Report from the Fronts #25: January 1917

Because of the weather there was little action in the west in January, though planning for the spring offensive was underway.  On the first day of the year Douglas Haig, the “Butcher of the Somme,” was promoted to Field Marshal, the highest rank in the British Army, but this was certainly no reflection of his military talents.  Nicholas II had been made a British Field Marshal exactly one year earlier, and Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph had been honored with the title in 1901 and 1903.

Field Marshal Wilhelm

Field Marshal Wilhelm

Field Marshal Franz Jospeh

Field Marshal Franz Joseph

Field Marshal Haig

Field Marshal Haig

Field Marshal Nicholas

Field Marshal Nicholas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far and away the most important missive of January was the so-called Zimmermann telegram.  On 16 January the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, routing it through the hands of the ambassador in Washington, who forwarded it to Eckhardt on 19 January.  Unfortunately for the Germans (and unknown to the Americans; some things never change), all the cable traffic passing through the relay station at Land’s End in Britain (the German transatlantic cables had been cut at the beginning of the war) was being monitored, and a copy was passed to the Admiralty intelligence section, quaintly named Room 40, for decoding.

Heinrich von Eckardt

Heinrich von Eckardt

Arthur Zimmermann

Arthur Zimmermann

 

 

 

The decrypted message was a bombshell:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.”

British translation

British translation

Coded telegram

Coded telegram

Partially decoded telegram

Partially decoded telegram

 

The Germans had decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, suspended in September 1915, regardless of the danger of drawing America into the war.  While the Central Powers were being slowly strangled by the British blockade, the Entente had access to armaments and more important, food from the United States.  Ludendorff uncritically accepted the contention of the Navy, which strongly advocated the resumption of unrestricted warfare, that there were no effective countermeasures to submarine warfare and concluded that the time was ripe to strike.  Ironically, it was the Kaiser who raised doubts, advised by a close friend who was familiar with America and understood the potential power of the country.  He was ignored by Ludendorff.

The Russian military was rapidly collapsing and Romania had been virtually eliminated, freeing large numbers of troops for transfer to the west.  Further, the United States was in the midst of an undeclared conflict with Mexico, which it had invaded in 1914, and there were currently American troops still in the country.  Ludendorff believed that unlimited submarine warfare in the Atlantic could bring Britain to its knees before the Americans could mobilize sufficiently to have an impact on the war, especially if Mexico could be persuaded to attack them.  This would prove to be a disastrous miscalculation and would doom Germany to defeat.

On 31 January Germany announced that the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would begin the next day.  Washington was of course not amused, but was, however, still unaware of the Zimmermann telegram and would not receive it from the British until 19 February.

Meanwhile, in the east Romanian towns were still falling to the Germans, and on 6 January the last Romanian and Russian troops were driven out of the Dobruja.  I have not been tracking Russian ministers, but January presents an excellent example of the chaos descending on St. Petersburg: in that single month the Prime Minister, Alexander Trepov, the War Minister, Dmitry Shuvalev, and the Foreign Minister, Nikolai Pokrovsky, resigned or were sacked.  In the period from September 1915 to February 1917 – the “Czarina’s Rule” – Russia had four Prime Ministers, three Foreign Ministers, three War Ministers, five Interior Ministers, two Transport Ministers, and four Agricultural Ministers.  This was no way to run a country during wartime.

Nikolai Pokrovsky

Nikolai Pokrovsky

Alexander Trepov

Alexander Trepov

Dmitry Shuvalev

Dmitry Shuvalev

The British were doing better.  The Sinai military railroad reached El Arish on 4 January (the all-important water pipeline would arrive on 5 February), making possible an assault on Rafa, the last major Turkish garrison in Sinai (there were still a handful of Turks and armed Bedouins at Nekhl and Bir el Hassana). It was seized on 9 January, making way for an invasion of Palestine.  Meanwhile, Commonwealth and Turkish aircraft spent the month merrily bombing each other; horses were a favorite and easy target.

Turkish POWs on the road to El Arish

Turkish POWs on the road to El Arish

British firing line at Rafa

British firing line at Rafa

Northern Sinai

Northern Sinai

Sinai-Palestine frontier - boundary pillars

Sinai-Palestine frontier – boundary pillars

Battle of Rafa

Battle of Rafa

 

Finally, the Arab revolt was picking up steam and becoming a serious annoyance to the Turks.  T.E. Lawrence had convinced the leaders of the revolt in the Hejaz, two of Hussein’s sons, Faisal (future king of Iraq) and Abdullah (future king of Jordan) to coordinate with the British and to attack the Hejaz railway instead of Medina.  Not only was Medina a tough nut to crack, but defending and repairing the rail line, utterly vital to the Turkish position in the Hejaz, would tie up far more Ottoman troops.   Arab guerilla and Allied air attacks were already having an impact, forcing the Hejaz commander, Fakhri Pasha, to abandon his attempt to reach Mecca and return to Medina on 18 January.

