104: Death, Drafts, and Peace


A catch up episode of some random topics that missed previous episodes. Lord Kitchener dies, Britain institutes the draft, and politicians all over Europe start wondering if peace is a good idea.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 104, the first of 2017. I would like to thank everybody for their kind messages that were sent my way over the last month as I battled a newborn, a battle which I believe she is winning handily. I would also like to thank all of the podcast’s Patreon subscribers, especially those who have been with us since the beginning last year. Last year saw the release of 12 Patreon exclusive episodes, and this year promises more interesting topics every month so If you just cannot get enough of my voice, you can head over to patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar to find out more about the Patreon campaign, and also check out an episode that I just released for everybody on some of the neutral countries of Europe which was previously only available for Patreon supporters. For this episode we will be starting off the year with a few random topics that are from 1916 that we did not get to before. These are items that were always on my list but that I also did not feel needed an entire episode to discuss. Because of this they were constantly pushed until an ever nebulous “later” that has finally come. These topics are the Death of Lord Kitchener, first Earl of Kitchener, in June 1916, the British draft of early 1916 which was quite the momentous occasion for the British because they had never done anything similar before, and then we will close out today by talking about some of the peace proposals that began to float around Europe in one form or another in 1916. None of these proposals would get very far, but they would start to appear with increasing regularity in late 1916 and 1917. Even though they were unsuccessful I believe that their simple existence, and their persistence, tells us something about the mindset of some of the politicians around Europe.

We start though, with Kitchener. I feel that we have not talked much about Kitchener in quite some time now, so lets start with a bit of a review of who he was, and what he has been doing in his position in the British government since the beginning of the war. I find him to be one of the more interesting characters from the war years because he feels so much like a man out of time. Kitchener had made his name in colonial conflicts that were typical of British military officers in the 19th century, his two biggest feathers in his cap were the victories at Omdurman and the role he played during the Boer War. These made him a military hero for the people of British, this was nurtured and intensified by the British press who were always eager to tell fantastic stories of military men abroad. While these experience served him well in all of his colonial dealings they did not provide the same level of benefit for the large continental conflict that he found himself in in 1914. With his position based in London, and not India or Egypt or some other far flung colony he found himself working closely with other members of the British government. All of the bureaucracy was not his strong suit and it was not something he had a ton of experience dealing with, at least at the level that he found in London. This was probably his greatest weakness, because in many other ways he had things quite right, or at least more correct than many other military and political leaders at the time. He was convinced from the start that this was going to be a long war, with Russia and France being roughly equal to Germany in a conflict, and because of this he took the long view on what the British Empire should be doing. He knew that they had to increase the size of the army, even if it meant the long process of training men without any military experience. His goal was for the army to reach its maximum strength in 1917 so that it would be hitting the peak of its performance just as the French and Germans were running out of steam. As it turned out this would be almost precisely what happened. Much like other military commanders that we have discussed along the way Kitchener had a pretty stringent routine that he followed during the war, although it was nothing like Joffre or Haig. He would arrive at the War Office at 9AM and worked until dusk, with the only break being for lunch and an occasional tea. He was on this scheduled Monday through Friday and sometimes on Saturday. He made it a point to deal personally with all of the major problems that came to his desk, which was often deep in papers. He was also slow at making decisions, he liked to think about the situation and analyze possible options far longer than others in the British government, to their eternal consternation. At the end of the day, which generally arrived at 8PM he would often go to the Beefsteak club across Trafalgar Square where he would eat at the large communal tables. Just like everybody else the first two years of the war were a challenge for Kitchener, just like they were for everybody else. It started right from the beginning when Kitchener had to rush to France on August 24th after Sir John French had told him that he was going to retreat all the way behind Paris. This would have separated the British and the French armies at a critical point and would have put the French in a rough spot, tarnishing British prestige in the process. While at the time this seemed like it could cause the Entente the war, although in reality if you look at the Battle of the Marne it probably results in the same outcome even if the British are not there, the Germans were just simply a the end of their ropes, but that counterfactual is for another day. Even if it would not have mattered it did not stop everybody from panicking and Kitchener rushing off to France to order French to stay in the line. This was just the first of the big panic moments and the first trip to France that Kitchener would take, there would be many others. For Kitchener 1915 was a year of declines powers and declining esteem among his colleagues. He was in general against sending many British troops or supplies away from the Western Front, instead wanting to hoard them at home at long as possible. The fact that Gallipoli happened at all, and would be as large as it was, was indicative of the declining power of Kitchener among the political leaders of British. At the beginning of the war Kitchener’s word had been the final say in anything military related, and the other ministers were okay with that. However by early 1915 this was no longer the case. Kitchener still believed that the British should conserve their strength and only do very limited operations elsewhere to maintain their critical hold on Europe and the oil of the Middle East. In early 1915 while the other men on the War Council would accept this, there were already rumblings against it, if not open revolt quite yet. This all changed in May when the Shell scandal hit. Up to this point the production of munitions had been under Kitchener’s purview. That meant that when the Times reported that the BEF did not have enough ammunition on hand to properly attack it feel directly on him. This article was encouraged by French, at least partially to find a fall man other than himself to blame the failure of the 1915 attacks on. After the story hit Asquith blamed Kitchener for the whole mess, since it had shaken public faith in the entire government, since he had been assured just a month before that there was enough ammunition to go around. Asquith even wanted to leave Kitchener out of the Coalition government that formed after the Shell Scandal in late May, but this was just not possible. Regardless of any administrative problems Kitchener still had the complete confidence of the public at large, a critical commodity to have in the government with the war continuing to drag on and on and continuing to pull Britain deeper into its abyss. However, Asquith did do something that he could do, he started chipping away at his power. The shell controversy gave him the perfect excuse to remove the production of munition from Kitchener’s portfolio and he did this by creating a Ministry of Munitions, which was probably a good call at this stage because it allowed for more focus to be put on manufacturing, something that was desperately needed. This would be the first, but not the last, of the powers that were pulled out of Kitchener’s office. In this case it was put under the control of Lloyd George, who really did not like Kitchener at all. Lloyd George was constantly trying to reduce Kitchener’s power with the eventual goal of getting him out of the War Office entirely. In the final few months of 1915 Kitchener became more and more isolated from his political colleagues. The split was mutual, with Kitchener disliking working with them just as much as they disliked working with him. The situation continued to deteriorate until by October Kitchener did not really have any allies left on the cabinet. However, they still just did not believe that they could boot him out, so instead they sent him on a mission to the Eastern Mediterranean. This allowed Asquith to take control of the War Office while Kitchener was gone, and it also allowed Kitchener to do what he really did best, wander around the world playing the bit of a big war hero. When he got back to London he found that more power had been taken away from him with the appointment of General Robertson as the controller of military strategy. This of course hurt Kitchener’s pride more than a little, but it greatly helped that he and Robertson got along quite well, with Kitchener judging Robertson to be quite skilled. They did not always agree on everything, but Kitchener would always support Robertson in front of the cabinet, which provided a much needed united front for the military. Even with his power being slowly stripped away, Kitchener was determined to stay on until the end of the war, and this probably would have been possible with his new reduced powers. In early 1916 he was going to go to Russia to discuss that country’s war effort and the munitions and financial support that they needed from Britain. It is not crazy to think that he would have stayed on the government throughout 1916 and then played a big role in liaising with America when it entered the war, giving him plenty to do until the armistice, where again he probably would have been one of the British representatives. It all could have went quite well, except for the fact that on June 5th, shortly after his ship left Scapa Flow on its way to Russia it hit a German mine and sank. Only 12 men from the ship were rescued, and Kitchener was not among them. There was mourning throughout the empire. Kitchener was a national hero in a way that few men have been since, and as cold as it seems to say it, with the benefit of hindsight, his passing preserved that status in a way that a long post-war life may not have. At the end of the day he was one of the last few men who made his name in an age where colonial heroes were larger than life, galivanting around the globe conquering the world. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the recruitment posters all over Britain with Kitchener pointing to the reader saying Your Country Needs You, forever being the face of the masses of British volunteers who answered the call in the early years of the war.

