Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #52: A Legacy of Death

The most important legacy of the Great War was establishing the shape of twentieth century Europe and the Near East through the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. But the most immediately apparent legacy was the extinction and ruin of millions of lives, virtually all of whom had nothing to do with the outbreak of the war or its final settlement.  World War II, born to a great extent out of the First, would produce far more casualties, but the losses of the Great War seem more poignant inasmuch as they were suffered in an utterly pointless conflict waged, at least in France and Italy, in a frequently pointless manner.

The world had never seen such a mobilization of men.  On the Allied side: Russian Empire 12,000,000, British Empire 8,841,541, France 8,660,000, Italy 5,615,140, United States 4,743,826, Romania 1,234,000, Japan 800,00, Serbia 707,343, Belgium 380,000, Greece 250,000, Portugal 80,000 and Montenegro 50,000; a total of 42,959,850 men.  The Central Powers: Germany 13,250,000, Austro-Hungarian Empire 7,800,000, Ottoman Empire 2,998,321 and Bulgaria 1,200,000; a total of 25,248,321 men.  In the course of four years 75,208,171 men were under arms.

An entire generation of young men were obliterated or maimed.  (These figures vary a great deal.)  The Allied losses totaled 5,520,000 killed in action and 12,831,500 wounded in action, a total of 18,356,500 casualties; the Central Powers saw 4,386,000 killed and 8,388,000 wounded, a total of 12,774,000 casualties.  The big losers: Germany with 2,050,897 dead, Russian Empire 1,811,000, France 1,397,000, Austro-Hungarian Empire 1,200,000, British Empire 1,114,914; actually, as percentage of population the biggest losers were the Serbians at an astounding 17-28%, the Turks at 13-15% and the Romanians at 8-9%.  Add to all this 4,000,000 civilian deaths on the Allied side and 3,700,000 on the side of the Central Powers (including perhaps 1,500,000 Armenians).  In all, about 17,593,000 died in the Great War; millions more would die in the Russian Civil War and resulting famine in the Ukraine (not to mention a natural cause – the influenza pandemic).

More than 21,000,000 were wounded in the Great War, and Europe was now filled with men missing limbs, jaws and eyes, men with corrupted lungs and men with damaged minds.  In fact, British army surgeons, led by Harold Gillies, undertook more than 11,000 reconstructive operations, mostly for facial damage, and Gillies was later recognized as the father of plastic surgery.

Retraining injured men

Repaired soldiers

Harold Gillies

For the common soldiery the Great War meant lost years, wounds, death and perhaps a medal, but for the upper echelon of officers it meant in many cases career advancement and sundry honors.  Joseph Joffre and Ferdinand Foch, for example, were made Marshals of France, and Douglas Haig received, among other honors, the thanks of Parliament, an earldom, and a grant of £100,000.  I expect the poilus and Tommies were delighted by such awards to their noble commanders.

Infantrymen

Infantryman

Infantrymen

 

Field Marshal Joffre

Field Marshal Foch

Field Marshal Haig

 

Advertisements

Report from the Fronts #50: October 1918

By the beginning of October many, especially on the German side, knew that the war was finished for the Central Powers but the killing would continue for another month while an armistice was negotiated. It was hardly “dulce et decorum” to die for your country when there was absolutely no reason to.

On 2 October the Fifth Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Saint-Quentin Canal came to an end, and on the 3rd the (ironically named) Battle of the Beaurevoir Line began.  The Line was the last string of German trenches, a little more than a mile east of Saint-Quentin, and by 10 October the Americans and French had seized the heights above the Line, marking a 19 mile wide breach of the Hindenburg Line.  General Rawlinson on the operation: “Had the Boche not shown marked signs of deterioration during the past month, I should never have contemplated attacking the Hindenburg line. Had it been defended by the Germans of two years ago, it would certainly have been impregnable….”

Breaching the Line

Rawlinson

Beaurevoir Line

To the north the Canadians handily won the Second Battle of Cambrai on 8–10 October, capturing a city that was largely destroyed and evacuated by the Germans.  The easy victory is understandable: all the pressure on the Hindenburg Line to the south left this sector denuded of troops.  The depleted German divisions were severely outnumbered, had few guns, no air cover and no tanks, of which the Allies had 324.  The end was becoming clearer and clearer.

Canadians on the road to Cambrai

Second Battle of Cambrai

On 14 October the Battle of Courtrai (or Battle of Roulers or Second Battle of Belgium) began, and by its end on the 19th Ostend, Lille, Douai, Zeebrugge and Bruges had been recaptured by the British and Belgians.  On 20 October the rest of the Belgian coast was recovered.

