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!

The Republic Is in Trouble

index

I have been wrestling with a piece on the election, but it is difficult to get my mind around it all inasmuch as our President-elect is so deficient and offensive in so many ways. And his initial appointments inspire little hope: a racist southern Senator who believes the NAACP and ACLU are communist as Attorney General; a dismissed general who considers Islam a political ideology masquerading as religion as National Security Advisor; a Kansas Representative who believes in torture as CIA Director; an avowed white supremacist who celebrates the “Dark Side” (?) as Chief Strategist.  If he is indeed “draining the swamp,” it is to reveal and hire loathsome creatures lurking in the muck.

An ignorant misogynistic bully with the attention span of a five year old is now President of the United States and a piece of Slovenian arm candy is the First Lady.  We have seen the usual down side of democracy: an ignorant electorate swayed by emotion rather than reason.  The Founding Fathers established the Electoral College to prevent dangerous populists and demagogues being elected President (and to satisfy the slave-owning states), but in this instance it served to allow a dangerous populist and (incredibly vulgar) demagogue to take the White House though losing the popular vote by more than a million and a half.

This Presidency will surely test our political system and our safeguards against tyranny, corruption and violation of citizen rights.  I do not expect Trump’s personality – his truly staggering ego and narcissism and his absolute inability to accept criticism – or his undisciplined and largely empty mind to change in the next four years.  For the first time in my seven decades I fully expect the President to be impeached, despite his party’s control of Congress.

And his neckties are too long. fasc

(Delayed) Reports from the Front #11: February 1916

The major development in February 1916 was the commencement of the Battle of Verdun, perhaps the most horrific slaughter of the war, certainly for the French and Germans. (Later in the year the British – well, British generals – would show their own mettle in the face of mega-casualties with the Somme offensive.)  Meanwhile, less catastrophic battles went on around the periphery of the war.

On 9 February the British finally gained control of Lake Tanganyika when the German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman was sunk by the Mimi and Fifi.  But that was not going to stop Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck from leading a merry chase for the next three years.  On 17 February the last German troops in South Cameroon headed for internment in Spanish territory, and the following day the last German garrison (in Mora) surrendered, ending the thirty-two year German occupation of the colony; other white people would take their place for the next half century.  The allies also continued picking apart German East Africa.

The Hedwig von Wissman

The Hedwig von Wissman

To the east the Russian Caucasus offensive begun in October of the previous year plowed on, and on 16 February Cossacks entered the strategically important city of Erzurum.  Compared to what was about to begin in the west, this was a trivial battle: the Russians suffered 9000 casualties, the Turks 15,000.  The Russian commander, incidentally, was Nikolai Yudenich, who would be one of the major counterrevolutionary White generals in the Russian Civil War.

Yudenich

Nikolai Yudenich

Russians in Erzurum

Russians in Erzurum

The Caucasus campaign

The Caucasus campaign

And in northern Italy General Cadorna, his army reorganized and under pressure to draw German troops away from the Western Front, launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo on 15 February. The offensive would last a month and result in nothing but more dead Italians and Austrians.  Nevertheless, the Isonzo Follies would go on.

Things were popping on the diplomatic and administrative fronts.  On 10 February the new British Military Service Act kicked in, and soon a growing wave of conscripted Tommies would be sucked into the maelstrom of the Somme.  The nickname “Tommy,” incidentally, came from a War Office instructional publication of 1815, in which the fictional trooper was named Tommy Atkins.  The name caught on as the universal designation of a British soldier, as epitomized in Kipling’s poem Tommy:

 

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;

But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play –

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

 

On this same day the last of the Serbian army moved to Corfu, followed the next day by an Italian force. On 16 February the Montenegrin army began its sojourn on the Isle of the Defeated.  Life there was not good.

