Report from the Fronts #13: April 1916

 

 

(There seems to be some confusion as to exactly when the Battle of Lake Naroch actually ended: 30 March or 16 April or 30 April? It appears the Russian infantry offensive ended around 30 March but shelling and then the German counterattack extended perhaps to the end of April.)

 

Most of the action in April 1916 took place in or concerned the east, but of course the slaughter continued at Verdun, though barely worthy of comment in a war awash in blood.  When we left the “World Blood Pump,” as German propaganda put it, Falkenhayn was of a mind to give it up, but many of his commanders were convinced the French were on the verge of collapse.  On 4 April Falkenhayn agreed to continue the offensive on both sides of the Meuse, but stipulated that if the assault on the east side did not reach the Meuse Heights, it would be ended.

The Blood Pump of Verdun

The Blood Pump of
Verdun

Verdun-sur-Meuse

Verdun-sur-Meuse

Verdun front at the end of March

Verdun front at the end of March

Though the idea behind the offensive was to inflict unsustainable casualties on the French, Falkenhayn was becoming increasingly concerned about his own losses.  He decided upon a more cautious advance, employing Stoẞtruppen, “storm troop” units made up of two squads of infantry and one of engineers and equipped with grenades, mortars, flame throwers and machine guns.  They would lead the way after the artillery barrage, advancing carefully and either capturing strongpoints or isolating and identifying them for the regular infantry to deal with.

This approach did reduce casualties, but it also seriously slowed the rate of advance and was opposed by many of his generals, who of course had nothing to lose.  Further, the battlegrounds had been so blasted by earlier shelling that it was difficult to find cover and construct new defenses before which the French would die in the expected counterattack.  On 20 April Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, Chief of Staff of the 5th Army, complained to Falkenhayn that if they did not gain ground more quickly, his men would have to be pulled back to their February starting point.  Falkenhayn relented and the slaughter continued.

Konstantin von Knobelsdorf

Konstantin von Knobelsdorf

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

In other news from the west, German domination of the skies above the trenches, established the previous fall, ended around the beginning of April as the Allies caught up in aircraft design and manufacture.  On 14 April British planes actually bombed Adrianople and Istanbul, and though one has to doubt that much damage was done, it is a harbinger of the next war.  Nearby, the Greek government on 3 April declared that the Serbian troops on Corfu would not be permitted overland passage to Salonika, but the Allies clearly felt the war effort was more important than someone else’s national sovereignty (sound familiar?) and the Serbian Army Headquarters arrived in Salonika on 15 April.

Downed British plane in Istanbul

Downed British plane in Istanbul

Early 1916: British Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter

Early 1916: British Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter

Early 1916: French Nieuport 11

Early 1916: French Nieuport 11

Early 1816: German Halberstadt DII

Early 1916: German Halberstadt DII

Of greater concern, at least for the British, on 24 April the Irish Easter Rising began.  Four days earlier a disguised German transport had attempted to deliver arms to the rebels but was sunk off the Irish coast, and Roger Casement, the Irish point man in Germany, was delivered to Ireland by a U-boat and promptly arrested.  The uprising, centered in Dublin, occurred nevertheless, much to the surprise and confusion of the general Irish population.  The rebellion was small and ill-equipped, and the British, despite the demands of the war, crushed it in less than a week, executing the leaders.  At least 485 people died, 143 of them British troops and police and 82 rebels; more than half the dead were civilians, mostly killed by the British, who used heavy weaponry.  The Irish would have to wait a bit longer for independence.

The Easter Proclamation

The Easter Proclamation

Prisoners in Dublin

Prisoners in Dublin

Roger Casement

Roger Casement

Sackville Street, Dublin

Sackville Street, Dublin

On 26 April Britain and Germany concluded an agreement regarding the transfer of wounded prisoners to Switzerland, a rare instance of civil behavior in a war of civilization at its most barbaric.  More important to the future, on 29 April the Allies issued the Havre Declaration, which guaranteed the existence and integrity of the Belgian Congo, far and away the most abused and exploited of the African colonies.

As a further – and far more consequential – example of European disregard for self-determination, at least for those who were not White, there is the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which first raises its head in April 1916. On the 26th the French and Russian governments agreed the Turkish provinces in the Near East would after the war be divided up into spheres of influence and colonies for the Allies; the British would join on 9 May.  The Agreement involved competing claims between the French and British and of course ignored promises made to the people who actually lived in these neighborhoods, which is why the Agreement was secret, only to be revealed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.  A century later we are reaping the whirlwind of Sykes-Picot, especially in the case of the multi-ethnic non-state of Iraq.

François Georges-Picot

François Georges-Picot

Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes

Meanwhile, in the east the Russians took the key city of Trebizond on 17 April, and to the south the British advance into German East Africa continued with the capture of Kondoa Irangi by General Jacob van Deventer on 19 April. Deventer could not proceed further because his men were exhausted from the grueling march from Moshi, during which he had lost more than 2000 horses.  The rainy season was beginning, and Deventer, waiting for Lettow-Vorbeck’s counterattack, was soon cut off from supplies, as roads and bridges were washed out.  Oh, the Portuguese got into the war by occupying a small bit of German East Africa on 11 April (take that, Kaiser Bill!).

Deventer (seated)

Jacob van Deventer (seated)

hard to see map

hard to see map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember Kut?  By April life was becoming very uncomfortable for General Townshend and his boys.  The Royal flying Corps was now dropping food and ammunition into the town (and the river and Turkish emplacements), the first air supply attempt in history, which proved as futile as the one a quarter century later at Stalingrad.  At the beginning of the month General George Garringe, who had replaced the fired Aylmer in March, started up the Tigris with some 30,000 troops and took Falahiya on the northern bank with heavy losses on 5 April. The next Turkish fortified position was Sannaiyat, about three miles upriver, and the British attacked on 6 April and again on the 9th.  The Turks were well entrenched and both attacks were costly failures.

George Garringe

George Garringe

Townshend

Townshend

Saving Kut

Saving Kut

Garringe saw that taking the Sannaiyat trench line would require sapping and consequently take far too long to save the starving garrison at Kut, and he decided to cross to the southern bank.  The difficulty was that the rains had begun and the southern bank of the river was already turning into a vast swamp.  Despite this, the troops were able to seize the Bait Aissa trenches a few miles upriver from Sanniyat on 18 April, but flooding and mud prevented the British from moving any further.  Hoping that the action had drawn Turkish troops from Sanniyat, Gerringe hurried back and assaulted the position for the third time on 22 April and was repulsed.

"For the King-Emperor!"

“For the King-Emperor!”