Our next topic is the Draft in Britain. Of all of the belligerent Britain was the only one at that did not have a conscription system implemented at the beginning of the war. This went part and parcel with their professional army, which held them in good stead in the small colonial wars they were used to participating in. However when it was clear that they needed more men, they had only one choice, to ask for volunteers. This was initially very successful and when they called for 100,000 men they got a number that vastly exceeded that. Many of these volunteers were fueled by patriotism and the concern that if they waited they would miss the adventure. They would go through a year of training, give or take, and would end up on the battlefield of the Somme, or elsewhere, in 1916. While there were a good number of volunteers, hundreds of thousands of them, numbers of new volunteers rapidly began to decline. This presented the British government with a problem. The British had no history of any kind of compulsory military service but as the summer of 1915 came to a close it was a specter that hovered over the head of the entire government, and nation, as something that might have to be done even if people did not want it. Before a draft was initiated though there was one final attempt to get enough volunteers, this was suggested by Edward Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby, and the idea would get his name, the Derby Scheme. This was a generally overly confusing scheme to try and figure out how many men would volunteer if they were directly asked. In the summer of 1915 each man of military age in Britain had been given an identification card, these were pink cards created by the National Registration Act. The essence of the Derby Scheme was to have a government representative go around to every single man registered under this act and ask them to their face whether or not they would volunteer. There were all kinds of caveats to what that volunteering would entail, like a guarantee that there would be a 2 week notice before they were called up, and the fact that single men would come before married men just to name a few. If the men said yes they had to report to the recruiting office within 48 hours to report that they were ready to volunteer, however they were often just escorted there directly. Men could also just say no to this scheme, and many did, about 38 percent of single and 54 percent of married men. If they did not decline, or they were part of a nationally recognized war industry or if they were deemed medically unfit then they were given an armband to designate that they were willing to fight, even if they couldn’t. As I am sure you can imagine this created a huge amount of social pressure, which was not by accident. Overall though, the Derby Scheme, while drumming up some volunteers which would come to be called Derby Men, was not a long term solution to Britain’s manpower issues and much like with the volunteers all that it produced was a short term spike in enlistments which did not stand the test of time. All of these manpower problems came to a head in late January 1916. The government was forced to pass the Military Service Bill which specified that men aged 18 to 41 who were single or widowed without children could be called up at any time. There were several groups that were not initially liable to be called in the initial stages, married men with children, widowed with children, or those in wartime industries however over time these exemptions would slowly be whittled away with the first to go being the married men. This new act caused some resentment among the populace with a big sticking point being that there was not universal male suffrage, until 1918 that is, and those without the right to vote were none to happy that they were being forced to serve. This and other reasons resulted in a no show rate as high as 30% in 1916. Those who were called up had the option of appealing to a Military Service Tribunal and these were used heavily with about 750,000 men choosing to appeal. Most of these men were given some form of exemption from the tribunals whether it be a temporary or conditional time period build around some situation at work or at home. These tribunals also heard cases for conscientious objectors, although this was a huge minority of the cases that were heard during the war. In terms of the exact number of men brought into the Army via conscription the numbers seem to be a bit fuzzy, at least from the sources I have with the problem being that men volunteering after 1916 or attesting via the Derby Scheme all get counted into the total number of new soldiers, which was 1,542,807. So the actual number of conscripts in the British army was probably reasonably close to the upper range of that number.

