Report from the Fronts #15: May 1916

May 1916 was a relatively quiet month, at least by Great War standards. Even the great “Blood Pump” of Verdun slowed somewhat, though that was scant comfort for the men, especially on the west bank of the Meuse, who became casualties during the weeks of back and forth.  At the beginning of the month Pétain was moved up to command of the Groupe d’armées du centre (Army Group Center), and the Second Army, defending Verdun, was given to General Robert Nivelle, who determined to recover Fort Douaumont from the Germans.  Because of the impending Somme offensive, he was limited to one division with another in reserve (pocket change by Western Front standards), and after a three day bombardment General Charles Mangin, who was later known as the Butcher (“Quoi qu’on fasse, on perd beaucoup de monde” – “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”), attacked on 21 May.

The Butcher

The Butcher

General Robert Nivelle

General Robert Nivelle

Fort Douamont before the war

Fort Douaumont before the war

The French captured about half the fort the first day, but reinforcements were cut off by a German counter-attack and on 24 May the thousand soldiers in the fort surrendered.  The failed assault cost the French 5,640 casualties, about half the attacking force; the Germans lost 4,500 men.  Incidentally, the German defenders of Douaumont had already suffered casualties without the French lifting a trigger finger.  On 8 May some soldiers had attempted to make coffee using flamethrower liquid for fuel, and the cooking fire spread, igniting shells and a firestorm in the fort.  Hundreds died immediately, but more tragic – and by the dark standards of the war, comic – soot covered men fleeing the fort were shot at by their fellow soldiers, who thought they were being attacked by French African troops.

Fort Douaumont entrance today

Fort Douaumont entrance today

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Fort Douamont today

Fort Douaumont today

On the Italian front General Cadorna was not ready for the next installment of the Isonzo Follies, but the Austrians felt it was time for them to take a shot. Despite incredible supply difficulties because of the terrain the Austrian Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, planned an offensive out of the Austrian-occupied Trentino, the area north of Lake Garda.  If the 11th and 3rd Austrian Armies could break the Italian line, they would be loose in the Venetian plain, only forty miles from Venice and behind the Italian forces on the Isonzo some eighty miles to the east.  And the plan actually almost worked.

General Luigi Cadorna

General Luigi Cadorna

General Franz von Hötzendorf

General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf

Italian front

Italian front: Trentino offensive red arrows to the left

Cadorna had a quarter million troops in the area of the offensive, but Hötzendorf had managed to concentrate twice that number along a thirty mile front. Italian intelligence could hardly miss these preparations, but Cadorna was convinced, mainly by the terrain, that nothing would be going down there, and in any case his First Army commander ignored his orders to prepare deeper defenses.

Italian troops

Italian troops

Fighting in the Alps

Fighting in the Alps

Austrian supply line

Austrian supply line

And so the Trentino Offensive (or Battle of Asiago) began on 14 May as 2000 Austrian guns opened up. The Italian center collapsed within days, and by the end of May the Austrians were six miles beyond Asiago and at the edge of the Venetian plain.  Cadorna rushed reinforcements to the area (the plain had an excellent railway grid) and the offensive was slowed by the immense logistical difficulties, but by the beginning of June the situation was definitely critical.

The inevitable result

The inevitable result

Fighting in the Alps

Fighting in the Alps

Asiago are after the offensive

Asiago area after the offensive

The Trentino Offensive was the only serious land engagement of May; major offensives were brewing on the Western and Eastern Fronts.  On 25 May a force from Rhodesia entered German East Africa, and both the Russians and British were occupying more territory in Persia.  By 15 May Russian forces were in northern Mesopotamia, and on 18 May a contingent of Cossacks made contact with the British on the Tigris River.

On 16 May the Second Military Service Act passed Commons and became law on the 25th; married men were no longer exempt.  The net was growing wider in order to supply the abattoir in France.

On 9 May the British and French agreed to the Sykes-Picot plan for partitioning the Ottoman Empire and on the 23rd notified the Russians, who were already on board.  Meanwhile, the Empire was about to break up on its own, as the Allies began blockading the coast of the Hejaz on 15 May.  The Turkish vilayet (province) of Hejaz comprised the western coastal area of the Arabian Peninsula south to Yemen, including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and was under the authority of the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, who had been in communication with the French and British and planned a revolt for June.

Mecca and the Kabba in 1910

Mecca and the Kaaba in 1910

Sharif

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

We will see.

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #13: April 1916

 

 

(There seems to be some confusion as to exactly when the Battle of Lake Naroch actually ended: 30 March or 16 April or 30 April? It appears the Russian infantry offensive ended around 30 March but shelling and then the German counterattack extended perhaps to the end of April.)

