(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 #18: July 1916

On the Western Front July 1916 began with a bang, literally, as nineteen massive mines buried under German lines were exploded by the British to kick off the long-awaited Somme Offensive. The mines, many begun the previous year, contained a total of 210,800 pounds of high explosive, which together constituted one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history.  Three of the mines were behemoths: Hawthorn Ridge at Beaumont-Hamel (40,600 lbs.) and Y Sap and Lochnagar at La Boisselle (40,000 and 60,000 lbs. respectively); Lochnagar was believed to be the loudest man-made noise up to that time, heard as far away as London.  Impressive, but they did not substantially aid the offensive.

Mine tunnel

Mine tunnel

Lochnagar crater today

Lochnagar crater today

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge mine

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Hawthorn Ridge crater

Lochnagar crater

Lochnagar crater

 

 

 

 

 

The Somme Offensive had been in the works since 1915 and was intended to be a primarily French operation with the British in support, but the German assault at Verdun had drained away French troops and it was British/Commonwealth forces that ended up bearing the brunt of this Big Push.  The section of the trench line north and south of the Somme River, defended by General Fritz von Below’s Second Army, was chosen by Joffre for the attack, though it is not at all clear why.  There was no particular strategic importance to the area, and because it had been quiet since 1915, the Germans had been busy increasing the stiffness and depth of their fortifications.

The Butcher of the Somme

The Butcher of the Somme

Papa Joffre

Papa Joffre

Somme Offensive

Somme Offensive

Haig of course went right along with this, delighted it would be primarily a British show.  Eleven divisions from General Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army would attack in the area of Albert, supported on their left flank by two divisions of General Edmund “Bloody Bull” Allenby’s Third Army; the right flank would be covered by five divisions of the French Sixth Army on both sides of the Somme.  (Joffre had originally planned on 40 French divisions.)  The goal was the seemingly mythical “breakthrough,” which would allow forces (including all available cavalry!) to head for Douai and Cambrai.  The Allies had air superiority, a factor that was gaining in importance.

Edmund Allenby

Edmund Allenby

 

Fritz von Below

Fritz von Below

Henry Rawlinson

Henry Rawlinson

The Somme Offensive was in actuality a series of thirteen more or less distinctive named battles that stretched on into November.  The initial attack, the Battle of Albert (1-13 July), pushed the Germans into a substantial withdrawal south and north of the Somme, but the Commonwealth forces in the center got nowhere against the Germans on higher ground.  It was in fact a disaster.  The British suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed) on the first day; their total casualties in the next eleven days were c. 25,000.  1 July 1916 is acknowledged as the worst day in the history of the British army.

A German "Sommekämpfer"

A German Sommekämpfer

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

Tommys advancing in the Somme Offensive

The fault can be pinned on Haig and Rawlinson, who believed (like most high commanders) that a heavy barrage would take out the machine guns and wire.  Perhaps against their own trench line, but not the deep triple lines and reinforced bunkers of the busy Germans.  The defenses were virtually intact, and the slow-moving British infantry were annihilated.  Two subordinate commanders were sacked (for not pushing their men harder!), but as historian Martin Middlebrook later put it, “Haig and Rawlinson were protected by the sheer enormity of the disaster.”  To fire or criticize them would be a PR disaster – and the offensive went on.

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Indian cavalry at Bazentine

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

Battle of Bazentine Ridge

But it now comprised more limited engagements and objectives, as the Allies encountered nasty fighting in fortified villages and dense woods.  The Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14-17 July) went better than the original offensive, pushing out a thousand yards and capturing Bazentine le Petit, but further advance was foiled by the confusion and poor communications, frequent companions of Great War offensives.

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 14 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 15 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 16 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

Delville Wood 18-20 July

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, a bit to the southeast the Battle of Delville Wood (14 July – 15 September) resulted from the effort to secure the right flank of the force in Bazentine, and on the first day the First South African Brigade, making its Western Front debut, seized most of the wood.  The Germans counterattacked, and by 20 July when British attacks rescued the remnants from the wood, the South African brigade had virtually ceased to exist.

