you zoom out a bit more, you will also recognize the link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. With this the strategic interest of the waterway has been pointed out. Already at an early stage of the war the idea takes hold in British government circles to open a third front for the Germans and the Austrians via the Dardanelles. It is estimated that Constantinople, a bit further along on the Bosphorus, will soon fall once the Dardanelles are taken. Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, also predicts that a coup will take place with the Turks once the British guns roar across the Bosphorus.

It is the conviction of the British that such a casual reprimand of the Ottoman Empire will also impress the Balkans. Bulgarians, Romanians and Greeks will realize that the surrounded Central Powers have little to offer and they will soon join as allies. The Suez Canal in Egypt will no longer be under threat. British and French will close the gap with the Russians past the Turks. Russian ships filled with cereal will sail through the Dardanelles to allied ports, while ammunition and equipment will go the other way. Yes, the war game will soon be up after the fall of Gallipoli.

The backbone of the plan was the maritime superiority of the British. It opened up almost infinite horizons. Around the first turn of the year of the war various invasion plans were on the table in London. Initially Churchill was particularly in favour of the Baltic Sea, with the Danish Schleswig-Holstein as the landing basis. Also the idea to disembark three quarter of a million men on Dutch beaches was rather concrete. But on 8 January 1915 the War Council opts for the Dardanelles as the lever for the war that had got stuck on the western front.

In all their optimism the military planmakers assume that the navy alone will get the job done. They have already done a couple of finger exercises. In November 1914 British ships did some shellings at the entrance of the waterway. And far into the Dardanelles a British submarine succeeded in eliminating a Turkish ship in December. But the Turks decided that that would not be so easy any more. They lay out a carpet of seamines and position launching tubes for torpedoes in the Dardanelles. Besides, heavy artillery is placed along the coastline.

On 19 February 1915 the attack on the Dardanelles is started with the bombardment of Turkish fortresses by allied warships. It is not easy for the British. Six days later the attack is repeated more successfully, though the Turkish howitzers struggle fiercely. Meanwhile British troops start going ashore at Sedd el Bahr on the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. They succeed in eliminating dozens of pieces of artillery, which generates great enthusiasm at home in England.

On 18 March 1915 it appears that the path leading to the Russians remains paved with mines and framed by guns. A combined British-French fleet of sixteen battleships sails into the Dardanelles. Super dreadnought Queen Elizabeth, the most powerful ship in the world, is stationed in a division with a battleship carrying the historically very apt name Agamemnon. After all, the ruins of Troy are only a few yards away at the other side of Gallipoli.

It is an ominous sign that commander Sackville Carden reports ill on the eve of the large-scale campaign. Apparently he is on the brink of a breakdown. It is John de Robeck who can take stock as his deputy on 18 March. It is true, Turkish fortresses are badly battered, but the allied losses weigh much heavier. Three ships have been sunk, one has run aground, two have been severly damaged. And the minefield of the Turks is still intact. What the British, however, do not realize is that the Turks have almost used up their ammunition. Enver Pasha, strong man of the Ottomans, prepares to leave Constantinople.

The allies do not press ahead as they are deeply impressed by their losses. The navy cannot do it alone. That is also Sir Ian Hamilton’s conviction, who already telegraphed Lord Kitchener in London on 9 March with the following message: ‘I am being most reluctantly driven to the conclusion that the Straits are not likely to be forced by battleships as at one time seemed probable and that, if my troops are to take part, it will not take the subsidiary form anticipated. The Army’s part will be more than mere landings of parties to destroy Forts, it must be a deliberate and progressive military operation carried out at full strength so as to open a passage for the Navy.’

In the months to follow Hamilton will try again and again at full force. But the rule of Gallipoli appears to be that the Turkish artillery cannot be silenced until the minefields have been cleared. And that will only succeed if first the artillery is annihilated. In other words, the navy and the army on the side of the allies are not able to help each other.

Hamilton continues to believe in a success on the Gallipoli peninsula, whether or not against his better judgement. But in October 1915 London does not believe in Hamilton any more and he is called back as a scapegoat. His successor can start preparing the evacuation of Gallipoli. The Dardanelles Campaign has turned into a ‘bloody fiasco’ in the eyes of British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who in quite a roundabout way holds Hamilton responsible for the bloodshed on Gallipoli’s beaches.

It is interesting to compare Sir Ian Hamilton’s career with that of Sir Winston Churchill, the greatest Brit ever, according to a national poll in 2002. In 1900 Churchill publishes a collection of newspaper reports entitled ‘Ian Hamilton’s March’. As a war correspondent he described the battles Hamilton fought in the Second Boer War. Gallipoli brings both together again, but the outcome is a lot less heroic. Churchill is politically held responsible and resigns as minister. As a soldier Hamilton has to pay the price for the failure.

Churchill’s and Hamilton’s political routes diverge in the decades after. When in the thirties a new danger is imminent in Germany, Churchill is one of the very few to sound the alarm bell vigorously. He argues that Mister Hitler has to be stopped now. A voice crying in the wilderness. The British hate to think of another war. One  butchered and damned generation is more than enough.

Sir Ian Hamilton is a representative of this mood. In 1934 the octogenarian lends his voice to the prologue of the film ‘The Forgotten Men – the war as it was’. Peace propaganda as it were. Using the old general the documentary explains the horrors of war to the youngsters of Britain. Again four years older, Sir Ian Hamilton travels to Germany in the company of British war veterans. Hamilton, who is not completely free of anti-Semitic sentiments himself, has an interview of several hours with Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden. He brings back the following message to England: Germany’s Führer is a peace-loving gentleman.

Hamilton did not die until 1947, old enough to regret his error of judgement. But what he wrote in the preface of his Gallipoli Diary stood the test of time: ‘There is nothing certain about war, except that one side won’t win.’

Next week: Colmar von der Goltz

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

029 Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and carnival in the jungle

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Small German army keeps allies in Africa busy

It is Sunday 10 January 1915. It is the 29th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

News about a Turkish advance to the Suez canal seeps through.

Sixteen German aircraft do not succeed in crossing the Channel, but nevertheless drop their  bombs on Dunkirk.

Winston Churchill enthusiastically accepts admiral Sackville Carden’s plan of attack in the Dardanelles. They expect to bring the Turks on their knees in a month’s time.

At the urgent request of Hungarian Prime Minister Istvan Tisza, Count Leopold von Berchtold, main figure in the July crisis that preceded the war, is replaced by Baron  Burian.

The Russians make headway along the river Vistula.

After the Battle of Kara Urgan in Armenia the Ottoman troops have to bow their heads to the Russians.

The Germans deal blows to the French near the river Aisne, though the French succeed in fighting off attacks northwest of Soissons.

After two months of attacks and counter-attacks the French have barely managed to gain any territory in the Champagne. 

And the Germans have to give up Mafia island off the coast of East Africa, which is a setback for commanding officer Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

When on 11 November 1918 the armistice is declared, Germany is not yet finished.  A day later a German commanding officer is still fighting the enemy. It is a soldier of whom you can hardly say that he has lost the war. Paul von Letttow-Vorbeck has proudly remained standing for four years in the jungle of East Africa.

The war on the European continent was a thriller in far too many instalments, but the war that Von Lettow fought in Africa reads as an exciting boys’ book. It was not for nothing that the general pops up in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicle, the TV version of the cinema blockbusters featuring Harrison Ford. At a certain moment Indiana Jones has the opportunity to shoot Von Lettow, but he grants him his freedom. The German reciprocates in a generous grand manner. He gives his compass to Indiana Jones and the two part as friends.

