(Seriously Delayed) Report from the Fronts #30: June 1917

The Big Push for June was the Battle of Messines, which marked the beginning of Britain’s Flanders Offensive; like the French they apparently could not wait for the Americans.  The assault was launched on 7 June with the detonation of nineteen mines under the German lines, catching the enemy by surprise and promptly killing 10,000 troops.  The mining had begun in 1915 – so little had the front changed – and 454 tons of explosives went up in twenty seconds, dwarfing the Somme mines and creating the largest explosion in history before the Trinity bomb.

Lone Tree mine crater

Destroyed German trench

Battle of Messines Ridge

The effectiveness of the British mines and creeping barrage allowed the most important objective, the Messines ridge, to be taken on the first day, and when the battle ended a week later, it remained in Allied hands.  The offensive was certainly a tactical success, gaining the high ground, as it were, and setting the stage for the next advance, but one (who was not an Allied general) might question the strategic gain.  The ridge cost each side some 25,000 casualties.

Messines, post-battle

Messines: fake tree observation post

Messines: allied artillery

 

Certainly a greater boost to Allied morale was the arrival of General John Pershing in France on 13 June and 14,000 troops of the American Expeditionary Force on the 25th.  The Allied commanders wanted to immediately send them to the front, but Pershing wanted more training and was adamant that his boys would fight as American units not simply replacements.  The doughboys (from the adobe dust in the Mexican war?) would not hit the trenches for another several months, but their presence was already a clear boost to morale.

American doughboy

Pillsbury doughboy

Foch, Pershing, Pétain, Haig

 

 

Speaking of morale, on 8 June the French military began seriously dealing with the mutiny with arrests and courts-martial, but with surprising restraint, which annoyed many of the generals.  Nevertheless, Philippe Pétain, the new Chief of the General Staff, and President Raymond Poincaré supported a lighter touch, and while there were 629 death sentences handed down, only 43 executions were actually carried out.  More effective in restoring order was the institution of regular leaves and a promise of only severely limited offensives until the Americans arrived in strength.

Poincaré

Pétain

 

 

French execution

 

 

 

On the Greek “front” the Allies demanded on 11 June that King Constantine abdicate, which he did the following day, passing the throne to his son, who became Alexander I.  Alexander was clearly a puppet of the Allies, who now occupied more Greek territory, but under his “rule” Greece would benefit from the Allied victory.  Unfortunately for Alexander, he would die from a monkey bite in 1920, to be succeeded, ironically, by his father.  Venizelos, leader of the provisional government in Salonika, became Prime Minister on 26 June and took power in Athens the next day.  Greece was now formally at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

Venizelos

King Constantine I

Coronation of Alexander

King Alexander I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the new Russian Republic the Provisional Government turned down a German offer of an armistice on 9 June, perhaps not a good decision inasmuch as by 21 June the Black Sea Fleet was in full mutiny.  Kerensky believed that a successful offensive in Galicia in July would restore military morale.

In miscellaneous news, Italy announced a Protectorate over Albania on 3 June…and on 8 June the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo ended with no gains and 150,000 Italian casualties.  To the southeast Edmund Allenby, formally of the Western Front, took over Commonwealth forces in Egypt, bad news for the Turks.  And Colonel Lawrence and Auda Abu Tayi (“I am a river to my people.”) and his Howeitat were on their way to Aqaba.

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Lawrence

Auda Abu Tayi

Auda and sundry Howeitat

 

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Report from the Fronts #28: April 1917

Spring came to the trenches for the third time, and that of course meant a new offensive from the Allies.  Planning began in December for a big push in April 1917, but by then events had clearly overtaken the generals.  The February Revolution had exploded, further undermining chances for a simultaneous offensive in the east, and the Germans had completed the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line on 5 April, eliminating the Noyon salient, whose flanks the offensive was supposed to attack.  More important, by April it was fairly certain that the United States would soon enter the war, and it hardly took a military genius to see the eminent sense in waiting for American forces to arrive in serious numbers.

Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line

In fact, most of the generals on the front opposed the offensive for these reasons (though Haig did so because of his own plans for a push in Flanders), and both French and British politicians were facing growing heat over the slaughter of the Somme and Verdun the year before.  But the French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle, supported the offensive, proclaiming it would end the war in 48 hours, and he had the backing of the Prime Minister, Alexandre Ribot.  So, the big show would begin on 9 April with British attacks in the north, and the German capture of the French plans on 4 April did not dissuade the confident Nivelle.

