(Late) Report from the Fronts #45: May 1918

 

Spring Offensive

Operation Georgette came to an end on 27 April, and despite the absence of the hoped for breakthrough Ludendorff decided to go on to the next phase of the offensive, Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne).  The thrust would be between Soissons and Rheims, southwest across the Aisne River towards the Marne and Paris, but Ludendorff was apparently still thinking in terms of drawing more Allied forces south in preparation for another assault in Flanders that would separate the British and French armies.

On 27 May 4000 guns opened up on the Chemin des Dames Ridge (lost during the Second Battle of the Aisne), where four refitting British divisions were blown apart, having been ordered to hold the forward trenches – against all experience – by General Denis Duchêne, commander of the French Sixth Army (he was sacked after the battle).  Some 20 divisions swept through a 25 mile hole in the line and reached the Aisne River in less than six hours, and by the end of the month the Germans had captured Soissons and reached the Marne, only 35 miles from Paris.

Erich von Ludendorff

British lads on the Aisne

Overrun trench

Denis Duchêne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But then the inevitable: lengthening supply lines, tired troops and heavy losses slowed the offensive to a crawl, and Allied counterattacks halted it on 6 June.  Both sides lost about 130,00 men, and not only did the British not send substantial manpower south, as Ludendorff had hoped, but the Field Marshall had himself transferred German troops from Flanders, undermining his own strategic plan.  There were a million German troops in the east (Sevastopol was taken on 1 May and Rostov a week later), but in the west Ludendorff was rapidly running out of men.

He was also running out of time.  At this time there were only four ready American divisions in theater, gaining experience in the trenches of quiet stretches of the Front, but on 28 May the American 1st Division (the Big Red One) engaged in the AEF’s first offensive, capturing and holding Cantigny (southeast of Amiens) and impressing the French and British.  By the beginning of June 10,000 doughboys were pouring into France each day, and Ludendorff had to know that his days were numbered.

Yanks at Catigny

(Painted) Yanks defending Catigny

Catigny

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east the former Russian Empire was flying apart and the Bolsheviks were fighting for their lives, literally against everyone, including people they ostensibly represented: on 9 May Red Army troops fired on protesting workers in Kolpino.  And that came to include the Czech Legion.  Traveling east on the Siberian Railroad, the Czechs were meeting trainloads of German, Austrian and Hungarian prisoners moving west, and on 14 May at Chelyabinsk a fight broke out and a Hungarian was killed.  The local Bolsheviks arrested several Czechs and ordered them shot; the Czechs promptly occupied the city.  Within a month the Legion, aided by White forces, would control the railway from the Ural Mountains to Lake Baikal.

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Trans-Siberian railroad

Meanwhile, the Finnish Civil War ended on 7 May with a White victory, guaranteeing Finnish independence, at least until Stalin invaded the country in 1940.  And on the same day that the Legion revolted Kerensky, the former head of the Provisional Government, fled Russia, which is why he was one of the few key figures from 1917 to survive until 1970.

Kerensky 1917

Kerensky 1960s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down in Palestine Allenby’s second strike across the Jordan, launched on 30 April, captured the town of Es Salt, but the British were driven back over the Jordan by 4 May.  They also captured Kirkuk in northern Iraq on 7 May, but were forced to evacuate it on the 24th.

British troops in Es Salt

The Turks were doing much better.  With Russia sinking further into civil war the way into the Caucasus was open, barred only by the inherently unstable Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, with which they were already at war.  On 11 May a peace conference took place at Batum, but given what the Turks had done to the Armenians in 1915, it was doomed, and the Ottoman Third Army continued its advance on the 21st.  Five days later Georgia proclaimed its independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia, followed in two days by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Armenia.  Georgia joined the Germans, Azerbaijan the Turks and Armenia fought on.

The Caucasus today

Remember the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend last month?  On 9 May the British again attempted to ground a block ship at Ostend, employing HMS Vindictive, covered with glory and damage from the Zeebrugge raid.  But a fog set in and the clever Germans had moved the navigation buoys, resulting in the sunken cruiser only partially blocking the harbor entrance.

