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a seven mile front held by a single division of the understrength Portuguese Expeditionary Corps (the other had been withdrawn three days earlier in order to be replaced).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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #42: March 1918

The big news for March 1918 was the German Spring Offensive, but first there was a flurry of peace treaties. On 1 March Bolshevik Russia signed a peace treaty with the Finnish Socialist Workers’ Republic, which had emerged in the industrialized south of Finland in January.  Unfortunately for Lenin, the Workers’ Republic was not at all popular among most Finns, and the result was a civil war in which the “reds” were supported by Moscow and the “whites” by Berlin, which signed a treaty of peace with Finland on 7 March.  In terms of barbarity the Finish Civil War quickly became a small-scale forerunner of the far greater horror that was the Russian Civil War.

Murdered Whites

Executing Reds

Red Guards

White Guards

The Finnish Civil War during March

On 5 March Romania agreed –what choice did she have? – to a preliminary peace with the Central Powers, Bulgaria and Turkey and four days later signed a peace with Russia, a far easier proposition.  Bolshevik Russia, meanwhile, finally bowed to the inevitable on 3 March (the day after the Germans captured Kiev), and Grigori Sokolnikov (killed in prison in 1939) signed the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  Russia lost the Baltic states, Belarus and the Ukraine (as personal possessions of the Czar, Poland and Finland were already gone), which meant that a quarter of the former Empire’s population and industry now belonged to the Germans.

Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

Slivers of the Russian Empire for Turkey

The Treaty itself

Grigori Solkonikov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might have been a great deal for the Germans had there not been a Western Front.  Brest-Litovsk did free up several hundred thousand troops needed for the planned Spring Offensive – Germany’s last shot before being overwhelmed by the Americans – but the desire to secure this eastern empire and its resources left a million men scattered from Poland through the Ukraine.  Inasmuch as the attempt to establish a Ukrainian puppet state would fail and the expected resources never appear because of constant revolts against the occupying troops, Ludendorff would have better served his country by evacuating everything east of Poland.

Hindenburg the figurehead and Ludendorff the ruler

The aforementioned Spring Offensive (or Ludendorff Offensive or Kaiserschlacht) began on 21 March.  Ludendorff had collected 74 divisions (out of 192 in the West) and 10,000 guns and mortars, spread along the 43 mile front from Arras south to La Fère on the Oise River.  The German Seventeenth Army, under Otto von Below, the Second Army, under Georg von der Marwitz, and the Eighteenth Army, under Oskar von Hutier, faced the right wing of Julian Byng’s Third Army and Hubert Gough’s Fifth Army.  The strategic aim was to move northwest from the breakthrough and cut the British off from the English Channel and the French to the south, forcing negotiations.

General Julian Byng 3rd Army

General Hubert Gough 5th Army

Spring Offensive

General Oskar von Hutier

General Otto von Below 17th Army

General Georg von der Marwitz 2nd Army

 

The initial phase of the offensive, Operation Michael, would throw 44 divisions, many just specially trained for rapid advance, at the line from Arras to south of St. Quentin.  The northern elements of the advance would take Arras and head northwest, while the southern units would move to the Somme and hold it against counterattacks.  Ludendorff ordered a massive but relatively short initial bombardment in order to preserve some element of surprise, but a week before the launch the British knew from reconnaissance, prisoners and deserters a big push was coming and shelled German assembly areas.

Operation Michael

In the early hours of 21 March the shells began raining done over a 40 mile front, 3,500,000 in five hours, the largest bombardment of the war. The British front lines were severely disrupted by gas and smoke and the rear areas and supply lines pounded by heavy artillery, and more important, communications between headquarters and the fronts were severed.  Further, a thick fog came with the dawn, allowing the German troops to sneak by defensive positions and infiltrate the rear.

Operation Michael would last until 5 April, proceeding through six named battles: the Battle of St. Quentin (21-23 March), the First Battle of Bapaume (24-25 March), the Battle of Rosières (26-27 March), the First Battle of Arras (28 March), the Battle of the Avre (4 April) and the Battle of the Ancre (5 April).  One can see from the names that much of this ground would be fought over again.  (That was a spoiler, I suppose.)

 The offensive got off to a great start, and within days the British were engaged in fighting withdrawals in order to protect exposed flanks and compelled to call in French troops to stem the German tide at the southern part of the front. Not only were the British dramatically outnumbered in divisions, but many were seriously exhausted and understrength.  But it was certainly not a rout, as British and Commonwealth losses demonstrate.

British 6 inch gun in action

Retreating British

German AV7 tank near the Somme

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all the initial success, however, the offensive ran up against the usual barrier: the difficulty of resupply and consolidation in the wake of a rapid advance. Making it even more difficult in this case was the fact that much of the terrain had been fought over two years earlier during the Somme Offensive and was a lunar landscape virtually impassable for wheeled vehicles.  Further, when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line in 1917, they had destroyed everything that might be of use to the Allies and now had themselves to deal with the devastated infrastructure and poisoned wells.

