In this latest Blog Post, Dr. Spencer Jones, Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces & War Studies, at the University of Wolverhampton and Co-Investigator for the Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Voices of War & Peace Engagement Centre, talks about Germany’s Spring Offensive, and why they undertook it in 1918.
Ross’ project was funded via Gateways to the First World War, an AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centre. The joy of this project was that it was locally focused. The Chichester News also featured the project in detail, remarking on technology, training and personal histories.
When the United States entered the war in April 1917 the need to expand their armed services was matched by a pressing issue of modernisation. Whilst the army and the navy could be developed, the nation had fallen behind Britain, France, Italy and Germany in one key area: aviation. Over the course of their engagement in the First World War, new aeroplane designs, engines and services were created that brought American aviation up to speed and sparked a new era of fascination for flight in the post-war era.
This wartime development of military aviation in the United States can be traced to the factories and flight schools that were developed after 1917. Workshops that had been making automobiles, were quick to produce the famous, powerful ‘Liberty’ engine that could outperform its European competitors. American universities and colleges also began training students as the US Government realised the enormous gulf between themselves and their new allies. The Aviation Section, Signal Corps, of the United States Army expanded rapidly with an extensive recruitment drive.
However, the site of these advances in aviation were also located in the American aerodromes that began to be constructed in Italy, France and Britain. These military bases enabled the United States to share knowledge, training and tactics with their allies in arrangements that set the basis of international military alliances during the twentieth century. Contracts were signed between the allies and manufacturers which provides materials and land.
It was the Handley Page Agreement of January 1918 that brought Americans to Sussex. This would offer access to a new development in aviation technology: the Handley Page Bomber. This huge machine, with a wing-span of over 20 metres, was designed to conduct raids into enemy territory. It was regarded as a key part of the development of the United States’s arsenal. The agreement enabled:
“…assembling Handley Page machines in the United Kingdom, of which all the component parts have been manufactured in the United States, and for providing thirty Handley Page Squadrons to be entirely at the disposal of the Commander in Chief of the United States Army in Europe.”
This was a highly ambitious plan. Construction and shipment of the parts were to commence immediately with the following targets:
- May 1918: 50 aeroplanes with 125 Liberty motors
- June 1918: 100 aeroplanes with 250 Liberty motors
- July 1918: 160 aeroplanes with 400 Liberty motors
The parts would be shipped to a factory in Oldham from the United States and then delivered to training bases in Sussex. Five sites were selected for aerodromes but only Ford, Rustington and Tangmere were constructed with hangars, classrooms and barracks in place by August 1918. Individuals were assigned duties at these locations but delays in manufacturing meant that none of the Handley Page Bombers ever arrived. Instead, pilots, navigators and ground crew trained on two smaller aircraft:
- Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2
- Airco DH.4 (De Havilland)
A strict regime of training was set out at these bases. Many of the pilots had been avid aviators before the war and the thrill of this new and precarious technology attracted the free-spirited and brave. Therefore, instruction focused on discouraging any techniques unsuitable for military purposes:
“All pilots are warned that “stunting” over hangars, diving over troops, transports, camps, villages or towns is expressly forbidden.”
The arrival of Americans in Sussex was warmly received by local residents and social events were arranged to welcome the newcomers whilst baseball games and music shows were used to develop good relationships with locals. An ‘American Club’ was founded in North Pallant, Chichester, in the summer of 1918 to make servicemen feel at home and romantic relationships saw a few local Sussex women go to the United States after the war.
This was a period of experimentation and aviation was a very dangerous area of military development. As such, a number of American aviators sadly lost their lives at the aerodromes in Sussex. For example, Second Lieutenant Carlton Merrill Bliss (1895-1918) from Massachusetts, died at Tangmere in November 1918, in a crash probably caused by a malfunctioning control. He was buried at Brookwood American Military Cemetery in Surrey.
Whilst the aerodromes in Sussex were quickly decommissioned in November 1918, the legacy of the expansion of American aviation can be witnessed in the interwar development of the United States Air Force as the Signal Corps was found to be insufficient. This history highlights how the conflict can be measured in the physical construction of factories, aerodromes and military capabilities, but also the social relationships that were formed between people away from the front who would never have met save for the conditions of wartime.
AHRC-funded research has challenged widely-held assumptions about the build-up to the First World War, writes Carrie Dunn.