King Albert I at the liberation of Bruges

Courtrai area

To the south the Meuse-Argonne Offensive moved into phase two on 4 October. The exhausted American divisions gave way to fresh formations of eager doughboys, who quickly – and frequently recklessly – cleared the Argonne Forest by the end of the month, during which time they advanced 10 miles.  At the Battle of Montfaucon 14-17 October the Americans broke the Hindenburg Line at the Kriemhilde Stellung, while on their left the French Fourth Army moved 20 miles and reached the Aisne River.  At the onset of Montfaucon legendary American corporal Alvin York singlehandedly captured 132 prisoners, a feat that would have been impossible a year earlier.  Phase 3 began on 28 October and would last until the armistice.

York in action

Alvin York

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

A sign of the impending end: on 27 October Ludendorff, virtual ruler of the German Empire for two years, was asked by the Kaiser to resign, which he did without objection.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

A more cataclysmic sign appeared in Italy. On 24 October, the anniversary of the Caporetto disaster, General Armando Diaz finally launched the long awaited offensive against the Austrians with an assault on Monte Grappo, while his main armies prepared to cross the Piave River, which was in flood.  The crossing of the swollen river was difficult, but by the 28th the Italians had established several bridgeheads on the northern bank and were advancing.  The Austrian commander, Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, promptly ordered a counterattack, but his men refused to obey the order, not a good sign.  Svetozar Boroević, known as a defensive expert, ordered a general retreat, and on 30 October the Italians took Vittorio Veneto, a dozen miles north of the Piave.

Svetozar Boroević

Diaz

Battle of Vittorio Veneto

On Monte Grappa

Austro-Hungarian prisoners

Abandoned Austrian equipment

Italian cavalry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aiding the Allies was the simple fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was crumbling. On 28 October Bohemia (part of Czechoslovakia) declared its independence, and the following day a group proclaimed the independence of the South Slavs.  More crushing, on 31 October the Hungarian Parliament voted for independence, thus ending the Austro-Hungarian state.  By the time the Battle of Vittorio Veneto ended on 4 November Austria was out of the war.

Meanwhile, Allied forces were advancing deeper into Serbia, and in the east the British took Tripoli, Homs and Aleppo in Syria and Kirkuk in Mesopotamia from the Turks; the French took Beirut.  Far to the east the British took Irkutsk (remember Risk?) on 14 October and Omsk on the 18th, although the whole reason for these operations had essentially disappeared.

Diplomatic notes were flying all over Europe. On 4 October Germany and Austria sent notes to President Wilson requesting an armistice, and four days later Wilson told the Germans that evacuating occupied real estate was the first step.  On the 12th the German government agreed, but three days later Wilson set further conditions, including that he deal with a democratic German government, a tough proposition for the Germans.  Nevertheless, Wilson agreed to pass the proposal on to the Allied governments.

The Austrians had to wait until 18 October for a noncommittal reply, and on the 27th the Austrian government sent a second note to Wilson and one to Italy requesting an immediate armistice.  Meanwhile, the Empire was dissolving.  On 16 October a desperate Emperor proclaimed the ancient empire to be a federal state based on national groups, but it was already fragmenting.  On 21 October Czechoslovakia declared its independence, and the Ban of Croatia (the traditional local government) proclaimed its support for the Yugoslav National Council.  On the 29th the Council rejected the policy of the Empire and declared Yugoslavian independence, which was adopted by the Croatian Congress the next day.  Three days earlier the King of Montenegro had announced support for Yugoslavia.  On 31 October there were revolutions in Budapest and Vienna, and Hungary withdrew from the union; that same day Emperor Karl I, no longer possessing an Adriatic port, handed his fleet over to the Yugoslavs.

Czechoslovakia

Croatian Congress

Emperor Karl I

Austro-Hungarian Empire

Yugoslavia (1922)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ottoman Empire was also collapsing.  On 14 October the Turks requested an armistice from President Wilson, and on the 30th an armistice was signed by the Allies and the Turks.  Hostilities ended the next day, and Turkey was out of the war and bereft of their Arab empire.

Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic

On a smaller scale, on 4 October King Ferdinand of Bulgaria abdicated in favor of his son, who became Boris III.  Surprisingly, his throne would actually survive the political cataclysm born of the defeat of the Central Powers.

Ferdinand I

Boris III

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turkey, Austria and Bulgaria were all out of the war, and Germany was seriously seeking an armistice.  Yet the war and the killing went on as the victors dithered.

 

 

Report from the Fronts #49: September 1918

(OK, extremely late, but wadda ya gonna do?)

100 Days Offensive

 

The Allies were rolling now.  The Second Somme came to an end on 3 September, and Foch determined to launch a broad assault on the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung).  First, though, he cleaned up the German salients west of the Line in order to attack the entire string of fortifications at once.  The British and French advanced towards the Line in a number of relatively small engagements, heading for Cambrai, Saint-Quentin and Laon.  By 25 September the Germans were pushed back to the Line, having surrendered all the gains of their Spring Offensive.  The Allies nevertheless still believed the War could not be won until 1919.

