Reports from the Front #10: January 1915

Most of the action in the first month of 1916 was in the Balkans and Mesopotamia. The troops on the Western Front were busy enough fighting the mud and cold, little realizing that the cataclysm of Verdun would get underway the following month.  The Eastern Front was quiet: the Russians were recovering from the disasters of 1915 and planning a new offensive, while the Germans and Austrians were engaged in picking apart the Balkans.  Even General Cadorna was taking a break from his Isonzo Follies.

The destruction of Serbia

The destruction of Serbia

Serbs were raining down on Greece.  On New Year’s Day King Peter I of Serbia arrived at Salonika, and on 17 January he moved to Aidipsos on the Greek island of Euboea to take the waters at the thermal springs (he was old and ailing).  Meanwhile, his troops were going to Corfu.  On 10 January the allies informed the Greek government that the remnants of the Serbian army would be moved to the island, and three days later the Greeks refused.  Well, the French had already occupied Corfu two days earlier, and on 15 January they began to ship something like 100,000 exhausted Serbs to the island and other locations, where they would die in droves from malnutrition and disease.  The Serbian government in exile was established at Brindisi.220px-Pobedata_nad_syrbia[1]

Serbs on Corfu

Serbs on Corfu

Peter I of Serbia

Peter I of Serbia

Hard on the heels of the Serbs came the Austrians, who by the end of the month occupied all Albania except the far south. Albania had only come into existence a few years earlier in the wake of the Second Balkan War of 1913 and was assigned territory, Epirus, in the south that was ethnically Greek.  (This disregard for ethnic realities would become endemic in the formation of countries in eastern Europe in the wake of the war.)

As a result the Greeks, who had already occupied the territory earlier and left, sent in troops (with allied approval) on 27 October 1914, while the Italians seized a number of islands. The result was the Macedonian Front, running along the northern Greek frontier through southern Albania to the Adriatic, and any Austrian or Bulgarian advance further south was thwarted.  The Albanian monarch (a German), Wilhelm I, fled.  Albania, incidentally, was not a belligerent.

Wilhelm I of Albania

Wilhelm I of Albania

On 10 January the Austrians began nosing into Montenegro, leading to an armistice between the two powers two days later.  But Montenegro had helped the Serbs and in any case was important to Austria, being situated between the Empire and their new possession of Albania, and on 20 January the armistice ended.  The country fell to the Austrians, and King Nicola I fled to France and the Albanian government was ensconced in Bordeaux.

Montenegran soldiers

Montenegran soldiers

The Montenegro campaign

The Montenegro campaign

Nikola I of Montenegro

Nikola I of Montenegro

The other hot spot in January 1916 was the Tigris River.  On 4 January a force of some 19,000 troops, mostly Indian, under General Fenton Aylmer began moving north to relieve Kut.  They encountered Goltz Pasha at Sheikh Sa’ad on 6 January, and although the Turks were outnumbered four to one, Goltz managed to hold out until 8 January, when he moved about ten miles up the river to Wadi. On 14 January the British attacked this new position, and while they failed to break through, Goltz retreated another 5 miles to the Hanna defile.

Golz Pasha

Goltz Pasha

General Fenton Aylmer

General Fenton Aylmer

British artillery at Sheikh Sa'ad

British artillery at Sheikh Sa’ad

On 19 January General Percy Lake replaced Nixon as supreme commander of the Mesopotamian campaign. It made no difference.  The British attacked at Hanna on 21 January and failed, and having suffered heavy casualties in the battles and from disease, the relief force retreated south to Ali Gharbi, where they had started.  In the three battles the British had suffered 8600 casualties, the Turks 2230.  The siege of Kut would go on.

General Percy Lake

General Percy Lake

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

Another failed operation finally came to an end when on 7-8 January allied troops were evacuated from Helles beach at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  The evacuation proved to be the most successful operation of the whole campaign, and not a man was lost, though the Turks knew it was about to take place.  The Gallipoli campaign proved a disaster, with tens of thousands of lives lost for absolutely no gains, hardly surprising since the landings resulted almost immediately in a mini-Western Front on the peninsula.  Both sides suffered about a quarter million casualties, though the Turks could of course claim a victory.

Helles beach

Helles beach

The political repercussions had a more lasting effect.  Winston Churchill, who had been an instrumental force behind the operation, lost his job as First Lord of the Admiralty and went off to fight on the Wester Front.  Kitchener’s influence began to wane, and the failure would contribute to the fall of the Asquith government at the end of the year.

