Report from the Fronts #49: September 1918

(OK, extremely late, but wadda ya gonna do?)

100 Days Offensive

 

The Allies were rolling now.  The Second Somme came to an end on 3 September, and Foch determined to launch a broad assault on the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung).  First, though, he cleaned up the German salients west of the Line in order to attack the entire string of fortifications at once.  The British and French advanced towards the Line in a number of relatively small engagements, heading for Cambrai, Saint-Quentin and Laon.  By 25 September the Germans were pushed back to the Line, having surrendered all the gains of their Spring Offensive.  The Allies nevertheless still believed the War could not be won until 1919.

Battle of Saint-Mihiel

One part of this operation was the Battle of Saint-Mihiel on 12-15 September, the only American-directed major offensive of the war.  Pershing’s First Army (14 American and 4 French divisions) easily cleared the Saint-Mihiel salient – the Germans were already in retreat – but as usual with successful advances the troops (660,000 of them) got ahead of their supplies and artillery and were forced to halt rather than attempt a breakthrough to Metz.  The Battle of Saint-Mihiel, incidentally, was recreated in the 1927 movie Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture; it also involved the first recorded use of the term D-Day.

Breaking the Hindenburg Line

American engineers

The grand assault on the Hindenburg Line kicked off on 26 September with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which would last until the Armistice.  The strike was launched from the southern (Verdun) sector, and the ultimate objective was the city of Sedan, which was an absolutely vital lateral rail hub for the Germans (and the scene of their victory over France in 1870).  The strike force consisted of 15 (later 22) American divisions, which were anywhere from 30% to 100% larger than the European, and 31 French divisions, for a total of 1,200,000 men; they were accompanied by 2780 guns, 380 tanks and 840 planes.  Facing the Allied force were ultimately 44 German divisions, most of them half strength, totaling up to 450,000 generally demoralized men under Fifth Army commander Georg von der Marwitz (remember him?).

German dugout

American gun crew

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In terms of personnel the operation was a partial role call for America’s next war. Handling the massive Allied logistics was Colonel George Marshall, who as Chief of Staff of the Army would in the Second World War oversee the expansion and supply of the entire US army and the rebuilding of Europe.  Vigorously leading an infantry battalion was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who would create and direct the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.  Colonel George Patton commanded a tank brigade, while an infantry brigade was under General Douglas MacArthur.  And managing an artillery battery was Captain Harry Truman.

Col. Marshall

Col. Marshall

Col. Donovan

Col. Patton

Gen. MacArthur – already the poseur

Capt. Truman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first phase of the offensive lasted until 3 October, during which period the less experienced Americans gained from 2 to 5 miles, while the French, fighting in more open countryside, advanced their front some 9 miles.  These bare words, of course, cover many French villages being destroyed and many men giving their all, at a time when even the Kaiser knew the war was lost.  Pershing immediately recognized that clearing the Saint-Mihiel salient was nothing at all like frontally assaulting well-established German positions.  On the other hand, the German veterans were impressed by American aggressiveness and the willingness of the doughboys to charge into machine gun fire.

On 28 September the second –and weakest – thrust of the grand offensive, the Fifth Battle of Ypres, was launched far to the north in Flanders.  12 Belgium, 10 British (Second Army) and 6 French divisions (Sixth Army) under the command of King Albert of Belgium struck east from the Ypres area, heading towards Passchendaele and ultimately Ghent.  Initially faced by no more than 5 German divisions, the Allies made good progress despite the rough terrain; by 30 September all the high ground east of Ypres and the area west of Passchendaele had been recovered, and by 1 October units were on the Lys River.  But with German reinforcements arriving and the Allied troops beyond easy supply, the push came to end the following day.