Battle of Saint-Mihiel

One part of this operation was the Battle of Saint-Mihiel on 12-15 September, the only American-directed major offensive of the war.  Pershing’s First Army (14 American and 4 French divisions) easily cleared the Saint-Mihiel salient – the Germans were already in retreat – but as usual with successful advances the troops (660,000 of them) got ahead of their supplies and artillery and were forced to halt rather than attempt a breakthrough to Metz.  The Battle of Saint-Mihiel, incidentally, was recreated in the 1927 movie Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture; it also involved the first recorded use of the term D-Day.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

American engineers

The grand assault on the Hindenburg Line kicked off on 26 September with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which would last until the Armistice.  The strike was launched from the southern (Verdun) sector, and the ultimate objective was the city of Sedan, which was an absolutely vital lateral rail hub for the Germans (and the scene of their victory over France in 1870).  The strike force consisted of 15 (later 22) American divisions, which were anywhere from 30% to 100% larger than the European, and 31 French divisions, for a total of 1,200,000 men; they were accompanied by 2780 guns, 380 tanks and 840 planes.  Facing the Allied force were ultimately 44 German divisions, most of them half strength, totaling up to 450,000 generally demoralized men under Fifth Army commander Georg von der Marwitz (remember him?).

German dugout

American gun crew

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In terms of personnel the operation was a partial role call for America’s next war. Handling the massive Allied logistics was Colonel George Marshall, who as Chief of Staff of the Army would in the Second World War oversee the expansion and supply of the entire US army and the rebuilding of Europe.  Vigorously leading an infantry battalion was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would create and direct the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.  Colonel George Patton commanded a tank brigade, while an infantry brigade was under General Douglas MacArthur.  And managing an artillery battery was Captain Harry Truman.

Col. Marshall

Col. Marshall

Col. Donovan

Col. Patton

Gen. MacArthur – already the poseur

Capt. Truman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first phase of the offensive lasted until 3 October, during which period the less experienced Americans gained from 2 to 5 miles, while the French, fighting in more open countryside, advanced their front some 9 miles.  These bare words, of course, cover many French villages being destroyed and many men giving their all, at a time when even the Kaiser knew the war was lost.  Pershing immediately recognized that clearing the Saint-Mihiel salient was nothing at all like frontally assaulting well-established German positions.  On the other hand, the German veterans were impressed by American aggressiveness and the willingness of the doughboys to charge into machine gun fire.

On 28 September the second –and weakest – thrust of the grand offensive, the Fifth Battle of Ypres, was launched far to the north in Flanders.  12 Belgium, 10 British (Second Army) and 6 French divisions (Sixth Army) under the command of King Albert of Belgium struck east from the Ypres area, heading towards Passchendaele and ultimately Ghent.  Initially faced by no more than 5 German divisions, the Allies made good progress despite the rough terrain; by 30 September all the high ground east of Ypres and the area west of Passchendaele had been recovered, and by 1 October units were on the Lys River.  But with German reinforcements arriving and the Allied troops beyond easy supply, the push came to end the following day.

A break from the battle

The Ypres area after five battles

The Ypres salient

The central thrust pushed off on 29 September, attacking one of the strongest stretches of the Hindenburg Line.  The offensive included the British Third Army in the north and the French First Army in the south, but the British Fourth Army in the center faced the greatest challenge, crossing the Saint-Quentin canal.  Army commander Henry Rawlinson had 30 British and Australian divisions and two (oversized) American divisions attached to the Australian Corps, and they faced 39 (generally depleted) German divisions of Adolph von Carlowitz’ Second Army and the formidable defenses along the deep cut of the canal.  The Aussies and Yanks would confront the particularly strong fortifications at the Bony-Bellicourt sector, where the canal ran underground through a tunnel.

General Rawlinson

General von Carlowitz

Battle of Saint-Quentin

The battle began with 1600 guns firing almost a million rounds, the biggest British barrage in the war.  The two American divisions, followed by two Australian and equipped with 150 tanks, headed for the Bellicourt Tunnel sector, their goal the Catelet-Nauroy Line east of the tunnel.  The right half of the advance, led by the American 30th Division, penetrated the Hindenburg Line and by the early morning of 30 September had captured Bellicourt and part of Nauroy, despite taking heavy fire on their left flank because of the failure of the American 27th Division on the left to keep up.  The Australians reported finding large groups of leaderless American troops, who had suffered seriously because of their inexperience.

