Report from the Fronts #43: the Airplane II

German air superiority, the result of the synchronized gun, was over by the beginning of 1916. When the fight for Verdun began in February, the Germans were initially able to dominate the air, but by April the French, with their new Nieuport 11s, had chased them out of the skies.  It was becoming clear that mastery of the air was of growing importance, as artillery developed its coordination with aerial spotting and the idea of close support of infantry (strafing and bombing troops) was emerging.  This in turn forced the development of antiaircraft weaponry and techniques.

British insignia

French insignia

Belgian insignia

Russian insignia

Italian insignia

American isignia

German isignia

Austrian insignia

Ottoman insignia

The Royal Flying Corps and the Aéronautique Militaire were now pumping planes and men into battle, and while pilots were typically poorly trained because of the rush to get them in the air, the Allies were very successful during the Battles of Verdun and the Somme.  The Germans got the message and by October had reorganized their air arm as the Luftstreitkräfte, which now included bomber groups, ground support units and most famously, increasingly well-organized and trained fighter squadrons, the Jagdstaffeln (abbreviated to Jasta).

There was now clearly an arms race in the air.  By the end of 1916 new specialized German fighter aircraft were beginning to win the skies back from the numerically superior Allied forces.  The fragile Fokker Eindeckers gave way to biplane designs, the Halberstadt D.II, the Fokker D.III and the more advanced Albatros D.I; the Fokker and Albatros mounted twin machine guns, giving the German pilots a tremendous advantage in combat.  Further, the Jagdstaffeln were rapidly developing new tactics that emphasized coordinated attacks by the planes in a squadron.  The day of the lone fighter was fast disappearing.

Halberstadt D.II

Fokker D.III

Albatros D.I

By the beginning of 1917 German aviators were again sweeping the skies.  The British had far more planes, but most, like the BE.2, were outdated and little more than targets.  New and better machines were arriving – the Sopwith Pup, the Sopwith Triplane and the SPAD S.VII – but not only were there few of them but they all carried only a single gun.  The result was “Bloody April.”

SPAD VII

Triplane cockpit

BE.2

Sopwith Pup

Sopwith Triplane

Remember the Battle of Arras of April 1917?  While the British were suffering some 150,000 casualties on the ground, the Royal Flying Corps, though numerically superior to the Germans, was undergoing a disaster.  The RFC had about 365 aircraft, a third of them fighters, going up against about 80 German fighters; the British lost 245 planes to the Germans’ 66.  They also lost some 400 aircrew, a number increased by RFC commander Hugh Trenchard’s policy of offensive airpower, fighting on the German side of the line.  German commander Ernst von Hoeppner, with far fewer planes, kept his fighters on his side, thus increasing their range, minimizing wear and tear and safeguarding downed pilots.

Hugh Trenchard

Ernst von Hoeppner

Making life even worse for the British fliers was the presence of Jasta 11, commanded by the already famous Manfred von Richthofen, who had assumed command in January after winning his Pour le Mérite.  In the month of April he alone downed 22 planes in his bright red Albatros D.III (hence the names Der Rote Baron and Der Rote Kampfflieger), which paint job was soon copied by the other pilots in the Jasta.  Richthofen is generally associated with the famous red Fokker Dr.I triplane, which he began flying in July, but only 19 of his 80 victories were scored in this nimble aircraft.

Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen

Jasta 11 – Richthofen in the Albatros

Jasta 11 Albatros D.IIIs

Fokker Dr.I

Richthofen’s Dr.I

In June Richthofen was made commander of the first of the new Jagdgeschwader (fighter wings), made up, in this case, of four squadrons.  By then other Jasta had also adopted distinctive squadron colors, and consequently Jagdgeschwader 1 became known as the Flying Circus.  Incidentally, in Jasta 26 during Bloody April was a young (and thin) ace named Hermann Göring (22 victories); in July 1918 he became commander of the Flying Circus and survived the war (obviously).  At the same time Jasta 14 was commanded by another ace of aces, Rudolf Berthold (44 victories); he won the Pour le Mérite and survived, only to be killed by a leftist mob in 1920.