A break from the battle

The Ypres area after five battles

The Ypres salient

The central thrust pushed off on 29 September, attacking one of the strongest stretches of the Hindenburg Line.  The offensive included the British Third Army in the north and the French First Army in the south, but the British Fourth Army in the center faced the greatest challenge, crossing the Saint-Quentin canal.  Army commander Henry Rawlinson had 30 British and Australian divisions and two (oversized) American divisions attached to the Australian Corps, and they faced 39 (generally depleted) German divisions of Adolph von Carlowitz’ Second Army and the formidable defenses along the deep cut of the canal.  The Aussies and Yanks would confront the particularly strong fortifications at the Bony-Bellicourt sector, where the canal ran underground through a tunnel.

General Rawlinson

General von Carlowitz

Battle of Saint-Quentin

The battle began with 1600 guns firing almost a million rounds, the biggest British barrage in the war.  The two American divisions, followed by two Australian and equipped with 150 tanks, headed for the Bellicourt Tunnel sector, their goal the Catelet-Nauroy Line east of the tunnel.  The right half of the advance, led by the American 30th Division, penetrated the Hindenburg Line and by the early morning of 30 September had captured Bellicourt and part of Nauroy, despite taking heavy fire on their left flank because of the failure of the American 27th Division on the left to keep up.  The Australians reported finding large groups of leaderless American troops, who had suffered seriously because of their inexperience.

Yanks after the capture of Bellicourt

Southern end of the canal tunnel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, immediately south of the Americans and Australians the British 46th Division, followed by the 32nd (home of the poet Wilfred Owen), was able to cross the very deep cut of the canal between Riqueval and Bellenglise, crossing the canal with boats, rafts and lifejackets while artillery kept the defenders pinned in their trenches.  Tanks were brought over the tunnel area captured by the 30th Division and sent south to support the British, who had secured the eastern bank and the German defenses by the end of the day.  The achievement of the 46th Division was just short of incredible, crossing the waterway with anything that would float, climbing the wall of the east bank with scaling ladders (!) and capturing the formidable defenses – with fewer than 800 casualties.

The canal cut in 1918

Riqueval Bridge and the canal cut today

Addressing the troops at the Riqueval Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east Allenby’s successful and low cost campaign to drive General Liman von Sanders and his Turks out of Palestine continued with the Battle of Megiddo (actually a number of engagements) from 19 to 25 September.  While Lawrence and Arab Revolt units were harassing and disrupting Turkish communications, Allenby’s carefully planned offensive moved rapidly north and east, establishing by the 25th a line running from Acre on the coast east to the Sea of Galilee and south to Amman (Jordan); Australian units would capture Damascus on 1 October.  During this roughly two week period 75,000 Turkish soldiers surrendered to Commonwealth forces (many to avoid slaughter by the Arab forces) at a cost of about 1500 casualties; only 6000 Turkish soldiers escaped.

Bombed Turkish transport

Allenby’s September campaign

Otto Liman von Sanders

Edmund Allenby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Off in the former Russian Empire Allied forces were on the move.  On 2 September an Italian force arrived at Murmansk and was joined two days later by General William Graves and more American troops.  On that same day Obozerskaya, 100 miles south of Archangel, was captured by the Allies, and on the 11th Ukhtinskaya on the Murmansk front.  The Canadians showed up in Archangel at the end of the month, by which time Allied troops, aided by Poles and White forces, had pushed 150 miles south up the Dvina River, battling Bolshevik forces on the river and in fortified villages.  In the far east the city of Khabarovsk, 360 miles north of Vladivostok, was taken by the Japanese on 5 September.

Archangel

Allied troops

Red prisoners of Americans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vladivostok

Allied troops

Japanese troops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, diplomatic exchanges in September underscored the crumbling position of the Central Powers.  On 15 September Austria requested from President Wilson the opening of peace talks and Germany actually offered Belgium a peace treaty; unsurprisingly, both were immediately turned down.  More successful were the Bulgarians, who on the 28th requested of the Allies an immediate armistice, which was granted two days later; Bulgaria was out of the war.  On 25 September Italy recognized the pan-Slavic state – Yugoslavia – that was emerging across the Adriatic as the Austrian Empire crumbled (more on this in October).

