Report from the Fronts #47: July 1918

Spring Offensive

July saw the last real offensive of the Imperial German Army in the west. Ludendorff wanted one more shot at drawing British troops in Flanders south in order to launch his Belgian offensive (Operation Hagen), though the previous operations had failed to do that.  On 15 July Operation Friedensturm (or the Second Battle of the Marne) began: 40 divisions of the First, Third and Seventh Armies were launched southwards to the east and west of Reims, which was too strongly fortified to assault.

The offensive ran into trouble even before it got started.  From prisoners and air reconnaissance the French leaned – like the Italians at the Piave – when and where the blows would fall and shelled the enemy troops in their assault trenches.  They had also learned from the Germans over the years, and east of Reims Fourth Army commander Henri Gouraud had prepared a serious defense in depth, the main trench line located several miles behind the forward strong points, beyond the range of the German guns.  Most of the French guns were behind the main line on reverse slopes, where they could only be spotted from the air, which was dominated by the Allies, and the initial German barrage did very little damage.

Henri Gouraud

Reaching the main line, the Germans were compelled to delay the assault in order to regroup and rest and bring up their own guns.  When they attacked the next morning, the undamaged French artillery tore them apart, as it did a second assault at noon.  A French counterattack later that same day, though failing to achieve a breakthrough, nevertheless made it clear to the Germans that this push was not likely to succeed.  They dug in.

The western arm of the offensive did better against the French Sixth Army, despite the barrier of the Marne River.  While German guns pounded the south bank for three hours, German troops swarmed across the river on rafts and boats and began constructing a dozen minimalist bridges under a rain of bombs (40 tons) from the French air force, demonstrating the relative ineffectiveness of aerial bombing.  By nightfall the Germans had established a substantial beachhead on the southern bank, and Ludendorff was delighted.

But not for long.  For all the usual reasons, now exacerbated by growing supply problems (especially food and gasoline) caused by the Allied blockade, the attack quickly began to falter.  On 18 July Ferdinand Foch, now Supreme Commander, launched a major counterattack (actually an already planned offensive against the now expanded German salient) comprising 24 French divisions, 2 British, 2 American and almost 500 tanks.  This was the Battle of Soissons, and on July 20 the Germans were forced back across the Marne, and Château-Thierry was retaken the next day.  By 6 August the Allies had retaken virtually all the salient and pushed the German line back to the Aisne-Vesle River line.

counterattack

Incidentally, during the battle an Austrian dispatch runner in a Bavarian regiment was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class on 4 August, a rare decoration for an a lance corporal.  His name was Adolf Hitler.

Gefreiter (lance corporal) Adolf Hitler

Hitler, seated far right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spring Offensive had failed, and though it would take the Germans (or at least their military leaders) another three months to accept it, Germany had clearly lost the war.  While the offensive had obtained huge chunks (by Great War standards) of real estate, there had been no strategic breakthrough, neither in Flanders nor in the south.  The successes did little more than eliminate large numbers of the irreplaceable specialized assault troops and exacerbate the growing manpower problem by dramatically lengthening the German lines.  By the middle of July German rifle strength on the Western Front had finally fallen below that of the Allies, and the Americans were pouring in.  Ludendorff could hardly have failed to think of the million men he had left in the east; as he was being forced to withdraw on the Western Front, German soldiers were advancing in the Caucasus, more than two thousand miles to the east.

In the former Russian Empire things did not look promising for the Bolsheviks.  On 13 July the Czechs (remember the Czech Legion? – see Reports #44 and #45) took Irkutsk in Siberia and the next day Kazan in eastern Russia; they already controlled Vladivostok.  Probably the best military force in central Asia, the Czechs were generally successful against the fledgling Red Army and not ony encouraged various anti-Bolshevik groups but finally convinced President Wilson, already under Allied pressure, to send American troops to Vladivostok.  The Legion’s impressive successes also helped pump up Allied enthusiasm for the creation of a Czechoslovak state.

