Report from the Fronts #50: October 1918

By the beginning of October many, especially on the German side, knew that the war was finished for the Central Powers but the killing would continue for another month while an armistice was negotiated. It was hardly “dulce et decorum” to die for your country when there was absolutely no reason to.

On 2 October the Fifth Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Saint-Quentin Canal came to an end, and on the 3rd the (ironically named) Battle of the Beaurevoir Line began.  The Line was the last string of German trenches, a little more than a mile east of Saint-Quentin, and by 10 October the Americans and French had seized the heights above the Line, marking a 19 mile wide breach of the Hindenburg Line.  General Rawlinson on the operation: “Had the Boche not shown marked signs of deterioration during the past month, I should never have contemplated attacking the Hindenburg line. Had it been defended by the Germans of two years ago, it would certainly have been impregnable….”

Breaching the Line

Rawlinson

Beaurevoir Line

To the north the Canadians handily won the Second Battle of Cambrai on 8–10 October, capturing a city that was largely destroyed and evacuated by the Germans.  The easy victory is understandable: all the pressure on the Hindenburg Line to the south left this sector denuded of troops.  The depleted German divisions were severely outnumbered, had few guns, no air cover and no tanks, of which the Allies had 324.  The end was becoming clearer and clearer.

Canadians on the road to Cambrai

Second Battle of Cambrai

On 14 October the Battle of Courtrai (or Battle of Roulers or Second Battle of Belgium) began, and by its end on the 19th Ostend, Lille, Douai, Zeebrugge and Bruges had been recaptured by the British and Belgians.  On 20 October the rest of the Belgian coast was recovered.

King Albert I at the liberation of Bruges

Courtrai area

To the south the Meuse-Argonne Offensive moved into phase two on 4 October. The exhausted American divisions gave way to fresh formations of eager doughboys, who quickly – and frequently recklessly – cleared the Argonne Forest by the end of the month, during which time they advanced 10 miles.  At the Battle of Montfaucon 14-17 October the Americans broke the Hindenburg Line at the Kriemhilde Stellung, while on their left the French Fourth Army moved 20 miles and reached the Aisne River.  At the onset of Montfaucon legendary American corporal Alvin York singlehandedly captured 132 prisoners, a feat that would have been impossible a year earlier.  Phase 3 began on 28 October and would last until the armistice.

York in action

Alvin York

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

A sign of the impending end: on 27 October Ludendorff, virtual ruler of the German Empire for two years, was asked by the Kaiser to resign, which he did without objection.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

A more cataclysmic sign appeared in Italy. On 24 October, the anniversary of the Caporetto disaster, General Armando Diaz finally launched the long awaited offensive against the Austrians with an assault on Monte Grappo, while his main armies prepared to cross the Piave River, which was in flood.  The crossing of the swollen river was difficult, but by the 28th the Italians had established several bridgeheads on the northern bank and were advancing.  The Austrian commander, Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, promptly ordered a counterattack, but his men refused to obey the order, not a good sign.  Svetozar Boroević, known as a defensive expert, ordered a general retreat, and on 30 October the Italians took Vittorio Veneto, a dozen miles north of the Piave.

Svetozar Boroević

Diaz

Battle of Vittorio Veneto

On Monte Grappa

Austro-Hungarian prisoners

Abandoned Austrian equipment

Italian cavalry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aiding the Allies was the simple fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was crumbling. On 28 October Bohemia (part of Czechoslovakia) declared its independence, and the following day a group proclaimed the independence of the South Slavs.  More crushing, on 31 October the Hungarian Parliament voted for independence, thus ending the Austro-Hungarian state.  By the time the Battle of Vittorio Veneto ended on 4 November Austria was out of the war.

Meanwhile, Allied forces were advancing deeper into Serbia, and in the east the British took Tripoli, Homs and Aleppo in Syria and Kirkuk in Mesopotamia from the Turks; the French took Beirut.  Far to the east the British took Irkutsk (remember Risk?) on 14 October and Omsk on the 18th, although the whole reason for these operations had essentially disappeared.

