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.

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #39: January 1918

The new year brought no particular hope for the Allies.  The disaster of Caporetto and the exit of the Russians in fact boded ill, and the Allied command was looking to 1919 for a victory.  The Central Powers had eliminated Russia from the war and could bring more troops west, but they were on the verge of starvation because of the Allied blockade and would need to take some action soon.

January saw no major fighting – the winter in France and Flanders was exceptionally cold – and most of the action was diplomatic.  At Brest-Litovsk the Russians were discovering just how much a peace was going to cost them, and on 5 January ceased negotiations, demanding they be conducted at Stockholm.  Three days later they resumed the talks, only to withdraw again on the 23rd and then reengage on the 30th.  Dissension was growing among the Bolshevik leadership, and some wanted to wait until the expected worker revolutions broke out in Europe.

On 6 January a delegation from the Ukraine, which was seeking a separate peace with the Central Powers, arrived.  In the wake of the February Revolution in March 1917 the Ukrainians had begun organizing their own state, and while this development was tolerated by the Provisional Government, the new Bolshevik regime was definitely unenthusiastic, despite its proclamation of self-determination in the former empire.  As is still clear in the 21st century, the Ukraine occupied a special place in the Russian heart: though possessing a different culture and language, it was considered “south Russia” and the birthplace of Russia itself – Kievan Rus’.  And Lenin desperately needed Ukrainian grain.  Two decades of nightmare were about to begin for the Ukrainian people.

The Ukrainian delegation at Brest-Litovsk

Others were leaving the one-time Greater Romanov Co-Prosperity Sphere.  After the abdication of Czar Nicholas in March 1917 Finland declared itself autonomous, inasmuch as the personal union between Finland and Russia was based on the monarchy.  When the Bolsheviks announced self-determination on 15 November, the Finish Parliament declared complete sovereignty and on 6 December passed a Declaration of Independence, which the Soviet government accepted on 4 January.  Poland was occupied by the Germans, and Belarus and the Baltic and Caucasian states would soon be departing.

Signatures on the Finish Declaration of Independence

Incidentally, the Bolshevik leadership demonstrated in January that it was also unconcerned about self-determination in Russia.  On the 18th a supportive crowd marched on the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, where the Constituent Assembly, elected in November, was to meet.  They were shot at by government soldiers, but the Assembly convened anyway, surrounded by troops, who finally forced the meeting to adjourn around 4 AM.  The next day the Assembly was dissolved by the Bolshevik government, which had no need for a freely elected parliament.

The Tauride Palace

The meeting place in the Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a speech to Congress on 8 January President Wilson outlined his Fourteen Points for a just settlement of the war.  The first point called for “open covenants, openly arrived at,” a provision that the Allies, with all their secret treaties, were not amused by, though Lenin, who had revealed all the Russian treaties, thought the document enlightened.  The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who was less interested in Wilson’s idealism than squeezing every last pfennig out of Germany, responded to the Fourteen Points with Le bon Dieu n’en avait que dix ! (“The good Lord had only ten!”).  Nevertheless, the Points would serve as a basis for negotiating the peace treaty at Versailles after the war.

Clemenceau

Wilson

Germany faces the Fourteen Points

Report from the Fronts #38: December 1917

The battle of Cambrai came to an end on 7 December, and the Western Front was then otherwise “quiet.”  On the same day the US Battleship Division 9, commanded by Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, reached the Grand Fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow, adding four American dreadnaughts to the fleet.  America at first resisted dividing its fleet, but First Sea Lord Jellicoe (who would resign on the 26th) convinced the American admirals by revealing in April the massive losses in merchant shipping in 1917 – 600,000 tons per month – which would lead to starvation in Britain by the end of the year.  The British requested older coal burning ships because of the shortages of oil, and the Americans sent the Delaware, Florida, New York and Wyoming.

USS Wyoming

USS New York

USS Delaware

USS Florida

Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman

 

Off in the east Russia was making its peace with the Central Powers.  On 5 December a Russian delegation signed a general truce with the Central Powers at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk (the rest of city was in ruins) in Belarus and began negotiations for an armistice.  The Soviet team was a motley crew, inasmuch as it involved representatives of all the social groups supporting the Revolution (soldiers, sailors, workers, etc. – a peasant was recruited off the street at the last minute), but two Bolshevik luminaries were present: Leon Trotsky (assassinated in August 1940) and Lev Kamenev (shot in August 1936).

Kamenev arrives

Kamenev

Trotsky

Trotsky arrives

Brest-Litovsk conference

The delegation was led by Adolph Joffe (committed suicide in November 1927 after being refused permission to travel abroad for medical treatment), an ally of Trotsky, and his position was soon improved by sending home many of the social group representatives, such as the sailors.  On 15 December an armistice was signed, and on the 22nd negotiations for a peace treaty began, a much harder row to hoe for the Russians.  They wanted no “annexations or indemnities,” but the Central Powers had territorial ambitions galore and non-Russian provinces were already opting out of the prostrate Russian Empire.  Courland, Poland and Lithuania, already occupied by the Germans and Austrians, wanted independence, which Finland declared on 6 December; the Moldavian Democratic Republic (Bessarabia) was declared on the 15th.  And proclaiming the principle of self-determination made it difficult for the Bolsheviks to argue against these developments.