Russia in 1918

The Czech Legion also played an inadvertent role in the fate of the Romanov dynasty.  The immediate royal family had since May been imprisoned in Ipatiev House (renamed the House of Special Purpose) in Yekaterinburg, which the Czechs and other Whites were approaching in early July.  Lenin and others had discussed execution, but Lenin wanted to put Nicholas on trial first.  With the enemy driving on Yekaterinburg local Soviet officials dispatched an emissary to Moscow, but there is no hard evidence that an official reply was ever sent, and the local commander, Yakov Yurovsky, determined to carry out an order for execution from the Ural Regional Soviet.

Yakov Yurovsky

Ipatiev House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early morning of 17 July Nicholas, Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, the heir, Alexei, and four attendants, a maid, cook, footman and doctor, were hustled into a 20 x 16 foot basement room, where they were told to wait for transportation out of the town. A bit later Yurovsky and nine others, mostly local Chekists (secret police), entered, read the death sentence and began blasting away with handguns, each having been assigned a target.  The whole business immediately turned into a macabre farce, emblematic of much Soviet police work for the next three decades.

Ivan Kharitonov, cook

Ama Demidova, maid

Eugene Botkin, doctor

Alexei Trupp, footman

The Romanov family

Nicholas was promptly killed, inasmuch as all the assassins, despite their assigned targets, apparently wanted to kill the Czar, and Alexandra went next with a single bullet to the head. Then complete chaos broke out as the shooters filled the room with bullets, and within minutes dust and smoke (one of the guns used black powder) made it impossible to see.  Yurosky ordered the firing stopped, the smoke was allowed to clear, and the executioners then discovered that all five children were still alive, only one of them even injured.

The execution chamber

The Bolshevik Keystone Cops then switched to bayonets, since the fusillade had awakened many of Ipatiev House’s neighbors, and this was supposedly a secret operation. But because of the ineptness (and in some cases drunkenness) of the men and the immense quantity of jewels sewn into the family’s clothing (18 pounds were recovered), bayonets were far from satisfactory, and shooting resumed, this time more effectively to the head.  Some twenty minutes after the shooting had first begun, the royal family and the retainers were finally dead.  Only Alexei’s dog, Joy, survived, to be rescued by a British officer.

The black comedy of errors then continued as Yurovsky made to dispose of the bodies. At the first site, an abandoned mine pit, the waiting hired help were all drunk and angry that they had no chance to rape the women, and once the bodies were put in the shaft, it was found to be too shallow.  The next morning the corpses were loaded on a truck and the following day driven to a second site, but the truck got stuck in the mud, and an exasperated Yurovsky had his men dig a shallow grave, into which nine of the bodies were dumped after being mutilated to disguise them.  Alexei and a sister were burned and their smashed bones buried a short distance away.

Where the truck got stuck and the bodies buried

The Soviet government could not under any circumstances allow Nicholas or his son to fall into the hands of the Whites, and even losing control of the Romanov women was politically dangerous. But the poor planning and ineptitude of the Bolsheviks, combined with their seemingly innate cruelty, turned a pressing political question into a massacre of innocents, emphasized by the slaughter of 14 more Romanovs and 13 retainers in the next three months.  Lenin allowed the public announcement of Nicholas’ execution, but the murder of the rest was denied until 1926, when it was blamed on others.  Poetically perhaps, three of the assassins were later shot by the Cheka’s successor, the NKVD.

In less dramatic news from the former Russian Empire, on 26 July most of the French Expeditionary Force arrived at Murmansk, joining the British forces already there. On the same day, far to the south in Azerbaijan, the Bolshevik government in Baku was overthrown by a coalition of other Russian groups and replaced with the Central Caspian Dictatorship, which would survive until September.

Remember Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris, dodging and fighting a quarter million Allied troops in East Africa? Pursued by large formations of the King’s African Rifles and hard pressed for ammunition, on 1 July he attacked a superior force defending Namaccura in southern Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and captured a huge amount of ammunition, rifles, food and liquor.  He allowed his men a day to attack the liquor: “The risk of a wholesale ‘jollification’…was gladly taken.”

