181: Listener Questions Pt. 3


It is once again time to dig into the question pile to talk about a variety of topics



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 181. If you are listening to this on the day of its release it should be November 11th, 2018 the centenary of the armistice that went into effect on November 11th 1918, at 11AM. In honor of this day, and what it represents around the world, I include here a playing of the Last Post.

** Last Post plays **

Today we have something of a special episode because I once again have a list of listener questions here in front of me. I think with this episode I am finishing up the questions that I have, so if you have other questions to ask send them in, if I get another good list over the next few months you can expect another Q&A episode after our Versailles episodes. I would like to thank everyone who sent in questions for this episode, there are a lot of long time listeners and supports of the show in this list, thank you for supporting the show for all of these years, it means the world to me. To get back into the Q&A groove, I am starting off with an easy one.

Peter: Are there games you recommend re WW1? They can be a great way to learn. Two I recommend or Paths of Glory and a recent great western front focused game Fields of Despair. I really like games, both of the video and board game variety, but I don’t actually end up playing as many around World War 1 as you might expect. From a board game perspective the issue ends up being that my board gaming group generally is not interested in playing the kinds of strategy games that World War 1 games like Paths of Glory and Fields of Despair are. In lieu of a recommendation or discussion about World War 1 boardgames here I highly recommend an episode of the Three Moves Ahead podcast, Episode 441 where the hosts Rob Zacny and Bruce Geryk have a really good discussion about World War 1 board games, and how they succeed and fail at translating the events and history of the war into board game form. They also both know their history very well, so I bet you will learn something from the episode as well. From a video game perspective there are not as many options as I would like, I quite enjoyed the time I spent with To End All Wars, which is a turned based strategy game that ends up playing pretty much like a boardgame.

Owen: Apart from the assassination that started the war, was there any one event on the battlefield that could changed the course of the war. As with the case with most alternative history discussions, there are an endless variety of actions that you could point to that can drastically change the course of the war. For example, if the German plan at the beginning of the war really worked well, and I don’t mean just getting to Paris but surrounding the entire French army in Eastern France. Or if the French attacks at the beginning of the war end up being incredibly successful and they march deep into Germany, or the Italian attacks in 1915 break through the Isonzo and march on Vienna. All of these would certainly have changed the course of the war, but when you start digging into how then you just end up taking the story off the map and into the realm of counter-factuals which I have decided to mostly stay away from. I will answer your question like this though, I do not think there is a plausible scenario that allows the war to be something drastically different than it was after it started. In history it was a long, drawn out, incredibly costly conflict that required the near destruction of most of the participants before it was over, I think that framework remains the same regardless of what happens among individual operations or battles.

Nathan: Why were the Dominion troops and commanders (especially Monash and Currie) the best on the Entente side? I think many of the Dominion commanders were good, and they were commanding good troops, but I think that the reasons for this can be hard to exactly nail down. It is one of those questions without an ironclad answer and so we have to talk about theories and beliefs, and not numbers and facts. Because of this I am going to give my opinion, and I want to make absolutely clear that this is an opinion about why the relative quality of the dominion commanders seems to be outside the normal range of Western Front commanders. The two reasons are 1. that the dominion military formations were given a good amount of autonomy, but this only happened relatively late in the war and 2. that they were mostly built up from very small armies when the war started. The first reason basically comes down to the British allowing the dominions to raise their own troops and place them in their own units, and give them commanders from their home countries. This meant that most of the Canadian units were commanded by Canadians, and as the war progressed the Dominion troops were groups into larger and larger formations, with commanders still being drawn from their home countries. This then ties into the second reason because they had to expand so greatly, they were forced to come up and continue to expand a group of officers, and to promote that group as the war progressed. This meant that you see many officers coming into the fore with either no previous military experience or very little, and they were generally promoted due to merit instead of prewar service length or connections. This, when combined with the autonomy, and the slow growth from bridages and divisions to corps and armies, allowed the officers corps the ability to grow and mature in a relatively natural way. The controlled expansion of these forces was important, as opposed to the British army was was forced to massively expand overnight, with the New Armies greatly straining the ability of the British army to handle so many men, because it allowed the officers to grow in a more even fashion and over a period of time. For example the Canadian, General Currie, who is always in this conversation, would command a brigade for a year, then a division for two full years, before then being put in command of the Canadian Corps at the end of the war. I also want to end this question by saying that from what I have read of the commanders of the dominion armies, they were not necessarily head and shoulders above their British counterparts in terms of raw skill or theory. I think the biggest reason that they get this reputation is because they were not thrust into positions where they were commanding operations until later in the war. You generally do not hear much about the dominion commanders like Currie or Monash until at least 1917, and it isn’t until 1918 that they take center stage in the story. By that time the British had spent several years completely failing toaccomplish their goals, and destroying the reputation of many a general, and the dominion commanders along with other British leaders learned from this. By the time that the Dominion troops occupy center stage in 1918 they occupy the position far more due to the men making up their units rather than their commanders, who were good, but I don’t think they really outclassed the British commanders they were fighting alongside in 1918.