Adolph Joffre

Meanwhile, it was becoming clearer where the new Russian republic was heading.  Back in July the Provisional Government had accepted the idea of Constituent Assembly, but Kerensky wanted to wait until the war, which he wished to continue, was over.  The October Revolution (in November) changed that, inasmuch as the Bolsheviks demanded immediate peace, and elections were held in November.  Unfortunately for Lenin, a split among his allies, the Social Revolutionaries, meant the Bolsheviks could be a minority in the Assembly, and it would not be convened until January.

To the south the British outside Jerusalem were fending off Turkish counterattacks at the beginning of December, and on the evening of 8 December the Ottoman Seventh Army moved north, evacuating Jerusalem but for a small force on the Mount of Olives.  The next day British units entered the city, which surrendered, and the Turks on the Mount were defeated.  On 11 December Allenby entered the city through the Jaffa Gate, on foot in order to show respect for the holy places.  From the 26th to the 30th the Turks, reinforced by units from further east (which would make Baghdad easier to capture), attacked the British positions but were repulsed.

British guard at the Jaffa Gate

Allenby at the Jaffa Gate

The British enter Bethlehem

The surrender of Jerusalem

Allenby enters Jerusalem

On 17 December London gave assurances to Hussein bin Ali, the self-proclaimed King of Hejaz, concerning the independence of the Arabs following the war.  This assurance was, however, in direct contradiction to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which handed the areas outside the Arabian Peninsula to the British and the French, and on 23 November the Bolsheviks had published the text of Sykes-Picot and other secret treaties (pretty much the only cool thing they would ever do).  Ah, perfidious Albion.

Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The odds and ends of December: on 7 December the American Congress, possibly in response to Caporetto, declared war on Austria-Hungary, followed by Panama on the 10th, which surely convinced the Austrians that they were doomed.  And on 1 December the last German troops were squeezed out of German East Africa, but Lettow-Vorbeck would carry on the war in Portuguese Mozambique.

The socialist Meyer London, the only man to vote against war with Austria-Hungary

And still the war went on.

 

 

Report from the Fronts #36: November 1917

The new socialist Russia might be opting out, but on the Western Front the war went on.  On 6 November the Canadians finally captured Passchendaele, now more like the surface of the moon than a town, and four days later the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end.  The figures are disputed, but the Allies and Germans together had suffered at least a half million casualties in the campaign to capture Passchendaele Ridge.  But it was not over yet.

Haig decided that it was time for a big push some fifty miles south of Ypres, opposite Cambrai, the capture of which would threaten the German rear lines.  On 20 November two British corps with 476 tanks (378 with guns) pushed off against a German corps.  Tanks had been used before but not in such numbers, and together with close coordination between infantry and artillery they allowed the British to advance as much as five miles on the first day against deep and well developed German defenses.  In six hours the British had gained as much as they had in three months at Ypres and at half the casualty rate.

Inside the Mark IV

 

The Mark IV tank

Battle of Cambrai

That, however, changed the next day.  The Mark IV tanks had played a major role in penetrating the deep fields of wire, but the defenses stiffened and the Germans had actually developed anti-tank measures.  On the first day 65 tanks were knocked out by artillery, and 71 broke down and 43 were immobilized in shell holes and ditches, hardly surprising for a new technology.  (A Report on tank development will appear.)  The remainder of the offensive was more typical of the Western Front, as progress slowed and the casualties began mount.  On 30 November the Germans launched a serious counterattack and began recovering lost ground, and when the battle ended on 7 December it was a draw: the British retained territory gained in the north and lost pre-offensive turf in the south.  And all this for a combined 90-100,000 casualties.

Another dead tank

Damaged tank

German counterattack        

And the news we have all been waiting for: the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (Caporetto).  By 2 November the Germans and Austrians had crossed the Tagliamento River, only 40 miles from Venice, but the inevitable supply problems associated with a successful advance began to slow things down, giving the Italians time to establish a line on the Piave River.  Enemy forces reached the Piave on 11 November, but short of supplies and reinforcements they could not cross the river, nor could they in the next two weeks dislodge the Italians from Monte Grappa, which guarded the left flank of the Piave Line.

From Monte Grappa towards the Austrian position

The Piave Line

Battle of Caporetto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total defeat was avoided, but no thanks to General Cadorna, who was largely responsible for the disaster: poor deployment, no defense in depth and poor morale (his troops hated him), even among his higher officers (he had canned 827 of them).  On 9 November, partly at the urging of Britain and France, he was replaced as Chief of Staff by Armando Diaz, one of his better generals.  Unfortunately, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando also appointed as Diaz’s second in command Pietro Badoglio, who had played a major role in the defeat and would be accused of war crimes in the next war.  On 27 November Cadorna was named Italy’s representative on the newly formed allied Supreme War Council.