Askaris on the march

Lettow-Vorbeck

East African campaign

Fully equipped, Lettow-Vorbeck was now in a position to cross the Zambesi River and invade Rhodesia, but he knew that was what his pursuers expected and instead moved northeast toward them. The Allied troops lost complete track of him for two weeks, during which time he crossed the Namirrue River and turned west and then north, passing right through the enemy columns.  By the end of July his force was back in German East Africa, having once again eluded immensely superior forces.

In other news, on 6 July Italian and French troops began an offensive north in Albania and seized Berat four days later; on the 22nd the offensive ground to a halt.  Meanwhile, more pocket states were jumping on the bandwagon: on 12 July Haiti declared war on Germany, followed by Honduras a week later.  On 3 July the figurehead Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire died and was succeeded the next day by the equally powerless Mehmed VI, who reigned until 1 November 1922, when the Sultanate was abolished and the last Sultan sent into exile.

Mehmet V

Mehmed VI

Mehmed VI leaving the palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, an irony: on 17 July the German submarine U-55 sank the RMS Carpathia, the vessel that had rescued the bulk of the survivers of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

U-55

RMS Carpathia

Carpathia going down

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Report from the Fronts #44: April 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Michael ended on 5 April, and while it did not achieve all its objectives, Ludendorff nevertheless believed that by sucking Allied troops south to defend Amiens it had opened the way to the Channel ports – and the British supply lines – through Hazebrouck.  He consequently launched Operation Georgette (also known as the Battle of the Lys), pitting the Fourth Army under Sixt von Armin and the Sixth Army under Ferdinand von Quast against the British First and Second Armies.

Herbert Plumer

Henry Horne

Sixt von Armin

Ferdinand von Quast

Georgette

Henry Horne’s First Army was the initial target when the offensive kicked on 9 April and was an excellent choice.  It had become something of a rest home for exhausted and depleted divisions, and as it happened, the main attack was against a seven mile front held by a single division of the understrength Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (the other had been withdrawn three days earlier in order to be replaced).  The 20,000 Portuguese resisted but were overwhelmed by the 100,000 men of eight German divisions, while the British division immediately to their north also crumpled, creating a serious gap in the line.

Portuguese troops

Portuguese prisoners

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next day the Germans also assaulted Herbert Plumer’s Second Army to the north and forced the British to abandon Armentières (as in “Mademoiselle from Armentières, Parley-vous). By the 11th the Germans had crossed the Lys River, and Haig proclaimed to his troops: “With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.”  (One wonders if this obligation applied to the general himself.)  On the 14th the British abandoned the Passchendaele Salient in order to shorten their line, giving up the territory, bought with so much blood the year before, east of Ypres.

The Butcher of the Somme (and other rivers)

German prisoners

British gas casualties

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Germans continued to advance, but slowed by the usual supply and flank problems they were stopped just short of Hazebrouck on 29 April and Ludendorff halted the operation.  The forward German units were just 15 miles from the Channel ports, but now occupied a salient that was being pounded on three sides. Georgette had cost each side about 110,000 casualties.

British defending Hazebrouck

The Germans were certainly doing better in the east, where their victorious forces faced little serious opposition. On 3 April the German Expeditionary Force landed in Finland in order to help the Whites in the Finish Civil War, while in southern Russia Ekaterinoslav was captured the same day.  Kharkov fell on the 8th, and German troops pushed into the Crimea on the 19th.  (Four days later Guatemala declared war on Germany – perhaps the United Fruit Company had interests in western Russia.)  On 29 April a coup led by Pavlo Skoropadskyi and supported by the Germans overthrew the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and Skoropadskyi became Hetman of the Ukraine – at least for a while.

Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi

The Turks, meanwhile, were picking up their slices: on 5 April Van in Armenia was retaken and Batum and Kars in Georgia were occupied on the 15th and 27th.  More ominous for the Bolshevik government, on 5 April British and Japanese troops occupied Vladivostok on the Pacific coast of the old Empire.  Others would follow, as the Civil War tuned all the Russias into an abattoir.