HMS Vindictive 1918

HMS Vindictive 1900

Second Ostend raid

Finally, additional distant vultures were gathering: Nicaragua declared war on Germany on 8 May and Costa Rica on the 24th.  One might wonder why.  Well, at this time Nicaragua was virtually an American colony, and the dictator of Costa Rica, General Federico Tinoco, hoped for American recognition of his government.  The general did not get it and was deposed in 1919, but Costa Rica remained in a technical state of war with Germany until after the Second World War.

Federico Tinoco

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Report from the Fronts #42: March 1918

The big news for March 1918 was the German Spring Offensive, but first there was a flurry of peace treaties. On 1 March Bolshevik Russia signed a peace treaty with the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic, which had emerged in the industrialized south of Finland in January.  Unfortunately for Lenin, the Workers’ Republic was not at all popular among most Finns, and the result was a civil war in which the “reds” were supported by Moscow and the “whites” by Berlin, which signed a treaty of peace with Finland on 7 March.  In terms of barbarity the Finish Civil War quickly became a small-scale forerunner of the far greater horror that was the Russian Civil War.

Murdered Whites

Executing Reds

Red Guards

White Guards

The Finnish Civil War during March

On 5 March Romania agreed –what choice did she have? – to a preliminary peace with the Central Powers, Bulgaria and Turkey and four days later signed a peace with Russia, a far easier proposition.  Bolshevik Russia, meanwhile, finally bowed to the inevitable on 3 March (the day after the Germans captured Kiev), and Grigori Sokolnikov (killed in prison in 1939) signed the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Russia lost the Baltic states, Belarus and the Ukraine (as personal possessions of the Czar, Poland and Finland were already gone), which meant that a quarter of the former Empire’s population and industry now belonged to the Germans.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Slivers of the Russian Empire for Turkey

The Treaty itself

Grigori Solkonikov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might have been a great deal for the Germans had there not been a Western Front.  Brest-Litovsk did free up several hundred thousand troops needed for the planned Spring Offensive – Germany’s last shot before being overwhelmed by the Americans – but the desire to secure this eastern empire and its resources left a million men scattered from Poland through the Ukraine.  Inasmuch as the attempt to establish a Ukrainian puppet state would fail and the expected resources never appear because of constant revolts against the occupying troops, Ludendorff would have better served his country by evacuating everything east of Poland.

Hindenburg the figurehead and Ludendorff the ruler

The aforementioned Spring Offensive (or Ludendorff Offensive or Kaiserschlacht) began on 21 March.  Ludendorff had collected 74 divisions (out of 192 in the West) and 10,000 guns and mortars, spread along the 43 mile front from Arras south to La Fère on the Oise River.  The German Seventeenth Army, under Otto von Below, the Second Army, under Georg von der Marwitz, and the Eighteenth Army, under Oskar von Hutier, faced the right wing of Julian Byng’s Third Army and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.  The strategic aim was to move northwest from the breakthrough and cut the British off from the English Channel and the French to the south, forcing negotiations.

General Julian Byng 3rd Army

General Hubert Gough 5th Army

Spring Offensive

General Oskar von Hutier

General Otto von Below 17th Army

General Georg von der Marwitz 2nd Army

 

The initial phase of the offensive, Operation Michael, would throw 44 divisions, many just specially trained for rapid advance, at the line from Arras to south of St. Quentin.  The northern elements of the advance would take Arras and head northwest, while the southern units would move to the Somme and hold it against counterattacks.  Ludendorff ordered a massive but relatively short initial bombardment in order to preserve some element of surprise, but a week before the launch the British knew from reconnaissance, prisoners and deserters a big push was coming and shelled German assembly areas.

Operation Michael

In the early hours of 21 March the shells began raining done over a 40 mile front, 3,500,000 in five hours, the largest bombardment of the war. The British front lines were severely disrupted by gas and smoke and the rear areas and supply lines pounded by heavy artillery, and more important, communications between headquarters and the fronts were severed.  Further, a thick fog came with the dawn, allowing the German troops to sneak by defensive positions and infiltrate the rear.

