Report from the Fronts #50: October 1918

By the beginning of October many, especially on the German side, knew that the war was finished for the Central Powers but the killing would continue for another month while an armistice was negotiated. It was hardly “dulce et decorum” to die for your country when there was absolutely no reason to.

On 2 October the Fifth Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Saint-Quentin Canal came to an end, and on the 3rd the (ironically named) Battle of the Beaurevoir Line began.  The Line was the last string of German trenches, a little more than a mile east of Saint-Quentin, and by 10 October the Americans and French had seized the heights above the Line, marking a 19 mile wide breach of the Hindenburg Line.  General Rawlinson on the operation: “Had the Boche not shown marked signs of deterioration during the past month, I should never have contemplated attacking the Hindenburg line. Had it been defended by the Germans of two years ago, it would certainly have been impregnable….”

Breaching the Line


Beaurevoir Line

To the north the Canadians handily won the Second Battle of Cambrai on 8–10 October, capturing a city that was largely destroyed and evacuated by the Germans.  The easy victory is understandable: all the pressure on the Hindenburg Line to the south left this sector denuded of troops.  The depleted German divisions were severely outnumbered, had few guns, no air cover and no tanks, of which the Allies had 324.  The end was becoming clearer and clearer.

Canadians on the road to Cambrai

Second Battle of Cambrai

On 14 October the Battle of Courtrai (or Battle of Roulers or Second Battle of Belgium) began, and by its end on the 19th Ostend, Lille, Douai, Zeebrugge and Bruges had been recaptured by the British and Belgians.  On 20 October the rest of the Belgian coast was recovered.

King Albert I at the liberation of Bruges

Courtrai area

To the south the Meuse-Argonne Offensive moved into phase two on 4 October. The exhausted American divisions gave way to fresh formations of eager doughboys, who quickly – and frequently recklessly – cleared the Argonne Forest by the end of the month, during which time they advanced 10 miles.  At the Battle of Montfaucon 14-17 October the Americans broke the Hindenburg Line at the Kriemhilde Stellung, while on their left the French Fourth Army moved 20 miles and reached the Aisne River.  At the onset of Montfaucon legendary American corporal Alvin York singlehandedly captured 132 prisoners, a feat that would have been impossible a year earlier.  Phase 3 began on 28 October and would last until the armistice.

York in action

Alvin York

Meuse-Argonne Offensive

A sign of the impending end: on 27 October Ludendorff, virtual ruler of the German Empire for two years, was asked by the Kaiser to resign, which he did without objection.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

A more cataclysmic sign appeared in Italy. On 24 October, the anniversary of the Caporetto disaster, General Armando Diaz finally launched the long awaited offensive against the Austrians with an assault on Monte Grappo, while his main armies prepared to cross the Piave River, which was in flood.  The crossing of the swollen river was difficult, but by the 28th the Italians had established several bridgeheads on the northern bank and were advancing.  The Austrian commander, Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, promptly ordered a counterattack, but his men refused to obey the order, not a good sign.  Svetozar Boroević, known as a defensive expert, ordered a general retreat, and on 30 October the Italians took Vittorio Veneto, a dozen miles north of the Piave.

Svetozar Boroević


Battle of Vittorio Veneto

On Monte Grappa

Austro-Hungarian prisoners

Abandoned Austrian equipment

Italian cavalry









Aiding the Allies was the simple fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was crumbling. On 28 October Bohemia (part of Czechoslovakia) declared its independence, and the following day a group proclaimed the independence of the South Slavs.  More crushing, on 31 October the Hungarian Parliament voted for independence, thus ending the Austro-Hungarian state.  By the time the Battle of Vittorio Veneto ended on 4 November Austria was out of the war.

Meanwhile, Allied forces were advancing deeper into Serbia, and in the east the British took Tripoli, Homs and Aleppo in Syria and Kirkuk in Mesopotamia from the Turks; the French took Beirut.  Far to the east the British took Irkutsk (remember Risk?) on 14 October and Omsk on the 18th, although the whole reason for these operations had essentially disappeared.