The Flying Monkey Wrench

Berthold and his Fokker D.VII – the Flying Monkey Wrench

Rudolf Berthold

Hermann Göring

Göring in the cockpit

Jasta 26

In the second half of 1917 the balanced tipped again. The SPAD S.XIII, the SE.5a and the Sopwith Camel entered the fray, all with twin guns, while the new German planes, the Albatros D.V and Pfalz D.III, had many problems.  The Fokker D.VII, perhaps the best German fighter of the war, appeared in May 1918, but not in numbers sufficient to impact the Spring Offensive.

SPAD S.XIII – Rickenbacker’s markings

SE 5a

Sopwith Camel

Fokker D.VII

Albatros D.V

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And not in time for one of the plane’s chief supporters, Richthofen, who was killed on 21 April, shot down not by Captain Roy Brown in a Sopwith Camel, as long believed, but by a single shot from an Australian gunner (identity debated) on the ground. Richthofen managed to land his Dr.I, but died almost immediately, and his plane was virtually dismantled by souvenir hunters.  He was buried with full military honors by No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force.  Honor had not been completely extinguished in this corner of a generally faceless war.

Manfred von Richthofen

His funeral

Remains of the plane

Air losses were heavy for both sides during the Spring Offensive and the counter-offensive that followed, and by September the Allies had lost the most aircrew since Bloody April. The Germans were generally superior in aircraft and pilot experience, but simply no longer had the resources to produce enough planes, and the Allies essentially overwhelmed them with numbers.

1918 also saw the first appearance of American squadrons (as opposed to individual volunteers with the French and British), but the Americans had no fighters and were compelled to use European aircraft. At first they were given older planes, and that together with inexperience led to horrific casualties, but in the last months of the war they were flying the most advanced Allied machines.

The major impact of the airplane in the Great War was what it had been at the very beginning: better reconnaissance, especially for artillery spotting.  The big guns became far more devastating as coordination with observation planes developed, and by the end of the war artillery had become virtually dependent on aerial spotting.  This of course came at a price, though perhaps trivial compared with casualties in the ground war.  Losses of aircraft and aircrew casualties of the major air powers in the course of the conflict: Britain 35,970, 16,620; France 52,640, 7250; Germany 27,640, 16,050.

Ahmet Ali Çelikten, possibly the first Black pilot

The most destructive aspect of the airplane – strategic bombing of civilian targets – would have to wait until the next war.

 

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Report from the Fronts #42: March 1918

The big news for March 1918 was the German Spring Offensive, but first there was a flurry of peace treaties. On 1 March Bolshevik Russia signed a peace treaty with the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic, which had emerged in the industrialized south of Finland in January.  Unfortunately for Lenin, the Workers’ Republic was not at all popular among most Finns, and the result was a civil war in which the “reds” were supported by Moscow and the “whites” by Berlin, which signed a treaty of peace with Finland on 7 March.  In terms of barbarity the Finish Civil War quickly became a small-scale forerunner of the far greater horror that was the Russian Civil War.

Murdered Whites

Executing Reds

Red Guards

White Guards

The Finnish Civil War during March

On 5 March Romania agreed –what choice did she have? – to a preliminary peace with the Central Powers, Bulgaria and Turkey and four days later signed a peace with Russia, a far easier proposition.  Bolshevik Russia, meanwhile, finally bowed to the inevitable on 3 March (the day after the Germans captured Kiev), and Grigori Sokolnikov (killed in prison in 1939) signed the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Russia lost the Baltic states, Belarus and the Ukraine (as personal possessions of the Czar, Poland and Finland were already gone), which meant that a quarter of the former Empire’s population and industry now belonged to the Germans.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Slivers of the Russian Empire for Turkey

The Treaty itself

Grigori Solkonikov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might have been a great deal for the Germans had there not been a Western Front.  Brest-Litovsk did free up several hundred thousand troops needed for the planned Spring Offensive – Germany’s last shot before being overwhelmed by the Americans – but the desire to secure this eastern empire and its resources left a million men scattered from Poland through the Ukraine.  Inasmuch as the attempt to establish a Ukrainian puppet state would fail and the expected resources never appear because of constant revolts against the occupying troops, Ludendorff would have better served his country by evacuating everything east of Poland.