Churchill would earn a reputation for hare-brained military schemes, but to some extent this was unfair.  The basic idea made sense.  It is very unlikely that a naval bombardment of Istanbul would drive the Turks out of the war, but an allied naval presence in the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus would take pressure off the Russians and render communications between the European and Asiatic parts of the Ottoman Empire far more difficult.

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

The problem was not the idea but rather extremely poor operational planning and execution, in which Churchill had no real role.  The naval component was woefully inadequate and poorly led, especially the minesweeping units, but the land campaign had a reasonable chance of seizing the forts on the European side of the straights.  That they did not was due to poor planning and intelligence (tourist maps had to be used), overconfidence, insufficient artillery and above all, terrible leadership at all levels.  There were any number of instances in the early stages at Helles when the troops could have kept the initiative and rolled over Turkish positions, but few of the commanders were actually on the beaches, communications were hopeless and requests for support were ignored.  The Turks thus had the time to bring up reinforcements and prepare their defenses, and the result was stalemate.

In other news, on 13 January the Turks began occupying positions in western Iran, partly in reaction to Russian forces in the northwest of the country and British in the south.  Iran was neutral but was in no position to resist these incursions, any more than she could resist the later violation of her sovereignty during the Second World War. Or the CIA engineered overthrow of their democratically elected government in 1953, which resulted in the ascendancy of the brutal US supported Shah.  What would you be chanting in the streets if this had happened to your country?

On 22 January Romania, encircled by belligerents and avid for territorial gains, specifically Transylvania, opened negotiations with Russia for aid.  Rumania was bound by treaty to come to the aid of Austria were she attacked, and the Rumanian king, Carol I, was a Hohenzollern, the ruling house of the German Empire.  When the war broke out, Carol wanted to enter the war as an ally of the Central Power, but the government and public opinion preferred the allies, particularly since Transylvania was a Hungarian possession.  Rumania decided she was not bound by the treaty, since Austria had “started the war,” and the country initially remained neutral.  In October of 1914 Carol was succeeded by Ferdinand I, who was more amenable to honoring the will of the people.

Carol I of Rumania

Carol I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Rumania in 1914

Rumania in 1914

Finally, as a sign of the times, on 27 January the British Parliament passed the first Military Service Act, in effect establishing conscription, which already existed in France, Russia, Austria and Germany.  Defended by its navy and requiring only relatively small forces to secure the Empire, unlike the continental powers Britain could make do with a volunteer army, and in 1914 the regular army was just short of a quarter million men, half of whom garrisoned the Empire.  The BEF initially comprised only 150,000 men; the Germans fielded 1,850,000 and the French 1,650,000.  That certainly would not fill the maw of the trenches, and single men without children in the 18 to 41 age group would henceforth (it would become effective on 2 March) be liable for service unless they were in a war related occupation.  Subsequent acts would expand the pool, as the meat grinder of the Western Front demanded more and more bodies, and by 1918 the British had some 4,000,000 men in uniform.

1916 conscription notice

1916 conscription notice

And so the third calendar year of the war began.

Advertisements

Reports from the Front #9: December 1915

1915 came to an end with few significant changes made in the past year of fighting. Bulgaria was in, Serbia was out and Greece was both in and out, all of which strategically aided the Central Powers, but hardly caused any swing in the overall balance of power.  More significantly, the Russians were driven out of Poland and Galicia, but as events would demonstrate, they were far from being a spent force.  Perhaps the most significant result of a year of conflict was that hundreds of thousands of men were no longer alive or no longer in possession of all their body parts.  Governments and generals had certainly come to the conclusion that this war was not going to be easy or brief after all, but they could come up with nothing better than doing the same old same old.

Actually, one simple “solution” was to change or at least shuffle generals.  On 3 December Joffre was made Commander in Chief of all the French armies, hardly a great development, inasmuch as his tactical inclinations were unchanged from a year of slaughter and as ponderous as his imposing physique.  Meanwhile, Sir John French, the C-in-C of the BEF, was under mounting criticism from just about everyone, including Joffre, Kitchener, Haig, Asquith and the King, who generally felt he was not an aggressive enough commander.  Rather than be sacked, he resigned on 15 December and was replaced four days later by Douglas Haig, who was sufficiently aggressive; he would become known as the ”Butcher of the Somme.”  On 22 December the Chief of the General Staff of the BEF and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff also resigned.

