Report from the Fronts #49: September 1918

(OK, extremely late, but wadda ya gonna do?)

100 Days Offensive

 

The Allies were rolling now.  The Second Somme came to an end on 3 September, and Foch determined to launch a broad assault on the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung).  First, though, he cleaned up the German salients west of the Line in order to attack the entire string of fortifications at once.  The British and French advanced towards the Line in a number of relatively small engagements, heading for Cambrai, Saint-Quentin and Laon.  By 25 September the Germans were pushed back to the Line, having surrendered all the gains of their Spring Offensive.  The Allies nevertheless still believed the War could not be won until 1919.

Battle of Saint-Mihiel

One part of this operation was the Battle of Saint-Mihiel on 12-15 September, the only American-directed major offensive of the war.  Pershing’s First Army (14 American and 4 French divisions) easily cleared the Saint-Mihiel salient – the Germans were already in retreat – but as usual with successful advances the troops (660,000 of them) got ahead of their supplies and artillery and were forced to halt rather than attempt a breakthrough to Metz.  The Battle of Saint-Mihiel, incidentally, was recreated in the 1927 movie Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture; it also involved the first recorded use of the term D-Day.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

American engineers

The grand assault on the Hindenburg Line kicked off on 26 September with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which would last until the Armistice.  The strike was launched from the southern (Verdun) sector, and the ultimate objective was the city of Sedan, which was an absolutely vital lateral rail hub for the Germans (and the scene of their victory over France in 1870).  The strike force consisted of 15 (later 22) American divisions, which were anywhere from 30% to 100% larger than the European, and 31 French divisions, for a total of 1,200,000 men; they were accompanied by 2780 guns, 380 tanks and 840 planes.  Facing the Allied force were ultimately 44 German divisions, most of them half strength, totaling up to 450,000 generally demoralized men under Fifth Army commander Georg von der Marwitz (remember him?).

German dugout

American gun crew

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In terms of personnel the operation was a partial role call for America’s next war. Handling the massive Allied logistics was Colonel George Marshall, who as Chief of Staff of the Army would in the Second World War oversee the expansion and supply of the entire US army and the rebuilding of Europe.  Vigorously leading an infantry battalion was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would create and direct the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.  Colonel George Patton commanded a tank brigade, while an infantry brigade was under General Douglas MacArthur.  And managing an artillery battery was Captain Harry Truman.

Col. Marshall

Col. Marshall

Col. Donovan

Col. Patton

Gen. MacArthur – already the poseur

Capt. Truman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first phase of the offensive lasted until 3 October, during which period the less experienced Americans gained from 2 to 5 miles, while the French, fighting in more open countryside, advanced their front some 9 miles.  These bare words, of course, cover many French villages being destroyed and many men giving their all, at a time when even the Kaiser knew the war was lost.  Pershing immediately recognized that clearing the Saint-Mihiel salient was nothing at all like frontally assaulting well-established German positions.  On the other hand, the German veterans were impressed by American aggressiveness and the willingness of the doughboys to charge into machine gun fire.

On 28 September the second –and weakest – thrust of the grand offensive, the Fifth Battle of Ypres, was launched far to the north in Flanders.  12 Belgium, 10 British (Second Army) and 6 French divisions (Sixth Army) under the command of King Albert of Belgium struck east from the Ypres area, heading towards Passchendaele and ultimately Ghent.  Initially faced by no more than 5 German divisions, the Allies made good progress despite the rough terrain; by 30 September all the high ground east of Ypres and the area west of Passchendaele had been recovered, and by 1 October units were on the Lys River.  But with German reinforcements arriving and the Allied troops beyond easy supply, the push came to end the following day.

A break from the battle

The Ypres area after five battles

The Ypres salient

The central thrust pushed off on 29 September, attacking one of the strongest stretches of the Hindenburg Line.  The offensive included the British Third Army in the north and the French First Army in the south, but the British Fourth Army in the center faced the greatest challenge, crossing the Saint-Quentin canal.  Army commander Henry Rawlinson had 30 British and Australian divisions and two (oversized) American divisions attached to the Australian Corps, and they faced 39 (generally depleted) German divisions of Adolph von Carlowitz’ Second Army and the formidable defenses along the deep cut of the canal.  The Aussies and Yanks would confront the particularly strong fortifications at the Bony-Bellicourt sector, where the canal ran underground through a tunnel.

General Rawlinson

General von Carlowitz

Battle of Saint-Quentin

The battle began with 1600 guns firing almost a million rounds, the biggest British barrage in the war.  The two American divisions, followed by two Australian and equipped with 150 tanks, headed for the Bellicourt Tunnel sector, their goal the Catelet-Nauroy Line east of the tunnel.  The right half of the advance, led by the American 30th Division, penetrated the Hindenburg Line and by the early morning of 30 September had captured Bellicourt and part of Nauroy, despite taking heavy fire on their left flank because of the failure of the American 27th Division on the left to keep up.  The Australians reported finding large groups of leaderless American troops, who had suffered seriously because of their inexperience.

