Report from the Fronts #17: June 1916

The Battle of Jutland came to an end on 1 June, but the forces deployed for the engagement took one more ship.  The U-boats had played no active role in the battle, but they had laid mines, and on 5 June the armored cruiser HMS Hampshire, on its way from Scapa Flow to Archangel, Russia, struck one off the west coast of the Orkney Islands.  Because of the extremely rough weather, only twelve crewmen out of 662 crew and passengers survived the sinking of the warship.  Among the missing was Field Marshall Herbert Kitchener, the literal icon of the war.

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Herbert Kitchener

Herbert Kitchener

HMS Hampshire

HMS Hampshire

 

 

 

Kitchener was in fact in many ways an icon of the High Victorian Age, the victor at Omdurman (Sudan 1898) and the Second Boer War (1899-1902), literally the face of Britain in the Great War and a man (yes, this is very Victorian) whose sexuality was constantly questioned. He was criticized for some of his actions in the Boer War – the Breaker Morant case and the concentration camps – and for ammunition problems at the start of the Great War, but it cannot be denied that he was instrumental in dramatically increasing munitions production and laying the foundation for the immense army sent to the continent.

Less well known (at least outside the knitting community – my world class knitting spouse informed of this) is that he was responsible for the “Kitchener stitch.”  During the war he exhorted women to knit sweaters, scarves and socks for the boys, but it turned out the seam across the front of the sock irritated Tommy toes.  Kitchener came up with a stitch that eliminated the seam – or at least he took credit for it.  Inasmuch as Victorian Field Marshalls did not knit, he must have obtained the idea from a female acquaintance, who remains unknown to history.

The Kitchener stitch

The Kitchener stitch

On the Western Front everyone was killing time waiting for the Big Push on the Somme, but that did not mean that Death took a holiday.  On 2 June the Germans, hoping to divert allied resources from the coming offensive, initiated the Battle of Mont Sorrel in the Ypres sector.  This was a paltry affair, involving only three divisions on each side, but when it ended on 14 June, there were 8000 British/Canadian casualties and 5765 German – and no gains.

After the battle

After the battle

Battle of Mont Sorrel

Battle of Mont Sorrel

And the Blood Pump at Verdun continued, though at a relative trickle now.  On 2 June the Germans launched an offensive east of the Meuse again, beginning with an attack on Fort Vaux.  The fort was taken on 7 June, when after a subterranean battle in the galleries the garrison surrendered, having had no water for three days.  Taking the position cost the Germans 2740 casualties to 600 for the French, of which 246 were prisoners; the capture of the fort advanced the German line about 70 yards.

The essence of Verdun

The essence of Verdun

Fort Vaux

Fort Vaux

Inside Fort Faux

Inside Fort Vaux

The main offensive, covering a three mile front, began on 23 June and quickly advanced a mile, capturing Forts Thiaumont and Froidterre but failing before Fort Souville.  The Germans reached Chapelle Sainte-Fine, only a bit more than three miles from the Verdun citadel, but were thrown back to Fleury by a counterattack.  This halted the advance, and with supply problems and concern about the coming Somme offensive (the initial bombardment began on 24 June) the Germans called off the attack.  Chapelle was as close as they would ever get to Verdun.  The village of Fleury, incidentally, would change hands fifteen more times by the middle of August.

All that is left of Fleury

All that is left of Fleury

Fort Thiaumont

Fort Thiaumont

 

 

German advance from February to June

German advance from February to June

 

In Italy the Trentino offensive ended on 3 June, and Cadorna launched a counterattack eleven days later; it did not achieve enough to earn a name as a distinct battle. Further east, Greece was on the verge of civil war, with the pro-German royalist government in Athens and the pro-Entente Venizelist (remember him?) forces in the north.  On 3 June the liberals declared martial law in Macedonia, essentially ending any rule from Athens, and on 6 June the Allies initiated a “pacific blockade” of Greece to put pressure on the government.  On 21 June the Allies delivered a note demanding that Greek forces be demobilized and a new government formed; it was accepted and the blockaded was ended the following day.