Advancing over the Somme battlefield

Dragging artillery forward

German supply column

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superficially Michael looked a success.  The Germans had penetrated 40 miles (light years in Great War terms) in the center of the offensive and collected 75,000 prisoners and about 1200 square miles of French turf.  But they had not taken Arras and were stopped short of Amiens, and more important, they had suffered some quarter million casualties, particularly among the elite Stormtroopers (Stoẞtruppen).  The Allies had lost about the same number, but huge American reinforcements were beginning to arrive and Allied war production could easily replace the lost materiel.  The Germans could not.  The Spring Offensive would continue for another three months, but many in the military were already deciding the war was over for Germany.

(For an excellent account of Operation Michael from the point of view of a German infantryman I recommend the personal memoir of Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel (Stahlgewittern).  Jünger was present at the Somme, Cambrai and the Spring Offensive, where he was seriously wounded and concluded that Germany could not win.  He survived the war (and the next as well) and was the rare enlisted man to be awarded the Pour le Mérite.)

Ernst Jünger

Ernst Jünger at 100

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operation Michael underlined the problems of coordination between the British and French high commands, and on 26 March General Ferdinand Foch was chosen to coordinate Allied activities.  In April he would be named Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies, a long delayed development.

Ferdinand Foch

In other news, on 21 March the Commonwealth troops in Palestine began crossing the Jordan River, heading for the key Turkish position in Amman, which controlled the all-important Hejaz Railway. By the 27th they had occupied the Moab hills and assaulted Amman itself (The First Battle of Amman 27 – 31 March), but Turkish/German counterattacks forced them back to the west bank of the Jordan by 2 April.

Turkish prisoners

Amman

The Jordan Valley and Amman

Bridge across the Jordan

Crossing the Jordan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More interesting, on the same day the Jordan was crossed the Germans began shelling Paris – from 75 miles away. Near Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, behind their lines, the Germans had emplaced the largest artillery piece (in terms of barrel length – 112 feet) of the war, the 256 ton Paris Gun (Paris-Geschütz), also known as the Emperor William Gun (Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz). The gun fired yard long 234 pound shells, which traveled 25 miles up into the atmosphere, the first manmade objects to enter the stratosphere, and the range was so great that the rotation of the earth needed to be taken into account in aiming the weapon.

The Paris gun

Emplacing the Paris gun

Paris gun mount

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The guns – there were three of them – were designed by Krupp engineer Fritz Rausenberger and marvels of engineering for the time, but as an effective weapon they had serious drawbacks. Inasmuch as the shell had to be sturdy enough to withstand the pressures of firing, it could only carry 15 pounds of explosive, a trivial amount when the smallest target you could expect to hit was a city.  (A proposal to employ a sabot-mounted shell, which would increase the explosive payload was inexplicably rejected.)  Further, each shot wore down the barrel enough that the next shell had to be slightly bigger, and after 65 had been fired the barrel was sent back to Krupp to be restored.  An average of 20 shells a day were fired, amounting to only 300 pounds of explosive delivered in small packets.

The gun

The shell and propellant

Hello, stratosphere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly the gun was not intended to level Paris, but to undermine morale in the capital.  But when the firing stopped in August (the Allies were approaching the site), only 250 Parisians had been killed and 620 wounded, and after initial confusion regarding the source of the shelling Paris shrugged off the threat.  The psychological offensive had failed.  On the other hand, Germany had reached the stratosphere.

On a lighter note, the first confirmation of a new strain of influenza came on 11 March.  It was found coursing the bloodstream of Private Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas, though the ultimate origin of the disease is still in dispute.  This was the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919, so named because more cases were reported in neutral Spain, where there was no military censorship.  It would kill 3% to 6% of the human race.

The influenza hospital at Fort Riley

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #41: the Airplane I

The tank was developed specifically to deal with the problems of trench warfare (see Report #37), and while it did have some impact, at least on the Allied side, its real strategic value would not be demonstrated until the next war.  Better design and more powerful and reliable engines would allow the tank to come of age, and the Germans (ironically, given their lack of interest during the Great War) would perfect its use in mass formations as an offensive spearhead.  One of the elements in this new armored warfare would be close coordination between the tank and a weapon that did come of age, at least tactically, during the Great War: the airplane.

This new heavier-than-air flying technology was still relatively primitive when the war began, and at first it was used as balloons had been for a half century, for observation of the enemy.  Especially important was photographic reconnaissance and spotting for the artillery (though proper coordination took some time to be worked out), and the airplane provided a much more flexible platform than a tethered balloon.  And this was certainly a much more pleasant activity than living in a trench and going over the top.

The Taube

The Etrich-Rumpler Taube, one of the first observation aircraft

Allied observation balloon

German observation balloon

But this was after all a war and the fliers were combatants, and almost immediately they began to greet one another with more than friendly waves.  Observers started carrying pistols and grenades, but hitting, let alone seriously damaging, another aircraft with such weapons was all but impossible.  In fact the first airplane brought down was by being rammed: on 8 September 1914 an Austrian plane was rammed by Pyotr Nesterov over Galicia, killing himself and the enemy fliers.  Frustrated, a French flier, Louis Quénault, equipped himself with a Hotchkiss M1901 light machine gun and on 5 October 1914 shot down a German plane (actually, with an incredibly lucky shot from a rifle after the machine gun’s ammunition was exhausted).  Now the race was on to create a real fighter plane.