Of course this is pure fiction. Von Lettow would not be caged. The reconcilement with Indy, however, refers to the reality. Both during and long after the war Von Lettow could count on great respect of his opponents. Take South African General Jan Smuts, who was fruitlessly chasing Von Lettow in 1916. This did not lead to any ill feeling with Smuts. In the years after World War II Von Lettow led a pitiful life among the ruins of Nazi Germany. The elderly general had to earn a living as a gardener. When Smuts learned of this sad fate, he provided his old bully with financial support.


But let us start with Von Lettow in 1907, when the Germans have finally succeeded in quashing a rebellion of the Herero and the Nama people in the west of Africa. The Nama are also derogatorily called Hottentots. As commanding officer Von Lettow also actively took part – and was wounded – in what is now considered the first genocide of the twentieth century.

The order to destroy with which General Von Trotha had confronted the Herero people says it all. The German word Vernichtungsbefehl casts its shadow in twentieth century Germany: ‘Within the German borders each Herero, with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, will be shot’, is Von Trotha’s command. ‘I will not take on any more women and children, they will be driven back to their people or I will have them shot at.’ One hundred years later Germany has apologized for the violent death of many tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. But requests for financial compensation from Namibia, former Southwest Africa, are still rejected.

Just like Von Lettow, also Von Trotha had gained experience when crushing the Boxer Rebellion in China. Germany may have been a latecomer in colonial Africa and may also have had great problems in squeezing profit from its overseas territories. It did not, however, accept opposition from inferior races. For the Germans colonial rule was accompanied by the whip.

During the Great War the African possessions of the Germans crumbled in four separate parts. In August 1914, the first month of the war, Togo already falls, but not until commanding officer Von Doering has taken down the radio mast of the most important overseas radio station of Germany. Their resistance in Cameroon is tougher. It is not until February 1916 that the English and the French succeed in permanently establishing their rule there. The troops were plagued by rain, while more men were killed by tropical diseases than in battle.

Further on the continent Southwest Africa is rounded up by South Africans, joined by Rhodesians. Before advancing towards Windhoek General Louis Botha had to defuse a revolt in South Africa among his own Boers. Windhoek, the capital of German Southwest Africa, falls in May 1915.

Remains German East Africa. This is the area which roughly covers Burundi, Rwanda and Tanganyika (the mainland of Tanzania). It will be the playground of Von Lettow’s little army, though on his long expeditions he will also cross the borders of Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa. Von Lettow knows that he should prevent a confrontation with the much bigger military force of the allies. That is why he confines himself to small-scale operations, a guerilla in the colonial hinterland of Great Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

The writer Hew Strachan refines Von Lettow’s success in the light of the goal he set himself, keeping as many allied troops away from the front in Europe as possible by pinpricks of his Schutztruppen. According to Strachan only few of the 160,000 men chasing Von Letttow were considered for the western front. It was a motley crew of Indians and Africans under British command. In 1917 also the Belgians, from the Congo, and Portuguese, from their part of East Africa, had unsuccessfully kicked off the hunt for Von Lettow.

Von Lettow had to make do with about 15,000 men. As was the case with the allied forces, soldiers of the motherland were a minority in the German Army. In the jungle of Africa, where the tsetse fly was more dangerous than the actual enemy, white troops were synonymous with ‘walking hospitals’.

Askari, which means ‘soldiers’, formed the bulk of Von Lettow’s army. They were disciplined in a gründlich way and also better paid than the indigenous troops of the British. When in the sixties the Federal Republic of Germany decides to support the Askari of 1914-1918 who are still alive financially, only few can prove on paper that they have served Germany. A German banker has a plan. All those that can present a broomstick as a rifle, get their money. Everyone of the three hundred or so Askari who has reported for his outstanding pay, passes the test.

Von Lettow’s triumph starts in November 1914. A miserable Indian expeditionary army starts an amphibian attack on the port of Tanga. Despite a dominance of eight to one, the Indians have to go back into their boats. Besides, they leave a cartload of ammunition and weapons behind for Von Lettow’s men.

Yet Von Lettow wisely decides to turn his back to the sea and to go inland. On 12 January 1915 a handful of Germans and their Askari have to give up Mafia Island off the coast. And in July of the same year the German cruiser Köningsberg goes down in the Rufiji delta. The guns of the ship are dismantled and added to the scarce artillery which Von Lettow has at his disposal. After that it is a cat and mouse game in the jungle.

In 1917 the Germans try to provision Von Lettow’s besieged troops from Europe by airship twice. Both attempts fail, but this rescue operation was not really necessary. Von Lettow himself manages to replenish his supplies. ‘The lion of Africa’ can not be tamed. After a quick and vigorous attack he and his men go into hiding between the forest and the mountains.

In 1926 Von Lettow will publish ‘My Reminiscences of East Africa’. One fragment goes as follows. ‘Many walked barefoot and often they trod on thorns. Frequently one of them resolutely drew his knife during the march and cut a whole piece of flesh from his wounded foot. And then he marched on. After the bearers came the women, the ‘Bibi’. Many Askari had brought their women and children with them on the expedition and during the marches the stork delivered many a baby.’ A bit further Von Lettow continues: ‘They all loved bright colours and when a large number of colourful fabrics were robbed, the procession that stretched for miles looked like a carnival parade.’

On 12 November 1918, one day after the armistice on the western front, the Askari still fight against the King’s African Rifles. Again a day later Von Lettow learns that the war in Europe is over. He surrenders on 25 November. With the allies feelings of shame and admiration fight for priority when they see how small in number their enemy was, not more than a couple of thousand.

Von Lettow is welcomed as a hero in post-war Germany. With 120 of his men in damaged uniforms he parades in 1919 under the Brandenburg Gate of Berlin. Also Heinrich Schnee, the Governor of German East Africa takes part in this parade. Schnee had prefered to keep his colony out of the war, but throughout the war he could not stand up to the military drive of his commanding officer.

Von Lettow sees how post-war Germany is sinking away in a class struggle and takes up arms against communist insurgents in Hamburg. In 1920 he also lends his troops for the rightwing Kapp Putsch. This fails and with that Von Lettow’s military fate in the Weimar Republic is sealed.

When Hitler comes to power, a prominent rank is reserved for the war hero. He can become the ambassador in Great Britain, but Von Lettow the conservative won’t let himself be manipulated and taken advantage of by Hitler the proletarian. In speeches he not only urges that Germany gets its colonies back, but he also rejects nazi politics. Joseph Goebbels decides to silence him.

He is then, however, appointed General for Special Purposes in 1938, but he will not actively serve in the Wehrmacht, unlike his two sons Rüdiger and Arnd. They are both killed in action. And when on top of this Von Lettow’s house is destroyed by bombs in 1945, the war hero of old sees himself condemned to poverty. So along comes Jan Smuts, his old rival from the Great War, who provides him with a monthly allowance of 200 Marks.

On the initiative of a German magazine Von Lettow returns to Namibia and Tanzania in 1953. In Dar es Salaam he is welcomed enthusiastically. He gives his travel report the title ‘Africa as I saw it again’.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck dies in Hamburg in 1964 at the age of 94. The Minister of Defence holds a eulogy at his funeral and some of Von Lettow’s Askari have come over for the ceremony. His rehabilitation seems to b  complete, though in the German Democratic Republic he will be remembered as a ‘colonial mummy’.

Next week: Samuel Smith

Translation: Peter Veltman

027 Enver Pasha and ‘Deutschland über Allah’

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

The Turks suffer heavy losses in the Caucasus

It is Sunday 27 December 1914. It is the 27th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Belgians occupy German trenches east of Lombardsijde and take prisoners of war.

