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

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #19: August 1916

August 1916 marked two years of war and was little different from the month before or the one to follow.  On the Somme front the Battles of Delville Wood and Poziéres continued, piling up casualties for little gain and emulating the ongoing action to the south at Verdun.  There on 1 August the Germans launched a surprise assault on Fort Souville and were duly counterattacked by the French, who on 18 August recaptured Fleury – or what was left of it.

Fort Souville

Fort Souville

Poilus attacking Fleury

Poilus attacking Fleury

Fort Souville today

Fort Souville today

 

 

On 29 August Verdun claimed a major German casualty when Falkenhayn was sacked as Chief of Staff and replaced by Hindenburg.  The apparent failure of the Verdun campaign and the beginning of the Somme and Brusilov Offensives played into the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had been conspiring against Falkenhayn.  Ludendorff became First Quartermaster-General, but he was in fact the real power, rapidly assuming control of the entire military and ultimately the Reich itself.

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

 

To the south the Isonzo Follies started up again as General Cadorna sought to take advantage of an Austrian line weakened by the removal of troops for the Trentino Offensive.  The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo (or Battle of Gorizia) kicked off on 6 August with a two pronged assault against the long-sought prize of Gorizia, which the Austrians abandoned on 8 August.  Gorizia was the gateway to Trieste and Ljubljana, but the poorly equipped Italian troops could make no further headway and Cadorna ended the offensive on 17 August.

Gorizia

Gorizia

General Luigi Cadorna

General Luigi Cadorna

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

This was Cadorna’s first success, and Italian morale skyrocketed with the capture of the city they had wanted since 1914.  But they wanted Gorizia in order to seize Trieste and invade Slovenia, and in fact that would never happen, leaving Cadorna with only a wrecked city and more dead: 21,000 (not counting the missing) to the Austrian’s 8000.  Throwing 22 divisions against 9 Austrian allowed the (limited) breakthrough to Gorizia, but Cadorna’s frontal assaults were extremely costly.

Exhausted Italian troops

Exhausted Italian troops

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo six)

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo Six)

Gorizia after capture

Gorizia after capture

 

Not costly enough, however, to prevent Rome from sending troops to join the growing international camp at Salonika on 12 August, presumably to back up Italian claims in the western Balkans. On 28 August Italy declared war on Germany, apparently under pressure from the Allies, since the two countries were not in direct conflict (German troops would not appear on the Italian front until 1917) and actually benefited from non-belligerence.

Meanwhile, Greece tottered toward open participation in the war.  National pride and the Bulgarians in Macedonia spurred the Venizelist (pro-Entente, anti-Royalist) forces clustered in Salonika, and on 29-30 August Venizelist officers, supported by the Allies, launched a successful coup against the loyalists.  Troops across northern Greece joined the revolt, and the seed of a government in opposition to Athens, the “National Defense Committee,” was formed.  Loyalist officers fled south.

Greek troops in Salonika

Greek troops in Salonika

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south the Turks, who had been steadily creeping across Sinai during July, took what would be a final shot at the Suez Canal on 3 August, advancing towards Romani, about 20 miles from the Canal.  The British had been busy, however, building a rail line east out of Kantara and could now send out more substantial forces.  The result was the Battle of Romani on 3-5 August, during which the Turkish army was decisively defeated, suffering 9200 casualties to the Allied 1130.  But the Ottoman commander, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, had prepared fortified positions during his advance, and his surviving forces were able to execute an orderly retreat.  Nevertheless, by 12 August the Turks had been driven all the way back across Sinai to El Arish.  The Battle of Sinai had ended and the Battle for Palestine could begin.

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Kress von Kressenstein

Kress von Kressenstein

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Kressenstein with a smoke

Kressenstein with a smoke

 

 

 

The big news of August 1916 was the entrance of Romania into the war.  King Carol I, a Hohenzollern like the Kaiser, had signed a defensive alliance with the Central Powers, but in 1914 the Romanian people favored the Allies and Romania remained neutral.  King Ferdinand I, who succeeded Carol in October 1914, was more inclined towards the Entente and wanted Transylvania, an Austrian province with a Romanian population, but was wary of the Russians and being left in the lurch by the French and British.  Only after the Allies agreed to stringent terms (most of which were subsequently ignored) did he make his move.

British propaganda

British propaganda

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romania om 1914

Romania in 1914

King Ferdinand I

King Ferdinand I

An alliance was made with the Entente on 17 August, and on the 27th Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and began mobilization.  The next day a Romanian army invaded Transylvania, prompting Germany to declare war; Turkey followed on 30 (?) August and Bulgaria on 1 September.  September would not be a good month for the Romanians.

Oh, the South Africans and Belgians continued capturing towns in East Africa, but Lettow-Vorbeck continued to lead them on a merry chase.

 

Reports from the Front #2: the East – August 1914 to May 1915

(Yes, the maps are hard to read because of the small size, but I have no idea how to make them bigger or create a link to the original.  But I will continue to include them – I like maps.)

 

While the men on the Western Front were quickly learning about industrialized warfare, in the east, where the front ran for almost a thousand miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea, things were a bit different.  Because of the difficulty of fortifying and manning such a long line, the war was more fluid, with impressive breakthroughs that the generals in the west kept spending men on but could not achieve.  On the other hand, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies were far inferior in quality and their communications more primitive, which meant that while penetrating enemy lines was much easier, sustaining any advance was more difficult.  Austrian troops would need constant help from the Germans.WWOne24[1]

On 12 August Austria invaded Serbia with 270,000 troops, a fraction of their total operational force of some two million, and they faced a poorly equipped Serbian army, whose entire operational strength at the time was about 250,000 men.  Nevertheless, despite two more Austrian invasions, by the middle of December virtually nothing had changed – except the loss of men: 170,000 for Serbia, 230,000 for Austria.  Even without a static front industrialized warfare did not come cheap.