Nathan: How important was the Dominions contributions and how did each change because of the war? I am going to reserve the right to not answer the second part of this question at this moment becuase I am already planning an entire episode based around answering the questions not just for the British dominions and how they war changed their countries but also how it affected other countries around the world that were not one of the larger beligerents in the war. As a small preview, I will say that some of the things that I have found surprised me, like how much the war helped to jumpstart domestic aviation in places like Australia and New Zealand due to the number of trained and experienced pilots that returned from the war. As for the first part of the question, about Dominion contributions, I will combine the answer with the question from listener Theo who says My question pertains to the effect that colonies had on the outcome of the war. Being South African myself, it seems that mostly in the narrative of the world wars it goes that “Britain did this” or “France did that” etc, whereas that although colonies’ soldiers feature a bit, it seems to be almost more of a side note than where the real weight of the action lies (with some exceptions). So I guess my question is – if Britain & France did not possess their huge colonies, would the outcome have been any different? Did the colonies and their men constitute a critical mass, or not really? Also – did Germanies’ colonies send any men to fight in Europe?Just to answer the top line question, do I think the men from the around the world that helped the British were the reason that the Allies won? No, probably not, but without their contribution to the war the conflict would have looked a lot different, but maybe in wways that you do not expect. The biggest place that I think the war does not drastically change is on the Western Front. It would still remain the primary front, I think the British might be forced to introduce conscription earlier, and there may be fewer Entente troops in total on the front, but I think it still looks alot like the Western Front we know from history. However, everywhere else that the British empire troops fought would have to change drastically. The 4 year long fight in German East Africa was almost entirely fought by South African, Indian, and African troops. The fighting in the Middle East was mostly done by Indian troops, with the assistance from other Dominion units along the way. Both of these probably cannot exist without the help from the Dominion troops, there just would not be enough British troops to go around. The Middle Eastern theater probably would not have existed at all, and it was an important diversion of resources that kept the Ottoman Empire from attacking Russia through the Caucasus or assisting in the Balkans. That is really just one example, there are almost certainly many others. So, to summarize, did they win the war for the Entente, probably not, but boy they sure were helpful. Also, as far as I know no troops from Germany’s colonies were used in Europe, or least not in any large number. The only colony that survived past the first year of the war was German East Africa, and they were already heavily outnumbered when trying to fight off the invading British.

Danial: Another question of mine has been related to recruitment/conscription of British Empire armies. From what I have noted in various sources it would appear both in WWI & WWII that French Canadians viewed support for the war negatively and that in some way it was pro-British and perhaps anti-French/Quebecois. But this seems a very strange view considering, especially in WWI, that the British Empire was fighting on French soil to save France. I was curious to see if you had come across the same impressions and had ascertained any logical reason for such a reaction by the Quebecois? From what I have read about this, and I have dug into conscription quite a bit recently for some future episodes, the biggest reason that there was not much support for the war in the French-Canadian areas of Canada is simply because they saw themselves as Canadians, not as French people living in Canada. This sentiment is not very far removed from any of the other areas around the globe, like the United States, that saw a lot of European immigrants in the decades before the war. In many cases those people no longer identified with the countries they came from, some left specifically because they did not want to be there anymore. This would be a large contributing factor for the very low volunteer numbers in Quebec and then when conscription was introduced the active resistance against its implementation.