Diplomatic notes were flying all over Europe. On 4 October Germany and Austria sent notes to President Wilson requesting an armistice, and four days later Wilson told the Germans that evacuating occupied real estate was the first step.  On the 12th the German government agreed, but three days later Wilson set further conditions, including that he deal with a democratic German government, a tough proposition for the Germans.  Nevertheless, Wilson agreed to pass the proposal on to the Allied governments.

The Austrians had to wait until 18 October for a noncommittal reply, and on the 27th the Austrian government sent a second note to Wilson and one to Italy requesting an immediate armistice.  Meanwhile, the Empire was dissolving.  On 16 October a desperate Emperor proclaimed the ancient empire to be a federal state based on national groups, but it was already fragmenting.  On 21 October Czechoslovakia declared its independence, and the Ban of Croatia (the traditional local government) proclaimed its support for the Yugoslav National Council.  On the 29th the Council rejected the policy of the Empire and declared Yugoslavian independence, which was adopted by the Croatian Congress the next day.  Three days earlier the King of Montenegro had announced support for Yugoslavia.  On 31 October there were revolutions in Budapest and Vienna, and Hungary withdrew from the union; that same day Emperor Karl I, no longer possessing an Adriatic port, handed his fleet over to the Yugoslavs.


Croatian Congress

Emperor Karl I

Austro-Hungarian Empire

Yugoslavia (1922)








The Ottoman Empire was also collapsing.  On 14 October the Turks requested an armistice from President Wilson, and on the 30th an armistice was signed by the Allies and the Turks.  Hostilities ended the next day, and Turkey was out of the war and bereft of their Arab empire.

Ottoman Empire to Turkish Republic

On a smaller scale, on 4 October King Ferdinand of Bulgaria abdicated in favor of his son, who became Boris III.  Surprisingly, his throne would actually survive the political cataclysm born of the defeat of the Central Powers.

Ferdinand I

Boris III










Turkey, Austria and Bulgaria were all out of the war, and Germany was seriously seeking an armistice.  Yet the war and the killing went on as the victors dithered.



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.


Allied troops

Red prisoners of Americans









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

Report from the Fronts #36: November 1917

The new socialist Russia might be opting out, but on the Western Front the war went on.  On 6 November the Canadians finally captured Passchendaele, now more like the surface of the moon than a town, and four days later the Third Battle of Ypres came to an end.  The figures are disputed, but the Allies and Germans together had suffered at least a half million casualties in the campaign to capture Passchendaele Ridge.  But it was not over yet.

Haig decided that it was time for a big push some fifty miles south of Ypres, opposite Cambrai, the capture of which would threaten the German rear lines.  On 20 November two British corps with 476 tanks (378 with guns) pushed off against a German corps.  Tanks had been used before but not in such numbers, and together with close coordination between infantry and artillery they allowed the British to advance as much as five miles on the first day against deep and well developed German defenses.  In six hours the British had gained as much as they had in three months at Ypres and at half the casualty rate.

Inside the Mark IV


The Mark IV tank

Battle of Cambrai

That, however, changed the next day.  The Mark IV tanks had played a major role in penetrating the deep fields of wire, but the defenses stiffened and the Germans had actually developed anti-tank measures.  On the first day 65 tanks were knocked out by artillery, and 71 broke down and 43 were immobilized in shell holes and ditches, hardly surprising for a new technology.  (A Report on tank development will appear.)  The remainder of the offensive was more typical of the Western Front, as progress slowed and the casualties began mount.  On 30 November the Germans launched a serious counterattack and began recovering lost ground, and when the battle ended on 7 December it was a draw: the British retained territory gained in the north and lost pre-offensive turf in the south.  And all this for a combined 90-100,000 casualties.