Battle of Delville Wood

Battle of Delville Wood

South African General Henry Lukin

South African General Henry Lukin

Delville Wood

Delville Wood

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Fromelles (19-20 July) actually took place some fifty miles north of the Somme and was a small scale operation designed to take advantage of weaknesses brought on by the transfer of German troops to the Somme.  Well, there were none in this bit of the line, and the two divisions in fact attacked a ridge defended by twice their number, suffering 7080 casualties to the German’s 1500-2000.  The Australian Fifth Division, also making its first appearance on the Western Front, suffered 5533 of those casualties; the battle was later described as “the worst 24 hours in Australian history.’  For what?

The last Somme engagement to be initiated in July was the Battle of Pozières Ridge (23 July – 7 August), which was the only part of a general offensive north and south of the Somme to have any success.  Pozières was a village two miles northwest of Bazentine, and its capture would isolate the Germans in the fortified village of Thiepval.  The Australian First Division took the village immediately, but inasmuch as the rest of the offensive promptly collapsed into uncoordinated mini-engagements, the Aussies became the center of attention of the German artillery and suffered huge casualties.  The German counterattack would come at the beginning of August.

Pozières plateau

Pozières plateau

Road to Pozières

Road to Pozières

 Pozières- captured German bunker

Pozières- captured German bunker

Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front the Baranovichi Offensive in what is now Belarus finally began.  The commander of the Western Army Group, Alexei Evert, had resisted going on the offensive in June as the northern wing of the Brusilov Offensive, perhaps because he remembered the disaster of his Lake Naroch Offenisive back in March.  But the supreme Command insisted, and on 2 July 410,000 troops of the Russian Fourth Army attacked 70,000 Germans of the Ninth Army.  When the on and off offensive finally ended on 29 July, the Russians had gained no ground and lost 80,000 men to the German 13,000.  Is it any wonder revolution was brewing?

Evert's men - future corpses and revolutionaries

Evert’s men – future corpses and revolutionaries

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other news, the counterattack at the Trentino ended on 7 July, freeing General Cadorna free to contemplate another shot on the Isonzo.  On 25 July Serbian troops (Remember Serbia?) showed up at Salonika, followed in five days by a contingent of Russians, of whom there seemed to be an endless supply.  Incidentally, on 25 July the Russians took Erzincan (Erzinjan) in northeastern Turkey; this is as far as they would penetrate into Anatolia.

Finally, things were heating up on the Arab front.  In Sinai the Turks began an offensive towards the Suez Canal on 19 July, but far more important to the post-war world, Britain signed a treaty with Abdulaziz Ibn Sa’ud, Emir of Nejd and Hasa, the creator and future king of Saudi Arabia.  That kingdom would include the Hejaz (Too bad, Sherif Hussein) where on 27 July Arab forces took Yenbo, the port of Medina, easing their supply problems.  And soon Lawrence would show up.

Ibn Saud

Ibn Sa’ud

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

 

 

Report from the Fronts #17: June 1916

The Battle of Jutland came to an end on 1 June, but the forces deployed for the engagement took one more ship.  The U-boats had played no active role in the battle, but they had laid mines, and on 5 June the armored cruiser HMS Hampshire, on its way from Scapa Flow to Archangel, Russia, struck one off the west coast of the Orkney Islands.  Because of the extremely rough weather, only twelve crewmen out of 662 crew and passengers survived the sinking of the warship.  Among the missing was Field Marshall Herbert Kitchener, the literal icon of the war.

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Uncle Herb Wants You!

Herbert Kitchener

Herbert Kitchener

HMS Hampshire

HMS Hampshire

 

 

 

Kitchener was in fact in many ways an icon of the High Victorian Age, the victor at Omdurman (Sudan 1898) and the Second Boer War (1899-1902), literally the face of Britain in the Great War and a man (yes, this is very Victorian) whose sexuality was constantly questioned. He was criticized for some of his actions in the Boer War – the Breaker Morant case and the concentration camps – and for ammunition problems at the start of the Great War, but it cannot be denied that he was instrumental in dramatically increasing munitions production and laying the foundation for the immense army sent to the continent.