British at Kut

British at Kut

Turkish lines at Kut

Turkish lines at Kut

There was a final desperate attempt to aid the troops in Kut.  The river steamer HMS Julnar was loaded with 250 tons of food at Basra and sent on a dash up the river on 24 April.  Before they reached the blockaded town the steersman was shot, and the steamer grounded on the bank and was captured by the Turks. On 26 April Townshend called for an armistice but negotiations, unsurprisingly, went nowhere.  T.E. Lawrence and another were sent from Cairo to attempt to bribe the Turkish commander with £2,000,000, but the Ottoman supreme commander, Enver Pasha, refused, and on the 29th the garrison surrendered.

HMS Julnar before her last journey

HMS Julnar before her last journey

HMS Julnar loading troops

HMS Julnar loading troops

 

The 147 day siege and the rescue attempts had cost the British 30,000 killed and wounded and 13,000 captured; the Turks are thought to have suffered about 10,000 casualties.  Of those taken prisoner 70% of the British and 50% of the Indians died in captivity, mostly from disease.  The Turks also lost Goltz Pasha, who on 19 April died in Baghdad either from typhus or being poisoned.  General Gorringe and General Percy Lake, the other commander of the Mesopotamia army, were both sacked and replaced by General Stanley Maude, who would retrain the army and ultimately take Baghdad.

Stanley Maude

Stanley Maude

Percy Lake

Percy Lake

 

Golz Pasha in his Field Marshal's uniform

Golz Pasha in his Field Marshal’s uniform

General Townshend spent the rest of the war in very comfortable captivity on an island in the Sea of Marmara, an object of contempt to the men he had left behind. While it is true that Townshend wanted to retreat from Kut back in December and was overruled by General Nixon, his conduct during the siege was incompetent and contemptible.  He never expelled the 6000 inhabitants of Kut or foraged the area around the town for food stocks, and he consistently refused to attempt a break out to meet and aid the relieving forces or even launch diversionary actions to draw off Turkish defenders.  He was far more concerned about getting a promotion and caring for his dog (well, I can understand that) than his starving men, whom he never visited in the hospitals.  Unlike most of his men he survived the war, but his reputation was shattered and his military career at an end.

After the fall: Indian troops

After the fall: Indian troops

After the fall: marching into captivity

After the fall: marching into captivity

After the fall: Townshend with Kahalil Pasha

After the fall: Townshend with Kahlil Pasha

The fall of Kut was certainly a humiliation for the British, especially as it came at the hands of the Turks (Townshend wanted to surrender to Goltz), but it had little effect on the war, even in the east – the Ottomans were at the end of their supply line and could never threaten Basra. A lot of men died, but it was virtually nothing compared to the blood being spilled on the Western Front.

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Report from the Fronts #12: March 1916

(I have said next to nothing about life in the trenches, and rather than spend time detailing the unimaginable environment of the Western Front, I recommend two books. Richard Holmes, Tommy (2004) is an exhaustive but delightful study of every aspect of trench life, and Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) (many editions) is the sometimes surreal memoir of a German soldier who lived through the entire war.  I have discovered that my major chronological source for the war was in error regarding the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, which began in March and not February.)

 

When we left Verdun at the end of February, the German offensive had stalled because of mud, and von Falkenhayn began considering whether to cancel the operation.  The expectation had been that artillery could suppress the enemy guns on the west side of the Meuse, but this did not prove to be the case, and the French artillery, well-positioned on heights and behind hills, wreaked havoc among the German troops advancing along and to the east bank of the river.  But the front crossed the Meuse north of Verdun, and von Falkenhayn was convinced by subordinates that a southward advance on the west side of the river could silence the French guns.  General Heinrich von Gossler’s plan involved assaulting the village of Mort-Homme and Hill 265 (sounds like Vietnam) near the Meuse on 6 March and then Avocourt and Hill 305 to the west on 9 March.

Phillipe Pétain (far left)

Phillipe Pétain (far left)

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

Verdun front at the end of March

Verdun front at the end of March

Like so many offensives on the Western Front, it did not work out that way.  Despite a heavy bombardment – Hill 304 was lowered by seventeen feet – the French artillery and counterattacks slowed the advance and inflicted great casualties.  Only after a week did the Germans achieve the objectives for the first day, capturing Hill 265 on 14 March.  On 22 March two German divisions attacked a position near Hill 304 and were slaughtered by a rain of shells, and the offensive came to an end.  By the end of the month the Germans had suffered 81,607 casualties for minimal gains, and Verdun was still French.  There would be nine more months of this.  The commander on the French side at this time, incidentally, was General Philippe Pétain, who would later become the head of state of the Germany puppet Vichy France (1940-44). 

 

Elsewhere in the war, the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo began on 9 March.  The Italian army in the north had been rested and refurbished, and the French were pressuring Rome for an offensive.  After four failed attempts one must suspect that there was little expectation of any breakthrough, and the point of the operation was in fact to relieve the pressure on the Russians and on Verdun, though how that would happen is not at all clear, especially in the case the French at Verdun.  Even General Cadorna termed the offensive a “demonstration,” which label of course made no difference to the troops, who would be just as dead when shot.

Austrian fort on the Isonzo front

Austrian fort on the Isonzo front

Though some fighting continued to the end of the month, the battle essentially ended after only six days because of the horrible weather conditions, demonstrating once again the futility of these assaults. Despite an almost three to one advantage in men and guns the Italians could make no headway, and each side suffered just under 2000 casualties.  How fine to die for your country in a pointless “demonstration.”  Incidentally, the stony ground and cliffs made this front even more dangerous, since every shell impact would produce a deadly cloud of stone splinters.

Under the same pressure to take some of the heat off the Western Front on 18 March the Russians launched the Lake Naroch offensive in White Russia (Belarus). The Russians had more guns and three times as many troops as the Germans and came up with a somewhat less than novel plan: (inaccurately) shell the German positions for two days and then send bunched formations of infantry charging across the muddy ground.  By the end of the operation on 30 March General Alexei Evert had gained six miles and lost 110,000 men to the Germans’ 20,000 (German estimates).  The Germans promptly retook the territory.

German troops at Naroch

German troops at Naroch

Russian troops at Naroch

Russian troops at Naroch

General Alexei Evert

General Alexei Evert

Meanwhile, the British troops besieged in Kut on the Tigris River had enough food to last until the middle of April, and in any case the spring rains would soon make the whole area a disease-ridden quagmire. On 8 March a relief force of some 20,000 under General Fenton Aylmer reached Dujaila, downriver from Kut, and assaulted a Turkish force half their size.  But the Turks, under the command of Golz Pasha and Halil Pasha (Halil Kut, a major actor in the Armenian genocide), had fortified Dulaila well, having learned a lot about entrenchment from Gallipoli. Aylmer lost about 4000 men to Golz’s 1200 and retreated down the river.  He was sacked on 12 March.