Another dead tank

Damaged tank

German counterattack        

And the news we have all been waiting for: the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo (Caporetto).  By 2 November the Germans and Austrians had crossed the Tagliamento River, only 40 miles from Venice, but the inevitable supply problems associated with a successful advance began to slow things down, giving the Italians time to establish a line on the Piave River.  Enemy forces reached the Piave on 11 November, but short of supplies and reinforcements they could not cross the river, nor could they in the next two weeks dislodge the Italians from Monte Grappa, which guarded the left flank of the Piave Line.

From Monte Grappa towards the Austrian position

The Piave Line

Battle of Caporetto















Total defeat was avoided, but no thanks to General Cadorna, who was largely responsible for the disaster: poor deployment, no defense in depth and poor morale (his troops hated him), even among his higher officers (he had canned 827 of them).  On 9 November, partly at the urging of Britain and France, he was replaced as Chief of Staff by Armando Diaz, one of his better generals.  Unfortunately, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando also appointed as Diaz’s second in command Pietro Badoglio, who had played a major role in the defeat and would be accused of war crimes in the next war.  On 27 November Cadorna was named Italy’s representative on the newly formed allied Supreme War Council.

Pietro Badoglio as a Fascist

Goodbye, Luigi

Armando Diaz

Vittorio Orlando


Diaz was able to stabilize the Italian front on the Piave and successfully defend Monte Grappa, but Italy had suffered one of the greatest defeats in its history.  About 350,000 German and Austrian troops had taken on some 874,000 Italians and routed them.  The Italians suffered only 40,000 killed and wounded to the enemy’s 70,000, but they lost 265,000 men to capture, a telling sign of how much Cadorna was despised by his men, who surrendered in droves.  On the other hand, the disaster, the loss of so much Italian soil and the new leadership of Diaz led to something of a rebirth of the Italian army.  The collapse and retreat of Caporetto (and Cadorna’s draconian policies), incidentally, is the backdrop of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Ernest Hemingway in 1918

Italian POWs

Italian retreat


Meanwhile, in Palestine the Third Battle of Gaza was rolling on.  The capture of Beersheba and the eastern sector of the Turkish line made their position in Gaza ultimately untenable, and during the night of 6/7 November the Turks slipped out of the city.  The Egyptian Expeditionary Force pursued, withstood a Turkish counterattack on 12 November and on the 13th and 14th attacked and defeated the Turkish rearguards, leading the Ottoman commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, to order a withdrawal all along the line.  His Seventh Army took up positions in the Judean Hills, preparing to defend Jerusalem, and his Eighth Army retreated up the coast to just beyond Jaffa, which was entered by EEF units on 16 November.

Surrender of Jaffa




The Palestine campaign




In the two weeks following the capture of Beersheba the British had pushed some fifty miles north, to just short of Jerusalem, capturing 10,000 prisoners and 100 guns for the cost of about 1000 casualties.  The EEF commander, Edmund Allenby, was now entitled to thumb his nose at Haig, who had fired him after the Battle of Arras a half year earlier, though of course a British officer would never do such a thing.

On the other hand, Allenby’s supply lines were now very long, all the way back to Gaza and beyond, the Turks having destroyed the infrastructure as they retreated, and transporting supplies from the railhead to the troops was slow business, given the state of the roads in Palestine.  Logistics had always been a problem for organized armies, even before fuel, ammunition and shells were a constant need; a 10,000 man force required an absolute minimum of fifteen tons of food (in terms of grain) alone per day.  Allenby had seven divisions (10-15,000 men each) on the front lines, and they needed a lot more than just food.

British question the locals

London felt that Allenby did not have the resources to capture Jerusalem, but he did not want to give the Turks the time to fortify their new line and on 18 November decided to go for it.  One force began an advance to secure the coastal plain, while a second penetrated into the Judean Hills towards Jerusalem.  Falkenhayn himself was determined to take advantage of the weakened state of the EEF and their precarious supply situation, and on 27 November he launched counterattacks on the coastal army and British communications between the coast and the hills.  The British were hard pressed in some places, but fresh troops from the south and the weariness of the Turks allowed the offensive to continue.  By 1 December the British were poised to capture Jerusalem.

