Report from the Fronts #17: June 1916

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

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Herbert Kitchener

Herbert Kitchener

HMS Hampshire

HMS Hampshire

 

 

 

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

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

The Kitchener stitch

The Kitchener stitch

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

After the battle

After the battle

Battle of Mont Sorrel

Battle of Mont Sorrel

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

The essence of Verdun

The essence of Verdun

Fort Vaux

Fort Vaux

Inside Fort Faux

Inside Fort Vaux

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

All that is left of Fleury

All that is left of Fleury

Fort Thiaumont

Fort Thiaumont

 

 

German advance from February to June

German advance from February to June

 

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

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Brusilov Offensive

Brusilov Offensive

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

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

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

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

Faisal (in 1933)

Faisal (in 1933)

Ali (in 1933)

Ali (in 1924)

Arab soldiers

Arab soldiers

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

Flag of the Hejaz

Flag of the Hejaz

Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes

 

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Reports from the Front #10: January 1915

Most of the action in the first month of 1916 was in the Balkans and Mesopotamia. The troops on the Western Front were busy enough fighting the mud and cold, little realizing that the cataclysm of Verdun would get underway the following month.  The Eastern Front was quiet: the Russians were recovering from the disasters of 1915 and planning a new offensive, while the Germans and Austrians were engaged in picking apart the Balkans.  Even General Cadorna was taking a break from his Isonzo Follies.

The destruction of Serbia

The destruction of Serbia

Serbs were raining down on Greece.  On New Year’s Day King Peter I of Serbia arrived at Salonika, and on 17 January he moved to Aidipsos on the Greek island of Euboea to take the waters at the thermal springs (he was old and ailing).  Meanwhile, his troops were going to Corfu.  On 10 January the allies informed the Greek government that the remnants of the Serbian army would be moved to the island, and three days later the Greeks refused.  Well, the French had already occupied Corfu two days earlier, and on 15 January they began to ship something like 100,000 exhausted Serbs to the island and other locations, where they would die in droves from malnutrition and disease.  The Serbian government in exile was established at Brindisi.220px-Pobedata_nad_syrbia[1]

Serbs on Corfu

Serbs on Corfu

Peter I of Serbia

Peter I of Serbia

Hard on the heels of the Serbs came the Austrians, who by the end of the month occupied all Albania except the far south. Albania had only come into existence a few years earlier in the wake of the Second Balkan War of 1913 and was assigned territory, Epirus, in the south that was ethnically Greek.  (This disregard for ethnic realities would become endemic in the formation of countries in eastern Europe in the wake of the war.)

As a result the Greeks, who had already occupied the territory earlier and left, sent in troops (with allied approval) on 27 October 1914, while the Italians seized a number of islands. The result was the Macedonian Front, running along the northern Greek frontier through southern Albania to the Adriatic, and any Austrian or Bulgarian advance further south was thwarted.  The Albanian monarch (a German), Wilhelm I, fled.  Albania, incidentally, was not a belligerent.

Wilhelm I of Albania

Wilhelm I of Albania

On 10 January the Austrians began nosing into Montenegro, leading to an armistice between the two powers two days later.  But Montenegro had helped the Serbs and in any case was important to Austria, being situated between the Empire and their new possession of Albania, and on 20 January the armistice ended.  The country fell to the Austrians, and King Nicola I fled to France and the Albanian government was ensconced in Bordeaux.

Montenegran soldiers

Montenegran soldiers

The Montenegro campaign

The Montenegro campaign

Nikola I of Montenegro

Nikola I of Montenegro

The other hot spot in January 1916 was the Tigris River.  On 4 January a force of some 19,000 troops, mostly Indian, under General Fenton Aylmer began moving north to relieve Kut.  They encountered Goltz Pasha at Sheikh Sa’ad on 6 January, and although the Turks were outnumbered four to one, Goltz managed to hold out until 8 January, when he moved about ten miles up the river to Wadi. On 14 January the British attacked this new position, and while they failed to break through, Goltz retreated another 5 miles to the Hanna defile.

