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 #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.