Report from the Fronts #49: September 1918

(OK, extremely late, but wadda ya gonna do?)

100 Days Offensive

 

The Allies were rolling now.  The Second Somme came to an end on 3 September, and Foch determined to launch a broad assault on the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung).  First, though, he cleaned up the German salients west of the Line in order to attack the entire string of fortifications at once.  The British and French advanced towards the Line in a number of relatively small engagements, heading for Cambrai, Saint-Quentin and Laon.  By 25 September the Germans were pushed back to the Line, having surrendered all the gains of their Spring Offensive.  The Allies nevertheless still believed the War could not be won until 1919.

Battle of Saint-Mihiel

One part of this operation was the Battle of Saint-Mihiel on 12-15 September, the only American-directed major offensive of the war.  Pershing’s First Army (14 American and 4 French divisions) easily cleared the Saint-Mihiel salient – the Germans were already in retreat – but as usual with successful advances the troops (660,000 of them) got ahead of their supplies and artillery and were forced to halt rather than attempt a breakthrough to Metz.  The Battle of Saint-Mihiel, incidentally, was recreated in the 1927 movie Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture; it also involved the first recorded use of the term D-Day.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

American engineers

The grand assault on the Hindenburg Line kicked off on 26 September with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which would last until the Armistice.  The strike was launched from the southern (Verdun) sector, and the ultimate objective was the city of Sedan, which was an absolutely vital lateral rail hub for the Germans (and the scene of their victory over France in 1870).  The strike force consisted of 15 (later 22) American divisions, which were anywhere from 30% to 100% larger than the European, and 31 French divisions, for a total of 1,200,000 men; they were accompanied by 2780 guns, 380 tanks and 840 planes.  Facing the Allied force were ultimately 44 German divisions, most of them half strength, totaling up to 450,000 generally demoralized men under Fifth Army commander Georg von der Marwitz (remember him?).

German dugout

American gun crew

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In terms of personnel the operation was a partial role call for America’s next war. Handling the massive Allied logistics was Colonel George Marshall, who as Chief of Staff of the Army would in the Second World War oversee the expansion and supply of the entire US army and the rebuilding of Europe.  Vigorously leading an infantry battalion was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would create and direct the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.  Colonel George Patton commanded a tank brigade, while an infantry brigade was under General Douglas MacArthur.  And managing an artillery battery was Captain Harry Truman.

Col. Marshall

Col. Marshall

Col. Donovan

Col. Patton

Gen. MacArthur – already the poseur

Capt. Truman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first phase of the offensive lasted until 3 October, during which period the less experienced Americans gained from 2 to 5 miles, while the French, fighting in more open countryside, advanced their front some 9 miles.  These bare words, of course, cover many French villages being destroyed and many men giving their all, at a time when even the Kaiser knew the war was lost.  Pershing immediately recognized that clearing the Saint-Mihiel salient was nothing at all like frontally assaulting well-established German positions.  On the other hand, the German veterans were impressed by American aggressiveness and the willingness of the doughboys to charge into machine gun fire.

On 28 September the second –and weakest – thrust of the grand offensive, the Fifth Battle of Ypres, was launched far to the north in Flanders.  12 Belgium, 10 British (Second Army) and 6 French divisions (Sixth Army) under the command of King Albert of Belgium struck east from the Ypres area, heading towards Passchendaele and ultimately Ghent.  Initially faced by no more than 5 German divisions, the Allies made good progress despite the rough terrain; by 30 September all the high ground east of Ypres and the area west of Passchendaele had been recovered, and by 1 October units were on the Lys River.  But with German reinforcements arriving and the Allied troops beyond easy supply, the push came to end the following day.

A break from the battle

The Ypres area after five battles

The Ypres salient

The central thrust pushed off on 29 September, attacking one of the strongest stretches of the Hindenburg Line.  The offensive included the British Third Army in the north and the French First Army in the south, but the British Fourth Army in the center faced the greatest challenge, crossing the Saint-Quentin canal.  Army commander Henry Rawlinson had 30 British and Australian divisions and two (oversized) American divisions attached to the Australian Corps, and they faced 39 (generally depleted) German divisions of Adolph von Carlowitz’ Second Army and the formidable defenses along the deep cut of the canal.  The Aussies and Yanks would confront the particularly strong fortifications at the Bony-Bellicourt sector, where the canal ran underground through a tunnel.

