Report from the Fronts #37: the Tank

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

Towing 1915

On the way to the Somme 1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Maurice Hankey

Ernest Swinton

The Holt tractor 1914

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

The Tsar (Lebedenko) tricycle tank

The Killen-Straight triple track

The Pedrail monotrack

 

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

The Mark I tank

The Mark I tank

Early Little Willie

Little Willie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Mark IV interior

Splatter mask

The Mark series interior

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

The Mark VIII interior

The Mark VIII tank

The Mark IV tank

The Mark V tank

The Mark V tank

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

A damaged Schneider

The Schneider CA tank

The Schneider CA tank

 

 

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

Saint-Chamond tanks

The Saint-Chamond tank

The Saint-Chamond tank

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

The Renault FT crew

Interior of the Renault FT

The Renault FT tank

The Renault FT tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The French Tiny Tank

The 2C tank

The 2C tank

 

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

The A7V tank

The A7V tank in action

The A7V tank

The A7V tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

A German tank 25 years later

 

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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 #34: October 1917

The area around Ypres

Third Ypres ground on.  On 4 October ANZAC troops assaulted the Broodseinde Ridge, gaining the objective on the first day and further unsettling the Germans, who were having trouble dealing with the new allied leapfrog tactics.  Unsurprisingly, the success led to arguments among the commanders about pushing further, but the presence of substantial German reserves behind the line and the usual difficulty of bringing up the artillery over the shattered battle ground sank that idea.  General Herbert Plumer – in a Trumpian moment – called Broodseinde “the greatest victory since the Marne.”  Tell that to the 20,000 commonwealth casualties.

No mans land

Battle of Broodseinde

Bringing up the guns

Herbert Plumer

Next up in the Ypres Mud Fight was the Battle of Poelcapelle, an attempt by French and British units on 9 October to push half the way from Broodseinde Ridge to Passchendaele.  But the “easy” victories were over.  The heavy rains returned, and bringing up the artillery over blasted ground to secure gains was becoming incredibly difficult.  As a result, the Allies were unable to hold most of the captured ground against German counterattacks, and the battle ended after a single day.  Some 10,000 Allied troops were casualties, many drowned in shell holes; since the beginning of the month the Germans had suffered 35,000.

Typical Ypres terrain – Chateauwood

The road into Poelcapelle

Battle of Poelcapelle

Three days later the Allies attacked again – the First Battle of Passchendaele – Generals Plumer and Haig mistakenly thinking that the earlier advance had been generally successful (that is how bad communications were).  The result was a repeat of Poelcapelle, and the Brits and ANZACS suffered 13,000 casualties failing to take Passchendaele Ridge; it was perhaps the worst day in New Zealand military history.

The Butcher of the Somme

German losses for this specific battle are unknown, but it is clear that while the Ypres battles were gaining little ground, they were nevertheless inflicting heavy losses, which the Germans could ill afford.  Two divisions being sent to Italy for the upcoming offensive went instead to the Ypres sector, and the commander of the army group covering the northern stretch of the Western Front, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, had actually considered a withdrawal, which might have endangered the German position and submarine bases on the Belgian coast.  This in fact was one of the Allied goals for the Ypres offensive.

Crown Prince Rupprecht

Meanwhile, to the south the French opened the Battle of La Malmaison on 23 October.  This was essentially a continuation of the Second Battle of the Aisne from back in April (remember the Nivelle Offensive?), and by 27 October the French had captured the Chemin des Dames Ridge in its entirety and the fortress town of La Malmaison – or what was left of it.  It cost the French 14,000 casualties, the Germans 50,000.

Battle of Malmaisson

The Malmaison fort

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last phase of Third Ypres kicked off on 26 October with the Second Battle of Passchendaele, a mostly Canadian affair.  The aim was to seize the Passchendaele-Westrozebeke Ridge, both for observation advantages and in order to establish a winter defensive line on the drier high ground.  The assault was to be executed in four limited advances separated by pauses, allowing time for guns and supplies to be brought up and fresh troops switched in after each phase.

On the road to Passchendaele

Same terrain a century later

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plan actually worked, though the slaughter and the endless mud made this battle just as unpleasant for the poor beggars on the ground as the earlier operations.  The first two phases took place on 26 October and 30 October and were relatively successful, most of the Passchendaele Ridge being secured.  The second two phases would take place in early November, but meanwhile disaster in Italy through a monkey wrench into the plans to capture Passchendaele itself.

