Report from the Fronts #35: the October Revolution (7-9 November 1917)

Without question the most far-reaching event of November 1917 – and perhaps the entire war – was the October Revolution (remember the Julian calendar?) in Russia.  In September Kerensky had armed the Bolsheviks and released their leaders in order to suppress the Kornilov revolt, and he now reaped the whirlwind.

On 5 November the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks voted for insurrection, and two days later Red Guards began occupying government buildings and key facilities in St. Petersburg, meeting little opposition.  Most of the troops in or near the city and most of the railway workers joined the revolt, leaving the Provisional Government with little support.  Kerensky fled the city, seeking loyal military units, and Lenin issued a proclamation that the Provisional Government had been overthrown.

Lenin speaks

The Red Guard of the Vulcan Factory

Lenin speaks again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That was perhaps a bit hasty, but on 8 November the Bolsheviks besieged the headquarters of the government, the Winter Palace, which was guarded by a ragtag force of 3000, including 147 soldiers of the 2nd Moscow Women’s Battalion of Death.  The actual attack was delayed until evening, after most of the defenders had fled, and at 9:45 PM the cruiser Aurora, anchored in the harbor and manned by sympathetic sailors, fired a shot to signal the assault.  By 2:00 AM the Winter Palace was in Soviet hands (the last defenders, the Women’s Battalion, surrendered), virtually without bloodshed (contrary to later Soviet propaganda), and the Provisional Government, which had been debating what to do, was arrested.

The  Aurora

The Battalion of Death

The Malachite Room, seat of the Provisional Government

The Winter Palace

Wrong

Wrong again

 

 

 

 

 

 

(The capture of the Winter Palace also meant the capture of one of the largest stocks of liquor in the world.  This being Russia, soon all the soldiers were drunk, and the looting spread from the Palace to the homes of the wealthy.  Lenin sent more detachments to the Palace and set up guards, but they too (“the disciplined vanguard of the proletariat”) joined in the boozing.  Pumping all the wine into the streets only resulted in the crowds bellying up to the gutter for a drink, and the party only ended when the center of St. Petersburg ran out of liquor.  The Soviet Union began its existence with a massive hangover.)

Where do I start?

Keeping up tradition

 

 

 

In an essentially bloodless coup Vladimir Lenin and his tiny band of Bolsheviks had capitalized on discontent in the capital and spearheaded the revolution and were now the government of the Russian Empire.  Lenin took the office of Prime Minister and Leon Trotsky that of Foreign Minister, while the Second All Russian Congress of Soviets, meeting from 7 to 9 November, ratified the Revolution.  Kerensky’s force of Cossacks was defeated just outside the city on the 12th, and on the next day Moscow was seized after serious street fighting.  Kerensky fled St. Petersburg and ultimately Russia on 15 November; he died in New York City in 1970, ironically surviving all his enemies.  The murderous and often bizarre history of the Soviet Union had begun.

Trotsky

The new regime

Kerensky

The old regime

Lenin

 

 

 

Opposition arose almost immediately and would lead to the five year nightmare of the Civil War, but the impact of the Revolution on the war was immediate.  Unlike Kerensky, Lenin recognized (and had promised) the need for peace, especially to secure the new regime, and saw no reason to honor Russia’s commitments to the Allies.  On 26 November three Russian emissaries crossed German lines under a white flag and arranged for armistice discussions at Brest-Litovsk, the German headquarters on the Belarus-Polish border.  In less than a month Russia would be out of the war.

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Report from the Fronts #34: October 1917

The area around Ypres

Third Ypres ground on.  On 4 October ANZAC troops assaulted the Broodseinde Ridge, gaining the objective on the first day and further unsettling the Germans, who were having trouble dealing with the new allied leapfrog tactics.  Unsurprisingly, the success led to arguments among the commanders about pushing further, but the presence of substantial German reserves behind the line and the usual difficulty of bringing up the artillery over the shattered battle ground sank that idea.  General Herbert Plumer – in a Trumpian moment – called Broodseinde “the greatest victory since the Marne.”  Tell that to the 20,000 commonwealth casualties.

No mans land

Battle of Broodseinde

Bringing up the guns

Herbert Plumer

Next up in the Ypres Mud Fight was the Battle of Poelcapelle, an attempt by French and British units on 9 October to push half the way from Broodseinde Ridge to Passchendaele.  But the “easy” victories were over.  The heavy rains returned, and bringing up the artillery over blasted ground to secure gains was becoming incredibly difficult.  As a result, the Allies were unable to hold most of the captured ground against German counterattacks, and the battle ended after a single day.  Some 10,000 Allied troops were casualties, many drowned in shell holes; since the beginning of the month the Germans had suffered 35,000.

Typical Ypres terrain – Chateauwood

The road into Poelcapelle

Battle of Poelcapelle

Three days later the Allies attacked again – the First Battle of Passchendaele – Generals Plumer and Haig mistakenly thinking that the earlier advance had been generally successful (that is how bad communications were).  The result was a repeat of Poelcapelle, and the Brits and ANZACS suffered 13,000 casualties failing to take Passchendaele Ridge; it was perhaps the worst day in New Zealand military history.

The Butcher of the Somme

German losses for this specific battle are unknown, but it is clear that while the Ypres battles were gaining little ground, they were nevertheless inflicting heavy losses, which the Germans could ill afford.  Two divisions being sent to Italy for the upcoming offensive went instead to the Ypres sector, and the commander of the army group covering the northern stretch of the Western Front, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, had actually considered a withdrawal, which might have endangered the German position and submarine bases on the Belgian coast.  This in fact was one of the Allied goals for the Ypres offensive.