Finally, remember Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris?  On September 28, nine months and 1500 miles after invading Portuguese East Africa, the Colonel and his ragged but still effective band of mostly native troops slipped across the Rovuma River back into German East Africa.  On their arrival the askaris cheered their German leader with “Bwana Obersti anarudi!” – “The Colonel is back!” The game of dodging a quarter million Commonwealth troops went on.

Jacob van Deventer (seated) – the opposition

Lettow-Vorbeck – the Lion of Africa

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Report from the Fronts #48: August 1918

(Late in part because of a cat crisis.  I have been doing this now for three and a half years, and I can hardly wait until the bloody war ends.  Of course, there are the peace negotiations, the post-war environment and the Russian Civil War.)

German Spring Offensive

 

By the beginning of August it was fairly clear the Germans could not win the war; by the end of the month it was equally clear the Allies would. The Allied counterattack in response to Operation Friedensturm had by 6 August recovered virtually all of the Spring Offensive gains, and two days later the Allies launched the first of a series of assaults – collectively called the Hundred Days Offensive – that would push the Germans out of France by November.  The war was hastening to an end, but tens of thousands still had to die.

On 7 August General Foch was made a Marshal of France and the next day began the Battle of Amiens (the French assault in the south was known as the Battle of Montdidier), sending 10 British, Commonwealth and French divisions and over 500 tanks along the Somme east of the city.  The plan, devised by Douglas “Butcher of the Somme” Haig, sought to push the Germans further away from the vital city of Amiens and take advantage of the weakened state of the opposing German Second Army.  The terrain in the area was also excellent for tanks, whose value in penetrating the trench lines – despite the constant breakdowns – was now well appreciated.

General Haig

Marshall Foch

Battle of Amiens

On the first day the Allies blasted a 15 mile wide hole in the German lines and advanced an average 6-7 miles, inflicting 30,000 casualties to their own 6500.  Of those German losses 17,000 were prisoners, as demoralized troops began surrendering in larger numbers; Ludendorff called 7 August “der Schwarzer Tag des deutschen Heeres” (“the Black Day of the German Army”).  But the rapid advance meant the troops quickly outdistanced their artillery and logistical support, and in the following days movement slowed to more familiar rates.  Nevertheless, on 10 August Ludendorff began to evacuate the Amiens salient, established back in March.

The lucky ones – German POWs

The battle had, incidentally, clearly demonstrated the value of the tank in breaking through static defenses; the units without serious tank support simply could not match the progress of those with armor.  On the other hand, the age of Blitzkrieg was still a ways off: of the more than 500 tanks involved only 6 remained operational on 10 August.

The major action came to an end on 12 August, and Haig refused Foch’s request to continue with the offensive, preferring to launch a new advance to the north, between Albert and Arras.  Was the Butcher uneasy about the growing casualties and the old ghosts along the Somme or did he simply desire a push that did not involve the French?  In any case Byng’s Third Army (which included the American II Corps) went over the top on 21 August, smashing into von der Marwitz’s weak Second Army and beginning the Second Battle of Bapaume (and the Second Battle of the Somme).  Albert was captured the second day, Bapaume fell on 29 August, and Australians crossed the Somme on the 31st.  By then the German line had been blasted open along a 40 mile front.

General von der Marwitz (right) and the Kaiser

General Byng

Battle of Bapaume

To the south the French Tenth Army had begun their own offensive (the Second Battle of Noyon) on 17 August and widened the gap in the German line, capturing Noyon on the 29th.  On 26 August the British First Army, just to the north of the French, joined the offensive (the Second Battle of Arras), and far to the north in Belgium the British Second Army began a tentative advance in Flanders on 18 August.  The Great War had become mobile again, and the end was drawing near for the Central Powers.

British gun carrier

The retreat of the Germans, incidentally, forced the withdrawal of the Paris Gun, and the last shells plunged out of the stratosphere into the city on 15 August.  The weapon was a marvelous piece of engineering but had virtually no effect on the war.