Yanks after the capture of Bellicourt

Southern end of the canal tunnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, immediately south of the Americans and Australians the British 46th Division, followed by the 32nd (home of the poet Wilfred Owen), was able to cross the very deep cut of the canal between Riqueval and Bellenglise, crossing the canal with boats, rafts and lifejackets while artillery kept the defenders pinned in their trenches.  Tanks were brought over the tunnel area captured by the 30th Division and sent south to support the British, who had secured the eastern bank and the German defenses by the end of the day.  The achievement of the 46th Division was just short of incredible, crossing the waterway with anything that would float, climbing the wall of the east bank with scaling ladders (!) and capturing the formidable defenses – with fewer than 800 casualties.

The canal cut in 1918

Riqueval Bridge and the canal cut today

Addressing the troops at the Riqueval Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east Allenby’s successful and low cost campaign to drive General Liman von Sanders and his Turks out of Palestine continued with the Battle of Megiddo (actually a number of engagements) from 19 to 25 September.  While Lawrence and Arab Revolt units were harassing and disrupting Turkish communications, Allenby’s carefully planned offensive moved rapidly north and east, establishing by the 25th a line running from Acre on the coast east to the Sea of Galilee and south to Amman (Jordan); Australian units would capture Damascus on 1 October.  During this roughly two week period 75,000 Turkish soldiers surrendered to Commonwealth forces (many to avoid slaughter by the Arab forces) at a cost of about 1500 casualties; only 6000 Turkish soldiers escaped.

Bombed Turkish transport

Allenby’s September campaign

Otto Liman von Sanders

Edmund Allenby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the former Russian Empire Allied forces were on the move.  On 2 September an Italian force arrived at Murmansk and was joined two days later by General William Graves and more American troops.  On that same day Obozerskaya, 100 miles south of Archangel, was captured by the Allies, and on the 11th Ukhtinskaya on the Murmansk front.  The Canadians showed up in Archangel at the end of the month, by which time Allied troops, aided by Poles and White forces, had pushed 150 miles south up the Dvina River, battling Bolshevik forces on the river and in fortified villages.  In the far east the city of Khabarovsk, 360 miles north of Vladivostok, was taken by the Japanese on 5 September.

Archangel

Allied troops

Red prisoners of Americans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vladivostok

Allied troops

Japanese troops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, diplomatic exchanges in September underscored the crumbling position of the Central Powers.  On 15 September Austria requested from President Wilson the opening of peace talks and Germany actually offered Belgium a peace treaty; unsurprisingly, both were immediately turned down.  More successful were the Bulgarians, who on the 28th requested of the Allies an immediate armistice, which was granted two days later; Bulgaria was out of the war.  On 25 September Italy recognized the pan-Slavic state – Yugoslavia – that was emerging across the Adriatic as the Austrian Empire crumbled (more on this in October).

Finally, remember Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris?  On September 28, nine months and 1500 miles after invading Portuguese East Africa, the Colonel and his ragged but still effective band of mostly native troops slipped across the Rovuma River back into German East Africa.  On their arrival the askaris cheered their German leader with “Bwana Obersti anarudi!” – “The Colonel is back!” The game of dodging a quarter million Commonwealth troops went on.

Jacob van Deventer (seated) – the opposition

Lettow-Vorbeck – the Lion of Africa

Report from the Fronts #39: January 1918

The new year brought no particular hope for the Allies.  The disaster of Caporetto and the exit of the Russians in fact boded ill, and the Allied command was looking to 1919 for a victory.  The Central Powers had eliminated Russia from the war and could bring more troops west, but they were on the verge of starvation because of the Allied blockade and would need to take some action soon.

January saw no major fighting – the winter in France and Flanders was exceptionally cold – and most of the action was diplomatic.  At Brest-Litovsk the Russians were discovering just how much a peace was going to cost them, and on 5 January ceased negotiations, demanding they be conducted at Stockholm.  Three days later they resumed the talks, only to withdraw again on the 23rd and then reengage on the 30th.  Dissension was growing among the Bolshevik leadership, and some wanted to wait until the expected worker revolutions broke out in Europe.

On 6 January a delegation from the Ukraine, which was seeking a separate peace with the Central Powers, arrived.  In the wake of the February Revolution in March 1917 the Ukrainians had begun organizing their own state, and while this development was tolerated by the Provisional Government, the new Bolshevik regime was definitely unenthusiastic, despite its proclamation of self-determination in the former empire.  As is still clear in the 21st century, the Ukraine occupied a special place in the Russian heart: though possessing a different culture and language, it was considered “south Russia” and the birthplace of Russia itself – Kievan Rus’.  And Lenin desperately needed Ukrainian grain.  Two decades of nightmare were about to begin for the Ukrainian people.

