(Late) Report from the Fronts #29: May 1917

May began with the last gasps and final failure of the Nivelle Offensive.  The Third Battle of the Scarpe and the Second Battle of Bullecourt began on 3 May; the former ended the following day, while the latter dragged on until 17 May.  The Nivelle Offensive was over, but the unexpected repercussions were just beginning.

When the Second Battle of Bullecourt began, the French 2nd Division mutinied and refused to attack, and the infection quickly began spreading to other units.  By early June, when the authorities began responding seriously to the mutiny, half the 112 or 113 divisions of the French army had been affected to some degree.

The mutiny was more of a work stoppage than a revolt.  No officers were assaulted, and the strikers, mostly seasoned veterans, were willing to fight, just not engage in more futile offensives that completely ignored the realities of twentieth century warfare.  And although pacifist and socialist pamphlets circulated in the trenches, there was no real political movement behind the mutiny.  The troops were simply sick of being sacrificed for nothing on the altar of the Big Push by men who appeared to have little understanding of modern war.

Poilus in color

Unsurprisingly, Paris and London promptly attempted to institute a news blackout, fearing the effect of the mutiny on Allied and German morale, a perhaps sensible but certainly unethical and undemocratic move (remember General Westmoreland and Secretary McNamara?).  One could argue this was necessary for the war effort (and this war was clearly more vital to France than Vietnam was to the United States), but sealing all the pertinent military and political records for fifty years was simply to protect the generals and politicians, who would be long dead in 1967 (when the first detailed book on the mutiny appeared).  And the ultimate silliness: some (apparently) political documents were sealed for a hundred years, a senseless classification procedure that still goes on.

The repression of the mutiny belongs to June, but there was already a major casualty in May.  Actually, there were already as many as 187,000 French, 160,000 British and 163,000 German casualties, but on 15 May Nivelle was cashiered and replaced by Phillippe Pétain of Verdun and later Vichy fame; in December he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in North Africa, which is to say, he was exiled from the war.  Pétain was replaced as Chief of the French General Staff by Ferdinand Foch, hero of the Marne in 1914.

Ferdinand Foch

 

General Nivelle

Philippe Pétain

 

To the south General Cadorna launched the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo on 12 May.  What, again?  Well, General Haig and the French had resisted PM Lloyd George’s idea of sending Allied troops to help the Italians knock out the Austrians before they were stiffened by German troops, but Nivelle nevertheless pressured Cadorna to plan an offensive to coincide with his own.  400,000 thousand Italians attacked half that number of Austrians and got within ten miles of Trieste before the inevitable counterattack drove them all the way back.  The result when the battle ended on 8 June was 157,000 Italian and 75,000 Austrian casualties and no gains.  Cadorna would try again.

Italian front

Luigi Cadorna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Macedonian front the fighting died down with the end of Second Battle of Dorian on 9 May.  A small scale operation in Western Front terms, the battle began on 24 April with an attempt to take the city from the Bulgarians and failed, just like the First Battle of Dorian in August 1916, when four Allied divisions were repulsed by one (larger) Bulgarian with 3200 casualties, four times that of the enemy.  This time three British divisions (43,000 men) under General George Milne were smoked again by a single Bulgarian division (30,000 men) under General Vladimir Vazov, losing 12,000 men, six times as many as the Bulgarians.  There would of course be a Third Dorian.

Vladimir Vazov

George Milne

Macedonian Front

 

 

 

Other news from Greece: on 20 May the Serbian Government in exile moved from Corfu to Salonika, and more ominous, on 28 May an Anglo-French conference began in London to consider deposing King Constantine and occupying all of Greece.

Finally, there were a number of political and command developments.  On 10 May John “Black Jack” Pershing, fresh from chasing Pancho Villa across Mexico, was appointed Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, and eight days later the Compulsory Service Act – the draft – became law.  In a very different place, Russia, Alexander Kerensky, who had played a prominent role in the February Revolution, became on 16 May Minister of War for the Provisional Government, which two days later declared there would be no separate peace (as the Bolsheviks wanted).

The Kerensky War Ministry

Black Jack Pershing

And a dramatic forecast on 7 May: a single German plane – probably a Gotha G.IV – made the first night raid on London, anticipating the Blitz a quarter century later.