Fakhri Pasha

Fakhri Pasha

Faisal

Faisal

Abdullah

Abdullah

 

 

Since July 1916 the Arabs had controlled the port of Yenbo, west of Medina, but needed a base further north.  The choice was Wejh, halfway up the coast from Yenbo to Aqaba, and on 3 January Faisal began moving up the coast with a force of 5300 foot and 5100 camel cavalry, supplied by the royal Navy.  They turned out to be unnecessary.  400 Arabs and 200 Royal Navy personnel were landed north of Wejh and surprising the Ottoman garrison, easily took the town on 24 January.

The Arabs were ready for serious business.  They now had 70,000 men in the field, though many were still poorly armed; Faisal was based at Wejh, Abdullah at Wadi Ais north of Medina and Ali, the third brother, near Medina.  The Regular Arab Army, formed in 1916, were full-time conventional troops and wore uniforms (British style of course, which is why the present day armies of the Middle East look British), while the more familiar (because of the movie) and romantic Bedouin raiders were essential guerilla forces.  They were difficult to command and fought when it suited them, but a raiding party on camels could cover a thousand miles with no support and suddenly appear from out of nowhere, which is to say, the desert.  Colonel Lawrence (among others) knew how to use these forces, especially against the railway.

The Hejaz railway

The Hejaz railway

Bedouin raiders - Lawrence on the dark camel

Bedouin raiders – Lawrence on the dark camel

The Regular Arab Army

The Regular Arab Army

Ali

Ali

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hejaz campaign a century later

The Hejaz campaign a century later

More remains

More remains

Take that,Turks!

Take that,Turks!

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Report from the Fronts #24: December 1916

 

December 1916 began with Greece, the reluctant non-ally, on the verge of civil war.  Despite the presence of Allied forces in the Piraeus, on 1 December the government in Athens refused to accede to the Allied demands to expel ministers of the Central Powers and turn over war material (19 November).  A fire fight broke out between the French troops and the Greeks, including an exchange between Greek artillery and Allied warships, and outnumbered and short of supplies, the Allied troops were withdrawn the same day.  Five days later there was a massacre of Venizelos supporters in Athens.  On 8 December Allied naval elements began a blockade of Greece, at least those parts still controlled by Athens.

The French battleship Mirabeau bombarding Athens

The French battleship Mirabeau bombarding Athens

French troops at Athens

French troops at Athens

More French in Athens

More French in Athens

French vice-admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet,commander of the Athens expeditiion

French vice-admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet,commander of the Athens expedition

On 11 December the Allies, once again with no legal basis, demanded that Greece demobilize and three days later that Greek military units loyal to Athens be withdrawn from Thessaly, the area to the southwest of Salonika.  The next day Athens accepted the ultimatum but two days later issued an arrest warrant for Venizelos on grounds of high treason, an understandable move.  Britain responded on 19 December by recognizing the Venizelos opposition government, and there was little Athens could do about it.  As Thucydides said: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

But peace was in the air, at least among the Central Powers, who were apparently starting to feel the effects of the British blockade and the huge losses in France and Italy.  On 12 December the governments of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey handed notes to their respective American ambassadors that they were prepared to open negotiations with the Allies.  On the 18th President Wilson responded by sending notes to the Allies proposing peace negotiations, which the Central Powers accepted and the Entente declared they would consider.  Consider it they did, and on 30 December they rejected the proposal, condemning Europe to two more years of war.

On the British front the Liberal/Conservative coalition government of Herbert Asquith fell on 4 December, a victim of military disappointments and casualties, sundry domestic crises and Parliamentary politics.  Two days later his War Minister and fellow Liberal, the colorful Welshman David Lloyd George, became Prime Minister, where he would remain until the end of the war.  Many now consider Asquith the most important Prime Minister of the 20th century, insofar as he was able to implement national mobilization and take a united Britain into the war.  He was the last Liberal Prime Minister to govern, at least initially, without a coalition; the Liberal Party was giving way to Labor as the party of left and was dissolved in 1988 after a 129 year run.

