Report from the Fronts #33: September 1917

September 1917 saw a continuation of the slaughter in Flanders.  Good weather early in the month dramatically improved the British supply situation, and on 20 September another push in the Ypres Offensive got underway with the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.  Eleven British and Commonwealth divisions attacked five German on a relatively narrow front of 15,000 yards and by noon they had achieved most of their goals, when the inevitable counterattacks began – and failed.

Wounded at Menin Road Ridge

Third Battle of Ypres

The area around Ypres

The British had changed their tactics.  In order to deal with the German forward strong points, such as pillboxes, they had brought in more heavy artillery and with spotting by aircraft they were able to neutralize many of the forward defenses and much of the German artillery.  The advancing units leapfrogged one another, the following wave taking over the assault while the previous secured the captured ground against counterattack.  This more limited and cautious approach worked, avoiding the massive offensive casualties typical of the Western Front and securing the gains until more resources could be brought up.  The front line had moved 1500 yards, and if the Allies could achieve such gains each week, they could be in Berlin by Christmas of 1927.

Aussies waiting for the gas

German counterattacks continued, but with little effect, since the new cautious approach (and good weather) allowed the British to better fortify gains and resupply the troops before the counter assault came.  On 26 September the British and Australians tried again, attacking Polygon Wood, and within a day achieved their limited objectives.  The Germans were unable to regain any of the lost ground.

Life between the offensives

Waiting for the assault

Polygon Wood

Welcome to Belgium

John Hines – Scrounge King of Polygon Wood

 

On 4 September an Anglo-French Conference met to consider sending aid to the Italian Front, which was certainly timely, inasmuch as the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ended in failure on the 12th.  General Cadorna had gone all out on this one, concentrating three-quarters of his army for the attack, 52 divisions and 5200 guns against less than half those numbers on the Austrian side.  Predictably, given the terrain (and the previous ten offensives), there was no breakthrough, though ironically the Austrians were on the brink when the battle ended (115,000 casualties) and would have folded under another assault.  But the Italian army was completely exhausted (158,000 casualties), and the next offensive, the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, would be launched by the Austrians.

Italian dead at Isonzo

Italian anti-aircraft at Isonzo

The Isonzo front

To the east Russia appeared on the edge of collapse.  On 3 September the Germans captured Riga, and five days later General Kornilov marched on St. Petersburg in an attempt to purge the city garrison of Bolshevik troops and possibly to overthrow the Provisional Government in favor of a military dictatorship..  On the 10th Kerensky, however, declared Kornilov a traitor and himself dictator of Russia, and in a move of immense historical consequence he called upon the Bolsheviks for support, armed them and released their leaders (including Leon Trotsky – Lenin had fled to Finland) from prison.

Kornilov launches his coup

As it happened, however, Kornilov’s troops, many sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, were already deserting, and with the revolt collapsing around him he surrendered on 14 September.  He was imprisoned, escaped and ended up being killed fighting for the Whites in the Civil War.  But Kerensky, who subsequent to Kornilov’s arrest proclaimed Russia to be a republic, was himself now in serious trouble.  The Bolsheviks were now armed, their leaders were free to organize and agitate and with his treatment of Kornilov and other officers implicated in the conspiracy Kerensky had lost any hope of support from the military.  The one time tiny radical Bolshevik faction was now poised to seize control of the capital of the Russian Empire.

Kerensky

General Kornilov

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(Less Delayed) Report from the Fronts #31: July 1917

 

 

July began with the aptly named July Offensive of the Russians.  It was launched by the Minister of War and de facto head of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky (hence also named the Kerensky Offensive), and commanded by Aleksei Brusilov of the successful Brusilov Offensive of 1916.  Kerensky, determined to honor his commitment to the Allies, completely underestimated the popular desire for peace, which the Bolsheviks were demanding, and overestimated the state of the army, which was deteriorating rapidly.  Brusilov was convinced a military collapse could not be avoided, but he would take a shot at a new offensive.

Kerensky

General Brusilov

General Kornilov

The July Offensive

The offensive literally began with a bang, the biggest artillery barrage of the Eastern Front, which blew a hole in the Austrian lines and allowed an advance, but German resistance caused mounting Russian casualties.  Morale began to crumble even more quickly, and with the exception of General Lvar Kornilov’s well-trained shock battalions, the infantry essentially stopped following orders.  The advance ended completely on 16 July, and three days later came the inevitable German-Austrian counterattack, which drove the Russians back 150 miles, right into the Ukraine.

The failure of the July Offensive to a great extent doomed the Provisional Government, though the ultimate success of the Bolsheviks would depend upon a certain amount of luck.  On 19 July Kerensky replaced Prince Georgy Lvov as Prime Minister and became Commander-in-Chief in August, but the handwriting on the wall was growing larger.  When the July Offensive came to a halt on the 16th, soldiers and workers, demanding “all power to the Soviets,” began demonstrations in St. Petersburg and other cities, the July Days.  The Bolshevik leadership was taken by surprise, but ultimately supported the movement, only to be confronted with troops loyal to the Provisional Government.  The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks called off the demonstrations on 20 July, and Kerensky began a wave of arrests.  Lenin narrowly escaped capture, but many other Bolsheviks, like Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev, ended up in prison.

Grigory Zinovievba

Leon Trotsky

Vladimir Lenin

Riot in St. Petersburg

 

 

 

 

Not to be outdone, at the opposite end of the war the British launched the Battle of Pilckem Ridge on 31 July.  Actually, Pilckem Ridge was the first of a series of offensives collectively called the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), which would stretch into December and were a continuation of the Flanders Campaign begun with the Battle of Messines Ridge in June.  “Wipers,” as Tommy called it, would be a four month mud bath for Commonwealth troops.

Typical Ypres conditions

German prisoners

Third Battle of Ypres

On a more romantic – and drier – note, on 6 July Colonel Lawrence and his Bedouins captured the town of Aqaba with virtually no casualties, though not quite as the movie depicted it.  The real fight was on 2 July at Abu al Lasan about fifty miles northeast of Aqaba.  A separate Arab force had seized a blockhouse there, but a Turkish battalion recaptured it and then killed some encamped Arabs, which outraged Auda Abu Tayi, the leader of Lawrence’s Howeitat auxiliaries.  He took the town, slaughtering some 300 Turks, and local tribes flocked to him, swelling Lawrence’s force to 5000.  They then moved on Aqaba, which had already been shelled by Allied naval forces, and the garrison surrendered at their arrival at the gates.  Lawrence then immediately returned to Cairo, a camel ride of over 200 miles.

Aqaba today

Triumphal entry into Aqaba

Lawrence at Aqaba

Auda Abu Tayi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In miscellaneous news from July, on the 2nd the first regular merchant convoy left Virginia for Britain, and on the 7th the last daylight air raid on London took place, producing over 200 civilian casualties. On 28 July the British Army formed a Tank Corps, and on the 17th the Palace, responding to anti-German sentiment, announced that Britain was no longer under the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (from Queen Victoria’s consort Albert) but the House of Windsor.  Kaiser Wilhelm, King George V’s cousin, responded that he planned to see The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

King George V

Cousin Willy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a very clever move, on 22 July King Rama VI of Siam (Thailand) declared war on the Central Powers.  Through adroit diplomacy, playing the French and British against one another, Siam had managed to remain the only independent state in southeast Asia and saw an opportunity to strengthen its position and gain influence in the postwar world order by sending a token force to the Western Front.  It would work (and Bangkok is now a favorite destination for European – and especially German – tourists).

The Thai Expeditionary Force at Paris

King Rama VI

 

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