Special Report from the Fronts: June 1967

Israel

Egypt

Syria

Jordan

Iraq

USSR

US

Lebanon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(OK, I got carried away.  This was intended to be short and timely reflection on the Occupation, but the historian kicked in and produced this swollen document.)

Fifty years ago last month Israel began the Six Day War (5-10 June) by launching air strikes against the Egyptian Air Force. Initially the Israelis claimed they were attacked first, but later admitted they had struck the initial blow in their own defense, a “preemptive strike” in reaction to a build-up of Arab forces on their frontiers and Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran, through which most of Israel’s maritime trade passed.  Israel had warned Egypt that blocking the Straits would be considered an act of war and in part had gone to war in 1956 because of precisely that.  President Nasser claimed that Israeli warships in the Gulf of Aqaba threatened Egypt and that Egypt had not signed the international convention declaring a right of passage through the Straits.  Ironically, Israel would later use the reverse argument when they were accused of violating the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories: the Palestinians had never signed it.

In any case, the Israeli population certainly felt seriously threatened, and because unlike the Arab forces the Israeli militia-army could not be kept on high alert for very long, Israel was forced to settle the issue more or less immediately. On the other hand, while the preemptive strike may be justified by the closing of the Straits, this was in many ways the beginning of the legitimizing of military action without a traditionally accepted casus belli.  Now we have invaded Iraq because we thought they had chemical weapons and might use them, and Israel, a nuclear power, threatens Iran with air strikes because they might be making a nuclear weapon.

The Six Day War took place just as I was graduating from college, and while I was on my way to becoming an historian of antiquity, my understanding of Israel was still shaped by the popular image of Exodus, of David versus Goliath, of the beleaguered democracy, of making the desert bloom.  I was thrilled by the marvelous victories of the Israeli Defense Force and the triumph of Jewish democracy over Arab autocracy, taunting a pair of Lebanese brothers who lived in my dorm.

This all changed rapidly as I learned more of the history of modern Israel and of the war itself.  Did two millennia of persecution and the Holocaust really justify displacing the Palestinians, who were certainly innocents in what Europe had done to the Jews?  Initially, in fact, Theodor Herzl and the Zionists simply wanted a state for Jews anywhere, recognizing that as part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was clearly not an option for state-building.  And the creation of a Jewish homeland was hardly high on the list of European priorities.

Theodor Herzl

With the outbreak of the Great War, however, the situation changed.  The desire of both the Allies and the Central Powers to cultivate European Jewry because of their supposed financial resources (yes, governments actually believed some of the anti-Semitic fantasies) provided the Zionists a more receptive audience.  On the other hand, British (and to a lesser degree French) military and political interests in the Arab regions of the Turkish Empire also provided a forum for Arab nationalism.  The Allies of course dealt with all this by making clearly conflicting promises to everyone in the region.

Arthur Balfour

The pivotal moment came in November 1917 with the publication of the intentionally vague Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The political calculation behind this seems to have been to garner support from German, Russian and American Jews, who would, respectively, undermine the German war effort, keep Russia in the war and attract more American support (another case of dramatically overestimating Jewish influence and power).  None of these things would happen.  Instead, already suspicious Arab allies were outraged, and Britain ended up being saddled with Mandatory Palestine for the next thirty years.  Many later labeled the Balfour Declaration one of the worst mistakes ever made by the British Empire.

For centuries Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians had lived peacefully as neighbors, but that changed with the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920.  Jews began to pour into the territory: in 1920 they constituted about 11% of the population; in 1936 it was close to 30%, a huge increase given the high Arab birth rate.  The financial backing of the Jewish settlers was immense compared to that of the Muslims, allowing them to buy land and develop infrastructure.  Muslims considered the Jews a People of the Book, but having occupied the land for more than a millennium, they certainly did not share the enthusiasm of the Christian West for the resurrection of ancient Israel, which policy was increasingly viewed as another example of European imperialism.

The growing influx of European Jews was seen – quite understandably – as an invasion supported by the British, and most Arab leaders refused to cooperate in creating Muslim-Jewish institutions.  Sectarian strife began in the twenties, producing the first Palestinian terror groups, and a full blown Arab revolt exploded in 1936, Arabs attacking Jews and destroying their farms and the British Army, supported by 6000 armed Jewish auxiliaries, attempting to suppress them.  When the revolt ended in 1939 some 5000 Arabs, 200 British and 400 Jews were dead.  The British, incidentally, began the policy of collective punishment of Palestinians by destroying their houses, a policy later adopted by the new state of Israel.

