(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.

 

Report from the Fronts #25: January 1917

Because of the weather there was little action in the west in January, though planning for the spring offensive was underway.  On the first day of the year Douglas Haig, the “Butcher of the Somme,” was promoted to Field Marshal, the highest rank in the British Army, but this was certainly no reflection of his military talents.  Nicholas II had been made a British Field Marshal exactly one year earlier, and Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph had been honored with the title in 1901 and 1903.

Field Marshal Wilhelm

Field Marshal Wilhelm

Field Marshal Franz Jospeh

Field Marshal Franz Joseph

Field Marshal Haig

Field Marshal Haig

Field Marshal Nicholas

Field Marshal Nicholas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Far and away the most important missive of January was the so-called Zimmermann telegram.  On 16 January the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt, routing it through the hands of the ambassador in Washington, who forwarded it to Eckhardt on 19 January.  Unfortunately for the Germans (and unknown to the Americans; some things never change), all the cable traffic passing through the relay station at Land’s End in Britain (the German transatlantic cables had been cut at the beginning of the war) was being monitored, and a copy was passed to the Admiralty intelligence section, quaintly named Room 40, for decoding.

Heinrich von Eckardt

Heinrich von Eckardt

Arthur Zimmermann

Arthur Zimmermann

 

 

 

The decrypted message was a bombshell:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace.”

British translation

British translation

Coded telegram

Coded telegram

Partially decoded telegram

Partially decoded telegram

 

The Germans had decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, suspended in September 1915, regardless of the danger of drawing America into the war.  While the Central Powers were being slowly strangled by the British blockade, the Entente had access to armaments and more important, food from the United States.  Ludendorff uncritically accepted the contention of the Navy, which strongly advocated the resumption of unrestricted warfare, that there were no effective countermeasures to submarine warfare and concluded that the time was ripe to strike.  Ironically, it was the Kaiser who raised doubts, advised by a close friend who was familiar with America and understood the potential power of the country.  He was ignored by Ludendorff.

The Russian military was rapidly collapsing and Romania had been virtually eliminated, freeing large numbers of troops for transfer to the west.  Further, the United States was in the midst of an undeclared conflict with Mexico, which it had invaded in 1914, and there were currently American troops still in the country.  Ludendorff believed that unlimited submarine warfare in the Atlantic could bring Britain to its knees before the Americans could mobilize sufficiently to have an impact on the war, especially if Mexico could be persuaded to attack them.  This would prove to be a disastrous miscalculation and would doom Germany to defeat.

On 31 January Germany announced that the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare would begin the next day.  Washington was of course not amused, but was, however, still unaware of the Zimmermann telegram and would not receive it from the British until 19 February.

Meanwhile, in the east Romanian towns were still falling to the Germans, and on 6 January the last Romanian and Russian troops were driven out of the Dobruja.  I have not been tracking Russian ministers, but January presents an excellent example of the chaos descending on St. Petersburg: in that single month the Prime Minister, Alexander Trepov, the War Minister, Dmitry Shuvalev, and the Foreign Minister, Nikolai Pokrovsky, resigned or were sacked.  In the period from September 1915 to February 1917 – the “Czarina’s Rule” – Russia had four Prime Ministers, three Foreign Ministers, three War Ministers, five Interior Ministers, two Transport Ministers, and four Agricultural Ministers.  This was no way to run a country during wartime.

Nikolai Pokrovsky

Nikolai Pokrovsky

Alexander Trepov

Alexander Trepov

Dmitry Shuvalev

Dmitry Shuvalev

The British were doing better.  The Sinai military railroad reached El Arish on 4 January (the all-important water pipeline would arrive on 5 February), making possible an assault on Rafa, the last major Turkish garrison in Sinai (there were still a handful of Turks and armed Bedouins at Nekhl and Bir el Hassana). It was seized on 9 January, making way for an invasion of Palestine.  Meanwhile, Commonwealth and Turkish aircraft spent the month merrily bombing each other; horses were a favorite and easy target.