Pietro Badoglio as a Fascist

Goodbye, Luigi

Armando Diaz

Vittorio Orlando

 

Diaz was able to stabilize the Italian front on the Piave and successfully defend Monte Grappa, but Italy had suffered one of the greatest defeats in its history.  About 350,000 German and Austrian troops had taken on some 874,000 Italians and routed them.  The Italians suffered only 40,000 killed and wounded to the enemy’s 70,000, but they lost 265,000 men to capture, a telling sign of how much Cadorna was despised by his men, who surrendered in droves.  On the other hand, the disaster, the loss of so much Italian soil and the new leadership of Diaz led to something of a rebirth of the Italian army.  The collapse and retreat of Caporetto (and Cadorna’s draconian policies), incidentally, is the backdrop of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Ernest Hemingway in 1918

Italian POWs

Italian retreat

 

Meanwhile, in Palestine the Third Battle of Gaza was rolling on.  The capture of Beersheba and the eastern sector of the Turkish line made their position in Gaza ultimately untenable, and during the night of 6/7 November the Turks slipped out of the city.  The Egyptian Expeditionary Force pursued, withstood a Turkish counterattack on 12 November and on the 13th and 14th attacked and defeated the Turkish rearguards, leading the Ottoman commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, to order a withdrawal all along the line.  His Seventh Army took up positions in the Judean Hills, preparing to defend Jerusalem, and his Eighth Army retreated up the coast to just beyond Jaffa, which was entered by EEF units on 16 November.

Surrender of Jaffa

Falkenhayn

Edmund_Allenby

Allenby

The Palestine campaign

 

 

 

In the two weeks following the capture of Beersheba the British had pushed some fifty miles north, to just short of Jerusalem, capturing 10,000 prisoners and 100 guns for the cost of about 1000 casualties.  The EEF commander, Edmund Allenby, was now entitled to thumb his nose at Haig, who had fired him after the Battle of Arras a half year earlier, though of course a British officer would never do such a thing.

On the other hand, Allenby’s supply lines were now very long, all the way back to Gaza and beyond, the Turks having destroyed the infrastructure as they retreated, and transporting supplies from the railhead to the troops was slow business, given the state of the roads in Palestine.  Logistics had always been a problem for organized armies, even before fuel, ammunition and shells were a constant need; a 10,000 man force required an absolute minimum of fifteen tons of food (in terms of grain) alone per day.  Allenby had seven divisions (10-15,000 men each) on the front lines, and they needed a lot more than just food.

British question the locals

London felt that Allenby did not have the resources to capture Jerusalem, but he did not want to give the Turks the time to fortify their new line and on 18 November decided to go for it.  One force began an advance to secure the coastal plain, while a second penetrated into the Judean Hills towards Jerusalem.  Falkenhayn himself was determined to take advantage of the weakened state of the EEF and their precarious supply situation, and on 27 November he launched counterattacks on the coastal army and British communications between the coast and the hills.  The British were hard pressed in some places, but fresh troops from the south and the weariness of the Turks allowed the offensive to continue.  By 1 December the British were poised to capture Jerusalem.

Hong Kong artillery in Judea

Judean Hills near Jerusalem

Judean Hills

Gurkhas in Judea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember the African branch of the war?  On 23 November Lettow-Vorbeck, forced south by the overwhelming superiority of General Jacob van Deventer’s forces, divided his army into three columns and crossed into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).  On the 25th he handily defeated an inexperienced Portuguese force at the Battle of Ngomano, but on the 28th one of the other columns was forced to surrender.  Nevertheless, Lettow-Vorbeck and his merry band of Askaris now had rich opportunities for resupplying themselves at the expense of the Portuguese.

East Africa

Portuguese troops on the Rovuma

Crossing the Rovuma River into Mozambique

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two final notes: on 16 November Georges Clemenceau became the French Prime Minister, which office he would hold until 1920, and on the 28th Estonia, former subject of the Russian Empire, declared its independence.

Clemenceau

 

 

 

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #32: August 1917

August is dominated by the Flanders Campaign.  The Battle of Pilckem Ridge ended on 2 August, resulting in some gains and 32,000 British, 1300 French and 30,000 German casualties.  Proponents of the offensive argued that these were small losses compared to 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, hardly a convincing argument.

On 15 August the Battle of Hill 70 (overlooking the town of Lens 30 miles south of Ypres) began, the intention being to make life easier for their comrades at Ypres by drawing German troops away from the main thrust of the offensive.  The Canadians took the hill in ten days but suffered heavy casualties (9000); the Germans suffered grandly (more than 20,000) but were able to hold without help from the north.  Incidentally, just about two years earlier at the battle of Loos the British suffered 60,000 casualties attempting to capture the same territory.

