(Late) Report from the Fronts #45: May 1918

 

Spring Offensive

Operation Georgette came to an end on 27 April, and despite the absence of the hoped for breakthrough Ludendorff decided to go on to the next phase of the offensive, Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne).  The thrust would be between Soissons and Rheims, southwest across the Aisne River towards the Marne and Paris, but Ludendorff was apparently still thinking in terms of drawing more Allied forces south in preparation for another assault in Flanders that would separate the British and French armies.

On 27 May 4000 guns opened up on the Chemin des Dames Ridge (lost during the Second Battle of the Aisne), where four refitting British divisions were blown apart, having been ordered to hold the forward trenches – against all experience – by General Denis Duchêne, commander of the French Sixth Army (he was sacked after the battle).  Some 20 divisions swept through a 25 mile hole in the line and reached the Aisne River in less than six hours, and by the end of the month the Germans had captured Soissons and reached the Marne, only 35 miles from Paris.

Erich von Ludendorff

British lads on the Aisne

Overrun trench

Denis Duchêne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But then the inevitable: lengthening supply lines, tired troops and heavy losses slowed the offensive to a crawl, and Allied counterattacks halted it on 6 June.  Both sides lost about 130,00 men, and not only did the British not send substantial manpower south, as Ludendorff had hoped, but the Field Marshall had himself transferred German troops from Flanders, undermining his own strategic plan.  There were a million German troops in the east (Sevastopol was taken on 1 May and Rostov a week later), but in the west Ludendorff was rapidly running out of men.

He was also running out of time.  At this time there were only four ready American divisions in theater, gaining experience in the trenches of quiet stretches of the Front, but on 28 May the American 1st Division (the Big Red One) engaged in the AEF’s first offensive, capturing and holding Cantigny (southeast of Amiens) and impressing the French and British.  By the beginning of June 10,000 doughboys were pouring into France each day, and Ludendorff had to know that his days were numbered.

Yanks at Catigny

(Painted) Yanks defending Catigny

Catigny

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east the former Russian Empire was flying apart and the Bolsheviks were fighting for their lives, literally against everyone, including people they ostensibly represented: on 9 May Red Army troops fired on protesting workers in Kolpino.  And that came to include the Czech Legion.  Traveling east on the Siberian Railroad, the Czechs were meeting trainloads of German, Austrian and Hungarian prisoners moving west, and on 14 May at Chelyabinsk a fight broke out and a Hungarian was killed.  The local Bolsheviks arrested several Czechs and ordered them shot; the Czechs promptly occupied the city.  Within a month the Legion, aided by White forces, would control the railway from the Ural Mountains to Lake Baikal.

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Trans-Siberian railroad

Meanwhile, the Finnish Civil War ended on 7 May with a White victory, guaranteeing Finnish independence, at least until Stalin invaded the country in 1940.  And on the same day that the Legion revolted Kerensky, the former head of the Provisional Government, fled Russia, which is why he was one of the few key figures from 1917 to survive until 1970.

Kerensky 1917

Kerensky 1960s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down in Palestine Allenby’s second strike across the Jordan, launched on 30 April, captured the town of Es Salt, but the British were driven back over the Jordan by 4 May.  They also captured Kirkuk in northern Iraq on 7 May, but were forced to evacuate it on the 24th.

British troops in Es Salt

The Turks were doing much better.  With Russia sinking further into civil war the way into the Caucasus was open, barred only by the inherently unstable Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, with which they were already at war.  On 11 May a peace conference took place at Batum, but given what the Turks had done to the Armenians in 1915, it was doomed, and the Ottoman Third Army continued its advance on the 21st.  Five days later Georgia proclaimed its independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia, followed in two days by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Armenia.  Georgia joined the Germans, Azerbaijan the Turks and Armenia fought on.

The Caucasus today

Remember the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend last month?  On 9 May the British again attempted to ground a block ship at Ostend, employing HMS Vindictive, covered with glory and damage from the Zeebrugge raid.  But a fog set in and the clever Germans had moved the navigation buoys, resulting in the sunken cruiser only partially blocking the harbor entrance.

HMS Vindictive 1918

HMS Vindictive 1900

Second Ostend raid

Finally, additional distant vultures were gathering: Nicaragua declared war on Germany on 8 May and Costa Rica on the 24th.  One might wonder why.  Well, at this time Nicaragua was virtually an American colony, and the dictator of Costa Rica, General Federico Tinoco, hoped for American recognition of his government.  The general did not get it and was deposed in 1919, but Costa Rica remained in a technical state of war with Germany until after the Second World War.