Crown Prince Rupprecht

Meanwhile, to the south the French opened the Battle of La Malmaison on 23 October.  This was essentially a continuation of the Second Battle of the Aisne from back in April (remember the Nivelle Offensive?), and by 27 October the French had captured the Chemin des Dames Ridge in its entirety and the fortress town of La Malmaison – or what was left of it.  It cost the French 14,000 casualties, the Germans 50,000.

Battle of Malmaisson

The Malmaison fort

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last phase of Third Ypres kicked off on 26 October with the Second Battle of Passchendaele, a mostly Canadian affair.  The aim was to seize the Passchendaele-Westrozebeke Ridge, both for observation advantages and in order to establish a winter defensive line on the drier high ground.  The assault was to be executed in four limited advances separated by pauses, allowing time for guns and supplies to be brought up and fresh troops switched in after each phase.

On the road to Passchendaele

Same terrain a century later

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plan actually worked, though the slaughter and the endless mud made this battle just as unpleasant for the poor beggars on the ground as the earlier operations.  The first two phases took place on 26 October and 30 October and were relatively successful, most of the Passchendaele Ridge being secured.  The second two phases would take place in early November, but meanwhile disaster in Italy through a monkey wrench into the plans to capture Passchendaele itself.

Battlefield funeral

Morning at Passchendaele

Passchendaele before and after

 

On 24 October the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo began, but this one was very different from the previous eleven.  This time it was the Austrians and Germans who attacked, not just at the Isonzo but all along the front from the Adriatic near Trieste west to the Trentino.  The main thrust, however, was at Caporetto in the upper Isonzo valley, and the conflict is also known as the Battle of Caporetto (or Kobarid).  And the German-Austrian forces fared a lot better than the incompetent Luigi Cadorna.

Battle of Caporetta

Field Marshal Hindenburg had already decided Austria needed help, despite the objections of the man who was increasingly in control, Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, who probably realized the Italian Army was presently incapable of any serious offensive.  Caporetto was chosen because it controlled an excellent road into the Venetian plain (a chemist also declared the valley perfect for a gas attack), and the new 14th Army, nine Austrian and six German divisions under General Otto von Below, would spearhead the assault, which would ultimately send some 350,000 troops against 875,000 Italians.  Overall command of the Isonzo Army Group was in the hands of General Svetozar Boroević, the Croatian (!) commander who had halted all of Cadorna’s offensives.  Unlike his opponent, who was despised by his men, “our Sveto” was loved by his and known as the “Knight of Isonzo.”

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna

Otto von Below

Svetozar Boroević

The offensive began with a massive gas barrage (chlorine-arsenic and diphosgene), which in the absence of wind settled into the valley, and Italian troops began fleeing, knowing that their gas masks would function only for a couple of hours.  A subsequent artillery bombardment hit the now lightly defended fortifications, and von Below’s troops poured into the valley, their flanks protected by Alpine units that secured the heights.  The infantry penetrated 16 miles in the first day, and while the Italians managed to block the attacks flanking the main group, the Italian army was reeling.  Rushing in troops from other sectors only led to more Austrian assaults along the entire front.

Caparetto

The situation was not helped by General Cadorna, who failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and the already low morale of his men, much of it the fault of his own ineptitude and harsh methods.  General Luigi Capello, commander of the 2nd Army, which was the target of the main thrust, almost immediately asked to withdraw to the Tagliamento River but was refused by Cadorna, leading to the surrender of more Italian troops.  By 28 October the offensive had reached Udine, and two days later Cadorna called for a retreat across the Tagliamento, which took four days.  Italy was on the verge of collapse.

Italian prisoners

Waiting for the offensive

German assault troops

Incidentally, active in the battle was a young first lieutenant commanding the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion: Erwin Rommel.  In 52 hours from 25 to 27 October the 27 year old Rommel and his 150 men captured some 9000 enemy troops and 81 artillery pieces, suffering only six dead and 30 wounded.  He would later be awarded Germany’s highest military award, the Pour le Mérite.

The young Rommel

Meanwhile, the Southern Palestine Offensive (Third Battle of Gaza) began on 31 October with the Battle of Beersheba, the eastern anchor of the Turkish line from Gaza.  The small town was well guarded by trenches and outlying strongpoints, and Fevzi Çakmak Pasha, commander of the 7th Army, which was responsible for the eastern section of the Gaza-Beersheba line, had some 4500 men available, though not all were at Beersheba.  General Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, had some 50,000 men and in a complex operation (water was the major problem) intended to assault the town from the west with infantry and from the east, where there was no wire or horse traps, with mounted troops.  Beersheba was encircled and attacked and captured in a single day.

Fevzi Pasha

Edmund Allenby

Battle of Beersheba

Palestine front

 

 

While the Battle of Beersheba marks the first Allied victory in Palestine and would lead to breaking the Turkish Gaza line, it is better remembered for the last effective cavalry charge in history.  Coming from the southeast, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade had traveled over 30 miles of desert to reach the town by dawn, and near 4 PM they were ordered to take the town.  The 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments began their advance at about 4 miles from the town and began taking fire at 2 miles, but help from supporting artillery and the speed (and surprise) of the charge minimized Turkish effectiveness.  Leaping across the trenches, the 4th and some of the 12th dismounted and began shooting at the Turks from the rear, but the bulk of the 12th, armed with bayonets in place of lances or swords, rode into Beersheba and captured it.

Australian Light Horse

Beersheba

Beersheba

Charge of the Light Horse

(As it happens, the last major cavalry charge took place in 1942.  On August 23 on the Eastern Front 600 Italian horse, armed with sabers and grenades, charged a formation of 2000 Soviet infantry and actually dislodged them from their positions.

