Report from the Fronts #47: July 1918

Spring Offensive

July saw the last real offensive of the Imperial German Army in the west. Ludendorff wanted one more shot at drawing British troops in Flanders south in order to launch his Belgian offensive (Operation Hagen), though the previous operations had failed to do that.  On 15 July Operation Friedensturm (or the Second Battle of the Marne) began: 40 divisions of the First, Third and Seventh Armies were launched southwards to the east and west of Reims, which was too strongly fortified to assault.

The offensive ran into trouble even before it got started.  From prisoners and air reconnaissance the French leaned – like the Italians at the Piave – when and where the blows would fall and shelled the enemy troops in their assault trenches.  They had also learned from the Germans over the years, and east of Reims Fourth Army commander Henri Gouraud had prepared a serious defense in depth, the main trench line located several miles behind the forward strong points, beyond the range of the German guns.  Most of the French guns were behind the main line on reverse slopes, where they could only be spotted from the air, which was dominated by the Allies, and the initial German barrage did very little damage.

Henri Gouraud

Reaching the main line, the Germans were compelled to delay the assault in order to regroup and rest and bring up their own guns.  When they attacked the next morning, the undamaged French artillery tore them apart, as it did a second assault at noon.  A French counterattack later that same day, though failing to achieve a breakthrough, nevertheless made it clear to the Germans that this push was not likely to succeed.  They dug in.

The western arm of the offensive did better against the French Sixth Army, despite the barrier of the Marne River.  While German guns pounded the south bank for three hours, German troops swarmed across the river on rafts and boats and began constructing a dozen minimalist bridges under a rain of bombs (40 tons) from the French air force, demonstrating the relative ineffectiveness of aerial bombing.  By nightfall the Germans had established a substantial beachhead on the southern bank, and Ludendorff was delighted.

But not for long.  For all the usual reasons, now exacerbated by growing supply problems (especially food and gasoline) caused by the Allied blockade, the attack quickly began to falter.  On 18 July Ferdinand Foch, now Supreme Commander, launched a major counterattack (actually an already planned offensive against the now expanded German salient) comprising 24 French divisions, 2 British, 2 American and almost 500 tanks.  This was the Battle of Soissons, and on July 20 the Germans were forced back across the Marne, and Château-Thierry was retaken the next day.  By 6 August the Allies had retaken virtually all the salient and pushed the German line back to the Aisne-Vesle River line.

counterattack

Incidentally, during the battle an Austrian dispatch runner in a Bavarian regiment was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class on 4 August, a rare decoration for an a lance corporal.  His name was Adolf Hitler.

Gefreiter (lance corporal) Adolf Hitler

Hitler, seated far right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spring Offensive had failed, and though it would take the Germans (or at least their military leaders) another three months to accept it, Germany had clearly lost the war.  While the offensive had obtained huge chunks (by Great War standards) of real estate, there had been no strategic breakthrough, neither in Flanders nor in the south.  The successes did little more than eliminate large numbers of the irreplaceable specialized assault troops and exacerbate the growing manpower problem by dramatically lengthening the German lines.  By the middle of July German rifle strength on the Western Front had finally fallen below that of the Allies, and the Americans were pouring in.  Ludendorff could hardly have failed to think of the million men he had left in the east; as he was being forced to withdraw on the Western Front, German soldiers were advancing in the Caucasus, more than two thousand miles to the east.

In the former Russian Empire things did not look promising for the Bolsheviks.  On 13 July the Czechs (remember the Czech Legion? – see Reports #44 and #45) took Irkutsk in Siberia and the next day Kazan in eastern Russia; they already controlled Vladivostok.  Probably the best military force in central Asia, the Czechs were generally successful against the fledgling Red Army and not ony encouraged various anti-Bolshevik groups but finally convinced President Wilson, already under Allied pressure, to send American troops to Vladivostok.  The Legion’s impressive successes also helped pump up Allied enthusiasm for the creation of a Czechoslovak state.