Meanwhile, Allied involvement in the Russian maelstrom was growing.  On 1 August the Expeditionary Force under British General Frederick Poole began an assault on Archangel and captured it the following day when pro-Allied forces overthrew the local Soviet.  That same day Japan determined to send troops to Vladivostok, presumably looking for territorial gains, and on the 11th the first units arrived; British troops had already landed at the city on the 3rd.  On 4 August a British force entered oil-rich Baku on the Caspian Sea, and two days later London announced that the British would not be involving themselves in Russian affairs, a declaration that must have rung a bit hollow.

Baku oil field

Japanese print of Vladivostok landing

Vladivostok

Archangel

Frederick Poole

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 5 August the last German airship raid on England took place, unsuccessfully.  In the course of the war there had been 51 airship and 59 airplane bombing attacks on the United Kingdom, killing 1392 people and injuring 3330.  Apart from initially creating some panic the bombing had no real effect on the war, but efforts to defend against it laid the foundation for British air defenses in the Second World War.

Zeppelin airship

Gotha in flight

Gotha bomber

 

 

Finally, on 13 August the Czecho-Slovaks declared their independence at Prague.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was breaking up.

Declaration of independence in Prague (October)

 

 

Report from the Fronts #47: July 1918

Spring Offensive

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

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

Henri Gouraud

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

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

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

counterattack

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

Gefreiter (lance corporal) Adolf Hitler

Hitler, seated far right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Russia in 1918

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

Yakov Yurovsky

Ipatiev House

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Ivan Kharitonov, cook

Ama Demidova, maid

Eugene Botkin, doctor

Alexei Trupp, footman

The Romanov family

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

The execution chamber

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

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

Where the truck got stuck and the bodies buried

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

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

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

Askaris on the march

Lettow-Vorbeck

East African campaign

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

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

Mehmet V

Mehmed VI

Mehmed VI leaving the palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

U-55

RMS Carpathia

Carpathia going down

Report from the Fronts #46: June 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne) came to an end on 6 June, having brought the Germans within 35 miles of Paris.  But no decisive breakthrough had resulted, and Ludendorff was determined to take one more shot before the front was overwhelmed with Americans.  On 9 June he launched Operation Gneisenau (the Battle of the Matz), essential a continuation of Blücher-Yorck, still hoping to draw more Allied troops south from Flanders, but though the Germans advanced nine miles in a few days, a surprise French counterattack (no preliminary bombardment) at Compiègn on 11 June halted the thrust and the operation was cancelled on the 13th.  Those four days cost the Germans 30,000 casualties and the Allies 35,000.

Operation Gneisenau

June also saw more American action on the Western Front. On 2 June American units, including a battalion of Marines, occupied a 12 mile stretch of the front before Belleau Wood, about half a dozen miles west of Château Thierry.  The following day they easily repelled a German assault, ignoring the French, who were retreating; said Marine Captain Lloyd Williams “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here.”  On 6 June the Allies launched a limited offensive in the area, assigning the now enlarged contingent of Marines several objectives, including Belleau Wood, where a regiment of Germans were well entrenched.  Unfortunately, the Marines were unaware of this.

Marines and poilus

Captain Williams

Belleau vicinity

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many Marines were mowed down in the wheat fields surrounding the woods, but they achieved their phase one objectives nevertheless.  Late in the afternoon two Marine battalions moved on Belleau Wood, which meant once again crossing a field raked by machine gun fire, prompting Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly to yell to him men “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”  Sure enough, the first waves were slaughtered, but the Marines managed to reach the Wood and secure a position, engaging the Germans in hand-to-hand combat.  In terms of casualties this was the worst day for the Marine Corps up to this time.