Federico Tinoco

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Report from the Fronts #42: March 1918

The big news for March 1918 was the German Spring Offensive, but first there was a flurry of peace treaties. On 1 March Bolshevik Russia signed a peace treaty with the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic, which had emerged in the industrialized south of Finland in January.  Unfortunately for Lenin, the Workers’ Republic was not at all popular among most Finns, and the result was a civil war in which the “reds” were supported by Moscow and the “whites” by Berlin, which signed a treaty of peace with Finland on 7 March.  In terms of barbarity the Finish Civil War quickly became a small-scale forerunner of the far greater horror that was the Russian Civil War.

Murdered Whites

Executing Reds

Red Guards

White Guards

The Finnish Civil War during March

On 5 March Romania agreed –what choice did she have? – to a preliminary peace with the Central Powers, Bulgaria and Turkey and four days later signed a peace with Russia, a far easier proposition.  Bolshevik Russia, meanwhile, finally bowed to the inevitable on 3 March (the day after the Germans captured Kiev), and Grigori Sokolnikov (killed in prison in 1939) signed the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Russia lost the Baltic states, Belarus and the Ukraine (as personal possessions of the Czar, Poland and Finland were already gone), which meant that a quarter of the former Empire’s population and industry now belonged to the Germans.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Slivers of the Russian Empire for Turkey

The Treaty itself

Grigori Solkonikov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might have been a great deal for the Germans had there not been a Western Front.  Brest-Litovsk did free up several hundred thousand troops needed for the planned Spring Offensive – Germany’s last shot before being overwhelmed by the Americans – but the desire to secure this eastern empire and its resources left a million men scattered from Poland through the Ukraine.  Inasmuch as the attempt to establish a Ukrainian puppet state would fail and the expected resources never appear because of constant revolts against the occupying troops, Ludendorff would have better served his country by evacuating everything east of Poland.

Hindenburg the figurehead and Ludendorff the ruler

The aforementioned Spring Offensive (or Ludendorff Offensive or Kaiserschlacht) began on 21 March.  Ludendorff had collected 74 divisions (out of 192 in the West) and 10,000 guns and mortars, spread along the 43 mile front from Arras south to La Fère on the Oise River.  The German Seventeenth Army, under Otto von Below, the Second Army, under Georg von der Marwitz, and the Eighteenth Army, under Oskar von Hutier, faced the right wing of Julian Byng’s Third Army and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.  The strategic aim was to move northwest from the breakthrough and cut the British off from the English Channel and the French to the south, forcing negotiations.

General Julian Byng 3rd Army

General Hubert Gough 5th Army

Spring Offensive

General Oskar von Hutier

General Otto von Below 17th Army

General Georg von der Marwitz 2nd Army

 

The initial phase of the offensive, Operation Michael, would throw 44 divisions, many just specially trained for rapid advance, at the line from Arras to south of St. Quentin.  The northern elements of the advance would take Arras and head northwest, while the southern units would move to the Somme and hold it against counterattacks.  Ludendorff ordered a massive but relatively short initial bombardment in order to preserve some element of surprise, but a week before the launch the British knew from reconnaissance, prisoners and deserters a big push was coming and shelled German assembly areas.

Operation Michael

In the early hours of 21 March the shells began raining done over a 40 mile front, 3,500,000 in five hours, the largest bombardment of the war. The British front lines were severely disrupted by gas and smoke and the rear areas and supply lines pounded by heavy artillery, and more important, communications between headquarters and the fronts were severed.  Further, a thick fog came with the dawn, allowing the German troops to sneak by defensive positions and infiltrate the rear.

Operation Michael would last until 5 April, proceeding through six named battles: the Battle of St. Quentin (21-23 March), the First Battle of Bapaume (24-25 March), the Battle of Rosières (26-27 March), the First Battle of Arras (28 March), the Battle of the Avre (4 April) and the Battle of the Ancre (5 April).  One can see from the names that much of this ground would be fought over again.  (That was a spoiler, I suppose.)

 The offensive got off to a great start, and within days the British were engaged in fighting withdrawals in order to protect exposed flanks and compelled to call in French troops to stem the German tide at the southern part of the front. Not only were the British dramatically outnumbered in divisions, but many were seriously exhausted and understrength.  But it was certainly not a rout, as British and Commonwealth losses demonstrate.

