(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

 

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Report from the Fronts #17: June 1916

The Battle of Jutland came to an end on 1 June, but the forces deployed for the engagement took one more ship.  The U-boats had played no active role in the battle, but they had laid mines, and on 5 June the armored cruiser HMS Hampshire, on its way from Scapa Flow to Archangel, Russia, struck one off the west coast of the Orkney Islands.  Because of the extremely rough weather, only twelve crewmen out of 662 crew and passengers survived the sinking of the warship.  Among the missing was Field Marshall Herbert Kitchener, the literal icon of the war.

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Herbert Kitchener

Herbert Kitchener

HMS Hampshire

HMS Hampshire

 

 

 

Kitchener was in fact in many ways an icon of the High Victorian Age, the victor at Omdurman (Sudan 1898) and the Second Boer War (1899-1902), literally the face of Britain in the Great War and a man (yes, this is very Victorian) whose sexuality was constantly questioned. He was criticized for some of his actions in the Boer War – the Breaker Morant case and the concentration camps – and for ammunition problems at the start of the Great War, but it cannot be denied that he was instrumental in dramatically increasing munitions production and laying the foundation for the immense army sent to the continent.

Less well known (at least outside the knitting community – my world class knitting spouse informed of this) is that he was responsible for the “Kitchener stitch.”  During the war he exhorted women to knit sweaters, scarves and socks for the boys, but it turned out the seam across the front of the sock irritated Tommy toes.  Kitchener came up with a stitch that eliminated the seam – or at least he took credit for it.  Inasmuch as Victorian Field Marshalls did not knit, he must have obtained the idea from a female acquaintance, who remains unknown to history.

The Kitchener stitch

The Kitchener stitch

On the Western Front everyone was killing time waiting for the Big Push on the Somme, but that did not mean that Death took a holiday.  On 2 June the Germans, hoping to divert allied resources from the coming offensive, initiated the Battle of Mont Sorrel in the Ypres sector.  This was a paltry affair, involving only three divisions on each side, but when it ended on 14 June, there were 8000 British/Canadian casualties and 5765 German – and no gains.

After the battle

After the battle

Battle of Mont Sorrel

Battle of Mont Sorrel

And the Blood Pump at Verdun continued, though at a relative trickle now.  On 2 June the Germans launched an offensive east of the Meuse again, beginning with an attack on Fort Vaux.  The fort was taken on 7 June, when after a subterranean battle in the galleries the garrison surrendered, having had no water for three days.  Taking the position cost the Germans 2740 casualties to 600 for the French, of which 246 were prisoners; the capture of the fort advanced the German line about 70 yards.

The essence of Verdun

The essence of Verdun

Fort Vaux

Fort Vaux

Inside Fort Faux

Inside Fort Vaux

The main offensive, covering a three mile front, began on 23 June and quickly advanced a mile, capturing Forts Thiaumont and Froidterre but failing before Fort Souville.  The Germans reached Chapelle Sainte-Fine, only a bit more than three miles from the Verdun citadel, but were thrown back to Fleury by a counterattack.  This halted the advance, and with supply problems and concern about the coming Somme offensive (the initial bombardment began on 24 June) the Germans called off the attack.  Chapelle was as close as they would ever get to Verdun.  The village of Fleury, incidentally, would change hands fifteen more times by the middle of August.

All that is left of Fleury

All that is left of Fleury

Fort Thiaumont

Fort Thiaumont

 

 

German advance from February to June

German advance from February to June

 

In Italy the Trentino offensive ended on 3 June, and Cadorna launched a counterattack eleven days later; it did not achieve enough to earn a name as a distinct battle. Further east, Greece was on the verge of civil war, with the pro-German royalist government in Athens and the pro-Entente Venizelist (remember him?) forces in the north.  On 3 June the liberals declared martial law in Macedonia, essentially ending any rule from Athens, and on 6 June the Allies initiated a “pacific blockade” of Greece to put pressure on the government.  On 21 June the Allies delivered a note demanding that Greek forces be demobilized and a new government formed; it was accepted and the blockaded was ended the following day.

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, to the northeast the Russians, under pressure from the Allies to draw German and Austrian troops away from Verdun and the Italian Front, began their own summer offensive. General Aleksei Brusilov, commander of the Southwestern Front, convinced the Tsar to allow an attack into Galicia, which commenced on 4 June.  The “Brusilov Offensive” sent 633,000 Russians against 467,000 Austrians and Germans along a 300 mile front, and employing limited but more accurate artillery fire and the type of shock units the Germans were using at Verdun, Brusilov immediately broke through the Austrian lines.