Gotha G.IV bomber

 

 

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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Report from the Fronts #19: August 1916

August 1916 marked two years of war and was little different from the month before or the one to follow.  On the Somme front the Battles of Delville Wood and Poziéres continued, piling up casualties for little gain and emulating the ongoing action to the south at Verdun.  There on 1 August the Germans launched a surprise assault on Fort Souville and were duly counterattacked by the French, who on 18 August recaptured Fleury – or what was left of it.

Fort Souville

Fort Souville

Poilus attacking Fleury

Poilus attacking Fleury

Fort Souville today

Fort Souville today

 

 

On 29 August Verdun claimed a major German casualty when Falkenhayn was sacked as Chief of Staff and replaced by Hindenburg.  The apparent failure of the Verdun campaign and the beginning of the Somme and Brusilov Offensives played into the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had been conspiring against Falkenhayn.  Ludendorff became First Quartermaster-General, but he was in fact the real power, rapidly assuming control of the entire military and ultimately the Reich itself.

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

 

To the south the Isonzo Follies started up again as General Cadorna sought to take advantage of an Austrian line weakened by the removal of troops for the Trentino Offensive.  The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo (or Battle of Gorizia) kicked off on 6 August with a two pronged assault against the long-sought prize of Gorizia, which the Austrians abandoned on 8 August.  Gorizia was the gateway to Trieste and Ljubljana, but the poorly equipped Italian troops could make no further headway and Cadorna ended the offensive on 17 August.

Gorizia

Gorizia

General Luigi Cadorna

General Luigi Cadorna

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

This was Cadorna’s first success, and Italian morale skyrocketed with the capture of the city they had wanted since 1914.  But they wanted Gorizia in order to seize Trieste and invade Slovenia, and in fact that would never happen, leaving Cadorna with only a wrecked city and more dead: 21,000 (not counting the missing) to the Austrian’s 8000.  Throwing 22 divisions against 9 Austrian allowed the (limited) breakthrough to Gorizia, but Cadorna’s frontal assaults were extremely costly.

Exhausted Italian troops

Exhausted Italian troops

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo six)

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo Six)

Gorizia after capture

Gorizia after capture

 

Not costly enough, however, to prevent Rome from sending troops to join the growing international camp at Salonika on 12 August, presumably to back up Italian claims in the western Balkans. On 28 August Italy declared war on Germany, apparently under pressure from the Allies, since the two countries were not in direct conflict (German troops would not appear on the Italian front until 1917) and actually benefited from non-belligerence.

Meanwhile, Greece tottered toward open participation in the war.  National pride and the Bulgarians in Macedonia spurred the Venizelist (pro-Entente, anti-Royalist) forces clustered in Salonika, and on 29-30 August Venizelist officers, supported by the Allies, launched a successful coup against the loyalists.  Troops across northern Greece joined the revolt, and the seed of a government in opposition to Athens, the “National Defense Committee,” was formed.  Loyalist officers fled south.

Greek troops in Salonika

Greek troops in Salonika

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south the Turks, who had been steadily creeping across Sinai during July, took what would be a final shot at the Suez Canal on 3 August, advancing towards Romani, about 20 miles from the Canal.  The British had been busy, however, building a rail line east out of Kantara and could now send out more substantial forces.  The result was the Battle of Romani on 3-5 August, during which the Turkish army was decisively defeated, suffering 9200 casualties to the Allied 1130.  But the Ottoman commander, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, had prepared fortified positions during his advance, and his surviving forces were able to execute an orderly retreat.  Nevertheless, by 12 August the Turks had been driven all the way back across Sinai to El Arish.  The Battle of Sinai had ended and the Battle for Palestine could begin.

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Kress von Kressenstein

Kress von Kressenstein

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Kressenstein with a smoke

Kressenstein with a smoke

 

 

 

The big news of August 1916 was the entrance of Romania into the war.  King Carol I, a Hohenzollern like the Kaiser, had signed a defensive alliance with the Central Powers, but in 1914 the Romanian people favored the Allies and Romania remained neutral.  King Ferdinand I, who succeeded Carol in October 1914, was more inclined towards the Entente and wanted Transylvania, an Austrian province with a Romanian population, but was wary of the Russians and being left in the lurch by the French and British.  Only after the Allies agreed to stringent terms (most of which were subsequently ignored) did he make his move.