Diplomatic notes were flying all over Europe. On 4 October Germany and Austria sent notes to President Wilson requesting an armistice, and four days later Wilson told the Germans that evacuating occupied real estate was the first step.  On the 12th the German government agreed, but three days later Wilson set further conditions, including that he deal with a democratic German government, a tough proposition for the Germans.  Nevertheless, Wilson agreed to pass the proposal on to the Allied governments.

The Austrians had to wait until 18 October for a noncommittal reply, and on the 27th the Austrian government sent a second note to Wilson and one to Italy requesting an immediate armistice.  Meanwhile, the Empire was dissolving.  On 16 October a desperate Emperor proclaimed the ancient empire to be a federal state based on national groups, but it was already fragmenting.  On 21 October Czechoslovakia declared its independence, and the Ban of Croatia (the traditional local government) proclaimed its support for the Yugoslav National Council.  On the 29th the Council rejected the policy of the Empire and declared Yugoslavian independence, which was adopted by the Croatian Congress the next day.  Three days earlier the King of Montenegro had announced support for Yugoslavia.  On 31 October there were revolutions in Budapest and Vienna, and Hungary withdrew from the union; that same day Emperor Karl I, no longer possessing an Adriatic port, handed his fleet over to the Yugoslavs.

Czechoslovakia

Croatian Congress

Emperor Karl I

Austro-Hungarian Empire

Yugoslavia (1922)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ottoman Empire was also collapsing.  On 14 October the Turks requested an armistice from President Wilson, and on the 30th an armistice was signed by the Allies and the Turks.  Hostilities ended the next day, and Turkey was out of the war and bereft of their Arab empire.

Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic

On a smaller scale, on 4 October King Ferdinand of Bulgaria abdicated in favor of his son, who became Boris III.  Surprisingly, his throne would actually survive the political cataclysm born of the defeat of the Central Powers.

Ferdinand I

Boris III

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turkey, Austria and Bulgaria were all out of the war, and Germany was seriously seeking an armistice.  Yet the war and the killing went on as the victors dithered.

 

 

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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.

x

 

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

Report from the Fronts #34: October 1917

The area around Ypres

Third Ypres ground on.  On 4 October ANZAC troops assaulted the Broodseinde Ridge, gaining the objective on the first day and further unsettling the Germans, who were having trouble dealing with the new allied leapfrog tactics.  Unsurprisingly, the success led to arguments among the commanders about pushing further, but the presence of substantial German reserves behind the line and the usual difficulty of bringing up the artillery over the shattered battle ground sank that idea.  General Herbert Plumer – in a Trumpian moment – called Broodseinde “the greatest victory since the Marne.”  Tell that to the 20,000 commonwealth casualties.

No mans land

Battle of Broodseinde

Bringing up the guns

Herbert Plumer

Next up in the Ypres Mud Fight was the Battle of Poelcapelle, an attempt by French and British units on 9 October to push half the way from Broodseinde Ridge to Passchendaele.  But the “easy” victories were over.  The heavy rains returned, and bringing up the artillery over blasted ground to secure gains was becoming incredibly difficult.  As a result, the Allies were unable to hold most of the captured ground against German counterattacks, and the battle ended after a single day.  Some 10,000 Allied troops were casualties, many drowned in shell holes; since the beginning of the month the Germans had suffered 35,000.

Typical Ypres terrain – Chateauwood

The road into Poelcapelle

Battle of Poelcapelle

Three days later the Allies attacked again – the First Battle of Passchendaele – Generals Plumer and Haig mistakenly thinking that the earlier advance had been generally successful (that is how bad communications were).  The result was a repeat of Poelcapelle, and the Brits and ANZACS suffered 13,000 casualties failing to take Passchendaele Ridge; it was perhaps the worst day in New Zealand military history.

The Butcher of the Somme

German losses for this specific battle are unknown, but it is clear that while the Ypres battles were gaining little ground, they were nevertheless inflicting heavy losses, which the Germans could ill afford.  Two divisions being sent to Italy for the upcoming offensive went instead to the Ypres sector, and the commander of the army group covering the northern stretch of the Western Front, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, had actually considered a withdrawal, which might have endangered the German position and submarine bases on the Belgian coast.  This in fact was one of the Allied goals for the Ypres offensive.