The Germans attack Dunkirk from the air.

Both the Germans and the Austrians have to continue their marching off in Poland and Galicia.

Incited by the Austrians Albanian troops make a futile attack on Montenegran posts.

In Berlin the German commanders Erich von Falkenhayn and Erich Ludendorff and their Austrian counterpart Conrad von Hötzendorf get together to confer.

The War Council in London is bending over Winston Churchill’s plan to joint the Russians via the Gallipoli peninsula, before Constantinople.

In the English Channel German submarine U-24 sinks British flagship Formidable, killing 547 crew members.

The British create a new decoration, the Military Cross, for officers in the lower ranks. 

And the Russians get the upper hand in the battle of Sarikamish, which is a downright failure for the Turkish minister of war, Enver Pasha.

Whoever in present-day Turkey wants to stand up for democracy, civil rights and the separation of State and Mosque, should go to the Monument of Liberty in Istanbul. It was erected three years before the Great War:  a gun firing into the sky in memory of the 74 soldiers who had sacrificed their lives to prevent the return of an absolute monarch.

A westerner who wants to lay his bouquet there as a child of the Enlightenment, will hesitate when seeing the names Talaat Pasha and Enver Pasha. Talaat Pasha is the man who is associated with the Armenian genocide during the First World War. Enver Pasha was in the same period the minister of war and commander-in-chief, who was also called ‘the little Napoleon’, a title he could rather lay claim to posthumously than when alive. Enver Pasha was anything but a great strategist. But his poor remains could make the return trip to Istanbul, just as Napoleon’s bones were allowed back to Paris from Saint Helena. It was not until 1996 that Enver Pasha was entrusted to the Monument of Liberty.

There is another parallel between Napoleon Bonaparte and Enver Pasha. Both seriously underestimated the deadly combination of the frosty cold and the Russians as enemies. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was frozen to the bone in 1812, just like Enver Pasha’s Third Army around the turn of the year in 1914. Only 12,000 of the 90,000 soldiers that he sent fighting returned home.

The Causasus formed the backdrop for this dreadful battle. Turks and Russians had already met there with each other in 1877. Enver Pasha was the man to see some good in cornering the Russians again in the Caucasus. It was a long way from Saint Petersburg, where the Russians had first and foremost focussed on the battlefields in the east of Europe. The German Liman von Sanders, military advisor of the Ottomans, dissuaded Enver Pasha from attacking in the Caucasus. In vain, however. The Battle of Sarikamish, which lasted from 22 December 1914 till 17 January 1915, was to end in a military tragedy for the Ottomans.

Long before 1914 it became clear that the Ottoman Empire had had its day. Following the track of their first sultan Osman I, the Turks had become a power to be reckoned with in three continents, Africa, Asia and Europe, from the thirteenth century onwards. In the nineteenth century, however, the Ottoman Empire staggered on as the ‘sick man of Europe’, a somewhat peevish diagnosis attributed to the Russian Czar Nicholas I. But it was true that both militarily and economically speaking the Turks had only little to add.

In the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire had to surrender more of its territory to Europe quickly. In 1908 Austria-Hungary had been able to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina just like that. Three years later young Italy managed to fulfill its colonial  ambitions by founding Libia in North Africa at the cost of the Ottomans. Also islands like Rhodes and Kos were passed on from Constantinople to Rome. And another year later a league of Balkan nations chased the Ottomans away fom their last piece of European soil.

So the Turks found themselves hardest hit, yet there was some talk of new panache. The Young Turks had seized power in 1908. They were a mysterious and elusive group of people, who more formally passed off as the Committee of Union and Progress. Originally the Young Turks had believed in leftist liberalism. Their organisation reminded of the freemasonry. They specifically reacted against the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who had sidelined the Turkish constitution and had started to revamp the Ottoman Empire along the lines of the Islam.

After the revolt of 1908 things looked promising. In ‘young Turkey’ liberty, equality and fraternity seemed to apply. Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Armenians and Turks became each other’s equals within the parliamentary framework of a constitutional monarchy. Abdulhamid II was traded in for his brother Mehmet V, who was to remain an insignificant sultan until a few months before the end of the First World War. The Young Turks invested considerably in education and public services, but soon they appeared to conduct a nationalistic programme as well.

The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire had to be stopped. Minorities who were suspected of collaborating with the enemy, especially Armenians and Kurds, were now having a hard time. The turkification of the Ottoman Empire was embedded in the romantic ideal of the Turanists who drew a far-fetched connection between Turks, Mongols, Japanese, Hungarians and Finns. These were all peoples that had had their origins in Central Asia long ago.

Enver Pasha was the personification of this Great-Turkish ideal. He was one of three pashas, which translated means ‘gentlemen’. The three had run the show since the coup d’état of 1913. The seizure of power had not taken place without bloodshed. Enver Pasha had been personally involved in the assassination of the minister of war.

The triumvirate of the pashas mainly sought to keep the threat of Russia under control. Relations with the big boys in Europe – France, Great Britain and Germany – all shared that purpose. Of the three pashas minister of war Enver, however, was the most pro-German. After all he had been military attaché in Berlin and as a result had a perfect command of the German language. Behind his desk on the wall hung a portrait of Frederic the Great, the Hohenzollern monarch who was dear to every true Prussian’s heart.

In the two Balkan wars that preceded the Great War Enver Pasha, a hawk of the opportunist kind, had been in command of the military. As we have already seen, the first Balkan war had ended in a Turkish fiasco. In the second Balkan war, however, Enver had succeeded in retaking the Thracian town of Edirne, former Adrianople, from the Bulgarians. His ego grew so big that it nearly burst. He was determined to continue on his path to victory with the help of his German friends. Even in the years before the three pashas something beautiful had blossomed between Berlin and Constantinople.The Bosporus was swarming with German soldiers and businessmen. The BBB plan would be the crowning glory of this friendship: a railway line from Berlin to Bagdad via the Bosporus.

Yet it was not all about Germany. In maritime affairs the Turks would rather take their chances with the British. They had ordered two ultra-modern warships in England. They were virtually ready when the First World War was about to break out. Without batting an eyelid the British government informed the three pashas in Constantinople on 3 August 1914 that they would not get the two battleships. There was outrage, especially among the ordinary Turks, who had raised funds for the two warships on a large scale. After all the vessels were meant to impose the Russians on the Black Sea. The British offered some compensation, but the British decision has not gone into the history books as an example of advanced diplomacy.

It is in a much smarter way that the Germans manage to use the Turkish discontent about the two lost warships. Two German ships, Goeben and Breslau, which have both escaped the allies in the Mediterranean, hurry to the Dardanelles, the straits that lead to Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire is then not yet involved in the war. When Goeben and Breslau are allowed through, the Turks de facto choose the German side. Even to Enver Pasha this is all going too fast, after which the German ambassador plays a masterly trick. The Turks can have the two ships. Wearing their fezes the German crew on Goeben and Breslau let themselves be cheered by the people of Contantinople. And the German diplomats snigger ‘Deutschland über Allah’.

On 27 September the Turks decide to close off the Dardanelles for all shipping, which especially affects the Russians. Then German admiral Wilhelm Souchon, in Turkish service, gives the final boost on 29 October. He sails onto the Black Sea with Goeben and Breslau and attacks the Russian ports of Odessa, Sebastopol  and Theodosia. Followed by France and Great Britain, Russia declares war to the Ottoman Empire four days later. Sultan Mehmet V declares the jihad, a holy war, hoping that muslims under allied command revolt. But very little or nothing of this will be realized.