British propaganda

British propaganda

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romania om 1914

Romania in 1914

King Ferdinand I

King Ferdinand I

An alliance was made with the Entente on 17 August, and on the 27th Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and began mobilization.  The next day a Romanian army invaded Transylvania, prompting Germany to declare war; Turkey followed on 30 (?) August and Bulgaria on 1 September.  September would not be a good month for the Romanians.

Oh, the South Africans and Belgians continued capturing towns in East Africa, but Lettow-Vorbeck continued to lead them on a merry chase.

 

Reports from the Front #10: January 1915

Most of the action in the first month of 1916 was in the Balkans and Mesopotamia. The troops on the Western Front were busy enough fighting the mud and cold, little realizing that the cataclysm of Verdun would get underway the following month.  The Eastern Front was quiet: the Russians were recovering from the disasters of 1915 and planning a new offensive, while the Germans and Austrians were engaged in picking apart the Balkans.  Even General Cadorna was taking a break from his Isonzo Follies.

The destruction of Serbia

The destruction of Serbia

Serbs were raining down on Greece.  On New Year’s Day King Peter I of Serbia arrived at Salonika, and on 17 January he moved to Aidipsos on the Greek island of Euboea to take the waters at the thermal springs (he was old and ailing).  Meanwhile, his troops were going to Corfu.  On 10 January the allies informed the Greek government that the remnants of the Serbian army would be moved to the island, and three days later the Greeks refused.  Well, the French had already occupied Corfu two days earlier, and on 15 January they began to ship something like 100,000 exhausted Serbs to the island and other locations, where they would die in droves from malnutrition and disease.  The Serbian government in exile was established at Brindisi.220px-Pobedata_nad_syrbia[1]

Serbs on Corfu

Serbs on Corfu

Peter I of Serbia

Peter I of Serbia

Hard on the heels of the Serbs came the Austrians, who by the end of the month occupied all Albania except the far south. Albania had only come into existence a few years earlier in the wake of the Second Balkan War of 1913 and was assigned territory, Epirus, in the south that was ethnically Greek.  (This disregard for ethnic realities would become endemic in the formation of countries in eastern Europe in the wake of the war.)

As a result the Greeks, who had already occupied the territory earlier and left, sent in troops (with allied approval) on 27 October 1914, while the Italians seized a number of islands. The result was the Macedonian Front, running along the northern Greek frontier through southern Albania to the Adriatic, and any Austrian or Bulgarian advance further south was thwarted.  The Albanian monarch (a German), Wilhelm I, fled.  Albania, incidentally, was not a belligerent.

Wilhelm I of Albania

Wilhelm I of Albania

On 10 January the Austrians began nosing into Montenegro, leading to an armistice between the two powers two days later.  But Montenegro had helped the Serbs and in any case was important to Austria, being situated between the Empire and their new possession of Albania, and on 20 January the armistice ended.  The country fell to the Austrians, and King Nicola I fled to France and the Albanian government was ensconced in Bordeaux.

Montenegran soldiers

Montenegran soldiers

The Montenegro campaign

The Montenegro campaign

Nikola I of Montenegro

Nikola I of Montenegro

The other hot spot in January 1916 was the Tigris River.  On 4 January a force of some 19,000 troops, mostly Indian, under General Fenton Aylmer began moving north to relieve Kut.  They encountered Goltz Pasha at Sheikh Sa’ad on 6 January, and although the Turks were outnumbered four to one, Goltz managed to hold out until 8 January, when he moved about ten miles up the river to Wadi. On 14 January the British attacked this new position, and while they failed to break through, Goltz retreated another 5 miles to the Hanna defile.