Russia in 1918

The Czech Legion also played an inadvertent role in the fate of the Romanov dynasty.  The immediate royal family had since May been imprisoned in Ipatiev House (renamed the House of Special Purpose) in Yekaterinburg, which the Czechs and other Whites were approaching in early July.  Lenin and others had discussed execution, but Lenin wanted to put Nicholas on trial first.  With the enemy driving on Yekaterinburg local Soviet officials dispatched an emissary to Moscow, but there is no hard evidence that an official reply was ever sent, and the local commander, Yakov Yurovsky, determined to carry out an order for execution from the Ural Regional Soviet.

Yakov Yurovsky

Ipatiev House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early morning of 17 July Nicholas, Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, the heir, Alexei, and four attendants, a maid, cook, footman and doctor, were hustled into a 20 x 16 foot basement room, where they were told to wait for transportation out of the town. A bit later Yurovsky and nine others, mostly local Chekists (secret police), entered, read the death sentence and began blasting away with handguns, each having been assigned a target.  The whole business immediately turned into a macabre farce, emblematic of much Soviet police work for the next three decades.

Ivan Kharitonov, cook

Ama Demidova, maid

Eugene Botkin, doctor

Alexei Trupp, footman

The Romanov family

Nicholas was promptly killed, inasmuch as all the assassins, despite their assigned targets, apparently wanted to kill the Czar, and Alexandra went next with a single bullet to the head. Then complete chaos broke out as the shooters filled the room with bullets, and within minutes dust and smoke (one of the guns used black powder) made it impossible to see.  Yurosky ordered the firing stopped, the smoke was allowed to clear, and the executioners then discovered that all five children were still alive, only one of them even injured.

The execution chamber

The Bolshevik Keystone Cops then switched to bayonets, since the fusillade had awakened many of Ipatiev House’s neighbors, and this was supposedly a secret operation. But because of the ineptness (and in some cases drunkenness) of the men and the immense quantity of jewels sewn into the family’s clothing (18 pounds were recovered), bayonets were far from satisfactory, and shooting resumed, this time more effectively to the head.  Some twenty minutes after the shooting had first begun, the royal family and the retainers were finally dead.  Only Alexei’s dog, Joy, survived, to be rescued by a British officer.

The black comedy of errors then continued as Yurovsky made to dispose of the bodies. At the first site, an abandoned mine pit, the waiting hired help were all drunk and angry that they had no chance to rape the women, and once the bodies were put in the shaft, it was found to be too shallow.  The next morning the corpses were loaded on a truck and the following day driven to a second site, but the truck got stuck in the mud, and an exasperated Yurovsky had his men dig a shallow grave, into which nine of the bodies were dumped after being mutilated to disguise them.  Alexei and a sister were burned and their smashed bones buried a short distance away.

Where the truck got stuck and the bodies buried

The Soviet government could not under any circumstances allow Nicholas or his son to fall into the hands of the Whites, and even losing control of the Romanov women was politically dangerous. But the poor planning and ineptitude of the Bolsheviks, combined with their seemingly innate cruelty, turned a pressing political question into a massacre of innocents, emphasized by the slaughter of 14 more Romanovs and 13 retainers in the next three months.  Lenin allowed the public announcement of Nicholas’ execution, but the murder of the rest was denied until 1926, when it was blamed on others.  Poetically perhaps, three of the assassins were later shot by the Cheka’s successor, the NKVD.

In less dramatic news from the former Russian Empire, on 26 July most of the French Expeditionary Force arrived at Murmansk, joining the British forces already there. On the same day, far to the south in Azerbaijan, the Bolshevik government in Baku was overthrown by a coalition of other Russian groups and replaced with the Central Caspian Dictatorship, which would survive until September.

