(Late) Report from the Fronts #29: May 1917

May began with the last gasps and final failure of the Nivelle Offensive.  The Third Battle of the Scarpe and the Second Battle of Bullecourt began on 3 May; the former ended the following day, while the latter dragged on until 17 May.  The Nivelle Offensive was over, but the unexpected repercussions were just beginning.

When the Second Battle of Bullecourt began, the French 2nd Division mutinied and refused to attack, and the infection quickly began spreading to other units.  By early June, when the authorities began responding seriously to the mutiny, half the 112 or 113 divisions of the French army had been affected to some degree.

The mutiny was more of a work stoppage than a revolt.  No officers were assaulted, and the strikers, mostly seasoned veterans, were willing to fight, just not engage in more futile offensives that completely ignored the realities of twentieth century warfare.  And although pacifist and socialist pamphlets circulated in the trenches, there was no real political movement behind the mutiny.  The troops were simply sick of being sacrificed for nothing on the altar of the Big Push by men who appeared to have little understanding of modern war.

Poilus in color

Unsurprisingly, Paris and London promptly attempted to institute a news blackout, fearing the effect of the mutiny on Allied and German morale, a perhaps sensible but certainly unethical and undemocratic move (remember General Westmoreland and Secretary McNamara?).  One could argue this was necessary for the war effort (and this war was clearly more vital to France than Vietnam was to the United States), but sealing all the pertinent military and political records for fifty years was simply to protect the generals and politicians, who would be long dead in 1967 (when the first detailed book on the mutiny appeared).  And the ultimate silliness: some (apparently) political documents were sealed for a hundred years, a senseless classification procedure that still goes on.

The repression of the mutiny belongs to June, but there was already a major casualty in May.  Actually, there were already as many as 187,000 French, 160,000 British and 163,000 German casualties, but on 15 May Nivelle was cashiered and replaced by Phillippe Pétain of Verdun and later Vichy fame; in December he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in North Africa, which is to say, he was exiled from the war.  Pétain was replaced as Chief of the French General Staff by Ferdinand Foch, hero of the Marne in 1914.

Ferdinand Foch

 

General Nivelle

Philippe Pétain

 

To the south General Cadorna launched the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo on 12 May.  What, again?  Well, General Haig and the French had resisted PM Lloyd George’s idea of sending Allied troops to help the Italians knock out the Austrians before they were stiffened by German troops, but Nivelle nevertheless pressured Cadorna to plan an offensive to coincide with his own.  400,000 thousand Italians attacked half that number of Austrians and got within ten miles of Trieste before the inevitable counterattack drove them all the way back.  The result when the battle ended on 8 June was 157,000 Italian and 75,000 Austrian casualties and no gains.  Cadorna would try again.

Italian front

Luigi Cadorna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Macedonian front the fighting died down with the end of Second Battle of Dorian on 9 May.  A small scale operation in Western Front terms, the battle began on 24 April with an attempt to take the city from the Bulgarians and failed, just like the First Battle of Dorian in August 1916, when four Allied divisions were repulsed by one (larger) Bulgarian with 3200 casualties, four times that of the enemy.  This time three British divisions (43,000 men) under General George Milne were smoked again by a single Bulgarian division (30,000 men) under General Vladimir Vazov, losing 12,000 men, six times as many as the Bulgarians.  There would of course be a Third Dorian.

Vladimir Vazov

George Milne

Macedonian Front

 

 

 

Other news from Greece: on 20 May the Serbian Government in exile moved from Corfu to Salonika, and more ominous, on 28 May an Anglo-French conference began in London to consider deposing King Constantine and occupying all of Greece.

Finally, there were a number of political and command developments.  On 10 May John “Black Jack” Pershing, fresh from chasing Pancho Villa across Mexico, was appointed Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, and eight days later the Compulsory Service Act – the draft – became law.  In a very different place, Russia, Alexander Kerensky, who had played a prominent role in the February Revolution, became on 16 May Minister of War for the Provisional Government, which two days later declared there would be no separate peace (as the Bolsheviks wanted).

The Kerensky War Ministry

Black Jack Pershing

And a dramatic forecast on 7 May: a single German plane – probably a Gotha G.IV – made the first night raid on London, anticipating the Blitz a quarter century later.

Gotha G.IV bomber

 

 

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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 #23: November 1916

The big news of November, certainly for British troops, was the end of the Somme Offensive.  On 11 November the Battle of Ancre Heights, begun on 1 October, came to end, and two days later the Battle of Ancre began, supposedly to take advantage of German exhaustion from the previous fight.  In fact Haig also wanted a success to counter criticism of the whole campaign and to improve the British position at an upcoming Allied conference.  He was also under pressure to prevent German troops from being sent east, though it is hard to see how this small scale operation (12 British against 4 German divisions) could make any difference to the Russians and Romanians.