Less well known (at least outside the knitting community – my world class knitting spouse informed of this) is that he was responsible for the “Kitchener stitch.”  During the war he exhorted women to knit sweaters, scarves and socks for the boys, but it turned out the seam across the front of the sock irritated Tommy toes.  Kitchener came up with a stitch that eliminated the seam – or at least he took credit for it.  Inasmuch as Victorian Field Marshalls did not knit, he must have obtained the idea from a female acquaintance, who remains unknown to history.

The Kitchener stitch

The Kitchener stitch

On the Western Front everyone was killing time waiting for the Big Push on the Somme, but that did not mean that Death took a holiday.  On 2 June the Germans, hoping to divert allied resources from the coming offensive, initiated the Battle of Mont Sorrel in the Ypres sector.  This was a paltry affair, involving only three divisions on each side, but when it ended on 14 June, there were 8000 British/Canadian casualties and 5765 German – and no gains.

After the battle

After the battle

Battle of Mont Sorrel

Battle of Mont Sorrel

And the Blood Pump at Verdun continued, though at a relative trickle now.  On 2 June the Germans launched an offensive east of the Meuse again, beginning with an attack on Fort Vaux.  The fort was taken on 7 June, when after a subterranean battle in the galleries the garrison surrendered, having had no water for three days.  Taking the position cost the Germans 2740 casualties to 600 for the French, of which 246 were prisoners; the capture of the fort advanced the German line about 70 yards.

The essence of Verdun

The essence of Verdun

Fort Vaux

Fort Vaux

Inside Fort Faux

Inside Fort Vaux

The main offensive, covering a three mile front, began on 23 June and quickly advanced a mile, capturing Forts Thiaumont and Froidterre but failing before Fort Souville.  The Germans reached Chapelle Sainte-Fine, only a bit more than three miles from the Verdun citadel, but were thrown back to Fleury by a counterattack.  This halted the advance, and with supply problems and concern about the coming Somme offensive (the initial bombardment began on 24 June) the Germans called off the attack.  Chapelle was as close as they would ever get to Verdun.  The village of Fleury, incidentally, would change hands fifteen more times by the middle of August.

All that is left of Fleury

All that is left of Fleury

Fort Thiaumont

Fort Thiaumont

 

 

German advance from February to June

German advance from February to June

 

In Italy the Trentino offensive ended on 3 June, and Cadorna launched a counterattack eleven days later; it did not achieve enough to earn a name as a distinct battle. Further east, Greece was on the verge of civil war, with the pro-German royalist government in Athens and the pro-Entente Venizelist (remember him?) forces in the north.  On 3 June the liberals declared martial law in Macedonia, essentially ending any rule from Athens, and on 6 June the Allies initiated a “pacific blockade” of Greece to put pressure on the government.  On 21 June the Allies delivered a note demanding that Greek forces be demobilized and a new government formed; it was accepted and the blockaded was ended the following day.

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

Pro-Venizelos restaurant in Thessaloniki

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

King Constantine I and Prime Minister Venizelos in 1913

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, to the northeast the Russians, under pressure from the Allies to draw German and Austrian troops away from Verdun and the Italian Front, began their own summer offensive. General Aleksei Brusilov, commander of the Southwestern Front, convinced the Tsar to allow an attack into Galicia, which commenced on 4 June.  The “Brusilov Offensive” sent 633,000 Russians against 467,000 Austrians and Germans along a 300 mile front, and employing limited but more accurate artillery fire and the type of shock units the Germans were using at Verdun, Brusilov immediately broke through the Austrian lines.

Alexei Evert

Alexei Evert

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Brusilov Offensive

Brusilov Offensive

Within a week the Austrians were in headlong retreat, and Brusilov had already bagged 200,000 prisoners.  The penetration exposed his northern flank, however, and General Alexei Evert, the commander of the Western Front, just to the north, was opposed to the whole offensive and delayed moving out.  As a result, the Germans and Austrians were able to bring up new troops, and when Evert finally attacked on 18 June, he made little headway, partly because he learned nothing from Brusilov’s new tactics.  Evert was after all responsible for the disaster at Lake Naroch in March 1915.  Nevertheless, by 24 June the Russians had captured Bukovina, the southernmost part of Galicia.