Remember Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris, dodging and fighting a quarter million Allied troops in East Africa? Pursued by large formations of the King’s African Rifles and hard pressed for ammunition, on 1 July he attacked a superior force defending Namaccura in southern Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and captured a huge amount of ammunition, rifles, food and liquor.  He allowed his men a day to attack the liquor: “The risk of a wholesale ‘jollification’…was gladly taken.”

Askaris on the march

Lettow-Vorbeck

East African campaign

Fully equipped, Lettow-Vorbeck was now in a position to cross the Zambesi River and invade Rhodesia, but he knew that was what his pursuers expected and instead moved northeast toward them. The Allied troops lost complete track of him for two weeks, during which time he crossed the Namirrue River and turned west and then north, passing right through the enemy columns.  By the end of July his force was back in German East Africa, having once again eluded immensely superior forces.

In other news, on 6 July Italian and French troops began an offensive north in Albania and seized Berat four days later; on the 22nd the offensive ground to a halt.  Meanwhile, more pocket states were jumping on the bandwagon: on 12 July Haiti declared war on Germany, followed by Honduras a week later.  On 3 July the figurehead Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire died and was succeeded the next day by the equally powerless Mehmed VI, who reigned until 1 November 1922, when the Sultanate was abolished and the last Sultan sent into exile.

Mehmet V

Mehmed VI

Mehmed VI leaving the palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, an irony: on 17 July the German submarine U-55 sank the RMS Carpathia, the vessel that had rescued the bulk of the survivers of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

U-55

RMS Carpathia

Carpathia going down

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 #12: March 1916

(I have said next to nothing about life in the trenches, and rather than spend time detailing the unimaginable environment of the Western Front, I recommend two books. Richard Holmes, Tommy (2004) is an exhaustive but delightful study of every aspect of trench life, and Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) (many editions) is the sometimes surreal memoir of a German soldier who lived through the entire war.  I have discovered that my major chronological source for the war was in error regarding the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo, which began in March and not February.)

 

When we left Verdun at the end of February, the German offensive had stalled because of mud, and von Falkenhayn began considering whether to cancel the operation.  The expectation had been that artillery could suppress the enemy guns on the west side of the Meuse, but this did not prove to be the case, and the French artillery, well-positioned on heights and behind hills, wreaked havoc among the German troops advancing along and to the east bank of the river.  But the front crossed the Meuse north of Verdun, and von Falkenhayn was convinced by subordinates that a southward advance on the west side of the river could silence the French guns.  General Heinrich von Gossler’s plan involved assaulting the village of Mort-Homme and Hill 265 (sounds like Vietnam) near the Meuse on 6 March and then Avocourt and Hill 305 to the west on 9 March.

Phillipe Pétain (far left)

Phillipe Pétain (far left)

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

Verdun front at the end of March

Verdun front at the end of March

Like so many offensives on the Western Front, it did not work out that way.  Despite a heavy bombardment – Hill 304 was lowered by seventeen feet – the French artillery and counterattacks slowed the advance and inflicted great casualties.  Only after a week did the Germans achieve the objectives for the first day, capturing Hill 265 on 14 March.  On 22 March two German divisions attacked a position near Hill 304 and were slaughtered by a rain of shells, and the offensive came to an end.  By the end of the month the Germans had suffered 81,607 casualties for minimal gains, and Verdun was still French.  There would be nine more months of this.  The commander on the French side at this time, incidentally, was General Philippe Pétain, who would later become the head of state of the Germany puppet Vichy France (1940-44). 

 

Elsewhere in the war, the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo began on 9 March.  The Italian army in the north had been rested and refurbished, and the French were pressuring Rome for an offensive.  After four failed attempts one must suspect that there was little expectation of any breakthrough, and the point of the operation was in fact to relieve the pressure on the Russians and on Verdun, though how that would happen is not at all clear, especially in the case the French at Verdun.  Even General Cadorna termed the offensive a “demonstration,” which label of course made no difference to the troops, who would be just as dead when shot.