Turkish 6th army field headquarters

Turkish 6th army field headquarters

Halil Pasha - mass murderer

Halil Pasha – mass murderer

General Fenton Aylmer

General Fenton Aylmer

Golz Pasha

Golz Pasha

In Africa General Jan Smuts, who had fought against the British in the Second Boer War, invaded German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania) on 5 March.  With an army of over 70,000 South Africans, Indians and Africans he struck southwest from British East Africa (Kenya), while Belgian forces attacked from the west.  On 10 March Smuts took back Taveta, just east of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and three days later Moshi, south of the peak.  The capture of Kahe, south of Moshi, on 21 March brought an end to the operations around Kilimanjaro; the Germans had left.  Lettow-Vorbeck had only 13,800 troops, mostly Askaris, and had no choice but to withdraw when faced with overwhelming numbers, something easily done given his superior mobility.  The Allies would steadily capture real estate, but never Lettow-Vorbeck, and meanwhile their troops were dying of disease.

Bridge destroyed by Lettow-Vorbeck

Bridge destroyed by Lettow-Vorbeck

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

General Jan Smuts (right)

General Jan Smuts (right)

hard to see map

hard to see map

The remainder of the events of March 1916 were of a political or strategic nature.  True to its word, on 1 March Germany expanded its submarine warfare, ultimately bringing the United States closer to involvement in the war.  On 9 March Germany declared war on Portugal, which had refused to return German steamers captured on the Tagus River in February; with even less reason Austria-Hungary also declared war six days later.  Actually, inasmuch as Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) bordered on German East Africa there was indeed a point of contact between the two countries, and Lettow-Vorbeck would happily use that territory in his Great Chase with the British.

Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck

Allied interference in Persia continued, with Russian operations in the northwest and British forces – the south Persian Rifles under Sir Percy Sykes – in the south.  On 25 December 1915 the Allies had “persuaded” the Shah to appoint a more pro-Entente Prime Minister, Prince Farman Farma, and now on 5 March he and his cabinet were compelled to resign for refusing to support Russian-British control of the Persian military and finances.  Anglo-American meddling in Iranian affairs was just beginning.

Prince Farman Farma and Percy Sykes

Prince Farman Farma and Percy Sykes

            More “resignations.” On 15 (?) March Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the father of the German navy, resigned as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office, having lost the support of the Kaiser and naval establishment because, ironically, of his support for unrestricted submarine warfare.  More emblematic, on 29 March Alexei Polivanov, who had been struggling to reform the Russian army, resigned as the Minister of War.  In August 1915 he had argued against Nicholas’ assumption of supreme command and thus alienated Alexandra, who persuaded her husband to sack him.  One can hardly get choked up about the impending execution of this couple.

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz

Alexei Polivanov

Alexei Polivanov

Finally, on 12 March the Allies held a conference in Chantilly to discuss the summer offensive; the outcome would be the nightmare of the Somme.  And there was another conference at Paris from 26 to 28 March, the result of which was a declaration of unity among the Allied powers: Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Serbia (which technically did not exist at the moment), Russia and Japan.  The Czar must have been delighted to have as an ally the power that had annihilated his Baltic and Far Eastern fleets a decade earlier.  (Yes, Japan; I have been ignoring the relatively trivial events of the Far East and Pacific.)

Paris in 1916

*Paris in 1916

(Delayed) Reports from the Front #11: February 1916

The major development in February 1916 was the commencement of the Battle of Verdun, perhaps the most horrific slaughter of the war, certainly for the French and Germans. (Later in the year the British – well, British generals – would show their own mettle in the face of mega-casualties with the Somme offensive.)  Meanwhile, less catastrophic battles went on around the periphery of the war.

On 9 February the British finally gained control of Lake Tanganyika when the German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman was sunk by the Mimi and Fifi.  But that was not going to stop Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck from leading a merry chase for the next three years.  On 17 February the last German troops in South Cameroon headed for internment in Spanish territory, and the following day the last German garrison (in Mora) surrendered, ending the thirty-two year German occupation of the colony; other white people would take their place for the next half century.  The allies also continued picking apart German East Africa.

The Hedwig von Wissman

The Hedwig von Wissman

To the east the Russian Caucasus offensive begun in October of the previous year plowed on, and on 16 February Cossacks entered the strategically important city of Erzurum.  Compared to what was about to begin in the west, this was a trivial battle: the Russians suffered 9000 casualties, the Turks 15,000.  The Russian commander, incidentally, was Nikolai Yudenich, who would be one of the major counterrevolutionary White generals in the Russian Civil War.

Yudenich

Nikolai Yudenich

Russians in Erzurum

Russians in Erzurum

The Caucasus campaign

The Caucasus campaign

And in northern Italy General Cadorna, his army reorganized and under pressure to draw German troops away from the Western Front, launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo on 15 February. The offensive would last a month and result in nothing but more dead Italians and Austrians.  Nevertheless, the Isonzo Follies would go on.

Things were popping on the diplomatic and administrative fronts.  On 10 February the new British Military Service Act kicked in, and soon a growing wave of conscripted Tommies would be sucked into the maelstrom of the Somme.  The nickname “Tommy,” incidentally, came from a War Office instructional publication of 1815, in which the fictional trooper was named Tommy Atkins.  The name caught on as the universal designation of a British soldier, as epitomized in Kipling’s poem Tommy:

 

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;

But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play –

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

 

On this same day the last of the Serbian army moved to Corfu, followed the next day by an Italian force. On 16 February the Montenegrin army began its sojourn on the Isle of the Defeated.  Life there was not good.

While these Balkan troops were finding new accommodations, London decided the War Office rather than the India Office should henceforth direct the Mesopotamian campaign, which was now confined to attempting to rescue the army at Kut.  On 23 February a British Ministry of Blockade was created, a sign that the Allies were realizing – finally – that this would be war of attrition and the Central Powers must be deprived of supplies, including food.  This of course would cause problems with the neutral states in Europe.

The Germans were already attempting to starve Britain with their submarine warfare, which had certainly caused difficulties with the neutrals, especially the United States.  On 10 February Berlin notified Washington that armed merchant ships would be treated as hostiles, and on the last day of the month reminded the Americans that an extended submarine campaign would not be delayed.

And of far more importance to the next war rather than the present one, on 28 February Britain began creating the core of a strategic bomber squadron, which would be able to directly attack enemy industry.