German flamethrower

Canadians on Hill 70

German pillbox

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, back at Ypres the drive restarted on 16 August with the Battle of Langemarck.  The offensive ended two days later with the capture of Langemarck but a failure to seize all the higher ground and certainly no breakthrough.  A major part of the problem was the unseasonable rains, which given the destruction of the drainage canals, turned the battlefields into quagmires and slowed any advance, especially considering that the allies were on the lower ground.  The offensive was halted until conditions were better.  The battle, including subsequent small actions, cost the Allies some 36,000 casualties and the Germans 26,000.  It just went on and on.

Everywhere, mud

Third Battle of Ypres

Battle of Langemarck

And speaking of going on and on, on 20 August the French launched an offensive on both sides of the Meuse at Verdun.  The objectives were limited and mostly attained, but the tactical/strategic situation was unchanged.  The French captured 11,000 prisoners, but suffered 14,000 casualties; the new German POWs were the lucky ones.

Verdun offensive

An ominous sign, on 2 August 350 crew of one of the German dreadnaughts at Wilhelmshaven engaged in a protest, only to be severely disciplined – two leaders were shot.  This put an end to such demonstrations for the duration of the war, but also led to the spread of clandestine sailors’ committees on the big ships. The sailors would be heard from again.

Sailors demonstrating

On 6 August Kerensky became Prime Minister of Russia, but his days were numbered.  Liberia declared war on Germany on 4 August, presumably following the American lead, and the new Republic of China on the 14th, presumably to curry western favor.

And on 17 August – drum roll! – the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo kicked off.  The offensive would fail, hardly a surprise, and prepare the way for the major Italian disaster of the Twelfth Battle.

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna

 

(Less Delayed) Report from the Fronts #31: July 1917

 

 

July began with the aptly named July Offensive of the Russians.  It was launched by the Minister of War and de facto head of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky (hence also named the Kerensky Offensive), and commanded by Aleksei Brusilov of the successful Brusilov Offensive of 1916.  Kerensky, determined to honor his commitment to the Allies, completely underestimated the popular desire for peace, which the Bolsheviks were demanding, and overestimated the state of the army, which was deteriorating rapidly.  Brusilov was convinced a military collapse could not be avoided, but he would take a shot at a new offensive.

Kerensky

General Brusilov

General Kornilov

The July Offensive

The offensive literally began with a bang, the biggest artillery barrage of the Eastern Front, which blew a hole in the Austrian lines and allowed an advance, but German resistance caused mounting Russian casualties.  Morale began to crumble even more quickly, and with the exception of General Lvar Kornilov’s well-trained shock battalions, the infantry essentially stopped following orders.  The advance ended completely on 16 July, and three days later came the inevitable German-Austrian counterattack, which drove the Russians back 150 miles, right into the Ukraine.

The failure of the July Offensive to a great extent doomed the Provisional Government, though the ultimate success of the Bolsheviks would depend upon a certain amount of luck.  On 19 July Kerensky replaced Prince Georgy Lvov as Prime Minister and became Commander-in-Chief in August, but the handwriting on the wall was growing larger.  When the July Offensive came to a halt on the 16th, soldiers and workers, demanding “all power to the Soviets,” began demonstrations in St. Petersburg and other cities, the July Days.  The Bolshevik leadership was taken by surprise, but ultimately supported the movement, only to be confronted with troops loyal to the Provisional Government.  The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks called off the demonstrations on 20 July, and Kerensky began a wave of arrests.  Lenin narrowly escaped capture, but many other Bolsheviks, like Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev, ended up in prison.

Grigory Zinovievba

Leon Trotsky

Vladimir Lenin

Riot in St. Petersburg

 

 

 

 

Not to be outdone, at the opposite end of the war the British launched the Battle of Pilckem Ridge on 31 July.  Actually, Pilckem Ridge was the first of a series of offensives collectively called the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), which would stretch into December and were a continuation of the Flanders Campaign begun with the Battle of Messines Ridge in June.  “Wipers,” as Tommy called it, would be a four month mud bath for Commonwealth troops.

Typical Ypres conditions

German prisoners

Third Battle of Ypres

On a more romantic – and drier – note, on 6 July Colonel Lawrence and his Bedouins captured the town of Aqaba with virtually no casualties, though not quite as the movie depicted it.  The real fight was on 2 July at Abu al Lasan about fifty miles northeast of Aqaba.  A separate Arab force had seized a blockhouse there, but a Turkish battalion recaptured it and then killed some encamped Arabs, which outraged Auda Abu Tayi, the leader of Lawrence’s Howeitat auxiliaries.  He took the town, slaughtering some 300 Turks, and local tribes flocked to him, swelling Lawrence’s force to 5000.  They then moved on Aqaba, which had already been shelled by Allied naval forces, and the garrison surrendered at their arrival at the gates.  Lawrence then immediately returned to Cairo, a camel ride of over 200 miles.

