Reports from the Front #9: December 1915

1915 came to an end with few significant changes made in the past year of fighting. Bulgaria was in, Serbia was out and Greece was both in and out, all of which strategically aided the Central Powers, but hardly caused any swing in the overall balance of power.  More significantly, the Russians were driven out of Poland and Galicia, but as events would demonstrate, they were far from being a spent force.  Perhaps the most significant result of a year of conflict was that hundreds of thousands of men were no longer alive or no longer in possession of all their body parts.  Governments and generals had certainly come to the conclusion that this war was not going to be easy or brief after all, but they could come up with nothing better than doing the same old same old.

Actually, one simple “solution” was to change or at least shuffle generals.  On 3 December Joffre was made Commander in Chief of all the French armies, hardly a great development, inasmuch as his tactical inclinations were unchanged from a year of slaughter and as ponderous as his imposing physique.  Meanwhile, Sir John French, the C-in-C of the BEF, was under mounting criticism from just about everyone, including Joffre, Kitchener, Haig, Asquith and the King, who generally felt he was not an aggressive enough commander.  Rather than be sacked, he resigned on 15 December and was replaced four days later by Douglas Haig, who was sufficiently aggressive; he would become known as the ”Butcher of the Somme.”  On 22 December the Chief of the General Staff of the BEF and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff also resigned.

The Butcher of the Somme

The Butcher of the Somme

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

French and PM Asquith

French and PM Asquith

In the east it was withdrawal time for the allies. On 2 December the French force in Macedonia withdrew to Salonika, followed on 7 December by the British.  They then demanded that the Greek forces in Salonika leave, which on 11 December they refused to do.  It was after all their country, and they were officially a neutral, demonstrated on 14 December by an agreement with the Bulgarians to establish a neutral zone along the Greek frontier.  But they were a relatively helpless neutral: on 30 December French general Maurice Sarrail had all consuls of the Central Powers in Salonika arrested and deported.  Salonika was now a huge fortified camp, containing 150,000 allied troops, who became known as the ”Gardeners of Salonika.”

General Maurice Sarrrail

General Maurice Sarrrail

French soldiers at Salonika

French soldiers at Salonika

Further east, on 3 December the British/Indian expeditionary force retreating down the Tigris reached Kut-al-Amara, which Townshend decided to fortify. Four days later 11,000 Ottoman troops, commanded by the 72 year old Field Marshal Colmar von der Goltz, an old Turkish hand (Goltz Pasha), arrived and placed Kut and the 8000 British troops under siege.  After a month of this, including an unsuccessful Turkish assault on Christmas Eve, Townshend decided to break out and head for Basra, but he was overruled by his commander, Sir John Nixon, the senior general of the Indian Army, who thought the siege was an excellent way to tie up Ottoman forces.  It would also prove an excellent way to lose 8000 Imperial troops.

Golz Pasha

Goltz Pasha

Townshend

Townshend

Nixon

Nixon

Elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire a more successful withdrawal began, when the allies finally gave up the completely stalled Gallipoli campaign.  On 19 December the evacuation of troops from Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove began and was completed without trouble the following day.  The main force at Helles would leave in January.

Bones left at Anzac Cove

Bones left at Anzac Cove

Aussies charging just before the Anzac evacuation

Aussies charging just before the Anzac evacuation

On the other hand, the East African Front was lighting up again, as the British began naval operations on Lake Tanganyika.  The gunboats Mimi and Toutou had completed their 10,000 mile journey from Britain to South Africa and overland to Tanganyika and were launched on 22 and 23 December.  On 26 December they engaged the German gunboat Kingani, which was captured and refitted by the British as the Fifi. More action would follow.

The Kingani/Fifi

The Kingani/Fifi

The epic journey of the Mimi and Toutou

The epic journey of the Mimi and Toutou

On 10 December the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo came to an end.  The Italians had suffered 49,500 casualties, the Austrians 32,100.  For nothing.  Yet, General Cadorna was not sacked, but allowed to carry on his attempts to capture Gorizia and achieve the big breakthrough that all these characters dreamed of.

