On 27 October 1914 HMS Audacious, one of the Royal Navy’s newer battleships hit a mine and sank. The government censored the story and the loss wasn’t officially admitted until after the war had ended. This is about as close as readers of the Times got to hearing about it officially:
The Times 6 November 1914 p4
The point being that the Olympic (sister ship of the Titanic) helped in the rescue operation. Many of its passengers were Americans and some even took photographs. As there was no censorship in America news of the sinking slowly filtered across the Atlantic. There’s a good discussion about the sinking here:
So, why the secrecy? Partly this was because of where the Audacious sank. The fleet was supposed to be in Scapa Flow in the Orkneys guarding the North Sea. However, due to the state of the submarine defences there it was thought prudent to move it to Lough Swilly off the northern coast of Ireland. The navy did not want the idea to get out that the North Sea was an open house.
HMS Audacious sinking
But there may have been another reason. The early months of the war had been a disaster for the Royal Navy. The German battlecruiser, Goeben, had evaded the British in the Mediterranean and went on to play a large part in bringing Turkey into the war. Three cruisers, the Hogue, Aboukir and Cressy had managed to get themselves sunk by the same submarine in the Channel in the space of an hour and a half. At the battle of Coronel a British cruiser squadron had attacked a superior German force with disastrous results. In the southern oceans the commerce raider Emden was making fools of its pursuers, seemingly able to pop up out of nowhere to shell ports and destroy wireless stations. There may have been a desire not to admit just how badly things were going.
In situations like this questions are bound to be asked about the man at the top – or the First Lord of the Admiralty to give him his grand, official title – but it would take another year and more disasters before he would finally be sacked. The chap’s name? Oh yes, Winston Churchill.
This is how in 1918 Times readers first found out about Spanish flu:
The Times 3 June 1918 p5
You can say that again. It ended up killing 40 million people.
Incidentally the Wikipedia page on the subject is an appalling mess. At one point it claims that it began on the Allied side of the front, at another that it began on the Central Powers’ side. At one point it claims that it was particularly lethal to those with strong immune systems and at another to those with weak immune systems.
Having said that I love the suggestion that it was called Spanish flu because that was the origin of the first reports of the disease. It was the origin of the reports not because it was the first place to get the disease but because wartime censors did not want to encourage the enemy by admitting its presence.
So, it’s possible that this was not how Times readers first found out about it.
The story of the First World War so far: Germany pushed the bulk of its army through Belgium. The French, along with the tiny British army were unable to hold them and retreated. At the Marne the Germans were stopped and themselves began to retreat. At the Aisne they stopped retreating, dug in and trench warfare began. People are beginning to realise it’s going to be a long war.
However much we may hope to bend back the German right and relieve Antwerp [they didn’t]; whatever confidence we may entertain that the shock of the Russian masses in the East may soon prove decisive [it didn’t], we must not entertain the slightest illusion regarding the hard and trying conditions which await all the Allies in their future operations against a Germany reduced to the defensive. Germany is still united and her resources are great. All her men are in arms and all her arsenals are working at full presssure. Her unbeaten fleet and flotillas will strike when their hour comes, and probably in cooperation with her Army. The line of the Aisne, even when forced, may prove only one of many similar lines which are being prepared to the rear of it… and it may take long, very long, for the Allies to compel Germany to experience the sense of her weakness.
In other words, it’s not going to be all over by Christmas. [Not that I have actually come across that phrase in the pages of The Times.]
The writer, himself is worth a mention. He is The Times’s Military Correspondent, a chap by the name of Charles à Court Repington. A talented officer with a bright future, he was chucked out of the army for conducting an affair with a married woman. The army’s loss was The Times’s gain. While no one can predict the future with perfect clarity, Repington did a pretty good job of it as he does above. In 1913, he predicted that Germany’s main thrust would come through Belgium. The French high command did not work that out until late August 1914 when it was almost too late.
The Times 3 October 1914 p5
1. There is a crash in the stock market this autumn (there has already been a large fall).
2. A recession starts. Businesses start to close, others start to lay off workers. Either way there is a large increase in unemployment and the fear of unemployment.
3. The public see that as far as Cameron and Osborne are concerned the emperor has no clothes. The mirage of economic recovery they have concocted over the last four years is seen for what it is: a mirage.
4. As the Conservatives start to fall in the polls, UKIP and Labour start to rise. Eurosceptic Conservative MPs realise they have nothing to lose by defecting to UKIP. A hundred do so.
5. The defection of such a large number of Conservative MPs makes UKIP seem a lot more credible as a party of government.