Finally, the big one.  On 21 February the Germans launched an offensive towards the Verdun salient on the Meuse River.  Capturing this area would be strategically valuable, but the Chief of the German General Staff, von Falkenhayn, having concluded that Germany could not compete with Allied resources in a war of exhaustion, determined to bleed the French army white and force a separate peace.  Verdun was chosen as the target not so much because of strategy as its immense importance to French pride and as a symbol of national resistance.  The idea was that the French would do anything to defend Verdun and consequently throw endless numbers of poilus into the meat grinder.  (Poilu means “hairy one” and stemmed from the plethora of beards and mustaches sported by the troops.)

Poilus

Poilus

The citadel of Verdun itself had been fortified in the seventeenth century by the famous military architect the Marquis de Vauban, and the town was surrounded by two rings of 28 forts, modernized before the outbreak of the war.  The most important was Douaumont, occupying high ground to the northeast and thus in the direct line of the German attack.  Unfortunately for the French, seeing how easily the Germans had taken the Belgian forts in 1914, Joffre had decided traditional fortifications could not withstand German siege guns, and in 1915 the forts had been stripped of most of their guns and garrisons.  A more linear trench and wire line had been begun.  Joffre knew in January 1916 that the Germans were planning an assault on the Verdun front, but he assumed it was a diversion.

Fort Douaumont

Fort Douaumont

Marquis de Vauban

Marquis de Vauban

The meat grinder

The meat grinder

But the Germans were indeed serious.  They laid railway lines and brought up 1201 guns, two thirds of them heavy or super-heavy, such as the 420mm (16.5 in.) howitzer.  The plan envisaged firing 4,000,000 shells in eighteen days, which would require an average of thirty-three munitions trains a day.  One million Germans would assault a French garrison of some 200,000.

French heavy mortar

French heavy mortar

German railway gun

German railway gun

Verdun battlefield a century later

Verdun battlefield a century later

By 25 February German troops had moved forward almost two miles (employing flamethrowers for the first time), and a party of about 100 actually reached the northeast corner of Fort Douaumont, seeking cover from their own artillery fire.  They did not know the fort had been essentially abandoned, but encountering no resistance and fearing French artillery fire, they found a way inside and ultimately captured a warrant officer and twenty-five troops, most of the garrison.

German flame throwers

German flame throwers

French regiment at Verdun

French regiment at Verdun

The advance then bogged down, literally, as a brief thaw turned the ground to mud, making it extremely difficult to move the guns (one is reminded of Operation Barbarossa), which had been outrun by the infantry.  Meanwhile, by the end of the month the French had brought up 90,000 reinforcements, an impressive achievement given the inadequacy of their rail links to the Verdun region.

The serious slaughter was just beginning, but the battle would go on until December, the longest of the war.

Reports from the Front #10: January 1915

Most of the action in the first month of 1916 was in the Balkans and Mesopotamia. The troops on the Western Front were busy enough fighting the mud and cold, little realizing that the cataclysm of Verdun would get underway the following month.  The Eastern Front was quiet: the Russians were recovering from the disasters of 1915 and planning a new offensive, while the Germans and Austrians were engaged in picking apart the Balkans.  Even General Cadorna was taking a break from his Isonzo Follies.

The destruction of Serbia

The destruction of Serbia

Serbs were raining down on Greece.  On New Year’s Day King Peter I of Serbia arrived at Salonika, and on 17 January he moved to Aidipsos on the Greek island of Euboea to take the waters at the thermal springs (he was old and ailing).  Meanwhile, his troops were going to Corfu.  On 10 January the allies informed the Greek government that the remnants of the Serbian army would be moved to the island, and three days later the Greeks refused.  Well, the French had already occupied Corfu two days earlier, and on 15 January they began to ship something like 100,000 exhausted Serbs to the island and other locations, where they would die in droves from malnutrition and disease.  The Serbian government in exile was established at Brindisi.220px-Pobedata_nad_syrbia[1]

Serbs on Corfu

Serbs on Corfu

Peter I of Serbia

Peter I of Serbia

Hard on the heels of the Serbs came the Austrians, who by the end of the month occupied all Albania except the far south. Albania had only come into existence a few years earlier in the wake of the Second Balkan War of 1913 and was assigned territory, Epirus, in the south that was ethnically Greek.  (This disregard for ethnic realities would become endemic in the formation of countries in eastern Europe in the wake of the war.)

As a result the Greeks, who had already occupied the territory earlier and left, sent in troops (with allied approval) on 27 October 1914, while the Italians seized a number of islands. The result was the Macedonian Front, running along the northern Greek frontier through southern Albania to the Adriatic, and any Austrian or Bulgarian advance further south was thwarted.  The Albanian monarch (a German), Wilhelm I, fled.  Albania, incidentally, was not a belligerent.

Wilhelm I of Albania

Wilhelm I of Albania

On 10 January the Austrians began nosing into Montenegro, leading to an armistice between the two powers two days later.  But Montenegro had helped the Serbs and in any case was important to Austria, being situated between the Empire and their new possession of Albania, and on 20 January the armistice ended.  The country fell to the Austrians, and King Nicola I fled to France and the Albanian government was ensconced in Bordeaux.

Montenegran soldiers

Montenegran soldiers

The Montenegro campaign

The Montenegro campaign

Nikola I of Montenegro

Nikola I of Montenegro

The other hot spot in January 1916 was the Tigris River.  On 4 January a force of some 19,000 troops, mostly Indian, under General Fenton Aylmer began moving north to relieve Kut.  They encountered Goltz Pasha at Sheikh Sa’ad on 6 January, and although the Turks were outnumbered four to one, Goltz managed to hold out until 8 January, when he moved about ten miles up the river to Wadi. On 14 January the British attacked this new position, and while they failed to break through, Goltz retreated another 5 miles to the Hanna defile.

Golz Pasha

Goltz Pasha

General Fenton Aylmer

General Fenton Aylmer

British artillery at Sheikh Sa'ad

British artillery at Sheikh Sa’ad

On 19 January General Percy Lake replaced Nixon as supreme commander of the Mesopotamian campaign. It made no difference.  The British attacked at Hanna on 21 January and failed, and having suffered heavy casualties in the battles and from disease, the relief force retreated south to Ali Gharbi, where they had started.  In the three battles the British had suffered 8600 casualties, the Turks 2230.  The siege of Kut would go on.

General Percy Lake

General Percy Lake

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

Another failed operation finally came to an end when on 7-8 January allied troops were evacuated from Helles beach at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  The evacuation proved to be the most successful operation of the whole campaign, and not a man was lost, though the Turks knew it was about to take place.  The Gallipoli campaign proved a disaster, with tens of thousands of lives lost for absolutely no gains, hardly surprising since the landings resulted almost immediately in a mini-Western Front on the peninsula.  Both sides suffered about a quarter million casualties, though the Turks could of course claim a victory.

