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

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #26: February 1917

On 1 February Germany kept its word and resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and two days later the United States severed diplomatic relations with the Second Reich.  And Washington had yet to see the Zimmermann telegram.  British intelligence did not want to reveal that they had the German code and also important, that they were intercepting American diplomatic traffic, which they continued to do for the next quarter century.  (Nothing new a century later.)  After many subterfuges were considered, they showed the telegram to a secretary in the American embassy in London, who passed it on to the ambassador, Walter Page, who met with Balfour on the 23rd.  Page sent it to Wilson, who released it to the press on 28 February.

U-14 a typical U-boat

U-14 a typical U-boat

Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare zone

Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare zone

Walter Page

Walter Page

How much impact the telegram had on Washington and American public opinion is hard to gauge.  It must certainly have had an effect on anti-German sentiment, but it appears that the submarine warfare was the key issue for the government.  Wilson had already cut diplomatic ties, and on 26 February he asked Congress to arm US merchant vessels.  There was plenty of anti-Mexican feeling, especially after Pancho Villa raided US territory, but innocent Americans dying in torpedoed ships was extremely compelling.  I suspect war would have soon come to America regardless of Arthur Zimmermann.

US Navy recruitment poster

US Navy recruitment poster

And it was all a waste of time.  Mexican President Venustiano Carranza (of the “Preconstitutional Government”; he became official President on 1 May) was too intelligent to even consider war against the United States, which would have little problem dealing with Mexico despite a commitment to the European war.  He could only have serious doubts about Germany’s promise of financial and material aid, and he could figure out that the his northern neighbor was not likely to cede any territory unless occupied by the Germans.

venustiano Carranza

Venustiano Carranza

Meanwhile, Germany began on 25 February to implement its new defensive strategy by beginning, in the Ancre sector, a gradual withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.  This line of improved fortifications – also known as the Siegfriedstellung – was begun in September, accompanied by the Hindenburg Program, designed to further mobilize the German armaments industry.  120,000 soldiers with the required skills were returned home, and 800,000 workers were exempted from the draft.  Meanwhile, the Reichswehr would sit on the defensive while the U-boats won the war.

Retirement to the Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Retirement to the Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far to the east Commonwealth troops were retrieving the honor lost at Kut al-Amara a year earlier.  General Stanley Maude had set out from Basra with 50,000 troops in December and reached Kut on 22 February, having defeated minor Turkish forces in three battles while moving upriver in January.  The following day elements of the 82nd Punjabis crossed to the north bank west of Kut, outflanking the Turkish defenses.  Faced with encirclement and vastly outnumbered, Kâzim Karabekir Bey skillfully withdrew his 14,000 troops upriver on the 23rd, having suffered some 3000 casualties to the Indian 1000.  Maude would continue the advance to Baghdad.

British soldier aiding Turks

British soldier aiding Turks

A sepoy of the 82nd Punjabis

A sepoy of the 82nd Punjabis

General Stanley Maude

General Stanley Maude

Kâzım Karabekir Pasha

Kâzım Karabekir Bey

Kut 19717

Kut 19717

 

 

 

 

 

And on 14 February Britain proposed to Japan that it would recognize their claims to German possessions north of the equator if they supported British demands to the south.  The British government also promised the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

March would see far more momentous events.

 

Report from the Fronts #23: November 1916

The big news of November, certainly for British troops, was the end of the Somme Offensive.  On 11 November the Battle of Ancre Heights, begun on 1 October, came to end, and two days later the Battle of Ancre began, supposedly to take advantage of German exhaustion from the previous fight.  In fact Haig also wanted a success to counter criticism of the whole campaign and to improve the British position at an upcoming Allied conference.  He was also under pressure to prevent German troops from being sent east, though it is hard to see how this small scale operation (12 British against 4 German divisions) could make any difference to the Russians and Romanians.

