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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stuff from Way Back #1 Redux: Happy New Year, Q. Fulvius Nobilior

(A slightly different version of this piece was published more than two years ago, my first Stuff from Way Back.  It is perhaps my favorite anecdote from antiquity.  I am reposting it for the New Year and because I am a bit short of time.  It makes an excellent New Year’s Eve party anecdote, at least before everyone is gasolinoed.  Happy New Year, though I expect it will just see our country slide further into silliness and stupidity.)

 

Ever wonder why the year begins on January 1?  Probably not.  It is the sort of thing that is such an established facet of life that it never occurs to one to ask why:  “Because that’s when the calendar begins,” which is of course not much of an explanation.  That’s akin to saying because the previous year ends on December 31.  But consider: why should we begin our year in the middle of the winter and on a day that has absolutely no significance, except that somehow it has become the first day of the year.  Why not on a day that has some significance in nature, such as the equinoxes and solstices.  Or considering the importance of agriculture, why not in the spring, when life returns, or fall, when the harvest is in?

 

In fact, in antiquity states typically began their calendar years in the spring or in the fall with the harvest.  So, what happened?  Well, it’s because of the Romans and an otherwise relatively trivial event in their history.  It begins with the defeat of Hannibal.

 

Part of Rome’s booty in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was the Mediterranean coast of Spain, formerly territory of the now defunct Carthaginian empire.  The Romans of course had no intention of allowing this area to go free, but neither were they moved to any campaign of conquest in the Iberian peninsula.  Italian capital and manpower were exhausted by  the long and costly struggle against Carthage,  and the first half of the second century BC was filled with major conflicts in the Greek east.  The result was that the Roman occupation of Spain was haphazard and slow, driven by the desire to exploit the natural resources and to protect the coastal communities from the natives of the interior.

 

The Roman Senate was loathe to create provinces; they had to be administered and garrisoned, which was expensive.  Nevertheless, there were in Spain no potential client kingdoms ready at hand, and consequently the Spanish possessions were organized into two provinces in 197 BC.  But poor Roman administration led in that same year to the first serious insurrection, and crushing it triggered the First Celtiberian War (181-179 BC).  Relative peace then lasted until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (154-138 BC), during which occurred also the Second Celtiberian War (153-151 BC) and the Third Celtiberian (or Numantine) War (143-133 BC).  Thus it was that three quarters of a century of cruel and bloody counterinsurgency warfare were necessary to pacify the peninsula, and the job was not actually completed until the reign of Augustus, the first emperor, at the end of the first century BC.  The Spanish provinces then went on to become the most peaceful and Romanized in the empire.

 

When in late 154 BC a number of Celtiberian tribes, encouraged by the Lusitanians, revolted, Rome appointed Q. Fulvius Nobilior commander of four legions about to be sent to quell the revolt.  Nobilior had just been elected consul, one of the two annual magistrates who were the executive heads of the Roman state.  The consulship, like the subordinate praetorship, conferred upon its holder imperium, the superior form of official power, one element of which was the all-important power to command troops.  The consuls (and to a lesser degree the praetors) were thus Rome’s generals.

 

The consuls and most of the other important magistrates began their terms of office on  the Ides of Martius, that is, March 15, which consequently placed the beginning of the Roman civil year at roughly the vernal equinox (March 21) and the beginning of the seasonal year.  The Senate was anxious to get Nobilior to Spain as early as possible in order to extend his campaigning season, but until he actually took office some three months hence the consul-elect had no authority to command troops.  Preeminently pragmatic, the Romans solved the problem and avoided any constitutional crisis by simply moving the beginning of the civil year, and thus Nobilior’s term, to the Kalends of Januarius, that is January 1.

 

When the new year began had never been of much importance in the generally sloppy and conflicting calendars of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Romans, seeing no compelling reason to move the beginning of the civil year back again, left it on 1 January.  (Coincidentally, Januarius was named after the god Janus, who as the god of gateways and transitions looked both ways, making the month of January very apt as the first of the year.)  This day was thus enshrined as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, which was passed on to Europe and much of the rest of the world.  Because of the Roman Senate and an obscure Iberian war, the vast majority of the human race celebrates New Year’s in the middle of the winter.

 

Reconstruction of Numantia's fortifications

Reconstruction of Numantia’s fortifications

Ruins of Numantia

Ruins of Numantia

Incidentally, in August Nobilior’s army was ambushed by the Belli and Arevaci on its way to capture the city of Numantia in north central Spain and lost 6000 men, and it was only saved from complete annihilation by his Roman cavalry.  He never did take the city and was replaced the following year.  The war went on.

Stuff from Way Back #1: Happy New Year, Q. Fulvius Nobilior

Ever wonder why the year
begins on January 1?  Probably not.  But consider: why should we begin our year in
the middle of the winter, rather than in the spring, when the seasonal year begins?  In fact, in antiquity states typically began
their calendar years in the spring or in the fall with the harvest.  Well, it’s the Romans.

Part of Rome’s booty in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was the
Mediterranean coast of Spain, formerly territory of the now defunct Carthaginian
empire.  The Romans of course had no
intention of allowing this area to go free, but neither were they yet moved to
any campaign of conquest in the Iberian
peninsula.  Italian capital and manpower were exhausted
by  the Hannibalic War,  and the first half of the second century was
filled with major conflicts in the Greek east.
The result was that the Roman conquest of Spain was haphazard and slow, driven by the desire to exploit
the natural resources and to protect the coastal communities from the natives
of the interior.

The Spanish possessions were organized into two provinces
in 197, and poor Roman administration led in that same year to the first
serious insurrection, the crushing of which triggered the First Celtiberian War
(181-179).  Relative peace then lasted
until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (154-138), during which occurred also
the Second Celtiberian War (153-151) and the Third Celtiberian (or Numantine)
War (143-133).  Three quarters of a
century of cruel and bloody counterinsurgency warfare were necessary to pacify
the peninsula, and the job was not actually completed until the reign of
Augustus at the end of the first century, after which the Spanish provinces
became the most peaceful and Romanized in the empire.

When in late 154 a number of Celtiberian tribes, encouraged
by the Lusitanians, revolted, Rome appointed Q. Fulvius Nobilior commander of four legions
about to be sent to quell the
revolt.  Nobilior had just been
elected consul, one of the two annual magistrates who were the executive heads
of the Roman state.  The consulship, like
the subordinate praetorship, conferred upon its holder imperium, the
superior form of official power, one facet of which was the all-important power
to command troops.  The consuls (and to a
lesser degree the praetors) were thus Rome’s generals.

The consuls and most of the other important magistrates
began their terms of office on 15  March,
thus placing the beginning of the Roman civil year at roughly the vernal equinox
(21  March) and the beginning of the
seasonal year.  The Senate was anxious to
get Nobilior to Spain as early as possible in order to extend his campaigning season, but
until he actually took office some three months hence the consul-elect had no
authority to command troops.  Preeminently
pragmatic, the Romans solved the problem and avoided any constitutional crisis by
simply moving the beginning of the civil year, and thus Nobilior’s term, to 1
January.

When the new year began had
never been of much importance in the generally sloppy and conflicting calendars
of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Romans, seeing no compelling reason to
move the beginning of the civil year back again, left it on 1 January.  This day was thus enshrined as the beginning
of the year in the Julian calendar, which was passed on to Europe and
much of the rest of the world.  Because
of the Roman Senate and an obscure Iberian war, the vast majority of the human
race celebrates New Year’s in the middle of the winter.