Golz Pasha

Goltz Pasha

General Fenton Aylmer

General Fenton Aylmer

British artillery at Sheikh Sa'ad

British artillery at Sheikh Sa’ad

On 19 January General Percy Lake replaced Nixon as supreme commander of the Mesopotamian campaign. It made no difference.  The British attacked at Hanna on 21 January and failed, and having suffered heavy casualties in the battles and from disease, the relief force retreated south to Ali Gharbi, where they had started.  In the three battles the British had suffered 8600 casualties, the Turks 2230.  The siege of Kut would go on.

General Percy Lake

General Percy Lake

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British hospital ship on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

British troops on the Tigris

Another failed operation finally came to an end when on 7-8 January allied troops were evacuated from Helles beach at the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula.  The evacuation proved to be the most successful operation of the whole campaign, and not a man was lost, though the Turks knew it was about to take place.  The Gallipoli campaign proved a disaster, with tens of thousands of lives lost for absolutely no gains, hardly surprising since the landings resulted almost immediately in a mini-Western Front on the peninsula.  Both sides suffered about a quarter million casualties, though the Turks could of course claim a victory.

Helles beach

Helles beach

The political repercussions had a more lasting effect.  Winston Churchill, who had been an instrumental force behind the operation, lost his job as First Lord of the Admiralty and went off to fight on the Wester Front.  Kitchener’s influence began to wane, and the failure would contribute to the fall of the Asquith government at the end of the year.

Churchill would earn a reputation for hare-brained military schemes, but to some extent this was unfair.  The basic idea made sense.  It is very unlikely that a naval bombardment of Istanbul would drive the Turks out of the war, but an allied naval presence in the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus would take pressure off the Russians and render communications between the European and Asiatic parts of the Ottoman Empire far more difficult.

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

Churchill on the Western Front 1916

The problem was not the idea but rather extremely poor operational planning and execution, in which Churchill had no real role.  The naval component was woefully inadequate and poorly led, especially the minesweeping units, but the land campaign had a reasonable chance of seizing the forts on the European side of the straights.  That they did not was due to poor planning and intelligence (tourist maps had to be used), overconfidence, insufficient artillery and above all, terrible leadership at all levels.  There were any number of instances in the early stages at Helles when the troops could have kept the initiative and rolled over Turkish positions, but few of the commanders were actually on the beaches, communications were hopeless and requests for support were ignored.  The Turks thus had the time to bring up reinforcements and prepare their defenses, and the result was stalemate.

In other news, on 13 January the Turks began occupying positions in western Iran, partly in reaction to Russian forces in the northwest of the country and British in the south.  Iran was neutral but was in no position to resist these incursions, any more than she could resist the later violation of her sovereignty during the Second World War. Or the CIA engineered overthrow of their democratically elected government in 1953, which resulted in the ascendancy of the brutal US supported Shah.  What would you be chanting in the streets if this had happened to your country?

On 22 January Romania, encircled by belligerents and avid for territorial gains, specifically Transylvania, opened negotiations with Russia for aid.  Rumania was bound by treaty to come to the aid of Austria were she attacked, and the Rumanian king, Carol I, was a Hohenzollern, the ruling house of the German Empire.  When the war broke out, Carol wanted to enter the war as an ally of the Central Power, but the government and public opinion preferred the allies, particularly since Transylvania was a Hungarian possession.  Rumania decided she was not bound by the treaty, since Austria had “started the war,” and the country initially remained neutral.  In October of 1914 Carol was succeeded by Ferdinand I, who was more amenable to honoring the will of the people.

Carol I of Rumania

Carol I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Ferdinand I of Rumania

Rumania in 1914

Rumania in 1914

Finally, as a sign of the times, on 27 January the British Parliament passed the first Military Service Act, in effect establishing conscription, which already existed in France, Russia, Austria and Germany.  Defended by its navy and requiring only relatively small forces to secure the Empire, unlike the continental powers Britain could make do with a volunteer army, and in 1914 the regular army was just short of a quarter million men, half of whom garrisoned the Empire.  The BEF initially comprised only 150,000 men; the Germans fielded 1,850,000 and the French 1,650,000.  That certainly would not fill the maw of the trenches, and single men without children in the 18 to 41 age group would henceforth (it would become effective on 2 March) be liable for service unless they were in a war related occupation.  Subsequent acts would expand the pool, as the meat grinder of the Western Front demanded more and more bodies, and by 1918 the British had some 4,000,000 men in uniform.

1916 conscription notice

1916 conscription notice

And so the third calendar year of the war began.

Reports from the Front #5: August 1915

August was a good time to be on the Western Front: neither side launched any serious assaults on the trench lines. It was also a good time to be on the Eastern Front, if you happened to be German or Austrian. The Gorlice-Tarnów offensive, which Falkenhayn had launched at the beginning of May, continued its rapid advance eastward, destroying Russian units all along the line. This operation was remembered by the Russians as the “Great Retreat,” but that retreat, accelerated by the Stavka (the Russian supreme headquarters) saved the army from any large encirclements, especially in the Warsaw salient. On 5 August the Central Powers took Warsaw, on 25 August Brest-Litovsk and on 26 August Byelostok. The Russians were now being squeezed out of Poland.

Poniatowski bridge (Warsaw) destroyed by the Russians

Poniatowski bridge (Warsaw) destroyed by the Russians

German cavalry enters Warsaw

German cavalry enters Warsaw

Moving east

                                      Moving east

They were not doing so well on the Turkish front either, and on 3 August they evacuated the Van district, which they had captured in May. The Turks reoccupied the area on 5 August, but the next day they faced a serious challenge hundreds of miles to the west. On 6 August the western allies reopened the Gallipoli campaign, landing two fresh divisions at Suvla Bay, just north of “Anzac cove.” The plan was for the two beachheads to unite, seize the surrounding heights before the Turks could bring up reinforcements and then cross to the east coast of the peninsula, trapping the Turkish forces to the south.

Suvla Bay

                                  Suvla Bay

Kemal in the trenches at Gallipoli - not the cigarette holder

Kemal in the trenches at Gallipoli – note the cigarette holder

Liman von Sanders

          Liman von Sanders

The allied failure at Suvla Bay

             The allied failure at Suvla Bay

The plan failed utterly, not so much because of the quick reaction of the (German) Turkish commander, Liman von Sanders, and the equally able Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, but because of the incompetence of the British command. The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener (of Omdurman fame), refused to appoint a younger general and instead saddled the Suvla landing with the inexperienced and 61 year old Frederick Stopford, who was asleep when the assault began and visited the beach only once. He left the operation in the hands of his subordinates, many of whom were also lethargic, and although the two beachheads were joined, inactivity, confusion and conflicting orders prevented the troops from controlling the heights. By the middle of August the battle was essentially over, and another static trench line had been established on the peninsula. By this time there were over 500,000 allied and 300,000 Turkish troops involved in the campaign.

Aussies in a captured Turkish trench

Aussies in a captured Turkish trench

Lord Kitchener

                    Lord Kitchener

Yes, that's Kitchener

               Yes, that’s Kitchener

Off in the west 10 August saw the culmination of the Second Battle of the Isonzo, which ended like the First: little gained beyond mammoth casualties on both sides. More important, on 21 August Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of London, signed by Italy and the Triple Entente on 26 April, had lured the Italians into the war with promises of Austrian territory and a protectorate over Albania, but it also confirmed Italy’s possession of the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean (just off the coast of Turkey) and provided that “in the event of total or partial partition of Turkey in Asia, she ought to obtain a just share of the Mediterranean region adjacent to the province of Adalia (on the south coast of Turkey)…” Diplomatic promises apart, the Italian government apparently felt that being in an actual state of war with Turkey would enhance her position when it came time to dispose of the Ottoman Empire.

Fighting on the Italian front - Austrians

    Fighting on the Italian front – Austrians

And so it was in August 1915, an excellent month for the Central Powers.