The Ukrainian delegation at Brest-Litovsk

Others were leaving the one-time Greater Romanov Co-Prosperity Sphere.  After the abdication of Czar Nicholas in March 1917 Finland declared itself autonomous, inasmuch as the personal union between Finland and Russia was based on the monarchy.  When the Bolsheviks announced self-determination on 15 November, the Finish Parliament declared complete sovereignty and on 6 December passed a Declaration of Independence, which the Soviet government accepted on 4 January.  Poland was occupied by the Germans, and Belarus and the Baltic and Caucasian states would soon be departing.

Signatures on the Finish Declaration of Independence

Incidentally, the Bolshevik leadership demonstrated in January that it was also unconcerned about self-determination in Russia.  On the 18th a supportive crowd marched on the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, where the Constituent Assembly, elected in November, was to meet.  They were shot at by government soldiers, but the Assembly convened anyway, surrounded by troops, who finally forced the meeting to adjourn around 4 AM.  The next day the Assembly was dissolved by the Bolshevik government, which had no need for a freely elected parliament.

The Tauride Palace

The meeting place in the Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a speech to Congress on 8 January President Wilson outlined his Fourteen Points for a just settlement of the war.  The first point called for “open covenants, openly arrived at,” a provision that the Allies, with all their secret treaties, were not amused by, though Lenin, who had revealed all the Russian treaties, thought the document enlightened.  The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who was less interested in Wilson’s idealism than squeezing every last pfennig out of Germany, responded to the Fourteen Points with Le bon Dieu n’en avait que dix ! (“The good Lord had only ten!”).  Nevertheless, the Points would serve as a basis for negotiating the peace treaty at Versailles after the war.

Clemenceau

Wilson

Germany faces the Fourteen Points

Report from the Fronts #38: December 1917

The battle of Cambrai came to an end on 7 December, and the Western Front was then otherwise “quiet.”  On the same day the US Battleship Division 9, commanded by Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, reached the Grand Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, adding four American dreadnaughts to the fleet.  America at first resisted dividing its fleet, but First Sea Lord Jellicoe (who would resign on the 26th) convinced the American admirals by revealing in April the massive losses in merchant shipping in 1917 – 600,000 tons per month – which would lead to starvation in Britain by the end of the year.  The British requested older coal burning ships because of the shortages of oil, and the Americans sent the Delaware, Florida, New York and Wyoming.

USS Wyoming

USS New York

USS Delaware

USS Florida

Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman

 

Off in the east Russia was making its peace with the Central Powers.  On 5 December a Russian delegation signed a general truce with the Central Powers at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk (the rest of city was in ruins) in Belarus and began negotiations for an armistice.  The Soviet team was a motley crew, inasmuch as it involved representatives of all the social groups supporting the Revolution (soldiers, sailors, workers, etc. – a peasant was recruited off the street at the last minute), but two Bolshevik luminaries were present: Leon Trotsky (assassinated in August 1940) and Lev Kamenev (shot in August 1936).

Kamenev arrives

Kamenev

Trotsky

Trotsky arrives

Brest-Litovsk conference

The delegation was led by Adolph Joffe (committed suicide in November 1927 after being refused permission to travel abroad for medical treatment), an ally of Trotsky, and his position was soon improved by sending home many of the social group representatives, such as the sailors.  On 15 December an armistice was signed, and on the 22nd negotiations for a peace treaty began, a much harder row to hoe for the Russians.  They wanted no “annexations or indemnities,” but the Central Powers had territorial ambitions galore and non-Russian provinces were already opting out of the prostrate Russian Empire.  Courland, Poland and Lithuania, already occupied by the Germans and Austrians, wanted independence, which Finland declared on 6 December; the Moldavian Democratic Republic (Bessarabia) was declared on the 15th.  And proclaiming the principle of self-determination made it difficult for the Bolsheviks to argue against these developments.

Adolph Joffre

Meanwhile, it was becoming clearer where the new Russian republic was heading.  Back in July the Provisional Government had accepted the idea of Constituent Assembly, but Kerensky wanted to wait until the war, which he wished to continue, was over.  The October Revolution (in November) changed that, inasmuch as the Bolsheviks demanded immediate peace, and elections were held in November.  Unfortunately for Lenin, a split among his allies, the Social Revolutionaries, meant the Bolsheviks could be a minority in the Assembly, and it would not be convened until January.

To the south the British outside Jerusalem were fending off Turkish counterattacks at the beginning of December, and on the evening of 8 December the Ottoman Seventh Army moved north, evacuating Jerusalem but for a small force on the Mount of Olives.  The next day British units entered the city, which surrendered, and the Turks on the Mount were defeated.  On 11 December Allenby entered the city through the Jaffa Gate, on foot in order to show respect for the holy places.  From the 26th to the 30th the Turks, reinforced by units from further east (which would make Baghdad easier to capture), attacked the British positions but were repulsed.