In miscellaneous news from October, on the 11th the German navy began operations against the Baltic Islands, capturing them all by the 20th and sinking a Russian battleship in the process.  In early October Peru and Uruguay cut diplomatic relations with Germany (Costa Rica did so in September), and on the 26th Brazil declared war, fed up with German submarines sinking Brazilian merchant vessels.  In 1918 a (relatively) sizable Brazilian force would actually travel to France.

Brazil declares war

Finally, an event everyone has heard of: on 15 October Mata Hari was shot by a French firing squad.  Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands and in 1905 began a highly successful career as an exotic dancer in Paris, eventually becoming the mistress of a French millionaire.  Believing her to be the ultimate femme fatale that she would become in legend, in 1916 the French Deuxième Bureau recruited her as a spy, hoping she could seduce German Crown Prince Wilhelm, who had enjoyed her performances before the war, and wheedle military information out of him.

Mata Hari in 1905

And again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem with this was that although the Crown Prince was the commander of an Army Group, he relied completely on his staff, inasmuch as he had never directly commanded anything larger than a regiment.  More stupidity in a war filled with it.  In late 1916 Zelle contacted the Germans in Madrid and offered them French secrets (of which she had none), either for money or to engineer a meeting with the Crown Prince.  In January of 1917 the German military attaché in Madrid sent to Berlin a message about Zelle’s activities as a spy in a code that was known to have been broken, perhaps because Germany military intelligence was fed up with her.

Crown Prince Wilhelm

Zelle was arrested in Paris on 13 February and subsequently convicted of espionage in a joke of a trial.  In the wake of the French army mutiny and the failure of the Nivelle Offensive a foreign spy was an extremely convenient scapegoat for the political establishment, which apparently determined to seize the opportunity.  There was no concrete evidence against her and her defense attorney was forced to operate under serious limitations, but destined to serve political ends, she was convicted and shot.  A naïve woman, seduced herself by French intelligence, had to die for the glory of France.  The records of the proceedings and trial were sealed until October 2017, by which time the perpetrators of the crime would be safely dead.

Mata Hari when arrested

And the war went on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #33: September 1917

September 1917 saw a continuation of the slaughter in Flanders.  Good weather early in the month dramatically improved the British supply situation, and on 20 September another push in the Ypres Offensive got underway with the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.  Eleven British and Commonwealth divisions attacked five German on a relatively narrow front of 15,000 yards and by noon they had achieved most of their goals, when the inevitable counterattacks began – and failed.

Wounded at Menin Road Ridge

Third Battle of Ypres

The area around Ypres

The British had changed their tactics.  In order to deal with the German forward strong points, such as pillboxes, they had brought in more heavy artillery and with spotting by aircraft they were able to neutralize many of the forward defenses and much of the German artillery.  The advancing units leapfrogged one another, the following wave taking over the assault while the previous secured the captured ground against counterattack.  This more limited and cautious approach worked, avoiding the massive offensive casualties typical of the Western Front and securing the gains until more resources could be brought up.  The front line had moved 1500 yards, and if the Allies could achieve such gains each week, they could be in Berlin by Christmas of 1927.

Aussies waiting for the gas

German counterattacks continued, but with little effect, since the new cautious approach (and good weather) allowed the British to better fortify gains and resupply the troops before the counter assault came.  On 26 September the British and Australians tried again, attacking Polygon Wood, and within a day achieved their limited objectives.  The Germans were unable to regain any of the lost ground.

Life between the offensives

Waiting for the assault

Polygon Wood

Welcome to Belgium

John Hines – Scrounge King of Polygon Wood

 

On 4 September an Anglo-French Conference met to consider sending aid to the Italian Front, which was certainly timely, inasmuch as the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ended in failure on the 12th.  General Cadorna had gone all out on this one, concentrating three-quarters of his army for the attack, 52 divisions and 5200 guns against less than half those numbers on the Austrian side.  Predictably, given the terrain (and the previous ten offensives), there was no breakthrough, though ironically the Austrians were on the brink when the battle ended (115,000 casualties) and would have folded under another assault.  But the Italian army was completely exhausted (158,000 casualties), and the next offensive, the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, would be launched by the Austrians.

Italian dead at Isonzo

Italian anti-aircraft at Isonzo

The Isonzo front

To the east Russia appeared on the edge of collapse.  On 3 September the Germans captured Riga, and five days later General Kornilov marched on St. Petersburg in an attempt to purge the city garrison of Bolshevik troops and possibly to overthrow the Provisional Government in favor of a military dictatorship..  On the 10th Kerensky, however, declared Kornilov a traitor and himself dictator of Russia, and in a move of immense historical consequence he called upon the Bolsheviks for support, armed them and released their leaders (including Leon Trotsky – Lenin had fled to Finland) from prison.

Kornilov launches his coup

As it happened, however, Kornilov’s troops, many sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, were already deserting, and with the revolt collapsing around him he surrendered on 14 September.  He was imprisoned, escaped and ended up being killed fighting for the Whites in the Civil War.  But Kerensky, who subsequent to Kornilov’s arrest proclaimed Russia to be a republic, was himself now in serious trouble.  The Bolsheviks were now armed, their leaders were free to organize and agitate and with his treatment of Kornilov and other officers implicated in the conspiracy Kerensky had lost any hope of support from the military.  The one time tiny radical Bolshevik faction was now poised to seize control of the capital of the Russian Empire.

Kerensky

General Kornilov

Report from the Fronts #32: August 1917

August is dominated by the Flanders Campaign.  The Battle of Pilckem Ridge ended on 2 August, resulting in some gains and 32,000 British, 1300 French and 30,000 German casualties.  Proponents of the offensive argued that these were small losses compared to 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, hardly a convincing argument.