Craig: An interesting quirk of the Australian involvement was that all of the troops were volunteers. (There were 2 referenda on conscription both of which failed much to the dismay of the then government – the debate over the referenda in a sense split the country.) As a result, it appears there was a policy decision not to execute Australian soldiers convicted of offences carrying the death penalty. Are you able to address the attitude to carrying out the death penalty of the various combatant nations, in particular, in the light of the various mutinies? Interesting fact about Austrailia, it was the only country to put conscription up for a direct referendum, and it failed not once but twice. Other countries had elections that functioned as a vote on conscription due to the views of the parties involved, but there were no other direct votes. Anyway, onto the real question, the death penalty was always an available punishment in all of the armies involved in the war, the old penalty for treason is death type of thing. There were many times when it was used, be it for desertion, derelection of duty, during the French mutinies, or on the Italian front when Cadorna wanted to send a message. There was in general some hesitancy to carry out the execution of soldiers in the numbers that the regulations required though. So for example during the French mutiniies there were initially far more men scheduled for execution than would eventually be executed. The same thing would happen in the British army when it came to desertion. Exactly why this is the case, and why in many cases the solution to widescale discontent in the armies was often to give into demands instead of crack down harder is a very very large topic. It becomes so large cause it gets into topics that seem far afield from military discpline and instead branches out to conversations about societal expectations and the changes within the societies of Europe. In all of the countries in Europe there was a general expectation that people should have a say in their goernment, and some freedom to do what they wanted with their lives. Obviously for the men going into the armies during the war there were different expectations, but the militaries were still forced to live within a country that had that framework, and the expecations for the armies changes throughout the war as the composition of the armies changed. Throughout the war all of the armies slowly became older, filled with more married men with children and jobs, and because of this it became harder for the armies to rule with an iron fist. Also, by the time that you start seeing widespread mutinies or just a drastic drop in morale in 1917/18 there is another factor in the equation, and that is what happened in Russia. During early 1917 one of the reasons that the Russian revolution was successful was because the army gave up on the government, there is a huge fear in the West that something similar might happen, even though we know today that it was never close to occurring.

Antonio: I would like to know more about the treatment of PoW, specially how different were the officer’s status comparing to the ordinary footsoldier. I will give a brief answer to this question, but much like the question earlier, I am looking to do a full episode on this topic next year, so you can expect a much more detailed answer at that point. Generally the treatment of Prisoners varied based on three key factors 1. the army that the prisoner came from 2. who took them prisoner and 3. the economic situation within the country where they were held. I am going to use prisoners taken by the German Army as an example. As the war progressed food became harder to come by in Germany, this reduced the amount of food and the quality of that food that was provided by the Germans to their prisoners. I am more inclined to give the Germans the benefit of the doubt around this specific breach of international law, after all people were literally starving all over the country. This is where the first factor, where the prisoner came from, could have a drastic effect on their life in the prison camps could change. The biggest reason for this was around mail and parcels from home. The Germans allowed parcels from home to enter the camps. This meant that a British family could sustain their family member on food from home for the duration of the war, and some did. There are stories of British prisoners at times eating better than the prison guards due to parcels from home. There were also millions of Red Cross parcels sent to the prisoners all around the world that contained food and played a crucial role in feeding prisoners. However, some countries did not send nearly as much food to the camps. So if you were Russian or Italian you might be out of luck when it came to food. In terms of the difference in treatment between officers and men, the officers definitely had it better, at least in Germany. The Germans constructed different camps for the officers and enlisted men. The officer camps were generally built around pre-existing buildings, so real houses while those of the men were generally tents or shoddily constructed housing. The officers were also exempt from work details, of which the enlisted men would be heavily used. They also then had better food and more of it. All of these details varied greatly around the world, and I will try and dive into more detail about the those situations in that later episode.