Jews leaving Jerusalem

Arabs “escorted” from Jerusalem by British troops

A British-Jewish Special Night Squad

Palestinian fighters

Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad “General Commander of the Revolt”

Dead also was any idea of peaceful coexistence.  The Jews responded to Arab opposition and terrorism by organizing their own militias, such as the relatively disciplined Haganah, which would become the core of the Israeli Defense Force, and less savory groups, like the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang), outright terrorist organizations.  Meanwhile, the British soldiers, who ultimately were targeted by both sides, were likely cursing the name of Arthur Balfour.

Irgun: bombed Arab bus 1947

Stern: assassination of peace mediator Folke Bernadotte 1948

Avraham Stern – founder of Lehi (and supporter of the Nazis)

Irgun: King David Hotel 1946

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Supreme Commander of the Irgun

Irgun: hanged British soldiers 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second World War brought matters to a head.  The slaughter of some six million European Jews could hardly fail to magnify the Zionist cause and the guilty consciences of Europe and America, which had turned away many Jewish refugees before the war.  The British Empire was in full retreat, and London was certainly open to any measures that would get them out of Palestine.  Finally, the war had produced an organization, the United Nations, which could serve as an international mechanism for the creation of a Jewish state.  Also crucial was the immense power of post-war America, whose President, Harry Truman, favored the creation of a new Israel, despite the objections of most of his advisors.  Joseph Stalin also supported the idea, which makes one wonder.

In November 1947 the UN voted to partition the Mandate, creating separate Jewish and Arab states and an international status for Jerusalem.  In hindsight the Arabs, now seemingly forever caught in a growing apartheid web of Israeli occupation, clearly should have taken the deal, but the Arab world did not see the self-determination talked about by the Americans, just another exercise in western manipulation of their affairs.

World Zionist Organization 1919 territorial claim

UN Partition Plan 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zionism was a European phenomenon, the Holocaust (and to a great degree the persecution of Jews in general) was a European phenomenon and there had not been a Jewish state for almost two millennia. Why should there be one now?  And more important to the Arabs, why here?  Palestine had been Muslim and under the control of Islamic states for more than a thousand years (and had generally treated the Jewish minority far better than the Christian west).  I certainly could feel at least a twinge of the outrage when having met Arab families who could demonstrate possession of their land back into the nineteenth century and further, I had to listen to someone speaking English with a New York accent explain how it was in fact his land.

Well, for all the persecution and hatred of the people who “murdered the Christ” ancient Israel and Judah were an inseparable part of Christianity, which had after all accepted the Hebrew Testament, and Israel was where Jesus had walked. Today, many American Protestants, notably Evangelicals and sundry fundamentalists, are enthusiastic supporters of not just Israel but of its most extreme policies.  The British had painted themselves into a corner with the Balfour Declaration, and Hitler had made that corner virtually inescapable for them and the Americans.

The immediate response to the partition was violence, as Arab armies converged on the territory assigned to Israel, and it turned into inter-state warfare when Israel proclaimed her status as a sovereign state on 14 May 1948.  Here was the first of the “David versus Goliath” wars, at least in popular imagination.  In fact, Israel fielded almost twice as many troops as her opponents, and the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) estimated that Israel would handily defeat the forces of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

And so they did.  When the war ended in March 1949, Israel had acquired 60% of the territory initially assigned to the Arabs and now had a foothold in Jerusalem.  More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled; yes, contrary to the popular mythic version of their history, the Israelis did engage in ethnic cleansing.  (In the next three years about 700,000 Jews entered Israel, many fleeing Arab countries.)  In the state of Israel itself some 400 Palestinian villages (against 10 Jewish communities) were emptied of people, creating a class of Internally Displaced Persons among the Arab citizenry, and by 1950 one in four Israeli Arabs was an IDP, barred from their homes and land, which were confiscated by the state.  The laws applied also to descendants, so the situation continues to this day.

King Farouk I of Egypt

King Abdullah I of Jordan

1948 Arab-Israeli War

First Israeli Expansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Palestinians this was al-nakba, “the Catastrophe.” In 1950 Jordan annexed the remaining non-Israeli territory, the West Bank (Gaza was occupied by the Egyptians), and offered the inhabitants Jordanian citizenship.  Many Palestinians turned this down, and only Britain recognized the annexation, while the Arab states, anxious to keep the Palestinian question alive, pressured the Jordanian King, Abdullah I, to declare the annexation “temporary.”  This temporary arrangement would last 17 years and be replaced with something much more onerous.