Alexandre Ribot

General Robert Nivelle

Ready for the Big Show

Almost 400,000 British troops would attack around Arras, seeking to draw German forces away from Nivelle’s planned assault on the Aisne River, which of course the German command was now completely aware of.  The Canadian Corps of General Henry Horne’s First Army in the north would assault the Vimy Ridge, Edmund Allenby’s Third Army would attack east from Arras along the Scarpe River and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army in the south would strike towards Bullecourt, 14 divisions (plus 9 reserve) challenging 12 divisions (plus 5 reserve) of General Ludwig von Falkenhausen’s Sixth Army.

Henry Horne

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Ludwig von Falkenhausen

Hubert Gough

Second Battle of Arras

The BEF had learned a few things since the disaster on the Somme.  One was the importance of counter-battery fire, taking out the enemy artillery, which was easily the biggest threat to advancing troops.  Coordinated aircraft reconnaissance and specialized counter-battery artillery units seemed the answer: despite heavy German opposition in the air eighty percent of enemy artillery was rendered ineffective the first day of the offensive.

British reconnaissance plane

Also important was the development of the creeping barrage, which had been employed before, but with frequent friendly-fire casualties because of the breakdown of timing.  Better ranging, rehearsals and careful calculation of barrel wear (which affected the flight of the shells) allowed the British to lay down a moving curtain of fire a hundred yards ahead of the advancing infantry, while new high sensitivity fuses set off the explosives before the shell buried itself in the ground, destroying the barbed wire rather than simply churning it up.  Tommies would still be killed by shells made in Liverpool but in far fewer numbers.

8″ shells with the instantaneous fuse

Creeping barrage map (First Battle of Passchendaele)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the usual long barrage, especially against the German positions on Vimy Ridge, the Second Battle of Arras kicked off on 9 April and went through eight phases before it officially ended on 17 May.  For those who care: the First Battle of the Scarpe (9-14 April); the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April); the First Battle of Bullecourt (10-11 April); the Battle of Lagnicourt (15 April); the Second Battle of the Scarpe (23-24 April); the Battle of Arleux (28-29 April); the Third Battle of the Scarpe (3-4 May); the Second Battle of Bullecourt (3-17 May).

In the south little headway was made against the German defenses around Bullecourt, but to the north the Canadians, enjoying the careful planning and preparations of their commander, General Julian Byng, captured Vimy Ridge by 12 April, but failed to take Vimy itself.

German POWs from Vimy Ridge

Julian Byng at Vimy Ridge

On Vimy Ridge

Following a tank at Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Ridge plan

The advance along the Scarpe River was phenomenal, at least initially, and the British set a new record for ground gained, nearly five miles, an almost unimaginable distance by West Front standards.  This, however, created a novel problem: miles of muddy cratered terrain and destroyed roads over which the reinforcements, guns and supplies had to be moved.  The Germans were able to stiffen their defenses even more, and the result was no breakthrough and a return to ineffective attacks and stalemate.

Arras after the battle

Dressing station east of Arras

East of Arras

 

In the end it was the same bloody story.  Vimy Ridge was an important tactical gain, but otherwise all that blown up terrain and destroyed villages cost the Commonwealth about 150,000 casualties.  The Germans of course suffered – perhaps 125,000 casualties – and the offensive did draw some troops from the defenses confronted by the French to the south,  but it would make no difference.

Siegfried Sassoon, another of the trench poets, penned a poem referring to the Battle of Arras but summing up Tommy’s attitude toward the whole damn war:

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

 

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

 

 

 

The Second Battle of Arras involved a great deal of air combat, as the British sought to protect their artillery spotting reconnaissance aircraft from German fighters.  Unfortunately for the British, German pilots were better trained, flying better planes and using better tactics, and leading the fight was Jasta 11 under the command of Manfred von Richthofen, who had arrived in March.  The result was “Bloody April,” during which the average lifespan in the air for Royal Flying Corps pilots was 18 hours.

Jasta 11 Albatros D.IIIs; the second in line is Richthofen’s plane – all red

British anti-aircraft at Arras

The Red Baron

 

The main push of the Nivelle Offensive, the Second Battle of the Aisne, began on 16 April and was followed the next day by a much smaller offensive near Rheims, the Battle of the Hills (or Third Battle of Champaign).  In the Aisne offensive 53 divisions of the French Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Armies went up against 38 divisions of General Max von Boehm’s Seventh Army, seeking to capture the Chemin des Dames, a fifty mile long ridge running east to west just north of the Aisne River.  The “Hills” in the Battle of the Hills were the Moronvillier Hills, some ten miles east of Rheims, where the French Fourth Army sent 13 divisions against 17 divisions of General Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler’s Third Army.

Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler

Max von Boehm

Second Battle of the Aisne

 

 

 

 

The Chemin des Dames, which had been quarried for centuries, was already a maze of tunnels when the Germans fortified the reverse slope, and while the French ended up controlling most of the ridge, it was costly.  When the Battle of the Hills came to a close on 20 April, the French had suffered over 21,000 casualties in three days and took 6000 German prisoners.  Overall the Nivelle Offensive, which ended in early May, cost the Allies as many as 350,000 casualties, compared to about 163,000 (and some 15-20,000 prisoners) for the Germans.  And there was no breakthrough.

The town of Soupir was in the way

Assault on the Chemin

Chemin des Dames front; note the German trench complex

 

 

Of far greater importance (to everyone but the dead) was the American declaration of war on Germany on 6 April, followed by Congress voting an initial half million troops on the 28th.  Within two weeks Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey had, unsurprisingly, broken diplomatic relations with the United States, and in the month of April Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala severed relations with Germany, followed in May by Liberia, Honduras and Nicaragua and by Santo Domingo and Haiti in June.  On 7 April Cuba and Panama actually declared war on Germany (United Fruit Company?).

Meanwhile, out in the boonies of the war the British decided on another go at Gaza, which in its four thousand year history had been fought over by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Arabs and French.  The Second Battle of Gaza began on 17 April with a frontal assault by three infantry and two mounted divisions and sundry other troops against the Turkish entrenchments, which stretched from Gaza to Beersheba.  General Kress von Kressenstein was ready, however, and the British called off the offensive two days later, having suffered some 6000 casualties, about four times as many as the Turks.  The British generals were sacked, paving the way for the arrival of Edmund Allenby from the Western Front.

Damaged British tank

Turkish machine gunners

Kress von Kressenstein

The Second Battle of Gaza

 

 

And in East Africa Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris were still dodging a quarter million Allied troops.

 

Report from the Fronts #18: July 1916

On the Western Front July 1916 began with a bang, literally, as nineteen massive mines buried under German lines were exploded by the British to kick off the long-awaited Somme Offensive. The mines, many begun the previous year, contained a total of 210,800 pounds of high explosive, which together constituted one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history.  Three of the mines were behemoths: Hawthorn Ridge at Beaumont-Hamel (40,600 lbs.) and Y Sap and Lochnagar at La Boisselle (40,000 and 60,000 lbs. respectively); Lochnagar was believed to be the loudest man-made noise up to that time, heard as far away as London.  Impressive, but they did not substantially aid the offensive.

Mine tunnel

Mine tunnel

Lochnagar crater today

Lochnagar crater today

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Lochnagar crater

Lochnagar crater

 

 

 

 

 

The Somme Offensive had been in the works since 1915 and was intended to be a primarily French operation with the British in support, but the German assault at Verdun had drained away French troops and it was British/Commonwealth forces that ended up bearing the brunt of this Big Push.  The section of the trench line north and south of the Somme River, defended by General Fritz von Below’s Second Army, was chosen by Joffre for the attack, though it is not at all clear why.  There was no particular strategic importance to the area, and because it had been quiet since 1915, the Germans had been busy increasing the stiffness and depth of their fortifications.

The Butcher of the Somme

The Butcher of the Somme

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

Somme Offensive

Somme Offensive

Haig of course went right along with this, delighted it would be primarily a British show.  Eleven divisions from General Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army would attack in the area of Albert, supported on their left flank by two divisions of General Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby’s Third Army; the right flank would be covered by five divisions of the French Sixth Army on both sides of the Somme.  (Joffre had originally planned on 40 French divisions.)  The goal was the seemingly mythical “breakthrough,” which would allow forces (including all available cavalry!) to head for Douai and Cambrai.  The Allies had air superiority, a factor that was gaining in importance.

Edmund Allenby

Edmund Allenby

 

Fritz von Below

Fritz von Below

Henry Rawlinson

Henry Rawlinson

The Somme Offensive was in actuality a series of thirteen more or less distinctive named battles that stretched on into November.  The initial attack, the Battle of Albert (1-13 July), pushed the Germans into a substantial withdrawal south and north of the Somme, but the Commonwealth forces in the center got nowhere against the Germans on higher ground.  It was in fact a disaster.  The British suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed) on the first day; their total casualties in the next eleven days were c. 25,000.  1 July 1916 is acknowledged as the worst day in the history of the British army.