Austrian fort on the Isonzo front

Austrian fort on the Isonzo front

Though some fighting continued to the end of the month, the battle essentially ended after only six days because of the horrible weather conditions, demonstrating once again the futility of these assaults. Despite an almost three to one advantage in men and guns the Italians could make no headway, and each side suffered just under 2000 casualties.  How fine to die for your country in a pointless “demonstration.”  Incidentally, the stony ground and cliffs made this front even more dangerous, since every shell impact would produce a deadly cloud of stone splinters.

Under the same pressure to take some of the heat off the Western Front on 18 March the Russians launched the Lake Naroch offensive in White Russia (Belarus). The Russians had more guns and three times as many troops as the Germans and came up with a somewhat less than novel plan: (inaccurately) shell the German positions for two days and then send bunched formations of infantry charging across the muddy ground.  By the end of the operation on 30 March General Alexei Evert had gained six miles and lost 110,000 men to the Germans’ 20,000 (German estimates).  The Germans promptly retook the territory.

German troops at Naroch

German troops at Naroch

Russian troops at Naroch

Russian troops at Naroch

General Alexei Evert

General Alexei Evert

Meanwhile, the British troops besieged in Kut on the Tigris River had enough food to last until the middle of April, and in any case the spring rains would soon make the whole area a disease-ridden quagmire. On 8 March a relief force of some 20,000 under General Fenton Aylmer reached Dujaila, downriver from Kut, and assaulted a Turkish force half their size.  But the Turks, under the command of Golz Pasha and Halil Pasha (Halil Kut, a major actor in the Armenian genocide), had fortified Dulaila well, having learned a lot about entrenchment from Gallipoli. Aylmer lost about 4000 men to Golz’s 1200 and retreated down the river.  He was sacked on 12 March.

Turkish 6th army field headquarters

Turkish 6th army field headquarters

Halil Pasha - mass murderer

Halil Pasha – mass murderer

General Fenton Aylmer

General Fenton Aylmer

Golz Pasha

Golz Pasha

In Africa General Jan Smuts, who had fought against the British in the Second Boer War, invaded German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania) on 5 March.  With an army of over 70,000 South Africans, Indians and Africans he struck southwest from British East Africa (Kenya), while Belgian forces attacked from the west.  On 10 March Smuts took back Taveta, just east of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and three days later Moshi, south of the peak.  The capture of Kahe, south of Moshi, on 21 March brought an end to the operations around Kilimanjaro; the Germans had left.  Lettow-Vorbeck had only 13,800 troops, mostly Askaris, and had no choice but to withdraw when faced with overwhelming numbers, something easily done given his superior mobility.  The Allies would steadily capture real estate, but never Lettow-Vorbeck, and meanwhile their troops were dying of disease.

Bridge destroyed by Lettow-Vorbeck

Bridge destroyed by Lettow-Vorbeck

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

General Jan Smuts (right)

General Jan Smuts (right)

hard to see map

hard to see map

The remainder of the events of March 1916 were of a political or strategic nature.  True to its word, on 1 March Germany expanded its submarine warfare, ultimately bringing the United States closer to involvement in the war.  On 9 March Germany declared war on Portugal, which had refused to return German steamers captured on the Tagus River in February; with even less reason Austria-Hungary also declared war six days later.  Actually, inasmuch as Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) bordered on German East Africa there was indeed a point of contact between the two countries, and Lettow-Vorbeck would happily use that territory in his Great Chase with the British.

Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck

Allied interference in Persia continued, with Russian operations in the northwest and British forces – the south Persian Rifles under Sir Percy Sykes – in the south.  On 25 December 1915 the Allies had “persuaded” the Shah to appoint a more pro-Entente Prime Minister, Prince Farman Farma, and now on 5 March he and his cabinet were compelled to resign for refusing to support Russian-British control of the Persian military and finances.  Anglo-American meddling in Iranian affairs was just beginning.

