Report from the Fronts #44: April 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Michael ended on 5 April, and while it did not achieve all its objectives, Ludendorff nevertheless believed that by sucking Allied troops south to defend Amiens it had opened the way to the Channel ports – and the British supply lines – through Hazebrouck.  He consequently launched Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), pitting the Fourth Army under Sixt von Armin and the Sixth Army under Ferdinand von Quast against the British First and Second Armies.

Herbert Plumer

Henry Horne

Sixt von Armin

Ferdinand von Quast

Georgette

Henry Horne’s First Army was the initial target when the offensive kicked on 9 April and was an excellent choice.  It had become something of a rest home for exhausted and depleted divisions, and as it happened, the main attack was against a seven mile front held by a single division of the understrength Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (the other had been withdrawn three days earlier in order to be replaced).  The 20,000 Portuguese resisted but were overwhelmed by the 100,000 men of eight German divisions, while the British division immediately to their north also crumpled, creating a serious gap in the line.

Portuguese troops

Portuguese prisoners

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day the Germans also assaulted Herbert Plumer’s Second Army to the north and forced the British to abandon Armentières (as in “Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parley-vous). By the 11th the Germans had crossed the Lys River, and Haig proclaimed to his troops: “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”  (One wonders if this obligation applied to the general himself.)  On the 14th the British abandoned the Passchendaele Salient in order to shorten their line, giving up the territory, bought with so much blood the year before, east of Ypres.

The Butcher of the Somme (and other rivers)

German prisoners

British gas casualties

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Germans continued to advance, but slowed by the usual supply and flank problems they were stopped just short of Hazebrouck on 29 April and Ludendorff halted the operation.  The forward German units were just 15 miles from the Channel ports, but now occupied a salient that was being pounded on three sides. Georgette had cost each side about 110,000 casualties.

British defending Hazebrouck

The Germans were certainly doing better in the east, where their victorious forces faced little serious opposition. On 3 April the German Expeditionary Force landed in Finland in order to help the Whites in the Finish Civil War, while in southern Russia Ekaterinoslav was captured the same day.  Kharkov fell on the 8th, and German troops pushed into the Crimea on the 19th.  (Four days later Guatemala declared war on Germany – perhaps the United Fruit Company had interests in western Russia.)  On 29 April a coup led by Pavlo Skoropadskyi and supported by the Germans overthrew the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and Skoropadskyi became Hetman of the Ukraine – at least for a while.

Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi

The Turks, meanwhile, were picking up their slices: on 5 April Van in Armenia was retaken and Batum and Kars in Georgia were occupied on the 15th and 27th.  More ominous for the Bolshevik government, on 5 April British and Japanese troops occupied Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of the old Empire.  Others would follow, as the Civil War tuned all the Russias into an abattoir.

Vladivostok in 1898

Then there was the Czechoslovak Legion. At the beginning of the war the Russians had recruited Czechs and Slovaks to fight against the Austrians, which they did with great enthusiasm, and they participated with distinction in the Kerensky Offensive in 1917.  By the beginning of 1918 the Legion numbered 40,000 troops, the war in the east was over and the men wanted to fight on the Western Front.  But how to get there with Germany in between and most Russian ports in the west blockaded?

Tomáš Masaryk, chair of the Czechoslovak National Council (and future President of Czechoslovakia), decided to go the other way, to travel the 6000 miles to Vladivostok and board transports to the west. In February the Bolsheviks granted permission for the trip, but first the Legion had to fight the Germans in the Ukraine in order to escape to Russia proper, which they did in March.  By the end of the month, however, mutual suspicion and distrust and the Legion’s understandable refusal to give up their arms was clearly heading to a conflict.

A Legion armored train

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Tomáš Masaryk (1925)

This month also saw the emergence of one of the most ephemeral states in history, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The evacuation of Russian troops from the Caucasus confirmed the end of Czarist rule, and while a Transcaucasian delegation from Tbilisi in Georgia signed on to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Caucasus wanted complete independence.  On 22 April the Republic was declared, uniting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into a single state, which immediately reopened the war with Turkey.  No one with the slightest knowledge of the Caucasus could have believed this bizarre entity would last very long.

Note the three languages

Banknote of the TDFR

The neighborhood of the TDFR

In miscellaneous news from April, on the 1st the British Royal Air Force was created from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Services, and on the 10th Parliament passed the Third Military Service Act, which imposed conscription on Ireland and raised the age limit to 50.  Clearly, the British were getting desperate.  But not as desperate as the Bolsheviks, who introduced conscription on 22 April – in the developing Civil War their lives depended on it.

