Report from the Fronts #23: November 1916

The big news of November, certainly for British troops, was the end of the Somme Offensive.  On 11 November the Battle of Ancre Heights, begun on 1 October, came to end, and two days later the Battle of Ancre began, supposedly to take advantage of German exhaustion from the previous fight.  In fact Haig also wanted a success to counter criticism of the whole campaign and to improve the British position at an upcoming Allied conference.  He was also under pressure to prevent German troops from being sent east, though it is hard to see how this small scale operation (12 British against 4 German divisions) could make any difference to the Russians and Romanians.

German prisoners at Ancre

German prisoners at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of Ancre came to an end on 18 November.  Five days of fighting had left the British with about 20,000 casualties and the Germans with some 45,000 (for the period 1-18 November), which was considered by some officers to be a victory.  The troops involved in the fighting were apparently not polled on this question.  With the winter snows beginning Ancre became the last push of the Somme Offensive, which in four and a half months of combat had moved the front eastward some four miles..

The cost for these gains was staggering.  Figures are still being disputed a century later, but Commonwealth casualties were about 420,000, French around 200,000 and   German losses anywhere from 450,000 to 550,000.  The traditional view has been that the Somme was an unmitigated disaster – German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher: “Somme, the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word” –  but some argue that the Allies had no other strategic option in 1916 and needed to do something to relieve pressure on the Russians.  There is indeed evidence that the German army was seriously weakened and demoralized by the Somme, but it nevertheless still took another two years to collapse.

Meanwhile, the Italian version of the Somme went on.  On 1 November General Cadorna launched the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo, attempting again to enlarge the Gorizia bridgehead with his exhausted troops.  It ended on 4 November with minimal gains and 39,000 Italian and 33,000 Austrian casualties.  The Italians were suffering, but Austrian manpower problems were even greater, and German units were desperately needed.  For the moment, however, the front shut down for the winter, to the delight of troops on both sides of the line, I expect.

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

On the Macedonian Front the Allies were more successful.  In response to the Bulgarian offensive into eastern Macedonia in August the Allies counterattacked in September and by November were into Serbia, capturing Monastir on the 19th.  On the same day the Allies demanded that the Royalist government in Athens expel ministers of the Central Powers and turn over all war material.  Athens refused, and on 23 November the Venizelos government in Salonika declared war on Germany and Bulgaria.  On 30 November Allied troops landed at the Piraeus, the port of Athens.  Greece was on the edge of civil war.

King Constantine

King Constantine

Eleftherios Venizelos

Eleftherios Venizelos

French troops at Athens

French troops at Athens

 

 

 

 

 

Romania, meanwhile, was in serious trouble.  On 1 November the German Ninth Army under former Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn moved southeast out of the southern Carpathians.  The exhausted Romanians could not resist the 80,000 troops and 30,000 horses, and German cavalry was in Craiova on 21 November, pushing the Romanians east towards Bucharest.  Another part of Falkenhayn’s army assaulted the Vulcan Pass on 10 November, and by the 26th they were in the Romanian plain.  (An up and coming young officer participating in the Battle of Vulcan Pass was Erwin Rommel.)  On 23 November Mackensen, having essentially finished with the Dobruja, sent troops north across the Danube towards Bucharest.  It did not look good for Romania.

King Ferdinand and his troops

King Ferdinand and his troops

Romanian artillery

Romanian artillery

Romanian front

Romanian front

In miscellaneous news, on 4 November Sharif Hussein of Mecca was crowned King of the Arabs (the Saudis would have something to say about that), and on the 15th the British finally began moving across Sinai.  Germany and Austria proclaimed on 5 November the establishment of an independent Polish state, which I expect most Poles greeted with skepticism, and Woodrow Wilson was reelected President of the United States.  And Beatty replaced Jellicoe as the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet on 29 November.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Hussein ibn Ali  King of the Arabs

Hussein ibn Ali
King of the Arabs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A more momentous event was the death from pneumonia on 21 November of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia.  Politically and militarily the death of the 86 year old ruler meant little, especially inasmuch as the Austrian war effort was increasingly controlled by the Germans.  But Franz Joseph was nevertheless a monumental figure; he had ascended the throne in 1848 and at 68 years was the third longest reigning monarch in European history (Louis XIV of France 72 years; Johann II of Liechtenstein 71 years).  More than his fellow monarchs he symbolized the old Europe that, like his Empire, was being destroyed by the Great War.

