1/7/1918 Writing on the wall for Austria-Hungary as France declares support for an independent Czechoslovakia

In 1914 Austria-Hungary’s leaders pushed for war with Serbia in the hope that it would restore the Habsburg Empire’s fortunes and reverse its long decline. Events since then have not progressed entirely to their satisfaction, with the underperformance of the Austro-Hungarian military turning the Empire into little more than a client state of the Germans. Now its continued existence is increasingly threatened. The travails of war have led to great hardships and discontent and the disaster at the Piave has shattered what remained of the Empire’s prestige, with Emperor Karl himself being blamed for the debacle. Now the various ethnicities and peoples that make up the Empire are restless, with many wishing to separate themselves from the Habsburgs.

The Allies meanwhile are increasingly intent on breaking up the Empire. In his Fourteen Points, Wilson had proposed that Austria-Hungary’s peoples should have every possible opportunity for autonomous development. Since then the US President’s views have developed and how he argues that “all branches of the Slav race should be completely free from German and Austrian rule”. Talk of joining Serbia with Austria-Hungary’s southern Slav territories to create a new state (Yugoslavia) is finding a receptive audience in most Allied capitals, with the notable exception of Italy. Meanwhile in Paris the cause of Czechoslovakia is being advanced by exiled Czech nationalist Tomáš Masaryk and his Czechoslovak National Committee. Today they achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, with the French government formally recognising them as the representatives of the Czechoslovak nation. With the Allies also talking of attaching Galicia to a newly independent Poland, it looks like there will not be much left of Austria-Hungary if the Allies win the war.

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Tomáš Masaryk (Českobudějovický deník: Jihočeské kalné ráno…)

23/3/1918 The Paris gun #1918Live

The Allies are reeling from the German offensive against the British in Picardy. Now Paris, still more than 70 miles from the front, finds itself under attack when something falls from the sky and explodes on the banks of the Seine. The city has been bombed before so Parisians initially assume another air raid is taking place, but there is no sign of German bombers or Zeppelins. As more explosive ordnance falls on the city the truth becomes clear: the Germans are shelling Paris with some kind of supergun that can fire across previously unimaginable distances.

The Paris gun is an astonishing feat of German engineering, capable of blasting a shell from its launch site behind German lines to the distant French capital, sending the 100 kilogram shell up 25 miles into the stratosphere before it drops down to its target. The gun is relatively inaccurate and cannot be used to target particular locations in Paris but is ideal for indiscriminate attacks on the city as a whole. The shells are less destructive than ones fired by normal artillery pieces but their intended effect is psychological, with the Germans hoping to strike terror into the hearts of the Parisians.

By the end of the day some 21 of the gun’s shells have landed in Paris. Coupled with the critical situation at the front they contribute to an air of mounting panic in the French capital. Some suggest that the situation is now so dangerous that, as in 1914, the government should decamp to Bordeaux or some other safer location.
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The Paris Gun (Wikipedia)

4/1/1918 French pacifist politician Joseph Caillaux arrested #1918Live

In early 1914 Joseph Caillaux of the Radicals had been all set to form a French government in coalition with the Socialists. Caillaux’s bold plan was to push for a rapprochement with Germany that would allow for a reduction in the French army size, thereby releasing funds for progressive social programmes. But then his wife, Henriette Caillaux, shot and killed the editor of Le Figaro. Caillaux stood aside while his wife went on trial and so was not at the helm when the July Crisis plunged Europe into war.

Unlike many others, the war has not dented Caillaux’s pacific sentiment and he continued to speak out for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. He is also rumoured to be engaged in secret negotiations with the Germans. But Clemenceau, France’s new prime minister, is determined to prosecute the war to victory and to silence those calling for an early peace. Clemenceau is also a Radical, but this does not stop him now having Caillaux arrested and charged with treason.

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Advertisement for The Caillaux Case (1918) (Wikipedia: Henriette Caillaux)

16/11/1917 Georges Clemenceau, France’s latest Prime Minister #1917Live

Another political crisis in France has led to the fall of Painlevé‘s government. Now President Poincaré takes the bold step of inviting Georges Clemenceau to form a government. Clemenceau is an old man, 76 years of age, and a leader of the Radical Party, a secular liberal group that has long been the bane of France’s conservative establishment. Clemenceau has also been a strident critic of the way France’s political leaders have been conducting the war. Handing him the premiership gives him an opportunity to put up or shut up.

Clemenceau is determined that the war must be prosecuted to victory and vehemently opposed to any suggestion of a separate peace with the Germans. He plans immediate moves against pacifist agitators within France, including senior politicians such as the Radical leader Joseph Caillaux, whom he suspects of seeking to bring France out of the war.

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Georges Clemenceau (Wikipedia)

15/10/1917 Mata Hari executed #1917Live

Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, was arrested in February by the French authorities, accused of spying for Germany. At her trial in July the bizarre claim was made that her actions had cost the lives of 50,000 French soldiers, with much of the failure of the Nivelle Offensive being laid on her shoulders. The court found the exotic dancer guilty and sentenced her to death. The authorities appear not to have pursued the French officers and politicians who supposedly supplied her with the information that led to so many deaths.
Zelle continues to protest her innocence but to no avail. Today she is executed by firing squad. There are conflicting reports of her last moments. Some report that she blew a kiss to her executioners, others that she was or was not tied to a post before being shot. Accounts agree however that Mata Hari refused a blindfold, facing down her killers as they pull their triggers.

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Still from 1920s film on Mata Hari (BBC: The fateful life of history’s most famous female spy)

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12/9/1917 Another new Prime Minister for France #1917Live

It is not just Russia that finds itself gripped by political crisis. Alexandre Ribot took over as French prime minister in March. In recent days however his government has lost the support of the Socialists and has had to resign. His replacement is Paul Painlevé, until now the war minister. A mathematician and academic by background, Painlevé is France’s fourth prime minister since the start of the war.

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Paul Painlevé (Wikipedia)

20/6/1917 Industrial unrest grips France

The French army continues to be gripped by unrest. On the home front too a rebellious mood is evident. A rolling series of strikes has been taking place in French factories, both ones engaged in civil production and ones producing munitions for the army. Most of the strikers are women, who have replaced conscripted men on the factory floors.

The strikers’ demands are mostly economic rather than political, with the women seeking pay rises and equality of wages with their remaining male colleagues. But there is a political undercurrent too, with demands for the war’s end being heard.

Industrial unrest perturbs the authorities. Could France be on the brink of a revolution like that of Russia? The strikes are met with repression, with the police violently suppressing demonstrations by striking workers. But the strikes are not a complete failure, with employers finding themselves forced to increase wages in order to lure their workers back to the shop floor.

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Women in a French munitons factory, 1916