Russian infantry

Russian infantry

Serbian infantry

Serbian infantry

Austrian infantry

Austrian infantry

Meanwhile, on 17 August the Russians invaded East Prussia, but the Russian Second Army was annihilated by Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg at the Battle of Tannenberg from 26 to 30 August; the Russian commander, Alexander Samsonov, shot himself.  The engagement actually took place near Allenstein, 19 miles to the east, but as a symbol of revenge for the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1410 it was named after Tannenberg.  Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Erich von Ludendorff (who would become virtual dictator of Germany in 1918), then took the Eighth Army east and in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes from 7 to 14 September destroyed the Russian First Army as well,

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

despite being heavily outnumbered.  Russian troops were driven from German soil and would not return again until late 1944.

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Battle of Tannenberg

Battle of Tannenberg

 

The major problem for the Russian army was incompetent and corrupt officers.  The individual soldier was tough and at least initially willing to fight for his country, despite its oppressive and brutal government, but he was very badly led and constantly short of supplies.  Not only were Russian industry and transportation far less developed than that of her allies and Germany, but selling army supplies was a thriving practice among senior officials and army officers.  (One is perhaps reminded of the current Iraqi army.)  Further complicating any advance into Germany – and vice versa – was the broader Russian railway gauge, which would plague the Wehrmacht in the next war.

On the other hand, as the Serbian campaigns demonstrate the Austro-Hungarian army was nothing much to write home about either.  On 23 August the Austrian First Army met the Russian Fourth Army near Lublin on the border between Russian Poland and Austrian Galicia (parts of modern Poland and Ukraine), inaugurating the Battle of Galicia.  The Fourth Army was driven back, as was the Fifth Army immediately to the southeast, but unfortunately for old Franz Joseph, in the southernmost sector of the front the Russians actually had an able commander, Aleksei Brusilov, who broke the Austrian advance.  Defeat turned to flight, making the Austrian gains in the north untenable, and when the battle ended on 11 September, the Russian front had advanced a hundred miles to the Carpathian Mountains.  The heart of the Austrian army had been ripped out, and the Germans were forced to send troops to Austria’s defense and thus limit their advance into Russian Poland.

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Battle of Galicia

Battle of Galicia

A month and a half of war in the east demonstrated what everyone had already suspected: the Germans were good and the Austrians and Russians were not.  The Germans had lost 24,000 men, including captured, the Austrians 684,000 and the Russians a 605,000.  But the Russians now occupied Galicia, balancing the disaster in the north and perhaps keeping Nicky on his throne a bit longer.

The Russian supreme command was in fact contemplating an invasion of Silesia, which would expose the flanks of the Germans in the north and the Austrians in the south.  The Germans got wind of this, and Hindenburg, now supreme commander in the east, sent the Ninth Army under August von Mackensen southeast to forestall the invasion.  The Russians countered by ordering the Fifth Army to forget about Silesia and withdraw to the area of Łódź to deal with the threat from von Mackensen, who struck Paul von Rennenkampf’s First Army (yes, he is a Russian) on 11 November.  Thus began the Battle of Łódź, which went on until 6 December, when the Germans finally gave up trying to capture the city.  The Russians then nevertheless moved east towards Warsaw to establish a new defense line, and Rennenkampf, who had already been accused of incompetence at Tannenberg, was canned.  Another 35,000 Germans and 90,000 Russians down the tubes.

Paul von Rennenkampf

Paul von Rennenkampf

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Battle of Lodz

Battle of Lodz

On 7 February Hindenburg resumed the offensive with a surprise attack in the midst of a snowstorm and drove the Russians back some seventy miles, inflicting heavy casualties and accepting the surrender of an entire Russian corps.  But a Russian counterattack halted the advance, and the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes ended on 22 February with the Germans down 16,200 men and the Russians 200,000.  Well, one death is a tragedy, 50,000 is a statistic.  More uplifting (if you happened to be a German or an Austrian), on 2 May von Mackensen, now commanding Austrian forces, began an offensive near Gorlice and Tarnów (southeast of Krakow); this was the beginning of a push that would ultimately become known from the Russian point of view as the Great Retreat of 1915.

In other news from the east during the first ten months of the war, on 29 October the weakling Ottoman Empire, seeking to regain territory lost in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, shelled the Black Sea ports of Sevastopol and Theodosia.  There had been no declaration of war, and the two warships, recently acquired from Germany, were under the command of German officers, who may have acted on their own.  Seeking another front against Russia, the Germans had been putting pressure on Turkey to enter the war and found a willing accomplice in the most powerful man in the Empire, War Minister Ismail Enver, better known as Enver Pasha, who admired the German army.  In any case, Russia declared war on 1 November, promptly followed by Serbia and Montenegro, and before the Turks could negotiate Britain and France also declared war on 5 November.  In response the titular head of government, Sultan Mehmed V, declared war on Britain, France and Russia, and on 14 November the head sky-pilot of the Empire, the Sheikh ul-Islam, issued a series of fatwas that declared this to be a jihad, a holy war against the infidel enemies.  Now the Turks were in on the fun.  Only the Italians were missing.

Sultan Mehmed V

Sultan Mehmed V

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

 Der Drei Kaiser Bund

Der Drei Kaiser Bund