The Butcher of the Somme

The Butcher of the Somme

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

French and PM Asquith

French and PM Asquith

In the east it was withdrawal time for the allies. On 2 December the French force in Macedonia withdrew to Salonika, followed on 7 December by the British.  They then demanded that the Greek forces in Salonika leave, which on 11 December they refused to do.  It was after all their country, and they were officially a neutral, demonstrated on 14 December by an agreement with the Bulgarians to establish a neutral zone along the Greek frontier.  But they were a relatively helpless neutral: on 30 December French general Maurice Sarrail had all consuls of the Central Powers in Salonika arrested and deported.  Salonika was now a huge fortified camp, containing 150,000 allied troops, who became known as the ”Gardeners of Salonika.”

General Maurice Sarrrail

General Maurice Sarrrail

French soldiers at Salonika

French soldiers at Salonika

Further east, on 3 December the British/Indian expeditionary force retreating down the Tigris reached Kut-al-Amara, which Townshend decided to fortify. Four days later 11,000 Ottoman troops, commanded by the 72 year old Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz, an old Turkish hand (Goltz Pasha), arrived and placed Kut and the 8000 British troops under siege.  After a month of this, including an unsuccessful Turkish assault on Christmas Eve, Townshend decided to break out and head for Basra, but he was overruled by his commander, Sir John Nixon, the senior general of the Indian Army, who thought the siege was an excellent way to tie up Ottoman forces.  It would also prove an excellent way to lose 8000 Imperial troops.

Golz Pasha

Goltz Pasha

Townshend

Townshend

Nixon

Nixon

Elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire a more successful withdrawal began, when the allies finally gave up the completely stalled Gallipoli campaign.  On 19 December the evacuation of troops from Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove began and was completed without trouble the following day.  The main force at Helles would leave in January.

Bones left at Anzac Cove

Bones left at Anzac Cove

Aussies charging just before the Anzac evacuation

Aussies charging just before the Anzac evacuation

On the other hand, the East African Front was lighting up again, as the British began naval operations on Lake Tanganyika.  The gunboats Mimi and Toutou had completed their 10,000 mile journey from Britain to South Africa and overland to Tanganyika and were launched on 22 and 23 December.  On 26 December they engaged the German gunboat Kingani, which was captured and refitted by the British as the Fifi. More action would follow.

The Kingani/Fifi

The Kingani/Fifi

The epic journey of the Mimi and Toutou

The epic journey of the Mimi and Toutou

On 10 December the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo came to an end.  The Italians had suffered 49,500 casualties, the Austrians 32,100.  For nothing.  Yet, General Cadorna was not sacked, but allowed to carry on his attempts to capture Gorizia and achieve the big breakthrough that all these characters dreamed of.

Finally, a couple of diplomatic arrangements of some interest.  On 28 December two German military attachés in Washington, Captains Karl Boy-Ed and Franz von Papen were declared personae non gratae for being actively involved in espionage and sabotage (America was supplying arms to the Entente) and recalled to Germany.  Von Papen would after the war become the Chancellor of the Weimar Republic and his intrigues would help elevate Adolf Hitler to the Chancellorship.

The young von Papen

The young von Papen

Boy-Ed

Boy-Ed

On 26 December Britain signed a treaty with Ibn Saud (or Abdulaziz), an Arab sheik who from 1902 had been extending the control of the House of Saud out from Riyadh.  His main enemy was the House of Rashid, which with Ottoman aid defeated Ibn Saud in 1904, only to be driven out two years later, along with their Turkish allies.  By 1912 Ibn Saud had conquered most of Nejd (the interior of the peninsula) and the eastern coast, becoming the Emir of Nejd and Hasa.  The Ottomans were left with control of the Hejaz, the western coast of the peninsula, where Mecca and the holy sites of Islam were.

Hussein ibn Ali Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Hussein ibn Ali
Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Ibn Saud

Ibn Saud

Arabia in 1914

Arabia in 1914

The British interest was not oil, which was not discovered in Arabia until 1938, but finding a stable ally in Arabia, who could protect British interests in the Persian Gulf and fight the Turks.  By virtue of the Treaty of Darin of 1915 Saudi Arabia became a British protectorate with delineated borders and agreed to respect British interests.  Ibn Saud did not, however, agree to keep his hands off the Hejaz, despite the fact that only two months earlier the British had made an agreement with the Sherif of Mecca.  Why should a Great Power worry about promises made to wogs?

And so 1915 came to an end.  Oh, this year there was no Christmas truce.  The generals and governments were not about to put up with that again.