On 23 April the Royal Navy engaged in a memorable action of high drama but little effect. For years German submarines and torpedo boats based in Bruges on the Belgium coast had been raiding Allied traffic in the Channel, but Bruges was some eight miles inland, connected to the sea by canals to Ostend and Zeebrugge. The British consequently decided to sink block ships at the entrances to the canals, two at Ostend and three at Zeebrugge, where the viaduct joining the Zeebrugge mole to the mainland would also be destroyed.

The Bruges canals

Zeebruggge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The operation at Ostend was a complete failure, but at Zeebrugge two of the block ships were sunk in the narrowest point of the entrance to the canal while the old cruiser Vindictive landed marines on the mole as a diversion.  The viaduct was destroyed by an old submarine loaded with explosives, but the occupation of the mole was a disaster.  A change in wind blew away the smoke cover, and German shore batteries forced the troops to be landed at the wrong place, where they suffered heavy casualties: 227 British dead and 356 wounded to the German 8 and 16.

The block ships

In the end German naval activity out of Bruges was hardly hindered; most of the boats could use the Ostend canal and a passage was dredged around the block ships at Zeebrugge. On the other hand, the Zeebrugge raid, despite its ultimate failure, was nevertheless heroic, earning eight Victoria Crosses, and the British war propaganda machine made the raid an Allied victory.  And the memory endured: at a military tattoo in London in 1977 I saw the assault on the Zeebrugge mole reenacted.

The Vindictive at the mole

The Vindictive back home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, an event with little drama and little effect. On 10 April (or sometime in June; it is not clear) a German submarine shelled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the African state established by emancipated American slaves.  Liberia had declared war on 4 August 1917 and subsequently confiscated German property and sent a tiny contingent of troops to France.  In consequence the Germans decided to lob a few shells at Monrovia’s radio station.  Take that America.

Daniel Howard 16th president of Liberia

Oh, on 28 April Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist assassin who started all the madness by shooting the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo four years earlier, died in prison of skeletal tuberculosis.

Gavrilo Princip

Princip’s cell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #43: the Airplane II

German air superiority, the result of the synchronized gun, was over by the beginning of 1916. When the fight for Verdun began in February, the Germans were initially able to dominate the air, but by April the French, with their new Nieuport 11s, had chased them out of the skies.  It was becoming clear that mastery of the air was of growing importance, as artillery developed its coordination with aerial spotting and the idea of close support of infantry (strafing and bombing troops) was emerging.  This in turn forced the development of antiaircraft weaponry and techniques.

British insignia

French insignia

Belgian insignia

Russian insignia

Italian insignia

American isignia

German isignia

Austrian insignia

Ottoman insignia

The Royal Flying Corps and the Aéronautique Militaire were now pumping planes and men into battle, and while pilots were typically poorly trained because of the rush to get them in the air, the Allies were very successful during the Battles of Verdun and the Somme.  The Germans got the message and by October had reorganized their air arm as the Luftstreitkräfte, which now included bomber groups, ground support units and most famously, increasingly well-organized and trained fighter squadrons, the Jagdstaffeln (abbreviated to Jasta).

There was now clearly an arms race in the air.  By the end of 1916 new specialized German fighter aircraft were beginning to win the skies back from the numerically superior Allied forces.  The fragile Fokker Eindeckers gave way to biplane designs, the Halberstadt D.II, the Fokker D.III and the more advanced Albatros D.I; the Fokker and Albatros mounted twin machine guns, giving the German pilots a tremendous advantage in combat.  Further, the Jagdstaffeln were rapidly developing new tactics that emphasized coordinated attacks by the planes in a squadron.  The day of the lone fighter was fast disappearing.

Halberstadt D.II

Fokker D.III

Albatros D.I

By the beginning of 1917 German aviators were again sweeping the skies.  The British had far more planes, but most, like the BE.2, were outdated and little more than targets.  New and better machines were arriving – the Sopwith Pup, the Sopwith Triplane and the SPAD S.VII – but not only were there few of them but they all carried only a single gun.  The result was “Bloody April.”

