Oh stay at home, my lad, and plough The land and not the sea, And leave the soldiers at their drill, And all about the idle hill Shepherd your sheep with me. Oh stay with company and mirth And daylight and the air; Too full already is the grave Of fellows that were good and brave And died because they were. A.E. Housman
May 1916 was a relatively quiet month, at least by Great War standards. Even the great “Blood Pump” of Verdun slowed somewhat, though that was scant comfort for the men, especially on the west bank of the Meuse, who became casualties during the weeks of back and forth. At the beginning of the month Pétain was moved up to command of the Groupe d’armées du centre (Army Group Center), and the Second Army, defending Verdun, was given to General Robert Nivelle, who determined to recover Fort Douaumont from the Germans. Because of the impending Somme offensive, he was limited to one division with another in reserve (pocket change by Western Front standards), and after a three day bombardment General Charles Mangin, who was later known as the Butcher (“Quoi qu’on fasse, on perd beaucoup de monde” – “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”), attacked on 21 May.
The French captured about half the fort the first day, but reinforcements were cut off by a German counter-attack and on 24 May the thousand soldiers in the fort surrendered. The failed assault cost the French 5,640 casualties, about half the attacking force; the Germans lost 4,500 men. Incidentally, the German defenders of Douaumont had already suffered casualties without the French lifting a trigger finger. On 8 May some soldiers had attempted to make coffee using flamethrower liquid for fuel, and the cooking fire spread, igniting shells and a firestorm in the fort. Hundreds died immediately, but more tragic – and by the dark standards of the war, comic – soot covered men fleeing the fort were shot at by their fellow soldiers, who thought they were being attacked by French African troops.
On the Italian front General Cadorna was not ready for the next installment of the Isonzo Follies, but the Austrians felt it was time for them to take a shot. Despite incredible supply difficulties because of the terrain the Austrian Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, planned an offensive out of the Austrian-occupied Trentino, the area north of Lake Garda. If the 11th and 3rd Austrian Armies could break the Italian line, they would be loose in the Venetian plain, only forty miles from Venice and behind the Italian forces on the Isonzo some eighty miles to the east. And the plan actually almost worked.
Cadorna had a quarter million troops in the area of the offensive, but Hötzendorf had managed to concentrate twice that number along a thirty mile front. Italian intelligence could hardly miss these preparations, but Cadorna was convinced, mainly by the terrain, that nothing would be going down there, and in any case his First Army commander ignored his orders to prepare deeper defenses.
And so the Trentino Offensive (or Battle of Asiago) began on 14 May as 2000 Austrian guns opened up. The Italian center collapsed within days, and by the end of May the Austrians were six miles beyond Asiago and at the edge of the Venetian plain. Cadorna rushed reinforcements to the area (the plain had an excellent railway grid) and the offensive was slowed by the immense logistical difficulties, but by the beginning of June the situation was definitely critical.
The Trentino Offensive was the only serious land engagement of May; major offensives were brewing on the Western and Eastern Fronts. On 25 May a force from Rhodesia entered German East Africa, and both the Russians and British were occupying more territory in Persia. By 15 May Russian forces were in northern Mesopotamia, and on 18 May a contingent of Cossacks made contact with the British on the Tigris River.
On 16 May the Second Military Service Act passed Commons and became law on the 25th; married men were no longer exempt. The net was growing wider in order to supply the abattoir in France.
On 9 May the British and French agreed to the Sykes-Picot plan for partitioning the Ottoman Empire and on the 23rd notified the Russians, who were already on board. Meanwhile, the Empire was about to break up on its own, as the Allies began blockading the coast of the Hejaz on 15 May. The Turkish vilayet (province) of Hejaz comprised the western coastal area of the Arabian Peninsula south to Yemen, including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and was under the authority of the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, who had been in communication with the French and British and planned a revolt for June.
We will see.
I recently acquired two banknotes that are pertinent to these reports. The first is a one rupee note issued in February 1916 by the Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Bank (German East Africa Bank). It is actually an Interims-Banknote, a provisional banknote, which is hardly surprising inasmuch as the German colony was being invaded from every side. Cut off from Germany and losing all the major towns, the colonial authorities began printing these emergency bills, ultimately using every sort of paper – even wrapping paper and wall paper – they could get their hands on. When the regular paper ran out, they began using paper made from jute. Coins were being minted from shell casings.
When Lettow-Vorbeck had to abandon the capital, Dar es Salaam, Governor Heinrich Schnee accompanied him and insisted on bringing the four tons of remaining banknotes. This load required 400 porters and slowed the march, causing Lettow-Vorbeck to threaten to burn the lot if he was delayed again. When in 1917 this supply was gone, along with the mints in Dar es Salaam and Tabor, Lettow-Vorbeck used a child’s printing kit to make crude Buschnoten, bush notes.
One wonders what a single rupee would get one in 1916 Tanganyika.
The second is more interesting – well, at least to me. This is a ten perpera note issued in July 1914 by the Kingdom of Montenegro – Краљевина Црнa Горa (Kraljevina Crna Gora). Why is this interesting? Because although Montenegro was a discernable and frequently independent principality from the 16th century and was formally recognized as a kingdom by the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, it issued its own currency for only twelve years – or perhaps less.
In the second half of the 19th century Montenegro was using the Austria-Hungarian kroner (at least I think so, inasmuch as the new Montenegrin currency was based on the kroner), and this remained the case after 1878. Prince Nikola I Petrović-Njegoš, ruler of Montenegro since 1860, introduced a national currency in 1906, the perper, named after the currency of Serbia. The king of Serbia, Alexander Obrenović, was assassinated in 1903, and Nikola believed himself to be the successor of the now extinct Obrenović dynasty and would unite all the Serbs.
The 1906 issue was of small denomination coins, and gold perpera coins appeared in 1910, when Nikola proclaimed himself king. The first banknotes were not printed until 1912. In January 1916 both Serbia and Montenegro were overrun by the Austrians, and Nikola went into exile, ultimately in France. The Austrians subsequently overprinted existing perpera notes and in 1917 issued vouchers in perpera amounts.
In December 1918 Montenegro disappeared as an independent state, absorbed into the new Serbian dominated state of Yugoslavia, and Nikola was declared deposed, dying in exile a few years later. When Yugoslavia disintegrated in the 1990s and Montenegro became independent again, the government decided to use the Deutsche Mark and then the Euro. Thus, Montenegro essentially only issued its own currency from 1906 to 1916 and banknotes from 1912 to 1916.