Vladivostok in 1898

Then there was the Czechoslovak Legion. At the beginning of the war the Russians had recruited Czechs and Slovaks to fight against the Austrians, which they did with great enthusiasm, and they participated with distinction in the Kerensky Offensive in 1917.  By the beginning of 1918 the Legion numbered 40,000 troops, the war in the east was over and the men wanted to fight on the Western Front.  But how to get there with Germany in between and most Russian ports in the west blockaded?

Tomáš Masaryk, chair of the Czechoslovak National Council (and future President of Czechoslovakia), decided to go the other way, to travel the 6000 miles to Vladivostok and board transports to the west. In February the Bolsheviks granted permission for the trip, but first the Legion had to fight the Germans in the Ukraine in order to escape to Russia proper, which they did in March.  By the end of the month, however, mutual suspicion and distrust and the Legion’s understandable refusal to give up their arms was clearly heading to a conflict.

A Legion armored train

The Trans-Siberian Railway

Tomáš Masaryk (1925)

This month also saw the emergence of one of the most ephemeral states in history, the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. The evacuation of Russian troops from the Caucasus confirmed the end of Czarist rule, and while a Transcaucasian delegation from Tbilisi in Georgia signed on to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Caucasus wanted complete independence.  On 22 April the Republic was declared, uniting Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan into a single state, which immediately reopened the war with Turkey.  No one with the slightest knowledge of the Caucasus could have believed this bizarre entity would last very long.

Note the three languages

Banknote of the TDFR

The neighborhood of the TDFR

In miscellaneous news from April, on the 1st the British Royal Air Force was created from the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Services, and on the 10th Parliament passed the Third Military Service Act, which imposed conscription on Ireland and raised the age limit to 50.  Clearly, the British were getting desperate.  But not as desperate as the Bolsheviks, who introduced conscription on 22 April – in the developing Civil War their lives depended on it.

On 23 April the Royal Navy engaged in a memorable action of high drama but little effect. For years German submarines and torpedo boats based in Bruges on the Belgium coast had been raiding Allied traffic in the Channel, but Bruges was some eight miles inland, connected to the sea by canals to Ostend and Zeebrugge. The British consequently decided to sink block ships at the entrances to the canals, two at Ostend and three at Zeebrugge, where the viaduct joining the Zeebrugge mole to the mainland would also be destroyed.

The Bruges canals

Zeebruggge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The operation at Ostend was a complete failure, but at Zeebrugge two of the block ships were sunk in the narrowest point of the entrance to the canal while the old cruiser Vindictive landed marines on the mole as a diversion.  The viaduct was destroyed by an old submarine loaded with explosives, but the occupation of the mole was a disaster.  A change in wind blew away the smoke cover, and German shore batteries forced the troops to be landed at the wrong place, where they suffered heavy casualties: 227 British dead and 356 wounded to the German 8 and 16.

The block ships

In the end German naval activity out of Bruges was hardly hindered; most of the boats could use the Ostend canal and a passage was dredged around the block ships at Zeebrugge. On the other hand, the Zeebrugge raid, despite its ultimate failure, was nevertheless heroic, earning eight Victoria Crosses, and the British war propaganda machine made the raid an Allied victory.  And the memory endured: at a military tattoo in London in 1977 I saw the assault on the Zeebrugge mole reenacted.

The Vindictive at the mole

The Vindictive back home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, an event with little drama and little effect. On 10 April (or sometime in June; it is not clear) a German submarine shelled Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, the African state established by emancipated American slaves.  Liberia had declared war on 4 August 1917 and subsequently confiscated German property and sent a tiny contingent of troops to France.  In consequence the Germans decided to lob a few shells at Monrovia’s radio station.  Take that America.

Daniel Howard 16th president of Liberia

Oh, on 28 April Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist assassin who started all the madness by shooting the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo four years earlier, died in prison of skeletal tuberculosis.

Gavrilo Princip

Princip’s cell