Report from the Fronts #49: September 1918

(OK, extremely late, but wadda ya gonna do?)

100 Days Offensive

 

The Allies were rolling now.  The Second Somme came to an end on 3 September, and Foch determined to launch a broad assault on the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung).  First, though, he cleaned up the German salients west of the Line in order to attack the entire string of fortifications at once.  The British and French advanced towards the Line in a number of relatively small engagements, heading for Cambrai, Saint-Quentin and Laon.  By 25 September the Germans were pushed back to the Line, having surrendered all the gains of their Spring Offensive.  The Allies nevertheless still believed the War could not be won until 1919.

Battle of Saint-Mihiel

One part of this operation was the Battle of Saint-Mihiel on 12-15 September, the only American-directed major offensive of the war.  Pershing’s First Army (14 American and 4 French divisions) easily cleared the Saint-Mihiel salient – the Germans were already in retreat – but as usual with successful advances the troops (660,000 of them) got ahead of their supplies and artillery and were forced to halt rather than attempt a breakthrough to Metz.  The Battle of Saint-Mihiel, incidentally, was recreated in the 1927 movie Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture; it also involved the first recorded use of the term D-Day.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

American engineers

The grand assault on the Hindenburg Line kicked off on 26 September with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which would last until the Armistice.  The strike was launched from the southern (Verdun) sector, and the ultimate objective was the city of Sedan, which was an absolutely vital lateral rail hub for the Germans (and the scene of their victory over France in 1870).  The strike force consisted of 15 (later 22) American divisions, which were anywhere from 30% to 100% larger than the European, and 31 French divisions, for a total of 1,200,000 men; they were accompanied by 2780 guns, 380 tanks and 840 planes.  Facing the Allied force were ultimately 44 German divisions, most of them half strength, totaling up to 450,000 generally demoralized men under Fifth Army commander Georg von der Marwitz (remember him?).

German dugout

American gun crew

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In terms of personnel the operation was a partial role call for America’s next war. Handling the massive Allied logistics was Colonel George Marshall, who as Chief of Staff of the Army would in the Second World War oversee the expansion and supply of the entire US army and the rebuilding of Europe.  Vigorously leading an infantry battalion was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would create and direct the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.  Colonel George Patton commanded a tank brigade, while an infantry brigade was under General Douglas MacArthur.  And managing an artillery battery was Captain Harry Truman.

Col. Marshall

Col. Marshall

Col. Donovan

Col. Patton

Gen. MacArthur – already the poseur

Capt. Truman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first phase of the offensive lasted until 3 October, during which period the less experienced Americans gained from 2 to 5 miles, while the French, fighting in more open countryside, advanced their front some 9 miles.  These bare words, of course, cover many French villages being destroyed and many men giving their all, at a time when even the Kaiser knew the war was lost.  Pershing immediately recognized that clearing the Saint-Mihiel salient was nothing at all like frontally assaulting well-established German positions.  On the other hand, the German veterans were impressed by American aggressiveness and the willingness of the doughboys to charge into machine gun fire.

On 28 September the second –and weakest – thrust of the grand offensive, the Fifth Battle of Ypres, was launched far to the north in Flanders.  12 Belgium, 10 British (Second Army) and 6 French divisions (Sixth Army) under the command of King Albert of Belgium struck east from the Ypres area, heading towards Passchendaele and ultimately Ghent.  Initially faced by no more than 5 German divisions, the Allies made good progress despite the rough terrain; by 30 September all the high ground east of Ypres and the area west of Passchendaele had been recovered, and by 1 October units were on the Lys River.  But with German reinforcements arriving and the Allied troops beyond easy supply, the push came to end the following day.

A break from the battle

The Ypres area after five battles

The Ypres salient

The central thrust pushed off on 29 September, attacking one of the strongest stretches of the Hindenburg Line.  The offensive included the British Third Army in the north and the French First Army in the south, but the British Fourth Army in the center faced the greatest challenge, crossing the Saint-Quentin canal.  Army commander Henry Rawlinson had 30 British and Australian divisions and two (oversized) American divisions attached to the Australian Corps, and they faced 39 (generally depleted) German divisions of Adolph von Carlowitz’ Second Army and the formidable defenses along the deep cut of the canal.  The Aussies and Yanks would confront the particularly strong fortifications at the Bony-Bellicourt sector, where the canal ran underground through a tunnel.

