Report from the Fronts #18: July 1916

On the Western Front July 1916 began with a bang, literally, as nineteen massive mines buried under German lines were exploded by the British to kick off the long-awaited Somme Offensive. The mines, many begun the previous year, contained a total of 210,800 pounds of high explosive, which together constituted one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history.  Three of the mines were behemoths: Hawthorn Ridge at Beaumont-Hamel (40,600 lbs.) and Y Sap and Lochnagar at La Boisselle (40,000 and 60,000 lbs. respectively); Lochnagar was believed to be the loudest man-made noise up to that time, heard as far away as London.  Impressive, but they did not substantially aid the offensive.

Mine tunnel

Mine tunnel

Lochnagar crater today

Lochnagar crater today

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Lochnagar crater

Lochnagar crater

 

 

 

 

 

The Somme Offensive had been in the works since 1915 and was intended to be a primarily French operation with the British in support, but the German assault at Verdun had drained away French troops and it was British/Commonwealth forces that ended up bearing the brunt of this Big Push.  The section of the trench line north and south of the Somme River, defended by General Fritz von Below’s Second Army, was chosen by Joffre for the attack, though it is not at all clear why.  There was no particular strategic importance to the area, and because it had been quiet since 1915, the Germans had been busy increasing the stiffness and depth of their fortifications.

The Butcher of the Somme

The Butcher of the Somme

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

Somme Offensive

Somme Offensive

Haig of course went right along with this, delighted it would be primarily a British show.  Eleven divisions from General Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army would attack in the area of Albert, supported on their left flank by two divisions of General Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby’s Third Army; the right flank would be covered by five divisions of the French Sixth Army on both sides of the Somme.  (Joffre had originally planned on 40 French divisions.)  The goal was the seemingly mythical “breakthrough,” which would allow forces (including all available cavalry!) to head for Douai and Cambrai.  The Allies had air superiority, a factor that was gaining in importance.

Edmund Allenby

Edmund Allenby

 

Fritz von Below

Fritz von Below

Henry Rawlinson

Henry Rawlinson

The Somme Offensive was in actuality a series of thirteen more or less distinctive named battles that stretched on into November.  The initial attack, the Battle of Albert (1-13 July), pushed the Germans into a substantial withdrawal south and north of the Somme, but the Commonwealth forces in the center got nowhere against the Germans on higher ground.  It was in fact a disaster.  The British suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed) on the first day; their total casualties in the next eleven days were c. 25,000.  1 July 1916 is acknowledged as the worst day in the history of the British army.

A German "Sommekämpfer"

A German Sommekämpfer

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

The fault can be pinned on Haig and Rawlinson, who believed (like most high commanders) that a heavy barrage would take out the machine guns and wire.  Perhaps against their own trench line, but not the deep triple lines and reinforced bunkers of the busy Germans.  The defenses were virtually intact, and the slow-moving British infantry were annihilated.  Two subordinate commanders were sacked (for not pushing their men harder!), but as historian Martin Middlebrook later put it, “Haig and Rawlinson were protected by the sheer enormity of the disaster.”  To fire or criticize them would be a PR disaster – and the offensive went on.

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

But it now comprised more limited engagements and objectives, as the Allies encountered nasty fighting in fortified villages and dense woods.  The Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14-17 July) went better than the original offensive, pushing out a thousand yards and capturing Bazentine le Petit, but further advance was foiled by the confusion and poor communications, frequent companions of Great War offensives.

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, a bit to the southeast the Battle of Delville Wood (14 July – 15 September) resulted from the effort to secure the right flank of the force in Bazentine, and on the first day the First South African Brigade, making its Western Front debut, seized most of the wood.  The Germans counterattacked, and by 20 July when British attacks rescued the remnants from the wood, the South African brigade had virtually ceased to exist.

Battle of Delville Wood

Battle of Delville Wood

South African General Henry Lukin

South African General Henry Lukin

Delville Wood

Delville Wood

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Fromelles (19-20 July) actually took place some fifty miles north of the Somme and was a small scale operation designed to take advantage of weaknesses brought on by the transfer of German troops to the Somme.  Well, there were none in this bit of the line, and the two divisions in fact attacked a ridge defended by twice their number, suffering 7080 casualties to the German’s 1500-2000.  The Australian Fifth Division, also making its first appearance on the Western Front, suffered 5533 of those casualties; the battle was later described as “the worst 24 hours in Australian history.’  For what?