After the catastrophic Battle of Sarikamish Enver’s military reputation can no longer  be saved. Meanwhile one of his rivals, Mustafa Kemal, becomes the hero of Gallipoli, the peninsula the allied forces will waste their energy on in 1915. As Atatürk Mustafa Kemal starts building a new and modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War.

There is no place in the new republic for a man like Enver Pasha. He is even sentenced to death, but together with the two other pashas he manages to escape on board a German submarine. When in 1921 Talaat Pasha is assassinated in Berlin, Enver Pasha will be the first man of the Committee of Union and Progress in exile. In the same year he explains his mission in a letter: ‘Today I am aiming for the same goal as before and during the 1908 Revolution, during the Tripolitanian War, the Balkan Wars and the First World War. And that goal is simply to organize and set in motion the islamic world of four hundred million people … and to save them from the European and American oppression, that keeps them enslaved’.

Meanwhile he has come into contact with Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks. The latter considers Enver Pasha a suitable ally to warm the islamic peoples to the Soviet Union. This leads to a military confrontation between the worldly troops of Atatürk and Enver Pasha’s warriors of Allah. Atatürk is the winner and makes peace with the Soviet Union. This is then a reason for Enver Pasha as leader of what has become known as the Basmachi Revolt to take up arms against the communists.

Enver sees himself as caliph, secular leader of all muslims. But in 1922 he is killed in the Caucasus. There are two versions of the exact circumstances of his death, when he was only forty years old. He is said to have been killed in a charge against a soviet brigade by a bullet just above the heart. Or he is supposed to have managed to escape, wounded, to be finished off not much later by the soviet commander himself.

Enver Pasha is laid to rest in 1996 in the town where he was born as the son of an engineer, Constantinople, since 1930 better known as Istanbul. Although Turkish president Süleyman Demirel showed few doubts at the reburial and called Enver Pasha ‘a nationalist, an idealist and an honest soldier’, the Turks still do not seem to know what to make of Enver and his role in the First World War.

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

Next week: Désiré-Joseph Mercier

024 Christiaan de Wet and his double loyalty

Christiaan de Wet

Christiaan de Wet

Not all Boers side with the British

It is Sunday 6 December 1914. It is the 24th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Pope Benedict XV makes an appeal for a Christmas truce.

Dunkirk in France and Veurne in Flanders are shelled by the Germans from a great distance.

The Germans start a new battle around Warsaw.  

Near the Falkland Islands four German ships carrying 2,200 men are wrecked: the end of naval hero Maximilian von Spee.

Austrian general Oskar Potiorek has to sound the retreat in Serbia.

The Austrians also suffer heavy losses near Kraków.

In Great Britain Nicholas Ahlers is convicted. The naturalized German is said to have helped Germans in England return to the Heimat for military service in the beginning of the war.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are driven back by the British.

The French government returns from Bordeaux to Paris.

The Germans bit their teeth to pieces on Ypres.

And in South Africa Christiaan Beyers drowns when on the run, while another Boer rebel spends his days behind bars: Christiaan de Wet.

October 2000 a group of people gathers at the foot of the statue of General Christiaan de Wet in the middle of the Netherlands. The co-operative of Dutch and South Africans had decided to pay hommage to the Boer warrior who had distinguished himself from other soldiers by ‘shrewdness, perseverance and strategic insight’, as stated on the Roepstem, the website of the co-operative.

Various scouting groups in the Netherlands still bear the name Christiaan de Wet. Several streets are also named after him. And then there is that statue on the Hoge Veluwe, a vast nature reserve. It is made by sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa who was commissioned by Mr and Mrs Kröller-Müller. The Kröller-Müllers combined a passion for modern art with sympathy for the Boers.

They proved to be Apartheidproof, all these tributes for an advocate of the Dutch descendants in the southernmost part of Africa.


In the first week of December 1914 Christiaan de Wet is under lock and key. He is a rebel, caged by his own government in South Africa. A sentence of six years for high treason awaits him, but in six months’ time he will be a free man again. In his cell De Wet must have realized that as a Boer he will always be condemned to the Brit. Three times he opposed the anglicization of his country by force of arms, demanding strict discipline of the ‘burghers’ of whom he was in command. De Wet led in battle during the First and Second Boer War, which the Afrikaners rather call the First and Second Freedom War. Especially his last struggle, in the first months of the First World War, was doomed to fail.

Who were the Boers? Descendants of the Dutch who took root around Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century, where Jan van Riebeeck had put up his replacement post for ships of the Dutch East India Company. When the British arrived at the end of the eighteenth century, the Dutch colonists moved on. The Great Trek took them northeast. Then Boer republics such as Transvaal and Orange Free State lodged there.

In 1880 the British decide to annex the territories of the Boers. We are in the era of modern imperialism. Her Majesty’s Africa should extend between Cape and Cairo. Boers fit just as little in this scheme as the German colonists in the southwest of Africa.

The First Boer War of 1880-1881 does not bring the British the desired result. A second armed conflict will be needed to force the Boer republics into the Union of South Africa. There are more interests than purely imperialist ones at stake.  The British have set their eyes on the goldmines of the Boers. In the British press stories have appeared about the disgraceful treatment of English-speaking labourers in the Boer republics. And there is a political motive to deal with the Boers, their approach to German Southwest Africa, present-day Namibia.

In the Second Boer War (1899-1902) the Afrikaners fight the British troops of Lord Roberts, who will die very old on 14 November 1914 while inspecting the Indian troops on the western front in France. The battle Roberts is fighting with the Boers in South Africa around the turn of the century is unprecedentedly cruel. Farms are burnt down according to the scorched earth policy, the livestock thinned out. The concentration camp phenomenon emerges. The grim resistance of the Boers makes the British lock up their wives and children in camps. A comparison with the extermination camps of the nazis does not apply, but the 26,000 dead in fifty British concentration camps is really quite something.

The experience the British troops gain against the Boers will be of help to them in 1914 when stopping the Germans in Belgium and northern France. But the Second Boer War was not useful for public relations. Worldwide, but also at home in England, there is disgust about the ruthless imperialism displayed by the British at the expense of the Boers. In keeping with it is the admiration for the unyielding Boers, especially of their bloodbrothers in the Netherlands.

It takes the British three years to crush the Boers, after which the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in 1902. As acting president of Orange Free State –  Marthinus Theunis Steyn, the actual foreman, has fallen ill – Christiaan de Wet contrecoeur put his signature to the treaty. He would rather have continued the fight. In ‘The Battle between Boer and Brit’ (official English title ‘Three Years War’) he recorded his wartime experiences on board the boat that took him and his companions Louis Botha and Koos de la Rey to Europe to raise funds for the reconstruction of his country.

In the years to follow Alfred Milner, the British High Commisioner, tries to carry through the anglicization with the utmost rigour but this storm dies down when a liberal government takes office in Great Britain. The ambition is now reconciliation. To oblige the Boers, London does not make an issue of shelving civil rights of non-white people. The Boer republics had embedded inequality of races in their constitution, with the bible as underlying document. This line of segregation – apartheid in the language of the Boers – can also be followed in the new South Africa.

Not all Boers are ready for reconciliation with the British, but a man like Louis Botha is quite willing to turn South Africa into a union. In 1912 he even goes so far as to unveil a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who gave his name to Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe. In August 1914 Botha does not find it difficult as prime minister to stand by London in the war, just like the leaders of the four other dominions, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand. Botha promises to deal with the Germans in Southwest Africa. From all over the country men are summoned to take up arms for that purpose.

