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World War I Centennial: Russia Promises to Attack Germany

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 27th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

July 13, 1912: Russia Promises to Attack Germany

Beginning in 1910, the general staffs of France and Russia, allied since 1894, held regular talks once a year, alternating between Paris and St. Petersburg, to coordinate their military strategies in case of war with Germany. In June-July 1912, members of the Russian general staff, led by General Yakov Grigorievich Zhililnsky, made the several weeks’ journey to Paris to discuss strategy with the French general staff, led by General Joseph Joffre, in a meeting covering both land and naval plans.

Joffre and Zhilinsky had already conferred in an exchange of letters in January and February 1912, where Joffre laid out his vision for Russian participation in a war with Germany.

With France facing a likely German flanking attack through Belgium, Joffre needed the Russians to mobilize their forces for an attack on the German rear as fast as possible; a rapid Russian attack in East Prussia, the heartland of Germany’s Prussian military elite, might force the Germans to withdraw troops from the attack on France in order to protect the Fatherland. Zhilinsky broadly agreed: if France went down to defeat in the West, Russia would be left to face the entire German army, and probably the entire Austro-Hungarian army as well, all by itself.

In a military convention signed in Paris on July 13, 1912, Joffre and Zhilinsky firmed up the details, with the Russian generals formally promising to attack Germany within 15 days of mobilization, or M+15. This was an impressive commitment, considering that just several years before, conventional military wisdom held that Russia would be unable to mobilize its troops and make an attack within less than six weeks. Indeed, that was the assumption made by General Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of German strategy, who gambled that six weeks gave Germany enough time to take advantage of the dense western rail network to defeat France, then hurry east to confront the Russians before they overran Prussia. A Russian attack in the east by M+15, just two weeks after the Russian army got the order to mobilize, might throw a (big) monkey wrench into the Schlieffen Plan – exactly what Joffre intended.

When war finally came in August 1914, the Russian general staff, responding to Austro-Hungarian aggression against Serbia, concentrated most of their armies (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 8th Armies) for a planned invasion of Galicia in the northern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while still leaving enough troops, in the 1st and 2nd Armies, to also mount a surprisingly rapid attack on German territory in East Prussia on August 17 – as promised, just 15 (well, 16) days after Germany’s declaration of war against Russia on August 1. This invasion forced the Germans to hurry mobilization for new defensive armies, but the commanders of the outnumbered German forces, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich von Ludendorff, scored brilliant victories over the Russians at Masurian Lakes and Tannenberg.

Russian Reforms

While Schlieffen was probably correct in his assumption when he was designing his strategy, and even more so after the catastrophic Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, towards the end of that decade the Russians embarked on a massive – and massively expensive – series of reforms and upgrades intended to restore the Russian army as a fighting force in Europe and Asia. In addition to rebuilding shattered divisions and equipping them with modern artillery, the Russian general staff made a number of pragmatic changes to their strategy. Among other revisions, they decided to pull the Russian line of concentration (the step following mobilization) back towards Russia, leaving Russia’s Polish territory undefended. The general staff reasoned, probably correctly, that attempting to hold the Polish salient would leave their armies in Poland vulnerable to a joint German and Austro-Hungarian pincer attack from the north (East Prussia) and south (Galicia). Instead, they would gather the Russian armies closer to a central position in the Russian heartland and then use an improved rail network to quickly send them north or south, against Germany or Austria-Hungary, as necessity determined.

However the Russian mobilization plan relied in part on railroads that had yet to be built – which is why France was glad to provide her Russian ally with literally billions of francs in loans for railroad construction, including huge sums earmarked for ten railroads with primarily military purposes – specifically speeding Russian war mobilization. Indeed, by 1914 France had loaned the Russian government and government-backed industry a majestic 10.5 billion francs, or around 3.4 billion rubles – four-fifths of Russia’s total foreign debt of 4.23 billion rubles. (This wasn’t pure charity, of course. According to one estimate, French bondholders made six billion francs from their Russian holdings from 1889-1914).

Franco-Russian Naval Convention

The Franco-Russian military convention governing land operations was followed not long after, on July 16, by a similar agreement coordinating their naval strategies in case of a war with Germany – possibly in combination with other enemies including Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. While naval strategy was obviously of lesser importance given the allies’ continental preoccupation with Germany, the Franco-Russian Naval Convention confirmed their commitment to total cooperation in all military matters.

And in some theatres Franco-Russian naval cooperation might actually prove decisive. In the Middle East, for example, Russia’s Black Sea fleet and France’s Mediterranean fleet might be able to force the Turkish straits at Constantinople, thus liberating Russia’s Black Sea fleet, which could in turn help the French confront Germany in the English Channel and North Sea. Of course British naval intervention on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance would be decisive in all theatres – if it could be secured. On July 12, 1912 Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, had agreed to initiate naval negotiations with France.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: The British Capture Jerusalem
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
General Allenby enters Jerusalem at the Jaffa gate, December 11, 1917
Liberty's Victorious Conflict: A Photographic History of the World War, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 296th installment in the series.

