Report from the Fronts #28: April 1917

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

Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line

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

Alexandre Ribot

General Robert Nivelle

Ready for the Big Show

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

Henry Horne

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Ludwig von Falkenhausen

Hubert Gough

Second Battle of Arras

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

British reconnaissance plane

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

8″ shells with the instantaneous fuse

Creeping barrage map (First Battle of Passchendaele)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

German POWs from Vimy Ridge

Julian Byng at Vimy Ridge

On Vimy Ridge

Following a tank at Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Ridge plan

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

Arras after the battle

Dressing station east of Arras

East of Arras

 

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

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

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

British anti-aircraft at Arras

The Red Baron

 

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

Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler

Max von Boehm

Second Battle of the Aisne

 

 

 

 

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

The town of Soupir was in the way

Assault on the Chemin

Chemin des Dames front; note the German trench complex

 

 

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

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

Damaged British tank

Turkish machine gunners

Kress von Kressenstein

The Second Battle of Gaza

 

 

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

 

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Report from the Fronts #27: March 1917

On the Western Front the Reichswehr continued its withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, the troops in the Somme sector beginning their retreat (called a “retrograde redeployment” by the US military) on 14 March.  Allied forces began occupying the abandoned positions on the 17th, and by 5 April the Germans had completed an orderly withdrawal to their new defensive positions.

In other news from the west, on 12 March the US announced it would begin arming merchant vessels, and on 31 March the Austrian Emperor, Karl I, apparently seeing the handwriting on the wall, dispatched a secret peace proposal to the French.  The French, meanwhile, were undergoing a political shakeup: Minister for War, Hubert Lyautey, resigned on 15 March, bringing down the government of Premier Aristide Briand (formed October 1915) five days later.  Alexander Ribot formed a new government, just in time to confront the mutiny of half the French army.

Alexander Ribot

Karl I

Aristide Briand

 

Further east the British were beginning to put the kybosh on the Turks.  On 11 March, having outmaneuvered the enemy in crossing the Diyala River, General Maude marched into an abandoned Baghdad and issued a proclamation declaring “our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators”.  Well, more likely as liberators of Iraqi oil.

General Stanley Maude

Maude entering Baghdad

 

 

 

 

To the southeast, however, the British Palestine campaign got off to a rocky start.  On 26 March Gaza City was attacked, but a resolute defense by General Kress von Kressenstein (remember him?) and the threat of Ottoman reinforcements from the north forced them to withdraw, ending the First Battle of Gaza the following day.

British POWs at Gaza

Turkish guns at Gaza

General von Kressenstein in the field

Turkish officers at Gaza

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The loss at Gaza and rumors of a Turkish withdrawal from the Hejaz turned more British attention on the Arab Revolt.  As it happened, rather than using the Hejaz forces to defend Palestine the Turks determined for religious reasons to defend Medina, but the Allies were reluctant to give the Arabs the heavy weapons necessary to take Medina, fearing Arab possession of the city might stir a degree of Arab unity inconvenient for Allied post-war plans.  The decision was to isolate the Medina garrison and prevent any orderly withdrawal north by more concentrated attacks on the Turkish lifeline, the Hejaz Railway.

The Hejaz Railway

The Arab irregulars were perfect for this sort of work, and the British had the explosives and expertise to make them more effective.  A demolition school had been set up at Wejh by Captain Stewart Newcombe and Major Herbert Garland, who had already developed the Garland Grenade and the Garland Trench Mortar.  Together with a Lieutenant Hornby (no bio found), they began in March a serious campaign against the railroad, destroying bridges and miles of track and derailing and looting trains.

Herbert Garland

Stewart Newcombe

Garland, who could speak Arabic, was a particularly enthusiastic participant and personally taught Lawrence about explosives, later receiving effusive praise from his better known colleague in his semi-autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Garland is thought by some to be the first to derail a train, probably in March, with explosives – the Garland Mine, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Russia.  Throughout March Czar Nicolas’ troops were capturing cities in northwestern Persia (hardly a difficult task), including Hamadan, but time was running out for the Autocrat of All the Russias.