The Hotchkiss M1909

Quénault’s plane, the Morane-Saulnier L

Pyotr Nesterov  †1914

Nesterov’s plane, the Morane-Saulnier G

The ramming

The major problem was where to mount the gun.  In two seater aircraft it was easy to mount a machine gun for the observer, but this only provided defensive fire and in any case lighter, faster single seat planes were the obvious candidates for an offensive aircraft.  With only a single flier the gun had to be mounted where the pilot could easily clear jams (which happened frequently) and reload and use the plane itself to aim his fire.  That required the gun to be placed immediately in front of the cockpit, which meant shooting through the arc of the propeller, a dangerous proposition.

The Bristol F.2 two seater with a rear Lewis gun

One way to avoid this was to put the engine with a “pusher” prop behind the pilot, but it was already known that in terms of performance this arrangement was far less effective than a front mounted “tractor” propeller.  Another approach, which was used initially by the British, was to mount the gun (usually a Lewis light machine gun) so that it fired above the propeller arc, which meant on the upper wind of a biplane or a special structure on a monoplane.  The Foster mount allowed the gun to be moved down to the pilot for service (and to shoot upward), but the protruding gun and mount added considerable drag and stressed the wing, which in turn scattered the fired rounds with its vibrations.

Double Lewis guns on a modified Sopwith Camel

The Foster mount on an Avro 504K

The Royal Aircraft Factory FE2D pusher with a (scary) nose-mounted Lewis gun

The Lewis gun

Clearly, the most effective place for the gun was immediately in front of the pilot, which left the problem of the propeller.  The French came up with the “deflector” prop, which sported metal plates on the propeller blades where the bullets would strike, certainly a frightening solution.  The deflected rounds were a significant threat to the pilot, and more dangerous, they placed a serious strain on the engine’s crankshaft as the propeller was repeatedly buffeted.   Nevertheless, from 1-18 April 1915 Roland Garros, flying a Morane-Saulnier L with a deflector prop, shot down three German planes, but on the 18th he was forced to land in enemy territory, perhaps because of engine problems caused by the pounding on the propeller.

The Morane-Saulnier L

Roland Garros  †1918

The armored propeller

Anthony Fokker is rightly known for perfecting the synchronization mechanism, but work on this had been going on in a number of places, and Franz Schneider had in fact patented a device in July 1913 and Raymond Saulnier in 1914.  The problem was that these early mechanisms were still crude, and the frequent – and often disastrous – failures hardly convinced inert and inherently conservative high commands to support the new technology.  Garros’ prop and the planes he downed convinced the Germans.

From the Saunier patent

Raymond Saulnier

From the Schneider patent

Franz Schneider

Severed propeller

Anthony Fokker

The basic idea was to connect the gun and the propeller such that the gun was fired only when the blade was out of the way or was prevented from firing when it was.  Generally this meant some sort of cam on the propeller or crank shaft that would push a rod enabling or disabling the gun at the proper moment.  In a way this was easier for the Germans inasmuch as their machine guns – the Parabellum and the Spandau – had a closed bolt cycle, which could be precisely timed, whereas the favored Allied gun, the Lewis, had an open bolt cycle (look it up), which could not (although the Vickers was a closed bolt).

The Spandau IMG 08

The Parabellum

A Vickers mounted on a Nieuport 17

Fokker’s Stangensteuerung system, developed in the spring of 1915, followed Saulnier’s approach: it employed a cam and reciprocating rod connection that enabled the gun to fire at the proper time rather than interrupting it.  There were mechanical weaknesses, especially with the push rod, and the system could not be easily adapted to twin guns, and this led by late 1916 to the Zentralsteuerung, which eliminated the push rod altogether.  This improvement allowed for a twin gun configuration, vital in concentrating fire for the brief moments when shooting was possible (it is not that easy to shoot down a mechanically simple fabric covered aircraft), and was the system behind the later, more familiar aircraft like the Fokker D-VII.

The Stangensteuerung interrupter gear

The Stangensteuerung system

The Zentralsteuerung system with two guns

Synchronizing the gun and prop

The other warring powers would develop synchronization systems, but the Germans beat them and in May 1915 created the first purpose-built warplane, the Fokker E.I, by adding a Parabellum MG 14 to a modified Fokker scout.  This monoplane (Eindecker) was flimsy and difficult to fly and the synchronization gear still prone to malfunction, but it was a real fighter and the Allies had none.  On 1 July Kurt Witgens brought down a Morane-Saulnier, becoming the first pilot to down an enemy plane with a synchronized gun.  The “Fokker Scourge” had begun.

Kurt Witgens  †1916

Witgens’ Fokker E.I

The Fokker E.II

The Fokker E.III

The Fokker Eindecker gave the Germans control of the air, and Allied observation craft were soon raining from the skies.  This period produced the first real fighter aces, like Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann, men who worked out the basic moves and tactics of this completely new form of warfare.  Boelcke, who taught the future ace, Manfred von Richthofen, produced a set of formal rules for air combat, the Dicta Boelcke, and Immelmann is known for the tactical maneuver called the Immelmann Turn.