British 6 inch gun in action

Retreating British

German AV7 tank near the Somme

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all the initial success, however, the offensive ran up against the usual barrier: the difficulty of resupply and consolidation in the wake of a rapid advance. Making it even more difficult in this case was the fact that much of the terrain had been fought over two years earlier during the Somme Offensive and was a lunar landscape virtually impassable for wheeled vehicles.  Further, when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, they had destroyed everything that might be of use to the Allies and now had themselves to deal with the devastated infrastructure and poisoned wells.

Advancing over the Somme battlefield

Dragging artillery forward

German supply column

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superficially Michael looked a success.  The Germans had penetrated 40 miles (light years in Great War terms) in the center of the offensive and collected 75,000 prisoners and about 1200 square miles of French turf.  But they had not taken Arras and were stopped short of Amiens, and more important, they had suffered some quarter million casualties, particularly among the elite Stormtroopers (Stoẞtruppen).  The Allies had lost about the same number, but huge American reinforcements were beginning to arrive and Allied war production could easily replace the lost materiel.  The Germans could not.  The Spring Offensive would continue for another three months, but many in the military were already deciding the war was over for Germany.

(For an excellent account of Operation Michael from the point of view of a German infantryman I recommend the personal memoir of Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (Stahlgewittern).  Jünger was present at the Somme, Cambrai and the Spring Offensive, where he was seriously wounded and concluded that Germany could not win.  He survived the war (and the next as well) and was the rare enlisted man to be awarded the Pour le Mérite.)

Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger at 100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Michael underlined the problems of coordination between the British and French high commands, and on 26 March General Ferdinand Foch was chosen to coordinate Allied activities.  In April he would be named Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies, a long delayed development.

Ferdinand Foch

In other news, on 21 March the Commonwealth troops in Palestine began crossing the Jordan River, heading for the key Turkish position in Amman, which controlled the all-important Hejaz Railway. By the 27th they had occupied the Moab hills and assaulted Amman itself (The First Battle of Amman 27 – 31 March), but Turkish/German counterattacks forced them back to the west bank of the Jordan by 2 April.

Turkish prisoners

Amman

The Jordan Valley and Amman

Bridge across the Jordan

Crossing the Jordan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More interesting, on the same day the Jordan was crossed the Germans began shelling Paris – from 75 miles away. Near Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, behind their lines, the Germans had emplaced the largest artillery piece (in terms of barrel length – 112 feet) of the war, the 256 ton Paris Gun (Paris-Geschütz), also known as the Emperor William Gun (Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz). The gun fired yard long 234 pound shells, which traveled 25 miles up into the atmosphere, the first manmade objects to enter the stratosphere, and the range was so great that the rotation of the earth needed to be taken into account in aiming the weapon.

The Paris gun

Emplacing the Paris gun

Paris gun mount

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guns – there were three of them – were designed by Krupp engineer Fritz Rausenberger and marvels of engineering for the time, but as an effective weapon they had serious drawbacks. Inasmuch as the shell had to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressures of firing, it could only carry 15 pounds of explosive, a trivial amount when the smallest target you could expect to hit was a city.  (A proposal to employ a sabot-mounted shell, which would increase the explosive payload was inexplicably rejected.)  Further, each shot wore down the barrel enough that the next shell had to be slightly bigger, and after 65 had been fired the barrel was sent back to Krupp to be restored.  An average of 20 shells a day were fired, amounting to only 300 pounds of explosive delivered in small packets.

The gun

The shell and propellant

Hello, stratosphere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly the gun was not intended to level Paris, but to undermine morale in the capital.  But when the firing stopped in August (the Allies were approaching the site), only 250 Parisians had been killed and 620 wounded, and after initial confusion regarding the source of the shelling Paris shrugged off the threat.  The psychological offensive had failed.  On the other hand, Germany had reached the stratosphere.

On a lighter note, the first confirmation of a new strain of influenza came on 11 March.  It was found coursing the bloodstream of Private Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas, though the ultimate origin of the disease is still in dispute.  This was the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, so named because more cases were reported in neutral Spain, where there was no military censorship.  It would kill 3% to 6% of the human race.

The influenza hospital at Fort Riley

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #39: January 1918

The new year brought no particular hope for the Allies.  The disaster of Caporetto and the exit of the Russians in fact boded ill, and the Allied command was looking to 1919 for a victory.  The Central Powers had eliminated Russia from the war and could bring more troops west, but they were on the verge of starvation because of the Allied blockade and would need to take some action soon.