Finally, a couple of diplomatic arrangements of some interest.  On 28 December two German military attachés in Washington, Captains Karl Boy-Ed and Franz von Papen were declared personae non gratae for being actively involved in espionage and sabotage (America was supplying arms to the Entente) and recalled to Germany.  Von Papen would after the war become the Chancellor of the Weimar Republic and his intrigues would help elevate Adolf Hitler to the Chancellorship.

The young von Papen

The young von Papen

Boy-Ed

Boy-Ed

On 26 December Britain signed a treaty with Ibn Saud (or Abdulaziz), an Arab sheik who from 1902 had been extending the control of the House of Saud out from Riyadh.  His main enemy was the House of Rashid, which with Ottoman aid defeated Ibn Saud in 1904, only to be driven out two years later, along with their Turkish allies.  By 1912 Ibn Saud had conquered most of Nejd (the interior of the peninsula) and the eastern coast, becoming the Emir of Nejd and Hasa.  The Ottomans were left with control of the Hejaz, the western coast of the peninsula, where Mecca and the holy sites of Islam were.

Hussein ibn Ali Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Hussein ibn Ali
Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Ibn Saud

Ibn Saud

Arabia in 1914

Arabia in 1914

The British interest was not oil, which was not discovered in Arabia until 1938, but finding a stable ally in Arabia, who could protect British interests in the Persian Gulf and fight the Turks.  By virtue of the Treaty of Darin of 1915 Saudi Arabia became a British protectorate with delineated borders and agreed to respect British interests.  Ibn Saud did not, however, agree to keep his hands off the Hejaz, despite the fact that only two months earlier the British had made an agreement with the Sherif of Mecca.  Why should a Great Power worry about promises made to wogs?

And so 1915 came to an end.  Oh, this year there was no Christmas truce.  The generals and governments were not about to put up with that again.

 

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Reports from the Front #7: October 1915

(This has taken a long time and no other posts have appeared, but a lot has been going on in my life. And it’s not like I am being paid for this – I get no cut from those ads you might see at the end of a post.  Hey, I like to write.)

 

October 1915 was “Balkan Month” in the Great War.  At the invitation of Prime Minister Venizélos allied troops showed up at Salonika on 3 October, prompting the Greek government to protest.  Despite this opposition and that of King Constantine, leading to the resignation of Venizélos, the French and British landed two days later, and on 8 October the new Greek government proclaimed a policy of armed neutrality.  This seems a strange call inasmuch as one group of belligerents was actually in Greece, but the Greeks feared the now mobilized Bulgarians.

In response to that mobilization on 4 October the Entente Powers delivered an ultimatum to Sofia, demanding all German officers be expelled from the country.  It was ignored.  The west had lost the territorial bidding war for the allegiance (or at least neutrality) of the strategically located Bulgaria.  Russia recalled its ambassadors on 5 October and Britain on 13 October, on which day French and Bulgarian troops in Macedonia actually engaged one another.  On 15 October Montenegro and Britain declared a state of war with Bulgaria, and the French followed the next day; Russia and Italy came in on 19 October.

Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov of Bulgaria

Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov of Bulgaria

Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria

Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria

"Bulgaria is with us"

“Bulgaria is with us”

Meanwhile, the Austrians had been busy.  On 7 October the final solution of the Serbian question began, even though the three previous attempts to conquer Serbia in 1914 had been complete failures.  But the Empire wanted the Serbs crushed, Germany wanted a land passage to the Ottomans and the Bulgarians were eager to bite off chunks of Serbian territory.  The invasion force consisted of the German Eleventh Army and the Austro-Hungarian Third Army in the north and the Bulgarian First Army in the east, more than 300,000 men (I could not locate accurate figures) led by Field Marshal Mackensen.