German prisoners at Ancre

German prisoners at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of Ancre came to an end on 18 November.  Five days of fighting had left the British with about 20,000 casualties and the Germans with some 45,000 (for the period 1-18 November), which was considered by some officers to be a victory.  The troops involved in the fighting were apparently not polled on this question.  With the winter snows beginning Ancre became the last push of the Somme Offensive, which in four and a half months of combat had moved the front eastward some four miles..

The cost for these gains was staggering.  Figures are still being disputed a century later, but Commonwealth casualties were about 420,000, French around 200,000 and   German losses anywhere from 450,000 to 550,000.  The traditional view has been that the Somme was an unmitigated disaster – German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher: “Somme, the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word” –  but some argue that the Allies had no other strategic option in 1916 and needed to do something to relieve pressure on the Russians.  There is indeed evidence that the German army was seriously weakened and demoralized by the Somme, but it nevertheless still took another two years to collapse.

Meanwhile, the Italian version of the Somme went on.  On 1 November General Cadorna launched the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo, attempting again to enlarge the Gorizia bridgehead with his exhausted troops.  It ended on 4 November with minimal gains and 39,000 Italian and 33,000 Austrian casualties.  The Italians were suffering, but Austrian manpower problems were even greater, and German units were desperately needed.  For the moment, however, the front shut down for the winter, to the delight of troops on both sides of the line, I expect.

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

On the Macedonian Front the Allies were more successful.  In response to the Bulgarian offensive into eastern Macedonia in August the Allies counterattacked in September and by November were into Serbia, capturing Monastir on the 19th.  On the same day the Allies demanded that the Royalist government in Athens expel ministers of the Central Powers and turn over all war material.  Athens refused, and on 23 November the Venizelos government in Salonika declared war on Germany and Bulgaria.  On 30 November Allied troops landed at the Piraeus, the port of Athens.  Greece was on the edge of civil war.

King Constantine

King Constantine

Eleftherios Venizelos

Eleftherios Venizelos

French troops at Athens

French troops at Athens

 

 

 

 

 

Romania, meanwhile, was in serious trouble.  On 1 November the German Ninth Army under former Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn moved southeast out of the southern Carpathians.  The exhausted Romanians could not resist the 80,000 troops and 30,000 horses, and German cavalry was in Craiova on 21 November, pushing the Romanians east towards Bucharest.  Another part of Falkenhayn’s army assaulted the Vulcan Pass on 10 November, and by the 26th they were in the Romanian plain.  (An up and coming young officer participating in the Battle of Vulcan Pass was Erwin Rommel.)  On 23 November Mackensen, having essentially finished with the Dobruja, sent troops north across the Danube towards Bucharest.  It did not look good for Romania.

King Ferdinand and his troops

King Ferdinand and his troops

Romanian artillery

Romanian artillery

Romanian front

Romanian front

In miscellaneous news, on 4 November Sharif Hussein of Mecca was crowned King of the Arabs (the Saudis would have something to say about that), and on the 15th the British finally began moving across Sinai.  Germany and Austria proclaimed on 5 November the establishment of an independent Polish state, which I expect most Poles greeted with skepticism, and Woodrow Wilson was reelected President of the United States.  And Beatty replaced Jellicoe as the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet on 29 November.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Hussein ibn Ali  King of the Arabs

Hussein ibn Ali
King of the Arabs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A more momentous event was the death from pneumonia on 21 November of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia.  Politically and militarily the death of the 86 year old ruler meant little, especially inasmuch as the Austrian war effort was increasingly controlled by the Germans.  But Franz Joseph was nevertheless a monumental figure; he had ascended the throne in 1848 and at 68 years was the third longest reigning monarch in European history (Louis XIV of France 72 years; Johann II of Liechtenstein 71 years).  More than his fellow monarchs he symbolized the old Europe that, like his Empire, was being destroyed by the Great War.

Franz Joseph I 1851

Franz Joseph I
1851

Franz Joseph's tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph’s tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph I 1910

Franz Joseph I
1910

 

 

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