Prince Farman Farma and Percy Sykes

Prince Farman Farma and Percy Sykes

            More “resignations.” On 15 (?) March Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the father of the German navy, resigned as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office, having lost the support of the Kaiser and naval establishment because, ironically, of his support for unrestricted submarine warfare.  More emblematic, on 29 March Alexei Polivanov, who had been struggling to reform the Russian army, resigned as the Minister of War.  In August 1915 he had argued against Nicholas’ assumption of supreme command and thus alienated Alexandra, who persuaded her husband to sack him.  One can hardly get choked up about the impending execution of this couple.

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz

Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz

Alexei Polivanov

Alexei Polivanov

Finally, on 12 March the Allies held a conference in Chantilly to discuss the summer offensive; the outcome would be the nightmare of the Somme.  And there was another conference at Paris from 26 to 28 March, the result of which was a declaration of unity among the Allied powers: Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Serbia (which technically did not exist at the moment), Russia and Japan.  The Czar must have been delighted to have as an ally the power that had annihilated his Baltic and Far Eastern fleets a decade earlier.  (Yes, Japan; I have been ignoring the relatively trivial events of the Far East and Pacific.)

Paris in 1916

*Paris in 1916

Reports from the Front #6: September 1915

September 1915 saw the Austrian-German tide in the east slow down because of lengthening lines of communication, but by the beginning of that month the Russians had already lost all of Poland and 750,000 prisoners. Perhaps more important than these losses was a change in command. On 5 September the Supreme Commander of all Russian forces, Grand Duke Nicholas Nickolaevich, was sacked by the Czar. He was a decent soldier but seemingly incapable of controlling the unprepared and fragmented command structure of the Russian army, which was loaded with incompetent appointees. In his place Czar Nicholas appointed…himself. A bigger blunder could hardly have been made.

Grand Duke Nicholas

Grand Duke Nicholas

The Czar and the Kaiser, who seem to have put on the uniforms

The Czar and the Kaiser, who seem to have put on the wrong uniforms

In reality the head of the Stavka, General Mikhail Alekseyev, managed the war, but by assuming supreme command the Czar had identified himself with the conduct of the war, regardless of whether he actually had anything to do with it. And the conduct of the war under Alekseyev was terrible. He clearly did not understand modern warfare and in any case could do little about the corruption and incompetence of the officer class, much of which stemmed from nepotism and court intrigue. Now the Czar, who already had a rep for not being overly concerned about the welfare of his people and had no idea how to wage a war, would take the blame, especially as his presence at the front advertised the fact that he was indeed in command. As defeats mounted and life became even more miserable for the average Russian soldier, it was only natural that he be blamed, particularly since it was easy to believe the Czar was being jerked around by his unpopular German wife, Alexandra, and the notorious “monk” Rasputin. With this decision Czar Nicholas stepped closer to the abyss of the Revolution.

Rasputin

Rasputin

Alekseyev

Alekseyev

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

With a new El Supremo on 7 September the Russians launched a counter offensive at Tarnopol, in the far south of the front; nine days later it was abandoned. On 16 September the Germans captured Pinsk, and two days later they took Vilna, threatening to break open the northern front. Italy’s entry into the war helped by drawing Austrian forces to the southwest, but nevertheless, by the end of the month things were looking grim for the Russians.

Moving east

Moving east

Meanwhile, the Balkans were lighting up with diplomacy as the neutrals were considering their options. On 22 September Bulgaria ordered general mobilization in the wake of reaching a favorable frontier agreement with the Turks, who wanted Bulgaria in the war on their side. The Bulgarians were seeking territorial expansion, especially at the expense of the Serbs, and finally decided the Central Powers were the better bet. The Greeks, who had little love for the Turks (and had over a million fellow Hellenes in western Turkey) and now feared the Bulgarians, began negotiations with the western allies, asking for a guarantee of 150,000 allied troops. At least the Greek Prime Minister, Elefthérious Venizélos, did; King Constantine I was seriously pro-German. Nevertheless, on 23 September the Greeks began to mobilize, and the next day the French and British agreed to send troops. On 27 September the King secretly gave in to the allied deal, but the following day the Greek government (minus Venizélos) formally refused the allied help and Constantine went along. This would ultimately lead to the “National Schism,” a veritable division of Greece between the monarchists and the supporters of Venizelos.