Franz Joseph I 1851

Franz Joseph I
1851

Franz Joseph's tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph’s tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph I 1910

Franz Joseph I
1910

 

 

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Reports from the Front #6: September 1915

September 1915 saw the Austrian-German tide in the east slow down because of lengthening lines of communication, but by the beginning of that month the Russians had already lost all of Poland and 750,000 prisoners. Perhaps more important than these losses was a change in command. On 5 September the Supreme Commander of all Russian forces, Grand Duke Nicholas Nickolaevich, was sacked by the Czar. He was a decent soldier but seemingly incapable of controlling the unprepared and fragmented command structure of the Russian army, which was loaded with incompetent appointees. In his place Czar Nicholas appointed…himself. A bigger blunder could hardly have been made.

Grand Duke Nicholas

Grand Duke Nicholas

The Czar and the Kaiser, who seem to have put on the uniforms

The Czar and the Kaiser, who seem to have put on the wrong uniforms

In reality the head of the Stavka, General Mikhail Alekseyev, managed the war, but by assuming supreme command the Czar had identified himself with the conduct of the war, regardless of whether he actually had anything to do with it. And the conduct of the war under Alekseyev was terrible. He clearly did not understand modern warfare and in any case could do little about the corruption and incompetence of the officer class, much of which stemmed from nepotism and court intrigue. Now the Czar, who already had a rep for not being overly concerned about the welfare of his people and had no idea how to wage a war, would take the blame, especially as his presence at the front advertised the fact that he was indeed in command. As defeats mounted and life became even more miserable for the average Russian soldier, it was only natural that he be blamed, particularly since it was easy to believe the Czar was being jerked around by his unpopular German wife, Alexandra, and the notorious “monk” Rasputin. With this decision Czar Nicholas stepped closer to the abyss of the Revolution.

Rasputin

Rasputin

Alekseyev

Alekseyev

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

With a new El Supremo on 7 September the Russians launched a counter offensive at Tarnopol, in the far south of the front; nine days later it was abandoned. On 16 September the Germans captured Pinsk, and two days later they took Vilna, threatening to break open the northern front. Italy’s entry into the war helped by drawing Austrian forces to the southwest, but nevertheless, by the end of the month things were looking grim for the Russians.

Moving east

Moving east

Meanwhile, the Balkans were lighting up with diplomacy as the neutrals were considering their options. On 22 September Bulgaria ordered general mobilization in the wake of reaching a favorable frontier agreement with the Turks, who wanted Bulgaria in the war on their side. The Bulgarians were seeking territorial expansion, especially at the expense of the Serbs, and finally decided the Central Powers were the better bet. The Greeks, who had little love for the Turks (and had over a million fellow Hellenes in western Turkey) and now feared the Bulgarians, began negotiations with the western allies, asking for a guarantee of 150,000 allied troops. At least the Greek Prime Minister, Elefthérious Venizélos, did; King Constantine I was seriously pro-German. Nevertheless, on 23 September the Greeks began to mobilize, and the next day the French and British agreed to send troops. On 27 September the King secretly gave in to the allied deal, but the following day the Greek government (minus Venizélos) formally refused the allied help and Constantine went along. This would ultimately lead to the “National Schism,” a veritable division of Greece between the monarchists and the supporters of Venizelos.

Constantine I in a German uniform

Constantine I in a German uniform

Venizelos

Venizelos

On the Western Front the lazy, hazy days of summer came to end with the fall offensives. On 25 September the French opened the Second Champagne Offensive, while to the north they and the British began the Third Battle of Artois (the Battle of Loos was the British component and saw the first use of gas by them). Do these names seem familiar? They are the same sectors of the front attacked back in May, and the result would be the same. Granted, there were good strategic reasons to mount this offensive, but why should anyone expect it to succeed this time, when in fact the German defenses in depth were far more developed now? The battles would last into October and November and achieve nothing but casualties. This is the sort of wishful thinking that would characterize the decisions of the chateau generals for the next several years.

Im Westen nur Dummheit

Im Westen nur Dummheit

There was an allied attack in the Cameroons on 8 September, but otherwise, in Afrika nichts Neues. On 1 September Germany agreed to demands by the United States to limit submarine warfare; she would later be more desperate.

And that’s what happened 100 years ago this month.