In 1956 Israel joined in a secret coalition with Britain and France, who were responding to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and fielded 175,000 troops (twice that of her allies) to attack Egypt. Worldwide outrage erupted, mainly directed against the French and British for their blatant assault on a sovereign state in order to protect their imperial interests, and domestic and international pressure soon forced them to withdraw, leaving President Nasser in power.  Israel was primarily – and understandably – concerned about regular terrorist attacks coming out of Gaza and Soviet weaponry going into Cairo and would be delighted to see a weakened Egypt without Nasser.  They occupied Gaza and Sinai and refused to leave when their erstwhile allies gave it up, and it took two more weeks of threats of sanctions and lifting of American aid by President Eisenhower (the first and last American President to stand up to Israel) to finally force them out.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion

President Gamal Abdel Nasser

Suez Crisis

 

Unlike the humiliated French and British, Israel benefited from the brief war, her defiance of the US and international community winning important guarantees: a UN presence in Sinai and the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed by Egypt in 1951. Nasser kept the canal and his power and emerged with an enhanced reputation, but he failed to understand that he had been saved by American diplomacy not the Egyptian military.  While the Israelis correctly concluded that their citizen soldiers were better trained and could conduct large scale operations, Nasser deceived himself and his people by concluding that his forces could take on the new kid on the block.

The Suez Crisis set the stage for the Six Day War, suggesting to Egypt, Syria and Jordan that together they could defeat Israel. They could not, and while much of the world marveled at tiny David facing the Arab Goliath again, the CIA in fact concluded that it would take Israel less than two weeks to defeat the Arabs.  It took less than one, and Israel made out like a bandit.

Battle for Sinai

Battle for the Golan Heights

Battle for the West Bank

(Whether the Egyptians shot retreating soldiers or the Israelis murdered some POWs is still debated, but another more disturbing incident of the war is now perfectly clear: Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats deliberately attacked the intelligence ship USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 174 American sailors; see my post “Our Best Ally and the USS Liberty” (https://qqduckus.com/2012/06/07/our-best-ally-and-the-uss-liberty/) 

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol of Israel

 

President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

 

King Hussein I of Jordan

 

Sallah Jadid of Syria

President Abdul Rahman Arif of Iraq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Lyndon Johnson

 

General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Washington finally forced the Israelis to accept a ceasefire (they were ultimately dependent on American resupply), they had seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Eretz Yisrael had attained its greatest territorial extent – ever – and possession of all of Jerusalem, which meant control of sites sacred to all three Abrahamic religions: the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the el-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.  (Perhaps the most iconic image from the war is that of jubilant Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall; less well known is the immediate destruction of 135 Arab houses and a mosque to create the plaza that now fronts the Wall.)

The Second Israeli Expansion

Israeli soldiers at the
Western Wall

Clearing the area before the Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Israelis now also controlled the West Bank, which was promptly named the Judea and Samaria Area, though the term did not come into regular use until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. The territory of the West Bank was in fact the heart of ancient Israel, Judea being the southern state of Judah (which ended up composing the history found in the Old Testament) and Samaria the northern state of Israel (completely maligned in the Bible).  A great irony of the creation of modern Israel is that inasmuch as the partition was based on demographics most of ancient Israel fell to the Arabs.  And this is certainly on of the central facts behind the sad fate of the Palestinians.

Ancient Israel Based on the Bible

Israel and Judah 9th century BC

 

Israel now occupied all that “homeland” (real or imagined), and while Israel was initially concerned with security – the occupation would quickly fuel Palestinian terrorism – the extremists saw the possibility of recreating ancient Israel, or at least the swollen image of it in the Judah-edited Old Testament.  Reestablishing a state that had ceased to exist two millennia earlier was questionable enough, but claiming territory for that state on basis of a clearly unhistorical holy book strikes me as absurd.  But because Christianity has also accepted that book as sacred, many clearly do not see Israel’s actions as absurd – or as violations of international law.

Before the end of June Israel brought East Jerusalem and surrounding land under its administration, calling it “municipal integration,” but it was clearly annexation, which was confirmed by the Jerusalem Law of 1980.  The occupied Golan Heights were to be retained for security reasons and settlements began to appear, leading in 1981 to the Golan Heights Law, by which the region was formally annexed.  Only Costa Rica recognized the Jerusalem annexation and Micronesia the Golan annexation – one wonders why these two states.

One of the fundamental provisions of the post-World War II international agreements, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter, is the prohibition of annexing or settling territory acquired through war, whatever the reason.  Israel apparently felt exempt from this, for security reasons but increasingly in the West Bank simply because it was believed to be the land of Israel.  These settlements were not merely “obstacles to peace,” as the United States calls them, but gross violations of international covenants the United States is pledged to uphold.  Nevertheless, Israel was continually protected from hostile resolutions of the United Nations by the American veto in the Security Council.

Already in 1967 Israel reestablished the old settlement of Kfar Etzion, whose inhabitants had been massacred in the 1948 war.  More ominous was the foundation on the outskirts of Hebron of Kiryat Arba in 1968: the land was confiscated from Palestinians on the grounds of military needs, but it was in fact intended for a Jewish settlement.  Because of the connection between Hebron and Abraham (who might have once been a local cult figure), the city is sacred to everyone and has attracted a particularly nasty group of Jewish settlers, who are holed up in the old town, protected by the Israeli military.  Kiryat Arba has a park dedicated to Meir Kahane, whose Kach party is considered a terrorist organization even by the Israeli government, and nearby is the grave of Baruch Goldstein (an associated shrine, attracting thousands of visitors, has been bulldozed by the government), who slaughtered 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque. Both these men grew up in Brooklyn.