Aqaba today

Triumphal entry into Aqaba

Lawrence at Aqaba

Auda Abu Tayi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In miscellaneous news from July, on the 2nd the first regular merchant convoy left Virginia for Britain, and on the 7th the last daylight air raid on London took place, producing over 200 civilian casualties. On 28 July the British Army formed a Tank Corps, and on the 17th the Palace, responding to anti-German sentiment, announced that Britain was no longer under the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (from Queen Victoria’s consort Albert) but the House of Windsor.  Kaiser Wilhelm, King George V’s cousin, responded that he planned to see The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

King George V

Cousin Willy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a very clever move, on 22 July King Rama VI of Siam (Thailand) declared war on the Central Powers.  Through adroit diplomacy, playing the French and British against one another, Siam had managed to remain the only independent state in southeast Asia and saw an opportunity to strengthen its position and gain influence in the postwar world order by sending a token force to the Western Front.  It would work (and Bangkok is now a favorite destination for European – and especially German – tourists).

The Thai Expeditionary Force at Paris

King Rama VI

 

Special Report from the Fronts: June 1967

Israel

Egypt

Syria

Jordan

Iraq

USSR

US

Lebanon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(OK, I got carried away.  This was intended to be short and timely reflection on the Occupation, but the historian kicked in and produced this swollen document.)

Fifty years ago last month Israel began the Six Day War (5-10 June) by launching air strikes against the Egyptian Air Force. Initially the Israelis claimed they were attacked first, but later admitted they had struck the initial blow in their own defense, a “preemptive strike” in reaction to a build-up of Arab forces on their frontiers and Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran, through which most of Israel’s maritime trade passed.  Israel had warned Egypt that blocking the Straits would be considered an act of war and in part had gone to war in 1956 because of precisely that.  President Nasser claimed that Israeli warships in the Gulf of Aqaba threatened Egypt and that Egypt had not signed the international convention declaring a right of passage through the Straits.  Ironically, Israel would later use the reverse argument when they were accused of violating the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories: the Palestinians had never signed it.

In any case, the Israeli population certainly felt seriously threatened, and because unlike the Arab forces the Israeli militia-army could not be kept on high alert for very long, Israel was forced to settle the issue more or less immediately. On the other hand, while the preemptive strike may be justified by the closing of the Straits, this was in many ways the beginning of the legitimizing of military action without a traditionally accepted casus belli.  Now we have invaded Iraq because we thought they had chemical weapons and might use them, and Israel, a nuclear power, threatens Iran with air strikes because they might be making a nuclear weapon.

The Six Day War took place just as I was graduating from college, and while I was on my way to becoming an historian of antiquity, my understanding of Israel was still shaped by the popular image of Exodus, of David versus Goliath, of the beleaguered democracy, of making the desert bloom.  I was thrilled by the marvelous victories of the Israeli Defense Force and the triumph of Jewish democracy over Arab autocracy, taunting a pair of Lebanese brothers who lived in my dorm.

This all changed rapidly as I learned more of the history of modern Israel and of the war itself.  Did two millennia of persecution and the Holocaust really justify displacing the Palestinians, who were certainly innocents in what Europe had done to the Jews?  Initially, in fact, Theodor Herzl and the Zionists simply wanted a state for Jews anywhere, recognizing that as part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was clearly not an option for state-building.  And the creation of a Jewish homeland was hardly high on the list of European priorities.

Theodor Herzl

With the outbreak of the Great War, however, the situation changed.  The desire of both the Allies and the Central Powers to cultivate European Jewry because of their supposed financial resources (yes, governments actually believed some of the anti-Semitic fantasies) provided the Zionists a more receptive audience.  On the other hand, British (and to a lesser degree French) military and political interests in the Arab regions of the Turkish Empire also provided a forum for Arab nationalism.  The Allies of course dealt with all this by making clearly conflicting promises to everyone in the region.

Arthur Balfour

The pivotal moment came in November 1917 with the publication of the intentionally vague Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The political calculation behind this seems to have been to garner support from German, Russian and American Jews, who would, respectively, undermine the German war effort, keep Russia in the war and attract more American support (another case of dramatically overestimating Jewish influence and power).  None of these things would happen.  Instead, already suspicious Arab allies were outraged, and Britain ended up being saddled with Mandatory Palestine for the next thirty years.  Many later labeled the Balfour Declaration one of the worst mistakes ever made by the British Empire.

For centuries Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians had lived peacefully as neighbors, but that changed with the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920.  Jews began to pour into the territory: in 1920 they constituted about 11% of the population; in 1936 it was close to 30%, a huge increase given the high Arab birth rate.  The financial backing of the Jewish settlers was immense compared to that of the Muslims, allowing them to buy land and develop infrastructure.  Muslims considered the Jews a People of the Book, but having occupied the land for more than a millennium, they certainly did not share the enthusiasm of the Christian West for the resurrection of ancient Israel, which policy was increasingly viewed as another example of European imperialism.