June also saw more Turkish and British activity in western Persia and the merry chase after Lettow-Vorbeck continued in Africa, but the big news in June was the beginning of the Arab Revolt.  The British and French had been making big promises to Arab leaders since the war had started, hoping to stir revolts that would tie down Ottoman troops, and in early June (the date is not clear) Sharif Hussein bin Ali, fearing the Turks were about to depose him, signed up with the Allies.  As the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein could field some 50,000 troops, though they were woefully short of modern weapons.

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

On 5 June Hussein’s sons Ali (who would succeed his father as King of the Hejaz) and Faisal (who would later be King of Syria then King of Iraq) jumped the gun by attacking Medina but were easily repulsed by the Turkish garrison.  Five days later Hussein proclaimed the Hejaz independent and colorfully signaled the beginning of the Revolt by firing a shot from the Hashemite palace.  5000 of his men promptly attacked the Turkish forts in the city and on the third day captured the Ottoman Deputy Governor, who ordered his men to surrender.  Better equipped and trained than the Arabs, the 1000 Turkish troops refused, and the fighting continued into the next month.  With British naval and air support the port of Jidda was also attacked by Arab forces on 10 June and fell six days later.

Faisal (in 1933)

Faisal (in 1933)

Ali (in 1933)

Ali (in 1924)

Arab soldiers

Arab soldiers

No, the most romantic figure of the Great War, T.E. Lawrence, was not yet directly involved, but the movement that would dramatically alter the face of the Middle East was underway.  Colonel Mark Sykes (of the Sykes-Picot agreement) even designed for the Arabs a flag, which would be the pattern for the national flags of most of the post-war Arab kingdoms.

Flag of the Hejaz

Flag of the Hejaz

Mark Sykes

Mark Sykes

 

Report from the Fronts #15: May 1916

May 1916 was a relatively quiet month, at least by Great War standards. Even the great “Blood Pump” of Verdun slowed somewhat, though that was scant comfort for the men, especially on the west bank of the Meuse, who became casualties during the weeks of back and forth.  At the beginning of the month Pétain was moved up to command of the Groupe d’armées du centre (Army Group Center), and the Second Army, defending Verdun, was given to General Robert Nivelle, who determined to recover Fort Douaumont from the Germans.  Because of the impending Somme offensive, he was limited to one division with another in reserve (pocket change by Western Front standards), and after a three day bombardment General Charles Mangin, who was later known as the Butcher (“Quoi qu’on fasse, on perd beaucoup de monde” – “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men”), attacked on 21 May.

The Butcher

The Butcher

General Robert Nivelle

General Robert Nivelle

Fort Douamont before the war

Fort Douaumont before the war

The French captured about half the fort the first day, but reinforcements were cut off by a German counter-attack and on 24 May the thousand soldiers in the fort surrendered.  The failed assault cost the French 5,640 casualties, about half the attacking force; the Germans lost 4,500 men.  Incidentally, the German defenders of Douaumont had already suffered casualties without the French lifting a trigger finger.  On 8 May some soldiers had attempted to make coffee using flamethrower liquid for fuel, and the cooking fire spread, igniting shells and a firestorm in the fort.  Hundreds died immediately, but more tragic – and by the dark standards of the war, comic – soot covered men fleeing the fort were shot at by their fellow soldiers, who thought they were being attacked by French African troops.

Fort Douaumont entrance today

Fort Douaumont entrance today

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Inside Fort Douaumont

Fort Douamont today

Fort Douaumont today

On the Italian front General Cadorna was not ready for the next installment of the Isonzo Follies, but the Austrians felt it was time for them to take a shot. Despite incredible supply difficulties because of the terrain the Austrian Chief of Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, planned an offensive out of the Austrian-occupied Trentino, the area north of Lake Garda.  If the 11th and 3rd Austrian Armies could break the Italian line, they would be loose in the Venetian plain, only forty miles from Venice and behind the Italian forces on the Isonzo some eighty miles to the east.  And the plan actually almost worked.