Hindenburg the figurehead and Ludendorff the ruler

The aforementioned Spring Offensive (or Ludendorff Offensive or Kaiserschlacht) began on 21 March.  Ludendorff had collected 74 divisions (out of 192 in the West) and 10,000 guns and mortars, spread along the 43 mile front from Arras south to La Fère on the Oise River.  The German Seventeenth Army, under Otto von Below, the Second Army, under Georg von der Marwitz, and the Eighteenth Army, under Oskar von Hutier, faced the right wing of Julian Byng’s Third Army and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.  The strategic aim was to move northwest from the breakthrough and cut the British off from the English Channel and the French to the south, forcing negotiations.

General Julian Byng 3rd Army

General Hubert Gough 5th Army

Spring Offensive

General Oskar von Hutier

General Otto von Below 17th Army

General Georg von der Marwitz 2nd Army

 

The initial phase of the offensive, Operation Michael, would throw 44 divisions, many just specially trained for rapid advance, at the line from Arras to south of St. Quentin.  The northern elements of the advance would take Arras and head northwest, while the southern units would move to the Somme and hold it against counterattacks.  Ludendorff ordered a massive but relatively short initial bombardment in order to preserve some element of surprise, but a week before the launch the British knew from reconnaissance, prisoners and deserters a big push was coming and shelled German assembly areas.

Operation Michael

In the early hours of 21 March the shells began raining done over a 40 mile front, 3,500,000 in five hours, the largest bombardment of the war. The British front lines were severely disrupted by gas and smoke and the rear areas and supply lines pounded by heavy artillery, and more important, communications between headquarters and the fronts were severed.  Further, a thick fog came with the dawn, allowing the German troops to sneak by defensive positions and infiltrate the rear.

Operation Michael would last until 5 April, proceeding through six named battles: the Battle of St. Quentin (21-23 March), the First Battle of Bapaume (24-25 March), the Battle of Rosières (26-27 March), the First Battle of Arras (28 March), the Battle of the Avre (4 April) and the Battle of the Ancre (5 April).  One can see from the names that much of this ground would be fought over again.  (That was a spoiler, I suppose.)

 The offensive got off to a great start, and within days the British were engaged in fighting withdrawals in order to protect exposed flanks and compelled to call in French troops to stem the German tide at the southern part of the front. Not only were the British dramatically outnumbered in divisions, but many were seriously exhausted and understrength.  But it was certainly not a rout, as British and Commonwealth losses demonstrate.

British 6 inch gun in action

Retreating British

German AV7 tank near the Somme

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all the initial success, however, the offensive ran up against the usual barrier: the difficulty of resupply and consolidation in the wake of a rapid advance. Making it even more difficult in this case was the fact that much of the terrain had been fought over two years earlier during the Somme Offensive and was a lunar landscape virtually impassable for wheeled vehicles.  Further, when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, they had destroyed everything that might be of use to the Allies and now had themselves to deal with the devastated infrastructure and poisoned wells.

Advancing over the Somme battlefield

Dragging artillery forward

German supply column

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superficially Michael looked a success.  The Germans had penetrated 40 miles (light years in Great War terms) in the center of the offensive and collected 75,000 prisoners and about 1200 square miles of French turf.  But they had not taken Arras and were stopped short of Amiens, and more important, they had suffered some quarter million casualties, particularly among the elite Stormtroopers (Stoẞtruppen).  The Allies had lost about the same number, but huge American reinforcements were beginning to arrive and Allied war production could easily replace the lost materiel.  The Germans could not.  The Spring Offensive would continue for another three months, but many in the military were already deciding the war was over for Germany.

(For an excellent account of Operation Michael from the point of view of a German infantryman I recommend the personal memoir of Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (Stahlgewittern).  Jünger was present at the Somme, Cambrai and the Spring Offensive, where he was seriously wounded and concluded that Germany could not win.  He survived the war (and the next as well) and was the rare enlisted man to be awarded the Pour le Mérite.)

Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger at 100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Michael underlined the problems of coordination between the British and French high commands, and on 26 March General Ferdinand Foch was chosen to coordinate Allied activities.  In April he would be named Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies, a long delayed development.

Ferdinand Foch

In other news, on 21 March the Commonwealth troops in Palestine began crossing the Jordan River, heading for the key Turkish position in Amman, which controlled the all-important Hejaz Railway. By the 27th they had occupied the Moab hills and assaulted Amman itself (The First Battle of Amman 27 – 31 March), but Turkish/German counterattacks forced them back to the west bank of the Jordan by 2 April.