Julian: Twice when speaking about general’s careers you mentioned that it was a challenge to be catholic in France when trying to move up the ladder. Why was that? Especially since the majority of the population was still catholic back then. The root of those statements is in the Dreyfus affair, which was a political scandal in France that involved the wrongful imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus on the charge of treason. He would be in prison for 12 years before being eventually exonerated of all charges. This scandal would split the country in two, and cause the two factions to have some very heated disagreements. The French Catholics would get caught up in these arguments like everybody else, and would eventually fall on the side that would not find itself in control of the new government and army, and in fact for many leaders of France being catholic would be seen as a negative. One of the outcomes of the affair would be the introduction of a separation of church and state in France in 1905, a law introduced and pushed for by Clemenceau who was staunchly anti-Catholic. If you want a much much deeper dive into the Dreyfus Affair I highly highly highly recommend the Land of Desire podcast which covered it in 6 episodes starting on Episode 8. The host, Diana does a fantastic job covering the Dreyfus Affair and how it changed French society, and her French pronunciation is way better than mine.

James: Could you tell us a little about Portugal’s involvement in the war? Why did so many (small and seemingly irrelevant) nations choose to declare war on the central powers late in the war? Portugal is something a special case when it comes to joining the war, because Germany actually declared war on Portugal and not the other way around which was the case for many other seemingly ancillary countries that joined the allies near the end of the war. The biggest reason that Portugal got invoolved with the war was due to its colonies in Africa. To put it simply, Portugal needed to be friends with the British for its colonies to be able to exist and therefore when the war broke out the country was far more likely to work with the British, and the British did work with the Portuguese. This would mean that the Portuguese would not allow food and other goods to cross the border between its colonies and the German colonies, and it meant that the British would help Portugal to send troops to Africa to guard its borders, going so far as to provide British ships. In early 1916 the British asked the Portuguese government to intern some German ships at Lisbon, and so they did, and then the Germans got angy and declared war. As I said though, Portugal was something of an exception and its path to the war almost makes sense, since it was based primarily around the colonial situation in Africa. However, there were many countries that joined near the end of the war, especially after the United States joined the conflict, that are a bit more difficult to determine the reason for. The number one answer generally comes down to the countries just wanting to be a part of the winning team. Just being present on the Allied side during the peace talks, whenever they happened, was a way for countries to improve their international prestige. A great example of this path was China, who joined the war in the hopes that it would give them greater power in Asia, or any power at all, and they hoped that this would allow them a bit more say in affair in the Far East, which Japan was already heavily in control of. For the Chinese this plan would fail completely, but many other countries that joined late in the war would at least feel like they had gained something by sending delegates to Paris.

Daniel: Versailles treaty, is that it is often said that no country was really happy with the treaty, but I wonder what Serbia thought. While Serbia Vs Austria-Hungary was, on the surface, the cause of the whole war starting and acknowledging Serbia suffered terribly during the war, I would have thought they would have been chuffed with the final outcome. Was this the case? Was there any thought a the time that the treaty was actually rewarding what could be argued as the worst terrorist act of all time (i.e. the Black Hand wanted a war to expand “Greater Serbia” and that is exactly what they got)? Daniel is correct in stating that the Versailles treaty was a giant set of compromises that very few people were completely happy with. Serbia was one of those countries, but they still got most of what they wanted, just not all. A key objective for Serbia in the postwar settlement was the creation of a Greater Serbia, a Yugoslavia, which is exactly what they got. Their unhappiness came from the fact that they did not get all of the territory they wanted and it was because of these bits of territory that they left Paris at least a little unhappy. However, looking back they got one of the best deals out of the whole conference, they enjoyed the complete backing from many of the major players in Paris, Wilson, the French, and Lloyd George all backed the creation of Yugoslavai and protected it from the territorial ambitions of the Italians. Even going so far as to refuse to honor some pieces of the Treaty of London which had brough the Italians into the war in the first place. As for the second part of the question about Serbia and the Black Hand, from what I have read there was never really much thought to if Serbia had played a role in starting the war. To this day that story is debated and at the time that story was, from the allied perspective, a fabrication created and spread by Austro-Hungarian propaganda. Serbia, from the very beginning had been cast in the role of the victim of Austro-hungarian imperialism, and so that was the story told at Versailles. Whether or not that story was correct did not matter, and in fact was most likely actively avoided by the Allied countries at Versailles because questioning it would have been questioning the reason for the war in the first place.