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, to the northeast the Russians, under pressure from the Allies to draw German and Austrian troops away from Verdun and the Italian Front, began their own summer offensive. General Aleksei Brusilov, commander of the Southwestern Front, convinced the Tsar to allow an attack into Galicia, which commenced on 4 June.  The “Brusilov Offensive” sent 633,000 Russians against 467,000 Austrians and Germans along a 300 mile front, and employing limited but more accurate artillery fire and the type of shock units the Germans were using at Verdun, Brusilov immediately broke through the Austrian lines.

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Brusilov Offensive

Brusilov Offensive

Within a week the Austrians were in headlong retreat, and Brusilov had already bagged 200,000 prisoners.  The penetration exposed his northern flank, however, and General Alexei Evert, the commander of the Western Front, just to the north, was opposed to the whole offensive and delayed moving out.  As a result, the Germans and Austrians were able to bring up new troops, and when Evert finally attacked on 18 June, he made little headway, partly because he learned nothing from Brusilov’s new tactics.  Evert was after all responsible for the disaster at Lake Naroch in March 1915.  Nevertheless, by 24 June the Russians had captured Bukovina, the southernmost part of Galicia.

June also saw more Turkish and British activity in western Persia and the merry chase after Lettow-Vorbeck continued in Africa, but the big news in June was the beginning of the Arab Revolt.  The British and French had been making big promises to Arab leaders since the war had started, hoping to stir revolts that would tie down Ottoman troops, and in early June (the date is not clear) Sharif Hussein bin Ali, fearing the Turks were about to depose him, signed up with the Allies.  As the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein could field some 50,000 troops, though they were woefully short of modern weapons.

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

On 5 June Hussein’s sons Ali (who would succeed his father as King of the Hejaz) and Faisal (who would later be King of Syria then King of Iraq) jumped the gun by attacking Medina but were easily repulsed by the Turkish garrison.  Five days later Hussein proclaimed the Hejaz independent and colorfully signaled the beginning of the Revolt by firing a shot from the Hashemite palace.  5000 of his men promptly attacked the Turkish forts in the city and on the third day captured the Ottoman Deputy Governor, who ordered his men to surrender.  Better equipped and trained than the Arabs, the 1000 Turkish troops refused, and the fighting continued into the next month.  With British naval and air support the port of Jidda was also attacked by Arab forces on 10 June and fell six days later.

Faisal (in 1933)

Faisal (in 1933)

Ali (in 1933)

Ali (in 1924)

Arab soldiers

Arab soldiers

No, the most romantic figure of the Great War, T.E. Lawrence, was not yet directly involved, but the movement that would dramatically alter the face of the Middle East was underway.  Colonel Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Picot agreement) even designed for the Arabs a flag, which would be the pattern for the national flags of most of the post-war Arab kingdoms.

Flag of the Hejaz

Flag of the Hejaz

Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes

 

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Reports from the Front #4: June to July 1915

(Finally. I have found the research for these pieces to be fairly time consuming, so I may have to back off on the detail. It would be nice to comment on other things occasionally.  Incidentally, my Latrodectus Hesperus has disappeared – pity, I got used to seeing her there whenever I went into the utility room.)

 

In Westen nichts Neues

Im Westen nichts Neues

 

In June and July of 1915 nothing much was happening on the Western Front: Im Westen nichts Neues. Nothing much beyond a daily death toll from shelling, trench raids and suchlike. But there was plenty of action in the east. At the beginning of June it was decided to continue the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive in Galicia despite the entry of the Italians into the war, and Lemberg was captured on 22 June and the Bug River reached by 13 July. This created a huge Russian salient stretching west to Warsaw, and the next step would be to pinch it off.

 Russian prisoners


Russian prisoners

Bug River

Bug River

Galician offensive

Galician offensive

Further to the south in the Caucasus the Russians launched a new offensive on 19 June and immediately ran into stiff Turkish resistance. Most specifically, on 10 July they attempted to clear the area west of Manzikert, captured earlier, and found themselves outnumbered three to one by the Turks, who promptly counterattacked on 16 July. The Russians evacuated the entire Van region, and on 20 July Turkish forces recaptured Manzikert, site of the monumental victory of the Seljuq Turks over the Byzantine Empire in 1071. Even further to the south the Indian Expeditionary Force was slowly making its way up the Tigris, suffering far more from the heat and disease than Ottoman resistance.