Turkish prisoners

Amman

The Jordan Valley and Amman

Bridge across the Jordan

Crossing the Jordan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More interesting, on the same day the Jordan was crossed the Germans began shelling Paris – from 75 miles away. Near Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, behind their lines, the Germans had emplaced the largest artillery piece (in terms of barrel length – 112 feet) of the war, the 256 ton Paris Gun (Paris-Geschütz), also known as the Emperor William Gun (Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz). The gun fired yard long 234 pound shells, which traveled 25 miles up into the atmosphere, the first manmade objects to enter the stratosphere, and the range was so great that the rotation of the earth needed to be taken into account in aiming the weapon.

The Paris gun

Emplacing the Paris gun

Paris gun mount

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guns – there were three of them – were designed by Krupp engineer Fritz Rausenberger and marvels of engineering for the time, but as an effective weapon they had serious drawbacks. Inasmuch as the shell had to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressures of firing, it could only carry 15 pounds of explosive, a trivial amount when the smallest target you could expect to hit was a city.  (A proposal to employ a sabot-mounted shell, which would increase the explosive payload was inexplicably rejected.)  Further, each shot wore down the barrel enough that the next shell had to be slightly bigger, and after 65 had been fired the barrel was sent back to Krupp to be restored.  An average of 20 shells a day were fired, amounting to only 300 pounds of explosive delivered in small packets.

The gun

The shell and propellant

Hello, stratosphere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly the gun was not intended to level Paris, but to undermine morale in the capital.  But when the firing stopped in August (the Allies were approaching the site), only 250 Parisians had been killed and 620 wounded, and after initial confusion regarding the source of the shelling Paris shrugged off the threat.  The psychological offensive had failed.  On the other hand, Germany had reached the stratosphere.

On a lighter note, the first confirmation of a new strain of influenza came on 11 March.  It was found coursing the bloodstream of Private Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas, though the ultimate origin of the disease is still in dispute.  This was the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, so named because more cases were reported in neutral Spain, where there was no military censorship.  It would kill 3% to 6% of the human race.

The influenza hospital at Fort Riley

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #41: the Airplane I

The tank was developed specifically to deal with the problems of trench warfare (see Report #37), and while it did have some impact, at least on the Allied side, its real strategic value would not be demonstrated until the next war.  Better design and more powerful and reliable engines would allow the tank to come of age, and the Germans (ironically, given their lack of interest during the Great War) would perfect its use in mass formations as an offensive spearhead.  One of the elements in this new armored warfare would be close coordination between the tank and a weapon that did come of age, at least tactically, during the Great War: the airplane.

This new heavier-than-air flying technology was still relatively primitive when the war began, and at first it was used as balloons had been for a half century, for observation of the enemy.  Especially important was photographic reconnaissance and spotting for the artillery (though proper coordination took some time to be worked out), and the airplane provided a much more flexible platform than a tethered balloon.  And this was certainly a much more pleasant activity than living in a trench and going over the top.

The Taube

The Etrich-Rumpler Taube, one of the first observation aircraft

Allied observation balloon

German observation balloon

But this was after all a war and the fliers were combatants, and almost immediately they began to greet one another with more than friendly waves.  Observers started carrying pistols and grenades, but hitting, let alone seriously damaging, another aircraft with such weapons was all but impossible.  In fact the first airplane brought down was by being rammed: on 8 September 1914 an Austrian plane was rammed by Pyotr Nesterov over Galicia, killing himself and the enemy fliers.  Frustrated, a French flier, Louis Quénault, equipped himself with a Hotchkiss M1901 light machine gun and on 5 October 1914 shot down a German plane (actually, with an incredibly lucky shot from a rifle after the machine gun’s ammunition was exhausted).  Now the race was on to create a real fighter plane.

The Hotchkiss M1909

Quénault’s plane, the Morane-Saulnier L

Pyotr Nesterov  †1914

Nesterov’s plane, the Morane-Saulnier G

The ramming

The major problem was where to mount the gun.  In two seater aircraft it was easy to mount a machine gun for the observer, but this only provided defensive fire and in any case lighter, faster single seat planes were the obvious candidates for an offensive aircraft.  With only a single flier the gun had to be mounted where the pilot could easily clear jams (which happened frequently) and reload and use the plane itself to aim his fire.  That required the gun to be placed immediately in front of the cockpit, which meant shooting through the arc of the propeller, a dangerous proposition.