Crown Prince Rupprecht

Meanwhile, to the south the French opened the Battle of La Malmaison on 23 October.  This was essentially a continuation of the Second Battle of the Aisne from back in April (remember the Nivelle Offensive?), and by 27 October the French had captured the Chemin des Dames Ridge in its entirety and the fortress town of La Malmaison – or what was left of it.  It cost the French 14,000 casualties, the Germans 50,000.

Battle of Malmaisson

The Malmaison fort

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last phase of Third Ypres kicked off on 26 October with the Second Battle of Passchendaele, a mostly Canadian affair.  The aim was to seize the Passchendaele-Westrozebeke Ridge, both for observation advantages and in order to establish a winter defensive line on the drier high ground.  The assault was to be executed in four limited advances separated by pauses, allowing time for guns and supplies to be brought up and fresh troops switched in after each phase.

On the road to Passchendaele

Same terrain a century later

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plan actually worked, though the slaughter and the endless mud made this battle just as unpleasant for the poor beggars on the ground as the earlier operations.  The first two phases took place on 26 October and 30 October and were relatively successful, most of the Passchendaele Ridge being secured.  The second two phases would take place in early November, but meanwhile disaster in Italy through a monkey wrench into the plans to capture Passchendaele itself.

Battlefield funeral

Morning at Passchendaele

Passchendaele before and after

 

On 24 October the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo began, but this one was very different from the previous eleven.  This time it was the Austrians and Germans who attacked, not just at the Isonzo but all along the front from the Adriatic near Trieste west to the Trentino.  The main thrust, however, was at Caporetto in the upper Isonzo valley, and the conflict is also known as the Battle of Caporetto (or Kobarid).  And the German-Austrian forces fared a lot better than the incompetent Luigi Cadorna.

Battle of Caporetta

Field Marshal Hindenburg had already decided Austria needed help, despite the objections of the man who was increasingly in control, Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, who probably realized the Italian Army was presently incapable of any serious offensive.  Caporetto was chosen because it controlled an excellent road into the Venetian plain (a chemist also declared the valley perfect for a gas attack), and the new 14th Army, nine Austrian and six German divisions under General Otto von Below, would spearhead the assault, which would ultimately send some 350,000 troops against 875,000 Italians.  Overall command of the Isonzo Army Group was in the hands of General Svetozar Boroević, the Croatian (!) commander who had halted all of Cadorna’s offensives.  Unlike his opponent, who was despised by his men, “our Sveto” was loved by his and known as the “Knight of Isonzo.”

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna

Otto von Below

Svetozar Boroević

The offensive began with a massive gas barrage (chlorine-arsenic and diphosgene), which in the absence of wind settled into the valley, and Italian troops began fleeing, knowing that their gas masks would function only for a couple of hours.  A subsequent artillery bombardment hit the now lightly defended fortifications, and von Below’s troops poured into the valley, their flanks protected by Alpine units that secured the heights.  The infantry penetrated 16 miles in the first day, and while the Italians managed to block the attacks flanking the main group, the Italian army was reeling.  Rushing in troops from other sectors only led to more Austrian assaults along the entire front.

Caparetto

The situation was not helped by General Cadorna, who failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and the already low morale of his men, much of it the fault of his own ineptitude and harsh methods.  General Luigi Capello, commander of the 2nd Army, which was the target of the main thrust, almost immediately asked to withdraw to the Tagliamento River but was refused by Cadorna, leading to the surrender of more Italian troops.  By 28 October the offensive had reached Udine, and two days later Cadorna called for a retreat across the Tagliamento, which took four days.  Italy was on the verge of collapse.