Troops of the Indian Expeditionary Force

Troops of the Indian Expeditionary Force

Area around Manzikert

Area around Manzikert

Lake Van

Lake Van

Off to the west the Italians struck their first blow on 23 June, seeking to force the Austrians from the Isonzo (Soča) River and capture Gorizia, the key to Trieste to the south. The Italians had a three to one edge in troops, but their equipment was inadequate, the morale of the poorly trained recruits was low and their commander, General Count Luigi Cadorna, unpopular. Cadorna understood only one offensive tactic, the frontal assault, which was certainly a questionable approach against the well-fortified Austrians on higher ground. The First Battle of the Isonzo ended on 7 July with minimal Italian gains and 15,000 casualties against 10,000 for the enemy. Receiving reinforcements and more artillery, he tried again on 18 July, and fierce hand-to-hand fighting characterized the Second Battle of the Isonzo, which came to an end on 10 August when both sides ran out of ammunition. The Austrian lines held, though they lost 46,600 men; Cadorna lost 41,000. There would be more.

Isonzo river

Isonzo river

The Isonzo Front

The Isonzo Front

Count Cadorna

Count Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna

Meanwhile, far to the south an odd naval war was taking place. Crippled by engine problems, the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg hid in the Rufiji River delta, where she was discovered in October 1914. On 5 November three British cruisers cornered the Königsberg, but they were unable to sail up the delta and after firing a few shells they settled for a blockade. By March 1915 the Königsberg was in trouble with shrinking food supplies, low morale and deaths from tropical diseases, but though a German supply ship pretending to be Danish was trapped in Manza Bay and burned, much of the cargo was retrieved and delivered to the Königsberg and German land forces. In June two British monitors towed from Malta arrived at the Rufiji, and aided by spotter aircraft (before they fell apart in the glue-melting heat), they destroyed the Königsberg, which was scuttled by her captain, Commander Max Looff. Salvaging the cruiser’s ten 105-mm guns, the crew ultimately joined

SMS Königsberg scuttled

SMS Königsberg scuttled

Lettow-Vorbeck’s merry band.

One of SMS Königsberg's guns

One of the Königsberg’s guns

The Königsberg

SMS Königsberg

Captain Max Looff

Captain Max Looff

Then there was Lake Tanganyika. At the outbreak of war the Germans had two small warships on the lake, SMS Hedwig von Wissman and SMS Kingani, both in the fifty ton range. They quickly seized control of the lake, sinking a Belgian and a British steamer, and that allowed them to easily send raiding parties into the Belgian Congo and Rhodesia. In February 1915 the Germans launched the 1600 ton SMS Graf von Goetzen, which had been built in Germany in 1913, disassembled and packed into 5000 crates and shipped to Africa. In response the British ordered from England two forty foot motor boats, the Mimi and the Toutou, which were loaded on a freighter and dispatched to Africa on 15 June 1915. Their arrival would set the scene for Hepburn and Bogart in the African Queen.

The Goetzen's 105 mm gun from the Königsberg

The Goetzen’s 105-mm gun from the Königsberg

SMS Graf von Goetzen

SMS Graf von
Goetzen

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika

Finally, the Armenians. As non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had long suffered discrimination and disabilities, but not until the late nineteenth century did the oppression blossom into widespread violence, as growing Armenian resistance, the proximity of the Russian Empire and Great Power interference brought on a Turkish backlash. While the government deliberately stirred rebellions with harsh measures, Kurdish irregulars were unleashed on the Armenians to essentially do as they pleased. The result was the Hamidian massacres of 1894-96, in which between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians were killed. But in July 1908 Third Army officers who were members of the progressive Young Turk movement compelled the despised Sultan Abdul Hamid II to establish a constitutional monarchy. All the minorities rejoiced.

