Report from the Fronts #44: April 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Michael ended on 5 April, and while it did not achieve all its objectives, Ludendorff nevertheless believed that by sucking Allied troops south to defend Amiens it had opened the way to the Channel ports – and the British supply lines – through Hazebrouck.  He consequently launched Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), pitting the Fourth Army under Sixt von Armin and the Sixth Army under Ferdinand von Quast against the British First and Second Armies.

Herbert Plumer

Henry Horne

Sixt von Armin

Ferdinand von Quast

Georgette

Henry Horne’s First Army was the initial target when the offensive kicked on 9 April and was an excellent choice.  It had become something of a rest home for exhausted and depleted divisions, and as it happened, the main attack was against a seven mile front held by a single division of the understrength Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (the other had been withdrawn three days earlier in order to be replaced).  The 20,000 Portuguese resisted but were overwhelmed by the 100,000 men of eight German divisions, while the British division immediately to their north also crumpled, creating a serious gap in the line.

Portuguese troops

Portuguese prisoners

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day the Germans also assaulted Herbert Plumer’s Second Army to the north and forced the British to abandon Armentières (as in “Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parley-vous). By the 11th the Germans had crossed the Lys River, and Haig proclaimed to his troops: “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”  (One wonders if this obligation applied to the general himself.)  On the 14th the British abandoned the Passchendaele Salient in order to shorten their line, giving up the territory, bought with so much blood the year before, east of Ypres.

The Butcher of the Somme (and other rivers)

German prisoners

British gas casualties

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Germans continued to advance, but slowed by the usual supply and flank problems they were stopped just short of Hazebrouck on 29 April and Ludendorff halted the operation.  The forward German units were just 15 miles from the Channel ports, but now occupied a salient that was being pounded on three sides. Georgette had cost each side about 110,000 casualties.

British defending Hazebrouck

The Germans were certainly doing better in the east, where their victorious forces faced little serious opposition. On 3 April the German Expeditionary Force landed in Finland in order to help the Whites in the Finish Civil War, while in southern Russia Ekaterinoslav was captured the same day.  Kharkov fell on the 8th, and German troops pushed into the Crimea on the 19th.  (Four days later Guatemala declared war on Germany – perhaps the United Fruit Company had interests in western Russia.)  On 29 April a coup led by Pavlo Skoropadskyi and supported by the Germans overthrew the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and Skoropadskyi became Hetman of the Ukraine – at least for a while.

Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi

The Turks, meanwhile, were picking up their slices: on 5 April Van in Armenia was retaken and Batum and Kars in Georgia were occupied on the 15th and 27th.  More ominous for the Bolshevik government, on 5 April British and Japanese troops occupied Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of the old Empire.  Others would follow, as the Civil War tuned all the Russias into an abattoir.

Vladivostok in 1898

Then there was the Czechoslovak Legion. At the beginning of the war the Russians had recruited Czechs and Slovaks to fight against the Austrians, which they did with great enthusiasm, and they participated with distinction in the Kerensky Offensive in 1917.  By the beginning of 1918 the Legion numbered 40,000 troops, the war in the east was over and the men wanted to fight on the Western Front.  But how to get there with Germany in between and most Russian ports in the west blockaded?

Tomáš Masaryk, chair of the Czechoslovak National Council (and future President of Czechoslovakia), decided to go the other way, to travel the 6000 miles to Vladivostok and board transports to the west. In February the Bolsheviks granted permission for the trip, but first the Legion had to fight the Germans in the Ukraine in order to escape to Russia proper, which they did in March.  By the end of the month, however, mutual suspicion and distrust and the Legion’s understandable refusal to give up their arms was clearly heading to a conflict.

A Legion armored train

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Tomáš Masaryk (1925)

This month also saw the emergence of one of the most ephemeral states in history, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The evacuation of Russian troops from the Caucasus confirmed the end of Czarist rule, and while a Transcaucasian delegation from Tbilisi in Georgia signed on to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Caucasus wanted complete independence.  On 22 April the Republic was declared, uniting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into a single state, which immediately reopened the war with Turkey.  No one with the slightest knowledge of the Caucasus could have believed this bizarre entity would last very long.

Note the three languages

Banknote of the TDFR

The neighborhood of the TDFR

In miscellaneous news from April, on the 1st the British Royal Air Force was created from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Services, and on the 10th Parliament passed the Third Military Service Act, which imposed conscription on Ireland and raised the age limit to 50.  Clearly, the British were getting desperate.  But not as desperate as the Bolsheviks, who introduced conscription on 22 April – in the developing Civil War their lives depended on it.