General Rawlinson

General von Carlowitz

Battle of Saint-Quentin

The battle began with 1600 guns firing almost a million rounds, the biggest British barrage in the war.  The two American divisions, followed by two Australian and equipped with 150 tanks, headed for the Bellicourt Tunnel sector, their goal the Catelet-Nauroy Line east of the tunnel.  The right half of the advance, led by the American 30th Division, penetrated the Hindenburg Line and by the early morning of 30 September had captured Bellicourt and part of Nauroy, despite taking heavy fire on their left flank because of the failure of the American 27th Division on the left to keep up.  The Australians reported finding large groups of leaderless American troops, who had suffered seriously because of their inexperience.

Yanks after the capture of Bellicourt

Southern end of the canal tunnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, immediately south of the Americans and Australians the British 46th Division, followed by the 32nd (home of the poet Wilfred Owen), was able to cross the very deep cut of the canal between Riqueval and Bellenglise, crossing the canal with boats, rafts and lifejackets while artillery kept the defenders pinned in their trenches.  Tanks were brought over the tunnel area captured by the 30th Division and sent south to support the British, who had secured the eastern bank and the German defenses by the end of the day.  The achievement of the 46th Division was just short of incredible, crossing the waterway with anything that would float, climbing the wall of the east bank with scaling ladders (!) and capturing the formidable defenses – with fewer than 800 casualties.

The canal cut in 1918

Riqueval Bridge and the canal cut today

Addressing the troops at the Riqueval Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east Allenby’s successful and low cost campaign to drive General Liman von Sanders and his Turks out of Palestine continued with the Battle of Megiddo (actually a number of engagements) from 19 to 25 September.  While Lawrence and Arab Revolt units were harassing and disrupting Turkish communications, Allenby’s carefully planned offensive moved rapidly north and east, establishing by the 25th a line running from Acre on the coast east to the Sea of Galilee and south to Amman (Jordan); Australian units would capture Damascus on 1 October.  During this roughly two week period 75,000 Turkish soldiers surrendered to Commonwealth forces (many to avoid slaughter by the Arab forces) at a cost of about 1500 casualties; only 6000 Turkish soldiers escaped.

Bombed Turkish transport

Allenby’s September campaign

Otto Liman von Sanders

Edmund Allenby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the former Russian Empire Allied forces were on the move.  On 2 September an Italian force arrived at Murmansk and was joined two days later by General William Graves and more American troops.  On that same day Obozerskaya, 100 miles south of Archangel, was captured by the Allies, and on the 11th Ukhtinskaya on the Murmansk front.  The Canadians showed up in Archangel at the end of the month, by which time Allied troops, aided by Poles and White forces, had pushed 150 miles south up the Dvina River, battling Bolshevik forces on the river and in fortified villages.  In the far east the city of Khabarovsk, 360 miles north of Vladivostok, was taken by the Japanese on 5 September.

Archangel

Allied troops

Red prisoners of Americans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vladivostok

Allied troops

Japanese troops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, diplomatic exchanges in September underscored the crumbling position of the Central Powers.  On 15 September Austria requested from President Wilson the opening of peace talks and Germany actually offered Belgium a peace treaty; unsurprisingly, both were immediately turned down.  More successful were the Bulgarians, who on the 28th requested of the Allies an immediate armistice, which was granted two days later; Bulgaria was out of the war.  On 25 September Italy recognized the pan-Slavic state – Yugoslavia – that was emerging across the Adriatic as the Austrian Empire crumbled (more on this in October).