British guard at the Jaffa Gate

Allenby at the Jaffa Gate

The British enter Bethlehem

The surrender of Jerusalem

Allenby enters Jerusalem

On 17 December London gave assurances to Hussein bin Ali, the self-proclaimed King of Hejaz, concerning the independence of the Arabs following the war.  This assurance was, however, in direct contradiction to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which handed the areas outside the Arabian Peninsula to the British and the French, and on 23 November the Bolsheviks had published the text of Sykes-Picot and other secret treaties (pretty much the only cool thing they would ever do).  Ah, perfidious Albion.

Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The odds and ends of December: on 7 December the American Congress, possibly in response to Caporetto, declared war on Austria-Hungary, followed by Panama on the 10th, which surely convinced the Austrians that they were doomed.  And on 1 December the last German troops were squeezed out of German East Africa, but Lettow-Vorbeck would carry on the war in Portuguese Mozambique.

The socialist Meyer London, the only man to vote against war with Austria-Hungary

And still the war went on.

 

 

Report from the Fronts #24: December 1916

 

December 1916 began with Greece, the reluctant non-ally, on the verge of civil war.  Despite the presence of Allied forces in the Piraeus, on 1 December the government in Athens refused to accede to the Allied demands to expel ministers of the Central Powers and turn over war material (19 November).  A fire fight broke out between the French troops and the Greeks, including an exchange between Greek artillery and Allied warships, and outnumbered and short of supplies, the Allied troops were withdrawn the same day.  Five days later there was a massacre of Venizelos supporters in Athens.  On 8 December Allied naval elements began a blockade of Greece, at least those parts still controlled by Athens.

The French battleship Mirabeau bombarding Athens

The French battleship Mirabeau bombarding Athens

French troops at Athens

French troops at Athens

More French in Athens

More French in Athens

French vice-admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet,commander of the Athens expeditiion

French vice-admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet,commander of the Athens expedition

On 11 December the Allies, once again with no legal basis, demanded that Greece demobilize and three days later that Greek military units loyal to Athens be withdrawn from Thessaly, the area to the southwest of Salonika.  The next day Athens accepted the ultimatum but two days later issued an arrest warrant for Venizelos on grounds of high treason, an understandable move.  Britain responded on 19 December by recognizing the Venizelos opposition government, and there was little Athens could do about it.  As Thucydides said: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

But peace was in the air, at least among the Central Powers, who were apparently starting to feel the effects of the British blockade and the huge losses in France and Italy.  On 12 December the governments of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey handed notes to their respective American ambassadors that they were prepared to open negotiations with the Allies.  On the 18th President Wilson responded by sending notes to the Allies proposing peace negotiations, which the Central Powers accepted and the Entente declared they would consider.  Consider it they did, and on 30 December they rejected the proposal, condemning Europe to two more years of war.

On the British front the Liberal/Conservative coalition government of Herbert Asquith fell on 4 December, a victim of military disappointments and casualties, sundry domestic crises and Parliamentary politics.  Two days later his War Minister and fellow Liberal, the colorful Welshman David Lloyd George, became Prime Minister, where he would remain until the end of the war.  Many now consider Asquith the most important Prime Minister of the 20th century, insofar as he was able to implement national mobilization and take a united Britain into the war.  He was the last Liberal Prime Minister to govern, at least initially, without a coalition; the Liberal Party was giving way to Labor as the party of left and was dissolved in 1988 after a 129 year run.

David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George

Herbert Asquith

Herbert Asquith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 13 December operations began for as second assault on Kut in Mesopotamia, and 48 hours later Britain restyled the Sharif of Mecca as “King of the Hejaz” in place of “King of the Arabs.”  Ah, perfidious Albion.  On 21 December Commonwealth forces occupied El Arish, about 30 miles from Gaza, and the door was now open for the invasion of Palestine.

El Arish

El Arish

In miscellaneous news on 6 December Bucharest was captured by the Germans, completing the virtual ruin of Romania.  There was no actual capitulation, but more than two-thirds of the county was now occupied by the enemy and the army had almost vanished.  The Romanian government had clearly made a dreadful mistake in going to war and in less than four months had lost their country and suffered 300,000 to 400,000 military casualties to the Germans’ 60,000.  On the other hand, if the Allies won the war, Romania could expect territorial additions.

In France Robert Nivelle, fresh from his successes at Verdun, replaced Joffre on 12 December as Commander-in-Chief, just in time to face the mutinies of 1917.  Joffre was made “General-in-Chief,” an office he soon discovered provided him with little real power.  On the 26th he was made a Marshal of France, which may have taken some of the sting out of being demoted.