Kahane Tourist Park

Meir Kahane

Kiryat Arba

Baruch Goldstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The confiscation of land for Jewish settlements became standard policy during the 1970s, though it was denied by the Israeli government.  When a Likud government under Menachem Begin (former leader of the terrorist Irgun; a later Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the Stern Gang) took power in 1977, the process accelerated, and later the government began subsidizing housing in the settlements (which continues to this day), drawing huge numbers of Israelis who were moved far less by the dream of ancient Israel than by cheap available housing.  Whatever the motivation, these colonists were creating the “facts on the ground,” a growing Jewish population that made it more and more difficult for the land to be returned to the Palestinians.

Ytizhak Shamir, Prime Minister and former terrorist

Menachem Begin, Prime Minister and former terrorist.

Yasir Arafat, President and former terrorist

 

 

 

 

In 1983, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel removed the settlements from Sinai, and in 2005 those in Gaza, in both cases facing serious resistance from the settlers.  Unfortunately, with Israel controlling Gaza’s frontiers, waters and air space this rump Palestinian state became the world’s largest open air prison, periodically blasted by the IDF because some Hamas jerk shoots a rocket into Israel.  As of today, approximately 1,730,000 Palestinians are living in a semi-wasteland, and malnutrition has become a serious problem.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the Occupied Territories continues to swell, as increasingly right wing governments blithely paint Israel into a corner.  There are now some 800,000 Israeli Jewish citizens residing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and a growing number of Israeli-only roads slicing up Palestinian territory.  Israeli and foreign governments still talk about the “two state solution,” but it has become an impossibility.  Even were the government willing – an extremely unlikely development – attempting to evacuate the settlements would almost certainly lead to extreme violence and civil strife.

What then?  There are now some 2,754,000 Palestinians in the West Bank (and 5,000,000 in Arab countries), and their birth rate is much higher than that of the Jews – excepting the ultra-Orthodox Haredi (who are producing a growing number of Israeli males who know virtually nothing but the Torah).  They certainly cannot be simply expelled, and that leaves two possibilities: annex the territory and give the citizenship to the Palestinians or continue with the current policy.  The first will not happen because Jews would then be a minority, a difficult proposition if Israel is to be a “Jewish” state, and one could expect the new voters to be unsympathetic to many Israeli institutions.

That leaves the status quo, which can lead only to some form of an apartheid state, which is already taking shape in the West Bank.  I visited Israel/Palestine about twenty-five years ago, when the settler presence was much smaller and the Israelis-only road network was just getting underway, and even then the West Bank was beginning to look like something out of the Middle Ages.  The settlements are for the most part on hill tops or ridges, looming like little fortified cities over the Palestinian communities below.  The traditional whitewashed houses of the villages, where water is increasingly in short supply, are in dramatic contrast to the modern accommodations, malls and swimming pools of the settlements, which are like bits of American suburbia planted in the Holy Land.

Settlement life

Israel has now occupied Palestine longer than the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, a tragedy for the Palestinians and ultimately the Israelis.  The Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has been frequently corrupt and seems to have a special knack for doing just the wrong thing, but consider a half century of rather unpleasant (by contemporary western standards) occupation: how would you feel after a lifetime of second class status – at best – and watching your ancient homeland being recolonized?   Or seeing your home destroyed because someone in your family was arrested (collective punishment, another violation of international law)?  Or being shot with relative impunity because you were defending your olive trees from settler vandals?

Back a quarter century ago I and a companion visited a Palestinian family in Bani Naim, five miles east of Hebron, and when we entered the children began crying.  They thought we were Israelis.

The sad history of Palestine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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(Late) Report from the Fronts #29: May 1917

May began with the last gasps and final failure of the Nivelle Offensive.  The Third Battle of the Scarpe and the Second Battle of Bullecourt began on 3 May; the former ended the following day, while the latter dragged on until 17 May.  The Nivelle Offensive was over, but the unexpected repercussions were just beginning.

When the Second Battle of Bullecourt began, the French 2nd Division mutinied and refused to attack, and the infection quickly began spreading to other units.  By early June, when the authorities began responding seriously to the mutiny, half the 112 or 113 divisions of the French army had been affected to some degree.

The mutiny was more of a work stoppage than a revolt.  No officers were assaulted, and the strikers, mostly seasoned veterans, were willing to fight, just not engage in more futile offensives that completely ignored the realities of twentieth century warfare.  And although pacifist and socialist pamphlets circulated in the trenches, there was no real political movement behind the mutiny.  The troops were simply sick of being sacrificed for nothing on the altar of the Big Push by men who appeared to have little understanding of modern war.