The Bristol F.2 two seater with a rear Lewis gun

One way to avoid this was to put the engine with a “pusher” prop behind the pilot, but it was already known that in terms of performance this arrangement was far less effective than a front mounted “tractor” propeller.  Another approach, which was used initially by the British, was to mount the gun (usually a Lewis light machine gun) so that it fired above the propeller arc, which meant on the upper wind of a biplane or a special structure on a monoplane.  The Foster mount allowed the gun to be moved down to the pilot for service (and to shoot upward), but the protruding gun and mount added considerable drag and stressed the wing, which in turn scattered the fired rounds with its vibrations.

Double Lewis guns on a modified Sopwith Camel

The Foster mount on an Avro 504K

The Royal Aircraft Factory FE2D pusher with a (scary) nose-mounted Lewis gun

The Lewis gun

Clearly, the most effective place for the gun was immediately in front of the pilot, which left the problem of the propeller.  The French came up with the “deflector” prop, which sported metal plates on the propeller blades where the bullets would strike, certainly a frightening solution.  The deflected rounds were a significant threat to the pilot, and more dangerous, they placed a serious strain on the engine’s crankshaft as the propeller was repeatedly buffeted.   Nevertheless, from 1-18 April 1915 Roland Garros, flying a Morane-Saulnier L with a deflector prop, shot down three German planes, but on the 18th he was forced to land in enemy territory, perhaps because of engine problems caused by the pounding on the propeller.

The Morane-Saulnier L

Roland Garros  †1918

The armored propeller

Anthony Fokker is rightly known for perfecting the synchronization mechanism, but work on this had been going on in a number of places, and Franz Schneider had in fact patented a device in July 1913 and Raymond Saulnier in 1914.  The problem was that these early mechanisms were still crude, and the frequent – and often disastrous – failures hardly convinced inert and inherently conservative high commands to support the new technology.  Garros’ prop and the planes he downed convinced the Germans.

From the Saunier patent

Raymond Saulnier

From the Schneider patent

Franz Schneider

Severed propeller

Anthony Fokker

The basic idea was to connect the gun and the propeller such that the gun was fired only when the blade was out of the way or was prevented from firing when it was.  Generally this meant some sort of cam on the propeller or crank shaft that would push a rod enabling or disabling the gun at the proper moment.  In a way this was easier for the Germans inasmuch as their machine guns – the Parabellum and the Spandau – had a closed bolt cycle, which could be precisely timed, whereas the favored Allied gun, the Lewis, had an open bolt cycle (look it up), which could not (although the Vickers was a closed bolt).

The Spandau IMG 08

The Parabellum

A Vickers mounted on a Nieuport 17

Fokker’s Stangensteuerung system, developed in the spring of 1915, followed Saulnier’s approach: it employed a cam and reciprocating rod connection that enabled the gun to fire at the proper time rather than interrupting it.  There were mechanical weaknesses, especially with the push rod, and the system could not be easily adapted to twin guns, and this led by late 1916 to the Zentralsteuerung, which eliminated the push rod altogether.  This improvement allowed for a twin gun configuration, vital in concentrating fire for the brief moments when shooting was possible (it is not that easy to shoot down a mechanically simple fabric covered aircraft), and was the system behind the later, more familiar aircraft like the Fokker D-VII.

The Stangensteuerung interrupter gear

The Stangensteuerung system

The Zentralsteuerung system with two guns

Synchronizing the gun and prop

The other warring powers would develop synchronization systems, but the Germans beat them and in May 1915 created the first purpose-built warplane, the Fokker E.I, by adding a Parabellum MG 14 to a modified Fokker scout.  This monoplane (Eindecker) was flimsy and difficult to fly and the synchronization gear still prone to malfunction, but it was a real fighter and the Allies had none.  On 1 July Kurt Witgens brought down a Morane-Saulnier, becoming the first pilot to down an enemy plane with a synchronized gun.  The “Fokker Scourge” had begun.

Kurt Witgens  †1916

Witgens’ Fokker E.I

The Fokker E.II

The Fokker E.III

The Fokker Eindecker gave the Germans control of the air, and Allied observation craft were soon raining from the skies.  This period produced the first real fighter aces, like Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, men who worked out the basic moves and tactics of this completely new form of warfare.  Boelcke, who taught the future ace, Manfred von Richthofen, produced a set of formal rules for air combat, the Dicta Boelcke, and Immelmann is known for the tactical maneuver called the Immelmann Turn.