While these Balkan troops were finding new accommodations, London decided the War Office rather than the India Office should henceforth direct the Mesopotamian campaign, which was now confined to attempting to rescue the army at Kut.  On 23 February a British Ministry of Blockade was created, a sign that the Allies were realizing – finally – that this would be war of attrition and the Central Powers must be deprived of supplies, including food.  This of course would cause problems with the neutral states in Europe.

The Germans were already attempting to starve Britain with their submarine warfare, which had certainly caused difficulties with the neutrals, especially the United States.  On 10 February Berlin notified Washington that armed merchant ships would be treated as hostiles, and on the last day of the month reminded the Americans that an extended submarine campaign would not be delayed.

And of far more importance to the next war rather than the present one, on 28 February Britain began creating the core of a strategic bomber squadron, which would be able to directly attack enemy industry.

Finally, the big one.  On 21 February the Germans launched an offensive towards the Verdun salient on the Meuse River.  Capturing this area would be strategically valuable, but the Chief of the German General Staff, von Falkenhayn, having concluded that Germany could not compete with Allied resources in a war of exhaustion, determined to bleed the French army white and force a separate peace.  Verdun was chosen as the target not so much because of strategy as its immense importance to French pride and as a symbol of national resistance.  The idea was that the French would do anything to defend Verdun and consequently throw endless numbers of poilus into the meat grinder.  (Poilu means “hairy one” and stemmed from the plethora of beards and mustaches sported by the troops.)

Poilus

Poilus

The citadel of Verdun itself had been fortified in the seventeenth century by the famous military architect the Marquis de Vauban, and the town was surrounded by two rings of 28 forts, modernized before the outbreak of the war.  The most important was Douaumont, occupying high ground to the northeast and thus in the direct line of the German attack.  Unfortunately for the French, seeing how easily the Germans had taken the Belgian forts in 1914, Joffre had decided traditional fortifications could not withstand German siege guns, and in 1915 the forts had been stripped of most of their guns and garrisons.  A more linear trench and wire line had been begun.  Joffre knew in January 1916 that the Germans were planning an assault on the Verdun front, but he assumed it was a diversion.

Fort Douaumont

Fort Douaumont

Marquis de Vauban

Marquis de Vauban

The meat grinder

The meat grinder

But the Germans were indeed serious.  They laid railway lines and brought up 1201 guns, two thirds of them heavy or super-heavy, such as the 420mm (16.5 in.) howitzer.  The plan envisaged firing 4,000,000 shells in eighteen days, which would require an average of thirty-three munitions trains a day.  One million Germans would assault a French garrison of some 200,000.

French heavy mortar

French heavy mortar

German railway gun

German railway gun

Verdun battlefield a century later

Verdun battlefield a century later

By 25 February German troops had moved forward almost two miles (employing flamethrowers for the first time), and a party of about 100 actually reached the northeast corner of Fort Douaumont, seeking cover from their own artillery fire.  They did not know the fort had been essentially abandoned, but encountering no resistance and fearing French artillery fire, they found a way inside and ultimately captured a warrant officer and twenty-five troops, most of the garrison.

German flame throwers

German flame throwers

French regiment at Verdun

French regiment at Verdun

The advance then bogged down, literally, as a brief thaw turned the ground to mud, making it extremely difficult to move the guns (one is reminded of Operation Barbarossa), which had been outrun by the infantry.  Meanwhile, by the end of the month the French had brought up 90,000 reinforcements, an impressive achievement given the inadequacy of their rail links to the Verdun region.

The serious slaughter was just beginning, but the battle would go on until December, the longest of the war.

For Sale: Slightly Used Country; Needs Work

(Well, I certainly hope macho dentist Walter “Small Dick” Palmer is returned to Zimbabwe to enjoy a few years in one of their prisons or better, shot.)