On 23 April the Royal Navy engaged in a memorable action of high drama but little effect. For years German submarines and torpedo boats based in Bruges on the Belgium coast had been raiding Allied traffic in the Channel, but Bruges was some eight miles inland, connected to the sea by canals to Ostend and Zeebrugge. The British consequently decided to sink block ships at the entrances to the canals, two at Ostend and three at Zeebrugge, where the viaduct joining the Zeebrugge mole to the mainland would also be destroyed.

The Bruges canals

Zeebruggge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The operation at Ostend was a complete failure, but at Zeebrugge two of the block ships were sunk in the narrowest point of the entrance to the canal while the old cruiser Vindictive landed marines on the mole as a diversion.  The viaduct was destroyed by an old submarine loaded with explosives, but the occupation of the mole was a disaster.  A change in wind blew away the smoke cover, and German shore batteries forced the troops to be landed at the wrong place, where they suffered heavy casualties: 227 British dead and 356 wounded to the German 8 and 16.

The block ships

In the end German naval activity out of Bruges was hardly hindered; most of the boats could use the Ostend canal and a passage was dredged around the block ships at Zeebrugge. On the other hand, the Zeebrugge raid, despite its ultimate failure, was nevertheless heroic, earning eight Victoria Crosses, and the British war propaganda machine made the raid an Allied victory.  And the memory endured: at a military tattoo in London in 1977 I saw the assault on the Zeebrugge mole reenacted.

The Vindictive at the mole

The Vindictive back home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, an event with little drama and little effect. On 10 April (or sometime in June; it is not clear) a German submarine shelled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the African state established by emancipated American slaves.  Liberia had declared war on 4 August 1917 and subsequently confiscated German property and sent a tiny contingent of troops to France.  In consequence the Germans decided to lob a few shells at Monrovia’s radio station.  Take that America.

Daniel Howard 16th president of Liberia

Oh, on 28 April Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist assassin who started all the madness by shooting the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo four years earlier, died in prison of skeletal tuberculosis.

Gavrilo Princip

Princip’s cell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #36: November 1917

The new socialist Russia might be opting out, but on the Western Front the war went on.  On 6 November the Canadians finally captured Passchendaele, now more like the surface of the moon than a town, and four days later the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end.  The figures are disputed, but the Allies and Germans together had suffered at least a half million casualties in the campaign to capture Passchendaele Ridge.  But it was not over yet.

Haig decided that it was time for a big push some fifty miles south of Ypres, opposite Cambrai, the capture of which would threaten the German rear lines.  On 20 November two British corps with 476 tanks (378 with guns) pushed off against a German corps.  Tanks had been used before but not in such numbers, and together with close coordination between infantry and artillery they allowed the British to advance as much as five miles on the first day against deep and well developed German defenses.  In six hours the British had gained as much as they had in three months at Ypres and at half the casualty rate.

Inside the Mark IV

 

The Mark IV tank

Battle of Cambrai

That, however, changed the next day.  The Mark IV tanks had played a major role in penetrating the deep fields of wire, but the defenses stiffened and the Germans had actually developed anti-tank measures.  On the first day 65 tanks were knocked out by artillery, and 71 broke down and 43 were immobilized in shell holes and ditches, hardly surprising for a new technology.  (A Report on tank development will appear.)  The remainder of the offensive was more typical of the Western Front, as progress slowed and the casualties began mount.  On 30 November the Germans launched a serious counterattack and began recovering lost ground, and when the battle ended on 7 December it was a draw: the British retained territory gained in the north and lost pre-offensive turf in the south.  And all this for a combined 90-100,000 casualties.

Another dead tank

Damaged tank

German counterattack        

And the news we have all been waiting for: the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (Caporetto).  By 2 November the Germans and Austrians had crossed the Tagliamento River, only 40 miles from Venice, but the inevitable supply problems associated with a successful advance began to slow things down, giving the Italians time to establish a line on the Piave River.  Enemy forces reached the Piave on 11 November, but short of supplies and reinforcements they could not cross the river, nor could they in the next two weeks dislodge the Italians from Monte Grappa, which guarded the left flank of the Piave Line.

