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
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.
Serbs on Corfu
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
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.
The Montenegro campaign
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.
General Fenton Aylmer
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
British hospital ship 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.
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
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
Ferdinand I of Rumania
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
And so the third calendar year of the war began.