German prisoners at Ancre

German prisoners at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of Ancre came to an end on 18 November.  Five days of fighting had left the British with about 20,000 casualties and the Germans with some 45,000 (for the period 1-18 November), which was considered by some officers to be a victory.  The troops involved in the fighting were apparently not polled on this question.  With the winter snows beginning Ancre became the last push of the Somme Offensive, which in four and a half months of combat had moved the front eastward some four miles..

The cost for these gains was staggering.  Figures are still being disputed a century later, but Commonwealth casualties were about 420,000, French around 200,000 and   German losses anywhere from 450,000 to 550,000.  The traditional view has been that the Somme was an unmitigated disaster – German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher: “Somme, the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word” –  but some argue that the Allies had no other strategic option in 1916 and needed to do something to relieve pressure on the Russians.  There is indeed evidence that the German army was seriously weakened and demoralized by the Somme, but it nevertheless still took another two years to collapse.

Meanwhile, the Italian version of the Somme went on.  On 1 November General Cadorna launched the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo, attempting again to enlarge the Gorizia bridgehead with his exhausted troops.  It ended on 4 November with minimal gains and 39,000 Italian and 33,000 Austrian casualties.  The Italians were suffering, but Austrian manpower problems were even greater, and German units were desperately needed.  For the moment, however, the front shut down for the winter, to the delight of troops on both sides of the line, I expect.

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

On the Macedonian Front the Allies were more successful.  In response to the Bulgarian offensive into eastern Macedonia in August the Allies counterattacked in September and by November were into Serbia, capturing Monastir on the 19th.  On the same day the Allies demanded that the Royalist government in Athens expel ministers of the Central Powers and turn over all war material.  Athens refused, and on 23 November the Venizelos government in Salonika declared war on Germany and Bulgaria.  On 30 November Allied troops landed at the Piraeus, the port of Athens.  Greece was on the edge of civil war.

King Constantine

King Constantine

Eleftherios Venizelos

Eleftherios Venizelos

French troops at Athens

French troops at Athens

 

 

 

 

 

Romania, meanwhile, was in serious trouble.  On 1 November the German Ninth Army under former Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn moved southeast out of the southern Carpathians.  The exhausted Romanians could not resist the 80,000 troops and 30,000 horses, and German cavalry was in Craiova on 21 November, pushing the Romanians east towards Bucharest.  Another part of Falkenhayn’s army assaulted the Vulcan Pass on 10 November, and by the 26th they were in the Romanian plain.  (An up and coming young officer participating in the Battle of Vulcan Pass was Erwin Rommel.)  On 23 November Mackensen, having essentially finished with the Dobruja, sent troops north across the Danube towards Bucharest.  It did not look good for Romania.

King Ferdinand and his troops

King Ferdinand and his troops

Romanian artillery

Romanian artillery

Romanian front

Romanian front

In miscellaneous news, on 4 November Sharif Hussein of Mecca was crowned King of the Arabs (the Saudis would have something to say about that), and on the 15th the British finally began moving across Sinai.  Germany and Austria proclaimed on 5 November the establishment of an independent Polish state, which I expect most Poles greeted with skepticism, and Woodrow Wilson was reelected President of the United States.  And Beatty replaced Jellicoe as the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet on 29 November.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Hussein ibn Ali  King of the Arabs

Hussein ibn Ali
King of the Arabs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A more momentous event was the death from pneumonia on 21 November of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia.  Politically and militarily the death of the 86 year old ruler meant little, especially inasmuch as the Austrian war effort was increasingly controlled by the Germans.  But Franz Joseph was nevertheless a monumental figure; he had ascended the throne in 1848 and at 68 years was the third longest reigning monarch in European history (Louis XIV of France 72 years; Johann II of Liechtenstein 71 years).  More than his fellow monarchs he symbolized the old Europe that, like his Empire, was being destroyed by the Great War.

Franz Joseph I 1851

Franz Joseph I
1851

Franz Joseph's tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph’s tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph I 1910

Franz Joseph I
1910

 

 

.

Report from the Fronts #19: August 1916

August 1916 marked two years of war and was little different from the month before or the one to follow.  On the Somme front the Battles of Delville Wood and Poziéres continued, piling up casualties for little gain and emulating the ongoing action to the south at Verdun.  There on 1 August the Germans launched a surprise assault on Fort Souville and were duly counterattacked by the French, who on 18 August recaptured Fleury – or what was left of it.