General Luigi Cadorna

General Luigi Cadorna

General Franz von Hötzendorf

General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf

Italian front

Italian front: Trentino offensive red arrows to the left

Cadorna had a quarter million troops in the area of the offensive, but Hötzendorf had managed to concentrate twice that number along a thirty mile front. Italian intelligence could hardly miss these preparations, but Cadorna was convinced, mainly by the terrain, that nothing would be going down there, and in any case his First Army commander ignored his orders to prepare deeper defenses.

Italian troops

Italian troops

Fighting in the Alps

Fighting in the Alps

Austrian supply line

Austrian supply line

And so the Trentino Offensive (or Battle of Asiago) began on 14 May as 2000 Austrian guns opened up. The Italian center collapsed within days, and by the end of May the Austrians were six miles beyond Asiago and at the edge of the Venetian plain.  Cadorna rushed reinforcements to the area (the plain had an excellent railway grid) and the offensive was slowed by the immense logistical difficulties, but by the beginning of June the situation was definitely critical.

The inevitable result

The inevitable result

Fighting in the Alps

Fighting in the Alps

Asiago are after the offensive

Asiago area after the offensive

The Trentino Offensive was the only serious land engagement of May; major offensives were brewing on the Western and Eastern Fronts.  On 25 May a force from Rhodesia entered German East Africa, and both the Russians and British were occupying more territory in Persia.  By 15 May Russian forces were in northern Mesopotamia, and on 18 May a contingent of Cossacks made contact with the British on the Tigris River.

On 16 May the Second Military Service Act passed Commons and became law on the 25th; married men were no longer exempt.  The net was growing wider in order to supply the abattoir in France.

On 9 May the British and French agreed to the Sykes-Picot plan for partitioning the Ottoman Empire and on the 23rd notified the Russians, who were already on board.  Meanwhile, the Empire was about to break up on its own, as the Allies began blockading the coast of the Hejaz on 15 May.  The Turkish vilayet (province) of Hejaz comprised the western coastal area of the Arabian Peninsula south to Yemen, including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, and was under the authority of the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, who had been in communication with the French and British and planned a revolt for June.

Mecca and the Kabba in 1910

Mecca and the Kaaba in 1910

Sharif

Sharif Hussein bin Ali

The Hejaz

The Hejaz

We will see.

 

 

 

English Poetry of the Great War

War has always produced poetry, traditionally paeans to courage, honor and self-sacrifice and celebrations of the warrior fighting and perhaps dying nobly and the soldier giving his life for his country.  The Great War initially produced such sentiments, and perhaps the best remembered English language poem of the war is In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, a Canadian physician, who composed the verse on 3 May 1915 in memory of a friend who had died at the Second Battle of Ypres.  (McCrae himself died of influenza in 1918.)  The poem succinctly captures two traditional aspects of war poetry: the honored dead and the sense of mission, now to be carried on by others, that brought them to the grave.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. 

John McCrae

John McCrae 1914

But the Great War was unlike any previous conflict in history.  Firearms and cannon, the weapons of industry, had been present for centuries, but this was the first truly industrialized war.  Traditionally, the hideous face of war – the disemboweled men, the stinking bodies, the maimed survivors – had generally been ignored in favor of those noble qualities associated with men facing death.  Twentieth century weaponry blew away this romantic mantle.

It was now extremely difficult to ignore the utter horror and to see anything at all heroic in the mega-death of the trench lines. You no longer died on a field of green, exhorting your comrades with your last breath and confident you would be celebrated by them.  Now you died in the mud, choking on the gas or shredded by shrapnel.  Now you were incinerated or blown into nothing or buried alive by the artillery.  Now your comrades might never find you and were in any case likely to soon be casualties themselves.

