A Ten Minute Play - Poppycock


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Apart from a few raids on British coastal targets and the occasional skirmish between minor surface ships, none of them strategically important, the High Seas Fleet only once threatened to engage its stated enemy, at Jutland in the middle of Despite all the propaganda surrounding that battle, nobody on either side doubted that a low-scoring draw left the strategic situation in the North Sea essentially unchanged, which was fine by the Royal Navy but represented failure for the High Seas Fleet.

Through the last two years of the War, give or take one or two secondary operations in the Baltic, the High Seas Fleet was starved of resources and action, and by the autumn of it was a crippled shell, its crews politicised and mutinous, its ships confined to harbour. No surprise, then, that surrender of the High Seas Fleet was among the terms of the Armistice on 11 November. Seventy German warships duly arrived off the Firth of Forth on 21 November, and then weighed anchor at Rosyth under the guns of British ships ready to respond to any hostile action. None came, and the ships were soon moved north to Scapa Flow, where they remained along with four more ships rounded up during the next few weeks , interned and manned by skeleton German crews, while the world decided what to do with them.

Like most post-War issues discussed in Paris, the fate of the High Seas Fleet prompted arguments between the major powers involved. While Britain and the United States were both quite happy to see it destroyed, both Italy and France could think of very good reasons to keep and use their share of its ships. The argument was still unresolved in June , by which time most of the German crews had been sent home and only a couple of thousand remained in Scapa Flow, but with the Treaty of Versailles ready for signature, the British had made plans to seize control of the fleet on 23 June.

Confined to their ships, fed on rations brought over from Germany and condemned to uncomfortable idleness, the interned crews were finally released from their purgatory on 21 June, when fleet commander Rear Admiral von Reuter gave the order to scuttle. When the few British ships still watching over the prizes attempted to save some ships and ground others in the shallows, they were opposed by the crews, and the nine German sailors killed during the ensuing fighting were the last official fatalities of the First World War.

British efforts prevented 22 ships from sinking but 52 went down, a tally that satisfied German honour while saving a quietly grateful Royal Navy the trouble of further arguments with the French and Italians. Of the ships saved, the few kept afloat were eventually distributed among Allied navies, while those beached were left to the assiduous attentions of local looters.

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The fate of the sunken ships has meanwhile depended on private enterprise. The first destroyer was sold by the Admiralty and raised for scrap in , and between and scrap dealer Ernest Cox raised 32 wrecks, most of them destroyers but including a battleship and a battlecruiser. Back in , most military planners in most major states regarded a powerful battlefleet as the ultimate weapon, or at least the ultimate deterrent. Meanwhile their diplomats, politicians and press barons saw it as a weapon too dangerous to ignore, frightening to the point at which it became a cause for war.

A century ago — even longer ago than my last post — most of the First World War came to an official end. This was hardly a cause for much celebration at the time, because long before it was signed the Treaty of Versailles had become very, very unpopular. Universally hated by the people it sought to punish, it was decried as insufficiently rewarding by those among the victors reliant on emotion or propaganda for their opinions. The simple answer is that it was an impossibly hard sell, for reasons Brexit is teaching the British to understand.

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The banner of peace with Germany covered a multitude of ideas about what peace actually meant, and subsequent attempts to find compromises merely emphasised the differences between them, driving negotiators and observers towards more extreme positions. Handing the treaty to the German government for comment was essentially one such PR exercise, a lick of liberal paint to cover what was hardly a liberal settlement, and it backfired. As such, their comments chimed with the views of some British strategists, who expected a crippled Germany to generate continent-wide economic and political instability, and with those of many Allied liberals, who had shared the presumption, never quite denied by Allied leaders before the negotiations started, that the Fourteen Points would form the basis for peace.

A few details aside, German complaints were ignored, and all the publicity stunt actually provided was a seven-week hiatus in the peace process, giving critics time and ammunition to damn the treaty in advance of its signature, at the Palace of Versailles, on 28 June.


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The US Congress eventually refused to ratify the Covenant, which had anyway excluded all the defeated nations and the Soviet Union, and the League limped into its year life on a worldwide wave of popular and political scepticism. Given that the task facing the peacemakers was effectively impossible without input from the kind of clairvoyant visionary modern history has yet to witness, and that completing any kind of working compromise was a testament to their considerable statecraft, our modern view of the Treaty of Versailles is based on a reaction to failed propaganda, or what you might call anti-propaganda.

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That makes it as essentially accidental heritage myth — and one that has, at first glance, lasted a lot longer than most myths deliberately created by wartime propaganda. Though often but not always accepted at the time, the official versions of the First World War presented by contemporary governments were debunked en masse during the post-War years. Beneath the surface of British society, and for my money of every society touched by the First World War, lie great swathes of propaganda-induced assumptions and interpretations that still influence the ways in which we think and behave.