For his old comrade in arms Christiaan de Wet this all goes too far. After all, the Germans have acted as friends of the Boers in their fight for freedom. De Wet drifts further away from Botha’s court when the police shoots another hero from the Second Boer War on 15 September. General Koos de la Rey ignores a stop signal of the police officers who are on to a gang of gangsters. ‘Dit is raak’, are De la Rey’s last words. ‘It hit the mark’. The police stick to their version of an accident, but to De Wet and his men the explanation is murder by authority of the state.

De la Rey is currently worshipped as a Boer hero even more than De Wet. Bok van Blerk scored a hit in 2007 which also aroused controversy. Van Blerk says that he is against apartheid, but at the same time he is proud of his identity as Afrikaner in the Rainbow nation. Hence this chorus: ‘De la Rey, De la Rey, will you come to lead the Boers? General, general, united we will fall around you.’

De la Rey is already dead when another commanding officer of the Boers, Manie Maritz, goes over to the Germans in Southwest Africa on 10 October. Maritz gives the South African government an ultimatum. If he is not allowed to contact other Boer leaders, among whom Christiaan de Wet, Maritz will invade the Cape Province. The government in Pretoria makes this ultimatum public, which to De Wet is the sign to go into action. In his hinterland, Orange Free State, he forms an army of seven thousand Boers. In Transvaal and Cape Province another five thousand Boers arm themselves.

But also prime minister Louis Botha takes up his old profession. He advances against his former comrades in arms with superior power. De Wet will be finished soon. In the Second Boer War he has always been too quick for the British. Fifty thousand men were after him during the ‘First De Wet Hunt’ in 1900. The Boer Pimpernel, like no other experienced in guerilla-like tactics, had grown into a legend, although he had to share his fame with Fleur, his inseparable Arab horse. Now, in 1914, with another Boer as the enemy, he got the worst in no time.

With De Wet behind bars, the leader of the Boers in Transvaal, Christiaan Beyers, is also defeated.  On the run he is drowned when he wants to cross the river Vaal. Again a week later another Boer leader falls into the hands of the government. Jopie Fourie ends his life before a firing squad because of high treason. He is the only one to suffer this fate. The Boer rebellion is crushed by Boers who have remained loyal to the British. The number of casualties is limited to 192 rebels, among whom a son of Christiaan de Wet who was killed at Doornberg, and 132 government soldiers. At the next elections it will become clear that the discord among the Boers continues. Botha’s party is just a little bigger than the National Party of independent Boers.

When De Wet is released on parole in 1915 – a fine is paid with voluntary contributions of sympathizers – , he retires for good. In the final phase of his life a ‘spirit of peace and quiet’ must have come over him. The warrior inside him stayed behind in prison.


Christiaan Rudolph de Wet dies in Klipfontein on 3 February 1922. He is buried near the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, where six years earlier Martinus Theunis Steyn, president of Orange Free State, was laid to rest. The English human rights activist Emily Hobhouse designed the group of statues which is central to the monument. She was inspired by the visit she paid to a concentration camp of the British in 1901.

A year before the Great War De Wet had spoken at the consecration of the National Women’s Monument and put his finger on the salient point of the British concentration camps. ‘Today we stand again at the graves of 26,000 women and children. During the war we often heard their songs from the camp. That was the evidence on Whom they built their faith. Let this be the slogan of every mother and child: be loyal to your nation  and your religion.’

Next week: Sir Alfred Ewing

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

022 Paul von Hindenburg and his march with a pure heart

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

Germany relies on Prussian values

It is Sunday 22 November 1914. It is the 22nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 The seven-century-old Cloth Hall in Ypres goes up in flames after a German bombing.

The Germans do not spare Reims cathedral either.

 A British squadron blasts the Flemish port of Zeebrugge.

 Portugese congress authorizes the government to side with the allies as soon as she thinks this expedient.

 American president Woodrow Wilson condemns the shelling of unfortified towns.

 After heavy fighting the Austrians withdraw near Krakow and south of the river Vistula.

 British warships attack the German port of Dar es Salaam in East Africa.

 Russian general Paul von Rennenkampf lets three German divisions escape at the Polish town of Lodz.

 The Russians manage to get the mountain passes in the Carpathians under control again.

 And the rank of field marshal is granted to the German hero of Tannenberg, Paul von Hindenburg 

‘What do you do in times of tension?’, Paul von Hindenburg was once asked. He answered: ‘I whistle.’ After which the enquirer remarked that he had never heard Hindenburg whistle. ‘I never have’, the latter replied.

There you are, the caricature of the Prussian hero of the First World War, Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg. Tower of German strength. Imperturbable. Self-assured. Judging by the numerous streets and squares that still bear his name in present-day Germany, his reputation has proved to be quite solid. Whatever his curriculum vitae may have shown afterwards, Hindenburg has remained the Hero of Tannenberg – the icon of German values such as Ordnung and Kampfgeist.

Hindenburg could also count on the respect of someone like David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in the second half of the Great War. When he is elected president of the Weimar Republic in the decade after the First World War, Lloyd George understands. After all, Hindenburg is a ‘very sensible old man’.

To historian and contemporary Hans Delbrück Hindenburg was rather an ‘old nobody’. Delbrück passed this destructive judgement before Hindenburg had the nerve as president to appoint Adolf Hitler Reich’s Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in January 1933. Initially he did not think a lot of the leader of the NSDAP. ‘Böhmischer Gefreiter’, he used to call Hitler amidst his intimate friends: ‘Bohemian corporal’. That was a historical mistake of the field marshal. He mistook Austrian Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, for Bohemian Braunau.

June 1919 does not look good for Hindenburg either. Defeated Germany is dictated its conditions of peace. President of the new republic is social democrat Friedrich Ebert, who telephones Hindenburg to ask what he thinks of it. Hindenburg leaves the answer to his Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Wilhelm Groener. ‘You know what to do. I will go for a walk’, he tells him. Groener tells Ebert that there is nothing for it but to sign, for the German army cannot permit itself to resume the war. When Hindenburg returns from his walk and hears how Groener has acted, he puts his arm on his shoulder and says: ‘You have taken a big responsibility on you.’

October 1918. Wilhelm II receives the Chief of the General Staff Hindenburg and his right-hand man Erich Ludendorff. The offensive on the western front has ended in a big disappointment. The emperor gives Ludendorff to understand that his days are numbered. But to Hindenburg he says: ‘Und Sie bleiben.’ ‘And you stay’. After which Hindenburg politely bows his head, to the dismay of Ludendorff, who had expected solidarity of his old comrade in arms. Hindenburg a tower of strength? Do you think so?


He was born in 1847 as scion of a noble East Prussian family. His father is an officer and for young Paul the only future is a military one. ‘A matter of tradition’, he will remark in his memoirs. In 1866 he is actively involved in the war of the Prussians against the Austrians. He gets by relatively unscathed with a head injury. In 1871 he is present when the German Empire is proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, in the heart of France. Seventeen years later he is chosen to keep watch as an officer at the dead body of Emperor Wilhelm I lying in state. And in 1911 he is 64, the right age for retirement.

But the historical life of Paul von Hindenburg has yet to begin. When in 1914 Russia puts pressure on the Germans in their very own East Prussia, an appeal is made on old general Von Hindenburg. Together with his energetic aide Erich Ludendorff he achieves a glorious victory in a clash which Hindenburg himself calls the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1410 a German army had to yield to a Polish king there. Hindenburg has now erased that disgrace.