Goodbye, Serbia

Goodbye, Serbia

They were faced by perhaps 200,000 poorly equipped Serbians, who would essentially be on their own. Serbia’s ally Montenegro had a miniscule untrained militia, and Greece, bound by treaty to defend Serbia, lawyered up and argued that the agreement was no longer valid.  There were only 13,000 allied troops at Salonika, and the French units that did move into Macedonia were easily brushed aside by the Bulgarians.  On 9 October the Austrians captured Belgrade, which was right on the Austrian frontier, while the Bulgarians slowly pushed west and south.  The invaders were hampered by the mountainous terrain, which prevented Mackensen from encircling and annihilating the Serbian army, which had retreated to the center of the country.  Nevertheless, by the end of the month half of Serbia was occupied, and the Serbs were streaming westward.

Retreating Serbians

Retreating Serbians

In other news, the stalemate in Gallipoli continued, the Indians were still sweating up the Tigris and in northern Italy General Cadorna began the Third Battle of the Isonzo on 18 October. Of more importance in the long run on 24 October the British government sent a letter to the Sharif of Mecca defining a post-war Arab state.  Both sides were courting the Arabs, but the Entente was in a far better position inasmuch as the Turkish imperial masters were on the side of the Central Powers.

General Luigi Cadorna "The men just need to fight harder."

General Luigi Cadorna
“The men just need to fight harder.”

Hussein ibn Ali Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Hussein ibn Ali
Sharif and Emir of Mecca

In one of the more bizarre actions of the war both sides were also courting the Jews, not because they could supply some sort of military force, but because they were so economically and politically powerful. Or at least that is what the Germans, French and British thought.  Influential persons in their governments actually fell for the old anti-Semitic idea that there was a powerful worldwide Jewish network, which could possibly alter the course of the war.  This was of course nonsense, but the Zionist movement, particularly strong in Britain, was hardly going to pass on the leverage they received from this silly notion.  This resulted in vague promises of a Jewish state, such as the Balfour Declaration, which would appear in 1917, despite the fact that similar promises were being made to the Arabs and that both Britain and France were in interested in the colonial pickings available from a dissolved Ottoman Empire.

Chaim Weizmann, leader of  British Zionism 1915

Chaim Weizmann,
leader of British Zionism 1915

Theodor Herzel, founder of the World Zionist Organization 1897

Theodor Herzel,
founder of the World Zionist Organization 1897

On the Western Front the slaughter continued: the Third Battle of Artois ended on 15 October, a bloody failure, but the Second Champagne Campaign plodded on until 6 November. As early as 3 October Papa Joffre announced there would be no breakthrough but the offensive would continue as a battle of attrition, and on 22 October he declared that the campaign had made important tactical gains and achieved a “moral superiority” over the Germans by inflicting heavy casualties.  The “tactical gains” amounted to moving the line a few kilometers, and one might expect the Germans did not feel particularly morally inferior, inasmuch as 35 French divisions failed to break a line defended by 15 German divisions.

He was right about one thing: the casualties. The French lost 145,000 men, the Germans 72,000 (25,000 of them prisoners); it is not clear how inflicting heavier casualties on your own troops advanced the cause.  The Third Battle of Artois (including Loos) cost the French another 48,000 casualties, the British 121,000 and the Germans 149,000, not bad for little more than a month of fighting.  The German defense in depth had again demonstrated its effectiveness, but the lesson seemed lost on the chateau generals on the western side of the trench line.  Joffre’s remark about a battle of attrition would prove to be prophetic when 1916 rolled around.

There was one more casualty from the Third Battle of Artois – Field Marshall John French. As Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, French had not got on very well with his fellow generals, both British and French, and only a visit from the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, could move him to take part in the First Battle of the Marne.  He was blamed for losing at Loos because of mishandling his reserves, which seems more like scapegoating from Kitchener and French’s other enemies than an objective appraisal.  In any case, with such powerful foes in London his days were numbered.