Turkish POWs on the road to El Arish

Turkish POWs on the road to El Arish

British firing line at Rafa

British firing line at Rafa

Northern Sinai

Northern Sinai

Sinai-Palestine frontier - boundary pillars

Sinai-Palestine frontier – boundary pillars

Battle of Rafa

Battle of Rafa

 

Finally, the Arab revolt was picking up steam and becoming a serious annoyance to the Turks.  T.E. Lawrence had convinced the leaders of the revolt in the Hejaz, two of Hussein’s sons, Faisal (future king of Iraq) and Abdullah (future king of Jordan) to coordinate with the British and to attack the Hejaz railway instead of Medina.  Not only was Medina a tough nut to crack, but defending and repairing the rail line, utterly vital to the Turkish position in the Hejaz, would tie up far more Ottoman troops.   Arab guerilla and Allied air attacks were already having an impact, forcing the Hejaz commander, Fakhri Pasha, to abandon his attempt to reach Mecca and return to Medina on 18 January.

Fakhri Pasha

Fakhri Pasha

Faisal

Faisal

Abdullah

Abdullah

 

 

Since July 1916 the Arabs had controlled the port of Yenbo, west of Medina, but needed a base further north.  The choice was Wejh, halfway up the coast from Yenbo to Aqaba, and on 3 January Faisal began moving up the coast with a force of 5300 foot and 5100 camel cavalry, supplied by the royal Navy.  They turned out to be unnecessary.  400 Arabs and 200 Royal Navy personnel were landed north of Wejh and surprising the Ottoman garrison, easily took the town on 24 January.

The Arabs were ready for serious business.  They now had 70,000 men in the field, though many were still poorly armed; Faisal was based at Wejh, Abdullah at Wadi Ais north of Medina and Ali, the third brother, near Medina.  The Regular Arab Army, formed in 1916, were full-time conventional troops and wore uniforms (British style of course, which is why the present day armies of the Middle East look British), while the more familiar (because of the movie) and romantic Bedouin raiders were essential guerilla forces.  They were difficult to command and fought when it suited them, but a raiding party on camels could cover a thousand miles with no support and suddenly appear from out of nowhere, which is to say, the desert.  Colonel Lawrence (among others) knew how to use these forces, especially against the railway.

The Hejaz railway

The Hejaz railway

Bedouin raiders - Lawrence on the dark camel

Bedouin raiders – Lawrence on the dark camel

The Regular Arab Army

The Regular Arab Army

Ali

Ali

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hejaz campaign a century later

The Hejaz campaign a century later

More remains

More remains

Take that,Turks!

Take that,Turks!

Report from the Fronts #24: December 1916

 

December 1916 began with Greece, the reluctant non-ally, on the verge of civil war.  Despite the presence of Allied forces in the Piraeus, on 1 December the government in Athens refused to accede to the Allied demands to expel ministers of the Central Powers and turn over war material (19 November).  A fire fight broke out between the French troops and the Greeks, including an exchange between Greek artillery and Allied warships, and outnumbered and short of supplies, the Allied troops were withdrawn the same day.  Five days later there was a massacre of Venizelos supporters in Athens.  On 8 December Allied naval elements began a blockade of Greece, at least those parts still controlled by Athens.

The French battleship Mirabeau bombarding Athens

The French battleship Mirabeau bombarding Athens

French troops at Athens

French troops at Athens

More French in Athens

More French in Athens

French vice-admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet,commander of the Athens expeditiion

French vice-admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet,commander of the Athens expedition

On 11 December the Allies, once again with no legal basis, demanded that Greece demobilize and three days later that Greek military units loyal to Athens be withdrawn from Thessaly, the area to the southwest of Salonika.  The next day Athens accepted the ultimatum but two days later issued an arrest warrant for Venizelos on grounds of high treason, an understandable move.  Britain responded on 19 December by recognizing the Venizelos opposition government, and there was little Athens could do about it.  As Thucydides said: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

But peace was in the air, at least among the Central Powers, who were apparently starting to feel the effects of the British blockade and the huge losses in France and Italy.  On 12 December the governments of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Turkey handed notes to their respective American ambassadors that they were prepared to open negotiations with the Allies.  On the 18th President Wilson responded by sending notes to the Allies proposing peace negotiations, which the Central Powers accepted and the Entente declared they would consider.  Consider it they did, and on 30 December they rejected the proposal, condemning Europe to two more years of war.