Fort Souville

Fort Souville

Poilus attacking Fleury

Poilus attacking Fleury

Fort Souville today

Fort Souville today

 

 

On 29 August Verdun claimed a major German casualty when Falkenhayn was sacked as Chief of Staff and replaced by Hindenburg.  The apparent failure of the Verdun campaign and the beginning of the Somme and Brusilov Offensives played into the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had been conspiring against Falkenhayn.  Ludendorff became First Quartermaster-General, but he was in fact the real power, rapidly assuming control of the entire military and ultimately the Reich itself.

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

 

To the south the Isonzo Follies started up again as General Cadorna sought to take advantage of an Austrian line weakened by the removal of troops for the Trentino Offensive.  The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo (or Battle of Gorizia) kicked off on 6 August with a two pronged assault against the long-sought prize of Gorizia, which the Austrians abandoned on 8 August.  Gorizia was the gateway to Trieste and Ljubljana, but the poorly equipped Italian troops could make no further headway and Cadorna ended the offensive on 17 August.

Gorizia

Gorizia

General Luigi Cadorna

General Luigi Cadorna

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

This was Cadorna’s first success, and Italian morale skyrocketed with the capture of the city they had wanted since 1914.  But they wanted Gorizia in order to seize Trieste and invade Slovenia, and in fact that would never happen, leaving Cadorna with only a wrecked city and more dead: 21,000 (not counting the missing) to the Austrian’s 8000.  Throwing 22 divisions against 9 Austrian allowed the (limited) breakthrough to Gorizia, but Cadorna’s frontal assaults were extremely costly.

Exhausted Italian troops

Exhausted Italian troops

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo six)

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo Six)

Gorizia after capture

Gorizia after capture

 

Not costly enough, however, to prevent Rome from sending troops to join the growing international camp at Salonika on 12 August, presumably to back up Italian claims in the western Balkans. On 28 August Italy declared war on Germany, apparently under pressure from the Allies, since the two countries were not in direct conflict (German troops would not appear on the Italian front until 1917) and actually benefited from non-belligerence.

Meanwhile, Greece tottered toward open participation in the war.  National pride and the Bulgarians in Macedonia spurred the Venizelist (pro-Entente, anti-Royalist) forces clustered in Salonika, and on 29-30 August Venizelist officers, supported by the Allies, launched a successful coup against the loyalists.  Troops across northern Greece joined the revolt, and the seed of a government in opposition to Athens, the “National Defense Committee,” was formed.  Loyalist officers fled south.

Greek troops in Salonika

Greek troops in Salonika

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south the Turks, who had been steadily creeping across Sinai during July, took what would be a final shot at the Suez Canal on 3 August, advancing towards Romani, about 20 miles from the Canal.  The British had been busy, however, building a rail line east out of Kantara and could now send out more substantial forces.  The result was the Battle of Romani on 3-5 August, during which the Turkish army was decisively defeated, suffering 9200 casualties to the Allied 1130.  But the Ottoman commander, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, had prepared fortified positions during his advance, and his surviving forces were able to execute an orderly retreat.  Nevertheless, by 12 August the Turks had been driven all the way back across Sinai to El Arish.  The Battle of Sinai had ended and the Battle for Palestine could begin.

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Kress von Kressenstein

Kress von Kressenstein

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Kressenstein with a smoke

Kressenstein with a smoke

 

 

 

The big news of August 1916 was the entrance of Romania into the war.  King Carol I, a Hohenzollern like the Kaiser, had signed a defensive alliance with the Central Powers, but in 1914 the Romanian people favored the Allies and Romania remained neutral.  King Ferdinand I, who succeeded Carol in October 1914, was more inclined towards the Entente and wanted Transylvania, an Austrian province with a Romanian population, but was wary of the Russians and being left in the lurch by the French and British.  Only after the Allies agreed to stringent terms (most of which were subsequently ignored) did he make his move.

British propaganda

British propaganda

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romania om 1914

Romania in 1914

King Ferdinand I

King Ferdinand I

An alliance was made with the Entente on 17 August, and on the 27th Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and began mobilization.  The next day a Romanian army invaded Transylvania, prompting Germany to declare war; Turkey followed on 30 (?) August and Bulgaria on 1 September.  September would not be a good month for the Romanians.

Oh, the South Africans and Belgians continued capturing towns in East Africa, but Lettow-Vorbeck continued to lead them on a merry chase.

 

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.

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #13: April 1916

 

 

(There seems to be some confusion as to exactly when the Battle of Lake Naroch actually ended: 30 March or 16 April or 30 April? It appears the Russian infantry offensive ended around 30 March but shelling and then the German counterattack extended perhaps to the end of April.)