Armenians celebrating the Young Turk coup

Armenians celebrating the Young Turk coup

Abdul Hamid II

Abdul Hamid II

Victims in Erzurum 1895

Victims in Erzurum 1895

Early next year there was a counterrevolution, but the government was able to suppress it and depose Hamid in favor of Mehmed V, who would be only a figurehead. During the brief struggle, however, the reactionaries took out their anger on Armenians, and when troops were sent in to quell the massacres, many joined in the looting and killing in Adana province. Anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 Armenians died in the Adana Massacre. The loss of most of the Ottoman territory in Europe as a result of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) convinced many Turks to focus more attention on the Anatolian heartland, in which region the Armenians were a large minority. Further, a flood of Muslim refugees from Europe washed across the Bosporus, and perhaps 800,000 settled in Armenian areas, where they would play a major role in the slaughter to come.

Christian quarter of Adana

Christian quarter of Adana

Victims in adana

Victims in Adana

On 24 April 1915 some 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals were arrested, later to be executed or deported, and on 27 May Istanbul ordered the forced deportation of all Armenians, the notorious Temporary Law of Deportation. Granted, many had been aiding the Russians, but old hatreds mattered more, and it quickly became clear that deportation was simply a mechanism for killing Armenians of all ages. The “deportations” were actually death marches, and for those who survived the depredations and attacks there were “concentration” camps, where the inmates were essentially starved to death. The Turks did not operate with the incredible efficiency later displayed by the Third Reich, but the whole operation was a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Armenians. It was in fact witnessed by many of the German officers aiding the Turks, and they were appalled by what they recognized as simply murder on a mass scale. And a century later Turkey still maintains this holocaust never happened.

Hauntingly familiar

Hauntingly familiar

Scenes like this could be seen across Turkey in 1915

Scenes like this could be seen across Turkey in 1915

Some of the victims of 24 April 1915

Some of the victims of 24 April 1915

 

This could be Poland in the 1940s.

This could be Poland in the 1940s.

 

 

 

 

"Deportation"

“Deportation”

 

Reports from the Front #2: the East – August 1914 to May 1915

(Yes, the maps are hard to read because of the small size, but I have no idea how to make them bigger or create a link to the original.  But I will continue to include them – I like maps.)

 

While the men on the Western Front were quickly learning about industrialized warfare, in the east, where the front ran for almost a thousand miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea, things were a bit different.  Because of the difficulty of fortifying and manning such a long line, the war was more fluid, with impressive breakthroughs that the generals in the west kept spending men on but could not achieve.  On the other hand, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies were far inferior in quality and their communications more primitive, which meant that while penetrating enemy lines was much easier, sustaining any advance was more difficult.  Austrian troops would need constant help from the Germans.WWOne24[1]

On 12 August Austria invaded Serbia with 270,000 troops, a fraction of their total operational force of some two million, and they faced a poorly equipped Serbian army, whose entire operational strength at the time was about 250,000 men.  Nevertheless, despite two more Austrian invasions, by the middle of December virtually nothing had changed – except the loss of men: 170,000 for Serbia, 230,000 for Austria.  Even without a static front industrialized warfare did not come cheap.

Russian infantry

Russian infantry

Serbian infantry

Serbian infantry

Austrian infantry

Austrian infantry

Meanwhile, on 17 August the Russians invaded East Prussia, but the Russian Second Army was annihilated by Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg at the Battle of Tannenberg from 26 to 30 August; the Russian commander, Alexander Samsonov, shot himself.  The engagement actually took place near Allenstein, 19 miles to the east, but as a symbol of revenge for the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1410 it was named after Tannenberg.  Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Erich von Ludendorff (who would become virtual dictator of Germany in 1918), then took the Eighth Army east and in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes from 7 to 14 September destroyed the Russian First Army as well,

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

despite being heavily outnumbered.  Russian troops were driven from German soil and would not return again until late 1944.

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Battle of Tannenberg

Battle of Tannenberg

 

The major problem for the Russian army was incompetent and corrupt officers.  The individual soldier was tough and at least initially willing to fight for his country, despite its oppressive and brutal government, but he was very badly led and constantly short of supplies.  Not only were Russian industry and transportation far less developed than that of her allies and Germany, but selling army supplies was a thriving practice among senior officials and army officers.  (One is perhaps reminded of the current Iraqi army.)  Further complicating any advance into Germany – and vice versa – was the broader Russian railway gauge, which would plague the Wehrmacht in the next war.