The growing influx of European Jews was seen – quite understandably – as an invasion supported by the British, and most Arab leaders refused to cooperate in creating Muslim-Jewish institutions.  Sectarian strife began in the twenties, producing the first Palestinian terror groups, and a full blown Arab revolt exploded in 1936, Arabs attacking Jews and destroying their farms and the British Army, supported by 6000 armed Jewish auxiliaries, attempting to suppress them.  When the revolt ended in 1939 some 5000 Arabs, 200 British and 400 Jews were dead.  The British, incidentally, began the policy of collective punishment of Palestinians by destroying their houses, a policy later adopted by the new state of Israel.

Jews leaving Jerusalem

Arabs “escorted” from Jerusalem by British troops

A British-Jewish Special Night Squad

Palestinian fighters

Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad “General Commander of the Revolt”

Dead also was any idea of peaceful coexistence.  The Jews responded to Arab opposition and terrorism by organizing their own militias, such as the relatively disciplined Haganah, which would become the core of the Israeli Defense Force, and less savory groups, like the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang), outright terrorist organizations.  Meanwhile, the British soldiers, who ultimately were targeted by both sides, were likely cursing the name of Arthur Balfour.

Irgun: bombed Arab bus 1947

Stern: assassination of peace mediator Folke Bernadotte 1948

Avraham Stern – founder of Lehi (and supporter of the Nazis)

Irgun: King David Hotel 1946

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Supreme Commander of the Irgun

Irgun: hanged British soldiers 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second World War brought matters to a head.  The slaughter of some six million European Jews could hardly fail to magnify the Zionist cause and the guilty consciences of Europe and America, which had turned away many Jewish refugees before the war.  The British Empire was in full retreat, and London was certainly open to any measures that would get them out of Palestine.  Finally, the war had produced an organization, the United Nations, which could serve as an international mechanism for the creation of a Jewish state.  Also crucial was the immense power of post-war America, whose President, Harry Truman, favored the creation of a new Israel, despite the objections of most of his advisors.  Joseph Stalin also supported the idea, which makes one wonder.

In November 1947 the UN voted to partition the Mandate, creating separate Jewish and Arab states and an international status for Jerusalem.  In hindsight the Arabs, now seemingly forever caught in a growing apartheid web of Israeli occupation, clearly should have taken the deal, but the Arab world did not see the self-determination talked about by the Americans, just another exercise in western manipulation of their affairs.

World Zionist Organization 1919 territorial claim

UN Partition Plan 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zionism was a European phenomenon, the Holocaust (and to a great degree the persecution of Jews in general) was a European phenomenon and there had not been a Jewish state for almost two millennia. Why should there be one now?  And more important to the Arabs, why here?  Palestine had been Muslim and under the control of Islamic states for more than a thousand years (and had generally treated the Jewish minority far better than the Christian west).  I certainly could feel at least a twinge of the outrage when having met Arab families who could demonstrate possession of their land back into the nineteenth century and further, I had to listen to someone speaking English with a New York accent explain how it was in fact his land.

Well, for all the persecution and hatred of the people who “murdered the Christ” ancient Israel and Judah were an inseparable part of Christianity, which had after all accepted the Hebrew Testament, and Israel was where Jesus had walked. Today, many American Protestants, notably Evangelicals and sundry fundamentalists, are enthusiastic supporters of not just Israel but of its most extreme policies.  The British had painted themselves into a corner with the Balfour Declaration, and Hitler had made that corner virtually inescapable for them and the Americans.

The immediate response to the partition was violence, as Arab armies converged on the territory assigned to Israel, and it turned into inter-state warfare when Israel proclaimed her status as a sovereign state on 14 May 1948.  Here was the first of the “David versus Goliath” wars, at least in popular imagination.  In fact, Israel fielded almost twice as many troops as her opponents, and the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) estimated that Israel would handily defeat the forces of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

And so they did.  When the war ended in March 1949, Israel had acquired 60% of the territory initially assigned to the Arabs and now had a foothold in Jerusalem.  More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled; yes, contrary to the popular mythic version of their history, the Israelis did engage in ethnic cleansing.  (In the next three years about 700,000 Jews entered Israel, many fleeing Arab countries.)  In the state of Israel itself some 400 Palestinian villages (against 10 Jewish communities) were emptied of people, creating a class of Internally Displaced Persons among the Arab citizenry, and by 1950 one in four Israeli Arabs was an IDP, barred from their homes and land, which were confiscated by the state.  The laws applied also to descendants, so the situation continues to this day.