Poilus in color

Unsurprisingly, Paris and London promptly attempted to institute a news blackout, fearing the effect of the mutiny on Allied and German morale, a perhaps sensible but certainly unethical and undemocratic move (remember General Westmoreland and Secretary McNamara?).  One could argue this was necessary for the war effort (and this war was clearly more vital to France than Vietnam was to the United States), but sealing all the pertinent military and political records for fifty years was simply to protect the generals and politicians, who would be long dead in 1967 (when the first detailed book on the mutiny appeared).  And the ultimate silliness: some (apparently) political documents were sealed for a hundred years, a senseless classification procedure that still goes on.

The repression of the mutiny belongs to June, but there was already a major casualty in May.  Actually, there were already as many as 187,000 French, 160,000 British and 163,000 German casualties, but on 15 May Nivelle was cashiered and replaced by Phillippe Pétain of Verdun and later Vichy fame; in December he was appointed Commander-in-Chief in North Africa, which is to say, he was exiled from the war.  Pétain was replaced as Chief of the French General Staff by Ferdinand Foch, hero of the Marne in 1914.

Ferdinand Foch

 

General Nivelle

Philippe Pétain

 

To the south General Cadorna launched the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo on 12 May.  What, again?  Well, General Haig and the French had resisted PM Lloyd George’s idea of sending Allied troops to help the Italians knock out the Austrians before they were stiffened by German troops, but Nivelle nevertheless pressured Cadorna to plan an offensive to coincide with his own.  400,000 thousand Italians attacked half that number of Austrians and got within ten miles of Trieste before the inevitable counterattack drove them all the way back.  The result when the battle ended on 8 June was 157,000 Italian and 75,000 Austrian casualties and no gains.  Cadorna would try again.

Italian front

Luigi Cadorna

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Macedonian front the fighting died down with the end of Second Battle of Dorian on 9 May.  A small scale operation in Western Front terms, the battle began on 24 April with an attempt to take the city from the Bulgarians and failed, just like the First Battle of Dorian in August 1916, when four Allied divisions were repulsed by one (larger) Bulgarian with 3200 casualties, four times that of the enemy.  This time three British divisions (43,000 men) under General George Milne were smoked again by a single Bulgarian division (30,000 men) under General Vladimir Vazov, losing 12,000 men, six times as many as the Bulgarians.  There would of course be a Third Dorian.

Vladimir Vazov

George Milne

Macedonian Front

 

 

 

Other news from Greece: on 20 May the Serbian Government in exile moved from Corfu to Salonika, and more ominous, on 28 May an Anglo-French conference began in London to consider deposing King Constantine and occupying all of Greece.

Finally, there were a number of political and command developments.  On 10 May John “Black Jack” Pershing, fresh from chasing Pancho Villa across Mexico, was appointed Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, and eight days later the Compulsory Service Act – the draft – became law.  In a very different place, Russia, Alexander Kerensky, who had played a prominent role in the February Revolution, became on 16 May Minister of War for the Provisional Government, which two days later declared there would be no separate peace (as the Bolsheviks wanted).

The Kerensky War Ministry

Black Jack Pershing

And a dramatic forecast on 7 May: a single German plane – probably a Gotha G.IV – made the first night raid on London, anticipating the Blitz a quarter century later.

Gotha G.IV bomber

 

 

Report from the Fronts #28: April 1917

Spring came to the trenches for the third time, and that of course meant a new offensive from the Allies.  Planning began in December for a big push in April 1917, but by then events had clearly overtaken the generals.  The February Revolution had exploded, further undermining chances for a simultaneous offensive in the east, and the Germans had completed the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line on 5 April, eliminating the Noyon salient, whose flanks the offensive was supposed to attack.  More important, by April it was fairly certain that the United States would soon enter the war, and it hardly took a military genius to see the eminent sense in waiting for American forces to arrive in serious numbers.

Withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line

In fact, most of the generals on the front opposed the offensive for these reasons (though Haig did so because of his own plans for a push in Flanders), and both French and British politicians were facing growing heat over the slaughter of the Somme and Verdun the year before.  But the French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle, supported the offensive, proclaiming it would end the war in 48 hours, and he had the backing of the Prime Minister, Alexandre Ribot.  So, the big show would begin on 9 April with British attacks in the north, and the German capture of the French plans on 4 April did not dissuade the confident Nivelle.

Alexandre Ribot

General Robert Nivelle

Ready for the Big Show

Almost 400,000 British troops would attack around Arras, seeking to draw German forces away from Nivelle’s planned assault on the Aisne River, which of course the German command was now completely aware of.  The Canadian Corps of General Henry Horne’s First Army in the north would assault the Vimy Ridge, Edmund Allenby’s Third Army would attack east from Arras along the Scarpe River and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army in the south would strike towards Bullecourt, 14 divisions (plus 9 reserve) challenging 12 divisions (plus 5 reserve) of General Ludwig von Falkenhausen’s Sixth Army.