David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George

Herbert Asquith

Herbert Asquith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 13 December operations began for as second assault on Kut in Mesopotamia, and 48 hours later Britain restyled the Sharif of Mecca as “King of the Hejaz” in place of “King of the Arabs.”  Ah, perfidious Albion.  On 21 December Commonwealth forces occupied El Arish, about 30 miles from Gaza, and the door was now open for the invasion of Palestine.

El Arish

El Arish

In miscellaneous news on 6 December Bucharest was captured by the Germans, completing the virtual ruin of Romania.  There was no actual capitulation, but more than two-thirds of the county was now occupied by the enemy and the army had almost vanished.  The Romanian government had clearly made a dreadful mistake in going to war and in less than four months had lost their country and suffered 300,000 to 400,000 military casualties to the Germans’ 60,000.  On the other hand, if the Allies won the war, Romania could expect territorial additions.

In France Robert Nivelle, fresh from his successes at Verdun, replaced Joffre on 12 December as Commander-in-Chief, just in time to face the mutinies of 1917.  Joffre was made “General-in-Chief,” an office he soon discovered provided him with little real power.  On the 26th he was made a Marshal of France, which may have taken some of the sting out of being demoted.

General Robert Nivelle

General Robert Nivelle

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Russia.  On 2 December the government announced that the Allies had confirmed Russia’s right to Constantinople and the Straights, and about a week later the Murmansk railroad was completed, making it much easier for the Allies to supply the under-industrialized country.  None of this mattered, though, since the Russian armies were crumbling, and the smell of revolution was definitely in the air.

Nor did the most famous event of December 1916 matter: the assassination of Grigori Rasputin.  In the course of 1916 the grip of the alleged monk on the Czar and Czarina had been steadily growing, fueling popular dissent against the incompetent Nicholas, who was believed to be controlled by his wife (he was), who in turn was controlled by Rasputin (she was).  The fact that Alexandra was German (a daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria) certainly did not help.

Rasputin entertaining

Rasputin preparing to entertain (everyone is still sober and dressed)

Rasputin with Alexandra and the children

Rasputin with Alexandra and the children

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

The future Alexandra (lower right) with her siblings and grandmother Victoria

The future Alexandra (lower right) with her siblings and grandmother Victoria

Grigori Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin

 

A conspiracy led by Prince Felix Yusupov, nephew-in-law of the Czar, was formed to eliminate Rasputin; other prominent members were Vladimir Purishkevich, a popular right-wing politician, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.  Cultivated for weeks by the Prince, Rasputin was invited to a midnight gathering in a furnished basement room in the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg, lured on by the promise of women, especially Yusupov’s wife, who in fact was in the Crimea.

Grand Duke Pavlovich

Grand Duke Pavlovich (1930s)

Prince Yusupov

Prince Yusupov

Vladimir Puriskevich

Vladimir Purishkevich

Basement room at Yusupov Palace

Basement room at Yusupov Palace

 

 

 

 

 

Since the murder immediately moved into the realm of legend, the story confused by conflicting accounts by the participants, it is impossible to know exactly what happened the night of 29/30 December (16/17 by the Russian calendar).  Once there Rasputin was supposedly fed pastries loaded with potassium cyanide, since shots might have been heard, but there are problems with this story, the main ones being that Rasputin did not die and the autopsy found no cyanide (the autopsy report is missing).  It has been suggested that the poison may have been ineffective because the monk’s stomach acidity was not high enough to alter the potassium cyanide into its deadly form, hydrogen cyanide, but in fact Rasputin seems to have been troubled by stomach acidity.

In any case, poison or no poison, Yusupov shot Rasputin in the chest and he fell to the floor, only to open his eyes a while later and run up the stairs and into a courtyard.  There he was shot in the back by Purishkevich and fell into the snow, and one of the two then put a bullet in his forehead.  They wrapped the body in a cloth, drove to the Malaya Nevka River and threw the corpse off the Bolshoy Petrovsky bridge into a hole in the ice.  According to the lost autopsy report, he was already dead from the bullet to the head.  Because of clues left behind (the assassins were hardly professionals), the body was found two days later, and early in January Yusupov and Pavlovich were sent into exile without investigation or trial; no others were punished.

...into the morgue

…into the morgue

Off the bridge...

Off the bridge…

 

...out of the water...

…out of the water…

 

 

The corrupt monk was gone; Alexandra and Nicholas would soon follow.200px-rasputin_listovka