 

The non-American readers out there may be a bit in the dark concerning the government of the United States, inasmuch as it is virtually unique among the great powers. (Well, in addition to electing some truly stupid people to office.)  Unlike the parliamentary systems in Europe, where the actual head of government, the Prime Minister (or Chancellor), is elected by the members of the assembly, the parliament, the US has a presidential system, in which the head of government (who is also head of state), the President, is elected by the people (well, more or less). The Prime Minister generally remains in power so long as he holds the support of the parliament, either through his party or coalition of parties, whereas the American President serves a fixed term of four years and can be reelected once. There are many variations on these two basic systems, but the result is that the US has a representative democracy very different from those organized along parliamentary lines.

A Chancellor

A Chancellor

The President

The President

A Prime Minister

A Prime Minister

One major difference is the essential separation of the executive from the legislative assemblies, the Congress, which means the President and his party may not control the legislative bodies (as is presently the case). Many feel this is something of a virtue, since the two branches can check one another, and given the composition of Congress these days, getting nothing done may not be such a bad thing.
On the other hand, the system lends itself well to an increasingly powerful executive, who does not depend upon the support of the assembly to stay in power, at least for the next four years. He can veto any legislation, and while his veto can be overridden, it takes a two/thirds vote in both houses of Congress, not an easy task. Congress can impeach and throw out the President, but this is extremely difficult: only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton) have had Articles of Impeachment passed against them. In both cases the motives were blatantly political, and both were acquitted.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson

Meanwhile, the power of the Presidency has grown steadily, both because of the changing nature of the country and world in the last couple of centuries and because no political institution, particularly an executive, is going to surrender any power if it can help it. And crises like World War II and 9/11 always result in new powers that are virtually never given up – the President can unilaterally send military forces into combat and more recently, execute without trial anyone deemed an enemy, including American citizens. Further, the President can game the system established by the Constitution: Executive Privilege, for example, is routinely abused, and the Executive Order, whose Constitutional basis is vague indeed, allows him to circumvent Congress.
The other big difference is the fixed term, which means loss of popular support has no immediate effect on the incumbent. After the experience of FDR the President was limited to two terms, a wise decision (despite my admiration for Roosevelt), but no such limitation exists for the Congress, and big money, citizen stupidity and the power of incumbency almost guarantee lifetime tenure, especially in the Senate with its six year terms. And regularly scheduled elections mean non-stop campaigning and money-raising.  No country in the history of the world has a campaigning period even remotely as long or expensive as America now does; it is at present more than a year to the general election and the candidates are already out in full force.  Members of the House of Representatives serve only two years, which means these guys are already sniffing out new money and prostituting themselves the moment they are elected. The single most important event in the life of a Congressman is not the vote but the fund raiser.
Along with being familiar with British parliamentary government, the Founding Fathers were also steeped in classical history and looked to Greece and Rome for models of democracy. They rejected the Athenian democracy, in which the assembly had the absolute last word on everything, as too inclined to instability and mob rule and favored the Roman Republic, which was successful over a half millennium. The Republican government was in practice an oligarchy of wealth centered in the Senate, but it was structurally democratic in that the citizens, through their assemblies, elected and legislated. This might actually be a description of the American government, except that the American oligarchy of wealth is not a group within the government but rather individual billionaires and corporations, who are essentially interested in their own concerns. The Roman Senator was of course motivated by enhancing his image and influence, but for four hundred years that came from actually serving the state.

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Too democratic

Too democratic

Besides, for all their democratic inclinations the economically successful men who wrote the Constitution did not completely trust the common folk. They knew what had happened to Athens. So, there would be a “people’s” assembly, the House of Representatives, where members would serve only two years, mimicking the amateur assemblies of Athens and Rome and insuring the body reflected the changing ideas of the common folk. The Senate would be more akin to the like-named body in Rome (and not so much the House of Lords), and serving for six years, the Senators would constitute a wiser and more capable group of legislators. (And also a somewhat less than representative body: every state has two Senators regardless of population.)
Further, the President (and Vice President) would not be directly elected by the often uneducated and easily misled people, but by electors selected in some manner by the states, presumably from the pillars of the community. There was apparently also some anticipation that the process would not always produce a clear winner, allowing Congress to make the final decision.
Finally, there was the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, which essentially states that there are areas where even the theoretically sovereign will of the people cannot go – at least without incredible difficulty. This of course limits the power of the people and makes the state less democratic, unlike fifth century Athens, where a majority in the assembly, which any citizen could attend, could pass any law it pleased. Period. Now, that is really putting your faith in the political wisdom of the people. I am, however, unwilling to trust my free speech to religious zealots, politically correct airheads, professional patriots and above all politicians.