General Robert Nivelle

General Robert Nivelle

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Russia.  On 2 December the government announced that the Allies had confirmed Russia’s right to Constantinople and the Straights, and about a week later the Murmansk railroad was completed, making it much easier for the Allies to supply the under-industrialized country.  None of this mattered, though, since the Russian armies were crumbling, and the smell of revolution was definitely in the air.

Nor did the most famous event of December 1916 matter: the assassination of Grigori Rasputin.  In the course of 1916 the grip of the alleged monk on the Czar and Czarina had been steadily growing, fueling popular dissent against the incompetent Nicholas, who was believed to be controlled by his wife (he was), who in turn was controlled by Rasputin (she was).  The fact that Alexandra was German (a daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria) certainly did not help.

Rasputin entertaining

Rasputin preparing to entertain (everyone is still sober and dressed)

Rasputin with Alexandra and the children

Rasputin with Alexandra and the children

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

The future Alexandra (lower right) with her siblings and grandmother Victoria

The future Alexandra (lower right) with her siblings and grandmother Victoria

Grigori Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin

 

A conspiracy led by Prince Felix Yusupov, nephew-in-law of the Czar, was formed to eliminate Rasputin; other prominent members were Vladimir Purishkevich, a popular right-wing politician, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.  Cultivated for weeks by the Prince, Rasputin was invited to a midnight gathering in a furnished basement room in the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg, lured on by the promise of women, especially Yusupov’s wife, who in fact was in the Crimea.

Grand Duke Pavlovich

Grand Duke Pavlovich (1930s)

Prince Yusupov

Prince Yusupov

Vladimir Puriskevich

Vladimir Purishkevich

Basement room at Yusupov Palace

Basement room at Yusupov Palace

 

 

 

 

 

Since the murder immediately moved into the realm of legend, the story confused by conflicting accounts by the participants, it is impossible to know exactly what happened the night of 29/30 December (16/17 by the Russian calendar).  Once there Rasputin was supposedly fed pastries loaded with potassium cyanide, since shots might have been heard, but there are problems with this story, the main ones being that Rasputin did not die and the autopsy found no cyanide (the autopsy report is missing).  It has been suggested that the poison may have been ineffective because the monk’s stomach acidity was not high enough to alter the potassium cyanide into its deadly form, hydrogen cyanide, but in fact Rasputin seems to have been troubled by stomach acidity.

In any case, poison or no poison, Yusupov shot Rasputin in the chest and he fell to the floor, only to open his eyes a while later and run up the stairs and into a courtyard.  There he was shot in the back by Purishkevich and fell into the snow, and one of the two then put a bullet in his forehead.  They wrapped the body in a cloth, drove to the Malaya Nevka River and threw the corpse off the Bolshoy Petrovsky bridge into a hole in the ice.  According to the lost autopsy report, he was already dead from the bullet to the head.  Because of clues left behind (the assassins were hardly professionals), the body was found two days later, and early in January Yusupov and Pavlovich were sent into exile without investigation or trial; no others were punished.

...into the morgue

…into the morgue

Off the bridge...

Off the bridge…

 

...out of the water...

…out of the water…

 

 

The corrupt monk was gone; Alexandra and Nicholas would soon follow.200px-rasputin_listovka

 

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #21: October 1916

October kicked off with two new offensives on the Somme.  The Battle of the Transloy Ridges (off the center part of the British area of operations) began on 1 October and proceeded intermittently until the 17th, when lack of progress and foul weather caused Haig to move to far more limited assaults.  The offensive would drag on into November, gaining a couple of miles of turf.  As would the separate offensive begun by Haig on 1 October in the northern area of the British sector, the Battle of the Ancre Heights, which sought to pick up where Thiepval Ridge left off and ultimately gain control the Péronne- Baupame road.  The autumn rains, incidentally, produced what was considered the worst mud of the Western Front, a vile yellow mix that stuck to everything; men and animals actually drowned in mud-filled shell craters.

Fighting General Mud

Fighting General Mud

Mud everywhere

Mud everywhere

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

To the south the French at Verdun had more success, partly because the Germans had been compelled to withdraw troops to shore up the Somme sector.  On 24 October Nivelle launched the “First Offensive Battle of Verdun,” employing creeping artillery barrages designed to keep the enemy’s heads down, though in the six day traditional preparatory bombardment over 800,000 shells were fired.  Fleury (finally) and Fort Douaumont, which the Germans had mostly evacuated, were captured on the first day; Fort Vaux, which the Germans abandoned, fell on 2 November, and by the 5th the French had reached the original line of 24 February.  But it was not over yet.