Hong Kong artillery in Judea

Judean Hills near Jerusalem

Judean Hills

Gurkhas in Judea










Remember the African branch of the war?  On 23 November Lettow-Vorbeck, forced south by the overwhelming superiority of General Jacob van Deventer’s forces, divided his army into three columns and crossed into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).  On the 25th he handily defeated an inexperienced Portuguese force at the Battle of Ngomano, but on the 28th one of the other columns was forced to surrender.  Nevertheless, Lettow-Vorbeck and his merry band of Askaris now had rich opportunities for resupplying themselves at the expense of the Portuguese.

East Africa

Portuguese troops on the Rovuma

Crossing the Rovuma River into Mozambique

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck











Two final notes: on 16 November Georges Clemenceau became the French Prime Minister, which office he would hold until 1920, and on the 28th Estonia, former subject of the Russian Empire, declared its independence.








Report from the Fronts #34: October 1917

The area around Ypres

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

No mans land

Battle of Broodseinde

Bringing up the guns

Herbert Plumer

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

Typical Ypres terrain – Chateauwood

The road into Poelcapelle

Battle of Poelcapelle

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

The Butcher of the Somme

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

Crown Prince Rupprecht

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

Battle of Malmaisson

The Malmaison fort







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

On the road to Passchendaele

Same terrain a century later







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

Battlefield funeral

Morning at Passchendaele

Passchendaele before and after


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

Battle of Caporetta

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

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna

Otto von Below

Svetozar Boroević

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


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

Italian prisoners

Waiting for the offensive

German assault troops

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

The young Rommel

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

Fevzi Pasha

Edmund Allenby

Battle of Beersheba

Palestine front



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

Australian Light Horse



Charge of the Light Horse

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

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

Brazil declares war

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

Mata Hari in 1905

And again











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

Crown Prince Wilhelm

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

Mata Hari when arrested

And the war went on.







Report from the Fronts #33: September 1917

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

Wounded at Menin Road Ridge

Third Battle of Ypres

The area around Ypres

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

Aussies waiting for the gas

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

Life between the offensives

Waiting for the assault

Polygon Wood

Welcome to Belgium

John Hines – Scrounge King of Polygon Wood


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

Italian dead at Isonzo

Italian anti-aircraft at Isonzo

The Isonzo front

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

Kornilov launches his coup

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


General Kornilov

Report from the Fronts #32: August 1917

August is dominated by the Flanders Campaign.  The Battle of Pilckem Ridge ended on 2 August, resulting in some gains and 32,000 British, 1300 French and 30,000 German casualties.  Proponents of the offensive argued that these were small losses compared to 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, hardly a convincing argument.

On 15 August the Battle of Hill 70 (overlooking the town of Lens 30 miles south of Ypres) began, the intention being to make life easier for their comrades at Ypres by drawing German troops away from the main thrust of the offensive.  The Canadians took the hill in ten days but suffered heavy casualties (9000); the Germans suffered grandly (more than 20,000) but were able to hold without help from the north.  Incidentally, just about two years earlier at the battle of Loos the British suffered 60,000 casualties attempting to capture the same territory.

German flamethrower

Canadians on Hill 70

German pillbox





Meanwhile, back at Ypres the drive restarted on 16 August with the Battle of Langemarck.  The offensive ended two days later with the capture of Langemarck but a failure to seize all the higher ground and certainly no breakthrough.  A major part of the problem was the unseasonable rains, which given the destruction of the drainage canals, turned the battlefields into quagmires and slowed any advance, especially considering that the allies were on the lower ground.  The offensive was halted until conditions were better.  The battle, including subsequent small actions, cost the Allies some 36,000 casualties and the Germans 26,000.  It just went on and on.

Everywhere, mud

Third Battle of Ypres

Battle of Langemarck

And speaking of going on and on, on 20 August the French launched an offensive on both sides of the Meuse at Verdun.  The objectives were limited and mostly attained, but the tactical/strategic situation was unchanged.  The French captured 11,000 prisoners, but suffered 14,000 casualties; the new German POWs were the lucky ones.