Henry Horne

Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby

Ludwig von Falkenhausen

Hubert Gough

Second Battle of Arras

The BEF had learned a few things since the disaster on the Somme.  One was the importance of counter-battery fire, taking out the enemy artillery, which was easily the biggest threat to advancing troops.  Coordinated aircraft reconnaissance and specialized counter-battery artillery units seemed the answer: despite heavy German opposition in the air eighty percent of enemy artillery was rendered ineffective the first day of the offensive.

British reconnaissance plane

Also important was the development of the creeping barrage, which had been employed before, but with frequent friendly-fire casualties because of the breakdown of timing.  Better ranging, rehearsals and careful calculation of barrel wear (which affected the flight of the shells) allowed the British to lay down a moving curtain of fire a hundred yards ahead of the advancing infantry, while new high sensitivity fuses set off the explosives before the shell buried itself in the ground, destroying the barbed wire rather than simply churning it up.  Tommies would still be killed by shells made in Liverpool but in far fewer numbers.

8″ shells with the instantaneous fuse

Creeping barrage map (First Battle of Passchendaele)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the usual long barrage, especially against the German positions on Vimy Ridge, the Second Battle of Arras kicked off on 9 April and went through eight phases before it officially ended on 17 May.  For those who care: the First Battle of the Scarpe (9-14 April); the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April); the First Battle of Bullecourt (10-11 April); the Battle of Lagnicourt (15 April); the Second Battle of the Scarpe (23-24 April); the Battle of Arleux (28-29 April); the Third Battle of the Scarpe (3-4 May); the Second Battle of Bullecourt (3-17 May).

In the south little headway was made against the German defenses around Bullecourt, but to the north the Canadians, enjoying the careful planning and preparations of their commander, General Julian Byng, captured Vimy Ridge by 12 April, but failed to take Vimy itself.

German POWs from Vimy Ridge

Julian Byng at Vimy Ridge

On Vimy Ridge

Following a tank at Vimy Ridge

The Vimy Ridge plan

The advance along the Scarpe River was phenomenal, at least initially, and the British set a new record for ground gained, nearly five miles, an almost unimaginable distance by West Front standards.  This, however, created a novel problem: miles of muddy cratered terrain and destroyed roads over which the reinforcements, guns and supplies had to be moved.  The Germans were able to stiffen their defenses even more, and the result was no breakthrough and a return to ineffective attacks and stalemate.

Arras after the battle

Dressing station east of Arras

East of Arras

 

In the end it was the same bloody story.  Vimy Ridge was an important tactical gain, but otherwise all that blown up terrain and destroyed villages cost the Commonwealth about 150,000 casualties.  The Germans of course suffered – perhaps 125,000 casualties – and the offensive did draw some troops from the defenses confronted by the French to the south,  but it would make no difference.

Siegfried Sassoon, another of the trench poets, penned a poem referring to the Battle of Arras but summing up Tommy’s attitude toward the whole damn war:

Siegfried Sassoon 1886-1967

 

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

 

 

 

The Second Battle of Arras involved a great deal of air combat, as the British sought to protect their artillery spotting reconnaissance aircraft from German fighters.  Unfortunately for the British, German pilots were better trained, flying better planes and using better tactics, and leading the fight was Jasta 11 under the command of Manfred von Richthofen, who had arrived in March.  The result was “Bloody April,” during which the average lifespan in the air for Royal Flying Corps pilots was 18 hours.

Jasta 11 Albatros D.IIIs; the second in line is Richthofen’s plane – all red

British anti-aircraft at Arras

The Red Baron

 

The main push of the Nivelle Offensive, the Second Battle of the Aisne, began on 16 April and was followed the next day by a much smaller offensive near Rheims, the Battle of the Hills (or Third Battle of Champaign).  In the Aisne offensive 53 divisions of the French Fifth, Sixth and Tenth Armies went up against 38 divisions of General Max von Boehm’s Seventh Army, seeking to capture the Chemin des Dames, a fifty mile long ridge running east to west just north of the Aisne River.  The “Hills” in the Battle of the Hills were the Moronvillier Hills, some ten miles east of Rheims, where the French Fourth Army sent 13 divisions against 17 divisions of General Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler’s Third Army.

Karl von Einem, genannt von Rothmaler

Max von Boehm

Second Battle of the Aisne

 

 

 

 

The Chemin des Dames, which had been quarried for centuries, was already a maze of tunnels when the Germans fortified the reverse slope, and while the French ended up controlling most of the ridge, it was costly.  When the Battle of the Hills came to a close on 20 April, the French had suffered over 21,000 casualties in three days and took 6000 German prisoners.  Overall the Nivelle Offensive, which ended in early May, cost the Allies as many as 350,000 casualties, compared to about 163,000 (and some 15-20,000 prisoners) for the Germans.  And there was no breakthrough.