When Hindenburg publishes his memoirs after the war, an extract from September 1914 betrays his world view. He describes how elevated thoughts come into his mind during a ride through Polish regions that German tribes have done a favour to culture here. Of course one can notice that people here live according to East Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Here live simple, faithful and cautious people. Further away in the Russian part of Poland Hindenburg especially notices the mud. People there are brimming with filth, he writes. To a man like Hindenburg civilisation corresponds with Prussia.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff will stay in the northern part of the eastern front together for a long time. They are opposites that miraculously complement each other throughout the war. Hindenburg, the composed aristocrat and Ludendorff, the tempestuous commoner general. Hindenburg, keeper of old Prussian values, Ludendorff, careerist without scruples. Together over there in the east they distrust Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who pays more attention to the western front and the more southern battlefields in the east, where the Austrians can do with support from the Germans.

In August 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff seize their opportunity. They take over the Oberste Heeresleitung from Falkenhayn. In the west they take a drastic decision. They give up territory for a front line that can be defended better. Scorched earth is left in northern France when they retreat. The German army regroups in a new system of trenches and concrete bunkers, which will be called the Hindenburg Line.

But there is more than a reshuffle of the battlefield. Politically speaking the army draws almost all power to itself. Germany is beginning to look like a dictatorial nation. Using the writer Sebastian Haffner’s words, the real emperor is Paul von Hindenburg and the real chancellor is Erich Ludendorff. The latter is the one who is really pulling the strings. Forever popular Hindenburg is above all the figure head.

In the year 1916 the Hindenburg Programm appears. It is a thorough attempt to fashion the German economy after the war. Men and women are forced to work in the war industry. Companies that do not serve the war are locked. Through a Kriegsamt which has been set up the army dictates production from now on. It is not an unqualified success. Economic practice appears to be too unmanageable to be controlled by generals.

The duo Hindenburg-Ludendorff has a hand in sending off chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who is too soft to their taste. And in 1918, when the front in the east is shut down after the revolution in Russia, the Oberste Heeresleitung launches a full attack. If they do not win this war, it is in any case important to form a good basis for the next one. After all the Romans also needed more than one Punic War to get the better of Carthage.

They get far, but 8 August 1918 will be a ‘black day for the German army’, according to Erich Ludendorff, who mentally collapses because of the military adversity. Hindenburg will record in his memoirs: ‘The depression and the disappointment, that despite all victories the war will not end for us, have also affected our brave soldiers.’

Already in 1919 he is the most prominent spreader of the Stab-in-the-back myth. Germany has not lost because the other party was stronger, but because it was stabbed in the back at home by left-wing revolutionaries.

The twenties are coming and the frail Weimar Republic urgently needs an important mediator, somebody who declares himself above the parties as a pater familias. All eyes are fixed on Paul von Hindenburg. In 1925 the people elect this old warrior their president. Gradually he will listen too carefully to what his right-wing friends have to say. He sidetracks parliament, which is dominated by social democrats. In 1932, when he is 85, Hindenburg is elected for another seven-year term. However, this appears to be overoptimistic. Hindenburg dies in 1934 in a Germany, where meanwhile someone else has become the Führer. How the hero of Tannenberg ended as Adolf Hitler’s master of ceremonies, it is a sad story anyway.


It is 1927 when Time magazine reports on a glorious event. ‘Erect and martial, President General Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg arrived at Tannenberg, East Prussia, to unveil a war memorial to the soldiers who fell in the historic battle of Tannenberg.’

Over a hundred thousand people had gathered to witness the ceremony. There was a queue of veterans six miles long to pay hommage to their old military chief. Some were dressed in field grey, others had proudly put on their plumed helmets and donned imperial uniforms set off with gold. The highest authorities had also assembled, from chancellor Wilhelm Marx and several members of his cabinet to marshal Von  Mackensen and generals Von François and Von Ludendorff. Dressed in the uniform of marshal, staff in his left hand, old Hindenburg, almost eighty years old, strode through the cheering masses, stopping now and then to speak one or two words to his former brothers in arms.

What did Hindenburg say to the old comrades that day? The following: ‘We, the German people, dismiss in every possible way the reproach that Germany should be guilty of the greatest of all wars. It was not envy, hatred or desire for conquests which forced us to take up arms. War was our last resort and making the biggest sacrifices by our entire people was the last means to keep up our prestige against a multitude of enemies. We marched with a pure heart to defend our Fatherland and we brandished the sword with clean hands. Germany will always be prepared to prove that before impartial judges.’

Whoever allows these words to sink in, will see the future come towards him. Paul von Hindenburg’s Germany was simply a bad loser. Germany was heading for new misfortune. It would eventually end like the zeppelin in 1937, which the nazis had named after Hindenburg and which would crash down in flames near New Jersey.

Next week: August de Block

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

021 Oskar Potiorek and destination hospital

Oskar Potiorek

Oskar Potiorek

Austrians cannot bring Serbs to their knees

It is Sunday 15 November 1914. It is the 21st week after the shooting at Sarajevo

Snow falls on the western front.

The First Battle of Ypres is smothered in German frustration and the number of losses on both sides has increased to quarter of a million: dead, missing and wounded.

 Turks have to flee the British in Mesopotamia.

 The British also take Basra, thus getting control of the Persian Gulf.

 Goeben and Breslau, two German warships that have been added to the Turkish fleet, encounter a Russian squadron on the Black Sea.

 In Egypt a corps of Indian soldiers on camels fights the Turks.

 The Germans advance towards the Polish town of Łódź.

 British aviators bomb the Zeppelin factory in Friedrichshafen.

 The British navy announces to expand the minefield in The Channel.

 And the Austrians cross the river Kolubara, an offensive in Serbia which is bound to fail, led by Oskar Potiorek.

How differently the twentieth century would have passed, if corporal Adolf Hitler had run into a live bullet in the Great War? This is an intriguing but absurd question. History follows a capricious line, but she will absolutely refuse to deviate from it retroactively.

Another silly ‘what if’ question: what would have happened, if Oskar Potiorek had shown his driver the right way on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. The chauffeur would not have had to turn the car, with the successor to the throne of Austria-Hungary as its passenger,  around. Then Gavrilo Princip would not have had the time to give the go-ahead for the First World War with a bullet for Franz Ferdinand. After which Adolf Hitler would not even have had to run into that live bullet.

Is it subtle but unavoidable processes that control history or do nitwits and accidental passers-by give it a twist? Oskar Potiorek might have prevented the First World War. If he had not called ‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai’, the twentieth century would have been without a world war, according to Pascal’s reflection: ‘Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.’

The starting shot for which Potiorek created the conditions only triggered the First World War. The causality behind the war is of course much more complex than the capriciousness of some dignitary.


In 1914 we meet Oskar Potiorek as military governor of the Reichsland Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1878 it came under the flag of Austria-Hungary to the great dissatisfaction of the Serbs. In accordance with the Treaty of Berlin (1878) the Habsburgs start supervising the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire. After the Bosnian crisis of 1908 it comes to a downright annexation by Austria-Hungary.

All those years Vienna took great pains to convert the muslims, Serbs and Croats into Bosnians, completely in line with the multicultural Danube monarchy, but nationalism gets the upper hand more and more among the three groups. In Bosnia also the political parties are formed along ethnical lines.