Speaking of time, dating Russian affairs before 1918 can be very confusing inasmuch as Russia still employed the Julian calendar [C. Julius Caesar 46 BC] while the West had long before adopted the more accurate Gregorian [Pope Gregory XIII AD 1582].  I have been using the Gregorian, which in the period from 17 February 1900 to 15 February 2099 is thirteen days ahead of the Julian.  The Bolsheviks did not make the switch until early 1918, so the February Revolution actually happened in March and the October Revolution in November 1917.

On 3 March the workers of the Putilov machine works in St. Petersburg, fed up with the war, the incompetent autocracy and the increasing food shortages, went on strike, and on the 8th they were joined by thousands of angry women, who began recruiting strikers from other factories.  The “February” Revolution had begun.  And the Czar?  He had left for the front the previous day.

Burning symbols of the Monarchy

Striking Putilov workers

Protesters on Nevsky Prospect

 

By 10 March there were a quarter million workers in the streets, and virtually all industry had been shut down in the city.  More ominous, calls for abolition of the monarchy were being heard and some soldiers were seen in the protesting crowds, and the Czar ordered the commander of the Petrograd military district, Sergei Khabalov, to disperse the strikers with force.  Indecisive and inexperienced, Khabalov was not up to the job.  On 11 March elements of the city garrison revolted and began firing on the police; they were disarmed by loyal troops, but government control was rapidly crumbling.

Students and soldiers firing on police

Sergei Khabalov

Protesters, including soldiers

 

 

 

On 12 March the Czar responded to a desperate request from the Duma, Russia’s generally ineffective parliament, by questioning the seriousness of the situation, and as if in reply, the Volynsky Life Guards Regiment revolted the same day, followed by four other regiments, including the Preobrazhensky.  By the end of the day some 60,000 troops in St. Petersburg were in open revolt and distributing arms to the workers, while most of their officers went into hiding.

Serious open revolt

Protesting soldiers

Open revolt

 

 

To make matters worse – if possible – that morning the Czar had prorogued the Duma, rendering it powerless to act.  Led by Mikhail Rodzianko, a number of the delegates then created the Provisional Committee of the State Duma, which proclaimed itself to be the legitimate government of the Empire.  Unfortunately for them, the various socialist factions had other ideas and at the same time resurrected the Petrograd Soviet of the failed 1905 Revolution, immediately attracting massive support among the workers and soldiers.  On 13 March the few remaining loyal troops in the city abandoned the Czar.

Nikolai Chkheidze, Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet

Mikhail Rodzianko

Provisional Committee of the State Duma

 

 

 

 

That very day Nicholas decided to return to the capital, but unable to enter St. Petersburg he ended up in Pskov, over a hundred miles to the west, on 14 March.  There he was visited by Army Chief Nikolai Ruzsky and two Duma members, who urged him to give up the throne, and the following day he and his son, Alexei, abdicated.   Nicholas chose as his successor his brother Grand Duke Michael, but the Grand Duke did not need a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing and refused.  The 300 year old Romanov dynasty and the Russian monarchy itself were at an end.

Grand Duke Michael

Nikolai Ruzsky

Nicholas abdicates aboard his train

 

 

 

 

On 22 March Nicholas Romanov joined his family at Tsarskoya Selo, where they were confined in the Alexander Palace and protected by the Provisional Government, now under the Chairmanship of Prince Georgy Lvov.  The Allies, desperate to keep Russia in the war, were prompt in recognizing the new regime: Britain and America (on the verge of war) on the 22nd and France and Italy two days later.

The March Provisional Government

Nicholas Romanov at Tsarskoya Selo

Georgy Lvov

Alexander Palace

 

 

 

 

 

Germany, anxious to get Russia out of the war, took a different step and provided a train to transport the leaders of the Bolsheviks, the most extreme socialist party, from their exile in Switzerland to St. Petersburg.   On 21 March Vladimir Ulyanov, aka Vladimir Lenin, arrived at the Finland Station, to be greeted by supporters singing La Marseillaise.  And while the Bolsheviks would indeed take Russia out of the war, they would also lead the rodina into decades of terror and oppression undreamed of under the Romanovs.

Unknown to the Second Reich, however, the day before Mr. Ulyanov arrived in St. Petersburg President Wilson’s cabinet voted unanimously to ask for a declaration of war against Germany.

Lenin in 1916

Lenin’s locomotive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.