On the British front the Liberal/Conservative coalition government of Herbert Asquith fell on 4 December, a victim of military disappointments and casualties, sundry domestic crises and Parliamentary politics.  Two days later his War Minister and fellow Liberal, the colorful Welshman David Lloyd George, became Prime Minister, where he would remain until the end of the war.  Many now consider Asquith the most important Prime Minister of the 20th century, insofar as he was able to implement national mobilization and take a united Britain into the war.  He was the last Liberal Prime Minister to govern, at least initially, without a coalition; the Liberal Party was giving way to Labor as the party of left and was dissolved in 1988 after a 129 year run.

David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George

Herbert Asquith

Herbert Asquith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 13 December operations began for as second assault on Kut in Mesopotamia, and 48 hours later Britain restyled the Sharif of Mecca as “King of the Hejaz” in place of “King of the Arabs.”  Ah, perfidious Albion.  On 21 December Commonwealth forces occupied El Arish, about 30 miles from Gaza, and the door was now open for the invasion of Palestine.

El Arish

El Arish

In miscellaneous news on 6 December Bucharest was captured by the Germans, completing the virtual ruin of Romania.  There was no actual capitulation, but more than two-thirds of the county was now occupied by the enemy and the army had almost vanished.  The Romanian government had clearly made a dreadful mistake in going to war and in less than four months had lost their country and suffered 300,000 to 400,000 military casualties to the Germans’ 60,000.  On the other hand, if the Allies won the war, Romania could expect territorial additions.

In France Robert Nivelle, fresh from his successes at Verdun, replaced Joffre on 12 December as Commander-in-Chief, just in time to face the mutinies of 1917.  Joffre was made “General-in-Chief,” an office he soon discovered provided him with little real power.  On the 26th he was made a Marshal of France, which may have taken some of the sting out of being demoted.

General Robert Nivelle

General Robert Nivelle

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, Russia.  On 2 December the government announced that the Allies had confirmed Russia’s right to Constantinople and the Straights, and about a week later the Murmansk railroad was completed, making it much easier for the Allies to supply the under-industrialized country.  None of this mattered, though, since the Russian armies were crumbling, and the smell of revolution was definitely in the air.

Nor did the most famous event of December 1916 matter: the assassination of Grigori Rasputin.  In the course of 1916 the grip of the alleged monk on the Czar and Czarina had been steadily growing, fueling popular dissent against the incompetent Nicholas, who was believed to be controlled by his wife (he was), who in turn was controlled by Rasputin (she was).  The fact that Alexandra was German (a daughter of Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria) certainly did not help.

Rasputin entertaining

Rasputin preparing to entertain (everyone is still sober and dressed)

Rasputin with Alexandra and the children

Rasputin with Alexandra and the children

Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

The future Alexandra (lower right) with her siblings and grandmother Victoria

The future Alexandra (lower right) with her siblings and grandmother Victoria

Grigori Rasputin

Grigori Rasputin

 

A conspiracy led by Prince Felix Yusupov, nephew-in-law of the Czar, was formed to eliminate Rasputin; other prominent members were Vladimir Purishkevich, a popular right-wing politician, and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.  Cultivated for weeks by the Prince, Rasputin was invited to a midnight gathering in a furnished basement room in the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg, lured on by the promise of women, especially Yusupov’s wife, who in fact was in the Crimea.

Grand Duke Pavlovich

Grand Duke Pavlovich (1930s)

Prince Yusupov

Prince Yusupov

Vladimir Puriskevich

Vladimir Purishkevich

Basement room at Yusupov Palace

Basement room at Yusupov Palace

 

 

 

 

 

Since the murder immediately moved into the realm of legend, the story confused by conflicting accounts by the participants, it is impossible to know exactly what happened the night of 29/30 December (16/17 by the Russian calendar).  Once there Rasputin was supposedly fed pastries loaded with potassium cyanide, since shots might have been heard, but there are problems with this story, the main ones being that Rasputin did not die and the autopsy found no cyanide (the autopsy report is missing).  It has been suggested that the poison may have been ineffective because the monk’s stomach acidity was not high enough to alter the potassium cyanide into its deadly form, hydrogen cyanide, but in fact Rasputin seems to have been troubled by stomach acidity.