Haig, Joffre and French in a rare visit to the front

Haig, Joffre and French in a rare visit to the front

A few other events of note in October.   The third Allied attack on Mora in the Cameroons began on 30 October, and on 13 October the heaviest airship attack yet produced some 200 casualties in London and along the east coast of Britain.  On 12 October the Germans executed a British nurse, Edith Cavell, who had been arrested in August.  Stationed in Brussels, Cavell had been helping smuggle allied soldiers to Holland and on to England, a violation of German military law.  Medical personnel were protected by the First Geneva Convention, but Cavell lost that protection by actively aiding one of the belligerents.  Some German officers called for clemency, but the military governor of Brussels, General Traugott Martin von Sauberzweig, ordered her execution “for reasons of state,” thus denying her any hope of clemency from further up in the German command. The death of Cavell was a propaganda windfall for the allies, and General von Sauberzweig was later relieved.  After the war a British commission concluded that Cavell’s execution was in accordance with the laws of war.

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell

German Gotha strategic bomber

German Gotha strategic bomber

German airship bombing Warsaw

German airship bombing Warsaw

 

 

Laws of war, always an interesting concept.

 

 

 

Reports from the Front #1: the West – August 1914 to May 1915

(OK, it took me a long time to get around to this.  In any case, this is the first of a series of pieces following the course of the Great War as it happened a century ago – assuming I live another four years.  I should have begun this last July, but the idea only now occurred to me, and consequently this first two articles carry the war up through May 1915.  Note: “Casualties” includes dead, wounded, missing and captured, and “dead” typically includes accidental and disease related deaths.  Military deaths through disease may have been a third of the total, but that is partly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, and in earlier European warfare disease inevitably accounted for the vast majority of deaths.  The ratio of dead to wounded would have varied dramatically from one theater to another but it appears 1-2 to 1-3 was the average for the war.  The official figures are not always accurate, and accounting varied; e.g., British figures did not include colonial troops.)

 

One hundred years and 296 days ago the Great War began when on 1 August Germany declared war on Russia because the Czar, who had pledged to defend Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, refused to cease mobilizing his army.  On 2 August the Germans invaded Luxemburg and the next day declared war on France, which had refused to declare neutrality and was also mobilizing.  On 4 August the Germans also declared war on Belgium, which had denied them passage through its territory, and in response Great Britain joined the Entente and entered the war against the Central Powers.  Train schedules, lust for glory and willful stupidity had brought the European great powers to the brink of the abyss, into which they all leaped with no little enthusiasm.

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Emperor Franz Jospeh

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Kaiser Wilhelm II

The greatest cataclysm in European history since the barbarian invasions of the fifth century had begun, all because a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, took it upon himself to shoot the heir to the Austrian throne and provide the Austrians with an excuse to make impossible demands of Serbia.  Certainly the fate of Serbia was of some importance to the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, but the partition of the Balkans was a peripheral concern for Britain, France and Germany.  Yet all these powers, little understanding how industry and technology had changed the nature of warfare, jumped eagerly into a conflict that would slaughter millions upon millions of young men, destroy three dynasties and exhaust the economies of even the victors.  To what end?  A peace that would lead in two decades to an even greater catastrophe.

French PM Rene Viviani

French PM Rene Viviani

British PM Herbert Asquith

British PM Herbert Asquith

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

“Paris/Berlin by Christmas” was the cry, as both sides expected a short war.  The German plan was to seek a decisive victory in the west while much smaller forces in the east were on the defensive before the notoriously cumbersome Russian army and the Austrians were crushing tiny Serbia.  Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, intended to employ a variation of the so-called Schlieffen Plan, which in fact was a thought exercise for a single-front war with France.  Weak German forces in the south would remain on the defensive and even retreat, while the immensely powerful right wing in the north would sweep through Belgium and the Netherlands and then turn southwards west of Paris, trapping the French armies.  Whether the Schlieffen Plan could have worked is certainly debatable (the problem was not so much German transport capabilities as the state of Europe’s roads), but inasmuch as this was a two-front war and sufficient forces had to be sent east, the western army was simply not strong enough to carry out the aggressive strategy.