January saw no major fighting – the winter in France and Flanders was exceptionally cold – and most of the action was diplomatic.  At Brest-Litovsk the Russians were discovering just how much a peace was going to cost them, and on 5 January ceased negotiations, demanding they be conducted at Stockholm.  Three days later they resumed the talks, only to withdraw again on the 23rd and then reengage on the 30th.  Dissension was growing among the Bolshevik leadership, and some wanted to wait until the expected worker revolutions broke out in Europe.

On 6 January a delegation from the Ukraine, which was seeking a separate peace with the Central Powers, arrived.  In the wake of the February Revolution in March 1917 the Ukrainians had begun organizing their own state, and while this development was tolerated by the Provisional Government, the new Bolshevik regime was definitely unenthusiastic, despite its proclamation of self-determination in the former empire.  As is still clear in the 21st century, the Ukraine occupied a special place in the Russian heart: though possessing a different culture and language, it was considered “south Russia” and the birthplace of Russia itself – Kievan Rus’.  And Lenin desperately needed Ukrainian grain.  Two decades of nightmare were about to begin for the Ukrainian people.

The Ukrainian delegation at Brest-Litovsk

Others were leaving the one-time Greater Romanov Co-Prosperity Sphere.  After the abdication of Czar Nicholas in March 1917 Finland declared itself autonomous, inasmuch as the personal union between Finland and Russia was based on the monarchy.  When the Bolsheviks announced self-determination on 15 November, the Finish Parliament declared complete sovereignty and on 6 December passed a Declaration of Independence, which the Soviet government accepted on 4 January.  Poland was occupied by the Germans, and Belarus and the Baltic and Caucasian states would soon be departing.

Signatures on the Finish Declaration of Independence

Incidentally, the Bolshevik leadership demonstrated in January that it was also unconcerned about self-determination in Russia.  On the 18th a supportive crowd marched on the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, where the Constituent Assembly, elected in November, was to meet.  They were shot at by government soldiers, but the Assembly convened anyway, surrounded by troops, who finally forced the meeting to adjourn around 4 AM.  The next day the Assembly was dissolved by the Bolshevik government, which had no need for a freely elected parliament.

The Tauride Palace

The meeting place in the Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a speech to Congress on 8 January President Wilson outlined his Fourteen Points for a just settlement of the war.  The first point called for “open covenants, openly arrived at,” a provision that the Allies, with all their secret treaties, were not amused by, though Lenin, who had revealed all the Russian treaties, thought the document enlightened.  The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who was less interested in Wilson’s idealism than squeezing every last pfennig out of Germany, responded to the Fourteen Points with Le bon Dieu n’en avait que dix ! (“The good Lord had only ten!”).  Nevertheless, the Points would serve as a basis for negotiating the peace treaty at Versailles after the war.

Clemenceau

Wilson

Germany faces the Fourteen Points

Report from the Fronts #38: December 1917

The battle of Cambrai came to an end on 7 December, and the Western Front was then otherwise “quiet.”  On the same day the US Battleship Division 9, commanded by Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, reached the Grand Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, adding four American dreadnaughts to the fleet.  America at first resisted dividing its fleet, but First Sea Lord Jellicoe (who would resign on the 26th) convinced the American admirals by revealing in April the massive losses in merchant shipping in 1917 – 600,000 tons per month – which would lead to starvation in Britain by the end of the year.  The British requested older coal burning ships because of the shortages of oil, and the Americans sent the Delaware, Florida, New York and Wyoming.

USS Wyoming

USS New York

USS Delaware

USS Florida

Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman

 

Off in the east Russia was making its peace with the Central Powers.  On 5 December a Russian delegation signed a general truce with the Central Powers at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk (the rest of city was in ruins) in Belarus and began negotiations for an armistice.  The Soviet team was a motley crew, inasmuch as it involved representatives of all the social groups supporting the Revolution (soldiers, sailors, workers, etc. – a peasant was recruited off the street at the last minute), but two Bolshevik luminaries were present: Leon Trotsky (assassinated in August 1940) and Lev Kamenev (shot in August 1936).