The final topic of discussion today is that throughout the war there were multiple attempts by one side of the other to initiate some form of peace talks. These could be in the form of an influential political members reaching out to the other side personally or through official channels. These efforts are often forgotten because they of course failed. However they are important to discussion because it shows that both sides started to want peace, but only on their terms which is where the hold up would be. However there was another, more hidden hold-up to these sorts of talks in the forms of the countries themselves being able to properly define their own goals, let along how those would interact with other nations. War aims are an amorphous thing that fluctuate over time as a country’s fortunes rise and fall in a war, in any war, and because of this they are constantly discussed and re-evaluated in those countries and between various political entities be they individuals or groups. These discussions could cause a good amount of internal friction as each group jockeyed with the other for priority on their list. I do not thing that it is necessarily important to run down the views of each of these groups in each of these countries, especially at this stage in the war when the results did not really map to what they wanted at this stage, however let’s just jump into one group and talk about them in some level of detail, and for the purposes of this episode I have chosen the German Navy, which I have chosen because I am hoping nobody out there is a real expert on the war aims of the German Navy, so I think it should be enlightening. This group, and its leadership, had certain goals that they wanted to accomplish through the war, specifically they wanted to find a way to bring their abilities as close to that of the Royal Navy as possible. Because of this they had a full list of demands to try and accomplish this goal with the first item being the retaining of the Belgian ports of Bruges, Ostend, and Zeebrugge in German hands as a way of giving the German Navy far better access to the North Sea. Then they also wanted the Faeroe Islands, and naval bases in Dakar, Cape Verde Islands, and the Azores, then they wanted control of Madagascar. All of these demands have an obvious purpose, the German navy wanted the facilities to allow them to project their naval power around the world much more easily, instead of running into situations like with Spee in 1915 where he had to go all the way around the world just to find a German port. This would put them in a much better position should another war break out with Britain and the Royal Navy, which was always a fear. Looking back on these demands they seem pretty crazy, but in the timeframe we are talking about in late 1916 they were somewhat attainable, or they appeared that way because the end of 1916 represented one of the high points for Germany in the war, they still thought they would be dictating all peace terms. Just these would be a huge set of demands, and there were several other lists in Germany that had similar big ticket items. This caused friction as each of them wanted their list to take priority for their own reasons. This could create an issue where even when a person like Bethmann-Hollweg wanted to enter some kind of peace talks, he could not get the other political and military leaders to agree on what Germany’s war aims list was.

There were many attempts to start peace talks, so I want to make it clear that the instances we will discuss here today are not a full and comprehensive listing. Attempts were initiated by both sides as well, so for example in October 1916 Bethmann-Hollweg sent messages to all of the European neutrals in which he said that Germany was prepared to negotiate. In this invitation to the negotiating table he did not put any conditions, which had been a big sticking point to previous efforts, but even with this fact in mind all of the Entente members rejected the offer. The big reason that they did this was because in his invitation Bethmann-Hollweg had not specifically addressed Belgium. This omission was not on accident, Bethmann-Hollweg knew that on the German side both the Army and Navy were adamant that Belgium remain either annexed by Germany or at least a German satellite state. He knew that mentioning this would have caused an instant rejection because the Entente were all pretty adamant that Belgium had to be free and independent after the war. The issue here, and with all of the peace talks that were discussed on an official level, even those proposed by President Truman in December, was that there were a few things that both sides believed to be completely off the table when it came time for compromises. For the Entente it was the removal of all Germans from Belgium and France, the restoration of Serbia and Montenegro as independent countries and the payment of reparations by the Central Powers as the aggressors in the war. There were many more beside these, but they were some of the big ones. So what would happen is that one side would not even be open to the discussions without the other specifically stating they would give into at least some of these demands, the other side would see this as compromising before they even got to the table and would of course not do it. It was never going to lead to a good compromise. Even back channel efforts, like those launched by Emperor Karl the first when it came to power in 1916 during which he tried to start indirect negotiations with France through his wife’s brother Prince Sixtus of Bourbon was a failure even though all he was doing was trying to get the French to give him the terms under which they would accept a peace. Overall all of these problems were caused by the fact that both side, in 1916 and throughout 1917 still believed that they could win and as long as they believed that they could win they saw no point in not being able to demand terms. Just to bring this around to why I am including this in the first episode of this years episodes is because a critical piece of the 1917 story, and into 1918 is how all of the countries involved would be pushed closer and closer to the brink of collapse, which logically you might think would cause them to become more amenable to negotiation, but it would have the opposite. As all countries pushed their citizens further and further into the war effort it became more difficult, instead of less, to show any sign of weakness, or any sign that they might lose. On that rather bleak note, I think it is time to end thank you for listening and I hope you will join me next episode as we spend a bunch of time discussing changes at Army headquarters for France and Germany.