Yanks after the capture of Bellicourt

Southern end of the canal tunnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, immediately south of the Americans and Australians the British 46th Division, followed by the 32nd (home of the poet Wilfred Owen), was able to cross the very deep cut of the canal between Riqueval and Bellenglise, crossing the canal with boats, rafts and lifejackets while artillery kept the defenders pinned in their trenches.  Tanks were brought over the tunnel area captured by the 30th Division and sent south to support the British, who had secured the eastern bank and the German defenses by the end of the day.  The achievement of the 46th Division was just short of incredible, crossing the waterway with anything that would float, climbing the wall of the east bank with scaling ladders (!) and capturing the formidable defenses – with fewer than 800 casualties.

The canal cut in 1918

Riqueval Bridge and the canal cut today

Addressing the troops at the Riqueval Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east Allenby’s successful and low cost campaign to drive General Liman von Sanders and his Turks out of Palestine continued with the Battle of Megiddo (actually a number of engagements) from 19 to 25 September.  While Lawrence and Arab Revolt units were harassing and disrupting Turkish communications, Allenby’s carefully planned offensive moved rapidly north and east, establishing by the 25th a line running from Acre on the coast east to the Sea of Galilee and south to Amman (Jordan); Australian units would capture Damascus on 1 October.  During this roughly two week period 75,000 Turkish soldiers surrendered to Commonwealth forces (many to avoid slaughter by the Arab forces) at a cost of about 1500 casualties; only 6000 Turkish soldiers escaped.

Bombed Turkish transport

Allenby’s September campaign

Otto Liman von Sanders

Edmund Allenby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the former Russian Empire Allied forces were on the move.  On 2 September an Italian force arrived at Murmansk and was joined two days later by General William Graves and more American troops.  On that same day Obozerskaya, 100 miles south of Archangel, was captured by the Allies, and on the 11th Ukhtinskaya on the Murmansk front.  The Canadians showed up in Archangel at the end of the month, by which time Allied troops, aided by Poles and White forces, had pushed 150 miles south up the Dvina River, battling Bolshevik forces on the river and in fortified villages.  In the far east the city of Khabarovsk, 360 miles north of Vladivostok, was taken by the Japanese on 5 September.

Archangel

Allied troops

Red prisoners of Americans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vladivostok

Allied troops

Japanese troops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, diplomatic exchanges in September underscored the crumbling position of the Central Powers.  On 15 September Austria requested from President Wilson the opening of peace talks and Germany actually offered Belgium a peace treaty; unsurprisingly, both were immediately turned down.  More successful were the Bulgarians, who on the 28th requested of the Allies an immediate armistice, which was granted two days later; Bulgaria was out of the war.  On 25 September Italy recognized the pan-Slavic state – Yugoslavia – that was emerging across the Adriatic as the Austrian Empire crumbled (more on this in October).

Finally, remember Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris?  On September 28, nine months and 1500 miles after invading Portuguese East Africa, the Colonel and his ragged but still effective band of mostly native troops slipped across the Rovuma River back into German East Africa.  On their arrival the askaris cheered their German leader with “Bwana Obersti anarudi!” – “The Colonel is back!” The game of dodging a quarter million Commonwealth troops went on.

Jacob van Deventer (seated) – the opposition

Lettow-Vorbeck – the Lion of Africa

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Report from the Fronts #46: June 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne) came to an end on 6 June, having brought the Germans within 35 miles of Paris.  But no decisive breakthrough had resulted, and Ludendorff was determined to take one more shot before the front was overwhelmed with Americans.  On 9 June he launched Operation Gneisenau (the Battle of the Matz), essential a continuation of Blücher-Yorck, still hoping to draw more Allied troops south from Flanders, but though the Germans advanced nine miles in a few days, a surprise French counterattack (no preliminary bombardment) at Compiègn on 11 June halted the thrust and the operation was cancelled on the 13th.  Those four days cost the Germans 30,000 casualties and the Allies 35,000.

Operation Gneisenau

June also saw more American action on the Western Front. On 2 June American units, including a battalion of Marines, occupied a 12 mile stretch of the front before Belleau Wood, about half a dozen miles west of Château Thierry.  The following day they easily repelled a German assault, ignoring the French, who were retreating; said Marine Captain Lloyd Williams “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here.”  On 6 June the Allies launched a limited offensive in the area, assigning the now enlarged contingent of Marines several objectives, including Belleau Wood, where a regiment of Germans were well entrenched.  Unfortunately, the Marines were unaware of this.

Marines and poilus

Captain Williams

Belleau vicinity

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many Marines were mowed down in the wheat fields surrounding the woods, but they achieved their phase one objectives nevertheless.  Late in the afternoon two Marine battalions moved on Belleau Wood, which meant once again crossing a field raked by machine gun fire, prompting Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly to yell to him men “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”  Sure enough, the first waves were slaughtered, but the Marines managed to reach the Wood and secure a position, engaging the Germans in hand-to-hand combat.  In terms of casualties this was the worst day for the Marine Corps up to this time.