On the other hand, as the Serbian campaigns demonstrate the Austro-Hungarian army was nothing much to write home about either.  On 23 August the Austrian First Army met the Russian Fourth Army near Lublin on the border between Russian Poland and Austrian Galicia (parts of modern Poland and Ukraine), inaugurating the Battle of Galicia.  The Fourth Army was driven back, as was the Fifth Army immediately to the southeast, but unfortunately for old Franz Joseph, in the southernmost sector of the front the Russians actually had an able commander, Aleksei Brusilov, who broke the Austrian advance.  Defeat turned to flight, making the Austrian gains in the north untenable, and when the battle ended on 11 September, the Russian front had advanced a hundred miles to the Carpathian Mountains.  The heart of the Austrian army had been ripped out, and the Germans were forced to send troops to Austria’s defense and thus limit their advance into Russian Poland.

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Battle of Galicia

Battle of Galicia

A month and a half of war in the east demonstrated what everyone had already suspected: the Germans were good and the Austrians and Russians were not.  The Germans had lost 24,000 men, including captured, the Austrians 684,000 and the Russians a 605,000.  But the Russians now occupied Galicia, balancing the disaster in the north and perhaps keeping Nicky on his throne a bit longer.

The Russian supreme command was in fact contemplating an invasion of Silesia, which would expose the flanks of the Germans in the north and the Austrians in the south.  The Germans got wind of this, and Hindenburg, now supreme commander in the east, sent the Ninth Army under August von Mackensen southeast to forestall the invasion.  The Russians countered by ordering the Fifth Army to forget about Silesia and withdraw to the area of Łódź to deal with the threat from von Mackensen, who struck Paul von Rennenkampf’s First Army (yes, he is a Russian) on 11 November.  Thus began the Battle of Łódź, which went on until 6 December, when the Germans finally gave up trying to capture the city.  The Russians then nevertheless moved east towards Warsaw to establish a new defense line, and Rennenkampf, who had already been accused of incompetence at Tannenberg, was canned.  Another 35,000 Germans and 90,000 Russians down the tubes.

Paul von Rennenkampf

Paul von Rennenkampf

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Battle of Lodz

Battle of Lodz

On 7 February Hindenburg resumed the offensive with a surprise attack in the midst of a snowstorm and drove the Russians back some seventy miles, inflicting heavy casualties and accepting the surrender of an entire Russian corps.  But a Russian counterattack halted the advance, and the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes ended on 22 February with the Germans down 16,200 men and the Russians 200,000.  Well, one death is a tragedy, 50,000 is a statistic.  More uplifting (if you happened to be a German or an Austrian), on 2 May von Mackensen, now commanding Austrian forces, began an offensive near Gorlice and Tarnów (southeast of Krakow); this was the beginning of a push that would ultimately become known from the Russian point of view as the Great Retreat of 1915.

In other news from the east during the first ten months of the war, on 29 October the weakling Ottoman Empire, seeking to regain territory lost in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, shelled the Black Sea ports of Sevastopol and Theodosia.  There had been no declaration of war, and the two warships, recently acquired from Germany, were under the command of German officers, who may have acted on their own.  Seeking another front against Russia, the Germans had been putting pressure on Turkey to enter the war and found a willing accomplice in the most powerful man in the Empire, War Minister Ismail Enver, better known as Enver Pasha, who admired the German army.  In any case, Russia declared war on 1 November, promptly followed by Serbia and Montenegro, and before the Turks could negotiate Britain and France also declared war on 5 November.  In response the titular head of government, Sultan Mehmed V, declared war on Britain, France and Russia, and on 14 November the head sky-pilot of the Empire, the Sheikh ul-Islam, issued a series of fatwas that declared this to be a jihad, a holy war against the infidel enemies.  Now the Turks were in on the fun.  Only the Italians were missing.

Sultan Mehmed V

Sultan Mehmed V

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

 Der Drei Kaiser Bund

Der Drei Kaiser Bund