Helles beach

Helles beach

The political repercussions had a more lasting effect.  Winston Churchill, who had been an instrumental force behind the operation, lost his job as First Lord of the Admiralty and went off to fight on the Wester Front.  Kitchener’s influence began to wane, and the failure would contribute to the fall of the Asquith government at the end of the year.

Churchill would earn a reputation for hare-brained military schemes, but to some extent this was unfair.  The basic idea made sense.  It is very unlikely that a naval bombardment of Istanbul would drive the Turks out of the war, but an allied naval presence in the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus would take pressure off the Russians and render communications between the European and Asiatic parts of the Ottoman Empire far more difficult.

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

The problem was not the idea but rather extremely poor operational planning and execution, in which Churchill had no real role.  The naval component was woefully inadequate and poorly led, especially the minesweeping units, but the land campaign had a reasonable chance of seizing the forts on the European side of the straights.  That they did not was due to poor planning and intelligence (tourist maps had to be used), overconfidence, insufficient artillery and above all, terrible leadership at all levels.  There were any number of instances in the early stages at Helles when the troops could have kept the initiative and rolled over Turkish positions, but few of the commanders were actually on the beaches, communications were hopeless and requests for support were ignored.  The Turks thus had the time to bring up reinforcements and prepare their defenses, and the result was stalemate.

In other news, on 13 January the Turks began occupying positions in western Iran, partly in reaction to Russian forces in the northwest of the country and British in the south.  Iran was neutral but was in no position to resist these incursions, any more than she could resist the later violation of her sovereignty during the Second World War. Or the CIA engineered overthrow of their democratically elected government in 1953, which resulted in the ascendancy of the brutal US supported Shah.  What would you be chanting in the streets if this had happened to your country?

On 22 January Romania, encircled by belligerents and avid for territorial gains, specifically Transylvania, opened negotiations with Russia for aid.  Rumania was bound by treaty to come to the aid of Austria were she attacked, and the Rumanian king, Carol I, was a Hohenzollern, the ruling house of the German Empire.  When the war broke out, Carol wanted to enter the war as an ally of the Central Power, but the government and public opinion preferred the allies, particularly since Transylvania was a Hungarian possession.  Rumania decided she was not bound by the treaty, since Austria had “started the war,” and the country initially remained neutral.  In October of 1914 Carol was succeeded by Ferdinand I, who was more amenable to honoring the will of the people.

Carol I of Rumania

Carol I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Rumania in 1914

Rumania in 1914

Finally, as a sign of the times, on 27 January the British Parliament passed the first Military Service Act, in effect establishing conscription, which already existed in France, Russia, Austria and Germany.  Defended by its navy and requiring only relatively small forces to secure the Empire, unlike the continental powers Britain could make do with a volunteer army, and in 1914 the regular army was just short of a quarter million men, half of whom garrisoned the Empire.  The BEF initially comprised only 150,000 men; the Germans fielded 1,850,000 and the French 1,650,000.  That certainly would not fill the maw of the trenches, and single men without children in the 18 to 41 age group would henceforth (it would become effective on 2 March) be liable for service unless they were in a war related occupation.  Subsequent acts would expand the pool, as the meat grinder of the Western Front demanded more and more bodies, and by 1918 the British had some 4,000,000 men in uniform.

1916 conscription notice

1916 conscription notice

And so the third calendar year of the war began.

Reports from the Front #8: November 1915

(This has been delayed by injured ribs and the decision to have the Whitie Comes to America dinner at my house.)

 

 

The October focus on the Balkans continued into November, during which month one of the minor powers was eliminated from the war.  On 2 November British Prime Minister Asquith declared that the independence of Serbia was an allied war aim, which was presumably an incentive for the Serbs to continue resisting, inasmuch as the country was peripheral to British interests.  If so, it could not stem the Austrian-Bulgarian flood, and by 30 November the remnants of the Serbian army were streaming into Albania.  Serbia was out of the war.

Goodbye, Serbia

Goodbye, Serbia

At the same time, more in line with the stalemate in the west the Third Battle of the Isonzo came to an end on 3 November, with 60,000 Italian and 40,000 Austrian casualties, including 20,000 dead on both sides.  But never fear, General Luigi Cadorna was not discouraged, and on 10 November he initiated the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo.  He seemed determined to outdo the big boys on the Western Front, where on 6 November the Second Battle of Champagne ended with no gains but 145,000 French and 72,500 German casualties.  German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn commented on the offensive in his memoirs: Attempts at a mass breakthrough, even with the extreme accumulation of men and material, cannot be regarded as holding out the prospects of success.

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

 

General Luigi Cadorna "The fourth time is the charm."

General Luigi Cadorna
“The fourth time is the charm.”

In the Cameroons the third attempt to capture Mora was abandoned on 4 November, but two days later the allies took Banyo.  Ever hear of either of these places?  Meanwhile, the Anglo-Indian force in Mesopotamia continued their advance up the Tigris River towards Baghdad, only to be stopped just short at Ctesiphon, the ancient capital of the Sassanian Persian Empire.  The Battle of Ctesiphon lasted from 22 to 25 November, resulting in 4600 Anglo-Indian casualties, fully 40% of the force; the victorious Turks lost perhaps 6000.  General Charles Townshend retreated down the river to Kut-al-Amara, which he began to fortify.  A disaster was in the offing.  Incidentally, a British soldier later remarked concerning Ctesiphon: “We calls it Pistupon.”

Townshend

Townshend

The great arch of Ctesiphon

The great arch of Ctesiphon

Up a lazy river

Up a lazy river

Finally, on 8 November the Entente loaned Greece £1,600,000 in an attempt to sweeten the legally questionable presence of their forces in the country.  On the last day of the month the Treaty of London, reapportioning territory in the post-war Balkans, was signed.  It would be superseded by the Versailles Treaty.

In the west the low level slaughter continued, but the chateau generals were already planning the next big push.

Reports from the Front #3: Ottomans and Others – August 1914 to May 1915

(This is more work than I anticipated.)

 

All the operations associated with the Ottoman Empire and the German colonies in Africa were certainly peripheral to a victory in Europe; even the campaigns in the Caucasus, while important to the Russians, had little to do with the European war.  But they are part of the Great War, and the campaigns in the Middle East would have an impact on the shape of the post-war

On 2 November the Russians made the first move, sending an army into northeastern Turkey, where they had allies in the form of the Armenians, anxious to escape Turkish oppression.  The offensive petered out by 16 November, and the following day the Ottoman Third Army counterattacked, driving the Russians back with heavy casualties.  By the end of the month the front stabilized some fifteen or so miles into Turkey, but Russian morale was low, while that of the Turks was high.  So high, in fact, that Enver Pasha launched his own offensive towards Sarikamish on 22 December, despite objections from military advisors that the winter conditions would make the campaign extremely difficult.