Battlefield funeral

Morning at Passchendaele

Passchendaele before and after

 

On 24 October the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo began, but this one was very different from the previous eleven.  This time it was the Austrians and Germans who attacked, not just at the Isonzo but all along the front from the Adriatic near Trieste west to the Trentino.  The main thrust, however, was at Caporetto in the upper Isonzo valley, and the conflict is also known as the Battle of Caporetto (or Kobarid).  And the German-Austrian forces fared a lot better than the incompetent Luigi Cadorna.

Battle of Caporetta

Field Marshal Hindenburg had already decided Austria needed help, despite the objections of the man who was increasingly in control, Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, who probably realized the Italian Army was presently incapable of any serious offensive.  Caporetto was chosen because it controlled an excellent road into the Venetian plain (a chemist also declared the valley perfect for a gas attack), and the new 14th Army, nine Austrian and six German divisions under General Otto von Below, would spearhead the assault, which would ultimately send some 350,000 troops against 875,000 Italians.  Overall command of the Isonzo Army Group was in the hands of General Svetozar Boroević, the Croatian (!) commander who had halted all of Cadorna’s offensives.  Unlike his opponent, who was despised by his men, “our Sveto” was loved by his and known as the “Knight of Isonzo.”

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna

Otto von Below

Svetozar Boroević

The offensive began with a massive gas barrage (chlorine-arsenic and diphosgene), which in the absence of wind settled into the valley, and Italian troops began fleeing, knowing that their gas masks would function only for a couple of hours.  A subsequent artillery bombardment hit the now lightly defended fortifications, and von Below’s troops poured into the valley, their flanks protected by Alpine units that secured the heights.  The infantry penetrated 16 miles in the first day, and while the Italians managed to block the attacks flanking the main group, the Italian army was reeling.  Rushing in troops from other sectors only led to more Austrian assaults along the entire front.

Caparetto

The situation was not helped by General Cadorna, who failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and the already low morale of his men, much of it the fault of his own ineptitude and harsh methods.  General Luigi Capello, commander of the 2nd Army, which was the target of the main thrust, almost immediately asked to withdraw to the Tagliamento River but was refused by Cadorna, leading to the surrender of more Italian troops.  By 28 October the offensive had reached Udine, and two days later Cadorna called for a retreat across the Tagliamento, which took four days.  Italy was on the verge of collapse.

Italian prisoners

Waiting for the offensive

German assault troops

Incidentally, active in the battle was a young first lieutenant commanding the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion: Erwin Rommel.  In 52 hours from 25 to 27 October the 27 year old Rommel and his 150 men captured some 9000 enemy troops and 81 artillery pieces, suffering only six dead and 30 wounded.  He would later be awarded Germany’s highest military award, the Pour le Mérite.

The young Rommel

Meanwhile, the Southern Palestine Offensive (Third Battle of Gaza) began on 31 October with the Battle of Beersheba, the eastern anchor of the Turkish line from Gaza.  The small town was well guarded by trenches and outlying strongpoints, and Fevzi Çakmak Pasha, commander of the 7th Army, which was responsible for the eastern section of the Gaza-Beersheba line, had some 4500 men available, though not all were at Beersheba.  General Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, had some 50,000 men and in a complex operation (water was the major problem) intended to assault the town from the west with infantry and from the east, where there was no wire or horse traps, with mounted troops.  Beersheba was encircled and attacked and captured in a single day.

Fevzi Pasha

Edmund Allenby

Battle of Beersheba

Palestine front

 

 

While the Battle of Beersheba marks the first Allied victory in Palestine and would lead to breaking the Turkish Gaza line, it is better remembered for the last effective cavalry charge in history.  Coming from the southeast, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade had traveled over 30 miles of desert to reach the town by dawn, and near 4 PM they were ordered to take the town.  The 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments began their advance at about 4 miles from the town and began taking fire at 2 miles, but help from supporting artillery and the speed (and surprise) of the charge minimized Turkish effectiveness.  Leaping across the trenches, the 4th and some of the 12th dismounted and began shooting at the Turks from the rear, but the bulk of the 12th, armed with bayonets in place of lances or swords, rode into Beersheba and captured it.

Australian Light Horse

Beersheba

Beersheba

Charge of the Light Horse

(As it happens, the last major cavalry charge took place in 1942.  On August 23 on the Eastern Front 600 Italian horse, armed with sabers and grenades, charged a formation of 2000 Soviet infantry and actually dislodged them from their positions.