SPAD VII

Triplane cockpit

BE.2

Sopwith Pup

Sopwith Triplane

Remember the Battle of Arras of April 1917?  While the British were suffering some 150,000 casualties on the ground, the Royal Flying Corps, though numerically superior to the Germans, was undergoing a disaster.  The RFC had about 365 aircraft, a third of them fighters, going up against about 80 German fighters; the British lost 245 planes to the Germans’ 66.  They also lost some 400 aircrew, a number increased by RFC commander Hugh Trenchard’s policy of offensive airpower, fighting on the German side of the line.  German commander Ernst von Hoeppner, with far fewer planes, kept his fighters on his side, thus increasing their range, minimizing wear and tear and safeguarding downed pilots.

Hugh Trenchard

Ernst von Hoeppner

Making life even worse for the British fliers was the presence of Jasta 11, commanded by the already famous Manfred von Richthofen, who had assumed command in January after winning his Pour le Mérite.  In the month of April he alone downed 22 planes in his bright red Albatros D.III (hence the names Der Rote Baron and Der Rote Kampfflieger), which paint job was soon copied by the other pilots in the Jasta.  Richthofen is generally associated with the famous red Fokker Dr.I triplane, which he began flying in July, but only 19 of his 80 victories were scored in this nimble aircraft.

Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen

Jasta 11 – Richthofen in the Albatros

Jasta 11 Albatros D.IIIs

Fokker Dr.I

Richthofen’s Dr.I

In June Richthofen was made commander of the first of the new Jagdgeschwader (fighter wings), made up, in this case, of four squadrons.  By then other Jasta had also adopted distinctive squadron colors, and consequently Jagdgeschwader 1 became known as the Flying Circus.  Incidentally, in Jasta 26 during Bloody April was a young (and thin) ace named Hermann Göring (22 victories); in July 1918 he became commander of the Flying Circus and survived the war (obviously).  At the same time Jasta 14 was commanded by another ace of aces, Rudolf Berthold (44 victories); he won the Pour le Mérite and survived, only to be killed by a leftist mob in 1920.

The Flying Monkey Wrench

Berthold and his Fokker D.VII – the Flying Monkey Wrench

Rudolf Berthold

Hermann Göring

Göring in the cockpit

Jasta 26

In the second half of 1917 the balanced tipped again. The SPAD S.XIII, the SE.5a and the Sopwith Camel entered the fray, all with twin guns, while the new German planes, the Albatros D.V and Pfalz D.III, had many problems.  The Fokker D.VII, perhaps the best German fighter of the war, appeared in May 1918, but not in numbers sufficient to impact the Spring Offensive.

SPAD S.XIII – Rickenbacker’s markings

SE 5a

Sopwith Camel

Fokker D.VII

Albatros D.V

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And not in time for one of the plane’s chief supporters, Richthofen, who was killed on 21 April, shot down not by Captain Roy Brown in a Sopwith Camel, as long believed, but by a single shot from an Australian gunner (identity debated) on the ground. Richthofen managed to land his Dr.I, but died almost immediately, and his plane was virtually dismantled by souvenir hunters.  He was buried with full military honors by No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force.  Honor had not been completely extinguished in this corner of a generally faceless war.

Manfred von Richthofen

His funeral

Remains of the plane

Air losses were heavy for both sides during the Spring Offensive and the counter-offensive that followed, and by September the Allies had lost the most aircrew since Bloody April. The Germans were generally superior in aircraft and pilot experience, but simply no longer had the resources to produce enough planes, and the Allies essentially overwhelmed them with numbers.

1918 also saw the first appearance of American squadrons (as opposed to individual volunteers with the French and British), but the Americans had no fighters and were compelled to use European aircraft. At first they were given older planes, and that together with inexperience led to horrific casualties, but in the last months of the war they were flying the most advanced Allied machines.

The major impact of the airplane in the Great War was what it had been at the very beginning: better reconnaissance, especially for artillery spotting.  The big guns became far more devastating as coordination with observation planes developed, and by the end of the war artillery had become virtually dependent on aerial spotting.  This of course came at a price, though perhaps trivial compared with casualties in the ground war.  Losses of aircraft and aircrew casualties of the major air powers in the course of the conflict: Britain 35,970, 16,620; France 52,640, 7250; Germany 27,640, 16,050.

Ahmet Ali Çelikten, possibly the first Black pilot

The most destructive aspect of the airplane – strategic bombing of civilian targets – would have to wait until the next war.