Oswald Boelcke  †1916

Max Immelmann  †1916

Immelmann and his Fokker

The Immelmann Turn

The Scourge would last until the beginning of 1916, when the Allies finally caught up in aircraft technology.  In January 1916 the French introduced the Nieuport 11, which still employed a wing-mounted Lewis gun with all its inherent difficulties, but the superior performance of the plane more than compensated. In February the British brought to France the Airco DH.2, a single-seat pusher fighter, which also easily outmatched the Fokker in performance.

The Nieuport 11

The Airco DH.2

These aircraft were soon bringing the Fokkers down, emphasizing that the half year of German superiority was due entirely to the synchronized gun, allowing an otherwise weak aircraft to dominate the skies.  The Allies would now rule the air until the Germans introduced their new generation of more powerful fighters in the fall.

 

 

Report from the Fronts #37: the Tank

In a sense the idea of armored vehicles goes all the way back to antiquity, when siege equipment was equipped with wheels to roll it up to the enemy walls and “armor” to protect the machine and its crew, but the serious development of armored vehicles had to wait until the internal combustion engine.  Armored cars were soon developed, but possessing very light armor and wheels, they were unsuitable for the conditions of trench warfare, which demanded a tracked vehicle.  In the early days of the Great War tractors were in fact used to tow artillery pieces and supplies, and it was a short conceptual leap to arming the tractor itself.

Towing 1915

On the way to the Somme 1916

 

 

 

 

 

 

A short conceptual leap, but one that had to confront the innate conservatism of the military establishment, which was already having problems accepting the obsolescence of cavalry.  An official British war correspondent in France in 1914, Major Ernest Swinton, realized that the American Holt caterpillar tractor could serve as the basis of an armored vehicle, and sent a proposal to Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hankey, who brought the idea to Kitchener, who, however, showed no interest.  Hankey then went to the Committee of Imperial Defense and caught the attention of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, who in January 1915 scared Prime Minister Asquith into examining the idea by suggesting that the Germans could be developing their own armored vehicle.

Maurice Hankey

Ernest Swinton

The Holt tractor 1914

 

 

 

 

 

Kitchener was ordered to create an Army committee to study the idea, but after trials with a Holt tractor the committee decided in February the concept was not workable.  Churchill, however, was determined and created a Navy operation, the Landships Committee, which began working with the Royal Naval Air Service, which had an Armored Car Division.  Incidentally, in order to disguise the nature of the project it was spread about that the committee was designing mobile water tanks for desert combat, which led to the name Water Container Committee, which was quickly discarded, because it would soon enough be shortened to the WC Committee.  In December the term “water tank” was adopted, and you know the rest.

It was decided that simply transforming Holt tractors into tanks would not work – the suspensions and power plants were too weak – and the committee would design the new machine from the ground up.  Using giant wheels instead of tracks was rejected, as were designs employing a single large or three separate tracks, and the obvious idea of a rotating turret with a gun was abandoned because of weight and center of gravity concerns.

The Tsar (Lebedenko) tricycle tank

The Killen-Straight triple track

The Pedrail monotrack

 

Before anything else, better track systems had to be developed, which was the purpose of the first prototype, tested on 8 September.  Little Willie (named after the German Crown Prince) was simply a metal box on tracks, 20 feet long, weighing in at 16 tons and powered by a 105 hp engine.  This led in early 1916 to the 28 ton Big Willy (or Mother), which had a 25 foot long rhomboidal body and surrounding tracks, providing better traction and ability to cross an eight foot trench.  The “male” version had two 6-pounders mounted in sponsons on either side of the hull and carried a crew of eight; the “female” had only machine guns.  At best they could make four miles an hour with its 105 hp engine.  These were definitely not Blitzkrieg machines.

The Mark I tank

The Mark I tank

Early Little Willie

Little Willie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Willy became the Mark I, of which 150 were produced, and it saw its first service in September 1916 in the Somme Offensive, where both the potential and the many deficiencies of the machine were demonstrated.  The armor could stop ordinary small arms fire, but was vulnerable to armor piercing rounds developed by the Germans and could be disabled by even the smallest artillery round.  Besides the slow speed, often as a little as one mile an hour on the lunar terrain of no man’s land, the tank was difficult to maneuver, requiring half the crew to attend to the steering and drive.  These early machines were also dramatically underpowered, but by far the biggest problem was mechanical, simple breakdowns that left the tank little more than a target.

Life for a tank crew was hellish.  Ventilation was extremely poor, and with the engine in the crew compartment carbon monoxide could reach deadly levels and was supplemented by fumes from the cordite in the shells fired.  The temperature inside the tank might go as high as 120° F, and the crew was forced to wear helmets and special “splatter” masks to protect them from fragments dislodged in the interior by bullets and nearby shell blasts.

Mark IV interior

Splatter mask

The Mark series interior

Nevertheless, for all the problems with this infant technology the tank demonstrated its usefulness, and even Haig, a cavalry officer, was won over and ordered more machines after the Somme.  Development of the Mark I continued, all the way to the Mark VIII, and though the external appearance changed very little, improvements in armor, steering and power plant gradually came about, albeit very slowly.  The Mark IV, which was used at Cambrai, was not very different from the Mark I: it had thicker armor and the fuel tank was moved outside to the rear of the tank.  The Mark VIII (“Liberty”), a joint American-British-French project, featured a 300 hp engine in an enclosed compartment and much better steering and power transmission, but it only went into production after the war.