In any case, poison or no poison, Yusupov shot Rasputin in the chest and he fell to the floor, only to open his eyes a while later and run up the stairs and into a courtyard.  There he was shot in the back by Purishkevich and fell into the snow, and one of the two then put a bullet in his forehead.  They wrapped the body in a cloth, drove to the Malaya Nevka River and threw the corpse off the Bolshoy Petrovsky bridge into a hole in the ice.  According to the lost autopsy report, he was already dead from the bullet to the head.  Because of clues left behind (the assassins were hardly professionals), the body was found two days later, and early in January Yusupov and Pavlovich were sent into exile without investigation or trial; no others were punished.

...into the morgue

…into the morgue

Off the bridge...

Off the bridge…

 

...out of the water...

…out of the water…

 

 

The corrupt monk was gone; Alexandra and Nicholas would soon follow.200px-rasputin_listovka

 

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #23: November 1916

The big news of November, certainly for British troops, was the end of the Somme Offensive.  On 11 November the Battle of Ancre Heights, begun on 1 October, came to end, and two days later the Battle of Ancre began, supposedly to take advantage of German exhaustion from the previous fight.  In fact Haig also wanted a success to counter criticism of the whole campaign and to improve the British position at an upcoming Allied conference.  He was also under pressure to prevent German troops from being sent east, though it is hard to see how this small scale operation (12 British against 4 German divisions) could make any difference to the Russians and Romanians.

German prisoners at Ancre

German prisoners at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

British cavalry at Ancre

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of Ancre came to an end on 18 November.  Five days of fighting had left the British with about 20,000 casualties and the Germans with some 45,000 (for the period 1-18 November), which was considered by some officers to be a victory.  The troops involved in the fighting were apparently not polled on this question.  With the winter snows beginning Ancre became the last push of the Somme Offensive, which in four and a half months of combat had moved the front eastward some four miles..

The cost for these gains was staggering.  Figures are still being disputed a century later, but Commonwealth casualties were about 420,000, French around 200,000 and   German losses anywhere from 450,000 to 550,000.  The traditional view has been that the Somme was an unmitigated disaster – German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher: “Somme, the whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word” –  but some argue that the Allies had no other strategic option in 1916 and needed to do something to relieve pressure on the Russians.  There is indeed evidence that the German army was seriously weakened and demoralized by the Somme, but it nevertheless still took another two years to collapse.

Meanwhile, the Italian version of the Somme went on.  On 1 November General Cadorna launched the Ninth Battle of the Isonzo, attempting again to enlarge the Gorizia bridgehead with his exhausted troops.  It ended on 4 November with minimal gains and 39,000 Italian and 33,000 Austrian casualties.  The Italians were suffering, but Austrian manpower problems were even greater, and German units were desperately needed.  For the moment, however, the front shut down for the winter, to the delight of troops on both sides of the line, I expect.

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Over the top at Isonzo Nine

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

On the Macedonian Front the Allies were more successful.  In response to the Bulgarian offensive into eastern Macedonia in August the Allies counterattacked in September and by November were into Serbia, capturing Monastir on the 19th.  On the same day the Allies demanded that the Royalist government in Athens expel ministers of the Central Powers and turn over all war material.  Athens refused, and on 23 November the Venizelos government in Salonika declared war on Germany and Bulgaria.  On 30 November Allied troops landed at the Piraeus, the port of Athens.  Greece was on the edge of civil war.