Verdun offensive

An ominous sign, on 2 August 350 crew of one of the German dreadnaughts at Wilhelmshaven engaged in a protest, only to be severely disciplined – two leaders were shot.  This put an end to such demonstrations for the duration of the war, but also led to the spread of clandestine sailors’ committees on the big ships. The sailors would be heard from again.

Sailors demonstrating

On 6 August Kerensky became Prime Minister of Russia, but his days were numbered.  Liberia declared war on Germany on 4 August, presumably following the American lead, and the new Republic of China on the 14th, presumably to curry western favor.

And on 17 August – drum roll! – the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo kicked off.  The offensive would fail, hardly a surprise, and prepare the way for the major Italian disaster of the Twelfth Battle.

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna


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



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


General Brusilov

General Kornilov

The July Offensive

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

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

Grigory Zinovievba

Leon Trotsky

Vladimir Lenin

Riot in St. Petersburg





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

Typical Ypres conditions

German prisoners

Third Battle of Ypres

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

Aqaba today

Triumphal entry into Aqaba

Lawrence at Aqaba

Auda Abu Tayi










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

King George V

Cousin Willy











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

The Thai Expeditionary Force at Paris

King Rama VI


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


Reports from the Front #1: the West – August 1914 to May 1915

(OK, it took me a long time to get around to this.  In any case, this is the first of a series of pieces following the course of the Great War as it happened a century ago – assuming I live another four years.  I should have begun this last July, but the idea only now occurred to me, and consequently this first two articles carry the war up through May 1915.  Note: “Casualties” includes dead, wounded, missing and captured, and “dead” typically includes accidental and disease related deaths.  Military deaths through disease may have been a third of the total, but that is partly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, and in earlier European warfare disease inevitably accounted for the vast majority of deaths.  The ratio of dead to wounded would have varied dramatically from one theater to another but it appears 1-2 to 1-3 was the average for the war.  The official figures are not always accurate, and accounting varied; e.g., British figures did not include colonial troops.)


One hundred years and 296 days ago the Great War began when on 1 August Germany declared war on Russia because the Czar, who had pledged to defend Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, refused to cease mobilizing his army.  On 2 August the Germans invaded Luxemburg and the next day declared war on France, which had refused to declare neutrality and was also mobilizing.  On 4 August the Germans also declared war on Belgium, which had denied them passage through its territory, and in response Great Britain joined the Entente and entered the war against the Central Powers.  Train schedules, lust for glory and willful stupidity had brought the European great powers to the brink of the abyss, into which they all leaped with no little enthusiasm.

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Russian Czar Nicholas II

Emperor Franz Jospeh

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph

Kaiser Wilhelm II

German Kaiser Wilhelm II

The greatest cataclysm in European history since the barbarian invasions of the fifth century had begun, all because a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, took it upon himself to shoot the heir to the Austrian throne and provide the Austrians with an excuse to make impossible demands of Serbia.  Certainly the fate of Serbia was of some importance to the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, but the partition of the Balkans was a peripheral concern for Britain, France and Germany.  Yet all these powers, little understanding how industry and technology had changed the nature of warfare, jumped eagerly into a conflict that would slaughter millions upon millions of young men, destroy three dynasties and exhaust the economies of even the victors.  To what end?  A peace that would lead in two decades to an even greater catastrophe.

French PM Rene Viviani

French PM Rene Viviani

British PM Herbert Asquith

British PM Herbert Asquith

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

Serbian Assassin Gavrilo Princip

“Paris/Berlin by Christmas” was the cry, as both sides expected a short war.  The German plan was to seek a decisive victory in the west while much smaller forces in the east were on the defensive before the notoriously cumbersome Russian army and the Austrians were crushing tiny Serbia.  Helmuth von Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, intended to employ a variation of the so-called Schlieffen Plan, which in fact was a thought exercise for a single-front war with France.  Weak German forces in the south would remain on the defensive and even retreat, while the immensely powerful right wing in the north would sweep through Belgium and the Netherlands and then turn southwards west of Paris, trapping the French armies.  Whether the Schlieffen Plan could have worked is certainly debatable (the problem was not so much German transport capabilities as the state of Europe’s roads), but inasmuch as this was a two-front war and sufficient forces had to be sent east, the western army was simply not strong enough to carry out the aggressive strategy.