The Mark VIII interior

The Mark VIII tank

The Mark IV tank

The Mark V tank

The Mark V tank

The French approach differed from the British in that there was no central development authority, resulting in three different designs produced by rival industrial firms.  In early 1915 arms manufacturer Schneider began work on the Schneider CA, an armored box on tracks, mounting a 75 mm short howitzer in a barbette on the right front corner of the box.  It first saw service in April 1917 in the Nivelle Offensive, where its poor mobility and great mechanical unreliability was vividly demonstrated.

A damaged Schneider

The Schneider CA tank

The Schneider CA tank

 

 

Another arms company, Saint-Chamond, used its political influence in 1915 to acquire support for its Saint-Chamond tank, which first saw action in 1917.  The Saint-Chamond carried a full size 75 mm gun (the most powerful for an operational tank until 1941) protruding from the front of the vehicle and an advanced petrol-electric transmission.  But the tank had all the faults of the Schneider, and the new transmission system led to many breakdowns.  Nevertheless, by the middle of 1918 the Saint-Chamond had found a role as an assault gun.

Saint-Chamond tanks

The Saint-Chamond tank

The Saint-Chamond tank

France’s third tank was by far the most successful.  Renault, accustomed to mass production of cars, came up with a design for a light tank, the 7 ton Renault FT, which entered service in late 1917.  This was in effect the first modern tank: the power plant was at the rear, and a fully rotating turret on top housed the armament, either a 37 mm gun or several machine guns.  The design was very successful, and 3700 were produced – more than any other tank in the war – many finding employment in various countries until well after the Second World War.

The Renault FT crew

Interior of the Renault FT

The Renault FT tank

The Renault FT tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The French army, however, still wanted a heavy tank, and the 76 ton, 33 foot long 2C was created, the heaviest and most advanced tank yet.  It was, in fact, so technologically complex that only ten were produced and missed the war altogether.  But the 2C remains the heaviest operational tank ever made.

The French Tiny Tank

The 2C tank

The 2C tank

 

Oddly, the Germans showed little interest in tanks and responded to the Allied vehicles by concentrating on anti-tank weapons.  They produced only one tank, the 36 ton A7V, which sported a 57 mm gun at the nose and had a crew of at least 18.  The A7V came into service in March 1918, but only 20 were built and most of the tanks used by the Germans were captured British Mark IVs. They would do better in the next war.

The A7V tank

The A7V tank in action

The A7V tank

The A7V tank

 

 

 

 

 

 

The development of armored vehicles was in response to the demands of static trench warfare, but the tank would become the prime weapon of modern wars of movement.  Tanks would not only exploit a breakthrough, as cavalry was expected to do in the Great War, but also create the breakthrough itself with powerful concentrations of  mobile firepower.  Ironically, it was the Germans, uninterested in the tank in the First World War, who would perfect the tactics and strategy of armored warfare in the Second.

A German tank 25 years later

 

Report from the Fronts #34: October 1917

The area around Ypres

Third Ypres ground on.  On 4 October ANZAC troops assaulted the Broodseinde Ridge, gaining the objective on the first day and further unsettling the Germans, who were having trouble dealing with the new allied leapfrog tactics.  Unsurprisingly, the success led to arguments among the commanders about pushing further, but the presence of substantial German reserves behind the line and the usual difficulty of bringing up the artillery over the shattered battle ground sank that idea.  General Herbert Plumer – in a Trumpian moment – called Broodseinde “the greatest victory since the Marne.”  Tell that to the 20,000 commonwealth casualties.

No mans land

Battle of Broodseinde

Bringing up the guns

Herbert Plumer

Next up in the Ypres Mud Fight was the Battle of Poelcapelle, an attempt by French and British units on 9 October to push half the way from Broodseinde Ridge to Passchendaele.  But the “easy” victories were over.  The heavy rains returned, and bringing up the artillery over blasted ground to secure gains was becoming incredibly difficult.  As a result, the Allies were unable to hold most of the captured ground against German counterattacks, and the battle ended after a single day.  Some 10,000 Allied troops were casualties, many drowned in shell holes; since the beginning of the month the Germans had suffered 35,000.

Typical Ypres terrain – Chateauwood

The road into Poelcapelle

Battle of Poelcapelle

Three days later the Allies attacked again – the First Battle of Passchendaele – Generals Plumer and Haig mistakenly thinking that the earlier advance had been generally successful (that is how bad communications were).  The result was a repeat of Poelcapelle, and the Brits and ANZACS suffered 13,000 casualties failing to take Passchendaele Ridge; it was perhaps the worst day in New Zealand military history.

The Butcher of the Somme

German losses for this specific battle are unknown, but it is clear that while the Ypres battles were gaining little ground, they were nevertheless inflicting heavy losses, which the Germans could ill afford.  Two divisions being sent to Italy for the upcoming offensive went instead to the Ypres sector, and the commander of the army group covering the northern stretch of the Western Front, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, had actually considered a withdrawal, which might have endangered the German position and submarine bases on the Belgian coast.  This in fact was one of the Allied goals for the Ypres offensive.