King Constantine

King Constantine

Eleftherios Venizelos

Eleftherios Venizelos

French troops at Athens

French troops at Athens

 

 

 

 

 

Romania, meanwhile, was in serious trouble.  On 1 November the German Ninth Army under former Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn moved southeast out of the southern Carpathians.  The exhausted Romanians could not resist the 80,000 troops and 30,000 horses, and German cavalry was in Craiova on 21 November, pushing the Romanians east towards Bucharest.  Another part of Falkenhayn’s army assaulted the Vulcan Pass on 10 November, and by the 26th they were in the Romanian plain.  (An up and coming young officer participating in the Battle of Vulcan Pass was Erwin Rommel.)  On 23 November Mackensen, having essentially finished with the Dobruja, sent troops north across the Danube towards Bucharest.  It did not look good for Romania.

King Ferdinand and his troops

King Ferdinand and his troops

Romanian artillery

Romanian artillery

Romanian front

Romanian front

In miscellaneous news, on 4 November Sharif Hussein of Mecca was crowned King of the Arabs (the Saudis would have something to say about that), and on the 15th the British finally began moving across Sinai.  Germany and Austria proclaimed on 5 November the establishment of an independent Polish state, which I expect most Poles greeted with skepticism, and Woodrow Wilson was reelected President of the United States.  And Beatty replaced Jellicoe as the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet on 29 November.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Hussein ibn Ali  King of the Arabs

Hussein ibn Ali
King of the Arabs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A more momentous event was the death from pneumonia on 21 November of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia.  Politically and militarily the death of the 86 year old ruler meant little, especially inasmuch as the Austrian war effort was increasingly controlled by the Germans.  But Franz Joseph was nevertheless a monumental figure; he had ascended the throne in 1848 and at 68 years was the third longest reigning monarch in European history (Louis XIV of France 72 years; Johann II of Liechtenstein 71 years).  More than his fellow monarchs he symbolized the old Europe that, like his Empire, was being destroyed by the Great War.

Franz Joseph I 1851

Franz Joseph I
1851

Franz Joseph's tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph’s tomb in the Vienna crypts

Franz Joseph I 1910

Franz Joseph I
1910

 

 

.

Report from the Fronts #21: October 1916

October kicked off with two new offensives on the Somme.  The Battle of the Transloy Ridges (off the center part of the British area of operations) began on 1 October and proceeded intermittently until the 17th, when lack of progress and foul weather caused Haig to move to far more limited assaults.  The offensive would drag on into November, gaining a couple of miles of turf.  As would the separate offensive begun by Haig on 1 October in the northern area of the British sector, the Battle of the Ancre Heights, which sought to pick up where Thiepval Ridge left off and ultimately gain control the Péronne- Baupame road.  The autumn rains, incidentally, produced what was considered the worst mud of the Western Front, a vile yellow mix that stuck to everything; men and animals actually drowned in mud-filled shell craters.

Fighting General Mud

Fighting General Mud

Mud everywhere

Mud everywhere

Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme

To the south the French at Verdun had more success, partly because the Germans had been compelled to withdraw troops to shore up the Somme sector.  On 24 October Nivelle launched the “First Offensive Battle of Verdun,” employing creeping artillery barrages designed to keep the enemy’s heads down, though in the six day traditional preparatory bombardment over 800,000 shells were fired.  Fleury (finally) and Fort Douaumont, which the Germans had mostly evacuated, were captured on the first day; Fort Vaux, which the Germans abandoned, fell on 2 November, and by the 5th the French had reached the original line of 24 February.  But it was not over yet.

French mud

French mud

German mud

German mud

 

 

The "First Offensive Battle of Verdun"

The “First Offensive Battle of Verdun”

Of course down in Italy General Cadorna was not to be outdone by the Somme and Verdun.  On 10 October the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo got rolling, or better, staggering.  The operation was a continuation of the Seventh Battle, as Cadorna attempted again to enlarge the Gorizia bridgehead, and again he failed.  The assault ended after only two days because of heavy losses, 25,000 casualties on both sides.  At least there was no mud.

A bit to the east the uneven struggle between the Entente and the Greek government was coming to a head.  At the end of August revolting troops in northern Greece (with the support of the Allies) had formed the National Defense Committee in opposition to King Constantine and the government in Athens, and on 9 October Eleftherios Venizelos showed up in Salonika and agreed to form a provisional government.