The last Somme engagement to be initiated in July was the Battle of Pozières Ridge (23 July – 7 August), which was the only part of a general offensive north and south of the Somme to have any success.  Pozières was a village two miles northwest of Bazentine, and its capture would isolate the Germans in the fortified village of Thiepval.  The Australian First Division took the village immediately, but inasmuch as the rest of the offensive promptly collapsed into uncoordinated mini-engagements, the Aussies became the center of attention of the German artillery and suffered huge casualties.  The German counterattack would come at the beginning of August.

Pozières plateau

Pozières plateau

Road to Pozières

Road to Pozières

 Pozières- captured German bunker

Pozières- captured German bunker

Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front the Baranovichi Offensive in what is now Belarus finally began.  The commander of the Western Army Group, Alexei Evert, had resisted going on the offensive in June as the northern wing of the Brusilov Offensive, perhaps because he remembered the disaster of his Lake Naroch Offenisive back in March.  But the supreme Command insisted, and on 2 July 410,000 troops of the Russian Fourth Army attacked 70,000 Germans of the Ninth Army.  When the on and off offensive finally ended on 29 July, the Russians had gained no ground and lost 80,000 men to the German 13,000.  Is it any wonder revolution was brewing?

Evert's men - future corpses and revolutionaries

Evert’s men – future corpses and revolutionaries

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other news, the counterattack at the Trentino ended on 7 July, freeing General Cadorna free to contemplate another shot on the Isonzo.  On 25 July Serbian troops (Remember Serbia?) showed up at Salonika, followed in five days by a contingent of Russians, of whom there seemed to be an endless supply.  Incidentally, on 25 July the Russians took Erzincan (Erzinjan) in northeastern Turkey; this is as far as they would penetrate into Anatolia.

Finally, things were heating up on the Arab front.  In Sinai the Turks began an offensive towards the Suez Canal on 19 July, but far more important to the post-war world, Britain signed a treaty with Abdulaziz Ibn Sa’ud, Emir of Nejd and Hasa, the creator and future king of Saudi Arabia.  That kingdom would include the Hejaz (Too bad, Sherif Hussein) where on 27 July Arab forces took Yenbo, the port of Medina, easing their supply problems.  And soon Lawrence would show up.

Ibn Saud

Ibn Sa’ud

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

 

 

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Reports from the Front #9: December 1915

1915 came to an end with few significant changes made in the past year of fighting. Bulgaria was in, Serbia was out and Greece was both in and out, all of which strategically aided the Central Powers, but hardly caused any swing in the overall balance of power.  More significantly, the Russians were driven out of Poland and Galicia, but as events would demonstrate, they were far from being a spent force.  Perhaps the most significant result of a year of conflict was that hundreds of thousands of men were no longer alive or no longer in possession of all their body parts.  Governments and generals had certainly come to the conclusion that this war was not going to be easy or brief after all, but they could come up with nothing better than doing the same old same old.

Actually, one simple “solution” was to change or at least shuffle generals.  On 3 December Joffre was made Commander in Chief of all the French armies, hardly a great development, inasmuch as his tactical inclinations were unchanged from a year of slaughter and as ponderous as his imposing physique.  Meanwhile, Sir John French, the C-in-C of the BEF, was under mounting criticism from just about everyone, including Joffre, Kitchener, Haig, Asquith and the King, who generally felt he was not an aggressive enough commander.  Rather than be sacked, he resigned on 15 December and was replaced four days later by Douglas Haig, who was sufficiently aggressive; he would become known as the ”Butcher of the Somme.”  On 22 December the Chief of the General Staff of the BEF and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff also resigned.

