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.

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #15: May 1916

May 1916 was a relatively quiet month, at least by Great War standards. Even the great “Blood Pump” of Verdun slowed somewhat, though that was scant comfort for the men, especially on the west bank of the Meuse, who became casualties during the weeks of back and forth.  At the beginning of the month Pétain was moved up to command of the Groupe d’armées du centre (Army Group Center), and the Second Army, defending Verdun, was given to General Robert Nivelle, who determined to recover Fort Douaumont from the Germans.  Because of the impending Somme offensive, he was limited to one division with another in reserve (pocket change by Western Front standards), and after a three day bombardment General Charles Mangin, who was later known as the Butcher (“Quoi qu’on fasse, on perd beaucoup de monde” – “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”), attacked on 21 May.

The Butcher

The Butcher

General Robert Nivelle

General Robert Nivelle

Fort Douamont before the war

Fort Douaumont before the war

The French captured about half the fort the first day, but reinforcements were cut off by a German counter-attack and on 24 May the thousand soldiers in the fort surrendered.  The failed assault cost the French 5,640 casualties, about half the attacking force; the Germans lost 4,500 men.  Incidentally, the German defenders of Douaumont had already suffered casualties without the French lifting a trigger finger.  On 8 May some soldiers had attempted to make coffee using flamethrower liquid for fuel, and the cooking fire spread, igniting shells and a firestorm in the fort.  Hundreds died immediately, but more tragic – and by the dark standards of the war, comic – soot covered men fleeing the fort were shot at by their fellow soldiers, who thought they were being attacked by French African troops.

Fort Douaumont entrance today

Fort Douaumont entrance today

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Fort Douamont today

Fort Douaumont today

On the Italian front General Cadorna was not ready for the next installment of the Isonzo Follies, but the Austrians felt it was time for them to take a shot. Despite incredible supply difficulties because of the terrain the Austrian Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, planned an offensive out of the Austrian-occupied Trentino, the area north of Lake Garda.  If the 11th and 3rd Austrian Armies could break the Italian line, they would be loose in the Venetian plain, only forty miles from Venice and behind the Italian forces on the Isonzo some eighty miles to the east.  And the plan actually almost worked.

General Luigi Cadorna

General Luigi Cadorna

General Franz von Hötzendorf

General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf

Italian front

Italian front: Trentino offensive red arrows to the left

Cadorna had a quarter million troops in the area of the offensive, but Hötzendorf had managed to concentrate twice that number along a thirty mile front. Italian intelligence could hardly miss these preparations, but Cadorna was convinced, mainly by the terrain, that nothing would be going down there, and in any case his First Army commander ignored his orders to prepare deeper defenses.

Italian troops

Italian troops

Fighting in the Alps

Fighting in the Alps

Austrian supply line

Austrian supply line

And so the Trentino Offensive (or Battle of Asiago) began on 14 May as 2000 Austrian guns opened up. The Italian center collapsed within days, and by the end of May the Austrians were six miles beyond Asiago and at the edge of the Venetian plain.  Cadorna rushed reinforcements to the area (the plain had an excellent railway grid) and the offensive was slowed by the immense logistical difficulties, but by the beginning of June the situation was definitely critical.

The inevitable result

The inevitable result

Fighting in the Alps

Fighting in the Alps

Asiago are after the offensive

Asiago area after the offensive

The Trentino Offensive was the only serious land engagement of May; major offensives were brewing on the Western and Eastern Fronts.  On 25 May a force from Rhodesia entered German East Africa, and both the Russians and British were occupying more territory in Persia.  By 15 May Russian forces were in northern Mesopotamia, and on 18 May a contingent of Cossacks made contact with the British on the Tigris River.

On 16 May the Second Military Service Act passed Commons and became law on the 25th; married men were no longer exempt.  The net was growing wider in order to supply the abattoir in France.

On 9 May the British and French agreed to the Sykes-Picot plan for partitioning the Ottoman Empire and on the 23rd notified the Russians, who were already on board.  Meanwhile, the Empire was about to break up on its own, as the Allies began blockading the coast of the Hejaz on 15 May.  The Turkish vilayet (province) of Hejaz comprised the western coastal area of the Arabian Peninsula south to Yemen, including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and was under the authority of the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, who had been in communication with the French and British and planned a revolt for June.

Mecca and the Kabba in 1910

Mecca and the Kaaba in 1910

Sharif

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

We will see.

 

 

 

(Delayed) Reports from the Front #11: February 1916

The major development in February 1916 was the commencement of the Battle of Verdun, perhaps the most horrific slaughter of the war, certainly for the French and Germans. (Later in the year the British – well, British generals – would show their own mettle in the face of mega-casualties with the Somme offensive.)  Meanwhile, less catastrophic battles went on around the periphery of the war.

On 9 February the British finally gained control of Lake Tanganyika when the German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman was sunk by the Mimi and Fifi.  But that was not going to stop Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck from leading a merry chase for the next three years.  On 17 February the last German troops in South Cameroon headed for internment in Spanish territory, and the following day the last German garrison (in Mora) surrendered, ending the thirty-two year German occupation of the colony; other white people would take their place for the next half century.  The allies also continued picking apart German East Africa.