 

Most of the action in April 1916 took place in or concerned the east, but of course the slaughter continued at Verdun, though barely worthy of comment in a war awash in blood.  When we left the “World Blood Pump,” as German propaganda put it, Falkenhayn was of a mind to give it up, but many of his commanders were convinced the French were on the verge of collapse.  On 4 April Falkenhayn agreed to continue the offensive on both sides of the Meuse, but stipulated that if the assault on the east side did not reach the Meuse Heights, it would be ended.

The Blood Pump of Verdun

The Blood Pump of
Verdun

Verdun-sur-Meuse

Verdun-sur-Meuse

Verdun front at the end of March

Verdun front at the end of March

Though the idea behind the offensive was to inflict unsustainable casualties on the French, Falkenhayn was becoming increasingly concerned about his own losses.  He decided upon a more cautious advance, employing Stoẞtruppen, “storm troop” units made up of two squads of infantry and one of engineers and equipped with grenades, mortars, flame throwers and machine guns.  They would lead the way after the artillery barrage, advancing carefully and either capturing strongpoints or isolating and identifying them for the regular infantry to deal with.

This approach did reduce casualties, but it also seriously slowed the rate of advance and was opposed by many of his generals, who of course had nothing to lose.  Further, the battlegrounds had been so blasted by earlier shelling that it was difficult to find cover and construct new defenses before which the French would die in the expected counterattack.  On 20 April Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, Chief of Staff of the 5th Army, complained to Falkenhayn that if they did not gain ground more quickly, his men would have to be pulled back to their February starting point.  Falkenhayn relented and the slaughter continued.

Konstantin von Knobelsdorf

Konstantin von Knobelsdorf

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

In other news from the west, German domination of the skies above the trenches, established the previous fall, ended around the beginning of April as the Allies caught up in aircraft design and manufacture.  On 14 April British planes actually bombed Adrianople and Istanbul, and though one has to doubt that much damage was done, it is a harbinger of the next war.  Nearby, the Greek government on 3 April declared that the Serbian troops on Corfu would not be permitted overland passage to Salonika, but the Allies clearly felt the war effort was more important than someone else’s national sovereignty (sound familiar?) and the Serbian Army Headquarters arrived in Salonika on 15 April.

Downed British plane in Istanbul

Downed British plane in Istanbul

Early 1916: British Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter

Early 1916: British Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter

Early 1916: French Nieuport 11

Early 1916: French Nieuport 11

Early 1816: German Halberstadt DII

Early 1916: German Halberstadt DII

Of greater concern, at least for the British, on 24 April the Irish Easter Rising began.  Four days earlier a disguised German transport had attempted to deliver arms to the rebels but was sunk off the Irish coast, and Roger Casement, the Irish point man in Germany, was delivered to Ireland by a U-boat and promptly arrested.  The uprising, centered in Dublin, occurred nevertheless, much to the surprise and confusion of the general Irish population.  The rebellion was small and ill-equipped, and the British, despite the demands of the war, crushed it in less than a week, executing the leaders.  At least 485 people died, 143 of them British troops and police and 82 rebels; more than half the dead were civilians, mostly killed by the British, who used heavy weaponry.  The Irish would have to wait a bit longer for independence.

The Easter Proclamation

The Easter Proclamation

Prisoners in Dublin

Prisoners in Dublin

Roger Casement

Roger Casement

Sackville Street, Dublin

Sackville Street, Dublin

On 26 April Britain and Germany concluded an agreement regarding the transfer of wounded prisoners to Switzerland, a rare instance of civil behavior in a war of civilization at its most barbaric.  More important to the future, on 29 April the Allies issued the Havre Declaration, which guaranteed the existence and integrity of the Belgian Congo, far and away the most abused and exploited of the African colonies.

As a further – and far more consequential – example of European disregard for self-determination, at least for those who were not White, there is the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which first raises its head in April 1916. On the 26th the French and Russian governments agreed the Turkish provinces in the Near East would after the war be divided up into spheres of influence and colonies for the Allies; the British would join on 9 May.  The Agreement involved competing claims between the French and British and of course ignored promises made to the people who actually lived in these neighborhoods, which is why the Agreement was secret, only to be revealed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.  A century later we are reaping the whirlwind of Sykes-Picot, especially in the case of the multi-ethnic non-state of Iraq.