On 15 August the Battle of Hill 70 (overlooking the town of Lens 30 miles south of Ypres) began, the intention being to make life easier for their comrades at Ypres by drawing German troops away from the main thrust of the offensive.  The Canadians took the hill in ten days but suffered heavy casualties (9000); the Germans suffered grandly (more than 20,000) but were able to hold without help from the north.  Incidentally, just about two years earlier at the battle of Loos the British suffered 60,000 casualties attempting to capture the same territory.

German flamethrower

Canadians on Hill 70

German pillbox

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, back at Ypres the drive restarted on 16 August with the Battle of Langemarck.  The offensive ended two days later with the capture of Langemarck but a failure to seize all the higher ground and certainly no breakthrough.  A major part of the problem was the unseasonable rains, which given the destruction of the drainage canals, turned the battlefields into quagmires and slowed any advance, especially considering that the allies were on the lower ground.  The offensive was halted until conditions were better.  The battle, including subsequent small actions, cost the Allies some 36,000 casualties and the Germans 26,000.  It just went on and on.

Everywhere, mud

Third Battle of Ypres

Battle of Langemarck

And speaking of going on and on, on 20 August the French launched an offensive on both sides of the Meuse at Verdun.  The objectives were limited and mostly attained, but the tactical/strategic situation was unchanged.  The French captured 11,000 prisoners, but suffered 14,000 casualties; the new German POWs were the lucky ones.

Verdun offensive

An ominous sign, on 2 August 350 crew of one of the German dreadnaughts at Wilhelmshaven engaged in a protest, only to be severely disciplined – two leaders were shot.  This put an end to such demonstrations for the duration of the war, but also led to the spread of clandestine sailors’ committees on the big ships. The sailors would be heard from again.

Sailors demonstrating

On 6 August Kerensky became Prime Minister of Russia, but his days were numbered.  Liberia declared war on Germany on 4 August, presumably following the American lead, and the new Republic of China on the 14th, presumably to curry western favor.

And on 17 August – drum roll! – the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo kicked off.  The offensive would fail, hardly a surprise, and prepare the way for the major Italian disaster of the Twelfth Battle.

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna

 

(Less Delayed) Report from the Fronts #31: July 1917

 

 

July began with the aptly named July Offensive of the Russians.  It was launched by the Minister of War and de facto head of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky (hence also named the Kerensky Offensive), and commanded by Aleksei Brusilov of the successful Brusilov Offensive of 1916.  Kerensky, determined to honor his commitment to the Allies, completely underestimated the popular desire for peace, which the Bolsheviks were demanding, and overestimated the state of the army, which was deteriorating rapidly.  Brusilov was convinced a military collapse could not be avoided, but he would take a shot at a new offensive.

Kerensky

General Brusilov

General Kornilov

The July Offensive

The offensive literally began with a bang, the biggest artillery barrage of the Eastern Front, which blew a hole in the Austrian lines and allowed an advance, but German resistance caused mounting Russian casualties.  Morale began to crumble even more quickly, and with the exception of General Lvar Kornilov’s well-trained shock battalions, the infantry essentially stopped following orders.  The advance ended completely on 16 July, and three days later came the inevitable German-Austrian counterattack, which drove the Russians back 150 miles, right into the Ukraine.

The failure of the July Offensive to a great extent doomed the Provisional Government, though the ultimate success of the Bolsheviks would depend upon a certain amount of luck.  On 19 July Kerensky replaced Prince Georgy Lvov as Prime Minister and became Commander-in-Chief in August, but the handwriting on the wall was growing larger.  When the July Offensive came to a halt on the 16th, soldiers and workers, demanding “all power to the Soviets,” began demonstrations in St. Petersburg and other cities, the July Days.  The Bolshevik leadership was taken by surprise, but ultimately supported the movement, only to be confronted with troops loyal to the Provisional Government.  The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks called off the demonstrations on 20 July, and Kerensky began a wave of arrests.  Lenin narrowly escaped capture, but many other Bolsheviks, like Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev, ended up in prison.

Grigory Zinovievba

Leon Trotsky

Vladimir Lenin

Riot in St. Petersburg

 

 

 

 

Not to be outdone, at the opposite end of the war the British launched the Battle of Pilckem Ridge on 31 July.  Actually, Pilckem Ridge was the first of a series of offensives collectively called the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), which would stretch into December and were a continuation of the Flanders Campaign begun with the Battle of Messines Ridge in June.  “Wipers,” as Tommy called it, would be a four month mud bath for Commonwealth troops.

Typical Ypres conditions

German prisoners

Third Battle of Ypres

On a more romantic – and drier – note, on 6 July Colonel Lawrence and his Bedouins captured the town of Aqaba with virtually no casualties, though not quite as the movie depicted it.  The real fight was on 2 July at Abu al Lasan about fifty miles northeast of Aqaba.  A separate Arab force had seized a blockhouse there, but a Turkish battalion recaptured it and then killed some encamped Arabs, which outraged Auda Abu Tayi, the leader of Lawrence’s Howeitat auxiliaries.  He took the town, slaughtering some 300 Turks, and local tribes flocked to him, swelling Lawrence’s force to 5000.  They then moved on Aqaba, which had already been shelled by Allied naval forces, and the garrison surrendered at their arrival at the gates.  Lawrence then immediately returned to Cairo, a camel ride of over 200 miles.