Kamenev arrives

Kamenev

Trotsky

Trotsky arrives

Brest-Litovsk conference

The delegation was led by Adolph Joffe (committed suicide in November 1927 after being refused permission to travel abroad for medical treatment), an ally of Trotsky, and his position was soon improved by sending home many of the social group representatives, such as the sailors.  On 15 December an armistice was signed, and on the 22nd negotiations for a peace treaty began, a much harder row to hoe for the Russians.  They wanted no “annexations or indemnities,” but the Central Powers had territorial ambitions galore and non-Russian provinces were already opting out of the prostrate Russian Empire.  Courland, Poland and Lithuania, already occupied by the Germans and Austrians, wanted independence, which Finland declared on 6 December; the Moldavian Democratic Republic (Bessarabia) was declared on the 15th.  And proclaiming the principle of self-determination made it difficult for the Bolsheviks to argue against these developments.

Adolph Joffre

Meanwhile, it was becoming clearer where the new Russian republic was heading.  Back in July the Provisional Government had accepted the idea of Constituent Assembly, but Kerensky wanted to wait until the war, which he wished to continue, was over.  The October Revolution (in November) changed that, inasmuch as the Bolsheviks demanded immediate peace, and elections were held in November.  Unfortunately for Lenin, a split among his allies, the Social Revolutionaries, meant the Bolsheviks could be a minority in the Assembly, and it would not be convened until January.

To the south the British outside Jerusalem were fending off Turkish counterattacks at the beginning of December, and on the evening of 8 December the Ottoman Seventh Army moved north, evacuating Jerusalem but for a small force on the Mount of Olives.  The next day British units entered the city, which surrendered, and the Turks on the Mount were defeated.  On 11 December Allenby entered the city through the Jaffa Gate, on foot in order to show respect for the holy places.  From the 26th to the 30th the Turks, reinforced by units from further east (which would make Baghdad easier to capture), attacked the British positions but were repulsed.

British guard at the Jaffa Gate

Allenby at the Jaffa Gate

The British enter Bethlehem

The surrender of Jerusalem

Allenby enters Jerusalem

On 17 December London gave assurances to Hussein bin Ali, the self-proclaimed King of Hejaz, concerning the independence of the Arabs following the war.  This assurance was, however, in direct contradiction to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which handed the areas outside the Arabian Peninsula to the British and the French, and on 23 November the Bolsheviks had published the text of Sykes-Picot and other secret treaties (pretty much the only cool thing they would ever do).  Ah, perfidious Albion.

Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The odds and ends of December: on 7 December the American Congress, possibly in response to Caporetto, declared war on Austria-Hungary, followed by Panama on the 10th, which surely convinced the Austrians that they were doomed.  And on 1 December the last German troops were squeezed out of German East Africa, but Lettow-Vorbeck would carry on the war in Portuguese Mozambique.

The socialist Meyer London, the only man to vote against war with Austria-Hungary

And still the war went on.

 

 

Report from the Fronts #28: April 1917

Spring came to the trenches for the third time, and that of course meant a new offensive from the Allies.  Planning began in December for a big push in April 1917, but by then events had clearly overtaken the generals.  The February Revolution had exploded, further undermining chances for a simultaneous offensive in the east, and the Germans had completed the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line on 5 April, eliminating the Noyon salient, whose flanks the offensive was supposed to attack.  More important, by April it was fairly certain that the United States would soon enter the war, and it hardly took a military genius to see the eminent sense in waiting for American forces to arrive in serious numbers.

Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line

In fact, most of the generals on the front opposed the offensive for these reasons (though Haig did so because of his own plans for a push in Flanders), and both French and British politicians were facing growing heat over the slaughter of the Somme and Verdun the year before.  But the French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle, supported the offensive, proclaiming it would end the war in 48 hours, and he had the backing of the Prime Minister, Alexandre Ribot.  So, the big show would begin on 9 April with British attacks in the north, and the German capture of the French plans on 4 April did not dissuade the confident Nivelle.

Alexandre Ribot

General Robert Nivelle

Ready for the Big Show

Almost 400,000 British troops would attack around Arras, seeking to draw German forces away from Nivelle’s planned assault on the Aisne River, which of course the German command was now completely aware of.  The Canadian Corps of General Henry Horne’s First Army in the north would assault the Vimy Ridge, Edmund Allenby’s Third Army would attack east from Arras along the Scarpe River and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army in the south would strike towards Bullecourt, 14 divisions (plus 9 reserve) challenging 12 divisions (plus 5 reserve) of General Ludwig von Falkenhausen’s Sixth Army.