King Farouk I of Egypt

King Abdullah I of Jordan

1948 Arab-Israeli War

First Israeli Expansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Palestinians this was al-nakba, “the Catastrophe.” In 1950 Jordan annexed the remaining non-Israeli territory, the West Bank (Gaza was occupied by the Egyptians), and offered the inhabitants Jordanian citizenship.  Many Palestinians turned this down, and only Britain recognized the annexation, while the Arab states, anxious to keep the Palestinian question alive, pressured the Jordanian King, Abdullah I, to declare the annexation “temporary.”  This temporary arrangement would last 17 years and be replaced with something much more onerous.

In 1956 Israel joined in a secret coalition with Britain and France, who were responding to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and fielded 175,000 troops (twice that of her allies) to attack Egypt. Worldwide outrage erupted, mainly directed against the French and British for their blatant assault on a sovereign state in order to protect their imperial interests, and domestic and international pressure soon forced them to withdraw, leaving President Nasser in power.  Israel was primarily – and understandably – concerned about regular terrorist attacks coming out of Gaza and Soviet weaponry going into Cairo and would be delighted to see a weakened Egypt without Nasser.  They occupied Gaza and Sinai and refused to leave when their erstwhile allies gave it up, and it took two more weeks of threats of sanctions and lifting of American aid by President Eisenhower (the first and last American President to stand up to Israel) to finally force them out.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion

President Gamal Abdel Nasser

Suez Crisis

 

Unlike the humiliated French and British, Israel benefited from the brief war, her defiance of the US and international community winning important guarantees: a UN presence in Sinai and the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed by Egypt in 1951. Nasser kept the canal and his power and emerged with an enhanced reputation, but he failed to understand that he had been saved by American diplomacy not the Egyptian military.  While the Israelis correctly concluded that their citizen soldiers were better trained and could conduct large scale operations, Nasser deceived himself and his people by concluding that his forces could take on the new kid on the block.

The Suez Crisis set the stage for the Six Day War, suggesting to Egypt, Syria and Jordan that together they could defeat Israel. They could not, and while much of the world marveled at tiny David facing the Arab Goliath again, the CIA in fact concluded that it would take Israel less than two weeks to defeat the Arabs.  It took less than one, and Israel made out like a bandit.

Battle for Sinai

Battle for the Golan Heights

Battle for the West Bank

(Whether the Egyptians shot retreating soldiers or the Israelis murdered some POWs is still debated, but another more disturbing incident of the war is now perfectly clear: Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats deliberately attacked the intelligence ship USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 174 American sailors; see my post “Our Best Ally and the USS Liberty” (https://qqduckus.com/2012/06/07/our-best-ally-and-the-uss-liberty/) 

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol of Israel

 

President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

 

King Hussein I of Jordan

 

Sallah Jadid of Syria

President Abdul Rahman Arif of Iraq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Lyndon Johnson

 

General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Washington finally forced the Israelis to accept a ceasefire (they were ultimately dependent on American resupply), they had seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Eretz Yisrael had attained its greatest territorial extent – ever – and possession of all of Jerusalem, which meant control of sites sacred to all three Abrahamic religions: the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the el-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.  (Perhaps the most iconic image from the war is that of jubilant Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall; less well known is the immediate destruction of 135 Arab houses and a mosque to create the plaza that now fronts the Wall.)

The Second Israeli Expansion

Israeli soldiers at the
Western Wall

Clearing the area before the Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Israelis now also controlled the West Bank, which was promptly named the Judea and Samaria Area, though the term did not come into regular use until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. The territory of the West Bank was in fact the heart of ancient Israel, Judea being the southern state of Judah (which ended up composing the history found in the Old Testament) and Samaria the northern state of Israel (completely maligned in the Bible).  A great irony of the creation of modern Israel is that inasmuch as the partition was based on demographics most of ancient Israel fell to the Arabs.  And this is certainly on of the central facts behind the sad fate of the Palestinians.

Ancient Israel Based on the Bible

Israel and Judah 9th century BC

 

Israel now occupied all that “homeland” (real or imagined), and while Israel was initially concerned with security – the occupation would quickly fuel Palestinian terrorism – the extremists saw the possibility of recreating ancient Israel, or at least the swollen image of it in the Judah-edited Old Testament.  Reestablishing a state that had ceased to exist two millennia earlier was questionable enough, but claiming territory for that state on basis of a clearly unhistorical holy book strikes me as absurd.  But because Christianity has also accepted that book as sacred, many clearly do not see Israel’s actions as absurd – or as violations of international law.

Before the end of June Israel brought East Jerusalem and surrounding land under its administration, calling it “municipal integration,” but it was clearly annexation, which was confirmed by the Jerusalem Law of 1980.  The occupied Golan Heights were to be retained for security reasons and settlements began to appear, leading in 1981 to the Golan Heights Law, by which the region was formally annexed.  Only Costa Rica recognized the Jerusalem annexation and Micronesia the Golan annexation – one wonders why these two states.