The greatest political document ever

The greatest political document ever

Well, a marvelous and incomparable document, but it did not all work out as the Fathers had hoped. Parties rapidly emerged and the growing need for money followed, gradually producing more or less professional politicians (but not necessarily good rulers), even in the so-called people’s House. Gerrymandering, party power and economic clout conspired to make even a seat in the House a potential life-time job, for which one needed to continually campaign. Incidentally, in Republican Rome once the candidates were formally announced – only twenty-four days before the election! – a candidate seeking votes identified himself (as if the huge entourage were not a clue) by wearing an artificially whitened toga; it was candidus (lustrous white), and he was a candidatus.
For reasons not entirely clear to me – the winner takes all rule and the broad ideology of the parties are certainly important – the United States has essentially developed a two-party system. It is extremely difficult to achieve federal and even state office if you do not run as a Democrat or a Republican, and third party challenges seem only to guarantee one or the other of the two major parties wins the White House. This locks out differing ideas, since although there are factions within the major parties, they after all are parties, with a national party line. The parliamentary system provides a venue for new groups to appear and influence decision-making in the legislature, and the need to form coalitions schools the representatives in comprise, which is desperately lacking in the American system.
In the United States it is almost as if the Democratic and Republican parties were part of the governmental structure. They are the only parties to regularly hold state primaries, which are paid for by the taxpayers, even though many of those citizens will not be permitted to vote in them. Further, the two earliest primaries, which attract immense media attention, are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are primarily rural, white and well off, hardly representative of the country as a whole. And Iowa is apparently packed with Tea Party and Christian screwballs, compelling the Republican Party to make stupidity part of its platform.
In fact, in some ways the United States is a one-party state. True, the underlying ideology of the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans is different, especially when their less moderate members are considered, so their legislative agendas differ. Yet, the basic concern of the vast majority of the politicians of both parties is getting reelected, which means raising money. There are a few, like Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose money comes primarily from the small folk, but this is extremely rare, and most all candidates are going to head for the big teats, which means billionaires and corporations, especially the latter. Granted, George Soros is not going to give serious money to a conservative nor Rupert Murdoch to a liberal, but corporations are not so fussy and will dish it out to anyone who might aid their business environment, which appears to include people in both parties.

Sheldon Adelson - part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Sheldon Adelson – part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Koch brothers - majority owners of the Republican Party

Koch brothers – majority owners of the Republican Party

George Soros

George Soros

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

The American democracy is being bought and sold every election cycle, while candidates who have accepted millions from this or that individual or business are claiming such does not make them beholden to the donor. Sure, multi-nationals love to throw away money.
How did it come to this? The Fathers created a wonderful document in the Constitution, one that with some revisions has carried the nation through two centuries of dramatic change in the world. They were on the verge of the industrial age and knew serious developments were afoot, but one thing they apparently did not completely fathom was the potential impact of marketing. In the eighteenth century marketing was hanging a sign outside your pub or placing a simple ad in a newspaper; candidates marketed themselves with rallies, speeches and broadsheets. As mass marketing developed in the twentieth century, especially with the advent of radio and television, politicians had no choice but to take advantage of it – and the cost of trying to get elected skyrocketed.
Further, large corporations began emerging in the nineteenth century and businessmen certainly appreciated the advantage of political influence, especially when the government began attempting to regulate them in the late nineteenth century. The development of multinationals has made matters worse, inasmuch as they control huge amounts of wealth and are to a good degree stateless. They consequently have even less reason to be concerned with the interests of any host county, and buying politicians, however self-serving, ignorant or destructive to the country they might be, is now part of doing business. What’s good for General Motors (or Exxon or Goldman-Sachs or Bank of America) is clearly not what’s good for America, but since the Supreme Court decided corporations are “persons” they are entitled to contribute staggering sums of money to candidates who will help them makes America a better place – for shareholders.