Henry Horne

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Ludwig von Falkenhausen

Hubert Gough

Second Battle of Arras

The BEF had learned a few things since the disaster on the Somme.  One was the importance of counter-battery fire, taking out the enemy artillery, which was easily the biggest threat to advancing troops.  Coordinated aircraft reconnaissance and specialized counter-battery artillery units seemed the answer: despite heavy German opposition in the air eighty percent of enemy artillery was rendered ineffective the first day of the offensive.

British reconnaissance plane

Also important was the development of the creeping barrage, which had been employed before, but with frequent friendly-fire casualties because of the breakdown of timing.  Better ranging, rehearsals and careful calculation of barrel wear (which affected the flight of the shells) allowed the British to lay down a moving curtain of fire a hundred yards ahead of the advancing infantry, while new high sensitivity fuses set off the explosives before the shell buried itself in the ground, destroying the barbed wire rather than simply churning it up.  Tommies would still be killed by shells made in Liverpool but in far fewer numbers.

8″ shells with the instantaneous fuse

Creeping barrage map (First Battle of Passchendaele)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the usual long barrage, especially against the German positions on Vimy Ridge, the Second Battle of Arras kicked off on 9 April and went through eight phases before it officially ended on 17 May.  For those who care: the First Battle of the Scarpe (9-14 April); the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April); the First Battle of Bullecourt (10-11 April); the Battle of Lagnicourt (15 April); the Second Battle of the Scarpe (23-24 April); the Battle of Arleux (28-29 April); the Third Battle of the Scarpe (3-4 May); the Second Battle of Bullecourt (3-17 May).

In the south little headway was made against the German defenses around Bullecourt, but to the north the Canadians, enjoying the careful planning and preparations of their commander, General Julian Byng, captured Vimy Ridge by 12 April, but failed to take Vimy itself.

German POWs from Vimy Ridge

Julian Byng at Vimy Ridge

On Vimy Ridge

Following a tank at Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Ridge plan

The advance along the Scarpe River was phenomenal, at least initially, and the British set a new record for ground gained, nearly five miles, an almost unimaginable distance by West Front standards.  This, however, created a novel problem: miles of muddy cratered terrain and destroyed roads over which the reinforcements, guns and supplies had to be moved.  The Germans were able to stiffen their defenses even more, and the result was no breakthrough and a return to ineffective attacks and stalemate.

Arras after the battle

Dressing station east of Arras

East of Arras

 

In the end it was the same bloody story.  Vimy Ridge was an important tactical gain, but otherwise all that blown up terrain and destroyed villages cost the Commonwealth about 150,000 casualties.  The Germans of course suffered – perhaps 125,000 casualties – and the offensive did draw some troops from the defenses confronted by the French to the south,  but it would make no difference.

Siegfried Sassoon, another of the trench poets, penned a poem referring to the Battle of Arras but summing up Tommy’s attitude toward the whole damn war:

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

 

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

 

 

 

The Second Battle of Arras involved a great deal of air combat, as the British sought to protect their artillery spotting reconnaissance aircraft from German fighters.  Unfortunately for the British, German pilots were better trained, flying better planes and using better tactics, and leading the fight was Jasta 11 under the command of Manfred von Richthofen, who had arrived in March.  The result was “Bloody April,” during which the average lifespan in the air for Royal Flying Corps pilots was 18 hours.

Jasta 11 Albatros D.IIIs; the second in line is Richthofen’s plane – all red

British anti-aircraft at Arras

The Red Baron

 

The main push of the Nivelle Offensive, the Second Battle of the Aisne, began on 16 April and was followed the next day by a much smaller offensive near Rheims, the Battle of the Hills (or Third Battle of Champaign).  In the Aisne offensive 53 divisions of the French Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Armies went up against 38 divisions of General Max von Boehm’s Seventh Army, seeking to capture the Chemin des Dames, a fifty mile long ridge running east to west just north of the Aisne River.  The “Hills” in the Battle of the Hills were the Moronvillier Hills, some ten miles east of Rheims, where the French Fourth Army sent 13 divisions against 17 divisions of General Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler’s Third Army.

Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler

Max von Boehm

Second Battle of the Aisne

 

 

 

 

The Chemin des Dames, which had been quarried for centuries, was already a maze of tunnels when the Germans fortified the reverse slope, and while the French ended up controlling most of the ridge, it was costly.  When the Battle of the Hills came to a close on 20 April, the French had suffered over 21,000 casualties in three days and took 6000 German prisoners.  Overall the Nivelle Offensive, which ended in early May, cost the Allies as many as 350,000 casualties, compared to about 163,000 (and some 15-20,000 prisoners) for the Germans.  And there was no breakthrough.