Oswald Boelcke  †1916

Max Immelmann  †1916

Immelmann and his Fokker

The Immelmann Turn

The Scourge would last until the beginning of 1916, when the Allies finally caught up in aircraft technology.  In January 1916 the French introduced the Nieuport 11, which still employed a wing-mounted Lewis gun with all its inherent difficulties, but the superior performance of the plane more than compensated. In February the British brought to France the Airco DH.2, a single-seat pusher fighter, which also easily outmatched the Fokker in performance.

The Nieuport 11

The Airco DH.2

These aircraft were soon bringing the Fokkers down, emphasizing that the half year of German superiority was due entirely to the synchronized gun, allowing an otherwise weak aircraft to dominate the skies.  The Allies would now rule the air until the Germans introduced their new generation of more powerful fighters in the fall.

 

 

Report from the Fronts #37: the Tank

In a sense the idea of armored vehicles goes all the way back to antiquity, when siege equipment was equipped with wheels to roll it up to the enemy walls and “armor” to protect the machine and its crew, but the serious development of armored vehicles had to wait until the internal combustion engine.  Armored cars were soon developed, but possessing very light armor and wheels, they were unsuitable for the conditions of trench warfare, which demanded a tracked vehicle.  In the early days of the Great War tractors were in fact used to tow artillery pieces and supplies, and it was a short conceptual leap to arming the tractor itself.

Towing 1915

On the way to the Somme 1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

A short conceptual leap, but one that had to confront the innate conservatism of the military establishment, which was already having problems accepting the obsolescence of cavalry.  An official British war correspondent in France in 1914, Major Ernest Swinton, realized that the American Holt caterpillar tractor could serve as the basis of an armored vehicle, and sent a proposal to Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, who brought the idea to Kitchener, who, however, showed no interest.  Hankey then went to the Committee of Imperial Defense and caught the attention of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who in January 1915 scared Prime Minister Asquith into examining the idea by suggesting that the Germans could be developing their own armored vehicle.

Maurice Hankey

Ernest Swinton

The Holt tractor 1914

 

 

 

 

 

Kitchener was ordered to create an Army committee to study the idea, but after trials with a Holt tractor the committee decided in February the concept was not workable.  Churchill, however, was determined and created a Navy operation, the Landships Committee, which began working with the Royal Naval Air Service, which had an Armored Car Division.  Incidentally, in order to disguise the nature of the project it was spread about that the committee was designing mobile water tanks for desert combat, which led to the name Water Container Committee, which was quickly discarded, because it would soon enough be shortened to the WC Committee.  In December the term “water tank” was adopted, and you know the rest.

It was decided that simply transforming Holt tractors into tanks would not work – the suspensions and power plants were too weak – and the committee would design the new machine from the ground up.  Using giant wheels instead of tracks was rejected, as were designs employing a single large or three separate tracks, and the obvious idea of a rotating turret with a gun was abandoned because of weight and center of gravity concerns.

The Tsar (Lebedenko) tricycle tank

The Killen-Straight triple track

The Pedrail monotrack

 

Before anything else, better track systems had to be developed, which was the purpose of the first prototype, tested on 8 September.  Little Willie (named after the German Crown Prince) was simply a metal box on tracks, 20 feet long, weighing in at 16 tons and powered by a 105 hp engine.  This led in early 1916 to the 28 ton Big Willy (or Mother), which had a 25 foot long rhomboidal body and surrounding tracks, providing better traction and ability to cross an eight foot trench.  The “male” version had two 6-pounders mounted in sponsons on either side of the hull and carried a crew of eight; the “female” had only machine guns.  At best they could make four miles an hour with its 105 hp engine.  These were definitely not Blitzkrieg machines.

The Mark I tank

The Mark I tank

Early Little Willie

Little Willie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Willy became the Mark I, of which 150 were produced, and it saw its first service in September 1916 in the Somme Offensive, where both the potential and the many deficiencies of the machine were demonstrated.  The armor could stop ordinary small arms fire, but was vulnerable to armor piercing rounds developed by the Germans and could be disabled by even the smallest artillery round.  Besides the slow speed, often as a little as one mile an hour on the lunar terrain of no man’s land, the tank was difficult to maneuver, requiring half the crew to attend to the steering and drive.  These early machines were also dramatically underpowered, but by far the biggest problem was mechanical, simple breakdowns that left the tank little more than a target.

