Report from the Fronts #46: June 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne) came to an end on 6 June, having brought the Germans within 35 miles of Paris.  But no decisive breakthrough had resulted, and Ludendorff was determined to take one more shot before the front was overwhelmed with Americans.  On 9 June he launched Operation Gneisenau (the Battle of the Matz), essential a continuation of Blücher-Yorck, still hoping to draw more Allied troops south from Flanders, but though the Germans advanced nine miles in a few days, a surprise French counterattack (no preliminary bombardment) at Compiègn on 11 June halted the thrust and the operation was cancelled on the 13th.  Those four days cost the Germans 30,000 casualties and the Allies 35,000.

Operation Gneisenau

June also saw more American action on the Western Front. On 2 June American units, including a battalion of Marines, occupied a 12 mile stretch of the front before Belleau Wood, about half a dozen miles west of Château Thierry.  The following day they easily repelled a German assault, ignoring the French, who were retreating; said Marine Captain Lloyd Williams “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here.”  On 6 June the Allies launched a limited offensive in the area, assigning the now enlarged contingent of Marines several objectives, including Belleau Wood, where a regiment of Germans were well entrenched.  Unfortunately, the Marines were unaware of this.

Marines and poilus

Captain Williams

Belleau vicinity

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many Marines were mowed down in the wheat fields surrounding the woods, but they achieved their phase one objectives nevertheless.  Late in the afternoon two Marine battalions moved on Belleau Wood, which meant once again crossing a field raked by machine gun fire, prompting Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly to yell to him men “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”  Sure enough, the first waves were slaughtered, but the Marines managed to reach the Wood and secure a position, engaging the Germans in hand-to-hand combat.  In terms of casualties this was the worst day for the Marine Corps up to this time.

Killing Germans

Chasing Germans

In Belleau “Wood”

In Belleau “Wood”

Sergeant Daly

The situation now settled into a stalemate of bloody attack and counterattack, until after six American assaults the Wood was finally cleared of Germans on 26 June.  The Americans suffered 9777 casualties, while apart from 1600 captured German losses are unknown.  Belleau Wood was of course a relatively trivial episode on the Western Front (which is why this report is late – I thought it was in July), but it confirmed for the Allies and the Germans that the Americans, who were now flooding into France, were for real.  And that an American Marine with a rifle was an awesome weapon.

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Down in sunny Italy the Allies scored another defensive victory.  On 15 June the Austrians launched an offensive along the middle and eastern portions of the front, the Second Battle of the Piave River.  The Austrians had been reinforced by German divisions freed up by the surrender of Russia and trained in the assault tactics of the Western Front, but disagreement between the two army group commanders, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (west) and General Svetozar Borojević (east), resulted in a broad offensive rather than the narrow attack that had been so successful at Caporetto.

Borojević

Hötzendorf

Second Battle of the Piave River

 

 

Things were also different across the Piave.  General Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna had been replaced with Armando Diaz, who had learned a few things from the Caporetto disaster: he developed a defense in depth without a continuous trench line, a decentralized command system that allowed tremendous flexibility and small unit autonomy and a central reserve of thirteen “motorized” (they had trucks) divisions.  He had also received eleven British/French divisions, but most were called back west when the German Spring Offensive kicked off.

Diaz

Buoyed by the victory at Caporreto and the prospect of knocking Italy out of the war, the Austrians attacked at 3:00 AM.  Unfortunately, the Italians had discovered the precise time of the assault and at 2:30 AM began raining shells on the troops packing the forward trenches, sending many reeling back to defensive positions.  In the west Conrad made some small gains on the Asiago Plateau, but he was driven back the following day and spent the rest of the offensive making pointless attacks with his dwindling forces.  Borojević, on the other hand, was able to establish a substantial bridgehead along fifteen miles of the lower Piave to the Adriatic, threatening Venice, but the growing difficulty of getting men and supplies across the swollen Piave, whose bridges were continually bombed by the Italians, proved too much to overcome.

Waiting for the Austrians

Waiting…

Waiting…

Waiting…in color

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 19 June the Italians counterattacked, and while Borojević avoided a disaster, he was ordered by the Emperor to withdraw, and the Italians recovered all the lost territory by the 23rd.  Diaz immediately came under heavy pressure from the Allied command to go on the offensive, but he understood well that his forces needed to be reorganized and that crossing the Piave would put him in precisely the same circumstances Borojević had suffered.  The offensive cost the Austrians 118,000 casualties, the Italians 87,000, nothing new on the Italian front, but though few could have guessed at the time, the Second Battle of the Piave River was the last real offensive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a state whose political core stretched back to 800 and Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

On to victory, Italia!