And by 1916 the seeming pointlessness of it all, the sacrifice of thousands for a few yards of ground in a struggle that appeared to have no end, was wearing away old notions of glory and patriotism. Even Rudyard Kipling, whose son John was killed at Loos in September 1915, had doubts, writing the epitaph “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Rudyard Kipling 1916

Rudyard Kipling 1915

At the beginning of the conflict the age-old sentiment of Horace (Odes 3.2.13) was paramount: Dulce et decorum est pro partia mori – Sweet and proper is it to die for the fatherland.  But the ghastly conditions of the trenches soon made a mockery of dulce et decorum, and it became less and less clear how one’s death benefited one’s country, especially when the generals, comfortable in their chateaux, did not seem to be given many opportunities pro patria mori.

Dulce et decorum est...

Dulce et decorum est…

...pro patria mori

…pro patria mori

 

Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly one week before the war ended, reflected this disillusionment in what is perhaps my favorite poem from the whole bloody affair: Dulce et Decorum est.

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.-
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

 

Such images could hardly be more distant from the maudlin call of In Flanders Fields.  The environment of war may produce noble actions – and great literature – but it is after all impersonal slaughter, and the Great War demonstrated that in a way unmatched before or since.

Reports from the Front #7: October 1915

(This has taken a long time and no other posts have appeared, but a lot has been going on in my life. And it’s not like I am being paid for this – I get no cut from those ads you might see at the end of a post.  Hey, I like to write.)

 

October 1915 was “Balkan Month” in the Great War.  At the invitation of Prime Minister Venizélos allied troops showed up at Salonika on 3 October, prompting the Greek government to protest.  Despite this opposition and that of King Constantine, leading to the resignation of Venizélos, the French and British landed two days later, and on 8 October the new Greek government proclaimed a policy of armed neutrality.  This seems a strange call inasmuch as one group of belligerents was actually in Greece, but the Greeks feared the now mobilized Bulgarians.

In response to that mobilization on 4 October the Entente Powers delivered an ultimatum to Sofia, demanding all German officers be expelled from the country.  It was ignored.  The west had lost the territorial bidding war for the allegiance (or at least neutrality) of the strategically located Bulgaria.  Russia recalled its ambassadors on 5 October and Britain on 13 October, on which day French and Bulgarian troops in Macedonia actually engaged one another.  On 15 October Montenegro and Britain declared a state of war with Bulgaria, and the French followed the next day; Russia and Italy came in on 19 October.

Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov of Bulgaria

Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov of Bulgaria

Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria

Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria

"Bulgaria is with us"

“Bulgaria is with us”

Meanwhile, the Austrians had been busy.  On 7 October the final solution of the Serbian question began, even though the three previous attempts to conquer Serbia in 1914 had been complete failures.  But the Empire wanted the Serbs crushed, Germany wanted a land passage to the Ottomans and the Bulgarians were eager to bite off chunks of Serbian territory.  The invasion force consisted of the German Eleventh Army and the Austro-Hungarian Third Army in the north and the Bulgarian First Army in the east, more than 300,000 men (I could not locate accurate figures) led by Field Marshal Mackensen.

Goodbye, Serbia

Goodbye, Serbia

They were faced by perhaps 200,000 poorly equipped Serbians, who would essentially be on their own. Serbia’s ally Montenegro had a miniscule untrained militia, and Greece, bound by treaty to defend Serbia, lawyered up and argued that the agreement was no longer valid.  There were only 13,000 allied troops at Salonika, and the French units that did move into Macedonia were easily brushed aside by the Bulgarians.  On 9 October the Austrians captured Belgrade, which was right on the Austrian frontier, while the Bulgarians slowly pushed west and south.  The invaders were hampered by the mountainous terrain, which prevented Mackensen from encircling and annihilating the Serbian army, which had retreated to the center of the country.  Nevertheless, by the end of the month half of Serbia was occupied, and the Serbs were streaming westward.

Retreating Serbians

Retreating Serbians

In other news, the stalemate in Gallipoli continued, the Indians were still sweating up the Tigris and in northern Italy General Cadorna began the Third Battle of the Isonzo on 18 October. Of more importance in the long run on 24 October the British government sent a letter to the Sharif of Mecca defining a post-war Arab state.  Both sides were courting the Arabs, but the Entente was in a far better position inasmuch as the Turkish imperial masters were on the side of the Central Powers.