These centrifugal forces get on Oskar Potiorek’s nerves. He himself is from Carinthia, Slovene being his native language. As military governor he has been the target of Serbian terrorists, just like his predecessor. He is determined to restore order through a military regime. As a hard-liner Potiorek finds the civilian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina on his path. Leon von Bilinski, one of their representatives, is a man who has adopted a strategy of conflict avoidance. He cannot prevent, however, that Potiorek, backed by the army, assumes power with the aim to suppress Serbian nationalism. But by Potiorek’s repression the wind blows into the sails of terrorist groups such as The Black Hand, of which Gavrilo Princip is a member.

Another painful question is why this very man of discipline and authority loosened the reins in Sarajevo on 28 June. The protection of the heir to the throne and his wife, who were invited by Potiorek, was absolutely appalling. First a bomb is thrown at their car. When Franz Ferdinand, who is unharmed himself, wants to visit those who have been wounded in the attack, Potiorek has no objection. It would have been worth considering the advice to avoid the streets of Sarajevo for the rest of the day. ‘Do you really think the Sarajevo streets are full of murderers?’, Potiorek barked as a reply to that suggestion from his entourage. Yet Potiorek decided to join the archduke and his beloved Sophie in their car. With his own body he protected them both. Apparently he was so occupied by his task as body-guard that he forgot to tell the driver their new destination, hospital.

Could it have been Potiorek and his men’s intention to expose Franz Ferdinand to danger? However improbable this seems, there is something that supports such a conspiracy theory. Franz Ferdinand belonged to the camp in Austria-Hungary which wanted to avoid a war with Serbia, for fear that this would also lead to a conflict with Russia. Franz Ferdinand even wanted to give the Slavs within the Habsburg Empire a position equal to that of the Austrians and the Hungarians.

At odds with this is the ardent desire in army circles to get the Serbs in the Balkans back in the kennel, starting with the Serbs within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. That was also a fervent wish cherished by Potiorek. And then the emperor-to-be with his weak knees is assassinated  by a Serb terrorist. All things considered this is killing two birds with one stone. An important opponent of the war with Serbia has been eliminated and the way in which this has been done is a perfect reason to start that war… It takes some believing.

In the month after the double assassination Potiorek shouts down criticism on his irresponsible hospitality in Sarajevo with a loud call for revenge. In Bosnia and Herzegovina he pulls in the reins even more. When war finally breaks out, Potiorek gets more elbow room. He is given command of the Austrian troops in the Balkans, chasing the Serb ‘pigfarmers’. Potiorek focuses his sight on Belgrade.

The Austrians see the Serbs as murderous barbarians. ‘The war leads us to a country whose population nurses a fanatic hatred against us’, Potiorek is recorded to have said. ‘The catastrophe in Sarajevo has proved that it leads us to a country where killing is considered an act of heroism, even by the upper classes. Humanity and friendliness to such a people are out of place.’ It is a kind of reasoning which leads to Austrian war crimes in Serbia, to be compared with those of the Germans in Belgium.

Barbarians in the eyes of Potiorek, the Serbs are mainly very motivated born fighters. Their highly experienced chief of staff is Radomir Putnik. The Serbs even owe it to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph that Putnik again leads the troops. The elderly Putnik was recuperating in an Austrian health resort, when war broke out. The emperor considered it a matter of honour to give the old marshal free rein. After which Putnik started to capitalise his ample knowledge of warfare in the Balkans in a new conflict. Austria-Hungary has always been the shlemiel, the simpleton, of the Great War.

Putnik’s equal on the Austrian side is Conrad von Hötzendorf, just like Potiorek a hawk as far as Serbia is concerned. It is Potiorek’s plan to take over command from Conrad by means of a triumphal march in Serbia. Conrad, who is one year older, has been his rival for years. Small wonder that these two have great difficulty communicating and co-ordinating their plans.

In the beginning of the war Conrad also has to free himself from a difficult position. Serbia is not the only scene of battle for the Austrians, however much their hearts go out to this. Soon the Russians announce themselves in Galicia. This Polish front draws heavily on Potiorek’s range in Serbia. It turns into an extremely bloody fight which flows back and forth. In August the Austrians start with a smooth advance past the rivers Drina and Sava. But once the Serbs intensify their defence, Potiorek has to return to Bosnia in a hurry. The sun rising on 24 August does not see a single Habsburg soldier on Serbian soil any more. Potiorek, who has the rank of Feldzeugmeister, has lost 28,000 men, 4,500 of whom as prisoners-of-war in Serbian captivity. And he has to beg Conrad for extra troops.

In the beginning of September the Serbs invade Hungary. Later that month they also succeed in invading Bosnia itself. To make quite sure Gavrilo Princip is taken from Sarajevo to the fortress of Theresienstadt in Bohemia. Then the first week of November it is Potiorek’s turn again. His next offensive on 2 December results in the fall of Belgrade which he has been looking forward to so much. That victory, however, does not last long. Putnik starts a successful counteroffensive the following day. On 16 December Belgrade is in Serbian hands again. But the price Putnik pays is just as high as Pyrrhus’s for his victories against the Romans. The Serbian army has to sacrifice itself in order to defend the territory. The year after Serbia will yet be overrun.

First winter descends on the smouldering ruins of Serbia. Typhoid afflicts civilians and soldiers. And then Oskar Potiorek has to submit. Archduke Eugen is given command of the troops on the southern front, where all will be quiet until September 1915. Potiorek also has to step down as military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although before the war he had become second in command within the general staff, Potiorek did not enjoy great trust in military circles. He was not less high-spirited than the highly esteemed Conrad. Yet Oskar Potiorek’s ambitions mainly aroused irritations. On horseback he did not live up to his promises. His unmarried status suggested a homosexual inclination, which did not do much good to his reputation.

Potiorek’s disclosure must have brought him to the edge of suicide. But death was not in hurry. Gavrilo Princip declared during his trial that the bullet which hit Sophie was meant for Potiorek. ‘I have been spared in Sarajevo, so that I can die taking revenge’, Potiorek is said to have called out repeatedly in the months after. That was another promise Oskar Potiorek could not deliver. He does not die until 1933, a bitter old man of 80 years old.


‘Stop! Wrong! We have to continue along the Appel Kai.’ It would have been better if the Master of History had given Oskar Potiorek some other lines on 28 June 1914.

Next week: Paul von Hindenburg

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

012 Helmuth von Moltke and the work of Ahriman

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

German high command yields under pressure

It is Sunday 13 September 1914. It is the 12th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Russian general Pawel von Rennenkampf has to withdraw in East Prussia after the Battle of the Masurian Lakes.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee reaches Samoa with his East Asian flotilla.

At the top of the Russian army Yakov Zhilinsky is replaced by Nikolai Ruzsky.

The Belgian army takes cover in Antwerp, while American president Woodrow Wilson welcomes a Belgian delegation.

South African troops prepare for battle in the German territories of South West Africa.

In an estuary near Cameroon the German gunboat Nachtigall makes a vain attempt to sink  the British gunboat Dwarf.

Japanese land at Qingdao in China.

British and French succeed in crossing the river Marne after which their advance gets bogged down.

The British Expeditionary Force, instructed by Sir John French, starts digging trenches near the river Aisne.

And the Battle of the Marne becomes too much for German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke.

When the tragedy of the river Marne has taken place for the Germans, Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke is at his wits’ end. He is at a loss. Gazes at the maps. Physically and mentally a broken man, also filled with self-pity, he has to report to the emperor that he does not expect any good to come of it. Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn, who is not very tactful, takes Von Moltke’s place at the front. Or rather behind the front, for Von Moltke has not been very close to the fire for the past month. Falkenhayn will position his headquarters a bit closer to his troops first.