Perhaps symbolic of the impending end of the Empire was an event that took place the very day the Piave offensive began. The commander of the Austrian navy (and future dictator of Hungary), Miklós Horthy, decided to challenge the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the Strait of Otranto, which had kept the Austrian surface fleet bottled up in the Adriatic.  Under cover of darkness Austria’s four most advanced battleships left their base at Pula on 8 and 9 June, but before the two squadrons could unite SMS Tegetthoff and SMS Szent István were discovered by two Italian motor torpedo boats early on 10 June.  One went after the Tegetthoff and missed, but the other – MAS 15 commanded by Luigi Rizzo – put two torpedoes into the Szent István at 3:20 AM.

Italian torpedo boats

SMS Szent István

 

Admiral Horthy

Austrian dreadnaughts at Pula

The Adriatic Sea today

The aft boiler room quickly flooded and the ship began listing to the starboard.  All efforts to counter the list failed, and soon the forward boiler room began flooding, ending power for the pumps.  The Szent István was doomed, but no order was given to abandon ship, and as the battleship settled further into the water, the event was filmed from the Tegetthoff (watch the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pSiCjfhUUw), while the ship’s band played the Austrian national anthem.  The ship capsized and slid beneath the surface at 6:05 AM, losing only 89 men out of a complement of 1094 – contrary to usual practice Austro-Hungarian sailors had to learn to swim.  And like the Szent István, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire was slowly slipping beneath the waters of history, to disappear forever.  (Well, actually the Szent István was found in the 1970s.)

…and down

Luigi Rizzo

MAS 15

Going down…

 

SMS Szent István today

Meanwhile, the Allies were being sucked further into the Russian Civil War. British marines landed at Pechenga in Murmansk province on 4 June, and three days later another British force arrived at Kem in Karelia on the White Sea.  With German troops in Finland the Allies feared that war stocks in northern Russia would be captured, and they also wished to rescue the Czech Legion (which took the key Siberian city of Omsk just as Tommies were disembarking at Kem).  This of course meant inevitable confrontation with the Bolsheviks, who on 8 June ordered the western forces to leave.  They responded on 24 June by sending more troops to join the North Russia Expeditionary Force already at Murmansk and a week later seizing the northern part of the Murman Railway (now the Kirov Railway), which linked Murmansk to St. Petersburg.  American doughboys would soon be joining them.

At Murmansk

Murman Railway

At Murmansk

 

Murmansk

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(Late) Report from the Fronts #45: May 1918

 

Spring Offensive

Operation Georgette came to an end on 27 April, and despite the absence of the hoped for breakthrough Ludendorff decided to go on to the next phase of the offensive, Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne).  The thrust would be between Soissons and Rheims, southwest across the Aisne River towards the Marne and Paris, but Ludendorff was apparently still thinking in terms of drawing more Allied forces south in preparation for another assault in Flanders that would separate the British and French armies.

On 27 May 4000 guns opened up on the Chemin des Dames Ridge (lost during the Second Battle of the Aisne), where four refitting British divisions were blown apart, having been ordered to hold the forward trenches – against all experience – by General Denis Duchêne, commander of the French Sixth Army (he was sacked after the battle).  Some 20 divisions swept through a 25 mile hole in the line and reached the Aisne River in less than six hours, and by the end of the month the Germans had captured Soissons and reached the Marne, only 35 miles from Paris.

Erich von Ludendorff

British lads on the Aisne

Overrun trench

Denis Duchêne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But then the inevitable: lengthening supply lines, tired troops and heavy losses slowed the offensive to a crawl, and Allied counterattacks halted it on 6 June.  Both sides lost about 130,00 men, and not only did the British not send substantial manpower south, as Ludendorff had hoped, but the Field Marshall had himself transferred German troops from Flanders, undermining his own strategic plan.  There were a million German troops in the east (Sevastopol was taken on 1 May and Rostov a week later), but in the west Ludendorff was rapidly running out of men.

He was also running out of time.  At this time there were only four ready American divisions in theater, gaining experience in the trenches of quiet stretches of the Front, but on 28 May the American 1st Division (the Big Red One) engaged in the AEF’s first offensive, capturing and holding Cantigny (southeast of Amiens) and impressing the French and British.  By the beginning of June 10,000 doughboys were pouring into France each day, and Ludendorff had to know that his days were numbered.