Finally, remember Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris?  On September 28, nine months and 1500 miles after invading Portuguese East Africa, the Colonel and his ragged but still effective band of mostly native troops slipped across the Rovuma River back into German East Africa.  On their arrival the askaris cheered their German leader with “Bwana Obersti anarudi!” – “The Colonel is back!” The game of dodging a quarter million Commonwealth troops went on.

Jacob van Deventer (seated) – the opposition

Lettow-Vorbeck – the Lion of Africa

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Report from the Fronts #48: August 1918

(Late in part because of a cat crisis.  I have been doing this now for three and a half years, and I can hardly wait until the bloody war ends.  Of course, there are the peace negotiations, the post-war environment and the Russian Civil War.)

German Spring Offensive

 

By the beginning of August it was fairly clear the Germans could not win the war; by the end of the month it was equally clear the Allies would. The Allied counterattack in response to Operation Friedensturm had by 6 August recovered virtually all of the Spring Offensive gains, and two days later the Allies launched the first of a series of assaults – collectively called the Hundred Days Offensive – that would push the Germans out of France by November.  The war was hastening to an end, but tens of thousands still had to die.

On 7 August General Foch was made a Marshal of France and the next day began the Battle of Amiens (the French assault in the south was known as the Battle of Montdidier), sending 10 British, Commonwealth and French divisions and over 500 tanks along the Somme east of the city.  The plan, devised by Douglas “Butcher of the Somme” Haig, sought to push the Germans further away from the vital city of Amiens and take advantage of the weakened state of the opposing German Second Army.  The terrain in the area was also excellent for tanks, whose value in penetrating the trench lines – despite the constant breakdowns – was now well appreciated.

General Haig

Marshall Foch

Battle of Amiens

On the first day the Allies blasted a 15 mile wide hole in the German lines and advanced an average 6-7 miles, inflicting 30,000 casualties to their own 6500.  Of those German losses 17,000 were prisoners, as demoralized troops began surrendering in larger numbers; Ludendorff called 7 August “der Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres” (“the Black Day of the German Army”).  But the rapid advance meant the troops quickly outdistanced their artillery and logistical support, and in the following days movement slowed to more familiar rates.  Nevertheless, on 10 August Ludendorff began to evacuate the Amiens salient, established back in March.

The lucky ones – German POWs

The battle had, incidentally, clearly demonstrated the value of the tank in breaking through static defenses; the units without serious tank support simply could not match the progress of those with armor.  On the other hand, the age of Blitzkrieg was still a ways off: of the more than 500 tanks involved only 6 remained operational on 10 August.

The major action came to an end on 12 August, and Haig refused Foch’s request to continue with the offensive, preferring to launch a new advance to the north, between Albert and Arras.  Was the Butcher uneasy about the growing casualties and the old ghosts along the Somme or did he simply desire a push that did not involve the French?  In any case Byng’s Third Army (which included the American II Corps) went over the top on 21 August, smashing into von der Marwitz’s weak Second Army and beginning the Second Battle of Bapaume (and the Second Battle of the Somme).  Albert was captured the second day, Bapaume fell on 29 August, and Australians crossed the Somme on the 31st.  By then the German line had been blasted open along a 40 mile front.

General von der Marwitz (right) and the Kaiser

General Byng

Battle of Bapaume

To the south the French Tenth Army had begun their own offensive (the Second Battle of Noyon) on 17 August and widened the gap in the German line, capturing Noyon on the 29th.  On 26 August the British First Army, just to the north of the French, joined the offensive (the Second Battle of Arras), and far to the north in Belgium the British Second Army began a tentative advance in Flanders on 18 August.  The Great War had become mobile again, and the end was drawing near for the Central Powers.

British gun carrier

The retreat of the Germans, incidentally, forced the withdrawal of the Paris Gun, and the last shells plunged out of the stratosphere into the city on 15 August.  The weapon was a marvelous piece of engineering but had virtually no effect on the war.