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Brusilov Offensive

Brusilov Offensive

Within a week the Austrians were in headlong retreat, and Brusilov had already bagged 200,000 prisoners.  The penetration exposed his northern flank, however, and General Alexei Evert, the commander of the Western Front, just to the north, was opposed to the whole offensive and delayed moving out.  As a result, the Germans and Austrians were able to bring up new troops, and when Evert finally attacked on 18 June, he made little headway, partly because he learned nothing from Brusilov’s new tactics.  Evert was after all responsible for the disaster at Lake Naroch in March 1915.  Nevertheless, by 24 June the Russians had captured Bukovina, the southernmost part of Galicia.

June also saw more Turkish and British activity in western Persia and the merry chase after Lettow-Vorbeck continued in Africa, but the big news in June was the beginning of the Arab Revolt.  The British and French had been making big promises to Arab leaders since the war had started, hoping to stir revolts that would tie down Ottoman troops, and in early June (the date is not clear) Sharif Hussein bin Ali, fearing the Turks were about to depose him, signed up with the Allies.  As the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein could field some 50,000 troops, though they were woefully short of modern weapons.

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

On 5 June Hussein’s sons Ali (who would succeed his father as King of the Hejaz) and Faisal (who would later be King of Syria then King of Iraq) jumped the gun by attacking Medina but were easily repulsed by the Turkish garrison.  Five days later Hussein proclaimed the Hejaz independent and colorfully signaled the beginning of the Revolt by firing a shot from the Hashemite palace.  5000 of his men promptly attacked the Turkish forts in the city and on the third day captured the Ottoman Deputy Governor, who ordered his men to surrender.  Better equipped and trained than the Arabs, the 1000 Turkish troops refused, and the fighting continued into the next month.  With British naval and air support the port of Jidda was also attacked by Arab forces on 10 June and fell six days later.

Faisal (in 1933)

Faisal (in 1933)

Ali (in 1933)

Ali (in 1924)

Arab soldiers

Arab soldiers

No, the most romantic figure of the Great War, T.E. Lawrence, was not yet directly involved, but the movement that would dramatically alter the face of the Middle East was underway.  Colonel Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Picot agreement) even designed for the Arabs a flag, which would be the pattern for the national flags of most of the post-war Arab kingdoms.

Flag of the Hejaz

Flag of the Hejaz

Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes

 

Reports from the Front #2: the East – August 1914 to May 1915

(Yes, the maps are hard to read because of the small size, but I have no idea how to make them bigger or create a link to the original.  But I will continue to include them – I like maps.)

 

While the men on the Western Front were quickly learning about industrialized warfare, in the east, where the front ran for almost a thousand miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea, things were a bit different.  Because of the difficulty of fortifying and manning such a long line, the war was more fluid, with impressive breakthroughs that the generals in the west kept spending men on but could not achieve.  On the other hand, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies were far inferior in quality and their communications more primitive, which meant that while penetrating enemy lines was much easier, sustaining any advance was more difficult.  Austrian troops would need constant help from the Germans.WWOne24[1]

On 12 August Austria invaded Serbia with 270,000 troops, a fraction of their total operational force of some two million, and they faced a poorly equipped Serbian army, whose entire operational strength at the time was about 250,000 men.  Nevertheless, despite two more Austrian invasions, by the middle of December virtually nothing had changed – except the loss of men: 170,000 for Serbia, 230,000 for Austria.  Even without a static front industrialized warfare did not come cheap.

Russian infantry

Russian infantry

Serbian infantry

Serbian infantry

Austrian infantry

Austrian infantry

Meanwhile, on 17 August the Russians invaded East Prussia, but the Russian Second Army was annihilated by Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg at the Battle of Tannenberg from 26 to 30 August; the Russian commander, Alexander Samsonov, shot himself.  The engagement actually took place near Allenstein, 19 miles to the east, but as a symbol of revenge for the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1410 it was named after Tannenberg.  Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Erich von Ludendorff (who would become virtual dictator of Germany in 1918), then took the Eighth Army east and in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes from 7 to 14 September destroyed the Russian First Army as well,

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

despite being heavily outnumbered.  Russian troops were driven from German soil and would not return again until late 1944.