Golz Pasha

Goltz Pasha

General Fenton Aylmer

General Fenton Aylmer

British artillery at Sheikh Sa'ad

British artillery at Sheikh Sa’ad

On 19 January General Percy Lake replaced Nixon as supreme commander of the Mesopotamian campaign. It made no difference.  The British attacked at Hanna on 21 January and failed, and having suffered heavy casualties in the battles and from disease, the relief force retreated south to Ali Gharbi, where they had started.  In the three battles the British had suffered 8600 casualties, the Turks 2230.  The siege of Kut would go on.

General Percy Lake

General Percy Lake

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

Another failed operation finally came to an end when on 7-8 January allied troops were evacuated from Helles beach at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  The evacuation proved to be the most successful operation of the whole campaign, and not a man was lost, though the Turks knew it was about to take place.  The Gallipoli campaign proved a disaster, with tens of thousands of lives lost for absolutely no gains, hardly surprising since the landings resulted almost immediately in a mini-Western Front on the peninsula.  Both sides suffered about a quarter million casualties, though the Turks could of course claim a victory.

Helles beach

Helles beach

The political repercussions had a more lasting effect.  Winston Churchill, who had been an instrumental force behind the operation, lost his job as First Lord of the Admiralty and went off to fight on the Wester Front.  Kitchener’s influence began to wane, and the failure would contribute to the fall of the Asquith government at the end of the year.

Churchill would earn a reputation for hare-brained military schemes, but to some extent this was unfair.  The basic idea made sense.  It is very unlikely that a naval bombardment of Istanbul would drive the Turks out of the war, but an allied naval presence in the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus would take pressure off the Russians and render communications between the European and Asiatic parts of the Ottoman Empire far more difficult.

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

The problem was not the idea but rather extremely poor operational planning and execution, in which Churchill had no real role.  The naval component was woefully inadequate and poorly led, especially the minesweeping units, but the land campaign had a reasonable chance of seizing the forts on the European side of the straights.  That they did not was due to poor planning and intelligence (tourist maps had to be used), overconfidence, insufficient artillery and above all, terrible leadership at all levels.  There were any number of instances in the early stages at Helles when the troops could have kept the initiative and rolled over Turkish positions, but few of the commanders were actually on the beaches, communications were hopeless and requests for support were ignored.  The Turks thus had the time to bring up reinforcements and prepare their defenses, and the result was stalemate.

In other news, on 13 January the Turks began occupying positions in western Iran, partly in reaction to Russian forces in the northwest of the country and British in the south.  Iran was neutral but was in no position to resist these incursions, any more than she could resist the later violation of her sovereignty during the Second World War. Or the CIA engineered overthrow of their democratically elected government in 1953, which resulted in the ascendancy of the brutal US supported Shah.  What would you be chanting in the streets if this had happened to your country?

On 22 January Romania, encircled by belligerents and avid for territorial gains, specifically Transylvania, opened negotiations with Russia for aid.  Rumania was bound by treaty to come to the aid of Austria were she attacked, and the Rumanian king, Carol I, was a Hohenzollern, the ruling house of the German Empire.  When the war broke out, Carol wanted to enter the war as an ally of the Central Power, but the government and public opinion preferred the allies, particularly since Transylvania was a Hungarian possession.  Rumania decided she was not bound by the treaty, since Austria had “started the war,” and the country initially remained neutral.  In October of 1914 Carol was succeeded by Ferdinand I, who was more amenable to honoring the will of the people.

Carol I of Rumania

Carol I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Rumania in 1914

Rumania in 1914

Finally, as a sign of the times, on 27 January the British Parliament passed the first Military Service Act, in effect establishing conscription, which already existed in France, Russia, Austria and Germany.  Defended by its navy and requiring only relatively small forces to secure the Empire, unlike the continental powers Britain could make do with a volunteer army, and in 1914 the regular army was just short of a quarter million men, half of whom garrisoned the Empire.  The BEF initially comprised only 150,000 men; the Germans fielded 1,850,000 and the French 1,650,000.  That certainly would not fill the maw of the trenches, and single men without children in the 18 to 41 age group would henceforth (it would become effective on 2 March) be liable for service unless they were in a war related occupation.  Subsequent acts would expand the pool, as the meat grinder of the Western Front demanded more and more bodies, and by 1918 the British had some 4,000,000 men in uniform.

1916 conscription notice

1916 conscription notice

And so the third calendar year of the war began.