In miscellaneous news from October, on the 11th the German navy began operations against the Baltic Islands, capturing them all by the 20th and sinking a Russian battleship in the process.  In early October Peru and Uruguay cut diplomatic relations with Germany (Costa Rica did so in September), and on the 26th Brazil declared war, fed up with German submarines sinking Brazilian merchant vessels.  In 1918 a (relatively) sizable Brazilian force would actually travel to France.

Brazil declares war

Finally, an event everyone has heard of: on 15 October Mata Hari was shot by a French firing squad.  Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands and in 1905 began a highly successful career as an exotic dancer in Paris, eventually becoming the mistress of a French millionaire.  Believing her to be the ultimate femme fatale that she would become in legend, in 1916 the French Deuxième Bureau recruited her as a spy, hoping she could seduce German Crown Prince Wilhelm, who had enjoyed her performances before the war, and wheedle military information out of him.

Mata Hari in 1905

And again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem with this was that although the Crown Prince was the commander of an Army Group, he relied completely on his staff, inasmuch as he had never directly commanded anything larger than a regiment.  More stupidity in a war filled with it.  In late 1916 Zelle contacted the Germans in Madrid and offered them French secrets (of which she had none), either for money or to engineer a meeting with the Crown Prince.  In January of 1917 the German military attaché in Madrid sent to Berlin a message about Zelle’s activities as a spy in a code that was known to have been broken, perhaps because Germany military intelligence was fed up with her.

Crown Prince Wilhelm

Zelle was arrested in Paris on 13 February and subsequently convicted of espionage in a joke of a trial.  In the wake of the French army mutiny and the failure of the Nivelle Offensive a foreign spy was an extremely convenient scapegoat for the political establishment, which apparently determined to seize the opportunity.  There was no concrete evidence against her and her defense attorney was forced to operate under serious limitations, but destined to serve political ends, she was convicted and shot.  A naïve woman, seduced herself by French intelligence, had to die for the glory of France.  The records of the proceedings and trial were sealed until October 2017, by which time the perpetrators of the crime would be safely dead.

Mata Hari when arrested

And the war went on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #33: September 1917

September 1917 saw a continuation of the slaughter in Flanders.  Good weather early in the month dramatically improved the British supply situation, and on 20 September another push in the Ypres Offensive got underway with the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.  Eleven British and Commonwealth divisions attacked five German on a relatively narrow front of 15,000 yards and by noon they had achieved most of their goals, when the inevitable counterattacks began – and failed.

Wounded at Menin Road Ridge

Third Battle of Ypres

The area around Ypres

The British had changed their tactics.  In order to deal with the German forward strong points, such as pillboxes, they had brought in more heavy artillery and with spotting by aircraft they were able to neutralize many of the forward defenses and much of the German artillery.  The advancing units leapfrogged one another, the following wave taking over the assault while the previous secured the captured ground against counterattack.  This more limited and cautious approach worked, avoiding the massive offensive casualties typical of the Western Front and securing the gains until more resources could be brought up.  The front line had moved 1500 yards, and if the Allies could achieve such gains each week, they could be in Berlin by Christmas of 1927.

Aussies waiting for the gas

German counterattacks continued, but with little effect, since the new cautious approach (and good weather) allowed the British to better fortify gains and resupply the troops before the counter assault came.  On 26 September the British and Australians tried again, attacking Polygon Wood, and within a day achieved their limited objectives.  The Germans were unable to regain any of the lost ground.

Life between the offensives

Waiting for the assault

Polygon Wood

Welcome to Belgium

John Hines – Scrounge King of Polygon Wood

 

On 4 September an Anglo-French Conference met to consider sending aid to the Italian Front, which was certainly timely, inasmuch as the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ended in failure on the 12th.  General Cadorna had gone all out on this one, concentrating three-quarters of his army for the attack, 52 divisions and 5200 guns against less than half those numbers on the Austrian side.  Predictably, given the terrain (and the previous ten offensives), there was no breakthrough, though ironically the Austrians were on the brink when the battle ended (115,000 casualties) and would have folded under another assault.  But the Italian army was completely exhausted (158,000 casualties), and the next offensive, the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, would be launched by the Austrians.