The town of Soupir was in the way

Assault on the Chemin

Chemin des Dames front; note the German trench complex

 

 

Of far greater importance (to everyone but the dead) was the American declaration of war on Germany on 6 April, followed by Congress voting an initial half million troops on the 28th.  Within two weeks Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey had, unsurprisingly, broken diplomatic relations with the United States, and in the month of April Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala severed relations with Germany, followed in May by Liberia, Honduras and Nicaragua and by Santo Domingo and Haiti in June.  On 7 April Cuba and Panama actually declared war on Germany (United Fruit Company?).

Meanwhile, out in the boonies of the war the British decided on another go at Gaza, which in its four thousand year history had been fought over by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Arabs and French.  The Second Battle of Gaza began on 17 April with a frontal assault by three infantry and two mounted divisions and sundry other troops against the Turkish entrenchments, which stretched from Gaza to Beersheba.  General Kress von Kressenstein was ready, however, and the British called off the offensive two days later, having suffered some 6000 casualties, about four times as many as the Turks.  The British generals were sacked, paving the way for the arrival of Edmund Allenby from the Western Front.

Damaged British tank

Turkish machine gunners

Kress von Kressenstein

The Second Battle of Gaza

 

 

And in East Africa Colonel Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris were still dodging a quarter million Allied troops.

 

Report from the Fronts #26: February 1917

On 1 February Germany kept its word and resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, and two days later the United States severed diplomatic relations with the Second Reich.  And Washington had yet to see the Zimmermann telegram.  British intelligence did not want to reveal that they had the German code and also important, that they were intercepting American diplomatic traffic, which they continued to do for the next quarter century.  (Nothing new a century later.)  After many subterfuges were considered, they showed the telegram to a secretary in the American embassy in London, who passed it on to the ambassador, Walter Page, who met with Balfour on the 23rd.  Page sent it to Wilson, who released it to the press on 28 February.

U-14 a typical U-boat

U-14 a typical U-boat

Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare zone

Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare zone

Walter Page

Walter Page

How much impact the telegram had on Washington and American public opinion is hard to gauge.  It must certainly have had an effect on anti-German sentiment, but it appears that the submarine warfare was the key issue for the government.  Wilson had already cut diplomatic ties, and on 26 February he asked Congress to arm US merchant vessels.  There was plenty of anti-Mexican feeling, especially after Pancho Villa raided US territory, but innocent Americans dying in torpedoed ships was extremely compelling.  I suspect war would have soon come to America regardless of Arthur Zimmermann.

US Navy recruitment poster

US Navy recruitment poster

And it was all a waste of time.  Mexican President Venustiano Carranza (of the “Preconstitutional Government”; he became official President on 1 May) was too intelligent to even consider war against the United States, which would have little problem dealing with Mexico despite a commitment to the European war.  He could only have serious doubts about Germany’s promise of financial and material aid, and he could figure out that the his northern neighbor was not likely to cede any territory unless occupied by the Germans.

venustiano Carranza

Venustiano Carranza

Meanwhile, Germany began on 25 February to implement its new defensive strategy by beginning, in the Ancre sector, a gradual withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.  This line of improved fortifications – also known as the Siegfriedstellung – was begun in September, accompanied by the Hindenburg Program, designed to further mobilize the German armaments industry.  120,000 soldiers with the required skills were returned home, and 800,000 workers were exempted from the draft.  Meanwhile, the Reichswehr would sit on the defensive while the U-boats won the war.

Retirement to the Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Retirement to the Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

Hindenburg/Siegfried Line

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far to the east Commonwealth troops were retrieving the honor lost at Kut al-Amara a year earlier.  General Stanley Maude had set out from Basra with 50,000 troops in December and reached Kut on 22 February, having defeated minor Turkish forces in three battles while moving upriver in January.  The following day elements of the 82nd Punjabis crossed to the north bank west of Kut, outflanking the Turkish defenses.  Faced with encirclement and vastly outnumbered, Kâzim Karabekir Bey skillfully withdrew his 14,000 troops upriver on the 23rd, having suffered some 3000 casualties to the Indian 1000.  Maude would continue the advance to Baghdad.

British soldier aiding Turks

British soldier aiding Turks

A sepoy of the 82nd Punjabis

A sepoy of the 82nd Punjabis

General Stanley Maude

General Stanley Maude

Kâzım Karabekir Pasha

Kâzım Karabekir Bey

Kut 19717

Kut 19717

 

 

 

 

 

And on 14 February Britain proposed to Japan that it would recognize their claims to German possessions north of the equator if they supported British demands to the south.  The British government also promised the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

March would see far more momentous events.