French mud

French mud

German mud

German mud

 

 

The "First Offensive Battle of Verdun"

The “First Offensive Battle of Verdun”

Of course down in Italy General Cadorna was not to be outdone by the Somme and Verdun.  On 10 October the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo got rolling, or better, staggering.  The operation was a continuation of the Seventh Battle, as Cadorna attempted again to enlarge the Gorizia bridgehead, and again he failed.  The assault ended after only two days because of heavy losses, 25,000 casualties on both sides.  At least there was no mud.

A bit to the east the uneven struggle between the Entente and the Greek government was coming to a head.  At the end of August revolting troops in northern Greece (with the support of the Allies) had formed the National Defense Committee in opposition to King Constantine and the government in Athens, and on 9 October Eleftherios Venizelos showed up in Salonika and agreed to form a provisional government.

The Triumvirate: Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

The Triumvirate: Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis

The new government was generally accepted in northern Greece, the Aegean islands and Crete, areas that had been recovered during the Balkan Wars and where Venizelos was very popular.  On 10 October the Allies demanded that Athens surrender the Greek fleet, and faced with the French and British Mediterranean squadrons, the Athenian government complied on the following day.  There was still no declaration of war against the Central Powers, but Greek troops would soon be fighting on the Macedonian front.

Greek capital ship

The armored cruiser HS Georgios Averof, flagship of the Hellenic Navy in 1916

Greek troops reviewed by the Triumvirate

Greek troops reviewed by the Triumvirate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October was definitely not a good month for the Romanians, who were under growing pressure from the Central Powers.  Despite desperate resistance in the Carpathian passes by 25 October they had been driven out of Transylvania and back to their starting positions.  Meanwhile, in the Dobruja Field Marshall Mackensen and his Bulgarian counterpart, General Stefan Toshev, launched another offensive and on 25 October occupied Constanta, driving out the Romanians and pushing the increasingly demoralized Russians into the Danube Delta marshes.  Next step: crossing the Danube.

Stefan Toshev

Stefan Toshev

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Red Tower pass in the Carpathians

Counterattack against Romania

Counterattack against Romania

 

To the south the Arab Revolt was picking up.  On 29 October the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, was declared King of the Arabs, an illusion based on British promises of a pan-Arab state made up of the Ottoman provinces.  Of more concrete – and certainly more romantic – importance was the arrival in Jiddah (Hejaz) on 16 October of 28 year old Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence.

Lawrence had been in the Middle East since before the war, involved in cartography and archaeological work, especially at Hittite Carchemish in Syria with Leonard Woolley, later known for his excavation of Sumerian Ur.  In January 1914 he and Woolley were enlisted by British intelligence because off their knowledge of the Arab world and language, but he did not join the Army until October, when he was promptly given a commission and no training.  He was sent to Cairo in December, and except for a failed mission in 1915 to lift the Siege of Kut by bribery he spent most of time his time at a desk.

Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish 1913

Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish 1913

That changed in 1916 when he wrangled a place on a mission to the Hejaz led by another Arabist, Ronald Storrs, who needed to meet with the Hashemite princes to discuss the leadership of the Revolt and other matters.  Of the four sons of the old Sharif in Mecca Lawrence was completely taken by the young Prince Faisal, whom he recommended as successor to Hussein and with whom he would spend the next two years.

Prince Faisal

Prince Faisal

Sir Ronald Storrs

Sir Ronald Storrs

T.E.Lawrence

T.E.Lawrence

Lawrence had no permanent official status in the Hejaz – Storrs was a civilian – so on 1 November he took ship from Jiddah to Port Sudan and the railway to Khartoum to meet Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor-General of the Sudan.  Wingate would be delighted by Lawrence and begin him on his adventure in Arabia.  Other westerners were already operating with the Arabs, but Lawrence’s role with the Bedouins, his writing ability and the fact that Lowell Thomas would cover his exploits (and later the 1962 movie) would make him an almost legendary figure.

Sir Reginald Wingate

Sir Reginald Wingate

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, far to the west, off the eastern coast of America a strange encounter took place.  On 7 October SM U-53 under Captain Hans Rose pulled into Newport, Rhode Island, to refuel.  Courtesy visits were exchanged with local naval commanders, but Rose sailed in two hours, fearing his vessel would be interned.  On the following day U-53 began stopping and searching merchant ships, including American, in international waters, sinking those that carried contraband.  American destroyers showed up, but as neutrals they could only watch and rescue survivors.

The crew of U-53 at Newport

The crew of U-53 at Newport

U-53 in Newport harbor

U-53 at Newport

Captain Hans Rose

Captain Hans Rose

No American vessels were sunk and no life was lost – Rose was extremely scrupulous about helping the crews of sunken ships – but the event raised official concern that German submarines had such range and capabilities.  U-53, incidentally, survived the war, and Rose ended up sinking 79 ships and surviving until 1969, having seen it all insofar as Germany is concerned.