Some of the good folks whoPfizer.svg[1] are bringing you America:200px-Boeing-Logo.svg[1]Apple_logo_black.svg[1]250px-Bank_of_America_logo.svg[1]300px-Lockheed_Martin.svg[1]Microsoft_logo_(2012).svg[1]250px-Time_Warner_wordmark.svg[1]Koch_logo.svg[1]Halliburton_logo.svg[1]New_Walmart_Logo.svg[1]ING_Group_N.V._logo.svg[1] Monsanto_logo.svg[1]194px-General_Motors.svg[1]222px-Exxon_Mobil_Logo.svg[1]150px-Goldman_Sachs.svg[1]150px-General_Electric_logo.svg[1]
My mother country is screwed.

The President Drones On

The long arm of Uncle Sam, his fingers tipped with death, has reached around the world to Pakistan again, this time killing two innocent hostages, the American Warren Weinstein and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto.  President Obama took the novel step of declassifying and revealing the fatal mistake, and of course he took full responsibility for the deaths, which has always struck me as a relatively meaningless gesture.  In the announcement he continually referred to the victims as “Warren” and “Giovanni,” suggesting, I suppose, that he was close to these men or that the deaths were a personal loss.  Who knows?

President Obomber

President Obomber

The subsequent press conference with the aptly named Presidential Press Secretary, John Earnest, was the usual exercise in evasiveness, repetition and empty statements.  The secrecy is once again mind boggling.  He stated that he could not reveal any details about where and how the raid was carried out, which has me puzzled.  The terrorists can hardly fail to know where the strike took place, and one would think the how is pretty clear: they observed the target for days, determined there was a terrorist “signature” and hit the building with a missile.  Why the actual day cannot be revealed also strikes me as mysterious.  But then, I am not a “national security professional,” as Earnest continually called the spooks, who were dedicated patriots just doing their job, which for me conjures images of black uniforms and caps with skull and crossbones on them.  Somehow “targeted strike” does not sound as sinister as “assassination” or “murder.”

"I don't deal with hypotheticals...or truth."

“I don’t deal with hypotheticals…or truth.”

No one asked why if this strike and the resulting casualties can be revealed – at least revealed three months after the fact – why such details of other strikes cannot be made public.  A reporter did ask why, if it is our policy not to negotiate for hostages, did the government trade captives for captured soldier Robert Bergdahl, who was in fact a deserter.  The question was dodged, and the ever helpful Press Secretary explained once again why we do not deal with terrorists.  I am not impressed by the major reason – this would only encourage them to take more hostages – inasmuch as they are going to seize any westerner they can get their hands on anyway.  Israel negotiates with terrorists; who would gainsay them in this business?

Earnest also reminded us that the he (along with most politicians) does not deal in “hypotheticals,” which has become the standard reply to questions regarding policy.  But a comprehensive policy is based on the consideration of “what if’s,” and we are essentially being told that we are not to know the full implications of a government policy, especially when it concerns national security and blowing up people half way around the world.  It might be argued that we do not want our enemies to know what our reaction will be if x happens, but this leaves the citizenry in the dark regarding exactly what our policies are in very critical areas of war and peace.