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

The Germans swept through Belgium and northeastern France, generally overwhelming the opposing forces, but in September the exhausted troops were stopped some 40 miles from Paris at the First Battle of the Marne.  Repulsed by the French under Joseph “Papa” Joffre and the British (BEF) under Sir John French, the Germans withdrew north of the Aisne River, and both sides then stretched their lines northwards, establishing a fortified line that ran 460 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.  The essentially static Western Front was now in place.

Sir John French

Sir John French

Joseph Joffre

Joseph Joffre

Western Front 1915

Western Front 1915

Meanwhile, the offensive-minded French, whose basic war aim was to avenge their defeat in 1871 and recover Alsace-Lorraine, promptly invaded those provinces, but the advance was soon thrown back with immense casualties, as generals learned – not very well, it seems – what happened when masses of infantry assaulted fortified positions.  In just two months the French had suffered 360,000 casualties, the Germans 241,000; by way of comparison the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (early second century) was secured by perhaps 250,000 troops.

1914 ended with complete stalemate in the west.  Unwilling to change their tactics, both the Allies and the Germans would continue to throw men into the meat grinder of fruitless assaults, looking for the elusive breakthrough that would end the war.  But at Christmas a startling event had taken place.  During the unofficial truce soldiers on both sides began entering no-man’s land and fraternizing with one another, singing carols, swapping souvenirs and drink and playing football.  There could be no greater evidence that the men actually fighting the war bore one another no particular grudge, at least at this early stage of the war.  This was of course anathema to the generals and politicians of both sides, who quickly put an end to such unpatriotic behavior.

Christmas Truce

Christmas Truce

Joffre’s strategic plan for 1915 was to pinch off the Noyon (near Compiègne) salient, a huge westward bulge marking the limit of the German advance, by attacking its flanks.  As part of this on 10 March the British, who occupied the far northern section of the trench line, launched an attack on Neuve Chapelle.  They achieved a tactical breakthrough, but the Germans counterattacked the next day, and though fighting continued, the offensive was abandoned on 15 March with no significant changes in the line. General French blamed the failure on insufficient supplies of shells, which led to the Shell Crisis of May and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions that could feed the growing mania of all the belligerents for artillery barrages.  Although this was a very minor operation, the British (including Indians) and Germans lost over 20,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured.

On 22 April the Germans took their shot, initiating a series of battles that would be known as the Second Battle of Ypres (or “Wipers,” as the British troops called it).  The First Battle of Ypres had taken place from 19 October to 22 November of the previous year and while indecisive had resulted in more than 300,000 combined casualties, leading Erich von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Moltke as Chief of Staff, to conclude the war could not be won.  Unfortunately, when on 18 November he proposed seeking a negotiated settlement, he was opposed by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, condemning millions to die in the next five years.

Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

This time around the Germans began their offensive – after the inevitable artillery barrage – with poison gas (chlorine), the first use of this new technology on the Western Front.  The surprise and shock opened a gap in the British line, which the Germans, themselves surprised, were unable to exploit, and soon the development of gas masks rendered the new weapon far less effective.  The main struggle for the Ypres salient would go on until 25 May, by which time the Germans had pushed less than three miles westward.  It cost them 35,000 casualties, but the Allies suffered twice as much.  And Ypres was destroyed.