Constantine I in a German uniform

Constantine I in a German uniform

Venizelos

Venizelos

On the Western Front the lazy, hazy days of summer came to end with the fall offensives. On 25 September the French opened the Second Champagne Offensive, while to the north they and the British began the Third Battle of Artois (the Battle of Loos was the British component and saw the first use of gas by them). Do these names seem familiar? They are the same sectors of the front attacked back in May, and the result would be the same. Granted, there were good strategic reasons to mount this offensive, but why should anyone expect it to succeed this time, when in fact the German defenses in depth were far more developed now? The battles would last into October and November and achieve nothing but casualties. This is the sort of wishful thinking that would characterize the decisions of the chateau generals for the next several years.

Im Westen nur Dummheit

Im Westen nur Dummheit

There was an allied attack in the Cameroons on 8 September, but otherwise, in Afrika nichts Neues. On 1 September Germany agreed to demands by the United States to limit submarine warfare; she would later be more desperate.

And that’s what happened 100 years ago this month.

Reports from the Front #1: the West – August 1914 to May 1915

(OK, it took me a long time to get around to this.  In any case, this is the first of a series of pieces following the course of the Great War as it happened a century ago – assuming I live another four years.  I should have begun this last July, but the idea only now occurred to me, and consequently this first two articles carry the war up through May 1915.  Note: “Casualties” includes dead, wounded, missing and captured, and “dead” typically includes accidental and disease related deaths.  Military deaths through disease may have been a third of the total, but that is partly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, and in earlier European warfare disease inevitably accounted for the vast majority of deaths.  The ratio of dead to wounded would have varied dramatically from one theater to another but it appears 1-2 to 1-3 was the average for the war.  The official figures are not always accurate, and accounting varied; e.g., British figures did not include colonial troops.)

 

One hundred years and 296 days ago the Great War began when on 1 August Germany declared war on Russia because the Czar, who had pledged to defend Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, refused to cease mobilizing his army.  On 2 August the Germans invaded Luxemburg and the next day declared war on France, which had refused to declare neutrality and was also mobilizing.  On 4 August the Germans also declared war on Belgium, which had denied them passage through its territory, and in response Great Britain joined the Entente and entered the war against the Central Powers.  Train schedules, lust for glory and willful stupidity had brought the European great powers to the brink of the abyss, into which they all leaped with no little enthusiasm.

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Emperor Franz Jospeh

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Kaiser Wilhelm II

The greatest cataclysm in European history since the barbarian invasions of the fifth century had begun, all because a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, took it upon himself to shoot the heir to the Austrian throne and provide the Austrians with an excuse to make impossible demands of Serbia.  Certainly the fate of Serbia was of some importance to the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, but the partition of the Balkans was a peripheral concern for Britain, France and Germany.  Yet all these powers, little understanding how industry and technology had changed the nature of warfare, jumped eagerly into a conflict that would slaughter millions upon millions of young men, destroy three dynasties and exhaust the economies of even the victors.  To what end?  A peace that would lead in two decades to an even greater catastrophe.

French PM Rene Viviani

French PM Rene Viviani

British PM Herbert Asquith

British PM Herbert Asquith

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

“Paris/Berlin by Christmas” was the cry, as both sides expected a short war.  The German plan was to seek a decisive victory in the west while much smaller forces in the east were on the defensive before the notoriously cumbersome Russian army and the Austrians were crushing tiny Serbia.  Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, intended to employ a variation of the so-called Schlieffen Plan, which in fact was a thought exercise for a single-front war with France.  Weak German forces in the south would remain on the defensive and even retreat, while the immensely powerful right wing in the north would sweep through Belgium and the Netherlands and then turn southwards west of Paris, trapping the French armies.  Whether the Schlieffen Plan could have worked is certainly debatable (the problem was not so much German transport capabilities as the state of Europe’s roads), but inasmuch as this was a two-front war and sufficient forces had to be sent east, the western army was simply not strong enough to carry out the aggressive strategy.