Crown Prince Rupprecht

Meanwhile, to the south the French opened the Battle of La Malmaison on 23 October.  This was essentially a continuation of the Second Battle of the Aisne from back in April (remember the Nivelle Offensive?), and by 27 October the French had captured the Chemin des Dames Ridge in its entirety and the fortress town of La Malmaison – or what was left of it.  It cost the French 14,000 casualties, the Germans 50,000.

Battle of Malmaisson

The Malmaison fort

 

 

 

 

 

 

The last phase of Third Ypres kicked off on 26 October with the Second Battle of Passchendaele, a mostly Canadian affair.  The aim was to seize the Passchendaele-Westrozebeke Ridge, both for observation advantages and in order to establish a winter defensive line on the drier high ground.  The assault was to be executed in four limited advances separated by pauses, allowing time for guns and supplies to be brought up and fresh troops switched in after each phase.

On the road to Passchendaele

Same terrain a century later

 

 

 

 

 

 

The plan actually worked, though the slaughter and the endless mud made this battle just as unpleasant for the poor beggars on the ground as the earlier operations.  The first two phases took place on 26 October and 30 October and were relatively successful, most of the Passchendaele Ridge being secured.  The second two phases would take place in early November, but meanwhile disaster in Italy through a monkey wrench into the plans to capture Passchendaele itself.

Battlefield funeral

Morning at Passchendaele

Passchendaele before and after

 

On 24 October the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo began, but this one was very different from the previous eleven.  This time it was the Austrians and Germans who attacked, not just at the Isonzo but all along the front from the Adriatic near Trieste west to the Trentino.  The main thrust, however, was at Caporetto in the upper Isonzo valley, and the conflict is also known as the Battle of Caporetto (or Kobarid).  And the German-Austrian forces fared a lot better than the incompetent Luigi Cadorna.

Battle of Caporetta

Field Marshal Hindenburg had already decided Austria needed help, despite the objections of the man who was increasingly in control, Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, who probably realized the Italian Army was presently incapable of any serious offensive.  Caporetto was chosen because it controlled an excellent road into the Venetian plain (a chemist also declared the valley perfect for a gas attack), and the new 14th Army, nine Austrian and six German divisions under General Otto von Below, would spearhead the assault, which would ultimately send some 350,000 troops against 875,000 Italians.  Overall command of the Isonzo Army Group was in the hands of General Svetozar Boroević, the Croatian (!) commander who had halted all of Cadorna’s offensives.  Unlike his opponent, who was despised by his men, “our Sveto” was loved by his and known as the “Knight of Isonzo.”

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna

Otto von Below

Svetozar Boroević

The offensive began with a massive gas barrage (chlorine-arsenic and diphosgene), which in the absence of wind settled into the valley, and Italian troops began fleeing, knowing that their gas masks would function only for a couple of hours.  A subsequent artillery bombardment hit the now lightly defended fortifications, and von Below’s troops poured into the valley, their flanks protected by Alpine units that secured the heights.  The infantry penetrated 16 miles in the first day, and while the Italians managed to block the attacks flanking the main group, the Italian army was reeling.  Rushing in troops from other sectors only led to more Austrian assaults along the entire front.

Caparetto

The situation was not helped by General Cadorna, who failed to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and the already low morale of his men, much of it the fault of his own ineptitude and harsh methods.  General Luigi Capello, commander of the 2nd Army, which was the target of the main thrust, almost immediately asked to withdraw to the Tagliamento River but was refused by Cadorna, leading to the surrender of more Italian troops.  By 28 October the offensive had reached Udine, and two days later Cadorna called for a retreat across the Tagliamento, which took four days.  Italy was on the verge of collapse.

Italian prisoners

Waiting for the offensive

German assault troops

Incidentally, active in the battle was a young first lieutenant commanding the Royal Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion: Erwin Rommel.  In 52 hours from 25 to 27 October the 27 year old Rommel and his 150 men captured some 9000 enemy troops and 81 artillery pieces, suffering only six dead and 30 wounded.  He would later be awarded Germany’s highest military award, the Pour le Mérite.

The young Rommel

Meanwhile, the Southern Palestine Offensive (Third Battle of Gaza) began on 31 October with the Battle of Beersheba, the eastern anchor of the Turkish line from Gaza.  The small town was well guarded by trenches and outlying strongpoints, and Fevzi Çakmak Pasha, commander of the 7th Army, which was responsible for the eastern section of the Gaza-Beersheba line, had some 4500 men available, though not all were at Beersheba.  General Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, had some 50,000 men and in a complex operation (water was the major problem) intended to assault the town from the west with infantry and from the east, where there was no wire or horse traps, with mounted troops.  Beersheba was encircled and attacked and captured in a single day.

Fevzi Pasha

Edmund Allenby

Battle of Beersheba

Palestine front

 

 

While the Battle of Beersheba marks the first Allied victory in Palestine and would lead to breaking the Turkish Gaza line, it is better remembered for the last effective cavalry charge in history.  Coming from the southeast, the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade had traveled over 30 miles of desert to reach the town by dawn, and near 4 PM they were ordered to take the town.  The 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments began their advance at about 4 miles from the town and began taking fire at 2 miles, but help from supporting artillery and the speed (and surprise) of the charge minimized Turkish effectiveness.  Leaping across the trenches, the 4th and some of the 12th dismounted and began shooting at the Turks from the rear, but the bulk of the 12th, armed with bayonets in place of lances or swords, rode into Beersheba and captured it.