Killing Germans

Chasing Germans

In Belleau “Wood”

In Belleau “Wood”

Sergeant Daly

The situation now settled into a stalemate of bloody attack and counterattack, until after six American assaults the Wood was finally cleared of Germans on 26 June.  The Americans suffered 9777 casualties, while apart from 1600 captured German losses are unknown.  Belleau Wood was of course a relatively trivial episode on the Western Front (which is why this report is late – I thought it was in July), but it confirmed for the Allies and the Germans that the Americans, who were now flooding into France, were for real.  And that an American Marine with a rifle was an awesome weapon.

x

 

Down in sunny Italy the Allies scored another defensive victory.  On 15 June the Austrians launched an offensive along the middle and eastern portions of the front, the Second Battle of the Piave River.  The Austrians had been reinforced by German divisions freed up by the surrender of Russia and trained in the assault tactics of the Western Front, but disagreement between the two army group commanders, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (west) and General Svetozar Borojević (east), resulted in a broad offensive rather than the narrow attack that had been so successful at Caporetto.

Borojević

Hötzendorf

Second Battle of the Piave River

 

 

Things were also different across the Piave.  General Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna had been replaced with Armando Diaz, who had learned a few things from the Caporetto disaster: he developed a defense in depth without a continuous trench line, a decentralized command system that allowed tremendous flexibility and small unit autonomy and a central reserve of thirteen “motorized” (they had trucks) divisions.  He had also received eleven British/French divisions, but most were called back west when the German Spring Offensive kicked off.

Diaz

Buoyed by the victory at Caporreto and the prospect of knocking Italy out of the war, the Austrians attacked at 3:00 AM.  Unfortunately, the Italians had discovered the precise time of the assault and at 2:30 AM began raining shells on the troops packing the forward trenches, sending many reeling back to defensive positions.  In the west Conrad made some small gains on the Asiago Plateau, but he was driven back the following day and spent the rest of the offensive making pointless attacks with his dwindling forces.  Borojević, on the other hand, was able to establish a substantial bridgehead along fifteen miles of the lower Piave to the Adriatic, threatening Venice, but the growing difficulty of getting men and supplies across the swollen Piave, whose bridges were continually bombed by the Italians, proved too much to overcome.

Waiting for the Austrians

Waiting…

Waiting…

Waiting…in color

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 19 June the Italians counterattacked, and while Borojević avoided a disaster, he was ordered by the Emperor to withdraw, and the Italians recovered all the lost territory by the 23rd.  Diaz immediately came under heavy pressure from the Allied command to go on the offensive, but he understood well that his forces needed to be reorganized and that crossing the Piave would put him in precisely the same circumstances Borojević had suffered.  The offensive cost the Austrians 118,000 casualties, the Italians 87,000, nothing new on the Italian front, but though few could have guessed at the time, the Second Battle of the Piave River was the last real offensive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a state whose political core stretched back to 800 and Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

On to victory, Italia!

Perhaps symbolic of the impending end of the Empire was an event that took place the very day the Piave offensive began. The commander of the Austrian navy (and future dictator of Hungary), Miklós Horthy, decided to challenge the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the Strait of Otranto, which had kept the Austrian surface fleet bottled up in the Adriatic.  Under cover of darkness Austria’s four most advanced battleships left their base at Pula on 8 and 9 June, but before the two squadrons could unite SMS Tegetthoff and SMS Szent István were discovered by two Italian motor torpedo boats early on 10 June.  One went after the Tegetthoff and missed, but the other – MAS 15 commanded by Luigi Rizzo – put two torpedoes into the Szent István at 3:20 AM.

Italian torpedo boats

SMS Szent István

 

Admiral Horthy

Austrian dreadnaughts at Pula

The Adriatic Sea today

The aft boiler room quickly flooded and the ship began listing to the starboard.  All efforts to counter the list failed, and soon the forward boiler room began flooding, ending power for the pumps.  The Szent István was doomed, but no order was given to abandon ship, and as the battleship settled further into the water, the event was filmed from the Tegetthoff (watch the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pSiCjfhUUw), while the ship’s band played the Austrian national anthem.  The ship capsized and slid beneath the surface at 6:05 AM, losing only 89 men out of a complement of 1094 – contrary to usual practice Austro-Hungarian sailors had to learn to swim.  And like the Szent István, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire was slowly slipping beneath the waters of history, to disappear forever.  (Well, actually the Szent István was found in the 1970s.)