The town of Soupir was in the way

Assault on the Chemin

Chemin des Dames front; note the German trench complex

 

 

Of far greater importance (to everyone but the dead) was the American declaration of war on Germany on 6 April, followed by Congress voting an initial half million troops on the 28th.  Within two weeks Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey had, unsurprisingly, broken diplomatic relations with the United States, and in the month of April Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala severed relations with Germany, followed in May by Liberia, Honduras and Nicaragua and by Santo Domingo and Haiti in June.  On 7 April Cuba and Panama actually declared war on Germany (United Fruit Company?).

Meanwhile, out in the boonies of the war the British decided on another go at Gaza, which in its four thousand year history had been fought over by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Arabs and French.  The Second Battle of Gaza began on 17 April with a frontal assault by three infantry and two mounted divisions and sundry other troops against the Turkish entrenchments, which stretched from Gaza to Beersheba.  General Kress von Kressenstein was ready, however, and the British called off the offensive two days later, having suffered some 6000 casualties, about four times as many as the Turks.  The British generals were sacked, paving the way for the arrival of Edmund Allenby from the Western Front.

Damaged British tank

Turkish machine gunners

Kress von Kressenstein

The Second Battle of Gaza

 

 

And in East Africa Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris were still dodging a quarter million Allied troops.

 

Report from the Fronts #27: March 1917

On the Western Front the Reichswehr continued its withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, the troops in the Somme sector beginning their retreat (called a “retrograde redeployment” by the US military) on 14 March.  Allied forces began occupying the abandoned positions on the 17th, and by 5 April the Germans had completed an orderly withdrawal to their new defensive positions.

In other news from the west, on 12 March the US announced it would begin arming merchant vessels, and on 31 March the Austrian Emperor, Karl I, apparently seeing the handwriting on the wall, dispatched a secret peace proposal to the French.  The French, meanwhile, were undergoing a political shakeup: Minister for War, Hubert Lyautey, resigned on 15 March, bringing down the government of Premier Aristide Briand (formed October 1915) five days later.  Alexander Ribot formed a new government, just in time to confront the mutiny of half the French army.

Alexander Ribot

Karl I

Aristide Briand

 

Further east the British were beginning to put the kybosh on the Turks.  On 11 March, having outmaneuvered the enemy in crossing the Diyala River, General Maude marched into an abandoned Baghdad and issued a proclamation declaring “our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators”.  Well, more likely as liberators of Iraqi oil.

General Stanley Maude

Maude entering Baghdad

 

 

 

 

To the southeast, however, the British Palestine campaign got off to a rocky start.  On 26 March Gaza City was attacked, but a resolute defense by General Kress von Kressenstein (remember him?) and the threat of Ottoman reinforcements from the north forced them to withdraw, ending the First Battle of Gaza the following day.

British POWs at Gaza

Turkish guns at Gaza

General von Kressenstein in the field

Turkish officers at Gaza

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The loss at Gaza and rumors of a Turkish withdrawal from the Hejaz turned more British attention on the Arab Revolt.  As it happened, rather than using the Hejaz forces to defend Palestine the Turks determined for religious reasons to defend Medina, but the Allies were reluctant to give the Arabs the heavy weapons necessary to take Medina, fearing Arab possession of the city might stir a degree of Arab unity inconvenient for Allied post-war plans.  The decision was to isolate the Medina garrison and prevent any orderly withdrawal north by more concentrated attacks on the Turkish lifeline, the Hejaz Railway.

The Hejaz Railway

The Arab irregulars were perfect for this sort of work, and the British had the explosives and expertise to make them more effective.  A demolition school had been set up at Wejh by Captain Stewart Newcombe and Major Herbert Garland, who had already developed the Garland Grenade and the Garland Trench Mortar.  Together with a Lieutenant Hornby (no bio found), they began in March a serious campaign against the railroad, destroying bridges and miles of track and derailing and looting trains.

Herbert Garland

Stewart Newcombe

Garland, who could speak Arabic, was a particularly enthusiastic participant and personally taught Lawrence about explosives, later receiving effusive praise from his better known colleague in his semi-autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Garland is thought by some to be the first to derail a train, probably in March, with explosives – the Garland Mine, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Russia.  Throughout March Czar Nicolas’ troops were capturing cities in northwestern Persia (hardly a difficult task), including Hamadan, but time was running out for the Autocrat of All the Russias.