François Georges-Picot

François Georges-Picot

Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes

Meanwhile, in the east the Russians took the key city of Trebizond on 17 April, and to the south the British advance into German East Africa continued with the capture of Kondoa Irangi by General Jacob van Deventer on 19 April. Deventer could not proceed further because his men were exhausted from the grueling march from Moshi, during which he had lost more than 2000 horses.  The rainy season was beginning, and Deventer, waiting for Lettow-Vorbeck’s counterattack, was soon cut off from supplies, as roads and bridges were washed out.  Oh, the Portuguese got into the war by occupying a small bit of German East Africa on 11 April (take that, Kaiser Bill!).

Deventer (seated)

Jacob van Deventer (seated)

hard to see map

hard to see map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember Kut?  By April life was becoming very uncomfortable for General Townshend and his boys.  The Royal flying Corps was now dropping food and ammunition into the town (and the river and Turkish emplacements), the first air supply attempt in history, which proved as futile as the one a quarter century later at Stalingrad.  At the beginning of the month General George Garringe, who had replaced the fired Aylmer in March, started up the Tigris with some 30,000 troops and took Falahiya on the northern bank with heavy losses on 5 April. The next Turkish fortified position was Sannaiyat, about three miles upriver, and the British attacked on 6 April and again on the 9th.  The Turks were well entrenched and both attacks were costly failures.

George Garringe

George Garringe

Townshend

Townshend

Saving Kut

Saving Kut

Garringe saw that taking the Sannaiyat trench line would require sapping and consequently take far too long to save the starving garrison at Kut, and he decided to cross to the southern bank.  The difficulty was that the rains had begun and the southern bank of the river was already turning into a vast swamp.  Despite this, the troops were able to seize the Bait Aissa trenches a few miles upriver from Sanniyat on 18 April, but flooding and mud prevented the British from moving any further.  Hoping that the action had drawn Turkish troops from Sanniyat, Gerringe hurried back and assaulted the position for the third time on 22 April and was repulsed.

"For the King-Emperor!"

“For the King-Emperor!”

British at Kut

British at Kut

Turkish lines at Kut

Turkish lines at Kut

There was a final desperate attempt to aid the troops in Kut.  The river steamer HMS Julnar was loaded with 250 tons of food at Basra and sent on a dash up the river on 24 April.  Before they reached the blockaded town the steersman was shot, and the steamer grounded on the bank and was captured by the Turks. On 26 April Townshend called for an armistice but negotiations, unsurprisingly, went nowhere.  T.E. Lawrence and another were sent from Cairo to attempt to bribe the Turkish commander with £2,000,000, but the Ottoman supreme commander, Enver Pasha, refused, and on the 29th the garrison surrendered.

HMS Julnar before her last journey

HMS Julnar before her last journey

HMS Julnar loading troops

HMS Julnar loading troops

 

The 147 day siege and the rescue attempts had cost the British 30,000 killed and wounded and 13,000 captured; the Turks are thought to have suffered about 10,000 casualties.  Of those taken prisoner 70% of the British and 50% of the Indians died in captivity, mostly from disease.  The Turks also lost Goltz Pasha, who on 19 April died in Baghdad either from typhus or being poisoned.  General Gorringe and General Percy Lake, the other commander of the Mesopotamia army, were both sacked and replaced by General Stanley Maude, who would retrain the army and ultimately take Baghdad.

Stanley Maude

Stanley Maude

Percy Lake

Percy Lake

 

Golz Pasha in his Field Marshal's uniform

Golz Pasha in his Field Marshal’s uniform

General Townshend spent the rest of the war in very comfortable captivity on an island in the Sea of Marmara, an object of contempt to the men he had left behind. While it is true that Townshend wanted to retreat from Kut back in December and was overruled by General Nixon, his conduct during the siege was incompetent and contemptible.  He never expelled the 6000 inhabitants of Kut or foraged the area around the town for food stocks, and he consistently refused to attempt a break out to meet and aid the relieving forces or even launch diversionary actions to draw off Turkish defenders.  He was far more concerned about getting a promotion and caring for his dog (well, I can understand that) than his starving men, whom he never visited in the hospitals.  Unlike most of his men he survived the war, but his reputation was shattered and his military career at an end.

After the fall: Indian troops

After the fall: Indian troops

After the fall: marching into captivity

After the fall: marching into captivity

After the fall: Townshend with Kahalil Pasha

After the fall: Townshend with Kahlil Pasha

The fall of Kut was certainly a humiliation for the British, especially as it came at the hands of the Turks (Townshend wanted to surrender to Goltz), but it had little effect on the war, even in the east – the Ottomans were at the end of their supply line and could never threaten Basra. A lot of men died, but it was virtually nothing compared to the blood being spilled on the Western Front.

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