Killing Germans

Chasing Germans

In Belleau “Wood”

In Belleau “Wood”

Sergeant Daly

The situation now settled into a stalemate of bloody attack and counterattack, until after six American assaults the Wood was finally cleared of Germans on 26 June.  The Americans suffered 9777 casualties, while apart from 1600 captured German losses are unknown.  Belleau Wood was of course a relatively trivial episode on the Western Front (which is why this report is late – I thought it was in July), but it confirmed for the Allies and the Germans that the Americans, who were now flooding into France, were for real.  And that an American Marine with a rifle was an awesome weapon.

x

 

Down in sunny Italy the Allies scored another defensive victory.  On 15 June the Austrians launched an offensive along the middle and eastern portions of the front, the Second Battle of the Piave River.  The Austrians had been reinforced by German divisions freed up by the surrender of Russia and trained in the assault tactics of the Western Front, but disagreement between the two army group commanders, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (west) and General Svetozar Borojević (east), resulted in a broad offensive rather than the narrow attack that had been so successful at Caporetto.

Borojević

Hötzendorf

Second Battle of the Piave River

 

 

Things were also different across the Piave.  General Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna had been replaced with Armando Diaz, who had learned a few things from the Caporetto disaster: he developed a defense in depth without a continuous trench line, a decentralized command system that allowed tremendous flexibility and small unit autonomy and a central reserve of thirteen “motorized” (they had trucks) divisions.  He had also received eleven British/French divisions, but most were called back west when the German Spring Offensive kicked off.

Diaz

Buoyed by the victory at Caporreto and the prospect of knocking Italy out of the war, the Austrians attacked at 3:00 AM.  Unfortunately, the Italians had discovered the precise time of the assault and at 2:30 AM began raining shells on the troops packing the forward trenches, sending many reeling back to defensive positions.  In the west Conrad made some small gains on the Asiago Plateau, but he was driven back the following day and spent the rest of the offensive making pointless attacks with his dwindling forces.  Borojević, on the other hand, was able to establish a substantial bridgehead along fifteen miles of the lower Piave to the Adriatic, threatening Venice, but the growing difficulty of getting men and supplies across the swollen Piave, whose bridges were continually bombed by the Italians, proved too much to overcome.

Waiting for the Austrians

Waiting…

Waiting…

Waiting…in color

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 19 June the Italians counterattacked, and while Borojević avoided a disaster, he was ordered by the Emperor to withdraw, and the Italians recovered all the lost territory by the 23rd.  Diaz immediately came under heavy pressure from the Allied command to go on the offensive, but he understood well that his forces needed to be reorganized and that crossing the Piave would put him in precisely the same circumstances Borojević had suffered.  The offensive cost the Austrians 118,000 casualties, the Italians 87,000, nothing new on the Italian front, but though few could have guessed at the time, the Second Battle of the Piave River was the last real offensive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a state whose political core stretched back to 800 and Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

On to victory, Italia!

Perhaps symbolic of the impending end of the Empire was an event that took place the very day the Piave offensive began. The commander of the Austrian navy (and future dictator of Hungary), Miklós Horthy, decided to challenge the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the Strait of Otranto, which had kept the Austrian surface fleet bottled up in the Adriatic.  Under cover of darkness Austria’s four most advanced battleships left their base at Pula on 8 and 9 June, but before the two squadrons could unite SMS Tegetthoff and SMS Szent István were discovered by two Italian motor torpedo boats early on 10 June.  One went after the Tegetthoff and missed, but the other – MAS 15 commanded by Luigi Rizzo – put two torpedoes into the Szent István at 3:20 AM.

Italian torpedo boats

SMS Szent István

 

Admiral Horthy

Austrian dreadnaughts at Pula

The Adriatic Sea today

The aft boiler room quickly flooded and the ship began listing to the starboard.  All efforts to counter the list failed, and soon the forward boiler room began flooding, ending power for the pumps.  The Szent István was doomed, but no order was given to abandon ship, and as the battleship settled further into the water, the event was filmed from the Tegetthoff (watch the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pSiCjfhUUw), while the ship’s band played the Austrian national anthem.  The ship capsized and slid beneath the surface at 6:05 AM, losing only 89 men out of a complement of 1094 – contrary to usual practice Austro-Hungarian sailors had to learn to swim.  And like the Szent István, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire was slowly slipping beneath the waters of history, to disappear forever.  (Well, actually the Szent István was found in the 1970s.)

…and down

Luigi Rizzo

MAS 15

Going down…

 

SMS Szent István today

Meanwhile, the Allies were being sucked further into the Russian Civil War. British marines landed at Pechenga in Murmansk province on 4 June, and three days later another British force arrived at Kem in Karelia on the White Sea.  With German troops in Finland the Allies feared that war stocks in northern Russia would be captured, and they also wished to rescue the Czech Legion (which took the key Siberian city of Omsk just as Tommies were disembarking at Kem).  This of course meant inevitable confrontation with the Bolsheviks, who on 8 June ordered the western forces to leave.  They responded on 24 June by sending more troops to join the North Russia Expeditionary Force already at Murmansk and a week later seizing the northern part of the Murman Railway (now the Kirov Railway), which linked Murmansk to St. Petersburg.  American doughboys would soon be joining them.

At Murmansk

Murman Railway

At Murmansk

 

Murmansk

(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

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.