Meanwhile, Allied involvement in the Russian maelstrom was growing.  On 1 August the Expeditionary Force under British General Frederick Poole began an assault on Archangel and captured it the following day when pro-Allied forces overthrew the local Soviet.  That same day Japan determined to send troops to Vladivostok, presumably looking for territorial gains, and on the 11th the first units arrived; British troops had already landed at the city on the 3rd.  On 4 August a British force entered oil-rich Baku on the Caspian Sea, and two days later London announced that the British would not be involving themselves in Russian affairs, a declaration that must have rung a bit hollow.

Baku oil field

Japanese print of Vladivostok landing

Vladivostok

Archangel

Frederick Poole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 5 August the last German airship raid on England took place, unsuccessfully.  In the course of the war there had been 51 airship and 59 airplane bombing attacks on the United Kingdom, killing 1392 people and injuring 3330.  Apart from initially creating some panic the bombing had no real effect on the war, but efforts to defend against it laid the foundation for British air defenses in the Second World War.

Zeppelin airship

Gotha in flight

Gotha bomber

 

 

Finally, on 13 August the Czecho-Slovaks declared their independence at Prague.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was breaking up.

Declaration of independence in Prague (October)

 

 

Report from the Fronts #46: June 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne) came to an end on 6 June, having brought the Germans within 35 miles of Paris.  But no decisive breakthrough had resulted, and Ludendorff was determined to take one more shot before the front was overwhelmed with Americans.  On 9 June he launched Operation Gneisenau (the Battle of the Matz), essential a continuation of Blücher-Yorck, still hoping to draw more Allied troops south from Flanders, but though the Germans advanced nine miles in a few days, a surprise French counterattack (no preliminary bombardment) at Compiègn on 11 June halted the thrust and the operation was cancelled on the 13th.  Those four days cost the Germans 30,000 casualties and the Allies 35,000.

Operation Gneisenau

June also saw more American action on the Western Front. On 2 June American units, including a battalion of Marines, occupied a 12 mile stretch of the front before Belleau Wood, about half a dozen miles west of Château Thierry.  The following day they easily repelled a German assault, ignoring the French, who were retreating; said Marine Captain Lloyd Williams “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here.”  On 6 June the Allies launched a limited offensive in the area, assigning the now enlarged contingent of Marines several objectives, including Belleau Wood, where a regiment of Germans were well entrenched.  Unfortunately, the Marines were unaware of this.

Marines and poilus

Captain Williams

Belleau vicinity

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many Marines were mowed down in the wheat fields surrounding the woods, but they achieved their phase one objectives nevertheless.  Late in the afternoon two Marine battalions moved on Belleau Wood, which meant once again crossing a field raked by machine gun fire, prompting Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly to yell to him men “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”  Sure enough, the first waves were slaughtered, but the Marines managed to reach the Wood and secure a position, engaging the Germans in hand-to-hand combat.  In terms of casualties this was the worst day for the Marine Corps up to this time.

Killing Germans

Chasing Germans

In Belleau “Wood”

In Belleau “Wood”

Sergeant Daly

The situation now settled into a stalemate of bloody attack and counterattack, until after six American assaults the Wood was finally cleared of Germans on 26 June.  The Americans suffered 9777 casualties, while apart from 1600 captured German losses are unknown.  Belleau Wood was of course a relatively trivial episode on the Western Front (which is why this report is late – I thought it was in July), but it confirmed for the Allies and the Germans that the Americans, who were now flooding into France, were for real.  And that an American Marine with a rifle was an awesome weapon.

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Down in sunny Italy the Allies scored another defensive victory.  On 15 June the Austrians launched an offensive along the middle and eastern portions of the front, the Second Battle of the Piave River.  The Austrians had been reinforced by German divisions freed up by the surrender of Russia and trained in the assault tactics of the Western Front, but disagreement between the two army group commanders, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (west) and General Svetozar Borojević (east), resulted in a broad offensive rather than the narrow attack that had been so successful at Caporetto.

Borojević

Hötzendorf

Second Battle of the Piave River

 

 

Things were also different across the Piave.  General Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna had been replaced with Armando Diaz, who had learned a few things from the Caporetto disaster: he developed a defense in depth without a continuous trench line, a decentralized command system that allowed tremendous flexibility and small unit autonomy and a central reserve of thirteen “motorized” (they had trucks) divisions.  He had also received eleven British/French divisions, but most were called back west when the German Spring Offensive kicked off.