…and down

Luigi Rizzo

MAS 15

Going down…

 

SMS Szent István today

Meanwhile, the Allies were being sucked further into the Russian Civil War. British marines landed at Pechenga in Murmansk province on 4 June, and three days later another British force arrived at Kem in Karelia on the White Sea.  With German troops in Finland the Allies feared that war stocks in northern Russia would be captured, and they also wished to rescue the Czech Legion (which took the key Siberian city of Omsk just as Tommies were disembarking at Kem).  This of course meant inevitable confrontation with the Bolsheviks, who on 8 June ordered the western forces to leave.  They responded on 24 June by sending more troops to join the North Russia Expeditionary Force already at Murmansk and a week later seizing the northern part of the Murman Railway (now the Kirov Railway), which linked Murmansk to St. Petersburg.  American doughboys would soon be joining them.

At Murmansk

Murman Railway

At Murmansk

 

Murmansk

(Late) Report from the Fronts #45: May 1918

 

Spring Offensive

Operation Georgette came to an end on 27 April, and despite the absence of the hoped for breakthrough Ludendorff decided to go on to the next phase of the offensive, Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne).  The thrust would be between Soissons and Rheims, southwest across the Aisne River towards the Marne and Paris, but Ludendorff was apparently still thinking in terms of drawing more Allied forces south in preparation for another assault in Flanders that would separate the British and French armies.

On 27 May 4000 guns opened up on the Chemin des Dames Ridge (lost during the Second Battle of the Aisne), where four refitting British divisions were blown apart, having been ordered to hold the forward trenches – against all experience – by General Denis Duchêne, commander of the French Sixth Army (he was sacked after the battle).  Some 20 divisions swept through a 25 mile hole in the line and reached the Aisne River in less than six hours, and by the end of the month the Germans had captured Soissons and reached the Marne, only 35 miles from Paris.

Erich von Ludendorff

British lads on the Aisne

Overrun trench

Denis Duchêne

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But then the inevitable: lengthening supply lines, tired troops and heavy losses slowed the offensive to a crawl, and Allied counterattacks halted it on 6 June.  Both sides lost about 130,00 men, and not only did the British not send substantial manpower south, as Ludendorff had hoped, but the Field Marshall had himself transferred German troops from Flanders, undermining his own strategic plan.  There were a million German troops in the east (Sevastopol was taken on 1 May and Rostov a week later), but in the west Ludendorff was rapidly running out of men.

He was also running out of time.  At this time there were only four ready American divisions in theater, gaining experience in the trenches of quiet stretches of the Front, but on 28 May the American 1st Division (the Big Red One) engaged in the AEF’s first offensive, capturing and holding Cantigny (southeast of Amiens) and impressing the French and British.  By the beginning of June 10,000 doughboys were pouring into France each day, and Ludendorff had to know that his days were numbered.

Yanks at Catigny

(Painted) Yanks defending Catigny

Catigny

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the east the former Russian Empire was flying apart and the Bolsheviks were fighting for their lives, literally against everyone, including people they ostensibly represented: on 9 May Red Army troops fired on protesting workers in Kolpino.  And that came to include the Czech Legion.  Traveling east on the Siberian Railroad, the Czechs were meeting trainloads of German, Austrian and Hungarian prisoners moving west, and on 14 May at Chelyabinsk a fight broke out and a Hungarian was killed.  The local Bolsheviks arrested several Czechs and ordered them shot; the Czechs promptly occupied the city.  Within a month the Legion, aided by White forces, would control the railway from the Ural Mountains to Lake Baikal.

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Czech Legion

Trans-Siberian railroad

Meanwhile, the Finnish Civil War ended on 7 May with a White victory, guaranteeing Finnish independence, at least until Stalin invaded the country in 1940.  And on the same day that the Legion revolted Kerensky, the former head of the Provisional Government, fled Russia, which is why he was one of the few key figures from 1917 to survive until 1970.