Kurdish cavalry

Kurdish cavalry

The Caucasus front

The Caucasus front

Well, Enver was a far better politician than general, and the Battle of Sarikamish ended on 17 January, a major Turkish defeat.  The Turks suffered some 60,000 casualties, the Russians half that, many on both sides freezing to death.  Enver gave up generaling and blamed the Armenians for the defeat.  On 20 April the Armenian population of Van, fearing massacre, revolted, and the city was besieged by the Turks until May, by which time the Russians had occupied the province of Van; they entered the city on 23 May.  The Caucasus front was then relatively quiet until late in the year.

Baron Kress von Kressenstein

Baron Kress von Kressenstein

For good reason: the British had begun putting pressure on the Empire’s southern provinces and the Dardanelles, drawing Ottoman troops away from the Caucasus.  In the far south the Turks decided immediately to attack Egypt, which though nominally a part of the Empire, had been occupied by the British since 1882.  On 18 November Baron Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, one of the clutch of German advisors in Istanbul, was given command of part of the Turkish Fourth Army and began preparations for an advance across Sinai, which the British had evacuated.  Since the coast road to Egypt would mean being shelled by the Royal Navy, Kress von Kressenstein had to take his 20,000 troops through the Sinai desert, which he did with little loss of life, no mean feat.  The Turkish force reached the Canal on 2 February, and the following day the battle proper began.  Some units actually crossed near Ismailia, but 30,000 troops (most of them colonials) and gunboats on the Canal and lakes were too much, and the battle ended on the 4 February with the Ottoman army retreating to Palestine.

Iraq before it was Iraq

Iraq before it was Iraq

The British had meanwhile gone on the offensive, landing a mostly Indian force at Fao on the Shatt-al-Arab in Mesopotamia (Iraq) on 6 November in order to protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan, just across the frontier in Iran.  The automobile had arrived and more important, navies were switching from coal to oil, and suddenly the Middle Eastern backwater was emerging as a center of imperial attention.  On 22 November the Indian Expeditionary Force captured Basra (sound familiar, Americans?) and continued up the river to Qurna at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where after being surrounded the Ottoman force of a thousand men surrendered on 9 December.  The Turks, hard pressed at Gallipoli, did not counterattack until 9 April, when they assaulted the British position at Shaiba, near Basra.  The 14,000 Arab and Kurdish irregulars were easily scattered, but it took the 7000 man British garrison two days to defeat the 4000 regular troops.  London ordered the local commander, Charles Townshend, to continue advancing up the Tigris.

Prince Mubarak of Kuwait

Prince Mubarak of Kuwait

General Charles Townshend

General Charles Townshend

The British successes in lower Mesopotamia, albeit against weak Turkish forces, enhanced their credibility in the Arab world.  Even before the invasion Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, ruler of Kuwait, nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, had sent forces to drive out the small garrisons in southern Mesopotamia, and in return London declared Kuwait an independent state under British “protection.”  Arab nationalism had begun to emerge in the previous century, competing with the Pan-Islamism represented by the Ottoman Empire, but demands on Istanbul were still moderate in the early twentieth century.  The British Foreign Office understood the value of encouraging local insurgencies once the war started, but the great Arab Revolt would not occur until 1916.

Of greater concern for the Empire was the Allied assault on the Dardanelles, the narrow straights that lead from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara and through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.  When the Turks entered the war in November, they immediately closed the straights and began to mine them, choking off the major Allied supply route to Russia (the German fleet blocked the Baltic, and Vladivostok might have been the other side of the moon).  Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested forcing the straights with a fleet of obsolete warships that were useless against the German navy, thus risking little for huge rewards: Russia could be supplied by sea, Istanbul could be bombarded and the Bulgarians and Greeks, who hated their one-time Ottoman masters, might enter the war.

Admiral John de Robeck

Admiral John de Robeck

Guess who?

Guess who?

The Dardanelles fleet

The Dardanelles fleet

On 2 January 1915 Russia, dealing with the Ottoman offensive in the Caucasus, asked the Allies to divert Turkish troops by attacking in the Aegean, and the Dardanelles operation was set in motion.  On 19 February the Anglo-French squadron began shelling the forts on both sides of the entrance to the straights and by 25 February had destroyed them and cleared the entrance of mines.  The problem was the mobile artillery batteries, which could evade the naval gunfire and attack the minesweepers, but pressed by Churchill Admiral Sackville Carden planned an all-out attack, claiming that the fleet could be at Istanbul in two weeks.  Because of illness Carden was replaced by Admiral John de Robeck, and on 18 March eighteen old battleships and a supporting cast of lesser vessels headed up the straights towards the “Narrows,” where most of the forts and minefields were.

(An historical note: some fifteen miles past the Narrows on the European side is a small river called Aegospotomi by the Greeks.  It was at this point in the straights in 405 BC that the Spartan Lysander and his Persian-supported Peloponnesian fleet annihilated the last Athenian fleet, bringing about the surrender of Athens the following year and ending the twenty-seven year-long Peloponnesian War.)

The Bouvet

The Bouvet

Naval gunnery was able to destroy communications among the forts and take out some guns, but despite ammunition shortages (it was later learned) Turkish fire continued, and the minesweepers, which were crewed by civilians (!), decided the party was over and left.  The French battleship Bouvet was the first to strike a mine, capsizing with almost all hands lost; two other French battleships were damaged.  Two British battleships were sunk and a third severely damaged, and the fleet retreated to the Aegean.  Some of the captains wanted a second shot at the Turks, but de Robeck and important figures in the Admiralty opposed it, and the operation was abandoned.

HMS Irresistible sinking

HMS Irresistible sinking

The Bouvet sinking

The Bouvet sinking

That left Plan B, an amphibious assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula, which formed the European bank of the Dardanelles, in order to silence the Turkish guns on the northern bank of the straights with troops.  This was a mighty ambitious undertaking, given that no one had ever conducted a landing against opposition with twentieth century weaponry, but the Allies presumed there would be no problem since Turkish soldiers were very poor, a conclusion reached from Turkish losses in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and traditional European notions of superiority.  Further, British intelligence underestimated the number of defending troops and had only vague ideas concerning the terrain.