Aqaba today

Triumphal entry into Aqaba

Lawrence at Aqaba

Auda Abu Tayi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In miscellaneous news from July, on the 2nd the first regular merchant convoy left Virginia for Britain, and on the 7th the last daylight air raid on London took place, producing over 200 civilian casualties. On 28 July the British Army formed a Tank Corps, and on the 17th the Palace, responding to anti-German sentiment, announced that Britain was no longer under the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (from Queen Victoria’s consort Albert) but the House of Windsor.  Kaiser Wilhelm, King George V’s cousin, responded that he planned to see The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

King George V

Cousin Willy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a very clever move, on 22 July King Rama VI of Siam (Thailand) declared war on the Central Powers.  Through adroit diplomacy, playing the French and British against one another, Siam had managed to remain the only independent state in southeast Asia and saw an opportunity to strengthen its position and gain influence in the postwar world order by sending a token force to the Western Front.  It would work (and Bangkok is now a favorite destination for European – and especially German – tourists).

The Thai Expeditionary Force at Paris

King Rama VI

 

(Seriously Delayed) Report from the Fronts #30: June 1917

The Big Push for June was the Battle of Messines, which marked the beginning of Britain’s Flanders Offensive; like the French they apparently could not wait for the Americans.  The assault was launched on 7 June with the detonation of nineteen mines under the German lines, catching the enemy by surprise and promptly killing 10,000 troops.  The mining had begun in 1915 – so little had the front changed – and 454 tons of explosives went up in twenty seconds, dwarfing the Somme mines and creating the largest explosion in history before the Trinity bomb.

Lone Tree mine crater

Destroyed German trench

Battle of Messines Ridge

The effectiveness of the British mines and creeping barrage allowed the most important objective, the Messines ridge, to be taken on the first day, and when the battle ended a week later, it remained in Allied hands.  The offensive was certainly a tactical success, gaining the high ground, as it were, and setting the stage for the next advance, but one (who was not an Allied general) might question the strategic gain.  The ridge cost each side some 25,000 casualties.

Messines, post-battle

Messines: fake tree observation post

Messines: allied artillery

 

Certainly a greater boost to Allied morale was the arrival of General John Pershing in France on 13 June and 14,000 troops of the American Expeditionary Force on the 25th.  The Allied commanders wanted to immediately send them to the front, but Pershing wanted more training and was adamant that his boys would fight as American units not simply replacements.  The doughboys (from the adobe dust in the Mexican war?) would not hit the trenches for another several months, but their presence was already a clear boost to morale.

American doughboy

Pillsbury doughboy

Foch, Pershing, Pétain, Haig

 

 

Speaking of morale, on 8 June the French military began seriously dealing with the mutiny with arrests and courts-martial, but with surprising restraint, which annoyed many of the generals.  Nevertheless, Philippe Pétain, the new Chief of the General Staff, and President Raymond Poincaré supported a lighter touch, and while there were 629 death sentences handed down, only 43 executions were actually carried out.  More effective in restoring order was the institution of regular leaves and a promise of only severely limited offensives until the Americans arrived in strength.

Poincaré

Pétain

 

 

French execution

 

 

 

On the Greek “front” the Allies demanded on 11 June that King Constantine abdicate, which he did the following day, passing the throne to his son, who became Alexander I.  Alexander was clearly a puppet of the Allies, who now occupied more Greek territory, but under his “rule” Greece would benefit from the Allied victory.  Unfortunately for Alexander, he would die from a monkey bite in 1920, to be succeeded, ironically, by his father.  Venizelos, leader of the provisional government in Salonika, became Prime Minister on 26 June and took power in Athens the next day.  Greece was now formally at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

Venizelos

King Constantine I

Coronation of Alexander

King Alexander I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the new Russian Republic the Provisional Government turned down a German offer of an armistice on 9 June, perhaps not a good decision inasmuch as by 21 June the Black Sea Fleet was in full mutiny.  Kerensky believed that a successful offensive in Galicia in July would restore military morale.

In miscellaneous news, Italy announced a Protectorate over Albania on 3 June…and on 8 June the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo ended with no gains and 150,000 Italian casualties.  To the southeast Edmund Allenby, formally of the Western Front, took over Commonwealth forces in Egypt, bad news for the Turks.  And Colonel Lawrence and Auda Abu Tayi (“I am a river to my people.”) and his Howeitat were on their way to Aqaba.

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Lawrence

Auda Abu Tayi

Auda and sundry Howeitat

 

Special Report from the Fronts: June 1967

Israel

Egypt

Syria

Jordan

Iraq

USSR

US

Lebanon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(OK, I got carried away.  This was intended to be short and timely reflection on the Occupation, but the historian kicked in and produced this swollen document.)

Fifty years ago last month Israel began the Six Day War (5-10 June) by launching air strikes against the Egyptian Air Force. Initially the Israelis claimed they were attacked first, but later admitted they had struck the initial blow in their own defense, a “preemptive strike” in reaction to a build-up of Arab forces on their frontiers and Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran, through which most of Israel’s maritime trade passed.  Israel had warned Egypt that blocking the Straits would be considered an act of war and in part had gone to war in 1956 because of precisely that.  President Nasser claimed that Israeli warships in the Gulf of Aqaba threatened Egypt and that Egypt had not signed the international convention declaring a right of passage through the Straits.  Ironically, Israel would later use the reverse argument when they were accused of violating the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories: the Palestinians had never signed it.

In any case, the Israeli population certainly felt seriously threatened, and because unlike the Arab forces the Israeli militia-army could not be kept on high alert for very long, Israel was forced to settle the issue more or less immediately. On the other hand, while the preemptive strike may be justified by the closing of the Straits, this was in many ways the beginning of the legitimizing of military action without a traditionally accepted casus belli.  Now we have invaded Iraq because we thought they had chemical weapons and might use them, and Israel, a nuclear power, threatens Iran with air strikes because they might be making a nuclear weapon.