Phillip: Why did the allies require the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungry Empire be dissolved and leave Germany in tact…for the most part? I want to lead off this answer by saying that there were discussions, mainly led by the French of course, around the idea that Germany should be broken up into smaller units after the war. Maybe even equivalent to what it had been before unification after the Franco-Prussian war. These arguments never really gained much traction. The key reason that Germany, for the most part, stayed together and its allies in Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were torn apart was due to promises made by the allies to other countries and to groups within those empires and then due to the actions of those groups within those countries. In terms of promises to other countries, large swaths of both empires were promised to those who came into the war at various points, Serbia, Italy, Russia, Romiania, were all going to get chunks of Austria-Hungary. Italy, Britain, France, and Russia were all going to get parts of the Ottoman Empire. At the same time there were never promises of large pieces of Germany, other than of course Alsace-Lorraine. At this same time there were important conversations and deals made with groups inside the empires, Czechs, Poles, Slaves, Arabs, and Jews were all groups that the Allies made promises to during the war in return for their assistance and support. All of the groups wanted their own countries, some from territory from Austria-Hungary some from the Ottomans. In all of those cases they were then given that territory by the Allies, and in many they had already taken that territory when the war ended either with or without that permission. For example by thte time that the Allies officially recognized Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia those countries had already taken territory and formed governments. The Allies were mostly just rubber stamping what had already happened, and then mediating border disagreements between the countries. I can’t help but feel that both empires were doomed from the state just due to the divisions within those empires, Germany was pretty united in being German, even if in 1918 they sometimes violently disagreed about what precisely that meant.

Melissa: What battle of the war was the most difficult to research that had the least amount of information available? What was the most difficult to research that had a lot of information available? Yes, I have saved this easy question for the last one. The hardest topics have always been things outside of Western Europe, especially actions that are outside of some of the big tentpole battles like Tannenburg or the Brusilov Offensive or outside even the Eastern Front like the actions in Central Asia. For example finding sources on what happened in the Caucasus has been veyr challenging, it is one of the few times over the years that I have been reliant on non-academic sources, I think for some of the 1915 fighting I ended up literally just trusting a random website that had been built off of translated Russian and Turkish histories. I cross checked it as much as I could, but there was a limit to that. Another problem with these parts of the war is that sometimes there is a wide range of sources available, none of which I can read because they were not in English. This has been a big problem for me when researching for some of the 2019 episodes about Eastern Europe. If I could download a bunch of eastern European languages into my brain I think those episodes would be a lot better, there are a lot of first hand accounts that have never made it out of their native Polish, Russian, and other languages. So if you are young and listening to this podcast and you want to pursue a career in history, or just like history a lot, don’t make my mistake, learn a foreign language, or several. I cannot tell you how many times over the last four years I would have killed to know French, or German, or Russian. The most difficult events that have a lot of information available are always a challenge due to the amount of material available. I always go back to the Battle of the Somme as an example of this. There are entire books written just about the first day of the fighting, entire books, hundreds of pages, thousands of pages. I am incredibly grateful to those historians, their attention to detail and the collation of sources that they completely is invaluable to our understanding of history, but boy were those books way more detailed than I neded. This actually holds true for a lot of the British fighting on the Western Front. It is quite understandable, it is a popular topic and many writers want to take their own stab at telling the story of the Somme, or Passchendaele, or whever, but often they are either pretty derivative of other works, or they go into such detail that it is hard for me to use their sources for the podcast. I try to stay at a pretty high level for most actions, rarely talking about anything below a division, but some books are detailing it down to regiments and that almost ends up being more confusing to me. But I again I want to reiterate that I am glad those books are out there, and I know that they are valuable, just not for me when it comes to doing research for this specific podcast project.

So there it is, another Q&A episode in the books. I hope you have enjoyed this episode, and the last two episodes which have just bee Patreon preview episodes. It has given me invaluable time when it comes to trying to get my head around the next series of episodes which will be our largest of the entire podcast, on the negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference which would result in the treaty of Versailles. I hope everybody is ready for that long and winding road, because that will start next episode.