Cape Hellas, Gallipoli

Cape Hellas, Gallipoli

The 78,000 men of the Mediterranean Expedition Force gathered in Egypt, where Imperial troops training for France were organized into the first Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), which would be forever associated with Gallipoli.  Novel logistical problems and weather prevented the Expedition, under Sir Ian Hamilton, from reaching Gallipoli until late April, during which time the Turks were able to reinforce their positions and prepare defenses.  The Ottoman Fifth Army, some 60,000 men, was put under the command of a German officer, Otto Liman von Sanders, who set up a flexible and mobile defense; one of his division commanders was Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, who would become the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

Sir Ian Hamilton

Sir Ian Hamilton

Otto Liman von Sanders

Otto Liman von Sanders

On 25 April the main landing commenced at Cape Hellas on the tip of the peninsula, while the Anzacs went ashore some ten miles up the northern shore near Suvla Bay.  The landings were relatively unopposed, but a swift counterattack by Kemal pinned the Anzacs on the beach.  The main force pushed about two miles inland, but counterattacks drove them back, and by 8 May both fronts were static, replete with the trenches and wire.  The Western Front had been recreated on Gallipoli, and Hamilton had already suffered 20,000 casualties.  Nothing much more would happen until August, leaving the troops to be worn down by heat, disease and Turkish shelling.

In the trenches at Gallipoli

In the trenches at Gallipoli

Gallipoli landing

Gallipoli landing

Off in the west of the Mediterranean the Italians finally got involved.  Italy had in fact been allied to the Central Powers, but was lured away by the Allies with promises of territory, notably the southern Tyrol, taken from the Austrians after the war.  On 23 May Italy declared war against Austria, despite not being really prepared for warfare in the mountainous terrain against well-fortified Austrian positions (though it should be noted Italy entered the Second World War with less and poorer quality artillery that it did the First).  The result would be twelve Battles of the Isonzo River from June 1915 to November 1917.

The Italian front

The Italian front

Meanwhile, Austrian and German foreign possessions were quickly overrun at the outbreak of the war – with the exception of German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda and part of Tanzania), where the local commander, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, would lead the British on a merry chase for the entire war.  To conquer the German territory and stop the raiding into British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar and part of Tanzania) the British brought in Indian troops for a two pronged attack.  The German garrison was all of 260 colonial troops (Schutztruppe) and 2472 native levies, the Askari, who proceeded to set the pattern for the next four years.  On 3 November 86 mounted Germans and 600 Askaris defeated the northern prong of 1500 Punjabis at the Battle of Kilimanjaro and then raced south to join the Battle of Tanga, where on 4 November Lettow-Vorbeck’s 1000 troops routed the British force of 8000 men.  There would be no easy pickings for the British here, and more than 200,000 Indian and South African troops would be kept busy until the end of the war.

German cavalry at Kilimanjaro

German cavalry at Kilimanjaro

Battle of Tanga

Battle of Tanga

Askaris

Askaris

Genera Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Genera Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

East Africa

East Africa

Finally, two ominous incidents occurred during these first ten months of the war.  On 7 May the German submarine U-20 sank the liner RMS Lusitania (which was carrying small arms munitions), killing 128 Americans, and this, together with the dramatically inflated atrocity stories about Belgium, began swaying American opinion against Germany.  Berlin made the case that a surfaced submarine was easy prey for an armed merchant vessel and had publically warned Americans about traveling to Britain, but in response to a warning from President Woodrow Wilson submarines were directed to steer clear of passenger liners.

U-20 (second from left)

U-20 (second from left)

RMS Lusitania

RMS Lusitania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And on 27 May the Turkish Minster of the Interior ordered all Armenians deported from Ottoman territory, and the killing began.  Yes, President Erdoğan, there was an Armenian Genocide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #31: When Iraq Was Civilized

(Inasmuch as Iraq is constantly in the news these days it seems appropriate to talk about a time when the region played host to the two most momentous events in human history: the discovery of agriculture and the birth of civilization. Actually, the discovery of farming appears to have happened in a number of places in the Near East, but the first urban civilization was unquestionably born in southern Iraq.)

 

 

After 5000 years of urban settlement Iraq only became a country in 1920 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and it may be questioned a century later if it really is a country.  The new state was essentially formed from the Turkish vilayets or provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra for the convenience of the French and British victors of the Great War and thus incorporated a mixture of communities, the largest being the Kurds and the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.  The instability of this arrangement became perfectly clear once the United States, in a burst of incredible stupidity, eliminated the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

 

 

As it happens, modern Iraq roughly corresponds to the area once known as Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers,” that is, the Tigris and Euphrates, and was the heart of various powerful empires from the third to first millennia BC.  For convenience pre-classical historians have traditionally called the northern half of the area Assyria and the southern Babylonia, with Babylonia divided into Akkad in the north and Sumer in the south.  It was in Sumer that civilization was born, nosing out the Egyptians, Indians and Chinese.

Sumer

Sumer

Agriculture was of course the prerequisite for settled society, inasmuch as hunting and gathering cultures must continually move around, and developed agriculture was necessary to support the non-food producing populations of cities.  Proponents of “Paleolithic” diets are calling the agricultural revolution a catastrophe for humanity because humans were not really designed to live off grains and settlements brought problems, such as new diseases, but all the growth and material and intellectual progress of humanity arises from farming and building cities.  This is exactly why it has been called the Neolithic Revolution.  I certainly will take the problems of civilized society over the short, brutish and ignorant life of the Paleolithic hunter.

 

Humans had discovered that certain grasses could be eaten – they were gatherers after all – and those grains, emmer and einkorn wheat and hulled barley, grew wild on the hilly borders of the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine and the Nile valley), such as the flanks of the Zagros mountains, where there was sufficient rainfall.  Along the way some communities realized, probably mostly accidentally (spilled grains later sprouted), that grain seeds placed in the earth would produce more grain.  Initially, however, the supply of these grains was large enough that there was no need to cultivate them; they were just another, though plentiful, gathered food.  Why men actually began primitive farming, serious and tedious labor compared to hunting and gathering, is not clear, but most likely it had to do with growing populations forcing some groups into more marginal areas that were less bountiful.

 

Neolithic farming settlement - eastern Anatolia

Neolithic farming settlement – eastern Anatolia

wild emmer wheat

wild emmer wheat

The Mesolithic Age, from about 9000 to 7000 BC (in the Near East) was the transition period, during which sown grain becomes a major part of the diet, animal domestication begins and temporary and then permanent settlements appear.  By the beginning of the Neolithic around 7000 BC farming appears to have displaced hunting and gathering, at least in those upland areas on the fringes of the Fertile Crescent where there was regular rainfall.  During the seventh millennium real villages, pottery and baked bricks all appear, while growing population and the lure of richer soil was pushing men towards the next development: irrigation agriculture at lower altitudes.  By the early centuries of the sixth millennium copper was being used, ushering in the Chalcolithic Age.  During this period temples, seals, mural paintings and more elaborate painted ware appear, and the use of bricks becomes much more widespread.  Major agricultural towns are now found on the river plains, employing the ground water for their crops, and in the fourth millennium a cooler and drier climate in the region accelerated the move into the rich river valleys themselves.  By the middle of the fourth millennium the use of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) has become general enough that the area has moved into the very early Bronze Age.

 

By the later fourth millennium, during the Uruk period, human society in Mesopotamia has taken the critical step into what is generally understood by the term “civilization.”  The potter’s wheel, the sail, sculpture and statuary had all arrived, but far more important were two other developments: the earliest group habitation that might be called a “city” and writing.  “Civilization” traditionally means an urbanized society, and writing, the other hallmark of civilization, inevitably follows that urbanization, a response to the growing complexities of human activity.

 

An immediate question of course is exactly what constitutes a city.  Size is probably the least important factor, and the cities of the fourth millennium would indeed strike us as tiny towns.  By the end of the period Uruk (Erech), from which the period gets its name, was perhaps 1200 acres at its height at the beginning of the third millennium, but this is very late and Uruk was likely the biggest city in the world at that time.  A more common size for the late fourth millennium is 100-200 acres.

Uruk

Uruk

Uruk

Uruk

The most important factor is differentiation of population, that is, not all those living in the city grow food; no matter how large, if all the residents are directly involved in the food supply, it is not a city but an agricultural village.  There is a specialization of labor, and the specialists – craftsmen, merchants, officials, etc. – are supported by the farmers in the countryside.  This external food support also allows the higher population density associated with urban areas.  There will be an economically and politically stratified population, that is, differences in wealth and power, and there will be an institutionalized and formalized governmental structure, with officials (including priests in the case of Sumer) supported by the state through taxation.  Monumental architecture, including city walls, is characteristic, since these projects involve state control of resources, generally through some form of taxation and conscripted labor.

 

These are the core requirements, but other characteristics inevitably follow.  Typically, there is well developed trade, allowing the import of materials unavailable locally and the export of local resources and manufacture.  The concentrated wealth of the city will attract predators and consequently lead to more organized defense in the form of soldiers, also necessary to enforce the power of the elites and maintain control.  More important, administrative and mercantile needs will require increasingly sophisticated record keeping, and at some point that record keeping will become writing, allowing an exponential increase in human development and thought.  Primitive writing in Sumer appears to have emerged by about 3300 BC, though our examples come centuries later.  Civilization was born, and unfortunately it involved from the start organized violence in the form of armies, large scale chattel slavery and incipient bureaucracy.  But that’s the price you pay.

cuneiform - the first writing

cuneiform – the first writing

Why cities and why in Mesopotamia?  For the same reasons that urban civilization will quickly follow in the Nile and Indus valleys: the rivers.  These are “hydraulic” civilizations, in that the water of the rivers provided the stimulus and reward for further social development.  Growing population and increasing aridity pushed the early agriculturalists down into the river valleys, where their developing agricultural technique allowed them to face the greater challenge of groundwater farming.  Very simply put, constructing the irrigation systems that would insure a regular supply of water to the fields required increased cooperation and more sophisticated direction and social management.  The greater returns provided by more dependable water resources and the richer soils of the riverine areas provided growing food surpluses, which in turn supported a growing population of “specialists,” who did not directly participate in the production of food, leading to an increasingly differentiated and efficient society.  The appearance of institutionalized leadership, that is, government, permitted and enforced greater cooperation and communal use of resources.  That the emerging elites were likely able to manipulate to some degree the all-important water supply (which is in part why they were the emerging elites) could only accelerate the process.

Sumerians

Sumerians

Allowing for specialization of labor, food surpluses produced a more efficient, more materially productive society.  That specialization, however, also permitted the existence of inhabitants who contributed nothing to the material well-being of the group, and one of the most obvious manifestations of this is the evolution of the arts, at least the graphic and plastic arts.  Art thus moves beyond the decorative – designs on pottery, for example – and becomes symbolic and communal, as artist specialists engage in large projects supported by the economic elites, the state and the temple.  Which brings up the priests.  The emergence of the city allows the institutionalization of religion as well, and the society can now afford to maintain what are in essence full-time shamans and an increasingly elaborate religious infrastructure, centering on the temple.

 

The temple was in fact the center of the Sumerian city and state, and increasing levels of resources were lavished on construction and decoration. We might consider priests to be parasites and temples a waste of resources, but given the nature of Sumerian culture (and that of subsequent societies in the area, who inherit it), they are absolutely necessary for the survival of the state.  The mythic world view of Sumero-Babylonian culture understood that humans were created to serve the gods, and each city-state in fact belonged to a specific deity; the patron goddess of Uruk, for example, was Inanna (the Semitic Ishtar).  Sumerians felt themselves to be completely at the mercy of the gods (a reflection of the potentially chaotic natural and human environment in which they lived, exactly the opposite of Egypt; see Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land), and serving and appeasing heaven was thus absolutely necessary to life.

Inanna

Inanna

This is illustrated by the early political history of Sumer, which is unfortunately not all that clear. There are hints of some sort of assembly of notables very early on, which would be consistent with the state’s village origins, but the inevitable concentration of power afforded by the emergence of the city did not at first produce a secular kingship.  Instead, it seems the high priest of the temple, the an, en or ensi, was the actual ruler during the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods (C 3750-2900 BC), which makes sense given that the will of the gods had to be understood in order to insure the survival of the state.  This practice survived into Early Dynastic I (c. 2900-2750) – considered to be the real beginning of history – when the city-state of Kish appears to have held a loose hegemony over Sumer.  A secular leader, the lugal, was called up for the occasional war when the high priest was incapable of such leadership, and when the hegemony broke down in Early Dynastic II (c. 2750-2600 BC), leading to frequent wars, the lugal begins to emerge as an actual king.  The kingship is institutionalized as paramount and separate from the temple (though the king still carries out the will of the gods) during the times of increasing internal struggle and foreign invasion in Early Dynastic III (c. 2600-2334).

 

Civilization thus appears in southern Iraq in the later centuries of the fourth millennium BC, and history begins in Sumer with the invention of writing and the ability to keep permanent records. Fully matured civilization must, however, wait for the seventh century BC and the Greeks.  Missing from the mythic and autocratic states of the Fertile Crescent (and other parts of the world) are the essential elements of western civilization: rationalism, constitutionalism and humanism.  They simply did not exist prior to the Greeks of the first millennium BC.