Historians have long accepted the idea that the expansion of German maritime power was the dominant factor in British naval policy before the First World War. More recently a few have argued that Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord at the time, was more concerned with threats of global cruiser warfare from rival empires such as France and Russia rather than the menace of a big battle fleet that was quietly increasing across the North Sea.
Now an AHRC-supported project has provided an alternative argument. Dr Matthew Seligmann of Brunel University London argues that German schemes for commerce warfare drove British naval policy for over a decade before 1914.
He shows in his book ‘The Royal Navy and the German Threat 1901-1914’ that Germany was assessed as a major threat to Britain at that time not because of its growing battle fleet, but because the British Admiralty (rightly) believed that Germany’s naval planners intended to arm their country’s fast merchant vessels and send them out to attack British trade ships in the manner of the privateers of old.
Dr Seligmann says that he stumbled upon the topic largely by accident after his previous book on British intelligence in Berlin prior to the First World War. “In that, I argued that actually Britain was extremely well informed about what Germany was doing in terms of military and naval policy, and therefore the decision for war in 1914 was a largely rational one,” he explains. “I then put forward the view that Germany was very much at the forefront of British admiralty thinking in the crucial period from around 1901 to 1905, which didn’t strike me as tremendously controversial when I wrote it, but it turns out this is an extremely contested idea.”
He began to explore the idea a little further, expanding it into a major research project, and assessing the Admiralty’s paperwork prior to the First World War. “I started looking at the origins of the battle cruiser – or large armoured cruisers as they were then called – and quickly discovered, much to my surprise, that these ships seemed to have been built very much with hunting German armed liners in mind,” he says.
I quickly discovered that battle cruisers seemed to have been built very much with hunting German armed liners in mind
He points to the doomed Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk by a German u-boat, as an example of the substantive Admiralty response. It had been built with the aim of being used in war as an armed merchant cruiser, and was listed as an auxiliary war ship – just like its sister ship the Mauretania.
So Seligmann followed an extensive paper trail through the Admiralty papers, and organised them in chronological rather than file order. This was an immense feat, almost like putting together a jigsaw, because the Admiralty have kept only two per cent of the registered papers they generate, meaning that there is a very remote chance of a complete set of documentation on any topic being retained.
So instead of accepting the gaps in the archive, Seligmann looked at it from another angle. “The only way round this sometimes is thinking about who they would have corresponded with. On armed liners, they corresponded with just about everyone. So there were papers about this in the Foreign Office files, the Colonial Office files, the Cabinet Office files, the Treasury files, and so on, and then there also seemed to be quite a lot that people had taken away and kept in their private papers,” he explains.
“The whole thing just told a story that had never been told. Nobody would have put this together, as it was so widely scattered, but an enormous amount survived in different places, and there were very few gaps in the story once I’d done all the dredging.”
The whole thing just told a story that had never been told
And once he’d got that information together, he went one step further. “Because I can read German I thought it’d be interesting to go and see what the Germans were actually doing, so I went to the German archive to look at their papers, and so I was able in the end to map out what Britain was doing with what Germany was doing, and compare and contrast the two,” he says.
“What I was able to do was work out what the Germans were actually doing, and what their policies were, and then map it against the secret intelligence Britain had on what we thought they were doing, which was in many ways close and in many ways wrong. You wouldn’t call it an intelligence failure; it was a success, albeit with the standard problem that you tend to see what you’re looking for and assume your opponent is going to do that which you’re most worried about, which isn’t always the case.”
This threat to British seaborne commerce was so serious, Seligmann argues, that the leadership of the Royal Navy, including First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill spent twelve years trying to work out how best to counter it.
“Churchill pushed the policy of creating a global intelligence network on German raiding and re-routing British shipping – that was up and running by the time the war began, and it was an important network in both wars, stemming from this particular threat,” says Seligmann.
Unsurprisingly, research this groundbreaking has created a bit of a stir in the field, with Seligmann admitting that his work is “unpalatable” to those historians who have long held the view that those who think Germany played a crucial role in shaping British policy before the First World War are simply using hindsight.
“The arguments have become fierce as other people have entered the fray,” Seligmann admits. “The old angle is being scrutinised and found wanting. Those stuck in aspic with their ideas don’t find my work to their tastes at all. I guess, without wanting to make a pun of it, this book has become a flagship for a new way of looking at naval history before the First World War.”