 

Most of the action in April 1916 took place in or concerned the east, but of course the slaughter continued at Verdun, though barely worthy of comment in a war awash in blood.  When we left the “World Blood Pump,” as German propaganda put it, Falkenhayn was of a mind to give it up, but many of his commanders were convinced the French were on the verge of collapse.  On 4 April Falkenhayn agreed to continue the offensive on both sides of the Meuse, but stipulated that if the assault on the east side did not reach the Meuse Heights, it would be ended.

The Blood Pump of Verdun

The Blood Pump of
Verdun

Verdun-sur-Meuse

Verdun-sur-Meuse

Verdun front at the end of March

Verdun front at the end of March

Though the idea behind the offensive was to inflict unsustainable casualties on the French, Falkenhayn was becoming increasingly concerned about his own losses.  He decided upon a more cautious advance, employing Stoẞtruppen, “storm troop” units made up of two squads of infantry and one of engineers and equipped with grenades, mortars, flame throwers and machine guns.  They would lead the way after the artillery barrage, advancing carefully and either capturing strongpoints or isolating and identifying them for the regular infantry to deal with.

This approach did reduce casualties, but it also seriously slowed the rate of advance and was opposed by many of his generals, who of course had nothing to lose.  Further, the battlegrounds had been so blasted by earlier shelling that it was difficult to find cover and construct new defenses before which the French would die in the expected counterattack.  On 20 April Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, Chief of Staff of the 5th Army, complained to Falkenhayn that if they did not gain ground more quickly, his men would have to be pulled back to their February starting point.  Falkenhayn relented and the slaughter continued.

Konstantin von Knobelsdorf

Konstantin von Knobelsdorf

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

In other news from the west, German domination of the skies above the trenches, established the previous fall, ended around the beginning of April as the Allies caught up in aircraft design and manufacture.  On 14 April British planes actually bombed Adrianople and Istanbul, and though one has to doubt that much damage was done, it is a harbinger of the next war.  Nearby, the Greek government on 3 April declared that the Serbian troops on Corfu would not be permitted overland passage to Salonika, but the Allies clearly felt the war effort was more important than someone else’s national sovereignty (sound familiar?) and the Serbian Army Headquarters arrived in Salonika on 15 April.

Downed British plane in Istanbul

Downed British plane in Istanbul

Early 1916: British Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter

Early 1916: British Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter

Early 1916: French Nieuport 11

Early 1916: French Nieuport 11

Early 1816: German Halberstadt DII

Early 1916: German Halberstadt DII

Of greater concern, at least for the British, on 24 April the Irish Easter Rising began.  Four days earlier a disguised German transport had attempted to deliver arms to the rebels but was sunk off the Irish coast, and Roger Casement, the Irish point man in Germany, was delivered to Ireland by a U-boat and promptly arrested.  The uprising, centered in Dublin, occurred nevertheless, much to the surprise and confusion of the general Irish population.  The rebellion was small and ill-equipped, and the British, despite the demands of the war, crushed it in less than a week, executing the leaders.  At least 485 people died, 143 of them British troops and police and 82 rebels; more than half the dead were civilians, mostly killed by the British, who used heavy weaponry.  The Irish would have to wait a bit longer for independence.

The Easter Proclamation

The Easter Proclamation

Prisoners in Dublin

Prisoners in Dublin

Roger Casement

Roger Casement

Sackville Street, Dublin

Sackville Street, Dublin

On 26 April Britain and Germany concluded an agreement regarding the transfer of wounded prisoners to Switzerland, a rare instance of civil behavior in a war of civilization at its most barbaric.  More important to the future, on 29 April the Allies issued the Havre Declaration, which guaranteed the existence and integrity of the Belgian Congo, far and away the most abused and exploited of the African colonies.

As a further – and far more consequential – example of European disregard for self-determination, at least for those who were not White, there is the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which first raises its head in April 1916. On the 26th the French and Russian governments agreed the Turkish provinces in the Near East would after the war be divided up into spheres of influence and colonies for the Allies; the British would join on 9 May.  The Agreement involved competing claims between the French and British and of course ignored promises made to the people who actually lived in these neighborhoods, which is why the Agreement was secret, only to be revealed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.  A century later we are reaping the whirlwind of Sykes-Picot, especially in the case of the multi-ethnic non-state of Iraq.