The Six Day War took place just as I was graduating from college, and while I was on my way to becoming an historian of antiquity, my understanding of Israel was still shaped by the popular image of Exodus, of David versus Goliath, of the beleaguered democracy, of making the desert bloom.  I was thrilled by the marvelous victories of the Israeli Defense Force and the triumph of Jewish democracy over Arab autocracy, taunting a pair of Lebanese brothers who lived in my dorm.

This all changed rapidly as I learned more of the history of modern Israel and of the war itself.  Did two millennia of persecution and the Holocaust really justify displacing the Palestinians, who were certainly innocents in what Europe had done to the Jews?  Initially, in fact, Theodor Herzl and the Zionists simply wanted a state for Jews anywhere, recognizing that as part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was clearly not an option for state-building.  And the creation of a Jewish homeland was hardly high on the list of European priorities.

Theodor Herzl

With the outbreak of the Great War, however, the situation changed.  The desire of both the Allies and the Central Powers to cultivate European Jewry because of their supposed financial resources (yes, governments actually believed some of the anti-Semitic fantasies) provided the Zionists a more receptive audience.  On the other hand, British (and to a lesser degree French) military and political interests in the Arab regions of the Turkish Empire also provided a forum for Arab nationalism.  The Allies of course dealt with all this by making clearly conflicting promises to everyone in the region.

Arthur Balfour

The pivotal moment came in November 1917 with the publication of the intentionally vague Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The political calculation behind this seems to have been to garner support from German, Russian and American Jews, who would, respectively, undermine the German war effort, keep Russia in the war and attract more American support (another case of dramatically overestimating Jewish influence and power).  None of these things would happen.  Instead, already suspicious Arab allies were outraged, and Britain ended up being saddled with Mandatory Palestine for the next thirty years.  Many later labeled the Balfour Declaration one of the worst mistakes ever made by the British Empire.

For centuries Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians had lived peacefully as neighbors, but that changed with the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920.  Jews began to pour into the territory: in 1920 they constituted about 11% of the population; in 1936 it was close to 30%, a huge increase given the high Arab birth rate.  The financial backing of the Jewish settlers was immense compared to that of the Muslims, allowing them to buy land and develop infrastructure.  Muslims considered the Jews a People of the Book, but having occupied the land for more than a millennium, they certainly did not share the enthusiasm of the Christian West for the resurrection of ancient Israel, which policy was increasingly viewed as another example of European imperialism.

The growing influx of European Jews was seen – quite understandably – as an invasion supported by the British, and most Arab leaders refused to cooperate in creating Muslim-Jewish institutions.  Sectarian strife began in the twenties, producing the first Palestinian terror groups, and a full blown Arab revolt exploded in 1936, Arabs attacking Jews and destroying their farms and the British Army, supported by 6000 armed Jewish auxiliaries, attempting to suppress them.  When the revolt ended in 1939 some 5000 Arabs, 200 British and 400 Jews were dead.  The British, incidentally, began the policy of collective punishment of Palestinians by destroying their houses, a policy later adopted by the new state of Israel.

Jews leaving Jerusalem

Arabs “escorted” from Jerusalem by British troops

A British-Jewish Special Night Squad

Palestinian fighters

Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad “General Commander of the Revolt”

Dead also was any idea of peaceful coexistence.  The Jews responded to Arab opposition and terrorism by organizing their own militias, such as the relatively disciplined Haganah, which would become the core of the Israeli Defense Force, and less savory groups, like the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang), outright terrorist organizations.  Meanwhile, the British soldiers, who ultimately were targeted by both sides, were likely cursing the name of Arthur Balfour.

Irgun: bombed Arab bus 1947

Stern: assassination of peace mediator Folke Bernadotte 1948

Avraham Stern – founder of Lehi (and supporter of the Nazis)

Irgun: King David Hotel 1946

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Supreme Commander of the Irgun

Irgun: hanged British soldiers 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second World War brought matters to a head.  The slaughter of some six million European Jews could hardly fail to magnify the Zionist cause and the guilty consciences of Europe and America, which had turned away many Jewish refugees before the war.  The British Empire was in full retreat, and London was certainly open to any measures that would get them out of Palestine.  Finally, the war had produced an organization, the United Nations, which could serve as an international mechanism for the creation of a Jewish state.  Also crucial was the immense power of post-war America, whose President, Harry Truman, favored the creation of a new Israel, despite the objections of most of his advisors.  Joseph Stalin also supported the idea, which makes one wonder.

In November 1947 the UN voted to partition the Mandate, creating separate Jewish and Arab states and an international status for Jerusalem.  In hindsight the Arabs, now seemingly forever caught in a growing apartheid web of Israeli occupation, clearly should have taken the deal, but the Arab world did not see the self-determination talked about by the Americans, just another exercise in western manipulation of their affairs.

World Zionist Organization 1919 territorial claim

UN Partition Plan 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zionism was a European phenomenon, the Holocaust (and to a great degree the persecution of Jews in general) was a European phenomenon and there had not been a Jewish state for almost two millennia. Why should there be one now?  And more important to the Arabs, why here?  Palestine had been Muslim and under the control of Islamic states for more than a thousand years (and had generally treated the Jewish minority far better than the Christian west).  I certainly could feel at least a twinge of the outrage when having met Arab families who could demonstrate possession of their land back into the nineteenth century and further, I had to listen to someone speaking English with a New York accent explain how it was in fact his land.