 

And Speaking of Jutland…Remember 8 June 1967

USS Liberty

USS Liberty

On this day forty-nine years ago the American electronic surveillance vessel USS Liberty was monitoring signals traffic in international waters in the eastern Mediterranean, when she was attacked by Israeli fighters, which strafed, bombed and napalmed the Liberty, killing nine crewmen and wounding others.  Their munitions expended, the planes broke off the attack, and the Liberty radioed for help.  The nearby 6th Fleet twice scrambled fighters, but each time they were recalled within minutes, and about 30 minutes after that the Liberty was attacked by three Israeli torpedo boats, which almost sank the vessel with torpedo hits.  They then closed and strafed the vessel, including life rafts that were being launched.  According to the Israeli military, only then did they identify the ship as American and left the scene at 3:30, returning about an hour later to offer help, which the Liberty refused.  34 crewmen were dead and 174 wounded.

Accident

Accident

Accident

Accident

The Israelis immediately apologized for what they claimed was an accident, and this explanation was immediately accepted by President Lyndon Johnson, though many others in the government were appalled and believed the attack to have been deliberate.  Surviving Liberty crew were instructed never to talk about the incident under threat of court martial, and while many received decorations, all but one citation said nothing about the identity of the attacker.  Captain William McGonagle received the Medal of Honor, but rather than being awarded the decoration in the White House by the President, as is traditional, he received it from the Secretary of the Navy in an unpublicized ceremony at the Washington Naval Yard.

Capt. William McGonagle

Capt. William McGonagle

The Navy conducted by far the briefest investigation of a naval disaster in modern American history and despite immense evidence to the contrary concluded that the attack had been an accident.  A half century and much more evidence later it remains the official policy of both the Israeli and American governments that it was.

Not yet

Not yet

 

 

Dying for History: Khaled al-Asa’ad

Khaled al-Asa'ad Hero

                           Khaled al-Asa’ad
                                     Hero

The city of Palmyra is at least 4000 years old and has survived the Assyrians, the wars between Rome and the Persian Empire, the Arab conquest, the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols. Now it is being destroyed by a group of stateless barbarians, ostensibly in the name of their twisted god, but in fact as a public relations program. These buildings are part of the human heritage, and they simply cannot be replaced. That the ISIS scum have been staging mass executions in the theater at Palmyra is horrific enough, but once again, these treasures, these stone messages from worlds long gone are irreplaceable. They are far more worth dying for than a flag.

Palmyra  street

                    Palmyra street

Palmyra theater

                 Palmyra theater

Palmyra

                                    Palmyra

Such was seemingly the conclusion reached by Khaled al-Asa’ad, an archeologist specializing in Palmyra and custodian of the site for forty years before his retirement. When ISIS approached Palmyra/Tadmur in May, he refused all calls for him to flee, and in August he and his son and successor at the site, Walid, were detained by the dogs who call themselves Muslims. Even under torture this magnificent 81 year old man refused to reveal where some of the treasures of Palmyra had been hidden, and on August 18 he was publically beheaded and hung from a lamppost. What has happened to his son is as yet unknown, but thirteen other employees of the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums have been murdered.

Would I die to defend the Parthenon? I don’t know.

In May the ISIS infidels destroyed the tomb of Mohammed bin Ali, a descendant of the Prophet’s cousin, and the shrine of Nazir Abu Bahaeddine, a prominent 16th century sufi. In June they destroyed the two millennia old Lion of Al-Lat, which had been reconstructed and placed before the Palmyra Museum, and in August they blew up the Temple of Baalshamin, which dated back to the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Never before have I wanted a group of people to suffer in ways rejected by a truly civilized society. Such brings me down to their level, but I don’t care. There is a difference: they all have blood on their hands and I do not. If I could believe in the existence of evil, ISIS would be it.

Pure evil at work

Pure evil at work

The Lion of Al-Lat

              The Lion of Al-Lat

Temple of Baalshamin

           Temple of Baalshamin

And the world does nothing. The United States was at the very least midwife to the birth of this monstrosity, but with no taste for yet another war can do little but hurl death from the heavens and squander even more money on Baghdad, trapped by the now obsolete notion that Iraq is in fact a state. My country would better serve the world by aiding the millions of refugees created by the assault on Saddam’s Iraq. The countries most threatened by the plague of ISIS – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – are willing to do very little, disinclined to fight fellow Sunnis, no matter how disgusting, and thus aid Iran or in the case of Turkey more interested in blowing up Kurds. Perhaps if the ISIS terrorists attacked Mecca…

Meanwhile, Khaled al-Asa’ad is dead, sacrificing himself defending the beautiful city to which he had dedicated his life. After a lifetime in academe I cannot say that I have encountered many scholar-heroes.