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

The Germans swept through Belgium and northeastern France, generally overwhelming the opposing forces, but in September the exhausted troops were stopped some 40 miles from Paris at the First Battle of the Marne.  Repulsed by the French under Joseph “Papa” Joffre and the British (BEF) under Sir John French, the Germans withdrew north of the Aisne River, and both sides then stretched their lines northwards, establishing a fortified line that ran 460 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.  The essentially static Western Front was now in place.

Sir John French

Sir John French

Joseph Joffre

Joseph Joffre

Western Front 1915

Western Front 1915

Meanwhile, the offensive-minded French, whose basic war aim was to avenge their defeat in 1871 and recover Alsace-Lorraine, promptly invaded those provinces, but the advance was soon thrown back with immense casualties, as generals learned – not very well, it seems – what happened when masses of infantry assaulted fortified positions.  In just two months the French had suffered 360,000 casualties, the Germans 241,000; by way of comparison the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (early second century) was secured by perhaps 250,000 troops.

1914 ended with complete stalemate in the west.  Unwilling to change their tactics, both the Allies and the Germans would continue to throw men into the meat grinder of fruitless assaults, looking for the elusive breakthrough that would end the war.  But at Christmas a startling event had taken place.  During the unofficial truce soldiers on both sides began entering no-man’s land and fraternizing with one another, singing carols, swapping souvenirs and drink and playing football.  There could be no greater evidence that the men actually fighting the war bore one another no particular grudge, at least at this early stage of the war.  This was of course anathema to the generals and politicians of both sides, who quickly put an end to such unpatriotic behavior.

Christmas Truce

Christmas Truce

Joffre’s strategic plan for 1915 was to pinch off the Noyon (near Compiègne) salient, a huge westward bulge marking the limit of the German advance, by attacking its flanks.  As part of this on 10 March the British, who occupied the far northern section of the trench line, launched an attack on Neuve Chapelle.  They achieved a tactical breakthrough, but the Germans counterattacked the next day, and though fighting continued, the offensive was abandoned on 15 March with no significant changes in the line. General French blamed the failure on insufficient supplies of shells, which led to the Shell Crisis of May and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions that could feed the growing mania of all the belligerents for artillery barrages.  Although this was a very minor operation, the British (including Indians) and Germans lost over 20,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured.

On 22 April the Germans took their shot, initiating a series of battles that would be known as the Second Battle of Ypres (or “Wipers,” as the British troops called it).  The First Battle of Ypres had taken place from 19 October to 22 November of the previous year and while indecisive had resulted in more than 300,000 combined casualties, leading Erich von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Moltke as Chief of Staff, to conclude the war could not be won.  Unfortunately, when on 18 November he proposed seeking a negotiated settlement, he was opposed by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, condemning millions to die in the next five years.

Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

This time around the Germans began their offensive – after the inevitable artillery barrage – with poison gas (chlorine), the first use of this new technology on the Western Front.  The surprise and shock opened a gap in the British line, which the Germans, themselves surprised, were unable to exploit, and soon the development of gas masks rendered the new weapon far less effective.  The main struggle for the Ypres salient would go on until 25 May, by which time the Germans had pushed less than three miles westward.  It cost them 35,000 casualties, but the Allies suffered twice as much.  And Ypres was destroyed.