6. In the election, Labour get a plurality but not a majority. UKIP are only a few seats behind. The leader of the Conservative Party, now with 30 seats becomes known as Kim Cameron.
The British Army might be involved in a desperate struggle in northern France but that doesn’t mean that life should come to a standstill at home:
The Times, 14 September 1914 p2
I jest, the Football Association has asked for guidance. This is what the Army Council had to say:
The question whether the playing of matches should be entirely stopped is more a matter for the discretion of the Association, but the Council quite realise the difficulties involved in taking such an extreme step, and they would deprecate anything being done which does not appear to be called for by the present situation.
One of the problems – a problem that will haunt the British Army until 1917 – is that it is a small army with a small supply industry. There simply is no great stockpile of uniforms, weapons and ammunition and no easy way of producing more. Sure, the Army may have recrutied 100,000 men (or is it 500,000?) by this stage of the war but there’s precious little they can do with them. So football might as well continue, as indeed it did until the end of the season in 1915.
The Times from 12 September 1914. A vicar passes on a letter from his son, an officer in the British Expeditionary Force:
Another poor girl has just come in, having had both her breasts cut off. Luckily, I caught the Uhlan [German cavalryman] in the act, and with rifle at 300 yards killed him. And now whe is with us, but, poor girl, I am afraid she will die. She is very pretty, and only about 19, and only has her skirt on.
The article continues in a similar vein with this and other letters from the front telling tales of rape, the use of civilians as human shields and other forms of German treachery.
But what is one to think? I suppose the first question is, is it true? And then, was it intentional (on the part of the Uhlan)? Are there any mitigating factors? And are the British any better?
On that last one I am inclined to think yes, simply because they are amongst friends.
And on the first one, I see little reason why an officer or a vicar would make it up. But someone else might. And The Times which backs the war effort might not be that keen on checking up. Or maybe the officer was suffering hallucinations through lack of sleep.
But on the other hand, the Kaiser’s men did raze Louvain to the ground, and massacre civilians at Dinant and use the ones they hadn’t massacred as human shields.
Ultimately, I am inclined to believe this. And I am shocked. And if I am shocked a hundred years later it is not difficult to imagine what people must have been thinking at the time.
The “July Crisis” of 1914 may have come as a shock to the British but that does mean they were not able to weigh their options. I was surprised by the excellence of a couple of articles I came across in The Times. One of them appeared on the editorial pages, did not have a byline but didn’t appear to be an editorial either. It was still good though. This is the key passage:
France does not threaten our security. A German victory over France would threaten it irremediably. Even should the German Navy remain inactive, the occupation of Belgium and Northern France by German troops would strike a crushing blow at British security. We should then be obliged, alone and without allies, to bear the burden of keeping up a Fleet superior to that of Germany and of an Army proportionately strong. This burden would be ruinous.
That is the best explanation from Britain’s decision to go to war I ever heard. Peace is perilous.
The other was a letter from Norman Angell, author of The Great Illusion:
We are told that if we allow Germany to become victorious she would be so powerful as to threaten our existence by the occupation of Belgium, Holland, and possibly the North of France. But, as your article of to-day’s date so well points out, it was the difficulty which Germany found in Alsace-Lorraine which prevented her from acting against us in the South African War. If one province, so largely German in its origin and history, could create this embarrassment, what trouble will not Germany pile up for herself is she should attempt the absorption of a Belgium, a Holland, and a Normandy?
Rather depends on how civilised she plans on being. He goes on:
The object and effect of our entering into this war would be to ensure the victory of Russia and her Slavonic allies. Will a dominant Slavonic federation of, say, 200,000,000 autocratically governed people, with a very rudimentary civilisation, but heavily equipped for military aggression, be a less dangerous factor in Europe than a dominant Germany of 65,000,000 highly civilised and mainly given to the arts of trade and commerce?
A prediction, of course, that manages to be both very wrong and, ultimately, very right.
Last night Germany won the World Cup beating Argentina 1-0 in the final. They deserved to. They had consistently played the best football and done so in the right spirit.
It also marked the twelfth tournament in a row that Germany had outperformed England. That is right, Germany has done better than England in every single World Cup since 1966 (and they still argue about that one.)
In fact, if anything, this rather disguises how bad England’s performance has been. In the 48 years since England won the World Cup – in 1966 in case you didn’t know – they have not made a single final and only one semi-final. In the meantime Germany have appeared in five finals, and Brazil, Holland, Italy and Argentina four apiece. When it comes to semi-finals such giants as Uruguay, Portugal, Bulgaria, Belgium, Croatia, Sweden and South Korea have all made an appearance more recently than England.