Speaking of time, dating Russian affairs before 1918 can be very confusing inasmuch as Russia still employed the Julian calendar [C. Julius Caesar 46 BC] while the West had long before adopted the more accurate Gregorian [Pope Gregory XIII AD 1582].  I have been using the Gregorian, which in the period from 17 February 1900 to 15 February 2099 is thirteen days ahead of the Julian.  The Bolsheviks did not make the switch until early 1918, so the February Revolution actually happened in March and the October Revolution in November 1917.

On 3 March the workers of the Putilov machine works in St. Petersburg, fed up with the war, the incompetent autocracy and the increasing food shortages, went on strike, and on the 8th they were joined by thousands of angry women, who began recruiting strikers from other factories.  The “February” Revolution had begun.  And the Czar?  He had left for the front the previous day.

Burning symbols of the Monarchy

Striking Putilov workers

Protesters on Nevsky Prospect

 

By 10 March there were a quarter million workers in the streets, and virtually all industry had been shut down in the city.  More ominous, calls for abolition of the monarchy were being heard and some soldiers were seen in the protesting crowds, and the Czar ordered the commander of the Petrograd military district, Sergei Khabalov, to disperse the strikers with force.  Indecisive and inexperienced, Khabalov was not up to the job.  On 11 March elements of the city garrison revolted and began firing on the police; they were disarmed by loyal troops, but government control was rapidly crumbling.

Students and soldiers firing on police

Sergei Khabalov

Protesters, including soldiers

 

 

 

On 12 March the Czar responded to a desperate request from the Duma, Russia’s generally ineffective parliament, by questioning the seriousness of the situation, and as if in reply, the Volynsky Life Guards Regiment revolted the same day, followed by four other regiments, including the Preobrazhensky.  By the end of the day some 60,000 troops in St. Petersburg were in open revolt and distributing arms to the workers, while most of their officers went into hiding.

Serious open revolt

Protesting soldiers

Open revolt

 

 

To make matters worse – if possible – that morning the Czar had prorogued the Duma, rendering it powerless to act.  Led by Mikhail Rodzianko, a number of the delegates then created the Provisional Committee of the State Duma, which proclaimed itself to be the legitimate government of the Empire.  Unfortunately for them, the various socialist factions had other ideas and at the same time resurrected the Petrograd Soviet of the failed 1905 Revolution, immediately attracting massive support among the workers and soldiers.  On 13 March the few remaining loyal troops in the city abandoned the Czar.

Nikolai Chkheidze, Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet

Mikhail Rodzianko

Provisional Committee of the State Duma

 

 

 

 

That very day Nicholas decided to return to the capital, but unable to enter St. Petersburg he ended up in Pskov, over a hundred miles to the west, on 14 March.  There he was visited by Army Chief Nikolai Ruzsky and two Duma members, who urged him to give up the throne, and the following day he and his son, Alexei, abdicated.   Nicholas chose as his successor his brother Grand Duke Michael, but the Grand Duke did not need a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing and refused.  The 300 year old Romanov dynasty and the Russian monarchy itself were at an end.

Grand Duke Michael

Nikolai Ruzsky

Nicholas abdicates aboard his train

 

 

 

 

On 22 March Nicholas Romanov joined his family at Tsarskoya Selo, where they were confined in the Alexander Palace and protected by the Provisional Government, now under the Chairmanship of Prince Georgy Lvov.  The Allies, desperate to keep Russia in the war, were prompt in recognizing the new regime: Britain and America (on the verge of war) on the 22nd and France and Italy two days later.

The March Provisional Government

Nicholas Romanov at Tsarskoya Selo

Georgy Lvov

Alexander Palace

 

 

 

 

 

Germany, anxious to get Russia out of the war, took a different step and provided a train to transport the leaders of the Bolsheviks, the most extreme socialist party, from their exile in Switzerland to St. Petersburg.   On 21 March Vladimir Ulyanov, aka Vladimir Lenin, arrived at the Finland Station, to be greeted by supporters singing La Marseillaise.  And while the Bolsheviks would indeed take Russia out of the war, they would also lead the rodina into decades of terror and oppression undreamed of under the Romanovs.

Unknown to the Second Reich, however, the day before Mr. Ulyanov arrived in St. Petersburg President Wilson’s cabinet voted unanimously to ask for a declaration of war against Germany.

Lenin in 1916

Lenin’s locomotive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!