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

The Germans swept through Belgium and northeastern France, generally overwhelming the opposing forces, but in September the exhausted troops were stopped some 40 miles from Paris at the First Battle of the Marne.  Repulsed by the French under Joseph “Papa” Joffre and the British (BEF) under Sir John French, the Germans withdrew north of the Aisne River, and both sides then stretched their lines northwards, establishing a fortified line that ran 460 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier.  The essentially static Western Front was now in place.

Sir John French

Sir John French

Joseph Joffre

Joseph Joffre

Western Front 1915

Western Front 1915

Meanwhile, the offensive-minded French, whose basic war aim was to avenge their defeat in 1871 and recover Alsace-Lorraine, promptly invaded those provinces, but the advance was soon thrown back with immense casualties, as generals learned – not very well, it seems – what happened when masses of infantry assaulted fortified positions.  In just two months the French had suffered 360,000 casualties, the Germans 241,000; by way of comparison the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (early second century) was secured by perhaps 250,000 troops.

1914 ended with complete stalemate in the west.  Unwilling to change their tactics, both the Allies and the Germans would continue to throw men into the meat grinder of fruitless assaults, looking for the elusive breakthrough that would end the war.  But at Christmas a startling event had taken place.  During the unofficial truce soldiers on both sides began entering no-man’s land and fraternizing with one another, singing carols, swapping souvenirs and drink and playing football.  There could be no greater evidence that the men actually fighting the war bore one another no particular grudge, at least at this early stage of the war.  This was of course anathema to the generals and politicians of both sides, who quickly put an end to such unpatriotic behavior.

Christmas Truce

Christmas Truce

Joffre’s strategic plan for 1915 was to pinch off the Noyon (near Compiègne) salient, a huge westward bulge marking the limit of the German advance, by attacking its flanks.  As part of this on 10 March the British, who occupied the far northern section of the trench line, launched an attack on Neuve Chapelle.  They achieved a tactical breakthrough, but the Germans counterattacked the next day, and though fighting continued, the offensive was abandoned on 15 March with no significant changes in the line. General French blamed the failure on insufficient supplies of shells, which led to the Shell Crisis of May and the creation of a Ministry of Munitions that could feed the growing mania of all the belligerents for artillery barrages.  Although this was a very minor operation, the British (including Indians) and Germans lost over 20,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured.

On 22 April the Germans took their shot, initiating a series of battles that would be known as the Second Battle of Ypres (or “Wipers,” as the British troops called it).  The First Battle of Ypres had taken place from 19 October to 22 November of the previous year and while indecisive had resulted in more than 300,000 combined casualties, leading Erich von Falkenhayn, who had succeeded Moltke as Chief of Staff, to conclude the war could not be won.  Unfortunately, when on 18 November he proposed seeking a negotiated settlement, he was opposed by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, condemning millions to die in the next five years.

Erich Ludendorff

Erich Ludendorff

Erich von Falkenhayn

Erich von Falkenhayn

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

This time around the Germans began their offensive – after the inevitable artillery barrage – with poison gas (chlorine), the first use of this new technology on the Western Front.  The surprise and shock opened a gap in the British line, which the Germans, themselves surprised, were unable to exploit, and soon the development of gas masks rendered the new weapon far less effective.  The main struggle for the Ypres salient would go on until 25 May, by which time the Germans had pushed less than three miles westward.  It cost them 35,000 casualties, but the Allies suffered twice as much.  And Ypres was destroyed.