The Butcher of the Somme

The Butcher of the Somme

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

French and PM Asquith

French and PM Asquith

In the east it was withdrawal time for the allies. On 2 December the French force in Macedonia withdrew to Salonika, followed on 7 December by the British.  They then demanded that the Greek forces in Salonika leave, which on 11 December they refused to do.  It was after all their country, and they were officially a neutral, demonstrated on 14 December by an agreement with the Bulgarians to establish a neutral zone along the Greek frontier.  But they were a relatively helpless neutral: on 30 December French general Maurice Sarrail had all consuls of the Central Powers in Salonika arrested and deported.  Salonika was now a huge fortified camp, containing 150,000 allied troops, who became known as the ”Gardeners of Salonika.”

General Maurice Sarrrail

General Maurice Sarrrail

French soldiers at Salonika

French soldiers at Salonika

Further east, on 3 December the British/Indian expeditionary force retreating down the Tigris reached Kut-al-Amara, which Townshend decided to fortify. Four days later 11,000 Ottoman troops, commanded by the 72 year old Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz, an old Turkish hand (Goltz Pasha), arrived and placed Kut and the 8000 British troops under siege.  After a month of this, including an unsuccessful Turkish assault on Christmas Eve, Townshend decided to break out and head for Basra, but he was overruled by his commander, Sir John Nixon, the senior general of the Indian Army, who thought the siege was an excellent way to tie up Ottoman forces.  It would also prove an excellent way to lose 8000 Imperial troops.

Golz Pasha

Goltz Pasha

Townshend

Townshend

Nixon

Nixon

Elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire a more successful withdrawal began, when the allies finally gave up the completely stalled Gallipoli campaign.  On 19 December the evacuation of troops from Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove began and was completed without trouble the following day.  The main force at Helles would leave in January.

Bones left at Anzac Cove

Bones left at Anzac Cove

Aussies charging just before the Anzac evacuation

Aussies charging just before the Anzac evacuation

On the other hand, the East African Front was lighting up again, as the British began naval operations on Lake Tanganyika.  The gunboats Mimi and Toutou had completed their 10,000 mile journey from Britain to South Africa and overland to Tanganyika and were launched on 22 and 23 December.  On 26 December they engaged the German gunboat Kingani, which was captured and refitted by the British as the Fifi. More action would follow.

The Kingani/Fifi

The Kingani/Fifi

The epic journey of the Mimi and Toutou

The epic journey of the Mimi and Toutou

On 10 December the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo came to an end.  The Italians had suffered 49,500 casualties, the Austrians 32,100.  For nothing.  Yet, General Cadorna was not sacked, but allowed to carry on his attempts to capture Gorizia and achieve the big breakthrough that all these characters dreamed of.

Finally, a couple of diplomatic arrangements of some interest.  On 28 December two German military attachés in Washington, Captains Karl Boy-Ed and Franz von Papen were declared personae non gratae for being actively involved in espionage and sabotage (America was supplying arms to the Entente) and recalled to Germany.  Von Papen would after the war become the Chancellor of the Weimar Republic and his intrigues would help elevate Adolf Hitler to the Chancellorship.

The young von Papen

The young von Papen

Boy-Ed

Boy-Ed

On 26 December Britain signed a treaty with Ibn Saud (or Abdulaziz), an Arab sheik who from 1902 had been extending the control of the House of Saud out from Riyadh.  His main enemy was the House of Rashid, which with Ottoman aid defeated Ibn Saud in 1904, only to be driven out two years later, along with their Turkish allies.  By 1912 Ibn Saud had conquered most of Nejd (the interior of the peninsula) and the eastern coast, becoming the Emir of Nejd and Hasa.  The Ottomans were left with control of the Hejaz, the western coast of the peninsula, where Mecca and the holy sites of Islam were.

Hussein ibn Ali Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Hussein ibn Ali
Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Ibn Saud

Ibn Saud

Arabia in 1914

Arabia in 1914

The British interest was not oil, which was not discovered in Arabia until 1938, but finding a stable ally in Arabia, who could protect British interests in the Persian Gulf and fight the Turks.  By virtue of the Treaty of Darin of 1915 Saudi Arabia became a British protectorate with delineated borders and agreed to respect British interests.  Ibn Saud did not, however, agree to keep his hands off the Hejaz, despite the fact that only two months earlier the British had made an agreement with the Sherif of Mecca.  Why should a Great Power worry about promises made to wogs?

And so 1915 came to an end.  Oh, this year there was no Christmas truce.  The generals and governments were not about to put up with that again.