Australian Light Horse

Beersheba

Beersheba

Charge of the Light Horse

(As it happens, the last major cavalry charge took place in 1942.  On August 23 on the Eastern Front 600 Italian horse, armed with sabers and grenades, charged a formation of 2000 Soviet infantry and actually dislodged them from their positions.

In miscellaneous news from October, on the 11th the German navy began operations against the Baltic Islands, capturing them all by the 20th and sinking a Russian battleship in the process.  In early October Peru and Uruguay cut diplomatic relations with Germany (Costa Rica did so in September), and on the 26th Brazil declared war, fed up with German submarines sinking Brazilian merchant vessels.  In 1918 a (relatively) sizable Brazilian force would actually travel to France.

Brazil declares war

Finally, an event everyone has heard of: on 15 October Mata Hari was shot by a French firing squad.  Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands and in 1905 began a highly successful career as an exotic dancer in Paris, eventually becoming the mistress of a French millionaire.  Believing her to be the ultimate femme fatale that she would become in legend, in 1916 the French Deuxième Bureau recruited her as a spy, hoping she could seduce German Crown Prince Wilhelm, who had enjoyed her performances before the war, and wheedle military information out of him.

Mata Hari in 1905

And again

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem with this was that although the Crown Prince was the commander of an Army Group, he relied completely on his staff, inasmuch as he had never directly commanded anything larger than a regiment.  More stupidity in a war filled with it.  In late 1916 Zelle contacted the Germans in Madrid and offered them French secrets (of which she had none), either for money or to engineer a meeting with the Crown Prince.  In January of 1917 the German military attaché in Madrid sent to Berlin a message about Zelle’s activities as a spy in a code that was known to have been broken, perhaps because Germany military intelligence was fed up with her.

Crown Prince Wilhelm

Zelle was arrested in Paris on 13 February and subsequently convicted of espionage in a joke of a trial.  In the wake of the French army mutiny and the failure of the Nivelle Offensive a foreign spy was an extremely convenient scapegoat for the political establishment, which apparently determined to seize the opportunity.  There was no concrete evidence against her and her defense attorney was forced to operate under serious limitations, but destined to serve political ends, she was convicted and shot.  A naïve woman, seduced herself by French intelligence, had to die for the glory of France.  The records of the proceedings and trial were sealed until October 2017, by which time the perpetrators of the crime would be safely dead.

Mata Hari when arrested

And the war went on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #33: September 1917

September 1917 saw a continuation of the slaughter in Flanders.  Good weather early in the month dramatically improved the British supply situation, and on 20 September another push in the Ypres Offensive got underway with the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.  Eleven British and Commonwealth divisions attacked five German on a relatively narrow front of 15,000 yards and by noon they had achieved most of their goals, when the inevitable counterattacks began – and failed.

Wounded at Menin Road Ridge

Third Battle of Ypres

The area around Ypres

The British had changed their tactics.  In order to deal with the German forward strong points, such as pillboxes, they had brought in more heavy artillery and with spotting by aircraft they were able to neutralize many of the forward defenses and much of the German artillery.  The advancing units leapfrogged one another, the following wave taking over the assault while the previous secured the captured ground against counterattack.  This more limited and cautious approach worked, avoiding the massive offensive casualties typical of the Western Front and securing the gains until more resources could be brought up.  The front line had moved 1500 yards, and if the Allies could achieve such gains each week, they could be in Berlin by Christmas of 1927.

Aussies waiting for the gas

German counterattacks continued, but with little effect, since the new cautious approach (and good weather) allowed the British to better fortify gains and resupply the troops before the counter assault came.  On 26 September the British and Australians tried again, attacking Polygon Wood, and within a day achieved their limited objectives.  The Germans were unable to regain any of the lost ground.

Life between the offensives

Waiting for the assault

Polygon Wood

Welcome to Belgium

John Hines – Scrounge King of Polygon Wood

 

On 4 September an Anglo-French Conference met to consider sending aid to the Italian Front, which was certainly timely, inasmuch as the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo ended in failure on the 12th.  General Cadorna had gone all out on this one, concentrating three-quarters of his army for the attack, 52 divisions and 5200 guns against less than half those numbers on the Austrian side.  Predictably, given the terrain (and the previous ten offensives), there was no breakthrough, though ironically the Austrians were on the brink when the battle ended (115,000 casualties) and would have folded under another assault.  But the Italian army was completely exhausted (158,000 casualties), and the next offensive, the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, would be launched by the Austrians.

Italian dead at Isonzo

Italian anti-aircraft at Isonzo

The Isonzo front

To the east Russia appeared on the edge of collapse.  On 3 September the Germans captured Riga, and five days later General Kornilov marched on St. Petersburg in an attempt to purge the city garrison of Bolshevik troops and possibly to overthrow the Provisional Government in favor of a military dictatorship..  On the 10th Kerensky, however, declared Kornilov a traitor and himself dictator of Russia, and in a move of immense historical consequence he called upon the Bolsheviks for support, armed them and released their leaders (including Leon Trotsky – Lenin had fled to Finland) from prison.

