At the beginning of the year, Germany had committed most of her eggs to the basked of unrestricted U-boat warfare (UUW), in a move to knock Britain out of the war before any USA intervention could influence the outcome. (Some similarity here with Falkenhayn’s early 1916 strategy to incapacitate Britain by knocking France out of the war at Verdun) Previous posts (See 16/2/2017 and 3/9/2017) described how the initial shocking successes of UUW were resisted and eventually overcome, so that by late 1917 the strategy had failed clearly. Militarily, Germany was rescued by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Eastern Front. Having made her own subversive contributions to the February events and the July days, Germany now stood to gain in several ways. Most important was the advantage to the army of moving most of the Eastern Front forces to the west. Also the food and resources captured in ‘little Russia’ (Ukraine and Belarus today) and Poland would ease the shortages at home; and the advances through the Baltic states were threatening St. Petersburg, imposing ever greater pressure on Russia to concede.
Thus Germany was poised to make a third successive early year initiative to force a victory – this time a definitive one on the Western Front, which would break the British and French armies and capture the Channel ports.
However, in civil and political life, things were more ominous for Germany. The British naval blockade of her own country had not been eased by UUW, and food shortages were chronic. Those that had survived the ‘Turnip winter' of 1916-17 were malnourished and weak, and were dreading another severe winter. Social unrest was increasing, and now more receptive to Bolshevik messages urging Imperialist war cessation to be replaced by a workers’ revolution. A political reform movement had been building up through the year, and its discontent had come to a head in July, when Bethmann-Hollweg’s government was denounced by Herzberger in a fiery speech that unleashed a week of parliamentary chaos. By the end of it, Bethmann-Hollweg and his hapless foreign minister Zimmerman (of Telegram fame – see Post 22/3/2017) were forced to resign, despite the efforts of the Kaiser to save them. For a month or so, a ‘pro-peace’ government (in direct opposition to Hindenburg and Ludendorff and (now) their puppet the Kaiser). The Pope’s peace note ( see Post 13/11/2017)was also circulating at this time. Ironically the news from St. Petersburg of anarchy and chaos worked against the reform movement, and the Kaiser was able to appoint a stooge as Chancellor, in Michaelis. An intellectual but weak man, he lasted only three months before resigning, but in that time the political momentum had changed and his replacement, Hertling, was clearly aligned with the military strategy.
|Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck 1870-1963|
Known as 'The Lion of Africa'
A further blow to German prestige and future ambitions had occurred by the end of 1917, with the virtual loss of its final colony in Africa – German East Africa (mostly Tanzania today). Throughout the year, a campaign by British and South African forces (later with support from Belgians from the Congo) had been attempting to wrest control from the Germans. A brilliant campaign of mobile, almost guerrilla, warfare was conducted by the German forces, led by the relatively junior Lt. General Paul von Lettow-Verbeck. His plan was simply to occupy as many Allied forces as possible so they could not contribute at the Western Front. In this he was remarkably successful, but by the end of the year even his ingenuity could not prevent the Allies from controlling almost all of the territory. General Smuts, leading the allies, was able to transfer to London and the War Cabinet. Lettow-Vorbeck continued his heroics as a guerrilla until he finally surrendered on Armistice day. He became known popularly as the ‘Lion of Africa’ – a prototype for Rommel’s ‘Desert Fox’ twenty years later.
Finally, Germany had cause to be greatly concerned about the state of her allies of the Central Powers. Austria had been plucked from the jaws of military defeat by Germany’s decisive intervention at Caporetto, but the Austro-Hungarian empire was in terminal decline. Her population was starving, The young Emperor, Karl, was putting out independent peace feelers. The various nationalist minority factions, especially Poles, Czech and Ukrainians, were agitating and probably the strongest leader in the dual monarchy – Hungarian President Tisza – had fallen from power.
Further to the east both the Bulgarian and Turkish armies were under great pressure and in need of German support. But everything would hinge on Germany’s decisive bid for victory on the Western Front, and very few resources could be spared for their ailing allies.
The resilience of the French army had hit its lowest point at the end of the Nivelle offensive in May (see Post 13/5/2017), in contrast to the British army. As 1917 drew to a close, the positions were nearly reversed. The French army had recovered to a remarkable degree, but the British had been battered throughout Passchendaele and in the latter part of Cambrai – with Gough’s 5th army dangerously weakened and demoralised. The credit for France’s military rehabilitation went to the patient and methodical methods of Pétain. Fortunately, few people had realised the extent of the danger to France back in May. Mutineers had seized the town of Missy-aux-Bois behind the lines, and were issuing political demands, and these were beginning to permeate Paris, in the streets around the main stations supplying the front. Radical party politicians were agitating for peace, and in some key industrial areas, particularly the Rhone and the Loire, there had been political strikes. Pétain was given virtually carte blanche to sort out the army. This he did brilliantly, with a carrot and stick approach that addressed mens grievances (particularly over paid leave from the front) but also meted out sufficient, but not excessive, repression of the leaders of the mutinies. Having stopped the rot, he then raised spirits by planning two morale boosting (but limited) campaigns. Firstly, he returned to the scene of his earlier success at Verdun. In mid 1917 the Germans had won back some ground on the left bank of the Meuse with counter-attacks. In July and August Pétain ordered attacks that succeeded in pushing the Germans back (from Mort Homme, Hill 304 and the west bank) to the original start line of the battle in February 1916. Then, in late October, he led his men in the capture of the Moronvilliers massif at the eastern limit of the Chemin des Dames. Both were symbolic wins rather than strategic, but the symbolism mattered greatly.
Political developments in France mirrored the military. Painlevé had replaced Ribot as Prime Minister at the end of the Nivelle offensive, but in mid-November President Poincaré replaced him with the popular Clemenceau, whose appointment invigorated the Government. Within days he had Caillaux, leader of the Radical party, arrested for treason and took further measures to root out defeatism.
Clemenceau became a central figure in the most important development at the end of the year. We saw in a previous post (see Post 13/11/2017) how the crisis of Caporetto brought together Allied political and military leaders at Rapallo in northern Italy in November.
Italy herself just survived the trauma of the Caporetto defeat with Allied support, and had established a new defensive line on the River Piave, protecting a more united people and government.
The Rapallo meeting determined to set up the Supreme Allied War Council, and to base it in Versailles in early 1918. This move would prove a decisive influence on the outcome of the entire war.