Italian dead at Isonzo

Italian anti-aircraft at Isonzo

The Isonzo front

To the east Russia appeared on the edge of collapse.  On 3 September the Germans captured Riga, and five days later General Kornilov marched on St. Petersburg in an attempt to purge the city garrison of Bolshevik troops and possibly to overthrow the Provisional Government in favor of a military dictatorship..  On the 10th Kerensky, however, declared Kornilov a traitor and himself dictator of Russia, and in a move of immense historical consequence he called upon the Bolsheviks for support, armed them and released their leaders (including Leon Trotsky – Lenin had fled to Finland) from prison.

Kornilov launches his coup

As it happened, however, Kornilov’s troops, many sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, were already deserting, and with the revolt collapsing around him he surrendered on 14 September.  He was imprisoned, escaped and ended up being killed fighting for the Whites in the Civil War.  But Kerensky, who subsequent to Kornilov’s arrest proclaimed Russia to be a republic, was himself now in serious trouble.  The Bolsheviks were now armed, their leaders were free to organize and agitate and with his treatment of Kornilov and other officers implicated in the conspiracy Kerensky had lost any hope of support from the military.  The one time tiny radical Bolshevik faction was now poised to seize control of the capital of the Russian Empire.

Kerensky

General Kornilov

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

 

(Seriously Delayed) Report from the Fronts #30: June 1917

The Big Push for June was the Battle of Messines, which marked the beginning of Britain’s Flanders Offensive; like the French they apparently could not wait for the Americans.  The assault was launched on 7 June with the detonation of nineteen mines under the German lines, catching the enemy by surprise and promptly killing 10,000 troops.  The mining had begun in 1915 – so little had the front changed – and 454 tons of explosives went up in twenty seconds, dwarfing the Somme mines and creating the largest explosion in history before the Trinity bomb.

Lone Tree mine crater

Destroyed German trench

Battle of Messines Ridge

The effectiveness of the British mines and creeping barrage allowed the most important objective, the Messines ridge, to be taken on the first day, and when the battle ended a week later, it remained in Allied hands.  The offensive was certainly a tactical success, gaining the high ground, as it were, and setting the stage for the next advance, but one (who was not an Allied general) might question the strategic gain.  The ridge cost each side some 25,000 casualties.

Messines, post-battle

Messines: fake tree observation post

Messines: allied artillery

 

Certainly a greater boost to Allied morale was the arrival of General John Pershing in France on 13 June and 14,000 troops of the American Expeditionary Force on the 25th.  The Allied commanders wanted to immediately send them to the front, but Pershing wanted more training and was adamant that his boys would fight as American units not simply replacements.  The doughboys (from the adobe dust in the Mexican war?) would not hit the trenches for another several months, but their presence was already a clear boost to morale.

American doughboy

Pillsbury doughboy

Foch, Pershing, Pétain, Haig

 

 

Speaking of morale, on 8 June the French military began seriously dealing with the mutiny with arrests and courts-martial, but with surprising restraint, which annoyed many of the generals.  Nevertheless, Philippe Pétain, the new Chief of the General Staff, and President Raymond Poincaré supported a lighter touch, and while there were 629 death sentences handed down, only 43 executions were actually carried out.  More effective in restoring order was the institution of regular leaves and a promise of only severely limited offensives until the Americans arrived in strength.

Poincaré

Pétain

 

 

French execution

 

 

 

On the Greek “front” the Allies demanded on 11 June that King Constantine abdicate, which he did the following day, passing the throne to his son, who became Alexander I.  Alexander was clearly a puppet of the Allies, who now occupied more Greek territory, but under his “rule” Greece would benefit from the Allied victory.  Unfortunately for Alexander, he would die from a monkey bite in 1920, to be succeeded, ironically, by his father.  Venizelos, leader of the provisional government in Salonika, became Prime Minister on 26 June and took power in Athens the next day.  Greece was now formally at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

Venizelos

King Constantine I

Coronation of Alexander

King Alexander I

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the new Russian Republic the Provisional Government turned down a German offer of an armistice on 9 June, perhaps not a good decision inasmuch as by 21 June the Black Sea Fleet was in full mutiny.  Kerensky believed that a successful offensive in Galicia in July would restore military morale.

In miscellaneous news, Italy announced a Protectorate over Albania on 3 June…and on 8 June the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo ended with no gains and 150,000 Italian casualties.  To the southeast Edmund Allenby, formally of the Western Front, took over Commonwealth forces in Egypt, bad news for the Turks.  And Colonel Lawrence and Auda Abu Tayi (“I am a river to my people.”) and his Howeitat were on their way to Aqaba.

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Lawrence

Auda Abu Tayi

Auda and sundry Howeitat