December 11, 1917: The British Capture Jerusalem

Located in the western Judean hills, Jerusalem’s strategic importance was exceeded only by its symbolic value as the ancient capital of the Holy Land, revered by three faiths and home to religious shrines including the Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Possession of the city would open the way to northern Palestine and Syria for the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force—but its loss would be an even bigger blow to Ottoman prestige.

Indian artillery in World War I
Library of Congress // Public Domain

After conquering Gaza in early November 1917, General Edmund Allenby decided to move on Jerusalem at once. The EEF pushed the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Armies back at the Battle of Mughar Ridge on November 3, followed by the Battle of Nebi Samwil from November 17-24. The initial British efforts to capture Jerusalem failed, however, primarily due to a lack of heavy artillery as well as inclement weather. Oskar Teichman, a British medical officer, noted the challenging conditions when crossing a seasonal stream, or wadi, around this time:

On reconnoitering, we found the Warwicks crossing a swollen wadi, which had washed away the railway, and whose presence could not be discovered, as it was part of a great lake, until a horseman, who was riding through 2 or 3 feet of water, became suddenly submerged. It was an extraordinary sight: Several horses were swimming, and also men, some of the former disappearing altogether and being drowned in the swift current … On consulting my map, it was discovered that that the wadi in question was described as dry!

The British laboriously brought up artillery over muddy roads while holding off continuous Turkish counterattacks that attempted to recapture the village. On December 7, 1917, the British returned to the attack, prompting the Turks to withdraw from Jerusalem—forever, as it turned out—on the night of December 8. The Spanish consul in Jerusalem, the Conde de Ballobar, described the sad scenes as the beaten Turkish army evacuated the city:

The poor Turkish soldiers! The injured men that were passing by in front of my house were on foot, holding their wounds with their hands, full of blood, haggard. An officer came by on horseback with his arm bandaged and his body sustained by three soldiers on foot. The officer’s face expressed the most horrible suffering. He, just as the soldiers and wounded, went with his head down and looking sad, very sad.

Later the withdrawal turned into a chaotic race to leave the city, according to Ballobar. "I went back to the consulate, witnessing scenes of panic that cannot be described: Officers were running their horses at a gallop, soldiers as fast as their legs would carry them, women and children crying out loud,” he wrote. The inhabitants of the holy city didn’t comport themselves particularly well during the period of nonexistent government that followed, he noted:

The instincts of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were palpably shown. Everything that was capable of being stolen was disappearing into the hands of thieves of every caste, religion, and nationality that was swarming around there. Telegraph wire, half-destroyed cars, wood, old cans, etc. The scene was not very uplifting. From one of the balconies of the Hotel Kaminitz I saw an armoire being lowered down by ropes. And the Turkish police were watching all this without turning a hair.

On December 9, the city’s civilian mayor, hoping to prevent damage to its holy places and artifacts, visited Allenby under a white flag of truce and officially invited the British to enter. On December 11, Allenby, a savvy politician and diplomat as well as a skillful general, humbly entered Jerusalem on foot, instead of on horseback, to show respect as well as to convey the fact that the British didn’t view the inhabitants as conquered enemies, but rather victims of Turkish oppression. He immediately moved to reassure Jerusalemites that their lives, and the city’s treasures, would be protected:

Lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experience at the hands of the enemy who has retired, I hereby inform you that it is my desire that every person pursue his lawful business without fear of interruption. Furthermore, since your city is regarded with affection by the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind and its soil has been consecrated by the prayers and pilgrimages of multitudes of devout people of these three religions for many centuries, therefore, do I make it known to you that every sacred building, monument, holy spot, shrine, traditional site, endowment, pious bequest, or customary place of prayer of whatsoever form of the three religions will be maintained and protected according to the existing customs and beliefs of those to whose faith they are sacred.

View of Jerusalem, 1917
The New York Times photo archive, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The people of Jerusalem, having endured Turkish misrule as well as hunger and disease over the last three years, naturally greeted the British as liberators, Ballobar wrote in his diary:

And here one can apply all the wildly enthusiastic phrases that the newspapers utilize on grand occasions. Really, I have never seen a popular enthusiasm so spontaneous and great. Every British soldier that passed by was followed and escorted by a throng of admirers that touched his uniform, caressed his horse, talked to him in all the languages of the Orient and admired him like a hero … The balconies were full of people. Many people were hugging each other in the street, others were mutually congratulating each other and all were walking around in their best clothes.

The fall of Jerusalem was a huge propaganda win for the British and their allies, with Prime Minister David Lloyd George memorably describing it as a “Christmas present for the British people.” Meanwhile T.E. Lawrence, who happened to be visiting Allenby’s headquarters when Jerusalem was captured, was embarrassed that the Arab Army hadn’t participated in the battles or liberation of the holy city, and vowed that the next time, at Damascus, the Arabs wouldn’t be bystanders, noting: “The ceremony of the Jaffa Gate gave me a new determination.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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