Well, for all the persecution and hatred of the people who “murdered the Christ” ancient Israel and Judah were an inseparable part of Christianity, which had after all accepted the Hebrew Testament, and Israel was where Jesus had walked. Today, many American Protestants, notably Evangelicals and sundry fundamentalists, are enthusiastic supporters of not just Israel but of its most extreme policies.  The British had painted themselves into a corner with the Balfour Declaration, and Hitler had made that corner virtually inescapable for them and the Americans.

The immediate response to the partition was violence, as Arab armies converged on the territory assigned to Israel, and it turned into inter-state warfare when Israel proclaimed her status as a sovereign state on 14 May 1948.  Here was the first of the “David versus Goliath” wars, at least in popular imagination.  In fact, Israel fielded almost twice as many troops as her opponents, and the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) estimated that Israel would handily defeat the forces of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

And so they did.  When the war ended in March 1949, Israel had acquired 60% of the territory initially assigned to the Arabs and now had a foothold in Jerusalem.  More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled; yes, contrary to the popular mythic version of their history, the Israelis did engage in ethnic cleansing.  (In the next three years about 700,000 Jews entered Israel, many fleeing Arab countries.)  In the state of Israel itself some 400 Palestinian villages (against 10 Jewish communities) were emptied of people, creating a class of Internally Displaced Persons among the Arab citizenry, and by 1950 one in four Israeli Arabs was an IDP, barred from their homes and land, which were confiscated by the state.  The laws applied also to descendants, so the situation continues to this day.

King Farouk I of Egypt

King Abdullah I of Jordan

1948 Arab-Israeli War

First Israeli Expansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Palestinians this was al-nakba, “the Catastrophe.” In 1950 Jordan annexed the remaining non-Israeli territory, the West Bank (Gaza was occupied by the Egyptians), and offered the inhabitants Jordanian citizenship.  Many Palestinians turned this down, and only Britain recognized the annexation, while the Arab states, anxious to keep the Palestinian question alive, pressured the Jordanian King, Abdullah I, to declare the annexation “temporary.”  This temporary arrangement would last 17 years and be replaced with something much more onerous.

In 1956 Israel joined in a secret coalition with Britain and France, who were responding to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and fielded 175,000 troops (twice that of her allies) to attack Egypt. Worldwide outrage erupted, mainly directed against the French and British for their blatant assault on a sovereign state in order to protect their imperial interests, and domestic and international pressure soon forced them to withdraw, leaving President Nasser in power.  Israel was primarily – and understandably – concerned about regular terrorist attacks coming out of Gaza and Soviet weaponry going into Cairo and would be delighted to see a weakened Egypt without Nasser.  They occupied Gaza and Sinai and refused to leave when their erstwhile allies gave it up, and it took two more weeks of threats of sanctions and lifting of American aid by President Eisenhower (the first and last American President to stand up to Israel) to finally force them out.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion

President Gamal Abdel Nasser

Suez Crisis

 

Unlike the humiliated French and British, Israel benefited from the brief war, her defiance of the US and international community winning important guarantees: a UN presence in Sinai and the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed by Egypt in 1951. Nasser kept the canal and his power and emerged with an enhanced reputation, but he failed to understand that he had been saved by American diplomacy not the Egyptian military.  While the Israelis correctly concluded that their citizen soldiers were better trained and could conduct large scale operations, Nasser deceived himself and his people by concluding that his forces could take on the new kid on the block.

The Suez Crisis set the stage for the Six Day War, suggesting to Egypt, Syria and Jordan that together they could defeat Israel. They could not, and while much of the world marveled at tiny David facing the Arab Goliath again, the CIA in fact concluded that it would take Israel less than two weeks to defeat the Arabs.  It took less than one, and Israel made out like a bandit.

Battle for Sinai

Battle for the Golan Heights

Battle for the West Bank

(Whether the Egyptians shot retreating soldiers or the Israelis murdered some POWs is still debated, but another more disturbing incident of the war is now perfectly clear: Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats deliberately attacked the intelligence ship USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 174 American sailors; see my post “Our Best Ally and the USS Liberty” (https://qqduckus.com/2012/06/07/our-best-ally-and-the-uss-liberty/) 

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol of Israel

 

President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

 

King Hussein I of Jordan

 

Sallah Jadid of Syria

President Abdul Rahman Arif of Iraq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Lyndon Johnson

 

General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Washington finally forced the Israelis to accept a ceasefire (they were ultimately dependent on American resupply), they had seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Eretz Yisrael had attained its greatest territorial extent – ever – and possession of all of Jerusalem, which meant control of sites sacred to all three Abrahamic religions: the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the el-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.  (Perhaps the most iconic image from the war is that of jubilant Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall; less well known is the immediate destruction of 135 Arab houses and a mosque to create the plaza that now fronts the Wall.)

The Second Israeli Expansion

Israeli soldiers at the
Western Wall

Clearing the area before the Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Israelis now also controlled the West Bank, which was promptly named the Judea and Samaria Area, though the term did not come into regular use until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. The territory of the West Bank was in fact the heart of ancient Israel, Judea being the southern state of Judah (which ended up composing the history found in the Old Testament) and Samaria the northern state of Israel (completely maligned in the Bible).  A great irony of the creation of modern Israel is that inasmuch as the partition was based on demographics most of ancient Israel fell to the Arabs.  And this is certainly on of the central facts behind the sad fate of the Palestinians.