Yanks at Catigny

(Painted) Yanks defending Catigny

Catigny

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east the former Russian Empire was flying apart and the Bolsheviks were fighting for their lives, literally against everyone, including people they ostensibly represented: on 9 May Red Army troops fired on protesting workers in Kolpino.  And that came to include the Czech Legion.  Traveling east on the Siberian Railroad, the Czechs were meeting trainloads of German, Austrian and Hungarian prisoners moving west, and on 14 May at Chelyabinsk a fight broke out and a Hungarian was killed.  The local Bolsheviks arrested several Czechs and ordered them shot; the Czechs promptly occupied the city.  Within a month the Legion, aided by White forces, would control the railway from the Ural Mountains to Lake Baikal.

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Trans-Siberian railroad

Meanwhile, the Finnish Civil War ended on 7 May with a White victory, guaranteeing Finnish independence, at least until Stalin invaded the country in 1940.  And on the same day that the Legion revolted Kerensky, the former head of the Provisional Government, fled Russia, which is why he was one of the few key figures from 1917 to survive until 1970.

Kerensky 1917

Kerensky 1960s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down in Palestine Allenby’s second strike across the Jordan, launched on 30 April, captured the town of Es Salt, but the British were driven back over the Jordan by 4 May.  They also captured Kirkuk in northern Iraq on 7 May, but were forced to evacuate it on the 24th.

British troops in Es Salt

The Turks were doing much better.  With Russia sinking further into civil war the way into the Caucasus was open, barred only by the inherently unstable Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, with which they were already at war.  On 11 May a peace conference took place at Batum, but given what the Turks had done to the Armenians in 1915, it was doomed, and the Ottoman Third Army continued its advance on the 21st.  Five days later Georgia proclaimed its independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia, followed in two days by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Armenia.  Georgia joined the Germans, Azerbaijan the Turks and Armenia fought on.

The Caucasus today

Remember the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend last month?  On 9 May the British again attempted to ground a block ship at Ostend, employing HMS Vindictive, covered with glory and damage from the Zeebrugge raid.  But a fog set in and the clever Germans had moved the navigation buoys, resulting in the sunken cruiser only partially blocking the harbor entrance.

HMS Vindictive 1918

HMS Vindictive 1900

Second Ostend raid

Finally, additional distant vultures were gathering: Nicaragua declared war on Germany on 8 May and Costa Rica on the 24th.  One might wonder why.  Well, at this time Nicaragua was virtually an American colony, and the dictator of Costa Rica, General Federico Tinoco, hoped for American recognition of his government.  The general did not get it and was deposed in 1919, but Costa Rica remained in a technical state of war with Germany until after the Second World War.

Federico Tinoco

Report from the Fronts #44: April 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Michael ended on 5 April, and while it did not achieve all its objectives, Ludendorff nevertheless believed that by sucking Allied troops south to defend Amiens it had opened the way to the Channel ports – and the British supply lines – through Hazebrouck.  He consequently launched Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), pitting the Fourth Army under Sixt von Armin and the Sixth Army under Ferdinand von Quast against the British First and Second Armies.

Herbert Plumer

Henry Horne

Sixt von Armin

Ferdinand von Quast

Georgette

Henry Horne’s First Army was the initial target when the offensive kicked on 9 April and was an excellent choice.  It had become something of a rest home for exhausted and depleted divisions, and as it happened, the main attack was against a seven mile front held by a single division of the understrength Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (the other had been withdrawn three days earlier in order to be replaced).  The 20,000 Portuguese resisted but were overwhelmed by the 100,000 men of eight German divisions, while the British division immediately to their north also crumpled, creating a serious gap in the line.

Portuguese troops

Portuguese prisoners

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day the Germans also assaulted Herbert Plumer’s Second Army to the north and forced the British to abandon Armentières (as in “Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parley-vous). By the 11th the Germans had crossed the Lys River, and Haig proclaimed to his troops: “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”  (One wonders if this obligation applied to the general himself.)  On the 14th the British abandoned the Passchendaele Salient in order to shorten their line, giving up the territory, bought with so much blood the year before, east of Ypres.

The Butcher of the Somme (and other rivers)

German prisoners

British gas casualties

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Germans continued to advance, but slowed by the usual supply and flank problems they were stopped just short of Hazebrouck on 29 April and Ludendorff halted the operation.  The forward German units were just 15 miles from the Channel ports, but now occupied a salient that was being pounded on three sides. Georgette had cost each side about 110,000 casualties.