Also killed in January were two al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmed Farouq in this strike and Adam Gadahny in another, both of them US citizens, raising again the uncomfortable issue of what business the government has assassinating Americans.  Well, Obama has informed us that Attorney General Eric Holder, his man of course, has assured him that it is Constitutionally permissible to zap these jerks, the contrary position of many legal scholars notwithstanding.  Yes, they are entitled to a trial, but if they cannot be captured wadda ya gonna do?  And trying them in absentia will not work because time is always of the essence.  Do you want efficiency or justice with these “imminent threats” to Americans?  National security, always defined by the government, often requires sacrifice, frequently, as in this case, of Constitutional rights.  Besides, the President has assured us Congress has oversight of these operations, which recent history regarding the NSA suggests is a not even close to true, and in any case, does the involvement of Congress make anyone feel comfortable?

"Of course it is all perfectly legal."

“Of course it is all perfectly legal.”

Imminent threat?  Most people would agree that imminent meant someone was pointing a gun at you or walking towards a shopping mall with an assault rifle and suicide vest or massing troops on your borders.  But as with the Red Queen, for the government words mean exactly what it wants them to mean.  Thus, a guy in Waziristan who might be plotting an attack against the US is an imminent threat, regardless of how difficult it will be for him and his comrades to pull it off.  An American citizen in Somalia recruiting new fighters for al-Qaeda is an imminent threat requiring action, just as the possibility that Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether they would ever be stupid enough to try to use it, is an imminent threat, justifying a first strike.  Traditional understandings of international law among civilized nations is disappearing, at least for the US and Israel.

The deaths of the hostages was the result of a “signature” strike, that is, there was no intelligence that a valuable target was at that locale but rather the patterns of movement in and out of and around the locale suggested a group of terrorists.  Now, this is a good one.  So, if a group of men in one of these wild areas regularly gathered to play cards and some brought coolers with whatever it is Muslims drink, they would sooner or later be blown up.  What it boils down to is that any male of military age is considered a terrorist.

Incidentally, so far as named targets are concerned, what precious little evidence that can be gleaned about the drone program indicates that it takes many strikes to get the designated terrorist.  That means far more chance and perhaps the certainty that innocents will also be killed, and while it is extremely difficult to come up with any sort of precise estimates given the veil of secrecy, it is very clear Bomber Obama is vastly underestimating the number of civilian casualties.  Ayman Zawahiri is still alive after two attempts; 76 children and 29 adults are not.  Killing Qari Hussain, whom I suspect very few people have ever heard of, cost the lives of 128 people.  The human rights group Reprieve estimates that as of last November attempts to assassinate 41 men resulted in the deaths of 1147 individuals, while strikes on some two dozen named terrorists in Pakistan ended up killing 874 people.  The Council on Foreign Relations has concluded that 500 strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3674 unfortunates.

Touched by the hand of Sam

Touched by the hand of Sam

On a related note of governmental duplicity, America agreed that no operations involving armed drones would take place on Germany territory, inasmuch as that would violate German law and the Status of Forces agreement.  Now, German counterintelligence (together with the American patriot Edward Snowdon) has produced classified American documents demonstrating that the giant American air base at Ramstein (the largest foreign American military base) is in fact the hub for all attack drone activity in the world.  Once more the US government has blatantly lied to and abused the hospitality of a close ally.  The Merkel government has suspected this but despite the complete lack of American response to the NSA spying revelations has refused to take any action for fear of further injuring relations with the bully across the Atlantic.  One hopes that domestic political pressure will now force her hand and lead to charges of war crimes against American military and intelligence personnel.

Drone Central at Ramstein

Drone Central at Ramstein

But the President has assured us that the drone program is critical to the security of the country and safety of the American people, and Presidents never lie, right?  Meanwhile, we are further tarnishing our image around the globe, and every civilian casualty mean more recruits for the terrorist organizations.  And Obama ticks names off kill lists supplied by the CIA, reminiscent of Stalin going through lists of those to be shot by the NKVD.

OK, that’s stretching it beyond the breaking point, but the fact is we seem less and less to be the good guys.

The old symbol of  America

The old symbol of
America

The new symbol of America

The new symbol of America