Operation Michael would last until 5 April, proceeding through six named battles: the Battle of St. Quentin (21-23 March), the First Battle of Bapaume (24-25 March), the Battle of Rosières (26-27 March), the First Battle of Arras (28 March), the Battle of the Avre (4 April) and the Battle of the Ancre (5 April).  One can see from the names that much of this ground would be fought over again.  (That was a spoiler, I suppose.)

 The offensive got off to a great start, and within days the British were engaged in fighting withdrawals in order to protect exposed flanks and compelled to call in French troops to stem the German tide at the southern part of the front. Not only were the British dramatically outnumbered in divisions, but many were seriously exhausted and understrength.  But it was certainly not a rout, as British and Commonwealth losses demonstrate.

British 6 inch gun in action

Retreating British

German AV7 tank near the Somme

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all the initial success, however, the offensive ran up against the usual barrier: the difficulty of resupply and consolidation in the wake of a rapid advance. Making it even more difficult in this case was the fact that much of the terrain had been fought over two years earlier during the Somme Offensive and was a lunar landscape virtually impassable for wheeled vehicles.  Further, when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, they had destroyed everything that might be of use to the Allies and now had themselves to deal with the devastated infrastructure and poisoned wells.

Advancing over the Somme battlefield

Dragging artillery forward

German supply column

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superficially Michael looked a success.  The Germans had penetrated 40 miles (light years in Great War terms) in the center of the offensive and collected 75,000 prisoners and about 1200 square miles of French turf.  But they had not taken Arras and were stopped short of Amiens, and more important, they had suffered some quarter million casualties, particularly among the elite Stormtroopers (Stoẞtruppen).  The Allies had lost about the same number, but huge American reinforcements were beginning to arrive and Allied war production could easily replace the lost materiel.  The Germans could not.  The Spring Offensive would continue for another three months, but many in the military were already deciding the war was over for Germany.

(For an excellent account of Operation Michael from the point of view of a German infantryman I recommend the personal memoir of Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (Stahlgewittern).  Jünger was present at the Somme, Cambrai and the Spring Offensive, where he was seriously wounded and concluded that Germany could not win.  He survived the war (and the next as well) and was the rare enlisted man to be awarded the Pour le Mérite.)

Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger at 100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Michael underlined the problems of coordination between the British and French high commands, and on 26 March General Ferdinand Foch was chosen to coordinate Allied activities.  In April he would be named Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies, a long delayed development.

Ferdinand Foch

In other news, on 21 March the Commonwealth troops in Palestine began crossing the Jordan River, heading for the key Turkish position in Amman, which controlled the all-important Hejaz Railway. By the 27th they had occupied the Moab hills and assaulted Amman itself (The First Battle of Amman 27 – 31 March), but Turkish/German counterattacks forced them back to the west bank of the Jordan by 2 April.

Turkish prisoners

Amman

The Jordan Valley and Amman

Bridge across the Jordan

Crossing the Jordan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More interesting, on the same day the Jordan was crossed the Germans began shelling Paris – from 75 miles away. Near Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, behind their lines, the Germans had emplaced the largest artillery piece (in terms of barrel length – 112 feet) of the war, the 256 ton Paris Gun (Paris-Geschütz), also known as the Emperor William Gun (Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz). The gun fired yard long 234 pound shells, which traveled 25 miles up into the atmosphere, the first manmade objects to enter the stratosphere, and the range was so great that the rotation of the earth needed to be taken into account in aiming the weapon.

The Paris gun

Emplacing the Paris gun

Paris gun mount

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guns – there were three of them – were designed by Krupp engineer Fritz Rausenberger and marvels of engineering for the time, but as an effective weapon they had serious drawbacks. Inasmuch as the shell had to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressures of firing, it could only carry 15 pounds of explosive, a trivial amount when the smallest target you could expect to hit was a city.  (A proposal to employ a sabot-mounted shell, which would increase the explosive payload was inexplicably rejected.)  Further, each shot wore down the barrel enough that the next shell had to be slightly bigger, and after 65 had been fired the barrel was sent back to Krupp to be restored.  An average of 20 shells a day were fired, amounting to only 300 pounds of explosive delivered in small packets.