British defending Hazebrouck

The Germans were certainly doing better in the east, where their victorious forces faced little serious opposition. On 3 April the German Expeditionary Force landed in Finland in order to help the Whites in the Finish Civil War, while in southern Russia Ekaterinoslav was captured the same day.  Kharkov fell on the 8th, and German troops pushed into the Crimea on the 19th.  (Four days later Guatemala declared war on Germany – perhaps the United Fruit Company had interests in western Russia.)  On 29 April a coup led by Pavlo Skoropadskyi and supported by the Germans overthrew the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and Skoropadskyi became Hetman of the Ukraine – at least for a while.

Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi

The Turks, meanwhile, were picking up their slices: on 5 April Van in Armenia was retaken and Batum and Kars in Georgia were occupied on the 15th and 27th.  More ominous for the Bolshevik government, on 5 April British and Japanese troops occupied Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of the old Empire.  Others would follow, as the Civil War tuned all the Russias into an abattoir.

Vladivostok in 1898

Then there was the Czechoslovak Legion. At the beginning of the war the Russians had recruited Czechs and Slovaks to fight against the Austrians, which they did with great enthusiasm, and they participated with distinction in the Kerensky Offensive in 1917.  By the beginning of 1918 the Legion numbered 40,000 troops, the war in the east was over and the men wanted to fight on the Western Front.  But how to get there with Germany in between and most Russian ports in the west blockaded?

Tomáš Masaryk, chair of the Czechoslovak National Council (and future President of Czechoslovakia), decided to go the other way, to travel the 6000 miles to Vladivostok and board transports to the west. In February the Bolsheviks granted permission for the trip, but first the Legion had to fight the Germans in the Ukraine in order to escape to Russia proper, which they did in March.  By the end of the month, however, mutual suspicion and distrust and the Legion’s understandable refusal to give up their arms was clearly heading to a conflict.

A Legion armored train

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Tomáš Masaryk (1925)

This month also saw the emergence of one of the most ephemeral states in history, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The evacuation of Russian troops from the Caucasus confirmed the end of Czarist rule, and while a Transcaucasian delegation from Tbilisi in Georgia signed on to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Caucasus wanted complete independence.  On 22 April the Republic was declared, uniting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into a single state, which immediately reopened the war with Turkey.  No one with the slightest knowledge of the Caucasus could have believed this bizarre entity would last very long.

Note the three languages

Banknote of the TDFR

The neighborhood of the TDFR

In miscellaneous news from April, on the 1st the British Royal Air Force was created from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Services, and on the 10th Parliament passed the Third Military Service Act, which imposed conscription on Ireland and raised the age limit to 50.  Clearly, the British were getting desperate.  But not as desperate as the Bolsheviks, who introduced conscription on 22 April – in the developing Civil War their lives depended on it.

On 23 April the Royal Navy engaged in a memorable action of high drama but little effect. For years German submarines and torpedo boats based in Bruges on the Belgium coast had been raiding Allied traffic in the Channel, but Bruges was some eight miles inland, connected to the sea by canals to Ostend and Zeebrugge. The British consequently decided to sink block ships at the entrances to the canals, two at Ostend and three at Zeebrugge, where the viaduct joining the Zeebrugge mole to the mainland would also be destroyed.

The Bruges canals

Zeebruggge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The operation at Ostend was a complete failure, but at Zeebrugge two of the block ships were sunk in the narrowest point of the entrance to the canal while the old cruiser Vindictive landed marines on the mole as a diversion.  The viaduct was destroyed by an old submarine loaded with explosives, but the occupation of the mole was a disaster.  A change in wind blew away the smoke cover, and German shore batteries forced the troops to be landed at the wrong place, where they suffered heavy casualties: 227 British dead and 356 wounded to the German 8 and 16.

The block ships

In the end German naval activity out of Bruges was hardly hindered; most of the boats could use the Ostend canal and a passage was dredged around the block ships at Zeebrugge. On the other hand, the Zeebrugge raid, despite its ultimate failure, was nevertheless heroic, earning eight Victoria Crosses, and the British war propaganda machine made the raid an Allied victory.  And the memory endured: at a military tattoo in London in 1977 I saw the assault on the Zeebrugge mole reenacted.

The Vindictive at the mole

The Vindictive back home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, an event with little drama and little effect. On 10 April (or sometime in June; it is not clear) a German submarine shelled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the African state established by emancipated American slaves.  Liberia had declared war on 4 August 1917 and subsequently confiscated German property and sent a tiny contingent of troops to France.  In consequence the Germans decided to lob a few shells at Monrovia’s radio station.  Take that America.

Daniel Howard 16th president of Liberia

Oh, on 28 April Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist assassin who started all the madness by shooting the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo four years earlier, died in prison of skeletal tuberculosis.

Gavrilo Princip

Princip’s cell