From Monte Grappa towards the Austrian position

The Piave Line

Battle of Caporetto

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total defeat was avoided, but no thanks to General Cadorna, who was largely responsible for the disaster: poor deployment, no defense in depth and poor morale (his troops hated him), even among his higher officers (he had canned 827 of them).  On 9 November, partly at the urging of Britain and France, he was replaced as Chief of Staff by Armando Diaz, one of his better generals.  Unfortunately, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando also appointed as Diaz’s second in command Pietro Badoglio, who had played a major role in the defeat and would be accused of war crimes in the next war.  On 27 November Cadorna was named Italy’s representative on the newly formed allied Supreme War Council.

Pietro Badoglio as a Fascist

Goodbye, Luigi

Armando Diaz

Vittorio Orlando

 

Diaz was able to stabilize the Italian front on the Piave and successfully defend Monte Grappa, but Italy had suffered one of the greatest defeats in its history.  About 350,000 German and Austrian troops had taken on some 874,000 Italians and routed them.  The Italians suffered only 40,000 killed and wounded to the enemy’s 70,000, but they lost 265,000 men to capture, a telling sign of how much Cadorna was despised by his men, who surrendered in droves.  On the other hand, the disaster, the loss of so much Italian soil and the new leadership of Diaz led to something of a rebirth of the Italian army.  The collapse and retreat of Caporetto (and Cadorna’s draconian policies), incidentally, is the backdrop of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Ernest Hemingway in 1918

Italian POWs

Italian retreat

 

Meanwhile, in Palestine the Third Battle of Gaza was rolling on.  The capture of Beersheba and the eastern sector of the Turkish line made their position in Gaza ultimately untenable, and during the night of 6/7 November the Turks slipped out of the city.  The Egyptian Expeditionary Force pursued, withstood a Turkish counterattack on 12 November and on the 13th and 14th attacked and defeated the Turkish rearguards, leading the Ottoman commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, to order a withdrawal all along the line.  His Seventh Army took up positions in the Judean Hills, preparing to defend Jerusalem, and his Eighth Army retreated up the coast to just beyond Jaffa, which was entered by EEF units on 16 November.

Surrender of Jaffa

Falkenhayn

Edmund_Allenby

Allenby

The Palestine campaign

 

 

 

In the two weeks following the capture of Beersheba the British had pushed some fifty miles north, to just short of Jerusalem, capturing 10,000 prisoners and 100 guns for the cost of about 1000 casualties.  The EEF commander, Edmund Allenby, was now entitled to thumb his nose at Haig, who had fired him after the Battle of Arras a half year earlier, though of course a British officer would never do such a thing.

On the other hand, Allenby’s supply lines were now very long, all the way back to Gaza and beyond, the Turks having destroyed the infrastructure as they retreated, and transporting supplies from the railhead to the troops was slow business, given the state of the roads in Palestine.  Logistics had always been a problem for organized armies, even before fuel, ammunition and shells were a constant need; a 10,000 man force required an absolute minimum of fifteen tons of food (in terms of grain) alone per day.  Allenby had seven divisions (10-15,000 men each) on the front lines, and they needed a lot more than just food.

British question the locals

London felt that Allenby did not have the resources to capture Jerusalem, but he did not want to give the Turks the time to fortify their new line and on 18 November decided to go for it.  One force began an advance to secure the coastal plain, while a second penetrated into the Judean Hills towards Jerusalem.  Falkenhayn himself was determined to take advantage of the weakened state of the EEF and their precarious supply situation, and on 27 November he launched counterattacks on the coastal army and British communications between the coast and the hills.  The British were hard pressed in some places, but fresh troops from the south and the weariness of the Turks allowed the offensive to continue.  By 1 December the British were poised to capture Jerusalem.

Hong Kong artillery in Judea

Judean Hills near Jerusalem

Judean Hills

Gurkhas in Judea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember the African branch of the war?  On 23 November Lettow-Vorbeck, forced south by the overwhelming superiority of General Jacob van Deventer’s forces, divided his army into three columns and crossed into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).  On the 25th he handily defeated an inexperienced Portuguese force at the Battle of Ngomano, but on the 28th one of the other columns was forced to surrender.  Nevertheless, Lettow-Vorbeck and his merry band of Askaris now had rich opportunities for resupplying themselves at the expense of the Portuguese.

East Africa

Portuguese troops on the Rovuma

Crossing the Rovuma River into Mozambique

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two final notes: on 16 November Georges Clemenceau became the French Prime Minister, which office he would hold until 1920, and on the 28th Estonia, former subject of the Russian Empire, declared its independence.

Clemenceau