Report from the Fronts #25: January 1917

Because of the weather there was little action in the west in January, though planning for the spring offensive was underway.  On the first day of the year Douglas Haig, the “Butcher of the Somme,” was promoted to Field Marshal, the highest rank in the British Army, but this was certainly no reflection of his military talents.  Nicholas II had been made a British Field Marshal exactly one year earlier, and Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph had been honored with the title in 1901 and 1903.

Field Marshal Wilhelm

Field Marshal Wilhelm

Field Marshal Franz Jospeh

Field Marshal Franz Joseph

Field Marshal Haig

Field Marshal Haig

Field Marshal Nicholas

Field Marshal Nicholas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far and away the most important missive of January was the so-called Zimmermann telegram.  On 16 January the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, routing it through the hands of the ambassador in Washington, who forwarded it to Eckhardt on 19 January.  Unfortunately for the Germans (and unknown to the Americans; some things never change), all the cable traffic passing through the relay station at Land’s End in Britain (the German transatlantic cables had been cut at the beginning of the war) was being monitored, and a copy was passed to the Admiralty intelligence section, quaintly named Room 40, for decoding.

Heinrich von Eckardt

Heinrich von Eckardt

Arthur Zimmermann

Arthur Zimmermann

 

 

 

The decrypted message was a bombshell:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.”

British translation

British translation

Coded telegram

Coded telegram

Partially decoded telegram

Partially decoded telegram

 

The Germans had decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, suspended in September 1915, regardless of the danger of drawing America into the war.  While the Central Powers were being slowly strangled by the British blockade, the Entente had access to armaments and more important, food from the United States.  Ludendorff uncritically accepted the contention of the Navy, which strongly advocated the resumption of unrestricted warfare, that there were no effective countermeasures to submarine warfare and concluded that the time was ripe to strike.  Ironically, it was the Kaiser who raised doubts, advised by a close friend who was familiar with America and understood the potential power of the country.  He was ignored by Ludendorff.

The Russian military was rapidly collapsing and Romania had been virtually eliminated, freeing large numbers of troops for transfer to the west.  Further, the United States was in the midst of an undeclared conflict with Mexico, which it had invaded in 1914, and there were currently American troops still in the country.  Ludendorff believed that unlimited submarine warfare in the Atlantic could bring Britain to its knees before the Americans could mobilize sufficiently to have an impact on the war, especially if Mexico could be persuaded to attack them.  This would prove to be a disastrous miscalculation and would doom Germany to defeat.

On 31 January Germany announced that the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would begin the next day.  Washington was of course not amused, but was, however, still unaware of the Zimmermann telegram and would not receive it from the British until 19 February.

Meanwhile, in the east Romanian towns were still falling to the Germans, and on 6 January the last Romanian and Russian troops were driven out of the Dobruja.  I have not been tracking Russian ministers, but January presents an excellent example of the chaos descending on St. Petersburg: in that single month the Prime Minister, Alexander Trepov, the War Minister, Dmitry Shuvalev, and the Foreign Minister, Nikolai Pokrovsky, resigned or were sacked.  In the period from September 1915 to February 1917 – the “Czarina’s Rule” – Russia had four Prime Ministers, three Foreign Ministers, three War Ministers, five Interior Ministers, two Transport Ministers, and four Agricultural Ministers.  This was no way to run a country during wartime.

Nikolai Pokrovsky

Nikolai Pokrovsky

Alexander Trepov

Alexander Trepov

Dmitry Shuvalev

Dmitry Shuvalev

The British were doing better.  The Sinai military railroad reached El Arish on 4 January (the all-important water pipeline would arrive on 5 February), making possible an assault on Rafa, the last major Turkish garrison in Sinai (there were still a handful of Turks and armed Bedouins at Nekhl and Bir el Hassana). It was seized on 9 January, making way for an invasion of Palestine.  Meanwhile, Commonwealth and Turkish aircraft spent the month merrily bombing each other; horses were a favorite and easy target.

Turkish POWs on the road to El Arish

Turkish POWs on the road to El Arish

British firing line at Rafa

British firing line at Rafa

Northern Sinai

Northern Sinai

Sinai-Palestine frontier - boundary pillars

Sinai-Palestine frontier – boundary pillars

Battle of Rafa

Battle of Rafa

 

Finally, the Arab revolt was picking up steam and becoming a serious annoyance to the Turks.  T.E. Lawrence had convinced the leaders of the revolt in the Hejaz, two of Hussein’s sons, Faisal (future king of Iraq) and Abdullah (future king of Jordan) to coordinate with the British and to attack the Hejaz railway instead of Medina.  Not only was Medina a tough nut to crack, but defending and repairing the rail line, utterly vital to the Turkish position in the Hejaz, would tie up far more Ottoman troops.   Arab guerilla and Allied air attacks were already having an impact, forcing the Hejaz commander, Fakhri Pasha, to abandon his attempt to reach Mecca and return to Medina on 18 January.

Fakhri Pasha

Fakhri Pasha

Faisal

Faisal

Abdullah

Abdullah

 

 

Since July 1916 the Arabs had controlled the port of Yenbo, west of Medina, but needed a base further north.  The choice was Wejh, halfway up the coast from Yenbo to Aqaba, and on 3 January Faisal began moving up the coast with a force of 5300 foot and 5100 camel cavalry, supplied by the royal Navy.  They turned out to be unnecessary.  400 Arabs and 200 Royal Navy personnel were landed north of Wejh and surprising the Ottoman garrison, easily took the town on 24 January.

The Arabs were ready for serious business.  They now had 70,000 men in the field, though many were still poorly armed; Faisal was based at Wejh, Abdullah at Wadi Ais north of Medina and Ali, the third brother, near Medina.  The Regular Arab Army, formed in 1916, were full-time conventional troops and wore uniforms (British style of course, which is why the present day armies of the Middle East look British), while the more familiar (because of the movie) and romantic Bedouin raiders were essential guerilla forces.  They were difficult to command and fought when it suited them, but a raiding party on camels could cover a thousand miles with no support and suddenly appear from out of nowhere, which is to say, the desert.  Colonel Lawrence (among others) knew how to use these forces, especially against the railway.

The Hejaz railway

The Hejaz railway

Bedouin raiders - Lawrence on the dark camel

Bedouin raiders – Lawrence on the dark camel

The Regular Arab Army

The Regular Arab Army

Ali

Ali

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hejaz campaign a century later

The Hejaz campaign a century later

More remains

More remains

Take that,Turks!

Take that,Turks!

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Report from the Fronts #21: October 1916

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

Fighting General Mud

Fighting General Mud

Mud everywhere

Mud everywhere

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

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

French mud

French mud

German mud

German mud

 

 

The "First Offensive Battle of Verdun"

The “First Offensive Battle of Verdun”

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

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

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

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

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

Greek capital ship

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

Greek troops reviewed by the Triumvirate

Greek troops reviewed by the Triumvirate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Stefan Toshev

Stefan Toshev

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Red Tower pass in the Carpathians

Counterattack against Romania

Counterattack against Romania

 

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

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

Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish 1913

Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish 1913

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

Prince Faisal

Prince Faisal

Sir Ronald Storrs

Sir Ronald Storrs

T.E.Lawrence

T.E.Lawrence

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

Sir Reginald Wingate

Sir Reginald Wingate

 

 

 

 

 

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

The crew of U-53 at Newport

The crew of U-53 at Newport

U-53 in Newport harbor

U-53 at Newport

Captain Hans Rose

Captain Hans Rose

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