Ypres

Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Meanwhile, on 9 May some 30 miles to the south in the Arras sector the French 10th Army launched an offensive against the Vimy salient, attacking Vimy ridge, while the BEF attacked a dozen miles to the north at Aubers.  This was the Second Battle of Artois and would last until 18 June.  Joffre’s strategic goal was to cut a number of vital German rail lines, which would require an advance of ten or more miles beyond Vimy Ridge, something that might have struck a competent general as highly unlikely, given the experience of the last nine months.  And sure enough, the initial attack took Vimy Ridge, but lost it to a German counterattack, and a month later when the battle ended, the French line had moved less than two miles eastward.  The initial British assault was a disaster, allowing the Germans to send troops south, and in the end the Tommies had gained almost two miles.  The cost?  Officially, 32,000 British casualties, 73,000 German and 102,500 French.  During the offensive the French alone had fired 2,155,862 artillery shells.

See a trend in these battles?  If the generals did, their response was simply more of the same, producing even more casualties as defensive measures became more elaborate.  A continuous line from the sea to Switzerland, the western front offered no possibility of outflanking the enemy, and the weaponry of the time – machine guns, rapid fire artillery, mortars – made frontal infantry assaults very costly, if not suicidal.  Inasmuch as the breakthrough weaponry – tanks, motorized infantry and artillery and ground support aircraft – did not yet exist, remaining on the defense and negotiating or at least awaiting developments on other fronts seemed the reasonable course of action.  But with Germany holding almost all of Belgium and a huge and economically important chunk of France the Allies were not about to bargain from a position of weakness, and the reasonable expectation that the Central Powers would sooner or later crush the Russians and ship more troops west goaded the Entente, especially the French, into offensives.

Already in the spring of 1915 defensive systems and tactics were rapidly improving.  A more elastic defense was being adopted: rather than a single heavily fortified line, there would be a series of trench lines (three was a standard number), separated by strong points and barbwire entanglements.  This meant the attacker had to cross multiple killing grounds just to get to grips with the enemy, often out of the range of their own guns.  The clever response to this by the “chateau generals” was longer periods of artillery bombardment and sending larger numbers of men over the top, approaches that were both ineffective and extremely costly.  The storm of shells, besides alerting the enemy to an attack, hardly damaged the wire, and defenders simply took cover in their dugouts, ready to pop out and kill when the shelling stopped.  A rolling barrage with the troops following was more effective but very difficult to manage without blowing up your own men.  And gas was extremely hard to control and use effectively, which is why it has been so rarely used, even by the seriously nasty creeps who have appeared in the last hundred years.

French trench

French trench

French trench

French trench

British trench 1916

British trench

German trench

German trench

British-German Trench Lines

British-German Trench Lines

 

Gas attack

Gas attack

Gassed British trench

Gassed British trench

Australians in gas masks

Australians in gas masks

 

One final noteworthy event in the west during this period.  On 1 April French aviator Roland Garros shot down a German plane.  Both sides had been using aircraft for reconnaissance, and in September 1914 a Russian pilot had taken out an Austrian plane by ramming it.  Soon pilots and observers were using pistols and rifles, but it was clear that only a machine gun could be at all effective in bringing down another plane.  The problem was the propeller.  “Pusher” aircraft (the propeller mounted in the rear) were too slow, and placing the gun on the upper wing of a biplane made it very difficult to deal with the frequent jams, as well as producing too much vibration for accurate fire.  Garros’ approach was to attach metal plates to the prop in order to deflect rounds that actually hit it, and he shot down three aircraft before the strain placed on the engine by the prop being pummeled by bullets brought his own plane down behind German lines.  This crude solution would not work with steel-jacketed German ammunition, and the engineers at Anthony Fokker’s aircraft plant produced a synchronization device that allowed a Maxim machine gun to be mounted directly in front of the pilot and shoot through the prop.  On 1 July Kurt Wintgens, flying a Fokker E.I., became the first pilot to score a kill with a synchronized gun.  Suddenly the Germans had the first air superiority in history.

Wintgens' Fokker E.I.

Wintgens’ Fokker E.I.

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker