(Delayed) Reports from the Front #11: February 1916

The major development in February 1916 was the commencement of the Battle of Verdun, perhaps the most horrific slaughter of the war, certainly for the French and Germans. (Later in the year the British – well, British generals – would show their own mettle in the face of mega-casualties with the Somme offensive.)  Meanwhile, less catastrophic battles went on around the periphery of the war.

On 9 February the British finally gained control of Lake Tanganyika when the German gunboat Hedwig von Wissman was sunk by the Mimi and Fifi.  But that was not going to stop Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck from leading a merry chase for the next three years.  On 17 February the last German troops in South Cameroon headed for internment in Spanish territory, and the following day the last German garrison (in Mora) surrendered, ending the thirty-two year German occupation of the colony; other white people would take their place for the next half century.  The allies also continued picking apart German East Africa.

The Hedwig von Wissman

The Hedwig von Wissman

To the east the Russian Caucasus offensive begun in October of the previous year plowed on, and on 16 February Cossacks entered the strategically important city of Erzurum.  Compared to what was about to begin in the west, this was a trivial battle: the Russians suffered 9000 casualties, the Turks 15,000.  The Russian commander, incidentally, was Nikolai Yudenich, who would be one of the major counterrevolutionary White generals in the Russian Civil War.

Yudenich

Nikolai Yudenich

Russians in Erzurum

Russians in Erzurum

The Caucasus campaign

The Caucasus campaign

And in northern Italy General Cadorna, his army reorganized and under pressure to draw German troops away from the Western Front, launched the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo on 15 February. The offensive would last a month and result in nothing but more dead Italians and Austrians.  Nevertheless, the Isonzo Follies would go on.

Things were popping on the diplomatic and administrative fronts.  On 10 February the new British Military Service Act kicked in, and soon a growing wave of conscripted Tommies would be sucked into the maelstrom of the Somme.  The nickname “Tommy,” incidentally, came from a War Office instructional publication of 1815, in which the fictional trooper was named Tommy Atkins.  The name caught on as the universal designation of a British soldier, as epitomized in Kipling’s poem Tommy:

 

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, go away’;

But it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play –

The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,

O it’s ‘Thank you, Mister Atkins,’ when the band begins to play.

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

 

On this same day the last of the Serbian army moved to Corfu, followed the next day by an Italian force. On 16 February the Montenegrin army began its sojourn on the Isle of the Defeated.  Life there was not good.

While these Balkan troops were finding new accommodations, London decided the War Office rather than the India Office should henceforth direct the Mesopotamian campaign, which was now confined to attempting to rescue the army at Kut.  On 23 February a British Ministry of Blockade was created, a sign that the Allies were realizing – finally – that this would be war of attrition and the Central Powers must be deprived of supplies, including food.  This of course would cause problems with the neutral states in Europe.

The Germans were already attempting to starve Britain with their submarine warfare, which had certainly caused difficulties with the neutrals, especially the United States.  On 10 February Berlin notified Washington that armed merchant ships would be treated as hostiles, and on the last day of the month reminded the Americans that an extended submarine campaign would not be delayed.

And of far more importance to the next war rather than the present one, on 28 February Britain began creating the core of a strategic bomber squadron, which would be able to directly attack enemy industry.

Finally, the big one.  On 21 February the Germans launched an offensive towards the Verdun salient on the Meuse River.  Capturing this area would be strategically valuable, but the Chief of the German General Staff, von Falkenhayn, having concluded that Germany could not compete with Allied resources in a war of exhaustion, determined to bleed the French army white and force a separate peace.  Verdun was chosen as the target not so much because of strategy as its immense importance to French pride and as a symbol of national resistance.  The idea was that the French would do anything to defend Verdun and consequently throw endless numbers of poilus into the meat grinder.  (Poilu means “hairy one” and stemmed from the plethora of beards and mustaches sported by the troops.)

Poilus

Poilus

The citadel of Verdun itself had been fortified in the seventeenth century by the famous military architect the Marquis de Vauban, and the town was surrounded by two rings of 28 forts, modernized before the outbreak of the war.  The most important was Douaumont, occupying high ground to the northeast and thus in the direct line of the German attack.  Unfortunately for the French, seeing how easily the Germans had taken the Belgian forts in 1914, Joffre had decided traditional fortifications could not withstand German siege guns, and in 1915 the forts had been stripped of most of their guns and garrisons.  A more linear trench and wire line had been begun.  Joffre knew in January 1916 that the Germans were planning an assault on the Verdun front, but he assumed it was a diversion.

Fort Douaumont

Fort Douaumont

Marquis de Vauban

Marquis de Vauban

The meat grinder

The meat grinder

But the Germans were indeed serious.  They laid railway lines and brought up 1201 guns, two thirds of them heavy or super-heavy, such as the 420mm (16.5 in.) howitzer.  The plan envisaged firing 4,000,000 shells in eighteen days, which would require an average of thirty-three munitions trains a day.  One million Germans would assault a French garrison of some 200,000.

French heavy mortar

French heavy mortar

German railway gun

German railway gun

Verdun battlefield a century later

Verdun battlefield a century later

By 25 February German troops had moved forward almost two miles (employing flamethrowers for the first time), and a party of about 100 actually reached the northeast corner of Fort Douaumont, seeking cover from their own artillery fire.  They did not know the fort had been essentially abandoned, but encountering no resistance and fearing French artillery fire, they found a way inside and ultimately captured a warrant officer and twenty-five troops, most of the garrison.

German flame throwers

German flame throwers

French regiment at Verdun

French regiment at Verdun

The advance then bogged down, literally, as a brief thaw turned the ground to mud, making it extremely difficult to move the guns (one is reminded of Operation Barbarossa), which had been outrun by the infantry.  Meanwhile, by the end of the month the French had brought up 90,000 reinforcements, an impressive achievement given the inadequacy of their rail links to the Verdun region.

The serious slaughter was just beginning, but the battle would go on until December, the longest of the war.

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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.

 

Reports from the Front #4: June to July 1915

(Finally. I have found the research for these pieces to be fairly time consuming, so I may have to back off on the detail. It would be nice to comment on other things occasionally.  Incidentally, my Latrodectus Hesperus has disappeared – pity, I got used to seeing her there whenever I went into the utility room.)

 

In Westen nichts Neues

Im Westen nichts Neues

 

In June and July of 1915 nothing much was happening on the Western Front: Im Westen nichts Neues. Nothing much beyond a daily death toll from shelling, trench raids and suchlike. But there was plenty of action in the east. At the beginning of June it was decided to continue the Gorlice-Tarnów offensive in Galicia despite the entry of the Italians into the war, and Lemberg was captured on 22 June and the Bug River reached by 13 July. This created a huge Russian salient stretching west to Warsaw, and the next step would be to pinch it off.

 Russian prisoners


Russian prisoners

Bug River

Bug River

Galician offensive

Galician offensive

Further to the south in the Caucasus the Russians launched a new offensive on 19 June and immediately ran into stiff Turkish resistance. Most specifically, on 10 July they attempted to clear the area west of Manzikert, captured earlier, and found themselves outnumbered three to one by the Turks, who promptly counterattacked on 16 July. The Russians evacuated the entire Van region, and on 20 July Turkish forces recaptured Manzikert, site of the monumental victory of the Seljuq Turks over the Byzantine Empire in 1071. Even further to the south the Indian Expeditionary Force was slowly making its way up the Tigris, suffering far more from the heat and disease than Ottoman resistance.

Troops of the Indian Expeditionary Force

Troops of the Indian Expeditionary Force

Area around Manzikert

Area around Manzikert

Lake Van

Lake Van

Off to the west the Italians struck their first blow on 23 June, seeking to force the Austrians from the Isonzo (Soča) River and capture Gorizia, the key to Trieste to the south. The Italians had a three to one edge in troops, but their equipment was inadequate, the morale of the poorly trained recruits was low and their commander, General Count Luigi Cadorna, unpopular. Cadorna understood only one offensive tactic, the frontal assault, which was certainly a questionable approach against the well-fortified Austrians on higher ground. The First Battle of the Isonzo ended on 7 July with minimal Italian gains and 15,000 casualties against 10,000 for the enemy. Receiving reinforcements and more artillery, he tried again on 18 July, and fierce hand-to-hand fighting characterized the Second Battle of the Isonzo, which came to an end on 10 August when both sides ran out of ammunition. The Austrian lines held, though they lost 46,600 men; Cadorna lost 41,000. There would be more.