Second Battle of Ypres

Second Battle of Ypres

Meanwhile, on 9 May some 30 miles to the south in the Arras sector the French 10th Army launched an offensive against the Vimy salient, attacking Vimy ridge, while the BEF attacked a dozen miles to the north at Aubers.  This was the Second Battle of Artois and would last until 18 June.  Joffre’s strategic goal was to cut a number of vital German rail lines, which would require an advance of ten or more miles beyond Vimy Ridge, something that might have struck a competent general as highly unlikely, given the experience of the last nine months.  And sure enough, the initial attack took Vimy Ridge, but lost it to a German counterattack, and a month later when the battle ended, the French line had moved less than two miles eastward.  The initial British assault was a disaster, allowing the Germans to send troops south, and in the end the Tommies had gained almost two miles.  The cost?  Officially, 32,000 British casualties, 73,000 German and 102,500 French.  During the offensive the French alone had fired 2,155,862 artillery shells.

See a trend in these battles?  If the generals did, their response was simply more of the same, producing even more casualties as defensive measures became more elaborate.  A continuous line from the sea to Switzerland, the western front offered no possibility of outflanking the enemy, and the weaponry of the time – machine guns, rapid fire artillery, mortars – made frontal infantry assaults very costly, if not suicidal.  Inasmuch as the breakthrough weaponry – tanks, motorized infantry and artillery and ground support aircraft – did not yet exist, remaining on the defense and negotiating or at least awaiting developments on other fronts seemed the reasonable course of action.  But with Germany holding almost all of Belgium and a huge and economically important chunk of France the Allies were not about to bargain from a position of weakness, and the reasonable expectation that the Central Powers would sooner or later crush the Russians and ship more troops west goaded the Entente, especially the French, into offensives.

Already in the spring of 1915 defensive systems and tactics were rapidly improving.  A more elastic defense was being adopted: rather than a single heavily fortified line, there would be a series of trench lines (three was a standard number), separated by strong points and barbwire entanglements.  This meant the attacker had to cross multiple killing grounds just to get to grips with the enemy, often out of the range of their own guns.  The clever response to this by the “chateau generals” was longer periods of artillery bombardment and sending larger numbers of men over the top, approaches that were both ineffective and extremely costly.  The storm of shells, besides alerting the enemy to an attack, hardly damaged the wire, and defenders simply took cover in their dugouts, ready to pop out and kill when the shelling stopped.  A rolling barrage with the troops following was more effective but very difficult to manage without blowing up your own men.  And gas was extremely hard to control and use effectively, which is why it has been so rarely used, even by the seriously nasty creeps who have appeared in the last hundred years.

French trench

French trench

French trench

French trench

British trench 1916

British trench

German trench

German trench

British-German Trench Lines

British-German Trench Lines


Gas attack

Gas attack

Gassed British trench

Gassed British trench

Australians in gas masks

Australians in gas masks


One final noteworthy event in the west during this period.  On 1 April French aviator Roland Garros shot down a German plane.  Both sides had been using aircraft for reconnaissance, and in September 1914 a Russian pilot had taken out an Austrian plane by ramming it.  Soon pilots and observers were using pistols and rifles, but it was clear that only a machine gun could be at all effective in bringing down another plane.  The problem was the propeller.  “Pusher” aircraft (the propeller mounted in the rear) were too slow, and placing the gun on the upper wing of a biplane made it very difficult to deal with the frequent jams, as well as producing too much vibration for accurate fire.  Garros’ approach was to attach metal plates to the prop in order to deflect rounds that actually hit it, and he shot down three aircraft before the strain placed on the engine by the prop being pummeled by bullets brought his own plane down behind German lines.  This crude solution would not work with steel-jacketed German ammunition, and the engineers at Anthony Fokker’s aircraft plant produced a synchronization device that allowed a Maxim machine gun to be mounted directly in front of the pilot and shoot through the prop.  On 1 July Kurt Wintgens, flying a Fokker E.I., became the first pilot to score a kill with a synchronized gun.  Suddenly the Germans had the first air superiority in history.

Wintgens' Fokker E.I.

Wintgens’ Fokker E.I.

Roland Garros

Roland Garros

Anthony Fokker

Anthony Fokker