General Luigi Cadorna "The men just need to fight harder."

General Luigi Cadorna
“The men just need to fight harder.”

Hussein ibn Ali Sharif and Emir of Mecca

Hussein ibn Ali
Sharif and Emir of Mecca

In one of the more bizarre actions of the war both sides were also courting the Jews, not because they could supply some sort of military force, but because they were so economically and politically powerful. Or at least that is what the Germans, French and British thought.  Influential persons in their governments actually fell for the old anti-Semitic idea that there was a powerful worldwide Jewish network, which could possibly alter the course of the war.  This was of course nonsense, but the Zionist movement, particularly strong in Britain, was hardly going to pass on the leverage they received from this silly notion.  This resulted in vague promises of a Jewish state, such as the Balfour Declaration, which would appear in 1917, despite the fact that similar promises were being made to the Arabs and that both Britain and France were in interested in the colonial pickings available from a dissolved Ottoman Empire.

Chaim Weizmann, leader of  British Zionism 1915

Chaim Weizmann,
leader of British Zionism 1915

Theodor Herzel, founder of the World Zionist Organization 1897

Theodor Herzel,
founder of the World Zionist Organization 1897

On the Western Front the slaughter continued: the Third Battle of Artois ended on 15 October, a bloody failure, but the Second Champagne Campaign plodded on until 6 November. As early as 3 October Papa Joffre announced there would be no breakthrough but the offensive would continue as a battle of attrition, and on 22 October he declared that the campaign had made important tactical gains and achieved a “moral superiority” over the Germans by inflicting heavy casualties.  The “tactical gains” amounted to moving the line a few kilometers, and one might expect the Germans did not feel particularly morally inferior, inasmuch as 35 French divisions failed to break a line defended by 15 German divisions.

He was right about one thing: the casualties. The French lost 145,000 men, the Germans 72,000 (25,000 of them prisoners); it is not clear how inflicting heavier casualties on your own troops advanced the cause.  The Third Battle of Artois (including Loos) cost the French another 48,000 casualties, the British 121,000 and the Germans 149,000, not bad for little more than a month of fighting.  The German defense in depth had again demonstrated its effectiveness, but the lesson seemed lost on the chateau generals on the western side of the trench line.  Joffre’s remark about a battle of attrition would prove to be prophetic when 1916 rolled around.

There was one more casualty from the Third Battle of Artois – Field Marshall John French. As Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, French had not got on very well with his fellow generals, both British and French, and only a visit from the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, could move him to take part in the First Battle of the Marne.  He was blamed for losing at Loos because of mishandling his reserves, which seems more like scapegoating from Kitchener and French’s other enemies than an objective appraisal.  In any case, with such powerful foes in London his days were numbered.

Haig, Joffre and French in a rare visit to the front

Haig, Joffre and French in a rare visit to the front

A few other events of note in October.   The third Allied attack on Mora in the Cameroons began on 30 October, and on 13 October the heaviest airship attack yet produced some 200 casualties in London and along the east coast of Britain.  On 12 October the Germans executed a British nurse, Edith Cavell, who had been arrested in August.  Stationed in Brussels, Cavell had been helping smuggle allied soldiers to Holland and on to England, a violation of German military law.  Medical personnel were protected by the First Geneva Convention, but Cavell lost that protection by actively aiding one of the belligerents.  Some German officers called for clemency, but the military governor of Brussels, General Traugott Martin von Sauberzweig, ordered her execution “for reasons of state,” thus denying her any hope of clemency from further up in the German command. The death of Cavell was a propaganda windfall for the allies, and General von Sauberzweig was later relieved.  After the war a British commission concluded that Cavell’s execution was in accordance with the laws of war.

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell

German Gotha strategic bomber

German Gotha strategic bomber

German airship bombing Warsaw

German airship bombing Warsaw

 

 

Laws of war, always an interesting concept.