Kerensky 1917

Kerensky 1960s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down in Palestine Allenby’s second strike across the Jordan, launched on 30 April, captured the town of Es Salt, but the British were driven back over the Jordan by 4 May.  They also captured Kirkuk in northern Iraq on 7 May, but were forced to evacuate it on the 24th.

British troops in Es Salt

The Turks were doing much better.  With Russia sinking further into civil war the way into the Caucasus was open, barred only by the inherently unstable Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, with which they were already at war.  On 11 May a peace conference took place at Batum, but given what the Turks had done to the Armenians in 1915, it was doomed, and the Ottoman Third Army continued its advance on the 21st.  Five days later Georgia proclaimed its independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia, followed in two days by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Armenia.  Georgia joined the Germans, Azerbaijan the Turks and Armenia fought on.

The Caucasus today

Remember the raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend last month?  On 9 May the British again attempted to ground a block ship at Ostend, employing HMS Vindictive, covered with glory and damage from the Zeebrugge raid.  But a fog set in and the clever Germans had moved the navigation buoys, resulting in the sunken cruiser only partially blocking the harbor entrance.

HMS Vindictive 1918

HMS Vindictive 1900

Second Ostend raid

Finally, additional distant vultures were gathering: Nicaragua declared war on Germany on 8 May and Costa Rica on the 24th.  One might wonder why.  Well, at this time Nicaragua was virtually an American colony, and the dictator of Costa Rica, General Federico Tinoco, hoped for American recognition of his government.  The general did not get it and was deposed in 1919, but Costa Rica remained in a technical state of war with Germany until after the Second World War.

Federico Tinoco

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Report from the Fronts #43: the Airplane II

German air superiority, the result of the synchronized gun, was over by the beginning of 1916. When the fight for Verdun began in February, the Germans were initially able to dominate the air, but by April the French, with their new Nieuport 11s, had chased them out of the skies.  It was becoming clear that mastery of the air was of growing importance, as artillery developed its coordination with aerial spotting and the idea of close support of infantry (strafing and bombing troops) was emerging.  This in turn forced the development of antiaircraft weaponry and techniques.

British insignia

French insignia

Belgian insignia

Russian insignia

Italian insignia

American isignia

German isignia

Austrian insignia

Ottoman insignia

The Royal Flying Corps and the Aéronautique Militaire were now pumping planes and men into battle, and while pilots were typically poorly trained because of the rush to get them in the air, the Allies were very successful during the Battles of Verdun and the Somme.  The Germans got the message and by October had reorganized their air arm as the Luftstreitkräfte, which now included bomber groups, ground support units and most famously, increasingly well-organized and trained fighter squadrons, the Jagdstaffeln (abbreviated to Jasta).

There was now clearly an arms race in the air.  By the end of 1916 new specialized German fighter aircraft were beginning to win the skies back from the numerically superior Allied forces.  The fragile Fokker Eindeckers gave way to biplane designs, the Halberstadt D.II, the Fokker D.III and the more advanced Albatros D.I; the Fokker and Albatros mounted twin machine guns, giving the German pilots a tremendous advantage in combat.  Further, the Jagdstaffeln were rapidly developing new tactics that emphasized coordinated attacks by the planes in a squadron.  The day of the lone fighter was fast disappearing.

Halberstadt D.II

Fokker D.III

Albatros D.I

By the beginning of 1917 German aviators were again sweeping the skies.  The British had far more planes, but most, like the BE.2, were outdated and little more than targets.  New and better machines were arriving – the Sopwith Pup, the Sopwith Triplane and the SPAD S.VII – but not only were there few of them but they all carried only a single gun.  The result was “Bloody April.”

SPAD VII

Triplane cockpit

BE.2

Sopwith Pup

Sopwith Triplane

Remember the Battle of Arras of April 1917?  While the British were suffering some 150,000 casualties on the ground, the Royal Flying Corps, though numerically superior to the Germans, was undergoing a disaster.  The RFC had about 365 aircraft, a third of them fighters, going up against about 80 German fighters; the British lost 245 planes to the Germans’ 66.  They also lost some 400 aircrew, a number increased by RFC commander Hugh Trenchard’s policy of offensive airpower, fighting on the German side of the line.  German commander Ernst von Hoeppner, with far fewer planes, kept his fighters on his side, thus increasing their range, minimizing wear and tear and safeguarding downed pilots.