Life for a tank crew was hellish.  Ventilation was extremely poor, and with the engine in the crew compartment carbon monoxide could reach deadly levels and was supplemented by fumes from the cordite in the shells fired.  The temperature inside the tank might go as high as 120° F, and the crew was forced to wear helmets and special “splatter” masks to protect them from fragments dislodged in the interior by bullets and nearby shell blasts.

Mark IV interior

Splatter mask

The Mark series interior

Nevertheless, for all the problems with this infant technology the tank demonstrated its usefulness, and even Haig, a cavalry officer, was won over and ordered more machines after the Somme.  Development of the Mark I continued, all the way to the Mark VIII, and though the external appearance changed very little, improvements in armor, steering and power plant gradually came about, albeit very slowly.  The Mark IV, which was used at Cambrai, was not very different from the Mark I: it had thicker armor and the fuel tank was moved outside to the rear of the tank.  The Mark VIII (“Liberty”), a joint American-British-French project, featured a 300 hp engine in an enclosed compartment and much better steering and power transmission, but it only went into production after the war.

The Mark VIII interior

The Mark VIII tank

The Mark IV tank

The Mark V tank

The Mark V tank

The French approach differed from the British in that there was no central development authority, resulting in three different designs produced by rival industrial firms.  In early 1915 arms manufacturer Schneider began work on the Schneider CA, an armored box on tracks, mounting a 75 mm short howitzer in a barbette on the right front corner of the box.  It first saw service in April 1917 in the Nivelle Offensive, where its poor mobility and great mechanical unreliability was vividly demonstrated.

A damaged Schneider

The Schneider CA tank

The Schneider CA tank

 

 

Another arms company, Saint-Chamond, used its political influence in 1915 to acquire support for its Saint-Chamond tank, which first saw action in 1917.  The Saint-Chamond carried a full size 75 mm gun (the most powerful for an operational tank until 1941) protruding from the front of the vehicle and an advanced petrol-electric transmission.  But the tank had all the faults of the Schneider, and the new transmission system led to many breakdowns.  Nevertheless, by the middle of 1918 the Saint-Chamond had found a role as an assault gun.

Saint-Chamond tanks

The Saint-Chamond tank

The Saint-Chamond tank

France’s third tank was by far the most successful.  Renault, accustomed to mass production of cars, came up with a design for a light tank, the 7 ton Renault FT, which entered service in late 1917.  This was in effect the first modern tank: the power plant was at the rear, and a fully rotating turret on top housed the armament, either a 37 mm gun or several machine guns.  The design was very successful, and 3700 were produced – more than any other tank in the war – many finding employment in various countries until well after the Second World War.

The Renault FT crew

Interior of the Renault FT

The Renault FT tank

The Renault FT tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The French army, however, still wanted a heavy tank, and the 76 ton, 33 foot long 2C was created, the heaviest and most advanced tank yet.  It was, in fact, so technologically complex that only ten were produced and missed the war altogether.  But the 2C remains the heaviest operational tank ever made.

The French Tiny Tank

The 2C tank

The 2C tank

 

Oddly, the Germans showed little interest in tanks and responded to the Allied vehicles by concentrating on anti-tank weapons.  They produced only one tank, the 36 ton A7V, which sported a 57 mm gun at the nose and had a crew of at least 18.  The A7V came into service in March 1918, but only 20 were built and most of the tanks used by the Germans were captured British Mark IVs. They would do better in the next war.

The A7V tank

The A7V tank in action

The A7V tank

The A7V tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

The development of armored vehicles was in response to the demands of static trench warfare, but the tank would become the prime weapon of modern wars of movement.  Tanks would not only exploit a breakthrough, as cavalry was expected to do in the Great War, but also create the breakthrough itself with powerful concentrations of  mobile firepower.  Ironically, it was the Germans, uninterested in the tank in the First World War, who would perfect the tactics and strategy of armored warfare in the Second.

A German tank 25 years later

 

(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

 

 

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

 

 

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