The gun

The shell and propellant

Hello, stratosphere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly the gun was not intended to level Paris, but to undermine morale in the capital.  But when the firing stopped in August (the Allies were approaching the site), only 250 Parisians had been killed and 620 wounded, and after initial confusion regarding the source of the shelling Paris shrugged off the threat.  The psychological offensive had failed.  On the other hand, Germany had reached the stratosphere.

On a lighter note, the first confirmation of a new strain of influenza came on 11 March.  It was found coursing the bloodstream of Private Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas, though the ultimate origin of the disease is still in dispute.  This was the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, so named because more cases were reported in neutral Spain, where there was no military censorship.  It would kill 3% to 6% of the human race.

The influenza hospital at Fort Riley

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #40: February 1918

In February the focus of the war remained in the east, as the Bolsheviks struggled to reach an accommodation with Germany and the incredible horror of the Russian Civil War began to pick up steam.  The German demands for Russian territory and an “independent” Ukraine stirred outrage among the Russians, and on 10 February Trotsky declared his government would not sign a peace treaty but would also not resume hostilities.  The German response was quick: on the 18th they initiated Operation Faustschlag (the Eleven Day War).

Faustschlag gains

On a line from the Baltic to the Black Sea 53 divisions moved east, heading for St. Petersburg, Smolensk and Kiev.  There was little the Bolsheviks could do, especially since on 29 January the supreme commander, Nikolai Krylenko (shot in July 1938), had ordered demobilization of the army, and the German and Austrian forces gained 150 miles in a week.  By the beginning of March the Central Powers had captured Minsk and Kiev and were a 100 miles from St. Petersburg, which prompted the Soviet leadership to move the government to Moscow, where it would remain.

Nikolai Krylenko

German troops in Kiev

Austrian troops enter the Ukraine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After prolonged debate and threats by Lenin to resign the Bolshevik Central Committee narrowly voted to accept a peace treaty.  It was clear to Lenin that battling the gathering counterrevolutionary forces was at the moment far more important than the territories that would be lost.  Even the Ukraine and its grain supplies would have to take second place to securing Bolshevik power.  There was simply no alternative to signing a formal peace, which the Ukraine had already done on 9 February.

Ukraine and Kuban republics

The storm clouds were already gathering. In the south the Cossacks, always a restless group, were organizing under General Alexey Kaledin, who was joined in November 1917 by Lavr Kornilov (of failed coup fame) and Mikhail Alexeyev (who had arrested Kornilov).  Together they created the Volunteer Army, filled with former czarist officers and virulently anti-Bolshevik; it would form the  core of one of the major White armies.  On 28 January they proclaimed the Kuban People’s Republic, which declared its independence on 16 February.

“Why aren’t you in the army?”

Volunteer Army poster

Kornilov

Alexeyev

Cossack guard with the royal family

Alexey Kaledin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other news, General Allenby decided in late January that he needed to secure his right flank in Palestine by occupying the Jordan Valley and began preparations in February.  After a three day battle Jericho was taken on 21 February with minimal casualties, and by the 25th Turkish forces had withdrawn to the east bank of the Jordan River.  But the Hejaz railway was still functioning, providing a supply line for Turkish units further south.  Far to the north the Turks benefited from the Bolshevik Revolution when the Russians evacuated northeastern Anatolia; on 25 February they retook Trebizond, lost to the Russians in April 1916.

Hejaz Railway

Marching to the Jordan Valley

Turks at the Dead Sea

Capture of Jericho

 

 

 

 

And on 5 February the British government repeated its promises to the King of the Hejaz regarding the independence of the Arabs, which pledges had already been dramatically undermined by the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of early 1916.  That the Bolsheviks had already published the text of the Agreement seemed not to bother London.

(yes, I posted #41 before #40)