Hugh Trenchard

Ernst von Hoeppner

Making life even worse for the British fliers was the presence of Jasta 11, commanded by the already famous Manfred von Richthofen, who had assumed command in January after winning his Pour le Mérite.  In the month of April he alone downed 22 planes in his bright red Albatros D.III (hence the names Der Rote Baron and Der Rote Kampfflieger), which paint job was soon copied by the other pilots in the Jasta.  Richthofen is generally associated with the famous red Fokker Dr.I triplane, which he began flying in July, but only 19 of his 80 victories were scored in this nimble aircraft.

Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen

Jasta 11 – Richthofen in the Albatros

Jasta 11 Albatros D.IIIs

Fokker Dr.I

Richthofen’s Dr.I

In June Richthofen was made commander of the first of the new Jagdgeschwader (fighter wings), made up, in this case, of four squadrons.  By then other Jasta had also adopted distinctive squadron colors, and consequently Jagdgeschwader 1 became known as the Flying Circus.  Incidentally, in Jasta 26 during Bloody April was a young (and thin) ace named Hermann Göring (22 victories); in July 1918 he became commander of the Flying Circus and survived the war (obviously).  At the same time Jasta 14 was commanded by another ace of aces, Rudolf Berthold (44 victories); he won the Pour le Mérite and survived, only to be killed by a leftist mob in 1920.

The Flying Monkey Wrench

Berthold and his Fokker D.VII – the Flying Monkey Wrench

Rudolf Berthold

Hermann Göring

Göring in the cockpit

Jasta 26

In the second half of 1917 the balanced tipped again. The SPAD S.XIII, the SE.5a and the Sopwith Camel entered the fray, all with twin guns, while the new German planes, the Albatros D.V and Pfalz D.III, had many problems.  The Fokker D.VII, perhaps the best German fighter of the war, appeared in May 1918, but not in numbers sufficient to impact the Spring Offensive.

SPAD S.XIII – Rickenbacker’s markings

SE 5a

Sopwith Camel

Fokker D.VII

Albatros D.V

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And not in time for one of the plane’s chief supporters, Richthofen, who was killed on 21 April, shot down not by Captain Roy Brown in a Sopwith Camel, as long believed, but by a single shot from an Australian gunner (identity debated) on the ground. Richthofen managed to land his Dr.I, but died almost immediately, and his plane was virtually dismantled by souvenir hunters.  He was buried with full military honors by No. 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force.  Honor had not been completely extinguished in this corner of a generally faceless war.

Manfred von Richthofen

His funeral

Remains of the plane

Air losses were heavy for both sides during the Spring Offensive and the counter-offensive that followed, and by September the Allies had lost the most aircrew since Bloody April. The Germans were generally superior in aircraft and pilot experience, but simply no longer had the resources to produce enough planes, and the Allies essentially overwhelmed them with numbers.

1918 also saw the first appearance of American squadrons (as opposed to individual volunteers with the French and British), but the Americans had no fighters and were compelled to use European aircraft. At first they were given older planes, and that together with inexperience led to horrific casualties, but in the last months of the war they were flying the most advanced Allied machines.

The major impact of the airplane in the Great War was what it had been at the very beginning: better reconnaissance, especially for artillery spotting.  The big guns became far more devastating as coordination with observation planes developed, and by the end of the war artillery had become virtually dependent on aerial spotting.  This of course came at a price, though perhaps trivial compared with casualties in the ground war.  Losses of aircraft and aircrew casualties of the major air powers in the course of the conflict: Britain 35,970, 16,620; France 52,640, 7250; Germany 27,640, 16,050.

Ahmet Ali Çelikten, possibly the first Black pilot

The most destructive aspect of the airplane – strategic bombing of civilian targets – would have to wait until the next war.