Of all the characters presented by the First World War, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke is one of the most enigmatic. In various publications one can read that he had a tender soul. He played the cello, liked to paint and knew his Goethe. The emperor himself called him der Traurige Julius. But Von Moltke not only had a tender soul. He was also in delicate health. When at the end of July the leaders of Europe were approaching the abyss, 66-year-old Helmuth von Moltke was taking a cure in Carlsbad.

What surprises most is his close relationship with the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, who was born in present-day Croatia. Even now Steiner is honoured as a visionary at Waldorf schools and biodynamic agricultural enterprises. Steiner is the man who advocates the merger of the individual and the cosmos. And Von Moltke is the general who buried soldiers in the earth. What in the world did these two have in common? Perhaps Mrs von Moltke. She floated first towards Steiner. After that also her husband, the highest ranking officer of the Empire, had hungrily served the interests of Rudolf Steiner’s elevated thoughts. Ten days before the Battle of the Marne the two met near headquarters at Koblenz. Steiner convinced Moltke with his observation that guided by the Spirit the people ‘bears light out of the battle into the heart of Europe for the healing of mankind’.

Whatever spiritual influence Steiner had on Von Moltke, he has not turned the general into a pacifist. On the contrary. Von Moltke is the man who works on the emperor in the years before 1914: the war, which will come anyhow, had better break out as soon as possible. Russia is a giant about to wake up from his sleep before long. When the evils of the lost war against Japan have disappeared, Russia will stand up. And then the German empire will have a major problem both in the west and the east. Before the siege is final, Germany has to break free. Behold the passionate plea of Helmuth von Moltke, a social Darwinist, for whom a people’s right to exist had to be proved on the  battlefield.

This is how to many he has become the embodiment of German aggression. Von Moltke may have thought that he could keep the war down to a single enemy, but he certainly has not avoided the risk of a blaze. Others again have pictured him as the man who squandered German opportunities by fiddling with the famous Schlieffen Plan. Especially Wilhelm Groener, who was to succeed Paul von Hindenburg after the war as chief of staff of the German Army, pinned botching the Von Schlieffen strategy on Von Moltke. Afterwards the nazis did their best to preserve the myth of the ingenious Schlieffen plan.

The fact is that Von Schlieffen saw fewer dangers than Von Moltke, who may pass for a realist because of this, though this scion of an old Mecklenburg family was most of all a fatalist. With the French walking across the Alsace and the Russians flowing over East Prussia, Von Moltke had every reason to believe the consequences for Germany completely disastrous. He anticipated a long and devastating war that had to be won on several fronts simultaneously. Already in 1905 he had warned the emperor for this: ‘Our people will be completely exhausted, even if we should triumph.’

As far as the war was concerned his pessimism also concerned the financial flexibility of the German nation. ‘Our enemies are arming more vigorously than we, because we are strapped for cash.’ That certainly had an element of truth in it. Historian Niall Ferguson shows that a possible cause of the Great War could be contained in Germany’s financial limitations. Ferguson also quotes Von Moltke on this. The latter argued in March 1913 that ‘war should be worked up to in such a way that it will be considered a release from the big armaments, the financial burdens and the political tensions.’ On close analysis war is a foreign venture for the sake of domestic peace.


He had the appropriate name. Wilhelm II absolutely wanted ‘my own Moltke’. Helmuth’s uncle of the same name had created the great German Empire alongside Bismarck in one or two glorious battles. Particularly arch-enemy France had been no match in 1870 for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who was to appoint his nephew years after that as his aide. After that Wilhelm II preferred him as his first man in the army as successor of the famous strategist Von Schlieffen.

From the very start this appointment proved to be controversial. And it must have kept Von Moltke himself awake. He had little faith in the emperor. It must have been abhorrent to a Prussian aristocrat like Von Moltke to have a commander-in-chief who blew off military exercises when rain started to fall. What was to become of Germany with such a monarch at the helm? Von Moltke preferably kept Wilhelm out of the military plans that were ready to be executed. Steiner asserted that he had asked Von Moltke why. The general must have answered that the emperor would most certainly have started to chatter about the military plans.

Von Moltke’s despair about the emperor really hits home in the days before the actual outbreak of the war. At the eleventh hour Wilhelm II does not want to mobilize in the west. He thinks and fervently hopes that, thanks to British neutrality, the battle can only be fought in the east, against the Russians. Von Moltke is desperate. He is appalled at the thought that his wonderful mobilisation machine should be put in reverse all of a sudden. He worked on Der Tag for ten years, first as Von Schlieffen’s assistant, after that as his successor.

Eventually the emperor will give Von Moltke the green light, so that the latter can stick to his mobilisation schedule in the west. Von Moltke’s planners have selected the Luxembourg town of Troisvierges – the three virgins of Faith, Hope and Love – for the first border crossing, on the first day of August 1914. Von Moltke’s Der Tag has come. ‘We have certainly advanced through Belgium with brute force’, he writes on 5 August. ‘But we are fighting for our lives, so whoever gets in our way should accept the consequences.’ He tries to direct his armies from a distance for a month. His most controversial decision is moving troops from the west to the east, where the Russians are penetrating East Prussia. That is not what Von Schlieffen had in mind.

On 14 September a new day begins for Von Moltke, the day of his nervous breakdown. Von Moltke succumbs to the heavy responsibility which he has taken in the first month of the war. Helmuth von Moltke was a defeatist type of person. In his own words: ‘I am too melancholy, too cautious, too conscientious, if you please, to be a general in a war.’

At headquarters they make him play second fiddle to keep up appearances. Both the German people and high command of the Austro-Hungarian ally are kept in the dark about the changing of the guard. The lists of losses of the battle of the Marne are not published either. Von Moltke feels his degradation, presented as a period of leave, as a big injustice. ‘Your Majesty, nobody is telling me anything!’, he cried out to the emperor. To which the latter must have answered that the same went for him.


Von Moltke will live another two years to repair the injustice done to him, but he will not be granted a role on the main podium of the First World War any more. On 18 June 1916 he goes to church in Berlin to add lustre to a memorial service for Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Von Moltke holds a speech in which he speaks highly of the deceased. He says that history has repeatedly shown that heroism and tragedy are closely linked. The congregation must feel that the speaker is not only referring to the person who has just ascended into heaven, but is also implying himself. When the Turkish ambassador is in the middle of his eulogy for Von der Goltz, Von Moltke, who has a heart condition, collapses. He dies at the age of 68.

Whatever way you look at it, this was too early for historians, for after the war Von Moltke could have explained one thing and another about the path he took with Germany towards the war. His wife published letters and his memoirs in 1922, but she appears to have made quite a mess of the contents. The diaries Von Moltke kept were burnt by his son Wilhelm in 1945, just before the Russians captured Berlin.

What can have possessed Von Moltke? How could this floating general reconcile his spiritual search for universal love with the careless moving about of cannon fodder across his topographic maps? Rudolf Steiner must have had some idea. After Von Moltke’s death the two kept in touch in the great beyond. Rudolf Steiner Press published an account of this esoteric exchange, entitled Light for the New Millennium.

Helmuth von Moltke sent the following message to the earth in December 1921: ‘The events on the Marne! Everything would have turned out differently, if I had not been accompanied by the mistrust of those around me. I traveled to the front in a cloud of mistrust.’ Eventually it had all been the work of Ahriman, the ‘Prince of Darkness’. As far as Wilhelm II is concerned, Von Moltke left us this explanation from above: ‘The Kaiser was actually quite weak due to the forces working in him from his previous life.’

Next week: Otto Weddigen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)



Post Navigation