François Georges-Picot

François Georges-Picot

Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes

Meanwhile, in the east the Russians took the key city of Trebizond on 17 April, and to the south the British advance into German East Africa continued with the capture of Kondoa Irangi by General Jacob van Deventer on 19 April. Deventer could not proceed further because his men were exhausted from the grueling march from Moshi, during which he had lost more than 2000 horses.  The rainy season was beginning, and Deventer, waiting for Lettow-Vorbeck’s counterattack, was soon cut off from supplies, as roads and bridges were washed out.  Oh, the Portuguese got into the war by occupying a small bit of German East Africa on 11 April (take that, Kaiser Bill!).

Deventer (seated)

Jacob van Deventer (seated)

hard to see map

hard to see map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember Kut?  By April life was becoming very uncomfortable for General Townshend and his boys.  The Royal flying Corps was now dropping food and ammunition into the town (and the river and Turkish emplacements), the first air supply attempt in history, which proved as futile as the one a quarter century later at Stalingrad.  At the beginning of the month General George Garringe, who had replaced the fired Aylmer in March, started up the Tigris with some 30,000 troops and took Falahiya on the northern bank with heavy losses on 5 April. The next Turkish fortified position was Sannaiyat, about three miles upriver, and the British attacked on 6 April and again on the 9th.  The Turks were well entrenched and both attacks were costly failures.

George Garringe

George Garringe

Townshend

Townshend

Saving Kut

Saving Kut

Garringe saw that taking the Sannaiyat trench line would require sapping and consequently take far too long to save the starving garrison at Kut, and he decided to cross to the southern bank.  The difficulty was that the rains had begun and the southern bank of the river was already turning into a vast swamp.  Despite this, the troops were able to seize the Bait Aissa trenches a few miles upriver from Sanniyat on 18 April, but flooding and mud prevented the British from moving any further.  Hoping that the action had drawn Turkish troops from Sanniyat, Gerringe hurried back and assaulted the position for the third time on 22 April and was repulsed.

"For the King-Emperor!"

“For the King-Emperor!”

British at Kut

British at Kut

Turkish lines at Kut

Turkish lines at Kut

There was a final desperate attempt to aid the troops in Kut.  The river steamer HMS Julnar was loaded with 250 tons of food at Basra and sent on a dash up the river on 24 April.  Before they reached the blockaded town the steersman was shot, and the steamer grounded on the bank and was captured by the Turks. On 26 April Townshend called for an armistice but negotiations, unsurprisingly, went nowhere.  T.E. Lawrence and another were sent from Cairo to attempt to bribe the Turkish commander with £2,000,000, but the Ottoman supreme commander, Enver Pasha, refused, and on the 29th the garrison surrendered.

HMS Julnar before her last journey

HMS Julnar before her last journey

HMS Julnar loading troops

HMS Julnar loading troops

 

The 147 day siege and the rescue attempts had cost the British 30,000 killed and wounded and 13,000 captured; the Turks are thought to have suffered about 10,000 casualties.  Of those taken prisoner 70% of the British and 50% of the Indians died in captivity, mostly from disease.  The Turks also lost Goltz Pasha, who on 19 April died in Baghdad either from typhus or being poisoned.  General Gorringe and General Percy Lake, the other commander of the Mesopotamia army, were both sacked and replaced by General Stanley Maude, who would retrain the army and ultimately take Baghdad.

Stanley Maude

Stanley Maude

Percy Lake

Percy Lake

 

Golz Pasha in his Field Marshal's uniform

Golz Pasha in his Field Marshal’s uniform

General Townshend spent the rest of the war in very comfortable captivity on an island in the Sea of Marmara, an object of contempt to the men he had left behind. While it is true that Townshend wanted to retreat from Kut back in December and was overruled by General Nixon, his conduct during the siege was incompetent and contemptible.  He never expelled the 6000 inhabitants of Kut or foraged the area around the town for food stocks, and he consistently refused to attempt a break out to meet and aid the relieving forces or even launch diversionary actions to draw off Turkish defenders.  He was far more concerned about getting a promotion and caring for his dog (well, I can understand that) than his starving men, whom he never visited in the hospitals.  Unlike most of his men he survived the war, but his reputation was shattered and his military career at an end.

After the fall: Indian troops

After the fall: Indian troops

After the fall: marching into captivity

After the fall: marching into captivity

After the fall: Townshend with Kahalil Pasha

After the fall: Townshend with Kahlil Pasha

The fall of Kut was certainly a humiliation for the British, especially as it came at the hands of the Turks (Townshend wanted to surrender to Goltz), but it had little effect on the war, even in the east – the Ottomans were at the end of their supply line and could never threaten Basra. A lot of men died, but it was virtually nothing compared to the blood being spilled on the Western Front.