Isonzo river

Isonzo river

The Isonzo Front

The Isonzo Front

Count Cadorna

Count Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna

Meanwhile, far to the south an odd naval war was taking place. Crippled by engine problems, the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg hid in the Rufiji River delta, where she was discovered in October 1914. On 5 November three British cruisers cornered the Königsberg, but they were unable to sail up the delta and after firing a few shells they settled for a blockade. By March 1915 the Königsberg was in trouble with shrinking food supplies, low morale and deaths from tropical diseases, but though a German supply ship pretending to be Danish was trapped in Manza Bay and burned, much of the cargo was retrieved and delivered to the Königsberg and German land forces. In June two British monitors towed from Malta arrived at the Rufiji, and aided by spotter aircraft (before they fell apart in the glue-melting heat), they destroyed the Königsberg, which was scuttled by her captain, Commander Max Looff. Salvaging the cruiser’s ten 105-mm guns, the crew ultimately joined

SMS Königsberg scuttled

SMS Königsberg scuttled

Lettow-Vorbeck’s merry band.

One of SMS Königsberg's guns

One of the Königsberg’s guns

The Königsberg

SMS Königsberg

Captain Max Looff

Captain Max Looff

Then there was Lake Tanganyika. At the outbreak of war the Germans had two small warships on the lake, SMS Hedwig von Wissman and SMS Kingani, both in the fifty ton range. They quickly seized control of the lake, sinking a Belgian and a British steamer, and that allowed them to easily send raiding parties into the Belgian Congo and Rhodesia. In February 1915 the Germans launched the 1600 ton SMS Graf von Goetzen, which had been built in Germany in 1913, disassembled and packed into 5000 crates and shipped to Africa. In response the British ordered from England two forty foot motor boats, the Mimi and the Toutou, which were loaded on a freighter and dispatched to Africa on 15 June 1915. Their arrival would set the scene for Hepburn and Bogart in the African Queen.

The Goetzen's 105 mm gun from the Königsberg

The Goetzen’s 105-mm gun from the Königsberg

SMS Graf von Goetzen

SMS Graf von
Goetzen

Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika

Finally, the Armenians. As non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had long suffered discrimination and disabilities, but not until the late nineteenth century did the oppression blossom into widespread violence, as growing Armenian resistance, the proximity of the Russian Empire and Great Power interference brought on a Turkish backlash. While the government deliberately stirred rebellions with harsh measures, Kurdish irregulars were unleashed on the Armenians to essentially do as they pleased. The result was the Hamidian massacres of 1894-96, in which between 100,000 and 300,000 Armenians were killed. But in July 1908 Third Army officers who were members of the progressive Young Turk movement compelled the despised Sultan Abdul Hamid II to establish a constitutional monarchy. All the minorities rejoiced.

Armenians celebrating the Young Turk coup

Armenians celebrating the Young Turk coup

Abdul Hamid II

Abdul Hamid II

Victims in Erzurum 1895

Victims in Erzurum 1895

Early next year there was a counterrevolution, but the government was able to suppress it and depose Hamid in favor of Mehmed V, who would be only a figurehead. During the brief struggle, however, the reactionaries took out their anger on Armenians, and when troops were sent in to quell the massacres, many joined in the looting and killing in Adana province. Anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 Armenians died in the Adana Massacre. The loss of most of the Ottoman territory in Europe as a result of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) convinced many Turks to focus more attention on the Anatolian heartland, in which region the Armenians were a large minority. Further, a flood of Muslim refugees from Europe washed across the Bosporus, and perhaps 800,000 settled in Armenian areas, where they would play a major role in the slaughter to come.

Christian quarter of Adana

Christian quarter of Adana

Victims in adana

Victims in Adana

On 24 April 1915 some 250 Armenian leaders and intellectuals were arrested, later to be executed or deported, and on 27 May Istanbul ordered the forced deportation of all Armenians, the notorious Temporary Law of Deportation. Granted, many had been aiding the Russians, but old hatreds mattered more, and it quickly became clear that deportation was simply a mechanism for killing Armenians of all ages. The “deportations” were actually death marches, and for those who survived the depredations and attacks there were “concentration” camps, where the inmates were essentially starved to death. The Turks did not operate with the incredible efficiency later displayed by the Third Reich, but the whole operation was a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Armenians. It was in fact witnessed by many of the German officers aiding the Turks, and they were appalled by what they recognized as simply murder on a mass scale. And a century later Turkey still maintains this holocaust never happened.

Hauntingly familiar

Hauntingly familiar

Scenes like this could be seen across Turkey in 1915

Scenes like this could be seen across Turkey in 1915

Some of the victims of 24 April 1915

Some of the victims of 24 April 1915

 

This could be Poland in the 1940s.

This could be Poland in the 1940s.

 

 

 

 

"Deportation"

“Deportation”