A German "Sommekämpfer"

A German Sommekämpfer

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

The fault can be pinned on Haig and Rawlinson, who believed (like most high commanders) that a heavy barrage would take out the machine guns and wire.  Perhaps against their own trench line, but not the deep triple lines and reinforced bunkers of the busy Germans.  The defenses were virtually intact, and the slow-moving British infantry were annihilated.  Two subordinate commanders were sacked (for not pushing their men harder!), but as historian Martin Middlebrook later put it, “Haig and Rawlinson were protected by the sheer enormity of the disaster.”  To fire or criticize them would be a PR disaster – and the offensive went on.

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

But it now comprised more limited engagements and objectives, as the Allies encountered nasty fighting in fortified villages and dense woods.  The Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14-17 July) went better than the original offensive, pushing out a thousand yards and capturing Bazentine le Petit, but further advance was foiled by the confusion and poor communications, frequent companions of Great War offensives.

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, a bit to the southeast the Battle of Delville Wood (14 July – 15 September) resulted from the effort to secure the right flank of the force in Bazentine, and on the first day the First South African Brigade, making its Western Front debut, seized most of the wood.  The Germans counterattacked, and by 20 July when British attacks rescued the remnants from the wood, the South African brigade had virtually ceased to exist.

Battle of Delville Wood

Battle of Delville Wood

South African General Henry Lukin

South African General Henry Lukin

Delville Wood

Delville Wood

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Fromelles (19-20 July) actually took place some fifty miles north of the Somme and was a small scale operation designed to take advantage of weaknesses brought on by the transfer of German troops to the Somme.  Well, there were none in this bit of the line, and the two divisions in fact attacked a ridge defended by twice their number, suffering 7080 casualties to the German’s 1500-2000.  The Australian Fifth Division, also making its first appearance on the Western Front, suffered 5533 of those casualties; the battle was later described as “the worst 24 hours in Australian history.’  For what?

The last Somme engagement to be initiated in July was the Battle of Pozières Ridge (23 July – 7 August), which was the only part of a general offensive north and south of the Somme to have any success.  Pozières was a village two miles northwest of Bazentine, and its capture would isolate the Germans in the fortified village of Thiepval.  The Australian First Division took the village immediately, but inasmuch as the rest of the offensive promptly collapsed into uncoordinated mini-engagements, the Aussies became the center of attention of the German artillery and suffered huge casualties.  The German counterattack would come at the beginning of August.

Pozières plateau

Pozières plateau

Road to Pozières

Road to Pozières

 Pozières- captured German bunker

Pozières- captured German bunker

Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front the Baranovichi Offensive in what is now Belarus finally began.  The commander of the Western Army Group, Alexei Evert, had resisted going on the offensive in June as the northern wing of the Brusilov Offensive, perhaps because he remembered the disaster of his Lake Naroch Offenisive back in March.  But the supreme Command insisted, and on 2 July 410,000 troops of the Russian Fourth Army attacked 70,000 Germans of the Ninth Army.  When the on and off offensive finally ended on 29 July, the Russians had gained no ground and lost 80,000 men to the German 13,000.  Is it any wonder revolution was brewing?

Evert's men - future corpses and revolutionaries

Evert’s men – future corpses and revolutionaries

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other news, the counterattack at the Trentino ended on 7 July, freeing General Cadorna free to contemplate another shot on the Isonzo.  On 25 July Serbian troops (Remember Serbia?) showed up at Salonika, followed in five days by a contingent of Russians, of whom there seemed to be an endless supply.  Incidentally, on 25 July the Russians took Erzincan (Erzinjan) in northeastern Turkey; this is as far as they would penetrate into Anatolia.

Finally, things were heating up on the Arab front.  In Sinai the Turks began an offensive towards the Suez Canal on 19 July, but far more important to the post-war world, Britain signed a treaty with Abdulaziz Ibn Sa’ud, Emir of Nejd and Hasa, the creator and future king of Saudi Arabia.  That kingdom would include the Hejaz (Too bad, Sherif Hussein) where on 27 July Arab forces took Yenbo, the port of Medina, easing their supply problems.  And soon Lawrence would show up.

Ibn Saud

Ibn Sa’ud

The Hejaz

The Hejaz