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

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(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

 

(Late) Report from the Fronts #29: May 1917

May began with the last gasps and final failure of the Nivelle Offensive.  The Third Battle of the Scarpe and the Second Battle of Bullecourt began on 3 May; the former ended the following day, while the latter dragged on until 17 May.  The Nivelle Offensive was over, but the unexpected repercussions were just beginning.

When the Second Battle of Bullecourt began, the French 2nd Division mutinied and refused to attack, and the infection quickly began spreading to other units.  By early June, when the authorities began responding seriously to the mutiny, half the 112 or 113 divisions of the French army had been affected to some degree.

The mutiny was more of a work stoppage than a revolt.  No officers were assaulted, and the strikers, mostly seasoned veterans, were willing to fight, just not engage in more futile offensives that completely ignored the realities of twentieth century warfare.  And although pacifist and socialist pamphlets circulated in the trenches, there was no real political movement behind the mutiny.  The troops were simply sick of being sacrificed for nothing on the altar of the Big Push by men who appeared to have little understanding of modern war.

Poilus in color

Unsurprisingly, Paris and London promptly attempted to institute a news blackout, fearing the effect of the mutiny on Allied and German morale, a perhaps sensible but certainly unethical and undemocratic move (remember General Westmoreland and Secretary McNamara?).  One could argue this was necessary for the war effort (and this war was clearly more vital to France than Vietnam was to the United States), but sealing all the pertinent military and political records for fifty years was simply to protect the generals and politicians, who would be long dead in 1967 (when the first detailed book on the mutiny appeared).  And the ultimate silliness: some (apparently) political documents were sealed for a hundred years, a senseless classification procedure that still goes on.

The repression of the mutiny belongs to June, but there was already a major casualty in May.  Actually, there were already as many as 187,000 French, 160,000 British and 163,000 German casualties, but on 15 May Nivelle was cashiered and replaced by Phillippe Pétain of Verdun and later Vichy fame; in December he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in North Africa, which is to say, he was exiled from the war.  Pétain was replaced as Chief of the French General Staff by Ferdinand Foch, hero of the Marne in 1914.

Ferdinand Foch

 

General Nivelle

Philippe Pétain

 

To the south General Cadorna launched the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo on 12 May.  What, again?  Well, General Haig and the French had resisted PM Lloyd George’s idea of sending Allied troops to help the Italians knock out the Austrians before they were stiffened by German troops, but Nivelle nevertheless pressured Cadorna to plan an offensive to coincide with his own.  400,000 thousand Italians attacked half that number of Austrians and got within ten miles of Trieste before the inevitable counterattack drove them all the way back.  The result when the battle ended on 8 June was 157,000 Italian and 75,000 Austrian casualties and no gains.  Cadorna would try again.

Italian front

Luigi Cadorna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Macedonian front the fighting died down with the end of Second Battle of Dorian on 9 May.  A small scale operation in Western Front terms, the battle began on 24 April with an attempt to take the city from the Bulgarians and failed, just like the First Battle of Dorian in August 1916, when four Allied divisions were repulsed by one (larger) Bulgarian with 3200 casualties, four times that of the enemy.  This time three British divisions (43,000 men) under General George Milne were smoked again by a single Bulgarian division (30,000 men) under General Vladimir Vazov, losing 12,000 men, six times as many as the Bulgarians.  There would of course be a Third Dorian.

Vladimir Vazov

George Milne

Macedonian Front

 

 

 

Other news from Greece: on 20 May the Serbian Government in exile moved from Corfu to Salonika, and more ominous, on 28 May an Anglo-French conference began in London to consider deposing King Constantine and occupying all of Greece.

Finally, there were a number of political and command developments.  On 10 May John “Black Jack” Pershing, fresh from chasing Pancho Villa across Mexico, was appointed Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, and eight days later the Compulsory Service Act – the draft – became law.  In a very different place, Russia, Alexander Kerensky, who had played a prominent role in the February Revolution, became on 16 May Minister of War for the Provisional Government, which two days later declared there would be no separate peace (as the Bolsheviks wanted).

The Kerensky War Ministry

Black Jack Pershing

And a dramatic forecast on 7 May: a single German plane – probably a Gotha G.IV – made the first night raid on London, anticipating the Blitz a quarter century later.

Gotha G.IV bomber