Kornilov launches his coup

As it happened, however, Kornilov’s troops, many sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, were already deserting, and with the revolt collapsing around him he surrendered on 14 September.  He was imprisoned, escaped and ended up being killed fighting for the Whites in the Civil War.  But Kerensky, who subsequent to Kornilov’s arrest proclaimed Russia to be a republic, was himself now in serious trouble.  The Bolsheviks were now armed, their leaders were free to organize and agitate and with his treatment of Kornilov and other officers implicated in the conspiracy Kerensky had lost any hope of support from the military.  The one time tiny radical Bolshevik faction was now poised to seize control of the capital of the Russian Empire.

Kerensky

General Kornilov

(Less Delayed) Report from the Fronts #31: July 1917

 

 

July began with the aptly named July Offensive of the Russians.  It was launched by the Minister of War and de facto head of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky (hence also named the Kerensky Offensive), and commanded by Aleksei Brusilov of the successful Brusilov Offensive of 1916.  Kerensky, determined to honor his commitment to the Allies, completely underestimated the popular desire for peace, which the Bolsheviks were demanding, and overestimated the state of the army, which was deteriorating rapidly.  Brusilov was convinced a military collapse could not be avoided, but he would take a shot at a new offensive.

Kerensky

General Brusilov

General Kornilov

The July Offensive

The offensive literally began with a bang, the biggest artillery barrage of the Eastern Front, which blew a hole in the Austrian lines and allowed an advance, but German resistance caused mounting Russian casualties.  Morale began to crumble even more quickly, and with the exception of General Lvar Kornilov’s well-trained shock battalions, the infantry essentially stopped following orders.  The advance ended completely on 16 July, and three days later came the inevitable German-Austrian counterattack, which drove the Russians back 150 miles, right into the Ukraine.

The failure of the July Offensive to a great extent doomed the Provisional Government, though the ultimate success of the Bolsheviks would depend upon a certain amount of luck.  On 19 July Kerensky replaced Prince Georgy Lvov as Prime Minister and became Commander-in-Chief in August, but the handwriting on the wall was growing larger.  When the July Offensive came to a halt on the 16th, soldiers and workers, demanding “all power to the Soviets,” began demonstrations in St. Petersburg and other cities, the July Days.  The Bolshevik leadership was taken by surprise, but ultimately supported the movement, only to be confronted with troops loyal to the Provisional Government.  The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks called off the demonstrations on 20 July, and Kerensky began a wave of arrests.  Lenin narrowly escaped capture, but many other Bolsheviks, like Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev, ended up in prison.

Grigory Zinovievba

Leon Trotsky

Vladimir Lenin

Riot in St. Petersburg

 

 

 

 

Not to be outdone, at the opposite end of the war the British launched the Battle of Pilckem Ridge on 31 July.  Actually, Pilckem Ridge was the first of a series of offensives collectively called the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele), which would stretch into December and were a continuation of the Flanders Campaign begun with the Battle of Messines Ridge in June.  “Wipers,” as Tommy called it, would be a four month mud bath for Commonwealth troops.

Typical Ypres conditions

German prisoners

Third Battle of Ypres

On a more romantic – and drier – note, on 6 July Colonel Lawrence and his Bedouins captured the town of Aqaba with virtually no casualties, though not quite as the movie depicted it.  The real fight was on 2 July at Abu al Lasan about fifty miles northeast of Aqaba.  A separate Arab force had seized a blockhouse there, but a Turkish battalion recaptured it and then killed some encamped Arabs, which outraged Auda Abu Tayi, the leader of Lawrence’s Howeitat auxiliaries.  He took the town, slaughtering some 300 Turks, and local tribes flocked to him, swelling Lawrence’s force to 5000.  They then moved on Aqaba, which had already been shelled by Allied naval forces, and the garrison surrendered at their arrival at the gates.  Lawrence then immediately returned to Cairo, a camel ride of over 200 miles.

Aqaba today

Triumphal entry into Aqaba

Lawrence at Aqaba

Auda Abu Tayi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In miscellaneous news from July, on the 2nd the first regular merchant convoy left Virginia for Britain, and on the 7th the last daylight air raid on London took place, producing over 200 civilian casualties. On 28 July the British Army formed a Tank Corps, and on the 17th the Palace, responding to anti-German sentiment, announced that Britain was no longer under the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (from Queen Victoria’s consort Albert) but the House of Windsor.  Kaiser Wilhelm, King George V’s cousin, responded that he planned to see The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

King George V

Cousin Willy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, in a very clever move, on 22 July King Rama VI of Siam (Thailand) declared war on the Central Powers.  Through adroit diplomacy, playing the French and British against one another, Siam had managed to remain the only independent state in southeast Asia and saw an opportunity to strengthen its position and gain influence in the postwar world order by sending a token force to the Western Front.  It would work (and Bangkok is now a favorite destination for European – and especially German – tourists).

The Thai Expeditionary Force at Paris

King Rama VI