One of the fundamental provisions of the post-World War II international agreements, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter, is the prohibition of annexing or settling territory acquired through war, whatever the reason.  Israel apparently felt exempt from this, for security reasons but increasingly in the West Bank simply because it was believed to be the land of Israel.  These settlements were not merely “obstacles to peace,” as the United States calls them, but gross violations of international covenants the United States is pledged to uphold.  Nevertheless, Israel was continually protected from hostile resolutions of the United Nations by the American veto in the Security Council.

Already in 1967 Israel reestablished the old settlement of Kfar Etzion, whose inhabitants had been massacred in the 1948 war.  More ominous was the foundation on the outskirts of Hebron of Kiryat Arba in 1968: the land was confiscated from Palestinians on the grounds of military needs, but it was in fact intended for a Jewish settlement.  Because of the connection between Hebron and Abraham (who might have once been a local cult figure), the city is sacred to everyone and has attracted a particularly nasty group of Jewish settlers, who are holed up in the old town, protected by the Israeli military.  Kiryat Arba has a park dedicated to Meir Kahane, whose Kach party is considered a terrorist organization even by the Israeli government, and nearby is the grave of Baruch Goldstein (an associated shrine, attracting thousands of visitors, has been bulldozed by the government), who slaughtered 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque. Both these men grew up in Brooklyn.

Kahane Tourist Park

Meir Kahane

Kiryat Arba

Baruch Goldstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The confiscation of land for Jewish settlements became standard policy during the 1970s, though it was denied by the Israeli government.  When a Likud government under Menachem Begin (former leader of the terrorist Irgun; a later Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the Stern Gang) took power in 1977, the process accelerated, and later the government began subsidizing housing in the settlements (which continues to this day), drawing huge numbers of Israelis who were moved far less by the dream of ancient Israel than by cheap available housing.  Whatever the motivation, these colonists were creating the “facts on the ground,” a growing Jewish population that made it more and more difficult for the land to be returned to the Palestinians.

Ytizhak Shamir, Prime Minister and former terrorist

Menachem Begin, Prime Minister and former terrorist.

Yasir Arafat, President and former terrorist

 

 

 

 

In 1983, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel removed the settlements from Sinai, and in 2005 those in Gaza, in both cases facing serious resistance from the settlers.  Unfortunately, with Israel controlling Gaza’s frontiers, waters and air space this rump Palestinian state became the world’s largest open air prison, periodically blasted by the IDF because some Hamas jerk shoots a rocket into Israel.  As of today, approximately 1,730,000 Palestinians are living in a semi-wasteland, and malnutrition has become a serious problem.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the Occupied Territories continues to swell, as increasingly right wing governments blithely paint Israel into a corner.  There are now some 800,000 Israeli Jewish citizens residing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and a growing number of Israeli-only roads slicing up Palestinian territory.  Israeli and foreign governments still talk about the “two state solution,” but it has become an impossibility.  Even were the government willing – an extremely unlikely development – attempting to evacuate the settlements would almost certainly lead to extreme violence and civil strife.

What then?  There are now some 2,754,000 Palestinians in the West Bank (and 5,000,000 in Arab countries), and their birth rate is much higher than that of the Jews – excepting the ultra-Orthodox Haredi (who are producing a growing number of Israeli males who know virtually nothing but the Torah).  They certainly cannot be simply expelled, and that leaves two possibilities: annex the territory and give the citizenship to the Palestinians or continue with the current policy.  The first will not happen because Jews would then be a minority, a difficult proposition if Israel is to be a “Jewish” state, and one could expect the new voters to be unsympathetic to many Israeli institutions.

That leaves the status quo, which can lead only to some form of an apartheid state, which is already taking shape in the West Bank.  I visited Israel/Palestine about twenty-five years ago, when the settler presence was much smaller and the Israelis-only road network was just getting underway, and even then the West Bank was beginning to look like something out of the Middle Ages.  The settlements are for the most part on hill tops or ridges, looming like little fortified cities over the Palestinian communities below.  The traditional whitewashed houses of the villages, where water is increasingly in short supply, are in dramatic contrast to the modern accommodations, malls and swimming pools of the settlements, which are like bits of American suburbia planted in the Holy Land.

Settlement life

Israel has now occupied Palestine longer than the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, a tragedy for the Palestinians and ultimately the Israelis.  The Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has been frequently corrupt and seems to have a special knack for doing just the wrong thing, but consider a half century of rather unpleasant (by contemporary western standards) occupation: how would you feel after a lifetime of second class status – at best – and watching your ancient homeland being recolonized?   Or seeing your home destroyed because someone in your family was arrested (collective punishment, another violation of international law)?  Or being shot with relative impunity because you were defending your olive trees from settler vandals?

Back a quarter century ago I and a companion visited a Palestinian family in Bani Naim, five miles east of Hebron, and when we entered the children began crying.  They thought we were Israelis.

The sad history of Palestine