Some of those assumptions are close enough to the surface to be quite visible once you look beyond the glare of heritage culture. Mild-mannered by nature, and generally apt to defer to me on matters historical, the folks hit the roof, refused to believe a word of it and boiled up angry to the point of violence.

The propaganda myths around East End stoicism remained deeply embedded and hugely important to them, a mere odd years after the event. So, a hundred years after its last embers, what are the fake folk memories bequeathed to the British by the First World War?

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Some can be cleaned up by researching sources not polluted by mass media you know, books , but some propaganda-induced prejudices are buried too deep for easy access. With a helping hand from historian David Olusoga and the BBC, one of those is finally starting to reveal itself to the British. Racial stereotyping, established as a human habit since the beginning of recorded history, was being applied to outsiders by the British long before the First World War. Imperial expansion since Tudor times had encouraged simplistic categorisation of other races, either as a form of demonization to encourage war against them, or as a convenient means of classifying them for exploitative purposes.

Before the nineteenth century, the first of those imperatives had generated negative images of French and Spanish culture in particular, but also of Irish, Jewish, native American, Polynesian and numerous other cultures considered worth fearing.

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After the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, subjugation and exploitation of native races became an economic and geopolitical imperative for expanding European empires, which found pragmatic reasons to employ more nuanced though similarly arbitrary systems of racial classification. Based on a combination of anecdotal evidence and homespun eugenics, races were classified as docile or warlike, lazy or hardworking, loyal or fickle, principled or purchasable.

These classifications were essentially informal guides for use by imperial administrators, but the same administrators were happy enough to have them fed into public consciousness at a time of mushrooming popular literacy and media consumption. So, while some Indian peoples were, for example, regarded as too peaceful, addicted to warm weather or untrustworthy for the horrors of the Western Front, those deemed loyal and martial were repeatedly fed into the mincer. Whether we recognise it or not, we are still living with those classifications. The Italian government, bent on establishing an empire, had fought Ottoman forces for control of Libya in —12, and the First Balkan War had pitched the Ottoman Empire against Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Montenegro, each a former province of the Empire and each seeking to expand its independent territories.

The Great War and its aftermath resolved much of the unfinished business in the Balkans, because the victors were free to reward their Serbian, Romanian and Greek allies by taking territory from the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. By the spring of only two major running sores remained open, both centred on important port cities near disputed frontiers, and both looking likely to turn nasty.

The Adriatic port of Fiume Rijeka was one outstanding hotspot. The other port in a storm was Smyrna, otherwise known as Izmir, and on 15 May the storm broke. Smyrna had long been one of many bones of contention between the Ottoman Empire and Greece, which had won independence from the Empire in and had been expanding into Greek-speaking Ottoman territories ever since.


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This blog has documented the tortuous path taken by Greece towards finally joining the Allies in , but the eventual agreement included an informal British promise to pro-Allied premier Eleutherios Venizelos of control over post-War Smyrna 27 June, Eyes Wide Shut. For a start, the Anglo-French carve-up of the future Middle East, aka the Sykes-Picot agreement, had allocated control over the Anatolian region to Italy in This meant Italy was also laying claim to Smyrna in , an embarrassment that encouraged the French and some British leaders to support the idea that Anatolia should remain in the hands of a post-Ottoman Turkish state.

It was no wonder the Greek government, led again by Venizelos, felt the need for some heavy lobbying in Paris. Alongside a major propaganda campaign that claimed Christian Greeks in the Smyrna region needed protection from systematic Islamic attacks, Venizelos dispatched a diplomatic mission to the city in late February , charged with firing up local Greeks in anticipation of an occupation.

The suggestion of religious persecution worked, at least on British premier Lloyd George, who began openly planning for a future Greek administration in Smyrna during February despite objections from his own foreign office, the French and the Italians.

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On 12 March an Italian warship sailed into the southern Anatolian port of Antalya, and on 28 March Italian troops occupied the town, ostensibly to provide security against reported banditry in the surrounding countryside. Uneasy about Italian ambitions in Anatolia, and willing to accept the Venizelos line that Christians in the Smyrna region needed protection, Clemenceau and Wilson joined Lloyd George in authorising a Greek occupation of Smyrna.

Planning was well advanced by the time the Italian delegation returned to Paris on 7 May, so Orlando had little choice about accepting the fait accompli and believing assurances that the emergency occupation did not necessarily imply post-War Greek control of the region. An Allied fleet under British command was assembled in the Aegean to support the Greek occupation, and on 14 May the Greek mission in Smyrna that Greek forces would be arriving next day.

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