Ancient Israel Based on the Bible

Israel and Judah 9th century BC

 

Israel now occupied all that “homeland” (real or imagined), and while Israel was initially concerned with security – the occupation would quickly fuel Palestinian terrorism – the extremists saw the possibility of recreating ancient Israel, or at least the swollen image of it in the Judah-edited Old Testament.  Reestablishing a state that had ceased to exist two millennia earlier was questionable enough, but claiming territory for that state on basis of a clearly unhistorical holy book strikes me as absurd.  But because Christianity has also accepted that book as sacred, many clearly do not see Israel’s actions as absurd – or as violations of international law.

Before the end of June Israel brought East Jerusalem and surrounding land under its administration, calling it “municipal integration,” but it was clearly annexation, which was confirmed by the Jerusalem Law of 1980.  The occupied Golan Heights were to be retained for security reasons and settlements began to appear, leading in 1981 to the Golan Heights Law, by which the region was formally annexed.  Only Costa Rica recognized the Jerusalem annexation and Micronesia the Golan annexation – one wonders why these two states.

One of the fundamental provisions of the post-World War II international agreements, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter, is the prohibition of annexing or settling territory acquired through war, whatever the reason.  Israel apparently felt exempt from this, for security reasons but increasingly in the West Bank simply because it was believed to be the land of Israel.  These settlements were not merely “obstacles to peace,” as the United States calls them, but gross violations of international covenants the United States is pledged to uphold.  Nevertheless, Israel was continually protected from hostile resolutions of the United Nations by the American veto in the Security Council.

Already in 1967 Israel reestablished the old settlement of Kfar Etzion, whose inhabitants had been massacred in the 1948 war.  More ominous was the foundation on the outskirts of Hebron of Kiryat Arba in 1968: the land was confiscated from Palestinians on the grounds of military needs, but it was in fact intended for a Jewish settlement.  Because of the connection between Hebron and Abraham (who might have once been a local cult figure), the city is sacred to everyone and has attracted a particularly nasty group of Jewish settlers, who are holed up in the old town, protected by the Israeli military.  Kiryat Arba has a park dedicated to Meir Kahane, whose Kach party is considered a terrorist organization even by the Israeli government, and nearby is the grave of Baruch Goldstein (an associated shrine, attracting thousands of visitors, has been bulldozed by the government), who slaughtered 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque. Both these men grew up in Brooklyn.

Kahane Tourist Park

Meir Kahane

Kiryat Arba

Baruch Goldstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The confiscation of land for Jewish settlements became standard policy during the 1970s, though it was denied by the Israeli government.  When a Likud government under Menachem Begin (former leader of the terrorist Irgun; a later Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the Stern Gang) took power in 1977, the process accelerated, and later the government began subsidizing housing in the settlements (which continues to this day), drawing huge numbers of Israelis who were moved far less by the dream of ancient Israel than by cheap available housing.  Whatever the motivation, these colonists were creating the “facts on the ground,” a growing Jewish population that made it more and more difficult for the land to be returned to the Palestinians.

Ytizhak Shamir, Prime Minister and former terrorist

Menachem Begin, Prime Minister and former terrorist.

Yasir Arafat, President and former terrorist

 

 

 

 

In 1983, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel removed the settlements from Sinai, and in 2005 those in Gaza, in both cases facing serious resistance from the settlers.  Unfortunately, with Israel controlling Gaza’s frontiers, waters and air space this rump Palestinian state became the world’s largest open air prison, periodically blasted by the IDF because some Hamas jerk shoots a rocket into Israel.  As of today, approximately 1,730,000 Palestinians are living in a semi-wasteland, and malnutrition has become a serious problem.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the Occupied Territories continues to swell, as increasingly right wing governments blithely paint Israel into a corner.  There are now some 800,000 Israeli Jewish citizens residing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and a growing number of Israeli-only roads slicing up Palestinian territory.  Israeli and foreign governments still talk about the “two state solution,” but it has become an impossibility.  Even were the government willing – an extremely unlikely development – attempting to evacuate the settlements would almost certainly lead to extreme violence and civil strife.

What then?  There are now some 2,754,000 Palestinians in the West Bank (and 5,000,000 in Arab countries), and their birth rate is much higher than that of the Jews – excepting the ultra-Orthodox Haredi (who are producing a growing number of Israeli males who know virtually nothing but the Torah).  They certainly cannot be simply expelled, and that leaves two possibilities: annex the territory and give the citizenship to the Palestinians or continue with the current policy.  The first will not happen because Jews would then be a minority, a difficult proposition if Israel is to be a “Jewish” state, and one could expect the new voters to be unsympathetic to many Israeli institutions.

That leaves the status quo, which can lead only to some form of an apartheid state, which is already taking shape in the West Bank.  I visited Israel/Palestine about twenty-five years ago, when the settler presence was much smaller and the Israelis-only road network was just getting underway, and even then the West Bank was beginning to look like something out of the Middle Ages.  The settlements are for the most part on hill tops or ridges, looming like little fortified cities over the Palestinian communities below.  The traditional whitewashed houses of the villages, where water is increasingly in short supply, are in dramatic contrast to the modern accommodations, malls and swimming pools of the settlements, which are like bits of American suburbia planted in the Holy Land.

Settlement life

Israel has now occupied Palestine longer than the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, a tragedy for the Palestinians and ultimately the Israelis.  The Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has been frequently corrupt and seems to have a special knack for doing just the wrong thing, but consider a half century of rather unpleasant (by contemporary western standards) occupation: how would you feel after a lifetime of second class status – at best – and watching your ancient homeland being recolonized?   Or seeing your home destroyed because someone in your family was arrested (collective punishment, another violation of international law)?  Or being shot with relative impunity because you were defending your olive trees from settler vandals?

Back a quarter century ago I and a companion visited a Palestinian family in Bani Naim, five miles east of Hebron, and when we entered the children began crying.  They thought we were Israelis.

The sad history of Palestine