General Rawlinson

General von Carlowitz

Battle of Saint-Quentin

The battle began with 1600 guns firing almost a million rounds, the biggest British barrage in the war.  The two American divisions, followed by two Australian and equipped with 150 tanks, headed for the Bellicourt Tunnel sector, their goal the Catelet-Nauroy Line east of the tunnel.  The right half of the advance, led by the American 30th Division, penetrated the Hindenburg Line and by the early morning of 30 September had captured Bellicourt and part of Nauroy, despite taking heavy fire on their left flank because of the failure of the American 27th Division on the left to keep up.  The Australians reported finding large groups of leaderless American troops, who had suffered seriously because of their inexperience.

Yanks after the capture of Bellicourt

Southern end of the canal tunnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, immediately south of the Americans and Australians the British 46th Division, followed by the 32nd (home of the poet Wilfred Owen), was able to cross the very deep cut of the canal between Riqueval and Bellenglise, crossing the canal with boats, rafts and lifejackets while artillery kept the defenders pinned in their trenches.  Tanks were brought over the tunnel area captured by the 30th Division and sent south to support the British, who had secured the eastern bank and the German defenses by the end of the day.  The achievement of the 46th Division was just short of incredible, crossing the waterway with anything that would float, climbing the wall of the east bank with scaling ladders (!) and capturing the formidable defenses – with fewer than 800 casualties.

The canal cut in 1918

Riqueval Bridge and the canal cut today

Addressing the troops at the Riqueval Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east Allenby’s successful and low cost campaign to drive General Liman von Sanders and his Turks out of Palestine continued with the Battle of Megiddo (actually a number of engagements) from 19 to 25 September.  While Lawrence and Arab Revolt units were harassing and disrupting Turkish communications, Allenby’s carefully planned offensive moved rapidly north and east, establishing by the 25th a line running from Acre on the coast east to the Sea of Galilee and south to Amman (Jordan); Australian units would capture Damascus on 1 October.  During this roughly two week period 75,000 Turkish soldiers surrendered to Commonwealth forces (many to avoid slaughter by the Arab forces) at a cost of about 1500 casualties; only 6000 Turkish soldiers escaped.

Bombed Turkish transport

Allenby’s September campaign

Otto Liman von Sanders

Edmund Allenby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the former Russian Empire Allied forces were on the move.  On 2 September an Italian force arrived at Murmansk and was joined two days later by General William Graves and more American troops.  On that same day Obozerskaya, 100 miles south of Archangel, was captured by the Allies, and on the 11th Ukhtinskaya on the Murmansk front.  The Canadians showed up in Archangel at the end of the month, by which time Allied troops, aided by Poles and White forces, had pushed 150 miles south up the Dvina River, battling Bolshevik forces on the river and in fortified villages.  In the far east the city of Khabarovsk, 360 miles north of Vladivostok, was taken by the Japanese on 5 September.

Archangel

Allied troops

Red prisoners of Americans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vladivostok

Allied troops

Japanese troops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, diplomatic exchanges in September underscored the crumbling position of the Central Powers.  On 15 September Austria requested from President Wilson the opening of peace talks and Germany actually offered Belgium a peace treaty; unsurprisingly, both were immediately turned down.  More successful were the Bulgarians, who on the 28th requested of the Allies an immediate armistice, which was granted two days later; Bulgaria was out of the war.  On 25 September Italy recognized the pan-Slavic state – Yugoslavia – that was emerging across the Adriatic as the Austrian Empire crumbled (more on this in October).

Finally, remember Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris?  On September 28, nine months and 1500 miles after invading Portuguese East Africa, the Colonel and his ragged but still effective band of mostly native troops slipped across the Rovuma River back into German East Africa.  On their arrival the askaris cheered their German leader with “Bwana Obersti anarudi!” – “The Colonel is back!” The game of dodging a quarter million Commonwealth troops went on.

Jacob van Deventer (seated) – the opposition

Lettow-Vorbeck – the Lion of Africa

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Death in Gaza

(So much for my promise to get one of these out at least every week and a half. Too much World Cup and beer.)

 

Three Israeli teenagers are murdered, presumably by Palestinian extremists, and in retaliation a Palestinian is burned alive by Israeli extremists, though Israel has said little about exactly whom they have arrested. This leads to Palestinian demonstrations, during which teenagers are arrested for throwing rocks, everyday life in the occupied territories. During all this it happened that a camera caught two Israeli policemen seriously beating a prone and handcuffed boy, hardly a rare occurrence for Palestinians. But this boy was not just another Palestinian victim; he was also an American citizen, which meant the media would take notice.

