09 November 1915 – Guildhall

Photo by Pamela Raith.

Already five centuries old, in 1915 Guildhall is still London’s town hall (see above), a place where countless politicians have addressed matters of public interest in war an peace. Today, Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith recalls his speech exactly one year earlier in the same location as he restates British war aims. Beneath its bellicose words, his earlier speech was not specific about how victory should reshape the continent to Britain’s liking.

We shall never sheathe the sword which we have not lightly drawn until Belgium recovers in full measure all and more that she has sacrificed, until France is adequately secured against the menace of aggression, until the rights of the smaller nationalities of Europe are placed upon an unassailable foundation, and until the military domination of Prussia is wholly and finally destroyed.

Neither does Asquith’s speech today offer any more details, merely broad principles on familiar lines. He is firm that Belgium must be restored its sovereignty, but does not offer a vision for how to defend them against Germany in the future. Whereas German postwar planning has already begun creeping into implementation with the eastward advance of the Kaiser’s armies as they pursue his dream of a global imperium rivaling the British one, Asquith’s war aims have remained publicly fluid because they are extremely subjective in private. They are also more defined in the abstract, for London sees itself holding the line to prevent the Kaiser from having what he wants.

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Criticized for Balkan diplomatic failure, H. H. Asquith has already formed a coalition government in May due to scandal

In return for their assistance in defeating the Austrians, Italy has Britain’s solemn promise to deed them Hapsburg lands in Slovenia, Croatia, and Dalmatia — which are all coveted by Britain’s Serbian ally, with a growing pan-Slavic movement vying for recognition. In contrast to the promises made to the Italians, the Asquith government has pressed the Serbs to give up Macedonia to the Bulgarians as an enticement towards alliance, but Serbia refused to concede anything to Bulgaria until it was too late, and now the Serbian Army is collapsing in defeat, unable to defend itself from three sides.

Meanwhile, France opposes Italian aims in the Balkans, especially control of Albania, and French support of Serbian nationhood is unwavering despite the unfolding debacle. Now thrown back on their imperial borders, the Russian Army fights under the direct command of a Tsar who still also expects Balkan influence and control of the Turkish gateway to the Mediterranean in return for their blood, further complicating the geopolitical morass that caused the war in the first place. From the hills of Kosovo to far-flung imperial capitals, there is deep uncertainty about how all of these competing ambitions will shake out, and in fact the process is still ongoing one hundred years later; in November of 1915, however, the war is not going well for the Entente alliance, making the entire project seem all the more uncertain — as reflected in Asquith’s speech.

In fact, as the Guildhall applauds him, major strategic commitments becoming quite unsettled behind the scenes.

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Lord Kitchener embarking on the H.M.S. Laforey at Marseilles bound for Athens

Arriving today at Mudros, a port on the Greek island of Lemnos, Asquith’s Minister of War receives his first briefings on the situation at Gallipoli. General Sir Charles Monro has prepared a sound and thorough argument for withdrawal, showing that troop levels remain insufficient to break through or renew landings on the peninsula and presenting a plausible plan for evacuation. Slow to change his mind, Lord Kitchener warms to Monro’s assessment, but it is his friend Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood who does the most to convince him that the Dardanelles are a lost cause. Touring the beachheads in person, Kitchener finally comes to grips with the lack of a reserve area.

The flow of men in the eastern Mediterranean Sea has already been re-routed to Salonika, but indecision reigns in London even with Kitchener’s endorsement of withdrawal. Asquith prefers deliberation and consensus, and there are struggles over how to explain the decision to Russia. Criticized for not articulating British war aims enough, the Asquith government must now deflate expectations in Petrograd and Guidhall alike. And as London and Paris give up on the Dardanelles and draw closer together in a bid to change the direction of the war, before the end of the year they will begin drawing the maps that define an entire century of conflict.

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The conflict lines of a region are still written in a fractured ethnic and national landscape