Italian prisoners

Waiting for the offensive

German assault troops

Incidentally, active in the battle was a young first lieutenant commanding the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion: Erwin Rommel.  In 52 hours from 25 to 27 October the 27 year old Rommel and his 150 men captured some 9000 enemy troops and 81 artillery pieces, suffering only six dead and 30 wounded.  He would later be awarded Germany’s highest military award, the Pour le Mérite.

The young Rommel

Meanwhile, the Southern Palestine Offensive (Third Battle of Gaza) began on 31 October with the Battle of Beersheba, the eastern anchor of the Turkish line from Gaza.  The small town was well guarded by trenches and outlying strongpoints, and Fevzi Çakmak Pasha, commander of the 7th Army, which was responsible for the eastern section of the Gaza-Beersheba line, had some 4500 men available, though not all were at Beersheba.  General Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, had some 50,000 men and in a complex operation (water was the major problem) intended to assault the town from the west with infantry and from the east, where there was no wire or horse traps, with mounted troops.  Beersheba was encircled and attacked and captured in a single day.

Fevzi Pasha

Edmund Allenby

Battle of Beersheba

Palestine front

 

 

While the Battle of Beersheba marks the first Allied victory in Palestine and would lead to breaking the Turkish Gaza line, it is better remembered for the last effective cavalry charge in history.  Coming from the southeast, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade had traveled over 30 miles of desert to reach the town by dawn, and near 4 PM they were ordered to take the town.  The 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments began their advance at about 4 miles from the town and began taking fire at 2 miles, but help from supporting artillery and the speed (and surprise) of the charge minimized Turkish effectiveness.  Leaping across the trenches, the 4th and some of the 12th dismounted and began shooting at the Turks from the rear, but the bulk of the 12th, armed with bayonets in place of lances or swords, rode into Beersheba and captured it.

Australian Light Horse

Beersheba

Beersheba

Charge of the Light Horse

(As it happens, the last major cavalry charge took place in 1942.  On August 23 on the Eastern Front 600 Italian horse, armed with sabers and grenades, charged a formation of 2000 Soviet infantry and actually dislodged them from their positions.

In miscellaneous news from October, on the 11th the German navy began operations against the Baltic Islands, capturing them all by the 20th and sinking a Russian battleship in the process.  In early October Peru and Uruguay cut diplomatic relations with Germany (Costa Rica did so in September), and on the 26th Brazil declared war, fed up with German submarines sinking Brazilian merchant vessels.  In 1918 a (relatively) sizable Brazilian force would actually travel to France.

Brazil declares war

Finally, an event everyone has heard of: on 15 October Mata Hari was shot by a French firing squad.  Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands and in 1905 began a highly successful career as an exotic dancer in Paris, eventually becoming the mistress of a French millionaire.  Believing her to be the ultimate femme fatale that she would become in legend, in 1916 the French Deuxième Bureau recruited her as a spy, hoping she could seduce German Crown Prince Wilhelm, who had enjoyed her performances before the war, and wheedle military information out of him.

Mata Hari in 1905

And again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem with this was that although the Crown Prince was the commander of an Army Group, he relied completely on his staff, inasmuch as he had never directly commanded anything larger than a regiment.  More stupidity in a war filled with it.  In late 1916 Zelle contacted the Germans in Madrid and offered them French secrets (of which she had none), either for money or to engineer a meeting with the Crown Prince.  In January of 1917 the German military attaché in Madrid sent to Berlin a message about Zelle’s activities as a spy in a code that was known to have been broken, perhaps because Germany military intelligence was fed up with her.

Crown Prince Wilhelm

Zelle was arrested in Paris on 13 February and subsequently convicted of espionage in a joke of a trial.  In the wake of the French army mutiny and the failure of the Nivelle Offensive a foreign spy was an extremely convenient scapegoat for the political establishment, which apparently determined to seize the opportunity.  There was no concrete evidence against her and her defense attorney was forced to operate under serious limitations, but destined to serve political ends, she was convicted and shot.  A naïve woman, seduced herself by French intelligence, had to die for the glory of France.  The records of the proceedings and trial were sealed until October 2017, by which time the perpetrators of the crime would be safely dead.

Mata Hari when arrested

And the war went on.