This apparent underperformance is mirrored in the European Championship. In that tournament’s 54-year history England has managed a grand total of two semi-finals. They lost both times. In the same time Czechoslovakia, Denmark, the USSR and Greece have all been winners; Belgium, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia have all been finalists.
Is it the players? Emphatically, no. England has always been able to produce a reasonable crop. Between 2002 and 2010 that crop was exceptional and included the likes of Beckham, Gerrard, Rooney, Owen, Cole, Terry and Ferdinand. And the results were still risible. To see how risible one needs only to look at the England-Germany game in 2010. England had by far the better team – to the extent that not one German player would have got into the England team. The result (should you need any reminding) was 4-1 to Germany. And, no, England were not unlucky losers.
Why do England lose? In their book entitled, er, Why England Lose, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski attempted to answer this question. Their answer was that based on England’s population, actually, England do more or less as they are supposed to. I have always found this rather hard to take. You would expect that if it were true at some point England would have an over-performance to go with all the under-performances. But no. We have to look elsewhere.
The best explanation I have seen came from the unlikely source of the very same Michael Owen I mentioned earlier. His argument is that England play as individuals and English players are simply unwilling (and possibly unable) to play as a team.
The superiority of German football culture over ours can be summed up as an obligation to always put the greater good over any individual needs, a philosophy that applies not only within the 11 players on the pitch but across every level of their game.
This may well also explain why English managers are so bad. English managers are brought up in England’s individualistic culture and subconsciously apply its rules. Result: rubbish on the pitch.
And that’s a good thing. Our sporting ineptitude is a symbol of our love of freedom and is something to be cherished. In future we should take pride in every stray pass, long ball, defensive mix-up and lack-lustre performance. It shows that we alone amongst the footballing nations honouring freedom, liberty and the individual above all other things, are prepared to let the single, solitary individual have his say, do his own thing and show the world what he can do: to try, to fail, to try again, to dare to be different.
Except that it doesn’t. It does not explain why America (also highly individualistic by all accounts) has the better international side (ditto, arguably, Australia) or why English club teams have such a good record in European competitions.
Oh well, back to the drawing board. Silly game anyway.
The Times 20 June 1914 p8
Now you might think that a headline like that (from 20 June 1914) would be prescient. But no. They are not referring to the prospect of a world war but to the prospect of civil war in Ireland.
It is an issue that has been dominating the pages of The Times for the last two years. In that time the debate had not moved on an inch. It can’t because the aims of nationalists and unionists are fundamentally incompatible.
For our ancestors the prospect of a world war exists but there are no obvious crises at the moment and anyway all those that have threatened to blow up have been diffused pretty quickly.
The centenary of the Curragh Incident (or Curragh Mutiny as it sometimes known) took place a couple of months ago. I had been expecting to see a fair amount of comment on what was a fairly dramatic event but so far not a dicky bird. That is not to say that there hasn’t been any comment, just that I haven’t seen it. Assuming there hasn’t been any, perhaps, belatedly, it is about time I got the ball rolling.
Since 1910 the British Government had been attempting to grant devolution, or Home Rule as it was then known, to Ireland. Ulster and the Conservative Party (or Unionists as they were then known) objected. Some 500,000 of Ulster’s British population signed a covenant stating that they would resist it. When this failed to impress the government the Ulstermen established their own army, the Ulster Volunteer Force – not to be confused with more modern creations bearing the same name – and even set up a provisional government, just in case.
The government, at first thought the Ulstermen were bluffing. But by early 1914 they had realised they weren’t and that they were going to have to call in the military. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty sailed a cruiser into Belfast Lough. At the same time orders were issued to the British garrison at the Curragh in Southern Ireland at which point the officers resigned their commissions, or to put it another way, walked out. This, incidentally, was something they were perfectly entitled to do.
The government backed down while denying that they had done any such thing. The officers returned to their posts but the Secretary of State for War did not. One assumes that this meant the end of government plans to “coerce” Ulster but seeing as the First World War broke out at the precise moment things were coming to a head, we shall never know.
The Times 14 March 1914, p9
My guess is that the mutineers were right. Indeed I suspect that had their successors taken a similar stance in 1969 we would have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble. But that’s another story.
The Times 11 April 1914 p4
It would appear that the busy-bodies of a hundred years ago have it in for child labour (or “half-time” working, as it was then known). Luckily, there are some willing to defend the practice:
I worked for nearly 20 years in the same factory. Contrary to the opinions expressed by some people, my health never suffered as a result of the half-time system, and I was never at home for more than a few days during the whole of my factory life. Again, I never had any trouble to pass the required “standard” at school, and I certainly cannot remember to have fallen asleep over my lessons, or even to have felt inclined to do so.
Love the scare quotes.
So, why do we have child labour?
To speak generally, the half-time children belong to parents of the unskilled labour class, where every shilling earned makes a difference at the week-end…
Unfortunately, our correspondent then makes a serious error:
In my estimation the half-timers employed in the factories are far better off than the unfortunate children who work in barbers’ shops, hawk newspapers in the streets, run about mornings and evenings on milk rounds, card hooks and eyes or make match-boxes.
Don’t give them ideas!
I had to laugh at this:
In these progressive days parents almost invariably allow their children to sit up until their own bed hour: the children have just what they fancy for supper, not what is most suitable…
Plus ça change…
Over the last few days (this is 1914 we’re talking about just in case anyone was in any doubt) a large number of articles have appeared in the German press on the threat posed by Russia. And still they come:
There is, if anything, an increase to-day in the Press discussion of present and future and possible and probable Russo-German relations. The Berlin Bourse, which was troubled last week by the beginning of the campaign in the Cologne Gazette, was disturbed again to-day – chiefly by the spreading of the infection to the Radical and “pacific” Berliner Tageblatt. This journal published this morning an anonymous article by somebody who is described as distinguished and experienced in all branches of international politics, which, without indeed advocating war, advocates the adoption of a very firm policy towards Russia.
This is co-ordinated and there’s only one body that would be doing the co-ordination: the German government. They are preparing the population for war. The argument being used is precisely the argument being used in the corridors of power: the Russians are building up their forces and in a few years they will be too strong and it will be too late. In other words: it’s now or never.
The Times 10 March 1914 p5
It is not just the Russians the Germans are worried about. The Russians on their own would be fairly harmless (as indeed they proved to be) but they are in alliance with France. This leads to Germany’s worst nightmare: the prospect of a war on two fronts. This in turn leads to the development of the Schlieffen Plan with its aim to eliminate one of those fronts before the other one got going.
There is an alternative. Germany could return Alsace-Lorraine to France. At a stroke they would eliminate the one and only bone of contention in the Franco-German relationship and as a consequence break up the Franco-Russian alliance. But no.
There are good reasons why the German government isn’t so keen on such a move. By accepting self-determination in Alsace-Lorraine they would be accepting the principle of democracy. This is hardly the sort of thing that a monarchy can do. There would also be the element of losing face that weak regimes are very reluctant to do.
As I mentioned earlier the claim is that Germany must go to war soon or else it will be too late. The odd thing is that they were even wrong about this. The Russians were utterly incompetent in the First World War and there is no reason to think they would have fought much better even after their arms build up.
What is interesting is that even the Socialists appear to be unnerved by the Russian threat. This might explain why after the war broke out and despite the fact they had been left out of the loop, they were so willing to vote the government the funds to carry on the war.
To-day the Pan-German Press is advocating German claims of all sorts, especially in Asia Minor, “which is still to be had, but only if Germany does not shrink from the extreme test and is ready to risk war against Russia and France as well as England.”
This is fascinating. They have clearly made up their minds that if war means war with England then so be it. It is suicidal but that’s the point the German High Command has reached in 1914.
It was Fritz Fischer, writing in the 1950s who claimed that the outbreak of war in 1914 was no accident. He traced it back to what has become known as the War Council of December 1912. From there, Germany abandoned the naval arms race with Britain so that it could build up its army. Shortly afterwards it launched this campaign. Everything is ready. Now all they need is a pretext.
There is also the claim that the Russians are running riot in the Balkans:
The writer insists that “pretences” shall be dropped and that both Berlin and Vienna shall recognize that they have step by step been retreating before Russian pretensions with lamentable results.
This is absolute nonsense. The people who are winning are the Austrians. They have annexed Bosnia, created the state of Albania to deny the Serbs a port, faced the Russians down in the mobilisations of 1912 and made an ally of the Bulgarians – a country hitherto in the Russian sphere. Meanwhile, a German, Liman von Sanders, has more or less been put in charge of the Turkish army, completely putting the kibosh on (the admittedly somewhat far-fetched) Russian ambitions to control the Bosphorus.
Incidentally, it is one of the claims of Christopher Clark’s book The Sleepwalkers (p330) that the German government did not embark on a campaign to ready its people for war. This, he felt, showed that the so-called War Council was not quite as decisive as others have claimed. What this article (and others) show is that this claim is nonsense.