The Hedwig von Wissman

The Hedwig von Wissman

To the east the Russian Caucasus offensive begun in October of the previous year plowed on, and on 16 February Cossacks entered the strategically important city of Erzurum.  Compared to what was about to begin in the west, this was a trivial battle: the Russians suffered 9000 casualties, the Turks 15,000.  The Russian commander, incidentally, was Nikolai Yudenich, who would be one of the major counterrevolutionary White generals in the Russian Civil War.

Yudenich

Nikolai Yudenich

Russians in Erzurum

Russians in Erzurum

The Caucasus campaign

The Caucasus campaign

And in northern Italy General Cadorna, his army reorganized and under pressure to draw German troops away from the Western Front, launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo on 15 February. The offensive would last a month and result in nothing but more dead Italians and Austrians.  Nevertheless, the Isonzo Follies would go on.

Things were popping on the diplomatic and administrative fronts.  On 10 February the new British Military Service Act kicked in, and soon a growing wave of conscripted Tommies would be sucked into the maelstrom of the Somme.  The nickname “Tommy,” incidentally, came from a War Office instructional publication of 1815, in which the fictional trooper was named Tommy Atkins.  The name caught on as the universal designation of a British soldier, as epitomized in Kipling’s poem Tommy:

 

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;

But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play –

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

 

On this same day the last of the Serbian army moved to Corfu, followed the next day by an Italian force. On 16 February the Montenegrin army began its sojourn on the Isle of the Defeated.  Life there was not good.

While these Balkan troops were finding new accommodations, London decided the War Office rather than the India Office should henceforth direct the Mesopotamian campaign, which was now confined to attempting to rescue the army at Kut.  On 23 February a British Ministry of Blockade was created, a sign that the Allies were realizing – finally – that this would be war of attrition and the Central Powers must be deprived of supplies, including food.  This of course would cause problems with the neutral states in Europe.

The Germans were already attempting to starve Britain with their submarine warfare, which had certainly caused difficulties with the neutrals, especially the United States.  On 10 February Berlin notified Washington that armed merchant ships would be treated as hostiles, and on the last day of the month reminded the Americans that an extended submarine campaign would not be delayed.

And of far more importance to the next war rather than the present one, on 28 February Britain began creating the core of a strategic bomber squadron, which would be able to directly attack enemy industry.

Finally, the big one.  On 21 February the Germans launched an offensive towards the Verdun salient on the Meuse River.  Capturing this area would be strategically valuable, but the Chief of the German General Staff, von Falkenhayn, having concluded that Germany could not compete with Allied resources in a war of exhaustion, determined to bleed the French army white and force a separate peace.  Verdun was chosen as the target not so much because of strategy as its immense importance to French pride and as a symbol of national resistance.  The idea was that the French would do anything to defend Verdun and consequently throw endless numbers of poilus into the meat grinder.  (Poilu means “hairy one” and stemmed from the plethora of beards and mustaches sported by the troops.)

Poilus

Poilus

The citadel of Verdun itself had been fortified in the seventeenth century by the famous military architect the Marquis de Vauban, and the town was surrounded by two rings of 28 forts, modernized before the outbreak of the war.  The most important was Douaumont, occupying high ground to the northeast and thus in the direct line of the German attack.  Unfortunately for the French, seeing how easily the Germans had taken the Belgian forts in 1914, Joffre had decided traditional fortifications could not withstand German siege guns, and in 1915 the forts had been stripped of most of their guns and garrisons.  A more linear trench and wire line had been begun.  Joffre knew in January 1916 that the Germans were planning an assault on the Verdun front, but he assumed it was a diversion.

Fort Douaumont

Fort Douaumont

Marquis de Vauban

Marquis de Vauban

The meat grinder

The meat grinder

But the Germans were indeed serious.  They laid railway lines and brought up 1201 guns, two thirds of them heavy or super-heavy, such as the 420mm (16.5 in.) howitzer.  The plan envisaged firing 4,000,000 shells in eighteen days, which would require an average of thirty-three munitions trains a day.  One million Germans would assault a French garrison of some 200,000.

French heavy mortar

French heavy mortar

German railway gun

German railway gun

Verdun battlefield a century later

Verdun battlefield a century later

By 25 February German troops had moved forward almost two miles (employing flamethrowers for the first time), and a party of about 100 actually reached the northeast corner of Fort Douaumont, seeking cover from their own artillery fire.  They did not know the fort had been essentially abandoned, but encountering no resistance and fearing French artillery fire, they found a way inside and ultimately captured a warrant officer and twenty-five troops, most of the garrison.

German flame throwers

German flame throwers

French regiment at Verdun

French regiment at Verdun

The advance then bogged down, literally, as a brief thaw turned the ground to mud, making it extremely difficult to move the guns (one is reminded of Operation Barbarossa), which had been outrun by the infantry.  Meanwhile, by the end of the month the French had brought up 90,000 reinforcements, an impressive achievement given the inadequacy of their rail links to the Verdun region.

The serious slaughter was just beginning, but the battle would go on until December, the longest of the war.