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Battle of Tannenberg

Battle of Tannenberg

 

The major problem for the Russian army was incompetent and corrupt officers.  The individual soldier was tough and at least initially willing to fight for his country, despite its oppressive and brutal government, but he was very badly led and constantly short of supplies.  Not only were Russian industry and transportation far less developed than that of her allies and Germany, but selling army supplies was a thriving practice among senior officials and army officers.  (One is perhaps reminded of the current Iraqi army.)  Further complicating any advance into Germany – and vice versa – was the broader Russian railway gauge, which would plague the Wehrmacht in the next war.

On the other hand, as the Serbian campaigns demonstrate the Austro-Hungarian army was nothing much to write home about either.  On 23 August the Austrian First Army met the Russian Fourth Army near Lublin on the border between Russian Poland and Austrian Galicia (parts of modern Poland and Ukraine), inaugurating the Battle of Galicia.  The Fourth Army was driven back, as was the Fifth Army immediately to the southeast, but unfortunately for old Franz Joseph, in the southernmost sector of the front the Russians actually had an able commander, Aleksei Brusilov, who broke the Austrian advance.  Defeat turned to flight, making the Austrian gains in the north untenable, and when the battle ended on 11 September, the Russian front had advanced a hundred miles to the Carpathian Mountains.  The heart of the Austrian army had been ripped out, and the Germans were forced to send troops to Austria’s defense and thus limit their advance into Russian Poland.

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Battle of Galicia

Battle of Galicia

A month and a half of war in the east demonstrated what everyone had already suspected: the Germans were good and the Austrians and Russians were not.  The Germans had lost 24,000 men, including captured, the Austrians 684,000 and the Russians a 605,000.  But the Russians now occupied Galicia, balancing the disaster in the north and perhaps keeping Nicky on his throne a bit longer.

The Russian supreme command was in fact contemplating an invasion of Silesia, which would expose the flanks of the Germans in the north and the Austrians in the south.  The Germans got wind of this, and Hindenburg, now supreme commander in the east, sent the Ninth Army under August von Mackensen southeast to forestall the invasion.  The Russians countered by ordering the Fifth Army to forget about Silesia and withdraw to the area of Łódź to deal with the threat from von Mackensen, who struck Paul von Rennenkampf’s First Army (yes, he is a Russian) on 11 November.  Thus began the Battle of Łódź, which went on until 6 December, when the Germans finally gave up trying to capture the city.  The Russians then nevertheless moved east towards Warsaw to establish a new defense line, and Rennenkampf, who had already been accused of incompetence at Tannenberg, was canned.  Another 35,000 Germans and 90,000 Russians down the tubes.

Paul von Rennenkampf

Paul von Rennenkampf

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Battle of Lodz

Battle of Lodz

On 7 February Hindenburg resumed the offensive with a surprise attack in the midst of a snowstorm and drove the Russians back some seventy miles, inflicting heavy casualties and accepting the surrender of an entire Russian corps.  But a Russian counterattack halted the advance, and the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes ended on 22 February with the Germans down 16,200 men and the Russians 200,000.  Well, one death is a tragedy, 50,000 is a statistic.  More uplifting (if you happened to be a German or an Austrian), on 2 May von Mackensen, now commanding Austrian forces, began an offensive near Gorlice and Tarnów (southeast of Krakow); this was the beginning of a push that would ultimately become known from the Russian point of view as the Great Retreat of 1915.

In other news from the east during the first ten months of the war, on 29 October the weakling Ottoman Empire, seeking to regain territory lost in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, shelled the Black Sea ports of Sevastopol and Theodosia.  There had been no declaration of war, and the two warships, recently acquired from Germany, were under the command of German officers, who may have acted on their own.  Seeking another front against Russia, the Germans had been putting pressure on Turkey to enter the war and found a willing accomplice in the most powerful man in the Empire, War Minister Ismail Enver, better known as Enver Pasha, who admired the German army.  In any case, Russia declared war on 1 November, promptly followed by Serbia and Montenegro, and before the Turks could negotiate Britain and France also declared war on 5 November.  In response the titular head of government, Sultan Mehmed V, declared war on Britain, France and Russia, and on 14 November the head sky-pilot of the Empire, the Sheikh ul-Islam, issued a series of fatwas that declared this to be a jihad, a holy war against the infidel enemies.  Now the Turks were in on the fun.  Only the Italians were missing.

Sultan Mehmed V

Sultan Mehmed V

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

 Der Drei Kaiser Bund

Der Drei Kaiser Bund