The Triumvirate: Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

The Triumvirate: Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis

The new government was generally accepted in northern Greece, the Aegean islands and Crete, areas that had been recovered during the Balkan Wars and where Venizelos was very popular.  On 10 October the Allies demanded that Athens surrender the Greek fleet, and faced with the French and British Mediterranean squadrons, the Athenian government complied on the following day.  There was still no declaration of war against the Central Powers, but Greek troops would soon be fighting on the Macedonian front.

Greek capital ship

The armored cruiser HS Georgios Averof, flagship of the Hellenic Navy in 1916

Greek troops reviewed by the Triumvirate

Greek troops reviewed by the Triumvirate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October was definitely not a good month for the Romanians, who were under growing pressure from the Central Powers.  Despite desperate resistance in the Carpathian passes by 25 October they had been driven out of Transylvania and back to their starting positions.  Meanwhile, in the Dobruja Field Marshall Mackensen and his Bulgarian counterpart, General Stefan Toshev, launched another offensive and on 25 October occupied Constanta, driving out the Romanians and pushing the increasingly demoralized Russians into the Danube Delta marshes.  Next step: crossing the Danube.

Stefan Toshev

Stefan Toshev

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Red Tower pass in the Carpathians

Counterattack against Romania

Counterattack against Romania

 

To the south the Arab Revolt was picking up.  On 29 October the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, was declared King of the Arabs, an illusion based on British promises of a pan-Arab state made up of the Ottoman provinces.  Of more concrete – and certainly more romantic – importance was the arrival in Jiddah (Hejaz) on 16 October of 28 year old Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence.

Lawrence had been in the Middle East since before the war, involved in cartography and archaeological work, especially at Hittite Carchemish in Syria with Leonard Woolley, later known for his excavation of Sumerian Ur.  In January 1914 he and Woolley were enlisted by British intelligence because off their knowledge of the Arab world and language, but he did not join the Army until October, when he was promptly given a commission and no training.  He was sent to Cairo in December, and except for a failed mission in 1915 to lift the Siege of Kut by bribery he spent most of time his time at a desk.

Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish 1913

Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish 1913

That changed in 1916 when he wrangled a place on a mission to the Hejaz led by another Arabist, Ronald Storrs, who needed to meet with the Hashemite princes to discuss the leadership of the Revolt and other matters.  Of the four sons of the old Sharif in Mecca Lawrence was completely taken by the young Prince Faisal, whom he recommended as successor to Hussein and with whom he would spend the next two years.

Prince Faisal

Prince Faisal

Sir Ronald Storrs

Sir Ronald Storrs

T.E.Lawrence

T.E.Lawrence

Lawrence had no permanent official status in the Hejaz – Storrs was a civilian – so on 1 November he took ship from Jiddah to Port Sudan and the railway to Khartoum to meet Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor-General of the Sudan.  Wingate would be delighted by Lawrence and begin him on his adventure in Arabia.  Other westerners were already operating with the Arabs, but Lawrence’s role with the Bedouins, his writing ability and the fact that Lowell Thomas would cover his exploits (and later the 1962 movie) would make him an almost legendary figure.

Sir Reginald Wingate

Sir Reginald Wingate

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, far to the west, off the eastern coast of America a strange encounter took place.  On 7 October SM U-53 under Captain Hans Rose pulled into Newport, Rhode Island, to refuel.  Courtesy visits were exchanged with local naval commanders, but Rose sailed in two hours, fearing his vessel would be interned.  On the following day U-53 began stopping and searching merchant ships, including American, in international waters, sinking those that carried contraband.  American destroyers showed up, but as neutrals they could only watch and rescue survivors.

The crew of U-53 at Newport

The crew of U-53 at Newport

U-53 in Newport harbor

U-53 at Newport

Captain Hans Rose

Captain Hans Rose

No American vessels were sunk and no life was lost – Rose was extremely scrupulous about helping the crews of sunken ships – but the event raised official concern that German submarines had such range and capabilities.  U-53, incidentally, survived the war, and Rose ended up sinking 79 ships and surviving until 1969, having seen it all insofar as Germany is concerned.