Ypres

Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Meanwhile, on 9 May some 30 miles to the south in the Arras sector the French 10th Army launched an offensive against the Vimy salient, attacking Vimy ridge, while the BEF attacked a dozen miles to the north at Aubers.  This was the Second Battle of Artois and would last until 18 June.  Joffre’s strategic goal was to cut a number of vital German rail lines, which would require an advance of ten or more miles beyond Vimy Ridge, something that might have struck a competent general as highly unlikely, given the experience of the last nine months.  And sure enough, the initial attack took Vimy Ridge, but lost it to a German counterattack, and a month later when the battle ended, the French line had moved less than two miles eastward.  The initial British assault was a disaster, allowing the Germans to send troops south, and in the end the Tommies had gained almost two miles.  The cost?  Officially, 32,000 British casualties, 73,000 German and 102,500 French.  During the offensive the French alone had fired 2,155,862 artillery shells.

See a trend in these battles?  If the generals did, their response was simply more of the same, producing even more casualties as defensive measures became more elaborate.  A continuous line from the sea to Switzerland, the western front offered no possibility of outflanking the enemy, and the weaponry of the time – machine guns, rapid fire artillery, mortars – made frontal infantry assaults very costly, if not suicidal.  Inasmuch as the breakthrough weaponry – tanks, motorized infantry and artillery and ground support aircraft – did not yet exist, remaining on the defense and negotiating or at least awaiting developments on other fronts seemed the reasonable course of action.  But with Germany holding almost all of Belgium and a huge and economically important chunk of France the Allies were not about to bargain from a position of weakness, and the reasonable expectation that the Central Powers would sooner or later crush the Russians and ship more troops west goaded the Entente, especially the French, into offensives.

Already in the spring of 1915 defensive systems and tactics were rapidly improving.  A more elastic defense was being adopted: rather than a single heavily fortified line, there would be a series of trench lines (three was a standard number), separated by strong points and barbwire entanglements.  This meant the attacker had to cross multiple killing grounds just to get to grips with the enemy, often out of the range of their own guns.  The clever response to this by the “chateau generals” was longer periods of artillery bombardment and sending larger numbers of men over the top, approaches that were both ineffective and extremely costly.  The storm of shells, besides alerting the enemy to an attack, hardly damaged the wire, and defenders simply took cover in their dugouts, ready to pop out and kill when the shelling stopped.  A rolling barrage with the troops following was more effective but very difficult to manage without blowing up your own men.  And gas was extremely hard to control and use effectively, which is why it has been so rarely used, even by the seriously nasty creeps who have appeared in the last hundred years.

French trench

French trench

French trench

French trench

British trench 1916

British trench

German trench

German trench

British-German Trench Lines

British-German Trench Lines

 

Gas attack

Gas attack

Gassed British trench

Gassed British trench

Australians in gas masks

Australians in gas masks

 

One final noteworthy event in the west during this period.  On 1 April French aviator Roland Garros shot down a German plane.  Both sides had been using aircraft for reconnaissance, and in September 1914 a Russian pilot had taken out an Austrian plane by ramming it.  Soon pilots and observers were using pistols and rifles, but it was clear that only a machine gun could be at all effective in bringing down another plane.  The problem was the propeller.  “Pusher” aircraft (the propeller mounted in the rear) were too slow, and placing the gun on the upper wing of a biplane made it very difficult to deal with the frequent jams, as well as producing too much vibration for accurate fire.  Garros’ approach was to attach metal plates to the prop in order to deflect rounds that actually hit it, and he shot down three aircraft before the strain placed on the engine by the prop being pummeled by bullets brought his own plane down behind German lines.  This crude solution would not work with steel-jacketed German ammunition, and the engineers at Anthony Fokker’s aircraft plant produced a synchronization device that allowed a Maxim machine gun to be mounted directly in front of the pilot and shoot through the prop.  On 1 July Kurt Wintgens, flying a Fokker E.I., became the first pilot to score a kill with a synchronized gun.  Suddenly the Germans had the first air superiority in history.

Wintgens' Fokker E.I.

Wintgens’ Fokker E.I.

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker