Report from the Fronts #18: July 1916

On the Western Front July 1916 began with a bang, literally, as nineteen massive mines buried under German lines were exploded by the British to kick off the long-awaited Somme Offensive. The mines, many begun the previous year, contained a total of 210,800 pounds of high explosive, which together constituted one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history.  Three of the mines were behemoths: Hawthorn Ridge at Beaumont-Hamel (40,600 lbs.) and Y Sap and Lochnagar at La Boisselle (40,000 and 60,000 lbs. respectively); Lochnagar was believed to be the loudest man-made noise up to that time, heard as far away as London.  Impressive, but they did not substantially aid the offensive.

Mine tunnel

Mine tunnel

Lochnagar crater today

Lochnagar crater today

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Lochnagar crater

Lochnagar crater

 

 

 

 

 

The Somme Offensive had been in the works since 1915 and was intended to be a primarily French operation with the British in support, but the German assault at Verdun had drained away French troops and it was British/Commonwealth forces that ended up bearing the brunt of this Big Push.  The section of the trench line north and south of the Somme River, defended by General Fritz von Below’s Second Army, was chosen by Joffre for the attack, though it is not at all clear why.  There was no particular strategic importance to the area, and because it had been quiet since 1915, the Germans had been busy increasing the stiffness and depth of their fortifications.

The Butcher of the Somme

The Butcher of the Somme

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

Somme Offensive

Somme Offensive

Haig of course went right along with this, delighted it would be primarily a British show.  Eleven divisions from General Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army would attack in the area of Albert, supported on their left flank by two divisions of General Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby’s Third Army; the right flank would be covered by five divisions of the French Sixth Army on both sides of the Somme.  (Joffre had originally planned on 40 French divisions.)  The goal was the seemingly mythical “breakthrough,” which would allow forces (including all available cavalry!) to head for Douai and Cambrai.  The Allies had air superiority, a factor that was gaining in importance.

Edmund Allenby

Edmund Allenby

 

Fritz von Below

Fritz von Below

Henry Rawlinson

Henry Rawlinson

The Somme Offensive was in actuality a series of thirteen more or less distinctive named battles that stretched on into November.  The initial attack, the Battle of Albert (1-13 July), pushed the Germans into a substantial withdrawal south and north of the Somme, but the Commonwealth forces in the center got nowhere against the Germans on higher ground.  It was in fact a disaster.  The British suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed) on the first day; their total casualties in the next eleven days were c. 25,000.  1 July 1916 is acknowledged as the worst day in the history of the British army.

A German "Sommekämpfer"

A German Sommekämpfer

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

The fault can be pinned on Haig and Rawlinson, who believed (like most high commanders) that a heavy barrage would take out the machine guns and wire.  Perhaps against their own trench line, but not the deep triple lines and reinforced bunkers of the busy Germans.  The defenses were virtually intact, and the slow-moving British infantry were annihilated.  Two subordinate commanders were sacked (for not pushing their men harder!), but as historian Martin Middlebrook later put it, “Haig and Rawlinson were protected by the sheer enormity of the disaster.”  To fire or criticize them would be a PR disaster – and the offensive went on.

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

But it now comprised more limited engagements and objectives, as the Allies encountered nasty fighting in fortified villages and dense woods.  The Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14-17 July) went better than the original offensive, pushing out a thousand yards and capturing Bazentine le Petit, but further advance was foiled by the confusion and poor communications, frequent companions of Great War offensives.

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, a bit to the southeast the Battle of Delville Wood (14 July – 15 September) resulted from the effort to secure the right flank of the force in Bazentine, and on the first day the First South African Brigade, making its Western Front debut, seized most of the wood.  The Germans counterattacked, and by 20 July when British attacks rescued the remnants from the wood, the South African brigade had virtually ceased to exist.

Battle of Delville Wood

Battle of Delville Wood

South African General Henry Lukin

South African General Henry Lukin

Delville Wood

Delville Wood

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Fromelles (19-20 July) actually took place some fifty miles north of the Somme and was a small scale operation designed to take advantage of weaknesses brought on by the transfer of German troops to the Somme.  Well, there were none in this bit of the line, and the two divisions in fact attacked a ridge defended by twice their number, suffering 7080 casualties to the German’s 1500-2000.  The Australian Fifth Division, also making its first appearance on the Western Front, suffered 5533 of those casualties; the battle was later described as “the worst 24 hours in Australian history.’  For what?

The last Somme engagement to be initiated in July was the Battle of Pozières Ridge (23 July – 7 August), which was the only part of a general offensive north and south of the Somme to have any success.  Pozières was a village two miles northwest of Bazentine, and its capture would isolate the Germans in the fortified village of Thiepval.  The Australian First Division took the village immediately, but inasmuch as the rest of the offensive promptly collapsed into uncoordinated mini-engagements, the Aussies became the center of attention of the German artillery and suffered huge casualties.  The German counterattack would come at the beginning of August.

Pozières plateau

Pozières plateau

Road to Pozières

Road to Pozières

 Pozières- captured German bunker

Pozières- captured German bunker

Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front the Baranovichi Offensive in what is now Belarus finally began.  The commander of the Western Army Group, Alexei Evert, had resisted going on the offensive in June as the northern wing of the Brusilov Offensive, perhaps because he remembered the disaster of his Lake Naroch Offenisive back in March.  But the supreme Command insisted, and on 2 July 410,000 troops of the Russian Fourth Army attacked 70,000 Germans of the Ninth Army.  When the on and off offensive finally ended on 29 July, the Russians had gained no ground and lost 80,000 men to the German 13,000.  Is it any wonder revolution was brewing?

Evert's men - future corpses and revolutionaries

Evert’s men – future corpses and revolutionaries

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other news, the counterattack at the Trentino ended on 7 July, freeing General Cadorna free to contemplate another shot on the Isonzo.  On 25 July Serbian troops (Remember Serbia?) showed up at Salonika, followed in five days by a contingent of Russians, of whom there seemed to be an endless supply.  Incidentally, on 25 July the Russians took Erzincan (Erzinjan) in northeastern Turkey; this is as far as they would penetrate into Anatolia.

Finally, things were heating up on the Arab front.  In Sinai the Turks began an offensive towards the Suez Canal on 19 July, but far more important to the post-war world, Britain signed a treaty with Abdulaziz Ibn Sa’ud, Emir of Nejd and Hasa, the creator and future king of Saudi Arabia.  That kingdom would include the Hejaz (Too bad, Sherif Hussein) where on 27 July Arab forces took Yenbo, the port of Medina, easing their supply problems.  And soon Lawrence would show up.

Ibn Saud

Ibn Sa’ud

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

 

 

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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