Terrorist escorted to court

Terrorist escorted to court

Israeli authorities guaranteed a thorough investigation of this “isolated” incident, which is of course isolated only insofar as the target was an American citizen. It seemed to take the US government a fairly long time to respond to this attack on one of its citizens, and even then the response was meaningless expressions of concern. While the brutal beating of a 15 year old American is unusual, harassment and intimidation of Palestinian-Americans visiting Israel is not. They have been barred from seeing their families, have been detained without charges and have been abused while in captivity, something that is supposed to trigger a cessation of American aid. Well, now that our government has dabbled in torture I suppose it would be hypocritical to chide the Israelis.

 
The sequence of events could hardly fail to generate reprisals from both sides, as most Palestinians have justifiably given up hope of any escape from Israeli domination and extremist Israelis increasingly feel they can treat Palestine and its inhabitants anyway they please. Hamas, certainly a loathsome organization, begins firing rockets into Israel, anxious to shore up its credibility in Gaza and provide Israel the opportunity to once more damage its image in the world. Despite years of evidence that force will not change anything in Gaza and only exacerbate the situation Israel dutifully obliges and begins bombing urban areas. Like Hamas, Netanyahu is under pressure from his own constituents to exact revenge, and the sad story repeats itself once more.

Destruction in Israel

Destruction in Israel

Hamas weapons

Hamas weapons

The all too familiar tit for tat begins again. The problem of course is that the tit delivered to Palestinians is inevitably a hundred times more destructive than the feeble tat mustered against the Israelis. As of July 11 over a hundred Palestinians, including women and at least 20 children, have been killed and some 600, I believe, have been wounded; one Israeli has been seriously injured. (But then, a white colonist has always been worth far more than a bunch of wogs.) On the other hand, according to the mayor of Jerusalem, the Israelis are suffering because they constantly have to drop everything they are doing and take shelter because of the rockets. Inconvenience can be a horrible thing. When asked about the complete imbalance of threats, a former Israeli ambassador to the US emphasized how Israeli children were being traumatized by the odd explosion and the need to retire to a shelter. One would think that having your home and family members blown apart might also be somewhat traumatic.

More Israeli weapons

Israeli weapons

Destruction in Gaza

Destruction in Gaza

 

Israeli weapons

More Israeli weapons

Israel claims that Hamas purposely establishes its facilities in densely populated areas, thus using human shields (they don’t regard life in the same way as we). I do not doubt this, but the fact is innocents nevertheless die in droves and the virtually ineffectual rockets keep coming. Israel wants to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure, but unfortunately that is the same infrastructure that supports the other 1.8 million Gazans. I suppose any government would have trouble taking the high road in such a situation, but all Israel achieves (besides exercising its military) is further damaging its reputation and increasing Palestinian hatred. And the government is contemplating an actual ground operation, during which Palestinian casualties would skyrocket and Israeli soldiers would be killed – for what? Revenge. Since September 2002, 1526 Palestinian and 131 Israeli children under the age of 18 have been killed. For what?

 
Hamas is clearly willing to sacrifice the lives of Palestinians in order to indulge itself in inconveniencing the Israelis, and they bear direct responsibility for escalating the violence begun with the murder of the teenagers. As Israel claims, they started the exchange of bombs. True enough. But consider the bigger picture. Israel has a half million colonists in the West Bank and shows every sign of establishing an apartheid regime. Gaza is generally recognized (except by the American Congress) as a huge open air prison, access to which is completely controlled by the Israeli military. 13 percent of the children in Gaza suffer from acute malnutrition and 19 percent from anemia; only 10 percent of Gaza’s water is potable. The UN estimates that if nothing changes, Gaza will be uninhabitable in eight years.

 
In my younger days I fell for the scam that was Israel, the besieged democracy that was making the desert bloom, and god knows the Palestinians seem to have perfected the art of shooting themselves in the foot. But I became an historian, and Israel became more and more blatant in its policies, especially the building of Greater Israel. It was a major mistake to establish the state of Israel, and every one of President Truman’s advisors urged him to oppose it. It seems that European-American guilt and Truman’s desire to insure the Jewish vote conspired to create a permanent problem in the Middle East, though I expect the Arabs would have had a good shot at screwing up their affairs without Israel.
I have met many Israelis who are as disgusted by the behavior of their country as I am, but they seem powerless to alter its course in the face of the increasing power of the extreme right and the ultra-orthodox. And the vast majority of Americans have no real idea what our “client” is doing with our complicity – and our tax money. Our politicians probably have a better idea, but they will do nothing if there is even the barest suggestion that it might harm their reelection chances.

 
Netanyahu has just said that he is no hurry to end the conflict. Why should he be? While Palestinians are dying, Israelis are being inconvenienced. And Obama is at fund raisers. They all disgust me.