Diaz

Buoyed by the victory at Caporreto and the prospect of knocking Italy out of the war, the Austrians attacked at 3:00 AM.  Unfortunately, the Italians had discovered the precise time of the assault and at 2:30 AM began raining shells on the troops packing the forward trenches, sending many reeling back to defensive positions.  In the west Conrad made some small gains on the Asiago Plateau, but he was driven back the following day and spent the rest of the offensive making pointless attacks with his dwindling forces.  Borojević, on the other hand, was able to establish a substantial bridgehead along fifteen miles of the lower Piave to the Adriatic, threatening Venice, but the growing difficulty of getting men and supplies across the swollen Piave, whose bridges were continually bombed by the Italians, proved too much to overcome.

Waiting for the Austrians

Waiting…

Waiting…

Waiting…in color

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 19 June the Italians counterattacked, and while Borojević avoided a disaster, he was ordered by the Emperor to withdraw, and the Italians recovered all the lost territory by the 23rd.  Diaz immediately came under heavy pressure from the Allied command to go on the offensive, but he understood well that his forces needed to be reorganized and that crossing the Piave would put him in precisely the same circumstances Borojević had suffered.  The offensive cost the Austrians 118,000 casualties, the Italians 87,000, nothing new on the Italian front, but though few could have guessed at the time, the Second Battle of the Piave River was the last real offensive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a state whose political core stretched back to 800 and Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

On to victory, Italia!

Perhaps symbolic of the impending end of the Empire was an event that took place the very day the Piave offensive began. The commander of the Austrian navy (and future dictator of Hungary), Miklós Horthy, decided to challenge the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the Strait of Otranto, which had kept the Austrian surface fleet bottled up in the Adriatic.  Under cover of darkness Austria’s four most advanced battleships left their base at Pula on 8 and 9 June, but before the two squadrons could unite SMS Tegetthoff and SMS Szent István were discovered by two Italian motor torpedo boats early on 10 June.  One went after the Tegetthoff and missed, but the other – MAS 15 commanded by Luigi Rizzo – put two torpedoes into the Szent István at 3:20 AM.

Italian torpedo boats

SMS Szent István

 

Admiral Horthy

Austrian dreadnaughts at Pula

The Adriatic Sea today

The aft boiler room quickly flooded and the ship began listing to the starboard.  All efforts to counter the list failed, and soon the forward boiler room began flooding, ending power for the pumps.  The Szent István was doomed, but no order was given to abandon ship, and as the battleship settled further into the water, the event was filmed from the Tegetthoff (watch the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pSiCjfhUUw), while the ship’s band played the Austrian national anthem.  The ship capsized and slid beneath the surface at 6:05 AM, losing only 89 men out of a complement of 1094 – contrary to usual practice Austro-Hungarian sailors had to learn to swim.  And like the Szent István, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire was slowly slipping beneath the waters of history, to disappear forever.  (Well, actually the Szent István was found in the 1970s.)

…and down

Luigi Rizzo

MAS 15

Going down…

 

SMS Szent István today

Meanwhile, the Allies were being sucked further into the Russian Civil War. British marines landed at Pechenga in Murmansk province on 4 June, and three days later another British force arrived at Kem in Karelia on the White Sea.  With German troops in Finland the Allies feared that war stocks in northern Russia would be captured, and they also wished to rescue the Czech Legion (which took the key Siberian city of Omsk just as Tommies were disembarking at Kem).  This of course meant inevitable confrontation with the Bolsheviks, who on 8 June ordered the western forces to leave.  They responded on 24 June by sending more troops to join the North Russia Expeditionary Force already at Murmansk and a week later seizing the northern part of the Murman Railway (now the Kirov Railway), which linked Murmansk to St. Petersburg.  American doughboys would soon be joining them.

At Murmansk

Murman Railway

At Murmansk

 

Murmansk