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.

 

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

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

 

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

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Emperor Franz Jospeh

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Kaiser Wilhelm II

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

French PM Rene Viviani

French PM Rene Viviani

British PM Herbert Asquith

British PM Herbert Asquith

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

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

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

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

Sir John French

Sir John French

Joseph Joffre

Joseph Joffre

Western Front 1915

Western Front 1915

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

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

Christmas Truce

Christmas Truce

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

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

Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

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

Ypres

Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

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

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

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

French trench

French trench

French trench

French trench

British trench 1916

British trench

German trench

German trench

British-German Trench Lines

British-German Trench Lines

 

Gas attack

Gas attack

Gassed British trench

Gassed British trench

Australians in gas masks

Australians in gas masks

 

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

Wintgens' Fokker E.I.

Wintgens’ Fokker E.I.

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker